Distress

Chapter 23: Music

~After the events of the most recent chapters,
including What Tony Doesn't Know~

Tony's brain refused to settle, to move forward. Reflex and repetition were getting him through. His mind insisted on trying to make sense, or order, or to at least give an account of this wreck of a day.

1. Kate died.

2. Gibbs rode with her in the ambulance, refused to leave her. Tony wanted to go too but didn't, knowing someone had to report and begin the follow up. It seemed like the only thing he could do for Kate. And for Gibbs.

3. By the time that Gibbs came charging back into the office, issuing orders and driving himself up, up the stairs to Morrow's office with almost painful determination, Tony had—

well, he wouldn't call it a plan, exactly, his own pain and disbelief was trying to chisel and hack its way out of his body even as he moved and acted, his partner, oh Kate, oh no, Kate—

he had a...couple things he could do. He didn't know what to do for Gibbs, knew damn well that Gibbs wouldn't take his sympathy, empathy, his care, wasn't even sure he was capable of giving them right now but if he had thought Gibbs needed them, wanted them, he would have tried. But he knew Gibbs didn't. Gibbs wouldn't have even let a woman comfort him. Maybe maybe Shannon, Tony didn't know, couldn't begin to guess. Figured Jethro was another person back then anyway. And maybe it didn't even matter.

But Tony knew a few things and he hoped they'd be a start, if not enough.


Lucy rang through on the intercom. "Agent DiNozzo here to see you, Agent Fornell." Surprised and slightly irritated for no reason other than the man irritated him, Fornell nevertheless had Lucy send him in.

Fornell didn't recognize the man standing in his doorway, found himself standing without remembering doing it.

"DiNozzo," for the first time, pronouncing his name correctly, "what's happened?"

"Kate's dead. Ari took her out."

"Jesus, no." Fornell whispered, gaze dropping in disbelief but then jumping back up to DiNozzo's when the younger man walked a few steps into the room.

Fornell had wondered at first why Jethro trusted the younger man so much. At first, it was enough that Jethro did, but Fornell had seen glimpses of the kind of control and focus DiNozzo was capable of. He saw it now, saw something that made him think of Gibbs, a deadly inflexibility at the heart of kiln-fired morality.

"I came here for three reasons, to—" Tony's voice cracked, still raspy from his recent illness and now from fatigue and loss, no doubt, "to tell...ask you…" He rubbed a tired hand over his face, and his head dipped slightly before steel straightened his spine again, "...uh...three things." He waited and Fornell realized this was his way of asking for permission.

"Go on."

Tony nodded and his shoulders relaxed the tiniest bit. Even as they did though, Tony swayed a little and Fornell gestured toward a chair. Tony shook his head a little, no.

"First, can you go haul Gibbs out of the Navy Yard tonight? I don't think he'll leave on his own and he certainly won't leave because...any of us told him to."

Fornell was nodding before Tony was halfway through, "Of course. What else?"

"Second, or maybe third, but still...I might be looking for a job."

"What have you done?" The question was automatic and probably unfair, but there it was.

Tony smiled grimly, "Nothing. Nothing like that. Just, before I go on, would you welcome my...interest in the F.B.I….assuming, of course, that I haven't been fired or released with cause or whatever they call it."

Fornell thought about this one, but not for long. "Yes. Yes, I would. We would."

Tony nodded again.

"Thirdly. Gibbs and I...Jethro and I. We're together."

Fornell didn't know what he was talking about. "Together?"

Tony smiled, the first real light in his eyes since he got there. "Yes. Together. Romantically. Think of the most unlikely person to ever go out with another man, with me of all people, and that would be Gibbs, and vice versa. Now hear me say that we're together, okay? Just try to accept it, for now. That's it. I'm sure Jethro was going to tell you himself some time, but you need to know now. I need you to know, need you to call me if you think you need to."

Fornell stood in shock as Tony moved to leave. Tony turned back though, before he got through the door. "We still okay on the first thing?"

Fornell felt poleaxed but moved past it to come out from behind his desk. A little wave of anger cut through the numb disbelief. Tony thought he wouldn't help Jethro once he knew? Wouldn't want to hire Tony if he knew?

He rasped out, insisted. "We're okay on the first two things. The rest I'll figure out, but for right now, we're okay." He held out his hand and after a moment's hesitation and a look in his eyes that said he was afraid of believing the acceptance he wanted Fornell to be offering, Tony took it, his hand firm but cold. Tobias wasn't surprised at that.

"Take care of yourself, DiNozzo."


The wicked day would never be done. Gibbs didn't know how to end this one, how to walk away. He didn't know how to leave when leaving felt like leaving Kate. He didn't know how to face Tony. He didn't know how to go on tomorrow. But the one thing he knew was that he didn't need to know in order to go on. He'd go on, with or without his own understanding or acceptance of facts.

So he'd go on. And yet, he couldn't seem to leave.

"Jethro."

He looked up. Everyone else was gone. Everyone but his team. He knew they were around somewhere, at least Tony, Abby, McGee, Ducky, maybe Palmer. Since it was late, it was probably just them. So the new voice surprised him.

"Tobias."

"Let's go."

Gibbs just stared at him, angry for some reason. "No. I'm not finished."

Tobias swallowed the words he wanted to say, You are for today.

Instead he just repeated, "Let's go."

Jethro didn't move. Fornell moved closer, reached out as if to what? Neither of them would ever know because Jethro pushed back from the desk with violence barely restrained. And stood.

"Where are we going?"

Tobias held up a carrier bag and Jethro could hear the clink of bottles.

"Home."

Jethro woke up the next morning not nearly as hung over as he should be. But while Fornell had brought more than enough booze—the good stuff too, he must really be feeling bad—Jethro knew that he would begin a hunt for Ari tomorrow that made the hunt for Al Capone look like a Boy Scout scavenger hunt.

What he woke with, however, was a horrible feeling of wrongness not dissimilar from extreme hangover. He checked the obvious...and sure, he had to pee, was dehydrated, his knee hurt, but the hollow, gray feeling in the pit of his stomach was not related to any of those things. The feeling got worse when he turned his head away from the blinding sunlight streaming through the window. Kate was gone. And that was part of it. The sun was shining, birds were singing, and Kate was dead.

Gibbs flung out his arm, instinctively reaching for what he needed almost before he registered the impulse.

But Tony wasn't there.

Instead, he stretched his arm to the nightstand. It also was empty.

I hate that goddamned phone, never where I need it. He rolled out of the other side of the bed and rifled through the clothes on the chair, found his cell phone and sat on the edge of the bed to thumb the thing open.

"H'llo?" Tony's voice was thick with sleep. Jethro looked at the clock on the nightstand. Was surprised to see it was 8 am. Late. For him or for Tony. Tony probably went to bed late too.

"Hey."

"Jethro?"

"Yeah."

"I'm glad." Tony sounded like he blurted that out without thinking. Gibbs gave in.

"I'm glad too. Though I…"

"What?"

"..."

"Jethro?"

"I didn't like it...don't like it...anymore, when you aren't here in the morning. Jesus, Tony."

Tony didn't respond directly. Not yet. "Is Fornell there?"

Jethro looked around, didn't see the man in his bedroom, made a mental note that Tony knew he had been here. "Dunno." He raised his voice. "Fornell!?"

Nothing but silence.

"I don't think so."

"Want me to...want...want a ride?"

After a pause, Jethro answered. "I don't know how late I'll stay, where we'll be…"

"..."

"But...yeah. I'd take a ride."

"I'll be there in...25 minutes or so. Okay?"

"Yeah. And Tony?"

"Yeah?"

"You okay?"

"Sure. Fine."

"Tony."

"Uh...no, I'm not I guess. But I'll be there soon. And then it'll be...better."

"You stay at my place tonight, you hear?"

"I—"

"This isn't up for discussion, DiNozzo."

"Okay, Boss." The smile in Tony's voice probably wasn't a big one, or very bright, but it was there, it was his.

But the phone rang again before Gibbs even got to the shower and he had to call Tony back, have him meet him at the office.


And Gibbs had little memory of the day, just a faint memory of an old habit of care rising up in him. An earlier version of him stepped in, brought coffee, spoke kind words, called McGee Tim. He let Abby cry against his chest in the too bright light of her lab. And felt guilty for being glad for her warmth, her need of him.

They did what they did best and were tracking down Ari and it was all made more complicated by the arrival of Jenn and then her odd Mossad agent. She was something else, Ziva, and he couldn't quite figure what. But he would.

Sometime, mid-afternoon, he lost sight of Tony, most of his team was following up various leads in various places and Tony, presumably, was doing that too, but Gibbs didn't know and uncharacteristically, wasn't sure whether to track him down or not. When Tony didn't answer his cell, Gibbs drove home, hoping that Tony had obeyed.

And, when he got there, he sensed, in a way he had long since stopped questioning, that Tony was there, in his house, and something deep inside of him contracted. Claws in his belly closed tightly. Gnarled and bony, they clutched the bright spark of hope close and would keep it alive, despite the spaces that let the weather in.

He is mine. He is home.

Tony was standing at the edge of...their...bed looking down, staring hard at the bed, like he was measuring, assessing.

"Tony?" Gibbs had to say his name three times before Tony glanced his way and then back again, fascinated by the bed or the comforter or something. Gibbs found his own gaze wandering to the bed, wondering what Tony saw there. Kate?

"I don't want to get a new mattress."

Jethro had all but given in to Tony's badgering about the mattress. It was uncomfortable, too small, too hard, old...Jethro didn't mind it. It was better than lots of places he had slept but he wasn't attached to it. And he had to admit that Tony's bed was more comfortable.

But he didn't understand the current fixation. "Okay." He said carefully.

"I like this mattress. It has been a good mattress. No reason to just throw it out."

Jethro felt the same urge to care, to soothe, that was so unfamiliar. But the atrophied muscles were coming alive too suddenly, and it was so painful and so wonderful, after so much time, and then that hurt more. The desire to stroke Tony's hair and back, to put him to bed, formed a knot in his throat, fisted his hands. Blinking back tears, the first since Kate died—leave it to DiNozzo to break down his last fucking defenses—he tried a Tony tactic, told a story.

"It snowed last night."

Tony's head turned toward him then. "What?"

"It snowed. Did you notice?"

"Yeah." Tony huffed out a little laugh of disbelief. At their conversation? At the snow? "Yeah, I noticed."

"It must've melted during the day because there wasn't any when I drove home just now."

"I...I didn't...wasn't paying attention."

"This morning there were bird tracks all over the lawn."

Tony looked at him quizzically, wondering if he had a point.

"I followed them. Just one bird, walking around on the lawn. The tracks went everywhere, even 'round back. Finally they ended at my car door. There weren't any more."

"Where did it go?"

"I don't know. Drove me crazy all day. I actually looked in the car, like it might have climbed in."

"Did it fly away?"

"It might have, I guess, but it had walked everywhere else. The tracks just ended."

"What the hell are we talking about, Jethro?"

Jethro crossed the room then and hooked his hand around Tony's neck, pulled him into his body, into the piss-poor shelter of his body. But Tony just bent and curled into him, easy as that, like Jethro was exactly what he wanted. Tony let out a sound, a choking sob, that had Jethro holding him harder, slipping his palm under his shirt to press and keep him. Jethro could feel the quick convulsions of chest and throat but didn't hear anything more after that first cry.

Tony had himself back under control quicker than Jethro wanted, quicker than he himself needed, but still the younger man couldn't help but respond to the calloused fingers running through his hair and stroking the back of his neck, the anchoring palm against this back, the press of warm lips against his temple. He sighed and pressed his rough cheek deeper into Jethro.

They undressed in the dark together, staying as close as possible, like teenage lovers holding hands even when inconvenient, just for the sake of it. And they crawled onto that god awful mattress and Tony spread his legs to be fucked into it. It was rough and deep and loving and finally, as safe as anyone could be in this uncertain world, Tony stopped fighting the images of Kate and let his tired body rest against Jethro as the images and memories played out against his eyelids until they spooled off into the darkness and he slept.

Jethro stayed awake, kissing the other man's face, his forehead and temple and eyelids, pulled him in closer and closer, until he finally finally felt Tony's body get heavy and quiet against his.


Not even a full week later, Kate was laid to rest, first at her memorial service in D.C. and then at a small Catholic private funeral in Indiana. Gibbs spoke, despite feeling the same as when Pacci was killed, that he had failed the agent, and in this case, his friend. Kate had been a full-fledged agent when she came to him and while she was the most junior agent until McGee came along, she was never really a probie. The profiler in Kate, her experience with politics and egos, all made her feel more like a partner than anything else. And her natural dignity, while sometimes almost sweetly priggish, was never pompous, never arrogant. She was kind and sympathetic and gentle while also being hard as nails. Tony was much more empathetic, in many ways. Probably why he was so good at undercover work; he could really put himself in someone else's place. Kate was always herself, and often said she just didn't understand how people could do some of the things they did.

He started page after page trying to get this down, and in the end most of the sheets of paper, crumpled and discarded, had only a few lines scrawled across the top. It was late the night before the service when Tony came to stand behind him, to place warm hands on tight shoulders. Jethro didn't even fight it, just threw his head back to rest against Tony's belly, let out a deep sigh.

"What are you trying to say?" Tony asked.

So Jethro told him what he was thinking. Even that much was hard, and he struggled to get the most important words out.

"That sounds right." Tony said.

Gibbs grunted and tilted his his head backward even more to meet the other man's eyes. Was he joking?

Tony's green eyes met his in bleak approval.

And so in the end, Gibbs growled out those same words into the microphone. Dignity. Kind. Tough. Honor. Partner. Loss. He hoped it was enough. His gut was churning and there was a burning knot in his throat. He picked up his papers, and almost blindly looked up one last time at the people assembled to listen, wondering if there was something else to say before he stepped down...Introduce someone else? But no, he was last. He saw McGee then, standing shoulder to shoulder with Tony, Abby in front of them. Ducky, Palmer, and Gerald with them.

He swallowed. Wanted to say it.

I'm sorry, Kate.


He entered the house alone and was surprised to hear someone moving in the kitchen. Before he could call out, his father stepped through the door.

"Leroy! How are you, son?" His father came toward him and hugged him, nevermind that Jethro didn't hug him back.

"Dad. What are you doing here?" The older man finished his hug in his own sweet time and stepped back, leaving his hands on his son's arms.

"I saw, heard, about Katelyn on the news." His bright blue eyes met matching ones, but the twist in his mouth was wry and understanding. "I know you don't need me, Leroy. But maybe I need to be here for you."

He watched the jaw tighten, knew of old, could practically see the boy in the adult his son had become. The tight jaw, steady gaze, the stillness in his body. Most people couldn't meet your eyes like his son could. Couldn't hold as still. Couldn't hold a tongue. It terrified and inspired in equal measure, now no less than on the playground fifty years ago. But what gave him away was his mouth. Humor, sympathy, scorn...if they showed up anywhere it was on his lips, in the set of his mouth. No one looked, they were so busy trying to meet his eyes, but Jackson did. Watched his son's mouth. Saw sadness and guilt and care. But not despair, or isolation. And he was surprised.

All this in an instant, and all in his heart—what his boy called his gut—he knew his son wasn't as bad off as he had been. Wondered what had changed. Or who.

Jethro gave in, nodded. What else was he going to do, the man was here and, Jethro couldn't help a smile from showing in his eyes, had brought food from half the widows in Stillwater if his nose was anything to go by. His father pressed his shoulders with rough hands one last time and turned and pushed him into his own kitchen, nattering on about Mrs. Dyer's Chicken Divan.

"Gibbs!" Both men turned at the sound of the door being thrown open and Jethro almost rolled his eyes. Fornell. Morrow. Cynthia. Balboa and Pierce and Alcott. Jenny and her Israeli whatever she was. Jesus, was he throwing a party? He wondered if this was Abby's work.

Morrow shook his hand and grimaced sympathetically, even as he handed off a covered dish to Danielle from the motor pool who was sliding past them into the kitchen. "Think of it as the last order of mine you have to follow."

"Tom, you know I hate this kind of thing. But—" He cut any protest from the former director off, "I know, I...well, it's alright anyway." He nodded toward the living room. "Let's get out of the way."

"And get a drink?" Morrow was smiling.

"Damn straight."

It wasn't until he was bringing the glass to his lips that he thought to look around, remembered that this morning Tony's gym bag and gear was spilling open by the front window, his sweatshirt on the back of the chair where he threw it last night. The team knew but nobody else yet. He didn't see Tony's bag or shirt, although even with all the scents and sounds filling his house right now, he felt Tony behind him just before the younger man spoke.

"Morrow told Abby who told me just this morning when you were meeting with Shepard. I ran back and picked up, shut the bedroom door."

And just like that, Gibbs felt a little better. He barely registered what Tony said, but the sound of his voice spread through his body like liquor. His body thrilled to the warm puff of Tony's breath on his ear when he leaned over casually to speak, such proximity easily explained by the noise in the room, the fact that his senior agent might need to impart some important information. Gibbs reached for Tony's hand, slipped his fingers into the other man's and squeezed, letting his eyes meet Tony's for a charged instant.

Tony squeezed back and while Gibbs saw surprise in the younger man's eyes, there wasn't as much there as there once had been, and Tony, instead of making a joke, said softly, "If I could, I would kiss you right now, okay?" His eyes darted to the side where people were starting to emerge from the kitchen with plates, "I think they need this, and maybe we do too. I—" His eyes were back on Gibbs, but his hand was slipping away as he straightened and put distance between them as Fornell joined them.

"Jethro. What's a man got to do to get a drink around here. DiNotzo." His mockery tempered by a genuine smile, Fornell held out a hand for Tony to shake.

"Fornell. Couldn't find a bar to drink alone in?" Tony grinned. "There's a rumor your father's here, Gibbs...I can't wait to meet him." Rubbing his hands together gleefully the younger man set off for the kitchen, ignoring Gibbs' objection.

He didn't go find Jackson Gibbs, though. Truth be told, he wasn't sure he wanted to. He assumed Jackson didn't know anything about them, but he had never asked. Instead he went looking for Abby and McGee. Found them out back with Ducky and a bunch of other people sitting in folding chairs they obviously pulled from the shed.

Hours later, having spent most of the afternoon working the crowd, he was sitting with them once again, this time, in the living room. He heard the front door close one last time and Gibbs came in to join them.

"Can we start a fire, Gibbs?" Abby asked. She looked tired and sad, and very small, sitting in the middle of the couch between McGee and Ducky.

"Here, my dear, let me get you a blanket." Ducky levered himself up, but before he could go for the throw folded on the chair nearby, Abby turned her face up toward Gibbs and bit her lip. Gibbs took his suit jacket off and tossed it onto some nearby piece of furniture, settling himself in Ducky's vacated spot and pulling Abby into him. She sighed tiredly and closed her eyes.

Tony stood and motioned Ducky toward his chair. "Here, Duck, take this one. I'll make the fire." He felt Jethro's eyes on him as he moved. He was used to it. Gibbs took advantage of any reasonable opportunity to watch him without raising suspicions and even though everyone in this room right now knew about them, he was never going to be a demonstrative lover in public.

Just then Jackson joined them with a tray of mugs. Smelled like hot chocolate and sure enough, he had brought bottles of Bailey's and Kahlua out with him. Once the fire was going, Tony sat on the rug by it, glad for the extra heat. One of the side effects of recovering from the plague was being cold all the time. Jethro's unconscious (and consistently denied despite all evidence to the contrary) predisposition toward cuddling in the night had worked out well that way. Tony thought he would give next month's clothes budget to be in bed, trapped under the heat of Jethro's hard body right now. He met McGee's eyes then, and saw how hard Kate's death had hit him and hoped that being all together might help a little.

He was worried that Abby would make them all share or something, but she didn't. Conversation was surprisingly normal, and while Kate came up—Jackson asked some questions that led to her and Ducky wasn't shy about talking about anything ever—she wasn't the focus or excuse for their talk. It was probably only an hour or so later that Abby turned to look at McGee from where she was tucked under Gibbs' arm, and he said, "Can I take you home now?" for which Tony was grateful because Abby had definitely drank more than one mug of cocoa with Kahlua. McGee was obviously designated driver and was to chauffeur Ducky as well. The three took their leave and Gibbs and Tony walked them out.

And then there were three, Tony thought, adding a log to the fire and resuming his place. He leaned back on his hands and stretched his legs out, tipped his head back slightly and closed his eyes. The silence felt comfortable. Jackson was the first to break it.

"I didn't know you had a piano, Leroy."

Gibbs answered from where he sat on the couch, glass of bourbon in hand. "Yep."

"How long you had it? Looks like a nice instrument."

"Bought it a couple weeks ago."

"You taking lessons?" The old man's eyes were sharp.

"Nope." The set of his mouth, his eyes meeting his father's from under raised brows, tried to inhibit more questions, but didn't hide or deny.

Tony watched from his place on the floor, back pleasantly warm.

"Someone else around here play? You got someone new in your life?"

"Not exactly."

And now the older man's eyebrows shot up. "Not exactly? What's that supposed to mean? Not someone new? Someone old? You remarry one of your exes? I woulda thought you'd have invited me to another wedding."

"Nah, Dad. I'm not married. I…" Gibbs searched for words and it could not be a coincidence that he hadn't looked at Tony. Tony decided he'd had enough.

"I play."

Jackson's head swiveled. His eyes were surprised for only a moment and then warmed, and Tony knew it would be alright.

"He bought it for you?"

And now Tony looked at Jethro, smiled at his lover, got a small smile in return.

And it was Jethro's deep voice that answered. "Yep."

"Well, that was right nice of you, Leroy. And it'll be nice to have music around here again. Tony, maybe you'll play something for me tomorrow." Jackson rose and came over to pat his son's shoulder, "I'll see you boys in the morning."

When the other man was gone, Tony groaned theatrically as he got on his hands and knees to crawl across the rag rug and clamor up onto the couch with Jethro, having been denied closeness long enough. To his surprise, Jethro stood up and with a nod of his head, indicated that Tony should take his place in the corner. And then with a small sigh, the man that he loved let himself be held and comforted, let something new into his house and his life. Something like music.

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