Life Preserver

by: BuffyAngel68 (Send Feedback)

Series: - No Series - #1
Chapters: 004 Word Count: 9571
Rating: MATURE
Character(s): Jethro Gibbs, Tony DiNozzo, Abby Sciuto, Timothy McGee
Category(ies): Hurt/Comfort, Episode Related, Angst/Drama, Pre-Slash
Pairing(s): Tony/McGee
Episode(s): 1-00 Pilot
Summary: Immediately following the events of "Probie" Tim is floundering and he won't let Abby help. When his alternate method of finding solace leaves him in an even deeper hole, however, someone offers rescue, but his white knight turns out to be the last person he expected...

Author Notes: Written for recent NCIS slash zine Boat, Basement and Bourbon(I believe title is right)

Chapter 1

Title: Life Preserver

Author: BuffyAngel68

Rating: FRM (R)

Pairing: Tim/Tony

Summary: Immediately following the events of "Probie" Tim is floundering and he won't let Abby help. When his alternate method of finding solace leaves him in an even deeper hole, however, someone offers rescue, but his white knight turns out to be the last person he expected...

Disclaimer. I don't own anybody you recognize. If anyone pops up that you don't know, they're probably mine. I make no money off this work of fiction and no copyright infringement is intended.

Begun: June 30, 2009 /// Complete and betaed:

12:30 A.M.:

"Hnnnh... Abs... what? What is it?"

"You're asleep?! How can you be asleep?! He's in trouble, Tony! You have to find him, you have to talk to him..."

Gradually pushing up to a sitting position, Tony sighed and shifted the phone to the other ear.

"Take a breath, Abby, okay? Who do I have to find?"

"Timmy! Aren't you listening?"

"Abby, calm down. He's a big boy. I know he's been through something tough, but now that he's been cleared..."

"That's just it, I couldn't... not completely. The bullets were too messed up and I couldn't really tell for sure and he made me say it and now he's gone out and gotten drunk somewhere and you have to find him!"

"Drunk?" Tony repeated incredulously. "Not possible. McGee doesn't know the meaning of the word..."

"Well, he must've found a dictionary, 'cause just now, on the phone, he was slurring his words and-and crying and swearing..."

Tony's eyes now flew open wide.

"No way."

"He used the f-word, Tony." Abby insisted. "My Timmy actually used the f-word."

"Damn... he *must* be hammered. Tell me he was on his cell instead of a pay-phone."

"He was, but not long enough. He turned it off before I could get a perfect GPS fix."

"You've got a general area though?" Tony asked, already out of bed and fumbling for the pants he'd discarded before climbing into bed that night.

"Pretty close. Down to about a half-mile."

"Hopefully there aren't too many bars. I'm on my way, alright? I'll be out the door in five."

"Thanks, Tony. I love you..."

"Yeah, yeah. See if you feel that way when I come in tomorrow morning smelling like puke and Pepto Bismol..."


Striding into his third bar in forty minutes, Tony paused just inside the door and let his gaze sweep the darkened room. When he found what seemed to be a familiar shape huddled in a distant booth, he moved in that direction, but held off hope, reminding himself he'd been wrong in the last place he'd tried. Finding he had the right man this time, Tony released a quiet sigh of relief and dropped down beside his friend.

"Hey, Tim."

Barely lifting his head off the table, McGee turned a bleary gaze in the direction his name had come from.

"Tony... wha' shu doin' here..."

"Abby sent out a mayday when you hung up on her."

"Sh's sweet... bu' sh' cn't make it better... nob'dy can... I fucked up, Tony... fucked up so bad..."

"Words like that won't fix it, either... any more than drinking will."

"D'snt matter... d'snt matter one l'ttl bit... say what I want... God, I'm so way... wayst... I'm shitfaced..."

Tony frowned and grasped Tim's chin, lifting his head up a bit higher and forcing him to sharpen his limited attention.

"Look, you're gonna be washing your mouth out often enough when the hangover hits. You don't want soap added to the mix. Curb the language. Understood?"

"I copy..."

"Good. Now let's get out of here."

Tim chuckled, but what should've been a happy sound was undercut by bitterness and sorrow.

"C'n hardly walk... nev'r be able to dr've..."

"I'll handle that."

"M' car..."

"I'll make sure the bartender's okay with it staying here until I can come get it tomorrow. You all paid up?"

" 'Cept f'r this last one... oughta finish it..." Tim reasoned, reaching out a shaky hand for the glass in front of him, only to have it disappear as Tony intervened, pulling the liquor out of reach.

"No more. Be right back. Try not to pass out on me just yet, huh?"

"Anyth'ng's possible, I sp'ose...



"C'mon, kid... stay with me just a little bit longer..." Tony grunted as he hauled Tim bodily up to the door and leaned him against the wall, holding him up with one hand on his chest while using the other to dig in his own coat pocket for the keys he'd retrieved from the bartender. After a minor struggle, he managed to get the door open and dragged a mumbling, unsteady Tim McGee inside. Laying him carefully on the sofa, Tony then returned to secure the door and turn on a light or two. When he moved back and sat down on the edge of the cushion facing his younger colleague, he noted Tim had thrown one arm over his eyes and his entire upper body was shaking. Knowing comfort was needed, but not having a clue how to offer it, Tony hesitantly stretched out a hand, but it was quickly withdrawn. Scowling, he tried to replace touch with words, but that failed him too.

"Tim... damn it, McGee..."

"Never know... I'll never know..."

"Every cop faces this at least once in their career, buddy. I know it kills right now, but you'll get past it in time."

"I don't want to!" McGee cried out, rotating so that his back was to Tony and his face was squashed into the padding.

"I know... try and get some sleep, kid, okay? You'll need all your strength when you wake up, trust me."

Tony sat with the younger man until he was sure the alcohol had knocked him out for a while then cautiously rose and moved away, hitting the most-used speed-dial number on his cell phone.


"Still awake. Why am I not surprised?" Tony joked wearily.

"Needed to unwind, just like everybody else. Something you wanted to tell me?"

"Abby called a while ago, sent me on an SAR mission. I guess the ballistics weren't conclusive about the kill shot, McGee took it pretty hard..."


"He went out and got bombed. I brought him home, but..."

"I get it. He okay?"

"He's great as long as he stays unconscious."


"He's so smart and he's so amazing on the computer... it's easy to forget how young and green he still is. This thing... it threw him straight into the deep end, boss. He wasn't ready. I know I've got no right to ask..."

"The hell you don't. How long?"

"Two days. Maybe three. That should be enough to get him on his feet and put his head back on straight. Can you make that happen?"

A derisive snort was the only response Tony received. "Right. Don't question the master."

"You just worry about McGee."

"I am, boss. That's why I'm gonna be sitting with him on his bathroom floor in a few hours, holding his head while he expresses non-verbal regret over how far he went tonight."

"Good man, Tony. Keep him safe... and make sure he comes back knowing the truth."

"Do my best, boss."

"Never known you to give anything less. Night."


Slowly closing his cell, Tony turned and gazed back at where Tim sprawled across the couch, favoring the sleeping young man with an expression that was half-smile, half-grimace and offering him a nearly silent vow. "These next couple days are gonna be rough, Timmy, but I'll get you through it. No matter how much you might want me to... I'm not walking away 'till we figure things out."


4:00 A.M.

"Easy, buddy... try to relax in between, okay? No, no... don't waste energy trying to hold yourself up, that's what you've got me for. You just concentrate on... yeah, that." Tony soothed, grimacing slightly. "Hang on, Timmy... I'm right beside you... I'm right here..."

When a few minutes had passed without Tim having another spasm, Tony risked reaching up for the cold damp washcloth he'd laid on the corner of the bathroom sink at the start of the episode. Gently bathing the younger man's brow, face and neck, DiNozzo tugged Tim's limp body against his side and continued the soft, comforting line of patter he'd been running for nearly half an hour. "You're okay, now. Looks like it's pretty much over. Relax... that's it... good... just try and relax... let it all settle down for a while..."

"God, Tony..."

"Shhh. I know... believe me, I know. Never do this again, Timmy."

"I won't, I promise..." he half-whispered, half-croaked.

"That wasn't a request, it was an order." Tony retorted, though without any real heat behind the words or condemnation in them. "I mean, I've always wished for somebody who'd follow in my footsteps, wanna be like me... but this *definitely* wasn't what I had in mind."

"Sorry... I'm so sorry..."

"Cut that out."

"Right... weakness..."

"Nope. I'm invoking DiNozzo rule six. Apologies are fine, except when you've got no good reason to be offering one. After what you went through, anybody would've been looking for an escape hatch, Tim. The one you picked just wasn't..."

"... smart?"

"Worthy of who you are... who you're trying to become."

"God... I screwed up everything, didn't I? Gibbs is gonna send me back to Norfolk..."

"He will not. I talked to the boss while you were asleep..."


"Whatever. I called him and he's gonna arrange a few days off for both of us."

"To do what?" Tim asked drowsily, the exhaustion from his physical ordeal dragging him towards sleep.

"We're taking a little road trip... someplace quiet and private. We'll rest, maybe get some sun... and do a lot of serious talking."

"Mmmm... okay. When?"

"As soon as your massive headache goes away and you can eat again."

"What headache? I don't have a headache..."

"Crap. In advance, and no I'm not breaking my own rule... I'm really sorry."


10: 00 A.M. :

Tim woke next with the warmth of sunlight on his face, but he couldn't enjoy it and barely acknowledged it at all. Between one moment and the next, he was suddenly, brutally confident that if he moved his head a quarter inch in any direction it would blow like Old Faithful. The pain was nearly a living thing inside his skull, a creature with exquisitely sharp claws and teeth, but even so, it wasn't his biggest problem at that moment. His stomach was obviously not in communication with the higher regions of his body, because it was currently warning him that if he *didn't* move soon, whatever object was closest would be covered in digestive acid and the remainder of the booze he'd consumed the night before, if there was any left.

He could vaguely hear Tony talking to someone. He tried to figure out who and if the person was actually there or on the phone, but his current ability to focus was already strained to capacity, so he surrendered and went back to simply wallowing in misery. Unfortunately, his stomach wouldn't relent so, despite knowing the agony in his head would no doubt triple, Tim spoke up as loudly as he could bear, desperate now for Tony's attention.

"T... uhhnnhh... Tony, help..."

"Gotta go, Abs. The patient's just emerged from his coma and... exactly. I will... yeah, I promise. Okay... the minute we get back he comes to see you. I won't let him talk his way out of it. See you in a few days. Bye."

Swapping his cell phone for the sunglasses sitting on the kitchen counter, Tony moved quietly to Tim's side and placed the item on his chest.

"Don't open your eyes until you have those on."


"Shades. They make the world seem a little kinder on mornings like this."

Gradually, Tim lifted one trembling hand and, for the most part, got the glasses into position. Tony grinned and completed the task. "How's the gut?"

"Bad... bad, bad, bad..."

"Worse than the never-ending air-brake chorus in your head? Tony asked lightly, but Tim could sense the concern behind the deliberately casual question and answered truthfully.

"A little."

"Then we better get you on your feet."

"I can't..."

"Hey, I know moving is damned if you do, damned if you don't when you're in this kinda shape. Doesn't change what has to be. Sit up really slow... yeah, good... almost there... okay, take a second and breathe then we'll go the rest of the way."

"Ohhhh... son of a pre-owned camel salesman..." Tim moaned, drawing joyous, if restrained laughter from the man supporting him.

"One of the best I've heard in a long time. You ready?"

"Ready for Congress to bring back Prohibition."

"I bet. C'mon..."

It took only fifteen minutes this time for the cramps and heaving to cease, but McGee looked worse afterwards than he had earlier that morning. Tony led him back to the couch, laid him back down with care and covered him with a blanket that was stretched over the back of the sofa. "Try to get some rest. I'm gonna make you something that'll have you feeling better in no time. You need anything..."

"Pain reliever."

"Coming right up."

A short while later, Tony returned from the kitchen with two tiny pills and a tumbler full of frothy, pale pink liquid.. Helping Tim sit up once more, he dropped the medicine into his hand and offered the drink.

"What is it?"

"Later. Take the pills."

"You're saying I don't wanna know..."

"I'm saying not yet. Just try it, will ya?"

Though his expression displayed extreme doubt, Tim popped the tablets and took a tiny, uncertain sip from the straw propped against the edge of the cup. A moment later, his face registered pleasant surprise.

"Wow... that's not bad."

"Go as slow as you need to, but you should try to drink it all."


Within an hour, Tim was shuffling into the kitchen under his own power to place the glass in the sink. Turning back, he sank into a chair at the table, gazing curiously across at Tony, who looked up from a newspaper crossword and favored him with a grin.

"Your color's back. Lookin' good, Timmy."

"Better. Will you tell me what was in that thing now?"

"You sure? No more nausea?"

"It's almost gone."

"Okay. It's nothing special, really. Just a recipe I've put together over the years. You blend up a banana with wheat germ, protein powder and strawberry Tofuti."

"Why not ice cream?"

"No dairy. On a hangover stomach, dairy can send you right back to the porcelain palace. If you're not puking, you're..."

"I get it, I get it." Tim objected mildly, holding up one hand. "And why didn't I hear the blender?"

"You were pretty out of it, plus my machine's one of the quietest models on the market."

"Of course it is. That recipe's pretty smart, you know?"

"Puts back most of the good stuff drinking and throwing up take out of you."

"It feels like it. So... what's next?"

"You go chill and watch some TV while I make a few calls. Then while I'm picking up your car and getting it back here, you pack a bag."

"Right... you said something about... a trip?"

"Good to know you didn't kill too many brain cells last night." Tony teased lightly

"Any more of that concoction?"

"As much as you need. Go on, I'll bring it in to you."





"You ready to go?"

"I'm a lot better, so... yeah, I guess. Do I get to know where we're headed?"

"The Outer Banks. My family has a place on the beach, but nobody's there right now. Won't be for months. We'll have it all to ourselves."

"Sounds okay." Tim replied vaguely, not looking up, even though he'd finished re-tying the shoes Tony had slipped off him the night before.

"It won't be torture, Timmy, I swear. We'll have a good time. Fun just isn't the real point of going, that's all."

"I've gotten it out of my system, Tony. I don't need to sit around listening to shells, hoping to hear my inner child instead of the ocean..."

"You only think you're done with it. Here, take your jacket."


"Out. C'mon, march."

Tim sighed heavily, rolled his eyes and snatched the coat. As his younger colleague preceded him out the door, Tony snickered quietly, picked up Tim's overnight bag and strolled out to wait for the elevator. "It'll be okay." he said quietly. "You need this a lot more than you know."

Tim glanced over at him curiously and spoke with caution.

"You've been through this before?"

"We'll talk when we get there."

Tim nodded, but declined to push the issue, sensing he'd get an answer and the story when Tony felt the time was right. The ride down to ground level was short and both men were soon in the car. As Tony pulled out into traffic, Tim looked at the back seat and realized that a second small duffel sat beside his own.

"So that's what took you so long."

"I wanted to get on the road as soon as possible. As it is, we'll be getting in after dark."

"How far is it?"

"About five hours, maybe a little longer. I plan on taking it easy."

"Thank God cars don't affect me like boats. Why'd you pick the beach, anyway? It's almost December. It'll be way too cold."

"I didn't say we were going swimming, did I?"

"You said we'd be getting sun."

"Doesn't make much difference whether you're in a jacket and pants or a Speedo. Sun's warm, it feels good."

"But what's the point of being out on a beach if you can't do beach stuff?"

"Fine, I'll hunt up a salon, personally shove you in a tanning bed and we'll both stay 'till you look like a Hershey's bar! What's with the attitude all of a sudden, McGee? I thought you were okay with this."

"I am... I was. I just don't know why you're doing it, that's all. You and I... we've never really been friends, Tony. Most of the time you act like you can just about tolerate me."

Tony blanched and his hands tightened on the steering wheel.

"Yeah, well... I don't mean to. I never had an easy time relating to people... trusting their motives. When I say stupid, cruel things, it's a defense. I assume everybody wants to smack me down... so I throw out a pre-emptive strike to make sure they stay at a distance."

"If nobody gets close, you can't get hurt."

"Pretty much."

"It doesn't always work."

"No... no, it doesn't."

"Like with Abby. You think you're safe and then you look up... and she's right there, in your face, staring you down with those eyes. Before you really even know what's what, you find yourself spilling every single thing that ever broke your heart or made you mad..."

"Only because you know confidences are sacred to her. It'll never go any further unless she thinks you'll be in danger if she doesn't tell."

"That's why she called you."

"Probably. You don't get drunk... not like that, anyway. She knew you wouldn't be able to think or defend yourself if anything happened. Damn it, every day you see how nasty and amoral people can be. Making yourself so vulnerable when you didn't have somebody there you trusted to watch your six..."

"... stupid, I know. You don't have to keep rubbing it in."

"The decision was dumb, not you. You're going through a process. Can't change how it happens... all you can do is ride it out and get back up when it's done with you."

"It's gonna hurt."

"Oh yeah. But you aren't doing it alone, remember that. I've walked the road already. I know how to bring you out the other side whole and ready to dive back into the battle. If you trust me."

"Hey, I'm alive and past wanting to hurl every five minutes. I've got no reason *not* to."

"Okay, then. Lean back, take a nap if you feel it coming on. I'll wake you when we get there."


7:00 P.M.

Pausing as he pulled into the driveway, Tony gazed over at Tim, who was solidly asleep and had been since they'd grabbed a late lunch on the run two hours earlier. Grinning lightly, he eased off the brake and slowly finished the uphill journey to the house.

"Timmy. Timmy, c'mon, wake up buddy. We're here."

"Hmmmnn? Oh... I fell asleep?"

"Correction, you were dead to the world. After the last couple days, though, I can't say I blame you."

"No... I guess not."

"Can you get the bags while I get the car put away?"

"Yeah... sure."

"Great. Just wait by the front door, for me, okay? I'll be there in a minute with the keys."

Tony waited, headlights showing the way, until Tim had found the front entrance to the house. Once he was sure the younger man was safely up the short flight of steps, Tony slid the car into the attached garage, exited, locked the vehicle, closed the large door and hurried to where Tim waited.

"Man... the minute the sun is down this time of year, the outdoors turns into a meat locker... there. C'mon in. I called ahead to get it set up for us, so it shouldn't be too icy in here."

"No... not too bad. A little chilly." Tim commented vaguely as Tony relieved him of the luggage, shut the door decisively and flipped a switch to light the foyer.

"Be better once I start a fire. Hang out here for a second while I get more lamps on..."

Inside of an hour, and with Tim's help, both men were warm and relatively happy in front of a blazing fire, their hands wrapped around mugs of sweet, warm tea. McGee had been silent through every moment of the shared work, but Tony was fully aware that the younger man's mind was overflowing with thoughts and questions he was reluctant to voice, so he began the process himself.

"Yeah... I've been here, McGee... right where you are now. I didn't have anyone to pull me back from the edge of the cliff, though. That's how I ended up where Gibbs found me."


"Baltimore. Home of the best crab cakes I've ever had and the funkiest bakery the universe will ever know."

Tim gasped in surprise.

"You do *not* watch Food Network."

"I do, actually," Tony chuckled, sipping at his tea. "but I said it because I've been there. Got to be good buddies with a couple of the decorators, too."

"You did *not*!" Tim insisted.

"Enough with 'Disbelief Theater' and later on the fun stories, okay? That's not what we drove five hours for."

"More like 'Denial Theater'. I guess I'm trying not to do this."

"Understandable... and we don't have to get too deep in tonight. I just figured since you weren't talking, I'd give you a little jump start."

Tim frowned lightly and sipped at his mug for a few minutes before he found the courage to speak again.

"How... how did you make it... if nobody was there to guide you?"

"Truth? I don't really know. I remember waking up one afternoon, in a lot worse shape than you were by the way... and realizing I couldn't stay like that. 'Course, by that time they'd fired me..."

"They had no right. You were going through something horrible."

"Yeah, but I could've reached out and gotten help. The department had people I could've leaned on. That wasn't my style back then. I didn't think I needed anybody else, even if... anyway, I did just like you did. I got cozy in a bottle and stayed until I absolutely had to come up for air. I also learned the same lesson."

"It's not the answer."

"No... no it definitely isn't." Tony affirmed, draining his mug. "You ready for bed?"

"In a minute. I'm... warm, kind of at peace. When I go to sleep..."

"I know. It's fine. We can stay as long as you want."

"Can I ask an unrelated question?"


"Why tea?"

"Why not?"

"I always thought... I mean..."

"Oh, the Gibbs worship thing. Mostly... I'm over it. Have been for a while. It's good for his ego to think I'm not, though."

"*His* ego? He's the last person on the planet who needs that particular boost."

"Boy... the things you *think* you know are getting really close to overtaking all the real facts stuffed in your brain, Timmy." Tony countered, rising and stirring the fire a bit.


"Tomorrow. I'm gonna go make us a snack. You hungry?"


"Your wish, yadda yadda. Be right back."

As Tony left, he looked back for a moment and felt his pulse quicken. The glow of the flames had worked significant changes in Tim's somber profile, creating an impression of hollows and shadows Tony knew weren't actually there. At least he hoped they weren't. He knew all too well how deeply the trauma they'd both endured could change a person. Shaking off the sense that he too was being dragged down into emotional darkness, Tony turned away and moved into the kitchen, determined that he would talk McGee into a movie, even if the point was only to push the young man into sleep.




Tim awoke on the couch once more, and once more in his clothes, but the nausea, headache and general feeling that he wanted to die were blessedly absent and the blended aromas of coffee and frying ham from the kitchen had his mouth watering. Tossing back the afghan that had been draped over him, he padded barefoot in the direction his nose and grumbling stomach were leading him.

"Morning." Tony greeted simply, half-turning away from the stove to watch Tim sink into a chair at the kitchen table.

"And better than the last one, that's for sure."

"I can believe it. Eggs?"

"I don't think so... not yet. Some of that ham would be great, though. And toast?"

"Boring! We have bagels, croissants, frozen waffles, brioche..."

" I get it, I get it." Tim laughed. "There're enough carbs in the house to feed an infantry unit. A croissant, please."

"Coming up." Tony confirmed, heading to the table with a plate and another mug of tea. "I should make you the eggs anyway. You weren't able to eat much yesterday and you barely touched the popcorn last night."

"Only because I conked out."

"I know. Sorry about the sofa thing two nights in a row, but I didn't have the heart to wake you."

"It's okay. It's comfortable. Mmm... these hash browns are amazing!"

"Fresh sautéed onions and a little garlic make all the difference."

"Okay... no more teasing about the Food Network. I believe you now."

"If you hadn't, dinner would've convinced you. Whadda you say to a morning on the beach, a light lunch and an afternoon of horseback riding?"

"I say I'll be out cold before the opening credits on the movie finish tonight. Again. But it sounds good."

"That's the schedule, then. Try the tea."

"You did something to it."

Tony held up his hands palm out.

"Look Ma. No superglue and not a keyboard in sight."

Tim looked shocked and protested instantly.

"I didn't mean that. I was asking... I just wondered..."

Tony closed his eyes momentarily and ducked his head.

"Sorry. My bad for overreacting. Actually... for all the crap I've pulled I deserve caution and suspicion from you."

"Tony, no..."

"Yes, but we're not talking about me right now. Try the tea. Please?"

Tim abandoned his attempt at being the one to do the consoling and lifted the mug. A warm, comforting citrus aroma hit him before the liquid ever got near his mouth and drew a smile.

"This smells incredibly good. What is it?"

"Lemon herbal tea with orange blossom honey."

"Wow... I feel like I'm more awake and I haven't even tasted it yet."

"It does that for me too. I thought you might like it."

"I do. Thanks."

"No problem. Don't forget a jacket, just in case. Even along the shoreline, November days down here are usually decent temperature-wise, but we'll be out there a while, so it pays to plan for anything."

Tim sipped and ate silently for a while, struggling to straighten out the tangle of conflicting ideas in his mind. Eventually, the confusion began to overwhelm him and he lost interest in what was left on his plate

"You know," Tim announced suddenly. "I don't think I can do this, Tony. I'm about as good at being open as you are."

Tony winced and Tim opened his mouth to apologize, but the other man halted his attempt.

"Stop, okay? The truth is the truth. Just because it's hard to hear doesn't mean I don't need to. My life... my childhood wasn't the greatest, Tim, but there's a good reason I don't talk about it. At home, there was nobody to complain to. Once I managed to get away, I realized nobody wanted to be around a guy who did the 'woe is me' thing all the time. I wanted friends so bad back then... had to have people around all the time to keep me from remembering. Soon as I figured out how to fake a positive attitude, it was easy. I grinned, turned myself into a joker and a flirt and I had all the buddies and bed-mates I could handle. It was perfect... while I was still in college. It doesn't work so well in the real world."

"Couldn't prove it by me."

"Really. Seen me with a woman lately? Seen me with a *house plant* lately?"

"No... wait a second, the way you talk..."

"Rule 3."

"Never assume; always double check. Oh... oh God... seriously?"

"Unfortunately. I don't open up like this for just anybody, Tim... and it might not ever happen again. You need to take advantage of it while it's available."

"I need to talk, you mean. I get that, Tony... I absolutely understand."

"I also expect confidentiality after we get home."

"Of course. No problem."

"Good. You done eating?"

"Uh... yeah. I'm finished."

"Then let's get dishes done, okay? I wanna get out to the beach."

Tim nodded, rose and brought his plate to the trash to scrape it. Moving to the sink, he slid into position beside Tony. As he handed over his plate and utensils, and received a kitchen towel in return, he considered keeping the conversation going, but stopped himself, sensing that Tony wanted to wait until they were outside.

With both men working, it took only a few minutes for the dishes and pans to be cleaned and replaced in cupboards and on the racks where they belonged. Not long after, Tony was leading Tim out a set of sliding doors at the back of the house and down a gently sloping path that lead to a deep, wide stretch of sand, hemmed in by a towering group of boulders on the left and a well-worn, but sturdy looking boardwalk on the right. Tony flipped out the huge blanket he'd brought along, turned in place to adjust so that the light breeze would help instead of hinder, and watched the sheet gently land. With a mildly critical expression, he straightened a folded corner and a rumpled edge then settled down Indian style and looked up at Tim with a grin.


The younger man gazed out at the water, decided it was far enough away for comfort and dropped onto the blanket as well. "Ah. So it isn't boats exactly." Tony posited.

"Both. Boats more than the ocean... but definitely both."

"Something you feel like sharing?"

"Do I have to?"

"No. It's not what we're here to hash out. I just thought you might feel better being out here if you let go of why it is the water scares you."

"Not water. Lakes, ponds... I'm fine. The ocean... I don't know. It's just too big, I guess. You can see across a lake... you know the other side is right there. If you had to get to it, you probably could. It's not like that with the ocean. It just goes and goes. No other side. Enough, okay? I'm getting creeped out."

"Understood. Tell me about the other night. What prompted you to go drinking like that?"

"After Abby told me she'd never know if I fired the kill shot, I was totally lost for a while. It was like this... fog got into my head and I couldn't think or make sense of anything. All I could hear was this voice screaming 'you murdered him, you murdered him.' I wanted it to shut up, but I didn't know how to do that. You were right about the alcohol. On a normal day, or if it'd just been some minor problem, I never would've turned to booze, but... nothing else worked. I tried writing, but I had less than zero focus. I tried playing on the computer but when I put gaming up against the fact that I might've killed an innocent cop, suddenly it all seemed so... frivolous and stupid. I remembered that I had a can of beer in my fridge. By the time I'd finished it, the voice was going away, so I thought... okay, I've got my solution. That's about it."

As Tim talked, Tony surreptitiously studied him out of the corner of one eye, seeking the dark apparition he'd seen the night before and praying the bright sunlight would prove he had been wrong about what he believed he'd seen. Instead, he felt his pulse accelerating for a different reason. Unaware he was doing it until it was too late, Tony found that his hand had crept across the space between he and Tim and wrapped itself around the younger man's fingers. Knowing that more problems would be created if he suddenly pulled back, Tony let the gesture stand.

"You're not a killer, Tim."

"We don't know that."

"I do. Look at me. Tim, look at me, damn it." Tony demanded, refusing to continue until his order was followed. "Better. You need to listen to me. You were doing your job. The situation went down way too fast for anybody, even Gibbs, to have reacted differently. You have amazing instincts, you trusted them... and maybe it came out wrong. That doesn't mean what you *did* was wrong. You didn't screw up, Tim, but if you can't believe that, your confidence will never recover. It'd kill me to see that happen."

"Yeah. Gibbs said... going after Archer, he got the drop on the boss. Gibbs almost got killed because I hesitated. He said if I ever did that again because I was doubting myself, he'd take my badge."

"Damn right. I might not've said it like that, but I would've done it just the same. Sounds like you've got really good incentive to work through this."

" *Great* incentive." Tim agreed, gazing down at where their hands were linked. "Tony..."

"You want me to let go?"

"Not necessarily. Just... why?"

"Color me clueless. Felt right... like maybe you needed something more tangible than sympathy or encouragement."

"Oh. I... yeah. I don't mind. It's... nice... sort of."

"You warm enough?"

"I'm fine."

"Let's just... be quiet for a while, okay? Give us both time to think... process."

Tim nodded slowly, looked down at the blanket between them once more, then smiled at Tony and lowered himself onto his back, making sure the other man's grip on his hand didn't shift too much. Tony pulled his knees up close to his chest, wrapped his free arm around them and stared out at the waves.



"I loved the salad, Tony. I never would've thought about spinach instead of lettuce. And the grilled shrimp... wow."

"Thanks. So... have you been horseback riding?"

"A little. Mostly when I was young."

"I'm thinking trails, not the Kentucky Derby. That should be some relief."

"It is. You'll, um... you'll tell me your story once we're out there?"


"You said you've been where I am. I need to hear the details."

Tony pushed away his nearly empty plate, breathed deeply and lowered his eyes.

"You've done everything I asked and more. I guess it is my turn. Yeah... I'll tell you while we're riding. Go do a quick clean up and change clothes, okay? I'll do the dishes and pack up some supplies."

Tim rose, smiling lightly, and moved to comply. On his way out of the kitchen, however, he paused briefly, reached out and gave Tony's hand a quick squeeze. His eyebrows lifted when Tony jumped and looked surprised, but the older man shook it off. "It's okay, Tim. I'm not... it's been a while since anybody offered... Are you? Offering?"

"I don't know. I guess... we'll have to see?"

"We will."

"Okay. I'll just... go get dressed, now. I won't be long."

"Good. That you'll be back soon, I mean. The point of this is to... spend time together, right? Right. So go on. I'll be here when you get back."

"Hope so. I mean... forget it. I... I'm going now." Tim responded vaguely as he backed out of the kitchen with a confused grin. The minute he was gone, Tony turned toward the sink, leaned on the edge of the counter and groaned.

"I'll be here when you get back... Where are you gonna go, Cleveland? What the hell is up with me all of a sudden?! I did *not* just ask him if he... well, shit. Now what?"
Huffing in frustration, he pushed away and headed for his room to get his own necessary washing and clothes changing over with.

When Tim reappeared less than fifteen minutes later, Tony greeted him with a smile, but Tim noted that the supposed happiness that implied didn't reach his friend's eyes.


"We're good... I promise. My brain's just throwing a major tantrum and the rest of me doesn't know what to do about it. I told you... it's been a long time."

"Oh, c'mon." Tim teased gently. "You must get offers twenty times a day."

"For drinks, dinner and the inevitable... yeah, I do. I stopped accepting those propositions months ago. It's not what I want now."

The revelation left Tim slightly breathless and his voice was serious and hushed when he spoke again.

"What is?"

""Different, better... more."

Hesitantly, Tony stretched out a hand to touch Tim's cheek, but the caress lasted only a moment before he drew back, unsure he was ready for what might happen if he let the moment and the feeling persist. "The blue pack on the counter is yours." he instructed, shifting away and grabbing the green one that sat beside Tim's. "I packed some trail mix, water, granola bars, a couple pairs of shorts and a towel for each of us."

"How come?"

"I have a membership at a local gym. I figured you might appreciate a hot tub after the horses. Hell, it's been few years for me too. I'll probably need it just as much. You ready to go?"

"All set." Tim replied brightly, when all he really wanted to do was drag Tony back into the living room, make him sit on the couch and urge him to talk until they both clearly understood what was going on between them.

"Okay. Let's hit the road."

Fighting his convictions and biting his tongue, Tim hiked the pack up onto his shoulder and followed the other man out the door.



"You fibbed, Timmy. You've been on a horse a lot more recently than you claimed." Tony joked lightly as they reached an agreed on turn-around point where they would reverse course and head back to the stables.

"I haven't, I swear. Horses and I just seem to understand each other. When I get back on, no matter how long it's been... it's just easy."

Tony grimaced slightly over that comment, pulled a bottle of water from his pack and took a long gulp before responding.

"If only that were true for everything."

Tim lowered his gaze to the horse's neck and began to stroke the animal idly with one hand.

"I hate that you've been hurt that way, you know? It's made part of you hard... and cynical. Sometimes, when you put on the 'party-boy/class clown' mask at work, I sit there and wonder how nobody else sees it."

Tony tensed and began adjusting and playing with the reins.

"Sees what?"

"That it only happens when one of us gets too close or touches a wound you didn't know was still open. All that stuff you say... it's nothing but a cover for a pain you've buried so deep you probably don't remember what created it in the first place."

"You've been watching too much "Dead Zone', kid. You're no psychic, trust me. C'mon. Let's get started back. There's a filly I wanna check out back at the barn and I don't mean a horse."

Tim knew better than to be hurt or disappointed by Tony's comment. Instead, he took a deep breath and did something he'd never found the courage to attempt before: he called Tony out.

"You're doing it right now. Or don't you listen to yourself?"

Tony responded tersely, but refused to look at Tim while he did so.

"Cool it, *Probie*."

"Sorry. Insults aren't enough this time. Even if neither one of us ever tells the rest of the world you have it, you need somebody who sees right through you, Tony... somebody you can't hide from, who won't let you get away with keeping all the... *crap* inside. I think... I think it's me."

"Oh do you, now?" Tony shot back, voice low and ice-cold.

The tone and expression combined made Tim swallow hard. He'd had his brave, determined moments with Tony, standing strong in the face of anything the older agent could throw at him, but his fire always died at this exact moment. Knowing some of Tony's background, Tim could never bear to push beyond the point where DiNozzo showed genuine anger, fearing an explosion that would end with both of them injured. This time, however, Tim sensed something immensely precious was at stake. It might still be an unknown, and maybe it would fade to nothing before he could change that, but he wasn't about to surrender even a possibility.

Nudging his horse, he swiftly moved within reaching distance of Tony, grasped his face in both hands, locked their gazes together and spoke softly, but with powerful sincerity.

"Yes. I do. Don't ask me why or how... I just do."

For a long moment, Tony could only stare in shock and confusion, not knowing what to do now that Tim had altered the familiar, comfortable routine. Shaking his head, he wrenched out of Tim's firm grip, flung himself off the horse and stalked away down the trail. He only stopped after he'd traveled several yards, first viciously kicking a tree then leaning against it while he tried desperately to collect his wits and figure out how to regain control of the situation. Tim gave him a few seconds of breathing room then dismounted, tied the horses loosely to a nearby limb and followed his friend.


"No! I get really mad, you fold like origami, *that's* how this works! You don't get to change it!"

"I had to. I feel like... like I'm fighting for something now... fighting for some*one*. You're too important for me to just stick to the status quo."

"Take that back."

"That you're important? Not a chance. Taking it back would be lying."

"Damn it, McGee..."

"You saved me back at that bar... at least my sanity and my job... maybe my life. That makes you important... even if it's just to me."

Tony finally raised his head, tossing Tim a confused, exasperated look.

"What, you don't count?"

Tim glanced away, actually stepped away a little, and pretended to study the foliage.

"I never have... not to anybody but my parents and my trouble-magnet sister. I throw around my degrees like they make me somebody... but I know the truth. They just make me a geek. Sure, the world may need us... but once we serve our purpose, who wants us around except other geeks?"

Shoving away from the trunk that was supporting him, Tony strode around McGee so that they faced each other and studied him intently. Abruptly, he gripped the younger man's shoulders and exerted pressure, urging him backwards until Tim bumped into another tree and could go no farther. For a terrifying, exhilarating moment, he was sure he was about to be fiercely, passionately kissed, but the moment dissolved, and instead he received only the faint clunk of his forehead and Tony's gently falling together

"Hell... the only thing in my brain right now... is those one-word question journalism thingies..."

"Where, why, how... yeah, I know. I don't understand this any better than you do, Tony... but it feels so strong already... I need to give it a chance. We both deserve what you told me back at the house. Remember?"


"Different, better, more? Whatever else this is or may become... it's that."

"For damn sure it's different..." Tony chuckled thinly. "We need to get back... and have a long, long talk."

"No hot tub?" Tim asked, his voice colored with slight disappointment.

"A stinky, very public locker room is *not* where I want to see you strip down for the first time, so no... no hot tub."

Tim grinned sheepishly and turned his head away, drawing a pleased, mildly wicked smile out of Tony. "He blushes. Damn, damn, damn. I... am a dead man walking..."



Still toweling his hair, Tim moved cautiously into the living room, tightened the belt on his robe with his free hand and settled on the sofa beside Tony. Dropping the towel to hang around his neck, he produced a comb from his pocket and began running it through his damp locks, trying to neaten up the best he could without a mirror. A moment later, Tony tugged the device out of his hand, earning him a mild protest.


"Relax. I just wanna see something..."

"You're spiking it. Tony, you're spiking it..."

"I know. Looks good... *really* good. I like it." he concluded, proceeding to flatten it again, styling it the way he knew Tim preferred. "There... back to boring."


"You're not in the bullpen, McGee. Loosen up a little."

"Hmmm. Maybe... once in a while. Not like at the bar, though. I vowed never again and I meant it."

"I won't let you, so it's a moot point." Tony countered, rising briefly to add wood and stir the fire then resuming his place. "Like I said, you've got way too much going for you to make that kinda thing a habit."

"Yeah... um, you never told me the story."

"Hard to remember what I promised when we were fighting like pit bulls out there. You tell me something first?"

"If I can."

"When I got you home that night, you said you didn't wanna get over how you were feeling. You remember that?"


"Okay... think about it hard, then tell me why."

Tim scowled at the flames, but, knowing that no matter what Tony had gotten out of their trip so far they were actually there for his benefit, he grudgingly did as he'd been asked to. Several minutes later, he quietly spoke up with as honest a response as he could give.

"I... I was feeling guilty, responsible... still am. I did pull the trigger, so I'm at least partly at fault. I might not've killed him, but I wounded him. I wounded an innocent man..."

"Wrong, all wrong. You're only at fault if you knew."

"Knew? He was innocent? How could I... oh. Oh my God..."

"Now you're starting to see the light, Timmy. To drive the point in even deeper... you get my story. I'd been chasing this gang banger for weeks... had a habit of snorting cocaine, going out on the town, raping and killing little girls... He... he carved a graffiti tag with his name in it into their backs. Took us way too long to work out the symbols and untangle it to figure out who we were looking for. By then his victim list was up to nine. I was crazy, out of control... my lieutenant was on the verge of forcing me off the case. This night... I was closer than I'd ever been to him. I could practically smell his blood... I'd fantasized about watching his execution. I caught up with him in this... falling down apartment building. He had another kid in his arms. She was so amazing... sounds weird, but this makes me laugh... somebody taught her to defend herself I guess, 'cause when I showed up pointing a gun, she must've thought I was just another threat. With nothin' to lose and him distracted, she got off an elbow into his gut and when he let go, she turned around, kicked him hard right where he needed it most and ran like hell. He, uh... he was so high he only half felt it and he... he came at me with the knife he planned to use on her. That was all the excuse I needed. I put one right between his eyes. He dropped and I... I went lookin' for the kid. The place was a wreck, you know? After what she survived, I didn't... I didn't want her getting hurt. I'd barely started and... there was this noise... cracking, booming... never heard anything like it and I pray I never do again. The scream, though... I hear her scream all the time. All she wanted was to hide... to be safe. She picked an old elevator... floor rotten and rusted out... it collapsed under her."

Tim squeezed Tony's shoulder and tried to offer words of comfort, but his throat felt swollen and achy and he was fighting back tears. Tony glanced at him and chuckled brokenly. "Yeah... always hits me that way too. That's why I don't tell this story. The jist of it is that it took me a long, *long* time to understand that I wasn't working the case alone. Other detectives, other cops tried to stop him... none of us were fast enough or smart enough to save that last little girl. For months I took it on myself, but... it wasn't my fault. Wasn't anybody's really, except the bastard who dragged her in there. Gibbs put you in that alley, but he got his orders from somebody higher up, who got theirs from somebody else... none of you could've predicted what happened, Tim. You get it? It's nobody's fault."

"I'm starting to. It still... hurts."

"It will for a while, but as long as you've got the basic message I'm trying to send... your self-destructive bar-hopping streak should end at one. Right?"


"Okay. Good man." Tony praised, drawing Tim into a powerful hug.

"I'm ready to go home in the morning."

"Great." Tony replied, slowly pulling back. "What should we do with the vacation we have left?"

"Tomorrow, before we leave... I want to go to the beach again... see how close I can get to the water."

"Ambitious, but I'm there for you. How about tonight?"

Tim blushed again and Tony believed he could actually *feel* his temperature and blood pressure begin to rise. "What? C'mon... can't be that bad."

"Not bad... embarrassing. Back in the woods when you pinned me to that tree, I thought... I swore you were about to..."

"Oh, I was. You don't know how much effort it took for me *not* to."

"Could... I mean, would you..."

"You'd be okay with that?"

"I just asked, didn't I?"

"Not exactly... but I'm good at interpreting. Just hold still, okay? Let me work out the... logistics on my own..."

Leaning in, Tony brushed his lips against the corner of Tim's mouth then pulled back a bit, smiling and fighting to hold back laughter. "Timmy. You're vibrating."

"I ca-can't help it! Th-that's what people do when they're n-nervous and excited!"

"About kissing me?"

"Oh, Tony, if you could've seen inside my head back in the woods, you never would've waited this long!"

"You mean it, don't you? You want this... and a lot more."

"Eventually, but I haven't even had the kiss yet. Make me wait much longer and you *and* the logistics are going out the window."

"God, you're pushy." Tony snarked, shifting forward again.

"You don't seem to mind."


The kiss this time was full, deep and sensuous. Even if he had wanted to resist, Tim found all his strength draining away. Unable to hold himself up, he wrapped his arms around Tony's neck and sank backwards, pulling the other man with him. Tony broke the kiss and gazed down at him solemnly. "What is it you're expecting, here, Tim?"

"I have no idea... but I'm begging you to keep kissing me until I figure it out." He responded, his face and neck once again shaded a deep rose. Tony breathed in slowly and felt his body react. Tim noticed the change and questioned it.

"Wow... uh, is... is that because of me? I know you said something back there, but..."

"Just know... that if you ever learn how to blush on cue... and you do it even once in public when I'm around... we're both getting arrested."

"What for?" Tim murmured, his pupils dilating as he watched Tony lick his lips.

"Lewd and lascivious, public nudity, disturbing the peace..."


"Just for starters."

"Suddenly... jail doesn't sound so bad."

Tony grinned and repeated himself,


before initiating another kiss. Gradually, he began to feel Tim hardening beneath him and minutely pushing his hips up every so often. Pulling back, Tony asked a question with just his eyes. Tim replied with a shaky nod.

"Okay... hang on and remember I'm playing this by ear, not working from experience." Tony warned as he lowered his weight carefully until he was stretched out along Tim's frame. Dropping his head to his lover's neck he began to place a slow series of lingering kisses anywhere within reach of his mouth. Tim gasped and pushed up more sharply against Tony's body.

"Nnnnh... not your... ear that does... this to me... oh... oh, Tony... my God..."

"Here too, Timmy... more... lift up again... yeah... so amazing... I never knew... never guessed you'd be... this passionate..."

"Me... either... ah! Oh no... it's... Tony, I'm..."

"It's okay, I'll be there with you, Tim... let go... let it... happen... hell... oh shit... yeah..."

It was several minutes before the pair caught their breath and were capable of creating full sentences, and Tim's first effort made Tony laugh out loud.

"Do I get to wash your mouth out with soap?"

"Anytime, love... anytime."



Car packed, house cleaned and locked, Tony guided Tim back down to the sand, this time with a bandanna tied around his eyes.

"That's it... good. Stop right there. Okay. You ready?"

"Not really."

"Wanna try anyway?"

"You know I do. Why the blindfold?"

"I figure if seeing the ocean is your problem, getting to know it through your other senses might be a cure."

"Uh-huh... keep going."

"You'll hear it first. It's a really soothing sound. I love falling to sleep listening to it. As we get closer you'll start to smell the salt... then your skin will tell you there's a difference in the air... it's heavier, it seems to cling to you. If you make it right down to the edge, I'll take a little in my hands and you can taste it. Not exactly dark chocolate or lobster, but it's completely unique and in tiny doses... pretty fascinating."

"Huh. You could be right. Okay... let's start, at least. The whole thing may be too much, but..."

"It's up to you. You say when. Here we go. Getting it yet?"

"I am." Tim answered, deeply surprised. "It is a beautiful sound... rhythmic, like a slow heartbeat... and calming."

"Good... good man. How about the nose?"

"I smell it. It's... it's not bad, but... I don't like how the air feels... Stop, Tony!"

"Okay, okay. Over and done. You did really well."

"Car... back to the car, now."

"I hear you, we're going..."

It wasn't until they were well on the way home that Tim began to relax. When he finally spoke, it was Tony's turn to be surprised.

"Back home... I want to try again."

"You do?"

"As long as you're with me. I can do it as long as you're there."

"You can do it without me, too. You're strong enough to do just about anything."

"But you will be there?"

"Wouldn't miss it for the world, Timmy."



Send Feedback