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Frozen

by: Xanthe (Send Feedback)

Series: - No Series - #1
Chapters: 003 Word Count: 26948
Rating: ADULT
Character(s): Jethro Gibbs, Tony DiNozzo
Category(ies): Angst/Drama, Character Study, First Time, Future, Holiday, Hurt/Comfort, Romance
Pairing(s): Gibbs/DiNozzo
Summary: Gibbs has left NCIS and is living in a remote cabin on a snowy mountainside. But what secret is he hiding in his isolated hideaway?

Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3

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Chapter Two

Gibbs snaps back into the present to find Digger licking his face, whining softly. He lies there quietly for a while, stroking Digger's head, and he only gets up when he hears the truck outside.

He goes out, forcing himself to walk straight and steady and not hang onto the wall for support.

Emmylou is getting out of her truck as he reaches the door.

"Hey, Jethro! I thought you might like a tree this year!" she hollers, and he sees there’s a big pine tree fastened to the back of her truck.

"Nope." He shakes his head, but she dismisses the word with a wave of her hand.

"Sure you do! Tom cut down a whole bunch of them to sell in town. Had a few left over, so I thought I'd bring this one up to you."

"What the hell will I do with a tree in the house?" Gibbs asks. "Aren't there enough of 'em all around it without dragging one inside too?"

"Scrooge!" She ignores his protests and insists on pulling the tree off the back of the truck and then heaves it into the house where she leaves it propped up against the living room wall.

"I haven't got anything to decorate it with," he says.

"There's still time for you to drive down to the store and buy some tinsel before the big snows come," she chides.

"There's time, yeah, but I'm not gonna do it."

She just grins at him and kisses his cheek. "Merry Christmas, Jethro!" she says, and then she pauses to pat Digger before striding out of the house, getting back in her truck, and driving away.

It snows a couple of days later. He stays in the house with Digger and when it stops falling they both go out to inspect the landscape. It’s deep but not so deep he can’t walk around out there, and Digger immediately does what he always does – he goes around digging some holes. He always seems to feel happier once he's dug a few holes.

Gibbs gets his axe and begins chopping logs for firewood. He's laid in a good store for the winter but he likes to keep it topped up, and he enjoys the exercise. He soon works up a fine sweat and pauses for a moment to take off his sweater and hang it on the door handle, and then he returns to work.

He's got a big pile of kindling stacked up when a dot in the distance catches his eye, way over on the horizon. At first he thinks it's a bird, because why the hell would anyone be walking around up here? It keeps moving, a blur of navy blue and green. He watches as the dot comes closer…and closer…

It isn't a bird. It's a man.

Digger starts barking, but Gibbs silences him with a firm "ssh". He puts down his axe, grabs his sweater, and pulls it on over his shirt.

When he looks up again the man is much closer. It’s hard work tramping through the snow, and his breath is steaming the air in front of him.

It isn't just any man.

The recognition catches in Gibbs's throat, and he can only just stand there as the man comes closer. It's been nearly two and a half years, and he wasn’t sure this day would ever come.

Closer…closer…closer.

They're close enough now to call out to each other.

Closer, closer, closer.

Close enough now to see each other's faces. Close enough to smile, to say something, to acknowledge each other in some way.

They don't do any of those things. Gibbs just stands there, Digger by his side, and the man just keeps on walking towards them, his gaze fixed on Gibbs, his face unsmiling.

Gibbs doesn't know what to expect. He isn't sure what will happen when the man finally reaches him, and he braces himself for anything from a hug to a punch. Either would be entirely appropriate.

Beside him, Digger's ears are flicking wildly as he picks up on the tension in the air. Gibbs isn't surprised – you could cut it with a knife.

He stands his ground as the man takes his last few strides through the snow and then stands there, right in front of him, so close he could touch him. He doesn’t.

They look at each other for a long moment. Then, finally, the man speaks.

"You are a fucking bastard."

"Yeah." There's no point denying that. It's true. "You track me down and come all this way just to tell me that, Tony?"

"No." Tony glares at him. "I tracked you down a long time ago. If I'd wanted to come all this way to tell you that I'd have done it before now."

"So why are you here?"

Tony's eyes flicker, and Gibbs realises a different mask is in place now. Not the clown, but someone a good deal darker. He's not surprised, but he's sure this mask will be as hard to see behind as the last one; he doesn't expect to get answers any time soon.

Tony is thinner than when Gibbs last saw him, and his hair is shorter and spiky. Apart from that, he hasn’t changed much. Gibbs stands there, waiting for a reply he knows he’s not going to get.

At that moment, Digger presses his nose inquisitively into Tony's crotch. Gibbs winces, but it does at least break the impasse. He orders Digger away with a click of his fingers.

"You've got a dog," Tony says expressionlessly.

"Yup."

"What's he called?"

"Digger."

"Why?"

Gibbs rolls his eyes. "'Cause he likes to dig. Why the hell d'you think, DiNozzo? Now are you coming inside for coffee, or did you climb all the way up here just to stand outside talking about my damn dog?"

He turns and goes inside, not looking back. He pours two coffees from the pot and turns to find Tony standing in the doorway.

"How did you get up here anyway?" Gibbs asks. His hand is shaking as he gives Tony the mug of coffee, and he hopes Tony doesn't notice. "You can't have walked all the way."

"Hitched a ride with a woman; red hair, nice smile. Lives in the blue house down there." Tony gestures with his thumb. "My car got stuck just down the road from her place, and I knocked on her door. She brought me up to the end of the road in her truck – said I could walk the rest of the way. I think she was scared you’d be mad at her for bringing me here, so she didn’t want to be around when you first saw me.”

"That's Emmylou."

"She's nice. Kinda weird though. When I told her I had to get up here, she said to go home and come back in the spring. I told her that wasn't an option. She gave me this long, freaky stare, and then she grabbed her keys and said she'd give me a ride. “

"She was just being neighbourly." Gibbs shrugs.

"No. It wasn’t that; she said you were waiting for me. Like you were expecting me or something."

"I wasn't expecting you, Tony."

Tony's eyes narrow and harden. "Yeah, I think you were. Maybe not now, maybe not today, but you knew I'd show up here one day."

Gibbs takes a sip of his coffee and then gives a slow nod. "Maybe I did."

They stand there looking at each other, awkwardly, over the rim of their coffee mugs.

“You gonna sit down?” Gibbs asks at last.

Tony shrugs and sits down on the couch. Gibbs can’t sit beside him – it’s a small couch, and he doesn’t want to be squashed up that close to Tony.

He gets a chair from the dining table, brings it over, and puts it beside the couch. Then he sits down on that.

Tony puts his coffee mug down on the floor beside the couch and takes off his gloves. His left hand is heavily scarred, the scarring disappearing up the sleeve of his jacket, but apart from that he seems to have healed up well. Gibbs glances at it fleetingly and then glances away again.

Tony picks up his mug again and glances around the place. “You’ve got a tree,” he says, looking at the pine tree.

“Yeah.”

“Just leaning there, against the wall.”

“Yeah. Emmylou left it there.”

“Aren’t you going to stick it in a pot and put bells and stars and tinsel on it?”

“Nope. I haven’t got any of that shit. I didn’t want the damn thing. She just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

“She likes you.”

He doesn’t have a reply to that, so he just grunts and sips his coffee.

“She’s a redhead.”

“Well yeah, Tony, I had noticed.”

“You and she…?”

“That what you came here for, Tony?” Gibbs interrupts roughly. “To ask me a lot of stupid questions?”

“No,” Tony says quietly. “I didn't come here for questions – I came for answers, Gibbs, and I’m not leaving until I get them.”

There’s a hard look in those green eyes, but then Gibbs has always known that underneath the charm and humour, Tony has a stubborn streak almost as strong as his own.

“Better start asking the right questions fast then,” Gibbs mutters. Tony gives him a questioning look, and Gibbs shrugs. “The big snow is due in a couple of days, so if you haven’t got your answers by then you’ll be stuck here for the next couple of months. Maybe you should stop wasting your time asking the wrong questions and start asking the right ones.”

Tony sits back, an assessing look on his face. "Fine. See, I remember waking up in a hospital room, and you being there. And I remember you showing up for regular visits for the next few weeks, and even though everything hurt like hell, and I nearly died…"

"You did die. More than once."

"Yeah, and even despite that, I felt pretty damn good because I thought you actually gave a crap, and that we actually had something going on between us. Then one day you were gone. No explanation. No visit. No phone call. Not even a fucking note. You were just gone."

Gibbs can feel his hands trembling, and he puts the coffee mug down on the floor so that he won't drop it. He feels too hot, and when he wipes his hand over his forehead it comes away covered in sweat. Damn it, now is not a good time to have an attack.

Tony is gazing at him, looking for those answers he wants, and he deserves them too but Gibbs knows he's only got a few minutes before he's on his knees, shaking and sobbing, and he doesn't want Tony to see him like that.

When he makes no reply, Tony gets a mulish look in his eyes and continues on doggedly, getting it all out. And why the hell not? He's had nearly two and a half years to work on this speech.

"And eventually Vance tells me you've resigned. Ziva and McGee don't know a damn thing, and at first I'm sure there's a reason, and that'll you'll tell me what it is in your own sweet time, but then the weeks pass, and, dumbass that I am, I finally figure out that you won't because you're not coming back. Not one day, not soon, not ever."

Tony slams his empty mug down on the floor.

"You left me with nothing. Not one damn thing. You just left, Gibbs. Were you that much of a coward that you couldn't at least come and tell me that you were running out on me?"

"Damn it, Tony, not everything is about you! Did you ever stop for a second to consider that?"

Gibbs gets up and lurches towards the bathroom. The shaking is much worse now, and he needs to get out of sight before it takes hold. He slams the bathroom door shut behind him, locks it, and then sinks to the floor before the shaking takes him down.

He wishes he hadn’t said that. Tony, for all his faults, doesn’t have his head up his own ass, and he's got every right to be angry. He closes his eyes, resting his head on the wall behind him, and he's back in the squad room again.

XXXX

His hands are on Tony's chest, and he's pumping away, performing CPR on Tony for the third time. He's so engrossed in keeping Tony alive that he doesn't even hear their rescuers until he's being pulled away from Tony.

"It's okay, sir. We've got him now. Sir?"

He brushes the sweat out of his eyes and finds himself looking blindly at a fire fighter. A paramedic is crouching beside Tony, putting an oxygen mask over his face, and a bunch of fire fighters are clearing the rubble off Tony’s legs so that he can be moved.

"I'm fine…he’s not…he needs help…his lungs were damaged…not now…a few years ago…plague…he couldn’t breathe…" He tries to turn back to Tony but another paramedic is holding him still and shining a torch into his eyes.

"You're not fine." The paramedic touches his forehead, and he realises it isn't sweat that’s running down the side of his face – it's blood. "You have a serious head injury."

"We need to get you out of here, sir," the fire fighter says. “This way. We’ve cleared a route.”

“Not until they get him out,” Gibbs says stubbornly, and they can’t make him move until Tony’s been dug out of there and put on a gurney.

There’s a haze of scrambling through rubble, following Tony's gurney, and then he's in an ambulance, then a hospital bed. Nobody answers his questions, and he's about to rip out the IV and get the hell out of there and find Tony when Abby comes rushing in, and that's at least one less person for him to worry about.

"Ducky?" he asks her before anything else, because he’s the only member of his team left unaccounted for.

"The Duckman is fine!”

“Vance? SecNav?”

“Everyone’s fine, Gibbs! They weren’t even in the building. I think they were supposed to be but their meeting got called off for some reason.”

He’s relieved about that. At least the bombers didn’t succeed in their aim.

“Oh Gibbs! I was so worried!” Abby says, hugging him tight. “I'd just left the Navy Yard when the bomb went off. I came running back, but they wouldn't let anyone in. I kept calling you and Tony on your cell phones, and I was going crazy when you didn't answer. I’ve left, like, twenty messages on your voicemail…"

He doesn't hear the rest. All he can hear is the booming sound of the bomb exploding as it reverberates around his head. Every time he closes his eyes he's back in the elevator, being thrown backwards by the force of the explosion. He keeps re-living it, over and over again.

Tony is in a critical condition for the next four days. Nobody is sure if he'll pull through, but by some miracle, he does.

Gibbs sits at his bedside for the next couple of weeks, wondering where the hell they go next. For a long time neither of them talk about the elephant in the room, and then one day Tony turns to him.

"There are things you say when you think you're dying…" he begins.

"You were dying. You did die," Gibbs interrupts. Then he gives Tony the out. "I'll forget it, if that's what you want."

"No," Tony says firmly. "I don’t want to forget it. Do you?”

Gibbs picks up Tony's good hand and squeezes it gently, and that’s all the reply Tony needs. He watches Tony's eyelids droop, smiling at the little smile curving on Tony's lips. They can do this. To hell with all the reasons why it's a bad idea; they can make it work. He settles back in his chair, happy to just sit here and watch Tony sleep.

Somewhere in the hallway outside, a nurse drops something. It makes a loud, clanging noise as it lands, and he is instantly back in the elevator again. He gets up and walks unsteadily out of the room. A nurse asks him something but he can't hear her. All he can hear is the booming sound of the bomb exploding in his head.

He makes it down the hallway to the bathroom, gets inside, and fumbles with the lock. He's sweating and shaking, and he stares at himself in the mirror, wondering what the hell is happening to him.

XXXX

The sound of whining breaks into his consciousness, and he comes back to the present. He’s in a different bathroom, in the cabin, and he can see Digger's black nose trying to poke through the gap under the door.

He takes a few deep breaths, calming himself, hoping this particular attack is over. Then he gets up and splashes water over his face to try and make himself look and feel more normal.

He wonders if Tony will still be there when he goes back out into the living room. He opens the bathroom door, and Digger is immediately upon him, pushing his wet nose against his hand; Digger is always protective of him during and immediately after one of his attacks.

He clears his throat, straightens up, and steps back out into the living room…to find Tony standing in front of the shelves he made to hold his ever-growing library of books. Tony puts a book back onto the shelf and then turns. His gaze is assessing, curious…but he doesn't say anything.

They stare at each other in silence for a moment, and then Gibbs speaks.

"So…how is everyone at NCIS?" he asks because he does genuinely want to know.

None of them has his address, and he hasn't been in contact with any of them. He doubts Abby will ever forgive him for that. Ducky might. He wasn't close enough to Ziva and McGee for them to be as hurt by the way he left, but he'd still like to know how they're doing all the same.

"I don't know." Tony shrugs. "I resigned over a year ago."

It's a bombshell he wasn't expecting. He sits down on the chair, feeling winded.

"You resigned?"

"What's the problem? You resigned too. It's not a big deal." Tony goes over to the pine tree lying propped up against the wall and inhales deeply. "Mmm…I love the smell of Christmas trees."

It's the first glimpse of *Tony*, his Tony, that he's seen since he arrived, but Gibbs is still reeling from what Tony just said.

"So what have you been doing for the past year?" Gibbs asks.

"Travelling." Tony sniffs the tree again. "You really should put this in a pot with some water in it, or it'll die."

"It's already dead. Someone cut it down from the forest. It was alive out there. In here it's dead."

Tony raises an eyebrow, his meaning all too clear, and Gibbs finds himself rattled by the analogy he's sure Tony is making.

"I'm not dead," he snaps.

Tony shrugs and sits down on the couch. "Never said you were. Might have wished it occasionally though." He makes a funny little face as he says that and then laughs at his own joke

"Travelling?" Gibbs tries to get back on track.

"Yeah. Ever since I went to Paris on that assignment, I've realised I was missing out on a whole great big wide world out there. So I resigned from NCIS, and I’ve spent the past fourteen months travelling around the world."

"How the hell were you able to afford that?"

"Dad died." Tony's eyes darken again, and his mood is serious once more. "He died on the up, much to my surprise, and left me everything. There was more than enough to buy me some travelling time."

"Tony, I'm sorry." He can imagine how much that must have hurt. Tony and his father were just starting to build some kind of a relationship again, and he knows how much that meant to Tony.

Tony waves a dismissive hand in the air. "Don’t be. He had a heart attack while in the act of making love to a hot, wealthy divorcee twenty years younger than him. I can't think of a more fitting end for the old bastard."

Gibbs gives a little grunt of amusement; Tony has a point there.

"After I figured out you weren't coming back, that you really had run out on me without a word, I did some digging to find out where you were," Tony says.

"I hid my tracks well."

"Yeah, but I'm me." There's a note of pride in Tony's voice. "And, no offence, Gibbs, but I was always the best investigator on the team."

"That so?" Gibbs snorts.

"Yup! You had the gut and the ninja interrogation skills, but when it came down to just plain old detective work…well, I was the cop on the team. Your background was the military. Different skillset."

Digger comes over and sits down in front of the fire with a heavy sigh. Gibbs leans forward and rubs his ears. Digger rolls onto his back, displaying his belly, so Gibbs obligingly rubs that too.

"Ziva was the muscle, McGee was all about the computers, Abby was forensics, and Ducky…well, he's fantastic with dead bodies, but I was pretty sure you weren't dead. Cop skills were the only thing going to track you down, and I've got those."

He looks pleased with himself, and he has a right to be. Gibbs wasn't lying when he said he hid his tracks well; he doubts anyone but Tony would have been able to find him.

"Of course I wasn't the only one who looked. Abby tried to find you too, despite Vance warning us all away. And she's great with forensics and electronics, but you didn't leave that kind of trail, did you?" Tony raises an eyebrow. "You know we'd look, and you didn't want to be found."

"How are they?" Gibbs asks softly. "Ziva, McGee, Ducky…Abby?" His voice breaks a little as he says that last name.

"Oh no." Tony shakes his head. "You walked out on them. If you want to know how they're doing then you'll have to ask them yourself."

Gibbs feels his jaw tighten, but he makes no reply.

"Did you walk out on everyone without a word?" Tony asks. "I mean, I know you walked out on me, and on your team, but what about your dad? Tell me you didn't just disappear out of Jack's life without saying a word too."

"Jack's dead, Tony."

For the first time since Tony showed up, Gibbs sees the mask slip. The hardness and anger are gone, and he sees a flash of that deep empathy that Tony has always tried so hard to hide.

"Christ Gibbs, I'm sorry. Damn it. I liked the old man." Tony rubs his hand over his hair.

They stare at each other glumly. Somehow, they have failed to be there for each other in two of the most significant moments in their lives.

"When?" Tony asks.

Gibbs gives an evasive shrug. "A while back."

"See, I tried calling him when I was tracking you down. Left him a few messages but he never got back to me. I figured you'd told him not to talk to me, so I gave up after that."

Gibbs says nothing but he's aware that Tony's deceptively casual eyes are gazing at him searchingly. He was right about those cop skills of his. Gibbs, of all people, knows that you underestimate Tony at your cost – and that when he is at his seemingly most harmless is precisely when he's at his most dangerous.

"It's getting cold. Need some more wood for the fire," Gibbs mutters, getting up, wanting to get away from Tony's gaze.

He’s relieved to step outside into the cold, and he takes several deep breaths of freezing air. It helps clear his head – and he needs his head clear if he's going to go back in there for another round of cat and mouse with Tony. He doesn't like the feeling that he's the mouse in this scenario; he isn't used to it.

He’s just bending down to pick up some logs when he hears a loud, crashing sound. Instinctively he ducks back against the wall of the cabin, crouching down and covering his ears. Digger is by his side in seconds, licking his hand as Gibbs relives the sound of the bomb blast in his head again. He's heard it so often now, and he wishes he knew how to make it go away.

He takes a moment to calm himself; Digger's relentless tongue helps, anchoring him in the moment. Finally he gets up, grabs the logs, and walks back inside as if nothing has happened.

He finds Tony crouching down beside his shattered coffee mug, trying to pick up the shards.

"Sorry." Tony looks up at him, making an apologetic face. "I went to pick it up and it kind of slipped out of my grasp. Hand muscles still aren’t right. I should do more of the exercises the therapist gave me but…well, most of the time I can't be bothered."

He shrugs, and Gibbs forces himself to look at his left hand properly for the first time. Last time he saw it, it was covered in bandages and before that it was burned black and red. It's badly scarred, a little bent and twisted, and he can see why it wouldn't work properly.

"I'll do it," Gibbs says curtly, pushing Tony out of the way and sweeping up the pieces himself. He throws them in the trash and then turns back to Tony.

"It's getting dark. You won't be able to go back tonight. You can sleep on the couch. I'll get us something to eat."

Dinner is a more relaxed meal than he'd expected. Tony seems to have changed, but he's not sure why. The hard, angry mask has gone, to be replaced by something more like Tony's old mask of combined chatterbox and idiot. Gibbs has never been fooled by either of them, but at least they're back on familiar territory now.

Tony tells him a little about his travels, pausing only to feed Digger titbits of meat under the table when he thinks Gibbs isn't looking.

After dinner, Gibbs grabs a spare pillow and blanket and throws them on the couch.

Tony lies down with a frown, pummels the pillow, and then tries to lie flat. It's not possible, so he rolls onto his side and bends his knees up. There's something almost funny about the way he tries to fold his big body into the small space.

"No offence, Gibbs, but why the hell did you make this couch so small?" he gripes.

Somehow Gibbs isn't surprised Tony knows he made the couch himself.

"How did you…?" he begins but Tony just grins and taps the side of his nose with his finger in a way that's extremely infuriating.

"Cop skills, remember," Tony says. "I think you made pretty much everything in this place; the shelves, the table, the chairs…even Digger's bed over there."

"I'd forgotten how truly irritating you are," Gibbs grunts, and Tony's face breaks into a delighted grin in response. It's too soon for a head slap, but Gibbs's hand itches to deliver one all the same. "Night, Tony." He turns off the light, closes the door, and goes into the bedroom, with Digger by his side.

He lies there for a long time, looking up at the ceiling. The day was full of surprises, but it ended better than he would have expected. Maybe there is still some kind of redemption to be had here. And maybe, just maybe, there's even some room for hope.

He should have remembered that it's when Tony is at his seemingly most harmless that he's most dangerous.

When Gibbs wakes up the next day he goes into the living room to find it empty. The blanket has been folded neatly and placed on top of the pillow. Tony is nowhere to be seen, but there's a note on the dining table.

“I got my answers.
Tony
PS I put the tree in a pot. It was bugging me.”

That's it. Nothing else. Gibbs stares at it for a long time, wondering what the hell answers Tony thought he got. Whatever they were they seem to have satisfied him because he's definitely gone.

He glances over at the tree. Sure enough, it's been wedged into the bucket he keeps in the kitchen. Tony must have ransacked his cupboards in the night, looking for a suitable container. There are some logs around the base of the tree, keeping it upright, and the bucket is filled with water. Tony has moved the tree away from the wall and spread out the branches, so it looks like a proper Christmas tree now – minus any form of decoration.

Gibbs sits down on the couch and gazes at it blankly. It’s Christmas Eve, and although Tony was only here for a few hours, he misses him already.

He leans over, picks up the pillow Tony slept on, and buries his face in it, inhaling Tony's scent.

He wasn't lonely before. He's spent the last two Christmases without human company and it wasn't a problem for him, but now it feels like the last thing he wants is to be alone for a third.

He glances at Digger, who sniffs the tree curiously and then takes a lap of water from the bucket.

"Looks like it's just you and me again, Digger."

Seeing Tony again has unsettled him, and he finds it hard to lose himself in the new dresser he's making. He keeps stopping to stare out of the window. He makes a few mistakes, and in the end he abandons the project for the day to go back into the house and read.

He's bored – and he's never felt bored before in his cabin high up on the mountain. He's always relished the isolation. Now he misses the vibrancy of Tony's presence, and it just makes him realise how much he was missing it before too, without even knowing it.

It's too late though. He can't turn the clock back and even if he could, he knows he'd make all the same choices and mistakes all over again. It's who he is.

He glances over at the tree, and now he almost wishes he had gone and bought something to decorate it with; it looks so bare and empty standing there.

He goes to bed, bracing himself for the day ahead: Christmas Day. And after that, the solitary months that will, inevitably, follow. He spends a few hours staring at the ceiling before finally dropping off to sleep in the small hours.

It took him so long to get to sleep that it's late when he wakes up. He pulls on his bathrobe and walks into the living room on his way to the kitchen…and then stops.

His tree is covered in tinsel and baubles in bright, garish shades of gold and red. There's even a fairy perched on the top, wearing a tacky gold dress and waving a sparkling wand. Several strings of lights are wound around the tree, glowing blue, pink, red, yellow and green.

"What the…?" Gibbs walks over to the tree, and there, beneath it, curled up in a red blanket, is Tony. He's surrounded by stuff: a couple of rucksacks, several big boxes, and, surprisingly, a battered old guitar case.

Digger pokes his snout into Tony's face and licks his jaw, and Tony stirs and then sits up, his hair a mass of spiky points.

"Tony…what the hell is this?" Gibbs asks.

Tony glances up at him blearily, and then he looks at the tree.

"A Christmas tree should have stuff on it," he mumbles, reaching his arms above his head in a big, elaborate stretch.

"Not the damn tree. You. Here. This." Gibbs waves his arm around the room.

"Oh right. Well, I figured if I was going to be holed up in here for the entire winter with just you and Digger for company, then I'd need more than your book collection to keep me sane.” Tony pushes the blanket away and gets to his feet, groaning slightly. “So I went and stocked up on supplies. TV…" He points to one of the boxes. "DVD player. Laptop." He waves his hand around the room. "Clothes…extra food…that kind of stuff."

"You're staying for the winter?" Gibbs asks blankly. "Why?"

Tony shrugs. "We have stuff to talk about, and I figure it might take that long to do it."

"I thought you said you'd got the answers you wanted."

"Oh, I did." Tony's face breaks into a grin. "That's why I came back. Otherwise I'd have just kept on going."

Gibbs wonders what the hell answers Tony thinks he got, but he doesn't think about that for too long, because he's aware of feeling something he hasn't felt in a very long time: Happy.

"Left here at dawn yesterday, hiked back down the mountain, got my car and drove back to town,” Tony says. “Bought this stuff, sold my useless car, bought a truck that would get me back up here, piled the stuff onto it, and got here at about 4 a.m.” Tony gives a proud smile. "Decided to decorate the tree before going to bed. Hated seeing it like that."

"And why the hell were you sleeping on the floor?"

"Because that couch really screwed up my back. Like I said, you made it too small."

"I wasn't expecting company when I made it," Gibbs grunts, and then he thinks about it and smiles. "I was gonna make a dresser this winter but screw that. I'll make a bigger couch instead."

Tony grins at him again, and Gibbs knows they still have one hell of a long way to go, but it's a start.

Digger snuffles through Tony’s belongings curiously, and Gibbs glares at the dog.

“Fine guard dog you are,” he mutters. “Didn’t even damn well bark when this idiot broke into the place this morning.”

“He did come and investigate, but I might, uh, have given him a bribe to keep him quiet,” Tony says with a grin.

It should feel strange, sharing this small space with another human being after so much solitude, but somehow it doesn't.

Tony is upbeat and energetic, definitely more like the Tony he knew of old. He bustles around the place, preparing a big Christmas lunch and talking non-stop. He mulls some wine and hands Gibbs a glass, talking at length about his grandmother's Italian Christmas traditions before segueing effortlessly into a riff on the best Christmas movies.

After lunch, Tony opens all the boxes, and they spend the afternoon installing the huge new plasma TV, hooking up the DVD, and unpacking Tony's clothes. There isn't one suit among them – he seems to have ditched those in favour of a supply of jeans, sweatpants, tee shirts, plaid shirts and sweaters. He's got a couple of pairs of sturdy Timberland boots as well.

"Must have killed you to get rid of those fancy shoes you liked so much," Gibbs comments.

Tony shrugs. "Not really. I wanted a complete change. Threw out or sold everything before I went travelling. Learned how to travel light. It felt good."

"Thought you could leave the past behind, huh?"

"Yeah." Tony glances up from where he's unpacking an assortment of underwear.

"Doesn't work."

"I know. That's why I'm here. Unfinished business." Tony is giving him one of those searching gazes again. "Can't leave the past behind when it's in your head the whole time."

"What changed?" Gibbs asks, sitting down on the couch. "Why did you decide to come here, Tony?"

Tony stops what he's doing and sits down on the floor beside his half-unpacked rucksack. "Honestly? I don't know. I enjoyed travelling, but it was like every step was in the wrong direction. Something was tugging at me inside, telling me something. Eventually I decided to listen to my gut, like someone once taught me." He rolls his eyes in Gibbs's direction. "So instead of planning my route, I just got up each day and went where my gut took me. I got on this train, or that bus, or this plane depending on what my gut said. That's how I ended up here."

"What happened at NCIS? Why did you leave?" Gibbs asks, aware that he’s got no right to expect an answer but hoping for one anyway.

"At first, I thought I could stay." Tony looks kind of small and lost. "Then, after awhile, I knew I couldn't. It wasn't the same anymore. Without you."

"Must have been hard for you, Tony, leaving the team. I know they were like family to you."

"You assume there was a team to leave," Tony says bitterly. Gibbs raises a puzzled eyebrow. "Did you really think that when I came back, after months in physical therapy, Vance would just hand me the team on a platter?"

Gibbs feels a surge of anger. “Vance didn't make you team leader?"

"Hell no!"

"The damn idiot!" Gibbs wishes he could go back there, storm into Vance's office, and ask him what the hell he thought he was playing at. Tony's the best agent he ever worked with – but, he has to concede, if you don't really know Tony, if you don't *get* Tony, then he might not come over that way. And Vance never did get Tony.

"He brought in some new person. She was okay, but she wasn't you. And McGee went off to be the boss of some new, shiny, ultra high-tech cyber crimes unit that Vance set up. Ziva didn't stick around for long, either; she went back to Israel.” Tony gives a little shrug. “Ducky retired, and Abby got poached by Fornell and went to the FBI. She said he was the next best thing to you. I guess you were the glue keeping us together, Gibbs. Without you we fell apart like that." He clicks his fingers in the air, making a loud snapping sound. Gibbs jumps slightly, only just suppressing the instinctive urge to duck.

Tony is sitting there, gazing at him, as if waiting for something.

"What?" Gibbs demands.

"Just wondering when you're going to apologise, that's all." Tony shrugs. "I know it's a sign of weakness, but in the circumstances, given what you leaving set in motion…"

"I'm not going to apologise, Tony," Gibbs says stiffly, because he knows he'd do the same again.

"Yeah, I thought you'd say that. Anything you want to tell me?"

"No." Gibbs gets up and goes outside to get some air and process this new information.

When he comes back, Tony has packed all his stuff away and is sitting in front of the TV, a bowl of popcorn on his lap.

"You ready?" he asks.

"For what?"

"’It's a Wonderful Life’ of course! It's Christmas, Gibbs!" Tony pulls on his arm and makes him sit down on the couch beside him.

It's been a long time since he watched a movie, and he finds himself enjoying it, sitting beside Tony, their thighs touching, sharing the bowl of popcorn.

When the movie's over, he gets up.

"Time for bed." He hesitates. "Thanks, Tony."

"For what?"

"For making it a real Christmas." Gibbs glances around the living room. "The big meal, the Christmas movie, the tree with all the crap on it."

"Don't forget the presents underneath it." Tony grins. "The TV, the DVD player, the laptop, me…"

Gibbs rolls his eyes at that, and Tony laughs out loud. Gibbs picks up the pillow and blanket that were stowed away on one of the shelves in the corner, and Tony groans and rubs his back dramatically.

"Oh shit; that choice between the floor and the couch again. Great."

Gibbs only thinks about it for a very brief moment. "The bed's plenty big. We could share," he mutters.

Tony nods thoughtfully. "Okay then," he agrees quietly. It's another little step, among many little steps, and Gibbs has no idea where all these steps are leading.

Digger doesn't seem fazed by having two humans in the bed instead of one. He arranges himself down one side, on the edge closest to Gibbs. Tony slips under the blankets and turns on his side, facing away from them, and Gibbs turns out the light. Then, slowly, he turns over, so he's facing Tony's back, puts his hand on Tony's hip, and leaves it there. Tony doesn't shove it off. It seems they’ve taken another little step.

XXXX

He’s standing in the squad room. It’s just how he remembers it from working there for all those years. The desks are all in position, the lights are shining overhead, and the walls are that particular shade of warm orange that gives anyone standing next to them a tangerine glow.

The only strange thing about it is that it’s entirely empty. It’s eerie…like everyone stepped out for a moment, leaving it frozen in time. There are papers on desks, phones ringing, and coats slung over filing cabinets and the backs of chairs. Then, one by one, the phones stop ringing, leaving only one: Tony’s phone.

It keeps on ringing until Gibbs goes over to Tony’s desk and picks it up. He holds it to his ear, wondering who it is, but all he hears is the massive booming explosion of a bomb going off. He ducks for cover, and that’s when he sees Tony, lying under his desk. He smells burning, and he realises that it isn’t just Tony’s hand and arm that have been burnt – his whole body is black and red, and he’s screaming in agony….

XXXX

Gibbs wakes up to the sound of his own scream fading on his lips, the scent of burning flesh still lodged in his nostrils. For a moment he doesn't know where he is, and then he feels a familiar shaking and has the imminent sensation that he's about to vomit.

He jumps out of the bed, runs through the living room to the front door, opens it, and manages to get out just in time to throw up on the snow. Digger is beside him, pressed close, and Gibbs is glad of that.

He takes several deep gulps of icy air, calming himself, and then returns to the living room…to find Tony standing there, holding a blanket. He throws it over Gibbs's shoulders and wordlessly hands him a glass of water, then shoves him down on the couch and chucks a few logs on the still glowing embers of the fire. Then he sits down on the floor beside the fire, facing Gibbs.

"All that rich food…must have screwed with me," Gibbs mutters by way of explanation.

Tony's snort is both loud and incredulous. "Bullshit," he snaps. "It’s PTSD.”

Gibbs looks up sharply.

“Post traumatic stress disorder,” Tony spells out, although they both know what it means.

"What the hell are you talking about?" Gibbs growls.

Tony shrugs. "I figured it out two days ago. The shaking hands you tried so hard to hide, the way you ran off to the bathroom and stayed there for a good twenty minutes. While you were in there, I took a look at your book collection.” He glances up at the bookshelves. “You’ve got a few books on PTSD, all of them looking pretty dog-eared, like you've read them a few times."

“I’ve read a lot of books a few times. Doesn’t mean a damn thing.”

"That’s why I did a little test, just to be sure."

Realisation hits him. "The mug you broke – you dropped it on purpose."

"Yeah. Wanted to see how you reacted to the sound. And boy, did you react. It was textbook."

Gibbs could have kicked himself for not figuring that out sooner. It’s not as if Tony hasn’t bragged about his cop skills often enough.

"I told you I had the answers I wanted,” Tony says. "Not all of them – but enough to know where to look for the rest."

Gibbs raises an eyebrow. “The rest?”

"When I went into town yesterday I did some research in an internet café. I found Jack's obituary. It seems he never called me back because he was already dead."

Gibbs feels his hand shaking and water spills from it onto the floor. Tony gets up and removes the glass from his hand. He crouches down in front of Gibbs and looks up at him.

"See, I thought you ran out because you're a coward, and you couldn't face up to what happened between us when I thought I was dying. I thought it was me you ran out on."

"It wasn't you," Gibbs says hoarsely.

"I know that now. That's why I came back with all my stuff. If I’d believed you were a coward I wouldn’t have come back. This is how I think it happened, Jethro." He rests his hands on Gibbs's knees, still gazing at him. "I think that bomb set off something in your head. At first, you tried to ignore it and carry on. I mean, you're Gibbs! Stuff like that doesn't happen to you.”

Gibbs doesn't want to hear this. He wants to turn away, so he doesn't have to look into those serious green eyes, but he finds he can’t move.

"Maybe you thought you could handle it, and maybe you could handle it. Maybe you were just in shock, and it would have gone away…but then, just a few weeks after the explosion, your father died. Not just any death…not peacefully in his sleep. He died when some young punk, hopped up on drugs, pulled a gun on him in his store.”

Gibbs doesn’t reply. He remembers his father coming to see him a few Christmases ago, to tell him about how he’d had to kill some guy who had invaded his store and waved a gun around. He’d been distraught about it, and Gibbs could kick himself for not seeing the bigger picture back then. He hadn’t realised that his father was trying to tell him how much Stillwater had changed and how vulnerable he felt by himself in the store. Gibbs had ignored all those warning signs, dismissing the incident as a one-off.

Tony is still gazing at him with that intense expression in his eyes. “You didn’t tell anyone, not even Abby, and you went to Stillwater on your own to handle the funeral arrangements. When you came back nobody thought you might be falling apart, did they? Not you. Not Gibbs.”

Gibbs brushes a hand wearily across his eyes, but Tony hasn’t finished.

“Hell, even you wouldn't admit it, but it was all too much, wasn't it? There was Kuwait, and Shannon and Kelly, and Hernandez, and a lifetime of danger and being in the firing line at NCIS. And then there was the bomb at the Navy Yard, followed so soon after by your Dad dying in such a terrible way. And there's a limit to what one man can take, Jethro. Even you."

Gibbs swallows hard. His throat feels dry, and his lips are parched. Tony hands him the glass of water, but his hand is shaking too much for him to hold it. Tony puts his scarred hand over Gibbs's shaking one and holds it to his lips for him. Gibbs drinks thirstily, gulping it down. When he's done, Tony takes the glass away again and puts it on the floor.

"You refused to acknowledge what was going on. You even went back to work, but then something happened. I don't know what…but something out in the field…and you realised you'd become a liability to your team."

"McGee almost died," Gibbs growls. “Because of me. Damn it, DiNozzo, I was a liability.”

"So you went to Vance and told him about it. He insisted you see a shrink, and although you hate shrinks with a loathing as deep as the deepest pit of hell…"

Tony pauses, an amused gleam in his eye, and Gibbs gives a wry grunt of acknowledgement.

"…you went to see this one because you knew you needed help. He or she didn't give you the kind of help you wanted though. You wanted it to just go away, and they told you it wasn't that simple."

"I've fought in wars. I've been a sniper behind enemy lines. I've been a federal agent for years. I survived all that. Why *this*? Why now?" Gibbs shakes his head. "Didn't add up to me, Tony. I've seen soldiers get PTSD. I understand it. I just couldn't figure out how the hell it had happened to me."

"The shrink probably told you not to be so hard on yourself, but she doesn't know you," Tony says wryly. "She probably explained that it was a culmination of events. Maybe the bomb triggered it, but it could have been waiting for you for years and of course your father's death, coming when it did, just made it worse."

"I wasn't there for him, Tony. Kept him at arm's length for years, and he didn't deserve that," Gibbs says tiredly.

"Hey – I understand all about fucked up relationships with fathers. I understand the regrets, Jethro." Tony sighs. "But what happened to him wasn't your fault.”

Logically, Gibbs knows that, but a part of him feels guilty all the same. Not just for his father’s death but also for the long years when he cut him out of his life.

“You realised you couldn't stay at NCIS because you couldn't do your job…and now we come to the bit I don't understand.”

That hard look is back in Tony’s eyes; the one from when he first showed up a couple of days ago. “You just left without saying goodbye. You didn't just leave them, but me too. You left me in that damn hospital bed without a word of explanation. You walked out on me, Gibbs. That's the bit I don't get."

"You died on me three times, Tony. You had internal injuries. One of your legs was badly broken. You were facing months of rehabilitation and painful physical therapy. You didn't need me draining your resources with my problems."

"Bullshit," Tony snaps.

"I'm not lying," Gibbs snaps back at him. "I didn't have anything to give to you, Tony. I was falling apart. I couldn't handle what was in my own head, let alone help you. Everything I ever knew about myself was taken away, so how the hell could I be of any use to you? I thought you'd be better off without me, and that's the damn truth."

"I believe you,” Tony says slowly. Then he rocks back on his heels. "But it’s not the whole truth.” He thinks about it for a moment, and then the realisation creeps into his eyes. "Oh, I get it. You hated your own weakness so much that you thought I'd be repulsed by it too. Christ, you are such a fucking idiot."

"Am I? Whatever the hell you saw in me all the years you chased after me like a puppy, it damn well wasn't weakness," Gibbs growls. "You wanted strength and certainty, Tony. You didn't want someone who gets the shakes every time a car backfires in the street. You wanted someone who knew how to do his damn job and could take care of you, not someone who pukes and hollers like a baby at random moments for who knows what goddamn reason."

"Wow, that's some lousy, low opinion of me you’ve got there, Gibbs." Tony looks hurt for a moment, and then a resigned looks enters his eyes. “But I can see why you’d have thought that. I never really gave you any reason not to. I’ve done a lot of soul-searching these past couple of years. That bomb was a wake-up call for me; I’ve changed, Gibbs.”

Gibbs can see that, although he’s not sure if Tony has really changed so much as dispensed with some of the more idiotic aspects of the mask he habitually used to wear. Tony’s stopped pretending he’s the skirt-chasing fratboy and owned up to who he really is, inside. It can’t have been an easy process, and Gibbs respects him for it.

“So how did I do?” Tony asks, with a cocky gleam in his eyes. “Did I get it all right? Was that how it went down?”

It’s pretty damn close. The one thing Tony couldn’t know, and he sure as hell isn’t going to tell him, is how spectacularly he fell apart after Jack died. The PTSD attacks were coming several times daily, and he was confused and in shock. He had just shut down and done what he always did when he was hurting; he’d crawled off on his own to lick his wounds someplace quiet.

“Well, like you said, you always were the best investigator on the team,” Gibbs replies, and Tony gives a little laugh. “You’re wrong about me not saying goodbye though,” Gibbs adds quietly. “I did. Came to see you in the hospital before I took off, but you were asleep. Thought about waking you but…”

“But in the end you thought you’d prefer to have me hate you for leaving, than resent you for not being able to be strong for me when I needed you most,” Tony says, accurately.

“Somethin’ like that, yeah. Can’t say it was that coherent though.” Gibbs gives a wry shake of his head. “You just looked so pale and ill lying there…couldn’t wake you up to tell you I was going. I was barely functioning myself. Couldn’t drag you down with me.”

Tony shivers, and Gibbs realises he’s dressed only in his boxer shorts and a tee shirt.

Gibbs gets up. “C’mon, it’s late, and we’ve done enough damn talking for one night,” he says, holding out a hand to haul Tony to his feet too.

“I did most of the talking. You mainly just grunted,” Tony points out, and this time Gibbs doesn’t stop himself from delivering the well-deserved head-slap. Tony laughs out loud and rubs his head extravagantly. “Just like the old days!” he says gleefully.

Gibbs wraps an arm around Tony’s shoulder and presses a kiss to the side of his head. “Yeah, just like the old days, Tony,” he says softly.

They get back into bed, and this time, when Gibbs rolls onto his side, it’s Tony who presses up close behind him and puts a hand on his hip. Gibbs doesn’t push him away.

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MTAC - NCIS Fic