Chapter 14: Handball

~Sometime a little before the previous chapter~


Tony looked up from his position at the edge of the bed, bent over tying his running shoes.

"Yeah, I thought I would." He caught the hint of playfulness around Gibbs' eyes. Ah, happy Gibbs this morning. "You think you can keep up, I'll let you tag along." He smiled, a smile that charmed others but just pissed Gibbs off. Damn, he loved pissing Gibbs off.

Gibbs didn't rise to the bait though, just moved to the dresser and grabbed shorts and a shirt. He didn't bother to go into the bathroom as he stripped off the dirty jeans and shirt he had thrown on early this morning when he went down to work in the basement. Tony didn't bother to hide his interest in the other man's body and leaned back on his elbows to watch, one shoe on and the other off.

"You change your mind?" Jethro glanced back as he ducked down to pull his sneakers out from under the bed.

Tony smirked and pulled himself up. "Nope. Just checking out the competition."

When the light head slap came, Tony was ready for it, caught the other man's hand as it moved away. Standing, Tony raised Jethro's hand up from where he had caught it. He had considered turning the tables by taking the other man down to the bed, but challenging Jethro to a show of strength, while always fun, didn't really unsettle him, even if Tony won.

Jethro didn't move, just watched while Tony raised his hand to his nose, breathing deeply. "Mmmm. Sawdusty." He grinned and Jethro kept from smiling back only by force of will. As it was he could feel his lips turn up and tighten to hold the smile in. And then Tony kissed the pads of each of his fingers, turning his hand to kiss his thumb and then placed one last soft kiss in the center of the palm of his hand.

As quick as he had grabbed it, Tony dropped Jethro's hand and slapped him on the ass as he loped toward the door to the bedroom. "Come on, Marine. Quit stalling."

Jethro rubbed the back of his neck and started after the other man, wondering not for the first time who was in charge here.

They ran companionably. Tony had longer legs but Gibbs had training and could maintain any pace set. They didn't talk much, and most of that was Tony, commenting on places or people they passed as they warmed up. Once they got going though, it was just all muscle and breath and blood, pounding feet and the low hum and burn of the ten mile run.

On the back end of the loop, less than a mile from home, they passed a small park. It was a cool morning and wet from last night's showers. Hadn't stopped a bunch of boys from coming down to the small basketball court set above the small lawn with swings and an aged play structure. Gibbs nudged Tony's elbow and motioned to the game. The two men stopped and stretched, caught their breath, watching the game. They moved a little closer as they tried to figure out what the boys were playing.

They had a small ball, a kind of miniature soccer ball, that they passed back and forth and tried to get into the opposing goal, one defined by two mismatched stools and the other by a chair and a stool. They seemed to take turns playing goal although two boys played it most often. There were nine boys and no real way to distinguish who was on what team. After a few minutes, Tony said, out of the corner of his mouth, "green jacket, glasses, tall boy, and short boy are all on one team."

Gibbs laughed and crossing his arms tried to see if he could tell. "Yeah, although I think the boy with the sweatshirt is playing for both teams. And the short boy is the best."

With the natural curiosity of 14 year old boys, the kids were starting to glance over at the two men. They made comments to each other that Gibbs and Tony couldn't hear but were obviously about them. They kept playing but now were showing off a little and a couple made slightly louder comments about old people and how speed was better than muscle.

Gibbs raised his voice and called out, "What are you boys playing?"

A couple of kids protested when the short boy and one of the tallest, a boy with a baseball cap and a baby face broken by crooked grin, broke off to turn and answer. Short boy and Baseball cap ignored them. "Handball."

"Can you settle a bet for me?"

Baseball cap shoved the short boy and said, "You answer him, Zeke."

Zeke stepped forward. "Sure, what's the bet?"

Gibbs tipped his head at Tony. "Tony here thinks that "green jacket, glasses, tall boy, and you are all on the same team" and that you are going to lose even though you are winning now. Is he right?" Tony waved a hand, grinning.

Zeke looked back at his friends, trying to figure out if Tony was right. He turned back, "well, he's right about the team...Spencer plays for both teams since he," glanced back at Spencer and grinned, cushioning the blow with good humor, "sucks."

Spencer jumped up and down. "I don't suck. If you guys would let me play from the wall you'd see." The boy leapt onto the brick wall topped by the fence and inched along smoothly with grace. He did seem like he might be more coordinated in the air than on the ground. He waved his hands and shouted. "Zeke, give me the ball! Pass it to me! C'mon!"

Zeke turned back to Gibbs and Tony but suddenly whipped the ball back over his head, heading straight to Spencer, who missed, not expecting the ball. "Zeke! C'mon! I didn't know you were going to pass it. Do it again."

Zeke ignored him and glanced at his friends. "You want to play?"

Tony and Gibbs looked at each other. One of the main goalies, a boy that seemed, honestly, a bit of a bully, said, "we get the young guy!" Tony's face never turned from Gibbs, but his lips turned up and his eyes lit with glee.

Zeke, no dummy, said, "Fine. We get the Marine."

And now it was Gibbs' turn to grin at Tony. A town like Washington D.C., in any group of nine kids there had to be at least a couple with ties to the military.

Turned out the Gibbs and Tony had missed a few rules: goals only counted at stool height or below, and you could only take three steps before passing or shooting for goal. Otherwise, it was just like every other playground game: simple and more fun to play than to puzzle out.

They played for a long time and in the end, no one other than the surly goalie was sure of the score, and no one was sure he was right. The surly goalie's name was Bert, of all things, and his team was losing, in the end, right or wrong, and he started taking out his bad mood on other kids, pushing and blaming people on his team for losing the game for them.

"Spencer get out of the fucking way, you asshole. And Craig, you faggot, just go home if you can't throw the fucking ball straight."

Gibbs stopped what he was doing, feinting and dodging around Zeke and Baseball Cap, making them laugh and run after him. He stood up straight, his adult height, the posture of the Marine, very present all of a sudden. Tony came to stand behind and to the right, his second. The boys got quiet and stood in place, even Bert, and looked over at the two men.

"Just a friendly game, son. No need for that." Gibbs wasn't expressing an opinion, but making a statement, absolute. Other boys nodded and agreed.

Bert's face turned mulish and ugly. Probably, thought Tony sadly, he was the kid most used to ugly words and unfriendly games. Didn't make it right though.

"Don't you have any gay friends or family? You think that is a respectful way to talk?" A couple kids shifted nervously, and Zeke moved away from Bert.

Bert grumbled something under his breath and kicked one of the stools over, "I'm going home. You're all a bunch of pussies."

Zeke shot Gibbs an apologetic glance and the others clustered around him, starting to talk again, all but one small boy who ran after Bert. Zeke looked over, gave a weak smile, "Sorry about that, sir—"

"Don't call me, sir, Zeke. Not in the Marines anymore. Just Gibbs is okay."

Zeke's smile turned genuine. "Well, it's just Bert you know. Thanks for playing anyway. You guys weren't bad."

Gibbs winked and tossed the ball back at him, turning and ushering Tony out of the basketball cage with a hand at his back. The sudden silence behind him was notable. Tony turned to look at Jethro, brows raised in gentle mockery. Really, you outing us to a bunch of kids? Jethro met his eyes, and Tony saw that this was real to the other man, not serious exactly, but one of the first public confrontations of their relationship. The world shrunk to just him and Jethro. He reached out and squeezed the man's neck, smiled and let his hand rest there warmly for a minute. Then he broke into a run and Jethro ran after him.

They arrived home together though.

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