Gibbs wants to be irritated by Tony's presence. He wants to be able to yell at him to get out and leave him the Hell alone. But there's something soothing in this silent ritual. It's like being with that stray tabby-cat that used haunt his back porch as a kid. It never acknowledged that it wanted to be taken care of or petted, but if he left food out for it, it would eat. And if he approached carefully enough, it would purr when he petted it. Tony's like that - proud, independent, but needing attention and care.

He heard someone describe Tony as a puppy once, but they obviously bought the act, the surface cheer and lechery. Gibbs knows better. He knows that Tony wants to run away on days like this. His scars are too raw to bear alone, so he comes here, hoping for something, but saying nothing. He doesn't know what Tony thinks will happen if he says anything. He doesn't care really. He knows the routine now. He's happy to have the silent eyes watching him. The attention is gratifying. He's getting older and he feels it when Tony's acting like a brat to bait Kate. But down here, with the soft rasp of the sandpaper he uses to neatly shape the edges of the boat, he feels strong and sure of who he is and where he's heading.

She's taking shape, but it won't ever be a quick job, not when he has to leave her for weeks at a time. She'll always be here for him though, no questions demanding answers or needs beyond his attention and the repetitive motions of sanding and shaping and hammering. Tony's sitting on the landing. His eyes are tracking every motion and Gibbs wants to smile, but he's still feeling raw. He still sees his daughter's face on the little body they had to take care of today. He dives into his work, knowing this is something he does well. He works until the unsettled visions ease. He drops his tools where they need to be and splashes bourbon into his mug and sips it.

Tony's focus on him sharpens, the eyes assessing him against some invisible chart. If he drinks too much, Tony will slip away as silently as he came. He's done it before and Gibbs wonders what the younger man would do if he made him stay after that limit. Would that break him apart, or open up the damaged parts for repair. "Tony," he says softly, "go to bed." He means, go curl up on my bed and I'll tuck you in when you fall asleep. The eyes are too sharp though, the pain he sees there too raw.

"Not yet, boss," the soft voice responds. Gibbs almost nods to himself in confirmation. He wonders how Tony knows when he needs these nights. Why he offers himself up as a project when Gibbs doesn't even know he's looking for one. He takes the bottom two stairs in one step and soon enough he's close enough to touch. Tony shies away, anger and fear in his eyes. Gibbs slows. It's evidence of a sort that he doesn't want to think about. He can't understand why people hurt their children. He'd have died to protect his daughter. He'd die to protect Tony too, but they don't talk about that. He strokes Tony's cheek feeling the beginning of stubble there. He strokes through the soft hair, soothing away the fear that lingers with the smell of alcohol.

He looks at Tony's face, studying the lines of stress that gather at the edges of his eyes, and the way he bites his lip when he's forcing himself to be still. Tony is kinetic motion and it's strange to see him like this - still and contemplative. He tries his best to let Gibbs touch him, get close to him. It's touching to see that faith. "You're tired, Tony." It's strange, he thinks, to call him Tony. But it feels right.

"Yes, but not sleepy." Because Tony can't lie to him, never could. That's why he trusts him, allows him here, in this space that's always been his alone. None of his other subordinates dared to come here uninvited. Not even Stan, who maybe, might have had a chance if he'd tried.

"Ah," Gibbs answers, because he thinks Tony needs to hear something. He strokes him. There's no other time he can do this, just touch, examine, memorize Tony's skin. He can't help but touch him on these nights, to reassure himself that he won't lose him to some nameless fear. He wants to wrap him in soft cotton and hide him away for safe-keeping to keep those fragile edges on his smile from getting chipped. Tony's eyes close, breaking the circuit between them and Gibbs knows there's still something wrong. He needs something more.

"Come on, Tony, up. Did you eat dinner?" He keeps his voice soft, and no one from the office would recognize the tone. Tony pulls himself up carefully, like he's going to break and Gibbs can see his ankle's bothering him again. The cop doesn't open his eyes, following the subtle direction of Gibb's hand on his back better than any dance partner ever has. Gibbs isn't the best cook on the planet, but he can manage basic food and that's all either of them will need tonight. He can feel Tony's eyes on him while he works and makes sure to keep his back straight even though he's tired. He has to be strong right now. Later, curled up on the bed he can relax, but Tony needs to see him strong, unbroken. Too soon the food is gone. "Come on."

"Boss?" The word is hesitant, asking something neither of them dares to say out-loud.

"I'm putting you to bed, Tony." He feels the smile in his voice and that seems to be enough of an answer. He hands the younger man his sweats and urges him towards the bathroom. Tony curls up on the bed while Gibbs does all the little things that make up his night routine. He locks the front door and checks to make sure his gun is loaded. Tony's is sitting on the nightstand and it makes Gibbs smile. Normally, he'd put his under his pillow, but tonight he puts his gun on the other side of the nightstand. He settles on the bed and almost instantly Tony cuddles against him. He strokes the bare skin of the young man's back, tracing the lines of his muscles, memorizing where they run and what scars bisect them.

He doesn't know what to think on nights like this. He doesn't know if he can make the offer and have Tony stay permanently. The green eyes peer up at him, offering him whatever he wants, but Gibbs knows that it's not time yet. There's still too many rough patches to be sanded down and breaks to be mended before he can take that or go that far. It's enough to know that it's his when he wants it. "Go to sleep," he orders. The green eyes close immediately and tension flows out of the tense muscles. Gibbs closes his eyes and strokes, knowing that in the morning things will be normal and neither of them will ever mention it. But he'll be sane for another day and tonight he won't dream of her face. It's a start.


NCIS Index