Brushing his fingers over the screen of his tablet, he scrolled through another few pictures of what looked like a great apartment in a decent neighborhood, and for acceptable rent too. But this wasn't what he was looking for, not now, not anymore.
It would have been different, even six months ago. Back then, he would have jumped at the opportunity and probably signed a lease the same day after viewing the apartment. It had all the amenities he liked, was in a building large enough to have a full-time super to take care of all those pesky repairs and things he'd never liked having to deal with - he shuddered at the memory of spending hours handing Gibbs tools as the man systematically went through his own house fixing leaking faucets and tightening screws on drawers - and still not so big that he would feel lost in the sheer number of people living in the same building as him. But that was then, and things had changed.
When Tony got notice that his current building had been sold and he'd need to either buy his apartment or move, for a second, just a second, Tony had thought it was a sign. He had allowed himself only a brief moment to picture showing up at Gibbs' place, truck full of his stuff, and Gibbs opening his door and his arms for him, smiling, saying Tony would never have to leave again. But as soon as he'd thought it, he shook himself out of it, knowing it wasn't going to work like that. Yes, they had been sleeping together for over three years now, but Tony had always known that - even though they were faithful to each other and both committed - Gibbs was always going to need his space, and, truth be told, so did Tony. They usually spent a couple of nights a week together, mostly at Gibbs' place, but the other nights they each went home alone, and that suited them both fine.
But then, four months ago, the unthinkable had happened. There had been another showdown with bad guys at Gibbs', and the house had been severely damaged. And then, before Gibbs could have the structure checked and reinforced, a blizzard hit the city and piled so much snow on top of the already groaning old house, that it simply collapsed in misery. Without even discussing anything with Tony, Gibbs accepted Ducky's offer to stay with him in his brownstone, and based on that Tony intended never to bring up moving in together.
He was therefore surprised at what happened about a month later. He and Gibbs and four of their friends were having one of their regular nights together, hanging out. These always started with grand plans of all night poker games, elaborate barbecues, or fancy steak dinners out, but while they did sometimes do things like that, it mostly just ended up with the six of them lounging around, pizza and snacks, beer and wine and bourbon, and just relaxing, talking.
They were a strange group, the six of them. On the surface, they didn't have much in common, but for those precious few in their lives who knew them well enough to be able to see below the layers, it made sense that they were close. In a weird way, they had very similar experiences, and only one of those experiences was being in a relationship they had never really pictured themselves being in before. These were all men who had found love where they had least expected it, and they had all struggled with it for a long time. And that wasn't even the basis of their friendship. No, what they had found in each other as friends was the shared need to protect, to serve, to learn. A mixture of curiosity and caution, experience and brash jumping in, of knowledge and strength. Tony had been the last of the six to be included in the group, introduced by Gibbs just after they got together, and when he finally realized halfway through the evening that the other four were actually two couples, he'd been stunned into silence for long minutes, long enough for Gibbs to really smirk at him.
That particular evening, bellies full of pizza and drinks of choice in hand, they were lounging around, television playing some cartoons idly in the background, when one of them asked Tony and Gibbs how their search for new accommodations was going. Tony's end of lease was swiftly coming up and, while Gibbs was grateful to Ducky for offering him a place to stay, it was no secret to any of the others that after a month of sharing with his friend, Gibbs was getting twitchy for his own space.
"I know how you feel, Gibbs. It was weird getting used to always having someone in the house again when the two of us moved in together, but now with these two also staying with us, it's getting a little cramped."
With a quick smirk to the two in question, the man continued.
"Not that we don't love having you, of course."
His smirk was immediately returned by the other two, one of whom replied.
"Yeah, but at least we get to snuggle up with our honeys at night. Gibbs doesn't even have that."
Tony studiously kept his head down.
"I still don't get why you didn't just move in with Tony," one of the others interjected. "I mean, it's just for a few months and you both need new places anyway… And if you need space, just get something together with enough room so you can be alone when you need to be and together when you want to be. You'd be able to get something like that easily if you pulled your resources together. Better than getting two separate places and only using them half the time."
Gibbs cleared his throat.
"Yeah… I've been thinking maybe you're right."
Tony's breath hitched and even with all his training he couldn't help throwing a surprised glance at Gibbs. Seeing the interaction, the other four continued the conversation to give the two of them a moment.
"Anyway, it looks like we'll be joining in the search on the housing market too."
"Oh yeah? Did the orders come through?"
"As if you didn't know already. We'll be staying at least six months, maybe even a year, and while we do so appreciate your hospitality, I don't think the four of us could continue living like this without at least two fatalities before that time is up."
All four of them smiled ruefully, knowing that while that was an exaggeration, the possibility of blood being drawn was not remote. They shared a deep friendship, but they too needed space.
By then, Tony and Gibbs rejoined the conversation, and somewhere along the banter, it devolved into wild speculations of the six of them getting a house together, living like frat boys, and all the mischief they could get up to.
But later that night, at Tony's apartment, when they were both sated and relaxed, Tony squinted up at Gibbs in the near darkness.
"Did you mean it?"
Gibbs took a deep breath and let it out quietly, then squeezed Tony's hand.
"Yeah, I did."
So for the last two months, Tony had been searching for something that would be acceptable to both of them, and both the seeming impossibility of it and the looming deadline of his end of lease were making him crazy. Gibbs liked houses, Tony apartments. Tony liked luxury, Gibbs rustic. Gibbs wanted space, Tony things. Tony wanted maid service, Gibbs a yard.
And now, here he was, sitting at the juice bar in his regular gym, sipping a healthy fruit mix after a hard workout and scrolling through the DC housing market, and Tony sighed.
"Search for a new place not going well?"
Tony turned to the voice and couldn't help but smile at the buff and handsome man who had asked the question.
"Yeah, not so much."
The man smiled back and tilted his head, as if studying Tony for a moment. It felt like the man could see right through Tony's shields, and saw what was underneath. Then he nodded and pulled a card from his gym bag, handing it to Tony.
"Call this number. The place should be perfect for you and your friends."
Accepting the card with a frown on his face, Tony saw only a name and number, no other markers. But when he looked up to ask the man whether this was a realtor or something, the guy was gone. It wasn't until he was in the shower, rinsing off the sweat, that Tony realized he'd never mentioned anything about friends.
Tony deliberated with himself for two days, fingering the card in his pocket. Should he ignore it? Should he tell Gibbs? Should he just call? He ran the number through the NCIS search engines - feeling slightly guilty, but hey - and couldn't find it. The name on the card was simply "Catherine", so that wasn't any help either. In the end, he decided to call. A pleasant female voice answered on the second ring.
Tony cleared his throat.
"This is Tony DiNozzo. I got your card from someone at my gym."
There was a pleased chuckle at the other end of the line.
"Handsome blond guy? Tall, with really good muscle tone?"
"You must be looking for a house."
"Great! If he gave you my card, the house will be just what you want and need. Of course, you'll want to come see it first. I'm available whenever you are. My name's Cat, by the way, and I take care of the house. When would you like to come by?"
"Can I bring a friend?"
"Naturally! He'll want to see it too."
"Tomorrow morning okay for you? I know it's Saturday, but…"
"That will be fine, Tony. Around ten?"
"Great! Is this your cell number? I'll text you the address, and then I'll see you tomorrow. Bye!"
Before he could say anything else, the woman had already hung up. Seconds later, his phone vibrated and signaled an incoming text message with an address. A bit dazed from the conversation, Tony nevertheless quickly performed a search on the address. It wasn't on any of the housing market sites. It also didn't get any hits in the NCIS search engines. He looked up the neighborhood, which turned out to be one of the more upscale ones.
Thinking that this probably wasn't a very good idea, he still decided to go, and so that evening he told Gibbs all about what had happened. Skeptical but intrigued, Gibbs agreed to go with him the following morning.
When they arrived at the address the next day, they pulled up to a gate with plenty of security, beyond it a small sprawl of trees, a driveway winding among the trees in such a way that there was no clear view of the house. Gibbs squinted up at the cameras, then at the trees, then turned to Tony.
"Yeah, Tony. You know this isn't gonna happen, right?"
Tony's eyes pleaded with his lover.
"Can we at least take a look?"
Gibbs sighed, then lowered his window. Before he could find a bell or alert or something, a voice came through the intercom.
"This is Special Agent Gibbs and Special Agent DiNozzo. We have an appointment with Cat."
"Ah! Yes! Can I see your IDs, please?"
Both men held up their identification to the cameras, while Tony muttered under his breath to Gibbs that it was the same voice as the woman he'd spoken to on the phone. Seemingly satisfied, the woman answered.
"Thank you. I'll open the gate. Come on up to the house."
The gate swung open and Gibbs drove through, quickly steering down the driveway. Though the drive wasn't very long, it was clear that it had been strategically placed to conceal the house. Gibbs was actually impressed, both by that and the security at the gate and other things he could see.
"This place is a fortress."
"Yeah… I wonder who lives here."
"I'm guessing it won't be us."
Tony sighed wistfully. Then the house came into view.
It wasn't anything ornate or elaborate, it just looked like a fine country house. There was a circular drive with a fountain in the middle, with paths leading to a large, several door garage to the left. The front of the house was two stories high, with large windows and a large front door with a portico in the middle. The door was open and a woman was standing in the doorway.
She could have been anywhere between twenty and fifty years old, her long hair was something between blond and brown, she was neither tall nor short, fat nor thin. She was dressed in black jeans and a black top, black ballerinas on her feet. In short, if a witness had to give a description of her, she would have been indescribable. Except for her eyes. They sparkled a cheery and friendly green, a green so deep and rich that it reminded them both of the jungle. She stepped forward as they got out of the car. She didn't offer either of them her hand as she introduced herself.
"Hello. I'm Cat. Welcome."
She closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. Then she turned and went back inside the house. Tony and Gibbs glanced at each other, shrugged, and followed her in.
The house was incredible. It was built in a U-shape, which they hadn't been able to see from the driveway. The front part - the bottom of the U - consisted of living rooms, game rooms, a library, a kitchen, and various other rooms. The left wing contained three separate apartments, each with various rooms (including kitchen and bathrooms) and very spacious. There were basements under the entire house, one outfitted as a gym, another as yet another game room, some empty. She took them outside and showed them the garage, big enough for six cars, and behind the garage was a large work shed, completely outfitted. The top of the U consisted of a large garden, and when they went through that back to the house, they saw what was sheltered by the house and garden. There was a large pool in the middle of the U, with a retractable glass roof and wall, surrounded by patios.
Tony was in heaven. Gibbs liked it.
"The other part of the house is where I live," Cat said. "It is not accessible to anyone but me. Now, shall we go to the kitchen for coffee and agree on when you will move in?"
They followed her silently to the large kitchen and sat at the counter as she made coffee, then put a large black coffee in front of Gibbs and a cup topped with hazelnut creamer in front of Tony. She leaned back against the counter and smiled at them.
"Look," Gibbs said. "It's nice. But we can't afford it."
Tony looked rueful, but nodded his head in agreement. Cat laughed.
"I think you'll find the rent is very agreeable. You can have your pick of the apartments, and the common rooms and everything except the right wing are for everyone's use. I clean and I cook if you so wish, and other chores such as groceries and laundry. I enjoy taking care of loved ones."
She looked around herself, as if taking in the whole house. Her pretty green eyes seemed dimmed for a moment. She spoke quietly, almost muttering to herself.
"This house used to be so full of love. It's time. Time for that again."
Then she turned back to them, and the sadness and wistfulness seemed to have fallen away completely.
"The owner of this house doesn't use much of it anymore, and wishes it to be a home again for someone. Someone deserving. I can ensure you a very good deal."
Gibbs, naturally skeptical, eyed her for a moment. Then he made the mistake of turning to Tony, and saw the longing and pleading in his eyes. He sighed.
She named the price. They were stunned. That was less than Tony paid for his current apartment, let alone what Gibbs still had to pay for his now rubble of a house.
"That must be a mistake," Tony said, but with hope in his eyes.
"No mistake," Cat replied. "I promise you. The owner barely has any costs here, and would like to see the place filled again."
She seemed to hesitate for a moment.
"I believe you have friends also looking for housing?"
Before really thinking about it, Tony nodded. She smiled.
"Ask them to come over, have a look for themselves."
And that's how Gibbs - not entirely sure what was happening here - ended up making the call that changed all their lives forever.
Jack frowned at his ringing cell phone when he saw the caller ID, making Daniel look up at him with scrunched eyebrows from where he was curled up on the couch with a large tome.
"O'Neill," Jack said into the phone.
"Jack. It's Jethro."
Letting his smile sound in his voice, Jack replied.
"Jethro, old buddy! Tony not available? He usually makes your calls for you!"
Even though the friendship had originally started between Jack and Gibbs years ago, ever since Tony came into the picture, Gibbs had let Tony do most of the communicating. Gibbs ignored the jibe and came straight to the point.
"You busy? All four of you?"
"We're just relaxing after breakfast. And you know Sheppard and McKay… they went straight back to bed. Newlyweds..."
Gibbs could hear Daniel in the background.
"Don't complain, Jack! They might come back out just to annoy you…"
Smirking, Gibbs got back to the point.
"Remember we talked about getting a place?"
"Yeah… You and Tony found something that will suit both of you?"
"All of us."
Jack blinked. At his silence, Daniel put down his tome and stared at his lover.
"I'm serious. Can you come out?"
"Gibbs… You know we were only kidding about that, right? I mean… The apartment here's getting a bit overcrowded, but…"
"Jack. You really wanna see this."
"Okay. When and where?"
"Now. Tony will text Daniel the address. Come now."
And just like that, Gibbs was gone. Moments later, Daniel's phone buzzed, and he looked at the text from Tony, puzzled.
"Jack? What's going on?"
Smirking, Jack leaned over his lover and kissed his forehead.
"If I tell you, you've gotta go get John and Rodney in here."
"No fair, Jack!"
But Jack just grinned, and Daniel, resigned to his fate, made his way to the guest room that John and Rodney were inhabiting. He knocked loudly.
"Are you decent?"
There was ruffling of sheets and chuckling to be heard from inside the room. Daniel quietly groaned. He didn't envy the two their private time, but ever since they'd gotten married in Canada only weeks before, they had really been like newlyweds, even though they had been together for years. Daniel felt a soft pang. He and Jack use to be like that too, once upon a time. Now, they never seemed to have those stolen moments anymore. Oh, they loved each other fiercely, and Daniel was happy, but still… it had been a long time since he and Jack had simply shut out the world and taken time for each other the way John and Rodney were. He sighed, and when he heard a soft affirmative from inside the room, opened the door. He still shielded his eyes, though. It wouldn't be the first time McKay and Sheppard had a different definition of 'decent' then Daniel and Jack.
"What's up, Danny?"
Daniel smirked to himself.
"You should be, John. Rodney too. Jack got a call."
He could hear rustling as the two men quickly got out of bed and into some clothes, firing questions at him at the same time.
"What is it?"
"Did they blow up my city?"
"Do we need to…"
"Guys!" Daniel interrupted, finally dropping his hand from his eyes and feeling relieved to see at least partially dressed friends.
"Not that. It was Jethro. Come on, Jack will explain."
Though Jack didn't - couldn't - really explain much more, they were on their way and arrived at the house barely half an hour after the phone call.
The routine was pretty much the same. Showing their IDs at the gate, carefully scoping out and commenting on the security, the woman who was polite and friendly but didn't offer her hand at introductions, the tour, and them falling love with the house. Gibbs and Tony followed along again, of course, and Tony could swear the library they'd seen before was larger now, and when Cat informed Dr. McKay that one of the rooms in one of the apartments used to be a lab, Tony was certain she had never mentioned that on his first tour. In one part of the basement, Cat looked around and almost innocently announced that it was fully soundproofed, and might make a good firing range. Afterwards, they retreated to the kitchen, and she made them all more coffee, exactly how they liked it, and smiled as they glanced at each other.
She explained the terms as she had to Tony and Gibbs. Daniel and Rodney were beaming at their significant others as much as Tony had been at Gibbs.
Eventually Jack put down his empty cup and thanked Cat for the tour and the hospitality.
"I think we all need to talk about this. You understand. It's a big change."
"Of course," she smiled. "Talk all you like. I shall see you when you move in. Tony has my number if you need anything."
It was inevitable, of course, that Tony had questions. Gibbs, far more used to the military mindset and part of several covert operations himself, knew the meaning of 'classified' and never asked. Even though he had known Jack O'Neill for the better part of two decades, Gibbs knew that if Jack couldn't or wouldn't say something, it was not for him to ask more. But Tony, never having been part of the military himself and with his innate curiosity, just couldn't let it lie. He noticed the fumbled cover ups in conversation when one of them was relaying a story, he tweaked to the awkward glances when one of them almost said too much. Tony knew something was up, and they all saw it.
Daniel and Jack and Sheppard discussed it amongst themselves. McKay didn't really care - after all, if DiNozzo could know the truth, he could know the full truth of Rodney's brilliance as well, so bonus! All discussion became moot at one of their nights hanging out together at Jack's place, when Samantha Carter and Teal'c were beamed in from the Apollo, right there in the living room where Tony and Gibbs were sitting as well.
Jack raised a laconic eyebrow at her.
"Yes, Sir. But this is an emergency."
And almost before she had finished speaking, the blonde, the huge black man, and the general were gone in a beam of white light.
Daniel looked horrified for a moment, then schooled his features. Sheppard and McKay glanced at each other, then at Daniel, and then all three turned to Gibbs and Tony.
"So," Sheppard drawled, "I guess you have questions."
Gibbs looked stoic. Tony cleared his throat.
"So," Tony intoned, matching John's drawl almost perfectly, "aliens, huh?"
After a moment's silence, McKay snorted, Daniel blushed, and Sheppard let out a big honking laugh that had him holding his sides and curling in over Rodney's lap when it went on too long for him to stay upright. Rodney, in exasperated fondness, soothed his fingers through John's hair to calm him down.
"Ehm… yes?" Daniel's blush was receding. "But only one of them! I mean, Sam's completely human!"
"Unless you count the time she was possessed by Jolinar," Rodney added matter-of-factly.
"Rodney…" Sheppard tried to sound warningly, but messed it up by giggling a little more and then sighing in pleasure as McKay scratched his scalp harder.
"I'm just saying, Colonel…"
"Yes, yes, fine, general Sheppard! You know it took me a long time to call you Colonel instead of Major, and this isn't any different! I don't care about names or titles, unless they are my own. You know this. I cannot understand how…"
"I've been a general for over two years now, Rodney."
McKay's gaze softened at the quiet words, and he fixed his blue gaze on his lover.
"I know. But to me, you'll always be John."
It would have been a very sweet moment to end with a kiss and undying love declarations, but just then, the white light, and with it general O'Neill, reappeared.
Daniel was on his feet in an instant, hugging the older man to him fiercely. O'Neill hugged back.
"Nothing to worry about, Danny. Just a call. The Asgard wanted to speak to me. No worries."
Seeing the other four men heave a sigh of relief and take comfort with each other for a moment, Gibbs and Tony once again glanced at each other. They gave them their moment, and then Tony cleared his throat and repeated: "So, aliens huh?"
And that's when Tony and Gibbs got read into the Stargate program.
O'Neill figured it had its perks, being The Man.
And after that, stories when they were hanging out became a lot more interesting.
They moved in during the following week.
After the coffee in the kitchen and the talk with Cat, they all retreated to Jack's apartment, home to four of them, and barely able to contain six. They talked. They worried. They discussed. They laughed. They made calls and did searches, but no one found anything about the house, the woman, or anything related. They still decided to go for it.
For weeks, months, they were amazed by the house and their caretaker. Everything any of them could have ever wanted was there. Clean sheets and clothes whenever they needed, hearty meals whenever they wanted. Privacy in their own apartments and what they'd come to think of as family time most evenings. They amended the free spaces in the house the way they wanted, and especially John and Rodney had a sense of home, of Atlantis. Cat was a silent and near invisible presence. She cooked and cleaned when they weren't there, but showed up suddenly when one or two of them were feeling alone. They invited her to movie night and game night, and sometimes she joined, but she was always much more busy with taking care of them then joining in on the fun. But whenever they looked into her deep green eyes, they could see contentment there, happiness.
Of course, none of their other friends had ever been at the house.
The day would come when that would change.
"Sheppard," John said into his phone.
A wide smile stretched John's face as he heard the voice on the other end of the line.
"Teyla! You're early!"
"Doctor Zelenka has made improvements to the star drive. With Rodney's help, of course."
"Of course!" John smiled at Teyla's diplomacy.
"We have just arrived, but Ronon and I are anxious to see you."
"Nothing, John. We are just sorry we missed your wedding, and would like to congratulate you both."
John smiled and winced at the same time. Only Teyla could make something sound like a congratulations and a reproof at the same time.
"It was kinda sudden, Teyla. Sorry about that. You know we wanted you here!"
"I know, John. It is not a problem. Just know that when you return, several of your allies will want to share in the festivities."
Sheppard barely managed to contain a groan. Even though she didn't say anything, John could hear Teyla's grin. He quickly rallied.
"Hey! You know, another Earth custom is a housewarming party! You could come to that, right?"
Teyla smirked silently. John couldn't see it, but wondered who had taught her to smirk and how to punish them.
"I don't know, John. When will this party be?"
"Ehm… I'll let you know, okay? Soon! Everyone okay?"
They talked for several minutes more, in which John learned that Atlantis and everyone on her was safe, Pegasus was calm with no return of the Wraith as of yet, and Teyla and Woolsey had their hands full these days with trade agreements and securing even more allies. ZPMs and drones were in full supply - the only reason Rodney had agreed to leave the city for the time being - and it had been decided to fly the city back to the Milky Way, to Earth, for a three month stay. Unless, of course, they got a message from Pegasus requiring their assistance. The city had safely landed at San Francisco only hours ago.
Promising to call her back soon, John rushed to tell everyone else - they were all gathered in one of the family rooms - about the good news.
"Housewarming, huh?" Jack said with a raised eyebrow.
"She's upset we got married without her and Ronon."
Everyone stared at him for a moment, but they all knew how John could be.
Jack looked at Daniel.
"I know you've wanted to invite Carter and T."
"I do, Jack. And Cam and Vala too. I miss them."
Jack slung his arm around Daniel's shoulder and didn't say anything else.
"Jeannie?" John asked Rodney. The man sighed.
"Sure. And her English major husband, I suppose. Oh! And my niece and her boyfriend, of course!"
Then Rodney turned to John with a gentle expression. "You?"
"I don't know. Dave maybe? I don't know."
All of them knew about John's difficult relationship with his family, and they felt for him. Even though for a while it had seemed that they had been growing closer again, lately, especially since the marriage to Rodney, things had taken a downturn again. Then they all looked to Gibbs and Tony.
Both men remained silent, clearly uncomfortable.
"Oh, come on, what??" Rodney demanded.
"We haven't told anyone."
The other four men remained silent for a good long while. It was Cat who finally broke the silence.
"So, that's Rodney's family, John's family, and their team, Jack and Daniel's team, and Jethro and Tony's team. I'll send out invitations. I'll let you know the date."