Hopefully, this is the conversation you have all been waiting for.
Title: You Can't Go Home Again - Part 3
Word Count: 4547
Spoilers: Singled Out
Warnings: It's slash, but you won't see that here
Disclaimer: They're not mine, pretty as I find them. Go to the producers if you want to talk money.
Summary: AU but following canon events: Tony has to confront Gibbs about what he's forgotten eventually, but maybe Gibbs is tired of waiting him out. The next day ...
The clatter of footsteps on the basement stairs woke Gibbs up. He craned his head up to peer out from under the frame of the boat, his back protesting at having slept on the boards again. It was Tony thundering around, a bag of something that smelled good in his hand.
“Morning, boss,” Tony called cheerfully. “You get any sleep?”
“Some,” Gibbs said, then let out a grunt as his head fell back to the board.
“You know, your bed is a lot more comfortable than your basement,” Tony teased, setting out the food he'd brought on the work bench.
“I think better working on the boat,” Gibbs said with a groan as he tried to roll over. His body felt as stiff as the board under him, and he was so focused on trying to make his body move, he missed Tony moving until the younger man was looming over him.
“Need a hand, boss?” he asked, teasing, and yet polite.
Gibbs considered telling Tony where to shove the hand he proffered, but his back won out over his pride and he accepted the assistance. Once he was upright and stable on his own, he let out a small grunt that was a close as he could manage to 'I'll be back in a minute.'
“There's coffee for you when you get back,” Tony called after his retreating back.
Damn, that man knew him too well. Then again, most everyone knew better than to face Gibbs without coffee. He could still remember the look on Kate's face when she spilled his coffee, his fresh cup of coffee, knocking it from his desk. She and Tony had been walking on eggshells for the rest of the morning, waiting for him to completely blow up. At least she had managed to procure a decent replacement cup, eventually.
It was nice that remembering those days was starting to make him smile again. For too long, memories of Kate were buried in sadness and guilt because of how she'd died. He could thank the last explosion for a change in perspective on that. Hell, that explosion had given him a change in perspective on a lot of things, just not all of them were such good changes.
When he made it back to the basement, Tony shoved a large cup of coffee in one hand (God, that went down well) and a cup of sweet and sour soup in the other.
“Chinese for breakfast?” Gibbs asked dryly once his brain started firing on most of the cylinders. That is, after he'd knocked back about half of the coffee. He snagged the office chair from the corner and, ignoring the sawdust covering it, sat down.
“Well, if you'd actually gone to sleep, in a bed, when I sent you home, this would be lunch,” Tony pointed out, digging happily into his box of chow mein with a fork, leaning against the work bench in a pose that Gibbs found oddly erotic. He squashed that thought.
“One of these days you should learn to use chopsticks,” Gibbs grumbled. Once he finished the coffee and the soup, he might be ready to tackle whatever else Tony brought. Smelled good, at least.
Tony shrugged. “Just one of those things that never clicked, no matter how much I wanted to show off to Kate.” He grinned, but his tone was a bit defeatist. Gibbs considered several responses, but before he could speak, Tony continued. “I miss that, you know,” he said longingly. “Teasing Kate, being elbowed in the ribs, the way we used to discuss cases over Chinese late into the night. Ziva's good, but it's not the same.”
“No, it isn't,” Gibbs said sadly. He remembered that feeling of familiarity, of companionship, from his days in the corps. He hadn't found it at NCIS, not the same way, until he picked up Tony, and even more so after he'd collected Kate. They'd just all fit. Maybe that should have told him something sooner. After all, he used to collect shifters back in the corps, whether he wanted to or not. “Ziva can actually keep up with you.”
Tony snorted and shook his head. “Perhaps, but in some ways she doesn't have a clue. Kate, however, I sometimes wondered if she knew,” he said, seemingly reading Gibbs' mind. “Sometimes she just fit right into the pack dynamic so well.”
“And other times she kicked up a fuss over the littlest thing,” Gibbs pointed out. “She wasn't a shifter.”
“No, she fought you too much,” Tony said with a wry grin. As much as he fought and pushed the boundary, when the chips were down, Tony followed his alpha. Kate never quite caught onto when to refuse and when to just listen. “But she made a hell of a bitchy sister.”
Gibbs laughed. The image fit, oh so well. “She would have skinned you for saying that.”
“Yeah,” Tony said, grinning wildly. “But it would have been so worth it. Just like the picture.”
“What picture?” Gibbs asked, not sure if he didn't remember or if he'd never been told this story.
Tony laughed, doubling over in amusement. “Oh Lord,” he gasped between peals of laughter. “You remember when I took a weekend trip to Panama City?”
Gibbs leaned back into the chair, digging through the musty, holey files in his head. “After that case with the dead petty officer in a bikini contest?” he asked, trying to sort out his mental timeline.
“That's it,” Tony said, still grinning madly though the worst of the laughter was under control. He hopped up on the work bench, swinging his legs childishly as he spoke with matching glee. “I found a wet t-shirt contest hall of fame in one of the bars down there with Kate on it.”
“From her college days?” Gibbs asked, eyebrow raised in disbelief. He remembered a solid, staid worker who abhorred her coworker's excesses, at least publicly.
“Exactly,” Tony said jubilantly. “I got a copy and brought it home. Kate about emasculated me in the office that day. Of course, she started it by telling everyone my pledge name.”
“I bet,” Gibbs muttered, shaking his head. “You should have known better, sex machine.” Tony groaned, which made Gibbs smirk. “Then again so should have she.”
“She got me back,” Tony said, shaking a finger at his boss. “Had Abby paste my head to some hunk in a gay porn type shot. When she emailed it to me I about lost it.”
Gibbs let out a snort of disgust, then thought hard. “Wait ... I think I remember. You two emailed copies to me?”
Tony looked sheepish. “Yeah ... kind of a last revenge thing, only we both did it. I talked to Abby later, and she promised to make everything disappear.”
“I think I might still have copies somewhere,” Gibbs said thoughtfully, fighting a broad grin as he looked at the uneasy shift of Tony's shoulders. “I never said a word before ...”
“No, boss, you didn't,” Tony conceded.
“Made for an interesting evening surprise,” Gibbs added, this time letting some of his amusement through. Actually, his eyebrows had about crawled off his head in surprise. “Very pretty. Though your shot was obviously fake.” Tony shot him a curious look. Gibbs leered back. “You're furrier than that.” He grinned as the tips of Tony's ears went red. “But you didn't need to talk to Abby. I had a few contacts sanitize the matter right after. Didn't want either of you getting into trouble.”
Tony looked surprised. “You know people who can sanitize files other than Abby?”
“Military attracts a lot of shifters, DiNozzo,” Gibbs said dryly. “Don't Ask, Don't Tell works fine as long as you don't slip up, but there are a lot of shifters around. If you do blow it, there are a few officers in every branch of the military who spend time making such things disappear. They're a little cranky about working things out for NCIS, but I can out-alpha most of them, so they toe the line when I ask.”
“I didn't know that,” Tony said, his surprise evident. “How do you?”
Letting out a soft sigh, Gibbs pummeled his brain into gear. This was a good segue into what he'd meant to tell Tony last night. “Paul told me,” he said.
“And Paul is?” Tony asked, waving his hand in an encouraging motion.
“Paul Sheffield, first shifter I ever met. Well, first one I learned was a shifter.” Gibbs smiled a bit at the memories. “He was my bunk mate in basic, fresh off the midwest farm that his father's pack ran. He wanted out and must have seen a kindred spirit in me. Misinterpreted a bit and had a hell of a time trying to back peddle when I looked confused. He was so used to the alphas being shifters, he thought I was one.”
“He grew up surrounded just by pack?” Tony asked curiously.
“Not completely, but he'd never realized that some pack traits were human traits too,” Gibbs offered.
“Like having an alpha personality,” Tony said, nodding.
“Exactly. He tried to cover it up, but after a few weeks watching, he realized he could spot the other three shifters in basic just by how they reacted to me. Decided he'd better explain, so I'd understand what was going on in the future. I ended up token alpha in a lot of places.”
“I always figured the officers filled that role in the military.”
“Most of the time,” Gibbs said with a shrug. “But, as Paul said, some people are born alpha, some learn it, and some are destined to follow. Same is true of officers as enlisted, humans or shifters.”
Tony nodded. “Sounds like something my mother used to say. So you'd end up in nominal charge a lot?”
Gibbs chuckled. “In charge was part of it. Drove the drill sergeants crazy sometimes, the way some of the recruits would only follow orders after checking with me. Learned to sort that out with orders in advance. Learned to sort a lot of things out, especially after Paul and I were nearly caught by the MPs.”
“You two were ...” Tony tried to ask, his tone hesitant.
“Just friends screwing around,” Gibbs said nonchalantly. Yeah, he usually discouraged that kind of question, but Tony deserved to know. “He explained about the system in place, gave me the contact info for future reference. If I was going to attract shifters, I'd better know how to take care of them.”
“A good alpha always takes care of his pack first,” Tony said firmly.
Gibbs smiled. “Exactly. Met a few alphas, shifter and human, over the years who could use to learn that. But I did my best.”
“Though I'm surprised you were ... willing to go there. I mean, that day and age, a small town upbringing ...” Tony said, his meaning plain from his tone. “I figured you explored later, since obviously you weren't shy with me, but so quick ...”
“Oh, I knew I could go either way from a young age,” Gibbs admitted, frustration and anger coloring his words. It hadn't been easy realizing how poorly others took his interests. His father had always been supportive, but there had been some very negative interactions with some of his age mates. “Paul had more trouble convincing me we weren't going to get beaten to shit than convincing me to sleep with him.”
“Trouble back home?” Tony asked wryly.
“Something like that,” Gibbs said, glossing the matter over. He'd talk about packs, shifters, and Shannon, but he did not want to even think about Chuck and Ed, let alone discuss them. He didn't owe Tony that much. “Paul also explained pack politics and mating.” Gibbs' voice dropped at the last words, his eyes downcast.
“So ... you knew exactly what you were offering that night?” Tony asked, his voice pained.
Gibbs nodded, his eyes shut tight.
“Then why ...?” Tony's voice cut off, overwhelmed by emotion.
Gibbs glanced up and saw the same anger and pain that filled his second last night. “There was a pack in my hometown,” he said, hoping Tony would allow the seeming topic change. There was a point, he just didn't quite know how to get there.
“Stillwater, Pennsylvania,” Tony added flatly. He was frustrated but going along.
“You've been digging,” Gibbs said, not quite sure what to make of that.
“After you left ... I was trying to make sense of what happened,” Tony said hesitantly. The anger did not fade from his eyes. “You kept a lot of secrets close to your vest.”
“I did ... I do,” Gibbs admitted. And boy, did he regret that now. “I didn't know about them, not as a kid. They kept to themselves a lot. But there was this redhead ... oh, I fell for her early, though I never actually spoke to her until the end of my first leave. I was just out of basic, came home to check on Dad, and there she was at the train station, heading out the same time as me.”
“Shannon?” Tony asked, hesitantly.
“Shannon,” Gibbs said with a soft laugh, lost in memories of better times. “She told me she didn't date lumberjacks, but I was military, so we could talk. She was off to see the world, or something of it beyond the confines of Stillwater and her pack, not that she told me exactly that, not then. Took another two years of dancing around to find out she was a shifter, and four more after that before we settled down.” He refocused his eyes and caught the pained and pensive look on Tony's face, which weakened the smile on his lips. He hated hurting Tony. It wasn't what he intended to do today.
“Do you know how I finally found out?” he asked playfully, trying to knock Tony out of his negative mindset. “Paul and I had leave together, and we went out to dinner with Shannon. He about flipped, whispered to me that there was something about her that screamed alpha and shifter louder than me. And she heard him. She always did have sharp hearing, even for a shifter.”
“Sounds like a perfect match for you, boss,” Tony said, a sad smile crossing his face.
“She was,” Gibbs agreed. “She had the same effect on every other shifter I brought home in the years we were together. It only got worse when we gave into the inevitable and became mates.”
“I've heard that mating can amplify certain tenancies,” Tony said thoughtfully, then shrugged. “But I've never seen it myself.”
Gibbs raised an eyebrow, not quite ready to disagree verbally. Tony had just been too far on the inside to see the changes their being together had wrought. “I think it was more the sense of 'hurt one, hurt all of us' that we exuded. Add in that we were both strong alphas ...”
“I can't imagine you being a stronger alpha than you are,” Tony admitted wryly.
Gibbs shrugged. “It's not something I've ever been able to track, really. We just made for a power block that made a lot of people uneasy. I think her pack saw that possibility in her and tried to head it off. She ran rather than mate with the milk-sop they had lined up, swore there was no way she was marrying a boy from back home.” Gibbs paused to laugh a moment. “That was part of why we danced around each other so long, I was from back home.”
“But you weren't pack,” Tony pointed out. He was almost smiling.
“The saving grace that finally allowed her to give in,” Gibbs said with a shrug. “But that wasn't the point of this story.”
“Then what was?” Tony asked, his shoulders shifting uneasily and the hint of smile fading from his lips.
“When I woke up from that coma, all I felt was loss,” Gibb said, trying to hold onto the happy feeling from a moment before. Thinking about that time, about Shannon's death, still tended to drag him down into depression faster than you could blink. “As far as I could remember, I had just lost my mate, my cub. I was drowning in guilt. If I'd been home instead of off in the Gulf, that bastard would never have gotten close to them.”
“Boss, I read the accident report,” Tony cut in. “There's nothing you could have done. If you'd been there you would have died too.”
“If I'd been there, they never would have been in that car,” Gibbs snapped. “That damned drug dealer was looking for a woman and her daughter, not a man and his dogs.”
Tony's eyes lit up in comprehension. “Oh ... that might have worked ... Damn, boss, I'm so sorry.”
“I was so confused, both fifteen years ago and last summer,” Gibbs said with a pained sigh. “I admit, I ran. I couldn't take it anymore. Everyone was looking at me with all these expectations, and I didn't know what to do, how to act. After those idiots on the hill let those men die ...”
“That part I think I understand,” Tony said, his eyes dark and yet understanding. His second didn't like losing either.
“For four months, all I did was hide from those feelings of loss and guilt. Being with Franks was ... distantly familiar. I at least remembered most of my time with him.” Gibbs shrugged, fiddling with his coffee cup, empty though it was. “I knew something was missing, but since Shannon and Kelly were dead, the reason seemed obvious.” He snorted angrily. “I was an idiot.”
“You didn't remember,” Tony offered, somewhat apologetically.
“I did,” Gibbs snapped, but at himself. “And I didn't. I remembered wolves under the boat, and companionship, all the similarities between you and Shannon. I was so busy hiding, I didn't realize there were two people connected to those memories and feelings. I was so busy missing her, I didn't realize I was also missing you.”
Tony was frozen, looking stunned. Gibbs didn't blame him. He'd about pitched himself down the stairs when he'd realized just what he'd done. He'd abandoned his mate as well as his team. It was against his every instinct, and he hadn't even realized what he was doing at the time.
“Damn, Tony, I am so sorry,” Gibbs blurted, breaking his own vaunted rule, one he was still trying to make sense of again.
“God, boss,” Tony croaked, covering his face with his hands and rubbing vigorously. “Why now?”
“Because you finally pushed me to make the connection,” Gibbs said, resting his hand on Tony's knee. He waited to see if the younger man would shrug him off or push him away, but Tony didn't seem to notice.
“I missed you so much,” Tony said, his eyes bright with tears where they were visible between his fingers.
“Missed you too,” Gibbs offered softly. “Just didn't realize it 'til now.”
“I don't know if I can do this again,” Tony said, shaking his head, his voice breaking. “I thought I was going to break when I realized you were gone.”
“I told you already that I don't think I have another explosion in me,” Gibbs said, trying for a lighter tone. Tony let out a shaky sob that seemed to indicate he'd failed. “And if I lose my memory, you have my permission, no, I order you to come talk some sense into me before I do something so stupid again. Mate or second, that is your responsibility.”
“Duly noted, boss,” Tony said but without any of the peace or joy Gibbs had hoped to engender.
“Or you ...” Gibbs trailed off, struggling to breath, to speak. He didn't want to suggest it, but Tony had the right. He'd fucked up, and if Tony chose ... well, he had no right to complain. “You can repudiate me,” he whispered hoarsely. “It's your right. I won't let it affect your standing, not at work, not in the pack.”
Tony's head snapped up, his hands fell to his lap, his eyes were wide with shock. “No,” he cried, the word wrenched from him. “It's not ... I can't ... I thought you had ...”
“Never,” Gibbs hissed. He squeezed the shifter's knee firmly, trying to project calm and comfort through that touch even when he was spinning inside with his own fear and panic. “It was, and is, always your choice. I just ... had to say. Think about it. Don't decide now.”
Tony swallowed hard and leaned his head back against the shelf behind him. “I'm not ready to make such a final choice,” he whispered, tears glinting around the lashes of his closed eyes. “You've just told me so much ... I don't know how to even think now.”
“It's all right, Tony,” Gibbs said reassuringly. “Take the time to think things through this time.”
“It's not that ... not just that,” Tony said, his voice stumbling. “You left me ... I thought you didn't mean it before, that it was over. I tried to move on ... Had to to keep from breaking. Um, I found someone. I don't know where it's going, but it's not fair to her to just walk away ...”
“Ah, Tony,” Gibbs breathed, stroking his hand along the younger man's thigh. He could feel his heart stutter in shock. It hurt, to hear he might have been replaced. He wanted to growl, to yell that Tony was his, but he couldn't. He had been the one to walk away, whether he remembered what he was walking away from or not. It was Tony's decision to repudiate him or take him back. All he could do was be supportive and pray. “Then don't,” he offered. “I'll step back. If it falls through, I'm here. If you decide ... if she suits you better, then I'll stand up for you at the wedding. I'm the selfish old man who never gave you a chance to say no.”
Tony snorted harshly but wrapped his hand around Gibbs' and interlocked their fingers. “I could have said no. Didn't want to.”
“But was it the best choice?” Gibbs asked, hating himself for even saying the words. Tony didn't answer, just swallowed hard. Maybe there was no answer. “Just ... I want you to be happy.”
“I thought you liked berating me and slapping me on the back of the head,” Tony said sarcastically.
“Makes you feel wanted, doesn't it?” Gibbs countered warmly, running his thumb along the side of Tony's hand.
Tony didn't reply, only shook his head. But when he opened his eyes again, there was warmth in them instead of the fear and anger that had haunted them before. “You'll give me some time?” Tony asked, catching Gibbs' eye.
“It's the least I owe you,” Gibbs said depreciatingly. “I rushed you into this in the first place ... I should have told you about Shannon ... about Kelly.”
“Yes, you should have,” Tony replied firmly, anger lines furrowing his face for a moment, but they quickly smoothed away again. “But I also understand. You'd been hiding them for so long.”
“I never told anyone ... if they didn't know from before, I never said a word,” Gibbs admitted.
“None of your wives?” Tony asked, a hint of disbelief in his voice.
“Wives, girlfriends, Ducky, nada, zip, zilch.” At first, he couldn't stand thinking of sharing them, horded even their memories close to his heart. In time, it became habit, then tradition, and he just couldn't seem to break free. In that, the explosion, his amnesia, had done him a favor. He might still have some fences to mend, but it was good to be able to share those he loved with others, at least a little.
“It's funny, I spent fifteen years looking for someone to fill Shannon's place by my side, married three women who looked like her, dated more, and never came close to getting it right.” He hoped that just maybe, Tony would catch what he wasn't saying, couldn't say since he'd promised to step back. Tony was the closest match. He figured it out working on the boat last night, all these years he'd been picking up wives, but what he'd wanted was a mate. Someone who didn't know shifters, hadn't lived with them might not get the difference, but to Gibbs there was a huge difference and it had been tearing him apart for over a decade.
Tony didn't say a word, just sat there, staring into Gibbs' eyes like he was looking for something in their depths. He looked like he could sit there forever, just looking, and on some level it terrified Gibbs. He didn't know what Tony was looking for, or if it was there. And if it wasn't there, then what chance did he have of hanging on to the man he wanted, the man he'd called mate?
For once it was Gibbs who took the coward's way out, breaking the silence and looking away. “You have any plans for the rest of today?” he asked, glancing at Tony's legs, where their joined hands still rested. He tried to convince himself it was just because shifters needed a lot of physical contact, not read it as a sign of something more lest he drive himself insane with longing.
“No ... well, Abby and I were talking about hitting a marathon of the Alien movies this afternoon.” Tony shrugged and wiggled his fingers, shaking their hands gently apart.
“Any good?” Gibbs asked, trying to convince himself it was a good idea to let go.
“Really, Gibbs, they're classics. One of these days we really have to do something about your movie education.” Tony's clever fingers stroked lightly along Gibbs' palm, soothingly, and with a sigh Gibbs finally let go.
“All right, how about we start today?” Gibbs offered, finally looking his second in the eye again.
“Umm ...” Tony looked flustered, and probably reasonably so. In their nine months as mates, he'd never convinced Gibbs to watch a single movie with him, let alone go out to one with Abby. Gibbs regretted that refusal more than he could express. “Well.” Tony glanced at his watch. “It starts in half an hour, and the theater is at least that far from here.”
Gibbs smirked and stood, stretching slightly after sitting for so long. Maybe he should replace that old chair. “If I drive that leaves me ten minutes to shower first,” he said, striding towards the stairs. He wasn't going out without getting rid of the sawdust embedded in his pores after sleeping in the basement.
“Not entirely a good thing, boss,” Tony muttered under his breath, his face paling slightly, but Gibbs ignored it. “You sure, boss?” Tony asked louder, following Gibbs' lead up the stairs.
“Why not, DiNozzo?” Gibbs said nonchalantly. “I've got four months of time I missed with my pack to catch up on.” He glanced over his shoulder and grinned. “Deal with the food before I get back, will you?” he called as he strode into the kitchen with a bounce in his step that had been missing for over four months. He might not have his mate back, but he had his second, and just knowing that made the world seem to click back into place.