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by: ksl (Send Feedback)

Series: - No Series - #1
Chapters: 015 Word Count: 115761
Rating: MATURE
Category(ies): Alternate Universe
Pairing(s): - No Pairing -
Episode(s): 5-07 Requiem, 5-08 Designated Target, 5-09 Lost and Found, 5-10 Corporal Punishment
Summary: After the episode "requeim" Tony does some thinking about whether or not he wants to stay with NCIS.

Author Notes: There is a cross over with a short lived cop show from the 80's...Houston Knights. It does have a gay couple, but no pairing with any of the cast of NCIS. There is also a brief mention of characters from The Magnificent Seven.

Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15

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chapter 1

“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.” Peter F. Drucker.

Tony sighed softly, settling himself into his couch, relieved to finally be warm and dry. He set his stocking feet on the coffee table, stretching out his legs. He’d tossed the prescription for painkillers the Doctor at the clinic had insisted on giving him, opting to deal with the pain in his wrist, shoulder and chest in a more traditional fashion---an ice pack and a well aged single malt scotch.

Tony sipped the amber liquid, enjoying the smooth smoky flavor. The faint burn felt good on his abused throat. He sighed again, settling the gelled ice pack onto his sprained right wrist. He was glad the x–rays had revealed it wasn’t broken. Wearing a heavy cast for six weeks was not his idea of a good time. And the muscle pull in his shoulder meant it would hurt for a bit, but was fine in a few days. No need for a sling or anything else. He’d stopped coughing several hours ago and he hoped that meant by tomorrow his chest wouldn’t hurt any more.

Breathing for himself had been hard enough to do after the shock of leaping, not once but twice, into bone chilling water. Having to breathe for another had been exhausting. Tony was absently grateful he’d upped the number of miles he ran every day and added weight training to his routine. It was the only way he could have had enough air, strength and stamina to break out a window, forcibly remove the steering wheel, and pull Maddie Tyler and Gibbs from the submerged car. Not to mention doing CPR on both until they were breathing on their own.

His lips curled into a bitter smile. Of course all that exercise hadn’t really been undertaken with a situation like this in mind. It was more a way to pass time that had once been spent with the lovely Dr. Jeanne Benoit. It was a way to keep himself busy, trying not to think about how little respect, concern or consideration he’d gotten from his team in recent months…Gibbs in particular.

His car was blown up, and he’d been presumed dead for several hours, but not one teammate had welcomed him back or expressed any relief he was still alive---at least not to him. They may have commiserated while he was dealing with René and Jeanne, but all Tony saw was them making short work of raiding his desk, stealing his personal possessions. That would have been okay if Tony thought they’d taken something to remember him by. But they’d taken things they’d envied, not things representative of him. McGee had taken his American Pie coffee mug. Ziva had gotten his letter opener. And Ducky had walked off with his Might Mouse stapler.

Tony’s shook his head. Kate’s desk had sat untouched for weeks, a shrine to her. Gibbs had defended her place, only giving way when Ziva and the Director forced the issue. When it came to Tony…Gibbs clearly didn’t hold him in the same regard. His teammates had picked his desk clean before his ‘body’ was even in the ground. And it was a safe bet Gibbs would have had a replacement settled in to Tony’s desk in less than a week.

It wasn’t that he expected Gibbs to be broken up over his demise. Not really. Gibbs’ reaction to the death of a colleague had always been to find the bastard who’d killed them and take him or her down. Gibbs had obviously given Tony the same consideration because he and the team clearly had been working the case. But somehow that wasn’t as reassuring as Tony thought it would be. It was what they would have done for anyone. It was the least they could do for him.

Tony nodded to himself, sipping his drink again. That was the problem. They hadn’t gone above and beyond the call for him. Not that they really had to because he hadn’t been killed. He wasn’t truly dead, but part of him wondered if they would have if he’d really died in that explosion. Would Abby have played a dirge in her lab? Would McGee have talked to his corpse like he had Kate’s? Would Gibbs morph into ‘pod Gibbs’ again and been nice to everyone? Would Ziva have been remotely at a loss for words for even a few moments? Would Ducky have waxed poetic about him?

Tony’s grip on his glass tightened. Hell, I didn’t even get a fucking thank you for saving Gibbs’ life, Tony thought bitterly. Gibbs hadn’t even looked at him on that damn dock. Those piercing blue eyes had stayed trained on Maddie the entire time. And the rest of his teammates hadn’t seemed terribly grateful either for his efforts to save their boss. Given how they’d pined away for Gibbs when the man was in Mexico for four months some show of gratitude wouldn’t have been remiss.

Tony sighed heavily. Gibbs had given him a ration of shit for lying to him…in that quiet, understated way that always made Tony feel all of two inches tall….but the former Marine obviously thought nothing of going off on his own and nearly dying. Evidently it was okay for him to leave his team out of the loop, but not be left out. Tony grimaced. He hated double standards.

“The fucking hypocrite,” he muttered. He winced reflexively. He’d never honestly criticized Gibbs before. It felt weird, and was oddly liberating.

And if this had been the only thing Tony would never have even considered judging his boss now. Gibbs was certainly entitled to hold the memory of his daughter sacred, to have the chance to protect Kelly’s childhood friend the way he hadn’t been able to protect his daughter. But this was far from the only time when Gibbs had kept Tony out of the loop. The man made a regular habit of it, doing it whenever he saw the need and never explaining why. And it was definitely not the only time Tony’s teammates words and actions made him doubt his choice to not take the job in Spain, to rethink his decision not chase after Jeanne.

Tony shook his head. There was the missing baby case. He knew his teammates had gotten off on making him call everyone of the dead con woman’s marks; they’d obviously gotten some sort of satisfaction out of his trying to justify and explain her lying to so many men. Tony hadn’t been immune to the irony.

Gibbs had no doubt assigned him the task as a punishment. He was under orders to keep his team in the dark about the La Grenouille. Gibbs hadn’t even been in the States when the whole thing started. But clearly Gibbs saying he understood and his actually understanding were not the same thing. Tony snarled silently, angry at the injustice of it. Hell, he wasn’t even trusted enough now to just step out for a damn dentist appointment.

And his being right about Michael Arnett’s wife didn’t warrant any recognition of skill or ability. No, that all fell to Abby. Natch. There were days when Tony really hated her for being Gibbs’ favorite. All Tony in the way of attention ever got was a head smack for spreading rumors.

Tony closed his eyes, flinching at the memory. It would have been nice if McGee and Ziva had gotten similar smacks. They’d done their own share of gossip spreading. Of course, Gibbs ignored that. Truly hard head smacks were obviously reserved for Tony. Fair play at NCIS was evidently something that only occurred in fairy tales.

It hadn’t mattered that Tony was able to explain Gibbs’ gut feeling their delivery boy was really their ‘Eraser’ either. It was so easy to dismiss his insight because it was courtesy of a movie. The same way they’d dismissed his figuring out how to get Gibbs and a dozen teenage hostages out of a classroom.

Tony rolled his eyes. “Like McGee or Ziva had any inspiration to lay claim to.”

He took another sip of his drink. The real crowning moment though, what had him rethinking his place on the team had happened out to sea on a ghost ship. There was nothing like being told that if he was dying, it would be okay with Gibbs as long as he did it quietly. Maybe he had overreacted on the Chimera, but then Tony thought he had every right to be a little twitchy. He’d nearly died of the fucking plague. He’d almost been blown up…several times. He’d been kidnapped. Drugged. Shot at. Pushed out of plane. Chained to a cold blooded murderer. Nearly been run over and almost fell several stories to an unforgiving concrete floor. Even cats only got nine lives. How long was he to assume his luck would hold out? Even his life insurance salesman was rethinking what sort of policy Tony should have.

Tony set his now empty glass on the end table, eyes staring blankly at nothing. He’d sat on that pier---the hero of the hour---soaking wet and shivering, watching Gibbs and Maddie breathing, chests rising in falling in sync. He should have felt elated, relieved, grateful…anything. But mostly what he felt was cold and tired.

It was only after the paramedics had shown up he was aware of how much his wrist and shoulder hurt. Everything it had taken to save Gibbs and Maddie had cost him. His sprained wrist, strained shoulder, and sore chest and throat were testament to that.

He hadn’t gone to the hospital with them. Even knowing he was hurt Tony hadn’t been willing to ride in the ambulance. No, he had stayed behind and secured the scene. He’d done his damn job because that was what Gibbs would have expected; it was what Tony expected of himself. No matter what happened, he did his job.

And it wasn’t like anyone asked him if he was okay. All the attention had been focused on Gibbs and Maddie. Which, given how close they’d come to dying, Tony didn’t honestly begrudge them. But it would have been nice if Ziva, McGee, Ducky or even Palmer had bothered to give him a second glance. If they’d done more than comment on his dripping all over the crime scene, he might have admitted to just how much he hurt. But they didn’t, and he hadn’t. And that was that.

Tony had left the scene when everything was wrapped up. He drove himself to a local clinic near his apartment rather than go to the closest hospital where Gibbs and Maddie had been taken. It was ironically the same hospital Jeanne used to work at. Better to avoid running into her coworkers. They all knew him as Tony DiNardo. And god only knew what Jeanne might have told them about him and the real reason he was dating her. He didn’t want to have to deal with pissed off colleagues of hers who were upset with him for breaking her heart. It wasn’t like she was the only one who’d gotten hurt. He really had loved her. Whether anyone else believed that or not.

Tony picked up his cell phone. He dialed the hospital’s number, smiling wryly at his still having the number memorized. Getting an update on Gibbs and Maddie over the phone was preferable to going in person.

He was sure Jenny would be there, all doe-eyed and concerned about Gibbs. Tony rolled his eyes. He hoped like hell he never had to work for or with a former lover if that was how they all reacted. Sex kitten one minute, bitch the next. Maybe it was just Jenny, but Tony would rather never find out for sure.

And if she wasn’t there, it would be Abby. Tony loved her like a sister, but there were times when her absolute faith in Gibbs grated on his nerves. Every time he’d seen Gibbs’ picture on her monitor when the man had been in Mexico, Tony had wanted to scream, “He left us!! Don’t you get it! We weren’t enough for the selfish son of a bitch!! We never were, and we never will be!! Your hero has feet of clay. Get over it!!” He never did, of course, in some ways because Tony wasn’t sure if it was Abby he’d be yelling that at or himself. Right now, he just didn’t want to risk having to see her tear streaked face, knowing she probably hadn’t even shed one for him.

He didn’t want to deal with Ziva or McGee either. They were no doubt pissed he’d sent them to follow one lead while he took care of another. He didn’t want to deal with their anger or annoyance or whatever the hell they might be feeling. He’d done his best as acting team leader and he did his best this time too. If that wasn’t enough for them, that was just too damn bad.

The front desk told him what he wanted to know. Both patients were doing fine. They’d be released in the morning...or rather later today. The LED on his DVD player told him it was two in the morning. He hadn’t noticed how late, or really how early it was.

It was definitely time for him to go to bed. Tony rose stiffly to his feet, groaning as muscles protested. He should never have sat down.

As he carried his glass and melting ice pack to the kitchen, Tony noticed a letter on the counter. He’d gotten it a few days ago and hadn’t had time to read it. He smiled, his first genuine one since Maddie Tyler had shown up at the office almost two days ago.

His cousin, Joseph LaFiamma, was the only family he had who regularly stayed in touch. Their friendship had been forged when Tony was ten and Joe was eight. They’d both recently lost a parent; Tony’s mother and Joe’s father had died within days of one another only a few months before the annual family reunion. It was then that they found a certain understanding and comfort with one another that no one else seemed to be willing or able to provide. They’d bonded over a mutual sense of loss, and from that point on they were best friends.

The distance between Long Island and Chicago was bridged with letters and monthly phone calls. The time between reunions and family holiday gatherings was spent planning what they’d do when they saw one another again.

They were like two peas in a pod. It really didn’t come as a surprise to anyone in their families that they’d both end up following similar paths. Although, most everyone expected Tony to go into business with his father, and Joe was supposed to become an attorney like his father had been before he was killed in a drive by shooting.

Joe’s branch of the family was heavily involved in the Chicago mafia. A fact that made life more than a little difficult for Joe when he decided, like Tony, to become a cop. Ultimately, Joe had been disowned, and forced to leave Chicago to avoid being taken out by a rival family in a mob war that had gotten ugly in a hurry.

The DiNozzos were legitimate business people, but they didn’t mind investing LaFiamma money in their enterprises. Money was their common bond—more so than blood---they didn’t care how it was made or where it came from. All that mattered to them was how to acquire more wealth and power along the way. To Tony, even at a young age, it seemed like most of his family only saw each other as a stepping stone to bigger and better.

For Tony and Joe, their relationship was never about business, networking or money. The only thing they’d wanted from each other was someone to share things with, to enjoy life with. They were more like brothers than cousins.

When Tony was officially but quietly disinherited at the age of twelve, most of his extended family simply acted as he’d never been born. They rightly saw his father’s action as more than a temporary discipline measure and more of a prelude to his being permanently disowned.

Joe’s reaction had been anything but a cold shoulder. Rather than shut him out, Joe sent Tony a portion of his allowance every week, despite Tony telling him it wasn’t necessary. When sending it back just meant Joe would send more the following week, Tony gave up and put the money in his piggy bank for safe keeping. It came in handy later when he was shipped off to military school at fifteen. He used the savings to sneak in calls to Joe whenever he felt sad or lonely. It had never even occurred to Tony to call home at those times. His father was rarely at the house, and when he was there he wasn’t sober. Most of Tony’s many step-mothers didn’t even know who he was much less why he’d be calling. It would have been a waste of time and money to bother calling anyone other than Joe.

Later when Joe had dropped out of law school rather than become a mouthpiece for his uncle Mikey’s organization that everyone in the family assumed he would be, Tony had put him up in his place in Peoria. He gave Joe a safe harbor until he could figure out how to tell his mother he’d quit school. Tony wasn’t sure if his own burgeoning career in law enforcement had swayed Joe, or if his cousin had already considered it an option before he’d come to stay with Tony. Either way, the rough road they’d opted to take, so contrary to their families’ expectations and demands, was made easier by their mutual support of one another.

Tony reached for the letter. He opened it and smiled reading about Joe’s life in Houston. His cousin had been there as long as Tony had been at NCIS. He had hated it initially, but over time Joe had settled into what was the sort of good life Tony had always hoped his best friend would attain.

His letter was filled with good humor and genuine enthusiasm for life. There was so much simple and yet profound joy in Joe’s comments. Even has he griped about the job, the heat and humidity, the crazy drivers and the lack of culture, it was obvious Joe was happy.

Tony sighed softly, rubbing at his tired eyes. His letters back to Joe hadn’t been that upbeat in more than a year. Maybe he needed a change. Something new and different.

Tony reread the letter. It wasn’t hard to figure out that a lot of the happiness in it was directly related to an upcoming four year anniversary. Joe and Levon Lundy had been together as partners for longer than that, but hadn’t become lovers until two years after they’d started working together.

Tony had known for years that Joe played for both teams so his forming a long term relationship with a man hadn’t come as a surprise. Tony was actually the first person Joe had come out to. At eighteen, finding out Joe was bisexual had rocked Tony’s world for a bit, but Joe was still the same kid he’d always known. He wasn’t going to lose his best friend by being stupid. They’d been through too much to let that one little detail change much. And Tony wasn’t completely sure of his own sexuality at the time. He wasn’t going to cast any stones, and he made sure Joe knew that. They’d just taken their respective revelations in stride, and come to terms with adding one more quirk to the growing list of why they were never going to be what most people considered ‘normal’.

The only thing Tony had ever cautioned his cousin about was being sure to be careful. Not just about having protected sex, that was definitely a big one, but far from the only issue. Not everyone was so accepting of an alternative life style. The last thing he wanted was for Joe to get the shit beaten out of him for being different. Tony had already had a small taste of that, and he preferred Joe never had to find out first hand how intolerant people could be.

When Joe told Tony he was in love his partner, Tony had been terrified Levon wouldn’t take it well if he found out. The man was a walking cliché…a Texas cowboy. Levon’s grandfather had been a Texas Ranger. His father had been a wildcatter working on drill rigs for years. He’d grown up attending rodeos and playing football. Levon had gone to college on a sports scholarship and married his high school sweetheart, Caroline. She’d been murdered six years later in a car bomb meant to kill Levon. Her death had been a devastating blow, one that had initially worried Tony when Joe had started working with Levon.

Joe’s initial reports about his partner hadn’t been entirely complimentary. The man had definitely lost his spark and drive when it came to police work. He was less inclined to push, didn’t seem willing to take any chances and Tony was worried Levon might not be willing to back Joe’s play if he stepped out too far on a limb. But working with Joe, and the challenge he consistently presented, was obviously something Levon had needed to get back to the land of the living. And he was a stabilizing influence in Joe’s life; Levon grounded Joe when being completely cut off from a family he’d loved deeply might have broken him.

Joe hadn’t given Tony all the details on how he and Levon ultimately went from being partners and friends to lovers, but it was obvious they were good for one another. Their relationship was rock solid, enduring everything from adjusting to living together to nearly dying once or twice.

Tony liked Levon a lot. He was easy to relate to and generally accepting nature made him easy to get along with. It didn’t hurt that they had a bit in common. A mother who died when they were young and being raised by an alcoholic father was just the beginning. They had both gone to college on athletic scholarships and had both missed out on a professional career due to injury. They both had been inspired to enter careers in law enforcement by people they’d held in high esteem. And they both had better than average eyesight, hearing and sense of smell.

Tony smiled as he got to the end of Joe’s letter. Included in Levon’s astonishingly elegant handwriting was a brief note inviting him to visit whenever he got the chance. It was an open invitation that Levon never failed to include.

Tony frowned, thinking about how long it had been since he’d seen Joe and Levon. Too damn long he decided. He nodded to himself. The Director had given the team the next few days off. It wasn’t like he even had to take any vacation time. Not that it would have mattered if he had to use up some leave. He hadn’t taken a vacation day almost eighteen months---since Gibbs had run off to Mexico. And while he was in Houston, maybe he’d do a little research on job prospects.

He didn’t want to work on a team that seemed to have little respect for him, and cared even less. They hadn’t thought of him as their boss when he was in charge and they obviously didn’t think much of him now. And he didn’t want to answer to a boss who had a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ mentality. His innate sense of right and wrong could only tolerate so much hypocrisy.

Tony might be willing to bend a few rules now and again for the greater good, but he’d never actually broken them. He was one of the good guys, damn it. He wasn’t the sort to use a sniper rifle to even a score, or tamper with evidence in an ongoing investigation. While he couldn’t prove Gibbs had actually done those things, he was certain enough that he had to make Tony feel a bit uneasy whenever he stopped to think about it. And if Mike Franks was Gibbs’ roll model…it made sense that he would see nothing wrong with crossing those lines. Franks clearly was the sort who would beat someone down in an interrogation room, shoot an unarmed suspect, and saw nothing wrong with letting justice take a back seat to vengeance.

And he definitely didn’t want to find himself working for the Director on another unsanctioned undercover operation. Being used for what amounted to a personal vendetta disguised as a patriotic endeavor left a bitter taste in his mouth.

Tony neatly folded the letter, putting it back in the envelope. He’d call Joe and Levon in a few hours---after he got some sleep and about the time they usually started their day. By then he should have his flight booked. Getting a flight on short notice might be expensive, but Tony figured he could write it off as an investment in his future. It would be money well spent.
***************** ************************ *******************
More out of habit than any real need, Tony turned his cell phone back on as his plane taxied into the gate at Houston’s Hobby International Airport. Glancing at the display, he was genuinely surprised to see one missed call. Joe and Levon knew when his plane was due to arrive, so it wasn’t like they need to cal and confirm. But it was possible they’d called to let him know they were running late or had gotten pulled in on a case. Tony could easily rent a car or catch a cab if need be.

He arched an eyebrow when the caller ID showed Ducky’s name and number. It couldn’t be about Gibbs or Maddie. Tony had called the hospital before boarding his plane just after two PM. They’d already been released.

Tony checked the message. He smiled reflexively at the stewardess as he stepped off the plane, phone to his ear, towing his carry on behind him.

“Anthony…I must apologize. I was so wrapped up in Jethro’s near demise, I never thought to inquire as to your state of health. Leaping into that water, far from pristine I’m sure, not to mention decidedly chilly, was risky for anyone. More so for someone who has survived the plague. As a doctor, albeit one who works predominantly with the dead, it was decidedly unprofessional of me to neglect you.”

Tony snorted delicately. Unprofessional? When had their relationship ever been strictly professional?

“Professional consideration aside, it was certainly inexcusable not to ask after the well being of a friend. I really am sorry about that, my dear boy.”

Tony smiled. Ducky really was a good guy. A little long winded at times, but definitely one of the nicer people Tony had worked with.

His smile faded at Ducky’s next statement. “I’d expected to see you at the hospital.”

Tony wasn’t sure if there was censure in the older man’s voice or not. Voice mail tended to gloss over the sort of nuances that could be heard in person or face to face. So it could have been concern, but Tony was fairly confident Ducky had meant the statement as some sort of chastise.

Tony scowled. Was he supposed to be there? He’d already done all he could do for Gibbs and Maddie at the dock. And they’d only been admitted for one night. With everyone else there, Tony seriously doubted anyone other than Ducky even noticed his absence.

Any time Tony had been recovering from injury or illness, after the initial concern, Gibbs had never stopped by to check on him. Why the hell should he be expected to do more than Gibbs would have done in his place? They all thought Gibbs walked on water, so doing what Gibbs would do should be good enough to satisfy them.

If Ducky hadn’t expected him to check on Gibbs, then what else could it have been? He wasn’t concerned for Tony’s well being at the scene. Although mildly hurt from his actions, Tony had been very careful not to show any sign of injury. By the time Ducky had placed his call nearly 24 hours had elapsed. If Tony had been seriously injured or gotten sick Ducky’s concern would have been too little, too late.

“Please call when you get my message. I would be relieved to hear that you are indeed all right.”

Tony rolled his eyes, and pushed the button to delete the message. As he walked through the airport he debated whether or not to return Ducky’s call. If he didn’t call, would Ducky up the ante and do more than just call again? Would he swing by his place to check on Tony personally? He might, but Tony doubted Ducky would go that far. Still….it was better to head the ME off at the pass than have him get Ziva or McGee to break in to Tony’s apartment out of misplaced concern.

Tony decided on a quick text message. It would meet the spirit of the older man’s request, and let him know Tony was just fine, without having to deal with any other questions Ducky might ask. He certainly didn’t intend to tell Ducky where he was or why. And he wasn’t going to explain why he wasn’t at the hospital to hold everyone’s hand.

Tony grimaced. Not one of them had looked to him for security or reassurance before. There was no reason for them to do so now. They had Gibbs for that.

Tony turned off his phone, determined to ignore it until he was back in D.C. He had three days, and the only thing he wanted to seriously think about was whether or not he was staying at NCIS. Maybe he wouldn’t go back at all. A mover could pack his things easily enough. It was how he’d gotten his possessions from Baltimore in the first place. Gibbs hadn’t given him more than a day to report for duty. He’d spent his first month at NCIS living out of a low budget motel until he could find a place to live and get his stuff delivered.

Tony made it to baggage claim, and started looking for Joe and Levon. Spotting Joe was rarely hard to do. Like Tony, he was above average in height, standing four and a half inches over six feet. His hair dark black hair and olive complexion were offset by a pair of turquoise blue eyes. He worked out regularly, and it gave him a sculpted physique that bespoke of strength and endurance without looking bulky. And also like Tony, Joe tended to favor expensive, designer clothing. All in all, Joe looked more like a male model than a cop.

Levon was only an inch or so shorter than Joe, but since he normally wore cowboy boots it wasn’t immediately noticeable. His curly blond hair was usually hidden under a white Stetson. Contrary to the typical clean cut ‘cowboy’ persona, Levon let his hair grow long enough to touch his shoulders. His eyes were a striking shade of brown that reminded Tony of the Cognac his father liked to serve to important clients. He was lanky and lean, his form suggesting more wiry strength and flexibility than raw power. Blue jeans and a button down shirt were practically a uniform for Levon. Tony couldn’t remember ever seeing him in anything else.

Hearing his name called out, Tony turned and grinned. “Joey!” In a few quick, long legged strides they closed the distance. Joe wrapped Tony in a fierce hug that bordered on being painful. Tony basked in the warmth and affection being so freely offered, even as he struggled to catch his breath. He’d missed this. Missed Joey.

“Might want ta ease up a bit there, Joe,” Levon’s soft drawl came from Tony’s left, amusement coloring his voice. “Gonna crack a few ribs on the kid if you aren’t careful.”

Tony couldn’t help laughing at being called a kid. He was two years older than Joe and only a year younger than Levon. It hardly made him a child.

Joe stepped back, but didn’t entirely release his hold on Tony. His grin was bright and joyful. “Damn, it is good to see you.”

Tony couldn’t help but grin back. “Good to see you too.”

Joe’s blue eyes shifted to his partner, his expression smug. “Told you I could find him.”

Levon shrugged one shoulder. “Still say it would have been faster to do it my way.”

Levon’s solution to finding people in a crowded airport was to simply have them paged. While Tony gave him points for efficiency, it wasn’t exactly a subtle way to track someone down. But he understood Levon’s aversion to crowds and a desire not to be forced to wade into the middle of a herd of humanity if he didn’t have to.

“Cowboy,” Tony greeted Levon, using the same nickname Joe often used, heading off what he knew was a familiar argument between the two. It no longer had any heat to it, but like a lot of long-term couples they liked to rehash it now and again.

He held out his hand. The blond wasn’t quite as physical in his displays of affection, at least when it came to anyone other than Joe, so Tony didn’t try to hug him the way he had Joe. Instead of a traditional handshake, he gripped Tony’s forearm and pulled him in for a quick chest bump and a light pat on the shoulder.

“Good ta see ya, Slick.”

Levon had dubbed Tony ‘slick’ not long after they first met. Tony still wasn’t sure if it was in reference to his being a smooth operator or just his being a ‘city slicker’. Either way, he found he didn’t mind the name. It was hard to object to something that so clearly marked him ‘family’ to Levon.

Levon gave him an assessing look; sharp eyes measuring Tony in a way that made him fight the urge to fidget. It didn’t make him feel any better when Joe and Levon traded looks, silently communicating something. He had a sneaking suspicion that all the stress of the last few months was easy to see for anyone who cared to look. Joe and Levon were the sort who would notice and worry about him. He knew there would be questions, and a lot of them---his paying an exorbitant price for the first available flight to Houston practically guaranteed they’d want to know what was wrong---he just wasn’t prepared to have to start so early into his trip.

“Relax, Slick, we’re not gonna grill ya.” Levon smiled gently. “At least not until ya settle in and eat somethin’. Looks like you could stand a good meal,” he cocked his head, giving Tony another measuring glance, “or three.”

Tony fought down a blush. He knew he’d lost some weight recently, but without a scale at his apartment, he had no idea how much. He certainly hadn’t thought it was noticeable because no one else had commented on it. But then none of his coworkers really noticed much about him these days so they weren’t exactly a good benchmark for what was obvious and what wasn’t.

“It’s been a rough couple of months.” Tony admitted.

“You said that when you called,” Joe reminded him. He casually grabbed Tony’s bag, hefting the lightweight carryon with an easy grace of someone used to lifting heavier things on a regular basis.

“I can carry—“

“Sure ya can, but he ain’t going to let you.” Levon grinned. “And when we get back to the house, Joe will be trying to stuff you full of food he’s been making since ya called. Assuming, o’ course, he don’t make you lay down and take a nap first.”

Joe glared at Levon. “You make me sound like some sort of mother hen.”

“You are a mother hen,” Levon rolled his eyes. “No like about it, Boy.”

Tony chuckled. He’d always enjoyed their bantering. It reminded him of verbally sparring with Kate, although her commentary often had more bite to it than what passed back and forth between Joe and Levon. And she didn’t seem to have any qualms about making comments that hit below the belt.

“How was your flight, Tony?” Joe asked.

“Not bad.” The only seats available were first class, so at least he had a little more legroom. He’d even gotten a light snack during his flight. For what the tickets cost him, he should have gotten a steak dinner, but as Joe wrapped an arm around his shoulder, Tony wasn’t sorry he’d come.

As they stepped outside, Tony wasn’t entirely surprised to see Levon’s club cab truck parked directly in front of the doors in an area reserved for immediate pickup. He shot Levon an amused look. “Abusing your authority?”

“Nope.” Levon laughed. “Didn’t even tell them we was cops.”

“You didn’t have to.” Joe shook his head. “The security guard on duty knows you. Hell he even said he owed you one. I swear to god, some days it feels like everyone you know owes you a favor, Cowboy.”

“Wasn’t like I planned it,” Levon shrugged. “I didn’t know Denny was working here today.” As he stepped around the truck to the driver’s side, Levon raised two fingers going to the brim of his hat in a casual salute to a security guard who was urging a taxi to move along. The guy returned it with a nod and a smile.

Joe put the carryon in the back seat, leaving the door open for Tony slide in next to it before he got into the front passenger seat. “You might not have known it would be him, but you knew someone was going to let you park at the curb.”

Levon gave Joe a cocky smile as he put on his sunglasses. “It pays ta be a nice guy.”

“I am a nice guy, and I never get treatment like that,” Joe retorted. “You just don’t want to admit this is some sort of ‘good ol’ boy’ thing going on.”

“You’re just sore ‘cause I said we wouldn’t need to flash our badges to park here and we didn’t.” Levon pointed a finger a Joe. “Which reminds me…you owe me a buck.”

“No I don’t.” Joe laughed. “We never shook in it.”

Levon made eye contact in the mirror with Tony. “Slick, I think your cousin is trying to welch on our bet.”

“Sounds like you might be right,” Tony agreed with a smile. “He was like that when he was little too.”

“I was not.”

“You still owe me cookies,” Tony countered. He didn’t truly think Joe still owed him anything, but it was fun to pull his chain now and again.

“Cookies?” Levon asked, arching an eyebrow.

“When we were kids we used to bet with cookies.” Tony shrugged. “Joe always had his mother’s dark chocolate chip to put up.” And they were definitely Tony’s favorites. No one made them as good as Sofia LaFiamma.

“I had Rosa’s gingersnaps to trade.” He wasn’t sure if Rosa, his father’s housekeeper and cook for nearly twenty years, ever knew why he asked her to make gingersnaps when they were not his favorite. He had a suspicion she was aware he was trading them off to Joe since she’d helped him mail packages to his cousin several times, but she never said a word.

“I don’t owe you anything.” Joe folded his arms over his chest.

“Christmas,” Tony countered smugly, reciting the year and location. “We bet on which one of the family would pass out first.”

It was usually after the younger children had been sent to bed that the alcohol flowed like water. But they’d snuck out to watch enough of the late night parties in secret to know just how drunk their relatives could get. Joe had bet on Tony’s father, but knowing how much his old man drank on a daily basis, Tony had bet on Joe’s Uncle Mario. Mario didn’t seem as prone to indulging as the others. And he clearly didn’t know how to hold his liquor if his actions later that night had been anything to go by.

“That doesn’t count.” Joe turned in his seat to face Tony more directly. “Uncle Mario didn’t pass out, he was knocked out.”

“Knocked out?” Levon asked, both eyebrows rising.

“He got into an argument with Donnie over his latest girlfriend, I think. Donnie took exception to something he said and belted Mario. He went down like a sack of potatoes.”

“Glass jaw?”

“Maybe.” Joe shrugged, turning in his seat to once more face forward. “More likely it was because Donnie was a golden gloves champion that year. He could throw one hell of a punch.”

Tony shook his head, remembering the event. Picking a fight with Donnie clearly hadn’t been one of Mario’s better decisions.

“He was still the first to hit the floor.”

“But it wasn’t because he was drunk,” Joe tossed over his shoulder.

“Sounds like he’d certainly had enough booze to make him stupid,” Levon commented dryly.

“And that should count.” Tony reached forward to lightly bump knuckles with Levon. They were definitely in agreement.

Joe waved a hand in dismissal. “Technicality.”

“You still owe me cookies.” Tony pretended to pout.

“Good thing I already made some then.” Joe grinned.

He has his mother’s recipe. It was one of the few things of hers he’d gotten when Sofia died. His sister had filched Sofia’s cookbook for him and sent it secretly since the rest of the family flatly refused to let him have anything to remember her by when she died. Joe couldn’t even go back to Chicago for her funeral. And while Joe loved to cook, regularly making his mother’s other favorite dishes, he rarely made the cookies. They were something Joe reserved for special occasions. Tony swallowed hard. It was nice to know his coming to visit qualified as ‘special’.

“And it’s a good thing I made a double batch.” Joe shot Levon a dark look. “Someone ate more than his fair share already.”

“Had to give them a quality taste test.” Levon smiled. He had a sweet tooth that rivaled Tony’s.

“A dozen times?”

“Hey, the first one could o’ been some sort of fluke.”

“A fluke? Not bloody damn likely.” Joe snorted. “You knew they were for Tony.”

“Didn’t know they were to pay off an old debt though.” Levon cast a quick look at Tony. “You don’t mind me eating your winnings, do ya, Slick?”

“I don’t mind, Cowboy.” Tony smiled. He was sure if he had minded, Levon would have found a way to make it up to him. It was just the way Levon was.

“It would take a stronger man than either of us to resist cookies fresh out of the oven.”


“You could just say it was your share of what Joe still owes you.”

Levon grinned. “Perfect.”

“Now wait a minute,” Joe protested, continuing to insist he didn’t owe Levon anything.

They bickered back and forth good-naturedly. The topic drifting from cookies and bets to small chores around the house not completed to choices in music and leaving wet towels on the floor. Tony smiled. Four years together should hardly qualify them as ‘old married couple’ but they certainly acted the part.

Tony sat back, eyes closing as he relaxed, letting their voices wash over him. Getting to the small ranch Levon and Joe jointly owned just outside the city would take at least an hour if not more. Traffic in Houston was never good, and it was particularly bad at this time of day.

Tony sighed, shifting to settle more fully into his leather seat. He really wanted to talk to them…but he couldn’t quite muster the energy. He needed a sounding board, people who could be at least some what objective. He wanted to talk about everything that had happened in the past few months, and his options with people who would have his best interest at heart.

At the moment, he didn’t feel any pressing need to do anything more than relax and enjoy feeling safe and comfortable. Too many nights with too little rest were catching up with him. Without anything to actively engage him, Tony was hard pressed not to let the warmth of the sun and steady motion of the vehicle lull him to sleep.

He didn’t know Levon’s earlier joke about forcing him to take a nap hadn’t been entirely meant to tease Joe. When they’d seen how tired and hollow-eyed he’d looked in the airport, they had mutely agreed to make sure he got some rest. They expected him to fall asleep, even going so far as to deliberately push the conversation in a direction that didn’t require his input and lowering their voices so it would be that much easier for him to doze off. Levon had already planned on taking a longer route home to give Tony more time to nap.

As Tony nodded off, he missed the looks that passed back and forth between Joe and Levon. Whatever the problem was, they had already agreed when he’d first called to tell them he was coming, Tony would not have to deal with it alone.

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