“He's all right, I suppose, if you like dark, handsome, rich-looking men with passionate natures and too many teeth.”
January 8, 2008. Bethesda, Maryland
Damon woke up in his hospital bed the next morning to find his temporary guardian no longer by his side. Not that he expected him to stick around. Whatever empathy he might have felt for the young man, Damon knew it wouldn’t be enough to stand in the way of Gibbs doing his job.
In other words, Corporal (for however long it lasted) Damon Werth was going to have to find a new day job for himself.
They kept him in the hospital for another two days before he finally won his battle of wits with Doctor De La Casa and earned his release. Of course, the real battle was just about to start.
Returning to the Barracks was the hardest thing he’d ever had to do, but Damon was no coward. He waived the pre-trial investigation and opted to go straight to general court-martial where he chose to represent himself. No point dragging it out. He’d made a choice and he wasn’t going to deny it. All he’d ever wanted was to be a marine, and God knew he would have done anything for it.
He arrived thirty minutes before the military court was due to convene, which was at o-nine hundred. Dressed in his best Alphas, his spine stiff as a rod and his cover tucked under an arm, Damon sat on a backless bench outside the court hall waiting for his fate to be decided. He knew he was going to get kicked out. It was simply the nature of the discharge that needed to be determined.
At least there was a chance he’d see Gibbs again at the trial. NCIS had an obligation to report their investigative findings, even if it was just a formality in this case. Damon was somehow comforted by the thought of having Gibbs present at his court-martial, just as he was able to sleep easier knowing the veteran had his six at the hospital. He thought back to the conversation he’d had with his mother on his last night in Bethesda.
“Damon? You okay, son?” His mom’s voice quivered over the phone.
Damon bit his lip and rested his head back against the bed he lay in. “I’m fine, mom. Getting out tomorrow. H-how’s he holding up?”
She sniveled a little. “We’re… um, heading back to Scotland for awhile. Ever since your uncle died, there’s been no one there to really look after the estate and…”
And it would give his father time to come to terms with the spectacular disappointment his only son turned out to be. Damon swallowed his emotions down and watched helplessly as his hands started to shake again. Times like these, he was reminded of how tenuous his grip on reality still could be.
“It’s okay, mom, I understand.”
His mother sighed wistfully. “Take care of yourself, Damon.” And she hung up without her usual goodbye, one in which she told him how much she and Dad loved him, and how proud they were of him.
His father had been informed of his… shameful conduct by one of his closest friends, the Sergeant Major of the Corps himself. He refused to speak to his son, let alone visit him in the hospital. Damon wouldn’t be surprised if he wished his son had returned from Iraq in a body bag, or that dealer slash orderly, Jenkins, had succeeded in poisoning Damon in his sleep.
For the first time in a decade, Damon lowered his head in public, fighting to keep the traitorous tears at bay.
Damon blinked and slowly looked up towards the voice calling his name. He suspected that someone had been trying to get his attention for awhile now.
“Hey, are you okay? You don’t need to go back to the hospital, do you?”
A man stood before him, looking down at Damon with sharp, suspicious, green eyes. He was tall, about six-one, and well-dressed, too well-dressed for a civilian actually. His shoes shined, his jacket and shirt were undoubtedly Armani, his hair perfectly spiked with gel, the uber-expensive kind. But it was the look of grudging concern on the perfectly chiseled face that struck Damon out of his reverie. Like he’d really rather not care, but he did anyway.
“Do I know you?”
“We met at Walter Reed last week. I can understand if you don’t remember, actually I might prefer it that way.”
Last week? Most of last week was nothing but a thick, white haze encapsulated in sand and gunfire residue. Or at least that’s how he remembered it, until he reminded himself there was no sand in DC. Last week… the Walter Reed Army hospital where he thought they were keeping his men hostage…
“You’re… you were with Gibbs.”
The face briefly melted into a curt smile that Damon found oddly entrancing. He watched as the man raised a hand to his bruised (but healing) nose, tentatively touching the bridge as if to check it was still in one piece. Damon could see it had been seriously smashed into recently. It didn’t look broken but something told him that long, Roman nose had had its share of fractures in the past.
“Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo, NCIS. I am testifying at your trial today.”
If there was a mild apology in the words, Damon didn’t think it was warranted. The man was only doing his job after all. He shrugged. “I was hoping to see Gibbs.”
The smile faltered and DiNozzo looked away. “Yeah well, the boss couldn’t make it. He has other – more important things to take care of.”
Damon narrowed his eyes at the agent. The concern and the apology were long gone. He didn’t know what the guy’s deal was, and technically he had no reason to care but he was curious nonetheless.
“Sorry about your… um, I suppose I did that?” He pointed at DiNozzo’s face and couldn’t help but smirk a little insolently.
Which the NCIS agent of course did not take very kindly to, “You were about to surrender, I was caught unawares.”
“I’m sure that’s it.” And Damon smirked again.
Sufficiently riled up, Agent DiNozzo stalked off into the court hall leaving Corporal Werth behind to chuckle softly. The pressure behind his pupils was gone. It occurred to him then that he hadn’t smiled, let alone laughed, since his capture and eventual return from Baghdad.
January 11, 2008. Washington D.C.
Damon Werth, no longer Corporal, packed his trash into a rucksack, said his goodbyes to his unit refusing one last offer to go out and get shit-faced, then hailed a cab to head to Reagan airport. Werth Senior was still in no mood to forgive his son. But he did convey through Damon’s mother that the now empty house in Michigan was his to use, if he wished.
Was he supposed to feel grateful? Well, he didn’t. But he had no place else to go at moment. And admittedly he did need some peace and quiet to re-group, re-strategize. Come to grips with life outside the Corps, if there was one to be had at all…
Damon ran a trembling hand down the middle of his head. “Look at the bright side, Werth,” he spoke to himself, almost startling the cab driver in front of him. “At least you can grow your hair out again.”
His high school dreadlocks always did fiercely rankle with his dad. But the memory just wasn’t strong enough to cheer him up. His father was Royal Navy for God’s sake. Why didn’t he understand why Damon did what he did? What he had to do, because there was simply no other way? Why couldn’t he just get it, like Gibbs did?
At least, he thought Gibbs understood. But did he, really? Why didn’t he show up at the trial? Would he have done what Damon did to get into the Corps? Suddenly, Damon needed to know more than he needed his peace and quiet. He bit his lip, noticing the sign for the airport looming overhead.
“Hey man, I changed my mind, sorry. Can you turn around, please?”
Ziva leaned back in her chair, put her hands behind her head and yawned with what Ducky would call ‘barefaced inelegance completely unbecoming a woman’. Of course, Ziva being Ziva, she couldn’t possibly care less. She was just so… bored.
She looked over at her teammates, both completely immersed in their respective computer screens. They both had a similar look of deep concentration etched across their faces.
“McGee? What are you doing?”
McGee didn’t look up and his fingers kept flying across his keyboard at top speed, now that he had both his hands back. “Hacking into the ICE database as a favor to Agent Dunham.”
Ziva pouted. “That is unfair. Why does the Director allow you to work on with Agent Dunham but make us go through cold cases for rest of the week? I do not need so long to regenerate!”
“I think you mean ‘recuperate’ Zee-vah,” Tony corrected, without looking away from his own monitor. “Of course it might actually work in your case. I’ve always suspected you were a cybernetic organism, living tissue over metal endoskeleton.”
Ziva’s eyes lit up. “Ooh! I know this one. Star Trek, yes?”
“You fail me again, Ziva,” Tony made a face. “Terminator. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, who makes such a hot ass-kicking momma by the way…”
Ziva interrupted him before he could launch into another of his nonsensical movie diatribes. “And what exactly are you doing, Tony?”
“What else?” McGee cut in with a smirk before Tony could reply. “His next potential set of wheels, a worthy successor to his dearly departed Stang.”
“About time, Di-broken-Nozzo.”
“Oh, ha-ha, you think you’re so funny,” Tony drawled offhandedly.
Ziva went over to Tony’s desk and stood behind him so she could peer at his screen from over his shoulder. He had several windows open like Auto Trader Classics in one and the Washington DC classifieds in another. She leaned in and promptly started telling him where to go and what to click… until she heard Tony huff in frustration and cautiously crane his still stiff neck towards her.
“I know you think I’m a complete idiot but I do know how to work a mouse, Ziva.”
She started, her eyes flickering over the fading bruise across the bridge of her partner’s nose. Ziva wasn’t doing it on purpose (guess being in charge just came to her naturally) but now that she saw how her back-seat browsing was bugging Tony, her lips curved into a wicked smile.
Tony turned back to his computer. “And you know I hate it when you stand like that crowding me from behind, so will you please just…”
“What is the matter, Tony? Afraid I would use my little ninja skills and ruin your hair do?”
“Men don’t have hair dos, women do. You would know that if you actually were one…”
She tousled his spiked hair in retaliation. Tony immediately raised a hand to bat hers away and ended up slapping himself in the head. Ziva laughed and Tony glowered. He pushed his chair back against her only to have her push him forward into his table. They were still bantering and roughhousing like two old friends less than half their ages, when someone interrupted them with a purposeful clearing of their throat.
Ziva looked up first and her heart jumped. Once again she felt herself overwhelmed by the larger than life presence of a troubled super-marine in their midst.
A very hot, troubled, super-marine in their midst.
“Damon!” Ziva exclaimed, straightening up and fixing her hair.
The man smiled at her widely. “Officer David.”
She extended a hand and he took it. She watched, mesmerized, as her normal-sized appendage disappeared in his larger one. The grip was warm and plush, but also cautious.
“Nice to see you guys, again.” Damon nodded at McGee who awkwardly nodded back before going back to his screen.
Then he looked down at Tony. Ziva realized she was still standing behind Tony with both her hands on his shoulders, close enough to feel her partner go absolutely still under her touch. She frowned. Tony didn’t exactly like the guy but he’d never projected such standoffishness towards anyone so bluntly before.
“What can we do you for, Corporal Werth?” Tony asked shortly.
Damon smiled at him. “It’s just Damon now, Agent DiNozzo. I’m no longer with the USMC. You should know; you were there.”
Tony didn’t respond. He’d attended the trial the day before when Gibbs had to pull out at the last minute, came back and told everyone in his team, loudly, that Werth had been dishonorably discharged.
Ziva bit her lip, “I am sorry about…”
“Don’t be! I knew the risks when I first took ‘em.” Damon shrugged and put both his hands in his leather jacket pockets.
“Was it worth it?” Tony asked.
“Let’s just say I wouldn’t give back a single minute of these last six years for the world.”
“Too bad the Corps doesn’t see it that way.”
Ziva got the distinct impression he was baiting Damon. But the marine wasn’t biting, instead he met Tony’s green gaze squarely with his own hazel one and grinned some more. “Yeah, too bad.”
And then as Ziva watched – Damon Werth, continuing to look right at Tony, licked his lips.
Oh. My. God.
A bright fluorescent light bulb went off somewhere inside her head. Off? On. Maybe on. Ziva turned to look at Tony but her partner’s face was completely impassive. She couldn’t tell if he’d seen what she’d seen, and if so, how he felt about it.
“You didn’t answer the question. What can we do for you?”
Damon looked over at the only empty desk in the pen. “I wanted to speak to Gibbs before…”
Ziva frowned, now utterly confused. She could have sworn she heard both relief and mild disappointment in Tony’s voice. How was that possible?
Damon shrugged, “Nothing keeping me in DC anymore, is there?”
Another awkward split-second of silence. Ziva slowly turned away from Tony’s desk, heading back to her own. “Gibbs is up in the Director’s office and he’s been there for awhile,” she said sliding into her chair. “Not sure when he’ll be free.”
Damon nodded gratefully at her. “Would it be okay if I waited?”
“Or you can leave a message and number, and Gibbs will get back to you. We wouldn’t want you missing your flight of course, or bus, whatever.” Tony said snarkily. Anyone who knew Gibbs well knew he couldn’t be relied on to return messages. You just had to keep calling until you got through to the man.
“I think I’ll wait.” Damon let his rucksack slip to the floor and walked over to lean against Gibbs’ desk. He fixed his gaze right back at Tony, who looked decidedly miffed at his suggestion being rebuffed.
Ziva wondered what Tony would do next, but neither of them had to wait long. Gibbs chose that moment to stride back into the squad room. He didn’t halt at the sight of Werth (as if he was expecting him) and simply went around the youth to take his chair. Damon turned eagerly to face him, standing nearly at attention. Old habit, probably.
“What’re you doing here?” Gibbs asked, gruffly. From the corner of her eye, Ziva caught Tony smirking briefly.
“I had a question to ask you, Sir.”
“I-I was hoping to shoot somewhere in private, Sir.”
Ziva wanted to snort, a dirty double entendre jumping to her mind which no doubt Tony would find funny, if he was himself. But Tony seemed to have gone back to his car-hunting and pretended he didn’t see or hear a thing.
For a second, she thought Gibbs would refuse. The team leader leaned back in his chair and looked up at Damon. Steel blue gaze met hazel and two seconds later his mind was made. He stood up and started to walk to the elevator. With a finger-crooking gesture he asked Damon to follow, who grabbed his rucksack and marched after him, but not before throwing a quick glance at Tony. It was not returned.
After deliberately waiting for a whole minute, Ziva stood up. “I shall go… see what Abby is up to.” She announced and ran, not that anyone was listening.
“Abby? Why are you staring at me like that?”
Outside of work, family, friends and bowling partners, forensic scientist Abigail Sciuto often got mistaken for a certifiable, Goth child-woman. But the people who knew her well, knew she was neither Gothic nor childish, and she made crazy look so hot they didn’t really mind. Sure she was always hyper thanks to her caffeine addiction and she spoke fast and reacted instinctively and emotionally to everything good or bad or in between. But only a chosen few knew that these traits were just a part of her coping mechanism, something she’d cultivated over the years to deal with the horrors she encountered as part of her job every day.
One of these people was sitting in her lab right now – Ziva David, battle-hardened Mossad officer with a soft, gooey, vulnerable core that she fiercely guarded and hoped no one noticed was there.
“First of all,” Abby started, coming over to cup her friend’s face in both hands. “You know I love you, right?”
Ziva frowned suspiciously. “Abby, I just told you – I am not that attracted to him.”
Abby folded her arms and narrowed her eyes, making Ziva roll hers but explain herself more. “Okay, so I did find him attractive at first, very, very attractive. And strong, and powerful, and… hot and incredibly lickable but trust me, I am not exactly heartbroken here! Can we please just stay on point?”
“I will, as soon as you convince me that this is not about you, and that you’re really, okay,” Abby insisted, genuinely concerned.
“I am here with you, actually talking to you about this. What does that tell you?”
“Good point,” Abby conceded. Ziva, like Gibbs, came from the ‘hide the pain, never admit weakness’ school of thought. If this was bothering her at an emotional level, she would have bottled it up long ago.
Abby started pacing, her four-inch platforms clacking loudly in her wake. “So you think Damon has a thing for Tony?”
“Oh, yes. You should have seen the way he was looking at Tony. It was subtle and yet, quiet intense and…” Ziva exhaled deeply, “… suffice it to say he was not looking at me and I was flustered.”
“So I see,” Abby smiled but turned away before Ziva called her on it.
“Anyway, first Damon took me by surprise but what really shocked me was the way Tony reacted to him. Fine so he is straight, but that does not mean he should be so immature and insensitive. Frankly, I never thought he would be homophobic.”
“Oh, Ziva,” Abby sighed. “That’s where you’re wrong.”
“All of it!”
“Ziva, that’s our Tony up there. If he finds out someone, anyone, has a crush on him, he goes flaunting himself all over the place, even tells complete strangers about it at the top of his lungs!”
Ziva opened her mouth but no sound came out as she considered it. Abby took the brief silence to mentally deliberate if now was the time to pull Ziva into the innermost circle (the only one the Israeli hadn’t crossed into yet). Eventually she decided she’d rather help Ziva build a better understanding of her partner than go assuming the worst of him. She came over and sat next to Ziva, putting an arm around her shoulder.
“Ziva, Tony is not homophobic, in fact far from it. Tony has had his share of experimental flings too you know. I know because I set one up myself.”
Ziva blinked repeatedly. “With men?”
Abby rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that’s usually what ‘experimental’ means. Unless it means like horses or something….” she shuddered.
“Why did he not tell me? Why did I never see this before?”
“Come on, you guys weren’t exactly getting along famously for a long time after you joined us. And all of last year has been… well, you know how it was with Jeanne.”
Ziva conceded. “You are correct. I am just… wow, but… he is always acting like such a frat boy, you know?”
“That’s because he was one! Imagine a virile young eighteen year old boy who was forced to spend seven years in military school, living under rules stricter than a supermax, suddenly let loose into a world of other virile young eighteen year olds, co-ed dorms and frat parties!”
Ziva gave her a lopsided grin. “Next you will say Tony’s continued juvenile behavior is his way of trying to re-capture his lost childhood.”
Abby smirked. “Now you’re catching on! Anyway, about the way he’s been acting, or reacting in this case… Ziva, for all his street-smarts and general expertise in human relations, Tony doesn’t always get it when men hit on him.”
“I think you are right! The other night at the bar, the bartender was clearly coming on to him and Tony just thought he was really friendly.”
“Exactly, subtlety is not our boy’s strong suit. Mostly because he’s really, well, inexperienced with men.”
“Okay. So the question is: why was he being such a… um, sour juice?”
Abby crossed her arms and just looked at her.
“I did not say that right, did I?”
“Never mind. There is something about Werth that is putting Tony off. What could that be?”
Ziva described the expression she’d seen on Tony’s face. “It is not hatred, or dislike, or even disrespect. I know how Tony looks at people he thinks of as scum versus how he looks at, say, McGee or Gibbs. There is definitely a, grudging, degree of admiration.”
“Guess I’ll just have to take your word for it,” Abby shrugged.
After a few seconds of thoughtful silence, Ziva meekly suggested, “Tony is too… smug and self-assured to be jealous, is he not?”
“What would Tony be jealous of?”
“You mean aside from the obvious?”
Abby snorted. “The obvious things don’t bother him, Ziva. You’re right, he is too self-assured for that. Bordering on the occasional narcissism, even…”
The girls giggled but it was in good jest. Abby adored Tony just the way he was. Like Ziva, her adopted big brother wore a mask too, except his was inside out. He wrapped himself in a goofy, kinda clumsy and clownish, Jack Sparrow-ish persona, pretending he didn’t know what he was doing, or acting like he was trying too hard. But inside, Tony was rock solid, driven by a personal code of honor and integrity comparable to Gibbs’. Tony just didn’t like to make a big show of it. Being a guy who was frequently underestimated or not taken seriously meant the element of surprise was always in his favor. And the sneaky little bastard that he was, Tony would get a total kick out of shocking his opponents and critics.
So no, whatever Ziva saw in Tony’s face may have been a pretense of envy, but not real envy. It just couldn’t be.
“It has to be something else, something not so obvious. Ziva, tell me everything that happened on the Werth case.”
Ten minutes later, after recounting every single contact Tony had with Damon, which was close to nothing, Ziva looked at Abby as she took it all in.
“So Werth hardly spoke to Tony, fact they didn’t speak a word all week, except maybe yesterday briefly at Werth’s hearing?”
“The only people Werth did speak at length to, were you and… Gibbs. You said he came looking for the Boss-man? What did he want from him?”
“I do not know. But seeing how much Damon has in common with Gibbs, maybe he is just looking for some empathy? I know Gibbs is quite fond of him too. Maybe he sees Damon as a kindred–”
Ziva paused to look up at her friend. “Abby, are you thinking what I am thinking?”
Abby bit her lip. “I’m afraid so. Guess you just solved the mystery of Tony’s behavior, Ziva. It’s his one and only Achilles’ heel, that silver fox of mine.”
They were both silent for a moment before Ziva ventured again. “So have you noticed it too? The strain in the… ‘father-son’ relationship these past few months?”
How could Abby not. It’d been brutal to watch Tony struggle with his boss’ obvious aloofness, which was more pronounced than usual. But if there was one thing she’d learnt from all her years at NCIS, it was to not try and tell Gibbs how to do his job, or his relationships.
“I do not understand it,” Ziva muttered. “Gibbs is not a vindictive man. And he knows Tony was only doing his job on the Le Grenouille operation. He told Tony just as much.”
Abby grimaced. “This isn’t just a job for the two of them. They aren’t just boss and subordinate. And when a professional relationship crosses over into personal life, it’s really hard to forgive and forget.”
Ziva nodded. “You are right, again. Look at Gibbs and the Director. They have not spoken a cordial word to each other in months! Jenny is constantly asking me how he is, what he is up to, who he is dating…”
When it came to the Director, Abby sided with Gibbs. But she knew Ziva and Jenny were close so kept her thoughts to herself. She just exhaled loudly and crossed her arms.
“So – Damon has a thing for Tony but isn’t doing anything about it. Tony has no idea, he’s too busy feeling insecure about where he stands with Gibbs and is too afraid to do anything about it, and Gibbs… no one knows what Gibbs is thinking or doing about anything.”
“That about sums it on.”
“Up. Sums it up.”
Ziva huffed impatiently. “So what do we do?”
Abby raised one eyebrow. “Well, common sense dictates we do nothing. But seeing how Tony is so discomfited by the idea of Damon ‘getting close to Gibbs’ we could just support our boy and be equally juvenile about it.”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, we could find ways to make Werth leave the country – he’s apparently half Scottish, and one-twenty-fourth royal or something.”
“And how do you know that?”
“What, you think you’re the only one who finds him lickable?”
Ziva grinned and wagged a knowing finger at her. “You know I am all for getting rid of whoever is making Tony miserable, unintentionally or otherwise. But something tells me, this Werth could actually make Tony very, very happy. Pull him out of his Jeanne-induced misery, you know. If Tony would just give him a chance…”
Abby grinned relieved she didn’t have to convince Ziva about this. “My thoughts exactly, sister!”
They high-fived. “Oh,” Ziva continued, “it looked like Damon was already on his way out of DC though. He is packed and has a cab waiting downstairs to take him to the airport after he gets done talking to Gibbs.”
Abby frowned. “Then, maybe that’s what we should do – find a way to stop him, keep him in DC, at least for awhile. The boys will just have to work the rest out on their own. Especially Damon, it all depends on how he plays his cards, both with Gibbs and Tony. And if it doesn’t work out it doesn’t work out, too bad. At least he’d have had a chance, right?”
Ziva shrugged. “I agree. Anyway, how bad can it possibly get, right?”
They both looked away from each other abruptly. Abby crossed her fingers behind her back, and wondered if Ziva was doing something similar too.
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