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Anything but Discrete

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While it was not, if at all, that Gibbs felt thoroughly exhausted and done with life after a long day of working a case, his long years in the Marines having given him incredible endurance and mental fortitude, he found, much to his chagrin and inner-resentment, that he just didn’t have the energy, or inclination, to join the rest of his team for a celebratory supper at whatever upscale hipster bistro Abby had strong-armed then into dining at by means of celebrating the end of a very grueling week-long case involving a series of grizzly murders that had been seemingly unsolvable up until the point that Tony just happened, by sheer luck alone, to stumble across their unknown perpetrator fucking skinning her latest victim (somewhat) alive with a goddamn oversized razor blade. And while Gibbs had, mercifully, managed to keep both Tim and Kate from stumbling onto the scene, via a few skillful redirections and gruff orders, he still couldn’t get the horrific image of their deranged perpetrator clutching a nearly-skinless, and still half alive, victim to her chest. Nor could he forget the look of sheer disgust and horror displayed on his SFA’s expressive face as he took in the sight of the painfully young private taking his shuddering last breaths as he bled out on the storage-shed floor. Because as much as he had become accustomed to such sights, and had learned how to block them out, Tony was far too empathetic an individual to possess such a talent and, as such, had spent almost the entire fifteen minute ride back to The Yard fighting off both tears and the urge to vomit – the likes of which Gibbs had charitably worked to conceal from his remaining agents curious personalities. To say that it had been a relief, no matter how small, that Ducky had somehow surreptitiously managed to ferret the young man away into the morgue, without anyone being any the wiser, and successfully push upon the medicine-adverse young man a mild sedative, would have been a very egregious understatement, indeed, as without such actions, Gibbs would have been faced with the very unpleasant, and likewise uncomfortable, task of tending to an overly-emotional Tony all whilst simultaneously trying to lessen Vance’s ire at the both of them for not exactly handling the murderess as gently as the law might like. Because as much as he would always strive to be there for his ‘adopted’ son, doing whatever he could to secure his comfort and happiness, the blunt fact still remained that said man’s theatrics were much better dealt with when given one’s full-attentions. Full attentions and administrations he could not very well give whilst in the midst of getting chewed out, vehemently, by his angry and exasperated employer.

            But, be that as it may, both chastisement and comforting had been completed to the best of their respective giver’s abilities and, as such, they neither of them could feel any amount of significant guilt where regarded the accomplishments of their differing duties. And, if they each of them parted ways with a little more resentment built up in their arsenal for one another, well, that was just par for the course and Gibbs would suffer no lost sleep, or peace of mind, over the thought that his employer might be even angrier with him than was his usual wont. He had far more pressing thoughts with which to occupy his mind, after all, the most important of which being, of course, the question of where he might find a decent enough drink at so late an hour when last calls were surely being made throughout the city.

            It was only when his several passionate, and fevered, attempts to locate a bar still serving alcohol had failed prodigiously, and lent themselves to nothing more than abject frustration and a ridiculous amount of fuel being wasted, that Gibbs finally called a surrender to his admittedly hopeless endeavor and reluctantly shifted his beverage preference from emotion-dulling bourbon to that of weariness-dissolving coffee, figuring, as he did, that if his emotions could not be tempered via alcohol then, at the very least, the heaviness of his eyes could be done away with via the aid of inordinate amounts of caffeine.

            But, while the securing of a decent cup of coffee could just as easily be obtained within the walls of his own home, now that Tony had finally managed to successfully talk him into purchasing a Keurig, it was not towards his own home that Gibbs piloted his truck, but rather away, his uncharacteristic, yet overwhelming, desire not to be alone at the moment, for once, outweighing his unyielding and stubborn need for vast amounts of privacy and personal space. And even though he knew, without a doubt, that one quick call to his child would be more than enough to make certain that he wouldn’t be spending any time in his home alone, as Tony would drop almost anything and everyone to be at his side should the unavoidable need for him to do so arrive, Gibbs had no real desire to place such an emotional burden on his child when said individual had already experienced just as much as he had that hellish day and, as a result, was very likely in need of some alone of time of his own to decompress.

            And, so it was, that Gibbs found himself piloting his aging truck down an unfamiliar, yet posh, section of the city in the feeble light of a pre-dawn sun, in search of the first coffee-house, or café, that seemed promising enough and not in any real danger of offering up substandard coffee in full favor of concentrating more on their ‘ambience’ in a feeble attempt to cater to their more refined guests – the likes of whom couldn’t very well care less what color their walls were so long as their asses were sufficiently kissed and their massive egos stroked to satisfaction by the end of their stay.

            As it soon turned out, it was a little establishment called Discrete that caught his eye, the small Victorian-home turned coffee shop both pleasing to the eye as well as easy to access via a very well-maintained parking lot with dual entrances. Not only that, but the little homestead even went so far as to boast, with a bright neon sign proudly displayed in the window, that it had full ownership of the best cup of coffee in all the city. And while it was, indeed, doubtful that the signage was one hundred percent accurate, given the unyielding dictates of probability alone, the place, in and of itself, looked both clean and inviting enough for him to award it a cursory try, as it was not as if he couldn’t leave should the coffee prove abhorrent to his tongue or the décor insulting to his vision. After all, there was surely a Dunkin Doughnuts somewhere nearby that he could take refuge in should the need arise.

            It was only when he parked his truck, beneath the shade of a massive weeping willow, and entered the shop, via a remarkably old-fashioned wooden door, that Gibbs started to somewhat regret his decision to give the cozy little abode a try. Because while it did, admittedly, smell amazing within the confines of the store, to the point where his tongue had almost immediately started salivating upon entrance, it felt more than just a little odd for someone so gruff as he to be inside a space decorated so…homey and inviting, as his usual haunts of choice were either depressingly dark and bleak or elsewise corporately-sterile. And while he wasn’t exactly adverse, per se, to being inside such places, he couldn’t quite help but feel as if he was a fish out of water standing inside so neat and tidy a place filled with both well-dressed customers and impeccably-neat employers. But, rather than beat a hasty retreat and thus run the risk of looking even more awkward and out of place, or likewise run the risk of going without any coffee for the next several minutes, Gibbs reluctantly held his ground and shuffled as casually as he could up to the wooden counter.

            “Hello,” The skinny young woman behind the counter chirped, exposed ears filled past their natural capacity with earrings of every kind and color, “What can I get started for you today?”

            Despite having already decided upon what he was going to order, that being his customary black coffee, Gibbs still found that he couldn’t help but become a little overwhelmed as he took in all the endless options a customer could choose from as denoted on the massive chalkboard resting on the wall directly behind the counter – as the choices encompassed everything from cappuccinos and mocha lattes to beverages and flavors Gibbs had never even heard of before.   

            “Just a black coffee.” Gibbs grumbled, practically asleep on his feet. “The largest size you have.”

            Thankfully opting not to give him any shit for such a remarkably uninspired order, as the vast majority of baristas working in the non-corporate locales he had experienced the misfortune of trying had tended to do, the fatless and chipper young worker flashed him a fleeting, yet genuine, smile and asked him what his name was before scribbling said identifier down on a sticker-label in a script so sloppy and illegible, it made Tony’s handwriting practically look like world-class calligraphy.  

            “Would you like any shots of flavor added to your coffee?” The heavily-pierced barista politely interrogated. “Or maybe some cream and sugar?”

            “Just a black coffee.” Gibbs patiently reiterated, pulling his wallet free from his pocket.

            More than just a little startled when the bubbly barista actually reached across the counter to slap, lightly, at his wallet-filled hand, as it had been decades since anyone other than a perp, or ex-wife, had laid their hands on him, Gibbs blinked stupidly and was at a loss for words until the juvenile barista seemed to finally realize her error and went about making amends as quickly, and sufficiently, as possible.

            “The first cup of coffee a customer gets here is always free.” She explained, frowning apologetically.

            Still feeling somewhat annoyed with the way in which his person had just been assaulted, no matter how negligible the damage, or how friendly the assaulter, Gibbs gave the guilty party a soft glare being making a great show of stuffing his wallet back into his pocket without placing so much as a dollar in the tip jar.

            “What makes you so sure they’ll be a second?” Gibbs interrogated, not as unkindly as he might have given her youth.

            Not so much as allowing her smile to falter, one bit, the plucky young girl behind the counter flashed him yet another dazzling smile before making her reply.

            “I have faith in what I sell.” The young girl proclaimed, as proud as any third-generation aristocrat. “That’s why.”

              Finding it harder and harder to remain cross with the fresh-faced barista the longer she held her ground against him without losing any nerve or confidence, as bravery had always been an attribute he admired, Gibbs rolled his eyes good-naturedly and likewise resolved, privately, to leave the young girl a generous tip the very moment she stepped out of vicinity of the tip jar.

            “If you say so.” Gibbs shrugged, never one to refuse a free coffee.

            “I do say so.” The comely barista promptly assured, flashing her teeth in a dazzling smile once more. “So why don’t you go and find yourself a seat? I’ll have your coffee out to you in a minute.”

            Seeing no real sense in putting on an obstinate display by remaining standing at the counter to await the arrival of his beverage, at least not when he was at the point of such exhaustion that simply keeping his eyes opened seemed like a chore, Gibbs nodded curtly at the cheerful woman to give her his thanks before subsequently turning on his heel with the full intentions of taking her earlier advice to heart – the niggling worry that his absurdly simple coffee order might be flubbed, due to her atrocious script, seeming but small in comparison as he took on the Herculean task of locating a seat in the cozy abode that would not only grant him his much-desired privacy, but would likewise also offer up an opportunity to kick up his feet and take some of the pressure off his already badly-blistered heels and toes.            

            Much to his absolute delight, or rather his tempered excitement, it was not very long at all before his search yielded up the promising appearance of a slate-gray chaise lounge, nestled away neatly in one of the corners of the abode’s three parlors. For exceedingly plump and comfortable-looking, as well as situated directly in front of the currently in-use fireplace, the antique piece of furniture promised him all the comfort he was looking for. And though there was, to his great dissatisfaction, three other individuals with whom he would be forced to share such a comfortable space, he had soon comforted himself with the knowledge that the seat he had selected for himself was positioned in just such a way so as not to allow anyone anywhere remotely near him unless they opted to seat themselves upon the floor. An outcome that seemed rather unlikely, if not impossible, given that two out of his three fellow customers appeared to be a duo of passionately knitting octogenarians and the remaining guest in their shared company a redheaded man so violently engrossed in the ginormous book currently taking up the entirety of his lap that it seemed as if Armageddon itself could occur without either his knowledge or attentions. Which was just as well for Gibbs, as he lacked both the skill, and inclination, to make any of the usual small talk that was required of sharing a small space with people.

            And so it was, with great relief, that Gibbs slowly lowered himself down unto the chaise lounge, paying great heed to neither kick any dirt unto the pristine fabric nor jostle his profusely aching knee with any awkward, or unnecessary, manipulations of his legs. Because as much as he had profusely claimed to both Tony and Ducky alike, with the intents of reassuring the former whilst avoiding a lecture from the later, the aggravating fact still remained that his ‘bad’ knee did, in fact, still ache prodigiously after last week’s perpetrator had given it a good mule kick in a cowardly attempt to evade justice. Thankfully, for himself, as well as all those he was to share a confined amount of space with for the next half hour or so, luck seemed to be on his side, for once, as he successfully managed to manipulate himself into a comfortable position without any resultant trauma to his knee, and its accompanying cursing, taking place.

            “There you are.” His lively barista murmured, but moments later as she glided across the wooden floorboards with impressive ease despite the height of her heels and the very full cup of coffee residing within her comically small hand. “I thought for sure you would have taken the pink parlor. It has a prettier view.”

            Briefly wondering what it was about his appearance that made his cheerful server assume, correctly, that he was a man who enjoyed a ‘pretty’ view while enjoying his coffee, and silently considering whether or not such an easily-perceived preference said anything negative or uncomplimentary towards him, Gibbs frowned yet nonetheless accepted his coffee as eagerly as he always did.

            “I’m fine where I am.” Gibbs mumbled, forgetting his earlier resolve to be discrete as he tucked a five-dollar bill into hand. “Why don’t you bring me another one of these in fifteen minutes?”

            Despite the request being quite a presumptuous one, given that he had not yet even sampled the beverage currently warming up his calloused hand, Gibbs was all but confident that his request had been a wise one judging from the smell of the brew alone.

            “Of course.” The skinny girl smiled, awarding him a mock curtsey before taking her leave.

            Replying in kind with one of his smallest smiles, of the variety that Tony relentlessly claimed was more akin to a grimace than anything else, Gibbs sent the happy-go-lucky girl on her way with nothing more than an additional sloppy salute, and an extra five dollars, to show for it. Although, judging by the energized pep in her step, Gibbs would have to wager that both of those things were more than enough to appease his perky waitress.

            “I don’t know how that girl expects to become a lawyer smiling like that all the damn time.” One of the knitting women sniffed, just as soon as the door to the parlor had been closed behind their lively barista. “No judge will ever take a lawyer that happy seriously.”

            Kept from rising to the impassioned defense of their friendly barista by the mouthful of coffee he had just sucked into his mouth, Gibbs could only frown deeply at the wrinkled culprit as he labored to swallow down his beverage without scalding either his mouth or throat.

            “You leave Beth alone, Esther.” The remaining knitter reprimanded, her knobby fingers never once halting as they labored away at the pink scarf being created by their owner. “We can’t all be miserable.”

            “I don’t want her to be miserable, Opal, I want her to be taken seriously.” Esther growled, pursing her thin lips together in a tight line. “How is she ever going to win a case against a male attorney if she’s grinning like a lovesick teenager in the courtroom?”

            Sensing that Opal had already bared as much of her knitting partner’s nonsense and latent sexism as she cared to by that point in time, as the defeated expression showing upon her heavily lined faced was more than just a little indicative of such a fact, Gibbs charitably stepped in on her behalf and promptly assaulted the unsmiling curmudgeon with a bit of sarcastic logic.

            “You know,” He advised, voice dripping with righteous condescension, “I hear most people are able to control their facial muscles when the need arises.”

            Bestowing upon Gibbs a very dangerous, and admittedly frightening, scowl in return for his unsolicited wisdom, of the likes and variety he had not seen since the fateful morning he had decided to draw on his bedroom walls with his mother’s ‘good’ lipstick, Esther waggled a pink knitting needle at him in a threatening manner before turning back to face her lady-friend with a passionate fire blazing away in her hazel eyes.

            “Opal,” She seethed, wrinkled cheeks all aglow with an indignant rage, “Do you remember me asking that man a goddamn thing?”

             Entirely unprepared to be met with such unbridled hostility, let alone such blatant sexism, Gibbs could only sit stupidly as he tried, and failed, to come up with a retort as equally witty as it was scathing in nature. Because advanced age of his adversary aside, there was simply no way in hell that Gibbs would ever willingly take such verbal abuse without returning tit for tat.

            “Oh, don’t pay her any mind.” Opal pleaded, looking markedly embarrassed. “She’s just in a foul mood because it’s Yom Kippur and she can’t eat anything.”

            His staunch irritation with the culprit in question gradually lessoning as it came to light that she was likely just irritable because of self-imposed starvation, and not by fault of some inherent character flaw, Gibbs decreased the intensity of his glower before returning his focus unto the more important task of enjoying the remainder of his complimentary coffee.

            “Nobody hates the Jews more than we hate ourselves.” Esther muttered, clearly still bitter about the edicts of her religious holidays as she turned back, with vigor, to her knitting.

            “And nobody loves you more than I do.” Opal sweetly returned, conveniently forgetting that said knitting partner had been fully prepared to stab an unfamiliar man only moments before.

             Despite still being somewhat bitter about the brusque way in which he had just been spoken to, as he was entirely unaccustomed to taking such verbal abuse, Gibbs couldn’t help but calm down a little after witnessing such a display of friendly affection take place. It was only when he happened to catch a glimpse, from the corner of his eye, of Opal planting a fat old kiss on the lips of her much surlier counterpart that Gibbs realized the egregiously incorrect nature of his assumption and blushed profusely enough to light up a room with his embarrassment. And, so as not to draw any undue focus unto his nonverbal faux-paus, and thus run the risk of having his clear discomfort mistaken for prejudice, Gibbs quickly snatched up an abandoned edition of National Geographic that someone had been careless enough to leave at the foot of the chaise lounge and frantically turned it to the first full-length article he could find.

            Much to his great chagrin, as well as a testament to his perpetual bad luck, said article just so happened to be a rather depressing expose on the lives of child soldiers struggling to survive in a war-torn Somalia. Because while he wasn’t at all ignorant of the fact that such awful things were currently happening in places all over the world, both near and far, he wasn’t exactly so keen on reading about the unfathomably high death-rates of said underaged soldiers after having just watched a young Private bleed to death in his own child’s arms.

            It was only when Gibbs tried, and failed miserably, to locate another article that would better serve to draw his focus away from such genuinely distressing thoughts, that a distraction presented itself via the abrupt, and unsolicited, appearance of the parlor’s avid bookworm within the expansive bubble of his personal space.  For while he was not at all ridiculous enough to expect the promise of total privacy while inside a very public establishment, let alone a coffee shop, of all things, he did expect a certain measure of spatial consideration to be upheld by his fellow guests. Or, at the very least, he expected not to be outright violated by a veritable goddamn stranger planting his ass on the same chaise lounge he had claimed as his own.

            “You look like you could use this.” The invasive stranger explained, attempting to pass a steaming cup of coffee into his hand.

            Still one-hundred percent flabbergasted that anyone who seemingly had full possession of their mental faculties would be so unfathomably clueless as to assume that it was perfectly natural to seat themselves at the side of a complete stranger, with such blatant disregard to the dictates of personal space that their knees were actually touching, Gibbs remained stubbornly reclined, in a sort of stupefied daze, and blurted out the very first thing that came into mind – thoroughly surprising himself by doing so as neither the sentences ‘fuck off’ or ‘get away from me’ were one of the phrases that left his mouth.

            “I don’t drink my coffee black.” Gibbs grumbled, immediately drawing his knees closer to himself and away from the muscular thighs of the interloper.

            Flashing him a smile wide enough to reveal a mouthful of remarkably white teeth, the likes of which were all as straight as soldiers at full attention, the unnamed reading-enthusiast chuckled softly and brought the steaming beverage even nearer to Gibbs in a very clear attempt to coerce him into accepting it.

            “You’ll like this,” The persistent stranger insisted, “Trust me.”

            While Gibbs would have ordinarily never even considered accepting a beverage from a stranger, given that individuals in his line of work tended to accumulate a staggering number of enemies over the years, the likes of whom he wouldn’t put it past to hire someone to poison him, he found himself inexplicably, and without any real sense of rationality, accepting the steaming mug of coffee from the gentleman seated uncomfortably close to him. Because even though his mother’s repeated, and effusive, warnings not to accept anything from a stranger, not even directions, was a mantra he had pretty much lived by his whole entire life, there was just something about his fellow coffee-drinker that put his infallible danger meter in the negative.

            “Go on.” The stranger encouraged, soft green eyes filled with nothing but benevolence.

            Coming to the effortless conclusion that said coffee-peddler wasn’t at all out to kill him, as no murderer-for-hire would be so clumsy about pushing their murder weapon unto their prey, let alone go about such a high-risk task with their face on full display amongst potential witnesses, Gibbs good-naturedly obliged the redheaded man by taking a tiny, and tentative, sip of the coffee that had so eagerly been pushed upon him. And, immediately following that, he took yet another sip, only this time a much more eager taster than a nervous one as the taste of bourbon, smooth and delicious, rolled over his tongue and down his throat.

            “This is delicious.” Gibbs confessed, not bothering to hide the surprise in his voice.

            “I told you so.” His friendly benefactor beamed, green eyes all aglow with a genuine and selfless kindness he often only ever saw in Tim.

            It was only when his social anxiety provoked him into taking an unnecessarily long sip of coffee, in lieu of having to take his unpracticed turn in such small talk, that Gibbs realized he had done but nothing to repay the man for such unsolicited kindness, let alone thanked him. And, wishing to amend such an egregious lack of manners just as quickly as he could, before his mother rose from the grave and slapped him upside the head for such behavior, he quickly reached a hand into his pocket to retrieve his wallet.

            “How much do I owe you for the coffee?”

            Despite looking initially insulted at the mere suggestion that Gibbs might like to contribute his own money towards feeding a caffeine-addiction that was entirely his own, his generous furniture-mate thankfully brushed off such minor irritation with an impressive ease that would have made Tony, himself, jealous.

            “Don’t be ridiculous. It was my treat.” His nameless new conversational partner calmly insisted. “You looked like you really needed it.”

             As hopelessly awkward and useless as he always was when meeting a new person, particularly in a public setting he was unfamiliar with, Gibbs faltered for a suitable response to such a simple observation about the current state of his being and, as such, settled for making use of some self-depreciating humor in the hopes that such a choice would all the sooner place the obligation of speaking on the stranger once more.

            “Are you saying that I look like shit right now?” He blurted, as eloquent as always.

            Appearing quite scandalized at the very idea that a person could speak so negatively about themselves, in a joking fashion or not, his fellow coffee-drinker looked upon him with evident, as well as genuine, concern before lying a friendly, and large, hand down atop of his foot.

            “You look exhausted, that’s all.” His unnamed benefactor proclaimed. “You must have had a long day at work.”

            Going painfully rigid, for but a moment, as the gruesome images of the skinned Private paraded into the very forefront of his exceedingly imaginative mind, Gibbs felt himself faltering for anything even remotely intelligible to say only to be startled back into reality, moments later, as the emotionally-intuitive stranger placed a very unexpected hand on his good knee and gave it a gentle squeeze – the shock of which effectively put all visages of gore outside of his mind as his thoughts became newly preoccupied with the task of whether or not the affectionate fellow sitting next to him was European, given that he harbored such a distinct inclination to be so handsy with another man.

            “It was more like a long week.” Gibbs corrected, idly wondering whether or not his impromptu conversational partner would move his hand.

            Given a quick, yet succinct, answer to his question as his anonymous benefactor gave his knee yet another squeeze, the likes of which sent odd shivers radiating up his leg, Gibbs blinked in surprise yet made no real move to remove the long fingers from his person, figuring that as long as nobody was getting hurt, or scandalized, by the action than there could be no real harm in allowing the hand to remain as it was.

            “What is that you do for a living?” His new acquaintance inquired, his fingers increasingly warm, and soft, on his knee.

             Beginning to feel ridiculously warm all of a sudden, as well as unfathomably nervous, Gibbs inexplicably chose to shrug off the leather jacket he had donned earlier that morning to keep the chill of the autumn air out of his bones, unintentionally revealing, as he did so, the powder blue NCIS shirt he had shrugged into a good 24 hours ago.

            “I’m team lead for the NCIS.” Gibbs divulged, unnecessarily gesturing to the initials emblazoned on his shirt. “You?”        

            Glancing quite lovingly toward the enormous book he had left nestled on the cushions of the recliner he had just so recently vacated, before returning his full focus back unto Gibbs, the markedly tall stranger presently sharing the chaise lounge with him smiled and happily made known his profession with all the pride of a person who absolutely loved their career of choice.

            “I’m a literature professor.”

            Despite realizing, almost immediately, this his resultant facial expression wasn’t exactly as polite as his mother would have liked for it to be, Gibbs found, much to his slight embarrassment, that he couldn’t help but eye his newest of acquaintances with a great amount of incredulity upon hearing his professed career, as said man seemed far too…gruff to work in such an academic field, apparent love of books or not. Although, in a great appraisal of his character, Gibbs did manage to make up for such blatant rudeness with a quick, yet honest, explanation for such doubt.

            “I wouldn’t have pegged you as a professor.” He bashfully confessed, hoping to have not caused any undue offense.

            Because, at the end of the day, whether anyone would believe him or not, Gibbs had meant absolutely no harm by making such a cliché quip, but had rather been trying, exceedingly poorly, to subtly convey the displeasing fact that all the other professors he had ever had the displeasure of seeing out in public had all been more flashily dreed, and far more pompous, that his fellow coffee-drinker. Two things that his newest of conversational partners definitely was not, as said lively redhead looked far more accustomed for the life of a lumberjack than he did for academia what with his full coppery beard and muscular physique.

            “Well, I did use to work for the FBI.” His couch-mate confessed, looking more than just a little uncomfortable to be making such a confession.

            Flooded with a ridiculous amount of disappointment upon learning that his redheaded benefactor had been a part of such a case-stealing organization, as up until that moment he had sensed the potential of a good friendship between themselves, Gibbs felt a frown tugging at the corner of his lips even as he worked to keep his expression neutral.

            “You worked for the FBI?” He repeated, hoping against hope that he had simply misheard.

            “Yes,” His fellow coffee-drinker confirmed, “In the Violent Crimes against Children division.”  

            Thinking that his newest of acquaintances couldn’t possibly be all that bad if he had opted to specialize in so selfless and thankless a field, as opposed to those in that organization who took on more dangerous roles just for the glory, Gibbs forced himself to remain much more openminded than was his usual wont.

            “And you just decided to stop one day?” Gibbs inquired, curious as to how one went from investigative work into something so bland as teaching.

            Thankfully taking his curiosity for what it was, that being a genuine desire for more information, rather than anything negative or condescending, the former FBI specialist sighed deeply but nonetheless imparted the desired explanation without any trace of irritation, or resentment, in his tone.

            “It just got hard seeing some of the things I did day after day.” The talkative redhead elaborated, a markedly grim expression on his face. “And once the red tape started to keep me from being able to do my job, I just couldn’t stomach it anymore.”

            While he had, admittedly, never been one to allow any amount of red tape to keep him from doing what was right, ever, Gibbs was not so foolish as to assume that his unnamed lumberjack had been fortunate enough to experience the same lack of direct supervision and lackadaisical discipline as he had under Vance and, as such, he found he felt far more sympathetic toward his choice to swap career choices so dramatically than he might have otherwise.

            “I know what you mean about the red tape.” Gibbs allowed. “It seems like there’s more and more of it every year.” And, so as to better make known his dissatisfaction with the bureaucracy of it all, he added: “It’s goddamn ridiculous. It was never like that in the Marines.”

            Coppery head immediately perking up at the news that he had once been in the military, in a clear display of excitement that made Gibbs feel both excited and anxious, all at once, the tall bookworm sat up a little straighter with a very smug expression plastered across his face.

            “I thought you might be former military.”

            “Oh?” Gibbs softly exclaimed. “And why is that?”

            Cleary eager to pay him back in kind for his earlier ineloquence, whereupon Gibbs had issued forth the ridiculous insinuation that that his stranger didn’t look like a professor, his perpetually-smiling benefactor effortlessly returned tit-for-tat, only in far less clumsy a fashion than he, himself, could have ever managed.

            “You’ve just got the look for it, that’s all.”

            Feeling a faint, yet oppressive, heat beginning to rise up in the apples of his cheeks, for no discernable reason, whatsoever, Gibbs felt himself reflexively stiffen as he hastily brought his mugful of coffee up to his mouth in a desperate act to buy himself some time with which he could work to recollect himself and work away the sudden anxiety that had just so recently chosen to assault him without cause.

            “I hope that was complimentary.” Gibbs finally managed, surreptitiously wiping his sweating left palm on the fabric of his jeans.

            “Oh, believe me,” The redheaded stranger grinned, giving his knee yet another affectionate squeeze, “It was.”

            Unfortunately possessing absolutely none of the social skills that would help him know what to say in response to such an unassuming compliment, without sounding either ungrateful or proud, Gibbs faltered pathetically in want of an intelligent reply before deciding, pathetically, in a fit of panic, to settle on the most cliché bit of small talk he could think of.

            “What’s that you’re reading over there?” Gibbs blurted, gesticulating quite awkwardly, with his mug, at the giant book the redhead had left behind in a recliner. “It looks heavy.”

            Thankfully opting to take his awkwardness all in stride, without betraying even a hint of annoyance or a trace of discomfort, the impressively tall literature professor smiled and happily divulged the title of the book he had just so recently been reading.

            “A Medieval History.” The large redhead smiled, his admiration of the book quite clear.  

            “Is that one of the books you assign to your classes?” Gibbs questioned, genuinely curious as to what the answer might be.

            “No, this book was purely for my entertainment only.” The expressive professor confirmed. “My academic focus is primarily on classical literature.”

            Relieved that he was, at the very least, smart enough to know that medieval literature was not, in fact, the same as classical literature, for it saved him from all the awkwardness of saying something exceedingly stupid in reply, Gibbs found that he was able to make his response without any trace of the nervousness that usually accosted him while conversing with strangers.

            “I think we have very different ideas on what constitutes fun.” Gibbs remarked, forcing himself to speak with a lighter tone so as not to cause any undue offense.

            “All the better.” His chipper lounge-mate grinned, with no trace at all of sarcasm. “That just means we’ll have all the more to talk about.”

            Once more feeling an inexplicable amount of warmth climbing up into his cheeks, as well as into the pit of his stomach, Gibbs licked at his suddenly dry lips and forced the first words that popped into his head out of his mouth, all but desperate not to look like an idiot in front of the educated man sitting beside him.

            “What did you say your name was?”

            Almost immediately turning a shade of red as deep and vibrant as his hair, the muscular book-enthusiast thoroughly surprised Gibbs by groaning loudly before spitting the name out of his mouth in a manner that suggested it was more akin to poison than the simple syllables it was comprised of.

            “Banquo.”  

            Knowing all too well the fierce embarrassment that an ‘odd’ name could bring upon an individual, having been given an inarguably ‘hillybilly-esque’ name at birth, Gibbs schooled his face into a perfect mask of neutrality and refrained from poking any fun, whatsoever, at the ‘uniqueness’ that had been afflicted upon the redhead by his parents.

            “Like in Macbeth.” Gibbs evenly stated, taking great care to make it seem as if he thought it were perfectly normal for children to be named after Shakespearean characters.

            Hazel eyes brightening up almost instantly upon hearing his reply, Banquo grinned widely and increased the pressure he was currently applying to Gibbs’s kneecap via a giant hand.

            “You’ve read the play?” The excitable redhead badgered, as excited as Tony at a theatre.

             Wishing, for what had to be the first time in his life, that he didn’t have such a fierce and unyielding self-imposed policy about lying, so that he might not disappoint the acquaintance he was already ardently hoping to make into a friend, Gibbs frowned deeply and considered, for but a moment, temporarily suspending his principals before reluctantly deciding, at long last, that he could do no such thing – or at least not in confident enough manner to avoid any awkward follow up questions.

            “I’ve watched the play.” Gibbs sheepishly confessed. “My kid has made me watch all the damn classics.”

            And it was no mere exaggeration that Gibbs was making either, as Tony had all but spent the first few years of their pseudo father-son relationship practically forcing every last movie in his endless collection unto his person.

             “You have a child?” Banquo queried, apparently forgetting all about his love of the classics as he latched unto the newer, and more exciting, topic of their conversation.

              “I…kind of adopted one of my agents as my own.”

            Not only metaphorically, of course, but legally as well. But, rather than opt to launch into a rather lengthy diatribe on how such an unorthodox arrangement came to be, and thus run the risk of chasing Banquo away with the sordid tale of Senior trying to steal power of attorney away from while Tony lay dying of the plague, on the specious grounds that only a legal father should have that right, Gibbs restrained himself and kept mum as he waited for his friend to make his reply.  

            “That’s so sweet.” Banquo replied, no trace at all of any mockery in his voice.

            Entirely unfamiliar with the concept of having that particular word ascribed to himself, at least since Shannon and Kelly had passed away, Gibbs very nearly choked on his most recent sip of coffee and looked like quite the fool as he coughed, and spluttered, in a frenzied attempt to clear the beverage out of his lungs. But, if such an unseemly display bothered Banquo to any discernable degree, he proved himself quite the actor by not showing any evidence of such – and likewise quite the well-mannered individual as he passed over to Gibbs a green handkerchief without needing to be asked.

            “I’m afraid we wondered off-topic for a spell.” Banquo declared, politely looking away as Gibbs used his handkerchief to wipe the expelled coffee from his chin. “I never received your name in turn.”  

            Wishing to quickly restore whatever dignity he still had left, if any, Gibbs softly cleared his throat and sat up a little straighter before answering.

            “I suppose turnabout is fair play.” Gibbs humored. “My name is Leroy – but, I go by Jethro.”      

            Clearly relieved to have met a fellow individual who was every bit as embarrassed by their name as was he, Banquo smiled softly and squeezed Gibbs’s knee for what had to be the sixth or seventh time since gifting him with the coffee.

            “And I go by Henry.”  

            “What,” Gibbs teased, “A Shakespearian name wasn’t good enough for you?”  

            “Sure, it seems fitting now.” Henry chuckled. “But that wasn’t the case in high school.”     

            Having at least had the negligible privilege of attending school with three other boys named Leroy, along with a Jim-Bob and Eustace, Gibbs felt far more sympathy towards Henry’s former plight than he did his own.

            “Your parents most of hated you.” Gibbs conjectured, only half-joking.

            “Benvolio Sinclair is actually a very loving father,” Henry chuckled, “Whose only major fault in life is being a bit eccentric when it comes time to name anything.”

            “Please tell me you don’t have any siblings.” Gibbs groaned.

            “I wish I could.” Henry assured, playfully theatric. “But it would wrong of me to deny the existence of Rosaline and Iago Sinclair.”

            Not at all unfamiliar with the way in which some parents tended to favor their female children, especially if said child was their only daughter, Gibbs felt as if he wouldn’t be at all out of line by drawing focus unto the fact that the elder Sinclair’s were clearly guilty of the same crime.

             “Well, Rosaline is clearly the favorite child in your family.” Gibbs confidently asserted with a small smile. “So the only question I have left is whether your father hated you, or your brother, more.”

             “I don’t mean to sound arrogant,” Henry began, purposely doing everything within his power to affect such conceit, “But I wasn’t named after the antagonist who both slandered and murdered a woman for exposing a revenge plot.”

             “I suppose that settles it.” Gibbs declared. “Your father must hate your brother the most.”  

            “Precisely.” Henry sniffed, purposely priggish. “My father might claim that he was simply appreciative of the complexity of the character, but you and I both know better.”

             Ridiculously touched at the very thought that a complete stranger was including him in some sort of silly inside joke, as he only ever got to be a part of something like that with Tony, Gibbs felt a strange warmth flooding into his stomach even as a smile forced itself unto his face.

            “How did your sister manage to go unscathed during such a naming catastrophe?” Gibbs questioned, wishing to keep their playful banter going.

            “My parents agreed that my mom would be the one to name any daughters.” Henry divulged. “As long as she kept to the Shakespearian theme, of course. But how about you, Jethro, do you have any siblings?”

            Outright refusing to even entertain the idea of divulging his mother’s illness, let alone the terrible havoc it had wrought upon her ability to bring another much-wanted child into the world, as that was a painful topic he had only ever discussed with Tony and his current therapist, Gibbs faltered for but a moment before resorting, yet again, to a little self-depreciating humor to take some of the heat off of himself.

            “I was an only child.” Gibbs truthfully answered. “My mother always said she couldn’t handle having another kid like me.”   

             “She sounds fiery.” Henry accurately ascribed. “I love it.”

            “She was…” Gibbs agreed, a violent pang creeping up into his chest as he thought of her.   

             Because even though it had been several decades since he had watched his ‘uncle’ L.J help his mother with her assisted suicide, by holding the glass of water up to her mouth so that she might better swallow the pills, Gibbs still couldn’t get his father’s accusations of murder out of his head, nor the resultant worry and fear that such slanders might be true that had accosted him ever since they night they had been screamed into his scared, eight-year-old face.

            “Jethro,” Henry tentatively began, seeming to sense his distress, “Have…Have you ever tasted coffee brewed from freshly-grinded beans?”

            Had it been absolutely anyone else to ask him such a seemingly random question after just being informed of the fact that his mother was deceased, a fact that still clearly bothered him, Gibbs might have punched them straight in the nose. However, as it was, it was Henry putting forth such a seemingly out-of-place question, a fact which strangely seemed to make such blatant rudeness tolerable, if not acceptable, in his eyes.

            “Isn’t that what they just served us?” Gibbs interrogated, hoping against hope that their signage proclaiming such hadn’t been untruthful, as he was already really beginning to take a great liking to Discrete.  

            “Well…yes.” Henry allowed. “But I’m talking fresh of the grinder, here.”  

            “That seems like it would be a lot of work.” Gibbs frowned. “I already have a Keurig.”     

            And though said machine was absolutely one of his favorite pieces of newer technology that he had ever been talked into purchasing, he still had no qualms, whatsoever, about cursing its frustrating proclivity to go off a full five minutes before he had programmed it to.

            “Jethro,” Henry began, squeezing his knee yet again, “Once you’ve tasted freshly ground, you’ll never go back to that clunky machine.”

            “Yeah?” Gibbs asked, feeling suddenly nervous all over again. “And just where would I get a coffee like that?”       

            Becoming suddenly, and uncharacteristically, hesitant in response to such a simple question, Henry fiddled with a garnet ring on his thick finger for a spell before finally seeming to summon up the courage to speak.

            “I know we just met, Jethro, but we could head back to place. I have a grinder of my own, you see, and I’m always willing to share my goods with a friend.” Henry explained, very clearly nervous as he put forth the offer. “And my house is only a few blocks away, so it would be a very short walk.”  

             Heartily confused at to why anyone would be so nervous about asking a friend back to their place for coffee, especially so one that very clearly shared his appreciation of the brew, Gibbs frowned yet nonetheless threw the flustered redhead a bone.

            “I brought my truck.” Gibbs informed. “We can just drive.”

             

Chapter Text

Gibbs had just finished being assisted, rather unnecessarily so, into his thick autumn jacket by a very energetic and unorthodox Henry, when the perpetually-graceful and bubbly Beth pushed herself through the thick wooden doors granting privacy to those within the ‘small’ parlor, a pristinely white mug of steaming, and delicious-smelling, coffee in either one of her cartoonishly small hands and a genuine smile rather becomingly displayed upon her youthful face.

            “You’re not leaving already, are you?” The blonde-haired barista pouted, coming to a disappointed standstill halfway across the room. “I was just starting to like you!”

            Finding it ridiculously absurd, indeed, that anybody could come to enjoy his dour company in so precious little time, especially so an individual both as perky and young as herself, Gibbs snorted derisively and rolled his eyes as he pulled up the zipper of his jacker and shrugged his fingers into a pair of matching leather gloves.

            “I don’t see how that could be even remotely possible.” Gibbs promptly dismissed, taking great care to inject a minute amount of humor into his voice to avoid sounding like a complete asshole.

            Not so much as missing a single beat, in a very clear testament of some sort of latent resiliency that would for sure serve her well when made a full-fledged lawyer, Beth directed her impossibly large brown eyes unto his own, bluer version, and promptly skewered him with an expression so piercing, and disconcerting, that he was almost certain, for a fleeting moment, that he was five again and being interrogated by his very angry and no-nonsense mother if he had been the one to let loose a skunk into his terrorist of a kindergarten teacher’s truck.

            “Because I’m an observer, Jethro.” Beth declared, blinking sharply, just once, before her youthful face fell back into its usual mask of joviality.

            Far too disquieted after witnessing such an alarming display of raw, mind-penetrating, power from his surprisingly introspective barista to speak straight away, as it was not often at all that he was on the receiving end of such an unsettling sensation, Gibbs fidgeted awkwardly with his gloves, an embarrassed panic beginning to rise up in his stomach, before Henry thankfully took the onus of speaking unto himself and effortlessly diffused the awkwardness of the room with his dazzling smile and calming personality.

             “I’m sorry, Beth, but I’m afraid that I am stealing Jethro away.” Henry apologized, shrugging into his own autumn jacket. “I can only hope that Francis won’t be too hard on me for luring a customer away.”

            Pursing her perfectly plump lips in a fashion that very clearly displayed her great dissatisfaction with the way that things were currently panning out, Beth narrowed her large eyes into dangerously thin slits before turning her wrath, meagre though it was, unto a bemused, and slightly frightened, Henry.

            “Forget about Francis.” The skinny barista frowned, shamelessly dismissing the individual who was very clearly the owner of the establishment she worked for. “This is our beef now.”           

             “There’s no need to get hostile.” Gibbs dryly responded, hoping to defuse some of the tension building up between the barista and long-time customer. “I promise, I’ll be back.”

            Not only because he had never before tasted anything even half so delicious as the various beverages that had just been peddled to him, but so too because he had never before experienced so peaceful, or relaxing, an atmosphere in any of the other places he had frequented during his life-long stint as a caffeine addict.

            “Don’t listen to that man, Beth.” Esther hastily advised, neglecting her knitting once more to glower at Gibbs. “It’s always a good time to get hostile with men.”

            Quite clearly having borne all she cared to of her girlfriend’s curmudgeonly ways, or perhaps simply taking pity on him after her surly partner again attacked him without any clear provocation, Opal sighed deeply and muttered something unintelligible beneath her breath before craning her head to level the guilty party with a warning look that might have better served to frighten a small bunny into submission than it would have to bring a woman so fiery as Esther to heel.

            “Esther!” Opal rebuked, her frown deep but her voice still as soft as always. “For God’s sake, can you not go an hour without being rude to men?”

            Only narrowly fighting off the urge to suggest that said woman very likely couldn’t even go ten minutes without saying something so derogatory towards men, nor without scowling so deeply that she resembled Droopy the dog, Gibbs satisfied his fierce retaliatory urges by rolling his eyes as derisively as possible, taking great care to make certain, that as he did so, Esther was fully aware of the action.  

            “I’m just giving those bastards s good as they give us in turn.” Esther proclaimed, clearly refusing to back down on her fierce, man-hating, stance.

             Although Gibbs would have loved to do nothing more than growl at the crotchety old woman, and tell her just where she could stick her purple knitting needles, Gibbs thankfully managed to keep himself civil by reflecting upon the fact that there had to be a very good reason for such a sexist woman to hate men so profusely, as people didn’t just suddenly wake up one day hating an entire group of people for not discernable reason whatsoever.

            “This man has been nothing but kind to you.” Opal tried to reason, looking close to her breaking point with the irascible woman seated directly beside her on a loveseat.  

            “So far!” Esther impatiently rebutted, making it perfectly clear that she expected nothing but the absolute worst from Gibbs.

            Wondering, briefly, whether or not there was something in his countenance, of body language, that was causing such unyielding and abject distress in the older woman, as it was not at all unheard of for him to frighten strangers with the way his face naturally fell into a surly mask, Gibbs frowned deeply but nonetheless forced himself to fight the onset of a powerful glare off of his face to avoid exacerbating Esther’s incontrollable temper.

            “You could at least hold your judgement until someone gives you a reason not to!” Opal reprimanded, her pink knitting needles still flying away even though her eyes were now trained on her girlfriend rather than her work-in-progress scarf.

            “Why would I do something like that!?” Esther exclaimed, stubbornly refusing to admit to any fault. “When the last time I took that advice from you we got – “

            “Oh, how could you even bring that up!?” Opal interrupted, looking very near close to tears from whatever it was Esther had been about to say.  

            It was then, and only then, that Gibbs decided to try and diffuse the argument currently at hand. Because as much as he didn’t care for Esther, at all, given that she so very clearly had no qualms whatsoever in being verbally abusive to a practical stranger for something he couldn’t control, he felt a depth of compassion for the more soft-spoken Opal, as she reminded him of his Kelly, and didn’t wish to see her entire day ruined by a squabble he had played a part in, no matter how minor his culpability in matter truly was.  

            “I’ll be back, Beth.” He promised, more loudly than was strictly necessary to distract the two bickering women from furthering their argument. “Probably before the sun is down.”  

             Appearing to be greatly relieved upon discovering that his well-timed interruption had brought about the expected outcome, that being the distracting of the bickering couple into a resentful silence, Beth smile softly at him as her brown eyes practically flooded with gratitude.

            “Just keep in mind that we close at nine, alright?” She helpfully cautioned.

            More than just a little taken aback by the ridiculousness of such small-town hours being implemented a city so large, as not even the public library nearest to his house closed so early, Gibbs raised a brow at the skinny young woman and made an innocent inquiry into the matter.   

             “Why so early.”

            “For safety.” Beth answered, looking absolutely confused as to how he could possibly be so ignorant of such a simple answer.

              “You live in one of the poshest neighborhoods I’ve ever seen.” Gibbs scoffed. “What’s the worst that can possibly happen here? A little bit of money laundering?”

            Petal pink lips twisting up into a very clear display of abject discomfort, Beth studiously avoided making eye-contact with him before shrugging her slender shoulders in an unhelpful, and nonverbal, refusal to launch into any specifics.

            “You’d be surprised.” Was all she contributed, awkwardly thrusting the two coffee mugs in her hand out toward them. “Now here,” She smiled, all but refusing to remain glum, “You’ll want these, it’s practically freezing outside.”         

            Knowing very well all the sign of a person not wishing to discuss something they found particularly troubling when he saw them, given that was a whole entire wealth of skeletons in his closet that he had yet to share with anyone other than his therapist, Gibbs didn’t press for any more details on the variety of dangerous crime that apparently took place near the coffeehouse and, instead, focused his curiosity more unto the beverages being unceremoniously bestowed upon her person by the chipper barista.

            “What is this?” He demanded, noting that, once again, he had not been presented with his customary, and oft-requested, cup of black coffee.

            “It’s a pumpkin spice latte.” Beth happily clarified, her bright smile returning once more as delved back into barista-mode.

             “I don’t know if – “

            “You downed your last bourbon macchiato in twelve seconds.” Beth countered, her stern expression just daring him to deny it. “So don’t feed me that claptrap.”

              Respecting Beth all the more for her staunch unwilling to put up with anyone’s bullshit, and thinking that he and she would get on perfectly well just so long as she continued to so perfectly tow the line between being cheeky and rude, Gibbs graced her with one of his rare grins and happily accepted one of the mugs from her hand before tentatively taking a sip and falling in love with the rich flavor.

            “Thank you, Beth.” Henry smiled, speaking for them both as he accepted his own mug of coffee and pressed a crisp twenty into one of her now-empty hands. “You’re a peach.”

            Instantly brightening up the room with an earsplitting smile in response to receiving such a very generous gratuity, Beth clutched the green bank note to her chest like it was a love letter from a deployed boyfriend and did a little happy dance where she stood.

            “Damn, Banquo.” Beth beamed, hastily tucking away the unwrinkled bill into the pocket of her jeans for safekeeping. “If you and Jethro keep tipping me this way, I’ll get through my student loan debt in no time!”  

            Thinking, to himself, that he would be more than just a little happy to fund the entirety of one whole semester of law school for her, for no other reason than that she reminded him of his long-deceased Kelly, Gibbs smiled inwardly to himself and likewise silently avowed to keep tipping her as generously as he could.

            “You had best be tucking away all that money for school.” Esther warned, equal parts grandmotherly and terroristic. “We don’t tip you this well so that you can blow your money on nonsense.”  

            Finally reaching her breaking point with the hangry girlfriend knitting haphazardly beside her after such an unsolicited delivery of uncalled for advice, Opal huffed loudly enough to be heard outside and practically chucked her knitting needles into the oversized purse at her feet.

            “Let’s go, Esther.” The displeased knitter directed, finally firm. “We can go back into public once Yom Kippur is over and you can behave as a decent person again.”

            Evidently not at all familiar with the concept of being on the receiving end of such sternness from her seemingly docile girlfriend, Esther’s jaw practically dropped to her chest even as she scrambled to her feet and collected both their purses from off the floor.

            “Opal, I – “

            “Unless you want me to cook broccoli for your first meal after fasting, I suggest you come along.”  Opal threatened, already moving towards the door.

            Looking as if she would much rather eat a bucketful of pork than any morsel of the green vegetable she was currently being threatened with, Esther practically ran across the wooden floorboards to catch up with the girlfriend who was already halfway out the door.

            “Believe it or not,” Beth whispered in a conspiratorial whisper once the two women had officially quit the room, “Esther has a heart of gold.”

            “And the mouth of a drill sergeant.” Gibbs remarked, still somewhat sour after the way he had been treated by said octogenarian.  

            “Well, nobody was denying that.” Beth assured with a girlish giggle, flashing him one last breathtaking smile before hurrying off to tend to her long-neglected customers.  

            Waiting, politely, until the thick wooden doors had closed behind her to speak, Gibbs shook his head and turned to Henry with a small smile on his face.

            “That kid is something else.”

             “Which is exactly why we tip her so well.” Henry divulged, taking Gibbs by surprise as he glided across the room to hold the door open for him.

             Seeing no real reason as to why he should take any real offense from such a display, or any embarrassment, Gibbs allowed the taller man his kind gesture and made no move to grab the door itself as he walked right through it into the sudden crowded living room of the coffee shop.                “How long have we been in there?” Gibbs demanded, taken aback by the sheer number of people now scrambling to purchase their coffee.

            “About an hour or so.” Henry confirmed, looking nowhere near as uncomfortable as he should have walking into such organized chaos. “Which means we have exactly ten minutes to leave before the parking lot becomes impossible to drive out of.”

            More than happy to take Henry’s sound advice to heart, as he was as equally uncomfortable about the thought of being stuck in a crowded building as he was at the concept of being stuck in an unnavigable parking lot, Gibbs nodded to show his agreement to the implied suggestion and more than happily began to shoulder his way through the small throng of people currently lined up for their coffee.

            It was only when he was only a mere fifteen feet from the front door, and the sweet freedom of unenclosed space beyond, that his hopes for an easy retreat were thwarted by the small handful of men gathered around a circular table to play knockout whisk.

             “Henry!” One of the dark-haired played called out, his voice booming and impossibly to pretend not to have heard. “Who’s the new guy?”

             Feeling a veritable flood of social anxiety overtaking his body as the whole entire group of players turned to look at him, Gibbs grimaced and all but panicked as he began to feel a salty crop of salt staring to bead up at the back of his neck.

             “This is Jethro.” Henry introduced, thankfully taking on the difficult task of speaking for Gibbs. “Jethro, these are the whist boys; Duff, Will, Tom, and Percy.”

            Clearly the unofficial spokesperson of the small group, by either subtle coercion or genuine leadership skills, the newly-introduced Duff smiled politely at Gibbs before attempting to coax them closer with a wave of his arm.

            “Are you two in for a game?” The loud-voiced gamer inquired, gesticulating idly at a few nearby chairs. “We’re just starting out.”

            Although Gibbs really did have no inclination, at all, towards playing a game he wasn’t at familiar with an absolute group of strangers, for as an introvert that his was one of his absolute foremost nightmares, he was more than just a little surprised when the seemingly-friendly Henry suddenly became aloof and somewhat cold in response to the good-natured request.

            “Sorry,” Henry apologized, entirely unapologetic, “But we were just heading out.”           

            Rolling his nearly-black eyes but a fraction of an inch, in a derisive manner that confirmed for Gibbs that there was at least some sort of significant grievance between both he and Henry, Duff sighed softly through his nose but nonetheless remained civil as he returned Henry’s coolness with perfect politeness.

            “Next time, maybe.”  

            “Maybe.” Henry agreed, his tone making it perfectly clear that a game involving them both was entirely out of the question.

            Finding that he had no real relationship with the small group of whist players, and thus no real obligation to defend them against such uncharitable treatment, Gibbs made no move to apologize to the clearly-offended Duff and instead settled for interrogating Henry on the matter instead, finding that his innate sense of curiosity was far more pressing to him at the moment than his unyielding sense of right-or-wrong.

            “Do you not like those guys?” Gibbs asked, taking care to keep his voice low even as they pushed their way outdoors.

            “What?” Henry asked, looking genuinely taken aback at the innocent insinuation that he harbored dislike towards anyone.

            “You seemed a little irritated with Duff, is all.” Gibbs shrugged, stepping out of the way of a particularly rotund woman all but sprinting toward the door.

            Quickly yanking open the front door for the impatient women, before she could knock anyone over in her self-centered haste, Henry grimaced a little guiltily before finally sharing with Gibbs the reason behind his dislike.

            “Duff and I got into a heated debate about politics last week, Jethro, and it’s still pretty fresh in both of our minds.” He divulged. “And I think it’s just better if we give ourselves some time to calm down before we interact again.”

             Despite experiencing the keen sensation he always felt when someone was lying to him, or at least not being entirely truthful, Gibbs allowed the matter to rest on the grounds that details about a private quarrel between two men just wasn’t something worth going to battle over.

            “This way then.” Gibbs directed, hoping to clear any residual awkwardness away as he led the amiable redhead toward his truck.

              

Chapter Text

            While it was not the first time that Henry had ever managed to successfully talk another attractive man into coming back to his place for an impromptu coffee date only a measly half hour after having met them, as he had inarguably been blessed with more than his fair share of charisma and charm, it was the first time, in a long time, that he was actually somewhat nervous about how things might play out between himself and a potential suitor. Because while Henry was by no means a manwhore, by any stretch of the imagination, unlike the insatiable Duff who would stop at nothing to plow every man within a fifty-mile radius, he would be a most egregious liar if he claimed not to have enjoyed a long series of small flings whilst waiting for someone to catch his eye and rekindle his interest in pursuing a long-term relationship; and, as a result of such a temporary weakness of character, was likewise woefully unpracticed when it came time to actually wooing a person into an actual relationship rather than just a stint in his bedroom. And while, ordinarily, that would not have bothered him quite so much, as his charm had never once failed to serve him in the manner he willed it to, Henry was outright determined to capture Jethro’s affections for himself and, as such, he was entirely unwilling to rely on charisma alone, as there was simply no way of knowing whether or not such skills of seduction would work on Jethro in the first place, as judging by the law of statistics, there was bound to be at least a handful of people he had no sway over.  

            “This is a rather lovely truck you have here.” Henry complimented, keen to put his seductionary skills to work as Jethro carefully steered his vehicle out of the crowded parking lot and into the freshly-paved street. “Is it an antique?”

            Surprised from his silent admiration of the privately-funded flower garden that lay directly across the street from Discreet, both fragrant and splendid in all its entirety, Jethro blinked rapidly quite a few times before the question finally seemed to register within his formerly-distracted mind.

            “Yeah, it’s an antique.” Jethro confirmed, forcing his breathtakingly blue eyes back unto the road. “It belonged to my uncle L.J.”  

            Believing that there was no better way to get a conversation with a shy person started then to ask them about their various friends and family, as even the most stereotypical of introverts would never fail to latch unto any topic that wasn’t about themselves, and eagerly so those that involved providing characterizations of those they loved, Henry smiled and more than happily launched unto the opportunity to get to know his potential boyfriend a little bit better by way of inquiring about this uncle of his.

            “And would I be wrong in assuming that this uncle’s name is Leroy Jethro?” Henry investigated, all but certain that he was correct.

            “No.” Jethro assured, a small smile tugging at the corner of his chapped lips. “You’d be right. I was named after him.”

            Seeing as how there could be no mistaking of the genuine affection shining forth in Jethro’s wondrously blue eyes for anything else, given that its intensity was practically palpable and all but penetrating in nature, Henry felt no hesitation, at all, in delving even further into the topic of this much-revered uncle, loving full-heartedly, all the while, the way in which such a simple discussion seemed to animate his fellow coffee-enthusiast into being far more sociable than was his usual wont.

            “You two must be very close.” Henry suggested, hoping to wriggle a few more details out his reserved date as organically as possible.

            “We were.” Jethro admitted, a brief, yet powerful, frown flickering across his face. “He taught me how to woodwork before I was even big enough to hold the saw.”

            Sensing, very quickly, that he had inadvertently ventured into some very dangerous territory by unknowingly encouraging his withdrawn carmate to speak of his deceased and beloved uncle, as all the animation in Jethro’s powerfully blue eyes had been replaced with a notable somberness, the likes of which was very disquieting in nature, Henry immediately hastened to rectify the situation at hand by changing the subject as naturally as possible.  

            “So,” He began, schooling his voice into a tone of normalcy, “You’re a little bit of carpenter then?”

             And although Henry had only been trying to change the topic from something morose to mundane, to avoid any manifestations of awkwardness or resentment that might bring an untimely end to their date, or likewise bring about any undue stress to the man who seemed to already possess more than his fair share of such an ailment,          he was honestly taken very aback to discover that Jethro lay claim to such a rugged and manly hobby, as he had almost instantly pegged the slightly shorter man as a more ‘Mama-Bear’ or ‘domestic’ type. Not only because he had so shamelessly divulged the fact that he had adopted one of his agents only minutes into their initial conversation, but so too because he appeared to take great stock in being neatly dressed and very well-groomed. But rather than draw attention to such subverted expectations, and thus run the risk of offending what just might be a very sensitive individual, Henry kept politely mum on such an inflammatory subject and settled, instead, for focusing chiefly on the subject of woodworking.

            “It’s more of a hobby than anything else, but sure.” Jethro allowed, seemingly oblivious to Henry’s poorly-concealed surprise.

            “What is that you like to make?” Henry investigated, his assumptions leaning more towards figurines and jewelry then anything else.            

            Quite clearly embarrassed by the concept of having any amount of attention paid his way, especially so when it involved something was particularly skilled at and/or passionate about, Jethro turned slightly pink in the cheeks and shrugged noncommittally, clearly trying to affect, rather poorly, a nonchalance he was not honestly feeling at the moment.

            “I used to make boats.” Jethro divulged, a slight show of agitation shining forth in his expressive eyes. “But now it’s most sculptures and figurines.”

            Understanding that Jethro would only become all the more uncomfortable if pressed for details about the nature, or subjects, of his wood-based art, and very likely shut down into a practically nonverbal state as a result of such innocent interrogations, Henry forced his curiosity to rest and instead opted to make use of a little bit of self-depreciating humor in order to keep the conversation flowing.  

            “I tried to make a snuffbox for my dad in shop class once.” Henry shared, grinning quite sheepishly as he reluctantly recollected the whole entire sordid affair. “Unfortunately, all he ended up receiving was a massive hospital bill when I sliced my thumb clean off my hand.”  

            The elder Sinclair had likewise also received a rather scathing lecture from his wife, not long after the resultant surgery had finished up, for allowing Henry to down a good fifth of his self-made whiskey on spurious orders from the doctor that liked to prescribe alcohol for even the most minor of ailments.

            “Maybe that would have been a fitting gift for the man who named his child Banquo.” Jethro playfully suggested, finally relaxed enough to make a joke of his own.  

            “Maybe.” Henry allowed with a chuckle. “Unfortunately, though, the doctor was able to reattach my finger.”

            And though Doctor Hubbert really had done a fairly good job of securing his thumb back in its proper place, at least so long as the standards of the time were considered, he had been rather too shortsighted when it came to keeping the scaring to a minimum, no doubt figuring, rather erroneously, that a young man of his rugged nature wouldn’t be all that worried about the aesthetics of a finger just so long as he could throw a football again.

            “That scar looks gnarly.” Jethro bluntly confessed, sparing a quick glance at the scarred appendage being held near his face for investigation. “Was the doctor half-drunk when he stapled it back on?”           

            “He probably was.” Henry conceded, bringing his thumb away from his date’s face to better examine the scarring in the light coming forth from the windshield. “But all things considered, it could have been worse. I mean, imagine if he had put it on back – “

            Prevented from finishing his sentence as the top of his head inadvertently knocked against the half-lowered visor and dislodged a photograph, the likes of which fell directly into his lap and immediately caught his attention, Henry pushed whatever he had been about to say out of his mind and turned all his attentions unto ascertaining whether or not it was Jethro’s son featured in the snapshot, as by doing he could only be fostering the emergence of even more friendly, and relaxed, conversation.

            “Is this your son?” Henry eagerly questioned, holding the picture to his face for a better look of the black-haired boy.

            His typically unexpressive face breaking into a markedly paternal smile once the subject of his child was brought up, in what was very clearly a great testament to his suitability as a father, Jethro sat up a little straighter in his seat, practically brimming with pride, and happily confided what Henry already knew to be true.

            “Yeah, that’s Tony.” Jethro beamed, putting his teeth on full display for the first time since they had begun talking. “He’s the reason there’s popcorn and potato chips everywhere.”

            Up until that point having thankfully managed to refrain from making any curious inquiries as to how, or why, a former Marine would keep their vehicle in so untidy a condition, as it all but went against everything he had been led to believe about the conditioning of soldiers, Henry was immensely gratified to have the question of just why there were so many crumbs on the seats and dashboard answered without any rudely blunt inquiries needing to be made on his part.

            “So, your kid is little bit of a messy eater?” Henry teased, pointedly wiping away some of the crumbs from the dashboard with his fingers.

            “That kid should still be in a bib.” Jethro grumbled, an affectionate gleam still in his eyes even as he shook his head n feigned annoyance.

            Becoming all the more enamored with Jethro the more it became abundantly clear that he was a very loving person at the core, no matter how gruff and stern he might otherwise like to pretend to be, Henry smiled softly to himself and was very much contented to know that he had not erred, at all, in his thinking that Jethro would make a very fine boyfriend, indeed. Because not only was said man exceedingly handsome, and inarguably more than just a little pretty as well, but so too was he exactly the domestic, yet functionally-independent, type he tended to navigate towards when scouting out potential new life partners. And Henry would do almost anything in order to assure that his burgeoning affection was returned by the end of their impromptu coffee date – save for maybe shave his beard off.

            “I know you already said that you adopted him,” Henry began, staring down at the photograph of a smirking Tony proudly holding up one of those oversized stuffed animals you won from a fair, “But he honestly does kind of look like you.”

            Appearing more flattered than a woman who had just been told by a complete stranger in the supermarket that her baby was one of the most beautiful they had ever seen, Jethro smiled brightly and failed, quite miserably, to conceal his excitement at such an admission.

            “You think so?” Jethro questioned, quite obviously delighted with the very concept of being compared, genetics-wise, to his child.

            “Definitely.” Henry heartily proclaimed. “It’s all in the facial expression and body language.”

            And while he was, admittedly, being more than just a little theatric with the genuineness of his tone, wishing every bit to sound as sincere as he felt about the matter, Henry really did detect a startling amount of similarities between the two men, especially face-wise. For while Tony was, inarguably, possessive of a more golden skin tone, and differently-colored eyes, the shape of their jaws and ears, as well as the stance of their postures, spoke of a certain familial similarity that adoption shouldn’t be able to account for.

            “Well, we do spend a lot of time together.” Jethro allowed, practically glowing from such a compliment. “I suppose a few of my mannerisms were bound to rub off on him.”

            Finding it absolutely adorable just how modest and demure Jethro was striving to be, despite being very clearly as pleased as punch by the comparisons being drawn between himself and his son, Henry smiled victoriously and began to really lay the appraisals on thick.

             “He looks like a fun spirit.” Henry thusly posited, having not failed to take note of the mischievous gleam in the young man’s eyes.

             “Believe me, he is.” Jethro fondly confirmed. “He’s one of those people who can light up a room just by walking into it.” And, pausing there for but a moment, he added: “Kind of like you, I imagine.”

            Despite knowing perfectly well that Jethro was just making a basic observation, rather than outright flirting with him as he might have preferred, Henry felt a whole swarm of butterflies spring into life in his stomach nonetheless, as even the fact that Jethro seemed to view one of his natural attributes as something positive was more than enough to encourage him that a full-fledged relationship might be possible between the two of them, as compatibility was one of the utmost important ingredients in the formation of a coupling.

             “And these two must be your granddaughter and daughter-in-law.” Henry confidently presumed, discovering the existence of yet another photograph as he moved to return the first to its proper place. “Good Lord, does that little girl look just like you.”

             In fact, so strikingly similar did the grinning girl in question look to Jethro, that Henry almost contemplating asking whether or not he was absolutely certain that Tony wasn’t one hundred percent biologically related to him, as he felt that only recessive genes, and a great amount of them, could account for such a remarkable resemblance.

            “Don’t touch that.” Jethro snarled, a certain frenzy in his tone as Henry made to remove the photo for a better examination.

            More than just a little startled by the sharpness of his tone, as well as the outright panic that had flashed across his face the very moment his fingers had neared the photograph, Henry snatched his hand back to her person as quickly as if it had been burned or bitten by an invisible forcefield surrounding the picture.

            “Jethro, I was only – “

            “It’s just an old photo, alright?” Jethro tersely expounded. “I don’t…I don’t want anything to happen to it, that’s all.”

            “I understand.” Henry swiftly assured, taking care to put all the sincerity he could manage into his tone. “But who – “       

            Immediately regretting his half-finished question as he watched Jethro’s face fall back into its customary mask of feigned indifference, as such an action all but confirmed he had royally messed up, Henry grimaced deeply and frantically wondered just how much damage he had caused with his curiosity.

            “I…I had a wife and daughter…Before Tony.” Jethro shared, clearly wanting to give some sort of explanation for his earlier gruffness. “They…I don’t anymore.”

            Unable to even begin to imagine just how terrible it would be to lose a child or spouse, let alone both, Henry frowned deeply and found himself woefully unable to empathize with his fellow coffee-enthusiast without sounding either insincere or phony. And so, not knowing of any other way in which he might adequately express his condolences, at least not verbally, Henry reached his hand across the slight distance separating them and laid his fingers atop Jethro’s knees, hoping to impart at least a slight amount of comfort from the simple act.

            “Jethro,” He began, wanting to do nothing more than apologize for his nosiness, “I – “

            “Where did you say I should turn?” Jethro once more interrupted, making it perfectly clear that his deceased family wasn’t something he was willing to speak of at the moment, if at all.

            “Turn right at that weeping willow.” Henry directed, respectful enough to allow Jethro his deflection. “My house is the green one at the end of the cul-de-sac.”

            Blue eyes going comically wide as he pulled up into the driveway of the old Victorian Henry had inherited from his grandfather, being the favorite grandchild and all, Jethro very nearly forgot to put his vehicle into park until he was only inches away from the garage and in very real danger of plowing through it.             

            “I didn’t think there would be any duplexes in a neighborhood like this.” Jethro muttered, his cheeks turning a bit pink as he put his truck into park.            

            “It’s not a duplex.” Henry bashfully corrected, suddenly self-conscious of his great affluence. “The whole thing is my house.”

           

             

Chapter Text

            While Henry truthfully couldn’t be said to keep a meticulously organized home, what with the way in which he tended to leave his endless supply of books and paperwork wherever he pleased, despite having full use of both a perfectly-functioning office and a library, he could, at the very least, be said to keep a clean home, or rather, his cleaning woman could be said to. Because whilst she had been given very strict instructions, from the start, that she was not to more or relocate anything, whether books or papers or anything in between, other than to clean beneath them or perhaps rescue them from Todd the cat, she still managed to keep the dust away and the house smelling fresh, which was surely no easy feat for a house both filled with cats and ancient literature. And, given all that, Henry was only mildly apprehensive about granting Jethro entry into his home, figuring that since his child was, by his own admission, more than just a little sloppy, he wouldn’t at all mind the same trait being exemplified in his date.   

            “It looks smaller on the inside, really.” Henry insisted, feeling perfectly ridiculous as he fumbled to unlock the front door for what had to be the very first time in his life.

            Giving him a look that quite clearly conveyed that he didn’t care how or small the inside of his home was, just so long as it was even a fraction of a degree warmer than the outside currently was, Jethro impatiently shoved his gloved fingers into the pocket of his jacket and turned his back to the blowing wind before asking if he could of be any assistance.

            “Do you need any help?”

            Far too considerate and chivalrous to even consider the idea of jeopardizing Jethro’s comfortability by allowing him to try his luck at the suddenly fickle lock, despite it being the frozen nature of his ungloved fingers that made the task so very difficult, Henry energetically shook his head and all but stabbed his key into the unforgiving lock in an impatient attempt to gain access into his house. Fortunately for the sake of the incorrigible key, as well as for the future prospects of their date, it was precisely that gruffness which did the trick in finally encouraging his key to do what it was meant to.

            “There we go.” Henry grinned, pushing the disobedient door open a little harsher than was strictly necessary. “Come on inside.”

            Despite having always been of the belief that his home was not at all as overly-opulent as those that surrounded it, regardless of its sheer magnitude or its endless expanse of meticulously maintained lawn, Henry was promptly brought to his senses, and likewise disabused of such  ridiculous notion, almost the very moment Jethro stepped into his foyer and displayed a face full of shock. For while he was not at all an oblivious sort of man, by any stretch of the word or imagination, it was not often at all that Henry invited visitors into his home who didn’t belong to his group of fellow affluent academics or his small selection of upper middle-class paramours. Not because he was an exclusionary snob, of course, but simply for the fact that the people he tended to associate with were those either close to work or home and, as such, tended to have a fair bit of money to their name.  

            “It’s much warmer in the kitchen.” Henry hastily distracted, suddenly self-conscious about his affluence and the draftiness of his home. “So lets go get that coffee.”

            Seeming beyond relieved to have been offered such an easy out from the awkwardness of standing in a foyer that might very well be able to comfortably house his truck, Jethro eagerly nodded his assent to the idea and stooped down to untie his boots, very clearly under the mistaken belief that a home so fancy could not tolerate even the slightest semblance of dirt being tracked in.

            “Oh, don’t bother.” Henry swiftly dismissed. “Annie will take care of any dirt that gets in.”

             Despite looking greatly reluctant to wear his shoes within so ‘fine’ a home, having very clearly been instilled with a good sense of manners from early childhood, Jethro politely took the advice of his host and stood back upright, subsequently dissatisfying Henry, even as he made to obey him, by removing his pleasingly plump posterior from a position of admiration and likewise putting himself in full position to take note of the evidence of such arousal. Although thankfully, for the sake of their date, as well as for his pride, Jethro seemed perfectly oblivious to the organ pushing away at Henry’s pants and seemed rather more focused on keeping their conversation going.

            “Who’s Annie?” Jethro asked, thankfully keeping his eyes directed on Henry’s suddenly very warm face rather than his suddenly-snug jeans.

            Believing himself have detected the faintest note of jealousy within Jethro’s tone as he put forth such a seemingly innocent question, despite the relative passivity of said man’s current expression standing in direct contrast against such an assumption, Henry felt his stomach beginning to churn away with a nervous sort of hope that Jethro actually did, in fact, feel just as invested in this date as did he.

            “She’s my cleaning lady.” Henry promptly answered, wishing to put his date’s assumptions to rest.

            “You have a cleaning lady?” Jethro interrogated, looking scandalized at the very idea of a grown-ass man paying somebody else to clean his home.

            “Sure.” Henry reluctantly confirmed, becoming all the more self-conscious about his wealth. “It comes in handy during finals week.”

             Although it became abundantly clear to Henry that Jethro had seen right through his flimsy pretext of only needing the additional help when it came time to deal with the hell that was finals week, he was immediately gratified by the fact that his date seemed polite enough to at least play along with the charade.

            “I’m sure it is.” Jethro allowed, shrugging his thick autumn jacket from his shoulders.

            “Here,” Henry immediately intervened, moving closer to his date in order to remove the jacket for him, “Let me take that for you.”  

            And, despite being met with some initially embarrassed reluctance upon first laying his hands on Jethro’s broad shoulders, Henry was promptly rewarded for all his chivalry when his date went still and pliantly allowed the removal of his coat to be completed without any overly proud resistance hampering Henry in his noble endeavors or preventing him from enjoying the scent of sawdust and soap that clung to Jethro’s person.

            “What a gentleman.” Jethro sarcastically crooned, taking a few awkward steps away from him once the coat had been placed on a nearby rack.

            “I try.” Henry grinned, wishing to do nothing more than put his date at ease. “But, please, try and save your appraisals for the coffee.”

            “Well, if you insist.” Jethro smirked, still clearly feeling more than just a little awkward.  

            Thinking that Jethro’s clear discomfort could only stem forth from the fact that he was still ensconced within an admittedly fancy foyer, and partially so from the proverbial first-date jitters, Henry immediately sought to pacify Jethro’s nerves the only way he currently knew how – with coffee.

            “Oh, I do.” Henry assured, putting on his best smile. “So let’s make our way to the kitchen.”  

            “Lead the way.” Jethro prompted, clearly nervous about the idea of getting lost within such a large space.

 

 

             

Chapter Text

            Jethro was not at all surprised to find that Henry’s kitchen was every bit just as splashy and fine as his foyer had been, nor was he to any degree shocked to discover that said kitchen was just as littered with aged books and haphazard stacks of papers as the living room they had traveled through to reach it. Because while he wasn’t one that liked to make baseless assumptions only a measly half-hour after meeting a person, as he liked to reserve his profiling skills for work, Henry had given off a very bookish vibe, even with his unmistakably lumberjack aesthetics. Although, unlike a similarly-minded Ducky, his newest of friends seemed to harbor some great personal vendetta against organization and order. Not that Jethro minded such an attribute, of course, given that Tony was much the same when it came to leaving his shoes and clothing all over the damn place, but only found it somewhat amusing to see such blatant disorganization in someone so firmly attached to an academic profession, and to such an extent that it had been necessary for Henry to remove four large stacks of half-graded papers from the stools situated in front of kitchen counter before Jethro could be comfortably seated.

            “Sorry about the clutter.” Henry grimaced, looking genuinely mortified as he hastily tucked the offending papers away unto an already overcrowded portion of counterspace. “I’m afraid it’s midterm season.”

            Despite having seen, for himself, that the majority of the papers that had been removed contained an inordinate amount of proof that they had been handed in sometime during early August, rather than the late October Henry was struggling to successfully insinuate, Gibbs kept silent on the matter out of a genuine desire to be polite to the man who had been so kind as to buy him a coffee after a very stressful day of work.

            “It’s fine.” Gibbs kindly dismissed, surreptitiously brushing a handful of broken fountain pens to the side so that their ink might not stain his sleeve. “It would be weird for a professor not to have papers lying around his house.”

            Still appearing to be deeply ashamed of his questionable housekeeping methods, perhaps rightfully so, Henry gave him a rather sheepish expression before going about the awkward process of attempting to remove several smudges of bright red ink from his pristine white countertops with only the sleeve of his similarly-colored flannel shirt. And though it was really  none of Gibbs’s business, at all, as to how his newest of acquaintances chose to treat his clothing and kitchen surfaces, given that they had only known each for a laughably short time, he still found, much to his mild embarrassment, that he could not his tongue as he watched the harried professor working a bright red stain into the countertops that must have cost more than Gibbs’s truck did when first purchased.

            “You’re going to ruin your counters.” Gibbs cautioned, wishing to prevent such an avoidable misfortune befalling his friend. “You need to cover the stain with a poultice of baking soda if you want to get it out.”

            “Oh,” Henry blinked, looking absurdly surprised at the fact that something so red could stain something so white, “That’s good to know. Annie threatened to geld me the next time I spilled my ink on something.”    

            Absolutely flabbergasted that Henry seemed to take his employee threatening him so casually, and without any evidence at all of lingering resentment or hostility to boot, as he most certainly wouldn’t have allowed any of his agents to get away wish such behavior, not even Tony, Gibbs couldn’t help but parrot back the threat with all the disgust it deserved.

            “She threatened to geld you.” Gibbs guffawed.

            “Well, I think she did.” Henry reluctantly confirmed. “But my Chinese is as bad as her English, so I’m not one-hundred percent sure.” And, pausing there to consider the matter a little bit longer, the burly professor then added: “All I know for sure is that she wasn’t happy the last time I spilled ink on the tiles. She said it took hours to get the stain out.”

            Glancing discreetly down at the floor beneath him to discover that the material covering the kitchen was terrazzo, a material even more expensive than marble itself, Gibbs was forced to concede, to himself, of course, that perhaps Annie had not been overreacting after all when she had threatened to literally emasculate Henry. Because God help him, if it had been Tony to stain something so remarkably expensive, Gibbs would have had him over his knees in a heartbeat. Which was saying something, given that he didn’t really believe in doling out corporal punishment aside from a well-earned headslap or two whenever the occasion, or culprit, merited it.

            “Maybe you should just switch to ink pens.” Gibbs suggested, only half-joking.

            “Oh, I couldn’t do that.” Henry dismissed, kind yet resolved. “My grandfather gave me my first fountain pen when I was nine and I’ve been hooked ever since. It just wouldn’t feel right using anything else.”

            Reflecting fondly upon his own remembrances of his beloved mother teaching him how to sketch out the rudimentary shape of animals and people when she was still well enough to live at home, a time when Jethro was yet too small to hug her and rest his head against her stomach without first getting up unto the very tips of his toes, with nothing more than one of the skinny sticks of charcoal his uncle LJ would bring over periodically to cheer her up after a particularly nasty fight with her husband, Gibbs smiled softly to himself and figured it would be more than just a little unkind to persist in his suggestions that his friend give up his fountain pens when he, himself, would not do so with his charcoal.  

            “I suppose there are worse things that spilled ink.” Gibbs allowed.

            “Like an hour spent without coffee.” Henry agreed, his customary grin returning to his bearded face as he turned his back on Gibbs and focused his attentions unto an odd-looking contraption nestled close to the sink. “Not that I have any intentions of allowing us to go so deprived, of course.”

            And, thusly declared, Henry made very short work of collecting from a cupboard a very large handful of small burlap bags before subsequently depositing the whole collection in front of Gibbs with a very excited gleam in his soft green eyes.

            “Behold my trove of treasure.” Henry theatrically declared, putting on his very best Vanna White impression as he gesticulated at the mound of burlap with a flourish of his muscular arm.

            Despite already having a pretty good idea as to just what all those burlap bags contained, given that the delicious scent of each was currently filling the air and creating a very intoxicating smell that all but filled the kitchen, Gibbs nonetheless took the liberty of fingering one of the bags nearest to him open.

            “Ah, Kampung Barako.” Henry smiled with a sniff, not even needing to look into the burlap bag himself to ascertain that he was correct. “That’s a good one, although a bit weaker than you’re probably accustomed to.”

            Feeling a bit overwhelmed with all the choices being presented before him, as there was at least a dozen or more of the burlap bags currently laying before him, the likes of which he had absolutely no prayer of accurately identifying, Gibbs decided to go for broke and appealed to Henry for assistance in the important matter of choosing what beverage they were to share that morning.

            “Which one is your favorite?” He asked, still not even halfway through opening all the bags.

            “Oh no,” Henry chuckled, as amiable as ever, “I’m not answering that question until you’ve picked which one you want.”

            Not wishing to be responsible for any of the discomfort that might arise from him making the ‘wrong’ choice and subsequently subjecting his friend to a beverage he found unpalatable, or worse, downright undrinkable, Gibbs stubbornly shook his head and refused to make a decision.

            “What if I pick something you don’t like?” He challenged, quirking a brow at his host.

            “Jethro,” Henry grinned, meeting his challenge with an easy grace, “Why would I keep coffee I didn’t like in my home?”     

            More than just a little embarrassed as such sound logic flooded over him, as it was not at all like him to put forth such a very weak argument, Gibbs felt his cheeks beginning to flame and took immediate steps to conceal such a fact by turning his face down at the small mound of coffee beans spread out before him.

            “How about this one then?” Gibbs suggested, poking at the most fragrant of the beans.

            “Geisha.” Henry smiled, not even needing to look inside the bag to know. “That’ll be perfect on a cold day like today. Good call, Jethro.”

            Unexplainably delighted to have had his choice of coffee beans so lauded by the practical stranger who had invited him back to his place, Gibbs felt a familiar heat returning to his cheeks and tried, in vain, to vanquish it’s presence by pressing his chilly hands up against the flaming skin. Although, much to Gibbs’s great relief, Henry’s back was currently turned on him as said professor emptied a portion of the selected beans into a remarkably old-fashioned looking grinder.

            “This grinder actually belonged to my great-grandfather.” Henry shared, loving turning the crank of the wooden appliance. “He brought it all the way over from France once the Napoleonic War was finished and kept it in good enough condition that three generations of Sinclair’s have been able to enjoy it after him.”

            “That thing must be close to a hundred years old, then.” Gibbs estimated, both impressed and touched by how well the grinder had been taken care of.

            “It’s probably closer to two hundred years old.” Henry calmly corrected, his muscular arm still cranking away at the wooden handle of the grinder. “Do you have any heirlooms in your family, aside from the truck?”

            The grief of losing those he cared most amount still too raw and powerful to discuss without significant pain on his part, Gibbs found it all but impossible to share with the curious Henry the fact that he had kept, even after all these years, the yellow gown Kelly had come home from the hospital in, alongside the emerald earrings Shannon had worn on their wedding night and the ivory comb his mother hand relinquished into his care once the last of her vibrant red hair had fallen out.

            “I still have my grandmother’s piano.” Gibbs volunteered, conveniently leaving out the fact that it was the exact same instrument Kelly had learned to play on.

            Far too preoccupied with the task of grinding the selected coffee beans to take note of the fact that Gibbs had suddenly become somewhat dour, Henry latched onto the existence of the piano in order to further their conversation, all but oblivious to the turmoil he was causing his guest.

            “Do you play, Jethro?” Henry inquired, sounding excited at the prospect.

            Despite wanting nothing more than to be able assert that he did, in fact, learn to play the piano as a small child, Gibbs was woefully unable to make such a claim without being unforgivably dishonest. Because while his beloved maternal grandmother had begun to go about the process of tutoring him in such an art, even going so far as to order a special piano bench so he could reach the keys without straining, she had succumbed to the same illness his mother had before he could even learn to adequately play the beginner scales. And that after such a traumatizing event, it had gone without saying that Jethro outright refused to even approach the ancient instrument until Kelly had pleaded with him to let her learn.

            “I don’t.” He frowned, still recalling the scent of his grandmother’s perfume as he sat in her lap and listened to her pound away at the keys. “Do you?”

            “I can manage well enough on the piano, I suppose.” Henry confessed with a shrug, “But my instrument of choice is the violin.”

            Having, unfairly, assumed that a man as large as Henry would prefer an instrument far manlier in appearances, Gibbs struggled to keep the genuine surprise out of his voice as he made an innocent inquiry into the matter.

            “Any particular reason why?”

            “My hands were too big for the flute.” Henry answered with a laugh, his muscular back rippling with the action. “And my mother threatened to kick me out of the house if I took up drums.”

            “Can you blame her?” Gibbs playfully razzed, recovering from his dreary funk now that the conversation had veered towards safer topics. “I’m sure a house with three kids was already loud enough without any – “

            Cut short from finishing his sentence as a lithe black shadow dived off the refrigerator and unto his shoulder with a surprising grace, Gibbs startled greatly and very nearly flung the slight mass off his shoulder before the sounds of a discordant purring reached his ears and stilled his hands. Because even though the inky black monster had been quite foolish to take a Marine by surprise, especially one who was already on edge about being in a stranger’s home, Gibbs would never be so big of an asshole as to purposely an animal – let alone one that seemed to weight less than a newborn baby.

            “Todd,” Henry scolded, having turned away from his grinder to better scold the wayward beast, “That was rude.”

            Seeming more than just a little indifferent to his master’s rebukes, if not outright dismissive, Todd the cat meowed loudly at his owner before slapping Gibbs full on in the face with his sleek and shiny tail.   

            “Todd!” Henry admonished, brandishing a thick finger in his direction. “You get down this instance.”

            Not needing to be a genius to realize that Henry had become legitimately distressed by his pet’s poor manners, if not outright mortified, Gibbs quickly spoke up in an attempt to put his host back at ease.

            “It’s fine, Henry.” Gibbs quickly assured, stretching up a tentative hand to stroke the cat’s noticeably earless head. “He’s just curious is all.”

            And affectionate to boot, if the way in which he reciprocated to Gibbs’s head scratches by liking his eyebrow was anything to judge by.

            “Maybe.” Henry allowed, suddenly looking very stressed. “But he also has a penchant for biting people’s ears.”

            “Because he doesn’t have any of his own?” Gibbs ventured, quirking the brow that was not currently being licked by a barbarous tongue.

            It was only after the treacherous black cat had viciously clamped down on his left ear with needle-sharp teeth that Gibbs learned to regret his mockery. For as much as he was inclined to believe that such an animal was incapable of retaliation, given that it’s brain must surely lack the complexity required to understand human language, he could not but think that the furry beast would not have assaulted him in so passionate a manner without the very clear provocation of being mocked for his distinct lack of ears. And, as such, he could only concede that he, himself, was to blame for the attack – for had it been he who had been unlucky enough to be born as a cat, he would have not tolerated such an insult either, the will and wants of his owner be damned.  

            “Todd!” Henry cried, hurrying across the kitchen to snatch the skinny beast from Gibbs’s shoulder. “Can’t you take a joke?”

            Quickly bringing a hand up to his ear to conceal the small trickle of blood currently flowing from the puncture wounds the ornery cat had afflicted at its tip, Gibbs sat up a bit straighter and tried to affect as much nonchalance as he could muster when interrupting Henry’s mild scolding of the blameless beast.

            “Really, Henry, it’s fine.” He repeated, still using his fingers to stem the slight flow of blood trickling down his ear. “It was just a bite. I’ve had far worse over the years.”

            And it was no mere exaggeration that Gibbs was making either, as he had been both shot and stabbed more than his fair share of times since graduating high school, as well as before.

            “But Todd knows better.” Henry frowned, giving his pet a very sharp look.

            “I did antagonize him.” Gibbs reminded the professor, slowly removing his fingers from his ear once he felt the blood beginning to conceal. “So lets just let bygones be bygones.”

            “Well, if you’re sure.” Henry reluctantly acquiesced, gently depositing his cat back unto the terrazzo.

            “I’m positive.” Gibbs swiftly assured, bravely holding out a reconciliatory hand toward the deformed cat that had just so recently brutalized his person.

            At first receiving a very nasty glare in response to such a presumptuous act, Gibbs instinctively stiffened and prepared himself for a battle that never came. For only after a very brief moment of consideration, the length of which only lasted several seconds, Todd swished his tail dramatically and gracefully leapt up into his lap before using his earless head to nuzzle up against Gibbs’s chin.

            “That’s amazing.” Henry breathed; green eyes gone wide.

             “What?” Gibbs playfully challenged. “Does Todd usually hold grudges?”

            “It usually doesn’t come to that point,” Henry began, still quite shell-shocked, “Because he usually avoids everybody but me.”

            Strangely honored by the fact that such a curmudgeonly cat had chosen to bestow so rare an honor unto him, Gibbs allowed himself a rare smile and rewarded the black beast with a good scratch behind his ear holes.

            “I hope you’re not offended.” Gibbs joked.

            “If anything, I’m reassured.” Henry countered with a smile. “Because if Todd likes you, you must be something special.”

Chapter Text

Although Henry would have loved nothing more than to enjoy his freshly-ground coffee out on his back porch, as it provided a rather pretty view of the pond he had paid someone to put in for him immediately upon moving in, he considerately forced himself not to make such a suggestion to his date, as Jethro really didn’t seem able to tolerate the cold even half as well as he did. And there was just no denying that there was, in fact, a certain chill in the air that morning, the intensity of which almost certainly promised a mid-morning snow to go along with the predawn frost it had delivered.

And, so it had been, with those important caveats in mind, that Henry had guided the coldblooded Marine into the foyer he had long ago deemed the ‘cozy’ one, figuring that such a comfortable and homey spot would be far more conducive to their mutual relaxation than any one of his more ‘opulent’ rooms would be. Especially so because said room was one of the very few in his home that could claim ownership to a somewhat fully-functioning fireplace and intimate atmosphere.

 “Make yourself comfortable.” Henry directed, gently depositing a very nervous Jethro into the plush loveseat situated directly in front of the fireplace. “I’ll have a fire going for us in no time at all.”

Provided, of course, that his quarrelsome fireplace actually cooperated for once.

“Do you want any help?” Jethro immediately offered, already starting to set aside his steaming beverage on the coffee table.

Thinking, with no small amount of abhorrence, upon all the times he had been senselessly burned by the erratic nature of the flames that sprang to life within such an ancient fireplace, or elsewise choked by an inexplicable gust of ash being blasted into his face without any natural cause behind it, Henry grimaced into the darkness of the fireplace and immediately sought to put such a foolish, and dangerous, idea out of Jethro’s head.

“Oh no, I don’t think so.” Henry chuckled, shoving one of his arms into the dusty fireplace to open the flue. “This fireplace is as moody as a teenager, and I’d prefer my guests not have their eyebrows singed off.”

Despite looking as if he wanted to do nothing more than persist he be allowed to help with the kindling of a fire, his pride as a man no doubt being a contributing factor of such stubbornness, Jethro was thankfully forced to abandon his stubborn stance after Todd trotted into the room and leaped into his lap to demand ‘ear’ scratches.

“I suppose Todd wouldn’t thank you for that.” Jethro allowed, patiently allowing said cat to lick away at his eyebrow.

            “No,” Henry grinned, “It seems he finds your eyebrows rather delicious.”

            Mewling softly his sage agreement to such an astute observation, or perhaps simply wishing to have his own opinions on the topic considered, Todd flicked his sleek black tail back and forth several times before finally giving Jethro’s left eyebrow one last lick and curling up into his lap in a tight little ball.

             “Are you sure he actually hates people?” Jethro innocently queried, expertly stroking the moody cat beneath his chin. “He seems like a cuddler to me.”

            Having finally managed to successfully open the flue after a good several minutes of fumbling awkwardly in the relative darkness of his fireplace, Henry reemerged from its ashy depths and was promptly rewarded for all his efforts at fire-kindling upon seeing the notoriously fickle Todd being perfectly docile as Jethro gently stroked away at his fur.

            “Don’t be deceived, Jethro. Todd once chased a Girl Scout down the street.” Henry divulged with a grimace, still greatly ashamed of such a fact. “It’s actually Ben who likes to cuddle.”  

            Still clearly disbelieving of the fact that Todd could be so violent and vicious, despite having just had his ear assaulted by such an ornery beast, Jethro shook his head in a friendly dismissal of such truthful claims and subsequently furthered their conversation along with a natural follow-up question.

             “How many cats do you have?”

             Having no real desire to confess to his newest love interest that he laid claim to the ownership of four cats, at least not right away, Henry stalled for time by crumpling up a few pages of newspaper to use for kindling.

            “I have four.” He finally confessed, eventually unable to stall any longer once the kindling was lit. “I don’t like to turn anyone who needs a home away.”

            Thankfully seeming to take his softheartedness as a positive attribute, rather than a negative one, Jethro nodded evenly at his answer and lovingly scratched Todd beneath the chin before continuing along with the rest of his innocent interrogation.

            “And do they all have people names?” He investigated, playfully amused at the very suggestion.

            “Yes, but can blame me?” Henry questioned, more than happy enough to poke fun at his own name.

            “I suppose not.” Jethro charitably allowed, still stroking away at Todd’s dark fur.

            Somewhat distracted as he allowed himself to imagine, for one indulgent moment, his guest’s calloused fingers working away on his own body, in an entirely different fashion altogether, and on an entirely different body part to boot, Henry felt his jeans grow tight at the exact same time his hopelessly large fingers found themselves being burned by the flames that had finally caught unto the small log he added into the hearth. And though Jethro had clearly not failed to take note of such an embarrassing blunder, judging by the concerned look that had flickered across his occasionally expressive face, said Marine was thankfully far too polite to call him out on it and more than just a little indulgent in allowing him to play it off as if nothing had ever happened.

            “And, to be fair, Ben already had his name when I picked him up from the shelter.” He excused, carrying on with the conversation as if he hadn’t just nearly set himself aflame.

            Although it looked as if he wanted to do nothing more than inquire into the state of his fingers, and perhaps even tend to them himself, Jethro was mindful enough of his pride to refrain from doing so and instead focused all of his attentions unto increasing the intensity of Todd’s purrs.

            “That shelter did him dirty.” Jethro frowned, apparently taking great umbrage with the general basicness of his name. “Poor thing.”   

            Reflecting on the poor state Ben had been in when first found, sans foot and full of a disgusting number of fleas and ticks, Henry was woefully unable to disagree with Jethro’s assessment that the fickle creature really had, at one point, been quite unfortunate.

            “The shelter was actually pretty kind to him, all things considered.” Henry corrected, carefully adding a thicker log of wood into the fireplace.

            Afterall, the vast majority of shelters would have very likely just put the sickly creature to sleep straight away – if not for his sorry state, then at the very least because of his unadoptable appearance.

            “What do you mean?” Jethro asked, having not yet had the honor of being introduced to any of his other cats.

            Kept from answering the question straightway as the very beast himself waddled gracelessly into the room, patchy white tail dragging listlessly on the floor in an attempt to help him compensate for his missing hind leg, and one remaining blue eye watering away from an unending assault of allergies, Henry kept silent and patiently waited for the special-needs cat to scramble, slowly and awkwardly, up unto the couch and sniff investigatively at Jethro’s elbow before speaking – now wishing to startle the notoriously flighty cat into fleeing before he was good and ready to.

            “I that it that this is Ben?” Jethro asked, holding out his hands so that the skittish cat might better analyze his scent.

            “That’s Ben.” Henry confirmed, adding a few more logs into the rapidly-growing fire.

            Gently scratching Ben’s ears once the cat made it clear, via very timid purrs, that it was okay for him to do so, Jethro frowned and gave Henry a very bashful look before making an inquiry into the state of the malformed cat he was currently plying with pets.

            “What happened to him?”

            “Some kids thought it would be funny to use him as target practice for their BB guns.” He divulged, still obscenely angry about the fact.    

            “I hope they shot their eyes out.” Jethro grumbled, giving Ben’s lifeless tail a good few strokes.    

            Kept from experiencing some very ungentlemanly thoughts as he watched such an action by the astounding sight of the easily-frightened Ben jumping up unto Jethro’s shoulder without restraint before draping himself around his neck like a feather boa, Henry smiled and breathed out a small sigh of relief, knowing, without a doubt, that his pants couldn’t possibly grow any tighter without catching the attentions of his guest.

            “I hope they aren’t bothering you.” Henry commented. “I can move them if they are.”

            “They’re fine.” Jethro immediately assured, already quite protective of the furry beasts.  

            Immediately encouraged by such a heartwarming display, as it all but proved he made the correct choice in selecting Jethro for a possible boyfriend, Henry hastily swiped away the soot from his fingers unto the fabric of his jeans and took a few steadying breaths before making his way over to join Jethro in the loveseat, making sure to sit as close as he could without earning himself a sound clawing from the territorial Todd.

            “Are you all nice and cozy?” Henry asked, casually slinging his arm around Jethro’s shoulder and doing his best not to jostle a sleeping Ben.

              “Yeah,” Jethro answered, no trace of a lie showing on his face, “You’ve got a really nice room here. I’m sure you use it a lot.”

            Unable to recall the last time he had actually invited another man into such a special room, as his previous string of flings usually only made it up into the bedroom for a few hours, and in one particularly adventurous case, the attic, Henry felt a brief flash of shame flicker across his face before he successfully managed to shoo them away with the thoughts that it was not at all wrong for a man to have a few casual dates after a particularly nasty breakup. In fact, should he be bold enough to inquire into whether or not Jethro was in the same boat, he was almost certain he would be met with the news that he was not alone in the matter of rebound dating.

            “Not really.” Henry confessed, scooting even closer. “I usually only reserve this room for special guests.”

            “Oh?” Jethro asked, adorably naïve to all the subtext. “Should I be honored then?”

            “Not at all.” Henry rapidly assured, wishing to make it perfectly clear that he was, in fact, flirting. “I’m the one who should be honored.”

            Still far more innocent in nature than Henry would have liked during that particular time in their date, as such coquetry could only be amusing for so long, Jethro blinked painfully slowly a few times and seemed on the cusp of saying something important when, at the worst possible time, his cell phone began to chime obnoxiously loudly.

            “I’m sorry.” Jethro frowned, seeming genuinely aggrieved. “But I have to answer, it could be work.”

Chapter Text

            While Gibbs would have loved nothing more than to remain within Henry warm and opulent foyer, both genuinely enjoying his company and avoiding the bitter chill outdoors the best way possible, in front of a roaring fire with a steaming cup of coffee in hand, it was much to his great chagrin and minor irritation that he found himself being compelled to head home; a very random, and ill-timed, call from his son making it perfectly clear that a hopelessly inebriated Tony was in dire need or his both comfort and care.               

            “I have to go, Henry.” Gibbs frowned, making the executive decision to hang up on his rambling child once it became abundantly clear that he was far too drunk to execute such a decision on his own. “My kid is drink and sobbing about baseball season being over.”

            There was also possibly some lingering anguish about having lost his mini-doughnuts in the midst of a crowded Walmart parking lot, but Gibbs wasn’t altogether one-hundred percent certain of just what exactly the latter half of Tony’s delirious monologue had pertained to, given its disjointed and inarticulate nature. Which meant that his occasionally-irresponsible child was very likely on the verge of passing out in a graceless heap upon the floor after throwing up a profuse amount of whatever it was he had eaten during his drunken misadventure – no doubt on the hard-to-clean sofa or rugs, rather than on the easily-mopped bathroom tile.

            “Don’t be sorry.” Henry insisted, perfectly sincere despite being very clearly put out at such an impromptu end to their friendly conversation. “Your kid needs you. Of course you have to go.”

            “Still,” Gibbs frowned, the word hideously garbled with a yawn, “I hate to be rude.”

             After all, his beloved mother had taken great care to instill within him a rigorous understanding of manners and etiquette – even going so far as to make certain that the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ directly followed his first utterances of ‘mama’ and ‘no.’

            “You’re not being rude.” Henry was quick to assert, still every bit as friendly as he had been from the start. “But haven’t you been up since yesterday morning? Are you sure you’re good to drive?”

            Figuring that he had vey often 24-hours, or more, without sleep in his youth, if not during the hell that was bootcamp than surely during his grueling tours in Vietnam and Afghanistan, Gibbs felt no major qualms, whatsoever, in remaining awake just a little longer in order to get himself home and in a position to tend to his hopelessly-drunken child, as it was not as if he couldn’t simply collapse into his own bed once all the hard work had been done.  

            “I’ll be fine.” Gibbs readily assured, betting on the six cups of coffee he had consumed in the last two hours to keep him awake for as long as needed. “It’s just a twenty-minute drive.”

            “Still.” Henry frowned, visibly concerned. “A lot can happen in fifteen seconds when it comes to driving.”  

            Knowing all too well the truth of such a bleak statement, given the fate that had befallen his wife and daughter, Gibbs soon found himself frowning, woefully unable to deny Henry’s sage assertions without making himself into either a giant hypocrite or dismissive asshole.  

             “I’ll be careful.” Gibbs asserted, not liking the idea of heading out before his new friend was at least reasonably reassured of his safety. “I promise.”

            And though it was, admittedly, a rather pointless promise he made, given that he was so very meticulous and careful when it came to all things, especially driving, Gibbs still found that he felt infinitely better after having made it, knowing, as he did, that his words had at least served to assuage Henry’s fears and concerns about the safety of his person.

            “Just do me a favor.” Henry prompted, laying a large hand on his shoulder. “Call me when you make it home.”

            Seeing as how such a simple request was more than just a little reasonable, given that he had very often requested the exact same favor Tony whenever said young man went out for an evening of drinking, Gibbs nodded pliantly and more than happily surrendered his phone into Henry’s impossibly large hand.

            “Sure.” Gibbs immediately obliged, for once legitimately embarrassed about the notable primitiveness of his phone. “Just put your number in there.” He reluctantly requested, woefully unable to complete the task himself.

            Thankfully accepting the prehistoric cell phone without any measure of judgement of disdain, despite no doubt being in full possession of one of the newest models of whatever brand was currently the most popular, Henry eagerly entered his digits into the cracked, without any struggle or hesitation, and happily surrendered the obsolete device back into his hands with a small smile just as soon as he had finished.      

            “You will call, won’t you?” Henry fussed, clearly very keen on extracting such an important promise from him.

             “I promise.” Gibbs patiently reassured, strangely touched by just how much Henry seemed to care.

            “Thank you.” Henry sighed, very clearly relieved. “Let me walk you to your truck.”

             Seeing no real reason as to why he should deny such a friendly offer, even though it was, admittedly, a pretty bizarre one coming from the lips of another man, Gibbs politely nodded his consent to the idea and allowed the slightly taller man to accompany him through the lavish rooms of his Victorian manor and out in into the chill of the late October morning.

            “I hope we can do this again.” Henry awkwardly babbled, hurrying down the long paved driveway to open the door of Gibbs’s truck for him.

             “Sounds good to me.” Gibbs agreed, scurrying into his truck to get out of the cold.

            “Maybe…Maybe we could do supper?” Henry suggested, his expression an unfathomably nervous one as he stood in front of the door to prolong their conversation.

            Although he couldn’t help but think that such a request was of a remarkably odd nature, given that the great majority of straight men didn’t invite their friends out to supper, at least not one-on-one, Gibbs kept that little commentary to himself, not wishing to come across as rude or needlessly aggressive. And, at the end of the day, it was not as if it was an entirely unheard-of phenomenon for two male friends to accompany one another to supper, as not only did Tony occasionally share a lunch or coffee-break with Tim, but so too had he, himself attended a small number of said functions at Ducky’s behest before said man had suddenly, out of nowhere, secured a college librarian for himself – a woman who, while altogether nearly perfect, seemed all but hellbent on setting him up with one of her colleagues.

            “Sure, that would be fine.” Jethro obliged, shrugging his shoulders. “What did you have in mind?”

            “Well,” Henry blushed, “Noting too fancy, of course, but…but maybe once you’ve gotten everything taken care of at home, you could come over tonight?”

            “Sure, that sounds fine.” Gibbs agreed, hopelessly confused as to why Henry seemed so ridiculously nervous.

            After all, they were only arranging supper plans, not closing on a multi-million-dollar deal or gambling with the wellbeing of the world as they knew it.

            “Great.” Henry beamed, putting his perfect teeth on full display. “How about…How does nine sound?”  

            “Nine is fine.” Gibbs allowed, putting his keys into the ignition of his truck in order to turn on the heat.

            “Great!” Henry breathed, unreasonably excited. “I’ll see you then.”

            “Yeah.” Gibbs nodded. “I’ll see you then.”

            It was only once he had found himself back on roads more familiar to himself that Gibbs realized there was a peculiar and vexing sensation that had taken root in his stomach, the likes of which he didn’t know how to label much less describe. And while it wasn’t a particularly unpleasant feeling he was being beleaguered with, such as anxiety or irritation, it wasn’t altogether an overly-pleasant one either.  But, rather than trouble himself with such an ordeal the entire way home, and thus run the risk of driving distracted, something that he had outright avowed never to do, Gibbs shrugged the nagging feeling off and simply wrote it off as indigestion from the copious amounts of coffee he had just consumed.

             

Chapter Text

            While Gibbs was not at all surprised, not even a little bit, to find his adopted son passed out on the living room floor, atop of the nearly-impossible-to-wash rugs as expected, atop a pile of disgustingly-ripe vomit, the likes of which still covered half his face and hair, he was genuinely taken aback to discover that his two remaining agents had also decided to take up residence in his home as well – the sole woman currently holed up in the kitchen as she vomited violently into his garbage can, and the remaining man passed out, in an uncomfortably twisted knot, atop his sofa with a suspiciously wet stain spread out all across the front of his jeans.

            “Oh, for the love of God.” Gibbs grumbled, taking great care to keep his voice low as he moved into the kitchen to confront his only conscious agent. “How did you three even manage to get here if you were that drunk?”

            Reluctantly dragging her head out of the fetid-smelling darkness of the garbage can she had selected as a receptacle for the entirety of her regurgitated food, Kate groaned as pitifully as a dying cow as she looked up at him with a doleful pair of pale blue eyes.

             “Jimmy.” Kate gagged, moving on from full-fledged vomiting into dryheaving. “I…I think.”

            Knowing, or at least liking to think, that none of his agents were so dumb and reckless as to drive themselves, as well as any others, home while hopelessly drunk and disoriented, and in very real danger of getting themselves seriously injured or killed, Gibbs refrained from interrogating Kate any further so far as that particular subject matter was concerned and instead focused on trying to force himself to remember to make his agents do something nice for Jimmy in return in the following few days, as neither of them were like to remember his kindness and Jimmy was not apt at all to remind them of it.

            “I’m going to deal with the boys first.” Gibbs informed the clearly exhausted Kate. “Try not to do anything stupid until I get back.”

            Giving Gibbs a very withering expression, the likes of which served to perfectly convey that she didn’t find his harmless, yet depreciating, sense of humor enjoyable at that precise moment, if at all, Kate huffed quite indignantly, the very picture of self-righteous condescension, before promptly running the whole dignified façade by hurling violently into the trash can that was already a quarter full from her own biological waste.  

            “Right.” Gibbs grimaced, charitably tossing a roll of paper towels her way. “Have fun with that.”

            Despite being fully aware of the fact that Kate had flipped the proverbial bird at him just as soon as he had turned his back, perhaps even a few milliseconds before then, Gibbs refrained from turning back around to headslap her into oblivion on the grounds that her imminent hangover would surely be punishment enough for her mild transgression. Although, once he stopped for a moment to think about it, he found that perhaps he ought not to be so charitable, after all, once he was forced to contend with the giant messes all three of his agents had left for him to clean up – particularly Tim, as said technology enthusiast had very clearly urinated all over his goddamn couch and the floor in front of it.  

            “Goddammit.” Gibbs cursed beneath his breath, already resigning himself to the fact that he would have to purchase new couch cushions. “Why can these things never happen in the bathroom?”

            But, rather than violently shake his soiled agent awake, and impatiently demand an answer to such a burning question, the likes of which he was no like to receive anyways given the drunken state of said man, Gibbs simply sighed aloud his frustrations with the whole entire ordeal before carefully scooping up the slightly-hefty individual into his arms and ferrying him up the short flight of stairs and into the bedroom that had long ago been dubbed as ‘Tony’s room.’

            “You’re lucky I’m so nice.” Gibbs mumbled beneath his breath, gently depositing the unconscious man unto the bed. “If I was really mean, I’d let everyone see you in your wet pants.”

            Thankfully for Tim, Gibbs really wasn’t as big of a bastard as most people liked to accuse him of being. Because instead of leaving him in his wet jeans to atone for the crime of pissing all over somebody else’s furniture, and floor, Gibbs considerately wrestled his agent’s soaked garments off, careful not to get any of the unsavory fluid unto the bedding, and charitably wrestled a pair of Tony’s more relaxed-fitting sweatpants unto the loudly snoring young man to preserve his dignity.

            “That’ll have to do for now.” Gibbs decided, drawing the blankets up over Tim’s larger frame.

            Understandably receiving no response, at all, to such an executive decision, given that Tim was not like at all to awaken until suppertime, at the very earliest, Gibbs opted to take the unconscious silence as his agent’s nonverbal assent to being placed in a piece of his SFA’s clothing and happily, or at least non-resentfully, went on his way to go tend to the child he had left passed out on the living room rug. A task which thankfully only involved using a damp rag to remove vomit from a suspiciously sticky face, rather than urine from a pair of ridiculously sweaty legs, before carrying a practically-comatose man up his stairs and depositing him into a bed already occupied by another drunken compatriot – leaving him with only Kate left to contend with.

            “C’mon, Todd.” Gibbs coaxed, making his way back into his kitchen. “You can sleep in the guest room with the boys.” He announced, immensely thankful that he had not yet put away the blowup mattress Abby had used the last time she’d spent the night alongside Tony.

            Slowly lifting herself up off the tiles she had evidently curled up on once the urge to vomit had passed, Kate groaned feebly and stubbornly shook her head in a very clear refusal to move away from the ice-cold tiles keeping her profusely-sweating body cool.  

            “Can’t.” Kate groaned, the word ridiculously slurred and nearly indecipherable.

            “Yeah?” Gibbs humored, quirking a brow at her. “And why’s that?”

            “If I move, I’ll die.” Kate whined, allowing herself to collapse back atop the tiles.

            Although it would have been a more than fitting punishment to leave her alone on the hard tiles to sleep off her ensuing-hangover alone, without even the comfort of similar company, Gibbs just didn’t have the heart to inflict such a harsh penance on her and, as such, renewed his efforts to convince her to head upstairs and into a soft bed.

            “You’re not going to die,” Gibbs assured, stretching out a chivalrous hand, “Now come on, you need to sleep.”

             Groaning loudly enough to wake the dead, but evidently not her two male colleagues, Kate shook her head passionately and childishly buried her face in her arms.

            “Fine,” Gibbs sighed, rolling his eyes, “We’ll do it my way then.”

               And, with that, he hefted the skinny woman up into his arms without warning and carted her up the stairs, stubbornly ignoring her drunken protests and admonishments and expertly ignoring all the pinches she inflicted on his forearms in her struggle to be free.

            “Go to sleep, Kate.” Gibbs directed, unceremoniously tossing the fussing brunette unto the blowup mattress at the foot of Tony’s bed. “I don’t want to see you again until the lunch at the earliest.”

             Rolling her eyes as dramatically as a preteen jut denied permission to attend a high school party, Kate muttered something distinctly vulgar beneath her breath before finally surrendering to his reasonable demands and dragging the blanket provided to her over her face in a much more silent form of protest.

            “You’re getting a headslap for that when your sober.” Gibbs forewarned, not at all amused with having been called a grey-haired cunt by one of his agents.

            Receiving no other reply to such a warning than a small series of fake snores, the likes of which were almost comical, Gibbs shook his head and rolled his own eyes before taking leave of the room, wishing to grant his three agents all the silence they needed to remain, or fall, asleep for the next several hours. As not only did they need the restorative and sobering properties only sleep could provide, so too did he wish them to remain asleep long enough to grant him his own lengthy period of untroubled sleep. Because he was almost certain that the very moment they woke up, they would be needing his assistance to deal with all the hangover-induced nausea and headaches they had earned for themselves.

            It was only as he was crawling into the wonderful warmth of his own bed, and beneath the heavy flannel blankets he had just washed the previous day, that his cell phone chimed and reminded him of his earlier promise to Henry.

            ‘Jethro, did you make it home?’

            Despite feeling exhausted enough to sleep for the next several days, if not weeks, Gibbs forced himself to stay awake long enough to make his reply to the redheaded man who had been so very kind to him that morning, without any ulterior motives at all but to make a friend of him.

            ‘Made it home, just had to help Tony.’ He swiftly replied, pulling the blankets up to his chest in order to better glean warmth from them.

            ‘Is he alright?’ Henry immediately questioned, the speed at which he texted of an astounding nature. ‘Are you?’

            Wishing for the first time in his life that it didn’t take so very long for him to type out words on his cellphone, as such a shortcoming was no doubt serving to make him either look old or disinterested, Gibbs tried, in vain, to increase his writing speed only to end up with a small series of indecipherable words and gibberish, the likes of which he didn’t dare send in fear of assumptions that he was an illiterate moron being made.

            ‘We’re both good, thanks.’

            ‘That’s a relief.’ Henry texted back. ‘I was starting to worry.’

            ‘Sorry,’ Gibbs apologized, feeling legitimately bad, ‘It took awhile to get everyone into bed.’

            Starting to grow a little nervous as the minutes stretched by without any answer from Henry, as he had quickly grown accustomed to said man’s prompt replies, Gibbs fidgeted uncomfortably in his bed and started to worry that he had, perhaps, somehow managed to insult Henry – either with his short replies or with his outright failure to respond to his texts in a prompt manner, as both such shortcomings could very easily be misconstrued as disinterest. But right when he was beginning to feel the strong urge to type out an apology for such a failing, the likes of which he would struggle to write given his unfortunate technological-incompetence, his cracked-and-damaged phone dinged and, by doing so, set him at ease once more.

             ‘Sorry, Francine stole my phone.’ Henry explained. ‘Just how many people did you have to get into bed?’

            ‘All three of my agents.’ Gibbs answered. ‘Who is Francine?’

            ‘She’s another one of my cats, don’t worry.’

            Wondering, briefly, why Henry would assume that he was worried about the potential presence of a human woman in his home, as both of them were as straight as could be, Gibbs frowned but nonetheless pushed his mild confusion away without any significant effort, opting instead on the very important task of trying to imagine just what emoji Henry had decided to utilize in his text, as the great inferiority of his phone meant that all such efforts resulted in nothing more than an irritating black box.

            ‘Did you send me an emoji?’ Gibbs questioned, his curiosity finally getting the best of him. ‘I can’t get those.’

            ‘Please, don’t worry yourself about it.’ Henry implored. ‘It was just a winking face.’

            ‘Oh.’ Gibbs answered, hopelessly embarrassed.

             Because while he was usually never one to be self-conscious when it came to his preferences for old-fashioned forms of technology, there was just something about Henry that caused him to be slightly embarrassed about his stubborn shunning of all the latest forms of technological advancement.

            ‘Get some sleep, you silly man.’ Henry typed back. ‘I’ll see you tonight.’

            Far too sleep-deprived to take umbrage at the fact that he had just been labeled silly of all things, and by a man who had only known him for a few hours at most, Gibbs yawned loudly and more than happily accepted the proffered advice, both silencing his phone, and curling up into a ball, before promptly falling asleep for the next seven hours.

Chapter Text

            While Gibbs had, admittedly, slept a lot longer than he had originally planned to, for a full seven hours rather than the four or five he had aiming for, he soon found that he couldn’t be as mad at the situation as he wished to be upon discovering, mere moments after waking, that his newly-sobered team had taken it upon themselves to clean up, as best as they could, the respective messes they had made in his home. Which meant that when Gibbs finally made his way downstairs to check up on the agents who were no longer in their beds, at the shamefully late hour of six-thirty, it was to find them seated at his kitchen table nursing individual cups of the bitter black coffee they always liked to claim was undrinkable whenever Gibbs offered to share some at work.

            “You might want to slow down on that coffee, McPeePants.” Tony heckled, oblivious to the fact that Gibbs had just entered the room. “You wouldn’t want to pee your pants on another piece of Gibbs’s furniture.”

            “Yeah,” Kate joined in, evidently emboldened by Tony throwing the first barb, “You’ll be lucky if he doesn’t stick you in diapers for work after this.”

            Although it was not at all uncommon for his agents to tease one another, especially so during any downtime they happened to have at the bullpen, where they had only paperwork to distract them, Gibbs still couldn’t help but think that the teasing his ‘older’ agents were currently leveling at the youngest of them was bordering more towards bullying than good-natured ribbing and, as such, was completely unacceptable and intolerable, as a team just couldn’t function at its full potential if one of its members was made to feel as if he didn’t belong or was somehow lesser than his compatriots.

            “Keep it up and I’ll put both of you over my knees.” Gibbs warned with a growl, giving the guilty culprits two synchronous slaps to the back of their heads.

            The first to recover from both the shock of Gibbs suddenly appearing and the hard headslap inflicted upon his person, Tony pouted visibly and looked up at him with very doleful eyes as he brought his hand up to the back of his head to massage away the soreness.

            “We were just teasing.” Tony whined, sounding very much like a spoiled toddler.

            “And I was just telling you to knock it the hell off.” Gibbs retorted, slapping his child upside the head once more for good measure. “It’s not like you two haven’t pissed yourselves before either.”

            And though he had promised, multiple times, not to divulge such secrets with anyone else, Gibbs had absolutely no qualms, whatsoever, about eluding to the fact that Tony had soiled himself multiple times during his recovery from the plague, as well as numerous drunken escapades, and that Kate had made quite a mess of her own clothing after a particularly vexing interrogation had lasted a little longer than desired. Because if they were willing to use the fickle nature and intricacies of a person’s bladder against one of their own, Gibbs felt no guilt, whatsoever, it turning the same treatment on them, hoping to, at the very least, remind them both that a little sympathy could go a long way.

            “Gibbs!” Both Kate and Tony cried in indignant unison, their faces immediately flushing as brightly as Tim’s.

             “Don’t be hypocrites.” Gibbs rebuked with a shrug, quickly running a comforting hand through Tim’s hair. “McGee, with me.”

            Despite looking as if he had just been summoned for the gallows, hazel eyes as wide as could be without becoming a medical anomaly, Tim bravely swallowed down his fears and obeyed the summons, wordlessly following after Gibbs and resolutely ignoring the taunting oohs and ahhs his fellow agents sent after him as he descended into the basement also known as Gibbs’s workshop.  

            “Here,” Gibbs mumbled, pulling Tim’s attention away from an intimidating-looking bandsaw as he reached into the dryer to retrieve said agent’s freshly-washed clothes, “These should be done by now. Go ahead and get them on.”        

             Turning a very vibrant shade of red as he awkwardly retrieved the newly-laundered pants and boxers from out of Gibbs’s hands, Tim sniffled pitifully and frowned heavily as he patiently waited for Gibbs to turn around so that he could slip out of Tony’s sweatpants and back into his own better-fitting pair of jeans.  

            “You’re alright, Tim.” Gibbs tried to comfort the sniffling technology-enthusiast, still facing the wall to grant him some privacy. “It happens to everyone every once in a while. It’s just a part of life, that’s all.”  

            Hell, even Gibbs, himself, had once pissed his pants after being stuck in unyielding traffic once for a full four hours.

            “But Tony and Kate are never going to shut up about it now.” Tim rebutted, now crying in earnest.

             Parental instincts kicking into overdrive at such a heart wrenching sound, as he really wasn’t as big of a bastard as most people liked to think, Gibbs turned around and hurried over to his distraught agent to wrap in a brief, yet firm, one-armed hug.

            “They’ve really been laying it on thick, lately, haven’t they?” Gibbs hummed, instinctively ruffling the sniffling man’s dark-blond hair.

            Reminded of the fact that Tim was, by far, the most sensitive of his agents, and perhaps the whole entire team barring Jimmy, when said man nodded passionately and swiped angrily at the moisture building up in his eyes with the back of his hand, Gibbs frowned and silently avowed to privately speak to his other two agents and tell them to cut the crap, as they really had been taking it too far lately.

            “I’ll talk to them, alright?” Gibbs comforted, already planning out the verbal tirade inside his head. “Now c’mon, you can help me in the kitchen.”

            And while Tim did, admittedly, seem more than just a little reluctant to follow him back up the stairs and into the kitchen, where remained the two culprits solely responsible for bullying him to the point of tears, he did relax, considerably, once Gibbs had banished the hungover hecklers into the living room with the instructions that they were to re-mop the living floor they had left soap-streaks on.

            “Do you know how to dice things up?” Gibbs asked the younger man, not wanting to make any assumptions given that Tony had not even known how to make a grilled cheese, of all things, before coming under his tutelage.

            Turning as red as the tomato Gibbs had just placed in his hand, Tim frowned deeply and shook his head no.

            “My dad didn’t like me doing womens’ work.” Tim reluctantly confessed, a notable twinge of resentment coloring his voice.

            Thankfully having never once been subjected to a meeting with the elder McGee, as the few stories Tim had shared with him about such a sexist and patriarchal man had more than convinced Gibbs to put him on his long list of people to punch in the face, Gibbs frowned alongside his agent but nonetheless went about the short process of showing the disgruntled young man the best way to cut up a tomato, as well as how to cut up a head of lettuce and chop an onion.

            “Is this okay?” Tim meekly asked, effectively turning Gibbs’s attention away from the hamburger he was burning.

            Surveying the small pile of vegetables that Tim had labored a good ten minutes to create, and finding it more than just a little satisfactory and acceptable, even despite the fact that he, himself, could have done the same work in but a fraction of that time, Gibbs nodded his approval and honestly informed the young man that he had done a good job.

            “Are you sure?” Tim fussed, still looking slightly uncomfortable about spending any amount of alone time with him outside of work. “I cut crooked, didn’t I?”

            Seeing as how Tony still managed to squash whatever tomatoes he made an attempt at chopping, no matter how slowly he went about the process, or if he cheated and used a plastic chopping machine, Gibbs felt absolutely zero qualms about doubling down on his earlier statement that his youngest agent’s chopping job had been more than just tolerable.

            “You did fine, Tim.” Gibbs assured. “It’s not like I expected you to break out a ruler.”

            Glancing at the small piles of jalapenos Gibbs had chopped up in under fifteen seconds, with a notable amount of surprise and shock showing clearly in his hazel eyes, Tim nibbled nervously at his chapped lips for a short spell before finally gathering up the courage to ask him whatever pressing question was currently niggling away in his mind.  

            “Did your dad let you work in the kitchen a lot?”

             Although he would have greatly preferred not to think of such things, given that such imaginings very often put him in a dour mood, Gibbs soon found that he was perfectly powerless to keep the remembrances of cooking with his mother out of his head, as it suddenly seemed like only yesterday he was a small toddler sitting on her kitchen counter and watching her stir away at whatever Cajun recipe she had decided to make that day, her long perfumed hair tickling his nose whenever he leaned over and poured in the spices as directed.

            “He would’ve been too busy to notice either way.” Gibbs mumbled, almost forgetting to answer the question as his blood began to boil with the bitter recollections of the cold tv dinners he’d had thrust upon almost every night after his mother had died, the endless monotony broken up only on occasion whenever his Uncle LJ could steal him away for a few hours after school, the comforting routine of which was only to be broken a short year later when he was murdered in cold blood by a few men from the neighborhood who felt he had gotten too ‘uppity.’

            “Oh.” Tim quietly replied, hazel eyes wide as he effortlessly took in all the underlying subtext.

            And, even though Gibb was absolutely certain that Tim couldn’t possibly know specifics of the awful things he had gone through as a small child, particularly so after his mother’s untimely death, he could tell that the young man, at the very least, understood all the lingering resentment that came with having a shitty father. But, rather than enter into a lengthy and cliché heart-to-heart on such a tumultuous subject matter, something he was very loathe to do given that there were quite a few stories and memories he had only brought up in therapy, Gibbs did what he did best when made uncomfortable and changed the subject, giving no care, whatsoever, as he did so to the blunt and graceless way in which he did so.

            “What kind of phone would I need to get if I wanted to see emojis?”

            Very nearly dropping the knife he had been washing into the sink, Tim glanced at him as nervously as a rabbit cowering before a coon dog and nearly nicked his thumb with the sharp blade of the instrument, evidently believing that some sort of cruel trick was being played upon him by his boss, prompting Gibbs to not only remove the dangerous utensil out of his hand but to likewise also consider the question of whether or not he had been too hard on the young man while ‘breaking him in’ during his probation period.

            “Well?” Gibbs prompted, becoming uncomfortable himself when, after three minutes, the young man still hadn’t spoken.

             Still clearly believing himself to be the subject of some private joke, the topic of which he was woefully unaware of, Tim paled considerably and, in the need of distraction, stuck his hands into the soapy water of the sink to wash a dish that did not exist.

             “I’m sure the IT team at The Yard would be more than happy to help you.” Tim suggested, utterly unable to meet his eyes.

            “I don’t want a stranger’s help.” Gibbs immediately refuted. “I want yours.”

            Quite clearly seeming to think that Gibbs had lost his goddamn mind, Tim visibly panicked and moved his hands around frenetically in the soapy water in the vain hope of finding something else to wash before finally giving up such a fruitless endeavor in favor of grabbing up the soapy dishrag to scrub away at the already spotless kitchen counters.

            “Why would you want my help?” Tim asked, his voice full of bewilderment as he worked away at a nonexistent spill. “I thought I annoyed you with all my tech stuff.”

            Unable to keep from feeling like a complete asshole as Tim’s words washed over him like a tidal wave of silent accusations, the likes of which were chockful of the insinuations that he had failed as a team lead by neglecting his newest agent, Gibbs frowned deeply and couldn’t help but wonder if it was all the sighing and eye-rolling he did around Tim whenever he spoke of any new technology that had the young man thinking, erroneously, that he could barely tolerate his existence. Because while he could safely roll his eyes at Tony whenever he brought up his classical films for the thousandth time in one day, and razz Kate about her periodic purchases of luxury products from the nearby five-star spa she so favored, it was only because both such agents understood that such a heatless derision wasn’t aimed directly at them but rather at their unique, and sometimes aggravating, preferences on how they spent their time or money. A realization which his first two agents had caught unto rather quickly during their first year, but one that Tim had still apparently failed to grasp during thrice that time.  

            “Tim,” Gibbs sighed, absolutely disgusted with himself, “Technology, in general, annoys me. Not you. And I’m sorry if I’ve done anything to ever make you believe otherwise.”

            Expressive hazel eyes going as wide as dinner plates as the admittedly rare apology from his boss slowly registered within his mind, Tim fidgeted awkwardly with the soapy rag still clutched in his hands and looked at a loss for words as he stared uncomfortably down at his boots and refused to make eye contact with Gibbs.

            “Oh.” Was all he eventually said, his voice flooded with a cautious sort of relief.

            Sighing inwardly to himself as he took note of the slight doubt still showing in Tim’s hopelessly expressive eyes, as such an uncomfortable visage told him that he would soon need to have a talk with his agent about his astounding lack of self-esteem and confidence, the likes of which would almost surely be awkward and uncomfortable for them both, Gibbs ran a disgruntled hand through his hair out of a force of habit but nonetheless renewed efforts of trying to reassure his newest agents that he did, in fact, value him as a person – even if his choice of hobby was one that Gibbs found particularly aggravating and annoying at best.

            “So?” Gibbs prompted, taking care to look genuinely interested. “What kind of phone would I need?”  

            Gradually removing his eyes from the floor as he bolstered up the courage to answer the simple question, yet directing his gaze at Gibbs’s chin rather than his eyes, Tim began his reply with a quiet mumble before gradually increasing his volume as his confidence on the subject matter took hold and lent him some courage.

            “You’d need a smart phone.” Tim humbly asserted. “That’s all.”

            Despite not being a great fan of such an answer, by any stretch of the word, as just the very thought of having to learn how to effectively use all the endless apps and programs of such a fancy piece of equipment made him weary and ill, given the embarrassing fact that it had taken Tony three goddamn hours to show him how to successfully work his Keurig, Gibbs smiled his appreciation at his agents and pressed onward with the conversation at hand, wishing to rip the rest of the proverbial bandage off just as quickly as possible.

            “What kind of smart phone?” Gibbs questioned, straining the hamburger he had just browned.

            Backing a few steps away from the sink to avoid getting sloshed with any hot hamburger grease, Tim shrugged his shoulders and helpfully handed Gibbs an empty bowl for the meat without needing to be asked.

            “You could get any.” Tim confidently explained, gradually starting to relax once he realized that Gibbs wasn’t going to chew his head off for bringing up technology. “And work covers new phones for us every two years, too, so you don’t even have to worry about any extra service charges or fees.”

            Entirely and woefully out of his depth when it came to the subject of service charges and fees, and what they might pertain to, Gibbs grimaced but refrained from making any inquiries into the matter for fear of becoming even more confused than he was already was.

            “Well,” Gibbs sighed, carefully returning the hamburger back into the still-warm skillet to season it once the grease was drained, “Which one should I get?”

            For while he wasn’t at all excited about the prospect of having to relearn how to use a cellphone, he did want to get the work order for it in as soon as possible, as the sooner it arrived, the sooner he could learn how to make it function.

            “It really all comes down to preference…” Tim prevaricated, still somewhat fearful that his personal opinion might soon be disparaged.

            And, wishing to put the kibosh on such a ridiculous fear, so that he might better fix the rift he had inadvertently created between them with his feigned apathy and derision, Gibbs immediately made it known, via his following question, that it was exactly Tim’s opinion that he was looking for.

            “Well, what is your preference?” Gibbs demanded, feeling bold enough to add a little flavor to the hamburger, via copious amounts of spices, given that Kate wasn’t in the nearby vicinity to witness such an ‘atrocious’ act.  

            “I mean, there’s lots of options…” Tim evaded, struggling against the nonverbal pressure to divulge his own preference.

            “Tim,” Gibbs gently reprimanded, “I asked you your opinion.”

            Looking as fearful and uncomfortable as if Gibbs had just asked him what sexual position was his favorite, rather than what type of phone he preferred to use, Tim blanched and began to nibble violently at his bottom lip it what was clearly a very persistent, and gnarly, nervous tick.

            “But – “

            “Tim, I’m asking you because I’m sure whatever phone you have at the moment is the best one out there.”

            In fact, Gibbs would even bet his life on it, not to mention his wallet.

            “But – “

            “Look, Tim. I go to Tony for movie suggestions and Kate for advice on how to keep my skin from cracking when it gets cold out.” Gibbs shamelessly confided. “I go to you for technology questions.”        

            Appearing to be ridiculously touched by such a confession, to the point that Gibbs was now seriously considering suggesting therapy for the painfully unconfident young man, Tim blinked a suspicious amount of moisture from his eyes and glanced stubbornly down at the tiles to avoid the discomfort that might come with his boss seeing him crying again for the second time in one night.

            “So, what’s the answer?” Gibbs coaxed, turning back to his hamburger to give the agent some time to privately recover himself.

            Taking so long to answer the simple question that Gibbs turned around to fix him with a concerned glance, the likes of which was wasted given that his agent stubbornly refused to look away from the kitchen tiles, Tim chomped down hard on his lip one last time before finally making his reply.

            “I guess I’d get an iPhone.” Tim admitted, his voice impossible small.

            “And I’d be able to do all that fancy texting stuff with one of those?” Gibbs inquired, genuinely having no clue, at all, as to how any of that worked.

            Once more gaining some confidence as the talk returned solely to the subject of technology, rather than his opinions on such a matter, Tim nodded eagerly and finally removed his eyes from the tiles again.

            “Yeah. And I can give you a tutorial just as soon as it comes in.” Tim promised, sounding excited at the very idea of getting to share his knowledge. “And it’s really not all that hard to learn,” He babbled, “Not once you get the hang of it.”

            Although Gibbs was one-hundred-percent certain that Tim had absolutely no idea as to just what he was getting into by offering him a tutorial, given that he could not possibly know of the great Keurig disaster or the endless number of phones he’d destroyed in a fit of rage when they had reused to do what he wanted, he nonetheless nodded his consent to the idea of being tutored on the subject of iPhones, figuring that it couldn’t hurt to give the young man a chance to show off his particular wealth of knowledge and knowing, as he did, that even if things did come to an unsatisfactory end where involved the tutoring itself, he would, at the very least, be working on solidifying his relationship with Tim.

            “Sounds good.” He agreed. “How do I put in an order for something like that?”

            “I can do it for you tonight!” Tim excitedly offered, hazel eyes all aglow at the thought being able to prove himself useful. “That way it’ll be in by tomorrow afternoon and you can spend all evening getting used to it. I just need to know what color you want.”        

              “What are the options?” Gibbs asked, turning off the burner now that his taco meat was seasoned exactly the way his half-Cajun mother had taught him was best.

            “You can have any color you want.” Tim replied, taking the initiative of putting all the vegetables he had chopped into individual bowls. “Even rainbow, if you really wanted to get fancy.”

            Although his first instinct was to request a phone in the same rose-pink color as Kate’s, as he had always harbored a secret soft spot for such a color, ever since he was old enough to watch his mother applying the exact same shade to her lips, back when she still had her pretty red hair and a smile to her deep brown eyes, Gibbs forced himself to refrain, but not because he was afraid of any resulting judgement or derision from the notoriously good-hearted Tim. No, the real reason he refrained from requesting such a color was far more sinister in nature, the denial of his want stemming forth from the brief snippet of memory from his childhood of his normally unprovokable father being spurred into a scandalized rage after Gibbs, at the tender age of four, had requested that his mother paint his nails in the exact same shade after seeing just how pretty it had looked on her long nails. And though, at the time, he had been convinced that the great injustice of it at had been the fact that his nails were doomed to remain plain and boring, at the will of his normally live-and-let-live father, he knew now that the strong ache in his chest that he had felt that afternoon had really stemmed forth from the jarring realization, and resentful rejection, of the idea that, at four years old, it suddenly wasn’t okay for him to like pink anymore.

            “Just do black.” Gibbs requested, still somewhat bitter about the fact that men were doomed to only have a select few colors, and certain shade ranges, available to them and at their disposal. “And order me one of those cases that Tony uses on his to keep it from breaking.”

             “What color?” Tim asked again, forever eager to be useful.

            “Surprise me.” Was all Gibbs said.

              

             

Chapter Text

            Feeling, in earnest, that his work as a pseudo-parent had been done to near perfection that evening, now that all three of his slightly-hungover agents were seated at his kitchen table and chowing down on the Cajun-inspired tacos he had been kind enough to make for them, or, in Kate’s case, simply picking at them with a fork in a very clear nonverbal protest of all the ‘unnecessary’ flavor that had been added to them, Gibbs felt but little guilt in leaving them at the table in order to get ready for his own dinner.      

            It was only once he entered his bedroom, and made his way into the on-suite bathroom, that he began to feel the slightest inklings of regret over being so hasty to take his leave of the table and get ready for his evening, for just as soon as he flicked on the light switch, and grabbed for his comb, it became abundantly clear to him, via sudden heart palpitations and sweatiness, that he had somehow entered into the beginning stages of a panic-attack, the cause of which he had absolutely no prayer of deducing, as such fits very often came over him without any explanation or triggers whatsoever, either provoking him into getting physically sick or elsewise causing him to become hopelessly moody and withdrawn as his thoughts began to race and send him in a downward spiral. An outcome he was sincerely hoping to avoid that evening, as it had been a very long time, indeed, since he had been given the opportunity of making a genuine and non-work-related friend.

            But, just as he was beginning to feel the starting stages of a mild panic-attack beginning to set in, something he was more than just a little familiar with by that point in time, Gibbs took preventative measures and brought his racing mind back into focus by chomping down hard on the pad of his palm and concentrating on the resultant pain for a spell rather than all the uncomfortable symptoms of his unfounded panic. And even though he knew it was not a method he should be utilizing, given that his therapist had directly warned against it, and that Ducky warned him he would build up a callous if he continued much longer, Gibbs repeated the action once more for good measure, wishing to make it known to his anxiety that it was currently not welcome in his body at the moment, if ever it truly was.

            ‘That’s better.’ He thought to himself, feeling his blood pressure slowly beginning to return to normal as he quickly ran a comb through his hair.

            And, not wishing to jeopardize his growing calmness by any means, Gibbs forced himself to count up to a hundred, in Cajun, as he methodically brushed his teeth and spritzed himself with a little bit of the fancy cologne one of ex-wives had gifted him for his birthday. Because even though he was only attending a simple supper with a friend, and a new one at that, there was simply no good excuse for arriving anywhere disheveled and malodorous, at least not when one had all the tools available to them to prevent such a thing.

            ‘Nor’, he thought, ‘should they ever be late.’

            And so, with that important belief in mind, Gibbs promptly made his way back downstairs and entered his kitchen without delay, eager to say his goodbyes to his agents and leave them with a few ground rules before he took off the evening in his customary fifteen minutes early fashion.

            “How the hell did you get a date for tonight?” Tony whined, pouting visibly once he realized his father was about to leave him behind. “We’ve been working nonstop for a week.”

            Understanding that Tony was simply expressing his frustration with the fact that they had not yet had had any opportunities to spend any quality time together in the last two weeks, as recent events at work had made it difficult for them to find time to sleep and eat, let alone socialize, Gibbs ruffled the disgruntled young man’s hair immediately soothed him with the promise of brunch the following day.

             “But when did you have time to meet a woman?” Tony badgered, his sense of curiosity practically inexhaustible.

            Although he felt, strongly, that there was never any need for him to be deceptive with his team, least of all towards his only surviving child, Gibbs still found himself being somewhat evasive where involved the existence of Henry out of sheer embarrassment alone, as really, how in the hell could he, a consistently-awkward man, ever hope to successfully reason away his cologne and meticulously-combed hair if he shared with them the news that he was simply going to dinner at a friend’s house? Either his team would he was lying about the identity of the mysterious person in question, and trying to hide the potential existence of another potential wife, the thought of which he just couldn’t stomach, or they would ask him some very awkward follow up questions, the answers to which he was not like to have even the feeblest prayer of answering.

            “Don’t worry about it.” Gibbs shrugged, deliberately teasing his son by being purposely vague.

            Allowing his dramatic and disgruntled SFA to pout about the great unfairness of being left in the dark where regarded his father’s love life, without directing any verbal or physical censure his way, Gibbs smirked victoriously and collected his heavy coat from off the hook near the back door, slipping it on whilst still indoors to allow some of the heat from the house to warm it before he was forced to step outside into the blistering cold.

            “I want this kitchen spotless when I get back.” He warned his agents. “And I want you to actually help, Anthony.”  

            Not at all surprised when his stern directions earned him some petulant grumbling from the bolder of his two agents, as the both of them had dined over at his home often enough to understand just how meticulous and unyielding his cleanliness standards were, Gibbs rolled his and gave them a warning look yet charitably refrained from slapping them upside the head for their cheekiness, never wishing to make them feel as if they couldn’t express themselves, within reason, outside of work and especially at his house.

            “And I want you to actually something before you go.” Gibbs further directed a sulking Kate, pointedly putting her abandoned fork back into her hand.

            Giving him a very pointed expression, one that perfectly conveyed the fact that she was going to pawn her tacos off on one of the boys the very second he stepped outside, and likewise raid his cupboards for the frosted animal cookies he kept around to reward her whenever she tried a new food without going into Tony-level theatrics, Kate finished her silent protest by rolling her eyes but nonetheless smiled up at him in a deliberate and purposeful mockery of innocence and sweetness.

            “Yes, Dad.” She grumbled, making a great show of stabbing one of her tacos.

            More than just a little willing to allow such playful informality to go unpunished, as outside of work he allowed his agents to address him however the hell they wanted to, so long as the title was respectful in nature, Gibbs heatlessly mumbled something about ungrateful smartasses beneath his breath before zipping up his jacket and slipping some gloves unto his fingers.

            “Keep it up, Caitlyn Elizabeth,” Gibbs insincerely grumbled, “And you can wash all the windows, too.”

            Still not as adept as Tony at deciphering whether or not she was about to go too far with her attitude, whether playful or not, Kate wisely played it safe and put on a very meek expression before next addressing him.

            “I’ll be good.” She promised, blue eyes full of a sincerity that Tony could never quite manage when making the same promise.

            “You had better be.” Gibbs teased, ruffling her dark hair. “I might just have Ducky swing by to check up on you.”

            And although Gibbs wasn’t at all serious about going through with such a threat, at least not tonight, knowing that his oldest friend was currently out on a date, just the mere suggestion of carrying it out was enough to cow his more mischievous agents into a calm complacency, as the one time Gibbs had actually utilized said Medical Examiner to check up on the duo, when they were both sick with the flu, and he was out getting them more anti-nausea medication, it had not ended well for them, as Ducky had caught them both trying to sneak out of the house to attend a party they were nowhere near healthy enough to attend. And while Gibbs was, admittedly, somewhat strict when it came to the task of keeping his agents in line, especially so the chronically-mischievous Tony, it was actually Ducky who was the fan of good old-fashioned discipline, which had meant that Kate and Tony finished their convalescing with rather sore bottoms rather than the hurt-feelings Gibbs would have afflicted upon them via a proper and heated ass-chewing.

            “You don’t have to do that.” Tony worriedly asserted. “All we’re going to do is clean up the kitchen.”

            “And maybe watch a movie.” Kate quickly amended. “When we’re done cleaning, of course.”

            Failing to sense any sort of underlying deception in either one of his bolder agents, least of all from the male ringleader of the duo, Gibbs allowed a certain amount of relief to flood over his body, as he could not help but feel that it would be nice to go out to dinner with his new friend without having to worry that his agents were going to get up to some sort of ridiculous hijinks while still on his property and without direct supervision.

            “Don’t stay up too late.” Gibbs cautioned, running a quick hand through each head of his agents’ hair by means of a quick and nonverbal goodbye. “You’ll ruin your sleep schedule.”

            “I think that ship has sailed, Dad.” Tony quipped, his mouth still half-full of taco.

            “Don’t be a pig.” Gibbs grumbled, slapping him upside the head. “And Tim gets to pick the movie.”

            And, seeing as how the spoiled Tony was the only directly aggrieved by such a decision, given that it was his movie-picking turn that had suddenly been put off for another two movie nights, and likewise because the young man clearly doubted Tim’s movie-selecting abilities, Gibbs was confident enough to believe that his will would be carried out in his absence, as Kate would practically jump at any opportunity to prevent being subjected to yet another one of Tony’s classical films.

            “And I want you to eat some actual food before you go hunting down the animal crackers, Caitlyn.” Gibbs warned, giving her a rather serious expression. “You can’t just live on junk food for the rest of your life.”

            Looking as if she wanted to do nothing more than tell him just where he could stick his nutrition-based advice, having clearly grown weary of it over the long years, yet nowhere near as stupid to actually go through with such a plan, Kate sighed loudly but nonetheless refrained from arguing with him about the perceived ‘ridiculousness’ of such dietary rules, knowing that any of her attempts to do so, no matter how ardent, would only end in defeat and consternation on her end.

            “I’ll make a bowl of cereal,” She bargained, “Because I’m not eating this.”

            “You’re a brat.” Gibbs heatlessly groused, forgoing their usual argument on the subject of nutrition to avoid being late.

            “Well, that’s not her fault.” Tony sagely opined, gracefully relocating Kate’s tacos to his own plate in one smooth, well-practiced, move. “You’re the one that spoiled us.”

             Woefully, and frustratingly, unable to deny such an accusation with even the slightest semblance of truth on his side, a fact that irritated him greatly for a whole myriad of reasons, Gibbs scowled and glared a warning at his mouthy child before slipping a hat unto his head and moving to crack open the door that lead into the garage.

            “Be good, you little bastards.” Gibbs grumbled by way of goodbye. “Just because I spoil you doesn’t mean I won’t hesitate to call Ducky and have him put you over his knee.”

            And, almost exactly as expected, just the mere suggestion that Ducky’s hard hand might potentially come into contact with his bottom that particular evening was more than enough to sober Tony and keep him from spouting out anything cheekier than what he had already said mere moments ago. Because as much as Tony knew that Gibbs would never lay a hand on him, apart from his customary headslaps, of course, he knew all-too-well that Gibbs wasn’t shy about farming out the ‘harsher’ punishments to the notoriously old-schooled Ducky should the need arise.

            “Have a nice night!” Tony responded, instead, clearly deflecting yet perfectly sincere in his well-wishing.

            “You too.” Gibbs replied. “All three of you.”

Chapter Text

            Despite being fully aware of the fact that he was not even technically late where regarded his arrival to Henry’s house, or at least not according so to the standards of non-military-minded individuals, Gibbs still found that he was somewhat on edge, nonetheless, as he pulled up into the expansive driveway of the well-kept Victorian manner just a meagre three minutes before he had been scheduled to arrive, as he had never been one to rest easy after racing the proverbial clock. And, as such, it was with a decidedly frantic and impatient air that he rapped on the front door of the aged abode, knocking louder than was strictly necessary in a vague attempt to make it known that his perceived tardiness had nothing at all to do with any apathy or disinterest in the evening planned.

            “Jethro,” Henry beamed, throwing open the door but a few moments later, “Come on in!”

            More than just a little taken aback by the suddenly formal appearance of his host, as up until that point in time he had only ever seen Henry in jeans and a comfortable flannel shirt, the likes of which he just couldn’t imagine him ever forgoing, even during a graduate-level lecture, Gibbs blinked stupidly for a moment and was somewhat stunned to find himself thinking what a fine figure Henry cut in his purple silk shirt and dark slacks, the evident fineness of which was only directly complimented by the fact that Henry had clearly taken care to smooth down the unruly red hairs of his beard with a fancy oil of some sort, the fragrance of which almost immediately filled his nose and made his head swim. But, rather than reflect overly long on the appearance of his host, and silently debate the origin of the scent of his beard oil, both such actions he deemed as unremarkably unmanly, Gibbs nodded his consent to the idea of coming inside and eagerly did just that, his desire to get out of the biting cold far more pressing than his desire not to look overly eager about a simple dinner affair.

            “Let me take your jacket.” Henry insisted, already making to remove the heavy garment from his shoulders.

            Being quite loathe to willingly part himself from such a comfortable article of clothing, given that he was still remarkably chilled from his brief sojourn outside, and not like at all to grow any warmer in the remarkably draughty foyer, the likes of which boasted of far too many windows for it to ever be properly insulated against the elements, Gibbs stiffened and very nearly pulled himself out of reach of the professor’s large hands before remembering belatedly remembering his manners and allowing the deed to be done without complaint, as really, it would be in very poor taste for him to draw attention to the fact that Henry kept an uncomfortably chilly home – whether it be by purpose or not.

            “Don’t worry.” Henry grinned, having not failed to notice his dilemma. “I have a fire blazing away for us in the same foyer we were in yesterday. You won’t be chilly for long.”  

            Although the temptation to joke that dinner in front of a fireplace seemed an awfully intimate thing for two men to be initiating, especially so after having only known each other for nine or ten hours at best, Gibbs refrained, not only out of a sense of politeness, but likewise out of the very real fear that Henry would take his jest in the wrong way and subsequently suggest that they dine in another, less warmer, room.   

             “Thank God.” Gibbs softly exclaimed, deeply mourning the loss of his jacket now that the weight of all the draughts pushed themselves against his unprotected body. “It’s freezing outside.”

            Every bit the perfect and mindful host, a positive attribute Gibbs was not at all surprised to discover that a man so jovial as Henry possessed, his large and amiable host almost immediately took note of his staunch and continued discomfort and eagerly sought to amend it as quickly possible, his way of doing so, of course, being to drape a strong, yet friendly, arm around his shoulders, the weight and size of which almost immediately served to send a current of violent, yet comforting, warmth down the entirety of Gibbs’s body. A presumptuous act which, while not strictly unwelcomed, was almost immediately overshadowed by the sheer audaciousness of Henry’s decision to practically drag a still-stunned Gibbs into his oversized and opulent living room. A room which, while admittedly very pretty, and better positioned to stave off drafts, given it’s more prudent architecture, was unfortunately hardly any warmer than the recently-exited foyer, itself, as the fire that had been laid in the ornate fireplace was pathetically small and, as such, woefully unable to do its office as well as it should.

            “Why don’t you make yourself comfortable in the foyer?” Henry suggested, seemingly very embarrassed about the fact that he had allowed one of his fireplaces to come to such a sorry state. “I’m just finishing up in the kitchen. I’ll join you in a moment.”

            Still somewhat uncomfortable with the concept of being alone in so fine a home, the likes of which they simply didn’t have back in Stillwater, or in his current neighborhood for that matter, Gibbs stiffened with discomfort and struggled to find the words that might save him from such an uncomfortable fate, thankful, beyond belief, when his mind served him well and rapidly concocted the prefect suggestion to spare him from being alone for however long it took Henry to finish up in the kitchen.

            “Why don’t I help you?” He offered, no stranger at all to a kitchen.

            “Oh no.” Henry quickly refuted with a smile. “You’re the guest.”

            It being entirely out of his character to sit idle while those around him worked, in any scenario, his character being completely in contrast to those who might prefer exerting all their efforts into avoiding work rather than doing their part to assist with the tasks that might need done, like one particularly asshole in his platoon had been wont to do, Gibbs balked and quickly made to argue with his host, all but forgetting all the statutes and dictates that stated it was utterly and irremediably rude to do so.

            “I really wouldn’t mind – “

            “But I would.” Henry gently rebuffed, linking his arm through Gibbs’s and securing the grasp with a firm, yet painless, amount of pressure. “A guest should be pampered, not to put to work at the stove.”                 

            And, with that declaration alone, Gibbs found himself being unceremoniously steered out of the living room and directed toward the cozy foyer he had been in only hours before, bother powerless and unmotivated to disentangle himself from the secure grip Henry kept on his arm the whole way there. Because while he was, admittedly, still more than just a little put out that he was being so suddenly strong-armed into being useless, even if it was for just a short spell, he had come quickly to the realization that Henry could be every bit just as stubborn as he at times and, as such, was not like at all to let the subject of the proper treatment of guest’s drop without some serious debate first taking place. And though Gibbs was usually never one to forgo any debates, especially so ones that he was particularly invested in, he found himself doing just that as he stepped into the warmth of the foyer, figuring, as he did so, that there could be no real benefit to in entering into a verbal spar just for the sake of it, least of all when doing so would only prevent him from getting, and keeping, warm.

            “I’ll be with you in just a moment.” Henry promised, giving his arm one last squeeze before releasing him. “Please, make yourself cozy.”

            And though Henry immediately followed his suggestion by doing exactly that which Gibbs had not wished him to do, that being to leave him alone as he took his leave of the room to return to his kitchen, Gibbs quickly found that he could not be too disgruntled by such an undesired outcome, as really, the parlor was every bit as cozy and inviting as he remembered it. And, in turn, the leather loveseat contained within was likewise just as comfortable as he had remembered it to be, its charms and comforts only added to with the aid of the roaring fireplace it was positioned in front of.

            It was only after he allowed himself to become comfortable in his little leather nest that Gibbs began to compare the coziness of that particular parlor to the rest of the rooms in that giant house, his idle boredom-induced ponderings leading him to question what it might be like to live in a manor that, while beautiful, was much too large for one person to every successfully make homey. Because as sure as the sun sat in the West, and rose in the East, a house such as this had very likely been filled to the brim with children, and very likely a handful of maids, in the first several decades it had been erected. Although, once he stopped to really think about it, the presence of so many cats in the manor was very likely due to Henry’s own valiant attempts at filling the rooms of his home up with something other than aged books and half-forgotten papers that had no real prayer of being graded anytime before Christmas.

            But as to why Henry had not just simply chosen to purchase a smaller house for himself in the first place, one that would be far better suited for his perceived singleness, was a question utterly and woefully beyond the understanding of Gibbs. Not, of course, that it was any of his business how his new friend opted to live his life. It was just peculiar, he thought, that Henry had evidently not yet successfully managed to secure a wife for himself or, at the very least, a long-term girlfriend. Because even he, himself, a notorious and emotionally-crippled bastard, had no problems at all in that particular department, aside, of course, from his staunch of lack of success in choosing women who didn’t harbor a particularly nasty propensity for domestic violence. Or, at least he hadn’t, up until the point that his therapist had bluntly suggested that perhaps he ought to take a break from the whole dating scene until he came to better grips with the fact that he would never be able to successfully replace his relationship with Shannon with whatever pretty little redhead happened to catch his eyes.

            But, rather than opt to dwell on all the unpleasant feelings that came with those particularly welcome thoughts, and thus run the risk of entering into one of his sullen moods, Gibbs sat up a little straighter in the loveseat and sought to distract himself by admiring the remarkably craftsmanship of the original brick fireplace – his thorough and fervent examination of such an antique piece interrupted only by the arrival of a cat he had not yet had the honor of being introduced to. Although, upon watching the cat’s fat orange belly drag across the floorboards as he slowly advanced into the room, Gibbs was not left long to wonder why, as it soon became abundantly clear, via the cat’s labored wheezing, that it had very likely taken a great deal of effort and exertion for the beast to simply rise up on his legs, let alone move himself across such an expansive house. But, rather than continue to silently judge the creature for its great girth, the existence of which he could not be entirely at blame for, Gibbs extended a friendly hand toward the orange beast and waited, patiently, for the wheezing pet to make its way over to him.  

            “And who do we have here?” Gibbs asked aloud, holding his fingers steady so that the cat could become better acquainted to his scent by sniffing at them.

            Sniffing quite priggishly at his calloused digits before deciding, after a good three minutes, that Gibbs was worthy of his company, or at least not like to hurt him in any fashion, the fuzzy feline meowed softly and pawed at his leg in an impatient manner that one could only presume meant he required assistance in climbing up on the furniture, being clearly far too disadvantaged by his fatness to complete such a task without any external aid being rendered.

             “There you are.” Gibbs mumbled, hefting the cat up unto the loveseat as delicately as he was able. “Now let me see your tag.”

            Apparently more than just a little willing to oblige his master’s guest in the pursuit of name-discovery, especially so after Gibbs scratched him at the base of his tail, the Garfield-esque beast collapsed unto his side in Gibbs’s lap and craned his neck just enough so that the name Hershel could be seen etched on his collar.  

            “Hershel, hmm?” Gibbs mumbled, resuming his scratching of the base of the purring cat’s tail.

            Purring loudly enough that Gibbs couldn’t help but compare the sound to his own son’s snoring, Hershel squirmed contentedly in his lap and further showed his appreciation for all the love he was being shown by wrapping his massive paws around Gibbs’s forearm – affection he was more than just a little happy to return up until the point the furry gentleman became overly excited and let loose an audible, and foul, fart – the likes of which very nearly had Gibbs expelling his lunch.

            “Jesus Christ.” Gibbs gagged, struggling not to punish the cat with banishment for something that it very likely couldn’t help.

            Entirely remorseless and unashamed of his flatulence, and perhaps even proud of it judging by the way that he replicated the act mere moments later, Hershel increased the volume of his purrs and tightened his grip on Gibbs’s forearm, seemingly determined to prevent his tail from going unscratched.

            “Ah, I see you’ve met Hershel.” Henry’s very familiar voice sounded behind him. “I hope you didn’t have to smell him as well.”  

            “I wish I could say that I hadn’t.” Gibbs confessed, his stomach still churning quite a bit from the fumes.

            “You’ll have to excuse the poor guy.” Henry apologized. “His gastrointestinal disorder is exactly why his old owners abandoned him.”

             Feeling a bit more charitable toward the gassy creature after having heard of his sad plight, as he really was a big softy when it came to children and animals, Gibbs pulled the bloated pet a little closer to himself and renewed the vigor of his scratching, wishing to make up for any remaining bad feelings the cat might still having after being so cruelly abandoned.

            “Hershel is fine.” Gibbs swiftly assured. “Do you need help with anything?”

            “No, no.” Henry quickly assured. “I’ve got it. Don’t worry.”

            And, sure enough, in the space of mere seconds, Henry was suddenly stood in stood in front of him, bearing a large silver tray that contained an over abundance of food as well a bottle of wine and two matching glasses.

           

Chapter Text

            “I know I’m not that great in the kitchen,” Henry nervously began, carefully lowering the silver tray down unto the coffee table, “But I tried my hardest tonight and I’d like to think that I did a fair enough job.”            

            Glancing down at the two matching china plates that had been inartistically arranged atop the genuine silver tray, with no proper consideration, at all, to adequate weight distribution or visual appeal, where upon each laid a thick steak charred nearly beyond the realm of human belief, and likewise a side-salad that had been haphazardly concocted with a mixture of ingredients so inharmonious and uncomplimentary that a more unappealing dish couldn’t have possible by created, even with a deliberate attempt, the offensive existence of which was only mitigated, in part, by the fact that its unappealing visage was succinctly overpowered by the appearance of a copious amount of homemade onion rings, the taste and smell of which he could scarcely tolerate, Gibbs did the only thing he could think to do in such an uncomfortable situation and smiled, perfectly polite and unwilling to play the part of an unnecessarily picky asshole.

            “Everything looks fine.” Gibbs assured, feeling only slightly guilty about lying through his teeth to preserve the peace.

            Because as much as he was loathe to ever be dishonest, which was really quite so, both his mother and his Uncle L.J having instilled within him a rather unflinching sense of honesty from the time he was a toddler, the likes of which hadn’t been tarnished, in the least, by witnessing his father’s blatant dishonesty in concealing (poorly) his affair with Doctor Barrow’s nurse while his wife lay dying, Gibbs had likewise also learned, the hard way, that it was sometimes more moral to be deceitful than it was to be candid – as exemplified by the time that his grade-school best friend, Mary-Beth, had refused to speak to him for over a month after he had confessed that, yes, he did, in fact, think that her new haircut made her look like a boy.

            “Really?!” Henry inquired, practically all aglow at the feigned compliment.

            “Of course.” Gibbs continued to fib, despite every single ounce of his Cajun blood crying out for him to slap Henry upside the head for such an appalling refusal to use spices. “I can’t wait to try everything.”

            And, even though Gibbs did, in earnest, try his very best to effect as much sincerity as he could, utterly determined not to play his usual role of an asshole, his skills of deception were sadly for naught, as Hershel, evidently quite the intuitive beast, seemed to almost immediately sense his dishonesty – going so far as to glare sharply at him, in a manner that seemed to promise future retribution, before belly-flopping gracelessly unto the floor and waddling away in a very clear, and indignant, huff. Leaving Gibbs to contemplate, and worry, about the possibility of a potentially claw-related retaliatory act in the near future, before being promptly met, of course, with a matter far more concerning.

            “I really think you’re being too kind.” Henry teased, still slightly breathless from the excitement of having had his ‘cuisine’ complimented. “But I just know you’ll love the onion rings. They’re about the only thing I can cook and get compliments for.”

            Both woefully and utterly fucked by the fact that he was now going to be forced into eating one of the very few foods he actively despised, as really, what sort of asshole would he be to avoid a dish his host evidently took so much pride in, Gibbs forced his reflexive grimace into a smile and wondered, briefly, if he would be able to slip his share of the offensive food into his pockets whenever Henry wasn’t looking. Because as rude, and childish, as such an act would be, he figured that it would be far more impolite to vomit his portion of the side-dish all over the floorboards.  

              “Let me pour you some wine.” Henry eagerly insisted, placing the plate with the most onion rings down in front of him. “Then we can get started.”

            Although Gibbs’s very first instinct was to protest against the idea of any sort of alcohol being offered to him, no matter its composition, as up until that point he had successfully abstained from ingesting any sort of alcohol for a good six months, a self-inflicted goal he had broken only once, in order to toast Ducky’s new and promising relationship, he forced himself to refrain from doing so, as not only would it be the height of rudeness to burden his host with such a taboo of temperance, and the explanation that would be needed to explain them, but likewise because he also didn’t wish to spend the approaching evening with nothing but water, or milk, to wash down the taste of the onions rings and burnt meat. And, in addition, he could see but little harm in having a few sips of wine, figuring, as he did, that it was only ever the hard stuff that sent him into an angry and morose mood, and copious amounts of it, at that.

            “Do you not like reds?” Henry frowned, pulling Gibbs from his silent contemplations in the mistaken belief that his guest’s slight frown pertained to the choice of wine.

            “What?” Gibbs blinked, quickly snapping out of it.

            “Do you not care for red wine?” Henry extrapolated, looking thoroughly put out at the very idea.

            Honestly having no real idea as to just what types of wine he would enjoy, given that he but minimal experience in sampling any sort of variety of such a drink, if any, Gibbs shrugged and let it be known, without any inkling of embarrassment, that he was entirely undereducated where regarded the intricacies of such a particular field of expertise.

            “I don’t know.” Gibbs candidly confessed. “I’ve never drank wine before.”  

            “Never?” Henry parroted, looking as genuinely surprised as if Gibbs had just confessed to never owning a toothbrush or stick of deodorant.  

            “No.” Gibbs admitted, starting to feel a little self-conscious about his marked lack of culture. “At least not that I can remember.”

            Thankfully opted not to razz him for such a profound lack of wine-related experience, something Ducky always seemed ready to do, Henry simply smiled encouragingly before pouring a generous amount of the French-labeled wine into his glass.

            “You should like this, it’s a full-bodied Pinotage.” Henry explained, amusingly put the emphasis on the wrong syllable of the French word. “It’s a more mature taste – almost like black coffee.”

            Taking his fellow coffee-enthusiast at his word, as really, he had no cause not to, Gibbs gratefully accepted the glass and tentatively took an investigative sip of the fragrant red wine. It was to his great surprise, as well as absolute delight, that he found the beverage to be abounding with flavor and texture, the likes of which made swallowing it a joy rather than the chore harder liquors made it.

            “Well,” Henry coaxed, practically vibrating with excitement as he seated himself rather close to Gibbs, “What do you think?”

            “It feels good going down.” Gibbs bluntly divulged, taking another indulgent sip for good measure.  “And I like the taste.”

            As proud as the peacock with the brightest of tail feathers, Henry practically swooned under the weight of his accomplishment at successfully introducing a friend to something new.

            “I’m glad you like it.” Henry beamed, pouring himself a glass. “It should pair well with the steaks.”

            And, having finished uttering that little bit of commentary, Henry eagerly picked up his silver cutlery and attacked his steak with an uninhibited enthusiasm that could only be rivaled by Tony on his hungriest days. An action that Gibbs tried, in good faith, to replicate without giving any semblance of a sign that said task was more of a chore for him than a treat, given the sorry state of the cuisine he had been offered.

            “I know the steak is a bit tough,” Henry began, seeming to sense his reluctance, “But I’m afraid I was distracted by Hershel begging for treats as I was cooking.”

            Feeling rather disgruntled by the fact that he had evidently allowed his facial expressions to give him away, and convey the fact that he thought his meal was subpar, Gibbs inwardly chastised himself as sharply as his mother would have for such rudeness and immediately set about to rectify such an awkward situation – going so far, even, as to shove a large portion of the burned steak into his mouth without first drowning it in A1 sauce to lessen the potency of it charred taste.

            “It’s not.” Gibbs persisted, struggling to swallow the rubbery meat. “It tastes just fine.”

            “Oh, good.” Henry sighed, looking as if a giant weight had just been taken off his shoulders. “I was worried I had botched it.”

            “Not even close.” Gibbs comforted, forcing himself to take a bite out of an onion ring.

            Worries seemingly vanished as he watched his guest swallow down a bite of salad without delay, as that had clearly been his primary concern for the evening, Henry relaxed a little against the cushions of the couch and turned to face Gibbs for a more natural sort of conversation.

            “How was your day, Jethro?”

            A little taken aback by such an investigative question, as growing up he had observed that men didn’t usually talk about things while they were eating, at least not unless they were family, or the subject matter important and unavoidable, Gibbs blinked in surprise and stiffened a bit before answering.

            “I actually slept for most of the day.” Gibbs admitted, feeling a little self-conscious about giving voice to the fact that he had been so useless for half of the day. “But I guess I made the kids some tacos before heading here.”

            Although, if he was to be perfectly honest without himself, Kate had very likely hunted down the animal crackers the very moment he had left, either with or without the help of her pouting best friend who had been denied the privilege of picking out their movie.

            “Kids?” Henry repeated, clearly confused. “I thought you just had the son?”

            “I do.” Gibbs patiently amended. “I was just talking about my agents.”  

             And even though it was, admittedly, a bit off for him to refer to said agents as kids, given that they had already been out of college for a good many years, except for Tim, Henry didn’t seem to regard him as either weird or creepy for it.

            “You must really care about your agents.” Henry observed, refilling both of their glasses with the rich red wine.

            “Of course I do.” Gibbs shamelessly divulged. “Even if they are spoiled assholes.”

            Tim less so than the others at the moment but still…Gibbs was sure that once the young man became more comfortable with his place in the family that the exact same spoiling would follow suit. If not more so in order to make up for lost time.

            “Ah, but who is the one doing the spoiling?” Henry teased, hazel eyes sparkling mischievously.

            Finding it bizarrely difficult to become angry at Henry for saying the exact same thing that he had scolded Tony for earlier in the day, despite having only known the professor for a measly few hours in comparison to his long relationship with said SFA, Gibbs only scowled slightly and shrugged before putting forth his excuse for such unorthodox behavior.

            “They could all use some spoiling.” Gibbs excused, opting not to elaborate on the fact that all three agents laid claim to shitty fathers.

            “And you’re just the perfect man for such a job, aren’t you?” Henry asked rhetorically.    

             Immensely flattered by such a compliment, as it was not often, at all, that near-strangers took note of his softer side, Gibbs felt the corners of mouth turn up in a sort of half smile.

            “I guess.” He humbly conceded, starting to feel a bit awkward. “How…How was your day?”

            “It’s just been getting better and better.” Henry answered, topping off both their glasses with more of the fragrant red wine.

            Although he was almost one-hundred percent certain that there was some sort of hidden double-meaning behind the professor’s answer, as the small smirk on his face all but confirmed such a fact, Gibbs refrained from prying into the matter on the grounds that it would only make him appear to be nosy. And really, what did he care if someone was enjoying a little private joke to themselves?         

              “Tell me more about your agents.” Henry requested, thankfully preventing Gibbs from having to take yet another bite out of his onion rings.

            More than just a little willing, and happy, to talk about his ‘children’ with Henry, especially so since none of those individuals was around to tease him about it, Gibbs took a hearty sip of wine to moisten his tongue and thusly launched into a lengthy diatribe about all his agents and the attributes they possessed, paying special focus on Tony who, of course, he loved best of all. And, much to his testament of being the perfect host, Henry was more than just a little happy to oblige him in his ramblings and even went so far as to ask follow-up questions when Gibbs naturally came to the point of detailing Tim’s extraordinarily high IQ alongside Kate’s unyielding attentiveness and Tony’s unfailing intuition.

            “They sound like a lovely bunch.” Henry appraised, when after fifteen minutes Gibbs finally paused for breath.

            “They are.” Gibbs passionately agreed, making no protest as Henry refilled his glass for the third time. “But what is it like being a professor?”

            “Oh,” Henry smiled, looking a bit bashful once the conversation turned tables to focus solely on him, “I couldn’t even begin to accurately explain it.”

            “Try.” Gibbs encouraged, his curiosity genuine and not at all motivated by the dictates of politeness.

            Because even though his limited experience with professors had all been somewhat negative, or elsewise outright negative, Gibbs could just tell that Henry wasn’t at all like any of those stuffy prudes whose presence he had been forced to suffer.

            “Well,” Henry began, green eyes all aglow with passion, “I guess I could say that there’s nothing at all in the world like getting to shape young minds. And, I suppose it is rather nice not to have to worry about getting shot at work anymore. Unless, of course, one of my undergrads becomes fed up with my inability to grade papers on time.”

            “You can just get away with something like that?” Gibbs asked, wishing to keep the conversation going.

            “I have tenure.” Henry shrugged. “I could dropkick one of my students and be just fine. Not that I actually would, of course.”

             Having, himself, very often experienced the burning desire to physically chastise one of his agents after witnessing them doing something particularly stupid or dangerous, and in several cases irresponsible, Gibbs found himself nodding along in approval to Henry’s words, knowing, as he did, that said man, like would, would never actually act on those desires.  

            “I can imagine that they are some students that tempt you more than others.” Gibbs opined, thinking of Tony.

            “You mean like the Sophomore that tried to hand in a paper he had directly plagiarized from me?”

             Unable to keep from comparing such an incident to the time that Tony had tried, and failed rather spectacularly, to forge a note from his doctor claiming that he was fit to return to work after a severe concussion, Gibbs grimaced in sympathy and shook his head.

            “Talk about nerve.”

            “Precisely.” Henry agreed. “I’m not one to hand out F’s easily, or report to the dean, but you can bet that I did so in that situation. I mean, for God’s sake, if you’re going to cheat you should at least be courteous enough to put a little effort into it.”

             ‘Like using a fucking sparkly-inked pen the color of roses to forge a doctor’s signature, for example.’ Thought Gibbs.

            “There was for sure a disgusting lack of regard there.” Gibbs conceded, somewhat unsure as to just what delinquent he was referring to.

              Appearing quite touched that Gibbs had understood the principal of the matter so quickly, Henry flashed him a breathtaking smile before pressing onward in his monologue.

            “I honestly have no idea why some of these students even sign up for my class when they don’t need to.” Henry sighed. “It’s not even a preresiquite for ninety percent of the courses offered.”

             “Because you’re nice.” Gibbs quipped, forgetting himself as the surprisingly strong wine started to work its magic. “They think you’ll go easy on them.”

            His stubbly cheeks turning a vibrant shade of fuchsia at the exact same time Gibbs felt his own beginning to burn, Henry cleared his throat in an attempt to dispel some of the awkwardness and restlessly made to refill their glasses once again.

            “Nice, yes.” He agreed, diplomatically opting to ignore the fact that his guest had just said something unmistakably flirtatious. “But passionate about my work, as well. I mean, I didn’t get a doctorate just so a handful of lazy kids could spit all over it.”    

            “You have a doctorate?” Gibbs questioned, immensely thankful to find that his brain hadn’t betrayed him yet again by prompting him to say something ridiculous.

            Clearly a humble sort of man, the likes of which Gibbs greatly appreciated, Henry colored brightly before reluctantly making it known that he did, indeed, have a doctorate.

            “In classical studies, yes.” The taller man confirmed.

            Feeling stronger than nobody should be made to feel ashamed of their accomplishments, so long as they didn’t descend into braggartry, and provided said talents were of a legal and moral nature, Gibbs quickly sought to assure his host, via an invested question, that it was not at all inappropriate for him to feel a source of pride in accomplishing so much in the academic field.

            “What was your thesis about?”

             Despite an unmistakable flash of excitement dancing across his face in response to the question, the likes of which made him appear several years younger, Henry almost immediately sobered and tried his best to get out of answering.

            “I really don’t want to bore you with – “

            “I wouldn’t have asked if I wasn’t interested.” Gibbs interrupted, keen to put the bearded man at ease.

            Thankfully taking Gibbs’s assertion as tactic permission to launch into a hearty explanation of his works, Henry smiled broadly and quickly put his guest’s curiosity to rest.

            “Well, to put it simply, my thesis was mainly concentrated on the question of how much damage pioneering scholars did to the gay rights movement by erasing the homosexual relationships of those they studied by deliberately mislabeling their lovers as ‘particularly close friends.’”

            Despite being more than just a little surprised to hear such an answer, given that Gibbs had thought Henry would pick something a little more manly, Gibbs couldn’t help but concede that his subject of choice was more interesting than some of the others Ducky liked to talk about when his recalling his own college days.

            “That sounds a lot more interesting that some of the thesis I’ve heard about.” Gibbs complimented.

             “Thank you.” Henry grinned, affectionately draping his giant hand over Gibbs’s shoulder. “Did you ever go to college? Or did you join the Marines right away?”

             Seeing no real harm in allowing the arm to stay right where it was, as by that point in time it had become abundantly clear that Henry was just an affectionate type of person, not unlike his Kelly had been, Gibbs made no move to wriggle free of its presence and, in fact, almost embraced it as he prepared to divulge one of his most long held secrets.

            “No.” He scowled, pausing to take a bracing sip of wine. “I was accepted into the Parisian Ecole Des Beaux-Arts but…But my dad hid my acceptance letter. And by the time I had found out what he did, I was already enlisted.”

            And though it had been several decades since that fateful morning, whereupon he discovered the letter hidden in the outside garbage mere hours before he was set to head off for boot camp, Gibbs could still perfectly recall the heated argument he had gotten into with his father, as aside from the row they had experienced directly after his mother’s death, during which time his father had accused him of all sorts of heinous things, the two of them had never become so angry with another that they got to the point of actually screaming.

            “But Monet went to that school!” Henry gasped. “Why wouldn’t your father want you to go?”

            ‘Because I wanted my nails painted as a little boy, because I only ever wanted to play with Mary-Beth and Hazel in elementary school, Because I made the mistake of staring at the college-aged neighbor boy when I was on the cusp of puberty, Because he was afraid I’d catch the gay in Paris.’ Gibbs rambled to himself. ‘Because he though the Marines would fix me.’

            “I was a wild child after my mother died.” Gibbs shared instead. “He though the Marines would straighten me out. He was right.”

            Because even though Gibbs had, in fact, pushed all those queer thoughts into the darkest recess of his minds as prepubescent middle-schooler, after watching what the bigger boys did to a particularly effeminate boy in their class, it had been his long stint in the Marine that solidified his forced, and sole, preference for girls – as one couldn’t very well bring attention to the fact he appreciated the appearance of both genders without getting their asses kicked in the barracks after lights out and subsequently kicked out of the military to boot.

            “I’m sorry that you had to go through something like that.” Henry commiserated, his hand a suddenly very welcome presence on his shoulders. “But have you ever thought of going back to art school?”   

            “And what?” Gibbs asked. “Leave The Yard?”

            “You wouldn’t have to if you did night classes.” Henry countered. “And with a talent that great, I’m sure any of the local art schools would take you.”  

            Having spent the last several decades refusing to let himself yearn for the opportunity that had been stolen for him under loving, yet misguided, motivations, Gibbs instinctively buckled down on his stubborn denial and shook his head.

            “I wouldn’t say I have a great talent.” Gibbs dismissed. “It’s more of a knack, really.”

            “Jethro,” Henry reprimanded, looking him directly in the eye, “That school doesn’t just accept anyone. I mean, for God’s sake, do you even know how low the acceptance rate for that school is?”

             Pushing away every instinct to divulge that he did, in fact, know the answer to just such a question, along with several others about the university if anyone cared to ask, Gibbs shook his head and forcefully pushed away the fierce longing that was beginning to creep out of the dark recesses of the his mind.

            “Henry, all I’ve done for the last several decades is sketch perps. I doubt I even remember the correct way to hold a paintbrush.”

            “You won’t know unless you try it out again.” Henry advised.

            “You don’t think it’s a little too late for me to be ever be really good?” Gibbs snorted, full of self-pity.

            Taken completely off-guard as Henry cupped his face without warning, and firmly turned his head to better prevent him from looking away, Gibbs blinked stupidly and drunkenly and waited, in confused anticipation, to see what his host would do next.

            “Jethro, it’s never too late for you to live the life you want to.” Henry lectured, large hands warm on Gibbs’s cheeks. “I mean, for God’s sake, most artists didn’t even achieve notoriety until they were our age.”              

            Fully believing that Henry could sell an Eskimo snow, just so long as he stared them in the eyes in the exact same manner he was currently showcasing to his guest, Gibbs gave a trance like nod and conceded, at least to himself, that perhaps it wouldn’t be all that big of a thing for him to visit a local art shop in the near future. After all, if his artistic pursuits turned out to be naught, as he greatly feared they might, nobody had to be made aware that they had even existed in the first place.  

             “I think you’re just fishing for a free commission of your cats.” Gibbs teased, startling himself as he moved his own hands to rest atop Henry’s.

            “I think you’ll find I’d rather have something else entirely from you.” Henry returned, moving his bearded face slightly closer.

            “What do – “

            Thoroughly thrown for a loop as Henry’s impossibly soft lips pushed up against his rougher set, all without warning, Gibbs went still from the sheer shock of the act alone and was subsequently alarmed, to the point of a full-blown panic-attack, when he found himself eagerly responding to the passionate act by parting his lips to allow a wine-tasting tongue into his mouth, the size and taste of which seemed to almost immediately belong inside of him until Gibbs realized, belatedly, just what the fuck his drunken mind had tricked him into doing.

            “No.” Gibbs protested, the word nearly indecipherable given the presence of an extra tongue in his mouth.

            “Jethro – “ Henry began, almost immediately withdrawing from his person once the garbled word registered in his equally-drunken brain. “I thought – “

            “I said no.” Gibbs repeated, rushing to stand and almost immediately regretting the act as his head began to spin. “I’m…What were you…I’m not…no.” He babbled, rapidly sobering as he started to realize what he’d done.

            “Jethro,” Henry repeated, looking near-panic himself. “I’m sorry. I misread – “

            “I’m not gay.” Gibbs repeated, more forcefully than necessary. “Why would you – “

             Cutting himself off sharply just as soon as he realized he didn’t really want to know the answer to that question, Gibbs shook his head violently and very nearly tripped over the coffee table as he backed away.

            “I need to go.” He declared, suddenly sweaty and cold all at once.

            “Jethro – “

            “Look, I’m sorry if I lead you on in any way but – “

            “No, Jethro.” Henry said, forceful and forlorn. “Don’t be sorry for a mistake that wasn’t yours.”

             

             

Chapter Text

            Naturally having not wished to arrive home straight away after such an unprecedented and disastrous evening, the likes of which he would surely never forget, for solid reasons which heavily pertained to avoiding any potential and particularly nosy questions from the small passel of movie-watching agents that would surely still be working on their first movie, Gibbs had found himself driving, rather aimlessly, through the endless streets of the city for a good three hours before deciding to head back home and face the potential discomfort that would surely come about from him lying to the kids where regarded the events of his evening. For his own innocence in the matter aside, something he would defend to his dying breath, there was just simply no way in hell that he was going to share with anybody, not even Tony, the fact that he had just been kissed, rather passionately, by the lumberjack-sized man he had only known for half a day. There were just certain things, after all, that one should keep to themselves.

            But, much to his great relief, when he finally walked through his front door at half past midnight, it was to find only one additional pair of shoes lined up neatly against the wall and atop of the thick rug designed, in part, to keep any outside dirt from getting inside. Because as much as he cared for his other two agents, which was quite a lot, their notable absence meant that the odds of him being interrogated about such an awkward evening were now significantly lower – very welcome odds that only seemed to increase the very moment Gibbs crept into his bedroom and discovered a loudly snoring Tony passed out in his bed.

            And though, in truth, he would have just loved to have the entirety of the queen-sized mattress all to himself, so that he might sleep easily without the very real fear of being sleep-punched by his vivid-dreamer of a child, Gibbs lovingly refused to kick the young man out of his bed or vanquish him back to his own bedroom as most fathers might have done. For, truth be told, Gibbs rather enjoyed the particular sort of bonding that could only occur with proper bedtime snuggling. Even if it meant that, on occasion, he got nailed with a nasty right-hook just moments before the witching hour.

            And so it was, with the intoxicating taste of the strong red wine and Henry’s tongue still heavy in his mouth, that Gibbs slowly crawled beneath the heavy flannel blankets and worked, in vain, to forget all that had occurred on the loveseat in Henry’s well-heated parlor. Because as much as he knew that it would be quite wrong for him to hold the presumptuous kiss against the literature professor, given that he had no real choice in regards to what particular gender he was attracted to, Gibbs could most certainly hold the way he had reciprocated against himself. For slight drunkenness aside, the five-to-six seconds he had spent actively participating in such kiss was entirely inexcusable for a straight man such as himself. And, had Gibbs been a more a hateful and paranoid sort of person, he might almost have attributed his temporary senselessness to Rophynl or any of the other types of date-rape drugs out there. But, as it was, he was far too judicious an individual to level such a heavy claim against a man who, for all intents and purposes, seemed every bit as morally upstanding as Mr. Rogers himself.

            And, had he any lingering doubts, at all, on such a matter, the way in which his phone chirped, just moments later, with an innocent inquiry from the man himself, quickly put them out his mind. As what sort of potentially ill-intentioned person would inquire, via text, as to the current well-being of their intended victim and effectively leave behind a digital-trail of proof of their crimes? Certainly not anyone with at least half a brain. Which was precisely why Gibbs decided to answer the well-intentioned text instead of just simply ignoring it. As really, what sort of ill-mannered jackass would he be if he allowed an acquaintance to remain worried about his welfare all evening?

            ‘Did you make it home safe?’

            Greatly appreciative of the fact that Henry had kept the text short and sweet, rather than filled it up with all sorts of potentially manipulative pleas and entreaties, the likes of which he would not be particularly inclined to deal with judiciously while still somewhat buzzed and disoriented, Gibbs texted back his answer to the inquiry as quickly as possible, figuring that it would be only fair to return Henry’s politeness with promptness.

            ‘Yes.’ He typed, afraid that anything longer would take far too much time to write out.

            ‘Alright.’ Henry replied, texting back impossibly fast. ‘Thanks for letting me know.’

            More than just a little surprised by all the sudden formality, as Henry didn’t seem at all like the type of person to write so professionally, no matter his career of choice, Gibbs frowned and could only concede, rather reluctantly, that the giant redhead was inarguably angry at him or elsewise deeply hurt by his reaction to the kiss. And the fifteen minutes of silence that followed said man’s text only confirmed such facts.

            ‘But honestly,’ Gibbs reasoned to himself, ‘What had Henry expected?’

            Because, theoretically, a man who had been so highly-educated should be able to see the very real need behind Gibbs’s decision to terminate their friendship. That was just the done thing, after all, wasn’t it? And, in any case, his mild shunning was of a far kinder nature than the outright ostracization and antagonization Bill Parks had faced after trying to kiss Francis Wheeler in the latter’s tree house. That sort of reaction had been bad enough to merit the removal of the disgraced Wheeler family from the whole entire state, their long-established roots in the state all but brushed to the side as they ferreted their only child away from the endless bullying and beatings.  

            And even though he, himself, didn’t harbor any ill-will, whatsoever, towards of the homosexual persuasion, and was, in fact, a very live-and-let-live sort of person, that didn’t mean that he automatically wanted to act any differently from those older boys in Stillwater all those years ago, save, of course, where involved the unnecessary beatings.

            Although, if Gibbs was being one-hundred percent honest with himself, something that he had been striving to do more often of late, upon the behest of his therapist, he couldn’t, in all good faith, admit to feelings of happiness when faced with concept of shunning Henry – only a resentful sort of resignation. A harsh sort of bitterness he just knew would linger for the rest of his life, given that the same sort of repressed acrimony still afflicted him even now, several decades after graduating middle-school, in response to the callous way in which he had abruptly, and without warning, suddenly stopped spending time with Mary-Beth and Hazel in lieu of trying to forge for himself the male sort of friendships that had, up until that point, seemed utterly undesirable to him, in a somewhat frantic pursuit of keeping his father from sending him to that correctional camp whose brochure he had found hidden behind the refrigerator.

            But, then again, that had been a rather fearful sort of decision, hadn’t it? And simply the desperate sort of reaction from a small child utterly terrified about shipped off to some strange school when he had only ever been outside of his hometown but a small handful of times to visit a few of the bigger cities that lay a few hours beyond.

            Why should he, as grown-ass adult, now feel the very same visceral fear that he had experienced as a small child of ten trying not to attract any attention unto himself in a town so small that such an attempt at invisibility was almost impossible? Whose judgement could he even possibly be afraid of, now that he was no longer a child and subject to the wills and persuasions of those bigger than him?

            Certainly not his father, who could no longer send him away against his will, nor Vance, who couldn’t legally fire him for whom he chose to spend time with outside of work, not matter how taboo the friendships he forged might be. Hell, even the military, itself, couldn’t retaliate against should he chose to maintain contact with Henry, not so long as their relationship remained purely platonic – which it most certainly would. And, as for the judgements of his long-deceased mother and Uncle L.J, well, Gibbs liked to think that they would have eventually gotten over their benign homophobia had they been alive to see it become more normalized – most notably his mother who, as a girl of barely fifteen, had experienced absolutely no regrets, whatsoever, in actively befriending Stillwater’s only black person during the height of some pretty rampant racism.

            ‘I’m grown,’ Gibbs reminded himself, ‘I can be friends with whoever I want.’

            And honestly, what did he care what people might think? He had certainly never been one to vie for unanimous approval – at least not since the day he had graduated middle school and freely given into all the ‘temptations of his Cajun blood, ‘all in the fruitless endeavor to get rid of all the anger and resentment that had slowly built up inside him once his mother and uncle had died.

            And, most important of all, when had he ever really been prejudiced against a person for a lifestyle choice they had willingly chosen to make – just so long as it didn’t hurt anyone?

             ‘But what if it does wind up hurting me in the end?’ Gibbs asked himself.

            Because as much as said thought could be very easily dismissed as a ridiculous one, given that he was fully capable of defending himself against any potential antagonizers, the inescapable act that he had kissed Henry back, even for just a moment, still bothered him greatly, as such an unconscious and reflexive response could only mean that one of the darkest portions of his personality, aside from his wrath, had temporarily managed to escape the dark recess it had long ago been assigned to.

And surely the constant stress that would inevitably accompany the process of shoving it back where it belonged would only harm him in the long run.

            ‘And, if that’s the case,’ Gibbs reasoned, ‘I really wouldn’t be an asshole for the shunning.’

            He would seem like one, sure, but in the end that really wasn’t what mattered to him. His conscious would rest well enough knowing that his perceived assholery had only come about from his attempts at protecting himself, not out of any legitimate feelings of spite or disgust.

            “He’ll get over it.” Gibbs whispered, as if speaking the words aloud would somehow, magically, make them true.

Chapter Text

            A veritable half-drunken mess by the time he had finally managed to quiet his racing mind and fall asleep, after first throwing his brick of a phone across the room in a semi-annoyed fit once it had became perfectly clear that it would not chime and grace him with the news of a much longed-for text, Gibbs was initially woefully unable to recall the majority of the dreams that had followed such a fateful evening and, as such, was more than just a little shocked and horrified to discover, upon his slow entrance back into consciousness, that he was very nearly at ‘half-mast’ with a very suspicious sticky spot staining the front of his boxers – the like and nature of which he had not been afflicted with since his days as a small prepubescent boy in full possession of the scandalous Playboy magazine he had found in the garbage behind the Baptist church.

            And, as such, it was with no small amount of shame and embarrassment that Gibbs rushed into his bathroom, all but desperate to wash away the proof of his thoughtcrime with a copious amount of icy-cold water and a small measure of vigorous, yet chaste, scrubbing to release the last of whatever sinful fluids still remained to keep his member semi-erect against his will. Because as much as he knew that certain bodily functions were perfectly natural, no matter what Minister Myers had liked to tell all of Gibbs’s church-going friends, he couldn’t help but continue to fret over just who the subject of his wet dream very likely was. For even though there was no solid proof to back up any of his suspicions, given that the only real fragment of his dream that he could recall was a chaise lounge suspiciously similar to the one that could be found in Discreet,  Gibbs could think of no other culprit that might reasonably be responsible for all his nocturnal excitement, as Henry had been the only person he had been thinking of before falling asleep. And that realization worried him to no end.

            But, rather than dwell overly long on such pernicious thoughts and worries, and thus run the risk of sending himself into one his dour and self-pitying moods, the likes of which would surely affect all those he cared about, Gibbs quickly stamped down on such pervasive worries and resolved not to face them until his next therapist appointment on Wednesday – if at all.  

            In the meantime, however, he would medicate himself with some very strong coffee and an early dose of his anti-anxiety medication – the likes of which he would take with a small potion of toast to avoid upsetting his stomach. And, if his mind still somehow managed to violently race, even with all those strong measures being taken against it, well…surely the current events outlined in the day’s newspaper would manage to distract him well enough for all thoughts of a very particular professor to leave his head. As really, who could think of their troubling sexuality when there were far bigger concerns, like global warming and increasing hostilities between powerful countries, to contend with?

            In fact, he was just sipping his third cup of coffee, his mind focused only on current events in Fallujah, and nothing else, when Tim arrived at his doorstep in near perfect-synch with the sunrise, said aspiring-author being the only one of his three agents to ever willingly keep ‘early hours’ on one of his days off.

            “I’m sorry I’m so early but – “

            “I’ve been up for two hours already, Tim.” Gibbs calmly reassured. “Come on in.”

            Still looking somewhat frantic about the thought of having potentially bothered his boss before said man was fully prepared or willing to entertain any visitors, Tim started to fidget uncomfortably and began chewing nervously on his already cracked lips in what was very clearly a persistent and unhealthy nervous tick.

            “Are you sure?” The technology expert questioned. “I can always – “

            “You’re not giving me a cellphone tutorial out on my front porch when it’s this damn cold outside.” Gibbs interrupted. “Get in here.”

            Clearly greatly relieved to have been so quickly offered an easy escape from the pernicious cold that had suddenly fallen over the city in the last two weeks, the likes of which had produced frost on the grass almost every morning, Tim nodded obediently in response to his order and eagerly stepped into the warmth of the kitchen, his plump cheeks flushed a violent shade of fuchsia and his pale fingers trembling terribly as he removed from the pocket of his coat a long rectangular box.

            “What can I get you to drink?” Gibbs asked, leading the timid agent even further into his room.

            “I don’t really need anything.” Tim hastily assured, still absurdly uncomfortable around him despite the length of time they had known each other. “I already had some – “

            “I didn’t ask if you needed anything.” Gibbs grumpily interrupted. “I asked you what you wanted. So answer me.”

            Despite looking as if he wanted to do nothing more than persist with his ridiculous arguments that he needed no such niceties, one sharp glare from Gibbs was more than enough to convince him of the foolishness of such an endeavor.

            “Something warm, please?”  

            Relieved that his close relationship with Tony had resulted in him purchasing a boxful of hot chocolate Keurig-pods, as there was nothing his perpetually-childlike agent enjoyed so much as a cupful of hot chocolate while listening to him read in the evenings, Gibbs happily moved to procure a cup of the quintessential cold-weather beverage for his other male agent.          

            “Alright, McGee.” Gibbs grumbled, placing the steam mug of hot chocolate atop his kitchen table once it had been filled. “Sit down and let me have a look at this new toy of mine.”

            Still looking as if he believed he was going to be screamed at the for the slightest infraction at any moment, and promptly thrown out unto his ass in the frost-covered grass, despite the fact that Gibbs had not raised his voice so much as an octave in the last several months, Tim approached the kitchen chair furthest away from Gibbs like a condemned man approaching the gallows, his sharp teeth gnawing away at his bottom lip in a violent fashion as he reluctantly, and awkwardly, lowered himself down unto the handmade furniture and placed the boxed phone between them on the table.

            “They didn’t have any black phones left,” Tim worriedly began, a very real fear shining quite clearly in his hazel eyes, “So I went with the white and just got you a black Otterbox.”  

            Sensing that Tim was only a few seconds away from fleeing the room at the slightest provocation, his nerves clearly at an all-time high, Gibbs immediately sought to put the uptight young man at ease the best way he knew how – by appealing to his authority on the subject of all things technological.

            “White is fine, McGee.” Gibbs comforted. “Now show me how this thing works.”

            Looking every bit as excited as Tony did whenever said man was given the opportunity to introduce a person to some obscure classical film of his, the premise and likes of which nobody had any real prayer of understanding, Tim instantly relaxed his posture and immediately launched into a lengthy, yet understandably, presentation on all the ways in which such a sophisticated piece of equipment could be used, stopping only every now and then to return some moisture to his mouth via a sip of the hot chocolate Gibbs had strong-armed into accepting. And while, admittedly, there were a few parts in the narrative where he became hopelessly lost and confused, it was not long, at all, before his youngest agent had him back on track with a succinct demonstration or expanded upon explanation – the likes of which he managed to utilize without making Gibbs feel impossibly old or stupid, which was quite a remarkable talent indeed, and one that Gibbs was highly envious of, as it was no great secret of his that he inadvertently insulted a great number of people he cared about with his hopelessly fixed and sardonic tone.  

            “I can transfer all you contacts and photos over to your new phone now.” Tim finished, his mouth clearly dry but his hazel eyes all aglow with pride.

            Having unfortunately, and rather shamefully, zoned out of their mutual conversation once the topic of ‘apps’ had cropped up, something he had but little care to learn about, aside, of course, from those that would allow him to check the weather and read his customary newspapers, Gibbs blinked in surprise as Tim finally finished his lengthy dialogue without warning.

            “Huh?” Came his rather ineloquent answer.  

            Seeming no more bothered about the very real potential of having been ignored during the last five minutes of his spiel than he would have had he been faced with a mildly cloudy day, so infatigable was his absurdly tolerant nature, Tim simply smiled and repeated his earlier uttered sentence.

            “I can put all your old contacts and pictures into your new phone.”

             Having been fully resigned to the fact that he was going to be forced to keep his brick of an old cellphone around just to keep possession of the voicemails and photos from his deceased family, a scenario which annoyed him greatly given that he believed one phone to be an awful enough burden alone, Gibbs reacted to the news that it might not necessarily be so with greater interest than was usual for a man of his character.

            “Ducky said I couldn’t do that with a phone as old as mine.” Gibbs groused.

             “You can if you jailbreak it.” Tim assured, already taking the shining new phone into his careful hands.

            Despite knowing practically next to nothing when it came to all things technological, especially modern-day phones, Gibbs couldn’t help but feel as if the method Tim was just so casually mentioning was somewhat illegal, if not completely so.

             “Is that legally allowed, McGee?” Gibbs interrogated, not fancying the idea of getting arrested for something so stupid.

            Knowing better than to outright lie to his face, after having spent the last couple of years watching Tony get headslapped into oblivion for just such a crime, Tim shrugged sheepishly and gave a rather lawyer-like answer in response to his no-nonsense question.

            “It’s not immoral.” Tim prevaricated. “I mean, technically speaking, you do own both phones. You should be able to do what you want with them now.”

            Despite not really liking the oily nature of such an argument itself, especially so coming out of the mouth of his kindest agent, Gibbs really couldn’t find any fault with the basis of the argument itself, as really, why shouldn’t he be allowed to do whatever he wanted with the property he owned?

            “Go ahead then.” Gibbs allowed. “Just done delete anything, alright?”

            “Don’t worry.” Tim comforted. “I don’t even have to go into your personal files to transfer the data.”

              Thinking that was one of the most reassuring things he had ever heard in his life, apart from a select few things, of course, Gibbs let out a bated breath as discreetly as possible and tried, rather futilely, to convince himself that said relief had only stemmed forth from him not wanting the aspiring-writer to stumble across anything that might make him ask about his deceased wife and daughter – and not about the fact that his texts with Henry would likewise go unread by curious eyes. Because as much as he had felt that said conversations were simply friendly in nature at the time of them being sent, he could now admit to himself that a great deal of them might very easily be construed as rather flirtatious in nature – especially the one in which Henry had accused him of being silly of all things.

            “And there you are.” Tim proudly preened, after only a moment or so. “You’re all set to go with your new phone. Do you need help putting your Otterbox on?”

            “You had best just do it.” Gibbs reluctantly encouraged, not at all convinced by said object’s claims of indestructibility. “That way it’ll get done right.”

            Practically growing a full seven inches on the weight of such mild praise, Tim all but beamed as he quickly, and effortlessly, assembled the veritable black shield of a case around his ridiculously fragile phone. And, still riding high on the relative success of having earned his boss’s approval, despite having always had it, Tim even went so far as to help him apply a privacy mask of sorts over the screen to prevent anyone from looking over his shoulder and reading his texts – something that would indefinitely come in handy for anyone who worked in close proximity with an irredeemably snoopy Abby.

            “Thanks, Tim, I owe you – “

            Kept from expressing the extent of his gratitude as a half-asleep Tony trudged into the kitchen in nothing but his boxers and leveled a glare at the innocent Tim, something that had the poor man mortified and terrified all at once, Gibbs sighed softly and shot his child a warning expression of his own, making it perfectly clear, via one deliberately-cocked eyebrow, that his childish ‘marking’ of his territory (that being Gibbs) would not be tolerated in regards to Tim – just as it hadn’t been when Kate first became involved in their lives.

            “Don’t mind, Tony.” Gibbs encouraged Tim. “He’s always a moody baby in the morning.”

            Still clearly intent on marking his territory, despite having just been explicitly warned that he was not to do so, Tony narrowed his eyes even further before going so far as to lower himself down into Gibbs’s lap. An act that might very well have been endearing had it not been motived by his child’s desire to skirt around a direct order by misbehaving in a way that he couldn’t very well be fairly punished for.

            “McGee,” Gibbs began, not wishing to encourage his child’s brattiness, “Do you want to come to brunch with me and Tony?”

               “No.” Tim immediately declined. “I promised Ducky I’d help him set up his new automatic light system. Thank you though.”

            Sensing that he wasn’t going to be making any real headway in bonding with Tim by barking out absurd orders that he attend a meal with him, as that would only cause said young man to withdraw even further, Gibbs simply sighed inwardly to himself before wishing his youngest agent as cheerful a goodbye as he could manage.

Chapter Text

            Leaving Tony alone in the reception area of their usual restaurant so that he might leisurely purvey the wide selection of handmade desserts the elderly proprietor of said establishment spent all night making, the likes of which she kept safely tucked behind a rather strong plate of glass in order to keep her more mannerless patrons from filching them whenever her teenaged hostess became particularly distracted by whatever black-haired college boy wandered in, Gibbs did a very quick survey of the crowded restaurant and was subsequently rewarded for his meagre efforts upon discovering that the hopelessly-distracted Lisa had cleverly managed to reserve his favorite booth from by leaving a few white dishes with painted on dirt on the surface of the table. For as irredeemably ditzy as the dimpled girl was at times, very often mixing up orders of inadvertently locking customers in after closing, the dark-eyed girl had a certain crafty air to when whenever sufficiently motivated by the power of money or boys.

            “You had best tip me fat, today, Gibbs.” Lisa forewarned him, expertly clearly away the decoy dirty-dished with just one hand. “I had to argue down a junkie that was determined to sit there.”

            Having once watched the veritable dwarf of a Sophomore body slam a particularly cheeky college linebacker after said pig had dared to slap her on the rear, Gibbs felt but little concern upon learning that the little martial-arts enthusiast had been forced to square off with one of the many crackheads that happened to frequent that five-block radius in pursuit of donations or food.

            “I doubt that it presented much of a challenge for you.” Gibbs dismissed. “But you’ll have a nice tip all the same.”

            Unapologetically hellbent on moving someplace perpetually warm, just as soon as she hit the golden age of eighteen, Lisa practically purred like the proverbial cat that had just caught the canary in response to Gibbs’s promise.

            “Where’s Tony?” She politely inquired, as eager as any young woman was to set her eyes on his son.

            “Slavering over the desserts.” Gibbs sighed, already anticipating the argument he would soon be having with his child about acceptable breakfast choices.

            Because the fact that said child was a grown ass man aside, there was simply no way in hell that Gibbs would ever allow Tony to eat nothing but syrup and cinnamon cake for his first meal of the day – as not only would such a childish choice present some very significant danger for his teeth, the likes of which already suffered from his very real fear of the dentist, but so too would his blood-sugar be out of whack for the rest of the day.

            “I suppose I had best go and tuck away the last piece of cinnamon cake then, hadn’t I?”

            “It would certainly be considerate of you.” Gibbs suggested.

            And likewise considerate to her travel-funds as well, as Gibbs would only increase the heft of her already guaranteed tip should she actually remember to do as promised.

            “Want me to save you some carrot cake, too?”

            “Is that even a question that needs asking?” Gibbs countered.

            Receiving only a mildly annoyed eyeroll from the teenaged waitress in response to his rhetorical question, the dismissive nature of which almost immediately had him concerned that he wouldn’t be receiving his carrot cake anytime soon, if at all, Gibbs frowned slightly but nonetheless put in his order for coffee, and a Shirley Temple for Tony, as politely as he always did – figuring that a small deal of his good manners would go quite far in serving to motivate the young girl into making his visit a happy one. If not by remembering his order and conveying it to the cook exactly as directed, then at the very least by making certain he wound up with a free dessert for all the trouble.

            It was only once the dark-eyed Sophomore had taken her leave of him, heading off to do some serious flirting with the small gaggle of college football player seated near the front before putting in anyone’s orders, that Gibbs found himself being fooled into thinking that his cell phone had buzzed, when, in fact, it had been the phone belonging to the gentleman sitting in the booth directly behind him that had been the guilty culprit. And while, ordinarily, the chiming of a phone in a public place would have annoyed him greatly, he being such a stickler for certain rules of etiquette, Gibbs was more than just a little shocked to discover that he couldn’t feel anything but a slight twinge of jealously that it had not been him to receive a much-awaited text. A rather startling bit of self-discovery that soon had him wondering and worrying, against his will, whether or not he really ought to just contact Henry and apologize for his sudden coldness - if not to put a diplomatic end to such a bizarre and brief chapter in his life, then at the very least so that his conscience would let him rest. Because as much as he might like to claim that he had done nothing wrong when fleeing the scene of Henry’s misbehavior, he knew in his heart that it had not been kind of him to leave the professor feeling so guilty for some very natural feelings, even if said feelings had brought about a significant amount of discomfort on his part. After all, who was he, of all people, to make anyone feel uncomfortable about some facet of their personality that they couldn’t control? For all other moral failings aside, prejudice had never been one of his flaws – not even as a small boy growing up in a time where racism and homophobia had been the norm rather than the exception.

            And, really, had Henry even done anything all that wrong aside from misreading the room? An embarrassing, yet understandable faux-paus, that he, himself, had committed an immeasurable amount of time during the duration of his somewhat long life. If anything, Gibbs reasoned, he should almost be flattered by Henry’s evident and great interest in him, as it was not often, if at all, since Shannon’s death that anybody even halfway decent had taken note of him in a romantic way. That it had been a man to do so bore but little matter on the significance of such rarity in his mind. Flattery was still flattery, even if it was not exactly delivered in the fashion one might have preferred.

            And while, admittedly, Gibbs would never be able to find it within himself to thank said lumberjack-esque for such unassailing flattery, he could, at the very least, find it within himself to apologize for the behavior that had directly followed such a physical compliment.

            ‘I bought a new phone,’ Gibbs clumsily texted, typing quickly before he could lose his nerve, ‘320-867-5309.’

            And while Gibbs was sorely tempted to immediately follow his original text with one less clumsy and awkward in nature, he reluctantly forced himself not to give into such an embarrassing temptation, as given that Henry was the offended party, it should be he who decided whether or not their friendship would continue. Although he would be lying if he claimed not to hope that the professor would choose to further it. An uncomfortable bit of truth that was only solidified by the alarming twinge of excitement he felt when his phone, at long last, vibrated and chimed with the good news of a text.

            ‘Who is this?’ The text unclimatically read. ‘Duff?’

            Irrationally annoyed at the sheer ridiculousness of such a text, and not at all jealous as to what being mistaken for Duff might just entail, Gibbs scowled only narrowly resisted the urge to chuck his phone across the crowded restaurant.

            ‘It’s Jethro,’ He impatiently texted, ‘I goat a ew phonics.’

            It was only after he had already hit ‘sent’ that Gibbs realized the magnitude of his texting error and immediately sought to redeem himself via a quick follow-up text.

            ‘No, nude photos.’

            Practically on the verge of an aneurism once he registered just how much damage autocorrect had done, alongside his stubborn refusal to proofread, Gibbs felt his face flush a vibrant shade of red as he imagined Henry’s reaction to being propositioned for nude photos only a day after having had his sexual advances so rudely rebuffed. Because if there was anything men hated when it came to relationships, gay or straight, it was a fucking remorseless tease.

            ‘I see you’ve discovered the joys of autocorrect.’ Henry teased, thankfully not reading into Gibbs’s misprint. ‘But what happened to your old phone?’

            Thoroughly unwilling to admit that his primary reason for purchasing his new phone had been so that he might better communicate with Henry, and return said man’s selection of emojis for some of his own, Gibbs kept mum as to the matter of why and simply opted to explain away his uncharacteristic purchase as nonchalantly as he could manage over phone.

            ‘It outlived its usefulness.’ Gibbs explained, not entirely untruthful.

            ‘Even as a defense weapon?’

            Kept from sending back a witty reply in response to such friendly taunting by Tony’s untimely return, whereupon he unceremoniously flopped himself into the booth with all the restraint of a sugar-hyped toddler, Gibbs quickly tucked his cell phone into the inner pocket of his jacket and tried, in vain, to pass the act off as perfectly natural.

            “Dad,” Tony frowned, instantly suspicious, “Who’re you texting?”

            Not one bit prepared to clue in his naturally-inquisitive child as to the existence of Henry, and the potential friendship between they were currently working to forge, for fear that his son would only ask an endless barrage of awkward questions, the likes of which he was nowhere near prepared to answer, Gibbs inconspicuously sucked in a deep breath before uncharacteristically muddying up the truth.           

            “Ducky.” Gibbs fibbed, having never once felt so guilty for lying save for the one time he had broken Kelly’s heart by trying to pass off a replacement gerbil as the original one that had died of old age. “Don’t worry about it.”

            Almost instinctively knowing he was being lied to by the one person in his life who strove always to be honest with him, yet somehow oddly okay with that fact, Tony narrowed his eyes a slight degree but otherwise took no real measure to chastise him for his dishonesty.

            “Forget Jolene.” Tony eagerly insisted, clearly under the mistaken impression that Gibbs was texting a girl. “It’s family time.”

            More than just a little understanding of Tony’s general distaste when it came to him dating, as the great majority of women that Gibbs brought into their life had a certain shared proclivity for domestic violence and a general hatred of potential stepchildren, Gibbs allowed the snarkiness of his tone to go unrebuked and instead focused on trying to make certain that Tony didn’t feel as if he was about to be overshadowed by a particularly nasty redheaded shrew anytime soon.

            “Jolene?” Gibbs asked.

            “It’s a redhead’s name.” Tony shrugged, still holding fast to the idea that Gibbs was courting a woman.  “So sayeth Dolly Parton.”

            “Don’t take Dolly’s name in vain.” Gibbs scolded, particularly fond of the singer. “And I’ve told you a thousand times, I don’t have a thing for redheads.”

            That all his romantic pursuits just so happened to possess a certain hair color, and a rare one at that, was merely a coincidence.

            “Yes, you do.” Tony argued. “And it’s backed by empirical scientific data.”

            Immediately concerned by the latter portion of Tony’s reply, as there was something in his tone that greatly implied there was some sort of classified and unsanctioned data collection on his dating preferences taking place, the likes of which he wouldn’t put past Ducky to have orchestrated and overseen, Gibbs furrowed his brow and inwardly resolved to do a little investigating into the matter just as soon as he got the chance.

            “I think I know what my preferences are.” Gibbs argued, never willingly one to give up a battle.  

            “Get real, Dad.” Tony scoffed. “I could make a group chat that would settle this argument in half a minute.”         

            Knowing when he was beat, yet too stubborn to outright concede defeat, Gibbs just sighed and shook his head.

            “Please don’t.” He implored. “I’m not ready for the nonsense of group chats just yet.”

            Because as much as he was loathe to admit it, given how old it made him seem, texting one fast texter was hard enough. And quite frankly, the idea of having to contend with a handful of just such a species was absolutely terrifying.

            “Admit you have a thing for redheads.” Tony pestered, keen to be granted a rare victory over his father.

            “Admit you have a thing for pushing my buttons.” Gibbs countered.

            Looking quite proud, rather than guilty, to be in full possession of such a rare skill, Tony outright beamed before sticking his tongue out at him.

            “What else are children for?” He asked rhetorically, sipping rather victoriously on his Shirley Temple.

            “Free manual labor?” Gibbs suggested. “Obligatory and inevitable hospice care?”              

             “Well that took a depressing turn.” Tony pipped, sucking down the last of his sugary beverage. “Lighten up a little, would you?”

            “Shut up and figure out what you want to eat.” Gibbs redirected. “I don’t want to have to wait an hour to eat.”

            Always eager to comply with an order, just so long as it involved food and/or movies, Tony snatched up one the syrupy menus and squinted at the fine print for a good several minutes before finally groaning in defeat and holding a hand up his temple.

            “I need something to get rid of this hangover.” He groaned.

            “How can you still have a hangover?” Gibbs demanded. “What were you three doing on Friday?”

            And while the question did, admittedly, serve to make himself all the more like the proverbial ‘papa bear’ he was always accused of being by Ducky and Vance, and on occasion by Fornell and Franks, Gibbs found that the couldn’t help but ask it nonetheless, on the very real, and very legitimate, grounds that he worried ceaselessly about his agents and, as such, needed to lecture them, on occasion, about their unyielding stupidity and recklessness.

            “To be honest,” Tony groaned, stealing a large sip of his coffee, “I’m not really sure what happened after we left Flannigan’s Bar. All I know for sure is that I found a ridiculous amount of glitter and Sweet Tarts in my jacket pocket the next day...At least I think they were Sweet Tarts.”

             “Don’t you think that you three are getting a little too old be partying like that?” Gibbs questioned, fully prepared to launch into a lecture about the dangers of unbridled drunkenness before taking note of the hopelessly insulted look on his child’s face. “Don’t get sulky,” Gibbs sighed, “I just worry about you kids, that’s all.”

            Especially so when they were going out to get drunk. Because if Tony did not utilize that time by trying to get his ass kicked by the biggest man in the bar over some trivial argument, Kate was almost certainly trying to test the limits of her body by consuming an absurdly mannish amount of alcohol in a very short duration of time. And though he couldn’t speak for Tim’s antics while drunk with one hundred percent certainty, given that he had not yet had the dubious of pleasure of ferreting his drunken ass home like he had with the other two numerous times, he was almost certain that the younger man’s drunken vice would be for giving in too easily to the demands of those around him – no matter how ridiculous said orders were.

            “You could’ve just said that instead of calling me old!” Tony pouted, looking dangerously close to throwing a hissy-fit.

            “I didn’t call you old.” Gibbs calmly argued, rescuing the last of his coffee out of Tony’s hand. “I said you were too old to be partying.”

            And quite frankly, Gibbs held firm to such a belief, for apart from the significantly younger Tim, there was just simply no good reason, at all, for young adults ridiculously close to their thirties to be drinking themselves into oblivion. A buzz or stupor, sure, but not into unconsciousness. That was simply behavior more befitting of a high school Sophomore or college Freshman than it was his two oldest agents.

            “Well, you insinuated it.” Tony grumbled, gradually becoming less and less upset as the ridiculousness of his offense gradually sunk into his head. “How would you like it if I made the same insinuations?”

            Scoffing loudly in response to such a ridiculous rhetorical question, as not a day went by without Tony making some sort of wise crack about his advanced age, the end result of which usually only resulted in said young man sporting a slightly sore head for the next ten minutes, Gibbs rolled his eyes and made a great show of pointedly ignoring his son by burying his face in a menu of his own. Which was an easy enough task up until the point that Tony grew bored with his silence and blew the wrapper of his straw directly into his eyebrow.

            “I swear child,” Gibbs groused, “You push me to my limits.”

             “I prefer to think of it as broadening the horizons of your patience.” Tony quipped, childishly lowering Gibbs’s menu for him. “You’re welcome.”

            “You’re about to have the limits of your inner-psyche broadened,” Gibbs nonthreateningly warned, “Because I’m about ten seconds away from headslapping you so hard that you astral project.”

              Knowing perfectly well that he would never be physically chastised for being a little sassy, given that it was one of the major tenants of his character, but likewise also very aware of the fact that he could be denied a milkshake for testing his father’s limits, Tony instantly dropped the cloying sweet smile from his face and held up his hands in a gesture of surrender.

            “I’ll be good.” He promised. “Can I still order a milkshake?”

            “It’s ten in the morning.” Gibbs pointedly reminded the manchild.

             “So…”

            Having learned from raising Kelly that it was exceedingly important for a parent to choose their battles, especially so those that involved particularly stubborn children, as his daughter had once sat an entire nine hours at the dinner table in a staunch refusal to even try the tiniest sliver of a beet, and that Tony had once outright refused to speak with him for a full five days after Gibbs had forbade him from getting a tattoo, Gibbs gave into the simple request with only a minor stipulation.

            “You’ll finish your food first.” Gibbs dictated, leaving no room for argument.

            “Milkshakes are a food.” Tony countered.

            “Anthony.” Gibbs warned, growing weary of the sass.

            Seeming to know when he was on the very edge of crossing the line, Tony instantly sobered a fair degree and opted to forgo his arguments for a milkshake in favor of making yet another childish, yet far more reasonable, request.

            “Do you have any quarters for the quarter machine?”  

            Unable to deny his child such an innocent request, even if said request was patently childish in nature, Gibbs fished a small fistful of silver coins from his wallet and forked them over to the boy.

            “Thanks, Dad.” Tony beamed, already scooting out from his side of the booth. “You’re the greatest.”

            “No candy until after we’ve already eaten.” Gibbs stipulated, his words going purposely ignored as Tony feigned sudden deafness and took off towards the machines situated near the front of the store.

            But rather than go about provoking a power struggle by calling the young man back and making him reiterate what had just been said, and likewise give an affirmative answer to such, as he might have before he had started therapy and worked on his control issues, Gibbs simply allowed his child the carefree pleasure of gambling for small trinkets in the small handful of metal machines made available to the public. And if such a parental indulgence just so happened to work in his favor, as well, by giving him a little bit of much-needed privacy to text his new friend back, well, that was just a rather fortunate coincidence.

            ‘I hardly think I need an outvoted phone for defend.’ He hastily texted, wishing not to make Henry feel as if he was being ignored.

            Because as much as that concern made him sound like a hormonal teenager dealing with their first relationship, Gibbs really didn’t wish to offend the redheaded professor again so soon after their disastrous dinner.

            ‘But of course,’ Henry replied, immediately putting Gibbs’s worries to rest, ‘I’m sure we both have more than our fair share of combat skills. Though, given when you think of the FBI, you might believe yourself better possessed of them.’

            Although Gibbs did, in fact, believe himself better possessed of the aforementioned combat skills, it was only because he had spent an inordinate amount of time in the Marines. Because as much as he loathed the jurisdiction-encroaching FBI, with the hatred of a thousand men, he was not so naïve as to delude himself into thinking that their defense training was subpar in comparison to any other government defense agency. Not that he would ever admit any of that to Fornell, of course.

            ‘I never said that.’ Gibbs defended.

            ‘But you were thinking it.’ Henry contested. ‘Confess.’

             ‘I will never confess to thought crimes.’ Gibbs responded, unwavering in his belief that there were no such things.

            For the powerful writing of George Orwell be damned, he would never willingly concede that one’s thoughts, left unspoken, could be considered criminal.

            ‘And I would never accuse of them.’ Henry hastily assured.

             Momentarily distracted by the vigorous giggling of the several small children who had gathered around Tony to play homage to his theatrically way of working the quarter machines, and to likewise receive whichever castoffs he didn’t care to keep for himself, Gibbs was slightly alarmed when his phone buzzed and alerted him to the fact that Henry had double-texted, as that was a very clear sigh, according to Kate, that someone was losing patience.

            ‘Look, Jethro, I won’t play the part of a beggar, but could we possibly discuss the giant queer elephant in the room before in suffocates us both?’

            Feeling a sudden and inexplicable amount of panic flooding into his body in response to being caught so off-guard by such sudden candidness, Gibbs floundered and very nearly dropped his phone to the floor before narrowly managing to get a hold of himself by digging his nails into the pad of his palm.

            ‘Don’t use that word.’ Gibbs requested, cringing inwardly every time he looked at it.

            Because as much as it wasn’t the forbidden ‘n-word,’ the likes of which he had heard hurled at his uncle often enough while growing up, he still didn’t like to hear that word either, as it had very often preceded one of the more effeminate boys in Stillwater getting their asses kicked by a gaggle of older boys.

            ‘Please don’t detract from the issue at hand.’

            Despite not liking the insinuation that he was prevaricating by making his earlier request for less vulgarity, Gibbs kept mum on the matter in favor of prolonging the peace and texted back with the answer he was hoping Henry would be glad to be read.

            ‘I don’t see the ham in tacking…’

            At least not so long as said talking only involved words and no kissing.

            ‘Name your terms, please.’ Henry replied. ‘I would hate to make you any more uncomfortable than I already have.’

            Taking a moment to consider the issue, as it wouldn’t due to be overly hasty with such an important decision, Gibbs furrowed his brow and contemplated his options before quickly deciding that their little negotiating of terms couldn’t take place over the phone, as not only would that be insanely difficult to do so with any measure of privacy given the oftentimes full nature of his house, but so too because it would be awfully impersonal and thusly harder to speak openly. But, on the other hand, their meeting couldn’t be at any place too personal either, as that would only be inviting some pretty powerful and unfair temptation into the equation as well. And though he had very much enjoyed Discreet and its atmosphere, they very well couldn’t meet up there either, despite its relative neutrality, given that Gibbs wasn’t gay and keen on encroaching in a space that wasn’t his to utilize.

            ‘Why don’t you name the place?’ Gibbs suggested, almost desperate from his sudden lack of decision-making skills.

            ‘How about Frieda’s?’ Henry thankfully obliged. ‘It’s a little café near the college. We could do lunch tomorrow.’       

            Thinking that there couldn’t possibly be any more neutral a place to meet than a random café they hadn’t had any interaction together in, Gibbs found himself nodding his assent to the idea even as he types away at his phone.

            ‘Slurp.’ He fumbled. ‘I’ll mart you there at noon, unless tears a fresh lime to investigate.’

            “Are you still texting Jolene, Dad?” Tony interrupted, nearly startling Gibbs into dropping his phone.

            Struggling greatly not to appear any more flustered than he already was, as that would only lead to more awkward questions, Gibbs frowned and nonchalantly tucked his phone away into the inner pocket of his jacket, hoping to both affect a calmness he didn’t feel and to prevent his like nosy child from grabbing the object just as soon as an opportunity presented itself.

            “Don’t worry about it.” Gibbs shrugged. “What’s got you so excited?”

            Holding up a godawful batman tattoo without even the slightest semblance of embarrassment, Tony grinned widely and waggled the offending object in his face, clearly intent on taunting him as much as could without getting slapped for it.

            “Don’t think you’re ever getting a real one of those.” Gibbs grumbled.

             

             

             

Chapter Text

            Still exceedingly nervous about his impending lunch meeting with Jethro, and what just such an event might entail and/or result in, Henry found himself uncharacteristically restless and woefully unable to concentrate on his book detailing Regency Era norms for the middle class. Which was a rather troubling affair considering when one considered the crumbling tome had been in his possession for a full three days and he yet to even broach the halfway mark of four hundred pages. And while that, in and of itself, wasn’t an absolutely world-ending annoyance for him, as the numerus people in his acquaintance who failed to recycle were, the very real fact that he couldn’t even consider grading his Freshman Literature papers until he had gotten further into his book certainly was, as such a persistent caveat was all but bound to send a small gaggle of peeved nineteen-year-olds into his office to whine about all the hardships his haphazard grading system caused them. Even though, if you asked him, said little tyrants had been enrolled long enough in his course to realize that he almost never gave out any F’s or D’s – save for in the case of blatant plagiarism and, in one extremely unfortunate case, in response to a woefully off-topic and fact-falsified narrative about how the Holocaust had never happened and was really just a false narrative being peddled by the Jews to destabilize Europe. That particular piece of garbage had gone straight into the compost pile, directly alongside its author once the school’s local Jewish Coalition had caught wind of its existence.

            “What can I get for you, Professor?” one of said Freshmen badgered, startling Henry out of his nervous ponderings via his very sudden appearance.

            “Oh,” Henry stumbled, suddenly ineloquent, “How about a small glass of chai for now? I’m still waiting for a friend of mine to arrive.”

            And though he found that he could not think upon the idea of being only friends without some mild abhorrence and great disappointment, the likes of which were far more befitting of a hormonal teenager than they were a full-fledged professor, Henry was still glad to find that he could speak the idea aloud without giving away any of his inner turmoil.

            “I hope he’s late.” The still braces-wearing college Sophomore sassed, scribbling his simple order down unto the skin of his exposed forearm.”

            Despite being the approachable sort of professor who made it his life’s goal to ascertain that all students felt safe coming to him with their struggles, no matter how big or small such troubles might be, Henry had absolutely never been one to suffer any blatant and unearned disrespect, as he had most certainly not gone to school for a good ten years to be so simply disregarded by those whose brains hadn’t even fully finished developing yet. And, given such, he was almost positive he had misheard the perpetually dour Philip, as surely said aspiring academic would never be so bold and brash as to wish ill on a person who had done so much to help him in the furthering of his goals.

            “Pardon me?” Henry tersely demanded, giving the skinny boy a warning look.

            “Don’t you always say that waiting is good for the soul?” Philip quoted, making rather poor use of air quotes.

            Finally coming to realize that this was the nonconfrontational Philip’s particular way of getting back at him for once taking a full six weeks to write out a recommendation for him to accepting in a grad-level glass before he had even finished his Freshman year, Henry felt his bearded cheeks coloring a little with guilt and made a great point of dismissively hiding his face behind his giant book.

             “Yes, well, sometimes that particular bit of advice isn’t applicable.” Henry sagely lectured, struggling not to come off as hypocritical. “Like in regards to tea orders, for example. One should never really wait so long, in certain situations, that their efforts at patience only produce a cold result, after all.”

            Clearly not at all appreciative of such a blame-absolving rambling, Philip frowned deeply and narrowed his dark eyes in the telltale sign that he was on the brink of becoming irredeemably peeved with him.

            “Look, if I promise to get you your chai in under five minutes, will you finally grade my girlfriend’s midterm?”      

            “I’ll have you know that I graded a rather large stack of papers last night.” Henry hotly defended, quite sensitive about his lack of proper organizational skills.

            That such an unfounded surge of energy and motivation had only come about from him being unable to sleep for fear that Jethro would never speak with him again need not factor into the conservation.

            “Did one of them happen to be my girlfriend’s?”  

             Finding himself wishing, for the first time in their acquaintance, that Philip was not so astoundingly difficult to distract, Henry sighed softly to himself and very reluctantly lowered his book away from his face.

            “Considering the fact that I didn’t struggle to read any of them, I’m going to have to say no.”

            “Dude,” Philip reprimanded, nobly insulted on behalf of his girlfriend, “You’re killing me.”  

            “I’d rather like to think of it as increasing your tolerance.” Henry philosophically lectured. “Something you’ll need an abundance of if you’re planning to become a professor.”  

            Far too clever not to detect the subtle bit of shade that had been tossed his way, yet far too dependent upon keeping him in his good graces to outright curse him to his face, Philip exhaled loudly through his nose and shot him one last peeved expression before turning his back and stomping off.

            “You chair might be a little late in coming.” Phillip grumbled, already several footsteps away.

            “That’s quite alright.” Henry calmly assured. “But I do believe that my friend has arrived. Why don’t you add a pumpkin spice latte to my order?”

             Looking over his skinny shoulder to assail him with a withering look that almost solidified the fact that neither of his drink orders would be arriving in a timely fashion, if at all, Philip loudly muttered something about bearded cunts beneath his breath before sidling off to chat rather animatedly with his girlfriend about all the injustices of the academic world. But, rather than take umbrage with such an astounding lack of professionalism, and hail down a manager to make demands that something be done about the disrespectful goblin, two things he would never really do, Henry found himself actually smiling as he spotted Jethro walking through of the doors of the café  with a face flushed attractively red from the cold.

             “Hey.” Jethro greeted, slipping into the chair opposite him.

            Struggling greatly not to think of any inappropriate of ungentlemanly things as Jethro stretched to relieve some of the tension the cold had put into his muscles, something he was very hard pressed to do considering the fact that such an act had caused a small breeze of air to carry the scent of his cologne over to him, Henry groaned softly in the back of his throat and hastily deposited his heavy book into his lap just as casually as he could manage.  

            “Good afternoon.” Henry responded with a smile. “I’m glad you were able to make it.”  

            “No new cases.” Jethro divulged, still shivering somewhat violently.

            “Jethro,” Henry frowned, unable to keep from fussing, “Do you want to switch chairs? Mine is right above a heating vent.”  

            At first looking as if his pride would compel into passionately refusing such a chivalrous offer, on the outdated grounds that he was a man and in no real need of such considerations, Jethro eventually, albeit reluctantly, shook his head in the affirmative.

            “You sure you wouldn’t mind?”          

            “Not at all.” Henry assured, already removing himself from the aforementioned chair. “I tend to run a bit hot.”  

             “I wish I had that problem.” Jethro grumbled, looking absolutely mortified as he vacated his original chair and sidled past Henry to his newest destination.

            Every last sense in his body becoming overwhelmed as Jethro miscalculated his steps and brushed up against him, Henry felt his head swim and struggled not to reply to Jethro’s depreciating commentary with the rebuttal that he was, indeed, already hot.      

             “I ought to get you some heated boots.” Henry joked, quickly reseating himself to conceal the growing tightness in his pants.

            Wondrously blue eyes growing wide in response to Henry’s simple commentary, Jethro sat up a bit straighter in his new location and leveled him with a very serious expression.

            “They make those?”

            “Yes.” Henry confirmed, pleased to find that their conversation wasn’t feeling forced from any residual feelings of lingering awkwardness. “They also make heated sweaters.”  

            Looking as if he had just been told the secret answer to the proverbial meaning of life, or at least on the very verge of ecstasy, Jethro immediately, and adorably, plied him for more information.

            “Where you even find something like that?”

            “Amazon.” Henry answered. “Amazon has everything.”  

            And while Henry did, admittedly, harbor a certain reluctance for making use of such a morally corrupt company, he was not entirely unwilling to utilize it on the rare occasion that their large selection of niche goods made such a decision necessary.  

            “I don’t know how to use The Amazon.” Gibbs confessed, looking very put out. “I tried to order a chisel once and wound up with a cat bed.”

            “I can show how to use Amazon sometime, Jethro.” Henry offered, hoping he didn’t sound too eager. “I’ll even let you use my Prime account.”

            Obviously unaware of just how generous such an offer really was, as really, who could afford to turn down free shipping, Jethro smiled politely and further displayed his good manners by immediately thanking him.

            “That would be great.” Jethro accepted, failing to be discreet in his pursuit for warmth as he tucked his slightly blue fingers beneath his armpits for warmth.

            “Do you want me to ask somebody to turn up the – “

            “GIBBS!!!”

            Preemptively cut short from finishing his offer to find a manager and request that they crank the heat up a few notches by the sudden arrival of two young college girls to their table, Henry blinked in surprise and very nearly dropped his jaw as he watched one of his more outgoing college students wrap Jethro in a giant hug from behind.  

            “Sarah.” Jethro beamed, twisting around to better wrap her in a more appropriate type of hug. “How are you? I haven’t seen you since last fall.”

            “I’m great!” Sarah eagerly assured, perpetually happy. “What’s up with you, though?”  

            “I’m just getting lunch with a friend.” Jethro shrugged. “This is – “

            “Gibbs,” Sarah scolded, “I know who Professor Sinclair is, I’m taking all of his classes.”  

            “Oh…” Was all Jethro could manage to respond.

            A notable awkwardness descended over their table then, and Henry swore he could practically hear the gears turning in Jethro’s head as he undoubtably contemplated what it meant to be seen with a known homosexual by someone he evidently knew very well and, as a result, would be able to spread to the news to those in his closest of his acquaintance. But thankfully Sarah, bless her soul, being raised as well as anyone could ever hope their own kids to be, took it all in stride and kindly tried to dispel such unwelcome feelings the best way she knew how – with her unflappable happiness and good manners.

            “Gibbs,” She beamed, pulling her partner closer, “This is my girlfriend Lucy that I was telling you all about! We met during softball!”

             Becoming quickly amused to find that Jethro seemed to lose most of his social awkwardness around people he was much better acquainted with, as it gave him hope that such a fond familiarity might soon be able to develop between the two of them, Henry smiled fondly and tried not to laugh when Jethro proved himself to be even more parental than he had thought possible.

            “Hi, Lucy.” Jethro greeted. “Where’s your hat?”

            Knowing Lucy to be an exceedingly sigh girl, one who all but wilted under any direct attention, Henry cringed and only hoped that the young woman in question would manage to refrain from fleeing the scene of her mild interrogation, as he had been working with her quite a lot lately in regards to increasing the limits of her social anxiety.

             “It’s in her pocket.” Sarah hastily intervened, giving her girlfriend a comforting squeeze.

            Despite being all but certain that Jethro was perfectly aware he was being lied to, if the squinting of his beautiful blue eyes was anything to go by, Henry was immediately relieved to find that his friend’s magnanimity outweighed his general dislike for being dealt with dishonestly, as instead of rebuking the bubbly young girl in question for her deception, he instead focused on trying to make the clearly uncomfortable Lucy feel a little more at east.

            “You cut your hair short, Sarah.” Jethro remarked, charitably changing the subject.

            And while that bit of particular commentary was, indeed, more than just a little trite and cliché, Henry couldn’t help but concede that it was one that had been honestly made, as Sarah had quite clearly cut her ass-long ass hair into a style that was only slightly longer than a pixie.

            “It was easier for softball.” Sarah explained. “And it’ll grow back in a few months, at the longest.”

            “It looks nice.” Jethro appraised. “I can actually tell what color your eyes are now.”

            Receiving one of the very same eyerolls Sarah always gave him whenever he remarked upon the fact that it was quite silly of her to always be wearing a ballcap if she didn’t use it to at least try and keep the hair out of her face, Jethro smirked unrepentantly and looked fully prepared to press the matter further before Lucy surprised them all by speaking up.

            “See,” The quiet girl pipped, “Your hair was always falling in your face.”

            “You sound just like Timmy.” Sarah pouted. “Always going on and on about the snarls in my hair.”

            “And the dirt on your face.” Jethro teased. “And the homework. And – “

            “Timmy needs to take a seat.” Sarah pouted. “I’m a grown ass woman now.”          

            Hiding an amused smile as he watched Jethro flinch violently in response to hearing such vulgarity out of the mouth of Sarah, as it was quite clear he was not privy to the fact that she had quite the potty mouth whenever suitably annoyed, Henry feigned a cough and waited patiently to see what his friend’s response would be. For given Jethro’s evident parental nature, it wouldn’t at all surprise Henry if he happened to drag the girl off to the bathrooms for a proper mouth soaping.

            “You’re nineteen.” Jethro countered. “And he’s been taking care of you since you were born.”

            “Now you sound like my mom.” Sarah groaned, before gently grabbing hold of Lucy’s arm. “Let’s go Luce, we need to get that Calculus done if we want to play in this week’s game.”  

            “If you’re planning on Facetiming Tim to help you, you had best do it soon. He only has an hour for lunch.”

            Having the decency that her girlfriend did not possess to blush guiltily, Lucy grimaced and looked as if she might have fled the scene had Sarah not had a grip on her arm.

            “Don’t put me on blast, Gibbs.” Sarah dramatically cried, looking worriedly at Henry in the very mistaken belief he’d turn her in to the dean. “I’ll have you know that I did an assignment in math all by myself and got a c.”

            Only narrowly refraining from reminding the girl that those perpetual c’s were the exact same reason she was in very real danger of getting kicked off the softball team, despite being the best batter they had drafted in decades, Henry gave her a pointed frown and resolved later to discuss the matter with in a more appropriate setting.

            “I don’t know why you have so much trouble with numbers.” Jethro frowned.

            “Tim and I work better with letters, that’s all.” Sarah shrugged, conveniently forgetting that her older brother had no such struggles with the former.

            “That’s certainly true enough.” Henry allowed. “Both she and her brother write beautifully.” He informed Gibbs.

            It was only when Jethro frowned, in evident confusion, that Henry finally realized that the Marine was woefully unaware of just how much their social circles interacted.

            “How do you know Tim?” Jethro questioned.

            “He’s been taking a few of my online courses in order to bolster his skills as a write.” Henry divulged, figuring that said young man wouldn’t fault him for sharing some very basic information.

            Even if, technically, the divulging of said information was expressly forbidden by the universal collegiate standards of the united states.

            “Oh,” Jethro remarked, “He always did want to write a book.”

            “And he just did!” Sarah beamed, the words tumbling out of her mouth in a flood of excitement.  

            Feeling a great surge of discomfort flood over his body as he slowly realized, in tandem with Sarah, that Gibbs hadn’t had even the slightest inkling that one of his agents was now a published author, and a very accredited one at that, Henry squirmed uncomfortably in his seat and struggled to come up with some sort of solution to the problem at hand.

            “Wait…” Sarah grimaced. “I wasn’t supposed to tell anybody – “

            “It’s written under a pseudonym, Sarah, don’t worry.” Lucy hastily comforted.

             Feeling keenly that it was really not Sarah in need of any comforting, given that her slight embarrassment was but meagre in comparison to Jethro’s hurt at being left out, Henry quickly reached across the table and laid a comforting hand on his forearm without even really thinking of what such an act might imply.

            “Why would Tim keep something that exciting to himself?” Jethro questioned.

             “He’s humble, that’s all.” Henry was quick to supply. “Perhaps he felt as if he would be bragging if he brought it up. It did win a few awards, after all.”

            Realizing, belatedly, that it had perhaps not been the best idea to bring up the accolades said book had received, as it had clearly only hut Jethro further to realize just how much was being actively concealed from him, Henry frowned and looked to Sarah for help only to be quickly rebuffed by said girl in the spirit of self-preservation.

            “I…We really need to get started on our Calculus.” The short-haired girl insisted, all but yanking a mortified Lucy away towards the safety of the furthest corner of the room.

            Not even paying the slightest mind to the young women as they eagerly retreated, Gibbs scowled down at his menu and his shook his head.

            “I still don’t see why he would feel as if he had to lie to me about it.”

             Starting to take note of the fact that Jethro was far more sensitive than he would like others to believe, Henry frowned sympathetically and tried his best to comfort the ‘gruff’ individual currently seated across from him.

            “Perhaps he was worried that his book wouldn’t be appreciated by those who weren’t particularly well-read.” Henry suggested. “Or by those who weren’t fond of science-fiction.”

             “But it won an award,” Jethro frowned, “Of course it’s good.”

            “Jethro,” Henry sighed, “Does Tim seem like the type of man to take any esteem in an award?”

            Unable to answer in a contradictory fashion to such a rhetorical question, as it would be quite obvious to anyone who knew Tim for even the slightest amount of time that said man was exceedingly humble to a fault, and not like to get a swollen head from a few awards, Jethro huffed indignantly and looked crossly down at the table.

            “What is this book called anyways?”

            “Jethro,” Henry pleaded, “Please don’t ask me to divulge such a secret.”

            Because as much as he liked to think of himself as possessing a great deal of moral fiber, he knew damn well that he wouldn’t be able to resist from spilling the beans should Jethro persist in trying to pry the secret out of him.

            “Jethro,” Henry tried once more, “I’m sure that Tim didn’t mean to offend you with his secrecy. It’s just that he doesn’t have the confidence that his younger sister has.”

            “Clearly.” The wounded Marine sighed.

            “Don’t be too put out, I – “

             Interrupted, once more, by the sudden arrival of a young adult, this one bearing a dour expression and two suspiciously non-steaming mugs, Henry frowned but nonetheless politely accepted his tea before passing over the latte to Jethro.

            “I’m sorry it took so long.” Philip quipped, not at all repentant.

            “Is fifteen minutes overly long to make a couple of beverages?” Henry sarcastically retorted, a bit peevish at being kept from soothing his friend.

            “Is fifteen weeks over long to grade a midterm?”

             Having no real retort for such a sassy remark, or at least not a verbal one, Henry frowned and impatiently swatted the goblin of a barista away with a few pages of newspaper that someone had left behind on their table that morning.

            “Look, Henry.” Jethro frowned, still clearly bothered by his agent’s secrecy. “I don’t have a lot of time left on my lunch break. So let’s get to the point. I wanted to apologize – “

            “I thought we agreed that we shouldn’t apologize for honest mistakes.” Henry interrupted, not wanting an awkward rehashing of his foolishness.

            “Then what did you want to discuss?” Jethro questioned, sipping tentatively at his latte.

            Sincerely hoping that his friend’s beverage was nowhere near as icy cold as his currently was, Henry set aside his worthless mug of tea and answered Jethro’s bluntness with some of his own.

            “I suppose I would just like to know whether or not we could still be friends.”

            “I’d like that.” Jethro immediately agreed, far too quickly to add any credence to the nonchalant look he was trying to pull off. “Is…Is there something wrong with your coffee?”

            “It’s just a bit cold, I suppose.” Henry shrugged. “Although I ought to have seen that coming. I’ve been holding his girlfriend’s midterm hostage for quite a while now.”

            And, given the frigid cup of piss he had just been offered by said girl’s boyfriend, said girlfriend wasn’t like to receive her midterm until after Halloween either.

            “Do they have you teaching s many classes that you can’t grade in a timely fashion?”         

            “It’s not that I don’t have enough time.” Henry blushed. “It’s just that I have trouble finding them once I bring them home.”        

            In fact, it was not at all uncommon for him to stumble across a ‘lost’ assignment in the oddest of places after he had long since given up hope of ever locating it again.

            “Then why not keep them in your office?” Jethro suggested.

            “My office is best described as a fire hazard.” Henry reluctantly divulged. “At least according to the fire marshal, that is.”

            Although, if you asked him, he couldn’t honestly say that he agreed with such an assessment. Because even if his random and haphazard stacks of papers and books prevented an easy escape in the case of a fire, the solid fact still remained that he allowed nothing flammable in his office in the first place.

            “Maybe you need an assistant.” Jethro opined.

            “Oh no,” Henry chuckled, “I will not heap my organizational nonsense unto an innocent soul. That failure is mine alone to suffer.”

            “Well, if you ever change your mind, I’d be able to help.” Jethro offered.

            Momentarily distracted by the very inappropriate thoughts of what he would like to do with Jethro in his office, none of which involved organizing, Henry almost startled when Jethro called out his name to regain his attention.

            “That would be great.” Henry assured, glad to have a portion of the table over his lap. “And while you were there, I could give you a tour of the art gallery.”

            “I told you,” Jethro blushed, “Art is more a hobby for me.”

            “As it would be for the great majority of artists.” Henry opined. “Nobody masters a skill they hate learning.”

            Or at least, not without significant pressure from those above them, they didn’t. But, given Jethro’s nature and size, Henry greatly doubted that had ever been a problem for his friend.

            “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to look.” Jethro obliged. “I did pick up some charcoal on the way to work this morning.”

            “Well, if you ever have need of some models to sketch, I know three furry creatures who would be happy to oblige you.”

            “I thought you had four cats.” Jethro frowned.

            “I do.” Henry assured. “But Ben would never sit still long enough for you to capture his likeness. Although I don’t doubt for a minute that you couldn’t.”

            Looking fit to burst from all the compliments being paid his way, despite trying to play off the praise as coolly as he could, Jethro glanced shyly down at the floorboards and became nearly inaudible as he plied Henry with a very welcome question.

            “Look, my lunch break is almost over.” He mumbled. “Do…Do you wanna catch a movie sometime?”

            “Sure.” Henry immediately answered, this time being the one to speak to eagerly. “What are you in the mood for?”

            “Just go ahead and pick anything.” Jethro encouraged. “I’ve been exposed to enough genres by Tony that I can watch anything.”

             Having long since grown used to the idea of the gentleman in his relationships, whether or not they were friendly or romantic in nature, Henry shook his head and refused to give in to the idea of being the one to pick the movie.

            “What would you prefer, Jethro.” He badgered. “I picked where to meet for lunch. You get to pick the movie.”

            “What about a psychological thriller?” Jethro timidly asked. “It’s kind of nice not know the answers to all your questions at the end of a movie.”  

            “I do, too.” Henry honestly agreed. “It makes debating your views all the better when there isn’t any right of wrong answer.”  

             “Do you know if any are playing?” Jethro asked, failing not to appear genuinely excited.

            Taking but a quick moment to use his phone and ascertain just what types of movies were currently playing near them, Henry smiled quite victoriously to discover that there appeared to be a foreign film about child-swapping playing in several nearby theaters.

            “There is one.” Henry confirmed. “But I think it’s in French.”

            “That’s alright.” Jethro shrugged. “I speak French.”

            “You do?” Henry asked, woefully deficient himself in just such a department.

            Looking every bit just as uncomfortable as Lucy did to be put on the spot, Jethro fidgeted a bit uncomfortably before shrugging his shoulders and muttering his answer at the floor.

            “I speak a few languages, I guess.”

            “How many?” Henry hounded.           

            “Just – “

            “How many?”

            “…Five fluently and six…conversationally, I guess.”

            Feeling more than just a little taken aback by such surprising news, as not even the head of the language department at his school spoke that many languages, Henry found himself reacting with so much enthusiasm that Jethro looked uncomfortable, albeit also somewhat proud.

            “That’s incredible.” Henry appraised. “I can barely even manage my Spanish without sounding like an idiot.”

            “Then why don’t we go to a movie you can enjoy.” Jethro suggested. “I doubt they’ll be showing any subtitles.”

            More than just a little relived to have not needed to be the one to suggest such a thing, as he was more than just a little familiar with putting his wants last, Henry voiced his agreement to the idea and made another suggestion he hoped they could both agree on.

            “There’s a comedy playing.” Henry informed. “How about that?”

            “Sure.” Jethro agreed. “That sounds fine.”

             

             

             

Chapter Text

While Gibbs would have ordinarily taken one good look at the snow-covered grounds outside, alongside the frost-covered tree branches that were currently being whipped about violently by the wind, and said fuck it to anything or anyone that would require him to brave such unholy and inhospitable weather, even where regarded his son, he nonetheless found himself reluctantly shrugging into his heavy winter jacket and thick leather gloves, pointedly ignoring Ducky’s ridiculous claims, as he did so, that fifteen degrees was not so inclement as to require so many layers, or so much bitching and that, in fact, such weather would almost be considered balmy back in Scotland.

            “You know, Ducky, you’re going to have to face Daphne’s wrath sooner or later.” Gibbs grumbled, trying his hardest to get the older man out his house as politely as possible before Henry arrived. “And if you ask me, it would be better to just rip the bandage off and get it over with.”

            “I’m well aware of that, I assure you.” Ducky grumbled, still clutching a bag of frozen peas up to his rapidly blackening eye. “I just wish to savor a few more moments of being alive, that’s all.”

            “I still don’t understand what you did to piss her off so much.” Gibbs confessed, glancing over to where the skinny man sat slumped down in one of his kitchen chairs. “It’s not like you to make people angry.”

            Unless, of course, said people just so happened to be the unhappy mechanics tasked with keeping his nearly unfunctional hippy van running, or the luckless car detailers being given the bimonthly challenge of getting the smell of marijuana and salvia out of the upholstery of just such a smell-retaining vehicle.

            “Daphne asked me, in no uncertain terms, to answer a question as truthfully as if my life depended on it.” Ducky explained, still somewhat testy. “And I obliged her.”

            Knowing the sounds of a man trying to absolve himself of any significant blame where regarded a lover’s quarrel, as he played the same role quite a few times during his tumultuous marriage-crazed stage, Gibbs quirked a brow at his oldest and dearest of friends and let it be known, in no uncertain terms, that he didn’t buy one word of his flimsy excuse.

            “And what did that particularly question just so happen to be?” He interrogated, finding it somewhat invigorated to be on the opposite end of one of these lectures.

            Apparently well aware of the fact that he was, indeed, not at all as innocent as he was trying to make himself out to be, Ducky uncharacteristically scowled and stubbornly refused to meet his eyes.

            “Daphne wanted to know whether or not I believed she was putting on a few pounds the nearer she came to retiring.” Ducky reluctantly divulged, still peering rather peevishly at him through his one good eye.    

            “And naturally you…”

            “Replied honestly.” Ducky confirmed, clearly having decided to cling stubbornly to the mistaken idea that he was the innocent party in his argument with Daphne.

            Wishing to know just how much damage Ducky had caused with his indiscriminate truth-telling before issuing forth an edict of guilt, the severity of which he was almost certain would measure in the extremes, Gibbs gave his friend the best interrogative expression in his repertoire and again quirked his brow.

            “Give me a verbatim repetition of what you answered.” He demanded.

            “Adhering faithfully to her requests for total honestly, I informed Daphne that it was, indeed, somewhat clear that she had gained a dozen pounds or so.” Ducky haltingly reiterated, still refusing to meet his eyes. “But, knowing that she might possibly take my answer as some sort of indictment of her character and eating habits, I informed her that a little weight gain was perfectly natural for a woman who was post-menopausal.”

             Deciding then and there that Daphne had been entirely within her rights to nail Ducky with a nasty left hook that evening, as really, what sort of moron was clueless enough to assume that a woman was actively seeking the unobscured truth about her weight, much less additional commentary about how her aging body might be to blame, Gibbs rolled his eyes at his friend and shook his head in as disgusted a fashion as he could manage.

            “You’re an idiot.” Gibbs admonished. “And why exactly are you hiding out at my place instead of Jimmy’s?”

            Looking sorely put out at finding himself on the receiving end of such a lecture, Ducky grumbled something about bastards beneath his breath before deigning to response to his question in a far more dignified, albeit resentful, fashion.

            “Daphne knows where Jimmy lives.” Ducky confided with a shudder. “And my little ingrate has opted to take her side of the affair.”

             “Well don’t go thinking that I’m not on her side, too.” Gibbs cautioned, pulling a hat down over his ears. “I mean, honestly, what the fuck were you thinking?”

             “I was thinking that people who don’t want to hear the truth, hadn’t ought to ask for it.” Ducky hotly defended, looking as confounded as Tony did whenever Kate tried to argue with him about which of the Godfather movies was the best in the franchise.

            Still struggling to feel any sort of compassion for his closest friend, given the most egregious nature of his crime, Gibbs pursed his lips and poked a little further into the matter.

            “You know, Ducky, from what I’ve seen of Daphne I wager she’s pretty level-headed. I find it hard to believe she punched you just for pointing out medical facts. No matter how big of a dick you were about it.”

            Looking more than just a little sheepish in response to Gibbs’s not-so-subtle interrogation, Ducky grimaced and sighed loudly before finally expanding his narrative where regarded the extent of his sin.

            “I may have informed her, rather politely, that there were a number of ways in which she could take off a few pounds.” Ducky reluctantly confessed. “Needless to say, my suggestion of attendance at a local Weight Watchers chapter was not well received.”

            “And that was when you she punched you.” Gibbs stated, what meagre compassion he had for his friend being punched now practically nonexistent.

            “No.” Ducky scowled. “I was only punched after Daphne asked to know for how long I thought she had been pudgy and I responded, quite reasonably, mind you, that perhaps she was being a tad histrionic due to fluctuating hormones.”

            Still able to recall, quite vividly, the mind-altering pain he had experienced as a particularly stupid and easily-influenced sixth-grade boy, directly after having informed a notoriously hot-tempered Martha Boggart, on the behest of his very new group of male friends, that she couldn’t possibly play baseball with them anymore now that she was a ‘bleeder,’ a particularly sexist bit of commentary that had (justly) gotten him kicked squarely in the balls by said girl’s cleated foot, and likewise spanked by his infuriated father, Gibbs found himself absolutely astounded by Ducky’s unfathomable exemplifying of the exact same mistake, as said man had almost surely been around long enough to have either learned, whether through direct experience or informative witnessing, that calling into question a woman’s sanity was never the way to go.

            “Jesus Christ, Ducky.” Gibbs reprimanded. “Even I want to punch you now.”

             “In my defense, Jethro, I haven’t had a girlfriend in over fifteen years.” Ducky poorly tried to exculpate himself. “It’s only natural that I forgot a few of the more important dating rules in the interim.”

            “Well, you’ll need to refamiliarize yourself with them if you want to have any prayer of keeping Daphne as your girlfriend.” Gibbs forewarned, slipping his feet into a pair of fur-lined boots.

            Feeling somewhat sympathetic toward the Scottish man as he watched his friend’s face fall into a mask of total despair, as really, Gibbs was not so naïve as to believe that Ducky’s poorly-delivered advice about weight-maintenance meant that he was entirely apathetic toward the feelings of his girlfriend, an outcome that seemed downright impossible considering the fact that said medical examiner had started planning out his proposal only six weeks into their relationship, Gibbs frowned and placed what he hoped was a comforting hand on the skinny man’s shoulder.

            “What am I going to do, Jethro?” Ducky dramatically exclaimed, looking all but ready to pull out his hair. “How do I make her forgive me?”

            Despite having tried, in earnest, not to become antsy the nearer it came time for Henry to be picking him up, Gibbs nonetheless found himself succumbing to his feelings of anxiety and, as a direct result, responded far more waspishly than was strictly necessary to his friend’s theatric demands for relationship advice.

            “Well, you do have a certain proclivity for dating hot-tempered women, Jethro.” Ducky retorted, now equally just as testy. “And it goes without saying that I find it particularly hard to believe that you’ve never been in the same sort of position as I am now.”  

            Never one to enjoy any sort of reminder of the fact that all his choices in wives and girlfriends, apart from Shannon, had involved some sort of domestic violence being leveled against his person, the likes of which had only grown progressively worse the more he allowed his tolerance for abuse to grow, the natural result of which had once left him with a nasty three inch gash to the back of his head and uncomfortable trip to the hospital, Gibbs bristled angrily and leveled his friend with a warning expression.

            “Careful, Duck.” Gibbs growled. “Your other eye is well within target range.”

            Understandably not wishing to have his only remaining eye turned purple by a different, far stronger, fist then the one that had first battered his face that evening, and also likewise wanting nothing more than to receive absolution from his much-adored girlfriend, Ducky wisely refrained from antagonizing him any further yet retained a hold of his manly dignity by resorting to a very mild form of extortion rather than opting to debase himself so low as to continue to plea for his assistance.

            “Jethro,” Ducky bargained, “You owe me for watching over Tony that evening he had explosive diarrhea.”

            Unable to keep from shuddering violently as the hellish remembrance of dealing with a child so ill that he literally shit himself right out of his pants flooded into his mind, Gibbs gagged audibly but nonetheless returned Ducky’s favor with a return to friendly civility, entirely unwilling to default on his end of the bargain just because he was still mildly annoyed that his taste in women had been poked fun at. Because the dick-move of making light of domestic violence aside, Ducky really had done him a great favor in taking over the care of Tony during the latter part of that hellish evening, as towards the end, Gibbs had been all but certain he would never get the smell of shit out of his nose.

            “Well, fuck.” Gibbs sighed. “Have you tried apologizing?”

             Because while such advice was admittedly simple in nature, Gibbs had not failed to note that it was a remedy men very seldom ever opted to utilize until they were bluntly reminded of its importance where regarded the making of amends. 

             “I was going to, but she wouldn’t let me get a word in edgewise.” Ducky frowned. “And I would be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid to speak for fear of being struck again.”

            “With all the shit that came out of your mouth I’m surprised that you managed to leave with only one black eye.” Gibbs razzed, before giving into feelings of charity. “Go buy her some of her favorite candy and apologize. And for the love of God, don’t try and deflect any blame. Just accept full blame.”

            Because Gibbs had learned, long ago, that the only thing women hated more than being wronged was the deliberate gaslighting that very often came along whenever their adversary tried to absolve themselves of any significant fault in the matter.

            “I suppose I ought to give it a try.” Ducky reluctantly agreed. “But if I get punched again, I’m crashing on your couch for the night.”   

            “If you get punched again, it’ll be your own damn fault.” Gibbs accused, thinking of Daphne’s even-temperedness. “And I won’t encourage that sort of bullshit by letting you sleep on my couch. You’d have to take the swing out back.” He stipulated. “But that shouldn’t be a problem, should it, given how ‘balmy’ it is outside.”  

            “Honestly, you ought to have your circulation checked out.” Ducky grumbled, clearly annoyed with having had failed to find anyone to take his side. “Something is clearly wrong with the way the blood flows in your body.”

            Rolling his eyes in response to such unsolicited medical advice, given that it had not come from a place of genuine concern, but rather from a spirit of pettiness, Gibbs pointedly tossed the Scottish man his thin jacket and made a great show of glancing at the clock in his kitchen.

            “No need to show me the door.” Ducky sarcastically quipped. “I can find it on my own, I assure you.”     

            “Good luck, Duck.” Gibbs responded, wishing his parting words to be friendly ones.

            It was only one his kitchen door had been firmly shut by his beleaguered friend that Gibbs finally allowed himself to relax and release some of the pent up anxiety that had been building up in his gut ever sense Ducky had arrived at his doorstop unannounced just a measly half hour before Henry was due to arrive and pick him up for the movie. And it was only once he heard Ducky’s dilapidated van turning four streets down, that he hastily dug into one of the many ‘spare’ purses Kate had left behind on his kitchen counter and fished out a mint before popping it into his mouth and giving it a good suck. Because as much as he was only doing so to be polite, as what could be ruder than assaulting a person with appalling breath, Gibbs was not so stupid as to assume that his best friend wouldn’t have asked any awkward questions had he been around to witness such an act. It was only as he contemplated spritzing himself with another squirt of cologne, so at to avoid offending his friend with any of his natural scent, the likes of which very often always involved some pretty allergy-aggravating sawdust, that the sounds of a vehicle pulling up into his driveway reached his ears.  

            It was then, and only then, that Gibbs had realized he’d left his wallet all the way upstairs in his bedroom, tucked away neatly in the bedside table where he had placed it for temporary safekeeping whist swapping out his work clothes for something a little less sweaty and grimy. And, not wishing to appear as any sort of mooch during his first mutually decided upon outing with Henry, Gibbs hastily rushed up his stairs to retrieve it, very nearly tripping over himself several times in his haste to make it back downstairs before Henry could lose his patience. Thankfully for the sake of his dignity, as well as for the wellbeing of his knees, he managed to make his way back into his kitchen a good twelve seconds before a short series of sharp, yet polite, raps sounded at his front door. But, not wishing to appear as if he had suddenly taken ill mere moments before their movie outing was set to begin, an assumption that might very well have occurred given all the sweat that had accumulated on his brow in the short time it had taken him to bolt up his stairs, Gibbs quickly swiped at his dampened forehead with the sleeve of his jacket and likewise counted to thirty before opening his front door, not wishing to appear either overly-eager or elsewise irredeemably impatient.

            It was then, and only then, that Gibbs finally opened his door.

            Whereupon he was immediately greeted by the jealously-inspiring visage of a veritable lumberjack of a man, a true paragon of ruggedness and physical perfection who, despite having been learned enough to become a professor, had opted not to wear anything but a woolen hat and a light spring jacket to stave off the magnitude of the cold and wind that had already so disheveled his burning red hair and beard in the short duration it taken him just to reach his doorstep. And while Gibbs was not, in any sense of the word, a homosexual, even he could admit to himself that Henry cut a very fine figure in his slightly too-small jacket. In fact, if he were being totally honest with himself, Gibbs would even go so far as to say that he was handsomer, even, then the great John Wayne himself.

            “Henry,” Gibbs greeted, his throat suddenly dry, “Where’s…Where’s your hat?”

            “Don’t worry, Jethro.” Henry grinned, thankfully opting not to take offense at his marked failure to properly greet him. “I don’t think people can get frostbitten in fifteen-degree weather.”

            “The weathermen are wrong Henry.” Gibbs argued, already feeling his cheeks beginning to flush from the bite of the wind. “It has to be colder than fifteen degrees right now.”   

             And, in a manner that he believed perfectly cemented his contrarian viewpoint, Gibbs further zipped up the zipper of his jacket and effectively turned the garment into a turtleneck.

            “You poor thing. Three layers and a hat and still so cold.”  Henry crooned, skillfully managing to playfully empathize without sounding, in any way, patronizing. “But don’t you worry, Jethro, I cranked the heat in my Prius all the way up on the ride over. You’ll be riding in a sauna all the way to the theatre.”

            “But I thought you said that you tended to run hot.” Gibbs frowned.

            “I do,” Henry confirmed, “But I figured I could better manage the heat than you could the cold.”  

            Despite being beyond relieved to have just been informed that he would be riding in the comfort of a fully-heated vehicle, Gibbs still couldn’t help but frown a bit at Henry’s confession, as not only had the slight suggestion that he couldn’t handle the cold slightly bruised his manly ego, and likewise his pride, but so too because he just couldn’t stand the thought of anyone putting their own comfort aside for just for his sake.

            “Henry,” Gibbs gently admonished, “You shouldn’t have to suffer on my behalf.”

            “Jethro, nobody ever suffers from being polite.” Henry rebuffed. “Unless, of course, they work in customer service. That particular line of work only entails suffering, if what my students tell me is true.”

            Rather forcefully reminded of the childhood years he had spent working in his father’s general store by just such a statement, a career that had begun well before he was even tall enough to reach the register, much less conceptualize what all those numbers and symbols on the register were meant to convey, Gibbs smiled fondly and recalled, with mild reverence, the myriad creative ways in which his Uncle L.J would slip him sweets and baseball cards whenever his father’s back was turned or his attentions diverted by a customer – or the way in which his father would sometimes allow him to ‘help’ balance the books at the end of the month, even though Gibbs did have an embarrassing proclivity, at the time, for divulging any and all awkward purchases that anybody might have made while he was on ‘shift,’ such as the one time that he, as a rather precocious child of four, had proudly informed him entire Sunday School class that he had seen their stern, fire-and-brimstone, pastor buying a packet of the plastic balloons his father never let him play him. And while he had, admittedly, been more than just a little mortified once his mother had finally capitulated to his demands to know just why Ms. Jenkins had slapped him for telling the truth, and informed of just what those ‘balloons’ were for, he was downright horrified when he discovered, a few years later, that it was his spontaneous announcement that had led to said Pastor being served divorce papers by the angry wife who, as an individual with an allergy to latex, had been made utterly livid to discovery that her husband had suddenly decided to take her allergy so lightly.

            But all those fond recollections didn’t mean that customer service jobs were devoid of the aforementioned suffering. Because as easily as he could recall all the things that had made him smile about working at the store, he could just as well conjure up a great handful of all the incidences that had made him want to scream and hide in the creepy cellar affixed to the building. Such as the numerous times that Mrs. Prague, an exceedingly devout Catholic, and subsequently the mother of thirteen children, had ‘regaled’ him with the endless, and horrifyingly vivid, tales of just what her most recent baby’s diaper had contained whenever she invariably stopped in to buy more of just such an item. Or of Ms. Sung, who enjoyed waiting until fifteen minutes after closing to barge in for her customary ‘diabetes-maintenance’ chocolate bar, a routine mission that would very often take her a good twenty minutes to complete to fruition despite their being only four options to choose from – two of which she couldn’t pick to begin with, due to her nut allergy.

            “Your students are correct.” Gibbs confirmed for his friend. “But we should get going soon, shouldn’t we? The previews start in twenty minutes.”

             And even though such a question was phrased so as not to appear like a direct command, Gibbs sincerely hoped that Henry would take the hint, as he didn’t much fancy all the stress and anxiety and that came with arriving at the theatre just as the start of their preselected movie was set to begin.

            “You’re still running on Marine time, I see.” Henry teased, no trace of annoyance showing on his face as he led them toward the shining red Prius parked in the driveway.

            “I just like to have my pick of the seats, that’s all.” Gibbs calmly reasoned.

            Because in Gibb’s humble opinion, there was almost nothing worse than getting stuck behind a large crowd of astounding slow-moving individuals once a movie was over and a person’s bladder in desperate need of a toilet after all the pop they had downed to counteract the saltiness of their popcorn. Apart, of course, from being forced into selecting a seat uncomfortably near to the screen due to another’s lateness and, as a direct result of such carelessness, having to spend the entire duration of the movie with one’s neck craned so awkwardly that it was sure to be sore once morning came.

            “I really hope you prefer sitting near the back.” Henry admitted. “I’m too tall to sit anywhere near the front without people complaining. Or my neck hurting.”

            For the first time in their fledgling relationship feeling prompted into ascertaining the exact extent of Henry’s great height, at least in a more specific manner than he already had, Gibbs subtly tilted back his head and deduced, via a small series of complicated geometrical equations, that Henry had at least a good four inches on him, if not more, which was quite the remarkable accomplishment when one considered that he, himself, was already a full six feet. But, rather than run the risk of embarrassing by asking for a tactic confirmation of his calculations, Gibbs simply opted to continue with their already established conversation just as casually as he could manage after having become some so unfathomably distracted.

            “I actually prefer being near the exit.” Gibbs assured, gradually relaxing once it slowly became clear that Henry hadn’t taken any note of his gawking.

            “Is that some sort of residual Marine training?” Henry pondered, pausing briefly in the driveway to better encourage more natural conversation. “Being near to escape routes and what not?”

            “No,” Gibbs evenly refuted, “I just don’t like having to wait for all the slow people to leave just so I can get out of my chair.”

            After all, if there was one thing that Gibbs had always been, it was impatient. An arguably negative personality trait that had almost surely taken route in his early youth when, as a small toddler, he’d been forced to wait for the chronically late Mr. Sather to bring his ice cream truck down the street his house was on.

            “That’s smart.” Henry lauded, flashing him a small smile before resuming their walk toward his Prius.

            “Thank you.” Gibbs replied, honestly touched.

            Because aside from the numerous heaps of praise his unyielding affectionate father liked to heap upon him, it was not often at all that anyone took note of his intelligence, much less called into positive attention the existence of just such a trait even though was, quite frankly, more than just a little academic in nature. But rather than dwell too overly-long on such a frustrating reality, the likes of which he had played a giant part in orchestrating, and thus run the risk of being moody, Gibbs shooed those aggravating thoughts from his mind with force and instead focused all his energies on assessing the brightly-colored Prius they had just arrived at.

            “That’s a nice wax job.” Gibbs appraised, struggling to find anything even remotely polite to say about the vehicle in question.  

            For aside from its shining and flawless exterior, the likes of which he could see a perfect reflection of his face in, there was nothing, in short, to recommend the vehicle, or its promised ride, to anybody with even the smallest semblance of standards. As filled past capacity with both sun-yellowed papers and partially-empty cardboard coffee cups from Discreet, and heavily littered with a healthy spattering of outdated newspapers and journals, the interior of the Prius looked more like akin to a traveling fire hazard than it did a luxury vehicle. And there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that Gibbs wanted to do less than climb inside and make himself a willing passenger of such a mess. In fact, had he not been so very worried that such a suggestion would make him sound like a prissy bitch, he might have even gone so far as to suggest they take his truck instead.

            “Don’t worry,” Henry comforted, immediately taking note of his reluctance, “I cleaned the passenger side out just for you.”

            And, with that, Henry politely pulled open the aforementioned door and revealed, with a very misplaced pride, a leather seat that, while devoid of any debris, very clearly sported an impossibly large coffee stain that Gibbs could only hope had dried a long time ago.

 

            Because even though he, himself, would have at least gone to the effort of concealing the gnarly stain with a seat cover, or even a towel should a last-minute-fix be required, Gibbs had to concede that it must have taken Henry a very significant amount of effort to clean even that small portion of the vehicle.

            “It wasn’t any trouble.” Henry considerately fibbed. “I just shoved all the important stuff into the trunk.”

            Unable to keep from thinking that Kate would absolutely drop dead from disgust if ever she happened across such an irredeemable mess, as said woman even went so far as to alphabetize her spice rack and color-code her refrigerator and pantry, Gibbs shuddered slightly and played innocent by pretending as if it had been the cold, and not the mess, that had caused such a bodily reflex.  

            “And what happens if you lose any of those papers?” Gibbs questioned, forcing himself to climb into his seat as naturally as possible despite every instinct in his body crying out for him to sit as awkwardly as possible to avoid the stain.

            “There’s a funny thing about that,” Henry began, pausing to close the passenger door and climb into the Prius via the driver’s side, “The papers I lose always seem to earn an A.”

            “And none of your students have gotten it into their head to just not turn in their work and make the claim that you lost it?” Gibbs interrogated, subtly kicking aside the small mountain of crumpled sticky notes that threatened to fall over his shoes.

            Because even though Gibbs, himself, would never even dream of doing anything so deceitful and dishonest, not in any circumstance of sense of the word, Gibbs would be very shocked were he to somehow learn that none of Henry’s students had tried to make use of his inherent messiness by pulling just such a fast one over him.

            “I make them sign a notebook when they turn in their work so that they can’t do that.” Henry rationalized, turning down the volume on his radio so that they might better converse.

            “But what happens when you lose the notebook?” Gibbs questioned, putting on his seatbelt.

            “Well,” Henry prevaricated, pulling on his own seatbelt, “If that were to happen, and I’m not saying it has, my students wouldn’t necessarily know about it being missing. A red notebook is easily replaced, after all.”      

             Thinking, to himself, of course, that he wouldn’t be at all surprised were he to discover that Henry kept a small stack of red notebooks somewhere in his house for the convenience of passing one off as a the aforementioned confirmation book in the ‘unlikely’ scenario that it happened to vanish, Gibbs quirked his brow and willingly gave into the temptation to razz his new friend.

            “You’re going to get stabbed by an angry student one of these days.”

            Giving a simple shrug of his massive shoulders in response to such an ominous premonition, despite its great validity, Henry put his Prius into gear and backed out of the driveway with an expert precision that left Gibbs surprised.

            “I was in the FBI, Jethro, it would take more than just a disgruntled kid to do me in.” Henry proclaimed. “And besides, I have a Marine for a friend now, and that makes me all the safer.”

            Woefully uncertain of just why the word ‘friend’ had caused his stomach to contract painfully, and with a pang he had long ago learned to associate with disappointment, he found himself frowning in direct response and tried, in vain, to reason away the bizarre sensation as a mere testament to the fact that Kate’s sugarless mint just didn’t agree with him.

            “What theatre did you say we were going to?”

            “The Silver Ticket.” Henry answered, intuitively cutting through a nearby alley to shave off three minutes from their commute. “Is that alright with you?”

            Having enjoyed more than just a mere handful of movies at that particular theatre with his small gaggle of subordinates, Gibbs felt himself beginning to relax and even went so far as to allow his shoulders to slump.

            “I’m fine with any theatre just so long as it isn’t Stubs.” Gibbs assured.

            “That sleezy place at the edge of the town?” Henry frowned, pulling out into the highway with impressive grace. “Did something happen to you there?”

            Somewhat touched by Henry’s evident concern for his person, his manly ego be damned, Gibbs actually smiled softly before cluing the professor in on just why he hated Stubs so much.

            “The owner took offense after I punched him for leering at Kate.”

             For elderly nature of the proprietor be damned, there was just no way in hell that Gibbs would have allowed the unsanctioned groping of one of his agents to go unpunished.

            “All the better reason to avoid it.” Henry agreed.

            “I also think the employees sell pot out back.” Gibbs further contributed.

            Because while he was not one of those older individuals who liked to assume the absolute worst of teenagers, Gibbs was pretty certain he had witnessed a drug transaction taking place behind the dumpsters one evening when he had ducked out the fire doors to take a piss after finding the men’s room far too crowded to accomplish such a goal in a timely manner. And, if that incident alone was not enough to sufficiently convince him, the fact that Ducky very often frequented such an establishment after it had closed certainly was.

            “Oh, I know they do.” Henry divulged. “One of my coworker’s boyfriend sells it to them in bulk.”  

              “What?”

            “Oh, yeah.” Henry nodded. “She’s a major pothead.”

             Sincerely hoping that Henry’s blasé reaction to marijuana use didn’t mean that he partook in the smoking of said substance himself, as dealing with Ducky’s high shenanigans was already exhausting enough, Gibbs shook his head and hoped that the conversation would naturally come to a place where Henry would feel compelled to share whether or not he had any involvement with just such a scene.

            “Let me guess…she’s an art professor.” Gibbs presumed.

            “Nope.” Henry refuted. “She’s the librarian.”

             “Really?” Gibbs softly exclaimed.

            Because as much as he liked to think that he didn’t rely upon stereotypes to make sense of the world around him, as those with less developed minds were wont to do, he would be lying if he claimed not to assume that the vast majority of librarians were stuffy and prudish in nature.

            “I’m not joking.” Henry assured, perfectly serious. “The only scene our art professors are into is this witchcraft thing. Well, most of them, anyways. But I’m pretty sure the only one who isn’t a part of that is a nudist.”

            “You work with an interesting bunch of people.” Gibbs remarked, meaning no offense.

            After all, it was not as if he didn’t work with Abby of all people.

            “That’s certainly one of the nicer ways of putting it.” Henry chuckled. “But I love those crazy bastards, every one of them. Well…most of them, anyways.”

            Knowing an ominous tone when he heard one, Gibbs perked up a bit at that statement and tried, as surreptitiously as he was able, to ascertain the hidden meaning behind such an obscure statement.

            “There’s bound to be a few bigots no matter where you go.” Gibbs stated, thinking with great abhorrence upon all the racism his Uncle L.J had received while living in Stillwater.

            “You’re preaching to the choir.” Henry sighed. “But I’m not going to hide myself in the closet just to make a few assholes happy.”

            “Doesn’t it ever get annoying, though?” Gibbs pestered. “Being harassed for something you can’t change?”

            “Things aren’t as bad for homosexuals as they used to be.” Henry clarified. “And apart from a few religious homeschooled students every now and then, nobody ever really gets on my case about being gay. Well, everyone apart from this English Composition professor, that is. But I’m not sure how much of that hate if genuine homophobia and how much is just a general hatred of men.”

            Despite never having had any real experience with some of the more rabid man-haters he occasionally read about in the newspaper, aside from his brief interaction with the irascible Opal, Gibbs had more than his fair share of interacting with a person with whom he shared a mutual dislike and begrudging respect.

            “I can appreciate that.” Gibbs assured. “How did you two start hating each other?”

             “The first day I moved into my office, she yelled at me for coughing too loudly.”

             “Oh.” Gibbs quipped, stunned by the stupidity of such a grievance.

            “And it only got worse when I intervened while she was yelling at a student for wearing a pair of light-up sneakers.”   

            Highly grateful of the fact that his feud with Vance was at least based on a small tenant of rationality, or at least not based on something as silly as a cough, Gibbs felt his confidence in the belief that he was the right party in his argument with said boss only increase.

             “And what about the…What about the gay thing?” Gibbs pressed. “Does she ever bug you about that?”

            “She’s smart enough not to say anything directly, but she’s always making some sort of remark about how certain things just aren’t natural.” Henry frowned. “All while conveniently forgetting that her boobs are as fake as her eyelashes.”

             “She sounds terrible.” Gibbs condemned. “Why do they keep her around?”

            “Tenure.” Henry sighed. “What else?”           

 

Chapter Text

            Despite having rigorously promised to himself that he wouldn’t try and act the part of a boyfriend with Jethro that evening, as he really didn’t wish to scare said introvert off with any romantic or amorous advances, whether they be intentionally made or not, Henry had found himself almost immediately struggling to uphold the strict tenants of his self-made contract. Because if he was not all but forced, by virtue of sharing a somewhat compressed car with the object of his admiration, to contend with the way in which Jethro’s indecipherable cologne made small goosebumps rise up on his skin, he was desperately struggling to maintain an air of friendly composure whenever Jethro happened to turn his impossibly blue eyes unto him. For all promises to himself aside, there was just something about those dazzlingly vivid eyes that made his knees go weak and his vision go blurry. And it only took a third such glimpse of those eyes, reflected so brilliantly in his rearview mirror, for him to decided, then and there, that there was no real hope of resisting Jethro’s charms and the acts of affection they inspired. Because Jethro’s perceived ‘straightness’ aside, there was absolutely nothing he wouldn’t do for that man, even if said acts didn’t result in the romantic relationship he so desperately wanted. And, given all that, it was only mere seconds after he had piloted his Prius into the crowded parking lot of the theatre that he flew from his seat and all but dashed around his shining vehicle in order to pull open the passenger door for Jethro.

            “What a gentleman.” Jethro dryly crooned, making a rather fine exhibition of his own unique brand of sardonic humor.

            “I try.” Henry answered in kind, only narrowly restraining himself from grabbing hold of one of Jethro’s calloused hands. “Watch out for that slick of ice there.” He replied instead, settling for grabbing the Marine beneath the elbow on the pretext of guiding him safely around the nature-made hazard.

            More than just a little relieved to find that Jethro didn’t immediately pull away from such close personal contact, like any other ‘straight’ man would have surely done in response to being touched by a homosexual, Henry actually felt the briefest flicker of hope light up within him that he just might yet have a shot at making the taciturn man his own. Because even though said man made a very great show of rebuffing such romantic advances just before they could reach their natural climax, as in the case of their disastrous first kiss, the devastating effects of such were immediately mitigated by the way in which Jethro almost seemed to be encouraging said acts with all his coquettish looks and flirtatious responses. In fact, even now, in a parking lot absolutely flooded with people, the demure man in question went so far as to allow Henry’s hand to remain on his elbow, opting to pull away only when they had traversed the dangerous ice slick and he no longer had an ‘innocent’ reason to allow it to remain.

            “Thanks.” Jethro awkwardly expressed, subconsciously moving to cradle the elbow that Henry had just grasped.

            “We can’t have you falling now, can we?” Henry playfully questioned, his hand feeling suddenly and remarkably empty. “We’d miss the previews.”

            And it just went without saying that Henry would never manage to forgive himself if Jethro got hurt on his watch, even if the type of hurt that accompanied a brief slip was most certainly mild in comparison to anything else that could wound a person.

            “Previews are an important part of the movie-going experience.” Jethro tersely defended, having mistakenly believed himself mocked.

            Despite his own beliefs on the matter being on the entirely opposite end of the spectrum, as really, he felt the only good thing previews were good for was last-minute bathroom breaks and concession-stand runs, Henry felt the importance of previews becoming just a little more pronounced now that he knew they were so very important to Jethro. And, as such, he almost immediately went out of his way to assure his insecure friend that, not only was he not being mocked, but that he was, in fact, now in the presence of someone who agreed with him.

            “I agree.” Henry ardently assured, hoping to affect as much honestly as he could manage without sounding insincere. “How else would you find out which movies you might like to watch next?”

             Because while he, himself, would ordinarily just make use of the Rotten Tomatoes app for such a purpose, Henry highly doubted that a man who thought that a Nokia was a prime example of the perfect amount of technology knew anything about the existence of just such an app.

            “And I don’t like feeling as if I have to rush to make it to my seat.” Jethro amended, appearing to relax again now that he realized his viewpoints weren’t being poked fun at.

            “I can certainly appreciate that.” Henry agreed, pulling open the door to the theatre and ushering Jethro inside via a reflexive waving of his arm.

            But, belatedly realizing the romantic connotations of just an act, Henry blushed and tried to try the pass gesture off by keeping the door open long enough for a small horde of teenagers to enter the building.

            “You have good manners.” Jethro observed, looking strangely excited at such a realization.

            Tucking away in his brain, for later use, the fact that Jethro seemed to appreciate manners and etiquette a very deal, almost just as much as he appreciated a good ballpoint pen and parchment paper, Henry smiled and resolved to himself to be as a polite around Jethro as a Southern matriarch in the Antebellum period of history.

            “I try.” Henry allowed, leading the way to the concession stand.

            Trying not to preen to obviously when he took note of Jethro steeping nearer to him in order to avoid the giant flock of teenagers that had queued up behind them, Henry hid his smile with a feigned cough and nearly startled the skin off one of the drugged workers struggling to pick up a large spattering of popcorn from the carpeted floor with just his hand, and not the dustpan and broom sitting just a few feet away.

            “What…What can you do for me?” The stoned teenager behind the concession stand inquired, his dark eyes clearly glazed and unfocused.

            “Two tickets for ‘It’s a Wonderful Heist.’” Henry directed, speaking very slowly for the benefit of the stoned cashier. “And I’ll take a large Dr. Pepper and a large bag of popcorn.”

            Blinking as slowly as if his eyelids had been coated in a thick helping of molasses, Bobby the cashier made a great ass of himself by typing nonsensical numbers into the register with all the haste of a tortoise.

            “Jethro, what would you like?” Henry inquired.

            “Just a cherry coke.” The Marine answered, looking in concern upon the dazed teenager working the register.

            “Don’t worry, Jethro.” Henry soothed, pulling out his wallet. “He’ll be fine by the end of his shift.”

            And, thus said, Henry pulled from his wallet a crispy fifty-dollar bill and pushed it into the cashier’s suspiciously oily hand.

            “Henry!” Jethro protested, smooth cheeks blooming with color. “I can pay for myself.”

            “Too late.” The stoned cashier smirked, already pulling out the wrong amount of change from the register. “He got there first, dude.”

            Far too grateful for the teenager’s well-placed intervention to make a fuss about the fact that he had been shorted a full ten dollars, money that would no doubt be used to solicit even more drugs once the tills were counted and the error taken note of, Henry simply shoved the crumpled bills into his wallet and pocketed the entire thing before gently, yet firmly, pulling Jethro done the line so that the second cashier could fill their orders.

            “You can get it next time.” Henry pacified, lying through his teeth.              

            “I’m paying you back at the end of the movie.” Jethro grumbled, the amount of outrage he was trying to manifest but feeble in nature.

            “It was just one pop.” Henry countered.

            “But it was theatre pop.” Jethro argued. “Which means it was probably thirty dollars!”    

            Wondering just what, or who, it was in Jethro’s life that had caused him to believe that he wasn’t worth at least a measly thirty dollars, Henry frowned and tried to change his friend’s viewpoint on such a matter.

            “You can’t put a price on friendship.” Henry dismissed. “Now let’s go find out seats before all those kids get out of line.”  

            “You fight dirty.” Jethro groused.

            “All is fair in love and war.” Henry grinned, pushing Jethro’s drink into his hands.

             

Chapter Text

            Despite having rigorously promised to himself that he wouldn’t try and act the part of a boyfriend with Jethro that evening, as he really didn’t wish to scare said introvert off with any romantic or amorous advances, whether they be intentionally made or not, Henry had found himself almost immediately struggling to uphold the strict tenants of his self-made contract. Because if he was not all but forced, by virtue of sharing a somewhat compressed car with the object of his admiration, to contend with the way in which Jethro’s indecipherable cologne made small goosebumps rise up on his skin, he was desperately struggling to maintain an air of friendly composure whenever Jethro happened to turn his impossibly blue eyes unto him. For all promises to himself aside, there was just something about those dazzlingly vivid eyes that made his knees go weak and his vision go blurry. And it only took a third such glimpse of those eyes, reflected so brilliantly in his rearview mirror, for him to decided, then and there, that there was no real hope of resisting Jethro’s charms and the acts of affection they inspired. Because Jethro’s perceived ‘straightness’ aside, there was absolutely nothing he wouldn’t do for that man, even if said acts didn’t result in the romantic relationship he so desperately wanted. And, given all that, it was only mere seconds after he had piloted his Prius into the crowded parking lot of the theatre that he flew from his seat and all but dashed around his shining vehicle in order to pull open the passenger door for Jethro.

            “What a gentleman.” Jethro dryly crooned, making a rather fine exhibition of his own unique brand of sardonic humor.

            “I try.” Henry answered in kind, only narrowly restraining himself from grabbing hold of one of Jethro’s calloused hands. “Watch out for that slick of ice there.” He replied instead, settling for grabbing the Marine beneath the elbow on the pretext of guiding him safely around the nature-made hazard.

            More than just a little relieved to find that Jethro didn’t immediately pull away from such close personal contact, like any other ‘straight’ man would have surely done in response to being touched by a homosexual, Henry actually felt the briefest flicker of hope light up within him that he just might yet have a shot at making the taciturn man his own. Because even though said man made a very great show of rebuffing such romantic advances just before they could reach their natural climax, as in the case of their disastrous first kiss, the devastating effects of such were immediately mitigated by the way in which Jethro almost seemed to be encouraging said acts with all his coquettish looks and flirtatious responses. In fact, even now, in a parking lot absolutely flooded with people, the demure man in question went so far as to allow Henry’s hand to remain on his elbow, opting to pull away only when they had traversed the dangerous ice slick and he no longer had an ‘innocent’ reason to allow it to remain.

            “Thanks.” Jethro awkwardly expressed, subconsciously moving to cradle the elbow that Henry had just grasped.

            “We can’t have you falling now, can we?” Henry playfully questioned, his hand feeling suddenly and remarkably empty. “We’d miss the previews.”

            And it just went without saying that Henry would never manage to forgive himself if Jethro got hurt on his watch, even if the type of hurt that accompanied a brief slip was most certainly mild in comparison to anything else that could wound a person.

            “Previews are an important part of the movie-going experience.” Jethro tersely defended, having mistakenly believed himself mocked.

            Despite his own beliefs on the matter being on the entirely opposite end of the spectrum, as really, he felt the only good thing previews were good for was last-minute bathroom breaks and concession-stand runs, Henry felt the importance of previews becoming just a little more pronounced now that he knew they were so very important to Jethro. And, as such, he almost immediately went out of his way to assure his insecure friend that, not only was he not being mocked, but that he was, in fact, now in the presence of someone who agreed with him.

            “I agree.” Henry ardently assured, hoping to affect as much honestly as he could manage without sounding insincere. “How else would you find out which movies you might like to watch next?”

             Because while he, himself, would ordinarily just make use of the Rotten Tomatoes app for such a purpose, Henry highly doubted that a man who thought that a Nokia was a prime example of the perfect amount of technology knew anything about the existence of just such an app.

            “And I don’t like feeling as if I have to rush to make it to my seat.” Jethro amended, appearing to relax again now that he realized his viewpoints weren’t being poked fun at.

            “I can certainly appreciate that.” Henry agreed, pulling open the door to the theatre and ushering Jethro inside via a reflexive waving of his arm.

            But, belatedly realizing the romantic connotations of just an act, Henry blushed and tried to try the pass gesture off by keeping the door open long enough for a small horde of teenagers to enter the building.

            “You have good manners.” Jethro observed, looking strangely excited at such a realization.

            Tucking away in his brain, for later use, the fact that Jethro seemed to appreciate manners and etiquette a very deal, almost just as much as he appreciated a good ballpoint pen and parchment paper, Henry smiled and resolved to himself to be as a polite around Jethro as a Southern matriarch in the Antebellum period of history.

            “I try.” Henry allowed, leading the way to the concession stand.

            Trying not to preen to obviously when he took note of Jethro steeping nearer to him in order to avoid the giant flock of teenagers that had queued up behind them, Henry hid his smile with a feigned cough and nearly startled the skin off one of the drugged workers struggling to pick up a large spattering of popcorn from the carpeted floor with just his hand, and not the dustpan and broom sitting just a few feet away.

            “What…What can you do for me?” The stoned teenager behind the concession stand inquired, his dark eyes clearly glazed and unfocused.

            “Two tickets for ‘It’s a Wonderful Heist.’” Henry directed, speaking very slowly for the benefit of the stoned cashier. “And I’ll take a large Dr. Pepper and a large bag of popcorn.”

            Blinking as slowly as if his eyelids had been coated in a thick helping of molasses, Bobby the cashier made a great ass of himself by typing nonsensical numbers into the register with all the haste of a tortoise.

            “Jethro, what would you like?” Henry inquired.

            “Just a cherry coke.” The Marine answered, looking in concern upon the dazed teenager working the register.

            “Don’t worry, Jethro.” Henry soothed, pulling out his wallet. “He’ll be fine by the end of his shift.”

            And, thus said, Henry pulled from his wallet a crispy fifty-dollar bill and pushed it into the cashier’s suspiciously oily hand.

            “Henry!” Jethro protested, smooth cheeks blooming with color. “I can pay for myself.”

            “Too late.” The stoned cashier smirked, already pulling out the wrong amount of change from the register. “He got there first, dude.”

            Far too grateful for the teenager’s well-placed intervention to make a fuss about the fact that he had been shorted a full ten dollars, money that would no doubt be used to solicit even more drugs once the tills were counted and the error taken note of, Henry simply shoved the crumpled bills into his wallet and pocketed the entire thing before gently, yet firmly, pulling Jethro done the line so that the second cashier could fill their orders.

            “You can get it next time.” Henry pacified, lying through his teeth.              

            “I’m paying you back at the end of the movie.” Jethro grumbled, the amount of outrage he was trying to manifest but feeble in nature.

            “It was just one pop.” Henry countered.

            “But it was theatre pop.” Jethro argued. “Which means it was probably thirty dollars!”    

            Wondering just what, or who, it was in Jethro’s life that had caused him to believe that he wasn’t worth at least a measly thirty dollars, Henry frowned and tried to change his friend’s viewpoint on such a matter.

            “You can’t put a price on friendship.” Henry dismissed. “Now let’s go find out seats before all those kids get out of line.”  

            “You fight dirty.” Jethro groused.

            “All is fair in love and war.” Henry grinned, pushing Jethro’s drink into his hands.

             

Chapter Text

            As was to be expected, Jethro had almost immediately commandeered the seats furthest in the back of the moderately-sized theatre, securing for himself the chair with immediate access to the aisle and leaving for Henry the seat directly adjacent from his own. And while Henry would, admittedly, have preferred to be just a little further away from the doors, in order to prevent some of the mild annoyance that came with having his eyes stabbed with a sliver of bright light whenever somebody excited or entered the room to make use of the bathroom, and as well as to avoid the slight discomfort that came with having been positioned right above a pretty powerful heating vent, those slight annoyances that he was forced to contend with seemed but trivial in nature when contested with the fact that their private little placement allotted him the perfect opportunity to poke and prod and Jethro’s ticklish ribs, at random, without mortifying him all too much, as there were but precious few witnesses to observe such childish flirtations.

            “Would you stop that?” Jethro hissed, failing prodigiously to conceal the bemusement in his voice as he slapped Henry’s hand away from his ribs for the tenth time. “You’re going to make me spill all over myself.”

            Had it not been for Jethro’s great intolerance towards even the mildest of chills, as well as for his own unflinching sense of magnanimity, Henry might have almost purposely caused the easily flustered Marine to spill all over himself. As, by doing so, it would most surely necessitate the removal of the figure-concealing jacket he had chosen to don himself with that evening. And if there was absolutely anything that Henry wanted to see more than the movie he had fifteen dollars to see, if was a glimpse of his friend’s deliciously-scented neck.

            “I’ll stop if you promise not to insist on paying me back.” Henry bargained, knowing that Jethro would agree to no such terms.

            Sighing loudly, but otherwise making no real move to remove Henry’s fingers from the sensitive skin covering his ribs, Jethro rolled his impossibly blue eyes to the ceiling and issued forth a demand for answers.

            “Why is it so important to you that you be the only one to pay?” Jethro whispered, his cherry-scented breath all but intoxicating as it brushed against Henry’s face.

            “Because I’m a gentleman.” Henry answered, making very good use of the knowledge that Jethro valued good manners.          

            “Are you?” Jethro challenged, quirking a silver brow at him.

            “How dare you.” Henry playfully guffawed, snaking his remaining hand up beneath Jethro’s jacket with an expert precision. “You take that back.”

            Despite going stiff in response to being so suddenly assaulted, Jethro proudly held his ground and narrowed his pretty blue eyes into a very cheap imitation of a dangerous glower.  

             “It’ll take a lot more than dry hands to make a Marine crack.” Jethro scoffed, his breath hitching slightly as Henry methodically brushed his fingers up and down his ribcage.

            “Oh?” Henry replied, whispering the word as close to Jethro’s ear as he dared.

            Taking note of the way in which Jethro almost seemed to go boneless in response to having his ear whispered into, and tucking away that information for a later time, where such knowledge would hopefully be put into even better use, Henry grinned wickedly and clamped his hands tightly around his victim’s ribs.

            “A lot more.” Jethro confirmed, clearly stealing himself for the tickling he knew most come.

            “Prepare to eat your words.” Henry growled, leaning further across his seat to better assault his friend tickles.

            Much to his great testament as a powerful individuals, Jethro actually managed to make it several seconds into the assault before a series of uproarious, and barely-contained, giggles escaped his mouth and echoed all across the theatre room – the noise and intensity of which soon had half the audience of moviegoers distracted and angrily shushing them before their little rumpus was brought to an unnatural end as Jethro fell soundly to the floor in his fervent attempts to escape the fingers that were so traumatizing him.

            “Oh, fuc – fudge!” Henry cursed, wincing as he heard Jethro’s head make contact with the floor.  “Are you alright?” He interrogated, quickly jumping out of his seat to effortlessly pull the fallen Marine back unto his feet.

            Basking, for a moment, in the startling realization that Henry was likely one of the very people who could so effortlessly manhandle him, Jethro initially blinked quite stupidly before gradually recovering his senses well enough to punch him square in the shoulder.

            “You brute.” Jethro grumbled, holding a hand to the back of his head. “I’m getting you back for that one.”

            Thinking that he would allow Jethro to take all the revenge shots as he desired, just so long as it removed that off-putting scowl from his face, Henry immediately grimaced his apologies before taking steps to ensure that his new friend hadn’t been damaged beyond repair.

            “Are you alright?”

            Thankfully fully prepared to give him an answer, despite being quite obviously annoyed with him at the moment, Jethro opened his mouth to make a confirmation or a denial of his question only to be interrupted, before he could even get one syllable out, by an angry soccer mom seated several seats away.

            “Would you two shut up already?” She snapped. “I paid sixty dollars just to get my children into this movie!”

            Turning a very vibrant shade of red as he came to the realization that they now had at least a score of eyes on them, Jethro grumbled something about birth control beneath his breath before he grabbed the sleeve of Henry’s shirt and pulled him from the theatre.

            “Are you alright?” Henry pestered once more, taking note of the fact that Jethro was still clutching his head.

             “I’m fine.” Jethro assured, hastily pulling his hand away.  

            Not as certain as he would like to be that Jethro was being completely honest with him, and not just trying to conceal any resulting medical concerns to preserve his ego, Henry frowned slightly and looked him closely in the eyes, keen to check on the dilation of his pupils before allowing himself to relax.

            “What the hell are you doing?” Jethro demanded, backing himself up against the wall as Henry pushed into his personal space.

            “I’m checking your eyes for signs of concussion.” Henry answered, relieved to see that his pupils were just fine.

            And his eyes just as blue, and lovely, as always.

             “Are you even qualified to do that?” Jethro teased.

            “Hush,” Henry reprimanded, “Who’s the doctor here?”

            “Definitely not you.” Jethro retorted.

            More than just a little giddy to find that Jethro finally seemed to be coming out of his shell, and showing just a little more personality, as he took it as a sign that Jethro trusted him, Henry smiled and used that trust to his full advantage by placing his hands on his friend’s ribs once more, although, given the fact that they were no longer in the dark, he refrained from  slipping his fingers beneath his coat to do so.

            “It’s like you’re just begging to be tickled again.” Henry growled.

            “You had better not.” Jethro warned, a little breathless. “I won’t hesitate punch you.”

             “You wouldn’t punch me.” Henry denied, bringing his head just a little closer to Jethro’s.

            “I – “

            “Daddy, what are they doing?”

            For the second time that evening interrupted before he could say something that likely important, Jethro scowled and whipped his head around to glare daggers at the culprit before realizing that said cockblocker was just a little kid with a natural overabundance of curiosity.

            “They’re just talking, that’s all.” The harried father dismissed. “Now hurry up and get in the car. You have school tomorrow.”

             Sadly coming to the conclusion that the moment they had been sharing just seconds ago was now lost to them, and not likely to be easily resumed, Henry sighed inwardly to himself but nonetheless tried to make the best out their evening out by suggesting they return to finish the movie they had paid to watch – figuring that he could at least get a few more jabs to the ribs in before it ended.

            “I don’t really want to go back in there.” Jethro confessed. “That movie is kind of racist.”

            “Grossly so.” Henry agreed, relieved that Jethro shared with him the same intolerance for bigotry. “But…the night is still young yet. Do you maybe want to get a milkshake or something before I drop you off?”

            And while the offer was, admittedly, more than just a little juvenile in nature, Henry couldn’t think of anything else that they might do at such a late hour – as Jethro didn’t drink and Henry wasn’t at all inclined to have coffee so late at night.

            “It’s nearly midnight.” Jethro pointed out, tapping his watch for emphasis.

            “That’s when they taste the best.” Henry proclaimed.

            “You sound just like my kid sometimes.” Jethro good-naturedly accused, already stalking off toward the doors.  

            “So that means you’ll oblige me?” Henry pestered, effortlessly catching up to him with four large strides.  

            “Sure.” Jethro acquiesced, rolling his gorgeous blue eyes. “But I’m buying.”  

            Figuring that it would just be best to humor the stubborn man, rather than run the risk of running their whole entire evening by provoking a silly argument, Henry held his hands up in a gesture of false surrender and hurried ahead to open the door for his friend.

            “What if I happen to get my wallet out first again?” Henry investigated, already intending to go back on his promise.  

             “You won’t this time.” Jethro avowed, making a great show of moving his wallet from the pocket of his jeans to that of the more easily accessed coat pocket.

            “I’ll take that as a challenge.” Henry grinned, once more opening the passenger side door for Jethro. “Now buckle up, we need to hurry if we want to make it before Dairy Queen closes.”

            Thankfully taking no real umbrage with being bossed around by someone he had only known for a few days, as most men would have, Jethro buckled himself up in a succinct fashion and didn’t so much as flinch as Henry whipped his Prius out of the parking lot with a speed that was usually double of what was the norm for people navigating such a congested amount of space. Nor did he so much as make a doubt-filled peep as Henry expertly directed his Prius through alley’s and shortcuts alike, seemingly having full faith in his driving ability despite having never really been in a vehicle he was driving before. And, as such, it was not long at all before they reached their destination and put their put orders in, only a measly fifteen minutes before closing.

            “What the hell is that?” Jethro demanded, looking upon his blizzard with great abhorrence while he sipped away at his steaming cup of hot chocolate.

            “It’s a unicorn blizzard.” Henry explained, shoveling a mouthful of the colorful ice cream into his mouth.

            “It looks like concentrated diabetes.” Gibbs countered, clearly concerned.

             “I’m pretty sure your hot chocolate has more than its fair share of sugar.” Henry defended, struggling to tuck away his blizzard before the heat of the car melted it into an inedible puddle.

            Because while he was reasonably certain that Jethro wouldn’t hold it against him were he to suggest turning down the heat just a few degrees, he didn’t have it within him to subject the easily chilled man sitting next to him such discomfort.

            “Chocolate is good for your health.” Jethro rebuttled.

            “Now who’s playing doctor?” Henry countered.

              “Shut up.” Jethro grumbled, poorly parroted back some of Henry’s earlier words.

            “I will if you try some.” Henry bargained, spooning up a small portion.

            Casting Henry as horrified a look as if it had just been suggested he eat a large patty of mud or grass, Jethro scrunched up his nose and immediately shook his head.

            “Not going to happen.”

            “Oh, it will.” Henry insisted.

            “No.”

            “Yes.”

            “Why is this so important to you?” Jethro sighed, finally losing patience with the ridiculousness of the argument.  

            “Because,” Henry answered, looking him straight in the eye, “Trying new things is important. So, here,” He encouraged, bringing the spoon closer to his mouth, “Try it.”

            Beyond relieved when Jethro finally sighed aloud and confirmed, by doing so, that he would be giving in to his request, Henry smiled and prepared to push the spoon into his friend’s hand only for Jethro to surprise him by opening his mouth in a silent expectation to be fed his portion of the brightly-colored dessert. And, never one to disappoint, Henry gingerly funneled a small amount of the sweet into the Marine’s mouth just as gently as he was able, struggling, all the while, not to make his resultant arousal known by any of the ill-timed moans that were threatening to escape his mouth.

            “Well?” Henry asked, praying that the darkness of his vehicle would be enough to conceal the growth in his pants.

            “It’s cloyingly sweet.” Jethro gagged, pulling away from the spoon. “I don’t know how you can eat a whole pint of that.”

            “You just have to acquire a taste for it.” Henry insisted, mildly relieved that Jethro hadn’t asked for a second bite.

            Not only because he really did enjoy his unicorn blizzards, but so too because he wasn’t at all certain he wouldn’t be able to restrain himself from attacking Jethro with his mouth should he be allowed to place another spoonful of the dessert into his mouth.

            “if you have to acquire a taste for something, maybe it shouldn’t be eaten.” Jethro quipped.

            “Are you telling me that you were born liking coffee?” Henry challenged.

            “Coffee has health benefits.” Jethro argued.

            “So does being happy.” Henry countered. “And unicorn blizzards make me happy.”

            And so did Jethro’s smile, but Henry just didn’t think that said Marine was quite ready to be hearing things like that just yet.

            “You have the taste pallet of a child.” Jethro accused.

            “I’ve been accused of worse.” Henry dismissed, only half serious.

            “I doubt it.” Jethro dismissed with a snort.

            “Why, Jethro,” Henry grinned, “Are you complimenting me?”

            And, hopelessly emboldened by such an important realization, Henry felt the sappiest of grins spread over his face as he stretched across his seat and laid a hand on Jethro’s knee.

            “Does that surprise you?” Jethro asked, looking a bit startled at the placement of his hand but otherwise making no real move to remove it.  

            “Not really.” Henry admitted with a blush. “But it’s nice to know that you like me.”

            “Of course I like you.” Jethro assured. “We’ve become good friends.”

            Flinching instinctively as the word ‘friend’ fell across his ears like a thunderclap, Henry felt his smile falter as he struggled, and failed, to keep up the pretext of happiness.

            “Friends.” He repeated, the word sour in his mouth. “Of course.”

            “Good friends.” Jethro amended, as if that little correction, alone, was enough to make his heart stop aching.  

Chapter Text

            While Gibbs would have ordinarily never even considered attending therapy, at least up until the point he had experienced a full-fledged anxiety attack in the general safety of Vance’s office, the likes and origins of which he still wasn’t exactly sure of, he could, at least now, admit to himself that he was glad to have made such important selfcare a part of his life, even if such a decision had admittedly only come about because his baffled and concerned boss had suggested, none-to-subtly, that he either start looking into taking off early on Wednesdays to see a therapist or elsewise start whittling down the obscene amount of vacation time he had accrued – something the manipulative jackass knew full-well Gibbs would never willingly do. Because not only had the no-nonsense therapist assigned to him manage to get him started on working through all the maladaptive coping mechanisms he had developed after losing Shannon and Kelly, as well as those that had come about after watching his mother slowly die and his father shut down as a result, so too had she gotten him started on a pretty succinct medication regime that had worked wonders in helping to temper down all the feelings of impending doom and baseless worry that he had, over the years, erroneously started to think of as normal. And even if he did, at times, grow somewhat peeved and annoyed at Ms. McClure’s unyielding tendency to read him as easily as one might count to three, despite her being freshly out of grad school and barely any older than Tim, he had to be honest and admit to himself that it was very likely that nobody but she would have anywhere near half so effect at treating him someone so stubborn and taciturn as himself.

            “Clair tells me that you’ve requested an extended ninety-minute session this afternoon, rather than your usual sixty.” Ms. McClure began, looking directly into his soul with her shrewd, yet youthful, brown eyes.

            Already on pins and needles about the lengthy session that loomed directly before him, as he was fully intent of utilizing such precious time to broach a sensitive subject he hadn’t ever once dared to consider broaching with anyone else, not even his precious and perfect Kelly, Gibbs felt unreasonably attacked by the skinny woman’s direct question and, as a result, responded far more tersely than was strictly appropriate given that she was only trying to do her job.

            “That is allowed, isn’t it?” Gibbs challenged, fully prepared to go and hunt down all the paperwork he’d been forced to sign before even stepping foot within her office.

            “Of course it’s allowed.” Ms. McClure pacified, her voice just as sugary and as hypnotic as always. “We’re it not, I’d have refused the request.”

 

 

            Though such candid openness was slightly annoying to be addressed with, given that his insurance was paying this woman a good thirty dollars an hour to deal with him, a fee that would surely entitle him a more gentle handling, Gibbs knew, without a doubt, that such unyielding bluntness was exactly what he needed. But that didn’t mean he had to pretend to be happy about it.

            “Then why bring it up in the first place?” Gibbs grumbled, filled to the brim with anxiety.

            “I was surprised, that’s all.” Ms. McClure answered truthfully, waiving her dainty hand dismissively. “You’re usually all but ready to bolt by the time we hit the thirty-minute mark.”

            “That’s only because you have a nasty habit of getting me to talk about all things I don’t want to talk about.” Gibbs groused, kicking off his boots.

            In fact, during only his second tumultuous meeting with said woman, after having the spent the entire duration of the first in a silent and resentful stand-off, she had somehow compelled him into making several allusions to his dead family, where forth she had easily, yet inexplicably, managed to skillfully put together the scattered pieces of such a story in such a way that she needed only to be told the how of his family dying to have the complete picture. Which, while simultaneously frightening and aggravating all at one, had thankfully saved him from the more distasteful work of explaining the gruesome narrative in its full and melancholic glory – or, rather, it had at least put it off until such time that he felt more ready to be open about. But still, it was outright terrifying just how efficient she was at times, as if somehow she had been born to be a master interrogator and had ended up in the ‘wrong’ field by forced beyond her control.

             “And is there something you would actually like to discuss today?” His eloquent therapist inquired, crossing one absurdly long leg over the other to put one of her red-bottomed shoes on full display.

            “No.” Came his response, far too quickly to be anything other than instinctual.

            Receiving no other answer to his one-worded response other than a slight raising of one perfectly groomed brow, Gibbs felt his stomach cramp up with an all-too-familiar anxiety and couldn’t help but feel as if he was a nine years old all over again and being called into the principal’s office for the fourth time in one week for punching one of the playground bullies out for picking on one of the few black kids in Stillwater. Only this time, instead of dreading the isolating suspension he was sure most come, it was only a series of impending self-revelations that he had to contend with. And while that, in itself, was certainly frightening enough, he could at least take comfort in knowing that he was safe in Ms. McClure’s cozy office, and not at all like to be bent over her desk and assaulted with a steel ruler until his father came to pick him up and save him from the torment.

            “Fine,” Gibbs sighed, “You got me.”

            Showing no signs of any off-putting smugness at having so effectively and effortlessly called him out, with only the raising of one brow required to accomplish such a goal, Ms. McClure simply nodded succinctly and with one graceful, gazelle-like movement, reclined in her retro purple chair to better examine him with her customary look of a disinterested predator approaching prey it had no real intentions of eating.

             “Whenever you’re ready then.” She encouraged, brown eyes wide and discerning.

            Despite being fully aware of the fact that what he was about to do was most certainly childish in nature, not to mention boorish and ill-mannered, Gibbs prepared himself for the emotional ordeal that lay directly before him by placing himself in the peculiar positioned he had developed over the long months of his relationship with Ms. McClure. Which meant that rather than opt to remain upright in an upright position, and thus find himself fully under the power of her disconcerting gaze, he instead laid himself out flat upon the well-worn cushions of the sofa and positioned his eyes firmly on the unemotional ceiling. And Ms. McClure, in kind, turned to the task of filling in her impressively long nails with the bubble gum pink nail polish she had chosen to coat them with that week, not at all to be disrespectful or display dominance, but rather because she understood that it was far easier for him to speak openly when he could pretend that nobody was really listening to him speak. Not that he believed she actually needed to hear his words in order to ‘treat’ him, as she seemed all but able to read his fucking mind with just one quick glance into his eyes.

            “Well,” Gibbs began, his mouth suddenly very dry, “I met someone.”

            “You met someone.” Ms. McClure parroted, making use of repetition to show only that she had been listening.

            “Yes.” Gibbs confirmed, his calloused palms having suddenly gone very clammy.

            After all, he had not felt this unfathomably nervous since the fateful morning he had been dragged off to his first day of Kindergarten by a mother turned suddenly and uncharacteristically unsympathetic to his pleas that he be allowed to remain home with her and help out in the garden, his crippling fear having only increased by the seconds up until the point the perpetually compassionate Mary-Beth took compassion on him and dragged him away to the empty chair directly beside her desk with surprising force, first startling him into a fearful complacency with her bold friendliness and then comforting him by sharing the contraband candy bar she had smuggled into their classroom by concealing it in her lacey stockings. But, so unlike the unyieldingly tenderhearted Mary-Beth, Ms. McClure made no move at all to offer him any comfort in such a trying time, but rather narrowed her dark eyes at him in a manner that seemed to suggest that she knew perfectly well that he was purposely drawing out their conversation via simple one-worded responses in order to avoid the inevitable soul-searching that lay waiting for him at her hands.

            “And what sort of person was it that you met?” Ms. McClure questioned, her voice every bit as hypnotic as the mythological flute that had driven the snakes out of Ireland.

            “I…I don’t know.” Gibbs sighed, feeling nearly sick to his stomach.

            And, as juvenile as such an answer might sound to those who were possessive of more eloquent tongues, Gibbs had at least the slightest comfort of knowing that they were true nonetheless. Because while it could not be truthfully claimed that he was unaware of all the traits and characteristics that made Henry who he was, an exemplary and handsome specimen of a man, the likes of whom could inspire envy in even Narcissus himself, he was yet sorrowfully unaware of how he might best categorize their newfound relationship. Or worse, if it might yet continue to be anything other than a vague and distant memory for him to fret over in his bed before sleep gradually took over and granted him a reprieve.

            “You don’t know.” Ms. McClure repeated, nearly aggravating in her professional passivity.

             And though Gibbs knew she was not being accusatory, not in any real sense of the word, he couldn’t help but feel a certain degree of shame in response to all the derision he imagined himself to hear in her voice.  

            “They…They’re great.” Gibbs haltingly elaborated, struggling to speak through the sudden tightness of his throat. “And…And they make me feel a way I haven’t felt since first meeting Shannon.”   

            Nauseatingly dizzy and anxious beyond belief, sure, but likewise intoxicatingly giddy and hopeful for the future as well – the latter of which he hadn’t felt in all the decades following his family’s untimely death.

            “Could you describe those feelings for me?” Ms. McClure encouraged, no doubt having already discerned them for herself via some pretty advanced, and secretive, mindreading technique not privy to anyone else.

            “You know,” Gibbs insisted, almost too forcefully to sound anything other than desperate and pathetic, “All nervous…and excited.”

            And fucking terrified beyond belief that something might go wrong and put an end to his happiness. If not right away, then surely right when he was at the very height of his happiness and utterly ignorant of the bad things that might happen to a person when they least expected it. Like when they were decades into the perfect marriage with a perfect woman and likewise the proud father of a daughter who made kindness and genuine goodness look effortless.

            “And how does that particular realization make you feel?” Ms. McClure lead.

            Despite knowing that the magnanimous Shannon would never fault him for trying to move on and secure a little bit happiness in the time he left on Earth, so long as the person he decided to take up with didn’t actively hurt him in any sort of fashion, Gibbs couldn’t help but grimace at his therapist’s question anyways, as the fact that it was a man he had become enamored with still frightened his greatly. Not only because it was some wildly uncharted territory for him, but so too because of all the judgement he was sure must accompany the confession of having such a taboo attraction. For as much as liked to posture himself as a man who didn’t care what others thought of him, least of all strangers, Gibbs still didn’t much fancy the idea of being hounded relentlessly for something he had no control over, as such razzing would surely get old very quickly.

            “Terrified.” Gibbs confessed, his voice barely more than a whisper.

            “Terrified.” Ms. McClure repeated, characteristically leaving the floor open for more additional information to flood in naturally.

            And, for once, Gibbs was actually not at all that adverse in obliging her where regarded such a specific request for information. If not out of any sense of fiscal obligation towards the insurance company shelling out big bucks for him to attend such sessions, then at the very least to remove any sort of preconceived notions from his therapist’s head where regarded the origins of such crippling fear.

            “Not of letting myself care.” Gibbs immediately tried to assure, only for the earnestness of such a statement to fall flat. “Well…That’s not the big issue, at least.”

            He’d always be afraid of letting people in, after all, terrified beyond belief to love when he knew how world-shattering it was to lose those who held his heart.

            “It’s just…It’s just that I hadn’t planned on anything like this happening to me.” Gibbs expanded, wishing to make the session at least marginally easier for his no-nonsense therapist.

            Although, judging from the terse eyebrow raise he received in response to his unsolicited elaboration, his efforts toward being helpful weren’t really all that useful after all.

            “Would you care to elaborate on what ‘this’ is?” Ms. McClure prompted.

            Woefully unaware of just how to answer such a question without perjuring himself in some small degree, given the general cluelessness he faced all relationships with, Gibbs grimaced and restlessly began to fiddle with the jacket of his zipper.

            “Look, I know we agreed that I shouldn’t start a new relationship until next year, but – “

            “I believe you came to that consensus on your own, Mr. Gibbs.”  Ms. McClure immediately exculpated.  

            Feeling more than just a little annoyed at the fact that the semantics of their previous conversation were being called into question, as really, she had been the one to guide him to that logical resolution, Gibbs frowned but nonetheless kept his grievances to himself, figuring that launching into a debate on the subject would only further squander their session time.

            “But,” He pressed forward, putting a little edge into his tone to indicate the annoyance he felt toward being interrupted whilst on a roll, “It’s been almost eleven months since I started coming here, and I don’t think that I’d fuck everything up in this relationship like I would have before I started working on all my problems.”

             After all, one of the largest contributing factors to the endless implosions of his many relationships had been his proclivity to self-sabotage right when he reached the point of perfect comfort with his beaus for fear that he was somehow betraying Shannon by allowing himself to become so familiar with another woman. But now that he had come to a point in his life where he could both recognize such a self-destructive habit, and take steps to avoid repeating it, Gibbs just didn’t think that it was a factor that needed considered at the moment. Especially not when there were other, more pressing concerns, that needed addressed during that extended session.

            “And what, pray tell, would you be fucking up?”

             “That’s the thing,” Gibbs sighed, “I think I already did.”

              “And what exactly has led you into believing that you fucked up?” Ms. McClure prompted, never shy about digging deeper into a delicate topic.

            While Gibbs might have ordinarily been just a little jolted upon hearing so vulgar a word coming out of the mouth of a person so eloquent and refined, as there were very few things in life so jarring as to have your preconceived notions about a person shattered so instantly, he found it exceedingly hard to be discomforted in this particular scenario, as he was all but certain that Ms. McClure was one of the very few people in the world who could say whatever they wished to and still sound dignified.

            “Well,” Gibbs began, still fiddling away with the zipper of his jacket, “We went to a movie last night.”  

            And though he wished for nothing more than to be able to press onward and get the whole sordid tale out in one go, Gibbs nonetheless found himself clamping up, the sheer weight and magnitude of what he was about to confess to a more than adequate silencer of his tongue. But, right when the length of his silence reached the point in which it seemed the remainder of their session was doomed to elapse with no further progress being made, if any, he recalled to himself, rather belatedly, that the rather girthy nondisclosure contract he had been forced to look over before even stepping foot in her office protected him almost as well as his silence could. Because even if Ms. McClure were to suddenly take it into her head to blab his secrets to the world, something he felt her upstanding character would not allow for, the large monetary fine that would result at such a nefarious breach of contract would almost surely prevent any such event from taking place, as the amount specified within all the fine print would be more than enough to bankrupt a fledgling millionaire.

            “It was awful.” Gibbs specified, finally breaking the silence after a long ten minutes.       

            “The movie, itself, or the whole affair?” Ms. McClure questioned.

            “Yes.” Gibbs answered, to both.

            But, upon feeling a rather jarring amount of her being directed towards his person, Gibbs instantly made to expand upon his answer, wishing, as he did, to avoid irritating the only person in the whole entire world who was obligated to at least remain neutral towards him.

            “The movie was awful enough,” Gibbs conceded, waving his hand dismissively, “But the date itself didn’t really turn sour until it came time for me to be dropped off.”

            “Did anything happen to you on this date that caused to be uncomfortable?” Ms. McClure nudged, a faint note of worry decorating her sugary voice.

            Wishing to put his dependable therapist’s worries at ease, and likewise just as determined not to allow Henry’s character to be called into question, Gibbs fervently shook his head and issued forth a passionate denial of such an assumption.

            “No.” He asserted, slightly louder than necessary. “Just anxious.”

            “You were made to feel anxious.” Ms. McClure stated, clearly searching for a little more specificity.

            “Yes…but only because of how it ended.” Gibbs elaborated, stubbornly refusing to look away from the ceiling.

            Not that such an act did him any real good in preventing him from feeling the full extent of his therapist’s annoyance, for it was only a measly few seconds after he had finished speaking that Ms. McClure adjusted her posture into one that sounded just a little more uptight in nature.

            “If I may be blunt, Mr. Gibbs, we have only half an hour left to us where regards the duration of your session.” His skinny therapist mildly rebuked. “And while you are, of course, free to spend that time doing whatever you wish, I’ll remind you that monosyllabic answers and fragmented sentences are not the way to go if you actually wish to utilize this time for your benefit.

            Seeing as how that was the closest he had ever gotten to legitimately annoying his stalwart therapist with his taciturn nature, Gibbs actually grimaced in shame before quickly going about trying to make his amends with the beleaguered young woman by being just a little bit more specific with his answers than was his usual wont.

            “I just worked myself up, is all.” Gibbs clarified. “Because of the handshake.”

            “The handshake?” Ms. McClure parroted, with a slight note of confusion coloring her voice.  

            “Yes.” Gibbs confirmed, his stomach dropping as he recalled the whole ordeal. “I mean…I don’t honestly know what I was expecting, but I know it wasn’t a goddamn handshake.”         

            He would have almost rather taken a punch on the shoulder instead, as at least with that particular display of manly emotion there was some form of affection involved, even if it wasn’t of the romantic nature he might have preferred. But there could be no such emotions behind the motivations of giving out a handshake as a parting gift, for the very act itself was both sterile and strictly plutonic in nature.

            “Your date ended the evening with a handshake.” Ms. McClure reiterated, seeking a confirmation of her conclusion before moving on.

            “Yes,” Gibbs grumbled, still very sore about it, “And that’s what started this whole goddamn mess.”

            “Started?” Ms. McClure coaxed, uncrossing her long legs from the sound of it.

            “Yes.” Gibbs scowled. “Because after that fucking asshole left me on my doorstep with a goddamn handshake, and I realized how goddamn angry that me, I went upstairs to do some investigating.”

            And God help him, Gibbs hadn’t liked what that investigation had turned up.

            “What sort of investigation are we talking about?” Ms. McClure questioned.

            Feeling as if all the people in the building directly across the street from them could feel the heat of the blush that erupted all over his body in response to such a prying and personal question, Gibbs felt himself stiffen and even went so far as to bring one of his arms over his face in an attempt to alleviate some of the discomfort he felt with so many imagined eyes on his body.

            “Mr. Gibbs,” Ms. McClure hummed, “I’ll remind you that nothing you say or do will ever leave this office.”

            Figuring that it would perhaps be best to just rip the proverbial bandage off by that point, as he had already fiddled with the mythological thing for so long that it was starting to come undone on its volition, Gibbs sighed loudly and squeezed his eyes tightly shut before pressing onward.

            “You know that popular woman’s magazine?” Gibbs prompted, imagining himself to be on fire from all the heat his blush was producing.

            “I’m afraid you’ll have to be a little more specific.”

            “People.” Gibbs expanded, beyond mortified to even be admitting that he knew such a popular publication exited.

            For full confidence in his masculinity aside, there was just no way in hell that he could ever rest comfortable with anyone other than his therapist knowing about his peculiar reading habits.

            “People Magazine.” Ms. McClure restated, giving no clear indication of whether or not she had ever such a popular publication herself.

            “Yes.” Gibbs confirmed, struggling to speak strongly with so much shame coursing through his body.

            “And how exactly does this magazine portend to your investigation?” Ms. McClure coaxed.

            By that point in time having become greatly concerned about the possibilities of dropping dead from sheer embarrassment, despite Ducky’s many repeated proclamations that no such thing had ever occurred in the history of the world, Gibbs flushed all the deeply and almost refused to answer the question before reminding himself, rather sharply, that his recalcitrance would be hurting him further.

            “It has an annual competition.” Gibbs explained, his voice strained from sheer embarrassment. “For the Sexiest Man Alive.”

             “Do they now?” Ms. McClure questioned, her tone perfectly even.

            Not at all surprised by the fact that a posh woman such as herself was blissfully unaware of the existence of such a periodical, as no doubt she only read scholarly journals or an occasional article out Vouge, Gibbs refrained from casting any doubt on the validity of her statement and instead settled for comforting himself with the fact that he, himself, only knew of said magazine because of Kate. Or, more specifically, Kate’s somewhat annoying proclivity towards leaving her monthly reading materials behind after spending the night in his home, as really, it was only natural he should glimpse through the pages of them whenever it came time for him to take his morning shit.

            “It does.” Gibbs confirmed.

             “I see.” Ms. McClure hummed. “But how does the existence of this particular competition relate to your investigations of the previous night?”

            Almost immediately revising his earlier hypothesis that confessing he possessed certain homosexual tendencies would be no more difficult than ripping off a particularly stubborn bandage, as now that he had had approached the direct time to do so it felt more like amputating an entire appendage, Gibbs stiffened where he lay and struggled to recall the last time he had ever felt so nervous about making a confession in all his life.  

            “I just wanted to see if there was still something off about me.” Gibbs admitted, refusing to speak aloud the word that would better define just what ‘off’ constituted.

             “Off?” Ms. McClure prompted.

            Figuring that it was now or never, Gibbs squeezed his eyes together even tighter and spat out the answer before he could change his mind.

            “Queer.”  

             And, just as expected, the word hung sour in the air, every bit as rude and terrible as a fart let loose at a dinner party.

            But thankfully for the both of them, especially so him, Ms. McClure made no move to pry any further into the tenets that constituted his investigation, as it would have been all too award to bare should Gibbs have been compelled to explain how his research methods had largely involved looking at all the half-naked photographs of the men honored in the pages of such an infamous magazine – nor, he doubted, would he have been brave enough to confess how said research had culminated in him turning on old movies of John Wayne and allowing himself, for the first time ever, to feel what he felt about said man’s body and face.

            “And what did this investigation reveal, Mr. Gibbs?” Ms. McClure coaxed.

            “That I fucked up again.” Gibbs sighed, feeling his stomach drop. “I waited too long to figure shit out and now Henry wants nothing to do with me anymore.”

            And even though said professor had not come outright with such a confession, Gibbs did not need any words to lend credence to his assumptions, as the marked formality of the handshake had been more than enough to do it for him.         

            “Mr. Gibbs, are you trying to say that your fear of being homosexual caused to you to hold back from pursuing this gentleman in a romantic sense?” His therapist prompted, keen to be given confirmation of her deductions before pressing onward.

            “Yes.” Gibbs validated, eyes still closed tightly.

              “I see.” Ms. McClure hummed. “And tell me, now that you’ve made this realization on your own, do you feel as if you can’t go on within having this man in your life?”

             Deathly afraid that his no-nonsense therapist would lock him up for a good three day hold in a psych ward if he gave credence to her assumptions that he felt despondent and rather unimpressed with life in response to being so suddenly shunned by Henry, and likewise just as unwilling to admit to himself that said professor was able to hold any such power over him, after only know him for such little time, Gibbs reacted instinctively out of some pretty powerful feelings of self-preservation and immediately denied such a claim. Although, judging by the slight ‘tut’ he imagined himself to hear in direct response, his mind-reading therapist just wasn’t buying such unsubstantiated malarkey.

            “No.” He asserted, too quick to appear anything but desperate.

            “Could it be, perhaps, that you’re still too afraid of accepting this part of yourself to healthily pursue another man with romantic intentions?” Ms. McClure interrogated.

            While it wounded him greatly to have to make any such confession, Gibbs frowned and reluctantly nodded his head.

            “Mr. Gibbs, do you feel it fair to ask another man to put his life on hold while you struggle to decide on how you wish to live your own?” Ms. McClure further challenged.

            “No.” Gibbs resentfully answered, practically pouting. “But that doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it.”

            And, if he were to be perfectly honest, he was outright despondent by such a sudden and unexpected termination of friendship. As, aside from Ducky, he really didn’t have any other friends with whom he could be himself.

            “Mr. Gibbs, if you’re willing to work through your issues regarding your homosexuality, perhaps it’s not too late for you to forge some sort of relationship with this man.” Ms. McClure suggested. “Not immediately, of course, but eventually perhaps.”

            “I’m not gay.” Gibbs instinctively denied, a rather full catalogue of all the redheaded woman he had dated the perfect defense against such claims. “I just like Henry.”

            Met with a rather profound silence in response to that particular bit of commentary, one that conveyed perfectly well that his denial of possessing homosexual feelings had fallen on deaf ears, Gibbs frowned his displeasure and removed his arm from his eyes to glare at the celling.

            “Besides,” He added, eager to get one over on his unconquerable therapist, “What if Henry decides he doesn’t want to wait that long?”

            After all, it was not as if Gibbs was some veritable Casanova of a man. Surely there would be other, much less stunted, individuals out there on the prowl for a good man. And Henry, God help, would be more than just a little justified in forgoing his company for that of someone much less likely to push him away when frightened.

            “Even should that be the end result of this whole affair,” Ms. McClure allowed, “It will be no reflection on your character as a person. People heal at very different rates, I’ll remind you, and that you weren’t ready for this particular relationship doesn’t mean, in any way, that you weren’t deserving of it.”

             “But I want it.” Gibbs protested, feeling every bit the hormonal teenager denied access to the object of their desire. “Like nothing since Shannon.”

             And while that confession did, admittedly, stir up some pretty powerful feelings of guilt, Gibbs knew it to be true nonetheless, as it had not been until Henry had arrived in his life that Gibbs had felt the exact same and cliché sparks of longing he had experienced upon first espying Shannon.

            “If you truly desire something, you must work for it.” Ms. McClure challenged. “And to do that, we must first begin by analyzing the reasoning behind your reluctant to accept the fact that you’re attracted to another man. So tell me, Mr. Gibbs, when would you say you first became aware of feeling afraid to accept that part of yourself?”

            Already having opened himself up more than he had initially been planning to at the conception of their session, Gibbs almost instinctively made to rebuff such further prodding before a quick glance at his watch showed him that they still had a good twenty-five minutes allotted to them. And the morality of squandering money with his moody silence aside, there was just no way in hell that he was going to spend the following half hour in silence with a unmitigated mind reader sitting directly in front of him.           

            “I grew up in a time where gay-bashing was encouraged.” Gibbs shrugged. “What else needs to be said?”

            Knowing, instantly, that he failed to impress his therapist with the answer he had supplied, given that the resultant silence was almost complete enough for him to hear the raising of her perfectly groomed eyebrow, Gibbs silently cursed her tenacity and sincerely hoped that she had managed to gleam such information from his mind just by looking at him.

            “What  do you want me to say?” Gibbs impatiently demanded, feeling suddenly very attacked by her judgmental silence. “That it all started when I was little boy, overhearing my parents talking about how afraid they were that I was too soft? Too sensitive? Too artistic?”

            Calm and collected in the face of his misplaced wrath, a feat very few people had ever successfully pulled off, Ms. McClure crossed her legs and remained quiet, perfectly confident in her knowledge that such silence was the perfect antagonization where regarded getting him to speak further.

            “Or how about hearing all the whispered conversations about special camps,” Gibbs elucidated, “And my uncle begging me to ‘fake it’ until I ‘made it’ because he was getting worried about the way I preferred playing with the girls?”

            And, by that point on a roll, Gibbs pressed onward without even waiting to see if his therapist might like to make a response.

            “Or maybe we should focus on all the times I overhead my mother praying, just praying, for me to not turn out the way she thought I was going to.”

             That, he reflected, had hurt the most. Because while his mother’s own particular and unique brand of Christianity had prompted her into being one of the first women in Stillwater to denounce the rampant racism of the time, it had been the exact same faith that had gotten her so worked up about the possibility of her only child being potentially gay in the first place. And if there was only one thing in life that Anne had loved every bit as much as her family, it had been her faith. Which meant that it had absolutely wounded him deeply, more than he could ever adequately hope to explain, when, as a small boy of seven, he had listened in on his mother tearfully begging her God to fix whatever it was that afflicted him so – as that seemed to be the one case in which her love of the lord trumped her love for him.

            “That must have been very hard for you to experience.” Ms. McClure expressed.

            “She could deal with everybody else’s flaws,” Gibbs expressed, throat having suddenly grown very tight and uncomfortable, “But not mine…not that one.”

            Allowing him a little time to regain his composure, or at least the illusions of such, Ms. McClure busied herself with straightening out the hem of her already perfectly aligned skirt before moving the session forward as tactfully as practicality allowed.

            “Do you believe that your mother would still feel that way today,” Ms. McClure questioned, “When faced with the full extent of the Gay Rights Movement.”

            While that was, admittedly, a very tough question to answer, given that there could be no fair comparison between Anne Gibbs’s passionate response to the Civil Right Movements and her potential response to the following movement that she hadn’t even been alive to witness, but whose future supporters she had likewise said more than enough about for him to get the picture of her general dislike toward such unrepentant sinners, Gibbs frowned deeply and cursed his therapist for putting yet another unanswerable question into his head.

            “Even if she didn’t, the damage is already done.” Gibbs argued, issuing forth the harshest condemnation of his mother that had crossed his lips.

            But, even as he did so, he had to admit that a certain feeling of relief washed over him as a result, as if by allowing such words to flee his mouth, he was riding his body of their weight.

            “I can appreciate that you’ve experienced a lot of negative feedback during a time when you most needed confirmation and acceptance. And likewise that those experiences caused you to reject a significant portion of yourself. But,” stipulated Ms. McClure, “There is now nothing at all stopping you from being the person you want to be but you.”

            “But that’s the thing,” Gibbs argued, “I don’t’ want to be this way.”

            Because even if it meant that he couldn’t have Henry, he would gladly give up his good leg for a chance to rid himself of every last shred of homosexuality.

            “But you are.” Ms. McClure stated. “And you can either be a person who is afraid to be themselves, or who isn’t ashamed of being who they are.”

            Despite being fully aware of the fact that was about to deflect the conversation away from the delicate topic of his questionable self-esteem, something his therapist was constantly calling him out on, Gibbs nonetheless did so anyway, very nearly at his limit for emotional upheaval in one day.

            “I want to be a person who has Henry.” He insisted.

            “Then work towards that goal by taking steps to eliminate your internalized homophobia.” Ms. McClure encouraged. “Why are you so fearful to take that step?”

            “Because,” Gibbs snapped, “It’s not like anyone ever wakes up one day dreaming of being a faggot.”

            Being cursed with The Gay, after all, only happened to the most unfortunate of people. It wasn’t something that anyone strived toward.

            “Mr. Gibbs,” Ms. McClure pressed, perfectly calm despite having just been growled at by an angry Marine only seconds ago, “Is it possible that you’re chief concern where regards your homosexuality lies largely with the fact that you fear the judgement of those you care most about?”

            Once more lead to the conclusion that Ms. McClure was some sort of highly-trained mind reader, the likes of whom the general public was allowed to know nothing about, Gibbs blinked away the sudden moisture that had gathered behind his eyes and refused to speak, knowing as he did, that his voice would only betray him and give voice to the fact that he was experiencing a pretty significant upheaval at the moment, no matter how hard he tried to pretend that he wasn’t.

            “Mr. Gibbs, are the people who would judge you for something like this even the ones you want around in the first place?”

            Not wishing to give voice to the very real fear that he might lose those he cared about for something so stupid as him refusing to remain in the closet, Gibbs forced his mind blank to prevent any uncomfortable mindreads and put forth his deflecting answer as quickly as possible.

            “Is it so wrong to just want to be normal?”

             “Do you believe your homosexuality makes you abnormal?” Ms. McClure investigated.

            Waiting a good ten minutes to allow him the opportunity to speak, something that he stubbornly refused to accept, on the grounds that his throat had suddenly become very sore, Ms. McClure readjusted her posture and straightened her skirt before furthering along their session with an expert skill.

            “Mr. Gibbs, if I may be blunt, I must say that I believe the crux of these comorbid issues lies largely with your significant lack of self-esteem.” The skinny therapist diagnosed. “And I don’t doubt, not even for a minute, that the cause of such confidence issues lies largely with the fact that you felt compelled to hide a significant portion of yourself at a time when your mind and body were still developing and shaping you into the person you are today.”

            Knowing himself to possess no real or convincing argument against such a denouncement of his character, as nothing the brown-eyed woman had said was false, Gibbs remained mute in protest of receiving the counseling he had signed up for and stared resolutely at the slightly warped ceiling tiles.

            “Mr. Gibbs, do you believe that if you were this idealized and perfect person you’ve built up in your head that you’d be perfectly happy?”

            “No.” Gibbs answered, affronted at the verbal assault against his logic. “But the people I deal with would probably be happier.”

            Most notably of all, his mother, for whether alive or deceased, Gibbs had never once doubted that she was watching over him.

            “But would you be?”

            “Probably not.” Gibbs allowed.

            “Then listen here,” Ms. McClure directed, suddenly unprofessional, “You have a responsibility to be happy and true to yourself. And if those around you don’t like the change that occurs in you as a result, then that’s their folly to bear, not yours. You don’t need to justify or change certain aspects of your character to deserve the right to be exist and be happy. You already matter simply because you exist.”

  

              

Chapter Text

            Having almost immediately decided that it would not do, at all, for him to wait around until he was fully confident of the merits of his hastily-concocted plan, given that the loftiness of such a goal was not like at all to be achieved by the likes of someone such as himself anytime soon, Gibbs had risen even earlier than was his usual wont the morning following his revelatory therapy session and had all but sped through his already brief morning routine, forgoing even his customary cup of coffee in his great haste to be out of the door before any of his more insidious doubts had time to take root within him and cause him to abandon his little scheme altogether.

            Which was precisely how he had wound in the parking lot of Discreet a full fifteen minutes before it was even due to open. A little faux pas that had embarrassed him deeply, and which had only turned to abject mortification, upon realizing that his little blunder hadn’t gone unnoticed by the young employee struggling to unlock the front doors with her half-frozen and ungloved fingers. For even if she had almost immediately made to look away from his truck the very moment he placed it into park, in a feigned act of disinterest, Gibbs could practically see the fear in radiating in her dark eyes though there remained between them a good twelve feet. But, rather than opt to remain in the warm confines of his truck, and thus grant her at least a marginal sense of safety, as well as an opportunity to call the police on him, Gibbs decided to put a more expedient and comforting end to the matter by stepping out of the vehicle, figuring that it would only benefit the both of them for him to put a prompt end to the assumptions that he was some sort of parking lot pervert lying in wait for the perfect time to snatch his victim.  

            “I’m just here for some coffee.” Gibbs reassured, speaking as loudly as he could without sounding aggressive as he stepped down from his truck.

            It was with some measure of relief, as well as a healthy dosage of chagrin, that his newest of vantage points introduced himself to the fact that had it been Beth he’d startled with his sudden and unorthodox appearance.

            “Jesus Christ, Jethro!” Beth squawked, still clutching her canister of pepper spray to her heaving chest. “You scared the hell out of me! What are you even doing here so goddamn early!? It’s four in the morning!”

            Seeing as he how he was almost entirely in the wrong, at least within the context of such a terse scenario, as it really was more than just a little unchivalrous for grown men to be startling young women with their presence in a dark parking lot a good two hours before the sun was due to rise, Gibbs meekly refrained from defending his questionable actions, knowing Beth to be entirely within her rights for having been so terrified of his unexpected appearance.

            “I’m sorry for frightening you.” Gibbs immediately apologized, still keeping his distance out of a desire not to startle her afresh. “But you’re the one who got me hooked on Pumpkin Spice lattes. So, you see, the fault isn’t entirely my own.”

            Not failing to take note of the small upturning of her bubble-gum-pink lips, Gibbs approached the young girl slowly but surely, confident enough in his skills of reading people to believe that he was now no longer in any real danger of being pepper sprayed.

            “It seems rather unchivalrous of you to be putting all blame on a young girl,” Beth playfully reprimanded, “But seeing as how you tip so well, I’m willing to forgive such rakishness.”  

            “How noble of you.” Gibbs replied, as drolly as possible.

             And, wishing to further make his amends for having so uncharitably frightened her only moments into her shift, something he still felt rather awful about having done, Gibbs fetched free from the aspiring lawyer’s dainty hand the keys of the establishment and went about the surprisingly arduous task of prying open the grand double-doors of the aged Victorian domicile.

            “Oh, don’t you dare go on about nobility when you were the one acting like a creep this morning.” Beth heartlessly censured, ducking beneath his arm to enter the shop once the doors were finally successfully wrenched open.

            “I wasn’t trying to be creepy.” Gibbs exasperatedly defended, quickly stepping into the store after the impish barista in order to get himself out of the cold. “But I can imagine how frightening it must have been for you to see an unfamiliar truck pulling into the parking lot so early in the morning.”

            Having seemingly reverted into auto-polite the very moment she had stepped foot within the aging Victorian coffee-shop, Beth hardly spared him a backward glance as she glided over to the counter and squeezed her slender frame between the tiny space that had been hollowed out near the wall for the distinct purposes of allowing employees to go from manning the register to bussing tables without experiencing any difficulty or squandering precious time. Unless, of course, said employee happened to be any larger than a size twelve.

            “It’s absolutely terrifying.” Beth confirmed, slipping off her purple peacoat and hanging it on one of the hooks conveniently placed behind the register. “I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve needed to use this stuff.”

            Not like such an ominous statement, at all, Gibbs frowned deeply and briefly considered offering up free self-defense classes to the skinny young girl tasked with opening up the coffee shop before the sun had even thought of rising. Because as useful a tool as pepper spray could be when utilized correctly, the sad fact still remained that it was often woefully simple for rapists and muggers to wrench such a small object out of the hands of their victims.

            “I had hoped it would have been the first time.” Gibbs admitted, slowly peeling off his gloves and sticking them into the pocket of his jacket.

            “Well, it wasn’t.” Beth shrugged, poorly feigning a nonchalance she clearly didn’t feel. “And I hate to pile on the bad news, but you’ll be waiting awhile for your coffee. Nothing is turned on yet.”

            Sensing, quite clearly, that Beth had no real wish to discuss any of the incidences in which she had been forced to use her pepper-spray, as no doubt reflecting upon such unsavory manners would only put her into a funk and thus disrupt the flow of her work, Gibbs charitably refrained from prying into the matter any further than already had and surreptitiously cranked the conveniently-placed thermostat up to seventy once the bubbly barista turned her back to tend to all the empty coffee urns.

            “I only have myself to blame for that.” Gibbs assured. “I was early.”

            “Very early.” Beth agreed from behind the counter, hastily slipping her hair up into a very messy bun. “I hope you weren’t trying to catch Henry by surprise, though. He never comes in on Thursday mornings.”       

            Struggling greatly to feign any measure of genuine apathy in response to that idly delivered snippet of information, as his whole reason for even coming to Discreet had been to run into Henry, Gibbs hid his resultant frown behind a faked cough and tried to affect as much nonchalance as he could with his response.

            “I thought he came in every morning.” Gibbs opined, tugging his hat off his head.

            “Not on Thursdays.” Beth insisted, boney back turned to him as she unlocked the drive through window. “He has classes until noon.”

            “Oh.” Gibbs oh-so-eloquently replied. “Good thing I only came in for coffee then.”

            Glancing over her knobby shoulder to cast him a brief, yet doubtful, expression in response to his half-hearted claim that his reason for visiting such an establishment pertained only to his need for coffee. But, rather than risk offending her well-paying patron all the more by further showcasing all the pity that had flooded into her dark brown eyes, Beth considerately turned her face away from him once more and focused all his attentions unto squeezing four large bagels into the undersized toaster oven that looked more like a miniature crematorium than it did a kitchen appliance.  

            “I already ate breakfast.” Gibbs informed the slightly harried girl. “I don’t want any – “

             “These are for Esther.” Beth interrupted, using her lips to blow a loose strand of hair from her face. “She’ll be here any minute with Opal.”

            Thinking that it was just the very height of karmic injustice for him to be forced into substituting the welcoming presence of Henry with the far more insidious aura belonging to Esther, a crotchety woman who seemed all but determined to hate him for no real discernable reason, Gibbs scowled heavily into the collar of his jacket and tried not to hyper-fixate on the thought that it seemed almost predestined that his day was doomed to be an exceedingly foul one.

            “I think I’ll stay out in the open then.” Gibbs mumbled. “It’s safer that way.”

            Yellow shirt already stained brown from coffee-bean dust, after only ten minutes spent topping off the urns that were running low, Beth used the cotton garment to swipe a smudge of leftover flour from the counter.

            “Esther really isn’t that bad, Jethro.” The young girl defended, only somewhat earnestly.

            “Yeah, well, she’s not all that great either.” Gibbs retorted, already scouting out the main living room to see where he might best like to sit.

            And, promptly coming to the conclusion that he would be bound to suffer the close presence of at least a dozen or more fellow patrons, given the general coziness of the room, Gibbs selected the spot where he felt he would be least likely to be coerced into insipid conversation by an overly-friendly stranger – that being, of course, an overstuffed armchair that looked as if it had not been reupholstered since the 1800s and was almost surely built more for style than it had been for comfort. But, given its general nearness to the fireplace, which he hoped would be blazing away with a welcoming fire, and the chairs advantageous angle, one which would allow only the person seated at the very end of the nearby couch to easily converse with him, Gibbs forgave the furniture its outdated appearance and slowly lowered himself down into it. Mindful, as always, of the aged nature of the furnishings that decorated such a unique establishment.

            “She’s just wary of men, that’s all.” Beth exculpated, jumping up unto a rickety stepstool to better press the buttons that would bring the coffee machines to life.

            “I’ve noticed.” Gibbs assured, snatching up that morning’s newspaper from the nearby coffee table.

            But, before he could even give so much as one example of the aforementioned woman’s general rudeness towards his person, said octogenarian pushed into the coffee shop with all the grace and authority of Queen Elizabeth entering Parliament – her only saving grace, if she possessed one, the loving way she kept her arm linked with Opal’s.

            “I see your back.” Esther sniffed, narrowing her eyes at him.

            Despite every last fiber in his being calling out for him to reciprocate such undeserved incivility with an equal measure of his own, as he had never been a man to take abuse from anybody, apart from a handful of drill sergeants when he had first started out in his military career, of course, Gibbs forced himself to refrain from such churlish behavior and instead went about utilizing his one of his deceased uncle’s favorite pieces of advice, which was to kill your enemies with kindness. For his beloved uncle was of the learned opinion that, upon seeing such class in the face of their vitriol, your enemies would either be shamed into quitting their abhorrent behavior, or else they would soon grow bored with their antagonizing ways upon making the realization that they would no longer be getting the sort of reaction they wanted to from it.

            “Good morning, Esther. Opal.” Gibbs greeted, as civilly as possible. “Could I buy your coffee for you this morning?”

            Seeming to be perfectly aware of what he was trying to do, yet feeling no guilt whatsoever in manipulating that to her favor, Esther smiled wickedly in his direction before turning her nose up into the air.

            “I suppose that would be the least a man could do for a woman.”

            Thinking, to himself, that Esther had to have some pretty low opinions of men, indeed, for her to believe that having her coffee purchased by one was something worthy of note, and feeling somewhat sorry for her as a result, Gibbs kept the snarky response he had prepared to himself and instead remained as friendly as possible by remaining silent.

            “Yes,” Opal immediately sought to mediate, casting him a genuine smile even as she pinched her girlfriend on the forearm, “That would be lovely, Jethro. Thank you.”

            And, trying not to take too much satisfaction out of the fact that Esther was now currently trying to rub away the slight twinge in her arm, Gibbs hid his smile beneath another faked coughed and turned to the business of making good on his promise.

             “Beth,” Gibbs called out, “Add their orders unto mine, would you?”

            “Got it.” Beth yelled back, before immediately moving to wail violently on a large bean grinding machine with her fist until it groaned into life.

             Somewhat alarmed as he watched the tarnished machine veer slightly downward, towards Beth’s tiny and unprotected head, Gibbs sat up a little straighter and eyed the bolts keeping the grinder cemented to its base with no small amount of suspicion.

            “Beth, when is the last time OSHA came through this place?”

             Despite receiving his answer from the very guilty expression that crossed over his barista’s youthful and expressive face, Beth still found it fit to use words in her attempts to dissuade him from thinking anything was wrong.

            “Don’t worry about it.” She insisted, her smile a little strained as she pushed her weight against the grinder to return it to its proper upright position.

            Figuring that it would do no real good for him to try and pry any answers from a headstrong young girl who clearly had no real desire to oblige him such a matter, and likewise resolving to return that evening with a large selection of his tools in order to ascertain that no significant brain damage of bodily injury would be inflicted on anyone working behind the counter due to poorly secured equipment, Gibbs gave the dismissive little barista a slight and reproving frown being turning back to his newspaper, only marginally happy to be taking her advice to focus on other, more personal, concerns – such as the fact that Henry no longer seemed to want anything to do with him. For while Ducky might very well just have chocked such a melancholic assumption up to the existence of what he liked to refer to as Gibbs’s ‘mastery of the dramatic,’ the disconcerting fact still remained that said professor had not even texted him one since the night of the fateful handshake – and that all but confirmed, in Gibbs’s mind, the fact that he was now a persona non grata with Henry.

            But, rather than ruminate overly long on all the potential ‘what ifs’ that now plagued his mind, and threatened to send him into a downward spiral, Gibbs decided to face his fears like a man by ripping the proverbial bandage off – figuring, as he did so, that it was by far better to know something for certain than it was to always be doubting. And there was no better way than to do that but text, as Gibbs didn’t much feel like playing the part of an obsessed stalker by showing up outside of Henry’s classroom.

            ‘Good morning.’ He slowly typed out, not wanting any typos to mar reconciliatory efforts.

             Much to his great consternation, as well as the direct detriment of his health where regarded the tentative treatment of his anxiety condition, Henry found it fit to wait a good fifteen minutes before gracing him with a reply.

            ‘I’ll be away from my phone most of the morning. I have class.’

            If ever there was a good and proper way to tell somebody to fuck right off, Gibbs felt as if Henry had just showcased it within that text.

            But before he could even really descend into the full magnitude of his despair and disappointment, much less cancel his coffee order so that he might flee the scene and seek solace in the comfort of his own home, the telltale sounds of someone taking a seat on the couch directly next to him had him lifting his head and forgetting, for at least a brief moment, his great displeasure with himself and his inability to be open.

            “You’re Jethro, right?” The dark-eyed interloper inquired, a steaming cup of jet-black coffee in one large hand and a colorful flyer in the other.

            Taking an embarrassingly long second to place the honey-eyed gentleman as one of the whist-playing gentleman Henry had introduced him to on the day they had first met, Gibbs stared blankly at the fellow in question for a good solid minute before blushing profusely upon realizing his blunder.

            “Yeah.” He grunted, displeased at his sudden lack of poise. “Duff, right?”

            “The one and only.” The charismatic man grinned, sticking his hand out for him to shake.

            Seeing no real harm in making another friend out a man he had just met within the walls of Discreet, given that the clientele of such an establishment seemed to consist mostly of respectable and well-intentioned individuals, Gibbs politely accepted the handshake and was pleasantly surprised to discover that his new acquaintance’s hands were every bit just as calloused and rough as his own.

            “Is that your real name?” Gibbs inquired as the handshake ended, having always struggled with making any sensible small talk.

            “Of course.” Duff confirmed, seeming no more bothered by Gibbs’s lack of eloquence than Tony would be. “What’s that your reading, there?”

            Having forgotten, for a brief moment, that he had been reading the politics section of the newspaper up until the point Duff had arrived and interrupted him, Gibbs actually found himself looking down at the crumpled periodical perched in his lap for confirmation of the fact before he made his answer.

            “The newspaper.” Gibbs managed, without sounding like a complete dumbass. “What’s that in your hand?”

            Pushing the brightly colored advert into Gibbs’s hand even as he supplied a verbal answer, Duff sat up a little straighter and looked the very picture of excitement as he clued his new conversational partner in.

            “It’s an advert for the National Woodworking Championship.”

            Feeling more than just a little surprised to discover that there was any such competition taking place on an annual basis, as really, he would have thought the proprietors of the lumber store he frequently bought from would have at least mentioned it in passing, Gibbs frowned a bit and eyed the flyer a little more earnestly for details.       

            “I didn’t even know there was any such thing.”

            “Of course there is.” Duff once more confirmed, not-so-subtly glancing down at Gibbs’s hands. “What sort of things do you like you building, Jethro?”

            Still recovering from the slight shiver that had racked his body after Duff had glanced down at his hands in a manner he felt was almost scandalous in nature, if not entirely inappropriate, Gibbs was more than just a little slow in responding. Although, if Duff took any notice of his sluggishness, he was at least compassionate and polite enough not to draw attention to the fact.

            “I used to make boats.” Gibbs contributed, thinking upon the rather bittersweet memories of him launching the last of them into the lake he had liked taking Kelly and Shannon for horse rides around. “Now it’s just mostly sculpture work. What do you like to make?”

            “Large-scale replicas.” Duff proudly declared. “I won last year with a large-scale rendition of the Taj Mahal.”

            “That seems like it would have been quite the undertaking.” Gibbs observed. “What do you plan on entering this year?”

            “Don’t let the cat out of the bag,” Duff conspiratorially whispered, leaning across the arm of the couch to better whisper in his ear, “But I’m entering a large-scale replica of the city.”

             Unable to keep his eyes from going wide upon hearing the news that Duff had willingly chosen such a lofty goal for himself, as he would much rather chop off his fingers with a bandsaw than craft anything so putzy and creativity-preventing, Gibbs shook his head in disbelief and demanded additional information via a pointed look directed at his newest of friends.

            “You’re right to be surprised.” Duff allowed. “This thing is already a full ten feet long and I’m still not finished yet.”

            “How many blocks do you have left to complete?” Gibbs questioned, struggling to envision a project of that magnitude in his head.

            “Just four.” Duff blasély dismissed, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s actually more the painting I’m getting worried about. I’ve never been much good with that kind of artsy stuff.”

            Thinking it would be his very definition of fun to be granted the privilege of painting a model so demanding of attention to details and all the tenants of proper color matching, yet far too fresh into his acquaintanceship with Duff to offer up his services in such a regard, Gibbs silently cursed himself for his stupidity in having not insisted upon Henry making him proper introductions to the man and wondered, idly, just how many other opportunities he had missed waiting on others to speak up and act for him.  

            “I’d like to see this project of yours when it’s finished.” Gibbs expressed, hoping it didn’t sound as if he was flirting with the gentleman sitting near him.

            “And I’d like to see a masterpiece of your own.” Duff earnestly returned. “You will enter the competition, won’t you?”

            Not at all an individual who liked to show off their works, no matter how beautifully they turned out in the end, Gibbs stiffened and desperately tried to put such a ridiculous notion out of Duff’s head.

            “Are you actually encouraging competition against yourself?” He challenged, pleased to have come up with something so clever so quickly.

            “A little competition is good for the creative muses.” Duff confidently asserted. “And, between me and you, I’m rather tired of going up against half-drunken hillbillies who think that the height of woodworking success is being able to carve out the crude shape of an animal into a plank of cheap wood.”

             “I don’t know.” Gibbs frowned, still very disquieted about the idea of bringing any sort of attention unto his more artistic side. “I’ve never competed in something like that before.”

            Hell, even when presented with the very great honor of being class valedictorian, Gibbs had needed to be forcefully dragged over to the podium by his forever-impatient principal, the very real threat of having his grade transcripts within from him almost certainly the only that could have managed to motivate him into mumbling out his motivational speech into the microphone.

            “But it’s for charity.” Duff encouraged. “All the entries get auctioned off and the proceeds go directly to whichever charity was nominated that year.”

            Still unwilling to give a firm answer as to whether or not he would be participating in such a competition, as he loathed nothing more than not being able to back out of a situation, Gibbs shifted uncomfortably in his chair and tried to change the subject.

            “What charity is it this year?”

             “The March of Dimes.” Duff answered. “And last year it was the ASPCA.”

            Beginning to believe that it wouldn’t, perhaps, be the worst experience in his life were he to submit an anonymous sculpture into the competition, provided that such anonymity was, in fact, allowed, and especially so because all the funds his work might earn would go directly to a worthwhile and respectable charity, Gibbs felt himself wavering on his strict policy of not sharing his art with anyone but nonetheless kept that fact to himself so that no one, particularly Duff, could use it against him should he decide to suddenly change his mind at the last minute.

            “Are you involved heavily in charity work?” He asked instead, hoping to get Duff talking about himself rather than Gibbs.  

            “I’m involved in everything that goes on in this city.” Duff declared, rather factually and not at all haughtily. “I’m the chief city organizer.”

             Feeling his cheeks heating up several degrees as he recalled, to himself, that he just might have voted said man into that particular position for no other reason than him having a rather fetching pair of eyes, Gibbs hid his face behind the flyer on the pretext of betting reading the fine print and only hoped that his reddened cheeks wouldn’t shine forth from beneath the paper.

            “I can imagine that you’re a very busy man, then.” Gibbs suggested, starting to wonder if there really was something wrong with his circulation given the way his blood seemed to run so quickly to his cheeks.

            “You don’t know the half of it.” Duff confirmed, his smile strained but genuine. “But don’t worry, I always make a little time for myself with coffee and whist.”

            “A man needs to stay sane somehow.” Gibbs allowed, watching with keen interest as his conversational partner removed from his jacket pocket a rather queer-looking deck of cards.

            Taking note of Gibbs’s curiosity without even having to remove his honey-colored eyes away from the tattered deck of cards he was suffering, Duff smiled softly before spreading out the cards with a flourish atop the weathered coffee table, enabling his small audience of one to both admire his grace and note that said cards were distinctly French in nature if the design of the 7’s were anything to go by.

            “Are you interested in learning?” Duff inquired, turning his uniquely colored eyes back unto Gibbs’s face.

            Admittedly just a tad bit more curious about the nature of the game than he had originally been when seeing it played in passing, especially now that their seemed to be a foreign element to it, Gibbs sat up a little straighter and figured that it wouldn’t hurt to at least learn a little bit more about how it was played.

            “Don’t you need more than two players for whist?” He challenged, seeming to believe that Henry must have mentioned something about the rules at one point in time.

            “Theoretically you need to have four.” Duff granted. “But Perce managed to figure out a way that five could play without any significant challenges.”

            Wondering, vaguely, if such an experimentation had only come about to benefit Henry with its inherent inclusion, as said professor really did seem to enjoy at least some sort of relationship with the ‘whist-boys,’ Gibbs frowned slightly out of a surprising amount of jealousy but nonetheless resolved to pay heed only to the game being presented in front of him.

            “The rest of the guys will be here shortly, don’t worry.” Duff encouraged, mistaking the reasoning behind his frown. “So let me give you a quick run-down, alright?”

            Seeing no real way in which he could extract himself from such a tutorial without looking like a major dick, and likewise seeing no better option for learning the tricks of the trade without first damaging his neck from strain then to relocate himself, Gibbs nodded his assent to the idea before moving himself to sit beside Duff on the sofa.

            “Alright,” Gibbs surrendered, “Lay it on me.”           

            And though he would recall to himself, halfway through the rather lengthy explanation or origins and rules, that he had voiced his assent to the tutorial, Gibbs would later that night reflect upon the fact that he had not once been so bored in all his life during said lecture – not even that time he had been stuck in heavy traffic with Ducky and nothing but his monologue on outdated forms of bookbinding to distract him.

            “It’s a lot more fun once you get to playing.” Duff reassured, looking slightly embarrassed to discover he had clearly lost his new friend’s attentions sometime after rule four.

            “I wasn’t yawning because I was bored.” Gibbs lied. “I was yawning because I had long night.”

            Looking as if he might have liked to call Gibbs out on such blatant dishonesty, if not in a teasing manner than in a heatless one, Duff furrowed up his dark brows and opened his mouth to speak only to be interrupted, seconds later, by the rather loud entrance of three men into the shop.

            “They’re here.” Duff grinned, looking beyond relieved to have a new subject of conversation that wouldn’t bore him.

            And before Gibbs could even so much as ask for a reminder of their names, much less request the pointing out of which was which, the small flock of men had descended upon him with casual handshakes and brief introduction with an efficiency and earnestness that had him more than just a little surprised and overwhelmed.

            “You’re Henry’s guy.” Thomas declared, once the general excitement of introductions had died down and the newcomers had taken their respective seats. “Aren’t you?”

            Feeling, quite keenly, as if he had just been stabbed in the stomach with a lightning rod at such a statement, as the wound of losing Henry was all too fresh in his mind, Gibbs flinched but tried to the pass the act off as a sneeze so as not to cause Thomas any grief over thinking he had offended him.

            “No.” Gibbs blurted, much too quick to be believed. “We’re not...We…No.”

            But, rather than chose to allow a natural sort of awkward silence to fall over the group, as everyone else seemed determine to allow, the freckled-face man sitting on the loveseat directly across from him broke into the silence with a cutting bitchiness Gibbs had not been forced to contend with such Junior High.

            “That would explain why I saw him with some twink this morning.”

            “Will!” Thomas squawked, immediately turning a vibrant shade of fuchsia as he thwacked his husband on the arm. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

            “What?” Will defended, putting on a very affected air of innocence. “I did!”           

            But, upon taking note of the way Gibbs had nearly dropped his third Pumpkin Spice latte in response to said news, the blunt gentleman in question took pity and softened his approach to the subject.

            “Don’t worry.” He dismissed, too blithely to be taken seriously. “It was probably just another faculty member of his. Henry is always making new friends.”

            Still somewhat devastated by the news that had just bestowed upon him, as there were few things so hurtful in life as to have someone move on from you in only the space of a few hours, Gibbs looked longingly towards the door and pondered how best to excuse himself from the situation without seeming like a drama-queen.

            “Don’t be so gloomy.” Thomas encouraged, seeming to sense that Gibbs was ready to flee. “You’re only letting him win if you’re mopey.”

            “And besides,” The redheaded Percy passionately inserted, “No one is allowed to weepy at the whist table. I come to play, not counsel.”

            Unable to keep from seeing the logic behind Thomas’s statement, and likewise slightly concerned that the clearly competitive Percy might skin him alive should he suddenly decide to forfeit his presence in the game, Gibbs nodded once to show he was inclined to begin but likewise made no further noise at all until Duff had speedily, yet gracefully, whipped out cards to the each of them.

            “I’m still not sure I know how to play.” Gibbs admitted, his concern for being obliterated only moments into a game outweighing his pride.

            “No worries.” Duff smiled, removing Gibbs’s selection of cards from his hand. “You can partner up with me on this one.”

            And though Gibbs though that it wouldn’t be all that fair to Henry for him to be skootched up so close to another man after so recently rebuffed his advances, Gibbs quieted his doubts with the knowledge that turnabout was only fair play so far as love and war was concerned.

            “It’s a good thing you were in the military,” Percy opined, “Because your about to witness a slaughter.”

            “Jesus Christ, Perce, take it down a notch.” Duff chastised.

            “Jethro isn’t even used to your peculiar shade of insanity yet.” Thomas contributed, still looking greatly offended at the redhead’s virulent choice of trash talk.

            “Don’t worry.” Gibbs frowned, eyeing Percy with one of his trademark glares. “Mama don’t raise no bitch.”

            It would go without saying that the heated game which followed such bold statements only grew in intensity the longer the war for victory stretched on, for if Gibbs not lost himself in the frenzy of the battle, and all but forgotten he was supposed to playing with Henry, Percy had likewise forgotten they had only known each other for the space of a few seconds as he heaped piles upon piles of shit talk upon his person – the likes of which only increased in intensity as Gibbs found himself on the cusp of winning.

            “I don’t like the look in his eyes.” Percy mumbled to the unamused Will sitting to his left.

            “What the hell are you talking about?” Will demanded. “He doesn’t have any sort of look in his eyes at all. The bastard has no tell.”

            “Exactly,” Percy hissed, “It’s like looking into the face of fucking shark.”

            A powerful thirst for victory being the only thing keeping him from calling Percy out on his misquoting of the movie Jaws, something that might very well have given Tony a heart attack had he been around to witness it, Gibbs did away with the blankness of his face to glower at his newest of adversaries.

            “Would you shut up?” He demanded. “Some of us like to use our brains during games of strategy.”

            “There’s no rules against heckling in whist.” Percy dismissed. “This isn’t golf.”

            “Well, I hope there’s rules against crying.” Gibbs antagonized, laying down his card in all its glory. “Because I just beat your freckled ass.”

             Nowhere near as competitive as Percy, yet still somewhat proud himself, Will frowned at the display Gibbs had just graced the coffee table with and frowned with jealousy

            “Beginner’s luck.” He sniffed.

            “No one likes a sore loser, William.” Duff scolded, having moved himself to the sidelines as Gibbs gradually forgot his presence in the heat of the game.

            “Don’t work yourself up over the newbie winning.” Percy directed, a rather wicked grin splitting his face. “Because he didn’t.”

            And, with that, Percy laid down the card that brought all of Gibbs’s feelings of victory to an untimely end.

               “Read ‘em weep, bitches.”

            Forcefully reminding himself that it wouldn’t be a very good display of sportsmanship to suggest that Percy shove all his cards up his ass, Gibbs settled for rolling his eyes and rather reluctantly congratulating the redhead on his victory.

            “That wasn’t very kind of you, Percy, stealing a new player’s victory like that.” Esther sniffed, giving the culprit a dangerous look before stepping past them to the counter.

            Pleased to find that he was not the only strong-willed man afraid of said octogenarian, as they all five of them had shuddered at the vicious glare she had aimed at their newest of victor’s, Gibbs allowed himself a small smile that was soon to vanish as soon Percy opened his mouth again.

            “There’s no honor in war.”

            “Take it down a notch, Perce.” Duff rebuked. “Your bloodlust is showing.”

              “I sure hope so.”

            Thinking it best to distract himself from the alarming visage of an oversized penis that Percy had put on full display by spreading his legs, Gibbs glanced quickly down at his watch and only hoped that his blush wouldn’t betray him.

            “Don’t tell us you have to leave already.” Thomas frowned. “It’s only six.”

            “I was just checking the time.” Gibbs assured, conjuring up thoughts of his third ex-wife in order to rid his mind of the thoughts of dicks and the penises attached to them. “I still have an hour and a half until I need to leave.”

            “Well, in that case, let’s play another round.” Duff suggested, already collecting the disorganized cards. “Only this time, I’d like to play, too.”

            Fully prepared to defend his honor by casting all blame for his bloodlust unto the fact that Henry had called into question the legitimacy of his manhood, Gibbs opened his mouth and managed to get the first few words of his defense out before he was shocked into silence by the sudden appearance of a hand on his shoulder.

            “Jethro.” A familiar voice sounded from behind him.

            Despite wanting to do nothing more than ignore the professor who had so rudely been ignoring him for the past 13 hours, Gibbs’s raising proved too powerful to allow him to act so mannerlessly. And, as a result, he found himself looking over his shoulder just in time to catch a glimpse of the blonde boy Will had alluded to earlier stalking off toward the counter.

            “Henry.” Gibbs greeted, as stiffly as possible. “Who’s your friend?”

            “Leon.” Came the answer, just as terse.

            “I thought you had classes all day.” Gibbs observed, making a great show of ignoring Henry by helping to gather the cards for Duff.

            But if he had thought to only make the professor a tad bit annoyed by showing just a tiny bit of preference towards Duff, his aspirations were promptly torn to shreds when the act seemed to illicit an indecent amount of irritation out of the large redhead still standing beside him. For not only did the fingers on his shoulder suddenly tighten uncomfortably, so too did Henry snatch the offending cards out of his fingers and toss them back on the table.

            “The power went out at school.” Henry explained, still applying a rather great deal of pressure unto his shoulder. “Have you been here all morning?”

            “Since opening.” Gibbs explained.

            “Playing whist with us.” Percy added, a little too protectively.

            But before Gibbs could even try to defuse the situation that had suddenly become hostile without warning, and likewise restore a little order into the situation, the fingers on his shoulder moved down to his forearm and pulled him up from his seat with alarming force.

            “Jethro, let’s go talk for a moment.”

            “I’m busy.” Gibbs growled, yanking free of the offensive hand and spinning around. “I’ll be at whist all morning.” He unfairly pantomimed.

            “Jethro,” Henry pleaded, softening his approach, “Just a quick word. That’s all I ask.”

             Feeling himself deflating at the desperation in Henry’s pretty green eyes, even though he knew he had every real right to be angry with the man, Gibbs nodded and tried to forget the pain in his shoulder as Henry lead, via an hand tucked firmly under his shoulder, through the aged Victorian domicile and out a small side door that lead out into the snowy backdrop of the small woods bordering the place.

            “Look, I know it’s cold and I know you don’t have your jacket but – “

             “Who’s Leon, Henry?” Gibbs interrupted, wanting to jump straight into the midst of their little nonverbal argument.

            Withdrawing from Gibbs in a manner that seemed to suggest the weight of the question had physically hurt him, Henry frowned deeply and brought a bereaved hand up to his brow.

            “Does it even really matter at this point?”

            “I think we both know that it does.” Gibbs snapped, a powerful and ugly jealously rising up within him.

            “I don’t really see how.” Henry defended. “When you’ve made it perfectly clear that you don’t want a – “

            “I never said that!” Gibbs yelled, eager to get his side of the story out before he could be dismissed altogether.

            Once more looking as if it was an entirely foreign experience for him to be yelled at, Henry blinked in shocked and shook his head, his shock of wild red hair moving right along with the act.

            “Well, you never gave me any signs that you felt like being anything other than friends.” Henry defended, half-wild with righteous indignation. “And you can’t just expect me to put my life on hold while you try to figure your shit out! How fair would that be?!”

            Feeling, once more, all the weight and power of such a sound argument as it was delivered him via a second person whose opinion he held in great regard, Gibbs counted to fifteen inside his head and forced himself to approach their argument with far more calmness than he had entered it.

            “Who is Leon?”

            “Jethro,” Henry sighed, approaching him slowly, “He’s just a student who needed a ride to work. And if you don’t believe,” He added, moving his giant hands to cup his face, “You can even ask Beth.”

             “You’re not – “

            “No.” Henry insisted, staring him straight in the eyes.

            “So you don’t want to see other men?” Gibbs fussed, bracing himself for the answer.

            Taking two steps forward, so that they now stood with their boots touching, Henry pressed his forward up against Gibbs and brought his fingers up into his hair.

            “Not at all.” Henry breathed, the words tickling Gibbs’s face. “But I can’t wait around – “

            A certain madness seized Gibbs then, a powerful senseless sort of insanity that had Gibbs grabbing at the collar of Henry’s plaid shirt to drag his face down for a half-wild and desperate kiss that surprised no one more than himself. But before he could come to his senses, and thus come to the conclusion that this was perhaps not the best way to be making his arguments for an official relationship, Henry was gripping him closer with two powerful hands on his back and thrusting his tongue into his mouth.

            “We…We should get you warmed up.” Henry panted, when finally they parted for breath.

            Breathless, Jethro could only nod.  

Chapter Text

            Still riding high on the great success of having somehow, inexplicably, managed to secure Henry all to himself, with nothing other than the deliverance of a half-frantic kiss out in the backyard of Discreet, Gibbs found himself contemplating doing something that morning that he hadn’t done in over three decades – playing hooky. But, while that idea, in and of itself, was rather easily considered and decided upon, it was the actual carrying out of that plan that soon had Gibbs worked up to the point that he had started to feel sick to his stomach. Because as much as he had always been taught that a little white lie was perfectly acceptable every now and then, provided that it worked to the benefit of everyone involved, he still couldn’t get the unpleasant thoughts of his elementary school principal thrashing him to within an inch of his life for cutting gym in third-grade out of his mind. Hell, there were even somedays that he still fully expected the terrifying form of said educator to appear out of nowhere and chastise him, both physically and verbally, for refusing to get that ‘goddamn sullen look’ off his face. And even though he knew, perfectly well, that Vance wasn’t about to attack with a goddamn metal ruler anytime soon, or at all, just the thought of being so dishonest made Gibbs uneasy in a way that outright antagonizing his supervisor couldn’t. As it wasn’t as if he was forgoing work for anything religiously important or essential to his health. Just a date. With a man. A veritable lumberjack of a man who was now looking at him with such hopeful green eyes, that Gibbs felt as if it would be the very height of jack-assery to deny him his presence, much less anything else.

            “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say.” Gibbs frowned, impossibly uncomfortable with the situation despite being pressed up, quite cozily, next to Henry on the loveseat.

            Still clearly peeved about the small series of insults they had exchanged between each other during their heated game of whist, Percy scowled deeply at him and rolled his brown eyes derisively before giving forth his suggestion for solving the problem at hand.

            “Call up your boss and say, “I’m not coming in.” Percy advised, deep voice brimming with only a partially playful condescension. “Then hang up.”

            Still not entirely certain that he believed in his phone’s cases bold claim to be one hundred percent indestructible, and far too thrifty to even entertain the idea of testing out such a braggartly claim while his expensive as fuck iPhone was still encapsulated within it, Gibbs forcefully refrained himself from chucking the delicate object at Percy’s head in retaliation and settled, instead, for shooting the mouthy redhead one of the sharpest glares in his repertoire. Although, if the short asshole in question gleaned any of the customary fear from such a harsh expression being leveled his way, he made a rather great art of not showing it, effectively proving himself to be one of the very few people who could not only withstand one of his patented glares but face it with indifference as well.

            “You don’t understand.” Gibbs dismissively growled at the freckled instigator.

            At least, not on a deeper and psychological level they didn’t.

            “Jethro,” Henry intervened, “How much sick time have you accrued over the years?”

            Unable to directly answer that question without calling attention to the slightly embarrassing fact that he had accrued well over a thousand hours’ worth of vacation and sick time over his long years of working at the NCIS, the likes of which Tony’s bout with the plague hadn’t even put a considerable dent in, Gibbs shifted his eyes away from Henry’s inviting face and instead settled them on the safer visage of the coffee table, knowing, as he did, that such an antique piece of furniture was not like at all to demand any answers out of him.

            “Exactly.” Duff smirked, casting him a very pointed look.

            Not at all familiar with the concept of being on the losing end of a verbal debate, especially one so patently ridiculous in nature, Gibbs found himself frowning despite the petulance of the act and gave one last effort towards achieving victory.

            “If I call in sick, they’re going to demand proof that I am.” Gibbs argued, fully convinced of the strength of his argument.

            Although, judging by the unanimous expressions of sheer apathy that soon came across his friends’ faces in response, he was forced to concede, to himself, that perhaps the delivery of his argument hadn’t been at all as strong as he might have initially believed to be.

            “That’s illegal, Jethro.” Thomas opined, looking slightly unsettled at the very idea that someone should demand any such proof of their employees.

            Sensing that Thomas was, like Tim, far more sensitive than the rest of his peers, and likewise just as needing and deserving of a more mild approach, Gibbs refrained from snapping at the black-haired accountant for his unsolicited legal advice – knowing, as he did, that such counsel had only come from a place of genuine good-will and not out of a desire to be condescending.

            “You don’t know these people like I do.” Gibbs tried to rationalize. “They’ll think I’m under duress if I call in.”

            And that was no meritless claim that he was making, either. As Gibbs had absolutely no doubt in his mind, at all, that Tony would likely overreact to the news of his father being ‘ill’ by sending out a SWAT team to his house in order to ascertain that he wasn’t being held hostage by any number of the enemies they had managed to accrue over the years.

“Jethro,” Thomas frowned, now looking very concerned, “Have you really never taken a sick day in all your life?”  

             Although it wouldn’t exactly be lying to assert that he had once taken a full and consecutive eighteen days off of work, a time during which Vance had evidently turned into a veritable Nazi according to Kate, Gibbs found that his strong sense of honesty prevented him from using such a claim to his advantage. As it was not for his benefit that he had taken all those days off, but for Tony’s plague-ridden ass.

            “Jethro, that’s fucking insane.” Percy groused, clearly flabbergasted at his evident disdain for any significant amount of personal time. “I call into work when I feel it’s raining too hard.”  

            “That sort of ridiculousness is easier to get away with when you’re your own boss.” An unamused Will quipped, making a great show of rolling his gray eyes.

            “Careful, Willie.” Percy goaded, despite being well within punching distance of said man. “Jealousy doesn’t suit you.”

            “Everything suits Will.” Thomas defended, sounding terse for the very first time since Gibbs had met him.

            While it could not be said that Gibbs was an outright fan of Percy’s irreverent approach to life, or the ungodly brightness of his practically orange hair, the likes of which was an affront to anyone with even half-decent eyesight, he would be lying if he claimed not to enjoy the company of the man himself, as there was a certain something in Percy’s blasé and confident approach to life that reminded him of his Tony. Which naturally meant, of course, that he didn’t wish to see the irritating little redhead getting his nose broken by any number of the people he had inexplicably managed to piss off in the last five minutes. Most notably Will, who seemed to be the only member amongst their small group who didn’t look positively small when compared to Henry.

            “What should I say?” Gibbs hastily interjected, eager to direct the conversation back unto safer ground.

            Because as much as he held great stock in his own physical fitness, he was not so arrogant or naïve as to believe that it would be easy for him to physically separate Percy and Will from each other.

            “What about claiming that you have a migraine?” Thomas suggested, clearly every bit just as keen as Gibbs was to restore the peace.

            “I went into work the day after I broke three of my ribs.” Gibbs frowned. “They’ll never believe that I stayed home because of a headache.”

            Hell, Gibbs even doubted that his team would believe him if he claimed it was an aneurism keeping him away from work.

            “What about car problems?” Duff supplied.

            “They’d just ask me why I didn’t have Tony pick me up.” Gibbs gently countered.

            Or, in a much more likely scenario, why he hadn’t just fixed his truck himself.

            “Just say that you’re taking the day off.” Percy cajoled, by that point sounding more annoyed than irritated at Gibbs’s distinct inability to carry through with the groups’ agreed upon plan that he play hooky.

            “I’m supposed to give two weeks’ notice before taking a personal day.” Gibbs dismissed.

            And though he felt that he had spoken with what was a perfectly polite tone of voice, Percy seemed to take great umbrage with his latest of excuses nonetheless.

            “Oh, for fucks sake, give me that!” Percy snapped, leaning across the coffee table to snatch the phone right out of Gibbs’s hand. “I’ll call in for you. Just tell me which one of these assholes is your boss.”

            Not even wanting to imagine the chaos that would result from his allowing Percy to speak to Vance, as no doubt a series of expletive-laced sentences from the former would lead to the latter inflicting some rather harsh penalties upon Gibbs, Gibbs quickly jumped up from his comfortable perch besides Henry and rather expertly reclaimed possession of his phone.

             “You will not.” Gibbs rebuked, quickly moving the iPhone out of reach of the exasperating redhead. “The last thing I need is for you to be calling Vance a little bitch.”

            “But is he?” Percy demanded, an unsettlingly mischievous look settling across his face.

            “That’s besides the point!” Gibbs snapped, unwilling to talk trash about somebody who wasn’t around to defend themselves.

            ‘And really’, Gibbs thought, ‘Vance wasn’t all that bad.’

Just a bit uptight, that was all. Something he, himself, could very well be accused of at times.

“Why don’t you just say that you’re having stomach troubles?” Duff suggested. “Nobody will ask any questions about something like that.”

Despite being of the learned opinion that neither Ducky, Tony, nor Abby would have any qualms, whatsoever, in asking him any prying questions about such a hypothetically awkward situation, particularly so the ever-curious Ducky, Gibbs charitably refrained from cluing his new batch of friends into the intricacies of his team and instead put a calloused finger up to his lips as he unlocked his iPhone and dialed up Vance.

“You’re late, Gibbs.” Vance accused, not at all amused.

“Good morning to you, too.” Gibbs returned, feeling his good mood beginning to drop a bit.

Feeling, rather than hearing, the annoyed sigh on the other end of the phone, Gibbs bristled and steeled himself for a conflict that never came.

“What’s the deal, Gibbs?” Vance interrogated, not hostile but tired.

            Wondering, vaguely, if there was something going on in Vance’s personal life that was causing him to lose sleep and arrive to work clearly exhausted, and feeling all the guiltier as he realized he was potentially making the man’s life all the harder by calling in, Gibbs grimaced and very nearly abandoned his plan to play hooky until he remembered, rather belatedly, that he was already far too deep into the scheme to turn back without looking like a complete dumbass.

            “I’m calling in.” Gibbs explained, speaking more quickly than necessary so as not to lose and courage.

            “You’re calling in.” Vance parroted back, rich voice dripping with disbelief.

            “Yes.” Gibbs confirmed, his stomach starting to feel all twisted up from the deception.

            “Gibbs,” Vance answered, lowering his voice, “Are you under duress?”

            Coming to the rather belated conclusion that he really should start trying to use up some of his vacation and sick time in response to Vance’s genuine and flagrant concern, as this was not the first time in his career that somebody from work had become concerned about him taking some time off, Gibbs frowned and wondered, idly, just how best to go about doing so without having to listen to a steady stream of I-told-you-so’s from Ducky.

            “I’m not under duress.” Gibbs hastily assured, cringing as he realized just how stereotypical such a reply was in a hostage situation. “Its’ just…My bad knee is acting up.”

            And although telling such a boldfaced lie made him feel more than just a little uncomfortable, and fearful that the spirit of his mother was about to rise from the grave and slap him silly for it, Gibbs quickly comforted himself with the knowledge that such discomfort was far better in comparison to the sort he would have surely experienced were he to confess to Vance that he was only cutting work in order to spend more time with his new boyfriend.

            “Gibbs, I’m sending out the agents.” Vance declared, still clearly operating under the delusion that he was being held against his will.

            “Vance,” Gibbs pleaded, “Do not send out the agents. It’s just my knee, that’s all.”

            But while Gibbs had felt quite confident in the believability and strength of his lie, given that it was not unusual at all for his right kneecap to suddenly become inflamed during the early onset of winter, particularly so in the mornings after a significant frost, Vance evidently seemed all but determined not believe anything coming out of the mouth of his team lead that morning.

            “I’m sending out the agents now.” Vance specified, pulling his cellphone away from his ear long enough to do just that.

            “For God’s sake, Vance, I’m fine.” Gibbs impatiently reasserted, starting to lose his cool as he heard the telltale signs of his agents thundering out of the bullpen.

            “Don’t do anything stupid.” Vance calmly advised. “The agents are on their way.”

            Realizing, by that point in time, that there was no real point in arguing with a man so stubborn as Vance where regarded the fulfilling of his job, Gibbs sighed loudly and rolled his eyes before putting an abrupt and testy end to the displeasing conversation at hand.

            “Goodbye.” He resentfully grumbled into the phone, hanging up before Vance could respond.

             Fortunately for the sake of his blood pressure, Gibbs wasn’t afforded very much time to feel annoyed with his employer.

            “Well?” Thomas cajoled, quirking a brow an impatient brow at him.

            “He’s already sent out the agents.” Gibbs sighed, pressing a few fingers to one of his throbbing temples.

            “Good God,” Thomas exclaimed with disgust, “Do you honestly never call off work?”

            Far too preoccupied with the thoughts on how best to go about doing some damage control, before his small trio of agents busted into the coffee shop and put a premature end to his date, Gibbs allowed himself only an annoyed frown before quickly dialing up Tony on his cellphone.

            “Don’t worry, Dad, we’re on our way.” Tony immediately answered, forgoing the formality their work setting customarily demanded of him while on the clock.

            “Tony – “Gibbs sighed, feeling more than just a little guilty for being the cause of his great worry, “– Do not search for me. I’m fine.”

            “But Vance – “

            “Tony, I’m fine.” Gibbs reassured, trying to inject as much earnestness as he could into the words. “You don’t need to hunt me down. Just tell Vance you found me at home in bed, with an icepack on my knee.”

            To say that the heavy silence that followed his suggestion worried him greatly would have been a great understatement. For it was somewhere within those tense ninety seconds that the telltale sounds of a whispered argument amongst his agents could be gleaned. The likes of which he was pretty certain pertained to whether or not McGee should trace his call.

            “Gibbs,” Tony implored, his voice uncharacteristically tense, “Are you really fine?”

            Feeling the very definition of a royal asshole by that point in their conversation, as it had become abundantly clear to him by then that Tony was genuinely concerned and on the brink of a full-scale panic attack, Gibbs frowned deeply and tried not to grimace as his stomach twisted painfully in a silent protest of all his dishonesty.

            “I promise, I promise, I promise.” Gibbs comforted, making use of their secret code.

            And, hearing three distinct sighs of relief from the other end of the phone, Gibbs let out a breath of his own and hoped that the matter at hand would soon be put to a mutually pleasing end.

            “Why don’t you kids go out to brunch on Vance’s time?” Gibbs encouraged, seeing no better way in which to get back at said man.

             “Are you sure that you don’t need anything?” Tony fussed. “Because Ducky said he would come over if it was actually your knee that was – “

            “Listen, Tony.” Gibbs implored. “I lied. My knee really doesn’t hurt. I just wanted a day off from work, that’s all.”

            And while that confession, alone, had already made him feel more than just a little uncomfortable, the distinct envy with which Tony responded made him all the more so.

            “Is this about Jolene?” Tony grumbled, never one to enjoy sharing his father with anyone.

            “Who the fuck is Jolene?” Kate demanded.

            “Who the fuck is Jolene? Will interrogated at the exact same time.

            Wishing, perhaps for the first time since he had purchased the damn thing, that he had his old Nokia back in his possession, for no other reason than that he could more easily fake the sort of dysconnectivity issue that would grant him an easy exit from the conversation at hand, Gibbs sighed deeply and rolled his eyes to the ceiling before responding.

            “Who was that?” Tony questioned, clearly at his wits end with all the evasiveness currently taking place.

            “Nobody important.” Gibbs mumbled, glaring heavily at Will. “Just the barista.”

              “Gibbs…Did…Did you call into work so that you could go on a date?” Tony asked, nothing but incredulous.

            Despite being fully prepared to tell his child that he really ought to mind his own business, especially so when surrounded by the other two agents, Gibbs found himself woefully unable to do so as a full-fledged squabble broke out between Kate and Tony, with the former claiming vehemently that he would do no such thing and the latter earnestly protesting that there could be no other explanation.

            “Yes, I did call in so that I could go on a date.” Gibbs grumbled, more to put an end to the squabbling on the other end of the phone than anything else.

            “Where?” Tony pressed, speaking loudly so that he could be heard above the sounds of all Kate’s I-told-you-so’s.

            “Yeah, nice try, kid. But I’m not telling you that.” Gibbs smirked. “Now go and take the other two out for brunch.”

             “But – “

            “Goodbye.” Gibbs interrupted, rather pointedly.

            “Bye.” Came three, surprisingly, harmonious voices at once.

            It was only as he ended the call with his small gaggle of agents, and put his phone away safely into the pocket of his jacket, that Gibbs recalled he had gifted with an audience for the whole ordeal.

            “Jethro,” Thomas softly inquired, looking very on edge, “Are we about to get raided again?”

            “Tony wouldn’t – wait, what do you mean again?” Gibbs demanded.

            Because as much as he wasn’t afraid of being on the other end of a raid, given that he was completely innocent where regarded the great majority of laws, Gibbs didn’t much fancy the idea of earning himself the reputation of being a man who frequented places that were often in need of those raids.

              “A few years ago there was some allegations of drug-den behavior leveled against Discreet that prompted the local police to storm the place one evening.”

            “What happened?” Gibbs pressed, finding the whole premise of the story ridiculous.

            Not because homosexuals were incapable of using drugs, which Ducky had once assured him was not the case, but because the general atmosphere of the place was one of sophistication and a certain degree of class that Gibbs just didn’t associate with the vast majority of drug-users apart from his medical examiner of a friend.

            “They fucked up the furniture and wallpaper.” Thomas explained, a notable scowl on his face. “And, when they couldn’t find anything, they tore up half the floorboards, too.”

            Practically homicidal upon hearing the news that such antique furnishing had been so assaulted, along with what was surely the original flooring, Gibbs shook his head in disbelief and wondered how unsubstantiated rumors of drug use had even led to a search warrant in the first goddamn place.

            “Please tell me someone got fired.” Gibbs implored.

            “Someone got promoted.” Duff corrected, honey-colored eyes darkening a significant degree.

Chapter Text

            Having clearly sensed that Jethro seemed to have become uncomfortably anxious as the group’s conversation had turned toward the rather taboo topic of discrimination, as no doubt the observant man in question had sucked up every word from all those around him, and thusly gleaned the entirely wrong idea about the prevalence of homosexuality-related hate crimes within the last ten years, Thomas tactfully butted into the discussion at hand with naught but the selfless aim to disabuse the bewildered man of such exaggerated assumptions, as it just wasn’t in his nature for him to sit back and watch as someone was frightened back into the proverbial closet.

            “Don’t worry, Jethro. Things really are getting better for us homosexuals.” Thomas asserted, only half-factitious. “I mean, I don’t think spontaneous raids of gay establishments would go over so well with the general public today. And who knows? Will and I might even be able to get legally married in the next ten years or so.”

            And even though such lofty aspirations were nothing more than the naïve pipe dreams with which he chose to comfort himself whenever feeling particularly down about the realities of his life, Thomas reasoned that it would be far kinder of them all to allow Jethro the time and space needed to figure out those realities on his own – hopefully so at a time when he was much better equipped to handle such information.

            “Yeah, sure you will.” Percy snorted, lips curled up with derision. “And I’ll be your fucking ringbearer, too, won’t I?”  

            “Who said you’re even invited to the wedding?” Will snapped, inability to marry the man he loved one of the foremost grievances he carried against society as a whole.

            “Because you still owe me for making me trudge my ass all the way up to Canada for your first civil ceremony.” Percy jeered, ever quick with a retort. “All without having the common decency to provide a good reception for all the trouble.”

            “We were lucky enough to find someone willing to do the ceremony.” Will hissed, speaking through gritted teeth. “Where the fuck do you think we could have found a caterer willing to serve a bunch of queers on such short notice?”

            Despite being an individual that was not made for melancholy, or grudge-holding, Thomas found himself frowning at the virulence of Percy’s words nonetheless, as they had perfectly served to remind him of the fact that he, himself, still harbored more than his fair share of ill-will towards the small gaggle of Canadian bakers that had laughed him out of their store when he requested a last-minute, yet simple, cake to celebrate the occasion of him becoming Will’s. Not because they had exercised their natural rights in refusing to service anyone they didn’t wish to, but simply because they had been so damned malicious while doing so.

            “Well no one made you hightail it up to Canada the minute they legalized gay marriage, did they?” Thomas goaded. “You could have at least waited a few goddamn months and done this whole wedding thing the proper way.”

            “Thomas and I had already been together for thirty years by that point,” Will reminded the freckled instigator, “Why should we have waited a minute more to make it official?”

            “Hell,” Duff joined in, “For all we know, the Canadians could have changed their minds and sent us all packing with nothing to show for it but a boxful of syrup and whiskey.”

            An observant creature by nature, and likewise compassionate to a fault, Thomas felt himself physically recoiling in a direct response to the depressing aura currently being inflicted upon them all via the discussion of the malignant discrimination they had all experienced at some point in their life. And, having long ago established himself as the small group’s proverbial peacekeeper, a task he felt himself more than just a little equipped to handle, Thomas immediate sought to put a direct end to the conversation currently taking place. Not only for his sake, of course, but for Jethro’s as well. For as steadfast and thick-skinned as the Marine liked to present himself as, Thomas intuitively sensed within him a certain degree of self-consciousness and sensitivity – the likes of which could not possibly withstand the rigors of such an unexpected conversation without some significant and major self-doubt being accrued. A psychological phenomenon that Thomas sincerely doubted Jethro was ready to contend with, given the very short time in which he had experienced life out of the closet.

            “Gentleman,” Thomas implored, “Let’s not go around giving Jethro any wrong ideas.”

            “I’d actually rather know what to expect.” Jethro timidly asserted, casting him a thankful look nonetheless.

            “And I’d rather keep my morning a happy one.” Will insisted, pulling out his own deck of cards from his pocket. “So, who’s up for a little game of Bullshit?”

            Thinking that it would have perhaps been far better for them to have reassured Jethro that life for a gay man really wasn’t all that awful, at least not for the grand majority of the time, then it would have been to just abruptly change the subject and pretend as if the subject of discrimination hadn’t been brought up in the first place, Thomas frowned but nonetheless held his peace, appreciating, as he did, his long-term boyfriend’s attempt at restoring the peace so that he might not have to do so himself.

            “Sure.” Jethro agreed, clearly relived to have been given such an easy out.

            Unfortunately, said relief really didn’t last all that long. As only mere seconds after Will’s suggestion had been accepted by a clearly unsettled Jethro, the ever-friendly Duff leaned over to said man and laid a slightly flirtatious hand on his knee.

            “Do you need another tutorial?”

            And even though such an offer had been truly friendly in nature, albeit perhaps a little too much so, Henry reacted in the exact same fashion Thomas had expected him to.

            “Behave, Duff.” Henry barked, slapping away the coordinator’s hand with enough force to leave behind a red mark.

            “Yeah, Duff.” Percy provoked, seemingly out of sheer force of habit alone. “You wouldn’t want to go around stealing another one of Henry’s boyfriends. He’s barely forgiven you since the last time.”

            Thinking that it was, indeed, the very height of ridiculousness for Henry to still be harboring a decades-long grudge against Duff for all the things that had taken place during their freshman year of college, a time during which they had all behaved a lot more recklessly than was their usually wont, due to the sudden and intoxicating freedoms that had come with finally being free of their oppressive homes, or in Percy’s case out of whichever foster home the local authorities in his town had strong-armed him into moving into to, Thomas sniffed loudly and shot the grudge-holding culprit a withering expression that he could only hope conveyed such a message.

            “I don’t really believe that a person can steal someone.” Duff gently refuted, now returned to his upright position as he worked to massage away the fresh soreness assaulting his arm.

            Seeing as how Peter Caviezel had more than willingly rebuffed all of Henry’s advances in favor of encouraging those from Percy, after his one and only disastrous date with the former had led him to dropping all three of the courses he had shared with the man in question, Thomas nodded in a silent testament to Duff’s words and only hoped that Jethro was catching unto some of the subtle warnings being thrown his way.

            “Of course, you can steal a person,” Percy argues, just for the sake of arguing, “Look at what’s happening in North Korea right now. They’re carting off their woman to China like they’re no more than chickens.”

            “Nobody is stealing anything!” Jethro finally snapped, understandably irritated with having been referred to as if he were just some sort of object for the last several minutes. “And, no, Duff. I don’t need a tutorial. I already know how to play Bullshit.” He amended, a little calmer than before. “Thank you anyways.”

            Feeling more than just a little sorry for Duff as he watched said man turning his head to fake a cough into his shoulder, in order to hide any remnants of the kicked-puppy expression that had flashed across his face after Jethro had promptly rebuked him for his offers of help, Thomas shifted uncomfortably and sought to lighten the mood by snatching Will’s deck of cards and making a great show of ‘accidentally’ scattering them all over the coffee table when he made to shuffle them. Which, while a rather embarrassing display of uncharacteristic clumsiness, fortunately served its purpose in getting the group to cooperate long enough for a significant degree of their mutual hostility to diminish – if only for a measly three minutes.

            “So, Jethro…” Percy purred, once all the cards had been returned to Will’s hands for a proper shuffling. “Is this Tony of yours single?”

            Bristling up like a feral cat that had just been backed into a corner by an angry dog, Jethro whipped his head around to glare at Percy so quickly that Thomas felt almost certain that the Marine was now doomed to experience some sort of significant neck pain the following morning.

            “Stay the fuck away from my son.” Jethro growled, looking fully prepared to lift the coffee table and beam him with it.

            Looking no more terrified of the incensed Marine than a normal person would be of a machete-wielding maniac, Percy just smirked in his customary and grating fashion before kicking his boots up unto the antique coffee table with more nonchalance than one would think was humanely possible.

            “That really wasn’t an answer, Jethy.” Percy incited, keen as ever to test the limits of a person’s patience.

            “I swear to God, you freckly little – “

            Keen to prevent the familiar sort of throwdown that would only result in their group, as a whole, being banned from Discreet for the customary three-week probationary period, a guideline that had been put into place twenty years ago precisely because of Percy and his loud mouth, Thomas sat up a little straighter and whistled sharply enough to draw the attention of half the coffee-house, a populous which, thankfully, involved the entirety of their little group.

            “Gentlemen.” Thomas chided, frowning at them each in turn. “Let’s not squabble over something as silly as cards.”

            “We’re not squabbling over cards.” Percy argued. “We’re squabbling over Tony.”

            “We are not!” Jethro barked, frightening several nearby individuals with all the intensity and vehemence in his voice.

            Reveling in the face of such open hostility like only a mad man could, Percy grinned like the proverbial fat cat that had just gotten into the cream and pushed further.

            “I wouldn’t be – “

            “If one more word comes pouring out of your foul mouth about my child, I’m going to shove this entire table down your throat.”

            “Ohh,” Percy crooned, licking his lips in an obnoxious fashion, “You really are a regular old Papa Bear, aren’t you?”

            Absolutely terrified about the very real possibility that Percy expert antagonizing would lead to some very awkward questions being asked, inquires such as those that involved the listing of all the different sorts of gay a man could be, like a bear, Thomas stiffened reflexively and turned a pair of pleading eyes unto his ‘husband.’

            “Don’t be so surprised, Percy.” Will dutifully intervened. “Some people actually have good fathers.”  

            “Don’t go using statistics against me when Henry is the only one here who can make such a claim.” Percy dismissed, the envy and resentment in his voice almost palpable.

            Thankfully, Thomas wasn’t the only one who caught wind of the insulted look on Jethro’s face.

            “My father isn’t a bad father.” The blue-eyed man asserted, looking almost surprised himself to have said that. “Just…clueless sometimes. That’s all.”

            Without so much as missing a beat, Percy voiced one of the most inappropriate questions Thomas had ever heard in response to such Jethro’s statement.

            “Is that because you’re still in the closet?”

            Having no time, at all, in which to reassure Jethro that not everybody lost their parents affections after coming out, as Duff soon took matter into his own hands, Thomas cringed and only hoped that their morning wouldn’t end in a more disastrous fashion than it was currently heading towards.

            “Jesus Christ, Percy! Why do you have to be such a goddamn dick all the time?” Duff snapped, lobbing his croissant at the culprit’s face.

            “A decades-worth of child abuse? Rampant poverty growing up? Insecurity about my height?” Percy suggested, pausing only a moment to bite into the pastry that had just so recently been lobbed in his face. “Choose one.”

            “What about the fact that you’re a soulless ginger?” Will contributed.

            “King Arthur was also a ginger.”

             “King Arthur didn’t really exist.” Henry corrected. “And even if he did, he was a major cuckhold.”

             “Well, Hen, I can assure you, there’s never been any sort of cuckholding in my relationships.” Percy retorted. “Cock-holding, sure, but not – Jesus, are you okay, Jethro?”

            “Of course he’s not okay!” Will remarked. “You just put thoughts of your nasty freckled dick into his mind.”

            Starting wonder whether or not his whole entire morning would be devoted to the subject of dicks, of either the organ or personality persuasion, Thomas pursed up his lips and made a very great and theatrical spectacle of dealing out cards to everyone assembled around the table, hoping, against hope, that they would all catch the hint.

            “I’m fine.” Jethro asserted, still looking slightly troubled. “Let’s just get started so I can destroy this asshole.”

            “Ohh, Baby.” Percy moaned, winking lasciviously at Jethro. “I’d really like that.”

            Prevented from hearing Jethro’s reply to such sexual taunting as Duff intervened and lobbed a powerful fist into Percy’s forearm, Thomas sighed loudly and couldn’t help but think that his role as the group’s peacekeeper was more futile than trying to convince Will not to leave his socks lying around everywhere.

            “Asshole.” Percy grunted, clutching the muscular section of the arm that had just been assaulted.

            “Okay, gentlemen, I know this is a gay establishment, but we really do need to stop talking about assholes.” Thomas lectured. “It’s uncouth.”

            And, needless to say, the topic of freckled dicks and assholes was clearly starting to make their fellow lesbians feel more than just a little uncomfortable.

            “How about we discuss the massive hospital bill Duff is going to have to foot for shattering my goddam humorous?” Percy suggested.

            “Like your miserable ass doesn’t have some of the best insurance around.” Will scoffed.

            “Don’t hate me just because I’m the secretary of state.” Percy goaded.

            “There’s clearly lots of other reasons to hate him.” Will opined.

            “Like the fact that he’s a soulless ginger, for one.” Jethro contributed.

            Pleased as punch that Jethro was finally starting to feel comfortable enough to contribute to their conversations, and likewise that he had suffered no ill-effects from having listened to an endless barrage of just how difficult it was to be a gay man, Thomas smiled brightly and felt himself finally beginning to relax. A feeling, that while very pleasant in nature, unfortunately didn’t last very long given Henry’s close proximity to them.

            “I’ll remind you that your boyfriend is a redhead.” Henry pouted.

            “A redhead.” Gibbs agreed. “Not a ginger.”

             “Now you’re just arguing semantics.” Will remarked.

            “For the love of God, do NOT get Henry started in on the semantics argument again.” Percy groaned. “I’m still not fully recovered from the last time he and Will duked it out over whether or not bewildered and flabbergasted meant the same thing.”

            For once on the same page with Percy, which was a rather startling realization, Thomas nodded mildly and tried, in vain, to forget the four-hour argument he had once had the dubious pleasure of playing witness to after his husband had dared to correct Henry on the usage of a word during a simple debate on how one must feel when startled silent.

            “Words have meaning!” Henry passionately defended, startling poor Jethro.

            Despite harboring a great desire to inform the incensed redhead that such an increase in volume was largely unnecessary within such an enclosed space, Thomas restrained himself so that the fledgling gay would have a proper opportunity to observe Henry’s behavior in a more open setting.

            “Look, Henry, I didn’t play hooky from the office just to listen to you bitch about improper thesaurus-usage.” Duff gently chided.

            “I would hardly refer to a debate as bitching.” Henry scoffed, gripping his cards a little tighter than necessary.

            “Call it whatever you will,” Percy shrugged, “But I’ll always win in any type of debate.”

            “I’m not so – “

            “Just give it a rest, Henry.” Thomas implored. “Nobody can beat Percy at verbal sparring. He’s a master orator.”

             It was only as he watched the corners of Percy’s mouth twitch upward, that Thomas realized his mistake.

            “In both senses of the word.” The fiery redhead confirmed, gesturing downward at his lap in case anyone had any confusion as to just what he was referring to.

            “How many references to your freckly dick am I going to have to suffer through today?” Jethro grumbled, rolling his vivid blue eyes.

            “It’s not freckly.” Percy was quick to assure. “Wanna see?”

            Greatly concerned that the uninhibited gentleman in question would actually go far as to lower his trousers and give them all a good view of his pride and joy, something he had made a habit of doing over the long years of their friendship, Thomas quickly averted his eyes and only prayed that their inevitable ban from Discreet would be a short one.

            “Absolutely not.” Jethro growled. “And tell me, when you say master orator, do you mean you just work the drive-thru at McDonalds?”

            Thinking that such an insult fell flat in the face of the fact that Percy was an absolutely important and essential member of their local government, Thomas scrunched up his nose and wondered if Jethro was beginning to lose some of his usual eloquence in the face of Percy’s stubborn inability to admit defeat.

            “You…You don’t know who I am, do you?” Percy demanded, a large trace of amusement decorating the inquiry.

            It was only when Jethro responded to the inquiry with a blank look, that Thomas came to the realization that the aforementioned joke had only been made from a place of ignorance, and not exhaustion.

            “Jethro,” Duff gently inquired, “Have you voted locally in the last few years?”

            “I’ve tried to.” Jethro defended. “But I’ve always gotten injured right before voting. That, or Tony did.”

            “And you couldn’t have absentee voted?” Percy nudged.

            “You kind of need to know in advance that you’ll be unable to vote in order to do that.” Jethro grumbled, making a very solid point.  

            Knowing that the only thing that could get Percy riled up to the point that he lost all reason was politics, specifically where regarded negligent voters, Thomas hastily intervened before anyone could be thrown out of one of the nearby windows.

            “Percy, you can’t be angry with everyone who didn’t vote for you. That’s not how campaigning works.”

            “Don’t preach to me about the intricacies of campaigning.” Percy rebuffed, already all fired up. “I’ve been campaigning since high school.”

            “Perce – “

            “And “I’ll damn well be as mad as I want to be about Benedict Arnold over here.” The redhead finished, jabbing an accusatory thumb over at Henry.

            Having had the great misfortune of witnessing the knockout, no-holds-barred, altercation that had resulted between Henry and Percy the nigh the latter had discovered the former’s role in sabotaging his campaign for governor of the city, a literal bone-crushing fight that had left Percy with a broken wrist and Henry with two black eyes, and the likes of which had taken three helpings of a taser gun to put an end to, Thomas slapped his hand of cards down unto the coffee table and spoke with as much intensity as he could manage.

            “We are NOT doing this again.” He growled. “I will break out the taser gun if I have to.”

            “I’m just saying – “

            “You’re not entitled to a person’s vote just because you’re friendly with them!” Henry barked, nearly causing Jethro to drop his latte.

            Knowing just as soon as Percy jumped up unto his feet that there would be no peaceful resolution to the current debate at hand, as the only thing more dangerous than a verbal Percy was a mobile one, Thomas cursed softly under his breath and began to wonder if it had really been the height of wisdom to invite Henry into their game of Whist so soon after his betrayal had been discovered.

            “You voted for the fucker who smeared by character and ruined my chances of winning.” Percy accused, anger making it appear as if he had swelled up several sized. “I was a shoo-in for office, Henry, and you fucked it all up.”

            Understanding Percy’s character well enough by that point to know that said man was still genuinely hurt by what he viewed as a very close friend betraying him by collaborating with the enemy, a messy affair that had only been discovered years later via a rather scathing expose in a local newspaper, Thomas allowed the man his wrath, avowing to intervene only if it became physical.

            “It was a heated campaign; you should have expected – “

            “I should have expected that fuckfaced cunt to tell everyone I had aids?”

             “I know it was a low blow, but – “

              “I could have been the first gay mayor of D.C.” Percy ranted, face becoming almost as red as his hair. “But you gave us some sexist homophobe from the fucking Crucible, instead.”

             “Quimby’s economic policies – “

            “Favor the fucking rich.” Percy growled. “Your sort.

            “My one vote wasn’t responsible for your losing.” Henry sniffed.

             A quick glance over at Jethro confirming for Thomas his assumptions that the Marine had never been so glad to miss an election in all his life, Thomas smiled sympathetically at the man and only hoped that he wouldn’t start to shun him after all this chaos. For taciturn and shy nature aside, Jethro really was a fun sort of man to spend time with.

            “It was the narrowest fucking margin in the city’s history.” Percy spit. “How many students minds did you change by jumping ship halfway through?”

            Not even sure that Henry had been on Percy’s ship in the first place, Thomas wrinkled up his nose and exchanged a knowing look with his husband.

            “Perce, please, just let it go.” Duff implored, gingerly grabbing the aggravated man’s wrist. “We’ll get you into office this year for sure, I promise.”

            “How the fuck am I supposed to get into office when everyone thinks I still have aids?”

            “We’ll put out proof that you – “Will began.

            “No.” Percy growled, a dangerous gleam in his eyes.

            “Don’t you think you’re being a little fucking ridiculous?” Will prompted, practical by nature.

            Although he looked as if he would much rather be somewhere else at the moment, Jethro surprised them all by speaking up for the first time in several minutes.

            “He’s really not.” Gibbs defended, looking as if it killed him to be defending the man who had, just moments ago, been making obscene remarks about his son. “It’s the whole principal of the matter. Nobody would be asking Quimby to share his medical records with the world. Why should Percy?”

            And, much to a testament of his character, Jethro didn’t even make any inquiries into whether or not the slander in question was even true.

            “I’m just saying, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect instant equality overnight. Things don’t work that – “

            “You sure sound fucking stupid for someone who likes to read so much.” Percy attacked, going for the jugular by questioning Henry’s intelligence. “Maybe brush up on your MLK and Malcolm X before you start flapping your gums.”

            “People shouldn’t vote for someone just because they’re gay.” Henry defended.   

            “I was the better candidate.” Percy snapped. “And I know damn well the only reason you didn’t vote for me was because you didn’t want Duff as my vice -mayor.”

            Making his feelings of such an accusation known by remaining stubbornly silent, and likewise making known his guilt, Henry turned his face away from Percy and refused to even look him in the eye.

            “You could at least have the decency to confess to what we all know.” Percy goaded.         

              Resorting to deflection, an art he had nearly perfected by that point, Henry sat up a little straighter and made a great show of trying to appear as if he had integrity of any kind.

            “You would have taken money from the universities and – “          

            “Given it right back to the at-risk kids who wouldn’t even have a prayer of attending college without it.”  

            “Not every at-risk kid is you!” Henry retorted.

            “They very well could be!” Percy returned. “But you’re too damned privileged to see it! Fuck, I bet you and your lot had a grand old time growing up and laughing at all the kids whose scholarships you took – knowing damn well you could afford college either way, the whole goddamn time!”

            By that point in time one-hundred percent certain that things would come to blows without some sort of intervention taking place, Thomas stood up quickly and sincerely contemplated faking a seizure before fortune took a creative spin of its own and prompted a distracted Beth into spilling Henry’s fourth refill of coffee all over him.

Chapter Text

            While it was, admittedly, well within his character to be silently introspective and broody at all the worst times, namely when there were important conversations to be had or important events to be witnessed, Gibbs sill found himself somewhat surprised to discover just how suddenly gloomy and taciturn he had become in the short fifteen minutes that had elapsed since he and Henry had taken their leave of Discreet to get the later a fresh shirt.

            “What’s wrong, Jethro.” Henry prompted, stealing a sideways glance at him as they came to a halt at the stoplights. “You’re not upset we had to leave, are you?”

            Understanding, perfectly well, all the reasons for which a person might not want to go about the remainder of their day in a shirt saturated with some pretty fragrant coffee, Gibbs shook his head in silent denial of the heatless insinuation and slowly removed his forehead from the window of the passenger seat.

             “No, it’s fine that we left.” Gibbs assured, wiping away the small amount of condensation that had gathered on his forehead. “Things were getting kind of heated anyways.”

            Not to mention more than just a little uncomfortable.

            “Percy really does know how to rile a person up, doesn’t he?” Henry scowled, carefully making a left turn. “It’s best to just not pay him any mind. Same with all the others.”

            Having actually enjoyed the brief time he had spent with the uncreatively titled whist boys of Discreet, even with all of Percy’s expert goading and shameless innuendos about the characteristics of his dick, Gibbs frowned slightly and plied his boyfriend with what he felt was a very important question.

            “Why would you say that?” He inquired, hoping not to sound accusatory.

            Although, judging from the brief expression of surprise that had flashed across Henry’s face in direct response to the inquiry, maybe there had been a certain note of indictment in his question.

            “Those guys are just a bunch of shit-stirrers, that’s all.” Henry tried to exculpate, starting to look a bit uneasy. “But seriously, Jethro, what’s wrong? You seem…despondent or something. Did the guys get to you with all their talk about homophobia?”

            Despite wanting to do nothing more than draw attention to the fact that sometimes certain shit was in need of a proper stirring, namely anything that pertained to a person’s civil rights, Gibbs pushed that argument away for a latter time and forced himself to focus on the subject at hand.

            “The guys were fine, Henry.” Gibbs firmly assured, before immediately softening his approach as he noticed his boyfriend’s wounded expression. “It’s just…I was reminded that I haven’t called my dad in a while, that’s all.”

            “Your Dad?” Henry frowned. “I thought you said you two didn’t get along.”

            “I said we were estranged for a while.” Gibbs corrected. “But things are fine now.”

            In fact, Gibbs hadn’t gotten along with his father even half so well since before his mother had died.

            “Why don’t you call him when we get back to my place?” Henry suggested, making a left turn with just one hand on the wheel.

            “I’d rather just wait until I get home tonight.” Gibbs dismissed.

            Not because he was embarrassed of his father, of course, but simply because he wished to spare his brand-new boyfriend the exhausting experience of getting his ear talked off by the man who could make an a thousand page narrative out of seeing a gopher crossing the street. Because as much as Gibbs had learned to love the meandering yarns his father liked to spin, his tolerance and patience for such shaggydogs having only increased the older he became, he wasn’t so naïve as to think that just anyone would appreciate them – at least not without the prerequired tolerance having first been built up.

            “Do you not want you father to know about us?”

            “I just think it would be better to call later.” Gibbs insisted. “He’ll be in the store all morning.”

            And the very last thing Gibbs wanted to do was to draw the wrath of the ancient and ornery Ms. Myrtle by monopolizing his father’s attentions during the time of day in which said Octogenarian liked to hassle his father about the prices of his produce before inevitably buying her usual one banana and taking off to harass their local librarian for daring to stock books published after the sixties.

            “Look, Jethro.” Henry sighed, steering his shinning Prius into the rich neighborhood he resided in. “Why don’t we just address the elephant in the room?”

            “What elephant?” Gibbs asked, unbuckling his seatbelt as Henry pulled into his driveway.

            But, rather than take his leave of the unfathomably messy vehicle and head inside, to take refuge from all the paperwork currently crowding in around his feet and shins, Gibbs followed Henry’s lead and remained seated where he was.

            “I’m talking about the argument I had with Percy in Discreet.” Henry explained, looking more than just a little chagrined.        

            “We really don’t need to talk about that.” Gibbs insisted, a fat knot of anxiety beginning to twist up his stomach. “I really don’t like getting involved in politics.”

            In fact, apart from the usual duty-motivated voting, Gibbs never really did like to discuss the endless cycle of potential candidates and their accompanying and various platforms – even though the very opiniated Ducky seemed to want to do nothing but talk and debate whenever that particular time of year came around. A more than uncomfortable, and routine, scenario that had very often lead to Gibbs avoiding the morgue, and its chief residents, for a good few weeks out the year.

            “Jethro, I didn’t sabotage Percy’s campaign.” Henry stated, firm and resolute.

            Having been born, like his mother, with the distinct and rare ability to instinctively know when he was being lied to, or at least purposely deceived, Gibbs bit back an annoyed frown and tried not to let his vivid imagination run wild with all potential secrets Henry might be keeping from him. Because, no doubt about it, Gibbs was being lied to.

            “I didn’t think you’d be duplicitous.” Gibbs allowed, keeping the meaning behind such a phrase neutral in order to see how it prompted his boyfriend to respond.

            “Look, I don’t know how that nonsense story about aids got out.” Henry passionately asserted, looking him square in the eye. “But I had nothing to do with it.”

            Relieved to discover that at least that particular portion of the narrative wasn’t an outright lie, Gibbs relaxed his shoulders and allowed some of the tension to leave his body.

            “I believe you.” Gibbs reassured, referring only to the latter part of his boyfriend’s testimony.

            The former portion of that testimony would, of course, be dealt with at a more convenient time. Preferably when he wasn’t being held hostage by a veritable avalanche of garbage in a pretentious car that was quickly starting to become cold now that the engine had been turned off.

            “I knew you’d believe me.” Henry smiled, starting to relax a little too quickly for Gibbs’s liking. “I mean, you saw for yourself just how obnoxious and unpleasant Percy is. It’s only natural that Quimby would have done anything to keep him out of office.”

            But, upon seeing the immediate look of pure shock that had flashed across Gibbs’s face in response to such a cavalier attitude about their current mayor’s smearing of Percy’s character by the most nefarious of means, Henry quickly made a half-hearted amendment to his earlier condemnation.

            “Not that his methods of getting into office were acceptable, of course.” Henry exculpated. “But the ends did justify the means.”         

             “I’m going to have to disagree.” Gibbs politely argued, seeing no possible way in which the methods utilized by Quimby could ever be considered justifiable.

            “But you’ve seen how Percy is.” Henry returned, genuinely surprised to find his judgement being argued against. “Of course he wouldn’t make a good mayor.”

            “Percy is just passionate, that’s all.” Gibbs defended, starting to feel a distinct comradery with the so recently besmirched redhead.

            After all, his own expressions of passion had very often earned him the title of an asshole. That Percy only shared that same affliction, albeit with much less mortification and shame, could not be doubted.  

            “He’s an asshole, Jethro.” Henry lectured, with an unsettling earnestness. “You really should keep away from him. He’ll only get you into all sorts of trouble, in the long run. Just ask Will and Thomas.”  

            Thinking that if Percy’s presence in a person’s life truly was a harbinger of all sorts of trouble and mischief, the like and variety of which Henry seemed either unwilling or unable to specify, that said individual would not have been able to retain the friendships of his fellow whist players for quite so long as he had, Gibbs shook his head and raised a direct challenge against all the accusations being leveled against a man currently not able to defend himself against such slanders.

            “Will and Thomas seemed to like him just fine.” Gibbs asserted, fully confident in the fact that he was correct. And having noticed that his boyfriend had, once again, failed to mention the existence of one particular gentleman, he added: “And what do you have against Duff, anyways?”

            Looking downright flabbergasted by that point in their little tiff, that anyone should have the nerve to be calling him out on his bullshit, Henry frowned deeply and tried once more to play the part of an innocent party.

            “I’ve already told you,” Henry pouted, “It all has to do with politics.”

            “What politics?” Gibbs demanded.

            Because as far as he was concerned, Gibbs hadn’t even heard the vaguest of references to Duff’s platforms during the heated debate at Discreet. Just snippets of Henry’s and Percy’s.

            “Look, Jethro.” Henry implored, laying a powerful hand on his shoulder. “Duff…He’s just not someone who belongs in office, alright? I mean, you can’t trust the guy.”

            Slightly discomforted by the looming presence of the giant hand currently residing atop his shoulder, as the gesture seemed almost threatening, Gibbs stiffened but nonetheless refrained from slapping the fingers away, figuring, as he did, that doing so would serve no other purpose but to aggravate Henry even more than he already was.

            “Duff seemed earnest enough to me.” Gibbs argued.

            “Well he’s not.” Henry snapped, tightening his grip on Gibbs’s shoulder.

            The skin on his shoulder still quite sore from the first time Henry had laid them there and squeezed, after Gibbs had initially refused to speak with him out of a misguided sense of jealousy, he flinched sharply and jerked away from the offensive fingers.

            “Duff isn’t what he seems, Jethro.” Henry frowned. “I wish you’d believe me. He’s the duplicitous one. He’s the cheater.”

            “In what?” Gibbs scoffed. “Cards?”     

            “No.” Henry frowned. “Not in cards.”            

            “…Oh.” Gibbs managed, starting to feel a little guilty for doubting Henry.  

            Because, at the end of the day, Gibbs could see how being cheated on would make someone irrationally hostile against a person who was otherwise more than just a little pleasant to be around. And, if Henry seemed to be a little forceful with wanting to be agreed with in that regard, well, he could only assume that it was because he was every bit just as nervous as Gibbs was about being compatible enough to make their new relationship last. That was all. And there was absolutely nothing sinister, at all, about it. Not matter what his anxiety-induced thoughts were currently trying to tell him.

            “Look,” Henry pleaded, this time interlocking their fingers with just one impossibly smooth move, “Why don’t we just forget everything and head inside?”

            “Sure.” Gibbs allowed, forgetting the slight ache in his shoulder as Henry gave his fingers a squeeze. “You go and get cleaned up, and I’ll make lunch.”

            “Sounds like a deal.” Henry grinned, leaning across the center console to kiss him on the eyebrow.

           

Chapter Text

            Having been compelled, mere seconds after walking through the door, into cleaning out all four fireplaces in the Victorian manor she cleaned for a living, in full preparation of the fast approaching winter, a season she hated for no other reason than that her employer kept the house frighteningly cold, Hua was aching and filthy by the time she was finally able to make it into the kitchen for her bi-weekly washing of the windows. And though she was already a pitiful full five hours behind her usual schedule, given her employer’s ridiculous assumptions that she was anywhere near qualified to labor as some sort of chimney sweep, Hua nonetheless managed to comfort herself with the knowledge that she might yet be able to leave work on time, and likewise send the babysitter home at a decent hour, if her overseer of a boss stayed late in his office in a half-hearted attempt to grade some long overdue assignments. For as much as she loathed being dishonest, almost as much as she disliked being lazy and unproductive, it was not unreasonable to presume that the myriad of unused bedrooms upstairs could go a day without dusting and sweeping, and the downstairs floors forgo their customary morning waxing. And she sincerely doubted that Henry would even notice their temporary neglect in the first place, let alone perceive it keenly enough to pass judgement on her. In fact, were she feeling particularly resentful by the end of her twelve hour shift, she might just even forgo the nightly shaking and vacuuming of the impossibly-heavy rugs that the obnoxious professor who employed her liked to keep in every damn room of the house.  

            And so, with those bolstering thoughts in mind, Hua sauntered into the obscenely decadent kitchen she was tasked with keeping presentable, a Herculean task given the sheer amount of paperwork her employer habitually dragged home on a daily basis, and moved toward the cupboards to fetch down her personal teacup in preparation of making full use of her midmorning tea-break.

            It was only as she heard the sounds of some rather annoyed coughing, that Hua realized her rather unpleasant employer had arrived home early – bringing with him yet another gentleman caller and the absurd expectations that she was somehow supposed to have predicted such a future outcome and avoided the kitchen altogether as a result.

            But, rather than give her unpleasant employer the great satisfaction of knowing that she despised him even more than she did the dictator of her home country, Hua glanced at the giant redhead in question with a stony mask of indifference, fully prepared to drink her customary tea at the same time she had always done so.

            Unfortunately, however, when Hua finally brought her eyes away from those belonging to her boss, it was only to notice that her stove was currently being monopolized by the man with the bright blue eyes and friendly face she had glimpsed only a few days ago.

            “Annie,” Henry greeted, his accompanying smile not reaching his eyes, “Why don’t you hold off on your tea for a while? I know the silver could use a good polishing.”

            Forcing herself to think of the wellbeing of Bai in order to keep from cursing her employer with the only language he could understand, English, Hua cast her brown eyes downward and marveled at the fact that someone so lazy as Henry could make nearly five times her salary just by talking to a classroom full of young adults.

            “Annie,” Henry interjected, when she failed to move toward the silver drawer, “The silver?”

            Wishing, for what had to be the hundredth time since she had started her employment in that house, that she could relocate the entire contents of the silver drawer right up her employer’s ass, Hua glowered heavily at the redheaded culprit in question and pondered, briefly, just how hard it would be to find another job that paid so well without having either a high school or college education in possession.  

            “Henry,” The blue-eyed man intervened, frowning at the professor in the manner he so loathed, “Let her have her tea. She looks exhausted.”

            And, going one step further in securing her eternal gratitude, the kind-faced man actually went so far as to retrieve the kettle himself – both filling it with water and placing it on an unused burner before his boyfriend even had time to protest.

            “I suppose the silver can keep.” Henry allowed, glancing at her with half-lidded devil eyes.

Chapter Text

            Having only just started to allow himself to actually feel his fucking feelings eight or nine months ago, a meagre amount of time compared to what most people could claim was full ownership of their feelings, Gibbs found himself in the rather uncomfortable position of having to contend with the fact that he was seeing all sorts of red flags surrounding Henry, the like and nature of which he couldn’t possibly ignore that he had learned to stop shutting down on himself whenever he became particularly stressed out or discomforted.

            “Why would you talk to Hua like that?” Gibbs questioned the redhead, once said housekeeper had finished guzzling down her tea and taken off to polish the silver as directed.

            Because as much as Gibbs was familiar with giving orders, he had never done so in a derogatory fashion or in a manner that made somebody feel badly about themselves.

            “Hua?” Henry frowned, setting aside his grilled cheese. “Who is Hua, Jethro?”

            “You know, Annie.” Gibbs frowned, greatly unsettled that Henry wouldn’t already know that for himself.

            Not only because Hua had mentioned working for him for over a year, but because he felt a name was one of the very first things a person should learn about another individual.

            “Jethro, Annie doesn’t like to be called Hua.” Henry dismissed, speaking as if he were an expert on all things related to his housekeeper. “It makes her feel…Chinese.

            “She is Chinese.” Gibbs reminded the man with a frown. “And there’s nothing wrong with that, either.”

            There was, however, something very wrong with the way in which Henry had seemed almost condemning of the fact that his housekeeper was of a foreign descent – despite having been fully in charge of the hiring process and despite being old and educated enough to understand that racism, no matter how covert, was quite frankly ridiculous and beneath the dignity of all humans.

            “I don’t understand why you’re yelling.” Henry mildly rebuked, now setting aside his steaming mug of coffee with an air of great annoyance. “Annie prefers to be addressed as Annie just as you prefer to be addressed as Jethro. That’s all there is to it. There’s no need for such histrionics or misplaced white-knighting.”

            As equally offended by one accusation as he was the next, and particularly so by the insinuation he was only defending another human being out of a misplaced sense of chivalry, and not out of his innate sense of justice, Gibbs pushed his plate away himself and spun on the kitchen barstool to glower at the redhaired culprit.

            “I wasn’t yelling.” He growled.  

            “Jethro,” Henry patronized, spinning to face him, “Why would I accuse you of yelling if you weren’t, in fact, actually yelling?”

            Starting to think that he had, perhaps, raised his voice just a little bit during the delivery of his chastisement, Gibbs frowned but otherwise maintained, both to himself and Henry, that the volume at which he had spoken couldn’t have been classified as yelling.           

            “I really don’t think that I was yelling.” Gibbs argued.

            In fact, apart from his brief stint as a drill sergeant, a time he had loathed like nothing else, Gibbs hadn’t ever really yelled all that much in his whole entire life. Not because he never got angry or upset, of course, but simply because he didn’t need to utilize such vocal domination tactics, like others did, in order to inspire the required obedience or to dole out any much-needed discipline. One simple glare, he had found, was usually more than enough to succinctly get his point across with anyone foolish enough to push his buttons or rouse his anger.

            “Jethro, how would you even know what Annie likes to be called?” Henry challenged, changing the subject with expert grace. “You’ve barely spoken to her at all.”

             “Hua and I talked when you left to take that phone call from the Dean.”

            “Oh.” Was all Henry commented, a queer yet dangerous expression flashing across his face.

            Not at all liking what just such an expression implied, Gibbs straightened his back and began to wonder, somewhat belatedly, if he really ought to just go ahead and take Ducky’s advice to keep away from redheads. Because while Henry hadn’t ever laid a hand on him, apart from his rather inexcusable squeezing of his shoulder, he was speaking to him in the same eerily calm fashion that the majority of his ex-wives addressed him with just moments before lobbing something at his head. And while Gibbs did, admittedly, take some comfort in knowing that he could actually strike this beau back should it come to blows, the thought that he had gotten himself into yet another awful relationship, so quickly after having promised himself to do no such thing, unsettled him and hit him far harder than a fist ever could.

            “I wanted to know what part of China she came from.” Gibbs announced, feeling an absurd need to explain himself.

            “I’m honestly surprised that you could even understand her well enough to have a conversation.” Henry sniffed. “The girl speaks as if her tongue is far too large for her mouth.”

            “Hua speaks English beautifully.” Gibbs defended.

            In fact, Hua spoke the language far better than some of the people who were natural-born citizens did.

            “Perhaps it’s your splintered understanding of so many different languages that enables you to understand her gibberish.” Henry suggested.

            “Don’t you think that was a little rude?” Gibbs demanded.

            But, if Gibbs was hoping that Henry was only unaware of the racism of such a harsh statement, rather than unbothered by it, he was soon greatly disappointed.

            “Not at all.” Henry denied, perfectly unphased. “Most help do have accents.”

            “The help?” Gibbs parroted, hardly believing his ears. “Are you Hilly Holbrook or something?”

            “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I don’t understand the reference.” Henry apologized, as condescending as all get out. “I tend to peruse classics.”

            “The Help is a pretty popular fucking book.” Gibbs argued, incensed to having his choice of reading material so disparaged.

            And, not only that, Gibbs was almost positive that it had won more than its fair share of awards and accolades.

            “I’m sure it is.” Henry humored, spinning away from him to turn back to his grilled cheese.

            “Don’t.” Gibbs growled. “

            “Don’t what?” Henry inquired, playing perfectly innocent as he bit into the sandwich Gibbs was starting to feel he didn’t deserve.

            “Use that goddamn tone.” Gibbs hissed. “It’s fucking rude.”

            “Honestly, Jethro.” Henry tutted. “Are you going to lecture me about manners when you’re using a salad fork for your peas?”   

            By that having borne all he cared to of Henry’s…elitism, or whatever the fuck it was, Gibbs threw his napkin down unto his neglected plate and removed himself from the barstool in one fluid move.

            “You know what?” Gibbs hissed. “I think we’re done here.”

            “Jethro,” Henry implored, startling calm as he seized his wrist, “I know you’ve had a rough week at work, but you don’t need to be taking it out on me.”

            Distinctly aware of the presence of several strong fingers on his wrist, as Henry was sparing no amount of exertion in keeping him hostage, Gibbs yanked his arm in an attempt to free himself from the unsanctioned hold only to find Henry’s grip nearly inescapable.

            “Don’t talk to me like I’m a goddamn child.” Gibbs snapped. “Let go.”

             “How are you going to get home, Jethro? We took my car.”

            “I’ll walk.” Gibbs answered, struggling not to wince as the fingers encapsulating his wrist tightened even more. “Let go.”

            “Jethro, I’m not going to let you – “   

              “I’ll do whatever the fuck I want.” Gibbs barked, finally wrenching his arm free.

            Unfortunately, Gibbs had only a few seconds to revel in his somewhat insignificant victory. For mere moments after he had managed to finagle himself free, from sheer force of will alone, Henry had jumped up from his own barstool and seized his wrist anew, this time capturing the other one as well.

            “You need to calm down, Jethro.” Henry insisted, his calmness blood-curdling.

            “Me?” Gibbs scoffed, refusing to be silent even though he was pretty certain he was mere moments away from being punched in the face.

            But, in an act that shocked the breath out of him, Henry shoved him up against the humming refrigerator instead, and moved himself forward until their chests were touching.

            “Deep breaths.” The professor encouraged, squeezing his wrists even tighter.

            But, rather than use his stunned silence to land a perfectly opportune punch to one of his eyes, or even his nose, Henry brought their foreheads together and bore into his eyes with his own greener, paler, pair. And, God help him, Gibbs almost caved and apologized right then and there before the slight pain radiating up his arms reminded him of all the things he’d learned in therapy.

            “Let go of me.”

             “Jethro,” Henry growled, his face still a perfect mask of serenity, “You can’t walk back to Discreet. It’s a full five blocks.”

            Wrists hurting far too badly by that point in time for him to think of anything other than getting free, Gibbs glowered up into Henry’s face and brought his forehead down against his nose, not anywhere near hard enough to break the cartilage but certainly forceful enough to coax a fair bit of blood out of the nostrils.

            “Fuck off.” Gibbs snarled, finally able to yank his wrists free.

            But Gibbs only had time to take a few deep breaths before Henry seized him by the ear and forcefully manipulated his head until they were glaring into each other’s faces.

            “Jethro – “

            It was only as Gibbs was starting to fear that he’d need to use somewhat deadly force, that Hua reemerged, from God knows where and, and startled Henry into relinquishing his ear.

            “Annie,” Henry grinned, his smile a predatory one, “Come settle an argument for us.”

            Wisely refraining from approaching the man with a devilish expression on his face, Hua remained where she stood with the trayful of silver in her arms.

            “I need to finish polishing.” She stated, her voice perfectly neutral even as she stared at the blood dripping down her employer’s face. “I cannot be late for the babysitter again.”

             “Annie, I said come here.” Henry repeated, using his sleeve to staunch the flow of blood.

            “I can settle an argument from here.” Hua countered, refusing to move out of the doorway.

            Seeming to sense that his employee would not be compelled away from her current position, even with the aid of a glare, Henry capitulated and impatiently voiced the question he so wanted an answer to.

            “What is your name?”

            Worried, for a moment, that the young lady in question would subject herself to humiliation by answering with the false name Henry had afflicted upon her, as Hua had cast her eyes downward at the floor immediately after the question had been voiced, Gibbs stiffened and braced himself for the answer.

            My name is Fa Hua Jun.”

            “Yes,” Henry hissed, “But what do you prefer to be called.”

            It was a challenge, Gibbs realized, and he was proud as hell when Hua didn’t back down.

            “Hua.” The short housekeep answered, looking her antagonizer straight in the eye. “It means flower.”

            “Whaa?” Henry snorted, spitting the name out like a curse.

             “Hua.” Hua corrected, standing her ground with nothing more than a trayful of silver to protect herself.

            “Why would ask me to call you Annie if you didn’t like the name?” Henry demanded, dropping all pretenses of civility.

            “I did no such thing.” Hua evenly refuted.

            Face clouding with a thunderous rage Gibbs had never before seen, Henry shoved Gibbs away from himself and took just one step closer to his housekeeper.

            “I’m not a liar, Annie.” He fumed, face now as red as his hair.

            “You are not a liar.” Hua agreed, momentarily startling both men. “But you are a green tea bitch.”           

            And though Gibbs had absolutely no idea what just such an insult was met to convey, he found himself nodding in agreement with the indictment.

            “Annie,” Henry hissed, “Grab your bag and leave.”

            Much to her testament of character, Hua neither begged nor pleaded to keep her position. Instead she jerked up her chin and marched, with a certain degree of pride, right into the kitchen and moved toward the back foyer where she kept both coat and purse.

            “Get that look of your face.” Henry snapped at her back. “You know I hate that look.”

            Turning around to face him with a decided air of indifference, Annie sniffed loudly and jerked her chin even further into the air.

            “I left one dictator already.” She proudly declared. “You can’t scare me.”

            “Are you honestly comparing me to Pol Pot right now?” Henry guffawed, stomping forward to seize her by the wrist.

            “Pol Pot was the dictator of Cambodia, you asshole.” Gibbs snapped, making use of Marine tactics to free Hua from his grip.

            And, once he was reasonably sure that Hua wasn’t in any more danger of being roughly seized again, as he had pushed her behind his back the very moment she was free, Gibbs glared daggers at Henry and made it known, in no uncertain terms, that they were leaving.

            “I’m leaving Hua, come with me.”

             “You’ll be back, the both of you.” Henry muttered, making no move to stop them as they moved toward the back exit. “Just wait and see.”

            It was only as he stepped out into the frost-covered grass of Henry’s backyard, that Gibbs allowed himself to relax a slight fraction.

            “He is a devil man.” Hua insisted, mistaking his sigh for one of despondency. “Always giving out orders and light-posting.”

            Already knowing that the young woman in question had meant ‘gas-lighting,’ Gibbs refrained from questioning her mangled phrase and instead began to set their pace forward.

            “Why did you stay with him for so long?” Gibbs inquired, careful not to make his tone an accusatory one.

            “It was the best-paying job I could find without a high school diploma.” Hua frowned, clearly embarrassed about her lack of formal education. “And I have a baby to care for.”

            Sympathetic to her plight even before he learned she had a baby to provide for, Gibbs frowned and did what he could to assist the ex-housekeeper.

            “Can you type?”

            “Yes, very well.” Hua assured. “I was a secretary in China.”

            “Well, maybe I could find you some work at The Yard.” Gibbs volunteered.

            After all, he had been hounding Vance for the past several years to grant him and the agents a secretary to assist with all the putzy paperwork that required no first-hand knowledge or experience.

            “I would be grateful.” Hua agreed, smiling softly.

            “And I would be just as grateful if you told me what a green tea bitch was.” Gibbs retorted, struggling to lighten the mood with his social anxiety playing up.

            “A two-faced devil.” Hua answered, shyly looking down at her feet. “You are not the first soft-hearted man he has fooled.”

            Too amused with the origin of such an insult to take much umbrage with being referred to as soft-hearted, Gibbs smirked and shook his head.

            “Fucking redheads.” He grumbled.

            “Red hair, bad spirit.” Hua agreed.

             Finally forced to admit that Ducky’s advice to stay (romantically) away from redhead’s was perfectly legitimate, Gibbs sighed softly once more but nonetheless kept up a stream of idle chatter until they finally found themselves within the confines of Discreets parking lot.

            “Do you want a lift?” Gibbs asked, jerking a thumb at his truck.

            “Yes, I would appreciate that.” Hua smiled, already moving to climb into the passenger seat.

            “Well, I do owe you.” Gibbs allowed.

            “A ride and a job.” Hua responded. “Then we are even.”  

             It was in a companionable silence that Gibbs piloted his truck towards the apartment complex she had listed, neither one of them feeling the pathological need that some felt to fill the silence with nonsensical conversation or idling trivialities. In fact, it was not until they found themselves stuck at an unfathomably stubborn stoplight, that he deigned to fill the truck with the sounds of his voice.

            “What is APSCO?” Gibbs inquired, glancing at the button she had attached to her bag.

            “The Asian Pacific Space Cooperation Organization.” Hua clarified, touching the button lovingly.

            “So, you like space, huh?” Gibbs grunted, an idea beginning to form in the back of his mind.

            “Very much so.” Hua smiled, dark brown eyes lightening up.

            Figuring that such a proclamation settled it, Gibbs spoke up before he lost some of his courage to self-doubt.

            “Tell you what, Hua. I have an agent who needs a dog-sitter.” Gibbs began. “It’s not much, but it’ll tide you over until I can get you into The Yard.”

             And while the job wouldn’t pay as much as Henry had, Gibbs was fairly confident that Tim paid those who cared for his dog very generously given just how spoiled that fucking beast of an animal was.

            “Hell, Tim would probably even let you bring Bao along, too.”

             “I would like that.” Hua assured. “Please, give this Tim my number.”

Chapter Text

            Still rather worked up from his earlier altercation with Henry, and likewise still particularly sore where regarded the current status of his wrists and shoulders, Gibbs collapsed unto his sofa in the living room with an unattractive groan and worked, in vain, to convince himself that his disastrous lunch date with Henry really wasn’t the direct result of his skipping work for the first time in forever. Because as much as he believed in the existence of a certain amount of karmic retribution, it just didn’t stand to reason that his playing of hooky had somehow warranted him being manhandled roughly enough leave behind bruises on his skin. Although, one he really stopped to think about it, Gibbs considered that maybe it had been all the outright lying to his team, as a whole, that had brought about that particular bit of divine chastisement.

            But, then again, such a disastrous result could have just as simply been the end result of his unrelenting bad luck with dating redheads – a small group of people he was no absolutely determined to avoid like the plague. Because, barring Shannon, if one of his previous redheaded beaus hadn’t been constantly reading him to filth with only the slightest of provocations, they had most certainly been leaving behind some sort of mark on his body of face, either with hand or makeshift weapon.

            But while Gibbs could, at least, reluctantly admit to having been a pretty shitty boyfriend and husband in those days that had lead up to those particular instances of assault, and thusly somewhat deserving of the grand majority of said abuse, on no other grounds than being a particularly antagonizing shithead, he still couldn’t account for having done anything that would have merited Henry assaulting him in such an alarming and unexpected fashion.

            Unless, of course, there was just something about Gibbs that raised in others an unnatural desire to want to harm him.

            Because as ridiculous as it might sound to those who didn’t know him exceedingly well, it seemed to him as if he had been getting beat up or assaulted for one thing or another ever since he was a little boy and promptly deemed far too soft and sensitive by the bigger boys in school. A more than unpleasant trend that had seemed to last forever up until Gibbs had finally hit his growth spurt in the fifth grade and filled out a little bit more muscle-wise. Because no bullies, no matter how big and mean, really wanted to pick on a kid they knew could hurt them back.

            But, even if they hadn’t been able to physically hurt him anymore, their words and actions had still left marks of their own. Most notably those of Davey Jefferson, who had once had the unmitigated gall to inform him, during a Veteran’s Day assembly, where he was all but sure he would be safe enough from retaliation, that Gibbs’s queerness was the cancer his mother had died of. And while Gibbs had, thankfully, managed to tackle him straight off the top row of bleachers and knock three of his teeth right down his throat before dragged away by the principal and gym teacher, he could still recall, without any struggle, the intense bitterness he had felt upon realizing that nobody but Mary-Beth and Hazel had spoken up to defend him against such harsh obscenities.

            It was with a somewhat melancholic smile that Gibbs, without warning, suddenly recalled the particularly rainy Tuesday morning the year prior to the infamous bleach beating, where an incensed Mary-Beth had, without even an ounce of hesitation, knocked the much older Drew Baker down into the freezing mud and broken his radius clean in half for the crime of having stolen from Gibbs’s locker the poem he had written for Atticus Kingston and plastering copies of said embarrassing prose all around the school – which had, of course, resulted in Gibbs getting his ass kicked six-ways-from Sunday by a very large group of boys who had, at the time, seemed absolutely hellbent on proving their masculinity by jumping the local queer in the boys’ room during recess.

            And, as if that hadn’t been bad enough already, the precious few males friends that Gibbs had managed to make the previous year had suddenly started to avoid him like the plague after that, outright avoiding his self-made tree-fort that had, up until that unfortunate afternoon, been a veritable paradise for the small group of middle-schoolers who had wanted to do nothing more than smoke and look at nudie magazines without getting their assess chewed out and their heads cuffed by their overbearing mothers.

            But, worst yet, by far, had been the way in which even the kind-hearted and generous Atticus had steered clear of him from that day forth. And, even though he had at least had enough decency to take a small sliver of time out of his day to tell Gibbs that his poem really was a beautiful one, it hadn’t lessened the immense sting of being subsequently informed that it was Mrs. Kingston who was keeping them apart, as she didn’t her son catching whatever it was that he had wrong with him. He could likewise still recall, even to this day, the intense softness of Atticus’s hand as he bid him farewell with a handshake that had, at the time, felt more like a backhand than a gesture of goodwill.

            It was with a sudden pique of curiosity that Gibbs wondered what all his old friends were up to at the moment, and whether or not they were all as happy as they had dreamed they would be while cloistered up in his treehouse with bottles of Coke and bowlfuls of popcorn.

            But, with only one way to be really sure, Gibbs pulled out his new iPhone and dialed up his father, knowing, as he did, that the hours following lunch and preceding three in the afternoon were always the slowest, as mothers prepared for their children’s return from school and men returned to their jobs after their hour-long lunch breaks – leaving only a handful of bored retirees to wander about the aisles and search out anything they could complain about just for the sake of being heard.

            “Hey, Grizzly-Bear.” Came a familiar voice, after only just two rings.

            “Hey, Dad.” Gibbs replied, rolling his eyes at the childish moniker.

            “I heard that, young man.” Dad scolded, no heat at all in his voice, but rather a strong note of affection.

            Already starting to feel a little bit better just by hearing his father’s comforting voice on the other end of the phone, Gibbs found himself smiling softly and sat himself up a little straighter on the sofa.  

            “You’re never going to stop calling me that, are you?”

            “Wouldn’t count on it, Kiddo.”  

            Sensing no real purpose in arguing with the stubborn man who had once held up a city council meeting for six goddamn hours in protest of relocating school funds into a remodeling of the city hall, Gibbs simply shook his head and opted for a bit of polite conversation.  

            “How’s the store, Daddy?” Gibbs inquired.

            Having, a full forty years after originally planning to do so, finally added some freezers into the store for the purposes of selling more product, so that people might stop going a full thirty minutes out of their way to shop at the closest Walmart, and likewise having added to the store a small café to bolster some more interest, and also to steal away customers from the local bakery, the owner of whom he had passionately hated for jumping the original Leroy Jethro for nothing more than being black, Jackson Gibbs had found his hands quite full for past several weeks in trying to keep up with, and manage, so much change.

            “It’s as well enough, I suppose. A lot busier than I’m used to being though.” Dad answered honestly. “Had to hire four more kids just to get afternoon shifts covered.”

            “At least you’ll have more time for your puzzles now.” Gibbs comforted.

            “I supposed.” Dad allowed. “But how are you, Kiddo? You haven’t called in a week. I was starting to get worried I had done something to upset you.”

            Feeling a sharp pang of regret stab him in the stomach as it became clear, belatedly, that he had been allowing his own drama to eclipse the relationship he had mended with his father, Gibbs grimaced and avowed, to himself, to make up for such forgetfulness.

            “You didn’t do anything, Daddy. I just got really busy, that’s all.” Gibbs honestly explained. “There was this awful case and then – I just got really busy.”

             Thankfully, for the both of them, his father allowed his uncharacteristic eloquence to go unchallenged, as Gibbs didn’t really care for reliving any of the unpleasantness of that gnarly case. Nor, he wagered, did his father really want to hear any of the horrific details of such an unprecedented shitshow.

            “Good.” Dad sighed. “I don’t much like it when we fight.”

            “Me neither.” Gibbs assured.

            And then, after a brief, yet companionable silence, he added:

            “Dad, you know everything – “

            “Well, I don’t know about that – “

            “Do you know whatever happened to Hazel, Mary-Beth, and Atticus?” Gibbs interrupted, far too eager for answers to be polite. “I was…I came across my old yearbook and I was…I wanted to know.”

            Magnanimous enough not to call him out on his little fib, even though Gibbs was almost one-hundred percent certain that all his old yearbooks were still under the bed in his childhood bedroom, his dad cleared his throat and, from the sounds of it, took a sip of Dr. Pepper before starting his answer.

             “Well, let’s see here, give me a minute to think on it.” Dad murmured, pausing long enough to guzzle down half his can of pop. “Hazel…I think her Daddy said something about her running all around Europe to collect antiques or something of the sort. But I don’t know much more than that, Grizzly-Bear.”

            Willing to wager half his arm that the antiques Hazel were collecting largely involved whatever supposedly haunted artefacts she get her fingers unto, particularly those creepy fucking glass dolls, Gibbs shook his head and could only hope that his old friend wouldn’t contract some sort of antibiotic-resistant drug from all the dusty antiques she dug up.

            “Now, Atticus, I think he went and married some girl he met at Harvard. Last I heard they did Doctors Without Borders of something.”

             Feeling more than just a little ridiculous when a slight surge of jealously coursed through his body in response to the news that Atticus had married, Gibbs shook his head and tried, rather poorly, to forget the night they had both stayed up late in his treehouse just talking up until Atticus had gotten drowsy and fallen asleep with his head on his shoulder.

            “And Mary-Beth married some fellow from up North, last I heard. Minnesota, I think it was.”

            “That’s so far away.” Gibbs grumbled, speaking without thinking. “And cold.”

            “I’m sure she’s doing alright, Kiddo. That girl was one tough cookie.” Dad reassured, a slight chuckle in his voice.

            “Believe me,” Gibbs smiled, thinking of Drew’s broken bone, “I know.”

            Because, at the end of the day, it was him she had once made cry by punching him in the gut for telling Hazel she looked stupid in her cowboy costume.

            “You okay, Kiddo?” Dad tentatively questioned. “You seem a bit off?”

            “I’m fine.” Gibbs promised, struggling to shoo away his decades-old guilt. “I’ve just been swamped with work, lately.”

            “I sure do wish you’d take some time off and come home to relax for a bit.” Dad tactfully cajoled. “You could even come for the Fall Festival, Leroy. It’s the 200th anniversary and I’m almost positive Atticus will be there. Hell, you should bring your kids up, too, they’d have a blast.”

             Pretty sure that his heart had stopped beating the very moment his father had mentioned Atticus’s name, Gibbs had to pinch himself to remain some semblance of composure.

            “The kids would probably love that.” Gibbs allowed, figuring that they had to be every bit just as exhausted as he was. “And I would, too. But Dad, three kids is a lot, don’t you think?”

            Or, at least it was when one considered the fact that Tim and Tony would have to share a bedroom, something that was like to result in a murder or at least a bucketful of tears.

            “Don’t be silly, Leroy. I love it when you bring the kids.” Dad enthusiastically countered, woefully unaware of just how dramatically the dynamic had changed with the additional of a rather sensitive Tim. “And I’d love to meet that new one of yours. How come have you haven’t brought him up yet?”

            “Dad, Tim is shy – “

            “So was Kate at first.” Dad countered. “But before you know it, she was talking my ear off all night about anything and everything.”

            “Daddy,” Gibbs sighed, “He’s really shy – and nervous. Hell, he’s still even a little afraid of me.”

            Or, to be more honest, still afraid of getting any more familiar with him – especially now that Tony had taken to outright growling at the poor boy whenever he got too close to Gibbs for his comfort. And while, granted, Tony had eventually learned to share him with Kate, once it had become abundantly clear that she wasn’t going to be frightened away, Gibbs suspected that a great deal of such a surrender had only been brought about by the fact that Kate was a girl and thus somewhat immune to the more elaborate pranks he’d taken to pulling on Tim out of jealousy.

            “All the better to bring him up!” Dad asserted, with all the confidence of a man who had been made wise by the years. “Let him see you in your natural element, away from work. It’s hard for a kid to get cozy with a person they only take orders from.”

             “That…That’s actually brilliant.” Gibbs allowed, wondering why he hadn’t thought of that for himself. “I’ll see you next weekend.”

Chapter Text

            By the following morning still preoccupied with the very important task of coming up with a plan that would convince Tim into accepting his invitation to spend the weekend at his father’s house, and struggling to come up with anything that didn’t involve the use of threats, a tactic that would defeat the whole entire fucking purpose of getting the kid to come in the first place, Gibbs groaned aloud at desk and tried, rather half-heartedly, not to feel too guilty as he went for broke and turned the task of swaying Tim unto the older two children. Figuring, as he did so, that a little bit of peer pressure would do the trick and keep him from having to play the part of an asshole by outright ordering Tim to attend the aforementioned function.

            “I’m going to visit my dad next weekend.” Gibbs announced, speaking loudly enough to be heard above the argument his oldest two children were having about the merits and failings of their own personal favorite Disney movies. “And if you all want to come, I had best not hear anymore fighting.”

            Familiar enough with Gibbs particularly form of parenting to understand that his threat was not at all as serious as it might have been in any other scenario, and equally every bit just as assured that Grandpa would never allow such a barbaric punishment to go unchallenged, Kate and Tony barely even acknowledged his admonishment before delving even further into the asinine argument – simultaneously pissing off Gibbs at the same time they increased Tim’s anxiety by trying to rope him into the fracas in their misguided attempts to secure a little bit of support for their side of the debate.

            “But Tony is wrong!” Kate protested, face flooded with indignation. “Cinderella is way better than Beauty and the Beast!”

            “It is not!” Tony passionately battled. “Cinderella set the Women’s Rights Movement back fifty years!”

             “And Beauty and the Best encouraged bestiality!” Kate rounded. “And witchcraft!”

            Starting to come to the uncomfortable conclusion that Kate’s unprecedented hatred of Beauty and the Beast stemmed forth from some sort of residual brainwashing she had experienced as a small child growing up in a religiously oppressive household, where she was not only the youngest child but the spare girl as well, Gibbs frowned and silently avowed to start slowly exposing Kate to all that family-friendly media she had been denied as a little girl by a set of misguided parents who feared nothing more than their daughters becoming headstrong and opinionated. Although, given just how stubborn and fiery Kate had turned out to be, maybe a little bit of that fear had been warranted.

            “Jesus Christ, Kate, would you like a pitchfork and torch to go along with that archaic line of thinking?” Tony antagonized, admittedly making a very fine point.

            “Oh, like your ill-read ass even knows what that word means!” Kate sallied, also making a particularly strong point.

            But, rather than allow the debate to rage onward, and thus run the risk of tears and hurt feelings being evoked on either side, Gibbs stepped in and put an end to the argument with the use of his most authoritative tone of voice.

            “What did I JUST say?”

            Somewhat endearingly missing out on the fact that the question raised had, in fact, been rhetorical in nature, Tim gingerly sat up in his chair and nervously began to answer the question with all the gravitas of a nervous freshman giving his first oral presentation in front of a considerable crowd of fellow students he didn’t much care for.

            “You said – “

            “Shut up, McParrot.” Tony growled, rolling his eyes. “We know what he said.”  

            Prevented from scolding his oldest agent for such uncalled rudeness by Kate’s sudden and surprising intervention, Gibbs found himself playing the unwilling bystander once more as his only female agent leveled a pretty significant punch at Tony’s shoulder.

            “Stop picking on Tim!” She demanded, suddenly noble where regarded the wellbeing of her junior agent.

            “What the hell, Kate?!” Tony growled, reaching up his fingers to try and rub away the soreness so suddenly afflicted upon his shoulder. “Don’t think I won’t get you back just because you’re a girl.”

            Figuring that it would be best to intervene before Tony made good on his threat and gave Kate one of his infamous Indian Burns, the likes of which he had perfected to the point that he could now leave behind marks that lasted a good three hours, Gibbs cleared his throat to capture both their attentions and raised his brow in warning.

            “Unless you want me to relocate your desks to the corners of the room, I suggest you behave.” Gibbs warned.

            Having already been on the receiving end of that particular form of punishment more than half-a-dozen times since Gibbs had avowed to stop using headslaps as a form of chastisement, and subsequently having made the discover that they absolutely loathed the accompanying ‘quiet time’ that inevitably came with such a stiff sentence, both agents immediately abandoned their argument and turned back to their computers.

              “Gibbs,” Kate queried, once she was absolutely certain that enough time had passed for his annoyance with their bickering to have passed, “Is it cold enough outside to have killed all the spiders yet?”

            “Spiders tend to head inside when it’s cold, Kate.” Tony taunted, clearly getting back at her for the shoulder punch.

            Allowing that little bit of goading to go unrebuked, on the grounds that it was somewhat deserved and likewise objectively true, Gibbs sighed softly to himself and contemplated, briefly, the idea of just dropping the kids off on his father’s doorstep for that weekend before taking off to Mexico to relax at Franks’ beach house.

            “Dad promised to vacuum for spiders.” Gibbs reassured.

            “Good.” Kate sighed, releasing a little bit of tension from her shoulders. “I hate spiders.”

            “We know, Kate.” Gibbs assured. “We know.”

            She had, after all, once had a toddler-esque meltdown upon espying a rather fat spider crawling around on the dashboard of the work truck on their way back to The Yard – resulting in Tony having to hold her hostage in a moving vehicle as Gibbs tried to steer and smash a spider with his fist at the same time.

            “You know, they make these spider grabber things.” Tim offered. “It’s like a long pole with a vacuum attached, so you don’t even have to touch the spiders.”

            “Thanks, Tim.” Kate smiled. “But Grandpa is my spider catcher.”

            “I thought you said your grandpa didn’t like you.” Tim frowned, understandably confused.

            “Not my grandpa,” Kate patiently corrected, “Grandpa.”

            Having not yet had the pleasure of pleasure being initiated into the Gibbs family by a visit to Stillwater, Tim understandably looked at Kate with an expression of hopeless confusion.

            “Gibbs’s dad is Grandpa.” Kate supplied. “It’s a rule.”

            “Unless your Blackadder.” Tony stipulated, scrunching up his face at the name.

            “Unless your Blackadder.” Kate agreed, taking Tony’s word for it in a rather surprising show of solidarity.

             Having, by virtue of being shy, failed to learn a great deal of all the backstories that encompassed a rather lengthy stint working at The Yard, Tim scrunched his face up in a clear show of confusion and looked to Kate for assistance.

            “Who is Blackadder?”

            “Nobody important.” Tony forcefully asserted, showing no hesitation at all in turning the aforementioned woman into a persona non grata.

            “Was I her replacement?” Tim inquired, looking rather concerned at the thought of being culpable for someone getting booted out.

            “No, Kate was.” Tony corrected. “Not that a hamster couldn’t have done the job better than Blackadder did.”

            “A hamster would have certainly been less annoying.” Gibbs agreed.

            But, before he could take the liberty of expanding upon all the reasons that such a harsh indictment was well-deserved, particularly so in the case of the overbearing and prissy Blackadder, Gibbs’s phone buzzed obnoxiously loudly in his pocket and drew all eyes unto his for fear that at least one pair of nosy eyes would somehow manage to read the contents of his screen through some culvert means of snooping he hadn’t yet discovered.

            “It’s my turn to have the front seat!” Kate suddenly pipped, after it had become abundantly clear that Gibbs wasn’t about to remove his phone from his pocket anytime soon.

            Wishing to stave off a full-scale battle before blood could be drawn, a very real possibility given Kate’s shameless propensity towards biting, Gibbs set his coffee mug down loudly enough to draw the chronically-bickering duo’s attention and promptly put any notions of seat-related privileges out of the mind of his agents.

            “We’re taking my green truck.” Gibbs denied. “There is no front seat.”

            “Then I get then window!” Kate asserted, quick to call dibs on the coveted position.

            But, with Tony seated only a few feet away, of course that assertion wasn’t about to go unchallenged.

            “It doesn’t work that way!”

            “Does too!” Kate persisted. “The window seat has always been equivalent to the front seat.”

            “Says who?” Tony demanded.

            “Says me, with the four older siblings.”

            “Your mother choosing not to use birth control doesn’t make you an expert on hypothetical equity.” Tony sallied, refusing to back down.

            Heartily surprised to have discovered that Tony even possessed such a mature vocabulary, as he had certainly never presented proof of such while in front of anyone that could relate the tale back to him, Gibbs blinked stupidly and was rather slow to respond when both halves of the quarreling duo turned to him for the sake of hearing a more authoritative position where regarded the comparison of seats.

            “You two really aren’t getting this whole ‘no arguing’ thing, are you?” Gibbs sighed, moving a hand to massage one of his temples.

            “Gibbs!” Kate whined, not amused at all with his initial refusal to choose a side.  

            “Kate gets the window seat.” Gibbs conceded, already feeling a headache beginning to set in. “Tony, you and Tim can rock-paper-scissor for the middle seat.”

              Because as much as he would have just loved to exile them all into the truckbed for the duration of their travel, save for maybe Tim, who had not done anything to outright annoy him in the past couple weeks, Gibbs knew his own father would chew him out if he caught wind of any such act taking place.

Nor was he so stupid as to think that any of his agents would wish to spend the whole journey to Pennsylvania smooshed up right next to him, or peacefully come up with some sort of compromise on their own.

Me?” Tim asked, hazel eyes wide with confusion.

Forcing himself not to be annoyed with the younger agent’s startling inability to pick up on certain social cues, even though he had deliberately made sure to make the invitation a group one, Gibbs sighed silently to himself before taking steps to reassure Tim that was, in fact, being included.

“Yes, Tim.” Gibbs reassured, speaking with as much conviction as he could muster. “My dad wants to meet you.”

Looking as if Gibbs had just offered to tuck him into bed every night for the next six weeks, Tim frowned deeply and cast him a look that clearly conveyed he felt he was being played for a fool. Which, given Tony’s propensity towards pranks, really wasn’t at all that unwarranted of a reaction.

“But why?”

“You’ve been here forever now,” Kate reasoned, thankfully before Tony could respond with a snarkier answer, “You’re one of the ‘kids’ now. Whether you like it or not.”

             And, given that Kate had not, in fact, initially enjoyed being initiated into the family, especially so once she learned that honor was accompanied by a pretty copious amount of mother-henning, the likes of which involved being coerced into eating something other than frosted animal crackers, Gibbs smirked and shared a little knowing look with the young woman in question.

            “Are you sure – “

            “My dad is Mr. Rogers incarnate, Tim.” Gibbs calmly asserted. “And he’s been hounding me about inviting you over for the last year.” But, quickly realizing how that particular line of phrasing might insinuate that it was only the elder Gibbs who wished for him to make the sojourn to Stillwater, he quickly added: “We all want you there. It’s the fall festival.”

            Relieved to notice that Tim finally seemed to be coming to terms with the fact that he was not currently being punked, or at least not so by his boss, Gibbs exhaled a short puff of air and allowed some of the anxiety to leave his body.

            “What’s the fall festival?” Tim queried, far too cautious to accept any offer without first knowing what all it entailed.

            Forgetting all the jealously that encompassed watching his father invite yet another individual into their small flock of misfits, in the excitement that always seemed to come with knowing the fall festival was right around the corner, and with it the promise of all the sweets he could eat, Tony jumped up from behind his desk and leaned over the oaken furniture to better revel the younger agent with details of what Stillwater had to offer during October.

            “It’s the best!” Tony gushed, green eyes all aglow with the childish passion that made up a great portion of his personality. “There’s soooo much food and dessert, and almost enough hot chocolate and apple cider to drown the whole town! Even Kate found a few things she liked eating.”

            Those things had, of course, all involved a copious amount of buttercream frosting, the sugar content of which had made Gibbs feel quite sympathetic towards whichever dentist was assigned to Kate that year.

            “Then there’s the movies out in the park, after dark!” Kate contributed, practically bouncing with excitement. “And the hayrides!”

            “And the food!” Tony repeated, all but salivating as he leaned even further across his desk to better capture Tim’s attention. “And the pumpkin carving contest that Dad – Gibbs wins every year!”

            “And the games!” Kate supplied.

            “And the candy!” Tony contributed.  

            Already anticipating the struggle he was going to have to endure in keeping both Kate and Tony from inhaling their entire weight in sugar, the likes of which would surely involve a copious amount of whining and full-fledged mutiny, Gibbs shook his head and treated his future headache with a hearty sip of pitch-black coffee.     

            “That actually sounds really fun, but I’m not really sure – “

            “You have to come.” Kate declared, jumping up to lean across her own desk. “It’s a rite of passage.”

            “And Grandpa wants it.” Tony further amended. “Which means I’ll hogtie you to the hood of the truck, if I have to, to get you there.”

            Giving Tony one of his sharpest glares, ones that he reserved for situations where his oldest child was heading directly for a trip over his knee, Gibbs stood up from his desk and raised a warning brow at the wayward instigator in question.

            “You will not.” Gibbs forewarned, already stalking off the answer his text in the privacy only the bathroom could provide him.              

            It was only when he managed to get himself into the safety of a bathroom stall, and only then, that Gibbs finally felt himself safe enough to fish the cellphone out of his pocket and investigate just who was texting him on a Tuesday morning.

            ‘Are you alright?’

            Significantly concerned that Henry might have actually stooped so low at to buy another iPhone just for the purposes of circumventing the blocking of his number, something it had taken Gibbs a full fucking hour just to figure out how to do, he frowned heavily and seated himself upon the slightly wobbly seat of the toilet before calling up the number being presented to him, fully prepared, as he was, to give that redheaded fuckface an earful of his best drill sergeant material before being thrown promptly off-guard by the sound of a different, yet somewhat familiar, voice reaching out to him from the other end of the line.

            “Hey, Jethro.”

            Suddenly very aware of the presence of another man in the bathroom, from a series of small sniffles carrying over to him from by the urinals, Gibbs stiffened and pressed his iPhone even closer to his ear, eager to prevent the knowledge that he was having a private phone conversation in the bathroom, with another man, to himself as horrible remembrances of getting his ass handed to him in one of the exact same facilities came flooding back into his mind.

            “Hey…you.” Gibbs greeted, substituting the name Duff for the first uninspired and ungendered term he could think of. “How…How did you get my number?”

            And though he had taken great care to keep any sort of accusation out of his tone, for no other reason that he really didn’t mind if any of the whist boys had his number, especially so Duff, a faint note of indictment must have crept into his voice anyways, as Duff responded in a far more reserved nature than was his usual wont.

            “Don’t get mad,” Duff implored, sounding markedly guilty, “But I sort of begged it off of Sarah after…We were worried, that was all.”

            “We?” Gibbs questioned, hoping against hope that such an inclusive phrase didn’t involve the young girl in question.

            Because as much as he loved Sarah, which was quite a lot, the lively young woman in question had a strong tendency to tell her older brother everything that went on in her life, from the most mundane of details to the most salacious of occurrences. And Gibbs was almost positive that the soliciting of his number by a gay man would not go unmentioned by the younger McGee to the elder if no such stipulations had been made to her at the time she was giving away said digits.

            “Me and the guys.” Duff explained, somewhat sheepishly. “We saw you leave with Henry and then come back, like, an hour later with Hua. On foot.”

             “Oh.” Gibbs managed, cursing his anxiety-induced ineloquence. “Hen – We…We sort of had a falling out.”

            Or, more accurately, a full-fledged skirmish in the confines of his oppressively fancy kitchen, the likes of which had left behind more than just a few droplets of blood on the terrazzo that Hua no doubt worked tirelessly to keep clean and tidy.

            “Are you alright, Jethro?”  Duff pressed, when Gibbs inadvertently allowed the silence to stretch on a little longer than was comfortable.

            “I’m fine.” He asserted, refusing to think of the bruises that had been left behind on his shoulder and wrists. “Things just went south, that’s all.”

             “Yeah.” Duff sympathized. “I kind of figured they would.”

            “And neither one of you dicks could have warned me?” Gibbs challenged, only partially joking.

            There had, after all, been more than ample opportunity to do so while they had all been playing Whist yesterday morning.

            “Would you have believed a word we said against Henry?” Duff countered, perfectly calm despite having just been growled at.

            Unable to proclaim that he would, most certainly, have taken the word of four complete strangers where regarded the character and nature of his boyfriend, the likes of whom had enraptured him almost immediately, Gibbs scowled and wished, for only a fraction of a second, that they were facetiming so that the expression was not wasted on the wall of the stall.

            “You got me there.” Gibbs reluctantly conceded, using his free hand to massage his temple.

            “He didn’t…He didn’t hurt you, did he?” Duff gingerly prodded.

            “No.” Gibbs frowned, closing his eyes for a moment. “But I’m pretty sure I broke his nose.”

            But, upon hearing the zipping of some pants just a few stalls down, Gibbs jerked his eyes open and dug his fingernails into the thigh of his leg, fully resolving not to make the same slip up again when there was still so danger, no matter how insignificant, in being caught chatting with another man on the phone while in the bathroom.

            “Shit,” Duff chuckled, the sound rich and warm, “Between you and Percy, that’s got to be the fifth time that giant thing has been broken.”

            “Well,” Gibbs shrugged, “They were rude.”

            “You’re preaching to the choir.” Duff assured, a note of amusement in his voice. “We’re just glad it didn’t take you that long to figure it out. Well, most of us are glad. Thomas and Will are still a little salty about losing fifty dollars to Percy and me.”

            “Seriously?” Gibbs grumbled. “You gambled on the statistical likelihood of domestic violence taking place between us?”

            But, having whispered the latter portion of his response, for fear that he was being eavesdropped on by more than one individual, particularly those with homophobic viewpoints, Gibbs worried that he had gone unheard when, after a long ten seconds, Duff had yet to reply.

            “Well,” Duff reluctantly started, mere seconds before Gibbs was set to make a repetition of what he had just said, “Percy made the original bet…I just backed him up. And, to be quite frank, we were more hopeful on your behalf than Will and Thomas were.”

            “I see.” Gibbs grumbled, not exactly sure as to which group he should be more annoyed with.

            “Would if make you feel better if I used my portion of the fifty dollars to take you out for a night on the town?” Duff inquired, sounding almost nervous.

            “Out on the town?” Gibbs parroted, ending with a small snort. “What is this? The roaring twenties?”

            “Stop deflecting.” Duff cajoled, more playful than commanding.

            Effectively called out on his bullshit, in a surprisingly tactful manner that had him slightly impressed, Gibbs frowned and worried with a loose thread threatening to undo the entire expanse of denim fabric covering his knees.

            “Look, it’s not that I don’t…It’s a bit soon, don’t you think?”

            He had, after all, only officially gotten together with Henry, and broken up with him, in the last twenty-four hours.

            “Yeah, I kind of jumped the gun, didn’t I?” Duff allowed, making a valiant attempt to laugh off the rejection. “But…We are having game night at Thomas’s and Will’s tonight, maybe you’d like to come to that? You know, as friends?”

            Relieved that Duff didn’t seem to be harboring any sort of residual resentment at having had his proposition for a date so promptly turned down, Gibbs relaxed a bit and allowed a small sight to escape his lips.

            “That depends on what game.” Gibbs allowed.        

            Because as priggish as such a stipulation sounded, Gibbs just wasn’t willing to participate in a game that caused Percy to become so worked up that he began making uncomfortable references to fucking his son again.

            “Well, after last week’s brawl, Sorry is off the table.” Duff began, a certain fond weariness in his voice.

            “Something tells me that’s not the only one.” Gibbs remarked.

            “Yeah, Monopoly is on the no-go list, too.” Duff elaborated. “Percy lost his shit when Will filled up half the board with properties.”

            Thinking, to himself, that Percy could create a full-scale war out of who could take the biggest shit, Gibbs rolled his eyes and wondered how it was that a man so fiercely competitive as the redhead in question had never gotten heavily involved in a sport of some kind.

            “We’re actually thinking about Cards against Humanity for tonight.” Duff added.

            “What is that?” Gibbs questioned.

            “You’ll like it.” Duff unhelpfully asserted. “And it’s not even really about winning, so Percy won’t be so much of a dick about it.”

              Thinking that he had nothing better to do that evening, as Kate and Tony were planning to binge-watch some horror movies in anticipation of Halloween, and Tim was yet far too shy to include him in any aspect of his life, Gibbs accepted the invitation and tried not to sound too excited as he did so. Even though this was the first time, in years, that he was actually going to be spending time with friends who weren’t Ducky.

            “That would be fine, I guess.”

            “Great.” Duff encouraged, making up for Gibbs’s falsified sense of nonchalance. “And tell you what, since I was a big enough dick to gamble on the chances of your inevitable breakup, I’ll even pay in for your share of the pizza.”

            “I think Percy is starting to rub off on you.” Gibbs grumbled, rolling his eyes.

            “No, if Percy were in on this call, he’d make a joke about your use of the word rubbing.”

            “Stop.” Gibbs insisted, utterly exasperated with all the endless number of dick jokes he’d been barraged with in the last 24 hours.

            “Alright, alright.” Duff obliged. “I’ll behave.”

            “You had better.” Gibbs directed, realizing, belatedly, just how flirtatious that might have sounded. “But where is this place, anyways?”

            Immensely thankful that Duff allowed the subject to be changed without protest, or any questions being raised as to what would happen if he didn’t chose to behave himself, Gibbs thanked his lucky stars and briefly contemplated limiting himself to three hundred words or less while at game night, if only to lessen his chances of his mouth getting him into some sort of trouble.

            “I’ll text you the address.” Duff offered.

            “Sounds good.” Gibbs grunted. “But I need to get back to work now.”

            And, without even waiting to exchange goodbyes, Gibbs hung up his phone and shoved it into his pocket before hurrying out of the stall – eager to return to his agents before they took it into their heads to go looking for him. Only, just as soon as he stepped out of the stall, he was promptly reminded of the fact that he had forgotten to take into consideration the fact that his oldest of friends might also be a little bit snoopy – as exemplified by the fact that said Scottish man had clearly opted to remain in the bathroom even well after his business had been complete upon hearing Gibbs’s voice coming from one of the stalls.

            “Stealing away from work to chat with a new beau, Jethro?” The Medical Examiner razzed, tutting playfully. “What would Vance say?”

            “I’d worry more about your bong-smoking in the autopsy freezers.” Gibbs retorted. “And your blunt-smoking in the bathrooms.” He added, taking a rather large sniff of the air.

            An act he rather quickly came to regret, as the smell of shit quickly overpowered the odor or marijuana – despite Ducky always using the most potent variety he could either get his hands on or grow himself.

            “Is it that obvious?” Ducky worried, reaching a nervous hand into the pocket of his lab coat where, no doubt, there resided either a pipe or half-smoked blunt.

            “You smell like Woodstock.” Gibbs answered honestly.

            “That may be so,” Ducky allowed, unbothered by the accusations that he reeked of marijuana, “But you, dear friend, smell like secrets.”

            Already having a pretty strong feeling as to where their conversation was about to go, Gibbs rolled his eyes and stomped towards the door only to be stopped in his tract by Ducky’s playful taunt, as it was a taunt that simply couldn’t be ignored.

            “Do tell, Jethro. How long have you been seeing this Jolene?”

            “Would you fuck off with this Jolene shit already?” Gibbs grumbled. “I’ve already told you that I’m done with redheads.”

            “Does that mean you’ve traded in your Jolene for a Daisy?” Ducky further razzed, spritzing himself with a small bottle of Febreze that he’d removed from another of his pockets.

             “People aren’t confined to certain names because of their hair color.” Gibbs retorted. “And that Febreze really isn’t helping, Duck. It just smells like apple-scented weed in here now.”

            And, of course, shit, but that went without saying.

            “Stop avoiding the question, Jethro.” Ducky implored. “And tell your dear friend who this mystery woman is.”

            “How about no.” Gibbs refused.

            “Be reasonable, Jethro.” Ducky implored. “I introduced you to Daphne almost immediately!”

             “Yeah, you did.” Gibbs agreed. “But you were both so stoned that day you forgot it even happened and tried to introduce me again!”

            In fact, they had both been so stoned out their minds that they had doubted the veracity of his statements up until Jimmy had intervened and informed them that they had, in fact, spent a good thirty minutes introducing themselves to Gibbs before offering him a few hits of the gigantic bong Ducky kept in his living room as ‘décor.’

            “In my defense,” Ducky began, “I did tell Jimmy to order more pizza for us than he did.”

            “You can’t blame pizza or Jimmy for that.” Gibbs defended.

             “Excuse me,” Ducky frowned, “But who is the authority on the subject here?”

            “Weird flex, Duck, but okay.” Gibbs sighed, rolling his eyes.

             Not so unaware of millennial slang that he didn’t understand what had just said to him, or at least entirely unwilling to admit to any sort of ignorance on the subject, Ducky frowned and rolled his own eyes.

            “You’ve been spending too much time with Sarah.” He accused, trying to pull open the push door.

            “And you’ve been spending too much time with Mary-Jane.” Gibbs retorted, helping the confused man open the door.

              

             

           

Chapter Text

            Only managing to leave for Thomas and Will’s house a full fifteen minutes after he was already due to arrive, thanks to Tony and Kate halting his departure by getting into a pretty heated argument about whether or not they should watch Halloween or An American Werewolf in London first, a squabble that had quickly turned heated enough to warrant an intervention, Gibbs turned into the cheery neighborhood of Pleasant View in a rather grumpy mood, peeved because he had been waylaid over yet another silly argument between his two agents and likewise just as irritated over the only directions Duff giving him, aside from the house number, being to watch for the front yard with a rainbow flag. Because while that would, admittedly, have been very great advice in any other fucking neighborhood, as a flag really was quite a distinct landmark, particularly a brightly-colored one, that advise was all but useless in a neighborhood such as this one, where it seemed almost every other fucking yard had some sort of rainbow flag proudly displayed on their property. And while, granted, he could just simply navigate off of house numbers alone, being an expert navigator and all, he was finding it alarmingly difficult, even with his exemplary eye sight, to spot any of the painted on number, given that the citizens of that neighborhood had explicably decided that one-inch letters, in the murkiest shade of gray, were the perfect aesthetics for their home.

            In fact, it was only as he drove himself past a rather quaint looking story-book house, for the seventh fucking time in as many minutes, that Gibbs finally realized that it’s driveway, filled past capacity with varying models of vehicles, was very likely attached to the house he had been searching so impatiently for – as the giant, oversized truck parked rather crookedly at the front of the driveway just screamed out Percy’s name. Which prompted a suddenly mischievous Gibbs to carefully maneuver his own, regularly sized truck, into the driveway at a delicate angle just for the purposes of pissing off that antagonizing redhead as badly as he deserved for making all those sexual innuendos about his child.

             It was only as Gibbs exited his vehicle, careful not to scratch the paint of the antique Thunderbird parked nearby, and walked up the driveway toward the front door of the well-kept domicile, that Gibbs started to reconsider his decision to attend the long-standing game night of the men he had only known for less than a full day. For, despite the absurdity of such a thought, it felt almost as if he was intruding on something sacred and not at all meant for him.

            Unfortunately, however, Gibbs didn’t really have much time to act on his thoughts of retreating, as almost the very second he stepped up unto the top step of the stoop, the deafening sound of three large dogs braying ,loud enough to wake the dead, alerted everyone inside to his presence.

            “I swear to fucking God,” Came Percy’s voice, all but dripping with irritation, “If it’s the fucking Jehovah’s again I’m going to pull my cock out right in front of them.”

            “You will not!” Came Thomas countered, completely aghast. “The Mormons called the cops on you the last time you did that!”

             Feeling quite poorly for the poor missionaries who had been forced to contend with the sight of a dick that he was all but certain contained a large multitude of freckles, as well as some pretty vibrant red hair, Gibbs frowned and only prayed that he wouldn’t be met with the same cruel fate.

            “There are no laws against swinging your dick in your own doorway!” Percy protested.

            “Yes, there is!” Will countered, sounding ready to throttle the hothead. “And I’ll remind you that this is my fucking house!”

            “Would you idiots, not you Thomas, shut the fuck up?” Duff impatiently demanded, his deep voice effortlessly carrying through the door. “It’s not the Jehovah’s, It’s Jethro. I can see his truck in the driveway.”

            Realizing, then and there, that there could now be no escaping of the social engagement that laid directly before him, as it would be the very height of rudeness to retreat back into the safety of his truck now that his presence had been made known to all inside, not to mention intolerably mortifying, Gibbs grimaced all the deeper but nonetheless steeled himself for the evening that laid ahead, steadfastly refusing, as always, to prove himself any degree of a coward.

            “Jethy is finally here?” Percy cooed, every bit as obnoxious as always. “That’s great! I’m going to greet him with one of my trademark salutes.”

            Having absolutely no doubt in his mind that such a gesture involved a distinct lack of hands, and an abundance of penis instead, Gibbs was immensely relieved when Thomas, yet again, proved himself the voice of reason.

            “Percival, you zip your fucking pants back up this instance!” The beleaguered host commanded, surprisingly authoritative.

            “This place is a fucking prison!” Percy whined, surprisingly cowed.

            “I hardly think it’s unreasonable of us to ask that you to hold off on flashing your dick at Jethro.” Duff lectured. “For God’s sake, give him some time to acclimate to the group.”

             Thinking, to himself, that no amount of acclimation would ever be sufficient enough for him to greet the sight of Percy’s freckled dick with anything other than abhorrence, as well as the appropriate amount of reciprocal violence, Gibbs rolled his eyes and wondered how it was that Percy had managed to last so long in life without being murdered.

            “You’re right.” Percy meekly agreed. “There’s no sense in making him envious.”

            “You’re a fucking moron, Perce.” Will admonished, with only a twinge of disgust marring his fondness for the man.

            It was only a few seconds later that the front door was pushed open, emitting unto the porch a gaggle of rowdy middle-aged men and a trio of enormous pitch-black dogs - the latter of whom made many valiant attempts at pilfering the bread in his arms as gently as they could without proving their efforts to be too useless.

            “Orion, Regulus, Cygnus – down!” Will barked, whistling sharply.

            Almost as well-trained as Tim’s own dog, one by one the oversized beasts lowered themselves to the ground in submission, whining pitifully in protest all the while but nonetheless fully aware of just who was in charge.

            “Percy,” Thomas added, wryly, “You can heel, too.”

            Unsurprisingly, however, that half-hearted order to stay his excitement did but little to discourage Percy from attacking Gibbs with a clumsy, one-armed hug directed at his neck, the exuberance of which soon had his bruised shoulder crying out in protest against such unkindly behavior being so soon inflicted upon it again. But, rather than curse the redhead out for jostling the sore shoulder, and thus call attention to the fact that he had allowed himself to get assaulted by another man, who really wasn’t all that much bigger then him, Gibbs kept mum and impatiently squirmed away from the redheaded pest still attached to him.

            “What the fuck is that in your arms?” Percy demanded, not at all affected by having just been shrugged off his person as if he were no more than a cobweb. “Did you steal a baby?”

            “Who would wrap a fucking baby in cellophane?” Gibbs interrogated, rolling his eyes.

            “It would keep them quiet.” Percy offered. “And probably warm.”

            “That settles it.” Gibbs sighed. “You’re never babysitting.”   

            Not only because Ducky, or his father, were the only two people he would ever entrust with the care of his precious children, particularly so with the former plague-sufferer, but so too because he was all but certain that Percy would be one to actively encourage his children’s shenanigans or, worse yet, actively participate in them – whereas as his father would be the one to put a stop to them and Ducky one to prevent them from happening altogether.

            “Oh, Jethy, I don’t want to babysit your son, I want to – “

            Promptly silenced by one solid punch to the gut from Duff, Percy let out a rather unseemly grunt and dropped to his knees, grabbing unto the giant neck of one of the Newfoundland’s as he did so to prevent collapsing unto the ground altogether.

            “Jesus.” Percy huffed, his face now as red as his hair as he labored to breathe.

             Starting to feel rather badly for the man who had just so recently been sucker-punched, although he had most certainly deserved such treatment, Gibbs found himself rather alarmed and sought to remove any trace of pity he had for the annoying redhead crouched on the floor by doing something he loathed – drawing attention unto himself.

            “I made pumpkin bread.” Gibbs awkwardly announced, lifting the loaf further away from the snout of the dog whom he thought was Cygnus.

            Gingerly removing the large round of bread from his arms, with all the air of a nervous mother collecting a fussing newborn out of the hands of her clumsy husband, Duff peeled back a small section of the cellophane protecting the confectionary and gave a small sniff.

            “It’s official.” Duff said somberly, cradling the loaf to his chest. “I love you.”

            Saved from all the indignity and embarrassment that would have stemmed forth from trying to explain away the sudden blush and unexplainable blush that had crept up into his cheeks at such an expected statement, as Percy had chosen then and there to return to his usual caustic self, Gibbs heaved a silent sigh of relief and passionately thanked his lucky starts that the redhead in question had such unfathomably bad timing.

            “You’re going to make that claim without even tasting it first?” Percy ribbed, climbing slowly back unto his feet.

            “It’s almost like you enjoy being punched.” Will sighed, slugging him on the shoulder.

            “Oh yeah, Daddy.” Percy moaned, closing his eyes. “Hit me harder.”          

            Somewhat impressed by the way in which Percy seemed to so effortlessly take his blows, and shrug them off as if they had never even happened in the first place, Gibbs almost forgot to be angry with him for having made such a scandalous statement about Tony just a few moments earlier.

            “You’re about ten seconds away from me setting Orion on you.” Will forewarned, lying a rather large hand atop of one of the dogs’ massive heads.

            Clearly understanding that his breath would be wasted in the pursuit of trying to stop all the bickering currently going on in his foyer, especially so when one of the participants of said squabbling happened to be his own husband, and the other the ungovernable Percy, Thomas sighed softly and grabbed Gibbs beneath the elbow .

            “Let’s get you something to drink.” His host suggested, glancing at his frozen face with a clear show of compassion. “Something warm.”

            “Something warm.” Gibbs agreed, reluctantly allowing Will to collect his jacket and hat during a pause in his quarreling.

            Fortunately, Gibbs did not have long to rue the loss of his winter garments, as the home he was lead through only seemed to get warmer and warmer the further they treaded inside, reaching all its glory and fullness the moment they made their way into the delightfully toasty kitchen – a rather pretty little room that, unlike the one at Henry’s, seemed to actually be used often enough to warrant its existence.

            “Did you get lost, Jethy?” Percy needled, waltzing into the kitchen behind the rather annoyed duo of Duff and Will. “I never pegged you for one to be so late to something.”   

            One hundred percent certain that raising forth any sort of protest against being referred to as Jethy would only make the irritating redhead double down on his efforts to use such a nickname as often as possible, Gibbs held his tongue and instead leveled a glare, albeit a rather weak one, at Duff – whose inability to give adequate directions made up a pretty significant portion of the blame for his being late.

            “Duff told me to look for the house with the rainbow flag.” Gibbs happily tattled, relieved to have a pretty solid excuse for his tardiness. “Which was basically like telling me to look for a lake in fucking Minnesota.”  

            But, if Gibbs had harbored even the slightest source of irritation toward the golden-eyed man at the start of his indictment, even that faint glimmer of annoyance vanished when the guilty culprit smiled sheepishly at him and revealed some rather impressive dimples.

            “My bad.” He apologized, fully accepting of the blame laid at his feet.

            “It’s not entirely your fault.” Gibbs assured. “I would have still had trouble spotting the house numbers with how dark they are.” And, not wishing to make himself appear too soft, he quickly added: “But I’m sure Percy has no trouble with that sort of thing, given that he drives a truck as big as a house.”

            “That fucking monstrosity isn’t mine! How dare you?” Percy guffawed, looking beyond scandalized at the very suggestion. “I drive a Thunderbird. Thomas is the compensating asshole who drives that gas-guzzler!”

            One glance at the accused individual’s guilty face telling him all he needed to know, namely that he wasn’t being actively deceived by Percy, Gibbs cringed at his faux-pas and only hoped that Thomas wouldn’t take too much offense at having had his choice of vehicle so thoroughly mocked by a man he had only known for a precious few hours.

            “Thomas drives that tank because of his road rage,” Will defended, “Not because he needs to compensate.”

             “Not even an hour in,” Duff muttered, “And already we’re talking about dicks.”

            Wishing to put himself back into the good graces of his hosts, if indeed, he had even fallen out of them in the first place, Gibbs cleared his throat and tried his best to show his support for Thomas’s side of the argument – believing, even as he did so, that Percy was not at all that off-base by insinuating that the tank parked out front was a very clear indicator of some sort of compensation.

            “How does driving a giant truck help with road rage?” Gibbs queried, rather clumsily tripping over his words.

            “It doesn’t.” Will sighed defeatedly. “But at least it keeps Thomas safe from retaliatory ramming and gunshots.”

             “Don’t give me that look,” Thomas protested, “It’s all those fuckers who can’t drive that are the problem!”

            Quite taken aback to hear such vulgar vehemence stemming forth from Thomas’s mouth, of all people, as up until then it had seemed, to Gibbs, that said man had only ever spoken with pleasantries and kind words, apart from the occasional chastisement of Percy, the nature of which were also exceedingly mild in nature, Gibbs felt his eyes go wide – a reaction that hadn’t gone unnoticed by the nearby Duff.

            “Thomas is almost too nice when it comes to everything else,” Duff whispered conspiratorially, loud enough for everyone to hear, “The road rage is to keep him humble.”

            “And to keep him from being accused of being the fourth coming of Christ or something.” Percy suggested, already eagerly cutting the pumpkin bread up.

            “Don’t you mean the second coming?” Gibbs questioned, gratefully accepting a large glass of hot apple cider from Thomas.

             “Fuck if I know.” Percy shrugged. “Didn’t that fucker die and rise, like, half a billion times?”

            Overwhelmingly grateful that Abby hadn’t been around to overhear such an irreverent statement, as the fit she would have thrown in response would have surely warranted the police being called, Gibbs grimaced and shook his head.

            “No.” He answered. “Jesus rose once – on Easter.”

            Or, at the very least, Gibbs thought that was the case.

            “Well, that’s once more than any of us have ever risen from the dead.” Percy quipped, meticulously plating up the bread unto some rather pretty dessert plates. “At least as far I know.”

            Far too busy with the very important task of funneling the warm apple cider down his throat to respond, much less suggest that the bread should be served with a little bit of the cinnamon butter he had also brought along, Gibbs watched nervously as Percy funneled a rather large portion of the cake into his mouth.

            “Holy fuck,” Percy moaned, “This bread tastes better than victory.”

            “Well, shit, that’s a compliment if ever I heard one.” Will remarked, taking an investigative bite of his own bread before speaking again. “Thomas, I love you, but I’m leaving you for Jethro now.”

            “I understand.” Thomas assured, his own mouth full of the bread.

            Practically overwhelmed by the unexpected enthusiasm of such unsolicited compliments, and painfully embarrassed with all the attention being paid his way, Gibbs squirmed rather awkwardly and struggled for anything of consequence to say.

            “It’s just bread.” Gibbs grumbled, his face feeling suddenly very warm. “It took fifteen minutes, at most, to make.”

             Granted, five minutes of that time had been largely devoted to keeping Kate away from the batter, but still…Gibbs didn’t like to toot his own horn.

             “Just imagine what you could do with thirty.” Duff moaned, already on his second slice.

            “I’m sure you spend all night imagining that.” Percy teased, swiping away some crumbs from his chin with the back of his hand.

            Hardly having any time, at all, to contemplate the meaning behind Duff’s suddenly very red face, and whether or not such a color might have something to do with the embarrassment of being called out on having a crush, before Will spoke up and stole all attentions unto himself, Gibbs frowned and tried desperately to shake such thoughts from his head – for though Duff was a very attractive man, indeed, with wondrously golden eyes, it would be to no one’s advantage if Gibbs was to succumb to the charms of yet another man he had only met a short while ago.

            “Percy, if we took a shot for every time you made some sort of reference to dicks, we’d have all been dead our freshman year of college.” Will grumbled, licking off the fork he had used to eat his portion of the bread.

            “To be fair, I kind of really wanted to be dead our first year of college anyways, so…”

            “Percy!” Thomas squawked, full of alarmed concern, “We talked about this! No more jokes about suicide.”

            “Calm down, Tommy.” Percy directed. “I used the past-tense!”

            “There’s always a loophole with you, isn’t there?” Thomas frowned, clearly exasperated.

            Appearing to take at least some measure of pity on the kind-hearted man who was currently hosting him, Percy rolled his eyes but nonetheless opted to lighten the mood with a small, yet self-depreciating, joke.

            “Why do you think I make such a good politician?”

            “Because you have no soul.” Gibbs suggested, referring to the shorter man’s red hair as he followed Will, and his small trio of giant dogs, into a rather cozy living room.

             “I’m sure that helps.” Percy pliantly agreed, flopping himself down into an overstuffed recliner that nearly threatened to swallow him whole.

            Far too unfamiliar with the dynamics of the group to pick his seat before everyone else had, Gibbs stood rather awkwardly and waited rather impatiently for the remainder of the individuals to seat themselves.

            “I told you we should have gotten him a bib.” Will needled his husband.

            “I think a highchair would have been better.” Thomas agreed, glancing in distance at all the breadcrumbs being spilled onto his furniture.

             “Oh, piss off.” Percy grumbled. “You know damn well that the dogs will take care of it.”

             “They’ll also get some pretty hellacious gas from those crumbs.” Will countered, sighing heavily as all three Newfoundlands shoved their noses into the recliner to hunt down the crumbs that had fallen from Percy’s plate.

            Hoping against hope that neither one of those dogs would be anywhere near him when the effects of the cake kicked in, as he was still quite traumatized from the time that one of Henry’s cats had crop-dusted him, Gibbs frowned but nonetheless had enough tact to hide the expression behind a cough.

            “To be fair, Thomas, so will you.” Duff razzed, finally flopping himself down into a loveseat.

            An act which, while perfectly simple, thankfully allotted Gibbs enough confidence to sit himself down on the cushion directly beside him.

            “Really, Duff, really?” Thomas squawked, blushing profusely. “You’re going to call me out in my own home?”

             “Take it easy, Tommy.” Percy cajoled. “Everyone farts.”

            Almost wishing for a return to the constant dick references, as at least with those their host for the evening didn’t look quite so scandalized, Gibbs shook his head and questioned the intelligence behind allowing himself to become adopted by such a dysfunctional group.

             “Must you be so vulgar?” Thomas reprimanded, now a rather vibrant shade of red.

            “So we can curse all we want,” Percy scoffed, “But farting is off the table?”

             “Not with Thomas in the room, it isn’t.” Duff teased.

             Clearly very protective of the man he had chosen to spend the rest of his life with, Will glared sharply both of the antagonizer before laying a warning hand atop one of his giant dogs’ heads.

            “One more crack about my husband’s gastrointestinal issues, and I’m sicking Orion on the both of you.”

             Fully confident of the fact that either one of those three dogs could wreak a great deal of havoc on a person’s body, particularly the largest of the three, Gibbs sat up a little straighter in his seat and contemplated moving away from one of the potential targets of the imminent mauling.

            “Stop you using your dogs against us.” Percy pouted. “They’re good boys, they don’t deserve to be used in such a manner.”

            “You’re right, Perce.” Will agreed. “You should never go anywhere near a good boy’s mouth.”

            “Speaking of things going in mouths,” Percy grinned, glancing tauntingly over at where Gibbs sat with Duff, “I’m going to need the recipe for this fucking bread.”          

             Having only a few seconds in which to feel grateful for the fact that they hadn’t all just been regaled with yet another penis joke, the likes of which was promised to be obscene given that it was Percy speaking, Gibbs sank back against the cushions of his loveseats for a brief spill only to his brief comfort pulled away when he spoke up about the simplicity of making the bread.

            “I don’t really have a recipe, I just throw stuff together until it looks right.”

            Granted, he did have a surplus of taste-testers always waiting about in the wings to utilize and question as to whether or not he had used too much, or too little, of this and that.

            “You’re a dirty liar, Jethro.” Will accused.

            “Why would I lie about something so stupid?” Gibbs retorted, looking to Duff for support.

            As expected, his couch-mate was quick to rise to the occasion.

            “Leave Martha Stewart alone, Will.” Duff implored. “We’ve got a game to play.”

            Fortunately for Duff, Thomas was up on his feet and speaking before Gibbs could chew him out for referring to him as some sort of talk show chef.

            “And we will ALL keep civil while playing it.” Thomas announced, glaring sharply at both Percy and his husband.

            “The moratorium on Clue wasn’t my fucking fault!” Will groused, jumping to his feet to jerk a thumb at Percy. “That little fucker cheated!”

            “I did not, you sore fucking loser.” Percy retorted, refusing to rise from his seat. “And you’re one to talk after that shit you pulled during Yahtzee.”

             “We are NOT getting into the great Yahtzee debate again!” Thomas snapped, uncharacteristically stern. “Do you not remember the five-hundred-dollar noise fine!?”

            Thinking, to himself, of course, that there had to have been numerous disturbance calls called in on them for an officer to have finally lost his cool and slapped with a fine that large, Gibbs grimaced and wondered what he was in for that evening. For aside from the occasional weed-related shenanigans, the time he spent with Ducky outside of work was usually of a calm and docile nature.

            “Not to mention my nose was broken,” Percy frowned, “But sure, let’s concentrate on the important things here.”

            “Like you’re not familiar with the concept of your nose being broken.” Will snorted.

            “Really, William?” Thomas sighed, throwing up his hands. “Child abuse jokes?”

            “It is really a joke if it happened?” Percy philosophized.

            Not at all surprised by the fact that a man so caustic in nature had been abused during his youth, but still rather alarmed at the casual way in which he made reference to the fact, as Jimmy would only become squirrely and uptight when pressed with questions about his abusive upbringing, Gibbs shifted a little uncomfortably where he sat and wondered if Percy was simply trying to give off an air of being far more unaffected by the happenings of his early years than he truly was.

            “Can we just start the game already?” Duff sighed. “You’re going to scare Jethro away.”

            “I was a Marine, Duff, I think I can handle this.” Gibbs assured, only half-sure of the veracity of his statement.

            “Yeah?” Will challenged. “Just wait until Percy pulls his dick out at you.”

            Rather concerned by the unflinching confidence of such a statement, as it inarguably insinuated that getting a face full of dick was an inevitable occurrence that took place during every game night, Gibbs sat up a little straighter and nearly choked on his apple cider.

            “Excuse me, what?”

            “My dick is as inevitable as taxes,” Percy proudly declared, “Just give it time.”

            “I’m sure it’s every bit as pleasant as taxes, too.” Gibbs allowed, grabbing up the large black box lying on the coffee table. “Now, can someone show me how to play this game before we get a faceful of spotted dick?”

            “Easy peasy,” Thomas assured, gently removing the box from his hands, “All you need to do is pick the best of your allotted cards to answer the question drawn.”

             As it soon turned out, Gibbs was rather an adept hand at playing Cards Against Humanity, enjoying here and there a few small successes and, on occasion, much larger ones that resulted in full-bodied laughs and the singular occasion of Duff shooting a rather unfortunate amount of red wine out of his nose and unto his light-colored jeans.

            “Shit.” Duff cursed, still shaking with laughter as he dabbed at the stain with a napkin. “I haven’t laughed that hard since Percy got kicked in the balls by that Girl Scout.”

            Very curious to know the events that had lead up to a small child deciding to kick a grown man in the balls, particularly so one who was involved in an organization he was pretty sure insinuated themselves to be a non-violent one, Gibbs opened his mouth to make inquiries only to be interrupted by the unfortunate ringing of his cellphone.

             “Excuse me,” Gibbs frowned, clicking accept, “It’s my kid.”

            “Tell him I say heyyy.” Percy winked, waggling his brows suggestively.

            Fortunately, Duff saved him the trouble of telling Percy to shut the fuck up by whacking him in the arm with a mighty fist.

            “He – “ Gibbs began, only to be immediately cut off.

            “Dad, don’t get mad but – “

            “Okay,” Gibbs grumbled, “I’m already pretty fucking mad.”

            Not only because his night out had been interrupted for reasons he was sure were ridiculous and childish nature, but so too because any sentence that started out with imploring him not to be mad usually and statistically wound up with him finishing the entire conversation in a rather aggravated state.

            “Dad –

            “What did you Anthony Angelo?” He interrogated, switching to full Papa-Bear mode even despite everyone’s eyes being on him.

            “…Dad, I love you.”

            “Just tell me what you did.” Gibbs implored, already imagining all sorts of awful things.

            “Well…” Tony began, clearly buying himself some time. “I had a theory that popcorn would cook twice as fast on the defrost setting…I was wrong.”

            Forcing himself to stay his anger by reasoning, to himself, that Tony would not have been so calm and collected if he had set the whole house ablaze, Gibbs scowled but at least managed to refrain from chewing his child out before getting the full story.

            “And?” Gibbs coaxed, holding a hand up to his temple.

            “Your microwave…may have been ablaze for a brief time.”

            “A brief time!” Kate echoed, desperate to buy themselves some leniency. “Three minutes, tops.”

            Knowing that three minutes was quite a significant amount of time where regarded the ravages of fire, Gibbs felt a stress headache coming on and took a rather large sip of the red wine Thomas had been generous enough to supply once his cider had been finished.

            “How do my countertops look?”

            “Those are actually fine,” Tony insisted, “It was just the microwave that was unsalvageable. We had to toss it out in the backyard to air out.”

             Having already thought, for a while, that it was high time he purchase a new microwave, given that he had retained possession of that particular model since he had first married Shannon, Gibbs was not as angry as he might have been at the easily-prevented loss of the appliance.

            “Now tell me what you’re protecting Kate from.” Gibbs directed, instinctively knowing that the microwave was only the tip of the iceberg.            

            “What are you talking abo – “

            “Anthony!” Gibbs barked, making Duff jump and spill even more wine unto his pants.

            “She went down into the basement – “

            “Tattletale – “

            “Without her shoes to look for a flashlight and got a giant splinter in her heel.”

            One of the few unnegotiable rules in his house being that nobody ever went down into his basement without solid-soled shoes, given that Kelly had once had to go to the hospital to get a splinter surgically removed the one and only time he had been lax about that rule, Gibbs lost his cool and threw away whatever mercy he had been planning to grace his agents with.

            “You two know you’re not allowed to be down there without shoes!” Gibbs thundered, hearing his kids shaking all away across the city. “Why didn’t you just use the flashlight upstairs!?”

            “It was out of batteries!” Kate whined.

            “What – Why did you even need a flashlight?” Gibbs interrogated. “Did you two do something to the fusebox?”

            ‘Lord help them’, Gibbs thought, ‘That had better not have been the case.’ Because the ruination of a pretty basic kitchen appliance was one thing, but the fucking up an antire electric system was quite another.

            “…Ambience.” Tony muttered, nearly inaudible.

            “Ambience?” Gibbs parroted, the word coming out as a growl.

            “We made a blanket fort…” Tony weakly explained.

            “You two are fucking grounded.” Gibbs growled. “Just wait until I get home.”

            “Yes, sir.” Came the two, synchronous responses.

            And, even though he hated just how much it made him sound like his own father, Gibbs added:

            “I want both your asses in bed by the time I get there.”

            “Got it.” They assured, hanging up before Gibbs could issue forth any more decrees.

            Charitably opting not to take any real offense with such a decision, as he would have time enough to chew them out once he got there, and given that they did, in fact, need time to get themselves into bed, Gibbs shoved his phone back into his jean pocket and stood up.

            “I need to go murder my children.” He explained. “Sorry.”

            To say that he was rather surprised when four genuine disappointed faces looked at him would have been an understatement, as it was not often that people wished for Gibbs to stay.

            “We’re still on for coffee tomorrow morning, right?” Will fussed.

            Although Gibbs would have vastly preferred avoiding Henry to anything else in the world, he was likewise just as unwilling to let that redheaded fuck get one over on him.

            “If murdering my children doesn’t take all night, sure.” Gibbs allowed. “Save me a seat.”

            “Good luck murdering your children, then.” Duff bolstered. “Call us if you need any help.”

 

           

           

Chapter Text

            Although Tim was pretty reasonably assured that Gibbs would never deliberately thrust anyone crass or intimidating upon him just to make good on a promise to a friend, he could admit, at least to himself, that he had been somewhat reluctant to accept his stern boss’s suggestion that he hire an ‘acquaintance’ of his to care for Jethro during the day. Because while he, himself, could withstand any of the abuses that might stem forth from whomever it was Gibbs had insisted would be a perfect temporary dogsitter, no doubt a former military buddy, his helpless German Shepherd would enjoy no such privileges, given that he couldn’t speak and draw light unto any potential abuse and likewise also because he had been far too well-trained, by Tim, not to bite unless explicitly directed to do so by him.

            Unfortunately, however, Tim really didn’t have all that much time to act on his reconsideration of the deal presented to him. As mere seconds before he was set to dial up Gibbs, and plead with him not to send the temporary replacement over, on the dishonest grounds that he had suddenly found somebody else for the task, a timid knock sounded on his door and put all thoughts of an easy subterfuge out of his head.

            But, upon opening the door, and espying a rather beautiful woman with a small toddler on her hip, instead of the grizzled old drill sergeant he had been expecting, all his plots to send the recommended help on their way proved superfluous. Because not only was he certain that the young woman currently standing on his doorstep would be easy to work with, given that she possessed a rather kind face and friendly smile, but so too because she appeared far too small to significantly injure Jethro any real way.

            “Hello,” The skinny woman greeted, clutching her baby close to her chest, “I am Hua.”

            Still quite stunned by the unexpected appearance of a rather pretty woman on his doorstep, given that he had erroneously assumed Hua to be a stereotypical male name, Tim simply blinked stupidly in response to his guest’s appearance before an impatient whine from Jethro reminded him of what that morning’s goal was – securing a new caretaker for the furry child in his life.

            “I’m Tim.” He thankfully managed, his tongue suddenly very heavy. “Who is this?”

            And, having always been very fond of babies and small children, Tim found himself instinctively giving the tiny little thing in Hua’s arms a tiny handshake, before remembering, belatedly, that the vast majority of mothers really didn’t care for having a complete stranger touching their children.

            “This is Bao.” She answered, squeezing the babbling baby even closer to herself. “I hope you don’t mind that I brought the baby. Gibbs said you wouldn’t mind.”

            Thinking, to himself, that he would never resent the presence of a child in his home, especially one so adorable as the dark-haired and chubby-cheeks Bao, Tim smiled as welcomingly as possible and stepped aside to allow the shivering duo inside.

            “Of course not.” Tim reassured. “But please, come inside. It’s cold out there.”

            And although he would never voice his concerns out loud, given that doing so would be quite inappropriate given their lack of a meaningful relationship, Tim really was starting to get a fair bit concerned about the ruddy state of Bao’s cheeks as well as his profusely dripping nose and cloudy eyes.

            “Thank you.” Hua expressed, eagerly stepping into his kitchen.

            “Can I get you something warm to drink?” Tim fussed, anxious about her distinct lack of a winter hat.

             “No - but thank you.” Hua politely refused, understandably very anxious about being in a stranger’s apartment with her baby in tow.

            A notable awkwardness fell over the entry way then, as Hua fidgeted uncomfortably and Tim struggled to find his tongue whilst in the presence of a rather beautiful woman with astonishing eyes. Because while his confidence levels had slightly risen, now that he was no longer quite so fat and unfit, he still struggled greatly with speaking in front of pretty girls. Well, except for Kate, but that was only because she was practically an older sister by that point in time.

            “Where is your dog?” Hua questioned, gingerly breaking the silence the very moment it became uncomfortable.

             Immensely relieved to have been given so easy a distraction, Tim whistled sharply and waited patiently for Jethro to come trotting into the room.

            “This is Jethro.” Tim introduced, laying an affectionate hand on the German Shepherd’s massive head. “Jethro, this is Hua.”

            Failing to recognize the comedy behind having just had a dog introduced to her, or elsewise simply not appreciating the gesture, Hua smiled tersely and squeezed Bao tightly enough to elicit a sharp cry of protest from the baby.

            “That…That is a very large dog.” The nervous mother commented, looking ready to the flee the house as the slightest provocation from said beast.

            Thankfully, for all the three of them, Jethro was far too well-behaved to frighten anyone away from his home.

            “Jethro may be big, but he wouldn’t hurt a fly.” Tim confidently assured, giving the good boy a scratch beneath his furry chin. “I’ve trained him very well. I promise.”

            And, as if on cue, Jethro dropped down unto his belly and looked dolefully up at Hua with his large brown eyes. Earning for himself a rather delighted squeal from a suddenly animated Bao, and likewise a soft smile from his potential dogsitter.

            “He’s also very good with babies.” Tim volunteered, even as they watched Jethro scoot himself forward and sniff at the delighted Bao’s feet.

            “As I can see.” Hua agreed, slowly relaxing her posture as she watched Jethro fail to retaliate when Bao pulled at his ears. “Very gentle.”

            Glad to see that Hua no longer looked ready to flee his home at the slightest provocation, or was at least taking steps to appear more relaxed, Tim found himself smiling and redoubling his efforts to make the young woman feel comfortable.

            “Please, sit down.” Tim fussed, still worried about Bao’s flushed cheeks.

            “If you insist.” Hua meekly agreed, slowly lowering herself into the same rocking chair Tim had often used to rock Sarah to sleep. “Thank you.”

            But, rather than opt to fall asleep, the clever and absolutely delighted Bao used his new and lower vantage point to better assault the passively-amused Jethro with a series of slobbery kisses – the variety of which the German Shepherd was more than happy to return.

            “He’s adorable.” Tim appraised, grinning at Bao’s impassioned squawkings.

            “Thank you.” Hua smiled, dark eyes lighting up as she kissed the top of her son’s hair.

            “He has to be close to eleven months, yes?” Tim inquired, taking an educated guess.

            Looking surprised, but not at all alarmed, Hua tilted her head in an endearing fashion and gave him a quizzical look.

            “He will be in two weeks.” Hua confirmed. “How did you guess?”

            “I practically raised my little sister.” Tim proudly confided.

            “A loyal brother is a treasure.” Hua applauded, plopping Bao down unto the living room floor once it became clear he would not sit still with Jethro nearby.

            Now absolutely delighted, to the point that he was cackling like a miniature maniac, Bao bounced on his padded butt and clapped clumsily before falling forward far enough to seize Jethro’s thick collar with his slobbery hands and pull himself up. A rather inspired bit of ingenuity that had Jethro absolutely vibrating with similar excitement as he wriggled his lower half and set his tail to flying at lighting speeds.

            “Do you have any siblings, Hua?” Tim inquired, taking great care to make certain that he was pronouncing the name correctly.

            “No, I don’t think so.” Hua frowned. “I grew up in one of the orphanages in Ghanzu.”     

            Despite not knowing a great deal about life in other countries, apart from his grandfather’s native Ireland, Tim knew enough about the nature of orphanages in other countries, particularly those with questionable human rights policies, to know that a frown was not at all an undeserved response to that confession.

            “I’m sorry to hear that.” He expressed, completely earnest.

            “Don’t be.” Hua comforted. “I did not stay there very long.”

            “No?” Tim inquired, hoping against hope that her story was a happy one that ended in adoption with a kind family.

            Taking a brief moment to gently move Bao’s hands away from Jethro’s eyes, and instead position them on the dogs less delicate shoulders, Hua frowned slightly and only reluctantly filled him in on more about her life.

            “I left the orphanage when I was fourteen and found work in the fields.” Hua explained, unable to meet his eyes. “It was hard. But it was better being out in the sun all day, then it was being held in a room all night and day with all the other girls.”

            Knowing, from Tony, that boarding schools were already bad enough about making children live on top of one another, Tim couldn’t even begin to imagine the lack of privacy and autonomy that came with growing up in an orphanage in China.

            “When did you come to America?” Tim asked, hoping to steer the conversation towards happier subjects.

            “As soon as I could.” Hua divulged, a slight blush creeping up unto her cheeks. “I…I met a man in Shanghai, when he was doing work for Doctors with No Borders. He treated my ulcer, then asked me to marry him.”

            “You two must have fallen in love right away.” Tim observed, already knowing that was not the case.

             But, rather than latch on to the reasonable doubt that had just been presented to her, Hua shook her head and pressed onward, seemingly determined to be honest even though it clearly made her very uncomfortable to do so.

            “He needed a wife,” She shrugged, “And I needed to leave China.”

             “Were you in some sort of trouble?”

            “I was.” Hua confirmed, once more staring at the floor. “I wrote anti-communist propaganda while I worked with APSCO, and when the Director discovered it, he outed me to the government.”

             Feeling rather ashamed of himself when, for a moment, his spark of delight that Hua had been involved in APSCO eclipsed his sympathy, Tim clamped down hard on his tongue by way of penance and scolded himself most severely.

            “Is your husband kind to you?” Tim worried, having heard all sorts of horror stories in the news about what sometimes happened to young girls fleeing their countries to men that were not much better than slave-drivers.

            “He was kind enough.” Hua allowed. “But he left me, once I got pregnant with Bao.”

             “That’s awful.” Tim sympathized, wondering at the type of person who could do such a thing.

            “It was not so bad.” Hua countered, a small smile coming across his face. “I was glad not to have to smell his bad breath any longer.”

            Unable to stop the small chortle that left his mouth at such a commentary, Tim blushed only to be immediately reassured by Hua joining in with the mirth via a giggle of her own.

            “How did you end up interning for APSCO?” Tim inquired, once their mutual laughter had quieted and been replaced, instead, with two synchronous smiles.

            “They needed somebody to type and I could.” Hua shrugged. “I was also willing to work just for food and board.”

            “It wasn’t all bad, was it?” Tim pressed.

            “No. I love space, and I learned many things just by being a secretary.” Hua reassured, a small smile returning to her face. “Did you work with NASA?”

            “I wish.” Tim confirmed, recalling his childhood dream of being the first man to walk on Mars. “But I did get to meet Buzz Aldrin once.”

            Granted, it had been a pure stroke of luck, bumping into said man in the bathroom of a gas station during a road trip with his Granma Penny, but still…the man had been kind enough to listen to him talk his ear off about everything and anything space related, and, as far as Tim was concerned, that constituted having met the man.

            “I am so jealous.” Hua cried, dark eyes all aglow with wonder. “Was he as kind as he looked on television?”

             “He was kinder.” Tim informed, wishing he could spend all morning filling her in on the details.

            Unfortunately, however, work was calling. And Tim didn’t dare be late, even now when Gibbs was being sort of nice to everyone.

            “So…Are…Do you want the job?” He asked, without any sort of natural segue.

            “What must I do?” Hua inquired, looking a little sad to have had their conversation cut short for business.

            “I just need you to stay with Jethro until 9-4, and take him out on a couple of walks.” Tim explained. “You can even bring Bao with you.”

             “That is so kind of you.” Hua exclaimed, glancing lovingly down at the floor where sat her son babbling sweetly to Jethro.

            “Well, nothing is too good for this good boy.” Tim smiled, scratching the dog’s ears affectionately.

            Only, before he could hit the sweet spot that would get Jethro’s back leg pumping, Bao squawked angrily at him, out of jealousy, and had Tim quickly withdrawing his hand with a chuckle.

            “When do I start?” Hua asked, seemingly emboldened by Tim’s kind approach to her child’s minor transgression.

            “Well, I was kind of hoping you could maybe stay an hour or two today.” Tim confessed, somewhat awkwardly. “My last dogsitter kind of left me high and dry.”

            “High and dry?” Hua frowned, giving him a puzzled look.

            “Left without a paddle?” Tim tried again.

            “I do not understand the reference.” Hua reluctantly confessed.

            “He left me without warning, is all.” Tim clarified, speaking plainly for her benefit.

            A look of clarity coming across her features then, Hua frowned deeply and pursed her lips.

            “How terrible of him.” She derided, shaking her head. “Yes, I will stay.”

            Having become somewhat distracted by the way Hua’s hair rippled when she had shaken her head, it took Tim far longer to respond than he might have liked.

            “Great!” He managed, struggling not to trip over his tongue.

            “And you re sure that you don’t mind my bringing Bao?”  

            “Of course not.” Tim assured. “Just keep an eye on him, I don’t have any baby-proofing put out.”

            He would, of course, rectify that situation after work tonight, but still, a baby could get into a lot of danger in just three seconds.

            “Is he a gentle walker?” Hua worried, clearly speaking of Jethro.

            “Very gentle.” Tim confirmed. “He doesn’t pull at all. But, you’re still nervous, you can just put him out in the backyard when he needs to go.”

            Nodding, to show she understood the directions, Hua smiled and nearly blinded Tim with the sudden appearance of some rather fetching dimples.

            “What?” The young woman questioned with a blush, upon noticing him staring.

            “Nothing.” Tim replied, feeling his own face heating up. “It’s just…You have a pretty smile, that’s all.”

Chapter Text

            Having, rather reluctantly, allowed both of his errant children off their grounding for the evening, given that Ducky had outright begged him to release Kate so that she might be able to help him pick out some birthday jewelry for Daphne, and that he couldn’t just unground the one without invoking a rather serious tantrum from the other, Gibbs had found his home uncomfortably quiet that evening. And, while he could have very well just opted to call up Tim and ask him if he wanted to come over for a bit of supper and television, Gibbs had decided to refrain on the grounds that the shy electronic specialist wouldn’t have accepted his offer anyways – least of when he had a rather pretty young lady waiting for him home every day after work.

            Which was precisely how Gibbs had found himself with a living room full of rowdy men, and varying bowls of popcorn and dishes of pizza, at seven-thirty at night on a Tuesday. As, for some unfathomable reason, the concept of spending an evening all by himself just didn’t appeal him like it used to – at least not now that he had realized just how nice it was to have people over after a stressful day at work. And, more specifically, people who weren’t his children or the older medical examiner who sometimes, very frequently, arrived on his doorstep stoned out of his fucking mind.

            “This is a real nice place you got here, Jethro.” Percy admired from his perch in the recliner, for once not saying anything crass of offensive.

            “And I’m noticing a distinct lack of blood.” Will observed, from where he shared the sofa with his husband. “I take it murdering your children went well?”

            “Do you hear the sound of any children?” Percy questioned. “Of course the murders went well.”

            Sincerely hoping that his home wasn’t being bugged by somebody out to frame him in whatever revenge plot they had cooked up, as the conversation currently taking place would be the perfect framework for just such a task, Gibbs frowned and contaminated whatever potential recording might be taking place by asserting, rather reluctantly, that no such murders had taken place.

            “The children are still alive – for now.” Gibbs stipulated, mostly speaking up for the benefit of the kind-hearted Thomas. “I just cut them loose for the night.”

            They were, of course, going to be making up for that particular bit of charity by going to bed early the following evening.

            “Wow, you had them on lockdown for a full twenty-four hours.” Percy razzed, mouth full of popcorn. “What a hardass.”

            “It was a temporary reprieve.” Gibbs defended, never one to enjoy having his parenting called into question. “And you’re the last person I’m going to be taking child-rearing advice from.”

            If not because the man had no children of his own to speak of, or even pets, then most certainly because Gibbs was outright positive that a pet rock left in his custody for any amount of time would return cussing like a sailor.

            “Because I was abused as a child?” Percy gasped, in a tone of mock offense. “That’s a low blow, Jethro.”

            “Because you talked about wrapping babies in cellophane, you moron.” Gibbs countered, rolling his eyes.

            “Scoff all you what, Jethro, but I still say that there’s a market for cellophane baby swaddles.” Percy persisted, only half-joking. “Just add in a few airholes, or something, and there you have it. The perfect portable baby incubator.”

            “There’s something very wrong with you.” Gibbs admonished, perfectly earnest.

            “Of course, you’d think that.” Percy conceded, sticking his nose up into the air and giving a rather dramatic sniff. “You’re the sort that probably likes to practice attachment parenting. No leaving your swaddles out in the hot sun all day.”

            More than just a little reluctant to make any inquiries into whether or not Percy, himself, had been left out in hot sun all day while a small child, for fear that he would answer in the affirmative and put him in a vengeful mood all evening, Gibbs grimaced uncomfortably and struggled to find anything appropriate to say in response to such a morbid little speech. Thankfully, however, Duff was more than happy to take over that task for him. Granted, just not in the manner that Gibbs might have wished.

            “Leave Jethro, alone, Percy.” Duff insisted. “He can’t help it that he’s a big old softy.”

            “Excuse me?” Gibbs frowned, glaring at his accuser. “I am not.”

            “Yes, you are.” Will and Thomas argued, in perfect harmony.

            “You might even be softer than Thomas.” Percy observed, missing the chance to make a very obvious dick joke.

            Not even knowing where to begin when it came to protesting against the slanderous accusations that he was somehow, in any sort of way, a softy, Gibbs scowled sharply at all of his accusers and brought up the first defense that came into his mind.

            “I was in the fucking Marines.” He defended.

            “And I was a drill sergeant for a few years.” Thomas countered.

            “There’s no fucking way.” Gibbs refuted, refusing to fall for such an uninspired lie.

            Because not only was he absolutely certain that Thomas had never ever raised his voice, not once doing his entire life, but so too because Gibbs was utterly convinced that the man in question was some sort of reincarnation of Bob Ross.

            Or, at least he did, up until the point that Thomas rose to his feet and provided irrefutable proof of his earlier claims.

            “ALRIGHT, YOU FUCKING TROGLADYTE,” He roared, seeming to swell up several inches, “DROP AND GIVE ME FIFTY!”

            Because, God help him, Gibbs actually almost launched himself off the loveseat he shared with Duff to comply with the orders.

            “Jesus,” Gibbs grumbled, “Why did you ever stop doing something you were so good at?”

            “I didn’t like making people feel badly about themselves.” Thomas confided. “And military culture is just toxic.”

            Despite his first instincts crying out for him to be offended, Gibbs couldn’t help but admit, at least to himself, that Thomas wasn’t at all that far off the base. For even though it had been decades since boot camp, and the following years in which he had been nothing more than a grunt, Gibbs still couldn’t shake off the vast majority of the residual trauma that had come with being told he was fucking worthless for three years straight, nor all the internalized hatred he had developed after hearing, incessantly, all his fellow servicemen disparaging anyone who presented as even remotely feminine or soft.

            “I’m sorry, Jethro.” Thomas immediately apologized, mistaking his frown for one that signaled resentment. “But I just don’t agree with the idea that you have to psychologically abuse a person in order to build them up stronger. There are better ways of doing that.”

            “You don’t have to be sorry for what you think.” Gibbs insisted.

            “Unless you somehow think that Madonna peaked in the eighties.” Percy opined. “Then you need to apologize.”

            So relieved was he to have had the subject changed, without any significant effort on his part, Gibbs didn’t even curse out Percy for spilling a few kernels of popcorn unto his freshly swept floor.

            “Madonna DID peak in the eighties!” Duff passionately argued, turning to Gibbs for support. “Jethro?”

            Although Gibbs would have loved to agree with the dark-haired man sitting directly beside him, for no other reason besides the fact Duff had been extraordinarily kind to him of late, even going so far as to fetch him coffee all that morning at Discreet, without even being asked, he unfortunately found himself unable to agree with the man, as Madonna really was still putting out great music for a woman of her age. However, that didn’t mean that Gibbs couldn’t through his golden-eyed friend a little bone.

            “I don’t really know.” Gibbs fibbed. “I prefer Dolly Parton.”

            And, even though it had been decades since he had been the comically small boy getting laughed and ridiculed by his peers for being too girly, Gibbs still couldn’t help but flare up when he heard the sounds of riotous laughter flooded into his living room. As, for a moment, it almost felt like he was the stupid fucking first-grader who had been reckless enough to ask the girls to play dolls during recess, when all the other boys had seemed all but hellbent on getting their clothes dirty by playing football in the mud. An act that had not only gotten him laughed at by his classmates, boy and girl alike, but had also gotten him his ask kicked by the three of the largest boys in his grade.

            “You would love Dolly, wouldn’t you?” Percy guffawed, his face flushed as red as his hair with mirth.

            It took every last fiber of self-control that Gibbs possessed to not launch himself at the redheaded instigator and break his nose. Because his year-long immersion in some pretty intensive therapy aside, the residual childhood trauma that had come with having had his favorite doll in the whole wide world, one that had looked just like Dolly and everything, punted into the fucking fireplace at church by an obnoxious fifth-grader still lingered heavily within him, and had him all but rearing up for a battle whenever his admiration of anything even slightly feminine was mocked.

            “Dolly is a fucking treasure!” Gibbs defended, feeling six-years old all over again. “She started a literacy program in Appalachia! What did Madonna ever give us!?”

            Seeming to sense that he had become a little more worked up than was strictly necessary at having had his childhood idol mildly disparaged, yet considerate enough not to ask why, Will charitably stepped in and took some of the heat off of Gibbs.

            “Inspiration for shitty Halloween costumes for straight girls.” Will derided. “And pointy boob fetishes.”

             “Gross.” Gibbs grimaced.

            “Agreed.” Percy sided, before leaning over the arm of his recliner to pick up the small handful of popcorn he had spilled and pop it into his mouth.

            Although Gibbs was all but certain that his floors were far cleaner than that of any prestigious five-star hospital, given that he had become quite insistent on keeping any surface in his home absolutely free of any potential bacteria and viruses after Tony had contracted the plague all those years ago, Gibbs still couldn’t help but scrunch up his nose at Percy by way of silent rebuke. But, if the redhead in question even felt minorly chastised by such an expression, he most certainly didn’t show any signs of such, as he happily retorted to the silent scolding with a rather unrepentant smile.

            “I know.” Will shuddered, still referring to pointy boobs. “Dolly at least has nice hair.”

            “And a pretty voice.” Thomas conceded.

            Believing, whole-heartedly, that Dolly possessed the best singing voice in all the world, aside from that of his deceased mother, of course, Gibbs was almost offended at such a blatant and unrepentant understatement. And, in fact, had anyone other than Thomas even remotely implied that Dolly’s voice was just ‘pretty,’ Gibbs would have probably given them an earful.

            “And she has Perez Hilton levels of confidence.” Duff contributed.

             Despite not knowing exactly who Perez Hilton was, Gibbs found himself nodding in agreement with the man seated next to him. If only because what he had said sounded complimentary and not because he was finding it harder and harder to disagree with the man whenever he happened to glance at him with those giant golden eyes and soft smile.

            “She gives really good hugs, too.” Percy added, almost as an afterthought.

            As if, for some unfathomable reason, he had failed to somehow realize the magnitude behind meeting the most incredible person on Earth.

            “You met Dolly?” Gibbs demanded, never so envious of anybody in all his life.

            Not even of Mary-Beth in the second-grade, when she had finally whined incessantly enough to convince her father that pierced ears were a perfectly appropriate birthday present for an eight year old and Gibbs couldn’t even convince his parents, let alone his usually pliable uncle, to let him get those fake press on things that all little girls seemed to get for Christmas before they were allowed the very important rite of passage of having a needle stabbed through their ears.

            “Yeah.” Percy nodded, more interested in his popcorn than the story. “I went to Dollywood with this guy I dated.”

            “Lucky bastard.” Gibbs muttered, still flooded with envy.     

            Because as silly and dramatic as it sounded, Gibbs would happily lop off his right arm for a chance to meet the woman.

            “Kind of.” Percy shrugged. “I won a fifty off a scratcher that day.”

            “You don’t deserve Dolly.” Gibbs accused, not even joking.

            Although, once he stopped to think about it, Percy would be the exact type of person that Dolly would fawn over, as she had always been the type to have a softspot for the hurting.

            “That’s fair.” Percy agreed, in a remarkable show of maturity. “But enough with all this queer shit, let’s pick out a movie.”

            Still greatly uncomfortable with the concept of that word being directed toward him, as it was more often than not the last thing he had heard before getting his teeth knocked down his throat in elementary school, Gibbs flinched but was thankfully able to pass it off as one of those spasms directly preceding a sneeze.

            “I’m not going to pick, I’m the host.” Gibbs argued, once he had completed his fake sneeze and wiped his nose on the tissue Will had passed over. “That would be rude.”

            Not to mention uncomfortable, as Gibbs was all but certain that nobody in that small group of men would want to watch anything inspired by Jane Austin – which were his favorite go-to movies when he was alone and assured of the fact that he would be getting no surprise visitors.

            “You have to.” Percy argued. “Will and I are just going to fight over all the options. And Thomas is so whipped, he’ll just pick whatever it is he thinks Will wants to watch.”     

            “Well,” Gibbs faltered, pushing all thoughts Sense and Sensibility out his head, “Duff is going to have pick then.”

             “Me?” Duff parroted, startled out of whatever daydream he had been having while staring at Gibbs’s face. “Uh…What do you have?”

            Far too polite and well-mannered to poke fun at the fact that the dark-haired man sitting next to had zoned out while staring at another man’s face, as Gibbs (himself) had more than once earned himself a punch in the eye for doing the exact same thing in Advanced Literature to Hank Fredericks, for no other reason than that the taller boy happened to have been sitting closest to the best window for daydreaming, Gibbs answered the question promptly and politely.

            “Tony is a movie buff, whatever movie you can think of, I’m sure he has it here.”

            In fact, Gibbs was almost certain there was at least a half-a-hundred movies in Tony’s vast collection that nobody but those closest to him had even heard of at all.

            “What about Two Girls and One Cup?” Percy challenged. “I bet he doesn’t have that.”

            “I really hope that he doesn’t.” Duff sighed, sounding exhausted with his friend’s shenanigans.

            “You’ll have to actually murder him if he does.” Will informed Gibbs, his face looking more than just a little green. “Seriously.”

            Wondering just what sort of movie could warrant such a strong reaction from all the men assembled around his living room, Gibbs frowned and decided to make a few investigations into the matter before allowing Percy to slipping the movie into his DVD player.

            “What the fuck kind of movie is this?” Gibbs interrogated. “It sounds…dirty.”

            “Here,” Percy grinned, pulling out his phone, “Let me show you.”

            Never one to back away from a challenge, Gibbs reached for the cellphone, albeit reluctantly, and wrapped his fingers around it. Only, before he could even bring it over to his face, much click on whatever YouTube vide Percy had pulled up for him, Thomas was on his feet and yanking the object away from him with an alarming amount of concern.

            “Percival!” Thomas scolded, chucking the iPhone at the guilty party’s face. “We will NOT be traumatizing Jethro in his own home tonight.”  

            Slightly alarmed when he felt a slight thrill of excitement race up his spine at the realization that his friends somehow thought that he, of all people, needed to be protected from a scandalous video, Gibbs squirmed a little uncomfortably and tried to remove such ridiculous feelings out of his body by sheer force of will alone.

            “You’re right.” Percy conceded, repocketing his phone. “Corrupting his innocence can wait a little while longer.”

            If Gibbs had been alarmed at the slight thrill of excitement that had come with being regarded as a person who needed protected, he was all but stupefied into silence at the concept of being thought of as someone innocent. Because not since his mother had died, and he had started acting out, had Gibbs been thought of as innocent by anyone other than his father.

            “Let’s watch something scary.” Duff suggested, nobly taking the task of speaking unto himself. “You know, get in the mood for Halloween?”

            Gibbs, despite priding himself on his manliness, couldn’t help but cringe at the innocent suggestion. As, ever since he had been a little boy, and freshly traumatized by Hazel tricking him into watching Dracula by claiming that Marlon Brando was a featured actor, Gibbs had loathed those types of film with a burning passion and only ever watched them when strong-armed by Abby into doing so.

            “No gore, please.” Thomas insisted. “I saw enough of that in Vietnam.”

            Gibbs had only about five seconds of feeling relieved before Percy spoke up again and put all hopes of watching a milder horror movie out of his head.

            “What about Candyman?” Percy suggested, absurdly eager to terrorize them all with choice of movie.

            Gibbs would have been lying if he claimed that his stomach hadn’t dropped at the mere mention of that unfathomably frightening film. Because it was precisely that specific movie, in question, that had terrorized him enough, as a full-grown adult, to compel him into driving his traumatized ass up to Stillwater to sleep in his father’s bed after Ducky had strong-armed him into seeing it in theatres.  

            “Ohh, that sounds perfect.” Will grinned, for once in perfect agreement with Percy.         

            “Sounds good to me.” Thomas agreed, earning himself an appreciative grin from his husband.

            Rather resentful that neither one of those two had spoken up in protest of Percy’s suggestion, no matter how spiteful that made him feel, Gibbs frowned and mildly attacked the strength of their unity.

            “Do you two ever disagree on anything?” Gibbs demanded.

            Taking but a moment to exchange looks with his husband, Will shrugged and answered the question as evenly as possible.

            “Socks.” He shrugged, rolling his eyes.

            Not at all amused with such an astounding lack of specificity, Gibbs turned to Duff with a raised eyebrow.

            “Apparently there’s a wrong way to fold socks.” Duff volunteered.

            “There is!” Thomas hissed, looking ready to throw hands with Duff.

            Thinking that Kate and Thomas would get along very well if ever they were to meet, given that they could both be exceedingly anal-retentive at times, especially when it came to matters of organization, Gibbs smiled and entertained himself by listening to Thomas go off on his heated tirade about how the three-fold method was vastly superior to the ball-up method his husband preferred – as it greatly reminded him of the time that Kate had surprised them all, even Ducky, by loudly proclaiming that there was, in fact, a correct way to place toilet paper on the roll.

            “Would you shut up already?” Percy demanded of Thomas. “I’m trying to find a movie here and your bitching isn’t helping.”

            “Fuck off, hellspawn.” Will growled, wrapping an arm around his husband’s shoulder.

            Far too preoccupied with pouring over the massive shelving unit Gibbs had built Tony for the purposes of storing his vast collection of DVD’s and VCR’s to do anything other than flip the bird at the snuggling couple, Percy moved his fingers slowly down the rows until, finally, he came across the tape he was looking for.  

            “Bingo.” Percy grinned, popping the aging tape into the VCR. “Duff, hit play.”

            Clearly eager to get movie night started, Duff leaned forward and collected the VCR remote off the table without even bothering to chew out Percy for giving him commands.

            “Wait,” Will interrupted, before Duff could even hit play, “Let’s do this proper and turn out the lights.”

            Never before had Gibbs wanted so badly for Halloween to be canceled then he did right then, as it seemed to him that everybody lost their fucking minds once October rolled around and, as a result, set out to terrorize themselves, as well as their friends, into having full-fledged heart attacks.

            “Draw the curtains, too, Perce.” Thomas advised, as said redhead went about the room switching off any and all light sources.

            “Do I have to do everything in this fucking house?” Percy groused, glaring pointedly at those who remained seated.

            “We’re just letting you prove yourself useful.” Duff asserted. “We know how much you like feeling wanted.”

            A full two hours of Candyman now starting to seem inevitable as Percy went to work drawing the curtains, Gibbs grabbed up the throw blanket closest to him and clutched it tightly.

            “Jethro, you good?” Duff whispered, giving him a quizzical look as Gibbs drew up his feet unto the cushions to avoid having his ankles grabbed by the Candyman.

             “Yup,” Gibbs lied, “Just cold.”

            Giving him a look that clearly conveyed he wasn’t buying any of Gibbs’s bullshit, yet far too kind to call him out on it in front of everyone else, Duff simply nodded and started the movie once Percy, after bumping into the coffee table in the pitch dark, returned to his chair.

            “Here,” Duff offered, lifting up his arm as the movie began to play, “You’re shivering. Get over here.”

            Had it not been for the fact that he was about to be subjected to one of the scariest horror movies ever invented, Gibbs might have refused such a forward offer on the grounds that he didn’t want to be perceived as easy for going directly from Henry to Duff.

But, as it was, he was only mere seconds away from being retraumatized by Tony Todd and, as a result, in major need of the comfort that only touch could bring.

A reality that made itself more and more apparent as the movie progressed and Gibbs, in turn, pressed himself further and further into Duff’s warm and comforting side – clinging so tightly to his jacket that Gibbs was all but certain he was about to be pulled up into the lap of amused-looking man who currently had an arm over his shoulder.

“It’s over now.” Duff whispered in his ear instead. “Open your eyes.”

Taking Duff at his word, Gibbs opened his eyes and was relieved to find Percy already in the process of removing the despicable tape from the VCR player.

“Well, don’t you two look fucking cozy.” Percy grumbled, still sore about being designated as the group lackey for the evening.

“I’m cold.” Gibbs lied, not at all shivering because of the cold.

“Jesus, you’re as white as Percy’s ass.” Will fussed, tossing him yet another throw blanket. “Here.”

Still far too traumatized from having spent the last two hours listening to Candyman work his magic, Gibbs didn’t even have it within him to make mocking inquiries into whether or not Percy’s ass really was all that white. Which, all things considered, was probably actually a very fortuitous side-effect, as no doubt Percy would have had absolutely no reservations with pulling down his pants so that everyone might get a proper gander and come to their own conclusions.

“Percy, now what are you putting in?” Will demanded, calling attention to the fact that Percy was now using his position as group grunt to his advantage.

“Don’t worry.” Percy dismissed. “It’s just The Ring. I know we can both agree on that.”

Gibbs, however, most certainly did not fucking agree on that.

But, if the horrified look he shot at Percy did anything at all in his favor, it wasn’t to secure a reprieve of any sort for himself, as the redhead in question merely smiled innocently in return and as he pushed the disk into the DVD player.

But, managing to summon up all his Marine courage, Gibbs found himself doing just fine, or at least not outright pissing his pants, up until the first time the fucking dead girl stalked out of the fucking television.

“Close your eyes,” Duff whispered in his ear, “This part is really scary.”

             More than happy to obey, Gibbs quickly squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his face up against Duff’s chest, by that point in time not even caring how ridiculous he looked just so long as he didn’t have to look at Samara’s grotesque face a minute longer.

            “Okay,” Duff comforted, giving him a brief squeeze, “You can open your eyes now.”

            Unfortunately, for all involved, just as soon as Gibbs opened his eyes, something grabbed his neck from behind and croaked, in a perfect replication of a demon voice:

            “Seven d – “

             Because little girl or not, Gibbs acted on sheer instinct alone and brought his elbow back as hard as he could into the face of the television demon.

            “Fuck.” A suddenly manly voice groaned from behind him. “Fuck.”

             It was only as he slowly regained his composure, as well as his senses, that Gibbs realized it hadn’t been Samara trying to choke him from behind but Will.

            “Shit, get the lights!” Thomas barked out, already holding up a wad of tissues to his husband’s nose.

            Seeming to have no real inclination to disobey a direct order from Thomas when he was in drill sergeant mode, Percy all but leapt to his feet and dived for the lights.

            “Fuck,” Will groaned, swaying on his feet a bit as the light hit his eyes, “I’m sorry, Jethro. That was a dick move.”

             Heart still thundering loudly in his chest, Gibbs found that he couldn’t even speak properly enough to chew the asshole out. Or apologize for shattering his nose.

            “What the fuck is wrong with you?” Duff growled, taking on the task for himself.

            “Even I think that was fucking mean!” Percy scolded, scrambling to push more tissues into his hands.

            “Yeah, I get the point.” Will agreed, the words gurgling in his mouth as blood poured down his face. “I’m not arguing here.”

            ‘Just bleeding’, Gibbs thought, ‘All over my clean fucking floors.’

            “Why couldn’t you have just scared Percy?” Thomas demanded. “Or Duff?”

             “Percy was too far away, he’d have noticed.” Will defended. “And I was trying to scare Duff, too.”

             “Why on Earth would you even think scaring a Marine was the way to go?” Thomas further chided.      

            It was only once Gibbs recalled how to properly breath again, that he found his tongue.

            “Are you alright?” He worried, forgetting about his heart attack as he watched blood beginning to soak into Will’s shirt.           

            At first, Will only gave him a blank look before speaking.

            “I’m sure you broke my nose, Jethro.”

            “Not that you didn’t have it coming, Babe.” Thomas reasoned.

            “Fair enough.” Will conceded, sounding congested as blood began to pool up in his mouth.

            Having fully expected to get jumped on by Will, or at the very least his protective husband, Gibbs was more than a little surprised when it soon became apparent that the group had determined no fault, whatsoever, rested with him.

             “You guys aren’t mad?” He questioned, surprised at the very concept.

            “Why the fuck should I be mad?” Will scoffed. “I had it coming to me.”

            “You did.” Thomas grimly agreed. “But you’d best not bleed all over my fucking truck if you don’t want another broken bone.”

            Far too overwhelmed with current events to inform Thomas that the nose did not, in fact, possess any bones, Gibbs simply stood stupidly and said the first thing that came to mind.

            “Where are you guys going?”

            “The hospital.” Will answered, looking at him as if he had just lost his mind.

            “Hospital?” Percy scoffed. “Don’t be a baby! Just shove some tampons up there.”

             “Do you happen to have any tampons lying around, Perce?” Thomas challenged, glaring sharply at the shorter man. “Or did you leave them in your purse?”

            “Fair point.” Percy reluctantly conceded. “But don’t think that you assholes aren’t dropping me off on the way there just because Will is bleeding like a stuck pig.”       

            “What the fuck are you talking about?” Will demanded, a bit moody now that his nose had been caved in. “We’re not making a fucking pit stop just to –

            Oddly enough, it was an elbow in the ribs from Thomas that had bleeding man changing his tune.

            “I mean, yeah, sure. Get your shit.” Will allowed, exchanging an uncomfortably pointed look with Duff. “We’ll be in the truck.”

            “Let me know how it goes.” Gibbs insisted, feeling rather guilty as he watched the blood flood down his face.

            “Sure thing.” Will allowed.

            And, just like that, Gibbs was left alone with Duff.  

Chapter Text

            Still somewhat worked up from all the trauma that came with fully expecting to have your face disfigured by the spirit of a vengeful little girl whose transportation method of choice seemed to be televisions old enough to still have a VCR player attached, as well as from having just broken one of his new friend’s noses, Gibbs nearly jumped out of his skin when Duff laid a hand on his shoulder. But rather than chew out the slightly taller man for startling him without warning, Gibbs restrained himself on the grounds that Duff had been nothing but kind to him that evening, even going so far as not to raise a single complain as Gibbs tried to mold himself into his side for protection from Candyman and creepy children.

            “Jethro,” Duff kindly smiled, shaking his head, “If you couldn’t handle scary movies, you should have just said something. We could have found something else to watch that we all liked.”

            “I do just fine with scary movies.” Gibbs denied, feeling a rather violent flush starting to creep its way up his neck. “Will just startled me is all.”

            In fact, were Gibbs to go into the bathroom and check, he was all but certain he’d find a suspicious wet spot in his trousers. One that had absolutely nothing to do with having been seated directly beside a handsome man for the duration of two movies.

            “Jethro.” Duff frowned, giving him a rather pointed look.

            “Fine, I’m a fucking baby when it comes to that shit!” Gibbs grumbled, smacking away the comforting hand from his shoulder before stomping over to the loveseat and dramatically lowering himself down into it. “A fucking baby.”            

             Apparently not at all upset with having just had his hand rudely assaulted, Duff remained calm and took a seat beside him.

            “Not everyone likes scary movies.” Duff comforted, laying a gentle hand on his knee.

            “No.” Gibbs moodily agreed. “But how does it fucking make me look when I can’t even handle a movie about a creepy dead girl?”

            Granted said dead girl was terrifying as hell, but still. Gibbs had dealt with the absolute hell that was Marine boot camp without ever crying, and had even faced down active hostile fire without breaking so much as a sweat. By all accounts, it stood to reason that he ought to be able to handle a stupid fucking PG13 movie without feeling the need to crawl into somebody’s lap for comfort.

            “You still look fine to me.” Duff assured, staring boldly into his eyes. “And we’re your friends, Jethro, we don’t care if you can’t handle horror movies. We like you as you are.”

            Touched, beyond relief, to discover that he had just been so effortlessly accepted by four other guys whom he hadn’t even known for more than just a few days, Gibbs found himself stunned silent.

            “I mean, for fucks sake, Will makes doll clothes for a living.” Duff confided, speaking in a conspiratorial whisper. “And Percy cries at the movies all the fucking time. Seriously, he can’t even sit through The Lion King without bawling his eyes out. So we get it, alright, not everyone is hypermasculine all the time. And that’s just fine.”

            “It’s just embarrassing.” Gibbs mumbled, casting his eyes on the floorboards.

            Granted, not as embarrassing as making doll clothes for a living, but still…

            “If it makes you feel better,” Henry confided, now blushing himself, “I’m deathly afraid of butterflies.”

            Although Gibbs knew himself to be in possession of the inherited gift that instinctively allowed him to recognize whenever he was being lied to, he almost refused to believe something so absurd of Duff.

            “I’m being honest here.” Duff bashfully confessed. “They fucking terrify me. Will once locked my in a butterfly garden as a joke and I smashed a glass window to get out.”

            Feeling rather guilty as he found himself struggling not to laugh at the idea of a man as large as Duff being terrified of something so little and harmless, Gibbs clamped down hard on his tongue to stay his laughter and didn’t dare speak until he felt as if he had his mouth, and tongue, fully under his control.

            “I still feel bad about ruining movie night.” Gibbs persisted, not entirely willing to allow himself off the hook.

              “You didn’t ruin shit, trust me.” Duff grinned, giving his knee a squeeze. “Now let’s pop another movie in until all thoughts of Samara are gone. What’s your favorite?”

             Although Ducky had once laughed at him until he was blue in the face for answering the exact same question as honestly as possible, Gibbs felt one hundred percent confident that Duff wouldn’t react in any such manner.

            “Pride and Prejudice.” Gibbs confessed, his face practically burning from embarrassment.

            “Can’t say I blame you for that one.” Duff grinned, getting out of his seat to go pop the aforementioned DVD in. “Mr. Darcy can get it any day.”

            Thinking, to himself, that there was only room for one snarky asshole in his life, which was him, Gibbs shook his head.            

            “I was thinking more about Bingley.” Gibbs countered.

            “You and your redheads.” Duff sighed dramatically, returning to his seat. “You’re starting to make a man feel like he doesn’t stand a chance with you if his hair is dark.”  

            “I think I’ve given up on the whole redhead thing.” Gibbs volunteered, feeling some bizarre need to reassure the man seated next to him. “All I want now is somebody who won’t hit me.”        

            And, if it wasn’t asking too much, somebody who wouldn’t yell and scream at him either for the littlest of things – like a toilet seat left up or the wrong towels used for his hands.

            “That shouldn’t be your bare minimum, Jethro.” Duff frowned. “Jesus, even Percy has higher standards.”

            Thinking, if it were true that even Percy had higher relationship standards them him, that he really ought to address that during his next therapy session, Gibbs frowned heavily and tried not to dread that upcoming session as much as he usually would.  

            “Yeah, but Percy is charismatic enough to get away with high standards.” Gibbs countered.

            “Jethro, if Percy deserves high standards, you deserve perfection.” Duff argued, once more laying a hand on his knee.

            Feeling a rather startling amount of warmth beginning to settle in the pit of his stomach, Gibbs swallowed weakly and tried to dwell overly long on the fact that his mouth had suddenly gone dry.

            “Well, I’m fucked then, because I don’t think John Wayne swings my way.” Gibbs finally managed, feeling impossibly warm.

            “I’m sure he would if he met you.” Duff insisted, wrapping an arm around his shoulder before starting the movie.

            “Oh yeah?” Gibbs challenged, tilting his head up to look at him. “Why’s that?”    

             “Because you’re irresistibly cute.” Duff answered, without even the slightest trace of hesitation.

            Not even needing to feel the heat on his face to know that he was blushing profusely, to the point that his face was probably as red as Percy’s hair, Gibbs instinctively shook his head to draw attention away from the fact and put forth the first argument he could think of.

            “I am not cute.” Gibbs argued. “I’m a Marine.”

            Not, of course, that such a career choice was prohibited to those with good features. As there had been quite a few drill sergeants, back in his boot camp days, that Gibbs had been in very real danger of saluting with more than just his hand.

            “You’re fucking adorable.” Duff persisted. “Even Thomas feels protective of you.”

            It was then, and only then, that Gibbs realized, with a slight jolt, that he just might be the ‘Tim’ of this group. Which was, admittedly, a rather pleasant experience with many benefits, but still, somewhat embarrassing, as well, for someone of his stature and constitution.

            “I don’t need protecting.” Gibbs grumbled.

            “But you deserve it.” Duff declared, without a trace of doubt in his voice.

            “Well, if you say so.” Gibbs scoffed, rolling his eyes.

            “Oh,” Duff grinned, tilting his chin up with a strong finger, “I say so.”

            And, just like that, Duff was kissing him – full on the mouth and without any of the impatient and restless energy Henry had kissed him with outside the walls of Discreet. That kiss had been frightening and exciting all at once, this one only exhilarating and surprising. The kind that had his heart racing and toes curling in way that they hadn’t since he’d first dared to steal a kiss from Shannon on that bench all those years ago. Only, instead of being far too shy to do anything other than wrap a hand in his hair before pulling away, like he had with Shannon, Gibbs fisted up the collar of Duff’s shirt in his hand and parted his mouth to allow Duff’s explorative tongue inside.   

            By the time they finally broke apart, minutes or hours later, Gibbs was nearly breathless and out of his senses.

            “Do you want me to stop?” Duff inquired, went Gibbs finally pulled away to catch his breath.

            “No.” Gibbs insisted, still clutching Duff’s shirt. “It’s just…I’m not scared.”

            “Scared?” Duff frowned, suddenly serious. “Why would you be scared? Did Henry – “

            “No.” Gibbs immediately denied. “I meant…I’m just relaxed.”

             Relaxed in a way that he hadn’t been with Henry, when he had felt the need to please him above all else.

            “That’s how it should be.” Duff insisted.

Chapter Text

            Although he would never admit it aloud to anyone, not even his father, Gibbs had found himself exploring his newfound sexuality more and more. And while, at first, that had simply meant using the magazines Kate left behind in his house in ways they probably weren’t intended to be used, at least not by men, that minor experimentation had gradually advanced all the way up to him watching Brokeback Mountain and, from there, using his ancient non work-assigned laptop to visit some rather unsavory websites that showed far more than a magazine, or movie, would ever be allowed to in the states. And while he had, rather reluctantly, come to the conclusion that he was more than just a little gay as a result, as the rather suspicious amount of tissues he had gone through at that time could attest, Gibbs had likewise also come to the conclusion that he wasn’t one-hundred-percent ready for full-on homosexual intercourse, as, to be quite frank, the idea of anything entering him from the backdoor frightened him to a pretty significant degree. That didn’t mean, however, that he was averse to doing other things in the bedroom. Particularly so now, when he was feeling rather randy and in the company of a man he was all but certain wouldn’t try to coerce him into doing anything he didn’t want to do. He only hoped, for the sake of his pride, that Duff was just as interested in what he had to offer as was Gibbs.

            “Duff,” Gibbs panted, in between yet another make-out session, “Do you want…Do you want to head upstairs?”

            For a moment far too busy with the very important task of leaving behind as many hickies as would fit on his neck, the sheer number of which Gibbs was surely going to struggle to cover up the following morning, Duff only reluctantly pulled his mouth away after Gibbs tugged on his hair.

            “Jethro,” Duff panted, his lips slightly bruised from where Gibbs had nibbled on them, “I don’t want you feeling like you have to – “

            “I know.” Gibbs was quick to assure, hands still beneath Duff’s flannel shirt. “But I want to.”

            “And you’re sure?” Duff pestered, looking him straight in the eyes.

            “I am.” Gibbs assured, meeting his gaze steadily.

            Because while he wasn’t exactly ready to explore with actual penetration, regardless of whether he was the one on the receiving end or not, it still stood to reason that all this heavy petting going on between them would be far more comfortable atop of a mattress actually designed for that purpose – particularly so for Gibbs, who had somehow found himself in the submissive position of being beneath Duff.

            “My wish is your command then.” Duff obliged, grinning mischievously before rolling off Gibbs and standing. “Up you go.”

            And, just like that, Gibbs suddenly found himself being hefted up into Duff’s arms, bridal style, without any warning at all.

             “This seems a little unnecessary.” Gibbs asserted, wrapping his arms around Duff’s neck nonetheless to lower his chances of being dropped.

            “Nothing is too good for you, Mr. Gibbs.” Duff countered, putting on a rather passable Mr. Darcy voice.

            If Gibbs hadn’t popped a boner while they’d been making out, he had, he most certainly had one after hearing that. As nothing ever got him quite so excited as Regency-Era talk seemed to.

            “I don’t believe that was a very chivalrous response.” Duff playfully chided, glancing rather pointedly at the tent in Gibbs’s pants.

            “I think we’re already well beyond the bonds of propriety.” Gibbs scoffed, tightening his hold on Duff as they began to approach the stairs. “I mean, we’re not even engaged and you’re already touching me – without gloves I might add.”

            “A most scandalous notion, indeed.” Duff conceded. “But that just makes it all the better, no?”   

            “Sir,” Gibbs gasped, “Are you trying to corrupt me?”

            “You’re right.” Duff frowned, playfully serious. “I should be far more considerate of your delicate constitution.”

            Despite the mock seriousness of their conversation, Gibbs couldn’t help but laugh at that.

            “Oh yeah,” He snorted, “You’ve got a good one-hundred-and-eighty pounds of ‘delicate constitution’ right here in your arms.”

             “Yup.” Duff agreed, thankfully making it onto the upstairs landing without ever having once faltered.

            Figuring that there would be no be winning in an argument with a man so determined to think of him as ‘soft,’ and likewise not even really feeling the need to assert his opinion on the matter into the conversation, now that it was just he and Duff, Gibbs only rolled his eyes before kicking a foot at the door that lead to the master bedroom.

            “That door.” He directed, rather unnecessarily.

            “Sir, yes, Sir.” Duff responded, pushing his way through the door with an impressive ease.            

            But rather than immediately place him on the floor, as Gibbs had presumed he would, Duff glided across the floorboards instead, before slowly moving to lower him down atop the thick mattress of his bed – smiling softly down at his blushing face before crawling in beside him.

            “There’s no television in here,” Duff observed, for lack of anything clever to say, “Good. Now I don’t have to worry about you staying up all night out of fear.”  

            Despite feeling the distinct need to assert that the undead girl could very well just walk, or creep, herself up the short flight of stairs, Gibbs refrained and concentrated on a far more important need at the moment.

            “You could still stay awhile.” Gibbs offered, struggling not to sound too desperate or eager.

             Because, truth be told, Gibbs really was still on edge after that movie. Not to mention randy, for other reasons, as well.

             “Of course, I’ll stay.” Duff obliged, gracing him with a smile. “But I really do wish that you would’ve me about hating scary movies. I would have pushed for something else.”

             “It wasn’t all bad.” Gibbs reassured. “I still got to squeeze up beside you.”

            “So, you like a good cuddle, hmm?” Duff investigated, wrapping his large arms around Gibbs before pulling him nearer.

            Having always been a massive enthusiast of cuddling, to the point that he had still been more than just a little happy to sit on his father’s lap well past the age of six, when most boys had already stopped, Gibbs closed his eyes and leaned into the touch.

            “I’m only human.” Gibbs agreed, a short thrill of excitement coursing through him as he felt something distinctly non-finger-related poking into the small of his back.  

            Having said that, Gibbs slowly reached behind himself and brushed his fingers against the warm member pressing against his back, delighted and frightened all at once to finally be able to touch that which he had spent so much time researching.

            “Jethro,” Henry whispered, his voice suddenly husky, “You don’t have to – “

            “I know.” Gibbs insisted. “But – “

            “Jethro, if you want to explore things…that’s fine.” Duff breathed in his ear, sending a shiver of excitement racing down his spine. “I just need you to promise me that you won’t push yourself to do something just to please me.”

             Believing, most ardently, that Henry would have been more than just a little happy to pressure him into doing all sorts of things before he was ready, Gibbs appreciated Duff all the more for his bothering to take the time to reassure him that tonight wasn’t about him, but rather Gibbs instead.

            “I promise.” Gibbs avowed, turning himself around. “But are you sure that you don’t mind me using you as Gueni pig?”

            Because, inherent kindness aside, Duff was very clearly old enough to have come to expect a certain amount of experience when it came to his beaus. As, no doubt, all his experimenting had been done in college or the years directly after, whereas Gibbs had deliberately placed himself in a position, the military, where he could do no such thing.

            “Jethro, I’m just glad to be here with you.” Duff insisted, pressing his forehead up against his own.

            “Why me?” Gibbs asked, still surprised at the fact that he had managed to catch the attentions of two men in so short a time.

            “I already told you, Jethro, you’re cute as hell.” Duff reminded. “And also, you’re good. On the inside. Like Thomas-level good.”

            Not sense his mother and uncle had died, had Gibbs ever been accused of such a thing. Not even by his father, who, for all intents and purposes, had done as well as he could with Gibbs given the circumstances immediately following the death of his wife and best friend.

             “And you deserve to be reminded of that.” Duff insisted, kissing him on the lips.

            Knowing then, somewhat instinctively, that this wasn’t just some sort of trap waiting to blow up in his face, the culmination of which would end with him getting his ass kicked by some hidden and unnamed adversary, Gibbs felt confident enough to proceed the vague plans that had been floating around his mind for a while now.

            “I’m going to…Do you mind if I touch it?” Gibbs pressed, nearly sick with nerves.

            “Only if you want to.” Duff allowed. “But heads up…my head is up.”

             “Yeah, I can see that.” Gibbs allowed, nervous reaching a hand down to unzip Duff’s pants. “But, again, this seems like a lot of fuss for just me.”

            After all, Gibbs hadn’t even needed to part the slit in Duff’s black boxers in order for his member to push through the fabric on its own accord, loud and erect and slightly…frightening, if not exciting.  

            “Jethro, we’ve already discussed this.” Duff smiled. “You’re fucking adorable.”

            “I am not.” Gibbs growled. “Is this adorable?”

            And, that challenge thus issued, Gibbs bit the proverbial bullet and wrapped his fingers around the considerably sized member standing proudly before them.

             “No, that is fucking hot.” Duff conceded, his voice gone thick. “But,” He stipulated, slowly removing Gibbs’s fingers, “Tonight isn’t about me, it’s about you.”

             Not quite knowing what to say in response to something like that, Gibbs felt himself go stiff and didn’t even protest as Duff laid a gentle hand against his crotch.

            “Can I?”

            Nearly numb with anticipation, all Gibbs could do was nod and watch as his own member made a proud appearance in the bedroom.

            “Let me know if you want me to stop.” Duff stipulated, moments before putting his mouth to a use that didn’t involve talking.

            In only two minutes, or less, Gibbs was closing his eyes and trying to clamp down on the amount of obnoxious moans that escaped his mouth as Duff worked his magic like a sculpture worked his clay.

            “Duff…” Gibbs breathed, grabbing unto his hair as his whole body threatened to explode.

            But, seeming to mistake his urgent tone for one of lust, Duff only moved his mouth more methodically, seeming to almost take pleasure from getting his hair yanked on.

            “Duff – “Gibbs tried again, toes curling at the end of his feet.

            Unfortunately, his efforts proved far too futile to prevent the inevitable from happening, as mere seconds later, Gibbs found himself finishing inside his houseguest’s mouth.  

            “I am so fucking sorry.” Gibbs quickly made to apologize, moving to sit up.

            “Don’t be.” Duff grinned, pushing him back down unto the mattress. I knew what I was doing.”

            Relieved, beyond comprehension, to realize that he wasn’t about to get sucker-punched for spilling his seed into Duff’s mouth, and likewise quite spent, Gibbs sighed loudly and allowed himself to melt into his mattress.

            Yeah, you fucking did.” Gibbs agreed, his nerve-endings practically ablaze. “Holy shit.”

            “A man knows what another man likes.” Duff shrugged, pulling him close.             

             Thinking that if Duff had just allowed him to do what he did in his mouth, without getting angry, that he wouldn’t mind Gibbs laying his head atop his chest, he did just that, taking pleasure in just how warm and soft his skin was.

            “Do you want me to – “

            “Jethro, this wasn’t a transaction.” Duff hushed, squeezing his bottom. “You don’t have to do anything but lay there and look cute.”

            Refraining from arguing against the idea that he was any such thing, as it became more and more apparent that it would be a losing battle every time, Gibbs simply rolled his eyes before burying his face in Duff’s neck.

            “Let’s just lay here for a bit, then.” Gibbs suggested, having no real desire to move.

            “Sounds good to me.” Duff agreed, tightening his hold. “But do you mind if I slip my pants off? There’s no way my pants are going back on yet.”

            “Go ahead.” Gibbs charitably agreed, already slipping out of his own.

            And, despite the girlishness of such an act, Gibbs immediately returned to Duff’s side just as soon as such an act was feasible, craving the warmth and contact of the man who had just helped him figure out a great number of things.

            “Thanks.” Gibbs breathed, speaking into the man’s neck.

            “For what?” Duff murmured, running his strong arm up and down Gibbs’s back.

            ‘For letting me be soft and not laughing about it.’ Gibbs wanted to answer.

            “For helping me figure stuff out, that’s all.” He said, instead.                      

            “I’d do anything for you.” Duff promised, hands moving to card his hair. “One look in those eyes of yours and I’m lost.”          

            “Oh, shut up.” Gibbs grumbled, already knowing his was blushing as red as tomato.

            “It’s true.” Duff insisted. “The first time you looked at me, I was speechless. And that never happens.”

            Feeling himself in very real danger of saying something as equally mushy, Gibbs could only hide his face in Duff’s chest before responding, with as much affection as he could, in a slightly dismissive manner.

            “You’re such a fucking goon.”

            “Maybe.” Duff allowed. “But can a goon get a goodnight kiss, at least?”

            Seeing no harm in expressing his affection in that particular way, Gibbs was more than happy to oblige the man with a kiss to his cheek.

            “You’re not leaving already, are you?” Gibbs fussed, struggling not to sound clingy.

            “Not if you want me to stay.” Duff comforted, making no move to push him away.

            “I want you to stay.” Gibbs confirmed.

            And not just because he was afraid of dead television girls popping into his room at midnight, either.

           

 

                       

Chapter Text

            Still riding high on the relative success of having managed to spring himself a temporary reprieve from his grounding, a rather unearned punishment if you asked him, Tony didn’t make it back to Gibbs’s house until the usual time for breakfast had come close to passing. And while, granted, that would have normally infuriated his father, and provoked him into extending his grounding another full day, Tony comforted himself with the knowledge that he was likely safe from such a retribution on the grounds that Gibbs had allowed Kate to spend the night at Ducky’s – the only stipulation of that being, of course, that she come back no later than eight to finish out the rest of her punishment. Which meant, at least in Tony’s mind, that the same period of grace only extended to him as well. Not only because he was Gibbs’s favorite, by nature of having literally been adopted by him, but so too because his father was far too impatient to deal with all the whining that would occur as a result of him going easy on Kate but not on him.

            And, given such facts, Tony was more than just a little confident that all would be well as he walked into his father’s home at six-thirty that morning. Not only because he was reasonably certain that Kate hadn’t yet managed to eat up all the banana bread Gibbs had made, nor drink up all the apple cider, but so too because his father had been in an astoundingly good mood of late, even going so far as to startle Vance by greeting him pleasantly the day before and ‘remembering’ to pick up his coffee order on the customary afternoon coffee run along with everyone else’s.

            To say that Tony was somewhat scared out of his fucking mind to make his way into the kitchen, and discover a large shirtless man seated at the table and nibbling on a slice of the banana bread he had been craving all week, would have been a vast understatement. Because as far as Tony knew, Gibbs didn’t really have all that many friends aside from Ducky. And, even then, those two only ever hung out after work, not before.

            “Uh, hi.” Tony introduced, very eager to launch an investigation into the identity of the strange man eating his father’s coveted banana bread. “I’m Tony. Who are you?”

            Clearly having not expected to have his breakfast interrupted by the sudden appearance of another guest in his host’s home, the impressively tall stranger dropped his fork and very nearly spilled his coffee all over the place as he spun around in his chair to face the man that had startled him.

            “Hi.” The still slightly shocked man greeted, rising to his feet. “I’m Duff.”

            Not at all familiar with the concept of finding himself shorter than anyone else, particularly so by a pretty significant three inches, Tony could only blink stupidly as he tried, and failed, to force himself not to feel too envious of the man standing directly in front of him.

            “Can I help with you something?” Duff pressed, looking rather tense as he voiced his question a moment later.

            “This is my house.” Tony frowned, startled out of his envious musings by the strange man’s presumptuous behavior. “Can I help you with something?”

            For a moment, Duff just looked startled. But then, just a precious few seconds later, he was smiling widely and shaking his head with an amused smile on his face, looking as if he had just finished telling himself a rather humorous joke that he wasn’t particularly inclined to share with anybody else.

            “I suppose that was a stupid question, wasn’t it?” Duff asked, clearly chastising himself for his marked lack of eloquence. “You’re Jethro’s boy.”

            “Exactly.” Tony proudly agreed, his voice tinged with a certain amount of jealousy. “And right now, ‘Jethro’s boy’ is wondering why you’re eating all of the banana bread.”

            To be quite honest, Tony was actually far more interested in knowing why Duff was even there in the first place. But, rather than put forth that particularly invasive question, and thus run the risk of getting himself into trouble with his father for being rude, he had simply decided to go with the second most pressing matter in his head at that moment.

             “I was – “

            Rather fortunately for Duff, Tony didn’t have all that long to ponder at his suddenly very discomforted expression and affix a potentially erroneous meaning behind it, as three seconds later Gibbs strolled into the kitchen, his hair dripping with water and smelling of shampoo as he pulled a work shirt over his head.

             “Tony.” Gibbs croaked, blue eyes going wide as his head reemerged.

            Although Tony would have loved to find humor in the fact that he, of all people, had managed to take his boss off guard, he found himself woefully unable to do so, as his sense of son-like compassion and duty seemed to have kicked into overdrive once he realized just how much of a deer-in-the-headlights his father resembled. Because as uncomfortable at the thought made him, it was very clear that his unshakeable boss had been troubled by something – something he had been trying to hide from him. And while that realization sort of stung more than Tony cared to admit, those feelings of slight betrayal paled in comparison when he pondered his father’s plight, as only something truly awful, or embarrassing, would cause Gibbs to be so alarmed by the presence of his only child in standing the kitchen.

            It wasn’t until Tony took note of the surplus of hickies decorating his father’s neck, and compared them to those also residing on Duff’s neck, that a vague idea of what was going on began to grow in his brain. For aside from maybe a reunion of his fellow veterans, or the existence of some long-lost cousin nobody had known about, there was just no reason for another man of Gibbs’s age to be seated so comfortably in his father’s home – especially so a man who bore an alarming number of love bites that looked suspiciously similar to that of his host’s.

            “Oh.” Was all Tony could say, uncharacteristically at a loss for words.

            “Oh?” Gibbs parroted, looking stressed beyond on belief and bizarrely insecure.

            Majorly uncomfortable with the whole entire concept of his father, the one person in his life who he could always count on to be composed and calm, even in the face of crises, looking so stricken and panicked, Tony could only do what he always did when he found himself in an uncomfortable position – he cracked a joke.  

            “So, is this the infamous Jolene you’ve been hiding from everyone?”         

            But, even though his joke fell comically flat, which was a real tragedy in his mind, Tony felt strongly that had been necessary, as he felt that by making light of his father’s sudden and clandestine romance he was showing that he really didn’t care that it was of a homosexual nature. And truly, he didn’t. All he really cared about, in the end, was whether or not this man would be the type to hit and curse at his father. Because Tony just wasn’t going to stand by and watch that shit go down anymore, especially not now that the potential assaulter was another man and more than a fair target for retaliatory blows should it come to that.

            “I’m Duff.” The man in questioned frowned, clearly puzzled at the inside joke.

            “Ignore him.” Gibbs sighed, slowly starting to relax his posture. “He’s just being stupid right now.”

             But, even though his father laid an affection hand atop his head as he said it, Tony still couldn’t help but take offense at such a slander. Or rather, he couldn’t help but pretend to be a little wounded as a result.

            “Hey!” He frowned, putting on his most wounded expression. “You’re the one who has been keeping…this…a secret from me for god knows how long. I should be the one who is annoyed.”

             It was only once he saw his father’s face, that Tony regretted his choice of words.

            “Not that it’s the gay thing that’s the annoying thing.” Tony frantically amended, nearly tripping over the words. “It’s the lying thing. And the fact that you let your boyfriend eat the last of the banana bread.”

            Evidently eager to please his boyfriend, Duff almost immediately pushed his plate toward Tony, offering up the last sliver of banana bread as some sort of peace offering even though it was the butt of the loaf and, as a result, the very best part. Only before Tony could even so much as consider accepting it, inevitable scolding be damned, much less cram it all into his mouth, his father was sighing loudly once again and returning the plate back to its original owner with a pointed look aimed at Tony. But, before he could even begin so much as to complain about such inhuman treatment, and the injustice of a father turning over his only child for the affections of a man, Gibbs reached into the cupboard he designated for pastries and removed a fresh loaf of the much craved for bread.

             “Heel, you little piggy.” Gibbs scolded, plating him up a slice.

            Far to relieved at the prospect of chowing down on a slice of the fresh loaf, after slathering it with Gibbs’s homemade butter first, of course, Tony didn’t even cry out at the injustice of being called a piggy as he eagerly took his seat at the kitchen table and accepted a glass of chocolate milk from his father.

            But, knowing that it was vital to just get everything out into the open, at least when it came to dealing his father, who had a rather aggravating tendency to clamp down tightly on things the longer he kept them holed up, Tony only waited until his father had claimed a chair to get to the crux to the matter.

            “Why didn’t you tell me?” Tony delicately pressed, worried that he had somehow lost some of his father’s trust.

            “Tony,” Gibbs sighed, looking as if he had been put through the ringer, “I…I’m still figuring stuff out.”

            Thoroughly unfamiliar with the idea of his stalwart father being unsure of anything, let alone about himself, Tony could only raise a brow and glance pointedly at the excess of hickies covering his boss’s throat.

            “Why did it take so long?” Tony quietly asked.

            Not because he wanted to make his father feel poorly for taking so long to come out of the closet, but rather because he was worried that Gibbs had only ever stayed in there for so long because he was afraid of how Tony would react.

            “People just weren’t allowed to figure that sort of thing out back then.” Gibbs explained, allowing his coffee to cool. “Especially not in the military.”  

            Stereotypical movie buff that he was, Tony didn’t even need to ask any questions about the treatment new recruits got in bootcamp – especially the ones that were deemed too soft.

            “Nothing wrong with making up for lost time then.” Tony remarked, still surprised by all the dark marks lining his father’s neck.

            Just one glance from his father being enough to assure him of the fact that he was terrifying close to getting a headslap, of the sort that hadn’t been doled out in ages, Tony clamped his mouth shut and tried, rather half-heartedly, to conceal his amused smirk behind a napkin.

            “So, you’re okay with all this.” Gibbs pestered, looking semi-frantic.

            “Of course I am.” Tony insisted, a bit offended. “It’s not like you’re dating a Nazi or something.”  

            “But I am dating another man.” Gibbs announced, as if the whole entire concept had somehow flown right over his head.

            But realizing that Gibbs was only acting out of a place of severe self-consciousness, and maybe even a little self-loathing, Tony got up from the table and wrapped his wrapped his arms around his father’s torso, squeezing tightly and trying to convey, through touch alone, that nothing his boss did could ever make him think less of him. Even if said employer did, unfortunately, possess the rather unfortunate opinion that the second Godfather movie was better than the first.

            “He seems nice enough to me.” Tony murmured in his father’s ear. “And, if he’s not, I can hit this one back for you.”  

            Duff was, after all, a fellow man.

            “I have no plans to hurt your father!” Duff insisted, looking scandalized at the very thought. “Jethro, is that something that’s happened a lot to you?”

            “ – No.”

            “ – Yes.” Tony declared, speaking louder. “And, like I said, I will hurt you back.”

             Granted, it would be a rather difficult task to do so given Duff’s stature, but still, he was reasonably certain that he could take the man on provided that he got the first jump in.

            “You’ll never need to.” Duff promised, a strong earnestness showing in his golden eyes.

            “I had better not.” Tony countered, refilling his father’s coffee mug before returning to his seat between the two.

Chapter Text

            Still somewhat on-edge after having had his secret so unexpectedly discovered by his child, as he had not had any time, at all, to prepare himself for such an event, so busy had he been with his experimenting and research, Gibbs was more than just a little relieved when Tony finally started flapping his jaw again, as, for him, that signaled a pointed return to normalcy, or, at the very least, a semblance of normalcy. Because as progressive as he knew his child to be, which was fairly so, even Gibbs couldn’t argue against the pure facts that it was just downright weird, for any child, to suddenly discover that their parent was in a homosexual relationship by espying the hickies on their neck.

            “What’s your favorite movie, Duffman?” Tony pestered, clearly very eager to get himself a good read on the man who was currently dating his father.

            Either blissfully unaware of the fact that he had just been addressed as a pretty annoying character from The Simpsons, or charitably opting to ignore said reference for the sake of making a good impression, Duff smiled softly at Tony and carefully considered his answer, wisely sensing, as he did, that there actually was a correct answer to Tony’s request for a stated opinion.

            “I really like Dracula.” Duff volunteered, looking rather nervous to make a good impression.

            Despite having not explicitly shared with his child the fact that he loathed horror movies with a fiery fashion, to the point where he sometimes conveniently ‘lost’ the ones in said child’s collection whenever a family movie night approached, he was reasonably assured of the fact that Tony had somehow discovered the fact for himself. And, if he hadn’t been one-hundred percent sure before then, all his doubts were immediately removed when his SFA awarded him with an amused smile after Duff had made it known that his favorite movie was a pretty classic horror film.

            “What’s your favorite food?” Tony further interviewed, evidently pleased enough with the first answer to continue forward.

            Managing to take his unexpected interrogation with stride, without even breaking so much as a sweat, despite it being markedly clear that he wished for nothing more than to make a good impression on his boyfriend’s child, Duff politely considered the question before answering.

            “I like tacos.” Duff confirmed, setting aside his coffee to better pay attention to his nosy little interviewer.

            Nodding just once in response to the pretty standard answer, in an alarmingly near perfect imitation of Gibbs, himself, giving an interrogation, Tony pursed his lips in yet another eerily familiar fashion and eagerly pressed onward with the impromptu interview, a rather worrying and markedly suspicious gleam shining brightly in his green eyes as he did so.

            “Tell me, McDuff, what’s your stance on grounding adult children?”

            Just as willing to ignore the Macbeth-variety butchering of his name as he was the earlier Simpson version, Duff smiled softly and put forth his very best politician-based answer, making it quite clear, to all parties involved, that he wasn’t the sort of man to just willingly walk himself into a trap. Simultaneously endearing himself to Gibbs all while earning the petulant disapproval of the young man who was currently interrogating him.

            “I guess I would have to say that a person is subject to the authority of whomever owns the home they’re in.” Duff stipulated. “No matter how old they are.”

            “That’s an awfully political answer.” Tony pouted, stealing a large slab of butter from Duff’s plate.

            “Well, I’m a politician.” Duff happily informed the young man.

            Already anticipating his theatrical child’s response, Gibbs didn’t even need to look away from his boyfriend’s face in order to know that Tony’s jaw had dropped.

            “Really, Dad?” Tony guffawed. “A politician.

            “He’s a good one.” Gibbs passionately defended, nearly desperate in his aims to ascertain that both of the men in his life left the breakfast table that morning liking each other.

            Because as much as he could tolerate it whenever Kate and Tony happened not to be getting along, which was a fairly frequent occurrence to be quite frank, Gibbs just didn’t know what he would do if his child happened not to like his boyfriend – as bickering agents were one thing and familial disharmony quite another.

            “Well,” Tony sighed, seeming to know that Gibbs craved his approval, “At least he’s not in the FBI.”

            “Agreed.” Duff concurred, looking rather terse for a moment.

            It was only then that Gibbs started to contemplate the possibility that Duff had caught a glimpse of the bruises on his shoulder as they’d been necking that morning and, a result, correctly deduced where they’d came from. But, rather than call him out about it, Duff simply frowned deeply into his own cup of coffee before lifting his face to smile reassuringly at Gibbs.    

            “Just how long has this been a thing, anyways?” Tony queried, unknowingly interrupting whatever moment had been taking place between the older two men in the room. “Because Duffman here is looking at you like he’s ready to propose or something.”

            Face immediately flaming up at the mere mention of marriage, Gibbs nearly choked on his coffee and struggled to answer the simple question within an appropriate amount of time.

            “…A day, officially.” He finally volunteered, face still flaming brightly.

            “Dad!” Tony gasped dramatically, clutching a hand over his heart before turning to face Duff with a rather severe, yet mock, expression of rebuke. “Are you taking advantage of his giving nature, Mr. Duff?”

             Knowing Duff to be not at all accustomed to Tony’s sometimes slightly aggravating flair for theatrics, and likewise wishing to get his child to shut up before he said something far more embarrassing then he already had, Gibbs intervened by leveling a warning look at his son.

            “You know, it’s not too early for me to send you to your room for a while.” Gibbs warned.

            Huffing indignantly, as well as crossing his arms over his chest, Tony shook his head despondently and looked plaintively up into Duff’s face.

             “Never in the history of the world has a child ever been so mistreated.” The young man proclaimed, only half-joking.

            “I think Michael Jackson would like a word or two with you.” Duff quipped, thankfully more amused by Tony’s antics than he was annoyed. “Or Judy Garland.”

            To say that Gibbs had felt relieved when a semi-natural conversation stemmed forth from there, or at least as normal as a conversation could ever be when Tony was involved, would have been the understatement of the century.

            In fact, so vastly relieved was Gibbs to be listening to both child and boyfriend discussing and ranking all the Old Hollywood Greats, and rather companionably at that, that he almost forgot they had work that morning until he caught sight of the time on Tony’s Rolex as said man flailed his arm dramatically about in pursuit of driving home the point that Marlon Brandon was, in fact, more than just a little overrated

            “We need to go.” Gibbs reluctantly interrupted, a rather cold feeling beginning to creep up into his stomach.

            Only halfway through his itemized list of why Marlon Brando was nowhere near as great as Humphrey Boggart, Tony looked almost betrayed as he turned away from Duff to frown at him.

            “Because I’m arguing with your boyfriend?” Tony asked, surprised at the very idea that his father could be so censoring.

            “What?” Gibbs demanded, almost insulted at the insinuated. “No. Because we’re already late for work.”

            Not late late, per se, but definitely military late.

            “Oh.” Tony pipped, looking legitimately sad to be leaving so soon.

            Almost just as sad as Gibbs was currently feeling about it. Which was markedly so.

            “Don’t worry, Tony-Boy,” Duff implored, turning a Pony-Boy reference on him, “We can finish up our discussion another time.”

            “It wasn’t a discussion.” Tony sallied, veering on the edge of bratty. “It was a lecture. On all the reasons you’re wrong about Marlon Brando.”

            “Anthony!” Gibbs scolded, shooting him a warning look. “Go get your jacket on.”

            “But – “

             “Tony,” Duff mildly butted in, “Why don’t you go get your jacket on?”

            While Gibbs would have ordinarily stepped in and protested against the idea of anyone but himself actively parenting his child, like all those times when Senior appeared out of nowhere and tried to play the part of the doting father, he found he felt no such inclination to do so when Duff tried his hand at it. Not only because Duff had backed him up, and hadn’t tried to undermine his authority, but so too because he had been kind while doing so. Not commanding, as Senior might have done, but rather…guiding. And if that was any reflection, at all, of what sort of person Duff was when faced with the need to be assertive, Gibbs felt confident in the fact that he wasn’t ever going to be assaulted by him. Not for any reason, at all.

            “I guess this is goodbye then.” Duff sighed, reluctantly climbing to his feet at the same time Gibbs did.

            “Just until later, though.” Gibbs amended, trying not to sound too desperate for that to be true.

            “Just until later.” Duff agreed, grabbing up his hands before pulling him closer for a kiss on the mouth.

            But, not at all satisfied with that measly kiss alone, Duff wrapped his arms around his waist and pressed his forehead up against his. Just staring at him, into his eyes, for a spell before placing one last kiss on his lips, this one shorter but no less passionate as a result.

            “Try not to miss me too much.” Duff stipulated, finally releasing him.

            “No promises.” Gibbs argued, already missing the feeling of strong arms being wrapped around him.

            “I’ll be back before you know I’m gone.” Duff reassured, reluctantly shrugging into his coats before helping Gibbs into his own.

            Choosing at that very moment to pop back into the kitchen, with his coat aggravatingly not even zipped and sans a hat, Tony smiled brightly at Duff and nearly reverberated with excitement.

            “Does that mean you’re coming back tonight!?”

            Despite being touched, beyond relief, that Tony seemed so eager to become acquainted with his boyfriend, Gibbs couldn’t help but flinch at that eagerness.

            “Tony…” Gibbs began, a knot forming up in his stomach. “This…This needs to just be an ‘us’ secret for now, okay?”

            Not because he didn’t trust any of the others in their little work family, barring maybe Abby, but because he simply just wasn’t ready to let all those people in on the big secret he’d been holding unto for forever.

            “Nobody would – “

            “It’s just…It needs to be an ‘us’ secret for now.” Gibbs repeated, far more insistent.

            “Okay,” Tony agreed, looking him straight in the eye, “Just an ‘us’ secret. I promise.”

            Letting out a breath he hadn’t even known he’d been holding, Gibbs allowed his shoulders to drop and his back to relax.

            “I’m still hoping we can meet up for lunch though.” Duff tentatively commented, thankfully not at all offended by the fact that Gibbs seemed so determined to hide his existence from the team.

            “I’ll try to get away from the yard.” Gibbs promised, eager to make up for the fact that he wasn’t quite ready to parade Duff around all those he cared about.

            “Sounds good to me.” Duff grinned, planting one last kiss on his cheek. “I’ll see you later.”

            And, after gracing Tony with a polite nod and smile, Duff took his leave of the home, leaving in his wake a rather disgruntled Marine and a disappointed young man.

             “I know you want to be all broody and stuff, Dad, and I get it, really I do, but…We really are kind of late for work.” Tony pipped, after a respectful amount of time had passed. “And we should really, probably, cover up those hickies if you want to keep Duff a secret for any more than a few minutes.”

            “Yeah,” Gibbs frowned, touching his fingers to his neck, “The shirt really isn’t cutting it, is it?”

            “A turtleneck couldn’t cut it.” Tony razzed. “But I think Kate might have left some of her makeup upstairs. Maybe something in her bag might work.”

             “I suppose we’ll have to give it a try.” Gibbs allowed.

            Because as much as he wasn’t excited about the idea of wearing any sort of fucking makeup on his body, he was even far less thrilled at the prospect of the ribbing he’d get from Ducky if said man happened to catch a glimpse of his neck.

            Which was precisely the only reason, at all, that he was currently allowing his irredeemably clumsy child to slop an ungodly amount of slightly too-dark foundation unto his neck with his fingers.

            “Uh, it kind of just looks like your neck is dirty now.” Tony grimaced, trying in vain to massage away a little of the darkness. “But…I mean, the hickies are gone.”

            “Christ,” Gibbs sighed, assessing the damage, “Why does Kate have to get so goddamn tan in the summer?”

            “It’s probably a Midwest thing.” Tony ventured. “Her body has learned to soak up all the sun it can before winter sets in.”

            “Maybe.” Gibbs allowed. “Do you think I could pull off wearing a scarf to the office?”

            Gibbs was, after all, notoriously always cold.

            “I thought we were trying to keep the gay thing secret.” Tony quipped, wise enough to move himself out of elbowing range.

            “Really, Tony, really?” Gibbs pressed, rolling his eyes. “I come out of the closet to you and you immediately make gay jokes?”

            “It wasn’t immediately.” Tony countered, riffling through Kate’s makeup bag in search of a lighter shade of foundation. “Or a joke. I mean, have you ever seen a straight man wearing a scarf inside a building?”

            Forced to concede that he had not, in fact, ever espied a man wearing a scarf inside of a building, Gibbs rolled his eyes and reluctantly made it known, via a frown, that Tony had won that particular argument.

            “Dad…” Tony pressed, suddenly nervous as he approached his neck with a slightly lighter shade of foundation. “Did…Did you always know?”

            Not even needing to ask any clarifying questions to understand what his child was acting, Gibbs frowned and remained silent for a moment, working on building up his courage before answering.

            “I always knew something was wrong with me.” Gibbs confirmed, feeling a stab in his stomach as he made the confession. “I just thought that I had gotten it all taken care of in bootcamp, I guess.”

            “There’s nothing wrong with you.” Tony gently protested, his voice soft but firm. “So there was nothing to take care of.”

            “You sound awfully confident for a man who never had to grow up in the middle of the fifties.” Gibbs softly chided. “Or in a small town.”

            Not that Tony’s own childhood hadn’t been difficult enough, what with the negligent father and all, but still…the fifties had been a godawful time. Like some sort of fucking blight from God himself, to get back at all the humans he had created for daring to want more for their lives than His autobiography allowed.

            “Leading experts in the fifties thought that cutting out pieces of people’s brain was the pinnacle of medical advancement.” Tony snorted, using his fingers to blend the lighter foundation into the darker. “I really don’t know why you’d take anything anyone said back then as fact.”

            Feeling himself stiffen as thoughts of the camp his parents had wanted to send him to flickered through his head, Gibbs grimaced and tried to will away the rapidly tightening knot in his stomach before it provoke a full-blown panic attack.

            “What,” Gibbs asked, struggling to speak, “You don’t trust the words of people who liked to claim that smoking was good for you?”

            “The fifties sound awful.” Tony sniffed, scrunching up his nose. “I don’t know why everyone always says they want them to come back.”

            “It may shock you to hear this,” Gibbs frowned, “But some people actually enjoyed the free-for-all racism and sexism.”

            Not to mention all the homophobia.

            “Was it really all that bad for you, Dad?” Tony questioned, looking heart-broken on his behalf.

            Struggling to keep all the ass-beatings he had gotten in elementary school out of his head, as well as all the rampant harassment he had experienced in boot camp once a fellow recruit had caught wind of the fact that Gibbs seemed awfully fond of a notoriously-reasonable drill sergeant, after espying him making a rough sketch of him in the barracks, Gibbs clamped down on his tongue hard enough to draw blood but nodded.

            “Life was hard back then for anybody who was different.” Gibbs explained. “Especially if you were really different.”

            Because while Greasers and Communists certainly got their own fair share of the vitriol that seemed an essential part of the fifties for anyone white and unfettered by any social delinquencies, it wasn’t them who were getting beat up on a daily basis or punished with all the grunt work in boot camps for just existing. They usually had to open their mouths first and offend a person before they were assaulted. Gibbs merely had only to exist, as he was, to be castigated.

             “Boot camp must have been scary.” Tony opined, having had a tough time, himself, in military school.

            “It was at first.” Gibbs agreed. “But I eventually learned how to survive.”

            “By going into the closet?” Tony delicately pressed.

            “By going further into the closet.” Gibbs agreed.

            And never once poking his head out until just a few days ago.

            “You don’t belong in the closet.” Tony assuredly claimed, no trace of doubt, at all, in his voice. “The closet is for monsters – like the people who pushed you there in the first place.”

Chapter Text

            More than just a little familiar with all of Jethro’s idiosyncrasies and mannerisms, after having not only gone off to war with him, but worked with him for ages by that point as well, Ducky had immediately sensed that something was ‘off’ with his friend that morning, almost from the very moment said man had arrived only a precious two-minutes early to work and quite literally bumped into him inside the notoriously wonky lift. Because while Jethro had certainly greeted him politely enough, alongside Anthony, the elder of those two men had very awkwardly positioned himself so that the frontal portion of his body was facing away from him, causing him to stare rather awkwardly at the wall of the poorly-lit lift rather than at Ducky himself. But rather than chose to confront the stubbornly taciturn man in front of his child, for behaving in so withdrawn a fashion, an act which would have gotten him nowhere, given that Jethro tended to shut down whenever confronted with things he wished not to face, Ducky had magnanimously  decided to hold off from ambushing the emotionally-crippled Marine until the lunch hour had arrived.

            “Jethro, let’s say you and me have a spot of lunch together, yes?” Ducky requested, approaching said man’s desk with what he hoped was a natural smile. “I do still need your opinion on Daphne’s ring, after all.”

            Looking as if he would much rather lop off one of his arms then spend any amount of time with Ducky, especially so while alone, Jethro sighed heavily and pressed a few calloused fingers up against his temples. And though Ducky was inclined to feel insulted by such a surprising and sudden show of derision towards his person, after all they had been through together throughout the years, he was fortunately able to shoo those feelings away with the knowledge that Jethro only ever acted so rudely when something exceedingly troubling was bothering him.

            “I thought Kate had helped you with that.” Jethro grumbled.

            “She did.” Ducky happily confirmed, shooting a smile over his shoulder to the young woman in question. “But I’m down to two options now and I need a tie-breaker.”

            Not only because he wished to lure Jethro away to the privacy of his office, but so too because Caitlyn was absolutely adamant that her ring of choice was the way to go and that his selection was antiquated and uninspired at best. Accusations that were, in his sage opinion, absolutely ridiculous and ludicrous in nature.

            “So either way, my day ends with somebody being angry with me?” Jethro challenged, clearly determined to be in an ornery mood that morning.

            Wanting to do nothing more than reassure his oldest of friends that he couldn’t possibly ever be held responsible for making the correct choice in signaling out Ducky’s selection for the honor of his rare approval, as Caitlyn was surely far too mature to sulk when faced with the experience of not having her opinion on a matter catered to, Ducky opened his mouth and prepared to do just that. Only before he could even get a word out, much less move his tongue, Kate pounced and struck the iron while it was still hot.

            “I won’t be angry.” Kate confidently reassured. “Because I know you’re going to pick mine out.”

            “Wow, the humility is just radiating off of you today, Katie.” Anthony jeered, speaking up before Ducky could chide the same woman for her hubris. “Aint that right, McGee?”

            Too busy texting his dog sitter to even glance away from his phone, much less tend to the steaming Dim Sum on his plate, Timothy only nodded vaguely in the direction of Anthony.

            “Fine,” Jethro sighed, speaking up before a full-fledged squabble could erupt amongst his agents, “Let me see the pictures.”

            Feeling momentarily trapped as Jethro unknowingly poked a pretty significant hole into his little ruse, Ducky bought himself some time by turning to Timothy and making the suggestion that he really ought to tend to his lunch before it became too cold for it to palatable. A suggestion which the mild-mannered boy seemed to take as a command, as he very quickly set aside his chronically buzzing iPhone to make a great show of biting into one of the swollen masses residing on his plate.

            “I’m afraid the pictures don’t do the jewelry justice.” Ducky cleverly deceived. “You’ll have to come and take a look at them.”

            “Why didn’t you just bring them with you?” Gibbs frowned, more annoyed than suspicious. “It would have saved us both some time.”

            “I thought they might be safer tucked away in my office.” Ducky provided, not entirely untruthful.

            Because while he highly doubted that anyone in their little work family would pilfer the exceedingly expensive jewelry, he was not so daft as to believe they would be immune from any Anthony-related shenanigans unless locked up securely in a hidden drawer of Ducky’s desk. For even with his Jimmy acting as a guard-dog, Jethro’s child had a remarkable propensity for carrying out his mischief without any hiccups occurring to slow him down.

            “You mean your cubby.” Jethro corrected, never shy about teasingly deriding the sorry state of Ducky’s professional quarters.

            “My quarters are perfectly sufficient for my work-related needs.” Ducky tutted.  

            They were likewise also quite sufficient for his other non-work-related needs, as well. For its compact and confined nature made it so that only a bowl, or two, was needed to achieve his desired level of buzz, as with nowhere for the THC-laden air to dissipate, a rather satisfactory clam-bake could be achieved in mere moments. And then, of course, there was the rather pleasing reality of his little office providing a rather plush rug, the make and likes of which made it all the easier to ‘enjoy’ Daphne’s increasing number of visits to his workplace.

            “Work-related.” Jethro requoted, with a rather sardonic smirk.

            “That is, indeed, what I just said.” Ducky happily confirmed, wishing not to get into a row with his best friend before he could ascertain the cause for his current state of disgruntlement. “Now, let’s be on our way, shall we?”

            Getting up from his desk with all the haste and eagerness of an octogenarian being escorted back to his room in the nursing home, Jethro groaned loudly but nonetheless allowed himself to be led into the lift and down into the morgue.

            “I do hope you’ll make the right call.” Ducky fussed, impatiently ushering Jethro into his still fragrant office before said man could catch sight of Jimmy snoozing away atop one of the autopsy tables. “It’s important to me that Daphne gets the perfection she deserves.”

             Not only because Ducky loved her with a passion that was almost frightening at times, but so too because he was fully intent on proposing to her with said ring, effectively making their one-year anniversary far more significant than it already was.

            “Just let me see the rings.” Jethro implored.

            “Very well.” Ducky happily agreed, freeing from the hidden compartment in his desk the final two contenders for Daphne’s engagement ring.

            Taking only a moment to assess the two sparkling rings, one a rather delicate and tasteful silver with single-stoned emerald, and the other a far more ostentatious amethyst-focused piece with small diamonds on either side of the stone, Jethro promptly aggravating the living hell out of him by choosing the latter.

             “This one.” Gibbs confidently declared, gently tapping the silver band with one of his fingers. “Daphne’s favorite color is purple.” And, almost as an afterthought, he added: “The other one is far too plain for her, anyways.”

            Despite having promised himself to take whatever answer Jethro gave in stride, so confident was he that his own selection would have been chosen, Ducky couldn’t help but frown up into his friend’s face.

            “Ordinarily I would thank you for your assistance,” Ducky began, rather displeased, “But I’m afraid you’ve just cost me a fifty-dollar bet with my Jimmy. Not to mention given bragging rights to Caitlyn.”

            Bragging rights which, without a doubt, Caitlyn would be more than happy to lord over him for the following two weeks – if not longer.

            “You need to stop making asinine bets.” Jethro simply shrugged, refusing to capitulate on his earlier answer.

            “A man needs to have his hobbies.” Ducky patiently countered, carefully returning both pieces of jewelry to their proper hiding place.

            “So take up golf or something.” Jethro suggested.

            “Golfing is for the elderly and WASPS.” Ducky opined, waving his hand dismissively.    

            But even though Jethro had made it abundantly clear that he hadn’t even wanted to play the part of a jewelry assessor in the first place, Ducky was still slightly thrown off-guard by the Marine’s mild rudeness following such a playful answer.

            “Can I go now?”

            In was only that Ducky came to contemplate the idea that Jethro had somehow gotten himself into yet another abusive relationship with a half-mad redhead. As baring a particularly nasty flare-up of pain in his bad knee, or an ill Tony, Gibbs only ever acted so impolitely with him whenever he felt significantly under attack.

            But, God help him, if that truly were the case, Ducky was going to have to reconsider his stance on guns. Not for purposes of shooting anyone, of course, but just for the benefit of making a rather convincing argument as to why the potential domestic-abuser should cease with such behavior. Or, in the off chance that Jethro had secured for himself a particularly dangerous beau, as a self-defense tool. For there was simply no way in hell that Ducky was going to allow his best friend to be battered around by a half-insane woman ever again after the last one had taken a tire iron to the back of his head.

            “Tell me, Jethro, how are things with you and Jolene?”

             Not at all expecting his stalwart companion to blanch a frightening shade of white, nor anticipating the man’s eyes suddenly going wide, Ducky couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that Jethro was having a sudden and unexpected heart attack. For there was just no accounting for such a strong reaction in response to such a simple question – least of all from the unexpressive Jethro.

            “What – “Jethro began, looking suddenly sweaty, “Did Tony tell you about Du-Jolene?”

             Still greatly considering the possibility that his friend might be experiencing at least some symptoms of a heart attack, Ducky gestured for Jethro to take a seat in one of the few chairs his office afforded only for the stubborn man to shake his head.

            “I’m fine…I just…Tony didn’t say anything, did he?” Gibbs worried, showing more emotion than he ever had while under active fire in Vietnam.

            The relief that came with the realization that his friend was only acting so squirrely out of some ill-conceived assumption that his child had somehow betrayed his confidence being only minor in nature, given that Jethro still seemed, at the very least, to be on the verge of a panic attack, Ducky frowned and forcefully pushed the Marine down into a chair.

            “Breathe, Jethro.” Ducky encouraged. “Your child hasn’t told me anything about you that could be considered a secret.”

            Well, aside from the fact that Jethro’s therapist had upped the dosage of his anxiety medication recently. But, then again, that betrayal had only ever come about because the poor lad was terrified out of his mind that the flu shot Ducky had just given his father would somehow interact poorly with the medication.

            “Then how did you know about D-Jolene.” Jethro challenged, still an alarming shade of white.

            “Jethro, you just confirmed the fact that there is.” Ducky gently informed.

            “Fine then,” Jethro growled, two spots of color rising up on his cheeks, “You got me.”

            Feeling that scolding his friend for his rudeness would only provoke an unnecessary row, which in turn would lead to an actual panic-attack, Ducky simply shooed away his slightly wounded feelings and concentrated on putting Jethro at ease.

            “I wasn’t setting a trap, Jethro.” Ducky patiently asserted, laying a hand on his shoulder.

            But while that act had been meant only to calm, it had clearly had the opposite effect, as mere seconds after his fingers had touched the touched the shoulder blade, Jethro had shoved them away.

            “Don’t – Don’t give me that look.” Jethro insisted, running a trembling hand through his hair. “I know that look. You’re thinking – you’re thinking that she’s hitting me or something.”

            Far too alarmed by the fact that Jethro had gotten himself so worked up that his breath was now hitching in the tell-tale signs of an anxiety-attack to feel wounded by the man’s restless rejection of his physical comfort, Ducky turned off the lights in his office in order to decrease the number of outside aggravators and slowly lowered himself down into a chair to put himself on equal footing with his friend.

            “Jethro,” Ducky pressed, speaking lowly, “If this woman is hurting you, I only want to help. I didn’t invite you down here in order to make you feel badly or guilty for things outside of your control.”

            “H – She’s not.” Jethro insisted, lifting his head to look him straight in the eyes. “I – just…I can’t fucking breathe.”

            Relieved to have learned that Jethro at least wasn’t being actively harmed by his Jolene, as his friend would never look anybody straight in the eye and lie, yet still rather concerned that the Marine was entering the beginning stages of an anxiety-attack, for whatever reasons, Ducky wrapped the still too-pale man in one of the non-sex-related blankets he kept in his office.

            “Breathe, Jethro.” Ducky encouraged, laying a grounding hand on his knee. “Did I ever tell you about the time I took Victoria to Build-a-Bear?”

            Taking Jethro’s semi-bemused shaking of his head as implicit permission to press forward with the story, one which he hoped was only silly and mindless enough to distract his friend’s mind away from attacking him, Ducky launched into the rather amusing tale with gusto, regaling his friend with all the verbal artistry required to explain how his granddaughter had been permanently banned from the famous franchise for preforming an autopsy on her newly purchased bear in front of a crowd of fellow children.

            “Jesus,” Jethro exclaimed, his voice steady despite being low an octave, “Jimmy has his fucking hands full with that one, doesn’t he?”

            “I dare say that Victoria is the primary factor behind Jimmy and Brenna refusing to even entertain the idea of having another child.” Ducky confided. “Of course, you didn’t hear that from me.”

            Feeling safe enough to pose his next question, once he watched Jethro smile and roll his eyes in response to the not-so-subtle request for secrecy, Ducky smiled softly himself and squeezed the man’s knee before taking his chance.

            “Daphne and I are dinning at The Ritz this evening, Jethro, and we’d like you to come.”

            And even though Ducky had originally been planning to take Daphne right there in the restaurant, in the darkness of the broom closet they both favored, he was more than able to affect a certain amount of honesty in his friendly statement, as no doubt Daphne would be just as willing as he currently was to put off closet-sex for the sake of Jethro.

            “I don’t know, Duck, I – “

            “Jethro,” Ducky frowned, “Have I done or said anything to you that makes you feel as if you have to hide your girlfriend from me?”

            For no bones about it, Ducky just couldn’t think of any other reason for Jethro to be so secretive around him of late.

            “No!” Jethro insisted, almost frantic. “No. It’s just…we only just started dating, that’s all. But…If he she wants to go, we will.”

            “Excellent.” Ducky grinned, clapping his hands. “We’ll meet at eight.”

             That would give him a good few hours of closet-sex in his own home before he and Daphne had to meet up with the other couple at the restaurant.

            “Just try not to be high.” Jethro razzed, slowly returning to his normal self.

            “Jethro,” Ducky admonished, “If I plan on eating somewhere that fancy, I’m going to take a toke or two to encourage my appetite.”      

            Not to mention his libido, but that little factoid was for Daphne’s pleasure, and Daphne alone.

            “I’m going to start an intervention for you.” Jethro warned, fondly shaking his head.

            “You wouldn’t do that to me.” Ducky countered. “Not for a fondness of pot.”

            Prevented from hearing what was like to be a rather clever retort from Jethro as Vance barged into the room without knocking, Ducky frowned and raised a reproving brow at the unrepentant interloper.

             “What’s this about pot?” Vance demanded, looking stressed out of his mind.

            “My dear boy,” Ducky smiled, “A pot is used to cook things.”         

            Either far too stressed to smell the copious amount of marijuana still lingering in the air from Ducky’s pre-lunch toke, or too thoroughly convinced of his Medical Examiner’s innocence to even consider the idea that the heavy smoke could be anything but incense-related, Vance simply rolled his eyes at Ducky before rather rudely shoving his disorganized stack of papers into Jethro’s lap.

            “I need you to fill these out ASAP.” Vance directed, sweating profusely.

            Taking only a moment to glance at the first few pages of the stack, Jethro frowned fiercely and shoved the offensive papers back at his employer.

            “Oh no,” Jethro refused, shaking his head, “These are yours to complete.”

             “I don’t have the – “

            “I don’t have the time either.” Gibbs snapped, all but jumping to his feet.

            Far too familiar with Jethro’s categorical refusal to respect him like a subordinate should his superior to even bother with a scolding in that regard, Vance simply shook his head and tried a different, much worse, approach in his attempt to get Jethro to do what he wanted.

            “What do you have to do that’s so – “

            “I’m heading out for lunch.” Jethro interrupted, speaking firmly.

            “Gibbs – “

            “Vance, I have an absurd amount of vacation and sick time.” Gibbs threatened. “If you want me to come back after lunch, you’ll stop badgering me about paperwork.”

             Having never before seen Jethro so anxious to attend a date, not even with all the women he eventually wound up marrying, Ducky frowned and began to worry, belatedly, that his friend had fallen under the spell of some emotionally dangerous woman.

            “Fine, have it your way!” Vance snapped, uncharacteristically losing his cool.

            Therapy and medication have helped him to feel his feelings of late, Jethro actually looked legitimately guilty in response to Vance’s tantrum, even though he was, in Ducky’s opinion, the innocent party in one of their infamous squabbles for once.

            “I’ll do it as soon as I get back.” Jethro promised, now far less combative.

            Having enough decency to at least look ashamed of his earlier outburst, Vance blushed brightly but nodded his thanks.

            “Please don’t take too long.” Vance implored, already halfway out the door. “Marrow has been on my ass all day.”       

            Waiting patiently until Jethro had closed the door behind his rapidly retreating boss, and returned to his seat, to press his friend about the most recent concern that had entered his head, Ducky leaned back in his chair and casually crossed his legs before speaking.

            “I must say, you seem rather smitten with this new lady of yours.” Ducky observed. “I hope you’re not being – “

            “Duck,” Gibbs insisted, looking his straight in the eye, “Everything is fine.”

            And, given that such a statement had been made with utmost confidence and honestly, rather than the usual dishonesty and anxiety Jethro affixed it with, Ducky took his friend at his word and smile brightly.

            “Then I look forward to meeting her tonight.”

             

             

Chapter Text

            While Gibbs obviously held his decades-long relationship with Ducky in exceedingly high regard, having actually gone through a rather bloody war with said man, one where death seemed almost inevitable, he sound found, much to his great distress, that just the very thought of introducing Duff to the quirky Medical Examiner caused his stomach to cramp painfully and  his skin to secrete an obnoxious amount of sweat. And, for the life of him, he just couldn’t figure out why his body was attacking him in such a cruel fashion, much less why he was so nervous in the first damn place. Because it was not as if Ducky had ever given him any cause, at all, to doubt the veracity or strength of his friendship. Nor had Ducky ever given Gibbs any sort of indication, or at least not a clear one, that he was homophobic to any significant degree. In fact, aside from a few ill-placed jokes and teasing insinuations, Ducky hadn’t at all showcased any of the rampant hatred for queers and faggots that everyone he had ever run into during his lengthy career in the military seemed to have.   

            But still, even with all of that sound logic bouncing around in the back of his head, Gibbs inevitably found himself hyperventilating in the crowded parking lot of The Ritz, his calloused skin all sweaty and gross and his vision terrifically wonky as he desperately leaned himself back against the passenger-side seat and squeezed his eyes shut tightly in the frantic pursuit of not throwing up every last thing in his stomach all over his boyfriend’s nice car.

            “Jethro, babe, are you okay?” Duff fussed, looking as freaked the fuck out as Gibbs was currently feeling.

            But rather than his good-natured concern serving to comfort Gibbs, it only made his sudden anxiety-attack all the worse, as just the mere thought of his boyfriend potentially thinking he had been duped into dating a half-crazy man made his stomach hurt all the more. To the point where he might have thought he was actually experiencing stomach ulcers or a gallbladder attack if he hadn’t already known the sharp pangs to merely be an unfortunate side effect of his stress provoked anxiety.

            “Fine.” Gibbs managed, the word coming out clunky and desperate. “I just – can’t - can’t breathe. That’s all.”

            Granted, the sudden and inexplicable inability to breathe that he sometimes experienced likely wasn’t thought of in so nonchalant a fashion by a person who had never before experienced such a powerful flood of anxiety taking over their body. But when one was in the midst of a sensory-overloading mental attack, the viewpoints of others where regarded the tenants of normalcy tended to get overlooked for a spell.

            “Jethro,” Duff worried, laying a grounding hand on his knee, “Let’s just go. We can try this some other time, alright?”

            Knowing, intrinsically, that he would never be able to inform Ducky of the fact that he was a homosexual if he was allowed to chicken out of the preplanned dinner, Gibbs frantically shook his head and tried to concentrate on getting his breathing back to a more functional level.

            “No.” Gibbs protested, still slightly nauseas. “I just – I just need a – a minute.”

            Thankfully, Duff allowed him that concession without making any further arguments or suggestions that they leave the restaurant. Sitting, instead, beside him in a supportive silence with one strong hand laid on Gibbs’s knee.

            ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ Gibbs questioned, rapidly losing patience with himself the longer his body refused to function as it should.

            ‘He could respond with disdain.’ Gibbs taunted himself.

            Not with outright hatred or vitriol, Ducky was far too classy for that, but disdain all the same. And, for the life of him, Gibbs just didn’t know if he could handle a shunning like that – not from his very best friend. The man who, at the very height of his suicidal peak after losing Shannon and Kelly, had talked him down and convinced him to live instead. The man who had, without even the slightest bit of hesitation, taken him under his wing while they had both been stationed in Vietnam during the height of the war and kept him from doing any stupid. The man who had, with only the slightest and infrequent of waverings, remained a loyal companion to him throughout the years – even during the uncomfortable duration of his ‘bastard’ years.          

            “Jethro, “ Duff tried again, his face pinched with nerves as he gave the knee beneath his fingers a squeeze, “Are you sure – “

            Unfortunately, for the both of them, Gibbs cut their little conversation short by flinging open the passenger-side door and vomiting, once more, into the parking lot of the upscale restaurant. Leaving behind a rather pungent stain on the asphalt and a very concerned expression on his boyfriend’s face.

            “Jethro,” Duff fussed, now gripping his shoulder, “What is it that has you so worried?”

            “I just – I – Don’t know what to expect.” Gibbs managed, his stomach still painfully cramped.

            “From Ducky?” Duff pressed, a small frown on his face.

            Mouth still as dry as his skin was wet, Gibbs could only nod in agreement with his boyfriend’s assessment.

            “Isn’t he supposed to be your best friend?” Duff queried.

            “I hope so.” Gibbs confided, still more than just a little bit nauseous.

            But, even as he said it, with all that doubt laced in the words, he knew, in the back of his head somewhere, that it was true. After all, a mere ‘friend’ or ‘acquaintance’ wouldn’t have done all those things Ducky had done for him throughout the lengthy years of their friendship. Most notably stayed up with him for three days straight directly after the death of his wife and daughter, dealing patiently with his raging emotions all while successfully managing to keep a gun or knife out of his hands.

            “Jethro, if that’s the case, I don’t think your friendship would be ended over something as simple as you being gay.” Duff posited, speaking carefully so as not to cause any offense. “I mean, for fucks sake, I’m still friends with Percy and he’s an asshole half the time.”

            Despite still being worked up to a considerable degree, Gibbs couldn’t help the strangled laugh that escaped his lips at the teasing reference to Percy’s general assholery.

            “Tell me, Jethro, what is that you like about Ducky?” Duff coaxed, starting to rub soothing circles into the back of his neck.

            “He…He’s a live-and-let-live sort of person.” Gibbs answered. “Like me.”

            And, not to mention, said Medical Examiner had the rare and exceedingly valuable ability to talk him down from whatever emotional extreme he happened to be feeling at the time.

            “And do you really think that policy somehow stops at homosexuality?”   

            Gradually starting to calm down the more Duff continued to talk sense into him, Gibbs sucked in a greedy breath and was relieved when his lungs actually allowed the oxygen to get up into his brain for the first time in what seemed like forever.

            “From what I’ve about this guy, Jethro, he seemed to value the people in his life.” Duff postulated, no doubt encouraged by Gibbs’s return to somewhat breathing. “And I don’t think a person like that would throw away a friendship for something that doesn’t even affect him.”

            Duff was, of course, one-hundred-percent correct. Because if Ducky hadn’t booted him out his life when he was in full-fledged asshole mode, or in the depths of his self-destruction, it only stood to reason that the loyal man wouldn’t ostracize from a lifestyle choice that harmed absolutely no one.

            “Are you going to be alright, now?” Duff delicately pressed, moving his hand up into Gibbs’s hair to smooth the gray locks down.

            “I just need another minute.” Gibbs assured, this time confident of the fact.

            And, with that stipulation made, Gibbs spent the following minute-and-a-half practicing all the breathing exercises his no-nonsense therapist had insisted he learned before upping his prescription of anxiety-meds up a significant degree.

            “Alright,” Gibbs sighed, once he felt reasonably steady again, “Let’s go. I can do this.”

            But, much to his surprise, rather than allow Gibbs to exit the car and go about completing the goal he had set for himself, Duff gently tugged him back into the vehicle by his wrist.

            “Wait.” He insisted, guiding Gibbs torso over the middle console.

            “What?” Gibbs frowned, worried that he perhaps looked a wreck after all that ridiculous panicking.

            It was only when Duff had also leaned his torso across the center console that Gibbs realized what he was about to do.

            “You are not going to kiss me after I just – “

            But, if Gibbs was fully expecting his rational boyfriend not to lock lips with a man who had just hurled into a parking lot twice, he was blissfully mistaken, as Duff had planted his soft lips up against calloused one before he could even think to pull away and prevent his boyfriend from experiencing the injustice of a vomit-adjacent kiss.

            “You’re gross.” Gibbs accused, once they finally parted.

            “I couldn’t help myself.” Duff cheekily grinned. “You’re cute as fuck.”

            “Why do I have to be cute?” Gibbs pouted. “Why can’t I just be handsome?”

            “You’re that, too.” Duff conceded, passing him a stick of peppermint gum. “But still as cute as a button.”

            Knowing it would do absolutely no good, at all, to wage any further protest against the idea of him being regarded as ‘cute’ of all things, given than any previous efforts at doing so had only lead to a doubling-down of said belief, Gibbs simply rolled his eyes before popping the gum into his mouth.

            “You ready, Babe?” Duff coaxed, shooting him an encouraging smile.

            “As ready as I’ll ever be.” Gibbs allowed.

            And, already knowing what his boyfriend was about to do before he did it, Gibbs remained patiently seated until Duff had exited his vehicle and made his way around to the passenger-side door to open it for him.

            “What’s your step.” Duff advised. “Some hobo vomited all over the parking lot.”

            “You’re a goon.” Gibbs accused, nonetheless allowing the slightly taller man to guide him, via an elbow, around the large vomit slick.

            “Well,” Duff smiled, placing an arm around his back, “You know what they say. Only goons rush in.”

            Allowing the comforting arm to remain where it was for no other reason than that it provided a great deal of warmth, Gibbs leaned closer into his boyfriend’s side for warmth but nonetheless rolled his eyes all the same.

            “Fools.” He corrected. “Only fools rush in.”

            “Maybe.” Duff shrugged, pulling open the door of The Ritz for them both. “But I much prefer your word for me.”

            “You might not,” Gibbs advised, “If you knew all the rest of them.”

            “So long as I don’t make any inquiries into the matter,” Duff smiled, “I’m free to think those words are complimentary. So, thank you, Jethro. You’ve just made my night.”

            Having by that point in time finally reached the hostess stand, after a seemingly sojourn through a ridiculously-sized foyer, Gibbs was forced to refrain from responding in the inappropriate manner he had been planning to.

            “Hello,” Duff greeted the youthful hostess, his smile genuine in a way that Henry’s had never managed to be, “How are you?”

            “I’m well, thank you.” The skinny hostess responded, her smile reserved but just as genuine as Duff’s. “And you, gentlemen?”

            “We’re great.” Duff assured, speaking for them both. “We’re meeting some friends for dinner.”

            “Lovely.” Their hostess replied, the words rehearsed but no less genuine. “May I have the name of the party you’re joining.”

              “Mallard.” Gibbs volunteered, when Duff looked to him for assistance.

            Taking but a moment to flip through the giant guestbook laying on her podium, their young professional smiled at them once more.

            “Right this way, gentlemen.”

            Seeing as how their impeccably-polished hostess hadn’t so much as even flinched when they had approached her stand, nor balked when she took note of Duff’s arm wrapped protectively around his waist, Gibbs found himself far more relaxed than he had ever expected to be while being gay in a public place. Not completely at peace, of course, but no longer quite so terrified that he was going to get jumped by several angry men at any moment.

            In fact, it was only as they came closer to the private little table tucked away behind a little partition, that his nerves descended upon him again. Not with a vengeance, per se, but with a notable furor that soon had his breathing all wonky again. But before it could even get the point where he experienced yet another panic-attack, and likewise graced the expensive floor of the fancy restaurant with the meagre contents of whatever was left in his stomach from the last attack, Duff was squeezing his hand and making the panic reside to a much more manageable level.

            It was only when he came around the slight partition, and espied Ducky snuggled up quite cozily to Daphne, his wrinkled forehead pressed up against her own, that his panic seemed to recede completely. Because he was pretty certain, as he watched his best friend unabashedly stroke his girlfriend’s long-ass braid, that he could have sauntered up to the table in assless chaps and gone perfectly unnoticed by either half of the couple. And really, why should his approach to the table with a man, be any great source of scandal or surprise. His attraction for Duff was certainly no less pure in nature than what Ducky felt for Daphne. Far more taboo, certainly, and perhaps more universally despised, but pure nonetheless.

            Unfortunately, however, Gibbs didn’t really have all that much time to reflect on his important and sudden self-realization, as their hostess, professional as always, was soon announcing them both to the shamelessly canoodling older couple.

            “The rest of your party has arrived, Sir.”

            ‘Well,’ Gibbs thought, ‘There’s no going back now.’

            And, if he really stopped to think about it, he really didn’t want to turn back, at least not anymore – not once he saw Ducky’s face and remembered just how welcoming the older man had been of a scared eighteen year old thrown into the midst of a bloody war he really hadn’t signed up for.

            “Jethro, I’m so glad you could make it.” Ducky warmly greeted, rising to his feet to shake his hand in greeting.

            “We were starting to worry that you had ditched us.” Daphne teasingly confided, wrapping her arms around him in a surprisingly powerful hug that belied the skinniness of her arms.

            Feeling slightly guilty that he had not even bothered to text them with some sort of lie about why they were running late, or at the very least had Duff send one off, Gibbs grimaced apologetically and prepared to make his excuses when his boyfriend butted in and did so for him.

            “I’m afraid we got a flat on the way over.” Duff apologized, making the fib as sincere as he could manage.

            “Oh, how unfortunate.” Daphne fussed, buying into the mild deception even when her boyfriend did not. “Those sorts of things always happen at the most inconvenient of times.”

            “Yes,” Duff agreed with a smile, “But that’s just life, isn’t it?”       

            “That does seem to be the case.” The skinny Medical Examiner allowed, giving Gibbs a rather queer look. “But do tell, Jethro, just who is this handsome gentleman you’ve brought along?” It seems to me that I was expecting a Jolene when I should have been expecting a Joe.”

            Even though, in his opinion, his friend’s joke had fallen perfectly fucking flat in light of all the agonizing circumstances that had lead up to it being made, Gibbs refrained from rolling his eyes at his friend’s irreverence and instead made the required introductions without any additional attitude.

            “Ducky, Daphne, this is Duff.” Gibbs began, his tongue impossibly heavy but his resolve as strong as ever. “My…boyfriend.”

            Much to the testament of his character, Ducky didn’t so much as bat an eye before holding out his hand for Duff to shake. Albeit, he did, give Gibbs a rather wounded, and slightly resentful, look as he did so – no doubt upset, maybe even rightfully, about all the clear deception he had been gifted with the past few days.

            “It’s very nice to meet you, Duff.”

            “You as well.” Duff pleasantly agreed, shaking his hand vigorously before turning to Daphne and doing the same. “Especially you, Ma’am. A pretty face is always a welcome thing when dinning.”

            Seeming almost jealous of the way Daphne blushed in response to such a cheesy compliment, Ducky actually scowled before remembering, belatedly, that Duff was gay and in no real position to steal his girlfriend away from him.

            “Well, not that we’ve had all the pleasantries taken care, let’s have us a seat.” Ducky suggested. “I dare say our hostess is becoming eager to return to her podium.”

            Looking very much caught in the act, despite having only made one glance at her wristwatch during their lengthy introduction, their poor hostess startled and looked almost ready to drop down to her knees and beg for forgiveness should it be required of her.

            “No, Sir, of course not.” She insisted, looking nearly frantic despite the evenness of her tone.

            “Relax, dear girl, I was only teasing.” Ducky comforted. “You’ve been the picture of professional all evening long, I assure you.”                      

             “Thank you, Sir.” Their hostess replied, clear relief showing in her eyes. “But, please, do have a seat. I’ll send your waiter over shortly.”

             “Thank you.” All four of them responded.

            Pulling out Gibbs’s chair for him even as Ducky pulled Daphne’s out for her, Duff gestured for him to be seated with an expression that forbade all arguments. And, knowing his boyfriend well enough to know that he would tickle his ribs by way of retaliation if he did dare argue against such unwarranted spoiling, Gibbs only frowned before wisely allowing himself to be pushed into the table by his boyfriend.

            “I say, Jethro, you’ve landed yourself quite the gentleman.” Ducky appraised.

            Kept from replying that Duff wasn’t at all one hundred percent gentlemanly, especially so when they were sharing a bed and he snored loudly enough to rattle the windows, by the sudden appearance of a bearded waiter, Gibbs frowned but elsewise resolved to use that little tidbit of information against his boyfriend during a latter part of their meal, keen to get back at him for earlier insinuating that he was ‘cute,’ of all things.

            “Gentlemen, Ma’am,” Their waiter greeted, “What may I get you to drink?”

            “Do you happen to serve beer, by any chance?” Daphne questioned.

            “No, I don’t believe so.” Their waiter answered, managing to keep his polite façade despite the inherent oddness of such a request. “We do serve a rather delicious cider, however.”

            “That will have to do.” Daphne decided. “Please make sure to add in a dash of cinnamon, would you?”

            “Of course, Ma’am.” Their waiter agreed, clearly relieved to have no been yelled at for the restaurants lack of beer. “And you, Sir?”

            Not even taking a moment to hesitate, and consider the bizarreness of his request, Ducky flashed a smile at the waiter and made a request of his own.

            “I don’t suppose I could get a glass of orange juice?”

            “Of course, Sir.” Their waiter agreed. “But I must warn you that all our orange juice is freshly squeezed. There might be a fair bit of pulp in your drink as a result.”

            “A little pulp never hurt anyone.” Ducky kindly dismissed.

            “Very good, Sir.” Their waiter responded, his answers just as rehearsed, yet polite, as their hostess. “And as for you, gentlemen, what can I can bring you to drink?”

            Not even knowing a quarter of what half the drinks on the menu tasted like, much less what they contained, Gibbs was more than just a little happy when his boyfriend took over and made the decision for him.

            “We’ll both go with your finest red.”

            “Excellent, Sir.” Their waiter responded. “I’ll be return with your drinks shortly.”

            Much in a manner that failed to surprise him, Ducky hardly even waited for their waiter to leave before plying both Gibbs and Duff with questions.

             “Tell me, Duff, what is that you do for a living?”

             “I’m the city coordinator.” Duff answered.

            “I see.” Ducky responded. “You must be quite the busy man.”

            Realizing, then and there, that Ducky was fully intent on giving his boyfriend some sort of interrogation, in the misguided belief that Duff might be of the same fiery and unstable composition of any number of his past girlfriends, Gibbs glared sharply at his friend and very nearly gave into the temptation to kick his shin beneath the table.

            “Not too busy for Jethro, though.” Duff calmly assured, facing Ducky’s interrogation just as well as he had Tony’s.

            “I should hope not.” Ducky sniffed, before promptly launching into yet another inappropriate question. “Do tell me, though, what is your stance on domestic arguments?”

            Even though Gibbs and Daphne both glared at their rouge Medical Examiner with the heat of a thousand suns, Duff remained perfectly unphased and answered the question as easily as he would a question about zoning laws.

            “I guess I would say that arguments in any relationship are inevitable.” Duff answered, letting a little of his political side shine through. “And that those would be best resolved through calm discussion and compromise.”

            Despite having already come to the conclusion that Duff would never strike him, the verbal confirmation of such only served to make Gibbs all the more confident of that belief.

            “And would a tire-iron ever factor into these discussions?” Ducky pressed, clearly opposed against the idea of going easy on his prey.

            Although if the way Ducky flinched and grimaced as the table suddenly shifted said anything at all about the situation, it was that his girlfriend was not best pleased with his sudden lack of manners and, as a result, made such a fact known with one steady, and stealthy, kick delivered to the culprit’s shin.

            “Unless the argument was about where to keep this supposed tire-iron, I can’t really see how it would factor into any discussion of ours.” Duff answered.

            Evidently appeased, at least for now, with the answers he had been given, Ducky abruptly shifted from interrogation mode back into his usual polite self. Although, whether or not the rapidity in which that was done had been motivated by the discreet kick from his girlfriend, or simply out of a feeling of mercy towards his friend, remained to be determined.

            “Do tell us, Jethro, how did you meet this lovely man?”

            Shooting his best friend a look that he hoped perfectly conveyed the fact that he was not about to let him off the hook for his earlier rudeness any time soon, and that he should very well expect retribution whenever he got him alone at work the next day, Gibbs frowned tersely before answering the question with a small, yet embarrassed, smile.

            “As a coffee shop.” He divulged. “He taught me how to play whist.”  

            “Of course it was at a coffee shop.” Daphne teased. “Where else would it have been?”

            More than just a little relieved when they didn’t ask which particular coffee shop, Gibbs allowed his posture to relax a slight degree and released a breath he hadn’t even known he’d been holding.

            “Jethro,” Ducky delicately pressed, “I do hope that you weren’t behaving so squirrely around me these last few days because you were afraid of my reaction to finding you were a homosexual.”

            And, just like that, Gibbs found himself contending with a sudden influx of anxiety all over again.

            “It’s just been a very trying couple of weeks, Ducky.” Gibbs clumsily explained. “It had nothing to do with you.”

            “I want to apologize, nonetheless, Jethro.” Ducky began, launching right into the heart of the matter without any trace of hesitation. “Because if I ever said, or did, anything that made you feel as if you couldn’t come to me with something like this, it was not maliciously intended or done out of a spirit of malevolence. Ignorance, certainly, but not hatred.”

            Far too touched by Ducky’s unyielding loyalty to speak for a moment, Gibbs busied himself with the task of nibbling on a bit of gourmet bread before answering.

            “Are you really not even surprised by this?” He demanded, ignoring the earlier sappiness to focus on his friend’s seeming lack of alarm.

            “Jethro,” Ducky grinned, a mischievous gleam in his eyes, “I’ve witnessed just how fondly you used to look at Lieutenant Dubois backside.”

            No longer chilled by the icy air of the restaurant as his face flamed hot with color, Gibbs kicked his friend’s shin beneath the table and was relieved to note that his foot seemed to have landed in the exact same spot Daphne’s had earlier.

            “Who is this Lieutenant – “

            Fortunately, for the sake of them all, Gibbs was prevented from having to explain the quality of his former Lieutenant’s ass by the timely return of their waiter and his dispersal of their drinks.

            “Thank you.” Gibbs graced the waiter, much more passionately than was strictly necessary.

            “You’re very welcome.” Their waiter responded, before turning to face Daphne with a well-practiced maneuver. “Ma’am, are you ready to order?”

            “I am very ready.” Daphne happily agreed. “I’ll have the seared duck with a side of ribs.”

            Understandably not at all familiar with the concept of ‘the munchies,’ both Duff and their waiter looked at Daphne with no small sense of alarm in response to her order. Although, in their waiter’s case, he at least had the expertise available to avoid making his horror look too evident.

            “Ma’am, the ribs are a meal all on their own.” Their waiter patiently explained. “Not an appetizer.”

            “Yes,” Daphne pleasantly agreed, “I should hope not. I’m rather hungry this evening.”

            “An excellent choice, Ma’am.” Their waiter finally managed, perfectly maintaining his professional air.  “And you, Sir?”

            “I’ll have the rack of lamb.” Ducky decided. “With a side of French fries.”

            “Sir…We don’t serve French fries.”

            Having only ever been so embarrassed in a restaurant the one time Kate had thrown a toddler-esque fit after receiving a spaghetti dish that had contained oregano, despite the menu pictures not showcasing such a ‘disgusting’ spice, Gibbs cringed inwardly and avowed to tip the waiter very well at the close of their meal.

            “A shame.” Ducky tutted, looking extremely disappointed. “I suppose I’ll take a few baked potatoes, instead.”

            “Would you like sour cream on your baked potatoes, Sir?”

            “Yes, an obnoxious amount.” Ducky confirmed.

            Looking rather torn between facing the wrath of the chef for delivering such a stupid fucking order, or elsewise contending with the annoyance of a displeased dinner, their poor waiter only nodded once before reluctantly writing down the bizarre request on his notepad.

            “Very good, Sir.”

            “And would you be so kind as to bring out a charcuterie board to get us started?” Ducky asked, alarming their poor waiter even further.

            “Certainly.” The restaurant employee agreed, his smile starting to look a bit strained as he turned to face the other side of the table. “Gentlemen?”

            Not failing to notice the tense look on the poor waiter’s face, Gibbs resolved to make his order as simple and as non-chef-aggravating as possible.

            “He’ll have the Bourride,” Duff decided, taking the task out of his hands, “And I’ll have the beef bourguignonne.”

            Much to his great surprise, Gibbs suddenly realized that he liked having someone order for him. As not only did that act involve some fairly regency-related rules of etiquette, so too did it necessitate somebody knowing a person well enough to be successful in that particular endeavor. And successful, Duff was, as he remembered, without any prompting at all, that Gibbs largely preferred his meals to be meatless – unless, of course, mindless fish who were incapable of feeling pain was involved.

           

Chapter Text

            Seeing as how Gibbs had been absolutely determined to see to it that his impromptu double-date went as perfectly as was possible, he was very much relieved and ingratiated upon discovering, via a subtle glance aimed at his watch, that a full blissful hour had already passed amongst them all in a companionable sort of comfort. And that, while clearly quite high, Daphne and Ducky had continually proved themselves to be fully capable conversationalists – in particular, Ducky, who still seemed, even after all these years, to have a riveting story for absolutely everything and anything.

            “So, as you can imagine, I’m no longer welcome in Central Park.” Ducky proudly concluded, finishing a rather riveting story about how he had tried, and failed, to organize a repeat of Woodstock in the infamous park during his early thirties.

            Thinking, to himself, of course, that it was only Ducky’s charm and innocent-looking face that had managed to keep him out of prison on drug-related charges for so long, and not his self-proclaimed talents for debate and persuasion, as he liked to believe, Gibbs shared an amused smirk with a bemused Duff before turning back to his meal.

            “New York really isn’t all that great anyways.” Daphne dismissed, still a bite of baked potato from her boyfriend’s plate. “San Francisco is the way to go if you want culture.”

            “Minneapolis really isn’t all that bad, either.” Duff contributed, finish up the last few bits of soup that Gibbs couldn’t finish on his own. “If you want culture, I mean.”

            Although Gibbs greatly suspected that the type of culture his boyfriend was referring to didn’t involve the type of things that heterosexuals would enjoy, or even tolerate with grace, Gibbs kept mum to avoid calling attention back unto the fact that he was at least partially gay. Which was a rather ridiculous pursuit, he knew, considering the fact that he was currently seated next to his boyfriend.

            “Minnesota is too cold for me.” Gibbs opined. “I’d rather vacation where it’s warm.”

            Granted, not Afghanistan levels of warm, but still, preferably somewhere where the chill factor never dipped below forty and the concept of frost didn’t exist. Somewhere forever green, and flooded with flowers.

            “You could go to the heart of India and still be chilly.” Ducky playfully razzed. “You really ought to have your circulation checked by a vascular surgeon.”  

            “Or not.” Duff countered, a playful gleam shinning in his beautiful gold eyes.

            “What?” Gibbs challenged, tilting his head to look up into his boyfriend’s face. “Do you enjoy my constant suffering? Is that it?”

            “I’m afraid so.” Duff readily admitted, having the grace to at least look marginally repentant. “But only because it means I get to hold you close when you’re chilly. Which, as we both know, is all the time.”

            And, even though they were in public, in a restaurant absolutely filled to the brim with patrons, Duff leaned over in his chair and wrapped him in a powerful embrace before planting an affectionate kiss on his cheek. And, God help him, Gibbs couldn’t help but melt into the unexpected hug – the myriad of witnesses all around them be damned. Because if Duff could kiss him then and there, for the whole entire world to see, Gibbs could, at the very least, reciprocate as much as his anxiety would allow.

            “You’re an idiot.” Gibbs mildly rebuked, only reluctantly pulling away. “A downright goon. I don’t know how I put up with you.”

            “I’m sure it helps that I’m a conveniently-mobile space heater.” Duff wagered, giving his upper thigh a cheeky squeeze beneath the tablecloth.

            Marshalling up every last bit of his Marine training to keep from jolting at the unexpected contact, as well as to keep his dress pants from tenting up in a manner that was entirely impolite for a restaurant so fancy, Gibbs clamped down hard on his tongue and retaliated by pinching his rouge boyfriend right below his hip bone.

            “I was actually thinking it had more to do with your Rolls-Royce,” Gibbs teased, “But the body heat is a significant factor, I’ll admit.”

            And, so too, was the way in which Duff’s mouth always seemed to taste of cherries a rather important factor in their relationship. Not one he was willing to share aloud, granted, but an important one all the same. Because, aside from Shannon, the mouths of all his exes had either tasted of alcohol or methanol cigarettes. Not to mention regret.

            “I know you love my kisses, too.” Duff challenged, kissing his jawline. “Even though you’ll never admit it.”

            Despite being almost overrun by the sharp thrill of excitement that had raced up his spine at the onset of the kiss, Gibbs was thankfully able to maintain his manly dignity and refrain from moaning.

            “Duff, we’re in a restaurant.” Gibbs heatlessly scolded, the hairs on the back of his neck still standing straight. “Try to behave.”

            “And what’s my incentive to do so?” Duff challenged, throwing an affectionate arm around his shoulders.

            “I’ll watch those shitty Fast and Furious movies with you.” Gibbs reluctantly allowed, already dreading the scenario. “With only minimal complaining.”

            At least, not any vocal complaining. Gibbs would, only naturally, still be making the random sigh and groan of annoyance throughout. Because it the meager twenty minutes of the first film in the franchise that he had been duped into watching by the doe-eyed manipulations of his ill child had taught him absolutely anything about them, it was that they were completely devoid of anything even remotely resembling a plot. Or, at the very least, not an entertaining or consistent one.

            “Good Lord,” Ducky pipped, finally looking away from Daphne for the first time in a solid ten minutes, “That is quite the promise you just managed to extract. Not even Anthony has managed to finagle such a concession out of him.”

            “It must be my charm.” Duff flirtatiously asserted, turning his beautiful golden eyes unto Gibbs’s face.

            “That must be it.” Gibbs sardonically agreed, his stomach suddenly filled with an unplaceable lightness. “You got me.”

            “Yup.” Duff grinned, his wondrously colored eyes gleaming with life. “And I’m never letting – “

            “EXCUSE ME!” An absurdly fat gentleman seated next to them squawked, interrupting their little conversation to harass a passing waiter.

            Wondering how it was possible that a man could reach middle-age without having managed to develop at least some semblance of manners, especially so one that appeared to be from his own generation, Gibbs frowned into his fourth glass of wine and shot the ill-mannered elephant a small glare, not at all amused by the brusque way in which he had seized the young waiter’s arm to secure his attentions.

            “Excuse me!” The William Taft look-alike repeated with a bark, his fingers still wrapped around the poor waiter’s forearm.

            “Sir?” The ambushed waiter asked, surprisingly able to maintain his air of professionality during the midst of his mild assault.

            “You need to move us to another table!” The King Henry look-alike snapped, his voice harsh and brass and all but impossible to ignore.

            Already having some sort of idea as to what was about to happen, having grown up during a pretty prejudiced part of history and all, Gibbs felt his posture go stiff and his blood turn icy. But before he could even so much as remove himself from the table, and the entire restaurant altogether, and remove himself from the situation before he got his ass jumped by a posse of bigots, numbers that had always seemed to come out of nowhere, the red-faced wildebeest was speaking afresh and drawing all eyes over to their section of the restaurant.

            “Didn’t you hear me?!” The oversized man snarled, spitting up into the alarmed waiter’s face. “Move us!

            Feeling his stomach drop as he felt the heat of dozens of eyeballs boring into his back, Gibbs felt the same sense of rising panic beginning to settle into his body that he had once felt as an awkward preteen coming into school the morning after having had his poetry scattered all around the school for everyone to see. But unlike the echoing trails of ‘faggot’ and ‘fairy’ that had followed him throughout the day all those years ago, and still periodically haunted his psyche at times, it was discomforted stares and hushed whisperings that he was greeted with. And while it might have sounded overly-dramatic, Gibbs would have rather had the former than the latter, as there was at least some semblance of honesty that came with outright hatred – as opposed to the duplicitous fronts of politeness that only concealed the same hurtful disdain.

            “Sir?” The seized waiter prompted again, his professional mask of deference starting to slip into an expression of anxiety.

            “Move us!” The man thundered, the sneer on his face matched with the one his companion was wearing. “You know, to a more…palatable view.”

            Already understanding that he was about to be kicked out of the restaurant under some ridiculous pretext, just as he been promptly shooed away from his very first Cub Scout meeting by the Scoutmaster, on the unprecedented grounds that he had been skipping Sunday school far too much for their liking, even though they had let the Jewish Morty Goldman join up without too much fuss, Gibbs reached for his wallet to pay off his tab – not wishing to make a retreat without first knowing that he wasn’t about to have the cops called on him.

            “Sir,” The besieged waiter addressed, sounding a bit terse, “Allow me to find the manager.”

            “You had better.” The Walrus growled, finally releasing his arm. “I expect to have my meal comped for…’this.’”

            Gibbs didn’t even need to bring his eyes away from the wine glass he had fixed them on to know that ‘this’ was a reference to his person.

            “Excuse me,” Ducky began, riled up in a manner that was entirely uncharacteristic of him, “But just who the fu – “

            Fortunately for the ears of the small child dining with her father at a nearby table, Ducky didn’t get to his finish making his inquiry. As mere seconds before the f-bomb was due to escape his lips, and shock them all, a stately-looking gentleman arrived and made his status as manager known almost immediately.

            “Gavin,” He smiled, the expression not reaching his brown eyes, “What seems to the difficulty here?”

            “Sir,” Gavin began, deferentially casting his eyes down at the carpet, “It seems this gentleman would like to move tables.”

            “To one with a more appropriate view.” The Rhino’s companion stipulated, speaking for the first time and promptly making her ugliness known.

            Still struggling to collect his wallet out of the pocket of his dress pants, given the sudden sweatiness of his fingers, Gibbs cursed himself beneath his breath and pondered the rationality of just simply booking it out of the confined space and leaving the manager to deal with the unpaid tab. Because if only one thing was for certain, it was that Gibbs was going to have a nuclear level panic attack if he didn’t get himself away from all those staring eyes soon.

            “Gavin,” The manager addressed, his tone dripping with disdain, “There is nothing quite so lovely as the appearance of a fall evening, wouldn’t you agree?”

            “Certainly, Sir.” Gavin allowed. “Shall I escort this gentleman and his party outside?”

            “Yes, I do believe that is what they asked for.” The manager affirmed. “Do fetch Charles if you feel the need for an additional escort.”

            Absolutely refusing to believe his ears, as precious few people had ever responded so favorably in direct response to his homosexuality, Gibbs still fumbled for his wallet and struggled to breathe.

            “Excuse me?!” The she-walrus guffawed, her jaw dropping in a very unseemly manner.

            “I’m afraid I cannot.” The manger apologized, completely unapologetic. “The comfort of our guest’s is very important.”

            “Well, this is just the height of – Margaret, come along.” The fat man barked, sizing up the muscular Gavin just once before deciding upon retreat rather than conflict. “We’ll go somewhere nicer. With a more appropriate clientele.”  

            Feeling the insult in every last fiber of his body, as if he had just been sucker punched rather than disparaged, Gibbs flinched but finally ceased with his frantic pursuit of retrieving his wallet.

            “Sir,” The manager began, looking directly at him, “I apologize for the unpleasantness of your evening. The Ritz aims to provide the best atmosphere for its patrons, and I’m afraid you were shortchanged. Please, allow me to send your table some complementary dessert. Your bill, of course, will be taken care of as well.”

            “That’s highly unnecessary – “

            “That would be lovely, thank you.” Duff cut in. “But do make that dessert to go.”

            “Of course.” The manager allowed, bowing at each of them before making his retreat.

            It went without saying that he left a fat, and uncomfortable, silence behind in his wake.

            “Jethro – “ Daphne began, reaching across the table to grab for his hand.

            “Don’t.” Gibbs insisted, almost pleading.

            It was already bad enough, after all, that he had just been publicly humiliated for the first time in decades. He didn’t need the shame of an impromptu therapy session as well.

            “Jethro,” The older woman persisted, boldly seizing hold of the fingers he had pulled away, “Everyone looked relieved when they left, not when he spoke.”

            Entirely unable to believe such a ridiculous lie, especially after a childhood spent having had all his leavings cheered, Gibbs shook his head and jabbed his fingernails into his thighs in a desperate attempt to keep from having a panic-attack.

            “Babe,” Duff tried, gently removing his hands from his thighs, “Are you really going to let some khaki-wearing moron get to you?”

            Although Gibbs shook his head in denial, he knew he was lying. Because despite what he had gradually lead everyone to believe, that he was a hardass completely devoid of all human feeling, the sad and pathetic fact remained that he had always been an overly-sensitive sort of person - the kind who had cried when the first fish he had caught as a boy had died right there on his hook, the kind who had sobbed, openly, for two whole hours as a freshly-licensed teenager after hitting a poor baby deer, the kind who hadn’t slept easily for six whole months after returning from Vietnam with his mind flooded with all the atrocities he’d committed under the name of his government. The man who had been inconsolable after Tony had taken ill with the plague, the man who had nearly given himself an aneurism after Kate had gotten shot and pronounced dead at the scene, the man who felt Tim’s anxiety every bit as much as his own.

            ‘Soft,’ he accused, ‘Always too soft.’

            That’s why he always got beat up. That’s why his father had wanted to send him off to some camp. That’s why his drill sergeants in the military had been so goddamn hard on him. That’s why his service in the military had been so damn awful.

            “I’m going to go key that bastard’s car before he leaves.” Daphne suddenly announced, making to leave her seat.

            “Daphne,” Gibbs frowned, “No. Just let karma sort it out.”

            Although, if his past interactions with karma were anything to go off of, she would be disinterested at best.

            “Well, if you insist.” Daphne sighed, still looking vengeful. “Though I do wish you wouldn’t let that awful man get to you.”

            “It’s fine.” Gibbs persisted, a hollow feeling in his stomach. “Duff…Can we just go?”

            Cowardly nature of the act be damned, Gibbs just didn’t feel like staying another minute in that place.

            “Of course.” Duff immediately conceded, taking out his wallet and leaving behind a rather generous tip. “We can do whatever you want, Babe.”

            And, still worked up a great degree, Gibbs didn’t even playfully protest like he usually did as Duff helped him into his coat.

            “I’m so sorry the evening had to end on such a sour not.” Daphne expressed, hugging him tightly before he could escape.

            “It was rather undeserved, I do hope you realize.” Ducky added, giving his shoulder a squeeze.

             Throat unfathomably tight, Gibbs could only nod before turning on his heel and making a brusque exit out of the restaurant, Duff hot on his heels all the while with a concerned expression splayed across his featured.

            “Jethro – “

            “Just open the fucking car.” Gibbs snapped, hot moisture poking at the back of his eyes. “Please.” He added, to soften the blow.

            Hastily making to do as ordered, and nearly dropping the keys as a result, Duff unlocked his vehicle and held the passenger door open for Jethro before climbing in on the other side. It was only when the heat had been turned on again, and the doors locked, that Gibbs cried.

             

           

Chapter Text

            Jackson was just getting ready to turn in for the evening, exhausted after a good few hours of touching up the paint on his living room walls, and tending to an absurdly unreasonable costumer who was bizarrely offended one of his employee’s had been humming a Miley Cyrus song on her lunch break, when the landline rang from the kitchen and halted his progress up the steps. Because as much as he would have loved to shrug off the late-night call as one of those damn telemarketers trying to scam him into relinquishing his social security number again, something that had been happening with an annoying frequency of late, he knew he would never be able to forgive himself if he ignored a call made by someone he actually cared about – especially so one made during the evening hours, as that almost always meant that something important was needing conveyed. And, so it was, with only the mildest of groans, and a muttered curse or two, that he trudged his ass down the freshly sanded stairwell and back into the kitchen he had just mopped that morning. But rather than turn on the lights, and run the risk causing his eyes all the discomfort that usually accompanied such an act, Jackson simply allowed all the muscle-memory he had accrued through the young years of living in that house to guide him to the phone, his trust in his mind and body proving themselves to be well-founded as his fingers brushed against the landline only seconds later.

            “Hello?” He grumbled, far too exhausted to bother with any of his usual pleasantries.

            “Uh…Is this Jethro’s father?” A frazzled voice on the other end of the line timidly questioned.   

            Feeling his blood run cold at the innocent question, and his knees go weak, Jackson weakly reached for a kitchen chair and slowly lowered himself down into it, inwardly bracing himself for the unfortunate news that his son was either in the hospital or elsewise lying in the morgue awaiting identification.

            “Yes.” Jackson managed to confirm, his unfathomably dry.

            “Jethro asked me to call you.” The unfamiliar voice explained, getting right to the heart of the matter. “He…He can’t talk right now.”

            “What happened?” Jackson immediately demanded, almost pleading with the stranger for more information.

            Already feeling as if his heart was about to explode in his chest at any moment, the lengthy silence that followed such a simple question nearly killed him - as, just like Leroy, his imagination was very often his own worst enemy.        

            “He kind of had a rough night.” His unnamed conversational partner explained. “And he really wants to talk to you.”

            “Then put him on the phone.” Jackson impatiently insisted, wondering why the hell the other man hadn’t already done so.

            “He’s really upset.” The stranger patiently defended. “I don’t think he’s capable of talking right now.”

            Knowing his son well enough to understand that only the very worst of disasters could cause him to become so aggrieved so at to not be capable of intelligent speech, like the death of his wife and daughter, or even that one time he had hit a fawn on his way to the movies, Jackson’s thoughts immediately turned to Tony and all the awful things that might have happened to the poor boy since the last time he’d seen him.

            “Put my damn kid on the line.” Jackson ordered, uncharacteristically gruff.           

             “I really don’t think – “

            Having, by that point in time, lost every last shred of patience he possessed, Jackson sucked in a deep breath and prepared to inform the unhelpful stranger that he was about ten seconds away from reaching through the phone and strangling him with the cord if he didn’t do as asked. Because, God help him, his endless surplus of patience didn’t really factor into any equation that involved what precious little he had left of his family. Fortunately for the man on the other end of the line, however, Jackson was not forced to act on his very serious threat, as a mere second later the alarmingly wobbly voice of his son sounded in his ear.

            “Daddy?”

             Taking immediate note of the croaky and uneven quality of his child’s voice, as well as the fact that said child had addressed him with the rather childish moniker he never used in front of anyone else, Jackson’s dormant papa-bear instincts flared into life and very nearly had him taking off in pursuit of his gun and car keys. Because no matter how old and self-reliant his child became over the years, there was simply no way in hell that Jackson was going to let the culprits responsible for his boy’s grief to go unpunished.

            “Grizzly-Bear,” Jackson crooned, “What’s wrong?”

            When the only reply his question earned was a short series of heart-breaking sniffles and shuddering breaths, Jackson frowned heavily and had to force himself to push away the aching in his own heart to better focus on his only child.

            “C’mon now,” Jackson patiently encouraged, “Talk to me, tell me what happened?”  

             “D – D – D – Dinner.” Leroy finally choked out, ending his one-worded sentence with a somewhat disgusting sniffle.

            Thinking, to himself, that whatever pills Leroy’s therapist had prescribed him for his anxiety issues weren’t really working all that well if his son was still able to work himself up to the point of not being able to even breathe properly, Jackson frowned and began to ponder how best to complete the Herculean task of informing Leroy of such an observation without incurring his wrath.

            “So, something happened at dinner. Alright.” Jackson surmised. “Can you tell me what?”

            Because as much as it wounded him to be dragging such painful information out of his son, Jackson couldn’t make the problem better if he didn’t know what the problem was in the first place.

            “King Kong.” Leroy feebly explained, not at all helpful.  

            Although Jackson was usually pretty good at deciphering the needs and wants of his child, a skill that had been accrued slowly throughout the years as the younger man slowly weaned himself away from the Cajun his mother had taught him to English, he found himself at a loss as to just what Leroy was trying to tell him. Because, impossibly sensitive or not, Jackson highly doubted his boy was crying over some overrated movie made in the thirties.

            “Jethro, baby, put that man you’re with on the phone.” Jackson gently directed, in desperate need of answers.

            “D – “

            “He’ll give it right back.” Jackson reassured. “I just need to know what happened.”

            Because as much as Jackson didn’t like to make assumptions, about anything, he had a growing concern that somebody had made some sort of insinuation that his boy, due to his conscripted time in Vietnam, was a baby-killer. A more than unjust accusation, if you asked him, that had never failed to work his overly sensitive Leroy up into a tizzy.

            “It’s me again.” The unfamiliar voice once more sounded in Jackson’s ear.

            “Just what the hell happened to my boy?” Jackson demanded, getting right to the point.

            “Well,” The stranger began, sounding nervous as hell, “I took Jethro out to dinner and I guess…a couple people didn’t appreciate that.”  

            Jackson needed no additional details to understand what had happened, as it seemed, at least to him, that it was only yesterday that Leroy was running crying into his arms after the notorious poetry incident had taken place at his school and gotten him beat up in the boy’s bathroom. And though Jackson highly doubted that his boy was still susceptible to getting his ass jumped, unless it was a five-on-one scenario, he wasn’t so daft or naïve as to think that Leroy’s feelings had likewise also become somehow incapable of getting hurt by the things someone might have said to him about being gay.

            “Christ.” Jackson sighed, keenly feeling his son’s pain as his own. “Put him back on the phone.”

            “You’re…You’re not going to yell at him, are you?” The stranger fussed, sounding oddly protective.

            Offended beyond belief at the very suggestion he would ever yell at his only child, or to be more exact, yell at his only child for something like that, Jackson grinded his teeth before retorting with a heated question of his own.

            “Why the hell would I do something like that?”

            “I just – “

            “Give the phone back to Leroy!” Jackson snapped, his desire to chew the young man out only eclipsed by the burning concern for his child.

            “Leroy?” The man asked, blatantly confused.

            “Jethro!” Jackson barked. “Give the phone back to Jethro!”

             “Yes, Sir!” Came the immediate, and frightened, response.

            A long and uncomfortable silence followed and then:

            “Daddy?”

            For just a fleeting moment, Jackson could have sworn Leroy was all of six-years-old again, small and frail and sobbing openly in his lap about how all of the other boys were mean to because he played dolled at recess with the girls and used a pink crayon for art class.

            “Leroy.” Jackson hummed, trying his hardest to be comforting. “Don’t you go letting other people dictate how you feel about yourself. You’re you and that good enough.”  

            ‘Lord,’ Jackson thought, his smile sad, ‘How many times have I said that before.’

            “Everyone was staring, Dad.” Leroy cried into the phone. “Like – Like I had horns or something.”

            The pitiful sniffle that immediately followed such a dramatic revelation nearly broke Jackson’s heart into a million pieces.

            “Leroy, who cares what other people think?” Jackson queried. “People are stupid, kiddo, so goddamn stupid.”

            In fact, he had just spent the greater part of his morning trying to convince an angry Mr. Callister that he was not, in fact, entitled to a refund on the lawnmower he had just purchased, and subsequently ruined, by driving through a four-inch mud puddle.

            “You care.” Jethro accused, a self-pitying bitterness lacing the words.

            “Leroy – “

            “You wanted to get me fixed.” Leroy interrupted, in the midst of a full-fledged tantrum.

            But, Lord help him, it felt as if a truckload of bricks had just been dumped atop of him, the projectiles comprised entirely of the guilt and shame he had never been able to successfully get rid of, even after all those years.

            “Leroy, I turned the truck around before we even left Stillwater.” Jackson insisted, still racked with a powerful regret. “I took one look at you playing in the backseat with your doll and…and I just couldn’t do it. You were happy and decent and I just…I realized that was good enough for me. I never thought about sending you off to that camp again, Leroy.”

            In all actuality, Jackson had never honestly even entertained the idea of sending his boy off to one of those thinly-veiled torture facilities, not even after Anne had pleaded and begged with him to consider it after Jethro had gotten his arm broken clean in half by a bully and giant of a fifth-grader for no other reason than that he’d been picking flowers for his teacher during recess. Anne had been the one so goddamn insistent that they at least try something to help their boy out in the long run, before he got himself killed. And Anne had been the one to use her cancer diagnosis to guilt him into Leroy up in his truck on the pretext of visiting some uncle that didn’t even exist. But, Jackson reasoned, there was no reason to use that exculpating bit of evidence to his advantage when it would only hurt his boy more than he already was.

            “Leroy, I’m sorry you thought that I still felt that way. But I don’t.” Jackson expanded, willing to take Anne’s betrayal to the grave if it meant sparing her their boy’s disapproval. “I was just…It was a different time back then, Leroy, and I was scared as hell that somebody would do something to you.”

            That part, at least, was perfectly honest. Because after Anne had passed, at the KKK had successfully taken LJ out of the picture, the thought of also losing his child had been a pretty prevalent worry for him ever since.

            “But you hid my acceptance letter.” Leroy sniffed. “Why would you do that if you weren’t embarrassed by me?”

             Actually one-hundred percent guilty of that particular crime, Jackson cringed and tried not to become overwhelmed by the feelings of guilt that washed over him. Because, even though his heart had been in the right place at the right time, his little underhanded trick for protecting his child had backfired spectacularly and ended up getting his son sent into a fucking active warzone where young boys had seemed to drop like flies.

            “Jethro, it was wrong of me to do that. But, you have to believe me, I only did it because I scared as shit that you’d get yourself into some sort of trouble in Paris that I wouldn’t be able to fix. I mean, for god’s sake, you were always getting yourself into some sort of trouble.” Jackson expanded, all the unpleasant memories of his child getting himself into dangerous situation flickering through his mind. “And I couldn’t…God knows I reacted the wrong way, Leroy, because I did, but I love you, Grizzly-Bear. And everything I ever did, it came from a good place, even if the results were ugly.”

              Hell, even now, after all these years, Jackson would have happily lopped off both his arms and given up his addiction for Dr. Pepper if it meant his son would get a chance to attend that fancy art school he had dreamed so fondly of as a boy.

            “Did…Did you always know?” Leroy softly pressed, seeming almost afraid of the answer.

            Reminiscing, quite fondly, on the memory of a young three-year-old Leroy getting into Anne’s makeup and painting himself up like one of those movie starlets he had loved so much at the time, Jackson found himself losing the battle to keep a smile off his face.

            “Yeah, Grizzly-Bear, I think I always knew.”

            “Was it really all that obvious?” Leroy sniffled, gradually losing some of the hysteria in his voice.

            Clamping down hard on his tongue to keep from chucking openly at the recollection of a preschool-aged Leroy clomping around in a pair of his mother’s heels, and wearing one of camisoles as a dress, Jackson took a long moment before answering.

            “You wanted to be Dolly Parton for Halloween.” Jackson teasingly reminded. “And I know damn well that you didn’t watch the Lone Ranger just for the story lines.”  

            “Dad!”

            “I’m just saying,” Jackson calmly defended, “This whole, dinner with another man thing, really isn’t a surprise.”

            In fact, Jackson was more surprised that it had taken so damn long for some of Leroy’s latent homosexual tendencies to make a resurgence.

            “Why didn’t you ever say something?” Leroy questioned, sounding lost. “It would have saved me a lot of trouble.”

            “I honestly thought that you knew, at least a little bit.” Jackson defended. “And then…well…After you came back from Vietnam, it was like a switch had flipped in you and I guess I thought…maybe something had happened…You just weren’t you anymore, baby. You came home…stony.”

            And if Jackson hadn’t regretted hiding his son’s acceptance letter to art school even after his boy had been shipped off to die in a meritless war, he had, he most certainly did when Jethro had come home fundamentally changed and withdrawn. Because instead of the thoughtful and sensitive boy who had used to pick flowers for all the women in his life, just because he wanted to make them happy, and the considerate boy had used to make him breakfast in bed after a particularly hard time at the store, and the boy who had absolutely no problems with rubbing his uncle’s diabetes-disfigured toes whenever the arthritis troubled him, Leroy had returned home from war with an impenetrable wall of concrete built around him – all his dreams of art school, and roller-blading the entirety of San Francisco, vanished and replaced with a jarring and sudden desire to rise through the ranks of the organization that had made his life so miserable.

            “That wasn’t my fault, Daddy.” Leroy sniffled. “They made me – I killed – “

            “I know, baby, I know.” Jackson sympathized.  

            God, did Jackson know. Because seeing his son return home as a veritable zombie, no longer soft and full of a quiet sort of joy, had almost hurt as badly as seeing LJ’s battered body flung carelessly atop a hospital bed.

            “Everyone was so hateful.” Leroy breathed into the phone.

            Although he knew full immersion in an unbeatable war and an incident of childhood bullying were nowhere near comparable in the grand scheme of life, Jackson couldn’t help but feel as if he was experiencing the poetry incident all over again. Only instead of having run desperately into his arms after taking off from school without leave, his poor boy was crying while cramped up in an uncomfortable car – no doubt freezing his ass off even if the heater was running at full blast.

            “People throw rocks at things that shine.” Jackson reasoned. “And you and I both know that you’re a good person. Who cares what anyone else thinks?”

            “I just thought that things were supposed to be better by now.” Leroy explained, his voice cracking all over again.

            “These sorts of things happen slowly, Grizzly-Bear.” Jackson philosophized. “But they do happen.”                   

            After all, the civil rights movement had eventually achieved their aim, even if LJ hadn’t been around long enough to witness that joyous moment.  

             “And, until they do, you have the people who matter around you.” Jackson pushed onward. “So, don’t you go putting all your focus unto the people who wouldn’t even piss on you if you were fire, you hear me? You’re worth fifteen bigots any day.”

            “I just…I feel so evil sometimes.” Leroy reluctantly confessed, speaking in a whisper.

            “Leroy,” Jackson sighed, “Sin isn’t breaking any of those ridiculous rules in a book that was written thousands of years ago. Sin is…Sin is the ugliness that lives inside of people and turns them hateful. And are you hateful?”

            “I don’t think so.” Leroy humbly allowed.

            “Then you’re a better person than most Christians” Jackson declared, leaving no room for argument. “Now, are you going to be alright? Or do you want me to come up and stay the night?”

            And even though, to anyone else, the question would have seemed more than just a little bit condescending, Jackson knew his son would only take it as the way it was intended – an offer of good-will from a parent who loved him beyond all else.

            “I’ll be fine, Daddy.” Leroy gently refused. “I’ll see you this weekend anyways.”

            He would, Jackson allowed, and it would be the best fucking weekend he had in a long time, too, if he had anything to say about it.

            “Are you sure?” Jackson fussed. “I really don’t think you should be alone tonight.”

            “Duff will stay with me.” Leroy assured.

            Still somewhat sore from the way this ‘Duff’ had earlier insinuated he was a bad father, Jackson frowned and highly doubted this man’s ability to keep his kid in comfort.

            “Well…alright.” Jackson reluctantly allowed. “But I want you to call me if you need me, alright? Don’t go playing the part of a martyr on me.”

            “I won’t.” Leroy promised, his following sniffles nowhere near as dramatic as they had been.

            “Good.” Jackson appraised. “Now put this gentleman on the phone real quick.”

            “Daddy – “

            “Leroy Jethro – “

            Despite having muttered something about pushy parents beneath his breath in response to being full-named, Jackson was pleased to find that the scolding had done its job when a new voice sounded in his ear moments later.

            “Sir?”

            “Listen, I don’t you know you from Adam, alright?” Jackson began, his voice taking on a lecturing tone. “But I’m trusting you to take care of my boy, alright? Don’t make me regret it.”

            “You won’t.”

              “For your sake, I hope you’re right.” Jackson warned. “Now put Leroy back on.”

            Clearly frightened, or at the very least intimidated by their little conversation, Duff didn’t even wish him goodbye before surrendering the phone back to Leroy.

            “I’ll see you real soon, Kiddo.” Jackson hummed into the phone. “Goodnight.”

            “Goodnight, Daddy.”

Chapter Text

            Although Duff was reasonably certain that Jethro hadn’t been traumatized enough to off himself after such a disastrous dinner date, especially so once he had gotten them both back to his place and, on the professional advice of Ducky, pushed a half-dose of Valium on him, he had to admit he was starting to get a bit worried when, after a full 90 minutes, Jethro had yet to make a reappearance from the bath Ducky had likewise also insisted he take. Because while, granted, he had grown familiar with the concept of a grown-ass man enjoying a nice long soak, having spent his college-years in a dorm shared by Percy, and subsequently victimized by his hour long baths as a result, the thought that anyone could tolerate remaining in their own sweat-water for any longer than that was an unwelcome thought for him. Not that he was a half-crazed germaphobe like Will, per se, but still…sweaty bath water was sweaty bath water. An unholy concoction that Jethro had been sitting in for nearly a full two hours now, drugged up on expensive wine and an additional dosage of the medication he had been explicitly warned not to mix with alcohol.

            “Uh, Babe?” Duff called out, rapping on the bathroom door after he had finally come to the conclusion that he ought to investigate. “Are you alright in there?”

            Hearing a faint splashing of water, one that either suggested Jethro had just been jolted out of a little valium-induced nap or elsewise caught rinsing out his hair, Duff frowned and gently cracked open the door to the master bathroom, figuring that his boyfriend wouldn’t fault him for the evasion of privacy considering the fact that he had already seen, in vivid detail, the entirety of his genitals.

            Much to his great relief, Jethro was very much still alive, the faint splashing of water having only come about from an adjusting of position and not a sudden and sharp wake back into pleasant reality of being ensconced in his boyfriend’s jetted soaker tub.

And really, even with the great aversion he felt towards baths, there was just no other word apart from ‘pleasant’ to describe it – as the open expression on Jethro’s face was nearly orgasmic in nature as said man sank even further into the bubbles covering his still-steaming and perfumed bath water.

“I hope you know that Percy is going to kill you for using his bath stuff.” Duff forewarned, planting his ass on the side of the tub. “He’s very protective of his Lush products.”

In fact, that particular redhead in question had even gone so far as to breakup with one of precious few longtime boyfriends for the great crime of having tossed out a particularly expensive container of bath jelly in the misguided belief it had gone moldy.

“Why is Percy taking baths in your tub?” Jethro frowned, a clear note of jealousy in his voice.

Enjoying the slight thrill that raced up his spine in direct response to his boyfriend’s instinctual protectiveness, Duff reached a hand across the great expanse of bubbly water and dragged his fingers through the distinguished locks of Jethro’s damp hair.

“Because, babe, Thomas and Will don’t have a soaker tub in their house.” Duff explained, still carding his fingers through his boyfriend’s hair. “And the Historical Society won’t let Percy add one to his own bathroom.”

            Which, if you asked Duff, was kind of a dick move on their part. After all, it was not as if people in the late 1700s never bathed at all. Granted, not as opulently as Percy, but still…It stood to reason that a simple request for a fucking bathtub that didn’t involve significant contortion of one’s legs to be functional for anyone of an average height shouldn’t be so offensive to the stuffy society in charge of making that sort of decision.

            “Of course Percy lives in a fucking historically-important house.” Jethro mumbled, clearly very relaxed if the slight slurring of his words had anything to say about it.

            “He does have a flair for the dramatic.” Duff conceded, smiling softly. “Which is why you should go into witness protection after using up all of his bubble bath.”

            The playful suggestion was, of course, nothing short of a complete joke. Not only because Duff never wanted to be a position where he couldn’t have full access to his boyfriend, but so too because he would preemptively rip Percy’s head right off if he even thought about going after Jethro.

            “I’ll replace his bath supplies.” Jethro dismissed, his eyelids drooping. “And maybe get some of my own. Where did you say he got all this stuff again?”

            “Lush.” Duff repeated, hating the fruitiness of the word. “But you’ll never get a chance to stock up on supplies if you drown in the tub.”

            “Not going to drown.” Jethro mumbled, his eyes flickering shut for a rather worrying amount of time. “Just relaxing.”

            Casting all manly pride aside, and subsequently coming to the reluctant conclusion that even he wouldn’t be able to get a slippery Jethro out of an equally as slippery tub without some pretty significant help from Will, a scenario he was rather hoping to avoid for the sake of his boyfriend’s dignity, Duff chuckled softly at Jethro’s half-hearted promise not to drown and laid a hand on his slick shoulder.

            “You can relax in my bed.” Duff gently countered.

            “You’d like that wouldn’t you?” Jethro grinned, only one of his beautiful blue eyes opening fully. “Is that why you got me drunk?”

            “You got yourself drunk, Babe.” Duff chuckled, his fingers once more finding their way into Jethro’s hair. “But I will take responsibility for the valium.”

            “How magnanimous of you.” Jethro slurred, his one eye still half-closed.

            Judging by the horrendous fashion in which his boyfriend had slurred the word ‘magnanimous,’ almost to the point of it being indecipherable, Duff felt reasonably certain of the fact that Jethro was heading for a wine-induced coma at any moment. An ailment that, while not at all deadly in nature, was much better spent lying in the safety of a warm bed then it was in the now-tepid waters of an impossibly slippery bathtub.

            “C’mon, Babe.” Duff coaxed, holding out a hand. “Let’s get you into bed.”

            “Ten more minutes.” Jethro feebly countered, both of his eyes now closed.

            “Now.” Duff countered, firm but kind.

            “Nazi.” Jethro frowned, only half-serious.

            “Would a Nazi offer to make you a grilled cheese sandwich?” Duff sallied, reaching into the bathtub to pull the plug.

            Despite feeling somewhat guilty for utilizing yet another portion of Ducky’s advice on how to best to deal with a distraught Jethro, although not as remorseful as he had first felt when pressing an additional valium on said man, Duff soon found all of the accompanying shame of such actions being pushed away as Jethro reluctantly moved to stand.

            “I fucking love grilled cheese.” Jethro admitted in a whisper, looking as if he were confessing to some great crime rather than the adoration of a fairly popular sandwich.

            “That’s good to know.” Duff allowed, instinctively holding out a hand for his boyfriend to grab.

            It was only as Jethro climbed slowly to his feet, wobbly and with eyes half-closed, that Duff thanked his lucky stars that he had acted on the instinct to stretch out a steadying arm for the slightly drugged man’s benefit, as he was all but certain that the usually formidable Marine would have slipped and cracked his head clean open without anything available to grab onto.

             “I like…mine with…cheese.” Jethro slurred, nearly slipping as his feet made contact with the tiled floor.

            “Then I’ll be sure to use cheese when I make your grilled cheese.” Duff good-naturedly promised, hefting his half-delirious boyfriend up into his arms, bridal style.

            “That’s how…That’s how my Daddy makes them.” Jethro divulged, lying his head on Duff’s shoulder and soaking his shirt. “He…Makes the best…of…those.”

            Struggling to remained his precarious hold on the sopping wet Jethro, and cursing himself for having not had the forethought to wrap him up in a towel before lifting him up in his arms, Duff clamped down on his bottom lip to keep from giving into the urge to laugh at his boyfriend’s loopiness, afraid that all bodily movements that accompanied his laughter would cause him to drop Jethro on the floor.

            “Your father sounds like a very great man.” Duff allowed, tightening his hold as much as he could without hurting Jethro. “A very great man.”

            In fact, even when Jackson Gibbs had been outright threating him, Duff had been able to tell that such vitriol had only come forth from a place love. Not for him, of course, but for his child. And, to be quite frank, that was more than enough to satisfy Duff into playing nicely with the older man.

            “You…Should…Have to…Meet him.” Jethro slurred, by that point in time actually drooling profusely unto his shoulder. “He’d...like you.”

            “We’ll have to set up a meeting.” Duff agreed, gently kicking open the bathroom door.

            “At…At a Fentucky Cried Kitchen.” Jethro stipulated, barely moving his mouth. “He fucking loves Fentucky tried Michelin.”

            Concealing his laughter behind a series of poorly-faked coughs, the intensity of which left his eyes water, Duff gently deposited his precious cargo unto his king-sized bed and riffled around in his drawers for a set of pajamas that, he hoped, wouldn’t be prohibitively large on his slightly-shorter boyfriend.

            “Let’s get you into something warm.” Duff coaxed, pulling his boyfriend up into a sitting position.

            “…Cheese.”

            “We’ll get to that.” Duff promised, wrestling a fleece top over Jethro’s head.

            That was the easy part. Because, as it soon turned out, wrestling a grown man’s arms through two adjacent shirt holes was a lot harder than he had originally thought it should be. Particularly so when Jethro seemed absolutely determined to ‘help’ with the process as much as he could, a rather fervent contribution that only resulted in Duff being smacked in the face several times before the arduous task was completed to both their satisfaction.

            “We did it.” Jethro slurred, running a hand over the pajama shirt with a pleased smile.

            “We sure did, Babe.” Duff humored, struggling to coax a pair of fleece pajama bottoms up his still damp-legs. “Lift your legs, Jethro.”

            “Can’t.” Jethro mumbled, cracking only one eye open. “They’s heavy.”

            “If you lift your legs, Babe, I’ll go and make you that grilled cheese.” Duff bargained, sincerely regretting ever having pushed that additional half-dose of valium on him.

            But, sure enough, at the promise of a much-coveted grilled cheese sandwich making its way into his hands, Jethro arched his back and allowed the fleece bottoms to be tugged up his legs with only minimal grumbling about the length of time required to do so.

            “Mighty fine work there, Kemosabe.” Jethro murmured, putting on a god-awful southern accent.

            “Let’s get you tucked in.” Duff hummed, tugging the bedding out from under his boyfriend.

            “…Cheese.” Jethro grumbled, trying to push away the comforter as it was pulled up over his chest.

            “Jethro,” Duff smiled, batting away his hands, “Maybe the grilled cheese can wait until tomorrow. You look pretty tired to me.”

            And, far more importantly, Duff just didn’t fancy the idea of having to contend with his boyfriend asphyxiating on food whilst half-drugged.

            “I’m…I’m going to tell my Daddy.” Jethro threatened, alternating between keeping his left and right eye open.

            “Alright, Alright…” Duff humored, kissing Jethro on the brow. “I’ll make you that grilled cheese sandwich in a minute. But first, I need to lie down for a bit. My back is killing me.”

            And, to be quite honest, it was really only a half-lie, as the burden of carrying a sopping wet Jethro the fifteen feet required to deposit him into his bed really had taken its toll on his middle-aged back.

            “Get you some…aspirin.” Jethro offered, making to push the comforter away.

            “No, no, no.” Duff quickly soothed, lying himself down on the mattress and grabbing one of the rouge hands. “I just need to lie down for a moment. Won’t you keep me company?”

            “Course.” Jethro immediately agreed, flipping (clumsily) unto his stomach before scooting close enough to lie his head on Duff’s chest. “Do…like…rollerblading?”

            Having actually broken his wrist the very first, and last, time Percy and Will had convinced him to give that activity a try in their freshman year of college, Duff grimaced but nonetheless let his boyfriend down gently.

            “I…was more into hiking.” He deflected, starting to rub circles into his boyfriend’s back.

            “But…Would you go…with me?” Jethro pressed, seeming to slip in and out of sleep.

            “Sure, Babe, sure.” Duff humored, kissing his temple. “I’d do anything for you.

Chapter Text

            Having found it quite necessary to call off of work after waking the following morning with one hell of a hangover, the likes of which he had never before experienced, not since the morning after his wedding to Shannon, wherein the had both woken up in an unfamiliar canoe in some fucking river they had never even heard of before, Gibbs found himself gingerly nursing his fifth cup of coffee since, since awaking at the ungodly hour of 9 in the morning, at his boyfriend’s kitchen table.

            “You really should have some toast or something.” Duff fussed, clearly feeling badly about his role in the hangover. “I’ll even make you a grilled cheese, if you want me to.”

            Stomach recoiling rather violently at the thought of putting anything even remotely greasy or buttery into his mouth, Gibbs grimaced and shook his head, denying himself the pleasure of a grilled cheese sandwich for the very first time in his long life.

            “How about some soup, Babe?” Duff suggested, already moving to his pantry.

            “Sure.” Gibbs allowed, wishing to make his boyfriend feel helpful in his pursuit of hangover recovery. “What do you have?”

            “Let’s see.” Duff offered, getting to his feet to go poke his head into the pantry. “I have tomato or corn chowder.”

            Relieved to have been offered two, one-hundred percent, vegetarian options, even though Gibbs loathed tomato soup above nothing else, even cursed onion rings, Gibbs leaned back in his chair and smiled appreciatively at his boyfriend before giving his answer.

            “I hate tomato soup.” Gibbs frowned, providing his boyfriend a future reference. “I’ll go with the chowder.”

            “How can you hate tomato soup?” Duff playfully interrogated, emerging from the pantry with the aforementioned can of chowder in his hand. “What do you dip your precious grilled cheeses in?”

            “Peanut Butter.” Gibbs confirmed, already anticipating his boyfriend’s reaction.

            “I’m sorry, what?” Duff guffawed, staring at him as if he had just made a confession about liking pineapple on pizza.

            “It’s delicious.” Gibbs defended, wishing his grandmother was still around to support him in this. “You should try it.”

            Looking as if Gibbs had just suggested he sample a steaming pile of dog shit, Duff scrunched up his nose before kneeling to retrieve a pot from one of his cabinets.

            “I’ll have to put that on my bucket list.” Duff allowed, not at all convincingly.

            “I’m going to hold you to that.” Gibbs warned, turning in his chair to grin rather mischievously at the man using the stove. “And the rollerblading, too.”    

            In fact, had Gibbs not already made some pretty important plans to visit his father that weekend, he would have happily insisted that Duff take a short spin around the neighborhood with him on the rollerblades belonging to Tony.

            “I’ll happily give you the peanut butter as a dipping sauce thing.” Duff granted, emptying the can of soup into a pan. “Not the rollerblading. I enjoy being alive too much.”

            “You promised.” Gibbs countered, beginning to feel better and slightly playful as a result.

            “How the hell do you remember anything from last night?” Duff challenged, looking slightly alarmed. “You had enough Valium in you to knock out a sumo wrestler.”

            Successfully managing to subdue the strong urge to point out, to his backtracking boyfriend, that he was one of the two people directly responsible for his drug-related delirium, as Gibbs hadn’t been in a position to refuse anything offered to him after leaving the restaurant, being as equally distressed as he was drunk, Gibbs just quirked and eyebrow and smirked.

            “I have a mind like a steel trap.”

            “Well, I hope you’re prepared to take a whole lot of time off work to care for me when I inevitably shatter the bones in both my legs.” Duff sighed, methodically stirring the soup in figure-eight movements. “Because I will.”

            “I won’t let you break your legs.” Gibbs promised.

            After all, if he could teach the unfathomably clumsy Tony how to work a skateboard, with only a scraped knee and a sprained wrist being the end result, it only stood to reason that he could teach the much more stable Duff how to work a set of rollerblades without any major calamities taking place.

             “Can you even buy rollerblades anymore?” Duff deflected, turning down the heat on the burner heating his soup.

            “Of course, you can.” Gibbs persisted. “I take Tony around the neighborhood all the time when it’s warm out.”

            Because, rest assured, as soon as the temperature dipped toward the forties, Gibbs shunned the outdoors and prepared for a lengthy hibernation indoors. A process that largely involved an obscene number of movie nights and the gaining of a full ten pounds before the spring set in again and thawed out the ground.

            “Just Tony?” Duff asked, pouring out the steaming soup into a yellow bowl.

            “Kate isn’t very outdoorsy.” Gibbs clarified. “And I’m still trying to ween Tim into the picture.”

            A process said young man seemed determined not to make easy, as every time Gibbs even tried to involve him anything he did with the rest of the kids, Tim balked and looked as if Gibbs was only trying to get him alone, outside of work hours, so that he could beat him with a hammer or something.

            “Hopefully this weekend will help with that.” Duff expressed, depositing the steaming bowl of soup in front of him.

            Going about cautiously, so as not to upset his already upset stomach, Gibbs only spooned up a small portion of the delicious-smelling soup before sticking it into his mouth.

            “I hope so.” Gibbs agreed, a vague idea slowly starting to form itself in his mind. “I think you would like Tim. He likes all that science stuff you do.”

            “I’m sure I’d like all your kids.” Duff agreed, taking a seat across from him. “I mean, after all, if you like them they have to be doing something right.”

            “They’re good kids.” Gibbs agreed, pausing to take another bite of his soup. “You…You should meet them.”    

            Duff had, after all, already proven himself worthy of such a great honor. Not only because of how well he had handled his unexpected introduction to Tony, and the inappropriate interrogation that had occurred as a result, but so too because of just how well he had been taking of Gibbs of late – never once losing his patience, or his temper, with all of his anxiety-related meltdowns and nonsense.

            “I’d like that.” Duff beamed, looking as if he had just been offered the world. “I really would.”

            That was all the motivation needed for Gibbs to push forward with his idea, because as much as some people might like to posit that he was moving way too fast with things, especially in light of the great Henry fiasco, and in light of his great number of divorces, Gibbs shoved away those unwelcome assumptions with the reminder that he had, most certainly, rushed in with Shannon and that had undeniably and unprecedentedly turned out well.

            “Well, we’re going to have a bonfire tonight at my place.” Gibbs informed, twiddling nervously with his spoon. “You could come. If you wanted to.”

            “Are you sure you’re ready, Babe?” Duff pressed, looking concerned. “I know you had a hard time at the restaurant yesterday. I don’t want you to have to go through that again so soon.”

            “That was different.” Gibbs defended, almost insulted. “That was the public. This is my family.”  

            And, at the end of the day, Gibbs just wasn’t worried about how any member of his little work-family would react apart from Abby, who had the uncomfortable tendency to fetishize things and people. Because not only was Tim’s little sister an unashamed lesbian, and openly dating another girl at the moment, so too were Jimmy and Kate more than accepting of alternative ways of living – even though both of them had spent a significant portion of their childhood being traumatized by their respective religious parents.

            “Then I’d love to come.” Duff agreed, his smile widening.

            “Good.” Gibbs grinned, feeling almost giddy. “Great.”

            “I can’t wait.” Duff expressed, perfectly sincere. “Do you want me to bring anything?”

            Having already stocked up on all the required supplies, such as smores supplies and a copious amount of alcohol, Gibbs shook his head and happily gave his boyfriend the relief of knowing that all he had to do to make him happy was to show up on time prepared to make a good impression.

            “Everything is already taken care of.” He verbally confirmed, stealing a few more bites of his soup to keep from grinning like a fool.

            “I can’t wait, Jethro.” Duff expanded, his joy nearly infectious.

            “Neither can I.” Gibbs agreed. “Everyone is going to love you. I know they will.”

            In particular, he felt it was Tim who would get along with his boyfriend best. If not for their mutual liking of all things science and space related, than most assuredly for the fact that they were both pretty even-tempered by nature and not like to experience any significant tension with each other.

            “I sure hope so.” Duff agreed, his smile faltering as the phone in his pocket began to buzz incessantly.

            Sincerely hoping that it wasn’t somebody calling to compel his boyfriend into heading in to work, as Gibbs really was actively enjoying just spending a quiet morning alone with Duff, doing nothing but sipping coffee and chatting aimlessly, he sucked in a deep breath and braced himself as Duff opened his phone and started down at the screen.

            “Jethro,” Duff queried, his face contorting into an odd expression as he read, “Did…Did you somehow manage to get a hold of your phone sometime during the night?”

            Already having the growing suspicion that he did, in fact, somehow manage to both find and use his phone during the night, as he vaguely recalled trying to order Dominoes in what he thought was a dream, Gibbs grimaced down into his soup and only hoped he hadn’t managed to irreparably embarrass himself.

            “Why?”

            “Because you apparently sent Percy tons of pictures of grilled cheese last night.” Duff clarified, struggling not to laugh. “And left him a voicemail asking him to bring you one.”

            Feeling his face flame violently as a result of that information, Gibbs groaned loudly and buried his face in his hands.

            “This would have never happened if you didn’t sleep so damn hard.” He accused, what little anger he felt for his boyfriend dissipating as Duff buried a hand in his hair. “AND hadn’t drugged me with Valium.”       

              “You’re never going to forgive me for the Valium thing, are you?” Duff sighed, more dramatic than sincere.

            “Never.” Gibbs confirmed. “And you really should have known to take my phone off me last night.” He further pouted, opening his own phone to discover the series of bizarre texts he had sent to Percy begging for cheese.

            “I honestly thought you were out for good.” Duff defended, still smiling down at his phone.

            “I did, too.” Gibbs conceded. “I had the honest fucking dreams last night.”

            Not just about Dominoes and a series of similar fast-food chains, the likes and makes of which he just couldn’t recall at the moment, but so too about drowning in a sea of pink fluff that he could, only now, logically assume was supposed to be cotton candy.

            “I can only imagine.” Duff chuckled. “You said some pretty interesting things last night.”

            “Of course I did.” Gibbs sighed, mortified beyond all belief as he scrolled up his phone and discovered several of the photos of clipart cheese he had sent off. “Jesus, I don’t know how Ducky can stand to be high all the time.”

            “You think it would get expensive.” Duff agreed, still smirking at the imagery on his own phone.

            Already knowing, by virtue of being close friends with Ducky, that his little proclivity for getting high was as expensive as rent in some place of the city, Gibbs shook his head but kept that little tidbit to himself, not wanting to razz his best friend when he wasn’t around to defend himself.

            “And terrifying.” Gibbs further posited, gratefully finishing up the last of his soup.

            “I’m sure the milder strands would be easier to manage.” Duff suggested, collecting his bowl with a smile before popping it into the dish washer.

             “Maybe.” Gibbs allowed. “But I’m not going to give it a try anytime soon. Valium was bad enough.”

            “I’m sure it was.” Duff agreed. “But I honestly didn’t think that a half dose would do you in like that.”

            “I’m a pretty intense dosage already.” Gibbs admitted, feeling his face flush a fair bit.

            Because even though he was fairly certain that Duff wouldn’t fault him for being prescribed a psychiatric medication, especially so a fairly common one, admitting to being on a fairly significant dosage of said medication was embarrassing, as it never failed to make him feel as if he was one step away from being institutionalized.

            “And then you factor in the wine and…”

            “You get loopy Jethro.” Gibbs finished, relieved no comment had been made about his medication dosage.

            “Good thing loopy Jethro is so damn cute.” Duff teased, leaning over to kiss him on the cheek he hadn’t gotten around to shaving yet.

            Having grown weary of trying, and failing, to convince his boyfriend that he was, in no way shape or form ‘cute,’ or any variation of the word, Gibbs just rolled his rolled and allowed the kiss to take place.

            “Did the soup help at all?” Duff fussed, once the kiss had been completed to his satisfaction. “You seem to feel better.”

            “I’m not nauseous anymore.” Gibbs allowed. “But I’m still exhausted.”

             In fact, Gibbs had not felt so damn exhausted since his boot camp, when they’d only been allotted a good five hours of sleep on a good day.

            “You slept fourteen hours.” Duff laughed.

            “And I could sleep fourteen more.” Gibbs confirmed.

            “Then why don’t we go and lie down on the couch for a bit, hmm?”

            Seeing as how he really was still fairly exhausted, and Duff’s couch more than large to accommodate the napping of two grown men, Gibbs found himself nodding and rising to his feet even as a question left his lips.

            “Don’t you eventually have to get to work?”

            “Nah, I’m taking the day off.” Duff shrugged.

            “And you can just do that?” Gibbs pressed, amazed at the very concept.

            “Of course I can. Percy is my boss.”

            “And Percy just lets you take the day off?”

            “Sure.” Duff grinned, plopping himself down at one corner of the couch before gently tugging Gibbs down beside him. “Especially when I’m taking care of you.”

            Still unable to explain the slight chill that ran up his spine in response to the idea of so many people being so protective of him, rather than the other way around, yet no less delighted because of it, Gibbs graced his boyfriend with a small boyfriend before depositing his head into his lap.

            “Why do you guys think I’m a fragile flower or something?” Gibbs grumbled, pliantly allowing his boyfriend to drape a blanket over him. “I was a Marine, you know.”

            “You’re not a fragile flower.” Duff allowed, starting to massage his scalp. “You’re a treasure, and you need protected at all costs.”

             Feeling that any effort applied towards rolling his eyes would only be wasted, given that his head was positioned in such a way that Duff would have to lean forward in order to see his face, Gibbs simply sighed softly before curling up into the warmth of the blanket he had been provided.

            “What do you want to watch, Babe?” Duff inquired, plucking up the remote.

            “You pick.” Gibbs yawned, enjoying the feel of his fingers on his scalp. “I’m going to be napping anyways.”

            “Will you laugh at me if I turn it to Star Trek?” Duff inquired.

            “…Not out loud.” Gibbs magnanimously promised.

 

             

Chapter Text

            Having found it quite necessary to call off of work after waking the following morning with one hell of a hangover, the likes of which he had never before experienced, not since the morning after his wedding to Shannon, wherein the had both woken up in an unfamiliar canoe in some fucking river they had never even heard of before, Gibbs found himself gingerly nursing his fifth cup of coffee since, since awaking at the ungodly hour of 9 in the morning, at his boyfriend’s kitchen table.

            “You really should have some toast or something.” Duff fussed, clearly feeling badly about his role in the hangover. “I’ll even make you a grilled cheese, if you want me to.”

            Stomach recoiling rather violently at the thought of putting anything even remotely greasy or buttery into his mouth, Gibbs grimaced and shook his head, denying himself the pleasure of a grilled cheese sandwich for the very first time in his long life.

            “How about some soup, Babe?” Duff suggested, already moving to his pantry.

            “Sure.” Gibbs allowed, wishing to make his boyfriend feel helpful in his pursuit of hangover recovery. “What do you have?”

            “Let’s see.” Duff offered, getting to his feet to go poke his head into the pantry. “I have tomato or corn chowder.”

            Relieved to have been offered two, one-hundred percent, vegetarian options, even though Gibbs loathed tomato soup above nothing else, even cursed onion rings, Gibbs leaned back in his chair and smiled appreciatively at his boyfriend before giving his answer.

            “I hate tomato soup.” Gibbs frowned, providing his boyfriend a future reference. “I’ll go with the chowder.”

            “How can you hate tomato soup?” Duff playfully interrogated, emerging from the pantry with the aforementioned can of chowder in his hand. “What do you dip your precious grilled cheeses in?”

            “Peanut Butter.” Gibbs confirmed, already anticipating his boyfriend’s reaction.

            “I’m sorry, what?” Duff guffawed, staring at him as if he had just made a confession about liking pineapple on pizza.

            “It’s delicious.” Gibbs defended, wishing his grandmother was still around to support him in this. “You should try it.”

            Looking as if Gibbs had just suggested he sample a steaming pile of dog shit, Duff scrunched up his nose before kneeling to retrieve a pot from one of his cabinets.

            “I’ll have to put that on my bucket list.” Duff allowed, not at all convincingly.

            “I’m going to hold you to that.” Gibbs warned, turning in his chair to grin rather mischievously at the man using the stove. “And the rollerblading, too.”    

            In fact, had Gibbs not already made some pretty important plans to visit his father that weekend, he would have happily insisted that Duff take a short spin around the neighborhood with him on the rollerblades belonging to Tony.

            “I’ll happily give you the peanut butter as a dipping sauce thing.” Duff granted, emptying the can of soup into a pan. “Not the rollerblading. I enjoy being alive too much.”

            “You promised.” Gibbs countered, beginning to feel better and slightly playful as a result.

            “How the hell do you remember anything from last night?” Duff challenged, looking slightly alarmed. “You had enough Valium in you to knock out a sumo wrestler.”

            Successfully managing to subdue the strong urge to point out, to his backtracking boyfriend, that he was one of the two people directly responsible for his drug-related delirium, as Gibbs hadn’t been in a position to refuse anything offered to him after leaving the restaurant, being as equally distressed as he was drunk, Gibbs just quirked and eyebrow and smirked.

            “I have a mind like a steel trap.”

            “Well, I hope you’re prepared to take a whole lot of time off work to care for me when I inevitably shatter the bones in both my legs.” Duff sighed, methodically stirring the soup in figure-eight movements. “Because I will.”

            “I won’t let you break your legs.” Gibbs promised.

            After all, if he could teach the unfathomably clumsy Tony how to work a skateboard, with only a scraped knee and a sprained wrist being the end result, it only stood to reason that he could teach the much more stable Duff how to work a set of rollerblades without any major calamities taking place.

             “Can you even buy rollerblades anymore?” Duff deflected, turning down the heat on the burner heating his soup.

            “Of course, you can.” Gibbs persisted. “I take Tony around the neighborhood all the time when it’s warm out.”

            Because, rest assured, as soon as the temperature dipped toward the forties, Gibbs shunned the outdoors and prepared for a lengthy hibernation indoors. A process that largely involved an obscene number of movie nights and the gaining of a full ten pounds before the spring set in again and thawed out the ground.

            “Just Tony?” Duff asked, pouring out the steaming soup into a yellow bowl.

            “Kate isn’t very outdoorsy.” Gibbs clarified. “And I’m still trying to ween Tim into the picture.”

            A process said young man seemed determined not to make easy, as every time Gibbs even tried to involve him anything he did with the rest of the kids, Tim balked and looked as if Gibbs was only trying to get him alone, outside of work hours, so that he could beat him with a hammer or something.

            “Hopefully this weekend will help with that.” Duff expressed, depositing the steaming bowl of soup in front of him.

            Going about cautiously, so as not to upset his already upset stomach, Gibbs only spooned up a small portion of the delicious-smelling soup before sticking it into his mouth.

            “I hope so.” Gibbs agreed, a vague idea slowly starting to form itself in his mind. “I think you would like Tim. He likes all that science stuff you do.”

            “I’m sure I’d like all your kids.” Duff agreed, taking a seat across from him. “I mean, after all, if you like them they have to be doing something right.”

            “They’re good kids.” Gibbs agreed, pausing to take another bite of his soup. “You…You should meet them.”    

            Duff had, after all, already proven himself worthy of such a great honor. Not only because of how well he had handled his unexpected introduction to Tony, and the inappropriate interrogation that had occurred as a result, but so too because of just how well he had been taking of Gibbs of late – never once losing his patience, or his temper, with all of his anxiety-related meltdowns and nonsense.

            “I’d like that.” Duff beamed, looking as if he had just been offered the world. “I really would.”

            That was all the motivation needed for Gibbs to push forward with his idea, because as much as some people might like to posit that he was moving way too fast with things, especially in light of the great Henry fiasco, and in light of his great number of divorces, Gibbs shoved away those unwelcome assumptions with the reminder that he had, most certainly, rushed in with Shannon and that had undeniably and unprecedentedly turned out well.

            “Well, we’re going to have a bonfire tonight at my place.” Gibbs informed, twiddling nervously with his spoon. “You could come. If you wanted to.”

            “Are you sure you’re ready, Babe?” Duff pressed, looking concerned. “I know you had a hard time at the restaurant yesterday. I don’t want you to have to go through that again so soon.”

            “That was different.” Gibbs defended, almost insulted. “That was the public. This is my family.”  

            And, at the end of the day, Gibbs just wasn’t worried about how any member of his little work-family would react apart from Abby, who had the uncomfortable tendency to fetishize things and people. Because not only was Tim’s little sister an unashamed lesbian, and openly dating another girl at the moment, so too were Jimmy and Kate more than accepting of alternative ways of living – even though both of them had spent a significant portion of their childhood being traumatized by their respective religious parents.

            “Then I’d love to come.” Duff agreed, his smile widening.

            “Good.” Gibbs grinned, feeling almost giddy. “Great.”

            “I can’t wait.” Duff expressed, perfectly sincere. “Do you want me to bring anything?”

            Having already stocked up on all the required supplies, such as smores supplies and a copious amount of alcohol, Gibbs shook his head and happily gave his boyfriend the relief of knowing that all he had to do to make him happy was to show up on time prepared to make a good impression.

            “Everything is already taken care of.” He verbally confirmed, stealing a few more bites of his soup to keep from grinning like a fool.

            “I can’t wait, Jethro.” Duff expanded, his joy nearly infectious.

            “Neither can I.” Gibbs agreed. “Everyone is going to love you. I know they will.”

            In particular, he felt it was Tim who would get along with his boyfriend best. If not for their mutual liking of all things science and space related, than most assuredly for the fact that they were both pretty even-tempered by nature and not like to experience any significant tension with each other.

            “I sure hope so.” Duff agreed, his smile faltering as the phone in his pocket began to buzz incessantly.

            Sincerely hoping that it wasn’t somebody calling to compel his boyfriend into heading in to work, as Gibbs really was actively enjoying just spending a quiet morning alone with Duff, doing nothing but sipping coffee and chatting aimlessly, he sucked in a deep breath and braced himself as Duff opened his phone and started down at the screen.

            “Jethro,” Duff queried, his face contorting into an odd expression as he read, “Did…Did you somehow manage to get a hold of your phone sometime during the night?”

            Already having the growing suspicion that he did, in fact, somehow manage to both find and use his phone during the night, as he vaguely recalled trying to order Dominoes in what he thought was a dream, Gibbs grimaced down into his soup and only hoped he hadn’t managed to irreparably embarrass himself.

            “Why?”

            “Because you apparently sent Percy tons of pictures of grilled cheese last night.” Duff clarified, struggling not to laugh. “And left him a voicemail asking him to bring you one.”

            Feeling his face flame violently as a result of that information, Gibbs groaned loudly and buried his face in his hands.

            “This would have never happened if you didn’t sleep so damn hard.” He accused, what little anger he felt for his boyfriend dissipating as Duff buried a hand in his hair. “AND hadn’t drugged me with Valium.”       

              “You’re never going to forgive me for the Valium thing, are you?” Duff sighed, more dramatic than sincere.

            “Never.” Gibbs confirmed. “And you really should have known to take my phone off me last night.” He further pouted, opening his own phone to discover the series of bizarre texts he had sent to Percy begging for cheese.

            “I honestly thought you were out for good.” Duff defended, still smiling down at his phone.

            “I did, too.” Gibbs conceded. “I had the honest fucking dreams last night.”

            Not just about Dominoes and a series of similar fast-food chains, the likes and makes of which he just couldn’t recall at the moment, but so too about drowning in a sea of pink fluff that he could, only now, logically assume was supposed to be cotton candy.

            “I can only imagine.” Duff chuckled. “You said some pretty interesting things last night.”

            “Of course I did.” Gibbs sighed, mortified beyond all belief as he scrolled up his phone and discovered several of the photos of clipart cheese he had sent off. “Jesus, I don’t know how Ducky can stand to be high all the time.”

            “You think it would get expensive.” Duff agreed, still smirking at the imagery on his own phone.

            Already knowing, by virtue of being close friends with Ducky, that his little proclivity for getting high was as expensive as rent in some place of the city, Gibbs shook his head but kept that little tidbit to himself, not wanting to razz his best friend when he wasn’t around to defend himself.

            “And terrifying.” Gibbs further posited, gratefully finishing up the last of his soup.

            “I’m sure the milder strands would be easier to manage.” Duff suggested, collecting his bowl with a smile before popping it into the dish washer.

             “Maybe.” Gibbs allowed. “But I’m not going to give it a try anytime soon. Valium was bad enough.”

            “I’m sure it was.” Duff agreed. “But I honestly didn’t think that a half dose would do you in like that.”

            “I’m a pretty intense dosage already.” Gibbs admitted, feeling his face flush a fair bit.

            Because even though he was fairly certain that Duff wouldn’t fault him for being prescribed a psychiatric medication, especially so a fairly common one, admitting to being on a fairly significant dosage of said medication was embarrassing, as it never failed to make him feel as if he was one step away from being institutionalized.

            “And then you factor in the wine and…”

            “You get loopy Jethro.” Gibbs finished, relieved no comment had been made about his medication dosage.

            “Good thing loopy Jethro is so damn cute.” Duff teased, leaning over to kiss him on the cheek he hadn’t gotten around to shaving yet.

            Having grown weary of trying, and failing, to convince his boyfriend that he was, in no way shape or form ‘cute,’ or any variation of the word, Gibbs just rolled his rolled and allowed the kiss to take place.

            “Did the soup help at all?” Duff fussed, once the kiss had been completed to his satisfaction. “You seem to feel better.”

            “I’m not nauseous anymore.” Gibbs allowed. “But I’m still exhausted.”

             In fact, Gibbs had not felt so damn exhausted since his boot camp, when they’d only been allotted a good five hours of sleep on a good day.

            “You slept fourteen hours.” Duff laughed.

            “And I could sleep fourteen more.” Gibbs confirmed.

            “Then why don’t we go and lie down on the couch for a bit, hmm?”

            Seeing as how he really was still fairly exhausted, and Duff’s couch more than large to accommodate the napping of two grown men, Gibbs found himself nodding and rising to his feet even as a question left his lips.

            “Don’t you eventually have to get to work?”

            “Nah, I’m taking the day off.” Duff shrugged.

            “And you can just do that?” Gibbs pressed, amazed at the very concept.

            “Of course I can. Percy is my boss.”

            “And Percy just lets you take the day off?”

            “Sure.” Duff grinned, plopping himself down at one corner of the couch before gently tugging Gibbs down beside him. “Especially when I’m taking care of you.”

            Still unable to explain the slight chill that ran up his spine in response to the idea of so many people being so protective of him, rather than the other way around, yet no less delighted because of it, Gibbs graced his boyfriend with a small boyfriend before depositing his head into his lap.

            “Why do you guys think I’m a fragile flower or something?” Gibbs grumbled, pliantly allowing his boyfriend to drape a blanket over him. “I was a Marine, you know.”

            “You’re not a fragile flower.” Duff allowed, starting to massage his scalp. “You’re a treasure, and you need protected at all costs.”

             Feeling that any effort applied towards rolling his eyes would only be wasted, given that his head was positioned in such a way that Duff would have to lean forward in order to see his face, Gibbs simply sighed softly before curling up into the warmth of the blanket he had been provided.

            “What do you want to watch, Babe?” Duff inquired, plucking up the remote.

            “You pick.” Gibbs yawned, enjoying the feel of his fingers on his scalp. “I’m going to be napping anyways.”

            “Will you laugh at me if I turn it to Star Trek?” Duff inquired.

            “…Not out loud.” Gibbs magnanimously promised.

 

             

Chapter Text

            More than just a little nervous about the evening he had planned for the benefit of his little work family, and all the necessary and awkward introductions and explanation such would entail, Gibbs soon found himself, rather unnecessarily, rearranging the stack of self-split wood he had earlier that day piled up in his bonfire pit, the strong need to be doing something to distract himself from his concerns far outweighing his usually passionate desire to be out of the chill of the current forty degree evening. Because as much as he was confident that all the members of his little family would just absolutely love Duff, as who couldn’t, his aggravating anxiety disorder was still wreaking fifty shades of havoc on his self-destructive mind, and trying everything within its power to convince him that at least one member, if not more, of his family was secretly homophobic to a fairly significant degree. And, the more he tried to suss out just who that person could potentially be, the worse his anxiety became – as just the thought of it possibly being one of his ‘kids’ concerned him to no end. For as much as Jimmy was like some sort of nephew-figure to him, by consequence of having been taken under Ducky’s wing almost the very moment he had taken the position as assistance medical examiner, the opinions of his agents held just a little more weight to him. And Gibbs really didn’t believe he could handle one of those three coming to suddenly hate him – not even Tim, who seemed downright frightened of him at the best of times and not at all affectionate where regarded his existence like the other two currently were.

            “You need to calm down, Dad.” Tony idly advised, comfortably reclined in the coveted freestanding hammock near the fire. “Everything is going to be fine. What’s the worst that could happen?”

            Having once had the exact same thought before being enlisted, and shipped off to the living hell that was bootcamp during a time of active war, his dreams of art school and Paris all but crushed and dashed by the conscription papers, Gibbs cringed inwardly and considerately hid his grimace beneath the collar of his jacket, not wishing to make Tony feel badly about his optimistic naivety but likewise just as unable to keep from expressing his doubts of such a statement. Because as much as he highly doubted that any one of his agents would ever be so bold enough as to call him a dick-sucking faggot, much less punch him in the stomach repeatedly during every morning roll-call, all while threatening to stick him in a woman’s military uniform, Gibbs wasn’t so naïve as to think that he wouldn’t be considerately wounded by any potential negative facial expressions his ‘kids’ might make – subconsciously done or not.

            “I know that.” Gibbs sighed, methodically rearranging his kindling. “I know.”

            “Everyone is going to love Duff.” Tony further insisted, not at all fooled by Gibbs’s affected glibness. “He’s great.”

            “That’s not what I’m worried about.” Gibbs muttered, poking restlessly into his tidy pile of kindling with a stick.

            Unfortunately, in a manner that perfectly belied his sudden onset of selective deafness whenever asked to tidy up his room, or put his fucking dishes in the dishwasher instead of leaving them in the sink, Tony heard the nearly nonverbal utterance and responded as expected – with the utmost positivity and faith in his fellow agents.

            “Dad, nobody is going to care that your gay.” Tony persisted, his green eyes filled with a genuine earnestness that Gibbs hadn’t felt in decades.

            But, as much as Gibbs would have loved to share in his child’s genuine belief that most people were essentially good at heart, ala Anne Frank, the consistently tumultuous nature of his early life had made him irreversibly cynical and, to a certain extent, nihilistic. As there was just something about being consistently shunned and ostracized throughout all twelve years of school, and then the torture of bootcamp, that seemed to prove that people, as a whole, were only ever as good as the people around them felt like being at the moment.

            “I mean, Abby might be creepy about it.” Tony conjectured, frowning slightly. “But she’s doing a tour of her neighborhoods haunted houses for her blog tonight.”

            Somewhat relieved to have discovered that he wasn’t the only one who had taken note of Abby’s fetishizing tendencies of late, nor their accompanying inappropriateness, yet not made any the happier because of such a disquieting common ground with his child, Gibbs just pursed his lips and tried not to feel too guilty about shit-talking the forensic specialist when she wasn’t around to properly defend herself.

            “Do you think we need more kindling?” Gibbs tried to obfuscate.

            Clearly not at all amused with Gibbs’s attempts to manipulate the conversation back to safer topics, Tony frowned in an eerily Jackson-like fashion and pegged him with a surprisingly stern expression.

            “Tim’s sister is a lesbian, Dad, did you forget that?” Tony challenged, dangerously verging on the edge of having an attitude.

            And, wishing to nip that little flair of disrespect in the bud before it could become a habit, Gibbs responded to his child’s sass with a simple raising an eyebrow, making it known, nonverbally, that he wasn’t going to be prevented from doling out discipline just because Duff was around.

            “And the only people Kate hates are vegans.” Tony continued, checking his tone. “And smokers, I guess. But I’m with her on that one.”

            Before Gibbs could even contribute to the topic of hatred for smokers, and thusly change the subject as he so wished to, something he was usually so very good at, even in the worst of situations, Tony was speaking once more and preventing such an easy escape from taking place.

            “And, quite frankly, Jimmy can deal with any surprises that anyone can dish out.” Tony philosophized, refusing to give up on his pursuit of putting Gibbs at peace. “I mean, Ducky is his mentor. Can you imagine the people he’s been introduced to?”

            Having once had the dubious pleasure of being introduced to a ‘professional occultist’ by the aforementioned Medical Examiner, as well as shared dinner with an ‘ostrich babysitter’ and ‘professional mourner’ on said man’s behalf as well, Gibbs couldn’t help but smirk as he tried to conjure up a vague impression of the type of people his friend had likely introduced his own child to.

            “You’ve got a point there.” Gibbs conceded, feeling his mood gradually starting to lift the more his child tried to talk sense into him.

            “So relax.” Tony encouraged, smiling warmly into his face. “Everything is going to go just fine. And,” He added, giving his pocket an ominous pat, “On the off chance that it doesn’t, I’ll shank the trouble-maker in their left kidney.”

            His strong, and admittedly over-protective, parental instincts kicking into overdrive at just the mere thought of his incurably-clumsy child being in possession of a fucking shank, of all goddamn things, Gibbs whipped his head around to glare at his child so quickly that his neck almost cracked as a result.

            “You had better not have a fucking shank on you, young man, or a shiv.” Gibbs forewarned, already prepare to search his child’s pockets. “Or any fucking variation of one.”

            Seeming to know what Gibbs was getting at, and likewise what he was prepared to do, Tony flipped himself off of the hammock with surprising grace and took off running towards the front of the house.

            “I think I heard Kate pulling up into the driveway!” Tony tried to self-exculpate, nearly tripping over his own damn feet as he continued his hasty retreat.

            The jarring sounds of oppressively loud rap music suddenly flooding into the atmosphere and validating Tony’s retreat to a minor degree, Gibbs simply rolled his eyes in defeat and turned back to his bonfire pit, no longer nervous about the approaching evening, per se, but rather anxious to get it started so that he no longer had to deal with the stomach-twisting anticipation that always affected him before a social engagement.

            “That kid has a knife on him, doesn’t he?” Gibbs sighed, comfortable enough to share his playful hopelessness with his boyfriend.

            “Almost certainly.” Duff chuckled, seated comfortably nearby in an exceedingly plush lawn chair. “Want me to go and take it off of him?”            

            Even though it warmed his heart considerably for Duff to even be offering to take on some of the more unpleasant parenting aspect when it came to the agents, namely the removal of items from their person, particularly Tony, who was dramatic to a fault, Gibbs found himself shaking his head nonetheless.

            “Nah, he’ll probably lose it in ten minutes anyways.” Gibbs shrugged, sincerely hoping that such would be the case.

            Preferably in the thick pile of dead leaves now covering his yard, where any hopes of a retrieval would be but minimal indeed until the spring came and cleared away the natural debris covering his yard.

            “Hopefully not in my kidney.” Duff chuckled, not looking the least bit worried.

            “Tony wouldn’t dare.” Gibbs frowned, finally removing himself from the firepit to go and sit at Duff’s side.

            “Easy there, cowboy.” Duff encouraged, laying an impossibly warm hand on his knee.

            Taking a moment to recover from the slight jolt that had raced up his spine in response to such a welcome contact, Gibbs was a little slow in responding.

            “I just want things to go well tonight, that’s all.”

            “They will.” Duff insisted, giving his knee a squeeze.

            “How could you possibly know that?” Gibbs rebuffed, doubtful yet polite.

            “Because I’m going to make sure that it does.” Duff smiled, dripping sincerity.

            Deciding, then and there, that his boyfriend deserved a little reward for all his loyalty and devotion, Gibbs bridged the short distance between them and initiated a little kiss, Duff’s delighted noise of surprise as a result of said kiss only serving to make him redouble the ferociousness of the peck. An act which very nearly had Duff pulling him up out of his chair, and unto his lap, before the sounds of a bickering Kate and Tony drew nearer and pulled them apart.

            “Gibbs!” Kate beamed, putting off whatever argument she was having with Tony to rush and wrap him a bone-crushing hug. “You’re okay!”

            “Of course I am.” Gibbs sighed, hugging her back. “I just the took the day off, is all.”

            “You never take off.” Kate rebuttled, giving him a rather suspicious look.

            “I do now.” Gibbs countered, gently extracting himself from the hug. “What happened to your nose?”

            Because as impolite as that question might have sounded to anyone else outside of his little work family, the fact still remained that Kate’s usually adorable freckled nose was now purple and swollen to a hideous degree.

            “A perp punched me.” Kate frowned, self-consciously bringing a hand up to cover her damaged nose.

            “A perp punched you?” Gibbs growled, a dangerous blood-lust flooding into his body.

            “A perp punched me.” Kate confirmed, her mouth turned down in a pout. “And then I broke his ulna in half.”

            Even though Gibbs was reasonably assured of that fact that the breaking of a perpetrator’s bones would require a fair bit of paperwork being filled out on his end, as well as an internal investigation by Vance, he just couldn’t find it within him to scold the young woman, as there was no doubt a very good reason for matters having been escalated that far in the first place given that Kate was far less reckless when dealing with perps than was Tony.

            “Good girl.” Gibbs applauded, reaching up to smooth down her wind-tousled hair.

            Her own biological parents having never been quick with the praise for their youngest child, Kate nearly melted into a puddle at the simple compliment before seeming to recall, at the last moment, something rather important.

            “I brought Tim!” She chirped, seeming to recall the young man as an afterthought.

            Glancing over her shoulder to confirm such a claim for himself, and spotting the aforementioned man standing somewhat awkwardly near the oak tree on the periphery of his property, Gibbs pursed his lips and turned back to Kate to give her an interrogative expression.

            “On his own volition?” Gibbs challenged, having not failed to notice how tense his young technology expert looked.

            “I brought Tim.” Kate repeated, dodging the question.

            “Caitlyn Elizabeth – “

            Having sometime during their little interrogation session drifted closer to the bonfire pit, and summarily overheard the accusation being made, Tim brought the focus unto himself with a nervous little cough and timidly went about trying to exculpate Kate of any crime against his person.

            “It’s alright, Gibbs.” Tim charitably allowed, still a good ten feet away. “Kate didn’t hurt me or anything.”

            “But did she coerce you?” Gibbs challenged, unwilling to let his devious little agent off the hook that easily.

            Because, rest assured, if you gave Kate even a fraction of an inch in a matter, she’d somehow find a way to take a whole fucking football field as a result.

            “She…motivated me.” Tim nervously countered, looking afraid to cast any fault on his older colleague.

            “With?” Gibbs coaxed, firm yet calm.

            “Persuasionary tactics.” Tim suggested, looking very much like a little boy under heavy interrogation from his elementary school principal.              

            Fortunately for the sakes of both of his younger agents, particularly so Kate, Gibbs was prevented from lecturing them on the wrongness of being remorseless little prevaricators by Duff’s spontaneous intervention.

            “That’s a political answer if I ever heard one.” Duff chuckled, seemingly forgetting he had not yet been introduced to either of the newly arrived agents.

             Forgetting, momentarily, her irritation with having just been put under interrogation by her father-figure, yet no doubt tucking away some of those negative feelings for later, Kate pursed her lips in an eerily familiar fashion and tilted back her head to look Duff full on in the face.

            “Who is this?” She demanded, scrutinizing Duff’s every facial feature.

            “This is Jolene.” Tony contributed, only partially teasing.

            “But this a man.” Kate frowned, placing significant emphasis on the final word.

            “Astutely observed, Katie.” Tony dryly harangued.

            Taking equal parts umbrage with being addressed by the bastardized version of her full name and with being spoken to in such a disparaging tone, Kate didn’t even hesitate before jabbing her elbow into Tony’s spleen.

            “I’ll break your arm too.” She threated, twisting her elbow into the flesh of Tony’s skin for good measure.

            “You will not.” Gibbs countered, charitably refraining from scolding the young woman for her shameless elbowing.

            Giving Gibbs a look that quite clearly conveyed, ‘we’ll see about that,’ Kate narrowed her eyes and frowned before turning back to face Duff.

            “Seriously, though, who is this?”

            “Well,” Gibbs awkwardly began, starting to sweat profusely, “This is Duff.”          

            And, wishing to make as good a first impression as he could, Duff smiled brightly before inflicting a somewhat too vigorous handshake on an already suspicious Kate.

            “How do you know this guy?” Kate pressed, sizing Duff up with an openly critical air.

            Somewhat understanding of Kate’s great reluctance to be introduced to any potential military colleague of his, given that the first, and last, of such introductions had resulted in her getting groped on her way to the bathroom, an a retired marine getting his teeth smashed in by an irate Tony, Gibbs allowed the rudeness of her tone to go uncensored.

            “Kate,” Tim whispered, tugging timidly on the sleeve of her yellow jacket like a nervous younger brother forced to confess he had broken some valuable, “I think that’s his boyfriend.”                        “Gibbs doesn’t date men.” Kate patiently countered, gently slapping his rogue fingers away from her clothing.

            “He does now.” Tony argued, finally recovered enough from his elbowing to speak.           

             Looking surprised, yet thankfully not disgusted, Kate frowned and turned to Gibbs for confirmation, clever enough to understand that one should very seldom ever take Tony at his word about something so serious.

            “Tim’s right, Kate.” Gibbs confirmed, forcing the words out before he could change his mind. “I’m dating Duff.”

            Kate, despite her great surprise, successfully managed to school her face into a mask of polite interest within seconds, the look of shocked alarm disappearing from her beautiful features so damn quickly that Gibbs would have been convinced that he had imagined it had it not been for the stiff and forced mien that had replaced it. And, standing in sharp contrast to the flabbergasted Kate, to nobody’s great surprise was Tim, who had reacted to the shocking revelation as if Gibbs had done no more than announced he was a Capricorn or ambidextrous, his infallible gaydar no doubt playing a rather significant role in that.

            “Oh.” Kate finally managed, once the initial shock had finally worn off.

            But, rather than leaving it at just that, and consequently traumatizing Gibbs with the subsequent dilemma of having to decipher just what that oh could mean, Kate smiled shyly at him before turning back to Duff to make amends for her earlier attitude with a much friendlier handshake.

            “It’s nice to meet you.” She enthused, having the grace to at least look slightly embarrassed.

            “It’s nice to meet you, too.” Duff agreed, giving her hand a friendly squeeze before releasing it.

            Immensely relieved that the evening he had spent so long planning had not gone to complete shit because of the awkwardly made introduction, Gibbs let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding and thanked his lucky stars that Duff was so damn charming and inviting. And that, unlike Henry, all of those attributes were genuine and unflinching in nature.

            “How did you two meet?” Kate politely questioned, her manners making an impressive recovery.

            “At a coffee shop.” Duff answered, thankfully opting not to elaborate.

            Because as much as it seemed silly to be so hung-up about the concept of his agents discovering he frequented a gay establishment when he had just introduced them to his boyfriend of all things, Gibbs still couldn’t help but feel slightly embarrassed for having not realized Discreet was a gay establishment in the first place. As, looking back on that fateful evening, he could rather reluctantly concede that he ought to have known given the appearance of the clientele and all the artsy décor.

            “Why am I not surprised.” Kate muttered, rolling her eyes.

            “I do not have a coffee addiction.” Gibbs defended. “It’s more of a…hobby.”

            Gibbs couldn’t help but frown in annoyance when not even Tim moved to defend him from the unfounded accusations of being an addict.

            “This is the all thanks I get…” Gibbs muttered, throwing up his hands.

            “Accepting that you have a problem is the first step to recovery.” Kate quipped, sharing a smirk with Tony.

            “You’re getting dangerously close to having a smoreless evening.” Gibbs heatlessly threatened, rolling his eyes.

            Kate had just enough time to look at him in wide-eyed horror before Ducky and Jimmy heralded their arrival with a rather loud, and slightly contentious, discussion about whether or not a ‘short jaunt through an alley,’ would have shaved twelve minutes off their commute. A bold and unfounded claim that a rather irritated Jimmy was most heartily refuting with the picture of a map he had pulled up on his phone and the cursory knowledge that Ducky’s hippy van hardly fit through regularly proportioned roadways.

            “We’re here.” Ducky chirped, expertly feigning ignorance about the fact that everyone had very clearly been listening in on his argument. “And on time.”

            “Because I drove.” Jimmy grumbled, jamming his phone back into his pocket in defeat.

            It was only when he felt the heat of Ducky’s mild glare that the usually meek diabetic recalled, belatedly, the fact that his father-figure was even less tolerant of rudeness than was Gibbs.

            “Who is this?” Jimmy questioned, wisely changing the subject as he sidled out of his father’s reach.

            “Gibbs’s boyfriend.” Kate answered, seconds before cramming almost an entire chocolate bar into her mouth.

            His face only registering surprise for a brief nanosecond, Jimmy simply nodded his greeting at Duff before stealing Kate’s second chocolate bar right out of her hands and stealing a massive bite.

            “Oh no.” Ducky immediately tutted, removing what little remained of the second chocolate bar from his own child’s hand. “There will be no sugar spikes this evening, young man.” And, turning to Kate, he added: “Nor will there be any cavity-inducing behavior, young lady.”

            But, upon receiving only two heart-breaking pouts in response to his stern edict, Ducky quickly capitulated in the same boneless fashion he would have scolded Gibbs for.

            “Well, at least not this early into it.” The Medical Examiner allowed with a sigh.

            It was only when Tim sneezed, rather abruptly and loud, that anyone remembered he was there as well.

            “Timothy,” Ducky chided, having been the most startled by his sneeze, “Whatever are you doing all the way over there? Come and have a seat.”

            Significantly embarrassed by the concept of having had so much attention turned unto his person, Tim blushed profusely and looked as if he would much rather climb up the tree he was stood beneath then take even one step closer to where everyone else was gathered.

            “I – “

            “Come along now.” Ducky encouraged, his tone brooking no argument. “I’ll not have you sulking on the sidelines like an unwelcomed wraith.”

            Knowing better than to argue with Ducky, much less defy one of his direct orders, Tim slightly frowned but nonetheless idled closer to the bonfire pit, opting, once more, to stand directly behind Kate like a nervous younger brother tagging along to his first event with the older kids.

            “Tim,” Duff interceded, magnanimous as always, “Jethro said you liked space. Did you ever get a chance to see the Challenger exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum?”

            Seeming to sense the innate air of safety that radiated off of Duff like eccentricity radiated off of Ducky, Tim flocked off toward the older man as quickly as he could without drawing any additional attention unto himself.

            “I went with my sister.” Tim confirmed, taking a seat on the stump next to him.

            “What was it like?” Duff encouraged. “I’m afraid I didn’t get a chance to go.”

            “It was great.” Tim enthused, forgetting his shyness for a moment. “They had a replica of the Challenger you could go into.”

            Already knowing what was about to happen before it happened, yet far too slow to prevent it, Gibbs could only scowl as Jimmy and Tony exchanged a dual look of mischievousness.

            “That must have been a real blast.” Jimmy smirked, putting heavy emphasis on the last word.

            “That’s what space control probably said.” Tony contributed.

            By consequence of being the ‘adult’ nearest to the two errant pun-makers, and likewise imbued with the privilege of doling out punishment when needed, Ducky tutted softly before thwacking the both of them upside the head with two solid good smacks.

            “Your jokes are weak.” Kate sniffed, showing no compassion at all towards her colleagues. “And antiquated.”

            “Your mom is – “

            “In our defense,” Jimmy began, wisely cutting off Tony before he could say something that would get his head slapped again, “Tim’s book would have probably sold a lot more copies if he used a little humor.”

            Hackles still raised from the very obvious ‘Yo Mama,’ joke that her fellow agent had clearly been prepared to make, on principal and not from any misguided sort of love towards her narcissist of a mother, Kate nearly elbowed her remorseless antagonizer before the fact that Tim had written a book belatedly entered her mind and stilled her arm.

            “Wait -what?” Kate blurted.

            “You wrote a book?” Tony demanded, not bothering to hide his shock.

            Looking far more embarrassed than was humanly possible, Tim seemed to shrink several inches as he latched his gaze unto his shoes.

            “It’s…Just a little one, is all.” Tim fibbed, as red as a brick. “Nothing special.”

            Despite having a fairly strong policy about any of his agents being deceitful, or purposely evasive, Gibbs, in a fit of mercy, allowed Tim’s absurd claim to go unchallenged. Even though he knew damn well, by virtue of having hunted down the book through pretty rigorous investigative means, and read all 543 pages in just under two days, that the veritable novel Tim was trying to pass off as a ‘little book,’ was a fucking masterpiece and classic in the making.

            “It’s a best-seller now.” Jimmy countered, having no qualms whatsoever in betraying his friend. “Oprah’s been shilling it.”

            “Tim!” Kate cried, looking legitimately wounded. “Why would you keep something like that a secret from us?!”

            “It’s not that big of a deal – really.” Tim persisted, looking fit to burst from sheer embarrassment alone. “It’s just…science fiction stuff. Nothing profound.”

            Thinking, to himself, of course, that Tim’s humble comparing of his book to mere science fiction was as egregious as Tony’s stubborn adherence to the erroneous belief that modern westerns were far superior to the kind that previous generations had grown up with, Gibbs pursed his lips but reluctantly kept mum about the fact that Tim’s aforementioned novel was more reality-inspired than he was willing to admit.

            “NASA loved it, you dirty little liar.” Jimmy accused, more playful than mean.

            Although, if Tim had grasped any of that playfulness, he certainly didn’t show it.

            “Well, Jimmy won an MMA championship last week.” Tim deflected, desperate to put anybody else under the spotlight.

            “We know.” Kate pouted. “We took him out to celebrate afterwards.”

            “And we would have done the same for you, too, if we’d known about the book thing.” Tony likewise groused. 

              Even though Gibbs knew, for a fact, that Tony and Kate would have actually taken Tim out to celebrate had they bene privy to the existence of his recently published book, he could also see why the young technology specialist might not have believed that. As, despite their great protectiveness for their younger agent, Kate and Tony really could lay their teasing on a little thickly when it came to Tim – especially so when they worked together as a team to do so.

            “It’s just a book.” Tim reasserted, digging the toe of his shoe into the grass.

            “A best seller.” Kate corrected, petulantly crossing her arms.

            “I – “

            “What’s it called anyways?” Kate demanded, cutting Tim off before he could even counter her earlier statement.

            Knowing that Tim would never volunteer the information on his own volition, Jimmy happily took the onus to do so upon himself, the act stemming from a place of goodwill even if, in some childish fashion, he clearly did enjoy teasing the younger man.

            “Cosmos.” He happily snitched. “And it’s actually good.”

            “Honestly, James!” Ducky reprimanded, slapping the back of his thighs with a nearby stick. “You need not sound so surprised!”

            “I’m just saying.” Jimmy defended, scooting out of smacking distance. “We’ve all read his earlier work. And it goes without saying that none of it was really all that good.”

            The primary being directly responsible for the leaking of some of Tim’s earlier work, something he had been most severely punished for, Tony cringed guiltily and pointedly avoided making eye contact with Gibbs.

            “Jimmy!” Kate hissed, pinching his forearm with her veritable vice grips of fingers. “No wonder he didn’t tell anyone about the book!”

             “He told me about the book.” Jimmy dismissed, just as skilled as Tony was in pushing Kate’s buttons.

            Awarding such assholery with one of her signature bruising pinches, this time aimed at his shoulder, Kate had Jimmy yelping before she turned back to deal with Tim.

            “Why would you tell Jimmy and not us?” She demanded, sincerely wounded.

            “Because I know Jimmy actually likes the kinds of books I like.” Tim mumbled, looking very much like a guilty younger brother caught snooping through his sister’s diary.

            “That’s a bullshit answer, and you know it.” Kate dismissed.

            Sensing that Tim would hardly be able to withstand any more heckling from his fellow agents without taking off, on foot, for his apartment several miles away, Gibbs quickly intervened and put an end to the unsanctioned interrogation taking place.

            “Tim, come and help me grab the beer.” Gibbs directed. “Tony, get the fire started.”

            Earning a sloppy salute in response to his directive, the likes of which would have gotten him most severely punished in boot camp by whomever had been the recipient, Gibbs simply rolled his eyes at his irreverent child and grabbed Tim beneath the elbow, steering the younger man towards the general safety of his house and out of the wrathful proximity to Kate.

            “Gibbs, you’re not mad at me, are you?”

            Head already stuck into his refrigerator to retrieve the aforementioned beer, Gibbs was a bit taken aback as he reemerged and saw the doleful expression casting shadows over Tim’s face. As, good lord, did that wounded puppy-dog expression really serve to remind him just how young the most sensitive of his agents really was. Closer to being a teenager, really, than he was to being an adult.

            “I’m not mad about the book, Tim.” Gibbs reassured, pushing a 12-pack into his hands so he could more easily grab the second of such. “I’m just sorry that you felt you had to keep it a secret in the first place.”

            And, in fact, Gibbs would be having another little talk with his agents about their antagonizing behavior towards Tim. Because, playful banter aside, harassment was just one thing that he wasn’t going to allow on his team.

            “I just didn’t want to sound like I was bragging.” Tim explained, looking near tears from all the guilt Kate had no doubt made him feel.

            “A bestseller is generally something to brag about, Kid.” Gibbs mildly lectured. “Besides, it’s not like Tony doesn’t like to brag about every last thing he does in a day.”

            The extent of which had, at one point in time, involved the sizes of his shits before Kate had impatiently put an end to that by responding in kind.

             “But everyone likes Tony.” Tim asserted.

            “And you think that we don’t like you?” Gibbs challenged, tossing his own 12-pack up unto his shoulder.

            “You wouldn’t have lasted this long on the team if we didn’t.” Gibbs truthfully stated, thinking of Blackadder. “Now c’mon. We need to head back outside before Tony burns the yard down and Kate eats all the marshmallows.”

            Looking beyond touched to have just been informed that the people on his team did, in fact, like him, and were not just simply tolerating his existence until somebody better came along to replace him, Tim smiled brightly and hefted his own 12-pack up unto his shoulders.

             “Has Kate ever eaten a vegetable in her life?”

            “Not willingly.” Gibbs confirmed, holding the kitchen door open for the younger man.

            To nobodies great surprise, they walked out into the backyard just in time to find both Kate and Jimmy wrestling, only somewhat seriously, over the specialty bag of colored marshmallows that Gibbs primarily always kept on stock for the purposes of bribing his sole female agent into eating anything that hadn’t come out of a bakery.

            “There’s another bag of