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Agent AWOL

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*********

Abby sent him the video file, and he watched it five times before they remotely turned off the computer. He felt like someone had kicked him in the chest. Well, they had, but it really hurt now. The team was back together again - not him - but the rest of the team. He was still stuck on the ship of the damned. Some tiny part of him was glad for them. They'd looked happy. Gibbs had even hugged Ziva, hugged her a long time.

Two weeks since he'd hacked the system for his team. Two weeks since Gibbs had sounded like he might care what happened to one Anthony DiNozzo. Not that long, but it felt like forever.

"Special Agent DiNozzo, report to the captain."

Tony started towards the bridge. Hope beat in his heart. They'd sent for him. He was getting off this ship. He'd have a life again.

"Agent DiNozzo, you look a little worse for wear. Problem I should know about?"

"No, sir." Tony met the captain's eyes firmly. "I'm fine."

"Another couple of days and that eye will open." The captain shrugged. "New orders in for you."

"Thank God," Tony whispered. He tried not to fist his hands, but he was angry.

The captain handed him a file. "When we dock tomorrow, you'll transfer to the USS Carl Vinson. She's headed back to the Gulf by way of Japan. Big ship - you'll like her. Six month tour, I understand."

"No," Tony said before he thought about it. He put his hand over his black eye and laughed softly. He'd done his best for his team, he'd waited, he'd hoped, and they'd hung him out to dry. He could almost hear his father telling him how dumb he was. He'd believed in them. Stupid. Stupid.

"What?" The captain stepped close. "You have your orders!"

"I'm not in the Navy." Tony refused to take the file. "You tell Director Vance that I quit. Done. Finished. Nada mas!"

"Good. You betrayed this ship and me! Be ready when we dock, or you can leave the hard way." The captain smirked, and Tony knew exactly why no one had cared that a NCIS agent had gotten the crap beat out of him. "Dismissed."

"Glad to go." Tony smiled, lopsided, feeling his lip crack open. He went with the ultimate insult and spat blood on the deck. It might earn him another ass-kicking, but he didn't care. Making his way to his bunk, he gave out as many shoves as he received but kept moving. Of course they'd found out about his hacking the system. There'd been no real proof, but that hadn't stopped them from making him pay. He was lucky all they'd done was beat him in the middle of the night, instead of throwing him overboard.

"Asshole."

"Bite me." Tony shoved everything he owned in his rucksack. He didn't give a rat's ass that he was on the wrong side of the United States. He'd swim if he had to, but he was getting the hell off this ship.

********

"What have you got for me, Abby?"

She pointedly didn't take the Caf-Pow from him. "Not much."

He stared in that way of his that made people crumble like cookies. She kept her eyes on the video monitor and refused to break. "Ducky didn't give me much." She turned to match his glare - she was mad too - and threw the soda in the trash with one smooth move. McGee actually gasped, but she wasn't talking to him either. "I'll send you an email when I have it."

"Abby."

"Special Agent Gibbs." She knew she wouldn't win if she stood there, so she marched to her office and shut the door. She loved him, but he hadn't even tried, and this was worse than her birthday. Not that he'd forgotten, but it had been close. For the thousandth time, she checked her email. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Tony always replied. Something was wrong. She knew it.

"Abby."

She hesitated for two seconds before hacking into Tony's file. Finding the information was easy enough, and she didn't look at him until she'd read it twice.

********

"What have we got?"

"John Doe."

Tony wanted to protest that. He didn't even look like a John, but all he managed was a cough.

"Notify the police. Someone assaulted him."

"And left him for dead."

He wasn't dying. He just felt like it. His lungs seized again, and he groaned after another bout of coughing. He knew what that meant. He'd caught a cold from lying on the concrete for God knew how long, and for him, that was a bad thing. Wetting his lips, he whispered, "Lungs. Plague."

"Did he just say he has the Plague?"

Oh, crap.

*********

"You said I'd get my team back." Jethro didn't blame Abby for her anger now. He felt like he was on fire with it.

"You didn't ask for DiNozzo." Vance flipped a folder shut. "You asked for Ziva, and McGee was a given since he was standing there."

"My team," Jethro roared, "means all of them!"

"Didn't think you liked him." Vance sat down and met Jethro's eyes firmly. "I needed an agent on the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, heading to the Middle East. DiNozzo was there, available. You never asked for him."

Jethro took a deep breath, guilt tugging at him. He'd assumed, broken his own rule, and he felt like a fool. "I thought he was on his way here!" He'd never been more grateful that his gun was in his desk. "What happened next?"

"He quit. Walked off the job. Skipper said DiNozzo left the ship like a rat."

"This isn't over." Jethro stabbed his finger at him and walked away. He didn't stop for coffee on the way back to Abby. His gut whispered that he was running late, very late, and Tony was in trouble. Her eyes were big, swollen, and he had to hug her. "Find him, Abby."

"On it." She left his embrace, expression determined. "And then what?"

"We go get him." Jethro left her to work, going to his desk. Ziva and McGee were huddled near the plasma screen, whispering. He fixed them with a stare. "What?"

"Tony wouldn't quit, Boss," McGee said firmly.

Jethro pointed at McGee's computer. "Track Tony's credit cards. Find him."

"If he has quit, does that mean he does not want to be found?"

Jethro didn't want to hear that. "Cell phone records. Everything."

"On it, Boss." McGee went fast enough to keep him from getting smacked. "You checked his apartment?"

"He got rid of his apartment." There was no way that Tony was in D.C., but it'd be stupid to overlook the obvious. "Ziva, find the plane that brought Tony home, if any."

She made a huffy sound. "In Mossad, we do not chase after agents who have quit!"

"Find him!"

********

Trying to pull the oxygen mask down, he met with resistance, and he opened his eyes. Some guy smiled at him.

"You need it. Know your name yet?"

Tony nodded, trying to get his bearings. He didn't remember this hospital, and he was sure he didn't know this guy. There also had to be a reason that he felt like he'd been hit by a truck, but it wasn't coming to mind right away.

"The police want a report. Who beat you up?"

The words flashed him back, and he jerked. Pain tore through him, everything hurt, and he ripped off the mask. "I don't know," he croaked, but he did, and this was exactly the kind of case he used to investigate. Funny how that had all worked out.

The nurse - he had to be a nurse - frowned. "What's your name?"

The coughing started again, and when it was finished with him, Tony shut his eyes, refusing to answer any more questions. It didn't matter who he was - there wasn't anyone to call.

********

"Nothing on Tony's credit card, Boss."

"No record of him on a commercial flight," Ziva said. "He might have caught a military transport."

"Did you check?" Jethro snapped. The way she scurried to her desk answered that question. "Cell phone?"

"Isn't turned on, and he hasn't used it."

"So, you're telling me that he walked off that ship and vanished?" Jethro was so far beyond angry that he was surprised veins hadn't popped.

"It is San Diego. He could be at the beach!" Ziva needed a huge head slap, and Jethro ached to give it to her. He consoled himself with a look that made her blush. Frustrated with the both of them, he went to see Abby.

Ducky was there, lurking, and he had that look. "Jethro, where is our young man?"

"I'm hoping Abby can help us out." Jethro handed her a Caf-Pow, relieved when she took it.

She frowned, and that was a bad sign. "I called in a favor and got this."

Jethro stepped closer to the screen, watching the sailors streaming off the ship and through a checkpoint. "They're going on leave."

"Right. Here's Tony." Abby worked some of her magic, freezing the frame, and Jethro clenched his jaw.

Moving quickly, Ducky pointed at the plasma screen. "He's been beaten, rather badly. I'm not entirely sure he's walking under his own power."

"They found out."

*********

The police finally quit asking questions that he refused to answer, and the incessant coughing kept him a John Doe for the first two days of his hospital stay. On the third day, he unhooked his IV, dressed in his filthy clothes, and snuck out, using the back stairs. He'd mail them a donation when he got home. He was going home - somehow.

Leaning against the side of the hospital, he coughed into his hand. "You are so stupid, Tony," he mumbled. He had no idea where his wallet was or his rucksack. His only option was calling someone collect, and he couldn't think of anyone that would accept the charges.

He leaned against a wall, coughed, and racked his brain. Abby. She was it. If she didn't take his call, he would give up on going back. Finding a pay phone took forever, and he ached all over. The good news - what there was of it - was that he didn't have any broken bones. The bad news - there was a lot of it - was that it still felt that way.

"Will you accept a collect call from one Tony DiNozzo?"

"Yes! Yes! Tony!"

"Hey, Abby." Tony tried to hide his cough. "You okay?"

"Me? Tony, you moron, where are you?" she yelled.

He was sure she was pacing. "Don't know." He couldn't see a street sign. "San Diego?"

"You sound awful."

"Feel that way too." Tony tried to breathe shallow. He had a lot of things to say, but it all boiled down to one thing. "Screwed up, Abby."

"No, you didn't. Tony, come home." Abby paused. "Now. Right now."

It was a lovely thought, and he let himself enjoy it for a moment, but he'd screwed it up. He'd believed in Gibbs. Tony had promised himself years ago that he'd never take on faith anyone or anything. Gibbs had made him break that promise, and it had been a mistake. He never should've trusted. It hurt too much when he was let down, and he was always let down.

"Abby! Is that DiNozzo?"

Gibbs' voice broke him out of his depressing thoughts, and he slammed down the phone before giving it any real thought. He was on the move two seconds later. The very last person he wanted to talk to was Gibbs. Betrayal tasted like blood, and he spat on the sidewalk.

"Stupid lungs." Tony walked and coughed.

*********

"Get your gear. We're going to San Diego." Jethro put his gun on his hip, waiting for complaints, but they were going. Tony needed their help, and Jethro wasn't going to quit until they found him.

"I am very sure Tony will come home on his own," Ziva said, right on schedule.

Jethro looked pointedly at McGee, who glanced away. McGee cleared his throat. "They found out about our hacking, didn't they?"

"Ya think?" Jethro got his kit out from under his desk and slammed it down. "Abby is coming with us. McGee, keep her out of trouble."

"Not sure that's possible, Boss."

"Ziva, move your ass, or catch the next plane to Israel. Your choice." Jethro made sure McGee was packing a laptop. "McGee, start checking hospitals, and have the local LEO's put out a BOLO on Tony."

"Gibbs, you can't arrest him!" Abby had a bag with her, and Jethro did not want to know what was in it.

"On it, Boss." McGee was right behind him as he pushed the button for the elevator. Ziva had no expression on her face at all, but she was following.

The doors opened, and Vance looked them all over before stepping out. "I want the jackasses who think they can beat up one of our people and get away with it."

"Get in line." Jethro wasn't waiting for any more chit chat.

"I think Tony was coughing," Abby said softly.

*********

It took awhile for Tony to realize how screwed he really was, and he blamed the coughing for that. Sinking down on a bench near a bus stop, he rubbed his face very carefully and tried to come up with a plan. He didn't have many choices, and one of the worst was returning to the ship and demanding his wallet. They'd probably kick the shit out of him again.

"Shouldn't you be in a hospital?"

Tony looked up and blinked. "They kept asking questions I didn't want to answer." He was surprised when the truth came out of his mouth.

"Nosy bastards." The guy smiled at him.

Moving back without seeming obvious, Tony got ready to try to run. "You're going to mug me, aren't you?"

"I think someone beat me to it." He extended his hand. "Let me help."

"Why?"

"You need it."

"I guess I can always run later." Tony took the hand, wincing as he was pulled upright. "Thanks."

"Everyone calls me Jax. You?"

"Tony." He didn't have much energy left, but luckily it wasn't too far, and while part of him was convinced he was being sold into slavery, the other part was telling him to go along for the ride. There was no one - but Abby, and she would forgive him - waiting for him back East.

*********

"Tony's been missing for five days," Abby said.

Jethro tried to unclench his jaw. It wasn't working. "Ziva, McGee, start sweeping the area after the checkpoint where DiNozzo was last seen. Abby, keep on the hospital angle."

"Where you gonna be, Boss?" McGee had the balls to ask; Jethro gave him credit for that.

"On that ship." Jethro nearly looked to his right, making sure that DiNozzo was in the six position. That slip further angered him, and by the time he caught up with the skipper, he was ready to pound someone. "Tell me where my agent is," he snapped.

"He isn't your agent any longer. He quit, threw in the towel." The skipper didn't back down. "He hacked the system, broke my trust, and then ran away like a whiny baby. I don't care where he is, and I'm finished talking about it!"

"Tell me, Skipper, did you have him beaten before he quit or after?" Jethro leaned half an inch closer. Silence and a stubborn jaw weren't answers, but Jethro knew what had happened. He narrowed his eyes, pushing him.

"Spit on my deck like he did, and I'll have you thrown overboard."

Jethro raised his eyebrows. "There's my answer."

*********

"Here."

Tony took the pills, staring down at them. "Tylenol?"

Jax nodded. "That cough is awful. Sure you don't want a hospital?"

"I can leave." Tony hadn't done anything to deserve a bed, more of a cot really, not a king by any stretch. Jax handed him a bottle of water and shrugged, and Tony didn't rush out the door. He took the Tylenol. Dimly, he could hear what sounded like children, and he was afraid. "Where am I again?"

"Back apartment at my athletic center, well, more of an old gym." Jax grinned. "Get well, and you can shoot some hoops."

"Really?" Tony felt a stab of guilt. He'd accepted the guy's bed, clothes, and food. "I can't repay you."

"They took your wallet. You mentioned it before." Jax shrugged again. "You can run a broom over the hardwood, right?"

"I can do that." Tony relaxed a little, feeling beads of sweat on his forehead. He had a fever, but it was mild, so far. By tomorrow, with his luck, his nose would be running. All his bruises hurt, but if he got moving, he'd feel better. Now that he knew he'd been smelling a gym; it warmed his heart. "Hoops, huh?"

Jax helped him up. "Don't overdo it, or I'll call an ambulance, Tony."

"Got it. You're the boss." Tony grinned.

*********

"Ducky, I need you to check the John Doe's at the local morgue." Jethro glared at his team, even Abby.

"Indeed, I will," Ducky promised via the laptop. "I'll get back to you quickly."

Jethro slapped his phone shut. "Ambulances, Ziva?"

"No Tony DiNozzo." Ziva looked away. "We have nothing. I say we try the beach."

"Boss, we haven't been looking for John Doe's." McGee hung his head. "I was sure we'd find something."

"They might've put him in the water," Abby whispered. She looked about six seconds from crying, and Jethro couldn't take that again.

"No. He's alive. Somewhere. John Doe's, now!" Jethro pinned Abby with a look. "Abby, identify those sailors with Tony at the gate. I want them."

"Almost done."

Nodding, he went to get some coffee from the lounge. It'd probably taste like shit, but the nearest Starbucks was too far from their crappy hotel. There was no coffee, and he stared at the empty pot before going to the rental car. "Tony, where are you?"

********

After racking the last basketball, Tony started pushing the big, flat broom. He went slow, stopping to blow his nose twice. The fever was gone, but his nose hated him, and the coughing wouldn't stop. He was being careful, but he knew it'd hang on for at least a month.

"Still moving slow, Tony." Jax grinned, coming in from his office. "Feeling okay?"

"Nothing a few jump shots can't fix." Tony tried not to smile back but failed. He liked Jax, last name Sven. Trust was out of the question though. "I can see out of both eyes now. It rocks."

"You may sink a basket!" Jax laughed and got his own broom, falling into step behind and to the left of him. "How's your knee?"

Tony turned to glare. "Fine."

"Right." Jax rolled his eyes. "They left you for dead?"

"Not really." Tony didn't think they'd intended it to go that far. After all, they hadn't broken any of his bones. "I had the Plague. My lungs sorta suck, and I get sick easy."

Jax took a step back. "Seriously?"

"Yeah." Tony started pushing again, trying not to limp. "Another day or two and I'll get out of your hair." He meant that, but he liked it here. Teenagers weren't his thing, but they wanted to play ball, and he understood that. Finally, he was using his Phys. Ed. degree. His father would laugh at him.

"Is there someone you can call?" Jax had offered before, but Tony kept resisting. He knew he should call Abby again, ask her to send money and a plane ticket, but he couldn't quite pick up the phone yet. Flipping his broom out the back door, he shook it, holding his breath. He moved out of the way so Jax could do the same.

"Always trying to get rid of me." Tony stowed the broom and sat on a bench. "You'd think I was taking your clothes and food."

They laughed together. Jax sat down next to him; their shoulders rubbing, and Tony saw the gleam in Jax's eyes.

"So you're gay," Tony said calmly, trying to swallow a cough. It burned out of him anyway. When he was finished, Jax stopped rubbing Tony's back. The touch had been an easy one, and Tony was pretty sure he should've pushed him away.

"That's not why I'm helping you." Jax's voice was low, calm, and Tony could see the truth. Tony was no Gibbs, but some things were obvious. Gibbs - thinking of him made Tony sigh. Staying a country away from him was a very good idea. Maybe Tony could get Abby to send him some of his clothes.

"I know that."

Jax slid his fingers through Tony's hair, right where Gibbs always smacked him. "Tony, tell me to back off."

"Lungs hurt," Tony whispered, and he wasn't sure he wanted to say those words. It was his turn to shrug. "I kissed a guy once."

"You like it?" Jax looked amused.

"I thought he was a girl." Tony grinned. "He had a long tongue."

"My kind of guy." Jax ducked his head. "You're not going to ask about all the boys that play ball here?"

Tony felt his eyes widen. "You said you were gay. Gay men don't like boys. That's a pedophile." He found a glare easily. "Jax."

"I'm not a pedophile, but people assume... things."

"I never assume. I investigate." Tony eased to his feet, ready for this conversation to be over. "I gotta lie down. You going home?"

"I'll lock up on my way out. You go rest." Jax stepped away. "Make sure to eat."

"Yes, Mother." Tony trudged to his tiny apartment. He'd rest, eat some soup, and then spend the night coughing. He wouldn't think about Jax's offer, or Gibbs' betrayal.

*********

"I got him. I'm sure of it." McGee jumped to his feet. "They had a John Doe that was put in isolation. They thought he had the Plague."

All of them flinched except Jethro. "Move on it, McGee. Get the records and any video they have."

McGee bolted from the hotel room. Abby was breathing hard, and he hugged her. "Tony's fine. My gut is sure of it."

"I hope this isn't the time your gut is wrong." Abby rested her forehead on his shoulder. "Eight days."

"We're almost there." Jethro kissed her temple. He popped open his phone and punched in the number. "Stan, we ready?"

"I'm five minutes away."

Jethro hung up. "I know you made sure that hack couldn't be traced to Tony."

"Of course I did. McGee helped. A little." Abby's eyes were bright. "I could check traffic cameras around the hospital."

"That's why you're my favorite." He flashed her a grin. "Ziva, you're with me."

********

"Tony! You up?"

Tony went ahead and groaned. "No," he croaked. "Go away."

"Hells, Tony. You were getting well!"

"Sore throat." He didn't want to swallow, not ever again. "Can I have the day off, Boss?"

Jax sat on the edge of the bed and pushed Tony's hair off his forehead. "You're not shaking this."

"I know." Tony covered his mouth and coughed until he saw stars. "Antibiotics don't help. I just have to live."

"Good idea." Jax sighed loudly. He peeled the covers down. "A hot shower, some food, and then back in this bed until I can convince you to go to the hospital. Okay?"

Grabbing hold of him, Tony pulled him close, wanting to explain, needing to make him understand why they couldn't be anything. "I had friends. I thought they were my friends, you know? I cared, and they - he - screwed me over. Left me to rot. I quit my job. I don't want to care about anyone again. Safer, I think."

"For you or me?" Jax skimmed his hand along Tony's bare chest, resting his hand right below a bruise. Tony looked in Jax's eyes and wished the guy had breasts. Other than that, he was fine with them having sex. It would be easy. Jax leaned that much closer.

"Federal agents! Freeze!"

Tony froze. It lasted two seconds before he had to cough. Gibbs yanked Jax back, threw him down to the floor, and cuffed him before Tony could make his lungs give him enough air to talk.

"Hey, don't. He's a good guy," he whispered.

"Ziva, get an ambulance. McGee, call Abby so she'll stop crying." Gibbs stared down at him. "You're a hell of a lot of trouble, DiNozzo."

Anger forced its way through the shock, and Tony struggled up. He tried to shove Gibbs back. "Let him go. I'd probably be dead if he hadn't helped me out!"

"These must be those friends you were talking about, Tony." Jax stayed perfectly still from his position on the floor. "I think you were right about them being assholes."

Gibbs jerked Jax to his feet and launched him at the door. "Take him to a bench, McGee."

"Will do, Boss."

"Gibbs, he's my friend! Okay, maybe I haven't known him that long, but I like him!" His legs wobbled, and he sat down hard on the bed. It hurt, and he gasped for air.

"You should've called me!" Gibbs wrapped a blanket around him. "What the hell is wrong with you?"

Tony had a feeling that Gibbs wasn't talking about Tony's physical health. He made sure the blanket covered his private parts. Gibbs snapped open his phone and dialed. "Ducky, we got him. He's half-dead but still stupid, so I think he'll live. Which hospital you want him at?"

The answer wasn't possible to hear, and for a second, Tony hated Gibbs. Okay, maybe not hate, but very strong dislike. "Boss--" He stopped that sentence. "Agent Gibbs, you don't have the right."

"Hell if I don't." Gibbs squatted and wrapped his hand around the back of Tony's neck. "He didn't hurt you?"

"Of course not. He gave me a bed, clothes, food, and didn't ask for anything in return."

"Except sex." Gibbs was up on his feet instantly. Whatever Tony was going to say was interrupted by Ziva and the paramedics. Tony hoped they didn't scratch the gym floor, wheeling him out. McGee piled into the ambulance with him, and he caught him by the arm, squeezing hard.

"Don't let Gibbs arrest Jax."

"No promises, Tony." McGee brandished the camera. "I have to get pictures. Of you."

Any other words were muffled by the oxygen mask they slipped over his face. The doors were slammed, the camera flashed, and Tony wasn't sure whether to be furious or relieved.

*********

"Ziva, go get us all packed. Don't forget McGee's laptop, or he'll murder you." Jethro didn't take his eyes off Jax Sven, sitting on the bleachers, still handcuffed. The man hadn't protested, demanded a lawyer, or did any of the other stupid things Jethro had seen over the years. She bobbed her head, and he lowered his voice. "Next time I tell you to find someone..."

"I will find them," she said softly. She was gone quickly, and Jethro moved in on Jax. He'd deal with Ziva later. Whatever issues she had with DiNozzo, it was time to get over them. Jethro stopped close enough to stand directly over him.

Jax looked up. His eyes didn't twitch, and his gaze was steady. "You ready?"

Jethro wouldn't move back until he was finished. He was thinking military, maybe Army. The guy had that look about him. He was older, forties or fifties, still fit, grayish-blond hair, and tall, probably Norwegian. Jethro waited for his answer, but he could see that he wasn't going to get one.

"You're being charged with unlawful detainment of a federal officer. Worried yet?" Jethro put all his anger into his voice.

"Tony's a Fed? Huh." Jax moved his gaze lower. "He said he had a degree in Phys. Ed."

Jethro wanted to hurt this guy, but he throttled it down. Tony was safe. That was what mattered, and it was possible Jax had saved Tony from worse. "Tony's NCIS, and I'm pretty sure you know what that means." He needed to know who exactly this Jax Sven guy was, but he was sure of one thing. "You're gay."

"And you're a jackass."

"You perving on your boys?" Jethro saw the clenched jaw. "You pulled Tony off the street so you could nail him."

"You have all the answers. Not sure this conversation has room for me in it." Jax stared over at the nearest wall. "Let me know when you're done."

Taking a couple of minutes, Jethro looked him over again and reluctantly changed tactics. "Tony said you were a good guy."

"He said you left him to rot." Jax flashed a grin. "I'd say Tony's a good judge of character."

It was hard not to laugh, and Jethro eased back to sit down next to him. Taking off the cuffs was the next step, and he put them in his pocket. "Tell me what happened."

"I was going for groceries. He was sitting across the street on a bench near the bus stop, about ready to pass out. I put him up in my apartment. Went to stay with my sister until he was on his feet again."

"And then?"

"He was a little better, shooting a few hoops, sweeping the floors, and then this morning, it all went FUBAR." Jax shrugged. "Said his throat hurt."

Jethro nodded, wishing for coffee and watching Jax rub his wrists. "You like him."

"Sure do, but I told him I'd back off if he said the word. He didn't say it." Jax met Jethro's eyes. "I like men, you stupid jarhead, not boys."

"I believe you." Jethro smiled at the familiar insult that was more of a compliment. "Tony was on The Seahawk, being transferred to the U.S.S. Carl Vinson when he disappeared."

"He said you betrayed him." Jax scooted away and got to his feet. "You that kind?"

"Could be true." Jethro eased up and faced him squarely. Those words hurt, but he wouldn't show it. "I'll take care of him."

"Are we done?" Jax straightened to his full height - a good six foot four - and narrowed his eyes. "I have a latrine to scrub."

"Get to it." Jethro turned away first. That man was definitely Army, and he probably was a good guy. There were still a few lingering questions - like why Tony would fall into bed with him - any man - but it could wait. First, he had to get Tony to Dr. Pitt and Ducky.

********

"God, not a transport plane," Tony said with a long groan. "Please, McGee. Have some mercy. I'm dying here!"

"You are not! And don't even say that. Abby might hear you." McGee tucked the blanket closer. "Stop pulling down the mask!"

Tony put it back on, glaring at the world. His throat hurt like hell, and he didn't need a damn IV, and Abby looked like she'd been crying, and he wanted to punch Gibbs in the face.

"We're going wheels up!"

Three seconds later, Gibbs cuffed Tony on the back of the head before buckling himself into a seat. They immediately took off, and Tony hoped he didn't roll right out the back ramp. Or from the look on Ziva's face, she might push him. McGee was a crappy nurse - no boobs - and if Tony hadn't fallen asleep the ride would've lasted forever. Unfortunately, he woke up in Colorado. They made him take some meds, and there was no hope of having a real conversation with Gibbs.

Sign language would have to do, and Tony let him have it. Gibbs stared, no expression, but Abby's gasp was audible over the engine noise. It was probably a good thing that he went back to sleep over one of those flat states. Coughing woke him up, and he was sure he was losing a lung.

McGee looked panicked, but Gibbs pushed him out of the way. Gibbs pulled Tony more upright and rubbed his back. Tony was ashamed that he collapsed against him.

"You should've called me," Gibbs growled. "Me!"

No air meant no words, and Tony shoved him away as soon as he was able. Gibbs didn't really move, but he helped Tony lie back.

"After they beat you the first time!" Gibbs roared over the sound of the engines.

Tony moved the mask. "What did you think would happen?" He coughed twice more and gave up on talking. Something flickered across Gibbs' face but then it was gone. Abby was suddenly there, signing fast and hard before taking him by the hand. Gibbs made one short sign and then went back to his seat. Tony didn't know what they'd said; he only knew the curse words. He held her hand a little tighter than necessary and went back to coughing.

**********

Every cough was like the stab of a knife, twisting in Jethro' guts. He had screwed up, and he wouldn't bother with cheap excuses. Tony was furious, knowing he'd been betrayed by his team, and Jethro didn't have a leg to stand on - it had happened, and he'd allowed it.

Getting Tony home was the only thing Jethro could do. He'd already arrested everyone responsible, except for the captain. The skipper had been allowed to take early retirement, and it grated, but their proof had been flimsy, at best. The thought that he should've left Tony in San Diego with his friend popped up, and he pushed it away. Tony was going home, and Jethro would make time to listen, to understand, and maybe explain a few things. Jethro rubbed his face hard, hoping he could find words where he never had before.

"McGee, you get the pictures we needed?" Jethro moved close enough that he didn't have to shout.

"I did." McGee's fingers paused over his laptop. "We never did find Tony's badge or gun."

"He didn't have a gun, and they threw his duffle bag in the bay. Trust me." Jethro wondered how many badges Tony would go through in his career. He was on his third.

"Boss." McGee stuck out his chin, daring to say what he was thinking. "Director Vance doesn't like Tony. The resignation will stand."

Jethro wasn't going to discuss that, and he moved to sit by Ziva. She was staring away from him but gave him a glance. He leaned. "You want him."

"I do not." She glared now.

Another cough, and she flinched. He almost laughed at her false denial. "Go for it."

"I do not want him that way." She exhaled heavily. "He is still in love with Jeanne."

"Always will be. Doesn't mean you can't have him." Jethro knew Tony would bed her. It wouldn't mean anything, but he'd enjoy it.

She lowered her head. "He would never be mine, and I refuse to settle for less. I am sorry I let my feelings affect my job."

"So am I." Jethro left her to wallow in her own guilt, moving back closer to Tony. Abby gave him a worried look, and he used sign to tell her to stay with him. She nodded. The medic fiddled with Tony's IV, and eventually the coughing stopped. Tony slept, and Jethro tried to make his guts unclench.

*********

"I'm not staying." Tony tried to glare down Dr. Pitt. "There's nothing you can do to make me."

Pitt pointed at him. "It's a bacterial infection, starting in your sinuses, and that IV is chockful of antibiotics. You're not going anywhere."

Tony lost his glare remarkably fast. "I thought it was just a cough."

"And that's why you're not a doctor!" Pitt picked up the chart. "How long did you lie on the ground in the cold?"

"San Diego is rarely cold." Tony swallowed a cough. "I don't know. A day? Some security guard found me near the warehouse where they dumped me. I did some crawling, even some staggering, but I couldn't find a taxi."

"I'm not going to bother to ask why you didn't stay in the hospital." Pitt rolled his eyes. "Get used to the food. You're going to be here a while."

"I want to go home."

"Tough," Gibbs snapped, coming through the door. "Doc, can you give us a minute?"

"Sure. Tony's not going anywhere." Pitt smiled, and Tony was tempted to flip him off. Gibbs yanked a chair over and sat down with his coffee. He didn't say anything. He stared, and Tony knew he was being played. This time, he wasn't going to break. He lasted about sixty seconds. "Gibbs."

"DiNozzo, we need your statement. Stan doesn't want to fly out here to get it." Gibbs sipped his coffee. "Any time you're ready."

Tony turned so he could stare out the window, away from Gibbs. "I'm not cooperating." It wasn't in his best interest. He could go to federal prison for that hack job, and part of him had a hard time blaming those sailors for following their captain's orders. Oh, sure, they'd been shitheads, but it'd come from the top down.

"Yes, you are."

"I don't work for you." Tony shut his eyes, feeling the cough building and needing to blow his nose.

Gibbs snorted. "Yeah, you do. Vance didn't accept your resignation."

"Bullshit. Vance was thrilled to get it." Tony wasn't falling for Gibbs' clever lies. "Even if he didn't, I'm due on the Vinson. You're not my boss."

"Really?"

Tony held it as long as he could, but the cough won. It always won. He hated his lungs. When it was over, he looked, and Gibbs was still there.

"You liked Jax?"

The question came out of the blue and made Tony sit upright. "McGee promised me that you didn't arrest him."

"I didn't. I wanted to, but it was hard to blame him for lusting after you." Gibbs smirked. "So, did you like him?"

"He's got a nice three-pointer." Tony avoided the heart of the question. He didn't like the look of that smirk. "I owe him."

"I sent him a check. Reward money, I called it." Gibbs tossed his coffee cup in the trash. "He was an Army grunt. I respect that."

Tony hoped Jax would cash it. He didn't feel comfortable talking about Jax, and Gibbs had a look in his eye that made Tony nervous.

"Not many guys give up their apartments for strangers."

Now that was a surprise. Tony hadn't known, and he owed Jax even more now. He was forced to make a joke. "Wasn't much of an apartment."

"Tell me what happened," Gibbs snapped. Tony turned on the TV and clicked until he found a movie. Gibbs got to his feet. "I want answers, Agent DiNozzo."

"People in hell want ice water." Tony smiled big, dropping his lips quickly. It was enough that he was off that damn ship. There were a lot of words he wanted to throw at Gibbs, try to hurt him, but it seemed like work, and he was tired. The truth boiled down to one thing; Gibbs had used him and then hung him out to dry. Nothing else mattered. Like Gibbs always said, trust had to be earned, and Tony wasn't going to trust him again.

It was a surprise when Gibbs turned and left. He never retreated unless he had a good reason.

********

Jethro went home, instead of back to work. His boat was whispering, and he needed some time to think. When the sawdust was thick in the air, his shoulders relaxed, but he didn't find any words that would make it better with Tony.

Tony was right. Jethro had let him down - in a big way. There wasn't any way to fix it. If their positions were reversed, Jethro would punch Tony in the face. Two weeks. Two weeks that he'd done nothing, enjoying having his 'real' team back. Sure, he'd wondered when DiNozzo was getting in a few times, but it hadn't felt pressing.

"Thought I'd find you down here." Vance had that stupid toothpick in his mouth. He found some wall to lean against, trying for casual. "How's DiNozzo?"

"You know." Jethro almost wished for the noise of power tools. He picked up his hand drill and moved to face away from him.

Vance stayed where he was. "You don't need him on your team."

"You're wrong."

"Stop drilling for a minute and listen to me." Vance stepped in front of him. "Your team is good enough, and DiNozzo showed what he was worth when he didn't take the offer for his own team in Spain."

Jethro stood up straight and put the drill down. He flashed back to the conversation with Jenny in interrogation. She'd hinted ... at something, and he'd laughed. Now he knew how stupid he'd been. Tony should've taken his own team. He'd earned it, and stepping aside for Jethro hadn't been easy. Jethro had watched him struggle, finding it amusing.

More guilt to live with, and most days he didn't think he could take an ounce more. "Why are we having this conversation? He's out of NCIS, right?"

"Maybe." Vance smirked around his toothpick. "Pretty sure he couldn't pass the physical."

"Why didn't Tony take his own team?" Jethro asked softly. He wasn't asking Vance, and he was about one toothpick from throwing him out.

"Lack of initiative, courage, and balls; that would be my guess."

DiNozzo might've been scared of iguanas but not much else, besides Ziva, and everyone was scared of her. Jethro picked up his drill and went back at it. He didn't look up until he was finished. "Why are you still here?"

"On my way out, like DiNozzo."

"Yeah, we'll see," Jethro muttered. He dug out his cell phone. "McGee, go visit Tony. Get his statement."

"On it, Boss."

*********

Sleeping all day wasn't his favorite thing to do, but it wasn't as if he had a job. Panic made him sit up. He didn't have insurance.

"Tony, I'm pretty sure you can't leave."

Tony stopped picking at the tape on his arm. "Hello, Probie."

"Why are you freaking out?" McGee furrowed his brow like the puppy he was. "You're sick."

"I also don't have insurance," Tony hissed. He would leave as soon as Dr. Pitt looked the other way. McGee started to lecture him about his health, but he was too busy coughing to listen. "McGeek! Shut up!" he wheezed.

"Don't die, okay? Gibbs will kill me if you die while I'm here." McGee was way too close, but Tony didn't have the energy to push him back. Leaving tomorrow was a plan. Today, he was too sick. He reached for the water and took a tiny sip. McGee wouldn't shut up. "Tony?"

"What?" Tony yelled.

"Gibbs wants your statement. I think he meant yesterday." McGee sat down and opened the laptop tucked under his arm. "Start from the beginning. You know, what happened after..."

"You made me hack the Pentagon?" Tony glared, glad both eyes were open now, and he could look meaner. "McGee, I'm not cooperating with Gibbs' so-called investigation. Get over it. Move on. Bring flowers next time."

"So-called? Have you coughed out your brains? Gibbs will..." McGee stopped again. "You really did quit."

"God save me from probies." Tony hit the nurse's button. "I'm going to set you up on a date. Right now. Pay attention to how it's done."

The nurse was a geek. Tony was sure of it, and she was very tired of him asking about sponge baths, but it was fun to tease her. She came through the door, stopping in her tracks when she saw McGee. Tony smiled as their eyes met. McGee fumbled and stumbled, and Tony watched television.

"It's lunch, McGee. Get out while I eat." Tony deftly took the conversation as soon as McGee stopped flirting and being awkward. McGee slumped, but he left, and Tony peeled off some of the tape on his arm for his quick getaway tomorrow.

*********

"Tony!"

Jethro let Abby assault Tony, watching from the side of the room. She talked non-stop, and Tony answered, but his eyes kept sliding over to Jethro.

"You look like hell," Jethro said, seeing how his words made Tony flinch.

"Thanks. Really." Tony tried to ignore him. Oh, he tried, but Abby wasn't a big enough distraction, and Jethro was willing to wait. This time, he wasn't leaving until he found out exactly what had happened on that damn ship. Tony and Abby talked and talked about nothing at all, interrupted only by Tony's incessant coughing.

Those sailors had nearly killed Tony, even though they'd sworn it'd been nothing but a joke, nothing but a fight gone bad. He had to give them credit for protecting their skipper. Not that it had done any good.

"Thanks, Abby, for taking my call."

There was tone in Tony's voice that set Jethro's teeth on edge. Tony was honestly grateful. Someone in Tony's past had denied the call when it had mattered.

"You can't quit." Abby was very earnest, but Jethro could see that Tony wasn't listening. She sighed loudly and thumped him on the forehead. "Gibbs would miss you."

Their eyes met, and there was nothing but deep suspicion in Tony's eyes. It didn't help that one of them was still black and blue. Abby got very quiet, and Jethro made a fast sign. She nodded, kissed Tony on the cheek, and signed back as she left.

Fix it.

He rolled his eyes, swirled his coffee, and pulled up a chair to Tony's bedside.

"What? No sending Ziva to get my statement?"

"She'd want to torture it out of you." Jethro smiled because it was true, and they both knew it. Tony curled under the covers, clearly wanting him gone, so Jethro reached enough to steal the remote. He flipped on the news and settled back. "I'd probably let her."

"I'm not talking."

"That's what they all say." Jethro focused on the television, instead of Tony's bruised face. "The skipper retired. Took balls to spit on his deck."

"Yeah, they kicked those off," Tony growled, hunching in the bed, refusing to look at him, not that Jethro had checked. "You shouldn't have investigated."

"Are you telling me what to do?" Jethro let his anger make the words bite. "Anyway, it's Stan's case."

Tony mumbled something that sounded rude, and Jethro chose to ignore it. The news switched from Iraq to Afghanistan to some commentator who had a stick up his ass, and Jethro listened to Tony try not to cough.

"You really liked him?"

"Yes! Turn it loose!" Tony looked at him now. "He did me a favor!"

"He wanted to do you." Jethro wasn't going to turn it loose until he got to the truth. "I was thinking you would mind, but I've been wrong before." Not often, but occasionally, and his gut whispered that he was screwing this up. "You didn't mind."

The silence was full of anger, but Jethro didn't care. He had a few more things to say. "Gratitude usually makes for crappy sex."

"And you would know how?" Tony had some fire of his own in his voice.

"I know." Jethro wasn't giving him names and dates. He needed to explain how he felt, but the words wouldn't get by his teeth, and he growled in frustration. "Vance doesn't like you. Care to tell me why?"

A clenched jaw was the answer Tony gave him. Jethro wasn't in the mood to take it. "I figure you and Jenny pissed him off with the whole Frog thing. Jenny went rogue, and you skipped alongside her, enjoying every minute of it. I know Jeanne was good in bed, but how'd Jenny treat you?"

"She was bossy, just like you." Tony's face was set in stone, furious. "Not that I've had either of you in my bed!"

Jethro laughed, knowing it would throw him off balance. "Not yet, but I'm still available." He hated that she was gone, but he had to try to fix the mess she'd left behind. "Or you could run back to Jax."

"Leave him out of this," Tony growled.

"Fair enough." Jethro hoped Tony got the message that they could be together, but there was so much anger in Tony's eyes. "They beat you pretty bad. Lots of hits to the muscles, black eye, split lip, bruised kidneys: none of it enough to keep you down for a day. Did you give up in the warehouse? Lie down to die? Is that the man you are?"

Tony made a soft sound. "Guess so." He shut his eyes and rolled the other way, and Jethro knew he'd pushed him hard enough. The TV droned on, and Jethro watched him sleep and cough.

It was long after midnight when Tony faced him again. "You left me high and dry on that ship. You got Ziva and McGee, your golden boy, but I wasn't worth the trouble. I'd bet my last nickel that you didn't even ask Vance for me."

"I asked for my team," Jethro said, soft and low. He really couldn't deny any of that, except the stupid golden boy part. "I came after you, Tony. Ziva thought you were on the beach, McGee figured you were on your way home in a van full of girls, and Vance didn't give a damn. I went after you, and I wasn't going to quit until I found you, brought you home."

Again, Tony didn't answer, and after a while, he slept, and Jethro watched the sun come up.

*********

"I'm leaving today, Dr. Pitt." Tony caught him by the forearm. "You can unhook this tube, or I can do it."

"Two more days, Tony."

"I don't have insurance," Tony whispered. Gibbs was lurking out in the hallway, and after two days of constant company, it was unnerving. "My lungs are better. Heck, I can eat without coughing."

"Tony, I can't agree to it."

Tony pulled out the IV in one smooth move, having removed all the tape earlier. "You really should speak with your parents about your name."

Pitt grabbed the IV and stared down at it. "You're a fool."

"Yes, I know." Tony put his feet on the floor and straightened his back. He ached, but he was fine, and his cough would go away. It wasn't going to kill him. "Thanks for your help."

"You'll be back," Pitt said fiercely.

"Doubt it." Tony went to take a long shower, free of the stupid IV. When he stepped out, cold and wet, Gibbs was there. "Hey, Gibbs. How about you go away?"

"You're not leaving." Gibbs' eyes were flashing.

Tony didn't care about Gibbs' anger. He dried off, trying to ignore the man glaring at him. McGee had brought him clothes, and he dressed slowly, careful not to look weak.

"Tony, you're being an ass."

Finished, Tony checked himself out against medical advice. Two nurses stared at him as if he'd grown another head, but Gibbs had fallen silent. They left the hospital together, and Tony cracked first. He always did.

"Go back to your boat, Gibbs."

*********

Jethro let him go. The only alternative was handcuffing him to the hospital bed, and Ducky would yell about that. Jethro had to make up his mind: trail after him or go home. It wasn't an easy decision, so he went to work.

McGee asked him first. "How's Tony?"

"He left the hospital," Jethro said, keeping it short. "He makes me want to hit the back of his head."

"Why'd you hold back, Boss?"

Instead of sitting at his desk, Jethro trotted upstairs. Vance didn't look surprised to see him. For a long minute, they stared at each other. Jethro clenched his jaw.

"Okay, I never processed his papers." Vance chewed his toothpick.

"He's a little late to catch the Carl Vinson." Jethro wasn't placated in the least. "He checked himself out of the hospital because he thought he didn't have insurance."

Vance shrugged, looking unconcerned. "He's tough. You want him. You can have him. Desk duty only until he's passed the physical - two doctors need to sign off. He steps out of line once, and he's gone."

Jethro raised his chin. "Bullshit."

"Maybe, but DiNozzo lacks initiative. Don't make him out to be what he isn't."

"You have no idea what he is or isn't, and assumptions kill people in our line of work." Jethro went for the door but stopped for one last shot. "Chewing your cud isn't helping your thinking." He headed for his desk to make a plan. It wasn't going to be easy. Tony was mad, and he wasn't going to listen.

********

"Where to?" the cabbie asked for the third time.

Tony rubbed his face hard. His things were in storage, paid for the year. His apartment was long gone. He hadn't liked it anyway. The only reason he had an I.D. was because Abby and McGee had come through for him. Not many clothes, not much money, and nowhere to go. "Dulles." It was an impulsive decision, but he had unfinished business in San Diego, and he wasn't the kind of man who screwed over his friends.

The airport was busy, as usual, but Tony had no trouble booking a flight, paying with his lone credit card. He had no idea where McGee had gotten it and didn't intend to ask. With time to kill, he did a more thorough search of the backpack and discovered a cell phone - NCIS issue, of course. He groaned and called him.

"Tony, where are you?" McGee asked without even a hello.

"Hanging out. Hey, thanks for the money and cell phone. Thank Abby too." Tony watched the clock, wondering if McGee was tracing the call. "I'll call later."

"Gibbs is really mad, Tony. You can't just--"

Tony hung up on him, turning off the phone, not wanting to hear about Gibbs or his anger. Gibbs - NCIS - that part of Tony's life was over. He'd find a job in the F.B.I. or as a cop once he was well. It really didn't matter. They called his flight, and he didn't look back.

*********

"McGee."

"That was Tony. He thanked me for the money and the cell phone." McGee looked guilty.

"And?"

"He hung up before I could trace it." McGee had tried. "Sorry, Boss."

Ziva wandered over to perch on McGee's desk. "Tony has no apartment, no place to stay. Where would he go?"

Jethro leaned back in his chair. He knew exactly where Tony had gone. The only question was whether it was right to go after him. "McGee, fill out the paperwork so Tony's on sick leave."

"Will do."

"Ziva, go tell Abby to keep an eye on that credit card McGee gave Tony. I want to know where he's using it."

She nodded, and he looked up one floor to meet Vance's stare. Vance turned away, and Jethro decided to give Tony a week, but not one minute more.

*********

Every time Tony coughed, every person on the plane glared at him, but holding his breath the entire way to San Diego wasn't possible. He switched planes in Denver, slept over the mountains, and was very glad to land in San Diego. Now, all he had to do was find some place he didn't have the address for - piece of cake.

"Tony!"

Tony grinned and let Jax hug him hard. "Hey, need your floors swept?"

"Hells, yeah. You escape the Marines?"

"I hope." Tony scooped up a ball that rolled their way and went for the basket. "Nothing but net, baby!"

Jax laughed, chasing after him. Tony played until the coughing made him stop. Jax got him a bottle of water and patted him on the back. "You got crappy lungs, Tony."

"Don't I know it." Tony sat on the bottom row of the bleachers and took a sip. "You gave me your apartment?"

"That Marine has a big mouth." Jax ducked his head, looking away to the boys playing three on three. "I needed to do some things for my sister. You watched the place. It worked out."

"You didn't even know me!" Tony could see the tips of Jax's ears turning red. "I should've trashed the place to destroy your faith in humanity."

"It'd take more than that." Jax laughed. "Seriously, have you eaten? Slept? You look like road kill."

"Airplane food and yes, I slept over two square states." Tony glanced at his watch. "How about we chase them out, clean up, and I'll take you to eat?"

Jax raised his eyebrows. "You have money?"

"Some." Tony glared at him. "I was working up until I quit!" He saw that he was being teased and managed a grin. "I'll get the broom."

"You do that." Jax went to talk to the boys about heading home. Tony still didn't understand how Jax made money owning an old gym, but it'd be rude to ask. He'd do it over dessert. He started the floors, Jax took out the trash, and they had the place cleaned up quickly. Jax shut off the main lights and caught him by the arm. "I need a shower first."

"You think I'm taking you somewhere nice?" Tony smelled his own armpits. "Good enough. Change your shirt, and let's go." He looked at Jax's legs, sticking out from under shorts. "Okay, some pants too."

Jax's expression turned serious, and he stepped close. "Tony, tell me that Marine of yours isn't going to come busting through the door and throw me down again."

"Gibbs?" Tony tried to process the words 'yours' and 'Marine' and failed.

"Special Agent Gibbs, the guy who put his knee in my back and threatened to have me arrested for unlawful detainment of a federal agent!" Jax spread his hands. "Then he sent me a big check, calling it reward money. What a load of bullshit - I know hush money when I see it."

Tony had to sit down again. He nearly poured the water on his head to jump start his brain. "You didn't cash it."

"Tore it up." Jax crouched down in front of him. "You didn't tell me you had a lover. A jealous, possessive lover with a big gun and handcuffs!"

"Jax." Tony took a deep breath, feeling the shake in his lungs. "Gibbs is - was - my boss at NCIS. I was transferred from his team, reassigned to the Ronald Reagan and then The Seahawk." He sighed, realizing it was a long story. "I'll tell you the details over food, but I can promise you, Jax, that Gibbs isn't coming through that door."

Jax didn't look convinced. "Is he here in San Diego?"

"Washington D.C. He won't show up. They found video of my beating. That's the only reason they came looking for me."

"Geez, Tony." Jax got to his feet. "I'll go, but I'm keeping an eye out for him."

Jax went to the door that led to the tiny apartment, but Tony stayed where he was. He didn't understand how Jax could think that Gibbs was Tony's lover. That made no sense. Whatsoever. Jax came out before Tony could reconcile any of the facts with what Jax had said.

They caught a cab, and Tony kept the conversation on the weather and basketball until they were seated with drinks.

"Okay, first, Gibbs is not, nor ever will be, my lover."

"No, first, I'd like to know your last name." Jax slugged two fingers of whiskey back.

Tony frowned, sure he'd told him. "Uh, DiNozzo?"

"For some reason, I didn't see you as Italian. Swedish maybe." Jax gave him a steady look. "And, trust me, Gibbs wants to be. I bet he's steaming mad that you're here with me."

"He doesn't know." Tony went with that. He tilted his head, thinking. "I used my credit card to buy the plane ticket." He sighed. "He knows."

"I should save myself now." Jax didn't get up to leave. "Next time, he's not getting the drop on me."

Tony forced a laugh, unsure of what to say. "I really am sorry. I quit my job. I had no idea they'd look for me, or open a case, or, well, anything."

"They're your friends, Tony, and Gibbs is the kind who keeps his team close." Jax fiddled with his silverware, not looking at the menu. "I've known a few like him."

"Crazy?"

"Definitely."

They laughed softly together. Tony sipped his drink and tried to cough quietly. "He betrayed me, Jax." It hurt to say the words. "I never thought he would."

Jax reached and put his hand over Tony's. "Did he? Or did he just screw up, and you'd rather he was perfect?"

Tony hated that he swallowed hard, conflicted, and now not so sure he had the right to be angry. "The director broke up the team. We were all reassigned, but Gibbs got everyone back. Everyone but me. Me? I was left on that damn ship."

"And the squids beat the crap out of you." Jax nodded, as if he understood. "So one day, Gibbs and his team, in Washington, who didn't miss you, were perusing old surveillance video from San Diego when they spotted you. They laughed and went back to work, right?"

His brain ground to a halt. Tony frowned. "They'd have had to gone looking for it." He paused, readjusted his thinking. "Why would they?"

"He found out you weren't coming back and started looking for you." Jax opened his menu. "Hey, if they don't wait on us soon, I'm going to starve."

"Vance never intended for me to return to Washington." Tony felt off-balance. He was sure Vance didn't like him, but the rest of it was all shades of grey now. "Why didn't Gibbs ask for me before I was assigned to the Carl Vinson?"

"I was Army. The Marines are a mystery to me." Jax actually waved at a waiter. The waiter looked offended but took their order. Jax had more to say. "The Carl Vinson is a boat?"

"Aircraft carrier, more of a ship." Tony smiled, remembering Kate. "Agent Afloat is considered a plum assignment. It made me want to drown myself."

"No privacy." Jax shuddered. "Instead of transferring ships, you quit. Why'd they beat you up?"

Tony was forced to laugh. "If I told you, I'd have to kill you, and I like you." He wasn't confessing to a federal crime in a restaurant where anyone could be listening. "It's enough that they did. Twice," he muttered.

"Ever heard of a strategic retreat?"

"You mean running for your life? Why yes, I have. Ever tried to run away on a ship?" Tony laughed easily now. "Speaking of running, how do you run your afterschool program without actual funds?"

"Now that's personal." Jax looked at him warily. "I get federal grant money."

"Jax, I worked for the government. Try again." Tony drank some soda, smirking.

Scowling across the table, Jax hesitated. "My parents had money. They didn't disown me, not sure why. I bought the gym and fixed it up. End of story."

"My parents disowned me." Tony sighed sadly, working the pity. "I miss being rich." He saw Jax's skeptical look. "Really. I do."

"I'm sure you do, except that you don't want that life. Neither do I." Jax shrugged. "The local high school does pay me a little."

"Not much, or you'd be able to afford a janitor." Tony grinned. "Hey, I have a degree in Phys. Ed."

"So you said once or twice. Want a job? I have an opening." Jax smiled back at him. "Doesn't pay much."

"Or at all. Do I get free room and board?" Tony had no idea what he was doing, but he didn't have the lungs to be a cop. Maybe something different was the way to go - for now.

"I'll talk to the owner."

Tony leaned closer. "Get him to pay for dinner. I'm broke."

Jax laughed, and Tony relaxed. He had some thinking to do, but he had a friend - something his wealthy father couldn't say.

*********

"Talk to me, Abby."

"Tony hasn't used the card since he flew to San Diego." Her eyes were wide. "That is what you wanted, right?"

"No." Jethro waited, and waited. "Abby."

"No, first, before the other stuff, I need to know something, or--" She bit her lip. "I can't work here any longer."

Jethro knew he looked surprised. "What is it?"

"Where you ever going to ask for Tony? Did you care at all? How come I was the only one to notice he wasn't around? And if I hadn't checked his file, would he have died of pneumonia in some stinky gym?"

He had the feeling she was reading off a list. "That all?"

"He called me today."

It'd been three days since Tony had flown to San Diego, not that Jethro was counting. "What did he say?"

"Not much." She was lying. "He's still coughing. I worry."

"Me too." He was willing to say that much. "Abby, he thinks I let him down."

"You did." Abby sat on her stool and clutched Bert. "I didn't."

"No, you didn't." He touched her cheek. "Did you tell him that?"

"Yes." She ducked her face into Bert. "Think he believes me?"

"He should." Jethro wasn't sure what else to say. He gently took the weird hippo from her arms. "Can we work now?"

"I guess. Don't let me down, Gibbs."

Jethro wasn't making any promises. He'd screwed up big time, and all because he'd made a stupid assumption. Vance had played him, and it still smarted. "You let me know if he uses that card, okay?"

"I will." She beamed at him. "Now, about that other stuff."

"About time," Jethro grumbled, but it was fake, and she knew it. After her usual amount of nonsense, he finally got to the point and went back upstairs to get his team - what was left of it.

"Boss, I got a hit on Tony's phone today."

"He called Abby." Jethro always enjoyed doing that. "He's in San Diego. Leave it alone."

"Why would he go back?" Ziva asked.

Instead of answering, Jethro got his gun and shield. McGee took the question. "Maybe he thought he owed that guy Jax a favor."

"I do not understand."

"You're not a guy." Jethro headed for the elevator. "You two coming?"

*********

"We totally kicked your ass today!" Tony shouted across the gym, pushing his broom. He couldn't miss the middle finger Jax raised in the air. It made him laugh, and for once, he didn't cough.

Jax caught up with him, pushing his own broom. "I didn't realize I needed a coach on staff until now."

"Well, playing pickup is fun, but no reason they can't work on skills. Now we need to figure out a way to get the girls through the door." Tony had a few ideas. "Gym full of hot guys, how hard could it be?"

"Girls? Here?" Jax laughed. "They think this place smells bad."

"It does." Tony laughed at him. "Like old socks. I love it. In a disgusting way." He made a face. "We'll brainstorm over Ramen noodles."

"Food of champions."

"That you, DiNozzo?"

They both whirled around, and Tony noticed that Jax looked ready to kick ass with his broom handle.

"That you, Stan?" Tony grinned. "It's okay, Jax. Stan's harmless. You should see him on the firing range. Hopeless!"

"Hey!" Stan stepped out on the hardwood. "I haven't played ball in a while."

"And you're not going to with those boots on. Have some respect!" Jax started pushing again. "You two talk. I'm going to work."

Tony pointed at the bleachers, shook out his broom, and stashed it away before going to sit near him. "What's up, Stan?"

"Who's the boss?" Stan pointed with his chin.

"Jax Sven, and don't make me answer questions you know." Tony wasn't in the mood. He suddenly couldn't do this here. "Let's take it outside." He led the way out front, leaning against the bricks, leg up. It was a nice evening. The sun was down, and he realized that he hadn't made it to the beach yet. Maybe over the weekend, when there weren't as many kids. "Gibbs sent you?"

Stan stuck his hands in his pockets. "I really could use your statement." He avoided the question. "I don't want the case against them to fall apart." He shuffled his feet. "Also, if you could pick them out of a lineup, I'd be grateful."

"What about the captain?" Tony had really hated him.

"He took early retirement. McGee and Abby found an email that... suggested certain things. It was enough to get him." Stan smiled, and Tony wasn't sure why.

Tony was glad the captain was gone but sorry he hadn't had the chance to kick him in the nuts. "I should help clean up. We done?"

Stan's mouth fell open. "You really work here?"

"Doesn't pay much, but yes." Tony coughed into his fist. His fifth cough of the day - he kept track.

The door opened. "You okay, Tony?"

"Sure, Jax. I'll be there in a second." Tony smiled brightly. "Bye, Stan."

"But, you haven't told me what happened!"

"Really?" Tony shut the door and locked it. Jax chained it tight, and they exchanged a shrug. Tony didn't feel up to explaining. "I'm thinking some paint."

"Are you going to spend my hard-earned inheritance?" Jax asked with a grin.

"Can I?" Tony bounced on his toes. "We could buy a Ferrari!"

Jax slapped Tony's ass, and Tony stopped in complete shock.

"Tony?"

"You slapped my ass." Tony rubbed the back of his head, which only made sense to him. "Why do people always smack me?"

"People?" Jax didn't look guilty.

"You and Gibbs." Tony glared now. "Tell me why!" He caught Jax on the shoulders and shook him gently.

"You need it to kill some of that rampant enthusiasm that is so incredibly annoying." Jax hugged him close. "Tony, you're so easy to love."

Tony knew he shouldn't, but he rested his head on Jax's shoulder. It was a safe place to take a deep breath. "Then why do people keep beating me up?"

"You have a dangerous job, but I suspect you're good at it." Jax kept him close. "I'll buy the paint. You have to find volunteers to slap it on."

"Volunteers." Tony sighed loudly and wiggled away. He blinked, feeling as if his brain was finally working again. He'd obviously been very sick. "Hey, I know people."

"I'm sure you do." Jax laughed and steered him toward their apartment.

********

"Gibbs, I'm going to lose this one if we go to court."

Jethro drank his coffee first. "You talked to DiNozzo?"

Stan nodded. "Hey, where's Abby?"

"Down in her lab, and no, I'm not going to call her up here so you can flirt."

"She's really grown." Stan stepped out of the camera angle for a moment and then was back. "I saw him. He's not cooperating. All I have is the video, and their lawyer insists that proves nothing."

"Let them go. Get them busted a rank for conduct unbecoming." Jethro went to sit in one of the chairs. "Tony's made up his mind." He wished he could smack the back of Tony's head. "They were following orders, and he's covering for them." He wanted to ask how Tony looked, but settled for, "He's still coughing?"

"Seems that way. That guy, Jax, is protective of him." Stan looked left and right. "I got nothing else."

Jethro wanted to send Tony a message since the moron never turned his phone on, but it wasn't possible. "See ya, Stan."

"Later." Stan winked out, and Jethro didn't get to his feet. It'd been a week, but his gut was telling him that it was too early to go after him. Jax was looking after him, and Jethro was very sure that Jax was doing a good job. They might even be sleeping together. The thought made him clench his fist.

"Boss? Everything okay with Tony?" McGee came down the stairs but didn't sit.

"He's coughing, and he's refusing to help Stan bust those idiots." Jethro sipped his coffee, unclenching his fist, not really looking at him. "Cell phone still off?"

"Yes, Boss."

"He's a stubborn son-of-a-bitch." Jethro liked that about him. "I'll be downstairs, talking with Ducky."

********

"For some reason, I thought you were joking when you said you knew people."

"Never underestimate a DiNozzo." Tony spun the ball in the air. He had commandeered Jax's desk for the phone call. "Jim Clemons works for the Lakers. He's a Buckeye, like me. Same frat house, too."

"And they're just going to give us stuff? And help us paint?" Jax looked completely skeptical.

"Yes." Tony nodded, sure of it. He tucked the ball at his feet and grinned.

"Did you tell him we're in San Diego?" Jax's voice hit an uncomfortable pitch.

Tony winced. "He called it an outreach program. Now, let's get organized. Once the kids know the Lakers are coming, we'll have all the volunteers we can handle, so we might as well take advantage of it." He brandished some paper at him. "What else needs done around here?"

Jax rubbed his face and sat on the desktop next to him. "What if they don't show up?"

"Have some faith, but always, always, have a backup plan." Tony handed him the paper and pencil. "Make a list or two. Decide which of the kids is old enough to have some responsibility, and when I get back, we'll go shopping."

"Back? Where're you going?"

Tony wasn't going to tell him. "Don't worry. I'll bring back burgers. Get to work!" He strolled out, wishing his Mustang was here. It was two blocks before he found a cab, but he enjoyed the walk. He did need to get to the beach. Sunday traffic was thin, and it wasn't too long before he was dropped off in front of the Naval Base. Tony went through the checkpoint, signing in and showing his I.D., and he almost wished he'd kept the cab. The base was huge.

Luckily, where he was going wasn't too far. He knocked on the door, hearing music inside.

"Oh, crap."

"Hello, Petty Officer John Roberts." Tony smiled. "I've missed you."

"Hey, I understand if you're pissed, but I got busted a rank! And I'm off ship duty until further notice, and... shit!" Roberts clutched his head. "I told them to stop. Twice!"

"I remember." Tony did, most of it. "I also appreciated you missing my nuts. I know that was intentional."

"It was!" Roberts left the door open and fled inside. He flipped off the music. "Go ahead. Kick my ass. I deserve it."

"Tempting, but no." Tony left the door open, leaning against the doorjamb. "I have this friend. He needs some help. Can you help?"

"Rob a bank or something?" Roberts shook his head frantically. "Come on! I sorta liked you!"

"I sorta liked you too. Right up until you helped beat the shit out of me." Tony put his hands on his hips. He was enjoying this far too much. "Next Sunday morning, early, you and your buddies, you know who I mean, meet me at this address." He dug it out of his pocket and handed it to him. "Wear old clothes."

"Hey, I used to shoot hoops there in high school. Jax is a good guy."

"Well, he could use some help, and I figure you owe me one. Possibly two." Tony flipped open his phone and hit a button. "Special Agent Stan Burley, please."

"No! We'll be there. I'll bring a few extra guys even." Roberts sank down in a chair. "I really didn't want to do it. The captain said it was our duty."

Tony slapped the phone - it hadn't been on - shut. "I figured as much. So I can count on your help?"

"You can, sir." Roberts was just a kid, and his face was very red. He really was pathetic. "I swear."

"Good enough." Tony shut the door quietly. He tossed it back open, making him jump. "Don't forget!"

"I won't! Sir!"

Leaving the door open, Tony went outside, actually turning on his phone. He dialed without thinking. "McGee, I need Stan's number."

"Why?"

"I want to send him flowers. McGee!" Tony was not in the mood. "Today!"

"Wow, you're crabby."

Tony could hear McGee's keyboard clicking. "Stop tracing the call and find the number! I'm at the Naval Base!"

"Oh. Why?"

"I was visiting a friend." Tony pressed the phone to his forehead. "I should've called 411."

"Got it." McGee was smiling. "I'll send it to your phone."

Tony hung up before he reached through and strangled McGee. When the number came through, he quickly punched it in.

"Special Agent--"

"I know who you are, Stan," Tony interrupted. "We're painting over at the gym on Sunday. Can you help?"

"What? DiNozzo?" Stan was slow on the pick up today. "Why would I?"

"You're right. Don't help the kids. Thanks! Bye." Tony hung up, not worrying about it. Stan would show up. Tony walked back to the gatehouse and had them call him a cab. His phone rang before it arrived. "DiNozzo," he said.

"Tony!" It was Abby, of course, or he wouldn't have answered it. "Why hasn't your phone been on?"

"Haven't wanted to talk." Tony could hear the music in the background. "How are you? Been bowling lately?"

"You're not coming back, are you?" Abby sounded sad.

"Abby, Vance wanted me on the Carl Vinson. He never intended for me to return to Washington." Tony refused to feel bad about quitting. It'd been forced on him - by Vance and Gibbs. "I'm sorry."

"So am I." Abby paused. "Okay, I gotta go. Ducky wants something."

"Sure thing. Tell him hey." Tony hung up, hating that he'd made her sad. She'd never screw him over. He was sure of that. The cab pulled up, and he got burgers before going to the gym. Jax was at his desk, scribbling madly, and Tony put a bag down next to him. "Decided to spend some money?"

"I've always been willing to buy the supplies. It was manpower that I couldn't afford."

"Jax, you have a hundred young men at your disposal!"

Jax flushed and looked up. "They have lives, Tony."

"Well, yes, and this is part of their lives, and they can help out." Tony pulled over a chair and opened his bag of food. "Eat, so I don't feel guilty."

"I'm not sure guilt is something you do, Tony." Jax grabbed out a burger and smiled. "The Lakers?"

"Believe it."

*********

"You're sure about this, Jethro?"

"I'm positive, Ducky." Jethro was very sure. "You don't mind?"

"It'll be good to stretch my wings, so to speak." Ducky smiled. "Jordan will get along fine. No worries there!"

Jethro checked his watch. "Meet me at the car in ten minutes. I have to get Abby."

"Right-o."

Abby was standing by her door, Bert in her arms, luggage at her feet. Jethro took that to mean that she was ready, and he picked it all up, wondering why she needed all this junk for three days.

"Abs, you are planning on coming back, right?"

"It'd serve Vance right if I stayed," she growled. "Doesn't he realize that Tony puts the 't' in team?"

"Not sure that crossed his mind." Jethro hadn't told anyone that officially Tony was back on the team, but McGee had probably figured it out. "Take care of Ducky and call me."

"Will do. Can I bring Tony home with me?" she asked brightly.

"No. Don't even mention it. If he feels pressured, he might run somewhere we can't find him." Jethro would admit that it worried him. "Promise me."

"I won't bring it up." She hugged Bert. "And I'll call. A lot. You'll probably get annoyed with my calling."

Jethro smiled and put her things in the trunk. "Probably."

"Wait for me!" Ducky had only a duffle, which was reasonable, and Jethro loaded it before getting in the driver's side.

"Tony says to always buckle up if you ride with Gibbs. That way they can find your body when you die in a fiery crash." Abby made a show of putting it on, and Jethro looked back at Ducky, who was also buckling up.

"Did I ever tell you about the time I--?"

Jethro let the words drone over him. He was almost jealous they were going to see Tony. It'd been nearly five months since he'd seen him for any length of time. That hospital thing didn't count. Tony was pissed at him, really mad, and it felt like the first time that had happened.

"So our young Tony is living with a man?"

"He's staying with a friend," Jethro said, trying not to growl. "You have the address I gave you, right?"

"Of course!" Ducky smiled. "You're sure it's not a woman?"

"Positive. Jax Sven, and he may be a little angry at me."

Abby smacked him on the arm. "Did you beat him up?"

"No, Abby. I was doing my job." Jethro drove a little faster.

"So you only bruised him a little."

"Exactly."

*********

"Tony!"

He almost dropped the can of paint, earning a glare from Jax. Jax muttered, "I'll be in my office." He bolted, and Tony wondered if Jax was afraid of girls. Suddenly, he had an armful of Abby.

"Hi," he squeaked. "Lungs, Abby. My lungs!"

She turned him loose. "Sorry."

Now he could see Ducky, who looked almost apologetic. "How are you, young man?"

"Good." Tony shook Ducky's hand. "You two are it, right?"

"Right," Ducky said.

Tony checked the door to make sure. "I promised Jax that Gibbs wouldn't show up."

"Tony, that may have been a poor choice. Gibbs does what he wants." Ducky hefted a medical bag in Tony's direction. "But first, I want to examine you, thoroughly."

"He means you have to get naked." Abby smiled so big, and Tony gently hugged her again.

"Missed you, Abby," he whispered in her hair.

She laughed. "You should have." Now she looked around. "This place smells interesting."

"That's one way to put it," Ducky said with a laugh. "Where is this man you're living with?"

Flushing, Tony pointed at the office door. "Jax is hiding in there. I don't think he likes girls."

"I'll fix him." Abby peered up at the ceiling. "Poor ventilation. I could fix that too. Check the electrical. That sort of stuff. Why all the paint?"

"We're painting tomorrow. Today, we have to get organized." Tony didn't have a whole lot of time to stand around and chat. "I'm sure you two have a hotel. Why don't we catch up later? Like in two days."

"Tony, we came here to check on your health."

"And we could help." Abby bounced on her toes. "It'll be like Habitat for Humanity, only gym-sized." She spread her hands. "Do girls come here?"

"No, but I'd like to change that." Tony hooked his thumb at the office. "Jax isn't on board yet."

"This? Is gonna be fun!"

"I? Am probably going to be fired." Tony rubbed his forehead. "Okay, let me go talk to Jax. You two stay here, and Abby, I mean that."

She nodded, and he went quickly to Jax's office, shutting the door softly.

"He's coming, isn't he?" Jax looked fierce. "Those are his shock troops."

"An old Scot and a girl in three inch heels?" Tony asked incredulously. "You have whiskey in your bottom drawer, don't you?"

"Appearances are usually deceiving." Jax opened his bottom drawer. "No whiskey, but today would be a good day to start drinking. I'm going to go buy a gun."

"No, you're not," Tony spat. "Abby is a friend, and she can do electrical. Ducky is my doctor. He wants to check my lungs. I'm sure they won't stay long. There's no way Gibbs gave them more than two days vacation."

Jax rubbed his face with his hands and got to his feet. "I like you a lot, Tony, but this is pushing it. We haven't even had sex yet!"

Tony blanched. In some ways, he was glad the words had been said. Sure, they shared an apartment, but that was it. He had to take a deep breath. "I--"

"You love him." Jax turned away, towards the door. "I get it. I got it when he showed up. Your eyes went to him and stayed there. I'm okay with it. I am, but if he comes here again, I might punch him in the mouth."

"Me too." Tony tucked all those words away to think about another time. "Talk to Abby. Please. She really is a good person. I have to get naked for Ducky."

"His lucky day." Jax opened the door, going out with a fake smile on his face. Tony sincerely wished there was whiskey in the bottom drawer. Jax hadn't even asked for sex, and Tony knew he wasn't strong enough to say no. Sex was easy, cheap, and once or twice, he even forgot Jeanne while he was doing it. He loved her, not Gibbs. Not Gibbs.

Tony groaned and slowly went to get Ducky, taking him to the little apartment. "Plane trip okay?"

"Certainly. I always enjoy flying." Ducky looked about and sighed. "Have you heard of germs, Tony?"

"Can't afford a maid." Tony didn't try to clean up. He pulled off his T-shirt. "That's as much skin as you get."

"I'm checking your knee, so drop them." Ducky pointed at the sweats. "They don't hide anything anyway. I can see your--"

"Ducky!" Tony toed off his shoes and shucked his sweats, but he was keeping his tighty whities and his jock. "Okay?"

"Much better. Sit. Somewhere." Ducky waved his hand. "This reminds me of the living conditions in Bangladesh, only not as sanitary."

Tony rolled his eyes and sat on the nearest clean chair. If he shoved off a pizza box, it wasn't his fault. "I'm well, and I don't appreciate Gibbs sending you all this way for a check up!"

"Really?" Ducky opened his kit, taking out his stethoscope. "Would you have gone to the doctor if he hadn't?"

"No." Tony bit off the word. "And you should've said no!"

"But I wanted to check on you." Ducky smiled patiently, and Tony felt like pouting. He didn't flinch when the cold end touched his chest, moving around and then to his back. Tony breathed deep when told to, trying for maximum capacity. At the end of it, he coughed. Ducky made a soft noise of disgust. "How often does that happen?"

"I'm down to three or four times a day, and I sleep through the night." Tony didn't bother lying. He put up with the rest of the exam, even if it did take too long and was far too thorough. Ducky took Tony's blood pressure last.

"You'll do, lad, but I don't recommend you get sick again this year." Ducky had on his serious face. "Another week or two, and I can certify you fit for duty. Are you keeping in shape? Wait, you play basketball all day. No wonder you're still coughing!"

"I like it!" Tony dressed at twice his normal speed. "Fit for duty? Ducky, I'm not NCIS any longer, and I don't plan to look for another job until the end of summer." He couldn't stay here forever, even if Jax never threw him out.

Ducky shrugged, reloading his kit. "Turn of phrase, Anthony. Now, I want to meet your new boss. You seem to have an affection for older men."

"You--. I--. What?" Tony put on his shoes fast and went to the door. "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that."

"Ah, pretending. Yes, Jethro shares your predilection for it."

********

Jethro fielded two phone calls from Abby before he had to glare. "You have a problem, McGee?"

"They got there safe? Abby is okay? And how's Tony?" McGee shot off the questions rapid-fire, and then he flushed. Jethro noticed that Ziva was listening intently, while pretending to work. McGee smiled nervously. "Or I could text her."

"You do that." Jethro waved his hand at Ziva. "Then tell Ziva what you find out." He leaned forward, pinning him with a hard look. "I would've thought you wanted that desk." He pointed at Tony's. "Not like you and Tony are friends. Hell, Ziva doesn't like him."

"That is not true!"

McGee glanced at Tony's desk, panic in his eyes. "Tony and I are, well, colleagues, and, um, he's taught me a lot about... girls." His voice faded away. "And stuff."

"I like Tony!" Ziva protested, not turning it loose.

Jethro shrugged. There was a very thin line between love and hate. The wife with the seven iron and a killer slice had taught him that.

"He nearly died because of me," McGee whispered.

"That was my decision. Not yours," Jethro growled. "Get over yourself, Elflord." He stood and glared at them both. "I'm going for coffee."

They both looked relieved, and he agreed that was enough touchy-feely talk for the year. He only made it into the elevator before his phone rang again. "Abby, you're wearing out my ears."

"I need your help," Abby said very seriously. "This will be my last phone call of the day if you give me a hand."

He checked his watch - it was four p.m. where she was - and he estimated she'd been in San Diego less than fifteen minutes. "You'll call early tomorrow?"

"That I will."

*********

"How many Red Bull's has she had?"

"Too many but not enough. Her tolerance is incredible." Tony yawned. Ducky had retired to the hotel several hours ago, but Abby was still going strong, and he was pretty sure she wouldn't quit until he and Jax passed out.

"Think we'll ever sleep again?"

"Doubt it." Tony sprawled on the bleachers - the ones that were left. Abby had made them haul some of them outside. He still couldn't believe that Jax hadn't pitched a huge fit, but Jax had nodded and then forced Tony to help. Tony tilted his head. "You're scared of her!"

"Hells, yeah." Jax grabbed Tony by the shirt and hauled him up. "Come on, I heard a truck."

"At this time of night?" Tony yawned, coughed, and caught the look Jax gave him. "I'm fit! The doc said so!"

"Did you bribe him? Your layup still reeks. Usually, you fall down."

"Oh, now, you shut up!" Tony chased after him to the door, Jax threw it open, and they both stopped to stare. Abby clapped her hands from behind them.

"Oh, good. They're here!" She raced out, and Jax turned to glare his very worst.

"Hey! I don't know what the hell is going on either!" Tony glared right back at him. "We could lock the doors while she's outside and get some sleep."

Jax leaned against the wall. "We've been invaded."

"I will never doubt you again." Tony clapped him on the shoulder. "Man, are you going to be glad when I leave!"

*********

The elevator was a little too full for Jethro's liking.

"Thought you were getting DiNozzo back?"

"He's on medical." Jethro willed the elevator to move faster. The doors opened to let more people inside, and Jethro made a break for it. He went up the last three flights by way of the stairs and came in the back way.

"Perhaps Gibbs did not want Tony on the team any longer."

Jethro stopped.

"Why would he go to all that trouble if he didn't?" McGee asked.

"He would take great offense to any of his former employees being assaulted."

"Ziva, Tony's on medical, officially."

"Abby said he was resigned, officially." Ziva sighed loudly. "I will take her word over yours."

"Had resigned, not was."

Jethro continued, sipping his coffee. "Okay, where are we at?" He wasn't going to give out any information until he knew what DiNozzo wanted. "Ziva?"

"No calls yet. I am doing paperwork."

"And gossiping." Jethro sat at his desk and turned on his computer. Today, he was actually going to read his emails. "McGee?"

"Working." McGee kept his head down, so Jethro stared at him until he looked up. "Boss, Abby sent some pictures. Want to see?"

"Put them on the plasma. Let's hope DiNozzo has his clothes on."

"I agree," Ziva said.

Jethro doubted it. McGee clicked his keyboard, and the pictures ran as a slideshow. Jethro didn't listen to McGee and Ziva chatter, or yell at people who stopped to watch.

"That's all, Boss."

"Show them again." Jethro committed the details to memory. Tony looked much better, and Jax stood far too close to him.

"Why are the Marines there?" Ziva asked.

"Who else would you call when you need help?" Jethro said softly. His gut told him that he was running out of time, but walking through those gym doors was going to take courage he wasn't sure he had. Tony wouldn't come back to work for anything less than the truth. If he was still pissed at Vance, he might refuse anyway, and Jethro wouldn't blame him. "McGee, find me a transport headed to San Diego."

"For when?" McGee grinned but lost it fast.

"Two days." Jethro clicked his mail box and groaned at the number of them. "Why do people send me emails? They know I don't read them."

"Habit."

"They are stupid."

*********

Jax pulled Tony aside, eyes wide. "Did I just see a platoon of maids go into the apartment?"

Tony craned his neck over a couple of Marines. "Were they led by Ducky?"

"Yes!"

"Crap." Tony rubbed his eyes, wishing Abby had let them sleep. "I'd hoped the lack of sleep was making me hallucinate. Ducky had issues with the cleanliness factor. He compared it to Bangladesh." He had a thought. "Think they'll paint?"

"Later, Tony, when this chaos is over, you and I are going to have a very long talk about your friends." Jax didn't act as if this was going to be a good thing. "Abby has people on the roof!"

"She said there were leaks." Tony tried to look apologetic. "You said I could help!" He saw the wild gleam in Jax's eyes. "But I had nothing to do with Abby and Ducky showing up! And admit it, you like them."

Jax sighed loudly and leaned against the closest wall. "Abby reminds me of a drill instructor I had in basic."

"That is so nice of you to say!" Abby gave him a big hug, and Tony managed to hide his laughter. She finally pulled away. "I'm taking lots of notes and pictures. There's no reason why I can't do more of these!"

"Your enthusiasm is killing us," Tony said, tugging her so Jax could breathe.

"The good news is that the roof is structurally sound. I had my guys clean off some debris, we patched a few holes, and you're good to go. Now the ventilation is going to take me a couple of more hours, but I have my best girls on it. Did you two set up the jump ropes for double-dutch like I told you to?"

"We did." Jax nodded. "How's my electrical?"

Tony snuck away, refusing to believe that Jax was really mad. Jax might be overwhelmed by the sheer Abby-ness of the day, but that was perfectly normal. Making sure that Ducky didn't throw out Tony's clothes was a better use of his time.

"Ducky! Have you lost your mind? Jax is gonna kill me!"

"I highly doubt it. The man obviously thinks the world of you." Ducky had on surgical gloves, as did all the maids - five of them. They were speaking rapid-fire Spanish about how disgusting men were and cleaning at an incredible pace. "Yes, I'll make sure one of the painting crews get in here, and I purchased a new bed."

Tony's face blossomed red. He lowered his voice. "You know I sleep on the sofa, right?"

"I do, and I'm convinced that's why you're still ill." Ducky grinned. "I got a King. Room for both of you."

"Oh, Ducky." Tony hid his face in his hands. "Jax has money."

"I imagine he does, but I owe him a favor for saving a friend of mine." Ducky patted Tony on the shoulder. "Run along and play with your Laker friends. The ladies and I have this well in hand."

"I am so dead." Tony sincerely hoped Jax missed the bed being delivered. The Lakers had arrived after lunch - in fashion - on a bus almost bigger than the gym. The kids hadn't cared that there were only three actual Lakers on board. The free jerseys had made up the difference. Tony waved at Jim Clemons from across the gym and caught up with him.

"If I didn't say thanks, thanks." Tony shook Jim's hand again.

Jim clapped him on the shoulder. "We were glad to help. Some of these kids may play for us someday." He grinned. "Now, I want a date with her." He pointed at Abby. "She's got style."

"Then you better go give her a hand. I'll introduce you. Oh, and she digs tats."

"I dig her."

Tony did the introductions, knew Jim was in trouble, which could be good or bad, and went to find his own personal painting crew. The guys who owed him big, and they were going to paint until their arms fell off. Funny thing was: they all seemed grateful to do it. Guilt, as Tony had learned young, was a beautiful motivator among people who had a few morals.

********

Pictures kept coming, all day long, and Jethro sensed that McGee was waiting to be smacked for it. McGee was going to have to keep waiting. It was good to see something positive happening. The Marines he'd called up on a few old favors were doing good work, and Jethro was more than willing to admit that he owed Jax. The check still hadn't been cashed, and Jethro suspected it never would be, and that spoke to the man's integrity.

Jax had honestly tried to help Tony, and that was something that Jethro couldn't blame him for, even if the urge to punch him for that casual arm draped across Tony's shoulders was pretty strong.

"Abby is having far too much fun," Ziva said, sounding jealous.

"She certainly is." McGee had a sour look on his face, looking at the plasma screen. "Who's that guy practically all over her?"

"I'd guess he's with the Lakers, seeing as how it's on his shirt, pants, and tie." Jethro had a hard time not laughing. "Use those investigative skills to track him down, McGee."

"And then what?"

"I will kill him."

Jethro nodded and tossed his empty coffee cup in the trash. "Problem solved." He stared gloomily at his open inbox. There hadn't been enough real paperwork from the last case to keep him busy enough to avoid his email. "Wait. McGee, go back to that shot." He got out of his chair to get closer. "Freeze it." He couldn't believe it. "I'm going to smack him so hard his eyeballs bleed."

"Is that?"

"He is a moron!"

His cell phone nearly snapped in half, and he savagely pressed the button for Abby. She instantly picked up, and he bellowed, "What the hell is DiNozzo thinking?"

"Okay, that hurt my ear." Abby laughed. "Wait. Tony! Gibbs wants to know what the hell you're thinking!" she yelled.

"Those are the dirtbags who assaulted him!"

"Oh. Those guys. Yeah." Abby hesitated. "Don't tell Tony, but I have a couple of Marines watching them, covertly, of course, but all they've done is paint and apologize to Tony about ten times."

Jethro took a deep breath, very quietly of course. "You keep my Marines on them."

"Gibbs, I'm your favorite for a reason."

"That you are," Jethro growled, "and make them paint every scrap of that building." It wasn't enough to make up for what they'd done to Tony, but it was a start.

"I think that's Tony's plan. Oh, and he yelled back that you're a pain in the ass."

For some reason, Jethro believed that. He'd heard it enough over the years. "Who's the new boyfriend?"

"Some guy Tony knows. I kinda like him." She giggled. "Bossman, we could've used your help today. Some wood was rotten."

"Shame." Jethro clicked his phone shut before he said something that Abby could use against him.

*********

"Hey, Tony!"

Tony whipped around, nearly fell on his ass, but followed Jax to the apartment without asking why. He had given up on sleep, so there was probably something that Abby wanted him to fix back there. Jax put his finger over Tony's lips and pointed.

"She finally collapsed," Tony whispered, taking a quick picture with his phone of Abby curled up in the middle of the king-sized bed, hard hat, and all.

Jax nodded and dragged him back out, shutting the door quietly. They crossed their arms and looked the gym over, top to bottom.

"I liked it better before," Tony said.

"Me too." Jax sighed. Then they laughed. "It's all nice smelling now, and the walls aren't peeling."

"The floor is shinier too." Tony groaned, shaking his head. "Let's make her put it back the way it was."

"God, we're drunk on lack of sleep." Jax put his arm around him. "I'll admit it. You know people."

"Scary people." Tony leaned into him. The skin contact sent Tony's mind right down to his crotch. He was sleepy, not dead, and he had to ask, "Did you want to have sex? With me?"

Jax's mouth dropped right open. He swallowed hard. "Hells, yeah." He didn't move closer. "But, I know it'd just be that, and I like you enough not to want to have one of those huge gay scenes where someone cries and the other guy throws a dildo at him."

Tony snapped his jaw shut. "I would not cry!"

"You would cry buckets." Jax gave him a squeeze. "Tony, I know you're just... resting here. You're a cop, and you'll go back to it. I sorta hope you'll come visit every summer, organize some programs, and sex would screw that up."

"I've never been turned down so nicely." Tony nudged him away and glared, indignant. "Are you sure you're gay? Look at me!"

"Work on your three-pointer, and we'll revisit the situation. Now, I'm going to go sleep in my office. You take the sofa, and if you wake Abby, I'll kill you." Jax strolled away, without looking back, and Tony made a rude Italian gesture after him. Then he emailed the picture of Abby to McGee.

Back inside the little apartment, he eyed the bed - it was big enough for two - considered it, and went to the sofa. Gibbs would kill him.

*********

Nudging his duffle for the third time, Jethro caught Vance's stare down from the peanut gallery but refused to play that game. In the end, this was nothing but a pissing match, and Tony was nothing but a point Vance wanted to make about the rules and regulations. Jethro punished himself by reading the last five emails and replying to one of them. Abby's, of course, and she had sent him a private picture of Tony, asleep on an old sofa, looking tired. Jethro had a feeling she was telling him something important about where Tony slept. His reply was short. On my way down. He clicked send, shut off his computer, and picked up his duffle.

"McGee, don't screw up."

"I won't, Boss." McGee got to his feet. "Should I get Tony a new apartment? There's one open--"

"No." Jethro wasn't making the mistake of assuming again this year. "Ziva, you got McGee's back?" He glanced up at Vance. She would get the message.

"I do." She looked pointedly at Tony's desk. "We are stronger as a team."

He didn't reply to the obvious. Abby hugged him hard, of course, and he waited for her to tell him what she thought.

"Don't hit Jax. I think he's done something for Tony that we couldn't." Abby waved her hands. "And that gym is killer now." She smiled, not deterred by his silence. "You know you're about out of time?"

"I know. No guarantees here, Abs." Jethro wasn't going to lie to her. "I screwed up, and there's no reason for Tony to let it slide."

"You shouldn't have trusted Vance." Her eyes narrowed. "Wait a minute. You don't trust anyone." She glared now. "You screwed up!"

"Thanks." Jethro smacked himself on the back of the head. "Don't flirt with McGee while I'm gone."

She smirked, and he knew she would keep McGee in line. "One more thing. Give this to Jax." She handed him a package.

"If I gotta." Jethro stowed it away, gave her a peck, and made for his car at a pace that was quicker than usual, but he wanted to get out of the building before he punched Vance in the face.

********

"Dinner is on me!" Tony shouted at Jax from across the court. He'd already ordered, forcing himself not to get any of Gibbs' favorites and realizing that he did have a problem. He wasn't forgetting or turning loose or letting go or any of that mumbo-jumbo that Kate would spout at him. Sinking down to the floor, rolling a ball back and forth, he let himself grieve for her again. She had been a sister to him, and he'd been mad when Gibbs hadn't included him in the op that had taken Ari out. Hell, he was still mad, but he stomped it down again. It was part of working with Gibbs - not knowing what was going on some of the time.

It was annoying as hell, but Tony had understood it better after having his own team. Sure, he'd inherited them, but they'd been his, for a while.

"You look upset." Jax sank down to the floor next to him. "Thinking about work?"

"Yeah." Tony had hated being sick, but the constant coughing had kept him from thinking. "I was offered a promotion. I turned it down."

"For your Marine." Jax leaned back on his arms. "Worth it?"

"Yes, and no." Tony had been sure once, but he wasn't any longer. "I thought he was coming to get me off that ship."

"Maybe he was." Jax tipped his head towards the floor. "You're an impatient man, Tony. Always pushing. Is that what makes a good cop?"

"Yes, it is."

Tony spun on his ass, but he wasn't near fast enough to catch Jax, who was off the floor and toe-to-toe with Gibbs in a heartbeat.

"This is my place."

"I know."

Jax didn't look or turn away. "My rules."

Tony reached for Jax's shoulder but let his hand fall away when Gibbs darted a glance to him.

"Your rules," Gibbs said. He pulled his jacket back, showing that he wasn't armed. Tony began to think he'd need a hose to get them apart. Gibbs raised his eyebrows. "Tell me to leave. I will."

Opening his mouth to say something - anything - Tony fell silent when Jax gave him a long look. Jax returned his gaze to Gibbs and said, "I tore up that check."

"I know." Gibbs almost smiled - Tony noticed that sort of thing. "Abby sent you a package." He suddenly knelt, unzipping a duffel bag that Tony had failed to notice. Jax took it, but he didn't open it. Gibbs stood and looked right in Tony's eyes. "We have to talk. Here or out there. It doesn't matter."

"One last kick in the nuts," Tony said softly, pretty sure this was about that hospital bill he'd left behind, or that stack of paperwork he'd hidden in the top drawer of the filing cabinet, or--

"DiNozzo!"

"I'm on your six, Boss." Tony touched Jax gently on the arm. "Thanks, Jax."

"Leave the duffel," Jax ordered. Tony didn't understand why until he saw Gibbs' eyes go to it. Gibbs had his gun in there, and somehow Jax knew it.

"We'll be right outside." Gibbs turned slowly and led the way, and Tony - damn it - he followed. The bleachers they'd hauled out had been pushed against the outside wall and repainted. The kids liked to come out to sit, and Tony did the same, sprawling back, trying for casual. Gibbs stuck his hands in his pockets and looked out to the ocean that lurked not too far away. Tony decided to wait him out. After all, Tony hadn't called this meeting, and he made a note to apologize to Jax. Gibbs had been sending out the shock troops.

"You're well. Shouldn't you be packing for work on Monday?"

Tony was pretty sure his eyes had never bulged out any further. He took a second and pinched himself to make sure he was awake. "Ouch," he muttered. He eased to his feet and considered kicking Gibbs right in the ass. "Jax and I are lovers. I'm not leaving," he lied, going for the big one. The one that he hoped hurt like hell.

Gibbs turned fast. "You never could lie to me. Silence worked better. You want me to say I screwed up? I screwed up. Everyone at NCIS knows I screwed up!"

Eyes wide, Tony shuffled a few steps away, glad Gibbs wasn't armed. "You didn't screw up," Tony ground out. "You didn't give a damn!"

"Bullshit, and you know it." Gibbs turned quickly when a car pulled up. "Tony, you eat way too much Chinese food."

"I'd say pizza but okay." Tony dug out his wallet and went to pay. His face felt flushed, and he hoped he was walking straight because he was a little dizzy. He took the box of food, waving away the change and hoping his legs would carry him back inside the gym. Straightening his back, he marched to Gibbs. "Anything else?" he asked.

"Come back. See Vance, and then if you want to move out here, no one is going to say a word."

"Of course they won't." Tony wasn't surprised at how much the words hurt. "Especially not you."

"This isn't about me. It's about you."

Tony wasn't going to pretend to understand that. He started slowly for the door, not sure what to say, think, or even feel, but none of it was good.

"Tony, why didn't you take your own team?" Gibbs' voice was low but carried easily.

The fact that Gibbs knew shamed him. Trying to swallow the anger, Tony reluctantly told the truth. "I thought you needed my help. I was wrong, of course, but that's what I thought! I wasn't able to just walk away! You make it look so easy, but I couldn't do it!"

Gibbs wiped his mouth. He strode by Tony and opened the door for him. "Go eat with your friend."

"One is better than none," Tony muttered. He went inside, feeling oddly vulnerable with Gibbs behind him. Jax was there almost immediately, worry on his face, and Tony handed him the food. "Let's eat in the office."

"Special Agent Gibbs?"

"Is leaving." Tony didn't look at him. "Tell Vance I'll be in on Monday to finalize the paperwork and return that phone McGee checked out for me."

Gibbs picked up his duffel bag. "Transport leaves tomorrow - 0700 Zulu."

"I'll be at the airfield." Tony hated riding transport, but it'd be faster. "Gibbs, get out." He didn't move until the doors shut, instantly going to lock them. "Let's eat, Jax."

"Tony, you didn't see his face." Jax hurried after him. "He's--"

"A bastard. I know." Tony sat down in the chair opposite the desk before his legs gave out. Jax put the food down, and Tony started going through the box. "The wontons are good from this place."

Jax grabbed him by the hand in a rough grip. "It isn't easy for a man like him to admit he messed up."

"It's not easy for him to talk at all." Tony looked down at Jax's hand. "Jax, there's no possible way you could understand."

"Maybe not, but I told you he'd show up! Gibbs made an effort. No one forced him out here." Jax let his hand fall. "Not even Abby could do that."

Tony found a fork and started eating. "It's my fault for trusting him. Big mistake, and I knew it."

"Oh, what a load of bullshit." Jax had the balls to laugh. "The reason you trust him is because he trusts you. He never would've left his gun in my gym if he didn't, and how many times have you 'had his six' over the years? Does he let just anyone back there?"

"Don't make it sound filthy." Tony shoveled his mouth full so he didn't have to talk. Jax made a rude snort and started eating, throwing him a crab rangoon. Tony caught it and ate it. He swallowed and waved his fork at him. "Seriously. Shut up."

"And did you notice how you immediately jumped to get on his six?" Jax grinned noodles at him. "I bet you'd have knocked me down to get to him. One word - DiNozzo - and he had you right where he wanted you."

"It was habit!" Tony threw a forkful of chow mein at him to plop on the desk. "I've been doing it for years!"

"If I found a man like that to trail after, I'd stay back there too." Jax hummed happily as he ate. "Or maybe that's the problem. You'd rather he was on your six!"

Tony slid down in his seat and ate his noodles. "I liked you better when I thought you wanted my ass."

"Oh, Tony, I do." Jax smirked a mile wide. "But I like living more, and he'd have known from one look if I'd had you. Why do you think he brought his gun?"

"He never leaves home without one." Tony continued to eat, refusing to look at the smirk again.

"Admit it, Tony. You trust him. You never stopped." Jax pointed his chopsticks at him. "You're the kind of man who gives people a chance. You trust me, don't you?"

Glaring was easy. "Yes, but I don't know why!"

"Face the truth about yourself. You want to trust people. You want people to do right by you, and when they don't, you're angry." Jax was right, damn it. "It's time for you to go home, Tony DiNozzo. Face him. Figure out what you want and if that trust is truly broken."

The words forced Tony to meet Jax's very blue eyes. "And if I come back?"

"I'll be here."

"And if I don't?"

"I'll be here." Jax scooted his chair back, snagged open the mini-fridge, and got them each a beer. "And you better come visit."

*********

Turning his phone off was breaking one of his own ironclad rules, but he didn't give a damn. He had nine hours to burn before the transport home, and he sure as hell didn't want to talk. Finding a bar close to the base was easy enough, and he settled in to eat, drink, and pretend he was fine, not shaken by the intensity of his... desires.

He could've pushed him to the wall. He could've shown him. Cursing softly, he stopped, drinking his rotgut quickly to burn the thoughts away. The bartender was right there for a refill, and Jethro forced himself to wait instead of slugging it down also. He hadn't told Tony much of anything, and he was smart enough to know that he never could.

If Tony couldn't figure it out, Jethro was out of luck. The idea of the two of them together was crazy, stupid, and it never would've come to this if Vance hadn't been so determined to teach everyone that he was the top dog.

Jethro drank it all.

"Slow down there, sailor." The bartender refilled it anyway. Jethro gave him a look that drove him away. Tony hadn't fallen into bed with Jax. That meant something, but if Jax had tits, Tony might've married him already.

A slow sip, and he twirled his wet finger on the bar. So many mistakes, and Tony actually remembered them all. Jethro was willing to admit that a few of them were still fuzzy for him, but he wasn't going to apologize for dealing with life the only way he knew how.

Tony should've taken his own team.

"Eat up."

The soup was fine, and he ate, only because he was drinking. Tony wasn't even a redhead, so there was no excuse for mooning over him. Jethro threw in a few crackers and took a break for more booze. When he pushed aside all the crap - there was a lot of it - the truth was that he'd walked away from Tony, refusing to deal with it, once he'd remembered.

Tony had stepped up and taken the team, and then Jethro had tossed him out on his ass. Another fool mistake, piling Tony's stuff on his desk. Jethro wished he could take that back. He'd done it to prove a point. His bourbon was empty again, but he turned the glass upside down. He finished his soup, wallowing in the guilt.

"Boss, that you?"

"No." Jethro was going to break his rule about smacking the back of Abby's head as soon as he got to the lab.

Stan settled down next to him. "I only had to try three bars." He ordered a beer, and Jethro pushed his empty soup bowl away. Stan sighed loudly, even over the music. "What brought you to town, besides DiNozzo?"

Jethro didn't even bother glaring at him. "Was it DiNozzo who painted the back of your head?"

"Who else? He said I looked good in blue." Stan drank some beer. "So you were just late to the painting party?"

"Shut up, Stan, and drink your beer." Jethro turned his glass over and pointed. He noticed the bartender didn't fill it all the way this time. Stan shifted, trying not to talk, and Jethro waited for it. It was coming.

"Boss, he's not with that guy, ya know?"

"We're not discussing it." Jethro drank his bourbon, hoping they were finished. "Go home. Call Abby. Tell her to leave me alone."

"Can I finish my beer?" Stan sounded amazed.

"If you gotta." Jethro twirled his glass in his hands and stared at nothing at all. There was so much broken now, and he was pretty sure that he couldn't fix any of it.

********

"Is this where you throw the dildo at me?" Tony didn't even come close to avoiding the swat on his ass. "Stop that!"

"Go home, Tony." Jax pulled him into a fast hug. "Before you cry, and call when you get there."

"I will," Tony said, trying to sound sullen. "Thanks for... stuff."

"You paid your way." Jax got the door for him. "Oh, and thank Abby for me."

The taxi pulled up before Tony could think of anything else to say. He hefted his backpack, slapped Jax on the shoulder, and started for home. He wasn't entirely happy about it, but he did hate loose ends. His boss had taught him that.

The transport was easy enough to find, and Tony refused to crane his neck, looking for Gibbs. Chances were good that Gibbs was already in his basement, breathing sawdust and drinking bourbon from a nail jar.

"Wheels up in five!"

Tony got buckled as soon as he stowed his backpack. He slunk down, wishing he had a hoodie to pull over his head. No matter what happened the next few days, he figured he'd be miserable.

The back of Tony's neck began to itch, and it'd been a while, but he knew, just knew, that Gibbs was behind him, which was impossible. Tony stuck his hands in his jacket pockets, wondering if he'd find McGee camped at his desk again. McGee had made it pretty clear that he thought Tony had done a crappy job as team leader. Jenny had given him an excellent review, but rumor had it they'd slept together, and no one up the chain of command believed he'd done a good job.

Jeanne probably still wanted him in jail, or dead. He had tried not to love her, but he was pretty sure that for him, she was it. No other woman was going to measure up. The plane took off in a roar, and he smelled it then. Whiskey, bourbon, whatever, and he couldn't help but think of his father. Every moment of every day had been a good time to have a drink.

The old man might've been smarter than Tony thought. Tony got drunk on the rare occasion, but never on hard liquor. Finding out that Gibbs was back from Mexico by being thoroughly humiliated had sent him on a bender that had lasted all weekend. Tony hadn't bothered with more than one or two beers since then. Staying drunk was a lot of work, and expensive.

The tickle of dust from airplane cargo made him cough, and that was something else he had to face. He might not pass any physical required for a police department. Having the Plague in his jacket was not an asset. His future as a rent-a-cop had never looked brighter.

The notion that he should've toughed it out and reported to the Carl Vinson slowly sunk into his brain. In a moment of anger, pain, and disappointment, he'd thrown away his career. He'd walked away - run away - and now he had nothing but a cough and a hospital bill.

"What are you thinking?"

Tony didn't look at him, even though they were now elbow to elbow. "I should've gone to the Vinson. I've never been to Japan. The girls are cute there, and you know how I love tempura.

"My father always said I'd amount to nothing." He laughed because there was nothing else to do. "I had really hoped he was wrong."

"He was." Gibbs had coffee, of course, but he still reeked of booze. "You ever think that you're a little hard on yourself? You were sick, and you still managed to help those kids."

A shrug wasn't a good answer, but astonishment didn't allow for much else. Gibbs was making excuses for him, and that meant hell had actually frozen over. It sent Tony into a tailspin, and in his moment of weakness, the root of his problem reared its head. He spoke without regard for the consequences. "Jenny is still dead. You still don't trust me, or respect me, and I don't have a job beyond pushing a broom. I think, in the grand scheme of things, I messed up pretty good."

Gibbs shrugged back at him. "Jenny made her own choices, and none of them were good ones. She knew you were mine, and she refused to back off. If she were alive, I'd shoot her."

"But I'm the one who lied to you."

"I walked away. You had to live with those consequences. Not sure you're to blame for that." Gibbs drank his coffee, not looking at him. "Man, I got tired of Franks."

"Took you long enough." Tony dug in his backpack until he found his soda. He took a long drink and then let out the last of his anger. "You piled my shit on my desk and then left me to swing on that ship. I'm not sure I can forgive you."

"Don't. I wouldn't." Gibbs tilted his head forward, shut his eyes, and let his coffee droop. Tony really hated that about him. Gibbs always managed to make being pissed off seem reasonable, even normal. Maybe it was the Marine in him.

Or maybe being raised by a man who got drunk instead of angry had twisted Tony's perception. He could use a therapist - that was obvious. "I hate the smell of booze."

Gibbs slept until they hit the tarmac and found out they were in Texas. Cargo was taken off, put back on, they were given time to pee and some food, and then they were in the air again. Tony tried not to think about anything. He'd done enough of that for a year or two. Now, he'd go home and deal with the shit he'd left behind.

********

Jethro watched him. Sure, he slept, but he also watched. After Texas, he made sure to sit across from him. Tony hated the smell of booze, and Jethro couldn't blame him for that. Once again, they went wheels down, and he walked off the ramp as soon as it was open.

"Is that? We're in Chicago!"

It was hard not to laugh.

"I'm thinking we should rent a car, Boss."

That one word came so easy for Tony, and Jethro heard the affection. One look, and Tony turned completely around to avoid returning it. Jethro smacked him on the back of the head.

"Hey!" Tony ducked his head. "At least you don't hit my ass."

"I can do that." Jethro smirked. He caught him by the neck. "Tell Jax to keep his hands off your ass."

Tony sighed loudly, ending in a groan. "He was worried you'd shoot him."

"Smart man." Jethro wouldn't have, but he might've threatened him with a slug or two, in the knee.

"If they take us south again, I'm getting a commercial flight." Tony shoved his hands in his pockets. Jethro followed some pallets back inside and got comfortable. When the ramp closed up, Tony slouched to his spot and collapsed. "I'd kill for some snacks."

Jethro unzipped his duffel and threw Tony a bag of chips. "Dig in." The flash of gratitude was easy to see. Tony was like a puppy when it came to food, but he hid it quick enough. He opened them without a word and started munching. Jethro shut his eyes, wondering what would happen next. They both seemed to be out of words.

**********

"You see, this? Is not Washington!" Tony spun in a circle on the asphalt, pulling at his hair. "This is Atlanta!"

"Valdosta."

"Close enough!" Tony raised his arms to the sky. "We're on the plane from hell!"

"Could be worse. At least we're heading East."

Tony wished fervently that McGee was here to smack on the back of the head. Jethro turned his back to piss, refusing to walk all the way to the head. Tony went to the other side of the plane and did the same. The concrete could handle it and had seen worse. Buttoning back up, he opened his cell phone to call for help.

"Abby, you gotta save me."

"Tony, where are you?"

"Somewhere in Georgia. The plane refuses to go to Washington!" Tony yelled, letting out his frustration. Dimly, very dimly, he could hear Abby's fingers going at her keyboard. "Why?"

"Check the side of the plane. Number please!"

He gave it to her, feeling his stomach drop out. There was more clicking, and she said, "Oh, oh. Tony, that flight is scheduled to return to Colorado. If I were you, I'd run for it."

"What is it, Tony?" Gibbs asked, very close to Tony's elbow.

"Abby says the plane is scheduled to return to Colorado." Tony returned his attention to her. "Is this plane ever getting to Washington?"

"Not for two days." Abby sorta giggled, and he wanted to strangle her. "I gotta talk to--. Oh, never mind. Bye!"

"Abby!" Tony stared at his phone. "I'm going to kill McGee." He just knew that the McGeek was behind this mess.

"Take a number." Gibbs moved back up the ramp, and Tony followed after him, somewhat at a loss of what to do but grab his backpack and head for base headquarters. They walked together, and Tony fell behind two steps from habit. The set of Gibbs' shoulders wasn't angry, but he didn't look happy, and Tony was glad not to be McGee. Being Tony sucked bad enough.

Gibbs looked over his shoulder once, not something he'd done before, and Tony saw it all clearly in that moment. He had no idea what it meant, but he'd think about it. About a mile later, nearing the building, he thought he had it. Gibbs didn't take him for granted any longer. Or, maybe Gibbs didn't expect him to follow any longer. Tony scrubbed his head hard and kicked a rock. He wasn't smart enough for these quizzes.

"You coming, DiNozzo?"

Words he'd heard a thousand times, but they made him pause, and he drew himself up to his full height. "You want me to, Boss?"

Gibbs didn't look back. "Yes, but it's your choice."

"I'm mad, but I never turn down a chance to take your six." Tony tried to sound mean, hard, and not pathetic. He was sure he could pull it off.

"I noticed."

Tony gave up trying. "I'm stupidly devoted to you. Get over it." He stopped striding and went back to trudging. Gibbs slowed down and caught him around the shoulders, almost hugging him close.

"DiNozzo, you need to remember that I keep a pretty close eye on your six too." Gibbs gave him a small shake. "Let's find a way home."

Nodding, Tony shut up. It'd be petty to remind Gibbs that he'd let Tony down in a big way with the whole Seahawk thing. Of course, Gibbs had been blown up fairly recently and then lost a lover. Tony groaned and cut him some slack. Jax had been right. It wasn't about being hung out to dry as much as it was that Tony wanted Gibbs to be perfect, and no one was perfect.

"You were coming for me, right?" Tony asked softly, not expecting an answer.

"I was getting there."

"You ever see Planes, Trains, and Automobiles? It could be argued that it was John Candy's best work." Tony felt his shoulders loosen, everything was better in his world. "Train next?"

"Maybe so, Tony. Maybe so."

********

Jethro waited until he was inside the building before opening his cell phone. Tony looked tired, and it wouldn't be a big deal, but he had coughed more than a few times on the last flight, and Ducky had warned Jethro about altitude and lungs.

"McGee, I am going to shove my boot so far up your ass!"

"Boss!" McGee sounded panicked, and he should be. "There were new orders! Your cell phone was off!"

"Tony's wasn't!" Jethro knew that was true. "Did you think of having the pilot tell us to get off the plane?"

"Oh, no." McGee groaned loudly. "I, um, didn't. I can do that?"

Hanging up on him wasn't near satisfying enough. Jethro glanced around to see Tony smiling a little.

"Still a probie in so many ways."

"Not everyone has big balls." Jethro intentionally looked at Tony's. "He didn't want your desk."

"Huh." Tony was more surprised than he wanted to show. "He didn't think much of me, never did."

"I think you'd be surprised what McGee thought." Jethro ignored his ringing cell phone and found a corpsman to deliver them to the base commander. He flashed his badge, seeing the dismissive look and growling, "We need a car. Find us one."

"Is that all? I thought you might want a plane or a helicopter." The commander smirked. "NCIS is always a pain in the ass."

"We're sorta proud of that," Tony whispered.

Jethro waited, not bending his neck. "It doesn't even have to be a nice one."

"How about one of my guys give you a ride to the nearest Hertz?"

"Just get us something from the motor pool. We'll even return it." Jethro would make McGee do it. "Or do you want us to find something to investigate?"

The commander lifted the phone off the hook and pushed a button. "Bring a car around." He hung up instantly. "Gibbs, right?"

"Two b's." Jethro smiled, but it wasn't a nice one. "Thank you, Colonel."

"My pleasure."

Tony whistled as they left the office. "You know him enough not to like him?"

"His name has come up once or twice." Jethro waited until they were outside. "Remember those missing nukes?"

"Oh, shit." Tony shifted on his feet. "Tell me we didn't fly with one."

Jethro laughed softly. "We'll get a hotel and head home in the morning. I'm too old to drive all night."

"Bullshit, but, yeah, I'm tired from going up and down all day."

The car wasn't nice. Tony complained about the lack of radio, but it had gas and drove, and that was good enough. Jethro went down the highway until he found a Motel 6. When he turned off the car, he wasn't surprised to see that Tony was half-asleep.

"Come on." Jethro pulled him inside, got a room for them both, and shoved him to the nearest bed. If Tony arrived on Ducky's doorstep with a cough, there'd be hell to pay. Tony mumbled something, folded down onto the bed, and curled up. Jethro went to take a shower and get rid of the stink of the bar.

When he came out, dressed in clean boxers and a T-shirt, Tony was naked, on top of the covers. Jethro rolled his eyes and got him under the sheet. "Tell me again why Jax didn't have you?"

"He said you'd shoot him," Tony said softly. He punched the pillow, not opening his eyes. "I'm tired."

"Go to sleep." Jethro took the other bed, but he rolled so he could see him. The smell of coffee woke him up, and he was moving for it before he opened his eyes. He grunted his thanks, not looking to see if Tony had found some clothes yet. From the munching, he recognized that Tony had found a bowl of cereal somewhere.

Three big drinks, and he got to the business of getting them home. He stopped in his tracks when he saw the condition of the backseat. "Hungry, Tony?"

"I'm not leaving without provisions again." Tony sniffed. "Can I drive?"

"No." Jethro got them moving down the highway.

"You ever gonna answer your phone?" Tony didn't sound as if he cared one way or the other as he buckled up.

Jethro hooked his thumb over his shoulder. "Hand me something."

"I can do that." Tony rummaged noisily, half-ass over the seat. He handed back three pieces of raisin bread, stacked for easy eating, and Jethro wondered how long Tony had been keeping track of everything they ate together. Tony sat back down, pop tart sticking from his mouth, and said around it, "Got some fruit too."

"We're not stopping for anything but gas and coffee." Jethro figured he didn't need to say it, but it didn't hurt, and Tony liked words.

"I know why you're in a hurry, but I'm not looking forward to sleeping in my storage building tonight." Tony was getting crumbs everywhere, but it wasn't a nice car. "It will, however, smell better than this car."

"I think someone threw up in it." Jethro finished his bread and chased it down with the last of his coffee. He waggled the cup at Tony, who reached back to get him another. "Any more after this one?"

"One more." Tony cracked open a bottle of Gatorade and took a long drink. "Think Fornell would hire me?"

"Probably not." Jethro had warned him off once before. "He knows I'd kick his ass."

"I'd pay good money to see that."

Jethro swerved around a semi, gunned it, and glanced over at him. "Once, I made it from Valdosta in twelve hours, forty-eight minutes."

"No way you can beat that in this piece of junk." Tony laughed. He stared down at the floorboard. "I don't even want to know what that sticky stuff is."

"Piss." Jethro could smell it. What he didn't want to know was why it was sticky. "Vance was showing me who's boss. You know that, right?"

"And I just thought he hated me." Tony slid down in the seat. "Let's not talk about it. It's over. Finished. I'll find something to do."

"In San Diego?" Jethro hadn't been going to ask, but he'd never been a subtle man.

Tony rubbed his face and looked out the window. Jethro had seen Tony be the frat boy, the brat boy, the teasing idiot, and the goofball a lot over the years, but all it did was cover up the man, and that man looked as full of despair as anyone Jethro had seen lately.

*********

There was a time when getting Gibbs in the car for a road trip would've been a slice, but all Tony felt was tired and lonely. Gibbs' phone rang for the fortieth time, and Tony jerked his own out of his pocket and savagely punched in McGee's number.

"Probie, if you don't stop calling him, I'm going to kill you! Me!"

Silence. Tony waited for it.

"We were... worried."

"About Gibbs? The man has lived through wars, poison, flood, three homicidal wives, and been blown up at least twice! Now, stop calling! We'll get there when we get there, if our car doesn't explode." Tony shut the phone and stuffed it in his jeans.

"Flood?"

"That basement thing about two years ago? Boy, were you mad." Tony didn't make the mistake of laughing. "Wet, too."

"Found out that boat was sea-worthy early." Gibbs drank some coffee. "I don't think this bucket of bolts is going to explode."

Tony wasn't hopeful. He could smell something that wasn't right, and he was pretty sure it wasn't the piss and vomit. The coffee ran through Gibbs right on schedule, and Tony was glad to see the head too. They didn't look at each other, of course, and Tony went back out quickly to put gas in the car. That was when he noticed the smoke.

First, he saved the food and their bags, and then he got a fire extinguisher.

Gibbs yanked it from Tony's hands and gave it another shot from underneath. After the fire truck had arrived, and after Gibbs had made arrangements for the base to come get it, and after Tony had eaten a bagel with peanut butter, they exchanged a long look. Tony shrugged. Gibbs did the same.

"You two can get a cab, or the Amtrak is about three blocks that way." The local LEO pointed off to their right. "Not long until another train comes though."

Instead of discussing it, Tony started that direction. He was unemployed, and a cab ride for eight hours with Gibbs might be just be the thing to get one of them killed. Gibbs caught up with him, snagging a bag of food and digging out an apple.

"Good call on the food."

"You could get a cab." Tony was sure that at some point Gibbs was going to start shooting people.

"And miss the train part of this movie?"

Against his will, Tony laughed. He waited until they were seated on the train, shoulder to shoulder, before calling Abby.

"Hey, Abs."

"McGee is going insane," Abby said breathlessly. "If I didn't know Gibbs was with you, I'd think you'd staged this to make him crazy!"

"This is beyond my meager abilities." Tony stared out the window, trying not to wonder why Gibbs was sitting next to him instead of... somewhere else. "We're on the Amtrak. I don't know Gibbs' plan, but I'll be in tomorrow."

"Tell him to call me."

"Abby, he is not in the mood." Tony made a kissy noise in the phone and shut it. "Which of us is going to kill McGee?"

"I am, but you can hide the body."

"Deal." Tony tried to make his shoulders smaller, but he was unable to tell Gibbs to move away. It worked away at him, minute after minute, the smell of him, the closeness, and Tony was never going to tell Jax that he was right. Tony said a little bit louder than necessary. "I love Jeanne."

Gibbs didn't even twitch. "So?"

"I think she was it for me." Tony kept his head down and away. "The big one, the kahuna, the Holy Grail."

"I get the idea." Gibbs' knee bumped him. "No more girls, huh?"

Tony found a tiny glare but didn't shift his legs. "You're not going to turn the Jax thing loose are you?"

"Thought you liked boobs more than anything." Gibbs smirked. He suddenly stood. "I know there's coffee somewhere." He went forward, and Tony would've followed, but he caught the subtle hand movement that meant 'stay.'

Tony wasn't insulted. Gibbs wanted him to watch their bags, especially the one with the gun in it. Maybe when he came back, he'd sit somewhere else, or Tony could pretend to sleep. Leaning his head back, he tried to dredge up the memory of his first time with a guy. He was sure he'd been drunk, and it'd been fast, but other than that, there wasn't much to go on. It hadn't been easy to accept that he'd fall in bed with anyone, any time, night or day.

His father hadn't minded the girls.

*********

The coffee didn't suck as much as expected, and he got two so he didn't have to go back until much later. Knowing Tony was hungry, Jethro got them some cheeseburgers and fries. He had made up his mind about a few things since the train had started moving, but convincing Tony was going to take some work.

Tony had his head firmly up his ass, Jethro planned to get firm with him, even insist on a few things. Vance was going to make it as hard as possible, and Tony was going to balk. Taking the box of food back to their seats, Jethro focused on today, tonight, and getting Tony home.

Shannon always told him to take it slower, but he thought even she'd laugh at the snail's pace he was taking in regards to Tony. Plunking the box down in Tony's lap, Jethro said, "I miss my wife." And that was all he was going to say on the topic.

"The one that golfed? On your head?" Tony grabbed a handful of fries and paused. "Oh."

"Yeah, oh." Jethro drank a little coffee and snagged a burger before Tony ate them all. "Jax turned out to be a good one. You got lucky there, DiNozzo."

"I did," Tony mumbled around a mouthful of fries. "I'll go visit occasionally."

"Tonight, you're staying at my house. Wrap your head around that idea now." Jethro took a bite and chewed. This wasn't a discussion.

"I was gonna guilt McGee out of his bed." Tony grinned, flashing teeth. "If I coughed once or twice, I bet I could get breakfast."

Jethro believed it, but that wasn't the way it was happening. "My house." He stole a couple of fries and ate them. "You ever pull a dumbass stunt like that again, and I'll--"

"Wait!" Tony put up a greasy hand. "Which stunt? Boss, you've got to be more specific. Or did you just suddenly feel the urge to yell in my direction?"

"Walking out of the hospital," Jethro growled. He was furious about that, but there'd been no one to yell at but himself in the mirror. "Smartass."

"I think you have a list - a long one - of dumbass stunts I've pulled, but since The Seahawk, I've been trying to survive, and none of it counts."

"Says you." Jethro swallowed the last of his burger and finished his coffee. He did have a list, and he wasn't happy about any of the items on it. "Let's start on The Seahawk. Why the hell didn't you call me?"

"They didn't allow me any ship-to-shore communications after they found out I hacked into the Pentagon." Tony plowed through some more fries. "What was I supposed to do - send up smoke signals? I thought - I believed - you'd get me off that damned ship!"

Jethro took a minute to think instead of yelling again. "I thought Vance was taking care of it," he said truthfully, hating how stupid it sounded.

"Thanks. A lot."

Rubbing his forehead, Jethro couldn't think of what to say to that deserved sarcasm. For them, they'd talked a lot, and he was about tired of it. There was really only one thing left to growl. "You're staying with me."

Tony gave him a skittish look. "Could send the wrong message."

"I don't care what message it sends." Jethro wasn't listening to that. "Talk to Vance. Figure it out."

"Sure. Whatever." Tony didn't sound hopeful. "Maybe I can write a book like McGee."

"Did you ever read one?"

********

McGee picked them up at the train station, and Tony had never seen a probie look more like a whipped pup. It was almost cruel to pick on him.

Almost.

"Probie, if there's anything left of you after Gibbs gets done, you're mine," Tony growled in his best Gibbs' voice.

"I really don't want that to happen, at all."

Gibbs set his duffle in McGee's trunk. "McGee, take us to my place. Now!"

"Yes, Boss."

"You're going to cut him slack, aren't you?" Tony crossed his arms, slamming the trunk lid. "He was always your golden boy!"

"DiNozzo, one more word and I'll shove my boot in your mouth. Move!"

Tony got in the back, biting back another complaint. Gibbs had obviously gotten up on the wrong side of the Amtrak after his nap. McGee gave him a very worried look, but Tony said nothing. He believed that thing about the boot, and technically, they weren't a team any longer, and McGee was a shade of pale rarely seen anywhere but Ducky's tables.

"Faster, McGee," Gibbs grumbled about halfway there. Tony agreed with that, but he didn't smack the back of McGee's head like he wanted. The fact was sinking in, now that he was actually in Washington, seeing the familiar streets, that his job, career, NCIS - it was really over. It'd been easy to pretend he was on vacation while he was in San Diego.

"Crap," he whispered, unable to stay quiet another second. "You know, Gibbs, I could--"

"Be quiet? That would be good."

Tony saw McGee swallow hard. The rest of the ride was in more silence that Tony had thought was possible. He wasn't even sure McGee was breathing. The instant the car stopped, Gibbs was out, and Tony felt somewhat like a small boy being dragged about by his ear.

"Anything I can do to help, Boss?"

"Go home."

"He could stay, since you're furious." Tony stopped at the front door, not sure this was what he wanted, but Gibbs' boot met Tony's backside, giving him that push inside. "Guess I'm here."

At that point, McGee broke, hurrying back to his car, no doubt afraid of getting kicked in the ass too. Tony took his bag to the guest room without looking back and shut the door. He'd hide in here until further notice. Gibbs went to work early, and Tony saw no reason to be there before ten. No rush, except that he'd like to check in with Abby and seeing Ziva's ass again might be nice.

"Early up tomorrow. I suggest you go to sleep. Shower's mine first."

"Boss!" Tony protested. "I don't need--" He stopped, knowing what he did need.

Gibbs narrowed his eyes, body tight, jaw clenched. "Tomorrow, you remember that I want you on my team, and that I screwed up. Not you."

His own jaw slack, Tony stared. "But I screwed up."

"No, you were pushed too far. I'd have probably started shooting people." Gibbs stepped closer, still very intent. "Decide what you want, and then demand it."

"If I were you, that'd work perfectly." Tony had to look away from Gibbs' eyes. "I need sleep." The door shut before he glanced back, and he sank down on the bed, flopping flat. He knew what he wanted, but he was also sure he couldn't have it. Sleep was easy enough, but morning came too early, and the coffee was strong enough to kill a horse. Even with the jolt of caffeine, Tony was having a hard time moving. He could see Gibbs' hand twitching, and that wasn't good.

"I'm taking a cab."

Gibbs gave him a hard look. "You're back here tonight."

Tony wasn't going to promise. He returned the stare. "I may catch a plane somewhere warm."

"You do that without coming here first, and after I catch up with you, I promise you you'll regret it."

"Ouch." Tony ducked his face away. He concentrated solely on his coffee cup until he heard the front door shut and Gibbs drive away. Jax probably wouldn't hold out long against Gibbs so Tony would come back here tonight. At least long enough to say 'thanks' and get his stuff.

Going back to the bathroom, he stared at his jeans and T-shirt and made up his mind. If he were going, he'd go in style.

********

Every time the elevator pinged, Jethro looked up. He told himself to stop with no success.

McGee finally cracked. "Boss, Tony is coming in today, right?"

"He would not have flown all that way to turn around and go back." Ziva flickered her eyelashes at Jethro. "I am right?"

"He seemed tired last night," McGee said slowly. "Maybe I should call."

"No." Jethro kept it short. He hadn't liked the look on Tony's face this morning. Tony was feeling the pressure from all directions, and now wasn't the time for McGee to give him a push. The elevator dinged again, and this time Jethro refused to look. Ziva's soft intake of air was what drew his attention.

Tony didn't do more than glance in their direction. He - and his expensive suit - went right for the stairs, going up to the director's office without a look down. Jethro eased to his feet, all eyes flashed to him, and he said, "I'll be with Ducky."

Jethro waited until he was safely in the elevator before cracking a big smile. That was the Tony DiNozzo that Jethro had hired and trained to be the best.

"Why the smile, Jethro?" Ducky swiveled his desk chair to face him.

"DiNozzo - suit and all - just went upstairs." Jethro leaned against the desk. "I don't know which way he's going to jump, but he's going in style."

"That's our boy." Ducky laughed. "Tell me, did he cough excessively on your trip home?"

"Some the day we flew. Couple of times yesterday on the train." Jethro had felt each cough in his own guts. "I don't think he's well. He gets tired."

"A beating like he had can do that, especially complicated with illness. I need to get him on a treadmill - hooked up to respiratory equipment - and find out the condition of his lungs." Ducky sighed. "Or so Dr. Pitt tells me."

Jethro shrugged, but he could see the need for it. "Tell him it's better than an autopsy."

"That would be cruel." Ducky nodded. "But effective. I'll schedule it with Dr. Pitt first and then convince him."

"Good plan." Jethro looked up in the general direction of Vance's office. "If he stays, I'm keeping him."

"He needs a home." Ducky waved his finger at him. "You almost lost him to Jax Sven, who is a good man, but not enough of one for our Anthony.

"I can see by your clenched jaw that you don't want to discuss Jax. I understand perfectly. It's difficult to be wrong about the assumptions we make. You never knew that Tony bedded men."

Pacing now, Jethro tempered his answer. "Not that simple, and you can't tell me Tony doesn't love tits."

Ducky laughed softly. "Who doesn't? Ah well, Jethro, I am very certain of one thing." He paused, working the drama. "Tony loves you."

********

"I'll consider your offer and get back to you," Tony said firmly as a greeting before sitting in one of the carefully placed chairs.

Vance looked surprised, setting his pen down. "Offer?"

"I'm sure you'll think of something. Money is always good, so are parking places." Tony didn't make the mistake of smiling. "You were going to offer me a job?"

"We agree that your resignation was never filed. Officially, that never happened. Abby fixed it." Vance frowned. "As far as I'm concerned, as soon as you pass the medical and field requirements, you can return to active duty."

"Interesting." Tony picked a small piece of lint off his trousers. "Then let me be more clear. You offer me a job with suitable benefits, and I'll consider it."

Leaning back, Vance smirked. "I don't need you, DiNozzo."

The words should've hurt, but Tony had expected them, even wanted to hear them. "I'm relieved, but we both know that your little lesson to Special Agent Gibbs isn't going to fly if I don't come back to the fold. How can he be grateful? How can he feel like he owes you one?"

Now Vance narrowed his eyes and leaned forward. Tony was surprised at the sloppy body language. Vance needed to brush up on his skills. He glared. Tony cut him off hard at the knees.

"You've proven that he can't manipulate you like our former director. That was your objective, right? Now you might as well reap the rewards. A happy, case-solving Gibbs will make you look very good in front of the other directors." Tony smiled, knowing he had him. "But your actions have a cost, and I think I want cash.

"Make me an offer. I haven't decided whether to look for an apartment yet. San Diego is lovely year around." Tony stood and didn't extend his hand. "Director?"

"I might've been wrong about you." Vance stood, shifting on his feet, toothpick flickering. "You do have balls."

"Big ones." Tony walked out, but he made sure to smile at Vance's new secretary. She didn't bat an eyelash, but he had to stop, tease. "You look lovely in green."

"Hello, Agent DiNozzo." She tapped her red fingernails on the desk. "I'm engaged. I'm not going to date you."

Tony broke a big grin. "I'm glad, really. My boyfriend would be so jealous." He laughed at his recklessness. "Big Swedish guy. Tall. Has a great jump shot."

Her mouth sagged and then she straightened. "Will there be anything else?"

"I think your engagement ring is fake." Tony breezed out of the director's office. He felt a strange sense of calm. Taking his time, he bought Abby a Caf-Pow and headed down to her lab. He was almost surprised when the door opened to his eye. They should've changed that. "Abby, you fixed my resignation?"

She pivoted, grinning. He put the drink down before she jumped in his arms. "I did. You were delirious from being sick, and Vance was being a director, and Gibbs was standing around in a daze."

"I have a hard time envisioning that." Tony smoothed his hair and tugged her ponytail. "Jax told me to tell you thanks, probably for the present. What was it?"

Abby laughed. "I uploaded some pics of you to a digital frame."

Eyes wide, Tony waited for his brain to click over. "Me?"

"All of us. At the Gym for Humanity thing." She slurped a big drink. "McGee and I ramped it up, mega-pixel, mega-byte, the whole mega thing. There's even audio on a few of them."

"I'm frightened, and I don't understand why Jax is still speaking to me." Tony pulled a stool over closer to the computer and sat down. Hooking his heel on the bottom rung, he let his spine relax a few inches. "Thanks, Abs."

She nodding, turning to her computer and starting to work. "I have some advice, if you want."

Tony waited, knowing she'd give it to him whether he liked it or not. "Sure."

"Every now and again, I know you and Gibbs are exactly on the same wavelength. There's a look you two get." She raised her eyebrows. "But this time, he needs you to listen to what he's not saying."

"Oh, that was clear as mud." Tony rubbed his hand across his forehead, forcing his hair back. It was a little longer than he liked it. "But I'll try. He was mad as hell last night when we got in, and my butt still has a boot print back there."

"Kinky."

Slowly, he stood and took a long stretch, feeling the pull of muscles. "I liked that gym," he said more to himself than her. "Thanks for fixing it."

"It was fun." She gave him a peck on the cheek. "Now go away. I have work."

"Always fun, Abs." Tony headed back to the bullpen and didn't stop until he was in front of McGee's desk. He set the NCIS-issued cell phone down. "Did I thank you for the I.D. and money?"

"No."

"Well, thanks. I appreciated the help. I was coughing too hard to think clearly." Tony made the cell phone spin. He wasn't going to make it too easy for Vance to find him. "Never found my badge?"

"Sorry." McGee shook his head. "Gibbs thought they tossed it in the ocean."

Tony nodded, trying to think of something else to say. He glanced at his desk. "Remind me not to let you book my flights any longer."

Ziva laughed softly, and she was near Tony's elbow. "McGee will not be in charge of anything for a while. He is detailing the van, inside and out."

"I love that van." Tony turned enough to fully include her in the conversation. "I never made it to the beach. Shame that." He saw something flash across Ziva's face. "Okay, kids. I gotta go."

"But--"

"Tony--"

"DiNozzo, I'm going for coffee. So are you."

"Only if you're buying. I'm beyond broke." Tony fell into step behind him automatically, leaving McGee and Ziva to stare after them. The elevator was right there, and Tony didn't crowd him. It wasn't much of a surprise with Gibbs turned it off. Abby had said to listen, instead of talking, so Tony waited, and then waited some more.

Gibbs snapped it back on with a small smile. "If that's how you want to play it. Ducky is bringing dinner over tonight. He expects you to be there."

"But we are getting coffee, right?"

"Definitely."

They walked. It wasn't far, and Gibbs got them a table. Tony added some more sweetener, ignoring the eye roll, and said, "We've never done this."

"Have now." Gibbs looked stubborn all the sudden. "You can take my car." He slid the keys over. "For the day."

Tony couldn't help but smile. He tucked them out of sight before Gibbs changed his mind. Gibbs caught Tony's hand before he could get his coffee again.

"Get a few things so you're comfortable at my place."

Tilting his head, Tony tried very hard to understand, not just react to the hand gripping him. "You really want me to stay."

"Yes, and you are. Get some business taken care of and be home by dinner, or Ducky will kill us both." Gibbs let go, returning to his cup. "We clear?"

"Not really, but I'm getting there." Tony made sure the lid was tight on his coffee. "I can make myself at home in the guest room?"

"In my house." The words were soft, low. "But don't touch my tools."

Tony laughed. "I would never make that mistake. Not again." He drank some coffee, trying to stop smiling. For the first time, in a long time, he felt like he'd come home. "Jethro, you're not a talkative guy, and I get that, but here in the next few days, I'm going to need a sense of direction."

Gibbs looked out the window and then back, straightening his spine. "Then pay attention."

"Abby said the same thing." Tony sighed from frustration. This would be so much easier if Gibbs would hand him a road map. "Make sure McGee gets the underside of the van. It's overlooked too often, and all those pot holes are hard on it."

"I can do that." Gibbs pushed his chair back, poised to leave. Tony smiled up at him, and then he was gone into the crowd. Trying not to feel smug, Tony took his coffee in the direction of Gibbs' car. He did have a few things to do.

*********

"You talk to your boy?"

Jethro tossed his coffee cup a lot harder than necessary. "Not my boy, and he's not a boy, Director Vance."

"Maybe." Vance had been lurking on the balcony before motioning Jethro to come up. They stood at the rail, watching, and Jethro knew that every agent down there was gossiping about Tony. Vance snorted. "He told my secretary he has a Swedish boyfriend."

"So?" Jethro wasn't going to discuss Jax or Tony's smartass mouth. "We're civilians."

Vance raised his eyebrows. "You better talk to him again. Make a new plan. He's crazy if he thinks I'm going to move him up the pay scale."

Jethro stopped in complete shock, and it took a lot to do that to him. He was pretty sure he showed it too. "He did what?" It slipped out, but he saw that it wasn't a mistake.

Their eyes met, and Vance looked away. "I figured him for your lap dog." He pulled out his toothpick and snapped it in half. "Jenny used Tony against you, and you still want him on your team. I gotta think about this again."

"She used him. It had nothing to do with me, and Tony proved his loyalty to his badge by not betraying that op - stupid as it was." Jethro made sure not to yell, but he wanted to bring the roof down. "Fornell wants him. Has for years. If I were making the plan, I'd tell DiNozzo to get as far away from you as possible."

Vance's dark eyes looked away first, back down to the bullpen. "I guess that's where those balls come into play."

Before Jethro could figure out what the hell that meant, Vance left him at the rail. Jethro pitched his voice to carry. "McGee, get back to that van!"

"On it, Boss!"

Ziva wasn't at her desk to yell at, and Jethro made his way steadily down the stairs. Tony was trying to renegotiate his job, his wage, even his life. The most important question burned in Jethro's mind: had Tony asked for his own team?

********

Gibbs had said the house, but Tony wasn't ready for that. He wasn't even going to try. Instead, he loaded up some things he wanted and spent the rest of his day fixing up the guest bedroom. It was sparse to begin with, so there was room for a few pieces of furniture and his television. He didn't rush, and he tried not to worry. If NCIS was over, he'd find something. His record was good. If his lungs got healthy, he might even land a better wage.

When the closet and dresser were full, he felt better about his life in general. Clothes were good for that, and he'd missed his clothes. The trousers were a little loose, but he'd gain some weight back eventually.

For lunch, he raided the fridge for old pizza and started organizing his dvd's into the floor-to-ceiling bookcase. When that was done, he felt almost human again. For a few days, he could stay here and not go insane. He'd camped out in this room every now and then over the years, but it'd always been made very clear that he was to leave as soon as possible.

That wasn't clear this time. Gibbs wanted him here. Tony hung his bathrobe on the back of his closet door with a strange smile on his face. This wasn't some crappy, one bedroom apartment that he hated. This was a home, and he was man enough to admit that he could use one about now. So much else was gone.

Checking the time, worrying about Ducky's wrath, Tony made one more fast trip to his storage building to get a few books and other odds and ends. He ended up grabbing up his bagged comforter too. It was his, and softer than wool blankets, though they were very warm.

"That you, Tony?"

"It's me, Ducky!" Tony hid his book under his pillow and straightened the comforter. He found a smile when Ducky peeked his head around the corner. "Just making the bed."

"Almost looks nice in here." Ducky smiled, taking in everything with a glance. "You could use a few throw pillows."

"I'm a guy." Tony could see the reasoning behind that though. "Maybe one or two, for movie nights."

"Get red. They'll match that comforter, and they don't show blood."

"Ducky, do not freak me out before dinner." Tony shut off the light but left the door open in case Gibbs wanted to do an inspection. "Did you bring Gibbs with you?"

"No." Ducky led the way back to the living room. "McGee is dropping him off. I spoke to Dr. Pitt today and scheduled you a complete physical for next week."

Tony groaned loudly. "Ducky!"

"As they say, get over it. You need a thorough examination of your lungs. Your career depends on it. Jethro insisted I take a biopsy, but I managed to convince him that you'd cooperate with Dr. Pitt."

"A biopsy? Like with a knife?" Tony backed away from him slightly.

Ducky nodded very enthusiastically. "A scalpel, yes. I'd make a small incision, after administering a local, of course, and shave off a small piece of your lung to be--"

"Absolutely not!" Tony covered his chest with his arms. "I'll run on a treadmill or something!" He was beyond horrified, and he was talking to Gibbs about this later.

"If you insist." Ducky smirked. "Now that's settled, let's get the food from the car. I even brought proper napkins."

"That's 'cause you're a gentleman, not like certain Marines who want to carve open people with their knives!" Tony knew exactly who was standing behind him.

"I suggested using my hand drill, but Ducky thought that would make too big a mess." Gibbs gently slapped the back of Tony's head. "Get the food, DiNozzo."

"On it, Boss." Tony left them in the kitchen, probably trying to decide how to carve him to get a good look at his lungs. He was better off putting up with Dr. Pitt for a few hours. There was real food, chicken and stuff, in the back seat of Ducky's car in a big box, and Tony was drooling by the time he got it inside.

Gibbs and Ducky took over from there, and Tony went to wash his hands. When he came back, he almost felt like it was Christmas dinner. There was even silverware.

"I'm sure Tony misses the smell of the locker room," Ducky said with a laugh in his voice. "We offer him so little in comparison."

"Chicken is good too." Tony had never noticed three chairs, but they all had a spot so he was sure it was three, and he fussed with his linen - linen? - napkin to cover his nerves. "No wine, Ducky? I'm disappointed."

"It's breathing. Patience, my dear boy." Ducky frowned at Gibbs. "And we will not be drinking out of nail jars."

"Shame." Gibbs served himself some potatoes and handed them to Tony. "Eat. Ducky says you're underweight for your height."

Tony took a portion. "Ziva said I was fat anyway." He passed the bowl on to Ducky and was glad they concentrated on the food for several minutes, instead of his waist. Gibbs poured the wine, and Tony began to think he'd fallen down the rabbit hole.

"You guys do this often?"

"Usually down in autopsy, but Jethro does like to dine with Mother." Ducky passed the green beans, which Tony hadn't seen in forever. "Focus on proteins and vegetables, easy on the sugar and carbohydrates. Your metabolism needs bulk, not fat."

"Tony loves sugar." Gibbs stabbed his meat, and Tony tried not to wince.

"It's an acceptable stimulant for children, not adults." Ducky had to be joking. "You spoke to Director Vance today?"

Blinking at the rapid change of conversation, Tony nodded and indulged in some wine before answering. "I don't think he likes me."

"Well, I don't suggest you try the DiNozzo charm on him." Ducky cut a glance at Gibbs, but Tony saw it. He had no idea what it meant, but there were definitely undercurrents. Gibbs kept on eating, and Tony made a few inroads himself. His stomach appreciated the attention, and Ducky was more than willing to ramble with little or no encouragement.

"Did you try the DiNozzo charm on him?" Gibbs asked suddenly.

Tony wiped his mouth first. "I'm always polite. Cordial, even." He looked to Ducky for help but got nothing in return. "And, no, I didn't. This time, I'm not some kid being shipped off to the military academy for screwing up. I'm a decorated field agent with viable career options. Vance can offer me something that rewards my abilities, or he can watch me go work elsewhere."

"I think our young Anthony has finally grown up," Ducky said softly. "Hmm, Jethro?"

It was hard to breathe, much less eat, as Tony waited for Gibbs to say something. Tony was sure he could hear a clock ticking somewhere in the house. Slowly, he picked up his fork and finished his potatoes.

"What did you use for leverage?" Gibbs' question cut right to the heart of it.

"You," Tony said unapologetically. "Like you said, it was all about you. I was thrown under the bus, and Vance is going to compensate me, or I'm going somewhere else."

Now Gibbs looked at Ducky. "I agree. Tony's all grown up." They clicked glasses, and Tony found it easy to glare at them both. Gibbs laughed. "I told Vance not to underestimate my people."

"Wait. I did good?" Tony couldn't quite believe his last minute hare-brained plan had been the right thing to do. It had been the only option besides begging, and there had been no way he was going to beg Vance for anything. Their smirks read loud and clear that they were pleased, and he leaned back in his chair. "You could've just told me what to do, and then I wouldn't have had to worry you'd kill me for it!"

"I would never kill you. Maybe." Jethro turned more fully to Ducky. "I wouldn't."

"Maybe." Ducky's eyes glittered with amusement. "Not after you changed your will."

Gibbs pointed the knife that happened to be in his hand at Ducky. "You're right. Now shut up about it."

Tony had a weak feeling in his knees, good thing he was sitting. He was missing some crucial information, and they'd never actually come out and tell him what it was. Picking up his wine, he drained it. "I don't even want to know what you two are covertly discussing. Tomorrow, I'll go meet with Fornell and see what he can do for me."

"On that note, I'm heading over to see Mother." Ducky wiped his mouth and began collecting his plate. "I trust you can clean up, Jethro."

"I bet any of his wives would argue about that." Tony grinned. "Thanks for dinner, Ducky."

Ducky gave him a stilted bow. "My pleasure." It didn't take him long to clear out, and Tony had seconds because it was there. Gibbs cleared the table around him, not moving fast, and it would've been easy to help. Tony didn't. He poured himself some more wine instead. He needed it.

"You miss Jax?"

A question out of the blue that sent Tony back to the bottle.

"Good answer."

Tony forced a laugh. "I will always be friends with Jax."

"So did you call him?"

Hanging his head from guilt, Tony rubbed his face. "Turned in my phone." He caught the phone tossed his way without looking. Staring down at it, he slowly flushed, unable to do this in front of Gibbs. "I'll be in--"

"Your room?"

"Yeah. That place." Tony kept his head high until he'd shut the door, and then he slumped. He was a crappy friend, even though he had an excuse, and the fact that Gibbs had called him on it stung.

"Jax Sven, can I help you?"

"Need a new coach?" Tony asked, trying for humor. "He's got a great lay-up."

Jax laughed, maybe a little too loudly. "You home?"

The question made Tony pause. He was, but he wasn't. "I'm staying with Gibbs, for now. All my stuff is in storage."

Silence. "He'll look after you."

"Yeah. He's trying, and it's totally freaking me out." Tony made sure his voice was low, and he went inside his closet to talk. Gibbs had uncanny ears.

"Get a clue, Tony."

"Shut up." Tony sat down without regard for his shoes. "Seriously, the trip home nearly killed me."

"Tell me."

********

The temptation to listen at the door didn't pull at him. He changed into some old clothes and padded down to his boat. Skimming his hand along the ribs, he listened to the wood talk to him. There was only so much sanding needed. Too much and it made the wood weak.

Tony had taken a lot of sanding over the years. There was a time to quit and start polishing. Getting out some tack cloth, Gibbs began to go over every inch. The wood was sound, strong, and he made sure to get inside every corner. It was exacting work but worth it for a good finish.

The sound of music drifted down the stairs, and he wondered if Tony had it in him to stay out of the basement. Tony had spent his fair share of time sitting on those wooden steps, usually talking, but lately, he was more quiet, more focused internally.

Finding a small nick - Abby had done that - Jethro reached for the wood filler. Between Jenny and being an Agent Afloat, Tony had some scars, but they were fixable. They'd add strength, and Tony would be a better man, a better agent, for having them. Jax had made a couple of repairs that no one had been able to touch, and Jethro hated him a little for that.

It wasn't possible to be all things for someone, but it was easy to feel like he should be. Damn Jenny for doing that to Tony, and damn that stupid explosion for sending everything back to hell. Taking a very deep breath, Jethro eased underneath, working from his knees and ignoring the ache. He'd earned his aches and pains.

"Thanks."

"Not a problem." Jethro extended his palm. Tony slapped the phone down, and Jethro hooked it on his belt.

Tony moved away, but it was to wander back to the stairs. Jethro heard Tony's butt hit the step. They might exchange a few more words tonight, but Jethro was in no rush, and there was a lot he didn't want to say.

"Do you know anyone that could give Jax a hand after school? A Marine? Possibly gay?" Tony's voice didn't ring out. He spoke softly. "Even, maybe, a woman?"

"I might." Jethro would have to think about it. He was a firm believer in Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Even Think about It. "Naval Base is closer. I'll ask around." He tried to stomp on the tiny bit of relief that Tony wasn't planning on heading right back to San Diego. Guilt was a powerful motivator. "Does the woman have to be gay too?"

"That would be good. Jax isn't... comfortable around girls or women that like men."

"Abby is a lot of woman." Jethro smiled, remembering some of the photos. "Jax looked like a deer in the headlights."

"We all felt that way, except Ducky." Tony laughed, again quietly, but then he coughed, and Jethro couldn't help but raise his head to glare at him. Tony looked a bit sheepish. "Sawdust allergies."

"Right." Jethro pointed at the door. "Use it."

Tony didn't move fast, but he left, and Jethro picked up the tack cloth again. His gut was telling him that he had time now. Time to make sure he'd built a sturdy boat before he put it out on the water.

When Jethro left for work the next morning, Tony's door was shut, and he wasn't going to knock. His usual commute, his usual coffee, and he settled into his chair. McGee and Ziva were on time, but they didn't seem chatty, and he was glad to work on paperwork instead of talk.

"Take this to DiNozzo." Vance dropped a packet on Jethro's desk.

Jethro automatically pushed it on the floor. "Do I look like your messenger boy?" He was on his feet in a flash.

Vance didn't back down. "Sorta. Yeah."

"Take another look." Jethro shoved his jaw out and made his eyes blaze. "Director."

"Director Vance, Tony turned in his phone." McGee couldn't resist saying something, but Jethro didn't spare him a glance. Jethro was not going to look away first, and it was Vance that backed off, eyes darting.

"But you have his phone number?"

"Um, no."

"Address?"

"Storage building." McGee glanced at Jethro. "I'm sure Tony got a hotel. Somewhere."

Jethro sat back down in his chair, giving McGee credit for having a pair. "Ziva, did DiNozzo stay with you?"

"No." Ziva laughed. "He knows I would hurt him if he asked."

Silence fell, stretched, and Vance finally leaned over to pick up the packet. "I get the message."

Later, Jethro would laugh at how luck had played into Tony's hands that day. The elevator pinged, and Fornell glided his slinky way into their midst.

"I came over to gloat." Fornell handed Jethro a fresh coffee. "I always wanted a DiNutzo for my own."

*********

Instead of tracking down Fornell, Tony went for a slow jog. He had to get back in shape, but he was pleasantly surprised to find that he wasn't dying. All that basketball had done him good. If he could shake the cough, he might pass the physical requirement the first time. The firing range would be a snap. Back at the house, he showered quickly and dressed to go out for lunch. He'd head over to the F.B.I. after that.

The lack of a car was a problem, but he called a cab to take him to the bank and he'd hoof it from there. His bank account could've been worse, and he withdrew enough to get him through the week. That made him consider if Jethro wanted rent, and Tony wondered again what he was doing.

"You Tony DiNozzo?"

Tony turned quickly. "Depends." He hated to commit.

The security guard raised his eyebrows. "You have a phone call." He hooked his thumb towards a door. "You can take it in there."

"Well. Okay." Tony tried to look like he wasn't worried. "DiNozzo," he said, trying for firm.

"My offer is on the table for the next twelve hours."

Tony blinked, pretty sure it was Vance. "How nice, and you sound so enthusiastic." He laughed. "I'll make sure to read it. Oh, I don't actually have anything to read."

"Smartass." Vance huffed into the phone. "Stay there. The messenger will be in soon."

"You're not hand delivering it? I'm disappointed." Tony went for one last shot. "Did you get a warrant to monitor my bank records?"

Vance hung up, and Tony grinned. He stepped back out to the lobby, finding the security guard awfully close. "Thanks!"

"Not a problem."

Lounging, Tony refused to speculate on the 'package' that Vance was sending over. With Tony's luck, it'd be a bomb.

"Looking for work, DiNutzo?"

"Fornell." Tony wanted to put on his fake smile, shake that slimy hand, and get ready to kiss ass for a job. He put it off until later. "How are you?"

"Better than you." Fornell looked him over. "Doesn't Gibbs feed you?"

Tony furrowed his brow. "You know everything."

"I certainly do." Fornell smiled. He clapped Tony on the shoulder. "If Vance tries to screw you over, come see me."

"And you'll screw me over." Tony edged away, not wanting F.B.I. cooties.

Fornell barked his strange little laugh. "I'll certainly have fun trying."

"Just. Ew." Tony faked a dry heave. "Hey, I'll see you later!" He spotted a messenger and hurried to him. "Anthony DiNozzo, is that for me?"

"Show me some I.D. and sign here."

After doing both, Tony tucked the packet under his arm.

"Tony, if that sucks, my door is open." Fornell's voice was smooth, trying for honesty. "Jethro will punch me in the nose, but it'll be worth it to poach you away."

Strangely touched, Tony nodded. "I'd like to see that - the punch, that is." He paused. "Nice of you to chase after me. I'm strangely complimented."

"You're strange but a good investigator. Don't let it go to your head, and officially, I was never here." Fornell did a quick vanishing act, and Tony took his packet to lunch.

*********

"How can you work?"

"It's what I do." Jethro did put his arm around her. "Tony will make up his own mind. He doesn't need me telling him what to do."

"But I bet he'd like it." Abby smiled and gently elbowed him. "You're going home early, right?"

Jethro didn't answer that, but he was planning on it. "Any chance you have a report?"

"Of course I do. You're here. I report. It's what we do."

He listened patiently, foregoing his usual demands because this case was colder than his second wife's heart. "So you got nothing."

"Right." Abby sighed loudly. "I will need actual new evidence-like stuff to help you."

"Good to know." Jethro chuckled. "Why don't you read the file and tell me who you think did it?"

"Really?"

"Really." Jethro went to get coffee before heading back to his desk. Ziva and McGee were missing, but he figured they were at lunch, and he settled in to stare at the case and watch his email box fill. There were ten from Vance. Jethro put on his glasses and read the last one out of curiosity.

Your team is going to be a pain in my ass, isn't it?

Jethro hit reply. We'll be doing our job. He sent it and deleted everything that didn't look important, and that was everything. Worrying was a waste of time, but he couldn't sit around any longer. He wavered between his boat and shooting targets, ending up in MTAC when Vance glared at him. Drinking his coffee, watching the screen, Jethro prayed Vance didn't expect small talk.

"I know you're pissed off."

"I was." Jethro told the truth. "You were rubbing my nose in it."

Vance sat down next to him. "There can only be one boss."

"I understand chain of command. You?" Jethro finished his coffee. He hated politics, and he wasn't going to sit around and rehash all this crap again. "Director, you keep your nose out of my team, and we won't have a problem." He got to his feet, making an impulsive decision. "I'm taking the rest of the day."

"I'll take your team off duty until Monday." Vance shrugged, crossing his legs. "If DiNozzo walks, I expect you to pick someone else for your team. I emailed you the files of two agents. Either of them would do well."

Glad he'd deleted all his emails, Jethro left him in the dark. McGee and Ziva were back at their desks, but they weren't looking at him. "The director has taken us off rotation until Monday. Go home."

"What?"

"Really?"

Jethro put his gun on his hip and his badge in his pocket before shutting down his computer. He would see if Tony wanted to hit the firing range this weekend.

"I guess he means it."

"Ziva, go tell Abby the news." Jethro stepped into McGee's personal space. "If you can't work with Tony, I want to know now."

McGee's eyes widened. "If this is about what I said in regards to him being team leader-"

"It is," Jethro interrupted. "This team has one leader. Me. Tony knows that."

"Does he? And why am I still the probie?" McGee hovered on the edge of whining.

Jethro moved that much closer, so the conversation was more private. "Tony turned down his own team to stay here. Hell if I know why. If you can't respect him, work with him, I need to know."

"Oh. He--. Well." McGee took a deep breath. "Of course I can. He's insufferable, but he's... Tony." He raised his chin slightly. "Why don't you call him 'Probie?' Didn't you train him?"

"I hired DiNozzo from the Baltimore P.D. He was already carrying a gold shield." Jethro smiled slightly at the memory. "No green to knock off him."

McGee slowly nodded. "I get it. I think. I'm still tired of the nickname."

"So am I." Jethro looked over his shoulder one more time before reaching the elevator. "Go home."

"Will do, Boss."

*********

The house was quiet when Tony stepped inside, and he nearly locked the door behind him. He should. His TV was here now, and he still boggled at the idea of living in Jethro's house. First, he raided the fridge for a soda, and then he went to his room to put in a movie. Some noise would be good while he was thinking.

The packet he tossed onto his dresser. He didn't want to think about it yet. Propping up his pillow, he toed off his shoes and tried to relax. The movie was Stalag 17, and he'd seen it enough to quote some of the dialogue. It was hard to believe that Gibbs was the reason Tony had started watching movies. Oh, he'd kept up with the current ones, but having Gibbs discuss a movie that Tony hadn't seen during a case had driven him crazy.

Four hundred or so movies later, he was still watching and occasionally cursing at Gibbs for starting him on this hobby. Tony suspected that Gibbs watched movies in his spare time too.

Fornell would hire him. He didn't have to go back to NCIS. Some people would think he was weak for doing it, slinking back like a whipped pup. There were plenty of police departments that would hire him. His case record was over ninety percent, and he knew how to kiss enough ass to make people happy. He never should've made Director Sheppard happy.

Rolling slightly, he dug out the platinum bracelet from the bedside table. He should sell it. Or mail it back to Jeanne. He never should've taken it, loved her, fallen in love with her, any of that stuff. He'd seen enough spy movies to know it wouldn't end well, but he'd tried to get it all: the bad guy, the brownie points, and the girl.

"Stupid," he muttered, flipping the bracelet to the end of the bed. Dimly, he heard the phone in the basement ring, but he wasn't getting it. Someone got it, and he realized he wasn't alone. Gibbs, the sneaky bastard, was in the basement. Tony would check from now on so he didn't screw up with an audience.

Getting up, he opened the packet and spread it all out on the bed. More money, more vacation time, and a spot on Gibbs' team: everything Tony wanted. He was suspicious of that. Vance should've put up more of a fight. Leaving it all there, Tony padded halfway down the basement stairs with his soda. He sat, watching him work.

"You want something?"

"Tell me why Vance gave in so easily." Tony really wanted to know.

Jethro laughed softly. "He was getting ready to tell me that you could come back at your old wage or not at all when Fornell showed up. Fornell had an offer ready, and it was a good one. They started fighting like cats in a bag."

Tony smiled, laughing also. "I got lucky."

"You did." Jethro nodded, going to his workbench. "I think Fornell meant it."

"He tracked me down. He gives me the willies." Tony scooted two steps further down so he could see better. "You sure you want three on your team?"

"I'm sure." Jethro strolled over and put his boot on a step. "And I know you mean I should ditch McGee."

"Of course." Tony flashed his fake smile. "McGee is a good agent. I wanted him on my team."

"He is."

Their eyes met, and Tony let himself look at him. Jax had been sure that Jethro wanted Tony. Wanted in the wanted way. Tony found himself staring at Gibbs' crotch, hoping that Jax was right. Jethro shifted, and Tony looked up again.

"I wish I could quit you."

"Brokeback Mountain. Best guy movie ever." Jethro grinned. "Wait. That was Fight Club."

"First rule of this - me living here - is you never saying the words Brokeback Mountain again!" Tony eased down two more steps, putting him within range. "Ever!"

Jethro put his hand on Tony's knee. The touch nearly sent Tony running back upstairs. Jethro had a familiar gleam in his eye, and it was scary as hell. Tony felt his own hand tremble as he put it on top of Jethro's.

"You're not moving out," Jethro said.

Tony often wondered how Jethro's mind made the intuitive leaps that it did. "Ever?"

"Ever." Jethro reached with his other hand and gently popped the back of Tony's head. "When you start breathing again, call Jax and tell him you're off the market."

"That bastard was right, and he's gonna laugh at me forever, and I'm not sure I can face this." Tony hated feeling like the last one to know. "We like girls."

Jethro gave him a pat and moved back to his workbench. "That we do."

Following him was easy as living. Tony caught him by the forearm. "With you, it isn't..." He ran out of words.

"If you'd have taken your own team, we could've gone on pretending. Screwed that up!" Jethro wrapped his hand around the back of Tony's neck. "Guess you'll have to wait until I retire for your own team."

"Guess so." Tony didn't regret turning down his own team. He never had. "You and me. Ugh."

"It ain't gonna be pretty, but it'll never be dull." Jethro pulled, and Tony kissed him. Nothing had ever been more right, except maybe Jeanne, and he wasn't going to think of her. He figured Jethro would do the same about Shannon, and they'd muddle through.

"Does this mean I get laid tonight?" Tony heard the floorboards creak and stepped to the other side of the boat. "We expecting company?"

"Never know." Jethro went to the stairs. "That you, McGee?"

"I brought pizza!"

"Cool." Tony took the stairs two at a time but stopped at the top. "Coming, Boss?"

"I got your six."

*********

Pushing open Tony's door, Jethro surveyed the papers strewn on the bed. Tony sat in the middle of the pile with an intent look on his face.

"Can I borrow your phone?"

Jethro tossed it, and Tony caught it without really looking. Tony dialed quickly and said, "I accept the offer to rejoin Special Agent Gibbs' team."

Jethro couldn't hear Vance's reply.

"I'll be in Monday." Tony shut the phone and handed it back to him. "I should've held out for a better parking spot."

"Do you even have a car?" Jethro had wondered if Tony had one in storage.

Tony started shoving all the papers into a packet. "I was leasing when I shipped out, so no. Does the bus come by here?"

"No." Jethro wouldn't show the blood-pounding relief he felt. He had his team back. "Come help clean up the mess."

"Sure." Tony eased off the bed and caught him by the arm. "No one seemed surprised I was living here."

"After a guy's been blown up a few times, he needs a nanny." Jethro pulled him to the kitchen and handed him a garbage bag. "Isn't that what Ducky said?"

"That was funny." Tony took the bag with a grin, moving away before Jethro could smack him. "I don't agree, of course, Boss, but you did call me 'McGee' that one time."

Jethro tossed a pizza box, hitting him in the ass.

"Hey!" Tony threw a pillow back at him. Jethro caught it and put it on the sofa. He went to wash the few dishes, not surprised when Tony came to dry after taking the trash out. Tony nudged him with his hip. "I'll buy a dishwasher."

"Okay." Jethro would let him. "I've always wanted one of those fancy coffee machines too."

"Either I'm dreaming, or you're lying." Tony blinked. "You're lying."

"I do that." Jethro drained the water. "We'll figure it out, Tony. No rush."

"I like rushing." Tony leaned into him. "Can we rush to a bed?"

"Lock the door." Jethro enjoyed the surprise on Tony's face. He dried his hands, decided the kitchen was clean enough, and started turning off lights. "You coming?"

"I might before I get there. Yeah."

Laughing, Jethro went to Tony's room, not his own. Too many memories of women he'd rather forget and one woman he couldn't in there. "Movie?"

Tony swallowed hard, licking his lower lip, but he nodded and Jethro toed off his sneakers so he could lie on the bed.

"Don't say anything stupid. Just get over here."

"Okay," Tony wheezed. Jethro yanked him down - the movie played - and they were slow about getting undressed. Tony looked as if he'd been struck with a board, and Jethro went easy to give him plenty of time to adjust to the idea.

Skin, lips, heat: it all made Jethro want more, but he couldn't rush him, not tonight. Tony wrapped his hand around both of their cocks and pumped. "I wanted this with you," he whispered.

Jethro wasn't sure that was a good thing, but it was true for both of them. He ducked his head and kissed him. They moved together, touching, groaning, and he felt Tony shudder before he came. Jethro ground down a little harder and added his mess to Tony's stomach. He tingled, ached, and needed to collapse.

Tony held him close, and they breathed hard. "I like living here."

Shutting his eyes, Jethro mapped Tony's skin with his hands. He wasn't much for talking after sex, or cuddling, but he was thinking they could rest and then start over, go slower, do more. They had time.

"Seriously, I'm not mad about you hugging Ziva now." Tony yelped as Jethro grabbed him by the ear and pulled hard. "Boss!"

********

"You're back!" Abby yelled before she launched herself into his arms. He grunted but managed not to fall down. She didn't turn him loose for a long time, but Tony didn't mind. He oofed when she dropped back to the floor. "I can finally take down your sign."

He watched as she did just that, ripping it down. "Now, about my Mighty Mouse stapler."

"I have all your stuff." Her smile was wide. "I didn't let McGee touch a thing."

"I'm relieved." He checked the door to make sure Jethro hadn't followed him down here. "Abby, can you help me buy Jax a computer? One with a webcam so I can talk to him in real time occasionally?"

She never lost her smile. "I was hoping you'd ask. The man's a dinosaur like Gibbs."

"True." Tony stuck his hands in his pockets and considered it again. "We'll probably have to fly out and set it up for him."

"Cool!" She went to her office and returned with a good-sized box. "Here. And I'll get to work on that right away."

"Thanks." He took the box and set it on a table. "I want to give you something but I don't want you to hate me." He fished the bracelet out of his pocket and handed it to her. She read the inscription, and he felt he had to explain. "It's platinum. It was a true gift, ya know, and I can't sell it or throw it away."

Abby slowly nodded. "I get it. You're ready to move on, but you want someone to keep it safe."

"Or melt it down into something else and enjoy it." He forced himself to smile. She tucked the bracelet away, and he was glad to see it go. Hefting the box, he hesitated. "Thanks, Abs."

She hugged him from the side. "Welcome home, Tony."

His smile was real now as he went to his desk. He would admit that it felt weird to be back. Great, but weird, and he wasn't sure how to act. His usual jokes and goof-offs seemed stupid, and he had no idea what to say. Jethro was acting like his grumpy self, but there was a gloating look in his eye, and Tony could feel the words piling up in his throat. The ride to work had been very quiet.

"Are you cleared for field work?" McGee asked, looking nervous.

"No." Tony had passed the shooting requirement yesterday at the range with Jethro, but the physical was going to be tougher. "Should I lease or buy a car? What's more cost effective right now?"

McGee blinked several times.

Ziva laughed. "He is speechless!"

Tony tucked the last of his things away and tossed the empty box to the file cabinet. Sooner or later, McGee would answer, in excruciating detail. Tony turned on his computer, seeing that it wasn't the one he'd left on his desk all those months ago. They'd left the flat screen, but the CPU was a different color, and the mouse that he'd liked was long gone. His keyboard looked like a dog had chewed the corner. He now knew why McGee looked nervous.

"Probie, can you reset this thing?" He clicked his favorites and sighed loudly. "Are talking cats that can't spell funny? I don't get it. Dogs, I could see, but cats?

"I'm pretty sure I was watching Abby that time she re-booted her computer," he muttered. McGee was suddenly there; his hands flying over the keys. Tony scooted back and let him at it. "I could shoot it."

"There's an idea." Jethro had a new coffee in his hand. "Who stole Tony's computer?"

Ziva excused herself to the restroom, and McGee began to sweat. Tony wandered over to Jethro's desk. "You just now noticed? Gibbs, your detective skills awe me. McGee probably traded it for a better parking place months ago."

"You really worry about where you park, don't you?" Jethro looked mean, but his eyes were laughing. "McGee wouldn't do that. He knows I'd fire him."

"I had all my contacts to police departments we'd worked with on that computer." Tony sat on the edge of McGee's desk, watching him sweat. "Years of people who owe us favors. Oh well, nothing lasts forever."

Jethro narrowed his eyes. "You didn't make a paper copy?"

"McGee recommended I back up the information to a flash drive. Those stick things." Tony returned the look without flinching. "It's not where I left it."

"McGee!" Jethro slapped the top of his desk, and Tony went to get coffee from the lounge. He should feel guilty, but he didn't.

"He traded it," Ziva said, coming up behind him. "Think Gibbs will fire him?"

"Nah." Tony laughed softly and leaned against a convenient wall. "Why would someone want it?"

"It was one of the newer ones, I believe."

"Scavengers." Tony sipped his coffee, wincing at the lack of sugar. "Not that I blame them."

"Of course not." She edged closer. "It is good you are back."

"Thanks." Tony moved two steps to the left and looked up to the balcony. "Vance is freaking me out."

She laughed. "If I were you, I'd buy a car."

"I'll take it under consideration." Tony decided to forego the ongoing drama of McGee's computer thievery and go see Ducky. Ducky had the answer to a question that had been burning a hole in Tony's brain.

"Tony, good to see you!"

"Thanks, Ducky." Tony even smiled at Palmer. "I'm glad to be back." He shifted his feet, not sure how to broach the subject. "Palmer, can you give us a minute?"

"Sure, Tony. Welcome back!" Palmer left quickly enough, and Ducky came closer, looking curious.

Tony chewed the inside of his lip, searching for the right words. He had to give up and blurt it out, "What did you mean about Gibbs' will?"

"Ah, Tony, that's not my secret to tell." Ducky smiled. "But did you know that Abby is inheriting all my worldly goods upon my demise? Yes, I gave it a lot of thought before deciding that she would most benefit from my wealth. We're a family here, Tony, and we take care of our own. I'm not getting any younger!"

"That's nice. The Abby part, not the getting old part." Tony meant that. He wouldn't ask her about it. "Who inherited Jenny's estate?"

Ducky looked stunned by the question. "Tony."

"Never mind." Tony could guess by Ducky's reaction, and he was glad. He had no trouble connecting the dots now, and he sighed. "He should've picked Ziva." He could see that Ducky wouldn't answer that. Tony changed the subject. "Abby will love that big, old house of yours, probably turn it into something out of the Munster's."

"You really do watch excessive amounts of television." Ducky laughed. "Now, let's have your official exam, shall we? I have the paperwork here somewhere. You're due at Dr. Pitt's office on Thursday, so I'm hopeful you'll be the field by next Monday."

Crossing his arms, Tony balked. "No scalpels."

"No, my dear boy, but several x-rays and an eye exam."

Opening his phone, Tony hit the button. "Boss, I'm in the basement, getting my first physical out of the way. Keep Ziva up there."

"Good. Will do."

Removing his coat, Tony glanced at the door. He hoped this wasn't going to include a prostate exam. "Be gentle, Ducky." He cringed at the snap of latex gloves. "Please?"

********

"Did you figure out who did it yet?" Jethro asked as he put the Caf-Pow in her hand.

She bounced up and down on her toes. "Yes!"

He didn't assume that she was talking about the same thing that he was. "Prove it to me."

"I can do that." She launched into a combination lecture and slideshow, and he pulled up a stool to watch. He usually interrupted her, but this time, he let her fly, and she went sky high. He waited until she hadn't spoken for at least three seconds.

"You're saying that crates fell on him?" Jethro let his disbelief show.

"Exactly!" She clapped her hands. "His injuries are consistent with impacts from blunt objects - the corners!"

"Ducky would've caught it." Jethro spread his hands, refusing to consider it. "There would've been wood fragments, imprints, and all kinds of evidence."

Shaking her head, she showed him again. "I checked. The warehouse crates were made of plastic. Everyone assumed he'd been beaten because, let's face it, he was a jerk. But look at these pics." She flipped through them again. "Have you ever known Marines to stack crates like that?"

Jethro frowned, considering it. "Wait, he's quite a ways from those crates."

"And that's another reason why no one thought of it. He got up, staggered around, and collapsed as he bled out. I estimate four crates hit him."

"What does Ducky say?"

Abby stopped waving her arms. "I was afraid to ask."

"Abby."

"I can do that, and then present my findings again!"

He rubbed his face. "God, no. Get him to agree, and I'll close the case, giving you the credit, of course."

"My first solve." She started to rush off, and he grabbed her by the arm before she got too far. "What?"

"Tony's having his physical, and I'm sure he'd rather you didn't see him naked."

"Too late for that. He shouldn't sleep naked." She snickered, and he glared. Abby gulped. "I'll wait."

"Good idea." Jethro flipped through the pictures again. "Those crates are small. You sure about this?"

"Gibbs!"

"Never mind." Jethro steered her to her Caf-Pow. He had a thought. "Footprints?"

"Concrete."

Jethro thought about all the evidence. "Why didn't you figure this out years ago?"

She flushed. "I was younger then, and you said it was murder."

"So it's my fault?" He laughed. "Well, I guess it was." He kissed her on the cheek. "Good work, Abs. I'll make a note that you don't listen to me anymore."

"Oh, I do, except that I don't." She followed him to the door. "Gibbs, you screwed up, but you fixed it. I'm proud of you."

He knew she was talking about Tony, not the case, but he picked his answer carefully. "Thanks for your help."

"It's what I do."

He left her, satisfied that she was satisfied. The temptation to stop by Ducky's had to be shoved aside, and he was glad he did when Vance was in the bullpen. "Director."

"Gibbs." Vance frowned. "Solve any cases lately?"

"One today." Jethro was proud of her. She saw patterns where other people didn't. "Anything else?"

"DiNozzo rides his desk until he passes that second physical."

Jethro made the choice to let his irritation show. "Thanks for reminding me."

Vance glanced at Tony's desk. "Didn't he have a computer?"

"McGee is working on it." Jethro sat at his desk and opened the drawer where he kept his gun. For some reason, he had the urge to clean it. He met Vance's eyes as he started taking it apart. "You like your office?"

"You're not subtle." Vance was going to be a huge pain in Jethro's ass, no doubt about it. He left, trying for dignity, but Jethro was just glad his new director was gone. They'd find a way to work together, but trust wasn't possible, not now. He was still embarrassed that he'd made assumptions without even asking. He wished he could blame it on a bomb or something.

McGee rushed in, carrying a computer. The sweat was easy to see on his forehead.

"Did you really think he wouldn't notice?" Ziva asked, laughter in her voice. "He is a trained investigator."

"I didn't switch out his keyboard and mouse!" McGee glared at her. "At least they left his monitor." He rushed away again, and Jethro cleaned the barrel of his gun.

"Ziva, you did put back the letter opener, right?" Jethro had seen her use it.

"Of course." She didn't even look guilty. "I even left a coupon as rent."

"Considerate of you." Jethro put on his glasses to check his gun. He would never admit it to anyone, but he was happier today than he'd been in a very long time. His team was back, and Tony hadn't moved out after they'd spent the night in bed together.

A cough alerted Jethro that Tony was getting off the elevator. Tony noticed the stare. "Yes, I coughed. It happens. Stop looking at me like that."

"Your tie is crooked." Jethro hid his smirk. He worried about that cough, but Ducky would take care of it.

Tony frowned and tried to fix it. He went to their filing cabinet, fished out the mirror, and straightened it. Smoothing his hair, he put the mirror away, and Jethro knew he should stop watching. With a furtive glance, Tony opened the top drawer all the way and pulled out a stack of files. Jethro nearly laughed. He had wondered where those had gone. Putting his gun back together, he checked the fit of the clip twice.

"Tony, did you pass the shooting test?" Ziva asked.

"I did." Tony dropped the files on his desk, sitting down with a small thump. "And my vision is still twenty ten. Where's McGee?"

"Getting you new parts for your computer. I believe he feels some guilt." Ziva flashed her smile. "I, of course, had nothing to do with it."

"You took my keyboard, but other than that, I agree." Tony leaned into his palm. "I do appreciate the dry cleaning coupon."

"I knew you would."

Jethro swiped his gun with a cloth one last time and put it away. "Abby solved our cold case."

"What?"

"What cold case?" Tony stared at him.

"Abby?" McGee asked, a keyboard under his arm. "How?"

"You two can go learn from her." Jethro smiled. "Keep slacking off, and she'll have your jobs soon." He pointed at the elevator. "McGee, Ziva, go see Abby."

They went with a certain speed, and Tony twitched in that direction. "What cold case?"

Shrugging, Jethro turned on the security camera in Abby's lab so it'd play on the plasma screen. He'd let her tell Tony about it. "You okay?"

Tony wandered over to stand in front of Jethro's desk. His eyes were on the screen. "I feel ... weird, like people are watching me."

"They are." Jethro had noticed it. "Rumor is you got a sweet new parking place."

"Oh, you're funny." Tony frowned, turning to look at him. "Actually, you are. Stop that."

Jethro got to his feet. "I'm going for coffee. It's your turn to cook dinner tonight."

"Pizza it is." Tony went back to watching the screen. "You gonna give me a ride home?"

"Maybe." Jethro left him there, but he'd get him a coffee. Today had turned out to be a good one. No one was more surprised than him.

*********

By the end of the day, Tony was extremely tired of McGee's puppy dog eyes, Ziva's inability to make contractions, and everyone else who stared at him. All the rumors in the building were about him, and he felt like a zoo animal.

"Tim, did you find that flash drive yet?"

McGee's jaw unhinged. "No, but I retrieved the information from your hard drive. I'll back it up to another one."

"Print out a copy too, will ya? I'll make a folder." Tony stifled a cough, but Jethro looked right at him. He wouldn't admit that he was tired. Work was different than lazing around a gym, and he could feel it. It'd been about a month since he'd been beaten up - twice - and he hated that he still wasn't a hundred percent. He was close, but he wasn't there yet.

"Here." McGee handed him a stack of papers.

"Thanks." Tony scrawled a title on a folder and got up to tuck it away. His knee creaked, and he gave it a rub.

McGee hadn't gone back to his desk. "Okay, stop being nice to me. I feel guilty enough, and I know you're only doing it to torture me."

Tony shut the file cabinet. "Yes, I am a bastard that way. You caught me." He nearly groaned at the amount of reports he still needed to finish. It was a good thing he had desk duty all week. Hoping no one would notice, he took a small stretch. He wanted to go home - Gibbs' house - but he wouldn't ask.

"Here's your copy of Tony's physical." Ducky handed it to Jethro, and Tony pretended not to care. He'd passed. That was all that mattered. Ducky continued, of course, "He's not a hundred percent, but he's still more fit than some agents. I don't recommend he spend all night in the forest, or work a scene in the rain any time soon, but his lungs will do."

"Do?" Jethro frowned.

"We'll know more after he sees Dr. Pitt on Thursday, but my gut tells me that as long as he doesn't take up smoking, he'll be fine." Ducky turned to him. "No smoking."

"Got it." Tony trusted Ducky's gut. "I'll give that box of cigars I got for Christmas to McGee."

"Oh, and one other thing." Ducky tossed keys, and Tony caught them on reflex. "I had my housekeeper bring over Mother's car for you. No reason for it to sit and rot."

"Your mother still drives?" Jethro voiced the question they were all thinking in horror.

"Not any longer, thank heavens." Ducky laughed. "If you like the car, Anthony, I'll make you a good deal on it."

Tony looked down at the keys, fearing that he'd be driving an old lady's car. Buick Skylark - four door - came to mind, but the logo. Oh, the logo. "Aston Martin," he whispered; his heart starting to beat faster. "Vintage?"

"Not red, but silver. I talked Mother out of the red one. So flashy. I know you can drive a stick. Have I ever told you about the time Gerald stripped the gears on my Morgan?"

"Several times, Ducky," Jethro said. "McGee, I'd get out of the way before Tony runs you down on his way to that car."

"Silver is good." Tony picked up his backpack. "Boss?"

"Go on."

"Thanks, Ducky." Tony kissed him on the face, enjoying the squawk and McGee's gasp.

"None of that!"

That was the last thing Tony heard as he bolted down the stairs, refusing to wait for the elevator. He needed the workout anyway. "Yes!" he shouted and skimmed his hand over her hood. Even if he couldn't afford to buy her, today she was his.

It was hunger that finally sent him towards Jethro's house, but he picked up burgers on the way. Jethro's Charger was by the curb so Tony put the Aston in the garage. She deserved the best. He had a hard time getting out, leaving her, but he wanted to make sure there were no dead bugs on the grill.

"If you kiss that car..."

"I can't kiss you?" Tony finished for him. Jethro took the bag of food and glared. Tony leaned to plant a big kiss on her, and Jethro kicked him in the butt. "Hey!"

"Made it way too easy." Jethro went back to the kitchen, and Tony chased after him. They ate at the table, exchanging glares between bites.

Tony broke first. "She's perfect."

"It's a car."

"A perfect car."

"If you give me the stats, I'm throwing you out."

That stopped Tony cold. He leaned and increased his glare by fifty percent. "You're jealous! Of a car!"

Jethro slapped his hand down on the table. His glare always won the argument. "You were too tired to be driving around half the night!"

"Gibbs, you're like a grumpy, Jewish mother, and you're scaring me. Even Jax didn't--" Tony shut up, honestly worried for his life. He shoved his mouth full and chewed, swallowed, and muttered, "I was excited."

"Idiot." Jethro wadded up some paper and threw it unerringly in the trash can. "Now get to bed."

"Boss," Tony whined. He tossed his trash and got to his feet. "You wouldn't throw me out."

"Oh, I'd throw you back in." Jethro put his hand on Tony's shoulder and steered him to his bedroom.

"I'm buying golf clubs tomorrow." Tony knew the smack was coming and took it like a man. "Ouch." He stripped off his clothes, thinking that would send Jethro back to his basement. It didn't work. He ended up in bed with a grumpy Marine. "Are you guarding the door?"

"Pretty much." Jethro wrapped an arm around him. Tony felt like he was being held down, and he had to wiggle. The arm grew tighter, and Jethro growled, "I want you well."

"You're still mad about that hospital thing. I get that." Tony managed to get to his side. "Don't squish the lungs!"

Jethro moved his arm lower. "Why were you being nice to McGee?"

"I made up my mind to be nicer, and it's driving him crazy. Totally not my fault, but funny." Tony found enough room to put his hand on Jethro's bare chest. Jethro still had sweats on, and Tony wanted them off. "I'm not all that sleepy."

Jethro scooted his hand down Tony's body. "I can help with that."

********

One more day without a case and Jethro was going to have to hurt someone. His team was finding things to do, and Tony had barely looked up from the paperwork scattered on his desk, but it was dull. Jethro drank his coffee, not wanting to wish murder on someone just so he wouldn't go crazy.

When Tony got to his feet, Jethro couldn't help but look at him. "DiNozzo?"

"Having lunch with Abby." Tony tucked a few papers away. "I'd appreciate it if you'd keep the vultures from my desk."

"If I gotta." Jethro took that to mean he wasn't invited. "McGee, control yourself."

McGee hid behind his monitor. Tony practically disappeared into thin air he was gone so fast, and Ziva had something to say, of course.

"He is acting strange."

"He got me coffee this morning," McGee said. "It was creepy."

Jethro controlled his laughter. Tony was really screwing with McGee's head by being nice.

"Perhaps he has had a life-changing experience." Ziva didn't sound convinced. "After all, he lost--"

"We are not discussing this," Jethro growled. "If you two want to gossip, take lunch."

Neither of them moved, and then Ziva got up. "Lunch would be nice."

"I'll buy." McGee followed her to the elevator. Jethro waited until they were gone to access the security camera in Abby's lab. He was careful not to put it on the plasma, just his computer. They were at her computer, doing something, and when Tony looked away, she stared right up at the camera and made a quick sign.

Butt out.

He turned it off, but he wouldn't feel guilty. They were up to something, and it was his job to know what. He went to mooch lunch off Ducky. They needed to talk.

"Ah, Jethro. You always seem to show up when Palmer orders pizza."

Jethro snagged a piece and sat on Ducky's desk. "It's a gift. Now, about that car. Tony kissed it good night. Did you plan on getting it back?"

"A great car deserves attention, and I think Tony will take care of her." Ducky shrugged, chewing pizza. "Why? Did you want it?"

"Funny, Duck." Jethro ate his crust, itching to sneak into the lab. "Tony's cough?"

"Will fade. I was serious about cosseting him a bit, but he'll be fine." Ducky patted Jethro on the knee and grinned. "A roommate has done wonders for you."

Glaring at him never worked, but Jethro did it anyway. He finished another piece before getting off the desk. "I'm a nosy bastard, right?"

"Right."

"Later, Duck." Jethro used all his tricks to get in Abby's lab without being heard. He circled to the left and stood out of sight so he could listen.

"How's your Marine, Tony?"

Jethro felt his spine stiffen at hearing Jax's voice.

"I think, technically, I'm his." Tony sounded a little sad. "He has me under house arrest."

"Good." Jax laughed. "He'll let you come visit?"

"He likes you, Jax," Abby said brightly. "Otherwise, he would've shot you."

"I believe that." There were a few moments of silence. "So you're staying in Washington?"

Holding his breath, Jethro waited for the answer.

Tony finally said something. "Yeah, I'm home."

"You are." Jethro moved into the webcam's line of sight. "Jax."

"Gibbs." Jax might've glared. "Did you send me a petty officer?"

"I did." Jethro glared back at him. "Take care of him."

"Wow, Tony, you were right. They're like oil and water." Abby broke the tension. Jethro watched Tony rubbed his face.

"Thanks, ya jarhead."

"You're welcome, ya grunt." Jethro put his arm around Tony's shoulders. "I didn't figure you for the computer type."

"Abby made me. I'm sure you're familiar with that."

Jethro went ahead and smiled. "I am. Okay, I have work to do." He gave Tony a small shake. "I expect you upstairs before too long."

"Got it, Boss."

"Good." Jethro left them to chat. He didn't much like it, but Tony had said he was home, and that was good enough. Tony was home, and Jethro smiled.

*********

"Probie, I've got that itchy feeling I always used to get right before a case. Is the van ready to go?" Tony avoided Jethro's eyes for the fifth time.

"Even has gas." McGee frowned. "You never got itchy feelings."

"If I did, I'm sure I didn't share those feelings with you." Tony got up long enough to put away another file. He should've known he couldn't keep a secret from Jethro, much less one as big as Jax on the webcam. Jethro's face had been a mix of fury and what Tony had thought might be jealousy. The whole shoulder thing had confirmed that. Good thing that Tony hadn't fallen into bed with Jax. Jethro might've killed them both.

Tony stared mindlessly at his computer, going over the conversation with Abby one more time.

"You ever going to trust Gibbs again?"

He didn't understand what she meant. "What?"

"He thought Vance would bring you home, and it nearly got you killed. Are you going to forgive him, trust him?"

"Oh, that." Tony drank the last of his diet soda to stall for time. "I could hear my dad laughing, you know? He always told me not to trust, not to care."

"Your dad's a jackass, Tony." She handed him Bert. "Can you trust Gibbs?"

"Jax thinks I already do."

His computer switched to screensaver, and he opened another file. His father had been wrong about everything that mattered. He looked over to see Jethro staring, and this time, he didn't hide from it. It was about trust. Whether Tony was angry or not; he always trusted him. Always.

"Hey, Boss, Abby wants another cold case. Any preference on which one I give her?"

"How about that one from when Gibbs was in Mexico?" McGee grinned. "The one where you fell in the drainage ditch and sprained your ankle?"

"McGee, was there something funny about your team leader being injured?" Jethro asked in that mild tone that always scared people. "Did you laugh when I got blown up?"

"That happens way too much," Tony mumbled, finding the file and taking it to his desk to look through one more time before he gave it to Abby.

"No, Boss! I mean, really! No." McGee was pale. "It wasn't... funny."

"I bet he heard you laughing in Mexico." Tony didn't bother scowling at him. "But this would be a good one to go over again." He might turn up a lead. "You know how usually we get the guy and lose the money? Well, this case, we found the money but didn't catch the guy."

"Maybe he fell in the drainage ditch too," Jethro said. "Did you see any bodies while you were down there?"

Tony leaned back in his chair, remembering. "It was dark, raining hard, more like sleet. McGee got a trace on the guy's cell, and we found his Suburban on the side of the road with a flat tire. When I jerked open the back door of the Suburban, I lost my footing. No guard rail, had bruises everywhere, and my ankle swelled up like a cantaloupe. Ziva threw me some rope, or I might've been swept--" He stopped and got up fast. "Boss, we have to check that ditch - downstream."

"I agree." Jethro tossed McGee the keys. "McGee, bring the van around. Ziva, make sure we have rope."

They scattered, and Tony slumped. "I can't go."

"No, you can't. I'll call. It's still your case." Jethro came over to him. "You really get itchy?"

"I did when I was the boss. It might've been fear." Tony gave him the file. "Directions are in here. Get pictures if McGee falls in."

Jethro laughed softly and shook Tony's hand. "Welcome home, Tony."

"Good to be here." Tony bravely kept hold of that hand. "And Boss? I forgive you for making that assumption."

"I don't." Jethro had his gun and was gone before Tony could think of how to answer that. Tony sank down in his chair, making sure not to smile, but he was home.

********
end