“I don’t want to put you in a cage, I want to love you!”
30th January, 2008. Washington DC
Tony always chose the very last steel table to stretch out on. It was farthest from the door, closest to Ducky’s office and the darkest corner of the Autopsy if he switched off all the lights.
It was after nine and most everyone had left the building. But Tony lingered on, afraid of the loneliness that awaited him at his apartment. More than that, he was afraid to once again find a disgraced marine reclining against his door with pain-filled eyes. Nope, Tony was fine right here. His phone was sitting upstairs at his desk, so there was nothing and no one left to disturb his much-needed sleep tonight.
But his peace and quiet didn’t last too long. Jimmy Palmer walked in making more noise than was humanly possible but totally gremlin-appropriate, so Tony couldn’t complain. He just sat up rubbing his eyes tiredly.
Jim looked up at him, startled. “Tony? What’re you doing here?”
“I was trying to sleep before you bulldozed in. What about you? Another rendezvous with the lovely Ms Lee?”
Tony wiggled his eyebrows and smirked when Jim’s face turn a crimson red. The assistant ME adjusted his glasses and grinned before realizing his clandestine affair with Agent Lee was supposed to be just that – clandestine.
He cleared his throat and sobered up. “Uh, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I-I just forgot my personal laptop and came to get it be-because I’ll need it at night and…”
“Alright, Palmer, whatever you say.”
On any other day, Tony would have teased the young ME until either he confessed or cried. But right then he didn’t have the energy, so he let it go.
This time last year, Tony and Jimmy had managed to strike an uncanny friendship over a particularly tough case. Ducky was still in a funk about Gibbs leaving the way he did. And sometimes when he’d spot Tony trying to act like Gibbs, he’d only get more upset and stalk off for a minute or two. Tony would sigh and turn to the only other friendly face in the Autopsy. And they’d end up discussing details about the case that were beyond the purview of the ME’s responsibilities simply because Tony was talkative and Jim, as it turned out, an avid listener.
The friendship had persisted since, but in a sort of clandestine way, just like Jimmy’s affair with Agent Lee. Tony grimaced at the analogy, even as he found the idea of being Jimmy’s dirty little secret super-hilarious.
“Tony, are you alright?”
Tony rubbed his eyes tiredly. “I’m not dead if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Then what are you doing here in Autopsy?”
Tony chuckled when he realized Jim had just made a joke, a good one.
“You’re having that dream again, aren’t you?”
Very few people knew how perceptive Palmer could be.
“Have you talked to Gibbs about it?”
Tony scowled. “You want me to tell Gibbs I’ve been dreaming of his almost-drowning himself to death every third night? And then what?”
“M-maybe you guys could figure out why you’re having that dream and on such a recurring basis.”
Tony rolled his eyes, maybe Palmer wasn’t that perceptive after all. “In case you haven’t noticed, Jimbo, Gibbs doesn’t do talking.”
“Oh I’ve noticed,” Jim laughed nervously, leaning against a table and crossing his ankles together. “Glaring, glowering, menacing – yes. Talking – not so much. But Tony there is a reason why you keep dreaming of that incident over and over again. It’s your subconscious trying to tell you something.”
“And what’s that?”
Jim shrugged. “I don’t know, maybe you’re scared something could happen to Gibbs again? And that you might not be able to save him next time? Or maybe… maybe you’re just afraid of almost losing him…”
“I have lost him, Jimmy,” Tony rued, so quietly that Jim asked him to repeat himself, which he didn’t.
He brushed it all aside. “All it means is I’m not getting enough sleep and being cranky all day, man. So hey, if you have any sleeping pills lying around I could borrow, that’d be awesome!”
Jim made a face and walked over to Ducky’s office, which is where apparently his laptop was. “I’m not giving you pills, Tony. But maybe you should try wearing yourself down so your body can get some undisturbed sleep?” He called out from inside. “A long, hard work-out always helps me.”
Tony sneered. “You think I’m putting on weight, Jimbo?”
“What?” Jim came out of the office in a panicked rush. “No, no, that’s not what I –” he stopped when Tony just grinned and clapped his back, propelling him a step forward.
“Relax, gremlin. I think it’s a great idea, thanks.”
Tony meant it. A little physical self-punishment didn’t sound like a bad idea at all. He looked at his watch – the NCIS gym was going to be open for another two hours.
“Give my regards to Agent Lee!” He called out as he turned to the door, and didn’t wait for Palmer to stammer his way through another embarrassingly lame denial.
Damon parked his rental truck in the visitor parking lot. At the entrance, he flashed the access card he’d been issued and was let into the ground floor lobby of the NCIS headquarters. He was amazed Gibbs had come through and he actually could use the gym as a ‘family member’. That gesture, more than anything, meant the world to him.
Nine at night was late enough that he shouldn’t run into anyone he knew. He didn’t want to see Ziva or Abby because he knew what they’d want to talk about. He didn’t want to run into McGee because he got the feeling the agent didn’t like him much. And the last person in the world he’d want to run into was – well, Tony.
As much as he missed Tony, as much as he longed to see that face again, Damon knew he couldn’t go back there. He had to try and move on with his life, even if he had to do so without Tony in it. As it turned out, fate had more heartbreak in store for him.
When Damon walked into the gym, the first thing he saw was a vision of gold, dressed in all white, whaling away at a punching bag like his life depended on it.
Tony paused with one lightly wrapped fist mid-swing and turned towards the sound of the door opening. Clearly he wasn’t expecting company. And he most definitely was not expecting ex-Corporal Damon Werth, formerly of the United States Marine Corps.
Damon halted and Tony froze, and the two just… stood there, staring at each other for the longest time. Guess there was no such thing as a free gym after all.
“I didn’t know you were going to be here,” he managed to spit out after a year or so.
Tony didn’t look like he believed Damon and smirked. “Of all the gym joints, in all the towns, in all the world, he walks into mine.”
He picked up a small towel from the floor beside him and wiped the copious amounts of sweat off his face. “How’d you get in?”
“Gunny got me temporary membership, just u-until I figure things out.”
Tony’s jaw clenched and he looked away, nodding stiffly in response. His skin was flushed red and his breaths seemed rapid and heavy. His chest heaved visibly under the completely soaked white tee-shirt that stuck to all the right dips and curves on his toned torso. It was a short t-shirt that rode up when Tony raised the towel to wipe the top of his head, giving Damon a tempting little glimpse of his stomach. Damon figured he must have been at it for an hour already.
God, he looked ravishable.
Damon quickly looked away, struggling to get his thundering heart under control and wondering what he should do. Maybe he should just turn about and leave, come later after Tony’s gone. That way he could pretend this encounter never happened and go back to denying his irrepressible feelings for the other man.
Or maybe, maybe he’d be an idiot to let this opportunity pass him by.
Tony was gathering his stuff and about to make his way to the showers, when Damon intercepted him. “Wait! Uh… I, I swear I didn’t plan this but maybe it’s a good thing. C-can we talk?”
Tony looked miffed, and in no mood to talk. “There is nothing to talk about, Werth. I really wish you’d stop making such a big deal about a one-night stand. You’re a guy, for crying out loud!”
Tony tried to walk past Damon again. This time the marine was pissed too, and deliberately shifted to stand in his way. “You’re right! I pushed too hard, and I’m sorry about that. I can’t say I understand what happened. I honestly thought it was going well, but… whatever, I’ve made my peace with it.”
Tony looked up at him and a myriad of emotions crossed his face ranging from shock to what looked curiously like – disappointment. Damon felt his heart skip a beat but realized a change of subject was urgently needed.
“So, I’m, uh, looking for a sparring partner and seeing as you’re the only one around, do you think you’re up for it?”
He’d uttered the first thing that came to mind to try and keep Tony from leaving and realized a second too late that his suggestion could be misconstrued in so many unintentionally dirty ways.
Which of course happened, and Tony smirked cynically, “Sorry, I’ve completed my quota of being groped for today.”
Damon couldn’t help but smirk. “You afraid you might like it?”
“Don’t bet on it.”
“Afraid I might kick your ass then? Break that proud nose of yours again?” Damon said, louder than before as he walked towards the boxing ring. He dumped his bag on one side and took off his jacket and shoes. “Come on, Agent DiNozzo. Don’t be chicken. I’ll be gentle, I promise.”
Tony looked away and laughed shortly, without humor. For a second, Damon thought the Italian might walk out on him anyway, despite all his goading. But then Tony wouldn’t be Tony if he did that. When he looked back at Damon, the heat in his eyes was unmistakable.
A minute later, they were both in the ring with their boxing gloves on, facing each other.
“Don’t worry,” Damon prodded, “I’m not amped up on the juice anymore.”
Tony scoffed. “What makes you think I’m worried?” And he suddenly lunged and took the first jab, which Damon just barely managed to evade.
It was on. Damon found himself under increasingly vicious attack with every new tactic Tony applied. What he’d intended to be playful sparring was anything but for his opponent. He blocked and evaded for awhile, but he was a marine after all. The next time Tony aimed a body jab, leaving himself open to a counterpunch, Damon went for it. Of course the hit only angered Tony more.
They circled each other, left hooking and upper cutting and jabbing until they’d both taken enough hits to the face and upper body to make them lose their breaths.
Eventually Tony leaned against the ropes struggling to catch his breath while Damon paced at the center, struggling with his conflicted feelings of both regret and competitiveness.
“What’s the matter, DiNozzo? Giving up so soon?”
He knew Tony had already exhausted himself long before Damon walked into the gym. And the wheezing sounds coming from Tony were starting to worry him a little. He approached the agent and bent himself at the middle to look into Tony’s lowered face. “Hey, you okay?”
Two strong hands were planted against Damon’s chest and pushed with all their might. Damon stumbled back a couple of steps, stunned and suddenly incensed. All rules of boxing went out of the window when Tony tackled Damon to the ground. The blows fell and Damon defended but he couldn’t keep it up forever.
Losing his patience, he let loose a loud growl, grabbed Tony’s wrists and put all his body weight into an upward thrust. Then before Tony could gather his wits, Damon flipped them over until Tony was flat on his back and Damon was on top of him, holding him down. Tony struggled and grunted and cursed but Damon wouldn’t let him go.
“Sonofabitch! What the fuck do you want from me?!?!” Tony screamed one last time before going lax, his head hitting the mattress with a loud thud. He refused to look into Damon’s eyes, choosing instead to stare away at nothingness.
Damon resisted the intense urge to close the distance of mere inches and crush those blood-red lips with his. “Tell me the truth, Tony. After I left that morning, what made you change your mind about us? Tell me and I’ll let you go.”
Tony winced and started to struggle anew to free himself, but Damon was still not letting go. All of the agent’s reserves were completely exhausted by now. “Alright, fine. You are a disgraced defective jarhead kicked out of the Corps like a piece of trash. Sorry Damon but, you don’t exactly make for respectable arm-candy in polite company, you just don’t.”
“You’re lying,” Damon hissed, the ugly words cutting him even though he knew it was a lie. “Try again.”
Tony glowered. “Okay. You can go psycho on me at any second, like you’re doing right now. Every minute I spend with you is putting my life at risk!”
Damon shook his head again, even as the words caused another stab of guilt through his system. “Nice try, but you know that’s not true either. I’m clean through and through.”
“What do you want to hear, Damon? What can I say to satisfy that giant narcissistic ego of yours, huh? How about: ‘It’s not you, it’s me’. Maybe I’m not ready to come out. I’m not ready to give up the great American dream yet – wife, kids, white picket fucking fence. Happy now?”
“What – was it something I said or did? Was it the note? You did get my note, didn’t you?”
Tony rolled his eyes, “What is this, The Notebook re-enactment? Yes, Noah, I got your fucking note.”
“Then what was it?” Damon sounded desperate, but his gut was telling him something was seriously wrong and he needed to fix it. “Please… what happened to you, baby?”
Suddenly Tony looked away, not struggling anymore but looking more miserable than ever. That crumpled look around Tony’s eyes made Damon feel like he’d been slapped right across his face, bringing him back to his senses.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, and very slowly relaxed his hold. He pulled his body weight away, setting Tony free. “God, I’m so sorry…”
Damon expected the other man to get away from him as fast as he could. Instead, Tony just lay there, worn out, physically and emotionally. He kept his face turned away, refusing to look at Damon again.
Damon exhaled deeply and collapsed onto his back besides Tony. He kept his gaze fixed at the ceiling, his ears keenly attuned to the wheezing of Tony’s lungs that he was getting more and more concerned with by the minute.
“What do you want me to do, Tony? What can I do to make this right?”
Damon bit his lip, warring with himself on whether he should say it. In the end he decided it might be his last chance and he owed it to himself (and to Tony) to take it. “Tony, if you’re worried that… that Gunny won’t approve… I don’t think it’ll be a problem.”
He felt Tony freeze at that, the wheezing coming to an abrupt halt indicating that Tony was holding his breath. In the next instant, the agent pulled himself up and off the floor. He stood up and looked down at Damon who sat up as well.
“Next time you want a sparring partner – just stick with Gibbs, will ya?”
Tony climbed out of the ring and went to gather his stuff. “I’m going to hit the showers. Don’t even think about coming after me, I’m always packin’, and I mean always.”
Damon stared at him open-mouthed and couldn’t help but chuckle once he was sure Tony was out of hearing range. Looking down at himself, he realized he could use a cold shower himself, really cold, but it would just have to wait. He stood up and headed to the cardio machines instead, the next best cure.
It was on the treadmill that he started to ponder Tony’s words. Was he there at Ivymount School on Saturday where Damon had called on Gibbs to be his sparring partner? If yes, why didn’t he stay or let Damon know? Why did he leave?
Is that what happened that morning after Damon left?
The pieces of the jigsaw he lovingly called Tonio were slowly starting to fit. And apparently, Gibbs played a much, much bigger role in this puzzle than he realized.
January 31, 2008. Washington DC
Ziva looked at herself in the mirror. She was in the women’s bathroom, for a change, and wondering for the nth time how she kept getting herself into these situations.
Trouble-maker. That’s what Ari used to call her as a kid. She smiled, allowing herself a rare and private moment of nostalgia. It had to be a synonym for match-maker in at least one human language in existence, if not more. She looked down at the bunch of movie tickets in her hand and sighed.
It hadn’t gone well. Not well at all.
”Oh come on, Tony, I thought you loved Westerns!” Ziva exclaimed when Tony passed on the classic movie screening tonight.
She narrowed her eyes. “My Darling Clementine is a Western, right? Title sounds more like a romance.”
Tony scoffed. “My Darling Clementine is an old American folk song, Ziva. It’s about a father lamenting his dead daughter.”
“See, how am I supposed to know these things? Tony, this is why you should come with me! Please?!?”
Tony leaned back in his chair crossing his arms. He looked up at her with a dead serious expression on his face. “I know what you’re doing, but it’s really not necessary, Ziva.”
Before she could even attempt to feign ignorance, Tony stood up and grabbed his jacket. “Besides, I volunteered McGee and myself to relieve Agents Braun and Andover in Annapolis for the next two days. Grab your gear, Probie!”
McGee looked up at Ziva guiltily before grabbing his own coat and backpack, ready to leave.
“W-what am I supposed to do with all these tickets?” She tried one last time.
Tony smiled eerily, came over and held Ziva by her shoulders. “This is your chance, Zee-vah, don’t you see? A chance to spend some ‘quality alone time’ with the guy.”
“We all saw the chemistry between you two that day at Bethesda. All that unresolved sexual tension is not good for you, you know? You have my blessings, Ziva. I say go for it!”
Before Ziva could recover from the shock, Tony grinned at her impishly and strode away. McGee could only shrug before he ran out after him, leaving Ziva standing alone in the squad room, her mouth still agape wondering what the hell just happened.
Ziva couldn’t help but feel offended by Tony’s insinuations. Did he really think so little of her? How could he believe she’d want to get in the way when there was a strong possibility of Tony still being head over feet in love with Damon?
Ziva frowned. “Head over feet? Or head over heels?”
It didn’t matter. She dialed Damon’s phone number and the call was picked up after just half a ring. “How’d it go?”
“He turned us down.”
She heard a dull thud in the background, like Damon had kicked something.
“I am sorry, Damon. But I consider you a friend too and, maybe it is time for you to move on, save yourself all this trouble. Clearly, Tony has. And maybe…” she stopped, not sure if it was her place to opine so truthfully.
“What is it, Ziva?” the voice asked, making Ziva regret having broached the subject at all.
She sighed. “Maybe we have been reading too much into this. Maybe Tony does not feel so strongly about you after all.”
Damon didn’t respond, and Ziva felt the urgent need to explain herself. “H-he kept saying I should use the opportunity to try my luck with you, for crying out loud!”
There was soft laughter at the other end, “I thought you knew Tony better than most people, Officer David. Surely you recognize a classic DiNozzo deflection tactic when you see one.”
Ziva huffed, still upset about the exchange with Tony, maybe because it hit a little too close to home.
She’d gotten used to being the third wheel in every significant relationship in her life – like between her brother Ari and sister Tali, they’d clearly loved each other more. She felt like an outsider between her father and his country, Eli clearly loved his country more. She even felt like the odd one out between DiNozzo and McGee – two men who’d shared a full year of adventures as well as the harrowing memories of Kate’s death. Tragedies like that bonded people together stronger than all the time in the world could. She was third wheel between Abby and McGee who, most of the time, would have eyes only for each other, third wheel between Abby and Tony who were closer than biological brother and sister. Heck even Gibbs and his damn boat made her feel like the outsider in that basement.
Once again, in this non-relationship between Tony and Damon, she was being pulled into the mix against her will. Worse, the third wheel often got blamed when a relationship soured. She knew that from first-hand experience.
“Ziva, you still there?”
She blinked, pulling herself back into the moment. “Yes, sorry. What were you saying?”
Damon sighed. “You’ve been a great help and a wonderful friend, Ziva. If you could just bear with me a little longer, I can prove to you that I’m not wrong about Tony. Whatever his reason is to pull away from me, it’s got nothing to do with me.”
Ziva bit her lip. Damon didn’t need to prove it to her; she knew it for a fact. But like Abby had said earlier – Tony’s issues with Gibbs were Tony’s business. They had no right to divulge any more than what they already had to Damon who, after all said and done, was still just an outsider.
And it really, really sucked to be an outsider.
But he didn’t have to remain on the outside forever, did he? Ziva exhaled deeply and made up her mind. “One last time, I will help you. What did you have in mind?”
Next Chapter >