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*********

Cringing never helped take the sting out. Jethro had hands like iron, and Tony had thought once or twice over the years that he'd almost rather be hit by the proverbial two-by-four. McGee always had this smirk when it was Tony getting smacked. Kate had smiled, Ziva smirked, and Tony knew, absolutely knew, that most of the time he deserved it. Occasionally, he'd even more or less asked for it. In some bizarre way, he needed the smacks. They helped him keep his eyes on the ball, and that's why he often said thank you.

The sound was the oddest thing of all. Tony blinked, forcibly reminded of the sound a ball made when it hit a baseball bat. And then he hit the floor. He bounced. He was sure of it. Or at least his head did.

"Oh, crap," McGee whispered.

"You cannot say that he did not deserve it. In Mossad, he would have been struck much earlier. Gibbs has shown remarkable restraint."

Everything in his head jumbled together, and then he got it. Jethro had hit him. On the face. Really hard. There was definitely going to be a mark. Of course he'd have never fallen if he'd been expecting it or seen it coming. He'd been off-balance.

Rolling to his back, hoping for a helping hand, Tony felt as if he couldn't breathe, and everyone seemed frozen. Except Ziva, who smirked, stepped over him, and went to her desk.

McGee opened and shut his mouth several times, and Tony nearly laughed at that typical reaction. With a grunt, he sat up, refusing to touch his face and admitting that it felt like a hot iron had been put on it. Jethro met Tony's eyes and then turned away, staring at information on the plasma.

Face hot, Tony got to his feet, almost glad that the boss wasn't looking, giving him some dignity. It was then, he realized that everyone else in the bullpen was staring at him in horror. He looked up, praying that Vance, for a change, was in his office. No such damn luck. Tony straightened his back, ignoring the pop. A tiny drop of blood splashed red on his shirt, and he sighed with real frustration. Blood never came out, and this was a new shirt.

"Tony, you okay?" McGee asked, a catch in his voice.

It was an interesting question, and Tony tasted pennies.

"Perhaps he will turn his reports in on time from now on," Ziva said, still smug.

Tony took another look around, seeing the friends he'd made over the years in different stages of horror. There were a few who looked like they wanted to laugh, but he'd never liked them anyway. Then it hit him that they were waiting. On him. To do something. He wasn't sure what.

"Tony?"

He saw the set of Jethro's shoulders and read it with no trouble. There would be no apology. Jethro hadn't even been willing to help him up. That was the strangest thing of all. Tony could remember lots of times when Jethro was the only one to give him a hand up.

"Maybe you should head down to Dr. Mallard and have him take a look at that," Vance said, and when he'd come down the stairs was a mystery.

"He's not talking. I think Gibbs broke him," McGee said.

Tony wiped the blood from his mouth, wished he hadn't touched the throbbing mass of pain that was his entire skull, and quit. The childish urge to throw his badge at the back of Jethro's head raced through him. Jethro turned, eyes narrowing, and Tony took a healthy step back, just in case.

"Gibbs, you have something to say to DiNozzo?" Vance asked, and Tony wasn't going to stand there until hell froze over, waiting for an apology. There was a set to Jethro's jaw that was answer enough, and Tony wasn't going to beg.

Vance began his toothpick ritual, and Tony crossed to his desk. Yanking open the drawer that held his gun, he placed his badge on it. He locked it with no fanfare, surprised that his hadns didn't shake.

"Where do you think you're going, DiNozzo?" Vance asked.

"Damn good question," Tony said, refusing to look over at McGee's shocked face. He used the stairs even though his legs were wobbly. It was disbelief, not pain or shock. His phone rang before he'd gone two flights, and he sat down to stare at it.

ABBY

Deliberately, knowing he was committing the ultimate sin, he turned his phone off and tossed it in the corner where it broke in two pieces. All the years, all the work, and none of it meant a damn thing now. He was many things, but he wasn't a fool, very often. He blotted his mouth with the cuff of his ruined shirt. The case was over, wrapped up since lunch, and they'd been going over the last of the evidence before Jethro went after the dirtbag in interrogation.

Tony couldn't remember what he'd said to deserve a smack, but he remembered cringing, knowing it was coming. He wiped his mouth again and headed down the stairs. There was no way he was going up, and by the time he found an elevator, the truth of his future had sunk into him.

He was done. This was another job that had an ending date on his increasingly long resume. The saddest part of it all was that he was pretty sure the F.B.I. would hire him. Another realization soaked into his brain: by now everyone in Washington knew Jethro had knocked him down. There was no such thing as interdepartmental cooperation, except in the area of gossip. Hell, operatives in Israel probably knew.

Pride made Tony stiffen his spine as he went through security - there were hanging jaws - and out the main door into a driving rain. It rained all the damn time in this town, but he didn't bother running. Sliding down into his car seat, he shivered and fumbled his keys. They dropped down by his shoes, and he wiped the rain from his face, careful around the mouth, instead of picking them up.

The passenger side door opened, and he spared a glance, unsurprised at who sat down next to him.

"How we gonna fix this?"

Tony laughed, leaning over to get his keys and flinching when the heavy hand that landed on his shoulder. He knew it was touch meant to comfort, convey words that Jethro could never say, but he felt raw, exposed.

"I didn't know what to do," Tony said, feeling the inadequacy of the words. Jethro slid his hand up into Tony's hair, brushing over a new bump. Tony sighed. "Ow."

"You fell down?" Jethro managed to make it sound ridiculous.

"You hit hard!" Tony protested. He stuck the key in the ignition, and Jethro didn't stop him or get out. Tony wasn't sure where to go, but he put the car in gear. "Since you dropped me, some place I can drop you?"

"I gotta do the interrogation." Jethro slipped his hand down and clasped Tony's hand on the stick shift. The squeeze was gentle, and Tony could only stare at their hands wrapped together. He wasn't angry, more like dismayed. He was backed into a corner, and no matter what anyone said, he did have a scrap of pride. It'd be impossible to go back to work now. Jethro reached with his other hand, taking Tony by the chin and turning him so they were eye-to-eye. "Go home. I'll fix it."

Disbelief was uppermost in Tony's mind, but he'd seen Jethro do more with less. "You owe me a shirt."

"We'll head to Sears later." Jethro was gone with no delay from the car, and he might not have heard Tony laughing.

********

By the time Tony got out of the shower, he had four messages on his machine. Three of them were from Abby, and she did not sound happy. He didn't really listen as she rambled on about accidents and other stuff that didn't really relate to the problem. Then she threatened him with tracking his phone, and he went back to the bathroom to comb his hair around the lump on his head. His lip wasn't bad. He'd had worse.

Tilting his head, he looked at his face. Now that was going to leave a mark, and he couldn't help but wonder how hard Jethro had really intended to hit him. The idea that Jethro had intended to knock him down was laughable, except that they had arguing a lot lately. The cases had been hard ones, the hours long, and tempers had flared more than once. He'd worried about a lot of things, and he'd tried hard to impress Jethro. It hadn't worked. Maybe he should go update his resume now.

Tony kicked the bloody shirt towards the trash can in disgust and went to slide on some jeans and a T-shirt. When he went back into work later - and he would - he'd pull a sweater over it.

His phone rang again, and he didn't make a move to pick it up.

"DiNozzo, answer the damn phone."

Tony bolted for it. "Hi, Boss."

"Throwing your phone down in a fit is one thing, but you made Abby cry, and that's just wrong," Jethro growled. It was easy to picture him in the elevator.

"Are you sure it wasn't the video of you smacking me into tomorrow that upset her?" Tony shot right back. "Has McGee posted it to YouTube yet? Maybe she's crying because my two hundred dollar shirt is ruined!"

"That's you sobbing, DiNozzo." Jethro's voice was mild, but Tony heard the edge of anger held back. "You what?"

"YouTube!" Tony shouted and hung up the phone. After all these years, it was definitely his turn to hang up first. The anger surging through him was a surprise.

Hours later, he was still angry, and Jethro hadn't called him back. Tony flopped down on the sofa in disgust. Pacing and cursing were a waste of time, and he was tired from it. Frustrated, he grabbed up his keys and left for the open road.

Tony drove straight through, only stopping to piss and get more soda to fuel him through the night. It looked the same when he got there, and he parked close enough to change his mind but far enough away that he wasn't on the surveillance camera. He had no idea why he was here, except that he had nowhere to run, and this was definitely nowhere he wanted to be.

He put on his shades, locked his car, and walked the opposite direction. Down the hill, remembering why and how. Those things shouldn't have the power to hurt him anymore, but he'd learned over the years that it was impossible to outrun his childhood. It was the shadow he didn't want and couldn't escape.

Laughing at his maudlin mood, he turned and went back to his car. He tried to walk purposefully, not trudge like he was heading for a whipping. When he got there, he took a minute to lean against the side and catch his breath. That hill wasn't getting any smaller.

The gate slowly opened, and a stretch limo emerged, and Tony stuffed his hands in his pockets as it went by. He had no doubt that his father was inside, and he was surprised at the lack of emotion it evoked in him.

His father was dead to him.

That was the Italian way, and Tony was very Italian. His grandmother - may she rest in peace - had seen to that. The limo disappeared around the corner, and Tony got in his car, proud his hands weren't shaking. This little trip down memory lane had made him very sure of one thing.

It was time to go home.

The drive back wouldn't take as long as getting there. He still didn't have a clue as to how Jethro was going to fix the mess they were in, but he was willing to give it a shot. He didn't want a new job. He liked the old one fine, even the pats on the head. Okay, they were more like smacks, but they helped him stay focused. He complained about them whenever anyone would listen. That didn't mean he wanted them to stop.

Maybe he did. Maybe he wanted to not deserve them any longer. He rubbed his face, feeling the bruise and driving that much faster.

The red lights in his rear-view mirror took him by surprise, but he pulled over. He had his badge halfway out when the uniform yelled, "Hands on the wheel!"

He complied immediately because he had no real desire to be shot. "Officer, I'm a federal agent. Let me show you my badge."

"Out!"

The feeling that he'd been framed for murder again crept over him. He tried to get out with a bit of dignity, but he was immediately turned and shoved against his car. The quick search stripped him of his license.

"I'm a Fed!"

"It's him. Make the call."

Tony grunted as his arms were yanked back and cuffed together. "Look, this is cozy, but--"

"Quiet!" The cop jerked him off the car and stuffed him inside the cruiser. Protesting at this point seemed ridiculous. The cops stood right outside, having a phone conversation with someone, and Tony wanted to bang his head into something.

"Hey! Come on!" Tony's eloquence failed him. One of the cops got in his car, and the other opened the door to the front. "This isn't right!"

The cop didn't even look back. He put the car in gear and took off at a high rate of speed. Of course, it was nothing after driving with Gibbs. Straining, Tony looked back, but couldn't see his car.

The ride ended at NCIS headquarters, and while Tony had been angry at Jethro before, now it was incandescent rage.

Jethro pulled the door open and helped him out. The cops handed over Tony's wallet, and Tony considered doing something stupid, like kicking Jethro in the shin.

"Thanks," Jethro said, and with a nod, the cops were gone. "DiNozzo, you ever--"

Tony frowned when Jethro broke off. "Ever what?" he snapped, furious.

"You ever run off like that again, and I'll--" Again, Jethro stopped. He took a harsh breath. "It'll be bad."

For some reason, that scared Tony more than elaborate plans. "Take these off!" He twisted, but Jethro had him tight, and it wasn't that far to Jethro's car. "Now!"

"No." Jethro manhandled him into the back seat and slammed the door. The trip to Jethro's house was made in complete silence, which was a first for Tony. Being dragged out of the car again and into the house did not improve Tony's mood. Jethro took the cuffs off and smacked the back of Tony's head. "Moron."

Drawing himself up to his fullest height, Tony tried for eloquence. "You put a BOLO out on me!" he blurted.

"Yes." Jethro didn't look ashamed, but then he never did. Tony made his glare as Jethro-like as possible and waited. And then waited some more. Jethro never squirmed, but he finally huffed, "I'm sorry, okay?"

The words made everything in the world right again. Tony took a deep breath, stuck his finger in his ear and wiggled it. "What?"

Jethro caught him around the neck and pulled him close. "I'm sorry. I swung too hard, out of sheer frustration at your insanity, and you moved into it. I'm not sorry about the BOLO. You should've had your damn phone!"

Tony blinked several times. "Insanity?" There was a buzzing in Tony's ears that was a result of hearing the word 'sorry' from Jethro's lips. "Me?"

"Yes!" Jethro yanked him closer and hugged him. "You've been crazy at work lately." But he didn't turn Tony loose. Tony didn't want to lean into it, but he did, and he wasn't sure how his hands ended up at Jethro's waist. It felt right to be there, and he held on a little tighter.

"I'm still mad at you." Tony tried not to whine. He listened to the static in his head, sliding his hands down that much further. "I could be sorry too."

Jethro gave a grunt and dug his fingers in hard. "I'm not leaving you. No matter how stupid you act."

"I'm pretty sure that's not what that was about." Tony wasn't sure at all. His frustrations and anger swirled back, and he grumbled, "They've been hard cases, and all you talk about is how awesome McGee and Abby are!"

"The crazier you get, the less work I get out of you!" Jethro leaned away and then kissed him. It was enough to get rid of the anger and restore a semblance of sanity. Tony sighed and slumped against him. Jethro stroked Tony's hair. "You're a good agent. Quit worrying about us and get some work done."

"Okay." Tony rested his head on Jethro's shoulder. "You still owe me a nice shirt."

"I got a closet full of stuff you can have." Jethro tucked him an inch closer. "Are we done?"

Laughing was the only answer to that.

*********

Going to work was the hardest thing Tony had ever done, but he fortified himself with a grande breakfast burrito. He held his head high and didn't stop to flirt like usual. His desk seemed like a safe haven when he reached it. Unfortunately, his phone rang about two minutes later.

"DiNozzo."

"The director would like to see you in his office."

"I'll be right there." Tony stowed the burrito in his desk so Ziva wouldn't snitch it, checked his gun and badge, and trotted up the stairs. He didn't rush, knowing he was in trouble. The secretary waved him though, and he tried to look confident as he went to stand in front of Vance's desk. It was moments like these that he missed Jenny.

A tiny prickle at the back of his neck almost made him turn. He tried to sniff the air without being obvious.

Vance looked up. "Next time you take a couple of days off, I expect something more than a hastily written email sent from Starbuck's that ends up in my junk mail!"

Tony made sure not to blink in surprise. He lowered his head slightly. "Yes, sir." He'd thank Abby with roses for covering his ass. She was probably going to hit him for running off, but he deserved it. "Sorry, sir."

"Not that I blame you." Vance actually tried a smile. "Agent Gibbs had no business hitting you. I put a reprimand in his file. He'll be formally apologizing to you."

"It was an accident. Didn't Abby show you the security footage?" Tony spread his hands, trying for supreme puzzlement. "If he'd have hit me on purpose, I'd still be unconscious!"

Pointing his finger, Vance frowned. "That bruise on your face is actionable."

"I can see this is going to lead to another harassment seminar." Tony hung his head. "It was a stupid accident. Ziva's hit me harder for staring at her butt."

"Your team has issues, Gibbs." Vance leaned back in his chair and looked disgusted. Tony didn't have to glance over his shoulder to know that Jethro was standing there. They shifted slightly, and Tony hoped Vance got the message. They were a united front. No slap to the face, no matter how hard, was going to change that. Vance shrugged. "Go work. I'm tired of looking at you."

Jethro beat Tony out the door. Neither of them spoke, but they took the elevator down, and Jethro flipped the switch almost immediately.

"Come here," Jethro growled.

Tony went, and the touch, the rough clasp, made him whole again. He grumbled against Jethro's neck, "You could've helped me up."

"You shouldn't have fallen over." Jethro tugged Tony's hair, nudged him away, and hit the switch. "Now. Can we get some work done?"

********

The dark was very dark, and Tony blinked to make sure his eyes were really open. He nuzzled into the warm skin close to him and grunted when a heavy arm wrapped him closer.

"Abby liked her flowers," Jethro said.

"Cost me a bundle," Tony groused. He would've paid more to make her happy. Jethro squirmed, and Tony moved, and they kissed.

Jethro caressed the back of Tony's head. "Where'd you go?"

Tony kissed him first, long and slow, doing a very thorough job. "Nowhere."

"Don't go there again." Jethro wound them together, and Tony grunted in reply because his mouth was busy. They shifted, touching in the places that counted, and Jethro thrust in a steady rhythm. Tony pushed up into him, awash in feelings he'd never admit.

"Yeah," Tony breathed, spiraling up into a quick orgasm. Jethro groaned and jerked, splattering come all over both of them. Tony grinned into the darkness, pulling him down into another series of kisses. Jethro moved away, rolling off him, and they lay together, arms and legs still crossed, breathing heavily. Tony shut his eyes. "I can do this," he said, sure of it now where he hadn't been just three days ago. Jethro's snores answered him, and Tony gave him a small pat.

Tomorrow, they'd go shopping, whether Jethro liked it or not.

********
end