‘You gonna build another one?’ Tony asks. He is sitting on the steps to Gibbs’ basement, a bottle of beer in one hand and a slice of pizza in the other. It’s late, almost midnight on a day which, on the one-to-ten weirdness scale, rates an easy eleven. Who could have predicted that an otherwise ordinary day would end in helping his boss burn a boat? Still, it beat hell out of watching re-runs of ‘Jackass’.
Gibbs allows his gaze to drift across the empty space where only the voids in the sawdust remain to mark where the boat had stood. He takes a bite of pizza and chews for a moment, thinking, then washes it down with the cold brew. ‘Never say ‘never’,’ he intones.
Tony snorts. ‘That’s – profound.’
‘I thought so.’
‘So... will you?’
Gibbs does this thing, a little roll of his shoulders that usually signifies he is not completely happy with the thread of a conversation. ‘Maybe. If I ever find a good enough reason.’
‘Which would be..?’
He doesn’t expect an answer but the smile that he glimpses at the corner of Gibbs’ mouth is reassuring. There may be more boats built in this basement, but Tony doesn’t think they will be named after anymore women. Gibbs got burned with Lieutenant Colonel Hollis Mann and it will be a long time before he walks that route again.
Gibbs drains the bottle, blotting his lips on the back of his hand. ‘So...’ he says. ‘What about you?’
The question catches Tony off guard. ‘Me?’
‘Well yeah, DiNozzo. You see anyone else down here?’
The whisper of sarcasm is wonderfully familiar and only now does he realise how much he has missed it. As he had once told McGee, Gibbs wasn’t Gibbs when he was being ‘nice’. Yet still he drags his feet, avoiding an answer and finding something interesting to scrutinise in the dust instead.
Gibbs sighs. ‘I want to know if you meant what you told the director, about never going deep cover again.’
‘Yeah, Tony. That.’
Oddly enough, Tony has been asking himself the same thing, but so far he has been unable to reach a decision. He has been undercover many times in the past, in situations more dangerous and high-profile, but never before has he put so much of himself into the part. Never has he risked so much for a case, both in terms of his own safety and at the cost of a relationship that mattered as much as the one he has with Gibbs.
Had with Gibbs. A lot of things have changed in the last year and he’s no longer certain what kind of relationship he has with Gibbs.
‘Right now – yes, I think I do.
From Gibbs’ reaction he guesses it’s the right answer. ‘And the next time Jen comes up with a crazy idea like that you come to me first. Understood?’
‘As long as you don’t retire again and leave me hanging, Boss.’ It is said without malice and with the hint of an affectionate grin, but Gibbs has the grace to look embarrassed.
‘No more retirements,’ he promises. ‘They want me to go they’ll have to kick me out.’
‘Now that’s something I’d pay to see,’ he teases.
Gibbs ‘hurrumph’s’ and announces that he needs coffee, squeezing past Tony on his way upstairs. With the boat gone there is nothing to do in the basement and coming down here was really nothing more than habit, so Tony follows him and they sit at the kitchen table, Gibbs with his coffee and Tony with a bowl of ice-cream, and for a few minutes it’s like old times.
And then Gibbs asks out of the blue: ‘You ever hear anything more from Jeanne?’
Killer question. Tony pauses, a spoonful of ‘cookies’n’cream’ poised halfway between the bowl and his lips. ‘Not since she told me I had to make a choice, no.’
‘You never thought of going after her?’
‘Thought about it,’ Tony shrugs, ‘but what would be the point? I mean, what could I say to her? Do I tell her the truth, or say I’ll give everything up to be with her? Do I ask her to marry me?’
‘Did you want to?’
‘Marry her?’ He sets the spoon back in the bowl, untouched. ‘I – don’t know. I think a part of me did. The part that was – lonely. But that’s not a good enough reason to marry someone – is it?’ He sees the flash of hurt in the blue eyes, the acknowledgement that that was exactly what Gibbs had done. Three times. ‘Anyhow, I made my choice.’
‘Because it was what you wanted – or because you thought there was nothing else left?’
‘Because I think – I hope – there’s still something here for me. Because I know everything I had with Jeanne was built on lies and deception,’ he admits honestly, ‘...and everything I have here is built on truth.’
‘As simple as that?’ Gibbs asks, surprised.
‘It’s all I’ve ever needed.’ All at once Gibbs’ gaze is too intense, too searching, and Tony allows his own to slip away as he begins to poke the rapidly melting ice-cream around the dish, mixing it into an unidentifiable gloop.
He had known all along that his relationship with Jeanne Benoit would come to nothing and he’d had a pretty good idea going in that it would all end in tears, yet forethought had not lessened the pain when the end had come and he still wakes in the night, wondering where she is and what she is doing.
‘So – it is over,’ Gibbs ventures.
‘As much as it ever can be. I just have to learn to deal with the fallout.’ He sighs and drags a hand through his hair. ‘I’m not like you, boss. I can’t just walk away from something like that. I can’t build a boat with her name on it and burn it!’
‘I could help, if you want.’
The simple offer makes Tony laugh softly. ‘Thanks, Boss, but... Well, it would take months – years even. I want to stop thinking about her now.’ Getting to his feet, he flushes the melted mess down the sink and sets the dish in the washer. It seems as if everything he does these days, everywhere he goes, reminds him of Jeanne, even something as simple as eating a bowl of ice-cream.
He hears Gibbs get up from the table and cross the room to the desk. Moments later he returns with a notepad and pen, placing both in front of Tony.
‘What are they for?’ Tony asks, frowning. Some days he could never be sure which way Gibbs brain was wired.
‘You’re going to write a letter. To Jeanne.’
‘Yeah, right.’ Tony snorts and pushes the pad away. ‘Even if I knew where to send it – which I don’t – she’s not gonna read it, Boss.’
A slow grin picks up the corners of Gibbs’ mouth. ‘Not the point.’ He pushes the pad back. ‘You’re going to write down all the things you wanted to say to her – all of them, Tony.’
Gibbs answers with a knowing smirk. ‘I’ll be in the basement when you’re done.’
An hour after he started writing, Tony sets the pen aside and rubs his hands over his face. It has been one of the longest hours of his life, and one of the hardest, but as he scrawled his name at the bottom of the page he had to admit he felt an odd sort of peace flow over him. Assembling his thoughts, sorting through the emotional turmoil that has been dogging him for months, had not been easy and time and time again he had found himself fighting the urge to look for others to blame. It was only when he accepted that the responsibility lay with him and he should have put a stop to the whole thing the moment he felt himself getting in too deep, that the right words came. Now, two pages and not a few tears later, he reads through the words one last time and finds that he is satisfied with the results.
Gibbs looks up at the sound of his footsteps on the stairs and there is a very real concern behind the cautious smile.
‘Good.’ He sets the tools and the oil can aside and wipes his hands on a rag. ‘C’mon...’
Curiosity piqued, Tony follows him to the bench usually reserved for the plans of whatever boat he is building. It’s clear now, save for a single sheet of drafting paper, which Gibbs immediately begins folding. Tony watches for a moment, following the easy movements of the older man’s hands, until Gibbs points to the letter and growls: ‘Well, what are you waiting for? Get folding.’
His fingers feel clumsy at first as he tries to mimic the complex folds but Gibbs is patient, pausing every so often to allow him to catch up. Tony can imagine him doing that will Kelly, the two of them absorbed in some task, oblivious to everything around them, and he envies them because he knows it is something he will never experience for himself, either as a father or as a son.
It’s the touch against his cheek that coaxes him back to the task and he realises that it’s Gibbs’ thumb he can feel stroking across his skin, spreading a fine film of moisture. Funny, he hadn’t realised he was crying.
‘We don’t have to do this, Tony.’
But Tony shakes his head. ‘It’s okay, Boss. I think I need to.’
They set to work again and even if the results of his efforts are not quite as accurate at Gibbs’ and the little paper boat has a slightly lopsided appearance, it is his first attempt so he is justifiably proud of it and writes ‘Jeanne’ carefully around the prow with the thick black pen that Gibbs hands him.
‘Okay... What now?’ he asks.
Once again Gibbs beckons and Tony follows. It’s dark in the back yard, but Gibbs knows every inch of the place blindfold and Tony trusts him to lead the way, following the beam of light from the flashlight he carries.
There is an old barbecue tray full of kindling on the grill and Tony finally understands what Gibbs is trying to do. His ‘boat’ may not have taken months to build, is not made of wood that has been lovingly planed and sanded, but he has put as much of himself into writing those words as Gibbs did into each of the boats he has built and burned.
Calmly, he places the paper boat on the tray, but before he can dip into his pocket for a match, Gibbs own Zippo lighter is pressed into his hand. Tony always knew he carried one, but it was only when Gibbs was in the hospital and Tony had charge of his personal effects that he finally got to read the inscription: To My Daddy, Happy Birthday. Love Kelly. Somehow, using it for this task lends a whole new weight to the ceremony.
It doesn’t take long for the flames to start licking around the boat, scorching the paper and turning the words – all the things Tony had wanted to say to Jeanne but never could – into ashes. In that moment a breath of a breeze sweeps across the yard and whisks the last scraps of paper high into the air, where they flare brightly one last time before falling back to earth in a rain of sparks. And as suddenly as it began, it’s over.
Tony shoves his trembling hands deep into his pockets and turns to look at Gibbs, meeting the intent gaze and greeting it with a smile. ‘Thanks, Boss.’
A simple nod acknowledges the sentiment. ‘You’re welcome, Tony.’
Back in the kitchen Gibbs brews a fresh pot of coffee, which they share as they lean against the counter, standing shoulder to shoulder. Tony feels as if a weight has been lifted from him and when he thinks about Jeanne he finds he can do so without the self-hatred that has been such a part of his life this year.
‘I think I get it now,’ he tells Gibbs. ‘About the boats and... the wives.’
Gibbs stares into his coffee, unable to meet Tony’s gaze as he says softly: ‘I did love them... for a time at least. In the beginning. But it was never enough.’
‘For them?’ Tony asks. Gibbs shakes his head.
‘It was the same with me and Jeanne.’ He sets the cup on the counter and turns to look at Gibbs. ‘Do you mind?’
‘That you were in love with her?’ He shrugs. ‘I didn’t, until I realised I was... losing you to her. What?’ he asked, seeing the shadow of something cross Tony’s face.
‘Nothing,’ he lies, then: ‘Just... I never started thinking seriously about Jeanne until I started to think I was losing you to your colonel.’
‘Hollis Mann was not my colonel! I was just...’ He snaps his lips over whatever he was about to say, but that was okay because Tony had a pretty good idea. Something along the lines of ‘scratching an itch’, if he knew his Gibbs’ as well as he thought he did.
His Gibbs... The familiarity of the thought makes him ache.
‘What?’ Gibbs demands again, but Tony only laughs and shakes his head.
‘Just wondering how the two of us managed to screw things up the way we did.’ He looks at Gibbs and, on impulse, stretches out his hand and runs his fingers through the cropped silver hair. ‘You think there’s a chance we could find a way to put things right again?’
Gibbs leans into the touch, rubbing his cheek against Tony’s palm. ‘In time, maybe.’
‘Patience never has been your strong point, has it, DiNozzo?’
‘Oh, I can do patience – when I have to. They say the best things in life are worth waiting for.’
‘That a fact?’ Gibbs’ voice is pitched low and sexy, just the way Tony remembers it from back before.
Time slows, and all at once they are a heartbeat away from a kiss. Tony wants so much to taste Jethro’s mouth again, to feel those strong arms close around him, defending him against all the other Jeannes in the world. It would be easy, so easy... But their timing is off. It’s too late and too soon, and his head is buzzing with so many images from the past and so many wishes for the future. In the end he moves away, hoping Gibbs understands the reasons behind his reluctance.
‘ It’s late,’ he says. ‘I gotta go. Got this real cranky boss hates it when I’m not in on time.’
Finally he says something to make Gibbs to laugh, the sound of it ringing in his ears as he walks down the hall. It’s the most beautiful sound he has heard in a long time.
‘You ever stop to think,’ Gibbs says, ‘that he gets cranky because he misses you when you’re not around?’
The mild confession surprises Tony; Gibbs is usually reluctant to display such sentiment. ‘Really?’ he asks, is answered with a nod that leaves him feeling warm and fuzzy inside. That’s something else he hasn’t felt in a long time. ‘Wanna tell me some of the other things he misses?’ he asks.
‘Ask me again on Sunday.’
‘Lunch with Ann, remember..?’ He grasps Tony by the shoulders and turns him towards the door. ‘Go home, Tony. I’ll see you in the morning.’
‘Bright and early,’ Tony agrees, grinning broadly but making no attempt to leave.
‘Goodnight, Tony.’ A helping hand eases him towards the exit.
‘G’night, Jethro...’ he says in his best ‘John-boy Walton’ impression.
Gibbs swats him.
Some things never change.