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Help You See It Through

Chapter Text

They had been on the case, working non-stop for almost three days. None of them had gone home during that time, and they had been subsisting on coffee and cat naps. And when Tony had had the breakthrough that led to the team seriously looking at the Petty Officer’s wife as a suspect, despite the supposed alibi and McGee and Ziva griping about how Tony always thought it was the wife, all Gibbs had felt was relief and some annoyance that it had taken Tony two days to get to that point. From then onwards, things had moved quickly. In the past twenty four hours, they’d apprehended the Petty Officer’s wife and her lover who’d been an accomplice in the murder before they could flee the area, interrogated them, and gathered enough evidence to put them both away.

The team was working on finalizing their reports, banter starting to turn irritable on Tony’s part and cruel on Ziva’s part when Tony’s phone rang. Gibbs’ ears automatically tracked the call without paying full attention to it. The work was almost done and he was going to dismiss the team and let them go home early and be off for a couple of days after all the work they’d done.

“DiNozzo,” Tony answered, his usual joie the vivre a little muted due to exhaustion. “Uh-huh. Yeah. What? What?? Which hospital?”

Tony’s expressive green eyes were wide and full of fear and he’d stood up, phone to his ear, other hand fisted and pressed to his mouth and then the fist moved down to press on his heart. He nodded urgently. “Yeah. OK. I’m on my way. Right now.”

He grabbed his gun and badge and his jacket, and without even looking at the team or saying a word to Gibbs, sprinted down the hallway to the stairwell, disappearing down the stairs, gun, badge and jacket still in his hands. He’d left so quickly that not only had he not put the jacket on, or holstered his weapon, but neither McGee nor Ziva had been able to say a word before he left.

Gibbs frowned at his team. “What the hell…?” he asked.

McGee looked puzzled and slightly concerned, and Ziva rolled her eyes. “Who knows,” she scoffed. “Tony probably just wanted to get out of here without finishing his reports.”

“He emailed his reports to me an hour ago,” Gibbs told them. “He was just waiting to review yours, make sure you did them right, before he left.”

“He was done?” McGee asked, surprised.

Gibbs resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Of course, McGee,” Gibbs growled. Tony always finished his work and then he played. Tony was playing to fill the time, waiting for his teammates to be done. Technically, he didn’t even have to review McGee and Ziva’s reports, but he’d gotten into the habit of doing it when Kate had joined the team and Gibbs kept returning Kate’s reports to her. Tony began reviewing Kate’s reports and ensuring that they were up to Gibbs’ standards before allowing them to be filed with Gibbs himself when he got tired of Gibbs’ complaints about the low standards of report writing in the whole of the Secret Service. And he’d continued to do that when McGee joined the team, and again when Ziva had been assigned to them. The team lead was grateful because it meant his work went much more smoothly.

“Are you both done with your reports?” Gibbs snapped.

“Almost, Gibbs,” Ziva turned back to her computer.

“We usually send these to Tony first,” McGee said.

“Send them to me today, then track that last call Tony received,” Gibbs told him.

“On it, Boss.” It took McGee another twenty minutes or so to finish the last details of his report. Then he saved it and sent it to Gibbs, although he cc-ed Tony out of habit. Next he hacked into Tony’s cell provider to check to see who last called Tony. “Um, Boss? The call came from George Washington University Hospital. Why would the hospital call Tony?”

“Perhaps he is dating another doctor from there,” Ziva sneered. “You know how he was the last time he was seeing a doctor.”

“He was undercover for Director Shepard,” Gibbs interrupted. “McGee, which department called him? Can you tell?”

“Looks like their ER?” McGee answered, now looking concerned.

“Check to see if his father’s there.”

McGee nodded and his fingers flew over the keyboard. Meanwhile, Gibbs clicked McGee’s report open and sighed. He could already see the edits he would need McGee to make. He would have to print it and scrawl out his edits in long hand since he was old school. Goddammit. Things were so much easier when DiNozzo did the editing. By the time Gibbs received their reports all he needed to do was review and sign off on them. Very rarely did DiNozzo ever let a report get to him that even had a typo.

“No, Boss. Doesn’t look like Tony’s father is anywhere close to DC,” McGee informed him.

Gibbs gave an inward sigh of relief. Good. Tony had been a mess when Senior had been there that one time and he was glad that it wasn’t Senior in the hospital calling for Tony.

“Perhaps it was one of his infernal fraternity brothers?” Ziva suggested.

“Maybe,” McGee shrugged. “I know one guy. Steve something. That Kate used to date. You remember that guy, Boss?”

“Adler,” Gibbs supplied the last name.

“Right. I’ll check on his whereabouts…” McGee’s fingers did their thing, and it didn’t take long before he had an answer. “Oh no, it’s not him. Adler’s living in LA now and he’s there. His Starbucks card was used there this morning.”

Gibbs nodded.

OK. Not Senior, or the frat brother they knew about. But who would Tony know that would have called him to the hospital in such a state? Gibbs printed McGee’s report, stuck it in a folder and went down to Autopsy to talk to Ducky. Ducky might know what the hell was going on with DiNozzo. Gibbs wondered when things had changed. There was a time when he, Gibbs, would have known exactly what was going on with his second, and if he didn’t know it then he knew he would be able to get the truth out of Abby. But now, he knew nothing, and he knew that Abby knew even less than he did. There was an off chance that Ducky might have some information because Tony did still speak to the elderly ME. But the question remained: when did DiNozzo stop talking to him?

Probably when he bugged out for Mexico and came back all gangbusters, needing to prove that he was whole and sane and not consumed by grief, happily busting Tony down from team lead and being so stupidly unsupportive for the last couple of years? the little voice in his head supplied. He brushed it away.

But Ducky didn’t have any information either. Worry slammed into him. If Tony wasn’t speaking to him, or Abby, or Ducky, he knew that Tony was definitely not going to be confiding in McGee or Ziva, given team dynamics of the previous couple of years, then who was Tony even talking to these days? He knew well enough that Tony didn’t exactly have too many people he could depend on.

“My dear Jethro, I do not know who would be in the hospital that would have caused Anthony to run off like that,” Ducky said, his soft brogue comforting. His whole demeanor was comforting. “But we do know that Anthony himself is healthy and well, so that is something to be thankful about, given his tendencies.”

Gibbs nodded his agreement. Ducky had a good point there.

Palmer walked in then, handing Ducky some papers that he started flicking through.

“I’m sure everything is all right, Jethro,” Ducky continued. “Anthony would call if he needed help.”

“What happened to Tony?” Palmer asked.

“Jethro says that the George Washington University Hospital ER called him, and he ran off without a word of explanation,” Ducky summarized. “Would you by any chance know who might need Anthony at the hospital, Mr Palmer?”

“Oh,” Palmer frowned and looked hesitant. “Oh. I hope Evan’s OK.”

“Who’s Evan?” Gibbs asked.

“Ummmm…” Palmer blinked and began stuttering and panicking. “A-agent G-gibbs, I-I-I don’t th-th-think…”

“Spit it out,” Gibbs barked at him.

Palmer paled, picked up his phone and turned his back to Gibbs and Ducky. He held it to his ear and waited a moment before he began speaking, less stuttery and more normal, although he was still awkward as hell. “Um, Tony? Heard you had to leave. Is everything OK? Um. Call me. It’s um. Gremlin. Autopsy Gremlin? Jimmy Palmer. Please call me back.”

Palmer ended the call and turned back to Gibbs and Ducky, the former glaring angrily at him, the latter watching him with quiet interest. Palmer pursed his lips. “I c-can’t say anything unless Tony says I can,” he said, his voice faint but his tone firm.

And even though Gibbs gave him the patented death glare, and even turned it up a notch, Palmer stood strong. Luckily their stalemate was broken by the sound of Palmer’s phone ringing. He grabbed it and answered.

“Tony?”

“Put it on speaker, Palmer,” Gibbs ordered.

“Um, Tony. Gibbs is here. He wants me to put you on speaker?” Palmer asked. He nodded. “You sure? OK. Hang on.” Palmer pressed a button. “You’re on speaker, Tony. Doctor Mallard and Agent Gibbs are here as well.”

They heard Tony blow out a soft breath. The bustling sounds of a hospital could be heard in the background – people milling around, muted voices, the odd announcement over the PA.

“Anthony? Are you all right?” Ducky started.

They heard Tony’s breath catch. “I-I’m gonna need some time off,” he finally said, and they heard him swallowing, his breath hitching. “Evan’s dead, Jimmy. He died.”

Palmer gasped. “How?

“Who the fuck is Evan?” Gibbs thundered.

“Drunk driver hit him when he was driving to work today,” Tony sniffled. “Fuck! Who’s drunk at fucking eleven in the morning anyway? Besides my father, that is. Goddamnit. Fuck. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go.”

“Tony?” Palmer gave Ducky a look. The older man nodded, understanding Palmer’s request. “I’m on my way, OK. Stay right where you are. I’m coming to you.”

“N-no, Jimmy. I have to call his mom. I have… have to… oh fuck, Jimmy. This isn’t how this is supposed to turn out!” Tony was obviously trying to hang on. He took a few deep breaths. “Fuck it. Fuck it. Fuck!”

“I’m getting my stuff and leaving now. Doctor Mallard…”

“Go, Mr Palmer,” Ducky said. “Anthony, do you need anything else?”

“He’s dead,” Tony repeated. “I-I… I just… fuck…” Tony tried to take a breath but it was hitched and shuddery.

“Who’s Evan?” Gibbs softened his tone.

Tony was quiet for a moment before they heard him sobbing. “My husband,” Tony sobbed into the phone, “Evan’s my husband. My husband just died. Oh fuck. This isn’t supposed to happen. This is not how this is supposed to happen.” He dissolved into deep-chested sobs. Palmer hastily took him off speaker and began speaking soothingly.

“I’ll drive,” Gibbs said.

Ducky grabbed his coat, and the three men left.

Chapter Text

When they got to the hospital, Jimmy asked about Evan Caldwell and with Ducky helping to convince hospital officials, and Gibbs flashing his NCIS credentials, they were led to the trauma room where a man laid on the gurney, his body bloodied and mangled, the wound in his head a mortal wound. He was as he’d been after the trauma team had worked on him and weren’t able to save him. Numerous tubes still remained in his body, attaching him to various monitors, and he was still supported by a back board. But he was obviously dead. The machinery surrounding him were ominously silent.

Tony sat sprawled on the floor, holding the hand dangling down. He held it gently against his face, giving it soft kisses, his mouth moving saying things, but they couldn’t hear the words. His eyes were red and swollen, but dry, his face pale and expressionless.

He ignored them when they stepped into the room.

Jimmy knelt down and put a hand on Tony’s shoulder. Tony looked at Palmer then, and Gibbs saw how empty Tony’s green eyes were.

“Tony?” Palmer’s tone was gentle. “C’mon. Let’s get you off the floor.”

Tony shook his head and clutched Evan’s hand with both of his. Gibbs saw him fiddling with the band on the ring finger of the hand he was holding. A wedding ring. The man was wearing a wedding ring. Solid white gold or platinum from the looks of it. And Tony kept kissing the hand and spinning the ring on the man’s finger. From the familiarity of the gesture, Gibbs guessed that it was something Tony did a lot. Like a nervous habit. Fiddling with and spinning his husband’s wedding ring.

“Did you call Dawn?” Jimmy asked, his tone still unbelievably gentle.

Tony nodded.

“Is she on her way?”

Tony nodded again.

“Then let’s get you off the floor, OK?” Jimmy said, no trace of the chronic stammer in his speech now. “You don’t want Dawn to see Evan like this, do you?”

Tony shook his head.

“Come on then,” Palmer helped the mute agent stand. “Let’s wait for her in the ER and let them take care of Evan. Cause you don’t want Dawn to see Evan and remember him like this, right?”

Tony nodded, and his bottom lip trembled. He bit down on it to stop it, which made him look even more vulnerable.

“Good. Let’s go,” Palmer had a hand on Tony’s elbow.

“Need a minute,” Tony finally broke his silence. He jerked his head at the gurney. “Gimme a minute. Please.”

Jimmy nodded. “We’re going to be right outside.”

“Don’t let Dawn…”

“If I see her, I won’t let her come in. But you should come out and meet her out there instead of in here. OK?”

Tony nodded.

Palmer squeezed Tony’s shoulder and he, Ducky and Gibbs retreated and stood just outside the door to the trauma room. The hospital would need the room for another emergency soon. Hospital staff was waiting there, sympathetically giving Tony some time and privacy.

Gibbs could see what Tony was doing though, from where he was standing. DiNozzo had his back to them. Gibbs watched as his Senior Field Agent climbed onto the gurney, tucked himself into the dead man’s side and put his arm around the mangled and bloody chest. His body rocked with silent sobs. Gibbs kept watching as he eventually leaned up on his elbow and ran a trembling hand tenderly over the dead man’s chest and then caressed his face. Finally he slid off the gurney and got to his feet. Even in his grief, Tony’s movements were smooth and graceful. He bent down, clasping the man’s hand, and Gibbs turned away, not wanting to see Tony kiss his husband goodbye. Even he couldn’t intrude in this. Tony was grieving. Tony’s husband had died. This wasn’t some weird prank. Tony had been married to this poor man, and now Tony had to bury him. Like he’d had to bury Shannon. That old grief threatened to choke Gibbs again. Tony deserved this time alone with Evan, without anyone witnessing it.

A moment later, Tony appeared, eyes dry again. His suit was blood spattered now, as were his cheek and his hands. Gibbs pulled his handkerchief out and carefully wiped Tony’s face and hands clean. Palmer put an arm comfortingly around Tony’s shoulder and led him out, to the waiting room. They stood quietly as Tony signed off on numerous hospital documentation, completing all the paperwork and then he stood with them, biting his fingernails while they waited for Evan’s mother to arrive. He gnawed on the fingernails of one hand and his other hand was fisted, compulsively rubbing his chest, right by his heart. At some point, he pulled a long chain out from under his shirt. A wedding ring hung on it, and instead of rubbing his chest, he fingered the ring reflexively as they waited.

Gibbs understood it then. He’d noticed that in the last year or so, Tony had taken to rubbing his chest at times of emotional distress. But he wasn’t just rubbing his chest. He’d been fingering the wedding ring hanging on the chain. It was his tangible connection to his husband, something he’d kept secret from everyone at work. Everyone except Jimmy Palmer. Gibbs didn’t know how to feel about the whole entire thing, but right now it wasn’t about him. It was about Tony, who was obviously distraught. Who had apparently been deeply in love with his husband and kept that away from him. Tony, who had just had his world shattered. But Gibbs couldn’t keep his eyes off of Tony’s fingers as he played with the ring on the chain, rubbing, twisting, yanking at it. It was Tony’s wedding ring. It was mind boggling.

Dawn Caldwell arrived not long after the paperwork was done. She was in her sixties, with brown hair and blue eyes, and she rushed in, eyes wild. She saw Tony and ran up to him, eyes huge and filled with questions. Tony shook his head once. The woman visibly deflated, her eyes filling with tears. Tony pulled her into his arms and held her as she wept.

“Can I see him?” she finally pulled away, sniffling fiercely. Tony handed her his handkerchief.

Tony shook his head.

“Are you sure it’s him? Could it be a mistake?”

Tony bit his lip. “It’s him,” he finally said, his voice low and husky and full of grief.

The woman swallowed and pulled Tony into a fierce hug. “Do we have to do anything else here now?”

Tony shook his head. “I took care of it.”

“You’re such a good boy,” Dawn told him. “You always take care of everything. You take care of Evan.”

Tony shrugged.

“Are you OK?” she asked, finally taking in his bloodstained clothes.

“It’s not my blood,” Tony told her. And to distract her from whose blood it was, Tony turned to the three men with him. “Dawn, you remember Jimmy Palmer? He was at our… wedding.”

“Mrs Caldwell,” Palmer gave her a tentative hug. “I’m so very sorry for your loss.”

Dawn nodded.

“And this is Dr Ducky Mallard and my boss Jethro Gibbs,” Tony continued woodenly. “Ducky, Gibbs, my mother in law Dawn Caldwell.”

Ducky and Gibbs shook the woman’s hand, muttering their condolences.

“Tell Ziva and McGee to email me their reports. I’ll fix them up and forward them on to you,” Tony said to Gibbs, his face expressionless.

“I’ll take care of their reports,” Gibbs told him.

Tony nodded. “Thanks.”

“Take all the time you need. I’ll square it away with Vance.”

Tony nodded again.

“How about I drive you home?” Jimmy offered. “I can drive both you and Dawn home. You probably shouldn’t be driving right now.”

Tony nodded and handed Jimmy his keys. “Can’t go home,” he mumbled, his face stricken with panic. “Not yet. I can’t… he won’t be there… I just can’t…”

“Come home with me then,” Dawn said. “Stay a while. I think we still have some of your clothes hanging around in Evan’s old room.”

Tony nodded gratefully.

“Will you tell us if we can do anything, Anthony?” Ducky asked.

Tony nodded.

Ducky patted his arm and pulled him into a gentle hug. “Be strong,” he whispered in Tony’s ear.

Tony nodded again.

“Anything at all,” Ducky said again. “You as well, Mrs Caldwell. If there’s anything you need…”

“Thank you,” Dawn nodded and gave Ducky a small smile.

“Please take my card,” Ducky gave Dawn one of his cards before he turned to Tony. “Just call us, or call Mr Palmer. We are here for you.”

Tony nodded and blew out a breath.

“C’mon, Tony. Let’s go,” Palmer cupped Tony’s elbow and steered him and Dawn away. Gibbs watched as Tony wrapped an arm around his mother in law, and together they walked out, Jimmy still holding Tony’s elbow carefully, as if the man would break. At this point, he looked so fragile that maybe he just might.

Gibbs’ brain was awhirl with questions. Tony was married. To a man. It wasn’t even legal in DC yet although it soon would be, or so they said. But Tony had been married and he, Gibbs, hadn’t had a clue. How he’d managed to hide something this big from Gibbs, he didn’t know. It was definitely a whammy.

“I take it you didn’t know about Evan either?” he turned to Ducky.

The ME shook his head and sighed. “I’m afraid not.”

“Palmer knew.”

“He and Anthony are friends,” Ducky said simply. “I would guess that perhaps only Mr Palmer knew. Anthony has always been tight lipped about his relationships. Especially those that are meaningful.”

Gibbs nodded. He didn’t like it but it was the truth. “We should look into this accident,” he said.

“Tread lightly,” Ducky advised.

Gibbs agreed. He called McGee and asked him to look into a drunk driving accident involving Evan Caldwell and by the time they were back at the Navy Yard, McGee was ready. He recited the information and displayed pictures on the plasma.

“Evan Caldwell, age thirty eight, was involved in a car accident. A pickup truck driven by this man, John Gallagher, plowed into his car. Gallagher’s blood alcohol level was point two one, two and a half times the legal limit,” McGee reported. “He was blind drunk. Seems pretty straightforward. But I didn’t see a connection for either Caldwell or Gallagher to the Navy or the Marine Corps, Boss. What’s going on?”

“How’s Gallagher?” Gibbs asked.

“Walked away with only a few scrapes and bruises,” McGee said.

“Metro on it?”

“He’s in custody, being held without bail. It’s his third drunk driving offence. Charges pending include vehicular homicide.”

Gibbs nodded. “Let me know if Gallagher makes bail.”

McGee looked at Gibbs, confused. “Boss? What’s going on? Who’s Gallagher? And Caldwell? I still don’t see any connection to us.”

“What else did you find out about Caldwell?”

McGee flashed a few photographs. Caldwell was very handsome – glittering blue eyes – same as his mother’s, dark blond hair, square jaw, engaging smile, great teeth. It irked Gibbs for some reason.

“He’s a bartender,” McGee said.

“The irony of a bartender being hit by a drunk driver,” Ziva shook her head.

“This isn’t funny,” Gibbs glared at them.

“No, of course not, Boss,” McGee agreed.

“What else do we know about Caldwell?”

“He’s a bartender, but he’s got doctorate degrees. One from MIT and one from Harvard,” McGee sounded impressed. “He was some kind of prodigy. Got both his doctorates before he was twenty five, worked for NASA, then some alphabet soup agencies, and now he’s a freelance consultant and he tends bar.”

“What were his doctorates in?”

“Astrophysics and Quantum Mechanics.”

“A rocket scientist who ended up a bartender?” Ziva’s eyebrows were raised. “Interesting.”

“His mother Dawn lives here in DC,” McGee continued on, and Gibbs made a mental note of the woman’s address when it flashed on screen. “Here’s Caldwell’s address… hmm. Interesting. That address looks familiar to me.”

Gibbs sighed and rubbed his face.

“What’s the connection?” McGee asked again.

Gibbs frowned. “Caldwell is – was – DiNozzo’s husband.”

What?” both Ziva and McGee exclaimed. And the lightbulb came on for McGee. The address was familiar because it was Tony’s address. Evan Caldwell lived with Tony. Which made sense, if what Gibbs said was right and Caldwell was Tony’s husband.

“But Tony is…” straight, McGee wanted to say. But really, did he know that? Or had he just assumed that Tony only fucked women? He’d assumed Tony was single and here he was, apparently married.

“He must be kidding,” Ziva shook her head. “Tony. Married? And to a man?”

“Gay marriage isn’t even legal in DC,” McGee shrugged. He typed on his keyboard and pulled up the information. “I’m looking for it. Maybe it’s some kind of weird prank. Oh shit. It’s not a prank. Marriage certificate issued and filed in Boston, Massachussetts for Evan Caldwell and Anthony DiNozzo. Fuck! Tony’s married!”

“How long has Tony been married?” Ziva was still skeptical.

“Married since September 2008,” McGee muttered quietly. “He’s been married over a year.”

“How can Tony be married? Tony has commitment issues! Tony is a child!” Ziva scoffed.

“DiNozzo just lost his husband,” Gibbs growled. “He’s devastated. Be respectful.”

“Yes. Of course, Gibbs,” Ziva backed down even though her expression contrasted with her words. She wasn’t convinced.

But she hadn’t seen Tony sitting on the floor clutching a dead man’s hand. She hadn’t seen Tony so fragile he’d been about to shatter. Besides, Ziva had a tendency of seeing only what she wanted to see, and Tony had a tendency of showing her only what Tony wanted her to see. Gibbs hadn’t bothered to correct her views of the man. If she was unable to see her Senior Field Agent and truly know him, it wasn’t his business. Mossad had trained her, not him. If Mossad agents couldn’t see what lay beneath the surface of those they worked with closely and insisted on thinking that Tony was merely window dressing on Gibbs’ elite MCRT, then Gibbs didn’t see the point of pointing out her error. And the fact that Tony encouraged it, probably delighted in baiting her with it and laughing (with Evan, Gibbs realized) about what she was missing completely, really made it their thing and not something Gibbs should deal with. As long as Ziva didn’t apply that same blindness to their cases, he really didn’t give a shit.

But he saw now that this willful blindness of hers might be detrimental to the team, especially now that Tony had suffered this great loss. Tony wouldn’t be able to take the cruel jabs that Ziva was prone to dishing out, not when he’d just lost his husband. Ziva might not hold back on what she might say about Tony having a supposed husband and there was no way Tony would stand to let her drag Evan through the mud. He would just have to keep an eye on team dynamics when Tony came back to work, he told himself. Hell, for all he knew, Tony might not even be coming back to work. Lord knew he checked out of the real world for a while after his girls died. He sincerely hoped that Tony would bear this terrible loss better than he had.

McGee shook his head and took the information off the plasma. It felt wrong now that he knew who Evan Caldwell was. “Should we… I don’t know Boss – should we go to his apartment or something? Does he need company? Support?”

“His mother in law took him home with her,” Gibbs said. “He’s on leave as of now.”

“Right. Of course.”

Gibbs nodded and ran up the stairs. Time to break the news to Vance.

Chapter Text

Gibbs gave a cursory nod to Vance’s assistant before he knocked on Vance’s door and walked right in. The director was sitting behind his desk and clicking around on his computer. He stopped and gave Gibbs a glare.

“What is it?” he asked, annoyed at Gibbs’ intrusion.

“DiNozzo is on bereavement leave, starting today,” Gibbs told him without mincing words, closing the door behind him and walking over to Vance’s desk.

“Oh?” Vance immediately looked concerned. “His father?”

Gibbs shook his head.

“I was under the impression that there is no one else?” Vance asked.

Gibbs shrugged. “He was married,” he finally said softly.

“Married? DiNozzo?” Vance gaped. “Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo?” he gave Tony’s preferred appellation sardonic emphasis.

“Yup.”

“And she died?”

“He,” Gibbs corrected him. “He died.”

“I thought you said DiNozzo was on bereavement leave? What about the wife? Is she an NCIS employee?” Vance was confused.

Gibbs sighed and scrubbed his face. “DiNozzo had a husband. He was killed when a drunk driver plowed into his car earlier today.”

“What?”

Gibbs nodded. “I’m not saying it again, Leon,” Gibbs using Vance’s first name meant that Vance sat up and paid attention.

They stared at each other in silence for a long moment. “OK. Do you want a TAD until DiNozzo gets back?”

Gibbs shook his head. “I’ll scare them off without DiNozzo to get me off their backs.”

Vance stared at Gibbs before he nodded. “Fine.”

“But I want to take the team off rotation for a few days. In case DiNozzo needs us.”

Vance nodded. “You were supposed to be off anyway for the next few days.”

“We may need to extend it. Depending…”

“OK.” Vance agreed. “This marriage. Are you sure it was legitimate?”

Gibbs glared at him. “The death of a spouse is not something I would fuck around with, Leon.”

“Right. Of course not,” Vance sighed.

“I’ll file DiNozzo’s leave papers today,” Gibbs said, turning to leave.

“Gibbs?”

Gibbs paused and turned back.

“Is DiNozzo OK?” Vance finally asked.

Gibbs sighed, and for a moment Vance saw the grief and concern that Gibbs was hiding. The team lead shook his head. “He’s not gonna be OK for a long time, Leon,” Gibbs said softly.

“Did you see him?”

Gibbs nodded. “Went to the hospital. Palmer had to drive him and his mother in law home.”

Vance sighed. “Hell of a thing,” he muttered.

Gibbs grunted his agreement.

“I can understand why he kept it secret,” Vance mused. “Law enforcement isn’t typically gay friendly. And DADT applies to those in our jurisdiction.”

“I honestly don’t think he gives a shit about any of that right now,” Gibbs told him.

“Yeah.” Suddenly, all Vance could do was imagine a world where his Jackie died for no reason and how that would affect him and his kids. Gibbs had had it happen to him. He knew the pain of a spouse dying. And now, DiNozzo too. Vance pursed his lips and nodded again. It seemed like there wasn’t much else he could do. “Let me know when the funeral is?”

“Roger.”

“The guy who hit his husband was drunk?”

“Point two one blood alcohol level,” Gibbs growled. “He walked away from the accident.”

“Metro’s got him?”

“Being held without bail. Multiple offender.”

“I’ll make sure they know he hurt one of us,” Vance said grimly, holding out a notepad to Gibbs.

“Thank you. DiNozzo will appreciate that.” Gibbs jotted down the details of Evan Caldwell’s accident, providing Vance DiNozzo’s husband’s name as well.

“Do you need to go keep him company now?” Vance asked, glancing at the notepad Gibbs pushed back at him. It was no secret that Gibbs was fond of the younger agent.

Gibbs shook his head. “Not today,” he said.

“If you do speak to him, please let him know that he’s in our thoughts.”

Gibbs nodded and left. He was mildly surprised that Vance hadn’t made more of a fuss. But of course, even if he didn’t like DiNozzo, it wasn’t like Vance could argue about his husband dying. There really wasn’t much left to say there.

When he got back to the bullpen, he went back to reviewing McGee’s and Ziva’s reports. He wanted to get it done so he could go home and work on the boat. He needed the calm that that always brought him, especially when he kept picturing Tony climbing onto the gurney in the trauma room to lay one last time with his husband.

He ended up handing both of them their reports back, with multiple edits scrawled in red pen on the pages. “This your usual standard of report writing?” he growled at them.

Ziva shrugged and McGee nodded.

“Hasn’t DiNozzo been editing these for you for years? Why haven’t you figured out what I need so you’re not turning this crap in to me?” Gibbs asked.

Ziva shook the reprimand off easily. “Tony will be back to edit our reports soon enough, Gibbs,” she said glibly.

“He’s not even supposed to review your reports,” Gibbs snapped. “It’s actually not his job. He was doing me a favor making sure what you turned in to me was satisfactory because if there’s one thing I hate, it’s when a case gets thrown out of court because our documentation was shoddy and gave the defense an opportunity to skate by on some shitty technicality. Reports are supposed to come directly to me. And they’re gonna, going forward. Don’t expect DiNozzo to keep fixing your mistakes. Reports will come directly to me and they better not need as many corrections. This is a Federal Agency. Paperwork is part of our job. It’s time you both quit jawing about DiNozzo and do your damn jobs.”

McGee looked stunned. He sat there and nodded dumbly. Tony had always proofread his reports. He’d just assumed – again with that word – that it was Tony’s job. He even sent Tony his reports to proofread when Tony was out of the office or on vacation, and Gibbs never complained about late reports so Tony always turned them around back to him with no delay, whether he was supposed to be working or not. All these years, Tony had been sending him back edits and he’d never actually tried to understand why he’d made those edits. He just plugged them in and sent the finalized reports to Gibbs. He’d just assumed – damn, but he really broke Rule #8 with impunity when it came to Tony. But he’d just assumed that Tony was just being finicky to give him more busy work. It didn’t occur to him that Tony was doing serious work because well, Tony was Tony and it was hard to take him seriously so much of the time. McGee sighed and hastily started work, incorporating Gibbs’ edits.

Gibbs was grumpier than ever as he impatiently awaited the next version of the reports. When he was finally satisfied, he dismissed the team curtly and gave them the next few days off as planned.

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The next day, Ziva let Abby talk her into going to Tony’s with her on her day off. There was no answer at Tony’s apartment, so Ziva picked the lock and she and Abby entered. Tony wasn’t there. But when they looked around, they saw a tidy, spacious area, with a huge TV and lots of DVDs, CDs, records and books stacked neatly on various bookshelves. A baby grand gleamed in pride of place in the living room. The furniture looked comfortable, yet stylish.

There were also framed pictures in the apartment. Lots of them. Pictures of Tony by himself, smiling at the camera, a quiet, happy smile that Abby hadn’t ever seen before. There were pictures of an incredibly good looking blue eyed man – Evan, Abby recognized him from his DMV photo – at the beach, with groups of people that Abby didn’t recognize. And there were pictures of Tony and Evan together. Looking so fucking happy together. Even if they weren’t laughing or smiling in the photos, the two men looked like they were exactly where they wanted to be and with exactly the person they wanted to be with. There was even a framed picture of feet – someone’s right foot next to someone’s left foot on a white sandy beach, blue ocean waves in the background. It made Abby’s heart hurt to see these pictures and know that Tony had kept it all from her.

Abby found herself holding a picture of Tony kissing Evan, holding each other so tenderly, both of them wearing tuxedoes. It was a wedding photo, she realized.

“Why didn’t he tell us about Evan?” she asked Ziva.

“Maybe it is a fake marriage?” Ziva suggested.

“Look at these pictures,” Abby gestured around the apartment. “They made a life together. And it didn’t include us.”

Ziva shrugged. “I do not know why, but perhaps we can ask him when he comes back to work.”

“I want to ask him now,” Abby frowned. “I don’t understand why he felt he couldn’t tell us this. I thought we were his family?”

Ziva picked up a group photo of Tony, Evan and a bunch of people she didn’t know. “It seems he may have had another family, Abby.”

Abby found a picture of the MCRT from before Kate died, and suddenly all she felt was sad. “Let’s go talk to him. Gibbs said he went to his mother in law’s house yesterday, right?”

Ziva nodded.

“He might still be there.”

They were ringing Dawn Caldwell’s doorbell soon after that. Tony’s car was parked in the driveway. A woman answered, her face lined with grief. “May I help you?” she frowned at Abby and Ziva.

“I’m so sorry to bother you at this time, Mrs Caldwell, but we’re Tony’s friends. We understand he’s staying with you. We were wondering if we could speak to him?” Abby asked politely.

Dawn shook her head and ran her fingers through her hair. “Tony’s not receiving visitors today,” she said, her voice rough and sad.

“We just need a minute with him,” Abby tried to persuade the woman.

“He’s not available today,” Dawn told her. “What are your names? I’ll let him know you stopped by.”

“I’m Abby Sciuto, and this is Ziva David. We work with him?”

Dawn nodded and started to shut the door.

“Please, Mrs Caldwell?” Abby begged, giving her her best puppy dog eyes.

“Dawn?” a voice called out. “I had to sedate him. He’ll be out for a while…” Abby and Ziva stared as Palmer appeared from another room, pulling latex gloves off his hands. Palmer was just as shocked to see them.

“What are you doing here?” Ziva glared at him.

“Ch-checking in on Tony and Dawn,” Palmer stuttered. “What are you doing here?”

“Jimmy, we need to have a chat with Tony,” Abby told him flatly.

“Not today,” Jimmy shook his head. “Why don’t you call him tomorrow and see if Tony is ready for visitors?” And before either of them could object, Palmer started closing the door.

“Jimmy!” Ziva growled at him and used her foot to block the door.

“No,” Jimmy told them calmly. “You can’t see him today.”

“Hey, next time you come to the home of the bereaved, keep in mind it’s customary to bring something. A casserole, flowers, or something,” Dawn told them, her expression forbidding. “And it’s also customary to ask if the person is doing all right. Which, by the way, you haven’t. You haven’t asked if Tony’s doing all right. I told you earlier that Tony isn’t available today. Please respect that and leave now.”

The door closed quietly in their faces. They stared at each other, perplexed, before they got in their car. When Abby got back to work after dropping Ziva off, she found Gibbs waiting for her in her lab. He was dressed casually in jeans and a hoodie. It was his day off, too.

“Let me guess, Tony called you to whine about us,” Abby pouted.

“No, Tony didn’t call me,” Gibbs said, his voice soft and dangerous. “Dawn Caldwell called Ducky and asked him to keep you and Ziva away from her house. Ducky called me.”

Abby glared mutinously at Gibbs. “Tony was married,” she snapped. “And he didn’t tell us. I wanted to know why.”

“His personal life is his business.”

“But aren’t we his family? He’s one of my best friends!”

“He may be one of your best friends, but you’re not behaving like one of his,” Gibbs growled. “Tony’s husband died yesterday. He needs his friends right now. But if all you’re going to do is give him flak about keeping his marriage a secret from you, then you stay the hell away from him.”

Abby’s eyes filled with tears. “I just want to understand why, Gibbs.”

“Look at how you behaved today. Do you blame him for not trusting you?”

After a long moment, Abby shook her head.

“Ducky said that Palmer had to sedate Tony today. He hasn’t slept for days because of our last case, and now this? He was beyond exhausted and he still didn’t sleep a wink. If you really are his friend, stop this childish bullshit. It’s time we put Tony first, don’t you think?”

Abby sighed and nodded.

“Stay away from Dawn Caldwell’s house. She’s pissed off and upset with you. As am I,” Gibbs told her grimly.

Abby nodded, tears spilling from her eyes.

Gibbs left without another word. He didn’t give Abby a hug or a kiss, or even a caf-pow. More than his words, these omissions hurt her deeply.

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Tony knew he was dreaming. Knew that it wasn’t real. But he didn’t care. He ignored that part of him that knew that it was only a dream, and just enjoyed it. He and Evan were lying in a hammock, in the shade of several large trees. He could feel the warm breeze on his face and hear the sound of the surf in the background. He recognized where they were. They were at a resort in Turks and Caicos. Tony had claimed that he was going on a cruise with his frat brothers, but really, he and Evan had just relaxed at this resort, being pampered and waited on, getting spa treatments, swimming in the ocean, making love in their suite. It had been one of the best vacations he’d ever had.

Tony turned his attention to Evan. His eyes were closed, a small smile teasing at his lips. Evan’s arms were around him, and he held Tony close, Tony’s head cushioned on his chest, his heart beating comfortingly in Tony’s ear. They were both stripped down to board shorts, and completely relaxed in the hammock. Tony was just taking it all in, feeling Evan’s smooth, warm skin beneath his fingers. Evan smelled salty, like the ocean that they’d swum in, and there was a trace of the vanilla-lemon smell of the massage oil used in their couples massage that morning. Underneath it all was that amazing Evan smell – a little musky, woody. Earthy. Tony never could put it into words, but it was the best smell in the world. He breathed it in and held his breath, never wanting to lose that smell.

He could feel Evan tracing gentle circles with his fingers on his lower back. He sighed and hummed his appreciation softly. The muscles of Evan’s chest shifted under his face as Evan moved to kiss the top of his head, making him smile and drop a gentle kiss on Evan’s chest.

It had been the perfect moment. Doing nothing with Evan, being held by him in a gently swaying hammock in paradise. He remembered at that time, thinking that this must be what heaven was like.

Maybe that was where Evan was now?

No. Evan was here. In bed with him. Evan was sucking on his nipple, and he moaned. Evan’s fingers were gently opening him up and he ground himself down on them, dick hard and leaking, gasping when those fingers curled and pressed on his prostate. Evan’s mouth was on his as he pushed his cock in, slowly, slowly, stretching him and filling him, swallowing all of Tony’s moans.

When he was fully seated, Evan stilled and smiled his beautiful smile. He cupped Tony’s face with his large hand. “So fucking beautiful,” Evan whispered, blue eyes crinkling into attractive crow’s feet. He was sporting his usual stubble scruff that made him look so unbelievably sexy. “I love you.”

“Love you too,” Tony mouthed, trying to put his arms around him but somehow not being able to.

“Love you forever,” Evan smiled sadly at him.

And then everything went gray and Evan disappeared into the mist. Tony was on his feet, stumbling around blindly by himself. He called for him, but Evan didn’t come. He started screaming Evan’s name over and over. He wanted his gun and his knife. He needed to defend himself and Evan when he found him. Where was he? He kept screaming Evan’s name.

Then a hand was gently shaking his shoulder. A woman’s voice calling his name.

“Easy, Tony,” the voice told him. Tony was panting for breath, and he’d pinned someone onto the bed, one arm hard on their throat. When he realized what he was doing and to whom, he immediately let go. It was Evan’s sister, Hailey.

“Sorry,” he gasped, pushing himself away so violently he almost fell off the bed. He was immediately assailed with crushing pain when he realized that Evan was dead.

“You were having a nightmare,” Hailey said.

Tony sat up, taking huge gulping breaths. Hailey moved to the edge of the bed and took Tony’s hand. “Breathe with me,” she told him.

And together they breathed, short shallow breaths, until Tony’s heart rate and respiration slowed somewhat.

Tony glanced at his watch. It was time to wake up. They were burying Evan that day.

“You OK?” Hailey asked, her voice gentle.

Tony nodded and gave her a small smile. “Sorry about that.”

Hailey shrugged. “Evan always warned me about not surprising you while you were sleeping.”

The ghost of Evan’s smile, and an echo of Evan’s voice saying “Love you forever” went through Tony’s head. His smile wobbled and he tried to ignore the stab of pain that went through him. “Are you OK?” he asked his sister in law.

Hailey nodded.

Tony accepted her answer, just as she’d accepted his. Neither of them were OK and they both knew it. But Hailey left the room and Tony crawled out of bed. He was sleeping in Evan’s bed in his childhood home, still finding it hard to go home to an empty apartment. He headed into the shower. It had been a few days since he’d been able to get out of bed and get going in a timely fashion, but today he had to get the day started. Tony didn’t know how he would get through this day. It was an important day.

Because today they were burying Tony’s husband.

Chapter Text

They were burying Tony’s husband that day.

It was completely surreal. McGee was sitting in the brightly lit church. A surprising number of people from NCIS were there, and they’d taken over a few pews. News of Tony’s loss had spread like wildfire. Of course Gibbs, Ziva, Abby, Ducky, and himself had come. Palmer was sitting somewhere up front. Probably with Tony, McGee thought. But NCIS was more than adequately represented. Balboa’s entire team had turned up along with a few other agents. Vance had brought his wife. A few baggie bunnies, some of the Interrogation techs, some MTAC techs, HR and Administrative folk. McGee wondered who might be left at the Navy Yard. There were a few people from Quantico and Norfolk there as well. McGee was amazed that so many of them had come. He didn’t even speak to some of these guys, but apparently Tony did. Which didn’t surprise him, really. Tony talked to everyone and made friends easily. It made him glad to see the support Tony was receiving from NCIS. It made him proud to be a part of their agency, if all of these people would turn up to support Tony during this weird, awful, surreal time, despite what official and unofficial policies might be towards gay marriage.

They all settled in. The service was beautiful. And Tony stood up to speak, to give his husband a short eulogy. It all still didn’t seem real to McGee. That Tony had a husband. That Tony’s husband had died. And there was Tony, in a black suit, impeccably dressed as ever, hollow eyed, silent and utterly still as he stood at the podium. Finally he started.

“Evan Caldwell was my husband. He was beautiful and fun and funny, and thoughtful, and outrageous. He was the light in every room. He was the life of every party. He had that special spark that made him stand out in a crowd. And it wasn’t just because he was crazy smart, or incredibly witty. He knew just how to talk to a person and he loved doing that. He loved hearing people’s stories and learning more about what made people different, what made people tick. It’s no surprise that despite being a real scientist and the biggest geek you could ever meet, he ended up a bartender,” Tony spoke. His voice was soft. He cleared his throat. “He did a bunch of things that some people might call meaningful or career-oriented. But then, he decided that he didn’t want a career in science. He didn’t want to understand what made the world turn or the stars flicker to life or turn to dust. In the end, people fascinated him even more. He wanted to understand people. He was working on yet another degree, overachiever that he was, in psychology, to help him in his quest.”

Tony paused and shook his head, grinning at the outrageousness of his husband. “And because of this need to talk to people and dissect them to figure out how they worked, he loved tending bar. He was that guy behind the bar that anyone could talk to. He was always approachable. Always ready to lend an ear. He always said he was cheaper than a shrink. You could get him to listen to you for the price of a beer and hopefully a good tip. And even more than a shrink, he would never tell anyone else your secrets. Bartender-client privileges always applied.” There was a small wave of quiet chuckles at that. McGee wondered if Evan used that term, and these people who were attending who had known him had known that about him.

“Evan always loved talking to people and helping them. He was wise and he was honorable. He had a way about him that made everyone want to be more than what they thought they were. He made me want to be a better man. And I am a better man because of him. At our wedding, Evan said that he was the luckiest man in the world. But he was wrong. I’m the lucky one. I may not have gotten the decades with him that I thought we would have together. Hell, we both thought that I’d be the first to go, given my job and my track record. That I’m here and he’s not is a really big surprise for me. And you might think that I’m filled with regret. I’m not. Every minute I had with him was a gift. Something no one can ever take away from me. And I’ll live my life knowing that I am lucky. I am the luckiest man in the world. Because Evan Caldwell loved me. He brought real joy into my life. He showed me what it meant to share a life, share each other’s happiness and pain. He made me feel like I was worth something and that I was important. I’ll live the rest of my life trying to live up to be the man he thought I was. To be the best person I can be. To continue to be worthy of Evan. Because it’s what he deserves.” Tony had to stop for a moment, focusing on breathing, eyes downcast. “I’m lucky because I got to have him, and I got to be his. Even if it wasn’t for as long as I’d hoped, I got to be with him. I was loved, and he let me love him in return. I’ll always know that I am loved, whether Evan is here with me or not. So yeah, I’m the luckiest man in the world.”

Tony stepped away and McGee watched as two women folded him into their embrace. His mother in law, Dawn, he recognized from the photos he’d dug up during the research. He wasn’t sure who the younger woman was.

It was just freaking weird to think of Tony as a loving husband. A grieving husband. A widower now. Geez. One minute Tony was their flirty one-night-stand commitment phobic juvenile frat boy and the next, they come to find that secretly, he was a loving husband, had been married a while. And to a man. McGee sighed.

Other people spoke. A few of Evan’s college friends. Evan’s high school best friend. Evan’s sister – the other woman who’d hugged Tony along with his mother in law – she spoke as well. They shared beautiful stories, touching stories, sad stories, and funny escapades. It helped McGee understand who Evan had been and why Tony might have fallen for him.

As the church emptied out to head to the cemetery, McGee looked around and saw a couple pews filled with Tony’s frat buddies and their families. Fornell and several people from the FBI were also there. Folks from DC Metro were in attendance as well. Tony had friends everywhere, apparently.

That Tony’s frat buddies were there surprised McGee. It meant that Tony’s friends had known about Evan. But nobody at work except Jimmy had known about him. And McGee wasn’t sure how to feel about that. He’d called Tony a couple of times since Tony had run to the hospital, and for once, Tony ignored Rule #3. He didn’t pick up the phone or return any calls he missed, and as far as he knew Tony didn’t talk to anyone. Not to him, not Ziva, not Abby. McGee wasn’t sure if he’d spoken with Vance or Gibbs or Ducky, but certainly all of his calls had gone straight to voicemail. He’d left a couple of hopefully sympathetic messages, but he was truly stunned. He just didn’t know how to feel.

At the graveside, it was just as surreal. Tony stood with the Caldwell family, and they each threw a handful of dirt into the open grave. Tony stood, silent and still, watching until the grave was completely filled and covered with a green carpet that mimicked the grass around them before he allowed Palmer to guide him away.

The wake was held at the bar where Evan worked, and it was simultaneously rowdy and sad. McGee saw that Evan’s friends from the unnamed alphabet agencies, the regular customers of the bar, Evan’s college friends and high school friends all seemed to get along pretty well. Evan had been able to stay friends with practically everyone he’d encountered. He and Tony must have been one hell of a popular couple, McGee thought, both of them apparently possessing amazing people skills.

Tony stood with his mother in law, shaking hands, accepting hugs, kissing cheeks. He was a presence, a solid, almost silent bulk that loomed over Dawn Caldwell and threatened harm should anyone say anything upsetting to her. Gibbs stood a little ways behind Tony, arms crossed, obviously watching his six. The expression on his face was ridiculously fierce and protective. If Tony loomed over Dawn Caldwell, then Gibbs was somehow looming over them both. McGee felt that Gibbs would have been happy to throw anyone out if they even looked funny at Tony.

But even though Tony had to keep introducing people to his mother in law, the ones who had come from NCIS and the other LEOs, the reverse didn’t seem to apply. It seemed that everyone who knew Evan also knew Tony, and seemed to be fond of him. The hugs were heartfelt, the sympathy genuine. No introductions were needed.

McGee wondered if it was inappropriate of him to keep thinking that Tony had to be scoping the people there and getting the phone numbers of the prettiest women there. But what he’d heard so far of Evan and Tony as a couple was that they had been in a loving, stable, and faithful relationship. It might take a little, but McGee was adjusting to this totally different view of Tony.

Ducky was speaking to Hailey, Evan’s sister. McGee inched closer, wanting to listen in on the conversation.

“I was surprised to see so many from Tony’s workplace,” she was saying.

“Oh?” Ducky looked mildly surprised, even though he wasn’t, not really.

“Tony and Evan decided that for Tony’s career he couldn’t come out at work,” Hailey explained.

“Oh,” Ducky nodded.

“It’s stupid – law enforcement and the whole DADT thing,” Hailey shook her head. “Such a shame.”

“I couldn’t agree more.”

“But I’m glad to see that NCIS isn’t as prejudiced as Evan feared,” Hailey said. “Tony wanted to be up front when they got engaged, but Evan knew how much Tony loves his job. He didn’t want anything jeopardizing it.”

Ducky sighed. “How is Anthony doing?”

Hailey shrugged. “Not good,” she answered honestly. Ducky’s gentle blue eyes and comforting demeanor made her more open. “He’s not sleeping well. He barely eats.”

“We will watch him when he comes back to work,” Ducky assured her.

“Good. Now that Evan’s gone,” Hailey bit her lip and knuckled a tear away gently, “Tony’s going to need people to look out for him.”

“We are like his family at work,” Ducky told her.

Hailey snorted. “Not the way Evan told it,” she said, pursing her lips. “I’ve heard some stories that make me wonder why Tony’s still even there at NCIS.”

“All families have their issues,” Ducky said. “But we’ll band together in times of need.”

Hailey gave Ducky a long look. “Yeah. Well. You better look out for him. I have to go back to Seattle next week, and Tony’s already chafing at staying with my mother.” She grinned. “He’s too goddamned independent.”

Ducky smiled and patted her hand. “That he is, my dear. Did I ever tell you about the time young Anthony deliberately shackled himself to a serial killer and then they were let loose in the wild?”

Hailey gasped. “No!”

“Well, we didn’t know that he was a serial killer when it all started. But then…” And Ducky led Hailey off to a corner and told her stories about Tony’s resilience and independence.

Then McGee saw that Vance and his wife were working their way towards Tony and his mother in law. He found himself wandering closer, wanting to see what Vance would say.

Jackie Vance pulled Tony into a long and tight hug, and Tony patted her back somewhat awkwardly. When she released him, he pulled away and gave her a small smile. Jackie squeezed his hand and gave him a sympathetic nod before she turned to Dawn. And while Jackie hugged Dawn Caldwell, Vance eyed the Senior Field Agent.

“DiNozzo,” he said, his tone neutral.

“Director,” Tony said, returning Vance’s look steadily. “It was good of you to come.”

Vance nodded. “We’re very sorry for your loss.”

Tony nodded once. “Thank you.”

Vance’s eyes narrowed a little and he scrutinized this quiet, pale version of DiNozzo. “Make sure you take care of yourself,” he finally said.

Tony raised an eyebrow questioningly.

Vance gave him a steady, sympathetic look, before Tony nodded and averted his gaze. Meanwhile Jackie kept Dawn in a comforting hug, rubbing her back. The loss of a child was not something she ever wanted to contemplate. They murmured softly to each other, one mother to another.

McGee saw that during the whole wake, Ziva stood in a corner and watched everything. She didn’t seem to be speaking to anyone, not even coming to offer her sympathies to Tony and Dawn. Abby stayed close to McGee, holding on to his arm for the most part. At one point she let him go and approached Tony and Dawn. McGee saw how Gibbs’ glare sharpened and his eyes narrowed as Abby got closer. McGee held his breath and waited for the fireworks. He’d heard Jimmy speaking angrily to Ducky about what she and Ziva had tried to do at Dawn’s house, and he knew that Gibbs had had sharp words with both women. But nothing bad happened with Abby that day. All Abby did was hug Tony to within an inch of his life, and Tony just gently hugged her back. It was strangely anticlimactic. While Abby was hugging Tony, Dawn looked ready to yank her away. But Abby held her tongue, and just gave Tony the kind of hug that no NCIS sensitivity training would have thought was appropriate for a professional setting. McGee felt the hysterical urge to giggle as he imagined Ziva coming over and licking Tony after Abby hugged him, but again, that didn’t happen either. Ah, good times, McGee thought. Which made him feel guilty. Tony was in such a bad place now, it wasn’t appropriate of him to think of good times.

He continued to watch Tony. Everything was completely off kilter. Finally he put his finger on it. What added to the whole surreal ambience, was that Tony just didn’t seem like himself. He wasn’t their larger than life, talking a mile a minute, Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo. He stood next to his mother in law, spoke when he was spoken to, and made sure that his mother in law had drinks and food. But other than that, he might as well have been a statue. He never initiated a conversation, never made a move that was unnecessary. Tony was one of the most fidgety human beings McGee had ever met. He was constantly in motion – fingers touching things, drumming out rhythms that he heard in his head, knee bouncing regardless of whether he was sitting or standing. Or he might have his hands up to his hair to nervously fix already perfect hair, or he might be trying to chew on his fingernails, or forcibly stopping himself from doing it, or gnashing his teeth or clucking his tongue. Or else he was just moving his mouth and just talking and talking. He wasn’t doing any of it. If he wasn’t upright and blinking and responding to people when they interacted with him, McGee would compare his stillness to the time that Tony’d gotten shot and was laid up and sedated in the ICU after surgery. It was unnerving to see him like that.

It made McGee wonder how it was going to be when Tony came back to work.

Chapter Text

Tony went back to his apartment the day after Evan’s funeral. He assured everyone he was fine and not to worry, and to give him space, which they did. But three days later, when no one – not Dawn, not Hailey, not Palmer not Gibbs – had heard anything from him, Dawn called Gibbs and asked him if he would be able to meet her at Tony’s apartment. Palmer was elbow deep working on a double homicide with Ducky, so he was unavailable. Besides, Dawn had a key, and she knew that Gibbs had been given one a very long time ago, when he’d helped Tony move in. So Gibbs seemed the logical choice to call in this situation. Gibbs readily agreed. When they got there, they knocked on the door but no one answered.

After several knocks, Gibbs used his key to unlock the door, the first time he’d ever used it since Tony had given it to him all those years ago, and waved Dawn in first.

“Tony?” Dawn called out, walking in hesitantly.

Gibbs saw that Tony’s apartment was incredibly tidy. Tony had upgraded his furniture since he’d last been there, but the piano remained where it was. Where he had, that long ago day, helped Tony position it. The apartment looked much more lived in – Tony wasn’t living out of unpacked boxes, the way he had been in Baltimore. There were picture frames everywhere with photos of Evan and Tony’s life together. He tried not to look these pictures scattered around the apartment, feeling like he was intruding. Their attention was drawn to the big screen TV, where an image was frozen. It was Evan and Tony close up, filling up the entire screen. They were dressed in tuxes, bow ties undone and hanging loose. Evan was smiling brilliantly at the camera, his blue, blue eyes bursting with joy, one arm slung loosely, casually possessive around Tony’s shoulder. He was so handsome, with his square jaw and five o’clock shadow. Tony was smiling too, but he wasn’t looking at the camera. Tony’s green eyes were on Evan, his gaze full of adoration and devotion, as if Evan was the only thing that existed in his world. It was a punch in the gut to Gibbs, how much it hurt to see Tony so happy and in love. Not so much that he was hurt Tony had found love. Although he pushed away that thought that he was maybe at least a tiny bit jealous of Evan. But it was more that he didn’t get to see Tony happy and in love in person. That it really hurt to know that Tony had deliberately withheld that, withheld Evan from him. Not that Gibbs blamed him, given how he’d been behaving in the past few years, but it still hurt to be confronted with the evidence of Tony’s secret happiness, that he hadn’t felt he could share even the knowledge of it with Gibbs.

“It’s their wedding video,” Dawn’s voice brought Gibbs out of his thoughts.

Gibbs grunted.

Tony wasn’t on the couch or in the kitchen. They peeked into the bedroom and saw that a figure was curled up completely covered by the blankets.

“Tony?” Dawn called softly. Tentatively. It was obvious that she was really hoping that the lump would answer her.

“Mmm…” the lump replied, sounding grumpy.

“Tony. Honey. Are you sleeping?” Dawn’s relief was palpable.

“Dawn?” Tony sounded confused and the lump moved until Tony’s head poked out from under the covers, eyes blinking blearily.

“Yeah. It’s me and Jethro,” Dawn told him, walking to the bed. Gibbs stayed at the doorway. “Honey, have you left the bed in three days?”

Tony frowned, laid his head back down and closed his eyes. “Sure.”

“Liar. You doing OK?”

“Mm-hmm. What are you doing here?”

“Answer your phone the next time I call and I won’t come here, invading your space,” Dawn said gently, petting Tony’s hair. Tony pulled the covers back over his head, shying away from the touch.

“Dunno where the phone is,” he mumbled.

Dawn picked the cell phone up off the nightstand and clucked her tongue. “It’s right here but it’s dead. I’ll put it on to charge, OK?”

“OK,” his reply was muffled.

“How about I fix you something to eat?” Dawn offered.

“Not hungry.”

“You gotta eat something, honey.”

“’M tired,” Tony sounded small and so young to Gibbs. “Just need some sleep. Can’t seem to sleep.”

“I’m going to make you a sandwich or something, OK? You can eat it in bed.”

“Evan doesn’t like me eating in bed.”

“I know. Who do you think drilled that into his head?” Dawn chuckled softly. “But today, we’ll make an exception, OK?”

Tony made a noise that sounded like it could be acceptance. Dawn patted the lump before she went into Tony’s kitchen. Gibbs gave a long look to the lump under the covers and sighed.

“Dawn?” Tony called out from under the covers.

“Yeah, honey?”

“Did you say that Gibbs was here?”

“I’m here, DiNozzo,” Gibbs said, and he saw that the lump visibly startled.

“Oh. Hey, Boss,” Tony said, sounding almost normal, peeking out from under the blanket again.

“How’re you holding up?”

He made a face. “Fine.”

“I can see that,” Gibbs raised an eyebrow.

Tony sighed and pouted, his full bottom lip sticking out.

“It’s fine, DiNozzo. You gotta give yourself time,” Gibbs said, his tone the gentlest Tony had ever heard addressed to him. It was his ‘talking to traumatized children’ voice. He thought maybe he should be angry about that but really, he was too tired to care that Gibbs was using that voice on him. He was too tired to do anything but lie in the bed and hide from the world.

“Sorry I broke Rule #3. And now Rule #6,” he finally muttered.

Gibbs shrugged. “As long as you’re OK.”

Tony nodded.

“You need anything?” Gibbs offered.

Tony’s face fell and he shook his head. Gibbs knew it, knew what Tony wanted to ask for, who Tony wanted to ask for, and he gave Tony a look, trying to convey his understanding. Tony’s eyes skittered away from his, not ready yet to acknowledge his pain.

“I’m gonna go,” Gibbs finally said. “Call if you need anything,” he offered, even though he knew Tony wouldn’t call him.

“OK.”

Gibbs shut the bedroom door and headed into the kitchen where Dawn was busying herself making a grilled cheese sandwich.

“He needs to get back to work,” he told Dawn softly. “He’s burying himself in grief.”

The woman nodded. “Keeping busy will help him. He needs a reason to get out of bed.”

“Yeah.”

“But he needs time to… to grieve,” Dawn’s eyes filled with tears.

“You do, too. Both of you. I’m not saying to rush him back to work so he can just pretend like nothing’s happened. But going to work may help him.”

Dawn nodded.

“Just call me if he pulls this shit again.”

“Thank you for coming with me,” Dawn’s smile was tremulous. “I was… I was afraid he might have… you know?”

Killed himself, Gibbs finished for her in his head. He nodded. He, of all people, certainly understood that impulse.

“And I didn’t want to be alone, and be the one to… to find him. I can’t lose another son…”

“He won’t do that,” Gibbs said with a confidence that he didn’t feel. “He won’t do that to you.”

“No?”

“And he won’t want to disappoint Evan,” Gibbs kept his tone confident and reassuring. “He’s like that.”

Dawn nodded, chewing on her lip. “He’s still talking about him in the present tense,” she finally said.

Gibbs nodded. He’d noticed that too.

“Should I worry?”

“It’s still so new. Give him more time. We’ll just have to keep an eye on him,” he told her.

“OK.”

“If you need to talk, I’m here,” Gibbs offered, wondering why he was even offering, but feeling the need to do it. He rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. “I lost my daughter a long time ago. I’ve been where you are.”

“Oh…” Dawn looked sad, and she nodded. “Thank you.”

Gibbs gave her an awkward grin. “Right. Well I’m gonna go. I’ll check in on DiNozzo tomorrow.”

“Will you call me afterwards?”

Gibbs nodded.

“Let me know how he is at work,” she continued. “When he does go back to work, I mean.”

Gibbs nodded. “Keep me posted on how he is outside of work.”

“Thank you, Jethro. Evan always worried about Tony at work, the danger you’re all constantly in. It’ll help me to know that someone’s looking out for him at work.”

Gibbs nodded, tamping down on the guilt that threatened to overcome him. He hadn’t been looking out for Tony. Not really. Not in a while. He’d just let everything and everyone run rampant over the man, only caring that they kept solving cases. But he wasn’t going to let that continue. “I’ll make sure Ducky comes over and checks him out, too,” he promised Dawn.

“Thank you.”

Gibbs said goodbye and left.

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Ten days later, Tony was back in the office. He wore a black suit which seemed to hang a little off on his lanky frame. In the few short weeks since Evan’s death, Tony had lost enough weight that his clothes didn’t fit right. His face was starting to look thinner, cheekbones stark and sharp, his usually vibrant green eyes hollow and lackluster, the dark rings under them making him look ill. He wore his wedding ring openly now. Now that his husband was dead and he no longer had anything to hide. The band jumped out, shiny on his finger, catching Gibbs’ eye.

He was already sitting at his desk, clicking through his emails when Gibbs arrived. He answered Gibbs’ greeting with a quiet ‘good morning’ and turned back to his computer. Gibbs wondered what time he’d gotten in, or if he’d even slept that night. Later, when Ziva and McGee arrived, Tony gave them both a silent nod in response to their greeting.

McGee and Ziva tried to draw him out, start their usual banter, but Tony completely ignored them both, barely even acknowledging their presence. When Abby heard that Tony was back at work, she came up to the bullpen, sat in his lap, and hugged him for long minutes. He took it stoically, but he kept to himself, and they barely heard his voice all day. Unluckily for them, they didn’t catch a case, and were stuck reviewing cold cases all day, so Tony sat and quietly flipped through folders, ignoring the entire floor, completely focused on the papers in his hand.

At lunch time, Palmer dropped by and handed Tony a burrito. Tony gave him a small smile, and thanked him. But after Palmer left, Gibbs saw that Tony set the burrito aside, unopened, next to his keyboard and buried himself in cold cases.

An hour later, Gibbs stood in front of the younger man and pointed to the still-wrapped burrito. He waited till Tony looked up, a question in his eyes.

“Eat,” Gibbs ordered, pointing to the burrito.

Tony pursed his lips in annoyance.

“Or I’ll have to call Dawn.”

Tony sighed and nodded. Gibbs retreated to his desk and surreptitiously watched as Tony stared at the burrito for long moments, as if he could will it away. Finally he reached for it, unwrapped it, and took a small bite. It seemed to be difficult for him to chew and swallow, but he ate that bite and turned and glared at Gibbs who nodded at him, feeling like he’d won a battle.

Tony didn’t eat much of the burrito, but at least Gibbs saw that he’d swallowed a few bites of it. Some food was better than none, so Gibbs didn’t hound him to eat more.

Ziva kept staring at Tony, as if unable to comprehend the sight of the Senior Field Agent sitting and working at his desk. At one point she cornered him when he was washing his hands in the men’s room.

“How are you, Tony?” she asked, remembering Dawn’s words when she and Abby had tried to speak to Tony the day after Evan died.

“Fine,” Tony answered, drying his hands and tossing the paper towels, not even looking at Ziva.

She stood, blocking his way out. “Tony. You have kept things from us.”

Tony sighed and stood, hands in his pockets, head down.

“Why?” Ziva finally asked, her eyes full of hurt.

Tony shrugged.

“Are we not partners?” Ziva tried.

Another shrug. He looked up for a moment, his eyes empty and sad.

Ziva sighed. “I am sorry Evan died, Tony.”

Tony pursed his lips and nodded.

Someone walked in, interrupting them, and Tony immediately went back to his desk and picked up the cold case he was working on, continuing on as if Ziva hadn’t tried to talk to him. She spent the rest of afternoon watching him, as if waiting for a reaction. But Tony seemed completely oblivious to everything but work.

The next day started out with a body found in Rock Creek Park, and they geared up. Unlike his usual self, Tony didn’t call shotgun, didn’t fight or sneak into the seat. He opened the back door of the Charger and quietly slid in, buckling up and waiting patiently. He didn’t offer to drive the van. He even silently took the uncomfortable seat in the back of the van while Ziva and McGee squabbled over who would be relegated back there. It didn’t seem as if anything fazed him or brought him out of his silence.

And that was the pattern for the next few weeks. Tony remained eerily silent, except when he had to report on the status of their cases, interview witnesses or interrogate perps. Jimmy or Gibbs or Abby brought him food every day, which he mostly played with and pretended to eat. But he was functioning, in fact he was brilliant and efficient at work, for once not bothering to hide his skills from the team. Before, he would have found some way to hide his work or deflect the credit or even lead McGee or Ziva to the conclusions that he’d already made, now he went straight to solving the case and ignoring social niceties. He worked hard and it didn’t even register with him when Ziva and McGee started complaining about his professionalism and efficiency. He just continued to work with machine-like efficiency.

And while the team went back to work and their solve rate never suffered, Tony was different. Tony never smiled. Tony never quoted movies, and never told a joke. Crime scenes became dark and oppressively gloomy because Tony didn’t try to lighten the atmosphere. Sometimes, it was like he didn’t even notice the kinds of horrors they were being subjected to. He photographed and bagged and tagged, and worked with ruthless and quiet efficiency. He didn’t engage in any of the non-work related conversations, not with Abby or McGee or Ziva or anyone else. It was as if he’d lost his ability to have casual conversations after he lost Evan. It was even weirder because Tony continued to be the face of the MCRT, when it came to liaisoning with other LEOs, or convincing witnesses to come forward. Then, he seemed like his usual self of the past, smiling and shooting the breeze, joking, even doing his usual flirty suave Very Special Agent routine to get what was needed for the case. But once the situation was over, Tony immediately shut down and reverted back to the disturbingly quiet introvert.

Whatever animosity Abby and Ziva might have had towards him could not survive the apathy that seemed to completely engulf him. He came to work, he worked hard and dazzled them with his brilliance, but the most he ever said casually to anyone was to greet them in the mornings, and to bid them goodnight at the end of the day.

And he was still steadily losing weight. McGee felt that he was starting to understand what was meant when someone was said to be wasting away. So by unspoken agreement, the team started bringing him food. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Snacks. Candy. Cupcakes. All the things they used to keep away from him, they tried to tempt him with to no avail. He seemed puzzled by the attention, basically only eating if Gibbs ordered him to.

Abby had to bring to Gibbs’ attention the fact that Tony was in the office in the middle of the night practically every night. She had been reviewing the security footage for an internal NCIS case, not one of the MCRT’s, which was how she’d discovered what Tony was doing.

They watched the security footage of Tony showing up in casual clothes – jeans and sweatshirt – settling down at his desk at around 0100, sometimes an hour before that, and leaving no earlier than 0400 day after day, on both weekdays and weekends. And then there he was again, back at his desk in a dark suit by 0700 and leaving perhaps an hour after Gibbs dismissed the team in the evenings. He was also coming to work on weekends that they had off. He went through cold cases and was months ahead in most of his administrative reports. The team’s cold case closure rates were through the roof. Tony had to be running out of work to do after carrying on like this for weeks, Abby mused.

“I don’t know if he’s sleeping at all,” Abby told Gibbs, eyes filled with concern.

“I’ll talk to him,” Gibbs promised, glad that Abby was finally managing to put Tony’s needs above hers.

Abby was appeased, but the first thing Gibbs did was call Dawn. He didn’t think Tony would take a conversation about this seriously. He needed to be able to do something more concrete. While Tony staying in bed for days at a time might not be healthy, coming to work every day and every night wasn’t healthy either. Dawn decided that she would ensure Tony kept her company on their weekends off if Gibbs would keep her posted on which weekends they had off, and Gibbs told Dawn that he would try to get Tony to come home and have dinner with him, maybe get him too tipsy to drive and to stay the night at his house a couple nights a week. Tony wouldn’t run off to work while under Gibbs’ roof. In addition, Gibbs called Palmer to see if he could drag Tony out for dinner with him at least once a week. They all agreed on this plan and carried it out, disregarding all of Tony’s half-hearted objections.

Even though they were all trying to do their part for him, Tony continued to remain disengaged from everything except for the work itself. Gibbs and Dawn spoke often, and they both were of the opinion that the reason why Tony wasn’t standing his ground and objecting to the obvious ‘babysitting’ that they were doing was that he just didn’t have the energy or inclination to make a fuss. Which was completely unlike the Tony that they knew and loved. But there didn’t seem to be much else that they could do, so they continued on the path that they were on and hoped for the best. Hoped that somewhere along the way, Tony would slowly snap out of it and start becoming more himself. But, at least he was working, and he wasn’t just hiding himself away in bed, so they would take that win and keep giving him time.

Chapter Text

Even though Tony had gone back to work and everyone knew that he’d been married to another man, it didn’t seem as if there was much fallout from that at work. The MCRT carried on, and it didn’t seem as if Metro had any problems working with him, and NCIS had demonstrated their backing of him during Evan’s funeral and every day thereafter. It probably did help that Tony was almost never alone, he was usually accompanied by one or more of his team members. Gibbs’ fierce glares were enough to deter anyone who might be tempted to say anything funky to Tony.

But a couple of months after Tony came back to work, during which time he remained quiet and introverted, he and McGee were in the gym sparring. Another NCIS agent, someone Gibbs had rejected every time he applied to be on the MCRT, began catcalling and whistling at Tony.

“Hey, sweetness!” Johnson yelled. “It’s one thing to beat up on your little probie. I bet you can’t take a real man down, you pansy-ass!”

Tony turned away from McGee and gave Johnson an inquiring look. McGee straightened from his defensive crouch and put his hands on his hips, glaring at the taunting agent. Tony pointed to himself. “Are you talking to me?” he asked, his voice deep and dangerous.

“Yeah, I’m talking to you, cocksucker.”

Tony’s eyebrow went up and he gave McGee a look. “Are you getting his language here, McGee?”

McGee nodded. “Pretty sure HR will have words to say. Like conduct unbecoming and termination of employment?”

“Your conduct is the one that’s unbecoming,” Johnson snapped.

My conduct?” Tony asked.

“Yeah, you little fairy. Your conduct.”

“Why, because I like dick as much as I like pussy?” Tony’s polite tone was frighteningly at odds with his coarse language and McGee wished he had his phone on him. Someone needed to call Gibbs. Right away.

“Equal opportunity fucker. I get it,” the man rolled his eyes. “Fucking queer.”

Tony shook his head and watched as McGee glared at the man. When McGee looked at his Senior Field Agent, he saw that Tony was surprisingly calm and unfazed.

“Tony…?” McGee asked nervously.

“I don’t give a crap about insecure shitheads, Probie,” Tony looked away. “Let’s keep going and ignore this garbage.” He moved back into position.

“Who are you calling a shithead?” Johnson was outraged.

Tony snorted and straightened up again. “Apparently I was right about the insecure part,” he grinned at McGee, and for the first time in months, McGee saw that dangerous glint in Tony’s eyes that meant that a joke or a prank was just about to go overboard. He blew out a worried breath, unsure if this was a good thing or a bad thing.

“Enough with the grieving widow bullshit, DiNozzo. Everyone’s tiptoeing around you and being all sympathetic. Boohoo, your man died. So what? So beating up on that little weakling makes you feel better?”

“Hey!” McGee objected. “I’m not being beat up, and I’m not a weakling.”

Tony put a hand on McGee’s shoulder and shook his head. “Why, Johnson. You want to come take a crack at me? Beat me up? Put me in my place?”

Johnson gave him an ugly smile. “Yeah, nancy boy. Should’ve known you were one of them in your expensive designer suits and your stupid shiny shoes.”

Tony smiled genuinely for the first time in weeks. “OK. You want to spar. Lets spar.”

Magically Gibbs arrived in the gym and glared at the spectacle. Johnson gave him a pained look. “You need Gibbs here to fight your battles for you, pretty boy?”

“Hey, you’re the one who called me pretty,” Tony answered easily. “Maybe you’re the one who should re-examine their sexuality, huh? And just so you know, my Boss isn’t the kind to fight my battles for me. You want to spar with me? Let’s spar.”

McGee threw up his hands when Gibbs gave Tony a nod. He’d been hoping for Gibbs to put a stop to this, instead of egging Tony on. But when that feral grin appeared on Tony’s face, McGee hastily jumped out of the ring, not wanting to be the target of that look. That look meant trouble. McGee even felt a momentary pang of pity for Johnson as the man climbed into the ring.

The two men stood and looked at each other across the ring – Johnson glaring at Tony while Tony continued to grin that feral grin at the other man. Johnson was maybe an inch taller than Tony, and had thirty pounds more of what looked like sculpted muscle over Tony. Tony had lost quite a bit of weight in the past few months, and wasn’t at his fighting weight. McGee sighed. It could go either way. Johnson was trained, as was Tony, but Tony had trained under Gibbs for more than enough years that on a good day Johnson wouldn’t stand a chance. Most people lost to him because they underestimated him and thought he really was just a pretty boy. But Tony had been off since Evan died, so at this point maybe Johnson could get through Tony’s defenses. But still, McGee would always put money on Tony. It just worried McGee that Tony’s head wasn’t in the right place and that could affect the outcome of this fight. But in the end, he would always bet on Tony because Tony always came through.

When they started circling the ring, carefully keeping out of each other’s reach, Tony kept the grin on his face, and watched his opponent intently. He waited for Johnson to strike, parrying the punch, spinning him and sweeping his feet out from under him before jumping back and waiting for the man to regain his feet. They repeated this pattern a few times, where Tony waited for Johnson to attack, parried the move, and Johnson ended up on the ground on his belly or on his back, and Tony danced backwards, giving him time to recover. Gibbs saw that Johnson wasn’t even trying to pull his punches. He wasn’t sparring. He was trying to beat Tony into a pulp. But he couldn’t seem to lay a finger on the man. Gibbs watched, ensuring that he kept a bored expression on his face, ignoring McGee who was stressfully biting his nails next to him. Finally, when Tony got bored of finding creative ways to put Johnson on his ass, he turned and gave Gibbs a quizzical look. The corner of Gibbs’ mouth slid up in a lopsided grin and he nodded. He pointed to his watch. It was time to end this.

Tony smiled back and turned his attention back to his opponent. When Johnson attacked him again, he let the man in and took a hard punch to his face, but without letting the punch affect him, he struck – a sharp blow to Johnson’s ribs, followed by another sweep of his legs, and Johnson ended up on the floor on his face, arm twisted behind his back, Tony’s knee on his back keeping him down.

“Do you yield?” Tony asked.

Johnson growled and struggled but Tony kept him pinned down. The knee in the back, a classic cop move.

“Fine! I yield,” Johnson finally gasped.

Tony pressed down on the arm that was twisted behind his back, making the man cry out, before he let him go with a disgusted snort, and stood.

“Show’s over,” Gibbs told the people watching the fight. “Back to work, DiNozzo.”

“On it, Boss.”

Tony swaggered to the edge of the ring. As he did this, Johnson stood, and with a roar flung himself at the Senior Field Agent, meaning to hit him from behind. McGee yelled out a warning. Tony sidestepped him and flung an arm out, catching Johnson’s face with his elbow. The man crumpled with an agonized yell, holding his bleeding nose, screaming that Tony’d broken his nose.

“Somebody take him to Ducky,” Gibbs said, sounding bored. “DiNozzo, quit fucking around and get back to work. Haven’t I told you not to play with your food?”

Tony shrugged. “Sorry, Boss. Next time I’ll put them down the first time they come at me,” he practically purred.

Gibbs grinned at him and helped him down off the ring, and Tony grinned back happily. McGee shook his head and rolled his eyes, but a huge part of him wanted to laugh out loud. One bigoted idiot seemed to have been able to bring out the old Tony much more than any of them had in the past few weeks.

People steered clear of Tony after that. Johnson ended up with a broken nose, and HR down his throat for sexual orientation discrimination – several witnesses reported him, one had even recorded his words.

When Abby bugged Tony about it, all he finally said was, “Strange to be on this side of sexual harassment but I’m glad this time I’m not the one who has to go to seminars and get chewed out for too much hugging.”

But it seemed to be the tipping point. After that, Tony gradually started becoming more himself. He wasn’t as brash and obnoxious by any means, but he started talking to his teammates again, and started to eat a little more. He did still mostly keep to himself, but every so often, he would catch them off guard with a comment that would make them react – with laughter, or groans – and it started to feel more normal. But still, they maintained his off-work schedule fairly religiously. Twice a week, he went home with Gibbs, and even without the alcohol, he started spending the night in Gibbs’ guest bedroom. He ate with Jimmy at least one night a week and he spent his weekends off keeping his mother in law company.

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A few months after Evan died, once Tony moved out of the deathly quiet phase, McGee had started convincing Tony to come out for drinks with him and Ziva and Abby again. Not that Tony went out with them a lot, but every so often he’d join them. He wasn’t the life of the party, dominating the conversation and flirting with every beautiful woman that went by anymore, but although he tended to observe and mostly listen and laugh, he sometimes participated in their conversations and could usually be counted on to at least pick at and take a few bites of the appetizers ordered for the table. McGee had realized soon after Tony came back to work that making sure he ate was now one of the unspoken duties of the team. By tacit agreement, if Tony consented to have drinks with them, all of the appetizers they ordered were things that they knew Tony loved. So it did mean a night of unhealthy snacks. But heartburn be damned, McGee thought. It was nice to see Tony eat something without Gibbs looming over him. And sometimes his smiles were genuine. They knew that Tony was making an effort, so they could certainly reward him for it.

They’d had a few beers this one night and Abby had just regaled them with stories of the boyfriend she’d just dumped. It had been the requisite two months and he’d had to go. Abby had a laundry list of reasons why the boyfriend, sorry ex-boyfriend, was unacceptable, making the team laugh with her funny observations and impressions. Then, Abby, Ziva and McGee moved on to lamenting their inability to find love. Tony just grinned and shook his head at his teammates, not really contributing to this conversation.

“Tony,” Abby turned her gray-green eyes at the Senior Field Agent.

“Hmm.”

“How did you know Evan was the one?” the question popped out before she could stop it, and she pressed her hands to her mouth and looked around guiltily. “Oh shit, Tony. I’m sorry. You don’t have to answer that. I’m so, so, sorry.”

Tony’s lips quirked upwards in a bittersweet grin. He shrugged. “It’s fine Abs. You can ask me that.”

McGee had a hand on his phone.

“You don’t have to call the Boss, McTattleTale,” Tony rolled his eyes at the junior agent.

McGee tried to look affronted.

“Eh, fuck it, McGee. Go ahead and call him. I can’t drive myself home anyways,” Tony took a swig of his beer. It might have been his third one of the night and he didn’t want to drive and had been planning on calling a cab anyways. This way he could spend the night in Gibbs’ guest room which might be good after this little conversation. He waved his hand dismissively at McGee. But even though McGee looked unsure, he still left the table, presumably to call Gibbs and let him know he was needed.

Tony chewed on his bottom lip as he thought about the question, spinning the wedding band on his finger with his thumb. “How did I know Evan was the one? It took me a while to figure it out, Abs,” he finally answered.

“It wasn’t love at first sight?” Abby couldn’t help but be curious. They hadn’t even known about Evan, and Tony had married the man.

Tony shook his head. “Not even close,” he answered. “He was my bartender first. You know. When Gibbs went for his Mexican siesta and things were imploding at work. I drank at his bar, and he always made time to talk to me.” Tony’s voice wasn’t much louder than a hoarse whisper, and he began tearing little strips out of his napkin.

“But in the end, you married him. Without telling any of us,” Ziva said, her tone accusing. McGee, who had just returned from calling Gibbs elbowed her and glared at her.

Tony shrugged. “I’d lost faith,” he said quietly. McGee, Ziva and Abby looked stricken. Tony spoke more now, but much of it was unfiltered truth. Tony still hadn’t rebuilt the charming, deflecting persona so if they asked him his opinion or a personal question that he felt like answering, what they got was the bald, unvarnished truth. “I’d lost faith in all of you. Gibbs was gone, and I was trying to hold the team together. But I didn’t fill the hole Gibbs left, and you all made sure I knew that. That I wasn’t enough. That I would never be enough.”

“Tony…” Abby’s eyes were sad. “God, Tony…”

Tony waved it away. “That whole year, when I was running around fucking Jeanne to get to her father, I always ended up at Evan’s bar. Couldn’t tell him jack, since the whole op was classified, but he wasn’t just a good listener, you know? He would’ve been an awesome interrogator. He just knew how to make you talk about the things that were bothering you, even if you never gave him the classified specifics. I told him how Gibbs had left us and how he’d come back. How things were different after he came back. How fucked up everything was. How I was thinking about leaving.”

“You were thinking about leaving?” Ziva repeated.

Tony shrugged and nodded.

“But Evan was always there for me. He never asked for details, but somehow afterwards, it all seemed better. He made everything better. I looked forward to going to the bar and having a drink or two, and just talking to him. He became the reason for me to want to stay in DC.”

“Sounds like he was pretty amazing.”

Tony nodded.

“Probably didn’t hurt that he was smoking hot?” Abby gave him a tentative smile.

Tony snorted. “Oh, you have no idea,” he said, humming appreciatively.

“Ewww!” McGee couldn’t help scrunching up his nose.

“McGee!” Ziva elbowed McGee back, glaring disapprovingly. “That is not appropriate!”

“What? I said the exact same thing when he used to say stuff like that about women!” McGee objected.

“No, it definitely didn’t hurt that Evan was so goddamned sexy,” Tony managed a small grin, ignoring the interruptions.

“How’d you cross the bartender-client line?” Abby’s eyes were bright.

Tony closed his eyes, remembering the night he’d gone to Evan’s bar, needing to talk to him. His car had just been blown up, Jeanne was gone, leaving him a Dear John letter that hurt him more than it should have, and it seemed like he was left with nothing, as usual. He’d needed to look at Evan, wanted to steal a touch from him as he handed Evan money for his drink. He’d wanted to soak up that island of calm that Evan seemed to bring with him, and just lose himself for a little while. And when Evan wasn’t there that night, he had been utterly disappointed, even devastated.

“He wasn’t at work one night,” Tony told his friends, summarizing it. This detail he didn’t want to share. It was petty but he didn’t really want to share much of his relationship with his NCIS co-workers. “I really missed him. So I got my stalker on and tracked down his home address. Went knocking on his door.”

Abby punched his shoulder. “You dog! You just went for it.”

Tony grinned. “Didn’t really think about it at the time. But yeah,” his grin softened into a fond smile. “It was like he was expecting me. Didn’t ask any questions. Just let me in and… took care of me. I knew then that he was the one. He made me feel like I was enough. He was… everything to me. And the rest is history…”

“Awww…” Abby squeezed Tony’s hand.

Tony took a deep breath and blew it out shakily. Even Ziva had sympathy in her eyes. Tony pulled his hand out of Abby’s and chugged his beer. “Anywho. I’m gonna go wait for Gibbs outside,” he pulled his wallet out and threw some money on the table. “Later.” He gave McGee a smile, wordlessly telling him he understood why McGee needed to call Gibbs.

McGee gave him an apologetic look in return.

After he disappeared out the door, McGee glared at Abby. “Why the fuck did you bring Evan up? You know he never talks to us about him!”

Abby threw up her hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I wasn’t thinking. It just slammed into me, that here we all are, looking for love, and Tony’d already found his!”

“He also lost his, Abs!” McGee hissed. “If he goes back to scary quiet Tony after tonight, it’s your fault. I’m not taking the fall for this with Gibbs.”

Abby sighed. “Yeah, I know.”

“At least he ate some food tonight,” Ziva threw out the peace offering.

McGee and Abby nodded.

“Yeah, I told Gibbs that,” McGee reported.

“Do you think he still thinks he’s lucky?” Abby asked in a small voice. “Do you think he still thinks that it was worth it to have met Evan and fallen in love and gotten married, even though he’s still in so much pain now?”

Ziva shrugged and pursed her lips. She didn’t think so, but she wasn’t going to say it out loud.

McGee thought for a moment. “I think that he was already hurting before he met Evan,” he finally said, speaking slowly, trying to make sense of it in his own head. “We hurt him, you know. But Evan helped lighten the load he carried. And I think even though he’s gone now, he’s still helping Tony carry his load. So yeah. I think Tony still thinks it was worth it to have met Evan, even though he’s hurting now.”

They dispersed soon after. McGee ended up waiting with Tony, ensuring that he delivered his Senior Field Agent safely into Gibbs’ hands before he went home.

Gibbs gave Tony a quick, sharp look when he slid into the passenger seat of the Challenger. He must have passed the assessment because he waited until Tony had buckled in, grunted at him, and silently began driving them home. Tony looked out the window and lost himself in memories.

“Chinese or pizza?” Gibbs’ voice startled him out of his reverie.

“Huh?” he gave Gibbs a confused look.

“Dinner tonight. Chinese or pizza?”

“I already ate,” Tony objected.

“Right. Chinese it is.” Gibbs wasn’t going to take no for an answer. Tony would eat something with him. No arguments.

Tony sighed and turned to look out the window again.

“You can talk to me if you want, you know?” Gibbs offered.

Tony whipped his head around and stared at Gibbs in surprise.

“God knows I know the pain of losing a spouse.”

Tony’s green eyes widened at the offer. “I’m good. Thanks.”

“No you’re not.”

“Fake it till you make it.” Tony gave him the one shoulder shrug.

Gibbs sighed. “Probably not good for you to keep it all bottled up inside.”

Tony started laughing. “Shit, you’re not seriously telling me to open up and talk about my feelings are you, Boss? You? Of all people?”

Gibbs shrugged.

Tony turned away with a sigh. “I talk about Evan to Dawn,” he finally whispered.

Gibbs nodded.

“I can’t… It just…” Tony sighed again. “It’s weird to talk about him to you guys. You didn’t know him. And he didn’t like you all much.”

“Why not?”

“He was my bartender during your Mexican hiatus?” Tony sounded apologetic.

Gibbs sighed.

“So it feels weird to talk about him to you now. It just doesn’t feel right. I’m sorry.”

Gibbs nodded.

“I’m not bottling it all up.”

Gibbs gave him a questioning look, one eyebrow raised.

“Fine, I’m not just bottling it all up. But I can’t talk about him to you or the team.”

“Palmer?”

“We talk some, sure. He’s a good man.”

“Guess Evan liked him?” Gibbs couldn’t keep the bitterness out.

Tony shrugged and grunted.

“Good. Least you have someone at work you can talk to about him.” Gibbs swallowed the question he had of why Palmer had been the one to know about Evan. Why Palmer had been the one to go to Tony’s wedding. Tony chose his friends himself, and Gibbs had no right to question any of it.

“I talk to Dawn and Hailey. Sometimes some of Evan’s friends talk to me. They all miss him, too,” Tony was apologetic.

Gibbs nodded. They drove the rest of the way in silence.

Right before they got to Gibbs’ house, Tony cleared his throat. “You know… if you ever needed to talk about Shannon to someone, you know that I’m here?”

Gibbs gave him a smile and nodded. “I know that.”

“Right. Good. Cause you know, bottling it all up inside isn’t good for you.” Tony’s smile was teasing now. “Or so I was told.”

“Good to know, DiNozzo,” Gibbs rolled his eyes.

If things were normal, Gibbs would’ve headslapped the bejesus out of Tony for that one. But right then, it really felt good to hear even a trace of Tony’s formerly customary sass. No way was he going to slap that out of him now. What Gibbs really wanted to do was pump his fist in triumph that he’d gotten Tony to sass him. But all he did was smile to himself, and savored the moment.

Chapter Text

On the six month anniversary of Evan’s death, Tony took a week off work and stayed in bed the whole time. Dawn was having a hard time herself, so Gibbs went to Tony’s apartment every day after work. Palmer was stopping by in the mornings so Gibbs took the evening shift. Palmer was also checking in on Dawn after work, and Gibbs asked Ducky to also look in on her. But he made sure to stop by Tony’s apartment himself.

Tony stayed in bed, cocooned under the covers, unable to find the motivation to even get out of bed. All either Gibbs or Palmer could do was make him drink liquids. Palmer pushed sports drinks with electrolytes and fruit juices so Tony would have some calories in him, Gibbs stuck to making him drink water and sometimes managed to get some soup in him.

When he and Palmer compared notes, Gibbs shrugged. “At least he’s not drinking himself to death,” he commented. “That was what I tried to do six months after my girls died.”

“I’m not so sure it’s a good sign that he doesn’t even have the energy to get out of bed to get to the alcohol,” Palmer stuttered.

Gibbs snorted. “At least we don’t have to worry about alcohol poisoning.”

Palmer patted Gibbs’ arm awkwardly, unsure what he should say, before he imagined Tony’s reaction when he tells him about this conversation sometime in the future. And he started giggling and left before Gibbs could kill him.

The night before Tony was scheduled to come back to work, Gibbs stopped by bringing a slice of Tony’s favorite pizza with him. He figured maybe Tony might be ready for something other than soup. A slice was more than enough since they’d stopped ordering whole pizzas for him. He’d stopped his usual eating habits. And if Tony didn’t want to eat the slice, then Gibbs liked it well enough. At least Tony was serious about his pizzas and Gibbs never had to worry about finding stupid shit like pineapple on it.

Tony was a still lump under the covers on the bed.

Gibbs brought him a bottle of water and sat on the edge of the bed. “You alive under there?”

“Mmmff…” Tony mumbled, the lump moving slowly.

“Drink some water. I have pizza if you’re hungry. Unless you want more soup?”

“Water’s fine,” muffled reply, but Tony was under there.

After some struggling, a hand poked out from under the covers. Gibbs placed the bottle of water in it and watched it disappear under the covers. Tony drank some and held the bottle back out.

“Will you need more time off?” Gibbs asked softly.

Tony sighed. “I’ll be at work tomorrow,” he said, sounding exhausted.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“We’ll understand if you need more time.”

“Time’s not what I need.”

“Well, if you’re sure.”

A muttered grumble was all he received in reply.

Gibbs pushed the water until Tony had drunk the whole bottle before he went back to the kitchen and brought a couple more bottles back, leaving them on the nightstand. He wished he knew what to say to bring back the vibrant Tony with the gorgeous smile that had helped him through his own grief, whether Tony knew it or not, many a time.

“I still can’t sleep in our bed, you know,” he said, his tone conversational.

“Huh?” Tony sounded confused. “What are you talking about?”

“Me. I haven’t been able to reclaim the bed I shared with Shannon.”

“Not even with your three ex-wives?”

“Not even with them. It’s why I sleep on the couch now.”

“Huh,” Tony sounded thoughtful. “I always thought maybe one of the ex-wives put you off the bed. Diane would’ve put me off sleeping in my bed for sure.”

Gibbs chuckled. “No. No, I locked the master bedroom door and the ex-wives and I just lived in the guest room.”

“Geez. It’s like you’re Bluebeard.”

“Except the exes are all alive. And still leeching off of me.”

Tony gave a small huff of laughter. “Diane’s done leeching off of you though.”

“True. Thank god she’s now leeching off of Fornell.”

“You should’ve warned him about her.”

“Believe me, I did.”

They stayed in companionable silence for a few minutes. “So that’s why your guest room is so nice,” Tony mused.

“Yeah. Each wife redecorated that room, too. I had to veto I don’t even know how many frou-frou bedskirts and window treatments. Fuck, I don’t even know what a bedskirt is,” Gibbs scoffed.

Tony snorted at that. After a long pause, Tony spoke. “I can’t seem to sleep anywhere else,” he volunteered. “I used to fall asleep on the couch, watching movies sometimes and I’d give Evan a hard time not wanting to come to bed with him. But I don’t do that anymore. I just want to get into our bed and stay here. And I only sleep on Evan’s side. I can’t even lie on my side. Even at your house, I sleep on Evan’s side.”

“Makes a certain kind of sense.”

“The bed doesn’t smell like him anymore though,” Tony sounded so sad. “I miss his smell.”

Gibbs thought back and remembered the perfume Shannon used to wear. What was it called? He couldn’t even remember. Or he might not even have ever known what it was called, not having paid attention to that little detail even when she was alive. All he knew was that it smelled good. Light and floral. And she only dabbed a tiny bit of it on her skin, the scent barely there, so it was more than tantalizing. He had to lean in, kiss her neck, to really catch a good whiff of it. The reminder of Shannon’s scent made him smile. “Yeah,” he agreed. “That was hard. Losing that.”

They stayed silent for long minutes. In the past, Tony would have rushed to fill in the silence with babbles and inane chatter, but these days, Tony just kept his mouth shut. Gibbs missed it, missed the sound of Tony’s voice describing something that he honestly couldn’t give two shits about but listened to anyways because he liked hearing Tony’s animated description of whatever the hell it was. Yeah, he definitely missed Tony’s voice. He missed Tony’s witty remarks, and movie quotes. Tony was at least speaking again, sometimes participating in casual conversation, but he still wasn’t the Tony he’d hired. Well, he, Gibbs, certainly wasn’t the same man now that Shannon knew, he guessed. But it still made him sad that Tony was changing.

“D’you still dream about her?” Tony asked hesitantly.

Gibbs blew out a breath and quirked an eyebrow. “Yeah. I do. But mostly I dream of Kelly. Sometimes I dream of her as a grown up. I really like those dreams. Makes me hopeful for whatever reason. The ones of her as a kid are nice, too, though. They’re mostly good dreams now.”

“Mm.”

“I dreamt about them constantly in the beginning,” Gibbs continued, his voice soft and almost dreamy. “Every night. Multiple times a night. But back then all it did was make it hurt more. Make me miss them more. Make me wonder why the hell I was still even here since they were gone. But over time, the dreams lessened. And that’s when I realized that I wanted the dreams back because they made me feel closer to them. Cliché, but it’s true. Over time it gets better. The dreams become, maybe not less hurtful, but a different kind of hurt. One that helps you go on instead of makes you want to make it all end.”

Tony stayed silent.

“I guess you’re dreaming about him then?”

Tony’s snort sounded more like a sob. “Sometimes even when I’m awake,” he finally admitted.

“Give it time.”

“Yup.”

Another long silence. Tony seemed to be done speaking so Gibbs decided it was time for him to leave.

“Well, I’m gonna go. Sure I’ll see you tomorrow?” Gibbs finally said, giving Tony another opportunity to extend his leave.

“Yup.”

“Good. Call Dawn at some point. She’s had a hard week too.”

“Ah, fuck.”

“Don’t feel guilty. She feels guilty enough that she couldn’t come see you this week.”

“Fuck it.”

Gibbs scrubbed his face. “If you want, maybe we can go over there and see if she’ll eat dinner with us after work tomorrow?”

Tony was silent for a while. “Yeah. OK.”

“Right. I’m gonna go then,” Gibbs patted the lump on the bed and stood.

“OK.”

“I’ll leave the pizza in your fridge.”

Tony grunted.

“It’s so weird that of the two of us, I’m now the chatty one,” Gibbs mused.

A bark of surprised laughter came from under the covers. Tony scrabbled for a moment before he finally got his head uncovered. His green eyes were dim and rheumy, his hair was a huge mess, and his week-old beard was beginning to get heavy. He looked tired, sad, and skinnier than ever. His tiny smile was the most beautiful thing Gibbs had seen in weeks.

“Thanks,” he said, simply.

Gibbs nodded.

The next day, Tony showed up at work, shaved, showered, and dressed in a sharp suit. His hair looked a little shaggy, he needed a haircut, but otherwise he seemed normal, or what passed for normal for him these days. After work, he and Gibbs went and took Dawn out to dinner. That started a new tradition of Gibbs and Tony taking Dawn out to dinner every couple of weeks or so. Something Gibbs found himself enjoying in a strange way.

---------------------------------------------------------------

On the day that gay marriage was legalized in DC, Tony found himself at Evan’s grave after work. He took a long drink of the expensive champagne in his hand and poured the rest of the bottle on the grave.

“I would’ve married you again, babe,” he told the headstone. “Would’ve married you as many times as you wanted me to. In as many states as it’s legal.”

And he could swear he heard Evan’s voice telling him, “Love you forever.”

That night Tony ended up at Gibbs’ house, tucked into his guest bedroom unable to face his empty, Evan-less apartment. He chose not to ask himself why it was he seemed to end up at Gibbs’ house on difficult days.

---------------------------------------------------------------

When Evan’s birthday rolled around, Palmer literally had to pick Tony up from Evan’s bar at closing time. He was so drunk he could barely walk. Palmer drove him straight to Gibbs’ house, not wanting to leave him alone at his apartment in this condition. It took three days for him to finally sober up. Ducky and Palmer clucked at him in concern, but all Gibbs did was make sure he made it to the bathroom to throw up, and helped him back into bed afterwards. He didn’t offer advice or try to talk to the grieving man. He offered a safe place to drown his sorrows, despite Ducky’s disapproving looks when Gibbs did nothing to prevent Tony reaching for more scotch.

But when Tony sobered up, he went back to work and adamantly ignoring Ducky’s gentle attempts at getting him to speak.

---------------------------------------------------------------

One night, Tony was stuck with Ziva surveilling a suspect for a complicated case. It was a night that he and Gibbs were supposed to have dinner with Dawn. He called Gibbs and asked him to take Dawn out without him. He didn’t like disappointing his mother in law.

Surprisingly, Gibbs agreed.

Tony thanked him and hung up with no small talk. Gibbs found himself filling in the blanks, like he sometimes did now. Saying to himself the saucy things that the old Tony would have said. He would’ve called Dawn Gibbs’ cougar, for one, and threaten to give him the shovel talk since Dawn was his mother in law. And that thought made Gibbs laugh as he went to ring Dawn’s doorbell. Not that Tony would have been right. Gibbs was fond of Dawn, no doubt, and she was still a beautiful woman. Evan hadn’t been so damned handsome for no reason. But he wasn’t interested in her in that way, even though he enjoyed her company. Like it or not, Gibbs was finally acknowledging that he was still interested in a certain green-eyed Senior Field Agent, and had been from the beginning. Not that it could ever mean anything given the whole Evan situation, and of course who could forget Rule #12.

“You’re in a good mood,” Dawn told him, catching the tail end of Gibbs chuckle when she opened the door.

“Just thinking of the stupid shit Tony used to say to get my goat,” he answered her honestly. “Tony’s on a case. Surveillance. McGee and I take over at midnight. He asked me to still have dinner with you, rather than have us both cancel on you. If that’s OK with you?”

“I won’t turn down the company of a handsome gentleman,” Dawn grinned.

Dawn waited while Gibbs opened her door and helped her into the car. When he was in the driver’s seat and buckled in, she gave him a mischievous grin. “Were you thinking that he would have given you that naughty eyebrow waggle and implied that I was doing you sexual favors?”

Gibbs laughed at loud. “Yeah. He would’ve. With much cruder language than you just did.”

Dawn laughed with Gibbs before she gave him a sad smile. “He hasn’t really gone back to being himself, has he?”

Gibbs shrugged. “I think maybe this is the real him, or at least a big part of him,” he said quietly. “I think he made that outgoing personality to hide this quiet person that he is. But losing Evan made it too hard to hold on to that mask.”

Dawn sighed and nodded.

“But I think we’ll start seeing more of that smartass Tony. Eventually. If I can fill in the goddamn blanks with the stuff he’d come up with, then he won’t be able to leave us hanging forever.”

Dawn smiled and agreed.

They had a quiet dinner, talking about everything and nothing. Mostly Dawn spoke, and Gibbs added a little of his opinion. But conversation wasn’t stilted. It turned out to be a nice dinner. But on the drive home, Dawn gave Gibbs a piercing look. “It’s really nice of you to still take me out tonight, even though Tony was busy.”

“It was no trouble.”

“Huh,” she pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes.

“What?” Gibbs quirked an eyebrow at her.

“You know, Evan used to get jealous sometimes.”

“Yeah? Well Tony can definitely be a flirt,” Gibbs answered, not paying full attention to Dawn. “But he’s loyal to a fault. Wouldn’t have dreamed of cheating on Evan. No way.”

“No, no. Not that. He couldn’t give a shit who Tony flirted with. He knew nothing would ever come of that. Tony barely even noticed when he was flirting. Used to be like breathing for him. No. Evan used to be jealous of you.”

“Me?” Gibbs gave her a surprised look. “What?”

Dawn shrugged. “I can see why.”

“Evan never even met me!”

“I suspect that Tony was probably half in love with you before he met my Evan.”

Gibbs gawked at her. “Tony? And me? I didn’t even know he was bisexual!”

Dawn snorted. “Yeah. I get that.”

“Why would Evan be jealous of me?”

“Tony stayed with NCIS, stayed on your team, even when he was seriously unhappy. Evan told me that Tony was offered his own team but he chose to stay with you, even though you were a bastard who didn’t give a damn about him.”

“I do care about Tony.” Gibbs hated that he sounded defensive.

Dawn nodded. “I know you do. Now that Evan’s gone, I’m glad Tony still has you.”

Gibbs snorted and made a face. “OK.”

“Deny it all you want. But you love Tony. Don’t you? That’s why you’ve been so good to him, so supportive. Protective. Because you can’t stand to see him hurt?”

Gibbs sighed and scrubbed his face. He couldn’t even remember the last time anyone had been able to read him so accurately. “Maybe I do,” he finally admitted.

“So why was he so unhappy working for you these past few years? Why didn’t you support and protect him before this?”

Gibbs scrubbed his face. “I used to. Not sure when I stopped doing it,” he answered. “Not sure why I stopped either.”

“You hurt him.”

Gibbs nodded. “Yeah.”

“But even now, you still love him.”

“Maybe I do, and have for a long time. But Tony is still in love with Evan. He’s not done grieving and mourning. Maybe he never will. Lord knows, I may never get over Shannon.”

“Your first wife?”

“Yeah. She and my daughter were murdered while I was deployed,” Gibbs couldn’t find it in himself not to tell Dawn the truth.

“You’ve remarried since, though?”

Gibbs snorted. “Three times,” he rolled his eyes. “All mistakes, because I was trying to find Shannon again. And my ex-wives had to settle for me never putting them first. Well, I guess they never settled for long, since they’re no longer married to me.”

“It’s not settling if you love each other, even if you both knew that neither of you were each other’s first choice or first love. As long as you aren’t expecting Tony to be Shannon, and Tony doesn’t think you can be Evan, it could be something good. If you can make each other happy now, you shouldn’t turn away from it. Life is short. You both know that first hand.”

Gibbs groaned.

“Evan loved Tony, Jethro. With every fiber of his being. And if Tony had ever chosen you over him, Evan would have let him go. Because he loved Tony that much.”

“Tony doesn’t love me.”

“Yes he does. One day he’ll be ready again. He won’t be consumed by pain anymore. He won’t love Evan any less, but he’ll find room in his heart for you again.”

Gibbs sighed.

“And when he does, if you turn him away, I’ll kill you myself.”

Gibbs gawked at her.

“I love Tony as if he were my own flesh and blood. He made my son so happy. And that poor, broken, damaged, boy is still somehow so beautiful. That’s what Evan used to call him, you know? Beautiful. And I only know a fraction of the stories about how Tony grew up and that godforsaken father of his. If I ever meet that asshole, I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot him for all the hurt he’s inflicted on his own son. You get what I’m saying?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You love him, Jethro. And if he turns to you when he’s ready, and you turn him away and hurt him, I will end you.”

“Yes, ma’am.” In a bizarre twist of fate, Gibbs found himself on the receiving end of the shovel talk after all, except instead of Tony kidding around with him about his intentions towards his mother in law, it was Dawn giving it to him on Tony’s behalf. They were silent the rest of the drive.

Gibbs pulled up in front of Dawn’s house and walked her to her door. She hugged him tightly and smiled at him. “Same time next week?”

Gibbs couldn’t help smiling back. “Yeah.”

“Good.”

---------------------------------------------------------------

On their wedding anniversary, Tony went to Boston and spent the day walking around the city by himself, retracing some of his happiest memories. He ended up at the little bed and breakfast in Martha’s Vineyard where they’d spent a couple of nights for their short honeymoon. The next day, he drove back to DC and went right back to work.

He didn’t end up in bed for a week, or at the hospital for alcohol poisoning. So he counted it as a win.

After work he had dinner with Gibbs and spent the night in Gibbs’ guest room.

---------------------------------------------------------------

On the one year anniversary of Evan’s death, Tony ended up in bed for another week. Gibbs, Palmer and McGee visited him daily. Along with Ducky, they also checked in on Dawn. All they could do for Tony again was push liquids. All offers of food was rebuffed.

When Tony came back to work, hollow eyed and sad again, Abby sat in his lap and hugged him for a long time. This time, he leaned into the hug, and accepted the comfort she offered.

He had no objections when Gibbs took him home and tucked him into his guest bed for the night.

Chapter Text

A year and a half after Tony lost Evan, Abby set Tony up on a date with a gorgeous and sassy FBI agent, Rachel Talmadge. It was Tony’s fault, really. One day, he’d walked into Forensics and after Abby had delivered the news for the case, they took a few minutes for small talk.

“What’s going on, Tony?” Abby asked, seeing the slight downcast look to Tony’s expression.

Tony gave her a shrug. “Meh. Just a little blue, I guess.”

“Can I help?” Over the course of the last year and a half, Abby, like McGee and Ziva and the rest of NCIS had had to get used to this new Tony, who rarely deflected or prevaricated. He either ignored the personal questions, or he answered truthfully. Tony shrugged and gave a long-suffering sigh in answer to her question.

“Did something happen?” Abby wracked her brain, trying to figure out if it was a significant date, an anniversary that they hadn’t anticipated.

“No. Just… kind of blue.”

Abby gave him a look and pursed her lips. Tony seemed lonely would be her assessment but she wasn’t sure how he would take that.

“You want to come out with us tonight? We can get the team to go out, maybe go bowling or to a movie or something? You get to pick the movie,” she offered, trying to entice him.

Tony shrugged and made a face.

“No? Did you have something in mind you want to do?”

Tony gave her a long look, weighing his options. Finally he sighed, dropped onto a stool and propped his chin up on his fists.

“I’m kind of… bored, Abby.”

“Bored?” Lonely, Abby corrected in her head.

“I never meet new people anymore,” he finally said. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for you all keeping me company even when I’m not good company. But I don’t know. I hang out with you guys, and Dawn, and sometimes I go out with some of our friends. Evan’s friends,” he corrected himself. “But I never do anything new. Or meet anyone new.”

“OK. Sounds like maybe you need to go somewhere new and meet new people.”

Tony shrugged.

“Are you saying you want to go out with someone new? Like, on a date?” Abby tried to contain her surprise.

Tony made a face. “I don’t have the patience to do that stupid dance anymore, Abs. I don’t want to go to a club or a bar, and advertise that I’m on the prowl with what I wear or how I act. That’s just going to take way too much fucking energy than I’ve got.”

“But you do want to meet someone? And go out with them?”

Tony shrugged. “I’m not talking I want to marry them,” he grumbled. “But yeah. Dinner, maybe?”

“Are we talking friend-zone date, or are you thinking more of a ‘let’s go back to their place for some hot sex after dinner’ sort of date?”

“I honestly have no clue.”

“Hmmm,” Abby frowned, as she thought. “It’s hard to meet people if you actively avoid going to the places to meet people and doing that whole routine.”

Tony rolled his eyes and nodded his agreement. Yes, he was aware of that. Duh.

“I don’t suppose you want to do online dating sites?”

Tony shuddered and shook his head.

“OK. Scratch the online dating sites. Although I did meet this one interesting guy once, he was a vet’s assistant…”

“Isn’t that the one who turned out to be a creepazoid taxidermist, Abs? The one with the collection of stuffed roadkill?”

“Yeah! He was making a tableau of the Last Supper using exclusively raccoons. Well, a skunk for Judas. But yeah, that was him.”

“Let’s skip online dating sites then,” Tony was firm. “And I can’t believe you still sound a little fond of that guy.”

Abby gave him a helpless grin. “I could, maybe, set you up with someone?” Abby offered.

Tony thought for a minute and Abby was certain he was going to decline, before he shrugged. “Maybe?” he said. “Kerry, who used to work with Evan at NASA wanted to set me up with this guy she works with, but I said no.”

“Why?”

“He knew Evan,” Tony said bluntly.

“So that means…”

“No. That’s just wrong,” Tony was again firm. “I can’t go out with someone who used to know Evan. That’s just too weird.”

“But you’re OK with the idea of going out with someone?” Abby carefully worded her question. “As long as they didn’t know Evan?”

“Or have any connection to Evan.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t want to go out with a friend of a friend of a friend, or someone who used to work with him, or vaguely knew him. No connections whatsoever.”

Abby gave him a look.

“I know it makes no sense, Abs. But I just can’t. I can’t.”

“OK,” Abby gave him a serious look. “Are you sure you want to do this? Go out at all?”

Tony shrugged. “Kind of? As long as everyone knows I’m really not looking for anything remotely close to serious. It might be nice to go out, have a little fun, and get to know someone new just for the evening.”

Abby chewed on her bottom lip, wondering if Gibbs was going to shoot her for this. “You know, none of us in law enforcement knew Evan,” she finally said. “What if I set you up with someone from our world?”

Tony gave it a moment of thought. “It’s not making me want to throw up,” he finally answered.

Abby giggled. Tony might be honest, but he was still funny. “That’s going to go over well,” she shook her head. “Hey, want to go on a date? You don’t make me want to throw up!”

Tony glared at her.

“OK, OK. I’ll keep my eye out for someone I think you might have fun with. And I’ll make sure they know you’re definitely not looking for anything serious.”

Tony gave her a small grin. “OK.”

“I might actually already know someone you’d like – he’s this really cool Forensics tech at the FBI. Well, not as cool as I am, but who is, right? Anyway, he’s cute too, I’d do him except he’s more likely to do you than me…” Abby’s brain started spinning.

Tony suddenly paled. “M-maybe no guys?” he was barely able to get out the words, and he now he did look like he wanted to throw up.

“Oh, Tony,” Abby hugged him tight, seeing his distress. “OK. No guys. I promise. I’ll find you some cool chicks.”

“No rush, Abs,” Tony said faintly.

“OK, Tony,” Abby agreed.

So it really was Tony’s fault that Abby made it her mission to seek out candidates for Tony to date now that he’d expressed an interest in going out again, and she knew his criteria. Only women. With no connection whatsoever to Evan. Who didn’t want anything serious. And the whole thing with Rachel was almost an accident. It happened a few weeks after Tony and Abby had their conversation.

Rachel Talmadge met Tony when one of their cases crossed paths. Despite everything that had happened, Tony remained gorgeous and sexy. And even though he still wore his wedding ring, Talmadge had asked around and heard that he was technically single again. She liked the looks of his pretty green eyes, and his lean, fit body encased in those delicious designer suits. His quiet aloofness and wounded soul called out to her. She’d hinted at her interest, even going so far as to give Tony her card with her personal cell number, but Tony seemed oblivious to her efforts.

One of her failed attempts had been in Forensics while Abby was explaining some piece of evidence to her and the MCRT. McGee and Gibbs had watched with great amusement as Talmadge crashed and burned spectacularly. It wasn’t that Tony was ignoring her on purpose, it just seemed as if it didn’t even register that Talmadge was flirting with him for real. He was utterly and completely oblivious to the fact that she was trying to hit on him. He was polite and friendly, given that he was still the de facto liaison with anyone pertinent to their cases, excluding little children. Kids were not his forte and he left dealing with children completely up to Gibbs. But Talmadge fell within his purview, as their FBI contact for the joint case. Whenever they were talking about the case, he was animated and humorous, but it was almost as if he completely checked out when she started in on the flirting and trying to ask him on out on a date.

“It’s even funnier now that he’s totally unaware of people flirting with him,” McGee snickered to Gibbs later.

“It used to be funny to watch him get shot down,” Ziva agreed. “But now he does not even know he is the one doing the shooting.”

“Those poor bastards,” McGee shook his head, thinking of all the people they’d seen throw themselves at Tony without him even noticing in the past year.

Gibbs shrugged and grinned at his junior teammates.

But Abby took Rachel aside after Tony and the team left Forensics. “You know it’s not personal, right? With Tony, I mean?” she told the FBI agent.

“Are you giving me the ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ speech for Agent DiNozzo?” Talmadge quipped.

Abby roared with laughter. “Awesome. You’re so his type,” she muttered. “No, no. I’m giving you the ‘hang in there and I’ll get you a date with him’ speech.”

“Why would you do that?”

“You know about his late husband, right?” Abby asked bluntly.

“Uh huh. But I was under the impression that he’s… interested in women… as well? Was I wrong?”

“Yeah, no. He’s definitely bisexual and into the chicks as well as the dudes,” Abby waved that away.

“Shit, I was hoping he really didn’t swing my way, cause then it wouldn’t be like I completely struck out,” Rachel pouted.

“No. It’s not you. Let’s put it this way – he hasn’t been on a date since Evan died.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“So it really is him then,” Rachel was disappointed.

“Well… he’s indicated that he might be ready to date again. And you would do nicely,” Abby circled her, eyeing her up and down, making her a little nervous. “But he’s not looking for anything serious. No commitments. Maybe not even a second date.” Abby had to be honest.

Rachel grinned. “He’s hot as fuck. I’ll be happy to have a couple of dates with him. Maybe a few romps in the sack.”

That I can try to arrange for you.”

“Again, why?”

“He needs to go out and feel like an attractive guy again.”

Talmadge gave her a confused look.

“He’s forgotten that he’s good looking and sexy, and he’s shut that part of his brain down that makes him even notice people paying him attention because of his looks. Like today? He was completely clueless to you flirting with him.”

“That sure makes a girl feel good about herself,” Talmadge muttered.

Abby laughed. “No, it’s not you, remember? It’s him. Because Evan went and died on him. He used to be the biggest fucking flirt in the world. But he hasn’t been able to be that again. So I think it would be good for him to go out on a date with you, and feel sexy and desirable again.”

Rachel shook her head and laughed. “Shit, you’re making it sound like I’m doing him a favor.”

“Yeah. I know. You are.”

“Did you get a good look at the guy?”

“Oh yeah, he’s, as you said, hot as fuck. Believe me, I have looked my fill,” Abby said, humming appreciatively. “But we are old friends and platonic ones at that. I’m not your competition. But I am his friend and I think you’d be good for him.”

Talmadge looked thoughtful but agreed. “If you can get me a date, I think it would be awesome. I’ll rock his world.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Abby took Talmadge’s card. “Just don’t hurt him. He’s been hurt enough.”

Rachel nodded solemnly.

“And don’t forget that I can kill you and dispose of your body without leaving any evidence,” Abby’s smile didn’t reach her eyes. “And most of NCIS will help me do that if you hurt Tony.”

Rachel nodded, a little nervously this time.

When Abby convinced Tony into agreeing to go out with Rachel, he agonized over what to wear for so long that Gibbs ended up choosing the outfit, giving him a manly pat on the shoulder, and even dropping him off at the restaurant at which they were meeting.

They had a great time, and Tony was quietly charming and funny. Abby had chosen well. He liked Rachel and they had many things in common, including their acerbic wit. When they ended up in Rachel’s bed after dinner, it did turn out to be a mutually beneficial arrangement. Talmadge did rock his world, as she promised Abby she would. And even though Tony was out of practice, he still knew what to do to with his dick and his hands and his body and his mouth to satisfy a woman in bed. In fact he satisfied her several times over that night.

But when she fell asleep, he rolled out of bed, dressed, and left the apartment. He was about to call for a cab, but ended up calling Gibbs and going home with him, freaking out, practically in tears about how he’d just cheated on Evan.

Gibbs assured him that he wasn’t cheating on Evan, plied him with bourbon and settled him in the guest bedroom to sleep it off. The next day he told Abby to lay off setting Tony up on dates for a little while. When Tony showed up for work, late, hungover, and keeping his sunglasses on all day, Abby agreed with Gibbs.

But it got Tony back on the horse, so to speak. He did eventually start going out on dates every so often. Even though he was mostly oblivious to anyone flirting with him, Abby did set him up on a few dates and he did manage to even catch a clue when women propositioned him when he was out with the team. But he ended up at Gibbs’ house after every date, still freaking out about feeling like he was betraying Evan and needing Gibbs’ silent support to get over those feelings.

Whatever it was he was freaking out about, Gibbs never made him feel like his emotions weren’t valid. Gibbs understood what he was going through, had gone through it himself. But more than that, although Gibbs never babied him – seriously, Gibbs never babied anyone – he was depending on Gibbs to be there for him again, the way he’d used to be back in the beginning. When Gibbs had first hired him, he’d stayed at Gibbs’ house until his apartment was available so he wouldn’t have to trek from Baltimore to work every day. And now, he’d reopened his house to him again. Even more, Gibbs, the functional mute, was actually talking to him again. Was usually more wordy than he was most days. There was that connection between them again, that had somehow been severed when Gibbs had lost his memory. When he’d come back from Mexico, Tony had been cast aside and set adrift, but now Gibbs was back on his six, being his protector and mentor again. It was good to have that back, and when Tony was freaking out, he needed Gibbs, needed their connection to ground him, to point him in the right direction. Needed to feel like he was fine, which Gibbs was somehow tacitly able to convey.

Tony started looking forward to the quiet dinners with Gibbs and his guest bedroom was becoming like a second home to him.

Chapter Text

When it finally occurred to Tony that he was kind of sort of dating Gibbs… Well, what else could he think they were doing? They ate dinner together a couple times a week. He spent the night at Gibbs’ house (not in Gibbs’ bed but certainly in his house) several times a week. He and Gibbs took his mother in law out to eat together once every week or so. It sure felt like they were in relationship territory, despite the platonic nature of it. Either way, when that occurred to him, he had a truly major freak out. He ended up calling in sick and staying in bed a few days.

He refused to speak to Gibbs, which confused the older man greatly. Gibbs went through their interactions for the last few weeks, checked on John Gallagher, the man who had killed Evan, and confirmed that he was still securely in jail and nowhere near parole, sicced Palmer on Tony, and he still couldn’t figure out what the problem might be. And he figured he probably knew Tony pretty well by now. Tony didn’t say anything to Palmer or McGee either, who had both become his confidantes. He just buried himself under the covers and pretended that the world didn’t exist, and wrapped himself in the memories of Evan. Sometimes he could even smell Evan in the bed with him, and there were dreams, beautiful dreams of Evan making love to him, Evan watching movies with him, Evan eating the elaborate meals that he’d loved to make for him, Evan talking and laughing with him. Evan telling him he’d love him forever.

How could he even consider that he was kind of sort of dating Gibbs? It was the ultimate betrayal. And he just couldn’t face himself.

In the end, Dawn had to come to speak to him.

“Tony,” Dawn settled herself on the bed, patting the lump under the covers. “Honey. What’s wrong? Jethro says you’re not talking to anyone. And you’ve confined yourself to bed again. What happened? Did something happen?”

Nothing happened!” Tony denied hotly, although the effect was somewhat spoiled by being muffled, since he didn’t even try to climb out from under the covers.

Dawn sighed. “You can tell me anything, you know?”

There was an agonized moan.

Dawn smiled and rubbed what she thought was Tony’s back. “What’s got you so freaked out you’re back in bed again?”

“I’m a terrible human being,” Tony’s voice came, low and sad.

“No you’re not, honey. Why would you think that?”

There was a short scrabble before Tony was able to move his head out from the tangle of blankets. He was disheveled, unshaven and looked like he had been crying.

“Honey,” Dawn’s tender and understanding tone brought tears to Tony’s eyes. “What happened to make you think such awful things about yourself?”

Tony gave her that look that said, where did she want him to start?

“Evan wouldn’t let you get away with thinking this about yourself,” Dawn told him.

If it was even possible, Tony looked even sadder at that.

“Tell me what’s going on, Tony,” Dawn commanded him.

Green eyes blinked sadly, before he sighed, pulled a pillow to him, and laid his head down on it. “You know I’ve started, you know, seeing people?”

Dawn nodded. “Yeah. Jethro told me the first one didn’t go so well. But you’ve been on a few other dates, right?”

Tony nodded. “No, that first date actually went well. The date itself did. I just freaked out afterwards. So Gibbs came to get me. But yeah I’ve been on other dates.”

“OK. So you’re dating again. I told you I thought it’s good for you to get out there again, right? You’re a young man. So beautiful. Evan wouldn’t want you to pine away for him the rest of your life. He wouldn’t have wished a life of loneliness and grief on you.”

You never remarried after Evan’s dad died,” Tony objected.

“I had two children to raise, and it’s hard to date when you’re a single mom.”

“OK.”

“I came close once,” she admitted. “But it would have changed too many things in our lives, and I didn’t know if I loved him enough to put Evan and Hailey through all that, you know? In the end I couldn’t do it. It didn’t work out for us.”

“You were thinking about marrying him?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh. I never knew that.”

“Haven’t told anyone, really. Evan and Hailey never even knew how serious we were.”

“Oh.”

“So, did you find someone you want to marry?” Dawn was surprised.

“No! God, no!” Tony grimaced and looked ready to throw up. “Never. I’m never marrying anyone else.”

“Honey, you can’t say that for sure. The future might bring you someone else you can love.”

“Nope,” Tony shook his head firmly. “No more weddings or marriages. Off the table forever.”

“Honey…” Dawn patted him. “What if you fall in love again?”

“I-I don’t know,” Tony answered honestly. “I’ll have to deal with it if that ever happens to me again. I don’t think it ever will though. But if it did, I can’t imagine getting married again. I can’t.”

“So OK. You’re dating again,” Dawn decided to interrupt that train of thought and go back to why the hell Tony was upset and back in bed. “But you haven’t met someone else you want to marry. None of this is new, right? And yet you’re still in bed and not talking to anyone for days. What am I missing here?”

Tony sighed and tried to pull the blankets back over his head, but Dawn held on tight, not allowing him to hide again.

“C’mon. What happened?” she insisted.

Tony whimpered and tried to hide under the pillow instead.

“Tony. Honey. Tell me what’s going on.”

Finally Tony sighed and closed his eyes, refusing to look at Dawn. “I think… I think I might be dating Gibbs?” he finally choked out.

To his surprise, Dawn laughed.

His eyes flew open in outrage. “Why is that so funny?” he growled.

“Oh honey, I’ve known that for a while.”

What?

Dawn petted Tony’s hair and leaned down to kiss his cheek. “It’s OK, Tony.”

Tony groaned. “Why is it OK? And how have you known for a while? I didn’t even know it until a couple of days ago! I mean, how can I be dating Gibbs? I’ve gone out on dates with other people! For god’s sake, he picked out my outfit for that first date I went on! Hell, he dropped me off at the restaurant, and then he picked me up from her place after I fucked her six ways to Sunday! Does that sound like someone I’m dating?”

Dawn rolled her eyes, suppressing the urge to reprimand him for his language. Tony was a grown man after all. And maybe fucked was the right term, if he had no emotional attachment to the woman. “So why don’t you tell me why you think you’re dating Jethro?”

“I don’t know! I mean, we eat dinner together a couple times a week, just us! Sometimes he cooks, sometimes we go out, sometimes it’s delivery. But it’s always just the two of us. And then I spend the night in his house even if I’m not drunk and can drive myself home. I mean, not in his bed or you know, not like we’re doing anything. And it’s not like he sleeps in his bed anyway. He sleeps on his couch, can you believe that? All these years after Shannon died, he still can’t sleep in their bed! He kept three ex-wives from sleeping in the bed that he shared with his dead wife! Fucking Bluebeard!”

“I think you’re getting off track here, Tony.”

“Right, right. Yeah. So we spend time together, and it’s not exactly platonic. I mean, it’s not romantic exactly, but it doesn’t feel like just a friendship. It’s not like when I have dinner with one of my frat buddies, or McGee or Palmer or something. You know? It feels different.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“I don’t know?” Tony’s expression was pained.

“What else?”

“The other day, I was at his house, and I’d just gotten out of the shower and it was time to dress for work. I looked in the closet and saw that I had some suits hanging in there that had just come back from the dry cleaner, still in the dry cleaning bag. Dawn, Gibbs took my suits to be cleaned at my favorite dry cleaner, and then brought them back and hung them up! And then I realized that my clothes were in that closet, and in the chest of drawers in that room. My clothes, Dawn! Not just a change of clothes, but probably enough to stay the week at his house! I keep a second set of my toiletries in his guest bathroom so I don’t have to keep packing and unpacking! What the hell am I doing, Dawn? The man doesn’t even need to give me the proverbial drawer. He’s given me the whole damned room!”

Dawn rubbed his back soothingly. “Shh, honey. It’s OK.”

“It’s not OK!”

“Yes it is. Is there anything else that makes you think you’re dating Jethro?”

“We take you out to dinner! I mean, you’re my mother in law, but we take you out to dinner, and if I can’t make it, he’ll take you out without me. Like we’re together together. I mean, how fucked up is that?”

“It’s not fucked up.”

“It’s not?” That surprised Tony. He stared at her in confusion.

Dawn shook her head.

“Well, why the fuck not?”

“He cares for you, you know that right?”

“He cares for everyone on his team. He’s all gruff and bastardy but underneath all that crappy clothes and sawdust and bad attitude, he’s a kind hearted soul. Just ask Abby.” Tony was starting to pout now, unsure how to take Dawn’s reaction.

“Tony,” Dawn smiled and patted his hair. “Do you want to date Jethro?”

“I don’t know,” Tony said in a small voice. “It’s Gibbs. There’s no way he’s interested. Not in me, anyway. He has a thing for redheads. Maybe if I dyed my hair red. And underwent gender reassignment. Which, by the way, let me make it clear, I’m good the way I am. There will be no cutting off of things or making an innie out of my outie.”

Trying to suppress her laughter, Dawn asked. “Do you want to dye your hair red for him?”

“Fuck no! Have you seen my skin tone? Red would totally wash me out.”

Dawn couldn’t help but roar with laughter at that.

“I’m glad my existential angst is amusing to someone,” Tony muttered.

“Honey, you want my take on what’s going on?”

“Sure, why not. Cause I’m stuck. And it’s hard to think. And I just miss Evan so much. Cause he helped me figure things out. Even before we started going out and he was just my bartender that I was unhealthily codependent on.”

Dawn laughed again. “Evan would smack you for saying that.”

“I know. Did I mention he was also on the hook for spousal abuse?”

This time it was Dawn who playfully smacked Tony’s arm, making him grin up at her. He dug both his arms out from the covers and laid on his belly, talking to his mother in law about his dead husband and his possible desire to date his boss and thought to himself, how is this is my life now?

“Let me ask you this question then,” Dawn tried to bring the conversation back on track. Although the self-deprecating banter Tony was throwing out was more like the Tony she had known when Evan was alive, and it made her glad to see that he was still in there somewhere. “If Jethro was interested in men, and interested in you, would you want to date him?”

Tony sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe? He’s my boss.”

“Are there policies against interoffice romances at NCIS?”

“Nope. We’d have to clear it with Vance probably, but he’s been kind of nice to me since Evan died.”

“So you think you would be interested in Jethro?”

Tony blew out a breath and rubbed his face. “I — yeah. Well. Maybe. I’ve only gone out with women. I mean. It feels less like I’m cheating on Evan if I only date women now, you know? But Gibbs? God, Dawn! He’s Gibbs! How can I do that to Evan?”

Dawn petted his hair. “You’re not doing anything to Evan, you know,” she said gently. “He’s gone, Tony. He’s been gone a long time now.”

“I know that,” the realization of Evan being gone stabbed through Tony one more time.

“It’s hard. And it sounds like you think maybe you might want to pursue something with Gibbs, but maybe you’re not ready for it. Not right now, at least?”

“I’m so not ready for it,” Tony muttered, covering his face. “I know Evan’s gone. I know I’m technically a free man. But I can’t…”

“I know, honey. All these years Rob’s been gone, I still miss him. I still talk to him, and tell him things. I talked to him a lot after Evan died. Asked him to make sure he was OK, you know? But you have to keep in mind that there’s no rush. You have to grieve and mourn and let go in your own time. If it feels right, then it’s right. If it doesn’t, then give it more time. It’s not like someone can come and grade you and say, gotten over dead husband in x amount of time – check. Gone on with your life – check. There’s no such thing. All you can do is try not to let it rule your whole life, and one day you’ll maybe be open to a serious relationship again. Or maybe you won’t. There’s no right or wrong to it. But either way, you’ve got to keep on living.”

“Do you think I should stop having dinner with Gibbs? Having this pseudo-relationship with him?”

“Do you want to stop?”

Tony shook his head miserably. “No. I think I’d slide back into not being able to get out of bed again.”

“Then carry on. Is Jethro forcing you into doing anything you’re not ready for?”

Tony shook his head. “No. He just feeds me and gives me a place to sleep when I can’t stand to be alone.”

“Then he’s being a friend, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe you start by being a friend back to him.”

“Yeah? What about my clothes in his closet?”

“If it bothers you that much, then just gradually bring that stuff back here.”

“Well, it is convenient to have some clothes there. I do spend a lot of time at his house.”

Dawn smothered a grin. “OK. So leave the clothes.”

“He’s doing my laundry and dropping off my dry cleaning and stuff!”

“So you got yourself a nice wife. Nothing wrong with that.”

“Oh my god, Dawn. Gibbs will kill you if he hears you say that!” Tony was shocked.

Dawn laughed. “Do you want him to stop doing that? You just tell him to stop.”

Tony sighed. “I don’t know. He’s being so nice.”

“OK. So just leave it alone then?”

“Maybe I can help him do the laundry sometimes then it won’t feel like I’m taking too much advantage of his kindness…” Tony thought out loud. Dawn swallowed the comment that that would make it even more relationshippy, and just let him be happy with his own conclusions.

“Yeah. And maybe one day you’ll want to ask him out?” she suggested.

“Why? You think he’ll say yes?” Tony looked suspicious.

“Do you want him to say yes?”

“Fuck! Stop answering my questions with more questions! This is where Evan got it from,” Tony rolled his eyes.

“He learned from the best.”

“Fuck, Dawn. I miss him so much... Sometimes it’s just so hard.”

“I know, honey. I miss him too.”

They sat in silence for a long moment. “You want to maybe watch a movie with me?” Tony finally offered.

“Does that mean you’re getting out of bed?”

Tony sighed and scrubbed his face before he nodded.

Dawn rewarded him with a huge smile. “Let’s watch Love, Actually. You know Evan secretly loved that movie.”

Tony laughed. “God, he did. But no way would he ever admit that.”

“We could watch Must Love Dogs. He always liked that one, too.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me. I had to buy him that DVD.” Tony rolled his eyes. “Although I always suspected he had a crush on John Cusack.”

“Who doesn’t?” Dawn smiled. “You could be right. Let’s go watch the movie. But first you need to shower and de-stink. I’ll fix us something to eat while you do that.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Tony started to clamber out from the blankets. “Hey Dawn? What are you going to tell Gibbs? About…” he gestured helplessly, trying to convey his freak out of the past few days.

“Just that you needed to work through some things,” Dawn answered, giving him a fond smile. “Can I tell him you’ll be at work tomorrow?”

Tony sighed and nodded. “Yeah. OK.”

So Tony went back to work, and resumed his life as if he didn’t have the realization that he was kind of sort of dating Gibbs. He continued to share meals with him and spend the night in Gibbs’ guest bedroom, glaring at his clothes in the closet and chest of drawers. He saw that Gibbs was throwing his clothes in the laundry with Gibbs’ and folding it and putting it back in his drawers and he started helping with that. He was partially living with the man, no matter what else was going on. So now, he started finally paying more attention to how much he looked forward to time alone with Gibbs. And then it occurred to him how good Gibbs looked in those old jeans that he wore when he worked on the boat, when he bent over the jeans hugged his ass. He was checking out Gibbs’ ass. That realization horrified him, but it didn’t stop him from doing it.

So he started going out with more women, and even a few men, and sometimes he didn’t even need to end up at Gibbs’ house once the date was over. He tried different things when he went out, tried to be different, tried to not just be the Tony whose husband died, just to see how it felt. One time, he tried to put back the mask of the excessive flirt and the overgrown frat boy when he went out, but it felt hollow and empty, and made him feel the loss of Evan keenly. So he went back to being quiet and introverted for a week, before Palmer and McGee dragged him out of his shell, and convinced him to just be whatever he wanted to be, and be himself, instead of trying to be something he thought people expected him to be.

Which was, of course, good advice.

But he knew he was a work in progress, and tried not to be too hard on himself. And he tried not to dwell on the fact that he was maybe more than a little attracted to Gibbs, and more than a little attached to the man. And that Gibbs had given him a whole entire room in his house. Or what any of that might mean.

Chapter Text

As time passed, Tony gradually dated less and less. He rarely ever asked for or accepted a second date, and the whole dating thing began to feel tedious. He found himself wanting to skip the date and just head straight to Gibbs’ for a quiet night in instead going through the date and then ending up at Gibbs’. He started letting himself feel more than just friendship with Gibbs, and he found that over time, he became more comfortable with and stopped objecting to the idea of something more than a friendship with Gibbs. He found himself cutting down on the random dates and just finding excuses to hang out with Gibbs. Even if it wasn’t just the two of them – dinners with Dawn or evenings out with the team. But if he were to be honest with himself, he enjoyed the time they spent together, just him and Gibbs, outside of work the most. He wanted to be around Gibbs, wanted to see Gibbs smile at him, wanted to be the one to put the smile on Gibbs’ face.

Somewhere along the way, their relationship had changed. In the beginning, when Gibbs first hired him away from Baltimore PD, Gibbs had been there for him. But back then, he’d always felt like he had to earn every single concession that Gibbs might have made for him. It had made him Gibbs’ loyal St Bernard, but then Gibbs’ memories were taken away in one bomb blast and Tony’s life changed drastically. Even when Gibbs returned, he’d been kept at arm’s length and always regarded with suspicion, almost. But now, Gibbs felt approachable and open. For once, Tony didn’t feel like he had to behave a certain way or earn his way into Gibbs’ life. It didn’t seem to affect him if Tony was upset, or happy, or angry or just quiet. Gibbs was Gibbs, and he felt like a rock that Tony could depend on. There were times when Tony thought that it seemed like Gibbs was trying to earn his way into Tony’s life. Which was a weird feeling, when he thought about it. Gibbs had always been quick to punish him with headslaps and verbal cracks, but now punishment tended to be a stern look, and only if Tony was stressing himself out which seemed to make Gibbs worry or something. But other than that, the man seemed to be accepting of whatever Tony was, which was both liberating and scary. Gibbs was an exacting man, and Tony had known what the standard was in the past. These days, Gibbs took him as he was. What it meant for him, he didn’t know. Ever since Evan died, Tony had stopped measuring himself by Gibbs’ yardstick and he no longer felt compelled to have Gibbs’ seal of approval. So if Gibbs wasn’t holding him to some standard, and he wasn’t looking for Gibbs’ approval anymore, then what did they have? Could Gibbs actually enjoy his company and want him to just be himself? It was a possibility and certainly one he considered. Whatever the case, Tony was still pulled into Gibbs’ orbit and he went willingly despite it all.

In order to deal with these feelings that were evolving and growing stronger for Gibbs, even though he didn’t crawl back into bed, he had many conversations with Dawn. Dawn listened and never pushed him in any direction, letting him choose when or even if he wanted to do anything about it. So Tony ended up deciding not to go back to dating randomly again, and mostly ended up at Gibbs’ house for various reasons.

He started watching Gibbs to try to decide if Gibbs would even be amenable to thinking of him in any kind of non-platonic manner. Despite knowing the man as well as he did, it was still hard to tell. Gibbs was sweet at times, and there were times when Tony thought the smiles he was getting from Gibbs seemed more than friendly. But Gibbs was Gibbs. At work, Tony understood him perfectly, and often they didn’t even need to speak to get their points across. But outside of work, Gibbs was mostly inscrutable.

Much, much later, after Tony had thought everything through and analyzed Gibbs’ actions and words, he decided that he needed to do something about it. He couldn’t keep himself wondering if there was anything more between him and the older man. He could either ask him out and start something with Gibbs, or have Gibbs shoot him down and help him move on and move away from the crush or infatuation or whatever it was he was feeling for the man. So after much time and screwing up of courage, and a couple of aborted attempts, on the night that Tony showed up at Gibbs’ house unannounced and tentatively asked him if he’d like to go out to dinner with him, Gibbs gave him that crooked grin and told him, sure, he would.

“Not like the dinners we’ve been having,” Tony said, trying to clarify his intentions.

“Will there be food?” Gibbs kidded.

Tony growled. “Of course there’ll be food. It’s dinner. By default it means there’ll be food.”

“OK. Sounds good. I’m in.”

“No. I mean. Dinner. Like dinner. Dinner dinner.”

Gibbs rolled his eyes. “What the fuck is going on with you, DiNozzo? Dinner is dinner. And how many times are we going to say the word ‘dinner’ in our sentences tonight? I said yeah. You want to go to dinner tonight? Sure. Let’s go dine. Where d’you want to go? The diner?”

“No, no I don’t mean dinner. Dinner isn’t just dinner. And we can’t just go out tonight for dinner. I’m talking about dinner. I mean dinner like, would you have dinner with me on a date, dinner.”

Gibbs was shocked into silence. “Oh,” he finally unfroze. “OK. Dinner like dinner dinner.”

“Right. Dinner dinner. Exactly.” No, it wasn’t confusing at all. Was it?

“Are you asking me out on a date, DiNozzo?” Gibbs asked carefully.

Tony shrugged. “Would you kill me if the answer’s yes?”

Gibbs’ blue eyes stared at Tony as if he could strip everything away and see right into his brain. Tony tried not to squirm at the scrutiny.

“OK. Never mind. Dumb question. Forget I ever said anything. I’ll see you tomorrow. We’re still taking Dawn out right?” he retreated. “Um, yeah. See you at work, Boss.”

“Wait. Tony,” Gibbs put a hand on Tony’s arm. He was smiling slightly. “Are you sure you want this?”

Tony nodded slowly. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while now.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“And are you OK with this? I know you’ve only been dating women. And lately it seems you haven’t even been on a date.”

“I dated a few men, too. Just to see. But yeah. No dates in a while now.”

Gibbs gave him a look. “And you were OK with dating men?”

“The first time I went out with a guy, I cried so much after sex that he wanted to call 9-1-1 on me,” Tony confessed.

Gibbs couldn’t help but snort with laughter. “Do you have to sleep with everyone you date?”

“I wanted to see how it went. You know. With guys.”

“And?”

“Seemed OK. Except for the excessive guilt afterwards.”

“And it makes you think, hey, I’m ready to ask Gibbs out?”

Tony sighed and scrubbed his face. “I like you,” he said simply. “You make me feel good. You always have. And I’m ready I think.”

“You think you’re ready?”

Tony shrugged. “I mean, I know I want to ask you out, and I know I want maybe something more with you. How much more, I don’t know exactly. But I-I’d like to at least try this. With you.”

“Yeah?”

Tony nodded.

“And if I said yes to this date, are you going to freak out?” Gibbs asked gently.

“What? No!” Tony was vehement. “Well. Maybe. A little. Why? Are you saying yes?”

“Will this freak out involve you being stuck in bed for days?”

“I-I don’t think so. I might need Jimmy to pour me into my bed after I drink myself into a stupor, maybe?”

Gibbs grinned. “It’s weird, you being so honest these days.”

“What do I have to lose anymore?” Tony shrugged, giving Gibbs a sad smile.

Gibbs smiled back and took Tony’s hand. “Yes. I’d like to have dinner dinner with you, Tony.”

“Really?” Tony squeaked. “I’m not dyeing my hair red!”

Gibbs gave him that ‘what the fuck are you saying’ look.

“I’m just saying. Not going to go red,” Tony insisted.

“Oh-kayyyy,” Gibbs dragged the word out, watching Tony carefully. “I like you the way you are.”

“Yeah? Cause gender reassignment is definitely off the table.”

Gibbs started laughing helplessly. “Maybe you’re taking this honesty thing too far.”

“I’m just making sure you know, off the bat, that I’m not dyeing my hair red, and I’m going to stay a man.”

“Well, that’s good to know. Thanks for clearing that up.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Never mind.”

Gibbs smiled and pulled him into a tight hug. “When do you want to have this date?”

“Umm… Friday night maybe? If we don’t catch a case?”

“Sounds good. What do you have in mind? Other than dinner dinner.” That teasing note was back in Gibbs’ voice.

“Umm…” Tony couldn’t decide.

“You didn’t make any plans yet?” Gibbs asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I didn’t think you’d actually say yes,” Tony grumbled. “Figured the not redhead not woman thing would be the end of this conversation. Not to mention Rule #12.”

“A wise woman reminded me that life is short and that we should take every opportunity we’re given when it comes to love.”

Tony blinked at him in silence.

“So no Rule #12?” he asked cautiously.

Gibbs shrugged. “I don’t think it should apply. It should probably be amended to be a rule that’s more applied on a case by case basis, and in this case, it doesn’t apply. We’ve spent so much time outside of work together now – hell, I do some of your laundry, DiNozzo. And it hasn’t affected how things are at work, has it?”

Tony shook his head. “Well, I do help with the laundry…” he said defensively.

“Yes, you do. And that’s fine. I’m just making a point that work hasn’t changed for us.”

Tony stared at him thoughtfully. “That’s fair. So… What are we doing on Friday? What do you want to do?”

Gibbs laughed. “OK. How about I make the plans for this date, and you can plan the next one?”

“There’s gonna be a second date?” Tony’s eyes were wide and scared.

“Yeah. There is,” Gibbs somberly. “Unless you don’t want one.”

“So you do actually want to date me?” Tony knew he was squeaking but he couldn’t stop himself.

“Uh-huh.”

“Oh. Right. OK.”

“Hey. Don’t panic. Just one date. Maybe two. We go from there, OK?”

Tony nodded frantically. “Yeah. OK. Sounds good.”

Gibbs smiled, blue eyes crinkling in the corners in those attractive crow’s feet, and Tony found himself smiling back.

“And maybe, let’s just put it out there, that until you’re comfortable and ready, we take sex off the table,” Gibbs suggested.

“Why? You don’t think I’m attractive?” Tony glared at him. “Is this a pity date?”

“No, asshole. You’ve just been sleeping your way through all of these dates and freaking out about cheating on Evan. How about you and me just see if we like going on dates. See if we want to see more of each other, without the pressure of sex and your need to run away from the people you’ve had sex with. And we can go from there.”

“So go out on a romantic date…”

“Yup. Dinner dinner,” Gibbs teased him.

Tony huffed an annoyed snort. “Romantic date,” he continued, “but no sex afterwards. And not because you don’t want sex with me.”

“Oh I definitely want to fuck you,” Gibbs told him bluntly, blue eyes serious even though his lips quirked up in a grin.

“Oh…” Tony stopped talking for a minute, flustered beyond belief, his face flushing at Gibbs’ words. “But…?”

“I think the goal would be to see if you want to have more than one date with me.”

“And then? If we went on what, three dates? Five dates? Then what?”

“No time limits. When you’re ready, and not freaking out over what you want versus what you think is right with Evan, then maybe we can talk about getting hot and heavy.”

Tony thought for a long moment before he nodded. “Right. OK. Dates, plural. No sex, cause yeah. You’re right. I’ve basically fucked and run since I started seeing people again.”

“And you’ve chosen people who wanted that, and didn’t want more with you. I don’t want that. I don’t want you to fuck and run from me,” Gibbs said.

Tony nodded. “Fair enough. So if we do this, and go to dinner dinner, what are the rules? No touching at all? No kissing? No hanky panky?”

“Kissing might be nice,” Gibbs grinned. “Kissing is customary on dates where someone wants to see the other person again.”

“Good point. OK. Kissing is on the table. Are you still good to go out Friday? And plan it and stuff?”

“Looking forward to it.” Gibbs’ grin warmed Tony’s heart and helped him panic less.

“Shit, now I’m going to be nervous about whether I should kiss you after the first date,” Tony babbled. “I mean, it would be our first kiss. Do I kiss you after the first date, or do I wait until the second date? Fuck! I’m so used to talking to you now I’m telling you shit I shouldn’t be telling you!”

Gibbs laughed. “How about we take the pressure off that decision too?”

“How?”

Gibbs pulled him into his arms, and immediately Tony relaxed and settled down instead of vibrating with nervous energy. One hand was on Tony’s lower back, rubbing it soothingly, the other gently cupped his face as they stared deeply into each other’s eyes.

“This OK?” Gibbs asked, running his thumb along Tony’s full bottom lip.

Wordlessly, Tony nodded.

Gibbs smiled when Tony ran his tongue along his bottom lip and bit it. Dimples creased his cheeks.

“Can I kiss you?” Gibbs asked.

Tony nodded again, slowly, not breaking away from their locked gaze.

Unconsciously echoing Tony’s movements, Gibbs licked his lips before he leaned close and pressed his lips on Tony’s. Gently. A soft, chaste kiss, one hand behind Tony’s neck, cupping the back of his head, the site of oh-so-many past head slaps. Gibbs’ lips fluttered gently on Tony’s, kissing him as if he were fragile and breakable, the care that went into the kiss was almost overwhelming. When Gibbs pulled away, Tony’s green eyes were wide pools.

“Too soon?” Gibbs asked, his voice husky.

Tony blinked, then yanked Gibbs back in and kissed him, mouth open, begging Gibbs for more. The older man gave him what he was asking for, pushing Tony up against a wall, his lips and tongue doing dirty things to Tony’s mouth, wringing a moan from deep in his chest.

Gibbs pulled away when they needed air. Despite the fact that he’d put a thigh in between Tony’s legs and the younger man was rubbing his erection on him, and despite the fact that his own hard cock was digging into Tony’s hipbone, he smiled gently, and pulled away with a soft, regretful sigh.

“We’re taking it slow, remember,” Gibbs said.

Tony nodded, panting to catch his breath.

“And even when you freak out about this, know that I’m still here for you. Even if you don’t want more dates with me, or if you don’t think you’re ready for more, I’m here for you. My guest room is always open to you. You got that?”

Tony nodded again. He tried to release his death grip on Gibbs’ shirt, but his fingers were refusing to cooperate.

“You should go home, and call Dawn,” Gibbs told him. “I think it’ll help you to do that.”

Tony nodded.

“Shit, how did I end up being the chatty one again?”

This made Tony laugh, and slowly he unclenched his fingers and released Gibbs’ shirt.

“You can always take the guest room tonight, if you need it?” Gibbs offered. “I was gonna go down and work on the boat.”

“No. I’ll go home.”

“Yeah? You OK to drive?”

“I haven’t even had a drink tonight.”

“No liquid courage? I’m impressed.”

“Fuck you,” Tony grinned.

“OK. So I’ll see you at work tomorrow? And we’re still on with Dawn for tomorrow night?”

“Yeah. And dinner dinner on Friday.”

They shared a grin over it.

“It’s a date,” Gibbs said, and it felt like the promise of much more than just a date.