“If this is going to be a serious discussion, and suddenly I'm terribly afraid it is, you're going to have to take off that ridiculous mask.”
February 6, 2008. Washington DC
Everywhere Tony turned, or limped, he found trace evidences of himself in Gibbs’ house. Traces that he’d inserted on purpose into Gibbs’ life and the man had kept.
The old baseball glove on the door, the DVD player that was now a permanent fixture in the living room, the movies and music strewn all over the place, goofy magnets on the fridge, cracks in the wine glasses Gibbs never replaced, skid-marks out on the porch from that time he’d borrowed the neighbor’s kid’s dirt bike…
In comparison, it was like Damon had never been in this house. Not even in the basement where he’d spent so much time helping with the boat. The guestroom, as he’d predicted, was spic-and-span – the bed was made like a sailor’s rack, the cupboard empty, not even a frayed shoe lace anywhere. There was no sign anyone had ever used the room in years. The only exception was a lingering scent of the man himself on the blankets. At night when he was alone in his bed, Tony buried his nose in those blankets, stemming the rush of tears at what could have been.
He was starting to see things clearly. Maybe Gibbs did see a son in Damon. But that wasn’t the reason why Gibbs pushed Tony away. Why he did it, Tony still wasn’t sure. But they’d been drifting apart long before Damon entered stage left. He’d just been in denial about it until Damon’s presence jolted him into action, and an irrational one at that.
Being with Damon… it’d been so easy, so comfortable and right. The first time Tony felt that way was during the movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. For a hundred-and-twenty magical minutes, he’d put all his troubles aside, he’d forgotten who Jeanne Benoit was… and he’d been well and truly, happy.
Nice going, DiNozzo. You ruined your chances at something great for absolutely nothing.
That evening, Tony woke up on the living room couch after napping for three hours and cursed his painkillers for knocking him out again.
“At least I’m not going around acting like a total lunatic,” he groused to himself.
“Relax, DiNozzo,” Gibbs sniggered from somewhere in the kitchen, making Tony jump and twist towards him. “Sleep is good. It gives your body the time it needs to heal, recharge your batteries.”
“I don’t run on batteries,” Tony grumbled petulantly.
He pulled off his red woolen Buckeye jacket, feeling too warm thanks to the blankets Gibbs had draped over him while he was asleep. He wore a sky blue t-shirt and black sweatpants underneath. Gibbs was dressed in his usual gray NIS sweatshirt and blue work jeans.
He brought over a mug of what Tony hoped was coffee but turned out to be plain warm milk, again. Tony scowled. “Seriously? Would it kill you to spoon in a little Folgers Classic Roast in there?”
Gibbs took a shamelessly loud sip of his own strong smelling coffee. “Doctor’s orders: No caffeine with meds. Now drink up.”
Still sulking, Tony took the mug and waited for Gibbs to stalk off, which he did but not before tousling Tony’s hair, again. It made Tony smile as much as it freaked him out. Gibbs being so affectionate was new and just plain weird. He wondered if it was a permanent thing or something Gibbs might grow out of once Tony got better and back to work.
“I’ll be downstairs. Come on over if you can keep your eyes open,” Gibbs teased, making Tony glare at him again. “And bring your jacket.”
Twenty minutes later, Tony was wearing said jacket and comfortably situated at Gibbs’ study table in the basement with his laptop, while Gibbs worked on his boat. It seemed to be eighty percent done, thanks to Damon, probably.
Tony kept his eyes glued to his laptop, still hell-bent on not thinking of Damon and still failing miserably. He tried to focus on his car search – high time he stopped driving that rental (even though the agency paid for it) and find his own ride, one with class and pizzazz and other head-turning qualities.
“Boss? Do you miss Damon?” Alright, so he couldn’t help himself.
Gibbs turned towards him, eyes flickering with amusement. “I don’t miss that smart-assed mouth of his.” Tony was confused, until Gibbs smiled. “He never stopped talking about you.”
Tony forced out a chuckle. “W-what… about me? W-why?”
“Same reason you’ve been looking for evidence of his stay in this house.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Gibbs stood up to go to his liquor cabinet. He pulled something out of there, which was not shaped like a bottle but a box. And a note along with it. “He left this for you.”
“For me?” Tony took the things from Gibbs, but he didn’t need to open the box to know what it was. It was Gibbs’ Silver Star, the one he’d given to Damon.
“Uh, this is… not mine.”
“Open the note.”
Tony sighed and with shaking hands did as he was told.
I’m not returning this. I could never disrespect you and everything you’ve done for me like that. Just hoping maybe Tony could hold on to this for me.
Tony closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead, not sure what to make of it. His mind was a mess of conflicted thoughts and feelings. On one hand, he was flattered that both Damon and Gibbs trusted him enough with their prized possessions. On the other, he wondered if that’s what they thought of him – a hoarder of other people’s medals because he didn’t have any of his own?
“Ordinary people will kill to have one of these. And you jarheads don’t even care. I don’t get it.”
Gibbs rolled his eyes, and knelt before Tony despite his bad knee. “The medals I got for time served with the Corps remind me that I survived, when so many of my men didn’t.”
Tony blinked. He’d never thought of it like that. “What about all your NCIS commendations?”
Gibbs smirked and looked away for a second. “Tell me something, Tony. Why did you go inside that warehouse full of armed men without backup?”
Tony frowned. “They were going to blow Portman’s head off.”
“And later, why did you trade yourself for the girls as hostage?”
“You were there! You know why.”
“At what point did you decide your foolish bravado was worth a medal from the agency?”
“What?!? I never even… oh…”
The marine put a hand on Tony’s knee and squeezed. “You do your job because it’s your job. And because it’s the right thing to do, not because you’re gonna get a medal or a promotion for it.”
“Point taken,” Tony nodded. Gibbs stood up and walked back to his boat, leaving Tony to shrug a little petulantly. “I could use a raise though. And I’ve always wanted to do an acceptance speech in front of like, not-imaginary people.”
Gibbs snorted and sorted through his tools unhurriedly. After a while, Tony resumed his surfing, sipping from his bottle of water occasionally.
“So when were you going to tell me about Damon?”
Tony sputtered and coughed and almost sprayed water all over his laptop. He was really hoping he’d dodged that bullet.
Gibbs’ ice blue eyes bored into his, daring Tony to try and fib again. “Tony, I’ve known for years that you were bi-sexual, at least, in the process of discovering you were.”
Tony felt his skin flush and his head felt light. He tried to adjust himself in the chair but absently managed to lean too much to the left side. With his weakened leg unable to set his balance right, Tony started to fall. But Gibbs was already running towards him, and caught both Tony and his chair before either could hit the floor.
“Sorry,” Tony gasped as he tried to get his traitorous body under control, even as he let Gibbs manhandle him back into the now upright chair. The older man pulled another chair for himself but kept one arm wrapped around Tony’s waist and the other patting the side of his face comfortingly.
“Take it easy, son. It’s alright. It’s okay.”
“You keep saying that and yet…” Tony rambled, embarrassed and unable to meet Gibbs’ eyes.
“Hey, look at me.” Gibbs commanded and Tony obeyed. “You had no obligation to tell me, you still don’t.”
“I-I’ve been keeping too many things from you, Boss, about Jenny and the Frog, Jeanne, Damon… ”
“It’s my fault, I shut you out.”
Tony felt like a ragdoll, limp and lifeless. Those seven words sent such incredible relief coursing through his being he could hardly breathe. Gibbs sensed it, pulled him into a strong embrace and held him there. One large hand cupped the back of Tony’s head as the younger agent buried his face in Gibbs’ neck. They stayed that way for a few minutes, until the bittersweet moment of weakness passed, and was replaced with plain old awkwardness. Then Tony fidgeted weakly. Gibbs chuckled and let him go, before standing up and going back to his boat.
“So do you mind if I ask what happened?”
Gibbs seemed to be on a mission to get all the talking done and out of the way once and for all by end of the night.
“What happened, you mean… like, i-in the beginning, or the end? Or the middle? Although, technically speaking, there was no middle. It just kind of… started and stopped.”
“Damon told me how it started. You tell me why it stopped.”
Tony bit his lip. How was he supposed to tell Gibbs that Damon had, in a way, become a constant reminder of his own insecurities? Because Damon’s easy camaraderie with Gibbs made Tony believe he could never hope to have the same place in Gibbs’ life, because he simply wasn’t worth it?
Add to that his biggest fear of all: Gibbs had thrown Tony out of his life for one mistake. And Damon being a carbon copy of Gibbs and all, he would have done the same thing eventually because sooner or later, Tony would have slipped up.
It’s what he did – he messed up. And people abandoned him because of it.
“Damon said he loved you.” Gibbs remarked casually, like he was talking about the frikkin’ weather.
Tony didn’t respond, he didn’t know how to.
“Did he ever tell you that?”
Tony had a flash of a vague memory, of him in the hospital, and Damon holding his hand, hot liquid splashing over his skin, Damon’s soft voice whispering the three most beautiful words in the world.
“I think he did,” he whispered brokenly.
“But you didn’t feel the same way?”
Still not going there, no. Not yet. “It was never going to work.”
“He wanted too much.”
“Like a relationship?”
“I don’t do relationships.”
“Is it because of what happened with Jeanne?”
“No. Y-yeah, maybe, I don’t know.” Tony grimaced, already tired of being interrogated. “It’s not just her. It’s just… everything, everyone. Me and relationships… it just doesn’t work. Never has.”
Tony tried to go back to his car hunt but Gibbs wouldn’t let it go. He grabbed the bourbon he’d been eyeing all evening, and returned to the second chair beside Tony. No glasses, he definitely wasn’t intending to share. Gibbs patted Tony’s knee again to draw his attention and keep it with him.
“Tony, I’m the last guy to be giving advice on relationships, you know that. But I know you. You’ve a big heart, a heart of gold. If anybody can do relationships, if anybody wants relationships more than anything else, it’s you.”
Tony laughed bitterly, “Maybe. But it’s supposed to be a two-way street, Boss.”
“But Damon obviously loves you.”
“Yeah, but for how long?” Tony exclaimed louder than he’d intended to and stood up, limping away determinedly from Gibbs. “Nothing lasts forever. You know that better than anyone!”
That must have stung, it had to. Tony marveled at how Gibbs didn’t even react, just leaned back in his chair and drank from the bottle lazily.
“You’re right. Nothing lasts forever. But I’ll tell you this – even if I knew I was gonna lose Shannon and Kelly, even if I knew how much it was gonna fucking hurt… I still wouldn’t give them up for the world. However long I had them for, they were the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Tony felt really guilty now and lowered his head. He toed at a little dent in the floor absently.
“But they didn’t leave you, Gibbs. They would have stayed with you forever, if they had a choice. Nobody ever wants to stay with me. Not… not without conditions. And most of the time, not even then.”
“How would you know if you won’t give anybody a chance?”
“Am fresh out of chances, I guess.” he murmured softly, eyes still stuck to the ground.
Gibbs sighed and perched himself on the edge of his chair. “I suppose we’re not talking about Jeanne anymore.”
Gibbs felt his heart sink to the pit of his stomach at Tony’s barely audible words.
Am fresh out of chances, I guess.
It was the first time Tony had voiced his disappointment in Gibbs, even if indirectly. He was almost relieved to hear it. It meant the boy was starting to find his confidence again. He was beginning to trust Gibbs enough to speak his mind again, and not be afraid that one wrong turn or wrong choice of words would have him voted off the island again.
Sweet Jesus, a TV reference. Gibbs bit back the smile that threatened to break out on his face. This was no time to be frivolous, no matter how happy he was at the amount of progress he and Tony had made. There were still miles to go before he could head-slap his boy and have it be perfectly normal between them.
“I suppose we’re not talking about Jeanne anymore.”
Tony didn’t respond and just studied his toes. Gibbs rubbed his forehead and struggled. Words never came easy to him, apologies even less so. He got up again, and chose to lean against the side of the boat not too far from Tony.
“You know, I… I know this guy… he’s a marine and, see he has a son… and obviously he loves his son very much. He watched him grow, he nurtured him, kept him safe, showed him how to make his own way in this world.”
Tony seemed to be listening, but he wasn’t quite sure.
“One day this guy, he… botched up a mission and had to go to ground for awhile. When he came back, he found that his son, this little monster of a kid… he’d grown up. He’d… moved on and found other people to be with and things to do and… he didn’t need his old man to keep him safe anymore.”
Gibbs felt his voice break, and hoped to God Tony didn’t hear it. The boy was looking at him. But now to continue with this… story, Gibbs had to look away. He stretched sideways to reach a couple of nail jars resting on top of the boat’s hull, picked one up and poured himself a drink.
“This one time when… when the kid did get into trouble, my friend, h-he couldn’t do anything for his son ‘cause he didn’t know. He didn’t know where the kid was, who he was with, how to reach him or help him, and… in the end he didn’t need to. It killed him to feel like he was obsolete in his boy’s life. He was redundant.”
“That’s not true,” Tony whispered.
Gibbs looked up at his limpid eyes and cleared his throat to continue.
“Yeah well, that’s how he felt at the time. Anyway, basically he… then went into this funk and tried to put some distance between himself and the kid, so he wouldn’t care next time the kid went off and did his own thing and… lived his own life… ‘cause hey, that’s the circle of life, right? The old make way for the young, and all that.”
Tony didn’t respond, just watched Gibbs cautiously.
“He tried to act like it didn’t matter, like it didn’t hurt because he’s a marine, right? Can’t show weakness, no matter what.” Gibbs drank from his jar, relishing the burn of the alcohol down his throat.
“What happened then?”
Gibbs sighed, thinking back to the big showdown with Damon in the hospital over Tony’s bed. “He got whacked upside the head and showed the light by another loud-mouthed marine, who showed him what his selfishness was doing to the kid, how he was passing on his baggage in inheritance to this kid… robbing him of his own chances at happiness.”
Tony stared at Gibbs in complete silence.
“So let me get this straight. First this… friend of yours abandons his kid, forcing him to grow up fast. And then comes back and resents him for having grown up fast?”
Gibbs squinted unhappily. “I resent your use of the word resent.”
“What would you use then?”
What was that thing Damon said? “Self-preservation, maybe?”
“That doesn’t fit in the sentence.”
“Does it look like I care?”
Tony closed his eyes, stemming the flow of tears behind it. Gibbs waited, giving his boy all the time he’d need.
“So what, he figured if he d-disowned the kid, then it would hurt less?”
Gibbs could only express how deeply he regretted his actions through his eyes. “Sounds really lame, I know.”
Tony snorted. “Tell that to DiNozzo Senior.”
Gibbs sighed. He couldn’t use this hypothetical marine story any longer. He needed to come clean, now. “For the record, I never abandoned you, Tony. I just…”
“What? Amped up the B that stands for bastard to push me away, except you didn’t think I’d be so juvenile about it?”
“You weren’t demanding anything that’s not already yours, son. And always will be.”
Tony stared at Gibbs for a few moments, then limped over to stand closer to Gibbs. With his good left hand he reached for the bourbon. Gibbs eyed him dangerously. He’d denied him caffeine not an hour ago. Did Tony really think he’d be allowed any alcohol?
Tony made a wry face. “One swig. You owe it to me.”
How much could a swig hurt? Gibbs relented and handed the bottle over to Tony. He drank straight from the bottle and gave it back as promised. Gibbs picked up the water from the table and shoved it in Tony’s hands, just to be sure.
“That’s quite an apology, Boss.”
Gibbs harrumphed. “Rule number six, DiNozzo.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Tony grinned, flashing his big wide smile at Gibbs at last. It was like the sun came out shining after a long, dark winter.
And Gibbs couldn’t help but smile back.
“You will always be irreplaceable to me, Tony,” Gibbs felt like it needed to be said. “Damon and I have stuff in common. I see some of me in him, but I never actually saw him as a son.”
The younger man bit his lip, looking sheepish and regretful. He twisted open his water and drank from it for want of something to do.
“I don’t have a problem seeing him as a son-in-law, though…”
Tony choked and sputtered again, spraying the floor with water from his mouth and Gibbs laughed. He put a hand on Tony’s back and rubbed it lovingly, promising himself (and Tony) never to let his boy flounder in loneliness again.
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