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Love and Longevity

by: Nix (Send Feedback)

Series: Myths and Revelations #9
Chapters: 001 Word Count: 24154
Rating: MATURE
Character(s): Jethro Gibbs, Tony DiNozzo, Ensemble
Category(ies): Action/Adventure, Alternate Universe, Angst/Drama, Mystery
Pairing(s): Gibbs/DiNozzo
Summary: Secrets revealed lead to arguments.

Author Notes: This series is set in the same universe as the Horses of Different Colors series by James Walkswithwindand Wolfling, which you can find at http://gila.fakingsanity.net/horses.html -- I have, however, written it with the intention that it will still make complete sense to people who haven't read that series.



ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: Many and eternal thanks to rebecca and James for betaing this monster for me. Thanks also to Aurelia Priscus and Canthlian, neither of whom are in this fandom, for support during the writing.

Chapters: 1

Tony flopped down onto the bed on his back and turned his head to grin at his lover. Gibbs was wearing what was probably Tony's favorite expression: sated, smug, and content. It didn't hurt that he was also sweaty and disheveled. Kind of like Tony himself. Sweaty and sticky and sore in all the best places.

"I swear," Tony said, "you like that position just because it means I have to do all the work."

Gibbs chuckled. "I have a young, athletic lover. This old warhorse has to rest occasionally if he's going to keep up with you."

Tony snorted and stretched, showing off said athletic body. "You're not old, Gibbs. Tell me again in twenty years and I might buy it."

Suddenly all the laughter and contentment went out of Gibbs's expression. Tony rolled onto his side and propped his head up on one hand. "What'd I say?" he asked, reaching out to lay his hand on Gibbs's arm.

Gibbs sat up, Tony's hand sliding off of his skin, and ran his fingers briefly through his hair. "I'm not going to be around in twenty years, Tony," he said quietly.

Not going to be around? Tony frowned and sat up. He leaned forward and turned his head to try and catch Gibbs's eye, but Gibbs wasn't cooperating. "What are you talking about? This passed casual a long time ago and we both know it."

"I'm not talking about leaving you." Gibbs paused and grimaced. "I'm talking about...centaurs don't... Fuck." He took a deep breath, eyes fixed on the wall rather than on Tony. "Tony, centaurs don't live as long as humans do."

Tony went cold all over. His stomach knotted so tightly that he felt vaguely nauseous and had to swallow heavily before he could manage to speak. "How long is not as long?"

"Sixty-five is about average."

"But you're already fifty-two," Tony protested. He grimaced a moment later at the sheer stupidity of the comment. State the obvious a little more, why don't you.

Gibbs finally turned his head to look at Tony. "I know. On average we tend to stay lucid longer and go downhill faster at the end."

"The end." Tony's thoughts seemed to be stuck in molasses. "The end which is at sixty-five. Maybe sooner."

"Tony..." Gibbs reached out.

Tony flinched away from his hand and scrambled off the bed. "How is it that you didn't think to mention this sooner?" he asked sharply, running both his hands through his hair before catching himself and settling them on his hips instead.

"It's not the sort of thing that comes up in casual conversation," Gibbs said, dropping his hand and setting his jaw.

"Then maybe we should've had a not-so-casual conversation," Tony shot back. "Jesus, Gibbs."

"Why?"

Tony stared at him incredulously. "You don't think I deserved to know? I always knew I was going to lose you, barring some accident, but I thought I'd get thirty, maybe forty years out of you first. Now you're telling me I get thirteen, maybe a little better if I'm lucky and you take care of yourself, which isn't all that likely. So let's call it ten. Ten years, Gibbs! I don't want to lose you when I'm forty-four!"

"Would it have changed anything if I'd told you sooner?" Gibbs asked seriously.

Tony came up short at that. Would it have? Would he have not started this in the first place if he'd known then? Would he have left Gibbs if he'd found out months ago? Could he have?

You're mine and I'm not letting you go.

Tony scanned the floor, found his clothes, and started pulling them on. "I have to go. I have to... I need to think. Or something." He buttoned up his shirt haphazardly and looked around for his socks and shoes. Right. They were downstairs. Tony glanced at Gibbs almost involuntarily as he headed for the door.

The centaur was sitting on the bed, the covers in disarray all around him, his elbows resting on his knees. His hair stuck up in all directions, a result of Tony's fingers sliding through it. There was a strange look in Gibbs's eyes. Seeing it, Tony's throat closed up. "I..." love you. But he couldn't get it out.

Instead Tony left the room and clattered down the stairs and pulled on his socks and shoes before heading back to his apartment.

It was late, past one a.m., and the streets were almost empty. Tony had planned to sleep over tonight. It had been far too long since they'd managed that. Between their last case and reports and meetings and Tony's frat buddies inviting him out for drinks and Gibbs's regular breakfast with Ducky, they hadn't managed to spend any real time together in nearly two weeks, much less had the luxury of knowing it was safe to spend the night.

Tony had been looking forward to it. He'd been looking forward to it more and more. Hell, he'd even started wondering what it might be like in just five years, when the NCIS mandatory retirement age took Gibbs out of the field. Tony knew better than to think Gibbs would stop working; he imagined the ex-marine taking up some sort of consultant's position and running everyone else's investigations, using the younger agents as his eyes and ears, and getting chewed out by the Director because he kept going along with them in the field--just as an observer, honest.

In five years, when Gibbs wasn't a field agent anymore and Tony wasn't technically his subordinate, maybe the right people could be convinced to turn a blind eye when Tony's new address and Gibbs's old one turned out to be the same. In five years, maybe attitudes would have changed enough for them to take a vacation together. In five years...

In five years, five more years might be all Gibbs had left.

"They were pipe dreams anyway, and you know it," Tony muttered to himself. Five years wasn't enough for any of the things he caught himself thinking about these days to actually happen. But they'd been nice dreams and Tony had always believed that there'd be a slice of time near the end for just the two of them. Their reward for a job well done, or one last stolen moment in a long, long series of them, depending on how you looked at it.

Tony pulled into his parking spot, fished his keys out of his jacket pocket and started the climb up the echoing staircase to his apartment. His apartment which would have to remain his home, because he wasn't going to get the chance to live with Gibbs, not five years from now and not ten years from now. By that time if Tony hadn't lost him already then he would soon...

Inside, he shed his clothes haphazardly and crawled into bed. The sheets were cold against his naked skin and for once Tony didn't take a moment to enjoy their quality. Instead he stretched out on his back and stared up at the shadowed ceiling. He liked Gibbs's ceiling better. He liked everything about Gibbs's home better than his own, mostly because it had Gibbs in it.

Unlike here, where there was no Gibbs. Tony wasn't supposed to be alone tonight.

What happened to not letting me go?

***

Tony dragged himself in to work the next morning feeling like something he'd scraped off the bottom of his shoe after working a crime scene. He dropped down into his chair, tossed his bag into a corner up against the filing cabinet, and prayed for the spontaneous appearance of coffee on his desk.

"Good morning!" Kate greeted him, just a little too loudly.

Tony dug up a smirk for her. "Close, but no cigar. No hangover. Just insomnia."

Kate rolled her eyes. "Haven't you learned by now not to spend all night on your flavor of the moment when you have to work the next day? Honestly, Tony, even children eventually learn from their mistakes."

"I said insomnia, not night long fires of passion," Tony snapped. He turned on his computer monitor with a sharp stab at the power button and glanced over his desk for the file he'd been working on the day before.

Kate blinked. "Well. Getting pissy over having your powers of seduction overestimated is new. You'd better stay away from Gibbs."

"Why?" Tony asked, eyes fixed on his computer screen. Kate couldn't see that it was still booting up.

"Because he's in an even worse mood than you are this morning."

Somehow, that didn't make Tony feel any better. Neither of them should have been in a bad mood this morning. They ought to be happy. Tired, but happy. Bubbly, even. Instead, Tony had crawled out of his bed--alone--at four in the morning and did sit ups and squats for an hour, hoping the exertion would wake him up. It didn't. Neither did a cold shower.

When Gibbs returned to their aisle of desks from wherever he'd been, Tony could practically see the storm cloud hovering over him. Hunching down lower in his chair, Tony put his computer screen between him and Gibbs and pecked at the keys viciously.

Across the aisle Kate muttered, "Lord, give me strength."

By noon Kate had managed to spend twenty minutes and counting somewhere other than the squad room in a search for unspecified office supplies and Tony was sick to death of the hovering cloud of doom and gloom that he and Gibbs had created between them. He managed to babble something coherent about lunch and escaped via the elevator.

But instead of heading straight out to one of the cafes or fast food places within walking distance of NCIS, he headed down to Autopsy.

Ducky and Palmer had one of the coolers open and were obviously preparing to move the body within to a table. Tony took a quick glance at the guy, but it wasn't anyone from one of his team's cases.

"Ah, Anthony," Ducky said, catching sight of him. "If you'll just give us a moment, I'll be right with you."

"Actually, I was hoping to talk to you before you got started." Tony glanced at Palmer. "In private."

Ducky looked a little surprised, but he hardly missed a beat. "Certainly. My office--"

"Not here," Tony interrupted. "Can I just take you out to lunch or something?"

"Well, it is twelve o'clock," Ducky reasoned after a pause. "Just give me a moment."

While Ducky cleaned up and stored his various items of protective clothing, Tony tried to figure out how to broach the subject of Gibbs's little revelation. It wasn't easy--given the choice, Ducky wasn't the person Tony would have liked to talk this over with. They were friendly enough and Tony certainly trusted him, but he'd never really connected with the ME.

Not to mention that Ducky was nearly old enough to be Tony's grandfather. Tony couldn't even imagine talking about his sex life with his grandfather. He spared a moment to wish Abby was in on the secret. If anyone could wrap their brain around the weird twists in Tony's relationship with Gibbs, it was her. But despite the closeness she shared with Gibbs, Abby had never been told, which meant Ducky was the only option.

He's not your grandfather, Tony reminded himself, and you aren't going to be talking about your sex life. Well, not quite.

But there was another difficulty completely: how much did Ducky know? Okay, so he knew about the centaur thing, but Gibbs hadn't even told him enough for him to know that there were whole herds of centaurs living all over the country. He'd found that out from Tony. Did that mean Ducky didn't know about the lifespan thing either? On the other hand, Gibbs had confided in Ducky for health reasons in the first place.

It took Tony the entire walk from NCIS HQ to a quiet little cafe to figure out how to start the conversation. Fortunately, Ducky had picked up on his mood and hadn't pushed, instead filling the silence with a short ramble about the unusual circumstances involved in the death of the young man he'd been preparing to autopsy, apparently not minding that Tony wasn't really paying attention.

Tony waited until they'd gotten settled with their lunch before speaking. "Ducky...how much has Gibbs told you about how--" Tony paused, not wanting to say anything indiscreet in public. Even if they did seem to be out of earshot of the other diners, so long as he kept his voice down. "About how his people are different from the rest of us? Physically, I mean."

Ducky tilted his head and regarded Tony curiously. "He focused on those aspects which might impact his job performance, I believe. Apparently his perfect memory is a characteristic of his people and not peculiar to Jethro himself. He is also more susceptible to heat exhaustion than most, which makes me curious as to how he handled serving in the desert," Ducky frowned to himself. "Other than that, I believe the only points he mentioned were the tendency toward back and joint strain that you overhead originally and an inability to vomit."

Tony blinked, momentarily distracted. "Gibbs can't puke?"

"So he tells me," Ducky affirmed. "He assured me that he'd never been reckless enough to put himself in a position to need to, but he felt I should know, in the event that he was somehow poisoned."

"Huh." Tony considered that for a moment before pulling himself back to the point at hand. "So he never said anything about his..." Tony trailed off and swallowed heavily. "His life expectancy."

"No," Ducky said slowly. "May I assume, from your expression, that it isn't quite as extensive as ours?"

Tony dropped his fork, what lunch he'd eaten sitting in his stomach like a stone. "Sixty-five, Ducky. He said sixty-five was about average."

"Oh my."

"And he didn't even say anything until last night!" Tony burst out suddenly. "All this time and the fucking bastard didn't say a word. While I've been making these stupid, pipe-dream plans, he's been planning to check out early." Tony wanted to throw something or get up and pace, but they were in public and the servers were already eyeing him from across the room. He crossed his arms over his chest and hung onto his elbows instead, glaring at Ducky in lieu of Gibbs. "It works out pretty well for him, I guess," he said bitterly. "Gibbs gets a hot young lover to see him out his last few years. Doesn't even have to worry about the growing old part." Tony clenched his jaw, cutting off the words and waiting for Ducky to call him on that bit of bullshit.

"What plans were these?" Ducky asked instead, his voice infinitely gentle.

Tony could literally feel the wind go out of his sails. He slumped and dropped his eyes to his plate. "It doesn't matter," he said. "They're beside the point now. Maybe they always were."

"You always knew you'd lose Jethro eventually," Ducky said quietly. "He's eighteen years older than you, Tony. Barring some terrible accident, you'd have had to go on without him eventually regardless."

"I know that, Ducky." Tony poked at his potato salad with one finger and licked it clean again. "But when you decide you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, there's a big difference between expecting life to end around seventy and realizing it's actually going to end before fifty."

"Life won't really end for you, Tony. You'll still have a lot of good years ahead of you."

Tony lifted his eyes and glared at Ducky. "That's supposed to make me feel better?" he asked harshly. "You think the idea that I'll have time to live a whole other life after Gibbs kicks the bucket is a plus for me? I don't want a life after Gibbs, Ducky. I don't want to have another career and I sure as hell don't want to find love again."

"I didn't mean to imply that it would be to your advantage, Anthony," Ducky said sharply. "I just don't want you to make any foolish decisions about what happens to you once Jethro is gone."

"I'm not planning to kill myself." Although, come to think of it, getting in the way of a stray bullet had a dark kind of appeal. Gibbs would kick his ass for it though. Somehow.

"Or any foolish decisions about what happens now," Ducky added, raising an eyebrow.

Tony rubbed a hand over his head briefly and leaned forward, elbows on the table. "What's more foolish, Ducky?" he asked intently. "Staying with someone who's going to die in a couple of years and cause me all kinds of pain, or cutting my losses and getting out of the doomed relationship now?"

Ducky snorted and took a moment to make a dent in his own lunch before he deigned to respond to that. "With that kind of attitude, it's no wonder your relationships prior to that with Jethro were so casual and short-lived."

"Yeah, well, it worked for me." Tony pushed the potato salad around with his index finger, not caring that he was making a mess. "I don't know if I can do this. How do you enjoy being with someone when you know you're going to have to forget them and move on?"

"You don't forget them," Ducky said quietly. "And you take every day as it comes and savor the good moments, because every one of them is precious."

Internally, Tony winced at his own tactlessness. "Speaking from personal experience?" he guessed.

"Given my age, surely you didn't think I've been single all my life." Ducky smiled a little, as if to show he wasn't offended.

"Hadn't really thought about it," Tony said sheepishly. "Who was she?"

"Don't try to distract me, young man," Ducky said firmly. "We are talking about you and Jethro, not about me."

Tony scowled. "I'm not sure there is any me and Gibbs."

"That's up to you to decide, you know. Every one of Jethro's wives left him. He's never given up on a relationship. Whether or not this is the end of this one is your choice."

But it shouldn't be! Tony thought, frustrated. It was supposed to be up to Gibbs to decide where he belonged. Wasn't that what dominance meant? Tony wasn't supposed to be the making this decision; he wasn't supposed to have to agonize over it. Gibbs was supposed to take care of it, to take care of him, to let him know where he stood. Tony had thought he was done with this shit, and now the bastard had gone and fucked it all up.

None of which he could explain to Ducky.

"I know," he said shortly. And I can't tell you just how wrong that is.

Ducky sighed deeply. "It seems to me that you're--"

Tony's cell phone interrupted, ringing insistently and drawing glares from several other patrons of the little restaurant. Tony fished it out of his pocket and checked the display. Gibbs. Of course. For a moment he actually waffled on answering, torn between having to answer Ducky's question and having to talk to Gibbs. The phone rang again, as if to remind him that he'd have to go back to the office eventually and then he'd not only have to talk to Gibbs, he'd have to explain why he hadn't answered his cell. So he flipped the damn thing open. "Yeah, boss."

"We've got a dead midshipman at Bethesda," Gibbs said tersely. "Meet me at the car in five." The line went dead before Tony could answer.

Cursing, he leaped to his feet and threw a bill down on the table, not bothering to check the amount. "Sorry, Ducky. Dead guy calls. I imagine Gibbs will be wanting you in just a second."

Tony wove his way between the tables, waved apologetically at one of the waitresses, and broke into a run as soon as he was out of the cafe. It took him every second of those five minutes to get back to headquarters, grab his gun, and get down to the parking lot. He arrived short of breath and flushed, but Gibbs didn't even give him a second look. "Where's Kate?" Tony asked McGee, trying to suck in a deep breath quietly.

"Signing out another car," Kate said, coming up behind him. She squinted at the license number inscribed into the key and glanced around the lot, looking for the matching vehicle. "Why aren't these things color coded or something?"

"This is a government operation, Kate," Tony said. "You expect them to be logical and efficient?"

"You're a government employee, DiNozzo, and I expect you to be logical and efficient," Gibbs snapped.

Tony winced and ducked his head, turning on his heel to follow Kate to her vehicle. Maybe it was cruel to leave McGee with Gibbs when he was in this kind of a mood, but Tony knew he wouldn't be able to handle riding with the centaur without screaming. Tony wished silently that he'd never crawled out of bed this morning. He wished he'd never crawled into bed. Hell, while he was at it, he might as well wish that it was last night again and that Gibbs had been playing some nasty joke on him. It'd be a really fucking cruel thing to do for a laugh, but better that than it be real... Tony could live with Gibbs being a bastard. He wasn't looking forward to living without him.

***

The doctor that greeted them at the hospital was probably somewhere between Gibbs's age and Ducky's, but his attitude made him seem a hundred years old. Most doctors were upset when they lost a patient, though most of them were good at hiding it, but this man just seemed tired. Or maybe the bags under his eyes were just permanent features.

Whatever the reason, when they appeared and displayed their badges he just nodded, introduced himself as Dr. Bosch, and led them down the hall to trauma room where they'd treated the deceased, one Midshipman Henry Salter.

"What happened, Doctor?" Gibbs asked. "And why did you call NCIS?"

"The paramedics brought him in in respiratory and cardiac distress," Bosch said, hands calmly resting in the pockets of his lab coat. "By the time we started on him, he was displaying neurological symptoms, including fasciculations--that's involuntary twitching of the muscles--and drooling. He was dead almost before we realized he'd been poisoned. T.O.D. was 12:34. I cleaned up and called NCIS."

"Cleaned up?" Gibbs said sharply.

Doctor Bosch nodded to a white plastic bag at the foot of the trauma table. "My scrubs and gloves, if you need them."

Gibbs pursed his lips, glanced down at his notebook quickly, and looked back up at the doctor. "Can you tell me what kind of poison killed Midshipman Salter?"

"No, Agent Gibbs," Bosch said flatly. Tony had never seen anyone this stolid. "He was dead before we could even get a blood sample down to the lab for testing. At that point I assumed you'd prefer to have your own people handle it."

"You assumed correctly. The paramedics mention where they brought him in from?"

"The Naval Academy," Dr. Bosch said. "Apparently he vomited immediately after sitting down to eat in the cafeteria and subsequently started gasping for breath. That's when one of his friends called for help."

"But you don't think it was food poisoning? Or an allergy?" Gibbs asked. "A severe reaction, perhaps."

Bosch shook his head. "The paramedics indicated that the vomit was all bile; he hadn't started eating yet. Besides which, many of his symptoms were neurological, which isn't typical with food poisoning or anaphylactic reactions. This was definitely something more unusual."

Gibbs made a note, frowned, and glanced towards the doors "Where the hell is--"

"I'm here, Jethro, I'm here," Ducky said, appearing in the doorway as if by magic. "There's our young gentleman. And this would be Midshipman...?" Ducky trailed off and glanced at the doctor to fill in the blank.

"Salter," supplied Doctor Bosch.

"I'll leave you to arrange transportation of the body and blood samples, Duck," Gibbs said, flipping his notebook shut and stashing it in the pocket of his jacket. He strode out of the room, Kate and McGee following quickly. Tony left last, pausing in the door to glance back at the dead midshipman.

"DiNozzo!"

Wincing, Tony hurried over to where the rest of the team was waiting in the hall. "Yeah, boss."

"You and McGee go check out Salter's dorm room and his roommate. Kate, you're with me." Gibbs set off down the hall at a brisk clip, not even waiting for their nods of agreement.

Tony watched him go and scowled to himself. Gibbs didn't have any right to be that pissed off just because Tony had snapped at him a little. Gibbs wasn't the one who'd had a really unpleasant surprise sprung on him. He wasn't the one who was going to get left behind when all was said and done.

"Is it just me," McGee began, "or is Gibbs in an even worse mood than normal today?"

"Definitely not just you, McGee," Tony said, heading back towards the parking lot.

"Any idea why?"

"No," Tony said shortly.

"Gibbs isn't the only one in a bad mood," McGee muttered. Tony ignored him despite the fact that he was obviously intended to overhear the remark.

The victim's room, when they found it, looked as if someone had drawn a line down the middle and divided the place into two territories. Salter's side was just a little untidy. He'd made his bed, but the corners weren't crisp and the sheets weren't quite smooth. His desk was littered with books and papers and the drawers, when Tony started going through them, were a jumble of personal items, stationary, and bits of crap that had obviously been quickly hidden away in a flurry of tidying.

The other side of the room was neat as a pin, right down to the pencils lined up carefully on the desktop and the perfectly positioned thumbtacks that pinned a collage of pictures to the wall above the desk. At a glance, Tony figured half the photos were animals. Lizards and snakes, for the most part. Tony leaned in to peer at one of them.

There was the sound of a throat clearing from the doorway. Tony turned to find a young man in a midshipman's uniform watching him. "I'm Greg Calloway," he said. "The Superintendent said you wanted to see me? About Salter, he said."

"Midshipman Salter was your roommate, right?" McGee said. He pulled his notepad out of his pocket and flipped it open. Tony went back to examining the photographs, keeping one ear on the conversation. Most of the pictures had been cut out of calendars and magazines, but one or two were amateur photos. Pets, probably. Tony raised a hand and ran one finger over a tiny hole in the plaster, just big enough for a tack. A quick search turned up another hole on a diagonal from the first, but the other two corners of what might have been a rectangle just the size of a photo were covered by other pictures.

"Yeah, he was."

"How did you two get along?"

Tony resisted the urge to snort. Not very well, he'd bet. But it would be interesting to hear the guy's answer.

"We didn't much like each other, sir," Calloway said candidly. "We've both requested room transfers, but the Superintendent keeps saying that we won't get to pick who we're posted with and we might as well get used to dealing with conflicting personalities now."

"You come into conflict on anything in particular?" McGee sounded absent-minded, as if it didn't really matter what the answer was. Tony grinned to himself and moved along to the family pictures.

"No, sir, not on anything special. Just on everything in general. I think he's sloppy. He thinks I'm uptight. I think he needs to get a life, he thinks I'm not dedicated enough to the Navy. I tell him he shouldn't blindly believe everything our CO's say, he tells me we ought to trust their experience. That sort of thing, sir."

"You two argue a lot, Midshipman Calloway?" Tony asked, not looking away from the pictures. An older couple who were probably Calloway's parents and a couple pictures of a guy who had to be an older brother, from the resemblance. The girl...maybe she just took after the other side of the family, but Tony was betting she was his girlfriend.

"We did at first, sir," Calloway said. "Now we mostly do our best to avoid each other."

There was a slight pause, but Tony waited and let McGee ask the next question. "Were you in the cafeteria when Midshipman Salter started getting sick?"

"No, sir, but it's all over campus. They say one minute he was eating and the next he was freaking out."

"Freaking out?" McGee prompted.

"Yes, sir. They say he threw up before he even ate and that he was choking or gasping or something. I found it hard to believe, sir. Salter was the stolid sort. That didn't sound like him. I thought rumor was exaggerating the incident, sir."

Tony straightened up and turned away from the pictures. "But you don't think so now?"

Calloway blinked, his brow creasing a little. "Well, you're here, sir. That seems to indicate that whatever happened to Salter was serious."

"How do you know we're not here for you?" Tony asked, raising his eyebrows.

"I haven't done anything to concern NCIS, sir."

"Well, that's good for you," Tony said, smiling brightly. He chucked a thumb over his shoulder. "Pretty girl in those pictures. Girlfriend?"

Calloway frowned. "Yes, sir. Is that relevant, sir?"

"That depends on you, doesn't it, Midshipman?" Tony took one last look around the room. "I think we're done here for now," he said. "Come on, McGee. Back to the ranch."

McGee nodded and quickly handed his card to Calloway. "If you think of something that might be applicable, please call us." His voice faded as Tony moved away down the hall. A moment later the patter of jogging feet echoed from behind as McGee caught up to him.

"You couldn't have waited half a minute?" McGee asked, shoving his notebook back into his pocket.

"Apparently not," Tony said. He didn't look, but he'd have bet money that McGee was rolling his eyes.

"You think he did it?"

"What, poisoned Salter?" Tony glanced over at the younger agent, who nodded. "Maybe. There were a couple of holes in the wall where I think he removed a picture. Could be nothing, but it's worth looking into."

"We need more than a couple of holes," McGee said, sighing. "Gibbs is gonna want something concrete."

"Gibbs ought to learn to trust me once in a while," Tony muttered. Sixty-five. Average. Thirteen years. Maybe less. Maybe a couple more, if he took care of himself really well. Which he doesn't. Christ. Why the hell didn't he tell me sooner?

A traitorous little voice in the back of his mind answered: Maybe because he thought you'd react just like you did react.

"Tony?"

McGee's voice was tentative. Uncertain. Tony shook himself out of his thoughts and pushed open the doors that led back into the parking lot. "Yeah, McGee?"

"Is something wrong?" There was genuine concern in McGee's voice, enough of it to remind Tony that McGee would be willing to listen, if he were willing to talk. Or able to talk. Which he wasn't. Secrets piled on secrets piled on secrets. He'd finally taken on one too many and now they were suffocating him.

"No, McGee," he said quietly. "Nothing's wrong."

"You just seem really subdued," McGee persisted.

"I didn't get much sleep last night. I'm just tired."

"If you say so," McGee said skeptically.

***

Back at the office Tony gave Salter's file to McGee as a starting point for a profile and took Calloway's for himself. As senior field agent he felt mildly guilty for not taking on Salter's personally, but he knew himself well enough to know that he wasn't on top of his game.

The profile came together slowly, one piece at a time, but it didn't really tell him anything new. Four o'clock rolled around, then 4:30, and Tony caught himself wondering where Gibbs was. Somehow Tony had forgotten that he didn't have to catch Gibbs's eye to see where he was heading after work tonight. He'd been waiting, half expecting to go to Gibbs's home, if not to actually leave with him.

But Gibbs wasn't here and the unexpected and unwelcome question turned into a moot point. Back to his apartment, then.

Popping a DVD into the player, Tony settled down on his couch with a pizza and a couple of bottles of beer. Just two bottles, because if Gibbs called him and he was drunk--

Tony stabbed the play button viciously and tried to lose himself in good special effects and mindless entertainment and a little bit of a buzz, but the world seemed to be conspiring against him. Why did every movie have to have a romance for a subplot? Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, one character said. But was it, really? If he and Gibbs had never started this Tony would never have known what he was missing, and it wasn't like he hadn't been happy before Ducky had arranged for him to overhear that first, life changing conversation.

But not as happy as you are now. Or were, anyway. Whatever. It's too late. You do know what you'd be missing. What you are missing. What you will be missing. Wouldn't it be better to take what you can get? Ten years or so isn't what you wanted, but it's nothing to sneeze at, either.

Tony growled at himself and pushed up off the couch abruptly, snatching up the half-eaten pizza and tossing it onto the kitchen counter. He gripped the edge of the counter and leaned against it hard, his shoulders hunched, his head down. Wouldn't it just be worse after ten more years? Wouldn't I be ten times more in love? Wouldn't that make it ten times more painful to see him go?

Ten times more in love. Tony started to laugh and cut it off when he realized it sounded more like a sob. God damn him, he did love the bastard, and he knew himself well enough to know he wouldn't stop loving him just because they weren't fucking anymore. Didn't that answer the question?

Maybe it would have, except...why did Gibbs let him leave?

Tony wasn't supposed to be the one who made that sort of choice. Gibbs had told him as much. It doesn't work that way. I'm dominant. That means I choose who is part of the...group. You can ask to leave, but it's my decision. Didn't that mean that the only reason he would let Tony go was because he'd already decided Tony wasn't part of Gibbs's little herd anymore?

I'm not supposed to have to worry about this. Tony clenched his eyes shut. When it came to staying or going, his instinct had always been to go. To reset his romantic life to default and leave the last mistake behind. Forget about it. He'd done it so many times that the choice always seemed to be lurking around the next corner in every relationship, if you could even call them relationships. It had been so nice to let the worry go. To not have that responsibility hanging over his head. Instead of feeling trapped by his relationship with Gibbs, Tony had reveled in the freedom of it.

Gibbs had made him feel like he wasn't alone for the first time in...well, the first time ever, really. Gibbs had made him a part of something in a way that no one had ever managed before. Not his frat brothers or his partners in the PD or his endless string of women.

And now, out of nowhere, it had all been snatched back and the decision had landed on him anyway. Damn Gibbs for just sitting there while Tony left. Damn him for letting Tony believe that it was safe for him to push hard, that Gibbs wouldn't let him go too far. Damn him. Bastard.

Stay or go? Tony didn't want to decide. It could wait, couldn't it? He didn't have to choose...right now.

He hadn't slept last night. He should sleep, get his head clear.

The choice could wait until tomorrow.

***

Tony slouched into work the next day feeling marginally more rested, if not much better. He rounded the corner into their row of cubicles only to find Gibbs already at his desk. A quick glance confirmed that both Kate and McGee were absent. Tony resisted the urge to check his watch. He was sure he wasn't late. He couldn't be late, he'd left his apartment too early to be late.

Keeping his eyes on the floor, as if not being able to see Gibbs meant Gibbs couldn't see him, Tony dropped his bag behind his desk, shrugged out of his jacket, and settled down into his chair. A little bit of paper shuffling got his profile of Calloway in order and a quick glance refreshed his memory for the moment when Gibbs would ask for it. A moment which could be any time now, and why wasn't McGee here? Gibbs wasn't going to be too impressed if he asked about their victim and there was no one to tell him anything.

Glancing at the clock, Tony winced. No wonder the others weren't here yet. He wasn't late. He was early.

Warily, Tony peered around the corner of his computer screen at Gibbs. Whatever he was working on, he seemed absorbed. His eyes were fixed on his computer while his fingers moved over the keys. His eyebrows were drawn down and together as he read. Gibbs looked...worn. More tired than he should have. Okay, so they were working a murder case, but those usually made Gibbs look intense or pissed off or determined not...not old.

Eighteen years older than you, Tony thought involuntarily. Hell, if you're counting in centaur years, apparently the difference is even bigger. Shit! Don't think about that, don't think about that.

Gibbs looked up suddenly, his eyes locking unerringly onto Tony's. An ache went through Tony, as sharp as a blade, but he still couldn't drop his eyes. Surely losing him later can't hurt any worse than losing him now, Tony thought helplessly. On the other hand, you're already hurting now. Why not get through it, get over it, and avoid hurting again later altogether?

The shrill ring of the phone on Gibbs's desk broke the staring contest. He snatched it up. "Gibbs." There was a long pause, then he nodded and said, "We'll be right down."

Tony was already up and around his desk by the time Gibbs caught his eye. "Abby or Ducky, boss?"

"Abby," Gibbs said shortly.

They rode down in the elevator, staring at the closed doors silently. Tony bounced between wishing Gibbs would stop the damn thing for a chat and praying that he wouldn't. When they arrived at the lab and the doors opened he still wasn't sure if he was relieved or disappointed.

"What've you got, Abs?" Gibbs asked briskly.

Abby spun around to face them and bounced on her toes a little, grinning. "The memory of an elephant and more brains than the rest of the lab put together?" she suggested, eyes twinkling. She paused. "Except Ducky. Ducky is definitely as sharp as a tack."

"Abby, you are the lab," Tony said. "There is no lab without you."

She rolled her eyes. "And that just goes to show that I work too much overtime," she said, planting her hands on her hips. "There are other shifts, Tony."

"And yet none of them make quite the same impression."

"If you two are finished, I have a murder case to solve," Gibbs snapped. "Abby. Results."

Abby pouted. "Someone's grumpy this morning," she said, spinning back around to her computer. "You're lucky that I'm a soft touch. And you're also lucky that I do have the memory of an elephant, because I never would have found this if I hadn't remembered that case with the presidential football carrier. Well, maybe not never, because I did find it that first time, but still--"

"Results," Gibbs barked.

"Geez, all right, hold your horses," Abby said, raising both hands. A few more keystrokes brought a picture up on the plasma screen. "That's what killed your midshipman."

"A snake," Tony said thoughtfully, remembering the pictures on Midshipman Calloway's walls. But-- "A snake in the cafeteria of the Naval Academy?"

"I don't know about the snake itself," Abby said, "but this guy definitely had snake venom in him. Specifically, Mojave rattlesnake venom. Enough to kill him, which is pretty unusual, because when adult rattlesnakes bite defensively it's usually a dry bite. They only use venom on prey and humans are definitely too big to qualify as prey. Between that and the fact that Mojave rattlesnakes aren't native to this part of the country, never mind the cafeteria of the Naval Academy, I figure we need to be looking for a delivery system."

"Clothes?" Gibbs suggested.

Abby shook her head. "Rattlesnake venom isn't toxic enough for absorption through the skin to do any good. It might have made him sick, but it wouldn't kill him."

"Food?" Tony guessed. "He was in the cafeteria when he went into convulsions. The paramedics said he didn't eat anything, but he might have drunk it."

"Possible," Abby said, "but I wouldn't bet on it. He'd have to have ingested thousands of times the usual lethal dose for it to kill him. That's just too much venom for anyone to bother milking from a bunch of snakes. My money is on some sort of injection. Ask about punctures when you check in with Ducky."

"That's our next stop. Anything else?" Gibbs asked.

"Nope. Clothes, stomach contents, and the rest all came up normal."

Gibbs didn't even nod in acknowledgement, just turned and headed for the elevators. As Tony made to follow Abby caught his eye and mouthed 'What's up with him?' Unable to answer, Tony just shot her a helpless glance and jogged a couple of steps to make up time lest Gibbs chafe at the miniscule delay.

They descended to autopsy and Tony trailed after Gibbs into Ducky's domain. The ME smiled as the doors swung shut behind them and pulled on a pair of latex gloves. "Ahh, Jethro, I was just about to call you. The hospital was quite correct about the cause of death--respiratory and cardiac arrest due to an unidentified toxin--"

"Rattlesnake venom," Gibbs interjected. "We've just come from Abby's lab. You find any puncture marks, Duck?"

"Ah. Yes," Ducky said, brought up a little short. "There was one here, on his shoulder." He brought them around the body and pointed out a tiny mark with the aid of a magnifying glass. "There isn't any bruising around the area, which suggests to me that the young man died soon after receiving the shot. I shall take a tissue sample and send it on up to Abby to check for increased concentrations of the venom, but I think it is safe to assume that this was the delivery system."

Tony frowned. "Kind of an ordinary place for a needle mark, isn't it? I must have had a hundred shots in the arm: flu shots, immunizations, vitamin shots, you name it, the arm seems to the location of choice."

Ducky nodded. "I couldn't say for certain, of course, but I rather suspect Midshipman Salter was expecting the needle--he simply wasn't expecting its contents."

"Thanks, Ducky," Gibbs said shortly, striding towards the door.

Tony started after him, only to have Gibbs brought up short by Ducky's call. He turned back and found Ducky looking at them both with an unmistakable expression of determined concern. Oh, good God, no, Tony thought frantically. Don't bring it up now. Not in the middle of a case. Not with Gibbs in a mood like this. The unhelpful little voice in the back of Tony's mind chastised him thoroughly for having said anything to Ducky at all.

"I can't but notice," Ducky began gently, "that relations between you and Tony are rather...strained, at the moment."

Tony spared a moment to thank God that Ducky hadn't dragged their ill advised conversation into this confrontation.

"Now is not the time," Gibbs said, his voice so clipped Tony winced just at the sound of it.

"And when will be the right time? Jethro, these things rarely improve for going unaddressed for long periods of time. I would think you'd have learned that by now."

Tony winced. What had possessed Ducky to bring Gibbs's wives into the conversation? That line of argument never went anywhere. Or at least, never anywhere remotely productive. How Ducky had failed to absorb this lesson after knowing Gibbs for two decades, Tony would never know. Maybe he'd gotten the point and then decided he didn't fear waking the sleeping dragon that was Gibbs's attitude towards his marriages.

"The relationships aren't comparable," Gibbs bit out. He strode out of autopsy without looking back and apparently without caring that Tony wasn't following.

Not comparable. Tony closed his eyes briefly as the words sunk in. He'd been pretty sure, but Jesus, just hearing it like that, laid flat out... "Thanks, Ducky," Tony said bitterly. "I think that cleared up a lot, don't you?"

"Tony, please, for your own sake, don't jump to conclusions," Ducky said earnestly. "I don't believe that Jethro meant that quite the way you seem to be interpreting it."

"Sounded pretty clear to me," Tony said flatly. "Let it go, Ducky. I've got to get up there before I lose my job, too." He stalked out of autopsy and forewent the elevator in favor of the stairs. Taking them two at a time got him to the right floor just behind Gibbs, if a little out of breath.

Gibbs never looked back, just barked out, "McGee! Todd! Report!" when they got close enough to see that the other two agents were at their desks.

McGee jumped to his feet as if stung, but it was Kate who got the first word in. "Nothing significant from the midshipmen who witnessed Salter's collapse, at least not on the first run through," she informed him. "However, I don't know about the ones you talked to, but everyone I interviewed was full of stories of the clashes between Salter and his roommate."

Gibbs turned to McGee.

"Ah, Salter was a pretty ordinary midshipman, boss," McGee said quickly. "His whole family is Navy, all of them enlisted, no one that really sticks out. Couple of them applied to the Academy, but Salter's the first to be accepted. He got good marks in his classes, but nothing stellar. He was strongest in physical areas, decent on the intellectual side, but lagging a little in discipline--got a couple of demerits for tidyness. According to his file, he requested a new roommate four times and was turned down repeatedly. No complaints made against him, although he filed one against Midshipman Calloway, his roommate. The complaint was considered and subsequently dismissed."

"And what about Calloway?" Gibbs asked. McGee nodded at Tony.

Breathe, be professional, you can do this. "Calloway scored high but, like Salter, not spectacular marks in pretty much everything. His discipline seems to be a bit better, but there's a note in his file that he's somewhat disrespectful of his CO's, although not outright insubordinate," Tony said quickly. He paused and took a breath. "But it's not his file that's got my antennas up, boss. Calloway had pictures on his wall. The usually sort of thing--family, girlfriend, pets, you know the deal. But his pets were snakes. All sorts of snakes, and there was at least one picture missing."

McGee sat back down at his computer and began typing furiously. "Maryland requires permits for non-native venomous snakes, boss," he said. "And the only rattlesnakes native to Maryland--Timber rattlesnakes, not Mojave--are protected. Ah!" He looked up from the computer. "Midshipman Calloway held a permit."

"And Midshipman Salter was killed with rattlesnake venom," Gibbs said with satisfaction. "Was Salter taking any sort of shots?"

Tony and Kate scattered to their desks and the air was filled with the sound of typing. "Vitamin shots, boss," McGee announced, just a hair ahead of Tony. Tony glared at him, but McGee's attention was on Gibbs. "The doctor was concerned about his eating habits at his last physical. He'd been put on a strict diet and weekly vitamin shots. He was scheduled to have his third one the day he was killed, about fifteen minutes before the 911 call was made reporting his collapse."

"And they tell you that junk food will kill you," Tony quipped half-heartedly. He half ducked, but no smack was forthcoming.

"They don't allow pets in the Academy dorms, which means someone must be keeping them for him," Gibbs said. "McGee, you check with the parents. Kate, Tony, you're on the girlfriend. I'll be at the Academy checking into the clinic. Call me if you find anything." Gibbs disappeared down the stairs, apparently too impatient for the elevator, by the time the rest of them had retrieved their weapons.

"Grumpy and impatient," Kate said, shaking her head.

"Impatient pretty much comes standard when Gibbs is upset," McGee countered. He reached out and pressed the down button on the elevator.

"Impatient pretty much comes standard with Gibbs," Tony added. "That, and I get the feeling he isn't too interested in dealing with people today. Including us." And especially me. The elevator arrived and the three of them crowded onto it, Tony hitting the button for the parking garage as he went.

"Well, I know I don't object to keeping out of his way when he's like this. Do either of you guys know why he's in such a bad mood?"

"No," Tony said shortly. Kate and McGee turned and looked at him. "What? I said no!"

"You said no in a way that makes me think yes," McGee argued. "And you haven't been in such a good mood either."

Tony scowled. "A mood like Gibbs's is contagious."

"Well, whatever you did to piss him off, grovel already and maybe he'll lighten up," Kate suggested.

"What makes you think it's me? Maybe it's just him."

"Maybe, but I'm not about to suggest that Gibbs grovel."

"But it's okay for me to grovel?"

"You grovel all the time, Tony," McGee said calmly. The elevator dinged and let them out into the parking garage. "And usually you don't make this big a deal over it."

"I'm not in a groveling mood. Probie," Tony muttered. He could almost feel Kate and McGee exchanging a glance behind his back. Let them, he thought resignedly. As long as they stop asking me about it.

***

Calloway's girlfriend lived in a two bedroom apartment that she shouldn't have been able to afford, not if the waitress's uniform peeking out of the laundry bag on the floor near the door was any indication. It wasn't lavish, but it was definitely a little above her means. Calloway had to be helping her pay for it with what little he got from the Academy.

None of which was the least bit incriminating, but it did make Tony want to see what was in that second bedroom. Especially given the way Melissa Endright was plucking at her jeans.

"What can I do for you?" she asked, nodding at Kate in thanks for closing the apartment door behind her.

"Greg Calloway tells us you're his girlfriend," Kate said.

Melissa nodded. "Yeah. Four years now," she smiled a little hesitantly. Calloway had only just turned twenty-two, which meant they'd been high school sweethearts. It made sense, if he'd asked her to keep his pets when he went into the Academy.

"Sounds pretty serious," Kate commented.

"I hope so. Greg is pretty special. But he hasn't, you know...asked."

"You two planning to live together when he graduates?" Tony asked, giving up his study of the room to smile at Melissa.

She shrugged one shoulder, mouth pursing a little. "I want to, but it really depends on where he's deployed, you know? I've been trying to get used to that idea ever since he got accepted."

"I suppose it's just as well." Kate leaned in, a little confidentially, "I don't know if I could stand all those snakes being around all the time."

"I don't mind," Melissa said quickly and guilelessly. "I mean, I live with them now," she pointed a finger over her shoulder, "and they have their own room and..." Slowly, she trailed, off, her finger shifting to twine in her hair uncertainly.

"We're going to need to have a look," Tony said.

Melissa's shoulders drooped. "Yeah, okay," she said. Reluctantly, she led them into the spare room. There were aquariums of varying sizes everywhere. Tony came up with fifteen after a quick count, each resting on various tables and shelving units. There were a couple of lizards, but nearly all the tanks contained snakes in countless shapes, sizes, and colors. Tony could see Kate's shoulders tense up as she took in the array.

"This is quite the collection," Tony said. Kate was going to need a moment to relax.

"Greg's been keeping snakes since he was eight," Melissa said. "I don't really get the fascination, but they're important to him, so I guess they're important to me, too."

Tony started moving in amongst the shelves and tables, his eyes focused more on the surfaces than the snakes themselves. "He has a permit to keep venomous varieties, right?"

Melissa licked her lips nervously. "Um. Yeah. There's a, uh, coral snake over there and uh, the horned viper. He also keeps three copperheads, but you don't need a permit for those."

"No rattlesnakes?" Kate asked, sounding almost calm.

The giggle that escaped Melissa was a little forced. "No. No, Greg says that everyone always thinks of rattlers first when they think of venomous snakes, but that there are actually a lot of more interesting species."

"You sure?" Tony asked, rubbing his index finger over a scuff mark on one of the table tops. "It looks like there's an aquarium missing here."

"We needed the space," Melissa said. She laced her fingers together, then unlaced them, then put them behind her back for a moment before shoving them into her pockets. "It was just, um, empty."

"You don't seem too sure of that, Melissa," Kate said gently.

Melissa bit her lip.

"Didn't Greg tell you why he wanted you to get rid of the rattlesnakes?" Tony asked. "He called, right? Yesterday, or the day before maybe, and said you should get rid of the rattlesnakes, but he wouldn't tell you why."

"It seemed kind of weird, didn't it?" Kate took up the narrative. "He loved those snakes. Why would he want to just get rid of them? And in such a rush, too. He had to know there was no way you could find a proper home for them so quickly."

"You had to be wondering if something was wrong," Tony said.

"But you got rid of them like he asked, because you love him, and he said it was important," Kate added gently.

Melissa opened her mouth as if to speak, then closed it again. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said miserably.

"A man is dead, Melissa," Tony said. Her eyes went big and round. "Poisoned. Rattlesnake venom. If you help cover it up, that makes you an accessory to murder."

"Greg wouldn't hurt anyone!" Melissa burst out. "Maybe he just wanted me to get rid of the rattlers because he knew you'd think it was him if you found them!"

More likely he didn't want us to be able to compare the snakes to the venom, Tony thought. If there's even enough of a sample to compare. Hopefully Gibbs would find something in the clinic that they could use, because right now they had a few traces of circumstantial evidence and no motive.

"If you tell us where you let them go, maybe we can prove that the venom didn't come from them," Kate suggested. Melissa hesitated.

"If you don't tell us, you could be charged with obstruction of justice," Tony said. "Even if they aren't the right snakes."

"Greg wouldn't want you to get in trouble," Kate reasoned. "That's why he didn't tell you why he wanted you to get rid of them, right?"

Melissa's shoulders slumped and she hung her head. "My parents have a ranch," she admitted. "It's pretty run down up there now. They don't have the money to keep it up. I thought the snakes would be okay there."

At Kate's prompt Melissa wrote out the address for them and smiled wanly when Kate tried to reassure her that she'd done the right thing. Tony got the feeling she knew that finding those snakes wasn't going to do Greg Calloway any good. She just also knew that keeping her mouth shut wasn't going to help him, either.

On the way down to the car Tony called McGee to let him know that the parents were off the hook and to give him the address of Melissa Endright's parents' defunct ranch. It took half a dozen more phone calls to arrange for a warrant to search the property, pry a map out of the land surveyor's office, and convince the local sheriff to provide them with some extra manpower to help search the spread. It might be defunct, but it was also a good chunk of land and in the past couple of days the pair of rattlesnakes could have gone to ground anywhere.

Having finally secured the assistance of four deputies--and the sheriff had let go of those only grudgingly--Tony hung up and stared at the phone for a moment.

"You have to call him now," Kate said, glancing away from the road quickly. "There's nothing else to take care of."

"I wasn't putting it off," Tony muttered, dialing.

Kate just laughed. "Right. Sure you weren't."

Gibbs picked up on the third ring. "What is it, DiNozzo?"

Ah, the joys of call display. "Melissa Endright is keeping snakes for Greg Calloway, all right," he said as briskly as he could. "About fifteen of them. There weren't any rattlers, but there was a tank missing. Kate and I hardly had to lean on her at all before she talked. Calloway called her and had her dump the snakes. She took them up to her parents' ranch."

"Call the local--"

"Way ahead of you, boss," Tony interrupted. "Kate and I are already en route. McGee, the Sheriff, and four reluctant local deputies will be meeting us there to help us search the spread."

Gibbs grunted. "They shouldn't have gone too far. Mojave rattlesnakes are a desert species. Give me the address." Tony gave it to him and hung up.

"See? Hardly hurt a bit, did it?" Kate prompted.

Only as much as talking to Gibbs at all hurts right now, Tony thought. "Sure, no problem," he muttered aloud.

Out of the corner of his eye could see Kate shoot him another glance. "Tony," her tone a little gentler but far more curious, "what happened between you and Gibbs?"

"What're you talking about?" Tony asked, leaning his head on the window and staring blindly out into traffic. Maybe he was doing a shitty job of covering that something really was wrong, but he couldn't bring himself to care at the moment. It's not like he had anything to hide. Not anymore.

"Don't try and play dumb with me. Gibbs gets all pissy, you get all depressed and grumpy, and both of you are avoiding talking to each other any more than necessary. You obviously had some kind of run in, but it can't have been at work because I swear I'd have heard about it and the last I checked you and Gibbs don't exactly hang out at the same places."

Tony wished he could have laughed at that. Don't hang out at the same places? Christ. They'd done nothing but hang out at the same places for nearly a year now. They'd been doing an even better job of covering that he'd thought if Kate was this far out of the loop. "Play dumb?" He said with false brightness. "I thought you thought I was a few IQ points short of a full complement." Which was a blatant invitation, given that there was no such thing as a 'full complement' of IQ points.

But Kate didn't go for it. "Seriously, Tony. What's going on?"

"Nothing," Tony said, lips twisting at the irony. "Nothing's going on at all."

***

When they arrived at the ranch the sheriff, his deputies, and the map were waiting for them. While waiting for Gibbs and McGee to arrive Kate and Tony created a search grid and divvied up the sections. They'd be searching in pairs, just in case. The snakes had already killed one man, after all, even if they hadn't delivered the venom themselves.

Gibbs pulled up in a cloud of dust and gravel not five minutes after they'd finished working out the grid. Tony looked up from the map where it was spread over the hood of the car and watched Gibbs take in the scene in a glance. He made a beeline straight for the Sheriff.

"Thank you for your assistance, Sheriff," he said calmly. "I think we can take it from here."

The Sheriff bristled a little. "I don't know who you are, but this my county," he said, setting his jaw stubbornly, "and these are my deputies, and I'm going to make damn sure this is handled properly."

Gibbs retrieved his ID from one pocket and displayed it. "Special Agent Gibbs, NCIS. As I'm sure my people explained on the phone," he responded evenly. "We're going to be searching this entire property, Sheriff. It would be impossible for you to supervise every inch of that search and I'm certain you have more urgent demands on your time than crawling over one fifth of a run down ranch looking for rattlesnakes." Gibbs nodded to the deputies. "I'm sure your people will keep you informed."

Maybe it was the federal ID or maybe it was the thought of crawling around after rattlesnakes, but the Sheriff glared at Gibbs, stalked over to his deputies to give them some sort of instructions, and climbed into his car to leave. Gibbs watched him leave before calling the deputies over to review their search grid.

Kate gave him a quick summary and finished up with, "I thought McGee and I could take the northeast quadrant and you and Tony could check out the northwest." Tony knew why she'd given the deputies the two southern sections. They contained the house and other buildings and Melissa had said she'd dumped the snakes out in the middle of the fields. It'd be better if the team found the evidence, rather than the sheriff's people. But the pairs Kate had come up with...that was cruel. He favored her with a glare and hoped that Gibbs would overrule her. It wasn't as if he wanted to be around Tony at the moment.

"Sounds good. Let's get started," Gibbs said briskly.

Unfortunately, he also didn't want to draw any particular attention to their rift and the source of it. Tony swallowed a deep sigh as he retrieved a pair of hiking boots, a large plastic sample case, and a pair of gloves from the trunk of the car. They'd gone well equipped to Melissa's apartment, hoping to find the snakes there, and hadn't even had to stop by the office on their way to the ranch. Under normal circumstances, Tony would have enjoyed tramping around a ranch with Gibbs, but these weren't normal circumstances.

Strange, when riding around with his centaur lover was "normal" and investigating a perfectly ordinary case became unusual.

Gibbs didn't say anything as they made the long walk out to their search area and Tony didn't bother to break the silence. What was there to say? There wasn't any way out of this mess. There wasn't even anything to apologize for, and Tony had just enough pride left that he wasn't going to beg Gibbs to take him back, not when the man had made it clear that whatever he'd had going on with Tony hadn't been up to snuff after all.

The ranch had been lying untended for years and the grass had grown nearly up to Tony's knees. It was the perfect place for a snake to hide. Keeping his eyes trained on the ground, he watched carefully for any rustling in the grass or movement along the occasionally visible ground. A couple of meters to his right, Gibbs searched with his usual concentration, despite the tension that Tony could feel vibrating between them like a plucked guitar string.

Tony lifted his foot to take another step and his ears caught a faint swish of sound. Freezing in place, he scanned the grass and spotted a flash of brown and white. Gotcha! Moving quickly, Tony seized the snake just behind the head and lifted it up off the ground. The rattler bared its fangs, hissing and flailing at him with its tail, but Tony held on. The tail wasn't the dangerous part.

"Got it, boss!" He announced triumphantly, turning abruptly towards Gibbs with snake in hand...

...and gasped at the sudden, sharp pain just above his ankle. His hand spasmed, loosening just for a moment, and the rattler slithered a couple of inches forward before he could tighten his grip. Not far, but far enough to sink it's fangs into Tony's wrist. "Fuck!" he shouted, somehow managing to keep a hold of the snake.

Gibbs was there almost instantly with the plastic case he carried himself. Together they wrestled the snake into the transparent box. When it was safe, Tony peeled back the cuff of his shirt and winced at the two puncture marks. They oozed blood slowly, but the surrounding skin didn't seem too traumatized. "We need to find the other one," he said. "Calloway might not have used this one for the venom."

"We need to get you to the hospital," Gibbs countered, seizing Tony's wrist to examine the bite for himself.

"No one dies from snakebites anymore, Gibbs." Tony pulled his wrist back and turned away, eyes searching for the other snake. He could feel Gibbs's glare burning into the back of his neck, but did his best to ignore it. That and the growing ache in his wrist and ankle. A couple of minutes wouldn't kill him.

There! A rustle in the grass. Tony went for the snake, but stumbled at the flare of pain in his ankle. Gibbs, unhindered by any injury, darted past him and seized the reptile just behind the head, lifting it out the grass and holding it at arm's length to keep away from the thrashing tail. Tony let out a breath and got the second plastic case ready, grimacing as the movement aggravated the pain in his wrist.

With the second rattler secure, Gibbs turned a glare on Tony. "It get you on the ankle?" he asked darkly.

"Um. Yeah. Earlier, though, not just now," Tony said reluctantly.

"You're telling me to you were bitten twice and you didn't say anything?" Gibbs demanded harshly.

"We needed to get the snakes," Tony said defensively.

"You're going to the hospital," Gibbs growled. He seized Tony by the elbow and started hustling him back across the field, towards the cars.

"Didn't Abby say that defensive bites are usually dry bites?" Tony protested

"Usually. Not always," Gibbs said. "We're not taking any chances."

Tony gritted his teeth and tried to keep up the pace, but the bite on his ankle had started throbbing in time with his pulse. After just a few steps he knew he'd started to limp a little. After a minute he could feel the drag on his arm as Gibbs tried to keep him going. "Boss?" Tony said tentatively. "Not a dry bite." He swallowed heavily, wondering if the nausea was shock or the effects of the venom. Salter had puked, too...

Gibbs glanced back at him and stopped suddenly. "We need to get back to the cars, Tony," he said. "You need antivenin as soon as possible."

"Sure, okay," Tony said, rubbing at his chest absently. "But I don't think getting my blood pumping is a good idea."

Gibbs swore under his breath and glanced across the field to the rundown house in the distance and the glint of sunshine off the cars next to it. Tony knew what he was thinking; it had taken them a good fifteen minutes to get to the far end of the field at a brisk pace. Walking back like this could take twice as long.

"Time to call the ambulance?" Tony suggested weakly.

"We're out in the middle of nowhere, DiNozzo," Gibbs said grimly. "It could take half an hour, probably longer, before it gets here."

"Well, we ought to be across the field by then." Tony rubbed at chest again and tried not to think about the little shooting pains.

For a long moment Gibbs just stared at Tony. He stared until Tony started to shift self-consciously. Then, cursing softly again, he pulled out his cell phone and dialed. Pinning it between his cheek and his shoulder, he started undoing his belt. Tony watched, blinking in confusion. Okay, they'd done more than their fair share of fooling around in fields, but this really didn't seem like the time or the place and weren't they supposed to be done with fooling around anyway?

"Kate," Gibbs barked into the phone. "I need you to get the deputies the hell away from this place right now. Yes, we found the snakes, now get them out of here." Gibbs paused, frustration radiating off him, and half knelt to untie his shoes. He stepped out of them without regard for the mess he was making of his socks standing in the middle of a field. "Now is not the time for questions, Agent Todd!" He yanked off his socks and reached for the button of his pants. "Get those deputies out of here now and get yourself and McGee back to the cars in two minutes, or get yourself a new job!"

Clicking the cell phone shut sharply, Gibbs held it out to Tony. Bemused, Tony took it carefully, wary of dropping it with the way his fingers had started to feel, and tucked it into his own pocket. The chest pain was starting to make it hard to breathe. Or maybe it was just getting hard to breathe, period.

Gibbs pushed his pants and underwear over his hips, kicked them away, and promptly transformed. Tony blinked at him, startled. They were practically in public! "Boss, what the hell are you doing?" he hissed.

"Getting you to help faster," Gibbs snapped. "Get on already. And bring my clothes." Tony stared. "Now, Tony!"

Tony scrambled without thinking, gathering up Gibbs's pants and shoes. He was panting after just that short bout of activity. Gibbs had to help him up onto his back. "Arms around my waist," Gibbs ordered, starting off at a brisk walk. "You can't fall off, Tony. Hold on."

Putting one arm around Gibbs, Tony held onto his clothes with the other and laid his cheek against the centaur's shoulder. "I don't feel so good, boss," he said indistinctly.

"I know, Tony. We're going to get you help. Just hang on."

Tony tightened his grip as much as he could, but he still gasped and wobbled dangerously when Gibbs leaped into a gallop. He bounced painfully around on Gibbs's back instead of moving with the centaur's rhythm like he always had before. Clenching his teeth, it was all he could do to keep his gorge down.

The bumpy, uncomfortable ride seemed to take both forever and no time at all. Tony knew he needed help, but he couldn't stop wondering if this short, harsh gallop would be his last ride with Gibbs. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on just balancing. He was having a hard time hanging onto Gibbs's waist now.

Suddenly Gibbs came to an abrupt, sliding stop. Tony was thrown against his back. He rebounded, lost his grip and his balance, and went sliding from Gibbs's back...

***

Kate and McGee were waiting for them at the cars. The deputies weren't. Gibbs gave silent thanks for that. If they'd seen him...Gibbs didn't know how he'd have managed to keep the secret, to protect the thousands of centaurs living in plain sight, but he suspected it would have cost him his career, his life, or both.

It still might, depending on Kate and McGee.

Gibbs felt Tony slipping from his back, too weak to hold on any more. "McGee!" Gibbs barked, but the agent was frozen in shock, staring at Gibbs. Tony fell to the ground uncushioned, landing in a crumpled pile. He moaned softly on impact, not entirely conscious. Gibbs swore emphatically and transformed. Standing over Tony, Gibbs grabbed his pants and started dressing even as he tried to evaluate his second visually. Tony's breathing was shallow, but that was the only obvious symptom, aside from the muscle weakness.

Pulling on his socks, Gibbs glared up at his immobile agents. "We've got a man down," he said harshly. "What the hell are you two standing there for? Get him into the car already."

"But...but...you, you're," McGee stammered.

"You're not human," Kate said sharply. There was something almost accusing in her eyes.

"I'm still your boss," Gibbs shot back. He shoved his feet into his shoes. "We can discuss this when Tony isn't in mortal danger, understood?"

McGee snapped out of it. "Yes, boss," he said hurriedly. He gripped Tony under the arms while Gibbs grabbed him behind the knees and between the two of them they managed to manhandle the downed agent into the backseat of the car, his upper body draped across McGee's lap.

Gibbs slammed the back door shut and opened the driver side door. "Either get in the passenger side before I leave or find your own ride back, Agent Todd," he said briskly.

The car was already moving by the time Kate slammed her door shut.

It took nearly every bit of restraint Gibbs had not to put the gas pedal all the way down, but they were on a gravel road and an accident would be far worse right now than a couple of minutes lost. Still, he sent the car barreling forth in a cloud of dust and rattling pebbles. "How's he doing, McGee?" Gibbs called back to the back seat, keeping his eyes on the turns of the gravel road.

"He's still conscious, I think," McGee reported. "Just not tracking too well. And I think-- Oh, shit!" Gibbs didn't dare take his eyes off the road, but the sudden sour smell of vomit was sufficiently vivid. McGee's voice was shaky when he spoke again. "I got him turned in time, anyway."

Vomiting and respiratory difficulty were Salter's first two symptoms, Gibbs remembered suddenly. He could feel his heart pounding. If I have to lose him, I'm sure as hell not going to lose him to a fucking snake, he snarled to himself.

"What the happened back there?" Kate demanded, hanging onto the handle above the car door.

Gibbs's lips thinned. "We found the snakes. They bit Tony."

"That's not quite what I meant."

Of course it wasn't, and he wasn't being obtuse either, though Kate didn't seem to realize it. "It's what you should have meant, Agent Todd," Gibbs said flatly. "Your partner is in serious distress. Your curiosity can wait until later."

Kate didn't reply. Nor did she speak for the rest of the hell-bent-for-leather drive. As soon as they got onto solid pavement Gibbs put the pedal down. McGee called their ETA and Tony's condition into the hospital and Gibbs tried to focus his thoughts, tried not to think about anything but getting around corners and down streets safely. Focus on the destination, not the man in the back seat...

"Boss?" The voice was weak, but it was Tony. Gibbs could feel his heart leap in his chest. "I'm sorry," Tony muttered, almost too quiet to be heard over the sound of the traffic as Gibbs wove around the other cars on the road. "Sorry...think I have to...go now."

"You're not going anywhere!" Gibbs raised his voice, wishing he dared risk a glance backward. "You hear me, Tony? I'm not letting you go. You don't get to choose, damn it. I choose, and I say you're not going anywhere."

Silence.

"Answer me!" Gibbs snapped, putting every ounce of command he could scrape together into his tone. Out of the corner of his eye he could see even Kate jump.

"Say it again?" Strangely, Tony's weakened voice was almost wistful.

Gibbs's heart was thundering in his chest, his hands clenching the steering wheel until his knuckles went white. "You don't get to choose," he said forcefully. And then, not sure which statement Tony meant, "And I'm not letting you go."

"Promise?"

"I swear to you, Tony. You're mine and I'm not letting you go. I'm never letting you go." Gibbs felt almost lightheaded as he spoke. Does that mean he doesn't want to leave? Maybe he doesn't want out. Maybe never did want out. "Tony?" Gibbs called out, but there was no answer. "McGee, what's going on back there?"

"I think he's unconscious," McGee said shakily.

Gibbs's knuckles were aching. "We're almost there," he said grimly.

Thanks to McGee's phone call there was a gurney waiting for them when they screeched to a halt in the ambulance bay of the hospital. A pair of burly male nurses had Tony on the gurney and on his way into the hospital before Gibbs had even rounded the front of the car. A young black woman with a determined expression intercepted him as he tried to follow. "What!" Gibbs barked at her.

She just set her jaw and pointed to the car. "Now that you've delivered the young man, you need to get that out of here right now. This is a busy hospital and I won't have another patient endangered because of you."

Gibbs only glared at her for a moment. He didn't have this kind of time to waste. "Kate!" Halfway to the hospital doors, Kate stopped and turned back. Gibbs tossed the keys at her. "Park the car."

"Gibbs--!" she started to protest, catching the keys awkwardly in both hands, but cut herself off when she caught sight of his expression.

The nurse waited until the car was actually moving before she backed down from her glaring contest with Gibbs. By the time he found the room where they were treating Tony and bullied his way past the nurses who tried to insist he wait in the waiting room the doctors had already started an IV--antivenin, Gibbs assumed--and oxygen.

Tony's muscles had started to twitch spastically. The sight of those random contractions sent a chill down Gibbs's spine. Surely it hadn't taken them that long to get here, no matter how long the drive had seemed. Tony would make it. He always did as he was told, in the end, and damn it, he was under orders not to go anywhere.

"Special Agent Gibbs?"

Gibbs reluctantly looked away from Tony and at the doctor who had approached him. He glanced at the man's name tag. "Doctor Gardner."

"We have Special Agent DiNozzo on antivenin and painkillers and we're monitoring him closely," Doctor Gardner informed him, "and that's really the only treatment there is for rattlesnake envenomation. Now that we've got him in the hospital we should be able to keep him stable until the antivenin can take effect."

"How long will he be out of commission?" Gibbs asked, letting his gaze drift back to Tony.

"It's hard to tell. Reaction to rattlesnake envenomation is extremely variable and Mojave rattlesnake venom is the most unpredictable variety." The doctor paused for a moment. "In addition, some patients go into anaphylactic shock when antivenin is administered. I'll be blunt with you, Agent Gibbs. Sometimes reaction to the antivenin can kill a patient all on its own, but given the severity of Agent DiNozzo's condition, we couldn't risk not using it. However, it is safer when the species of snake is known and we're administering antihistamines to moderate the reaction. It helps that, from what we can tell, neither bite delivered a full lethal dose. We'll admit Agent DiNozzo for close monitoring and beyond that, we can only wait and see."

Gibbs nodded sharply despite the tension that had invaded him, tightening his muscles and making his stomach churn. "Understood, doctor."

There was a long pause. "Special Agent Gibbs," Doctor Gardner said at last. "Your people are waiting for you in the waiting room. I'm sure they'd like to know Special Agent DiNozzo's condition."

Of course they would. And they'll want to have a long talk with me, too. Gibbs turned away from Tony slowly. There was nothing more he could do here. He had a case to close and two agents whose questions would have to be answered. Sooner rather than later, or they'd start looking into it on their own, and that could raise all sorts of flags that Gibbs and every other centaur in the United States--hell, in the world--didn't need going up.

He caught the doctor's eye. "You'll call me if there's any change."

Gardner didn't even blink. "Of course."

Gibbs turned sharply and strode back to the waiting room. Kate and McGee both jumped out of the hard plastic chairs when they saw him. "Is he going to be okay?" McGee asked.

"They're admitting him, but he should be fine," Gibbs said firmly. They didn't need to know the details. The hospital staff were keeping a close eye on him, they knew the potential problems, and they were prepared. Worrying would only distract Kate and McGee from nailing the bastard who was responsible. "They're giving him antivenin as we speak." She didn't say anything, but the tension visibly went out of Kate's shoulders, and some of Gibbs's irritation eased. "We need to talk."

"I'll say," Kate said vehemently. "You--"

Gibbs pinned her with a glare. "But not here," he interrupted sharply, glancing around at the tense faces of waiting families. "We have to go back for the snakes anyway. Tony and I left the cases behind when he started getting sick."

McGee nodded silently. Kate's lips tightened, but she followed Gibbs out to the parking lot and led them to the spot she'd found for the car. Gibbs opened the driver's side door and paused, looking back at the hospital. He's in good hands, he reminded himself, and you've got to take care of the rest of your herd. Whether they knew it or not. Somehow he didn't think it would occur to Kate or McGee to ask about dominance and he wasn't about to volunteer the information. Although at least the lack of a sexual aspect to their relationship would simplify things. Either that or convince them I was secretly interested, Gibbs thought dryly. McGee would never look me in the eye again.

Gibbs got the car started and began retracing their mad dash from the ranch, this time at a more sedate pace. "You didn't imagine any of it," he said after he'd settled into the rhythm of the road. "You were not hallucinating. I'm not human. I'm a centaur."

"Like in Greek mythology?" McGee interjected. When Gibbs glanced at the rearview mirror the young man looked horrified that the question had slipped out.

"Yes," he said. Then, dryly, "Only with less emphasis on the rape and murder. Who knows why the Greeks demonized centaurs so much. In reality I'm not much different from regular humans. I can change between shapes at will, though it's dangerous to do it too often."

"Dangerous?" McGee asked, frowning. "Dangerous how?"

Gibbs glanced briefly at Kate. She was staring out the front window, expressionless except for a line between her eyebrows. "Do you really think I'd be left to live my life in peace if it was general knowledge that I wasn't human?" he said, glancing into the mirror at McGee again. "Until today I've been extremely careful."

"Does anyone else know?" Kate all but bit out the question, still not looking at Gibbs.

"Ducky and Tony," Gibbs said evenly. And one other. But he doesn't count. Not anymore.

Out of the corner of his eye, Gibbs could see that Kate had finally turned to look at him. "And would this priviledged knowledge have anything to do with that scene on the way to the hospital?"

Gibbs grimaced, but he hadn't really expected that to slip by them. "If you're asking if I told him because he's my lover, then the answer is no. It would be more accurate to say he's my lover because he knows." Gibbs could feel the car accelerate and had to take a breath and ease up on the gas pedal. It's not the only reason and you know it. No one's curiosity persists for a year, especially not DiNozzo's.

On the other hand, he did end up leaving, didn't he? Just like... Gibbs pushed the thought aside.

"I assume this thing between you and Tony is recent."

Gibbs glanced at Kate, at little amused despite his train of thought. "NCIS agents shouldn't assume, Agent Todd. Tony and I have been together for nearly a year now." And if a year was all there was going to be, if Tony ended up being a part of Gibbs's herd but not his, not his second, then... Fuck, Gibbs didn't know what then. He wasn't going to force Tony to keep up a relationship he didn't want, but Gibbs wasn't about to give him up altogether, either. They'd worked together for four years before the secret had come out. They'd just have to learn to do it again.

"A year," Kate said, stunned. "A year, and he knew."

"Something about that bothering you?" Gibbs asked coolly.

"Something?" Kate demanded. "Everything. You're sleeping with Tony. For a year. And you're not even human. You don't-- You're not--" She broke off, waving one hand inexpressively. "Do you even have a soul?"

"Do you?" Gibbs returned, looking away from the road to meet her eyes.

"Yes."

"If you're so certain of that, why ask?"

"I'm human. " There was a hardness in Kate's voice that Gibbs had to put down to frustration.

"Deciding whether or not I have a soul is up to you, Kate," Gibbs said after a long moment. "I hope my actions speak loudly enough for you, because I don't think there's anything I could tell you that would help." Certainly explaining how centaurs were created and who they owed their existence to wouldn't. Kate was Catholic. She might practice the live and let live variety of faith, but that didn't mean she'd react particularly well to someone claiming to be proof incarnate of a god other than her own.

"Boss?" McGee's voice was tentative. "Um. You and Tony. Are...um...does..."

"Spit it out, McGee."

"He...tells a lot of stories," McGee said finally. "About women."

"And stories is all they are," Gibbs said firmly. " It's been just me and Tony since we first ended up in bed together, but he blows a good smokescreen. It's not any safer for people to know that Tony and I are involved than it is for them to know about what I am." The reflection in the rearview mirror showed McGee blushing a brilliant red, as if he hadn't thought about the sex.

"So what happens now?" Kate asked.

"That depends on you, Agent Todd," Gibbs said calmly. "If you're up to keeping a secret like this, then nothing happens. We pick up the snakes and take them back to Abby and close this case. And you never mention this to anyone. Ever. Period. Not your friends or your lovers or your family. No hints. No innuendo.

"If you can't handle that, then I have to know now. I'll need to do damage control and I'll need to get out of the line of fire, because you can bet your ass that there'll be one."

"Do we get a chance to think about it?"

"No, Kate." Gibbs looked away from the road for a moment, holding her gaze for as long as he could. "You don't get to think about it. You don't get to talk it over with your priest. I have to start arranging things now if I'm going to disappear without raising more questions than I can afford."

"You can count on me, boss," McGee said immediately. Gibbs would have mistrusted the quick response, except that he knew McGee had been...discreet about this sort of thing before. At least, the relationship sort of thing, although Petty Officer Cluxton hadn't deserved his silence in the end. Apparently that discretion extended to Gibbs's dual nature as well.

Kate's answer was a long time coming. "I haven't noticed any difference in your behavior over the past year. Or Tony's. So obviously nothing I just learned has had any impact on your professional performance. Whether or not it will have an effect on mine I can't tell you." She paused. "'Nothing happens' doesn't mean nothing changes, Gibbs. I need to work this out in my own head. All I can promise you right now is that I don't want to ruin your life. Or Tony's."

"And are you going to need help to 'work this out'?" Gibbs pushed. "I don't care how much you trust them. I don't trust them."

"I'm having a hard enough time dealing with the idea myself. I'm not going to put that burden on anyone else."

Not as definite an answer as I would have liked, Gibbs thought. But it'll have to do.

"We could talk about it to each other, couldn't we?" McGee asked from the back seat. "I mean, we both already know. And Ducky." He hesitated for a long time. "What about Abby?"

Gibbs grimaced, but he knew Abby would never forgive him if he left her out of the loop. "I'll tell her. And if you're going to talk to each other, you damn well better be careful about it."

"Of course!"

It wasn't that easy, but that wasn't something you learned by being told. Gibbs only hoped that all of this wouldn't blow up in his face sooner rather than later.

***

The two rattlesnakes in their plastic containers were exactly where Gibbs and Tony had left them. They retrieved the reptiles and trekked back to the car, where Gibbs took a moment to straighten out his clothing before getting back into the driver's seat. He'd been in a hurry to dress earlier. No one in the emergency room seemed to have noticed, but he didn't want to go back to NCIS looking like he'd spent the afternoon rolling around in a field. If only I had been, Gibbs thought. He and Tony had made some good memories in John Jameson's fields...

The drive back to NCIS was conducted in silence, although Gibbs noticed that Kate kept stealing glances at him. Either she had another question or she was still trying to adjust her perception of him. Gibbs ignored the repeated glances. At this point they'd either learn to deal or they wouldn't. He wasn't going to coddle them.

Still, it was a relief to get out of the near claustrophobic atmosphere of the car. Headquarters was bustling with activity, a mass of humanity pleasantly oblivious to the revelations of the last couple of hours. Kate and McGee relaxed visibly, as if the surrounding normalcy took the weight of their new knowledge off their shoulders.

Abby had her back to them when they arrived in the lab, her gazed fixed on a computer screen, her music blaring. Gibbs crossed the room and hit the off button. "Got something for you, Abs," he said briskly.

"Gibbs!" Abby spun around to face them, but her expression quickly drained of her normal enthusiasm and infused with concern instead. "What's wrong with you guys?" she asked, automatically accepting the two plastic cases McGee held out to her and setting them down without even glancing at the snakes within. "You look all kind of shell shocked." She paused. "Where's Tony?"

"Tony's in the hospital," Gibbs said flatly.

"Oh!" She gasped, one hand flying up to cover her mouth. "Is he going to be okay? What happened? Why are you here instead of there?"

Gibbs nodded at the snakes. "They bit him while he was collecting them. Once each. I got him to the hospital as fast as I could, Abs." At that, both Kate and McGee didn't look at the security camera in the lab with such determination that Gibbs could actually see them not looking. "He's going to make it."

"Making it is different than fine!" Abby admonished. "Rattlesnake venom can have muscular effects, you know. Is he even going to be in good enough shape to go back into the field when he gets better?"

"I don't know," Gibbs snapped. "There's nothing we can do but wait and see. Nothing any of us can do."

"You're supposed to take better care of him than that!" Abby stabbed an accusing finger at Gibbs.

He blinked in surprise. It sounded almost like... Gibbs resisted the urge to shake his head. She couldn't know. They'd been careful. Hell, they'd even fooled Kate. "The hospital will call me when they know more," Gibbs assured her. "In the meantime, we've still got a case to close. I need you to match that venom to these snakes. You two," he turned to Kate and McGee. "I want to know more about Calloway. I don't like not having a motive to hang this on."

"What about you?" Kate asked.

"I still need to follow up with the Academy clinic. I didn't get very far with them before Tony called me out to the ranch to round up our murder weapon." Gibbs paused. "Well?" he demanded. "Go!"

McGee went. Kate hesitated, glancing from Gibbs to Abby, but followed after him before the elevator doors closed.

When Gibbs looked back at Abby she was watching him suspiciously. "What's with all the significant glances?" she asked. "It's not Tony is it?"

"No, it's not Tony," Gibbs said. "You can go and check on him yourself, if you don't believe me."

Abby bit her lip. "You know I'm just worried, right? I get all freaky when I'm worried. You know that."

Gibbs crossed the room and cupped her face in his hands. "I know. He's gonna get through this. He might need some help, but we'll get him back in the saddle again."

"He'd better," Abby said fiercely. "Or I'll kick his butt."

Laughing, Gibbs patted her on the cheek and let his hands drop. "I do need to tell you something, but not here." Gibbs tilted his head toward the elevator. "Come on."

When Gibbs reached out and stopped the elevator, Abby broke into a broad grin and started bouncing. "You never do this with me! Oh, this is cool. What's up?" she demanded. "Spill, Gibbs!"

Normally Abby's enthusiasm was contagious, but Gibbs needed her to take this seriously. "Abby, focus," he said sharply.

"Okay, geez," she grumbled, but she took a deep breath and rolled her head around a couple of times. "All right," she said at last, giving her arms a shake like a boxer preparing to head into the ring. "Lay it on me."

Which was about as serious as Abby got. "I'm not human," Gibbs said baldly. "I'm a centaur. I can shift between shapes at will. When Tony was bitten I had to get him to help as quickly as possible, so I changed and carried him back to the car. Kate and McGee were waiting. They saw and I explained, which is why I'm telling you now."

Abby tilted her head and sighed. "That so sweet."

"Sweet?" Gibbs demanded.

"You revealed your secret to save the life of the man you love!" Abby exclaimed. "That's the stuff of romance novels, Gibbs. And then you get all worried about leaving me out of the loop so you come and confess all, even though you didn't have to." She stepped forward and hugged him quickly. "Softie."

Gibbs just glared at her. "The man I love?" he prompted sharply.

"Well, yeah. I mean, not that you weren't totally being discreet," she assured him hurriedly. "I just know you guys way too well. You've been getting less grumpy and Tony's been less flighty and your lives just kind seem to...orbit each other," she said, and shrugged. "It made sense. Besides, Tony never embroidered his stories for me like he did for the others. It was kind of hard to miss the sudden disappearance of women from his personal life."

"And the rest of it?"

"You mean the centaur thing?" Abby asked innocently.

"Yes, the centaur thing," Gibbs growled. "This isn't some story or fantasy game, Abs. This is reality. "

Abby blew out an exasperated breath. "I have a pretty solid grasp of reality, you know. I just also have an open mind. I've always believed that there's more going on in the world than most people know about, so the idea of another non-human sentient race wandering around isn't exactly going to blow my mind. The centaur thing is a bit of a surprise, but only because it's not really as popular a myth as werewolves, so I kind of figured the odds of running into one of those were higher."

"And the fact that I'm 'one of those'?" Gibbs prompted.

"Frankly?" Abby said, eyes twinkling. "I figured you for something other than Homo sapiens almost from the start."

Gibbs shook his head. "Not possible. There's no way to tell, short of a detailed autopsy. Centaurs have been passing for human for centuries."

Abby just shrugged. "I don't know how I knew, either. Just a feeling."

"You're one of a kind, Abs."

She smiled smugly. "Yes I am." But after a moment she bit her lip uncertainly. "You said Kate and McGee saw you. McGee's adaptable, he'll be fine, but Kate...Kate must be having a hard time. She's got kind of a rigid view of the world," Abby said, sighing. "I'm working on her, you know? But it's slow going. She'll get there, but she's gonna need space to work it out in her head."

"She said as much," Gibbs admitted. "Finding out about me and Tony hit her almost as hard as finding out about me did. "

"Rigid world view," Abby repeated helplessly. "But she's a good person, Gibbs."

"I don't doubt that." But even good people do terrible things sometimes. "If you need to talk to someone about this, someone who hasn't just had it sprung on them, talk to Ducky. I told him years ago, for medical reasons."

"Hey," Abby said, poking him. "What if you need to talk to someone?"

Gibbs snorted. "I'm fine." He'd be even better when Tony woke up. When they figured out what the hell was going on. In the meantime, fine would have to do.

"We're here for you, you know," Abby said seriously. "All of us. Even Kate."

"'All of us'." Gibbs grimaced. "Two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead. What about six people?"

"Hey, we're your friends," Abby said confidently. "We've got your back."

"I know, Abs," Gibbs sighed, putting the elevator in motion again. "I know."

***

The Academy clinic staff were just as cooperative the second time Gibbs arrived to question them as they had been the first time. This time, in the absence of interruptions, it was easy enough to locate the nurse who had given Salter his vitamin shot. At first she insisted everything had been normal, but with a little careful prodding she remembered that there almost hadn't been enough fluid in the bottle for the shot. She'd checked the inventory after administering the shot, certain that the bottle was supposed to be full, and discovered that she was right. More than half the bottle had gone missing.

It was the sort of thing the clinic staff would have checked into on their own, if Salter hadn't died, but it would never have been a criminal investigation. Vitamins weren't exactly a banned substance, after all, and while taking them without a doctor's supervision wasn't recommended, it wouldn't kill you...

The clinic could be locked, but in practice that was only done at night, and the vitamin solution sat out on an open shelf. Access would have been easy. All that Calloway needed was enough time to suck out the original solution and inject the venom into the bottle. Just enough for one shot; he didn't want to kill anyone else, after all. An empty bottle would be trashed. Less than 24 hours after the switch was made, the evidence would have been buried under a mountain of garbage.

At least, it would have been if the bottle hadn't been made of glass.

The clinic disposed of 'sharps,' including unbroken glass, separately from the rest of their garbage. A standard safety precaution, but not one that was advertised widely. Gibbs hardly spent a minute sifting through half a cardboard box of glass vials and fragments and bottles before he found the one he was looking for. There was even a little liquid still in it.

Ten minutes between when he got the shot and when he collapsed in the cafeteria, Gibbs considered as he headed back to NCIS. Twenty minutes from there to the hospital. Five minutes after that, he was dead. Thirty-five minutes total.

How close was that to Tony's time?

How much larger had Salter's dose been?

Gibbs dialed the hospital on his cell phone and fought his way through the electronic menus until he got an actual person who could update him on Tony's condition. Stable. Still administering antivenin. Unconscious. Gibbs wondered if this qualified as a coma, or if he wasn't in that deep, but the nurse on the phone wouldn't say. Snapping the phone shut, Gibbs tossed it into the passenger seat and thumped the steering wheel hard, once.

"Stable is good," Gibbs reminded himself aloud. They weren't going to lose Tony now. He wasn't going to lose Tony. Not to the God damned snakes and not to his own stupid conviction that Tony leaving meant Tony was leaving. He should have known better, he should never have even let Tony get to the front door, but he'd always believed that something that seemed too good to be true wasn't. Wasn't true. Wasn't real. "Almost proved yourself right," Gibbs muttered.

You still could be, a traitorous voice whispered. He was hardly aware of what he was saying in that car, never mind what you were saying.

Focus, Gibbs told himself, shoving the other thoughts aside. You've got a case to close.

He delivered the evidence to Abby's lab before heading back up to the squad room. It was past six and the tech herself had gone home. Gibbs spared a moment to wish he had a reason to call his team back in, but this wasn't a hot case, despite Tony's injury. It would be cruel to insist they work through the night just because he didn't want to go home.

The squad room was mostly dark, illuminated only by the streetlights shining in through the windows and the occasional lamp in use by an agent working late. Stopping at his desk, Gibbs momentarily considered sleeping here, at work, instead of going home. But although he'd done it before, doing it now, for this case, would raise too many questions.

Instead Gibbs collected the few items he hadn't brought with him to the Academy and headed back down to the parking garage to retrieve his car. He didn't bother with his usual break neck pace on the drive home, arriving after a comfortable half hour.

The place hasn't changed since this morning, Gibbs reminded himself as he closed the front door behind himself. So why does it feel so goddamned empty? He hung up his overcoat and tossed his wallet and keys on the hall table. Gun, badge, and other detritus went into the second drawer of his bedside table.

The first drawer had been turned over to other purposes.

Gibbs paused there, fingertips resting on the top of the table, and wondered for a moment if he'd ever have reason to use those supplies again. Tony was in bad shape. He's not going to die. But even if he didn't, would he ever find his way back into Gibbs's bed?

Say it again.

Gibbs closed his eyes and tilted his head a little. "You're mine," he whispered. "Always. I promise."

***

Gibbs stopped at the hospital the next morning before work, but Tony was still unconscious and the hospital, incredibly, was still administering antivenin. Eighteen vials and counting. After hearing that, Gibbs stopped to pick up a little medication of his own. Extra large and strong enough to stand a spoon in.

By the time Gibbs appeared in the squad room Kate and McGee were already at their workstations. Gibbs glanced at Tony's empty desk, then forced his eyes to move on. "Talk to me," he demanded.

McGee rose to his feet. "You remember how Salter had registered a complaint against Calloway?" Gibbs nodded shortly. "Well," McGee went on, "it turns out that that wasn't the only complaint, it was just the only one that made it into either of their files. Salter had been systematically undermining Calloway's status with his drill sergeants and instructors."

"On top of 'warning' them about Calloway's insubordination," Kate said, taking up the thread of the story, "Salter was in the habit of reporting every little thing Calloway did. If Calloway's diet slipped, the clinic and his physical fitness instructors heard about it. If he blew off an assignment until the last moment, the class's instructor heard about it. If he snuck off base, their class's CO heard about it."

"In fact, Salter reported on him so often that he got chewed out for wasting his instructors' time," McGee jumped in.

"At which point he toned it down a little," Kate added. "But he seemed pretty dedicated to getting Calloway kicked out of the Academy."

"Did Calloway ever retaliate?" Gibbs asked.

"There's nothing in the records to indicate he did," McGee said. "And when I called his instructors they said that he and Salter got into a few times--mostly shouting, although there were a few punches thrown--but that Calloway never responded with complaints of his own."

"Probably because Calloway had more to lose by getting kicked out than Salter did," Kate tapped a file folder on her desk. "If Salter was obsessed with upholding the standards of the Navy, Calloway was obsessed with not ending up like his parents. His father barely scraped through high school and his mother never finished; both of them work two jobs, all four paying minimum wage. There was no way they could afford to put him through college."

"It looks like college wouldn't have been good enough for him even if they could," McGee went on. "I think he wanted to get all the way out of state. He put everything into getting into the Naval Academy from pretty early on. He didn't even apply anywhere else."

"And it might not have done him much good if he had," Kate interjected. "USNA has somewhat different entrance requirements than most colleges do. Given how focused he was, he'd have been a borderline applicant to a regular college."

Gibbs drank a gulp of his coffee, working it through in his head before he spoke. "The Naval Academy is Calloway's best chance, maybe his only chance, at getting out of his parents' situation at the least and out of state at the most. Three years in and it seems like everything is going according to plan. And then he gets stuck with a roommate whose familial military tradition has gone to his head and the next thing Calloway knows, he's in danger of being expelled."

"He can't fight back officially, because he's already riding the edge," Kate reasoned. "He can't afford to cause trouble."

"But why kill Salter?" McGee asked. "That's just about as much trouble as you can be in."

"Only if he gets caught," Gibbs pointed out. "Abby told us earlier that she only found the venom in his bloodstream because she remembered the presidential football carrier who was poisoned with snake venom."

"And Calloway knows about snakes," McGee said, realization dawning. "He'd probably know that natural venoms don't show up on most blood tests."

"Bring him in," Gibbs said in clipped tones. "By the time you get him here, Abby ought to have enough evidence to hang him with."

Kate and McGee both nodded sharply, geared up, and headed for the elevator. Gibbs watched them go. When the elevator doors had closed, he turned to Tony's desk and glared. You're not supposed to leave me without my second, he told the absent agent. He'd have given Tony a smack to remind him of it, if he'd been within reach.

Shaking his head at himself, Gibbs collected the files Kate and McGee had put together on Salter and Calloway after their digging and dropped them on his desk. He ought to read over them, get the facts into his head so that he could spring them on Calloway naturally. And he would. But first he needed to talk to Ducky.

Gibbs had never expected to end up with a friend like Donald Mallard. When he'd joined the Marines he'd only meant to serve a few years. Which wasn't to say he hadn't given them his loyalty and dedication unreservedly, but his heart and soul had been committed elsewhere. Only later, after the plans he'd made for after his first hitch had gone straight to hell, had Gibbs gone back to the Corps and given them everything he'd held back the first time.

Everything except his secret.

He'd take a bullet for any one of his buddies and Gibbs knew damn well they'd do the same for him, but he'd only risked telling one of them once. That had blown up in his face badly enough that he didn't need to think twice about keeping the secret later.

When he'd told Ducky, Gibbs had expected the revelation to nip their nascent friendship in the bud. The ME would be discreet, he knew. That complete discretion was the reason he'd managed to convince himself that it would be safe to have the man keep an eye out for the physical problems that could be particular to centaurs. Yeah, he'd expected discretion, but he'd also expected the slow death of any real familiarity.

But somehow, despite the secret, despite the fact that Gibbs had always refused to satisfy Ducky's curiosity on the subject of his people, Gibbs could still go to him to talk twenty years later. He was the first and oldest of the herd Gibbs had scraped together for himself.

Gibbs needed that now.

The doors to autopsy swung open under his hands. Gibbs glanced around and was relieved to see that Palmer was absent. Ducky wasn't in the main area, but Gibbs could just see him through the window into his office. The door was open, so Gibbs paused in the frame and rapped on the open door with his knuckles. "Hey, Duck."

Ducky looked up from the report he was writing, his face creased with concern instead of welcome. "Jethro. How is young Anthony doing?"

Abby, Gibbs guessed silently. "Still unconscious. You have a minute to talk?"

"For you, always," Ducky said firmly, gesturing for Gibbs to come in and close the door.

When it had snicked shut Gibbs lowered himself into a spare chair and rubbed a hand over his face briefly. "I really fucked up, Duck," he said reluctantly.

"Surely there's no way you could have known the reptiles--"

"Not that," Gibbs interrupted. "Earlier."

"Ah," Ducky said quietly. "You would be referring to the revelation you shared with Tony, and his subsequent reaction."

Gibbs raised an eyebrow. "He mentioned it to you?"

"Not his first choice, I'm sure," Ducky said dryly, "but there wasn't anyone else he could mention it to."

Gibbs snorted. "There is now."

"Oh?"

"Kate, McGee, Abby, take your pick," Gibbs said, waving one hand. "I had to get Tony out of that field fast and he wasn't in any shape to run. I changed. They saw. After that, it didn't make any sense to keep Abby in the dark. They know what I am. Hell, they even know about me and Tony."

"And how have they reacted?" Ducky asked. There was so much concern in his tone that Gibbs felt a sudden rush of shame that he had held so much of himself back from his friend. Twenty years and he'd shared only the barest physical facts with Ducky. Even after Tony had been let in on the secret and Gibbs had been forced to explain a few things he'd never expanded that confidence to his oldest friend.

You had good reason to be careful, Gibbs told himself harshly. He fought down the shame, concentrating instead on answering Ducky's question. "They're going to need time." He paused and frowned. "Except possibly for Abby, who swears she knew something was hinky from the moment she met me. I still can't decide if she believes me or not."

Ducky chuckled. "Abigail knows that you are not given to flights of fancy," he said. "And she wants very much to believe in those things which are still mysteries to science. I suspect she truly believes you."

Gibbs smiled a little. "She'll probably grill Tony like an expert interrogator when he wakes up. She's going to want to know everything and she knows she can only push me so far. Tony, on the other hand..." Gibbs trailed off, sobering. "I let him walk out on me and when he didn't come running back right away I assumed that he didn't want to come back at all." Gibbs shook his head. "So fucking stupid."

"It's not like you to jump to conclusions so quickly," Ducky observed.

Jesus, what did you think this was? It's been fun, but the novelty's got to wear off some time, right?

Gibbs struggled to shut the unwelcome memory out, but for all his trying it hovered on the edges of his concentration, unearthed by the events of the past few days. "Sometimes I have a hard time believing that Tony is really serious about this...relationship," Gibbs said eventually. "I think I was actually less surprised to see him walk out that door than I am every time I wake up next to him."

Tony's eyelids fluttered as he slowly swam out of the depths of sleep. Tony was capable of waking up quickly, but in Gibbs's bed he never did. It was almost as if he somehow knew that he was safe, that he didn't need to be alert and ready for action at the drop of a hat. He smacked his lips as he woke up and cracked one eye at Gibbs. His hair stuck up in every direction, his cheeks were dark with stubble, and there were crusty bits of sleep in the corners of his eyes. Gibbs couldn't resist; he leaned down and kissed him.

The kiss was long and slow. Tony's technique was a little hit and miss, thanks to early morning mental fuzziness. He wasn't working at it, he was just kissing. Gibbs pulled back eventually. Tony let both his eyes open. "You have terrible morning breath," he said. A quirk at the corner of his mouth belied the lurking grin.

Gibbs snorted and cuffed Tony lightly before rolling out of bed. No matter how reluctant to get up Tony seemed, he'd be with Gibbs by the time the shower had heated up...

"I'm still not sure whether he was leaving because he wanted time to think or because he wanted to leave, period," Gibbs admitted. "After he got bitten he said something...it seemed like he didn't want things to end after all. But I can't be sure."

"And what does the infamous gut tell you?" Ducky asked, raising his eyebrows.

"You think I can still trust my gut when it comes to relationships?" Gibbs shot back.

"I think you can trust it when it comes to Tony," Ducky responded at once. He paused. Then, carefully, "When Tony came to talk to me, he was very upset. Angry, and confused. But in spite of that, it was eminently clear that he expected what you have between you to last. Even when he was uncertain where things stood, he spoke of losing you decades before he had expected to. He mentioned plans he had made, although he referred to them as 'pipe dreams.' I think you do him a disservice if you believe his commitment to you is anything less than complete."

For a long moment, Gibbs just stared at Ducky. Tony had made plans? Had thought about what it would be like for them in ten, twenty, thirty years? And then, the thought inevitable: Why didn't I think about that?

I own him more thoroughly than even I knew.

Which only made it even more confusing that Tony had left in the first place. If he'd been a centaur, it would have made sense... Gibbs's thoughts trailed off. It did make sense.

He had to laugh. Ducky frowned, but Gibbs shook his head. "It's not that I don't believe you, Duck," he said. "I do. I just realized where Tony and I got our wires crossed. I was treating him like a human would treat a human, and he was reacting to me like a centaur would react to a centaur."

"I'm afraid I don't understand," Ducky admitted.

"It's okay. Tony will, when I get a chance to explain it to him." Gibbs got up and headed out of autopsy.

"You know," Ducky shouted after him, "sometimes you are a truly infuriating man!"

Gibbs smiled to himself all the way up the elevator, but he composed his expression before heading out into the squad room. He had reports to review and an interrogation to conduct and then he had to go to the hospital to straighten out things with Tony, because he was going to wake up, and even if the damage done by the venom took him out of the field he'd damn well still be Gibbs's second.

***

Calloway was not going to be hard to break in interrogation. When Kate and McGee brought him in he was all blustering offense, loudly wondering what basis they had for arresting him. It was spelled out clearly in the arrest warrant, which Kate had calmly pointed out as they escorted him into the interrogation room. That was when the whites of his eyes started showing.

Gibbs left him in the interrogation room alone for hours, just watching from the observation area. A more experienced criminal, or a calmer, smarter man, would have used the time to hammer out the details of his story, but Calloway was a twenty-two year old kid who'd made all the major decisions in his life based on fear.

While he was waiting Abby came up from the lab with the results of the venom comparison and the fingerprints she'd gotten off the vitamin solution bottle. Gibbs took a couple of minutes to build his strategy around those two items before he left the observation room and entered Interrogation One.

"Midshipman Calloway," Gibbs drawled, sitting down in the chair across the table from the young man. "You're in a lot of trouble."

"I haven't done anything wrong," Calloway said quickly.

Been waiting awhile to say that, haven't you? Gibbs thought, amused. Calloway must have told Kate and McGee a dozen times, but the utter silence of the interrogation room could weigh down on you when you were on the wrong side of the table. "I have a pair of rattlesnakes down in the lab that say differently," Gibbs said.

Calloway blanched. "I don't keep rattlesnakes."

"It's true that there weren't any in the collection that your girlfriend was keeping for you," Gibbs allowed. He waited a beat, just long enough for Calloway to start to relax. "But we did find a pair of them on her parents' ranch. Mojave rattlesnakes are desert reptiles, Midshipman, and it's November. They hadn't moved very far from where she dropped them."

"I-- I don't know what you're talking about." Calloway did his best to look calm, but there was tension around his eyes and his mouth was looking pinched.

"I suppose that's possible," Gibbs said. "After all, you didn't tell her where to dump them. Only that they had to go. It's not your fault that a Federal agent is in the hospital recovering from a pair of bites."

"That's right! I just told her--" Calloway broke off, looking stricken. He slumped back in his hair, eyes sliding away from Gibbs.

"But they are your snakes," Gibbs went on as if Calloway hadn't all but handed him a confession on a platter. "And the lab tells me that they're also the snakes whose venom killed Midshipman Salter."

Calloway frowned. "You can't get DNA from venom."

"Interesting that you would know that," Gibbs commented. "I had to have my lab tech explain it to me."

"I'm interested in snakes," Calloway said defensively, his shoulders hunching a bit. "I've researched them."

"Which makes it even more interesting that you knew that rattlesnake venom attacks DNA, making it impossible for any of the snake's own DNA to be carried along, but didn't know that there's an incredibly wide variation in the actual composition of that venom." Gibbs paused, letting that sink in. "In fact, the variation is so broad that it's significantly different even between individual snakes of the same species."

Calloway slumped in his chair. "Just because my snakes produced the venom doesn't mean I was the one who...administered it," he muttered. "It's not like people didn't know I had them." A thought occurred to him and he brightened up a bit. "I even showed a few people how to milk them."

This kid isn't that bright, Gibbs observed silently. First he admits that they're his after all, then he volunteers that he knew how to get the venom out of them. "That might even make an argument for reasonable doubt," Gibbs said aloud, "if it weren't for this." Standing, he reached into his pocket and withdrew a clear evidence bag. He set it down so that the bottle within stood up, a beautifully clear thumbprint outlined in black fingerprint powder facing Calloway.

Gibbs spread his hands out on the table top and leaned down. "We don't have your fingerprints yet," Gibbs said quietly. "But I have this suspicion that that's going to be a perfect match to your left thumb."

For a long moment Calloway just stared at the bottle and the clear, sharp thumbprint. Then, slowly, he started shaking his head. "There wasn't anything else I could do," he said, voice low, defeated. "The bastard was going to report me for plagiarism. I never cheated on a damn thing, but between my record with all those damn complaints and his family...I'd never have stood a chance. I'd have been out on my ass. Expelled." Calloway looked up at Gibbs, almost pleading for him to understand. "I couldn't let that happen. I'd have had to go home. Get work and run myself into the ground, kill myself on the inside just to make ends meet. I won't live like that."

Gibbs straightened up and stared down at Calloway. "You got what you wanted," he said flatly. "You won't be going home. You'll be going to prison instead." Plucking the evidence bag up off the table, Gibbs turned sharply and left the room.

Kate met him in the hall. "That was fast," she commented.

Gibbs snorted. "He wasn't exactly a tough nut to crack," he said dryly. He opened his mouth to say more, but cut himself off when he caught sight of McGee hurrying down the hallway.

"Boss!" McGee said urgently. "The hospital called your desk while you were in interrogation."

For a moment Gibbs's heart seemed to stop in his chest. "Well?" he snapped, trying to cover the sudden conflicting surge of fear and hope.

McGee blinked. "Tony's awake. He's asking for you. Well, he's asking after all of us, but he wants to see you."

It was a struggled not to show the overwhelming rush of relief, to appear calm and focused, but Gibbs had a lot of practice. Only a moment went by before he nodded crisply and said, "We need to get Calloway booked."

Kate and McGee looked a little surprised, but they didn't comment. With three people working on the paperwork that was needed for Calloway to be processed it was done in record time. They collected Ducky and Abby before heading out to the parking lot and piling into two different cars. Gibbs, Abby, and Ducky ended up in one car, Kate and McGee in the other.

Gibbs knew he was speeding more than usual. He'd have known it from the firm grip Ducky had on the overhead handle even if he didn't have a speedometer to check, but he couldn't seem to lighten his lead foot. Tony was awake and asking for him and there was no case standing between them now, just a few miles of asphalt. The speedometer crept up another notch.

At the hospital Gibbs stalked up to the front desk. "I'm here for Tony DiNozzo," he said shortly.

The nurse staffing the desk, a pretty young woman with blond hair pulled back into a bun, seemed a little startled at Gibbs's intensity, but she just turned her attention to her computer monitor and let her fingers play over the keyboard for a moment. "Your name, please?" she asked after a moment.

"Jethro Gibbs. I'm his supervisor."

More key clicks. "And his legal next of kin," the nurse observed. Gibbs blinked in surprise. His legal next of kin? Not just his emergency contact? That was new since the last time Tony had been injured. "You'll want to give me a list of approved visitors before you go up," she went on.

Abby arrived at his side as if to underline the point, she and Ducky having been left to figure out how to pay for parking. "Yeah," she said. "You're not going anywhere without me, buster."

Gibbs glared at them both for the delay, but gave up the appropriate names. By the time he was done spelling all of them--'Sciuto' he could understand, but what was so hard about 'Todd'?--Ducky, Kate, and McGee were all hovering behind him impatiently.

"Okay," the nurse said with a last few key clicks, "we're done. You can go on up now. Mr. DiNozzo is in room 217. That's--"

Her voice and the directions she gave faded into the distance, the team having abandoned the front desk the moment she gave up Tony's room number. Gibbs headed for the stairs, choosing to keep moving over being forced to wait for an elevator just to ascend a single level. The others clattered up the stairs behind him at varying speeds, but Gibbs didn't bother to wait, not even for Ducky.

217 was set up for two patients, though only half of it was in use, for which Gibbs was grateful. At the far end, just past a flimsy curtain that didn't even come to the foot of the pair of beds, was Tony. Gibbs stopped at the end of his bed for a moment, drinking in the sight of Tony alive and awake and sitting up.

For the first time in days, the tight feeling in Gibbs's chest unknotted.

***

Waking up in the hospital had been hellish.

First of all, it was the hospital. That was never a good sign. Second, his entire body ached like someone had worked him over with a meat tenderizer. Third, and worst of all, he was alone. He'd hadn't woken up alone in the hospital since he'd started with Gibbs, even if it was only Palmer that was waiting, since he was pretty much the only person who could be spared from a hot case. The fact that it had happened now couldn't be a good sign.

Tony had a vague memory of Gibbs reassuring him--You're mine and I'm not letting you go. I'm never letting you go.--but it was so distant, he couldn't be sure that what he was remembering was real. Maybe he'd imagined it or dreamed it or something. If Gibbs had said it, had meant it, wouldn't someone be here? Salter's murder wasn't trivial, but it wasn't so hot it needed all their resources all the time. It wasn't like they were working through the night on this one. Tony had to see Gibbs. He had to know, one way or the other.

But even after he asked the doctor to contact Gibbs, more than an hour went by and...nothing. It didn't take that long to get to the hospital. Hell, with Gibbs driving it didn't take twenty minutes. Tony could feel the hope born of that stupid, stupid fantasy draining away.

He was leaning back against the raised slope of the bed, more sitting up than lying down, and staring at the muted TV mounted above his bed when the clatter of feet echoed down the hallway. For a moment his heart leapt, but that was the sound of several people, not one. Tony snorted at his own optimism, staring at the meaningless, flickering pictures as the clatter of feet got louder and closer.

And then Gibbs appeared from around the ridiculous 'privacy' curtain and Tony could only stare at him. He barely had time to wonder what had made all the noise when Abby rounded the curtain.

"Tony!" She squealed and launched herself across the room, landing half on top of him and hugging him until his aching body protested with shooting pains. Tony bit down on a gasp and hugged her back, watching over her shoulder as Kate and McGee and Ducky all lined up next to the bed.

Abby eventually pulled back and scowled at him. "You're not supposed to do these things to me," she admonished, shaking her finger. "I was worried, you blockhead!"

Tony couldn't stop grinning. "Come on, Abs," he said. "You thought a little snake bite was going to take me down?" He scoffed. "Twenty-two vials of antivenin and I'm good as new."

"The antivenin is almost as bad as the venom," Abby argued. "Don't do it again, okay?"

"I'll do my best," Tony promised, tugging on one of her pigtails. He glanced over at Kate, McGee, and Ducky, not ready yet to meet Gibbs's gaze. "The whole gang is here," he observed, digging up a smirk. "Just couldn't live without me, huh Kate?"

"Don't flatter yourself," Kate shot back. "I just wanted to make sure you weren't going to land me with your share of the paperwork." But she was smiling.

"I'm...really glad you're okay, Tony," McGee said simply.

"We all are," Ducky added. "You were quite lucky, you know. Why, even when it's not fatal, rattlesnake venom can cause serious tissue damage. I knew a man once who worked with the creatures in the London Zoo. He gotten bitten quite regularly, though typically--"

"Duck," Gibbs interjected firmly. "Not now."

Ducky paused. "Yes, yes of course. A story for a later time. And perhaps we should all allow Jethro a moment in private?" He looked at the others and arched an eyebrow.

Tony watched Abby, Kate, and McGee turn in unison to frown at Ducky. Realization dawned in one expression after another and, after a chorus of agreement, they all filed out of the room. Tony watched them go, brow wrinkled, and tried to fight down the sudden surge of panic at being alone with Gibbs. He kept looking at the doorway even after the last of the team had vanished from it, too nervous at what he might see on Gibbs's face if he looked around.

There was the sound of movement--Gibbs coming around the foot of the bed to stand next to Tony. Dropping his eyes to his hands, Tony waited and wondered how this was going to go.

Fingers touched Tony's scalp, sliding around until Gibbs cupped the back of Tony's head in his palm. The touch trailed down slowly, stroking the nape of Tony's neck. He wanted to push back into the caress, and couldn't.

"Tony," Gibbs said quietly. And then, more firmly, "Look at me."

Tony obeyed automatically and found himself meeting Gibbs's gaze. He wasn't smiling. He'd never looked more serious. But his hand was still resting on Tony's neck and Tony found some of the shaky feeling inside of him easing. A long moment passed.

"Mine," Gibbs said at last, giving Tony's neck a little squeeze. "Understand?"

Tony wanted to just say yes, but he couldn't. He swallowed heavily. "Then why'd you let me leave?"

Sighing, Gibbs let go of Tony's neck and hitched himself up a bit to sit on the edge of the bed. "I thought you needed space to think, to deal with what I'd told you. I told myself you'd work it out and come back. And then I thought that maybe working it out meant that you weren't going to come back."

"But that's not supposed to be my choice to make."

"And this is where we got confused," Gibbs said wryly. "If you'd been a centaur, I'd have known that you were just pushing for reassurance, because a centaur would never take it upon themselves to leave their herd stallion. If I'd been human, you'd have known that I was just giving you space."

This was almost starting to make a backwards kind of sense. "You're telling me that we were trying so hard to account for the other person's species that you acted like a human and I acted like a centaur, and we still got our lines crossed?"

"Yep."

Tony couldn't help it. He started snickering and snickering turned into laughing and if the laughter was a little hysterical, neither of them mentioned it. "Jesus, boss," Tony said at last. "Let's not do this again, okay?"

Something changed in Gibbs's gaze; meeting it made Tony shiver. "Trust me, Tony," he said, voice low and intent, "you will never have reason to doubt where you belong again." He grimaced briefly. "I meant to be here when you woke up, to tell you that before you had a chance to think about it anymore. I got so focused on wrapping up this damn case and getting back here that I didn't even think to send someone to wait with you." Tony swallowed heavily and dropped his eyes, remembering what it had been like to wake up alone, but he nodded mutely. Gibbs's hand on his chin made him look up again, to see the silent apology in Gibbs's eyes. But somewhere in there, Tony saw something else that made him wonder...

"Gibbs," he said slowly. "Even if I had wanted space to think, it's kind of a big leap from there to never coming back."

"We all have our moments of insanity," Gibbs said lightly.

"Maybe," Tony said, levering himself up off the sloped back of the bed to lean forward, "but you're usually a better judge of character than that. You're usually a better judge of me than that." Tony paused and frowned. "Have I...done something to make you think I didn't want this? Because if I did, I swear, I didn't mean it to come across like that."

But Gibbs was shaking his head. "You didn't do anything, Tony," he said.

Tony wanted to believe it, but after five years working under Gibbs and a year learning to be with him, Tony had gotten a feel for the man. He couldn't always read Gibbs, but right now, with his guard down...he was lying. "I did do something," Tony said flatly. "Shit. Fuck. What was it?"

"You didn't do anything," Gibbs repeated. "I just...misunderstood."

"Misunderstood what?"

Gibbs glared at him. Tony did his best to glare back. "You're not going to let this drop, are you?"

"Nope."

Gibbs broke off his glare and turned to stare out the window instead. "It was months ago. You were getting the obstacle course ready, spending every minute you could make an excuse for up at John's ranch, working on it."

"But I did that for you!" Tony protested. "I thought you liked it."

"I do like it. But it was a surprise, Tony." Gibbs grimaced as he went on, "For three months you repeatedly bowed out of spending the night when you would have leaped at it before. You made excuses for a couple of rare free weekends. I could almost see you not talking about...something. I didn't have an explanation. All I could think was that maybe the shine had finally worn off the relationship."

"You and me were never about novelty," Tony said quietly.

Gibbs flinched.

Actually flinched. Tony didn't think he'd ever seen Gibbs do that before. "What'd I say?" Tony demanded.

"Exactly the right thing," Gibbs said. "The word 'novelty' just dug up an unpleasant memory."

"The kind of unpleasant memory you can tell me about?" Tony asked. Gibbs had seen a lot of bad shit as a Marine. He wasn't allowed to talk about a lot of it, but Tony couldn't help asking, hoping he could help Gibbs bear it.

"The kind I couldn't tell anyone except you about," Gibbs said dryly. "You and Ducky. At least until today." Gibbs snorted and shook his head ruefully.

Tony frowned. He'd have to find out what that was about. But later. "I thought Ducky was the only person you'd told before me."

"I said that first night that it had been nearly thirty years since someone had touched me in centaur shape," Gibbs said. "And you found out a week later that I left the herd forty years ago. You never wondered at the difference?"

Shaking his head sheepishly, Tony admitted, "I never did the math."

"I'd just joined the Corps," Gibbs said quietly. "I hadn't learned yet how careful I had to be. One of my buddies saw me. I explained. Buddy turned into fuck buddy turned into bastard notching his bedpost. He liked the freak factor, apparently. Thought it was a real kick in the pants to fuck someone who wasn't even human."

"And you thought I was cut from the same cloth?" Tony asked angrily.

"No!" Gibbs snapped, finally turning to look at him again. "I'm not that stupid, DiNozzo. But I thought maybe that kind of curiosity was part of the reason you started things with me. I was willing to live with that, if I meant I could have you."

The anger leaked away without Tony really wanting it to. It was easier to be angry. "Variety might have been my word of the day before you, Gibbs, but it had nothing to do with why I crawled into your bed the first time and it has nothing to do with why I'm there now." He glanced down at the hospital bed. "So to speak."

"Then why didn't we get together until after you found out?"

Tony stared at Gibbs incredulously. "Because that was the first time you let me into your personal life! Because that was the first time you let me see anything other than Gibbs, the bastard, my boss. Hell, I didn't even know that you wanted me until about ten seconds before we started fucking!"

Gibbs just looked at him. "Well," he said at last. "At least we didn't waste any time."

Tony flopped back onto the raised section of the bed and moaned. "Didn't waste any time, he says. I lusted after you for years and you think we didn't waste any time."

When Tony looked back over at Gibbs, a hint of regret had crept into Gibbs's expression. "You know that nothing has changed with me," he said quietly. "I've got just as much time left now as I did three nights ago."

Which was something Tony had been trying not to think about since he woke up, without any success. "I know." He stopped and took a deep breath and dug up all the stubbornness he had. "Which means that the time you've got just got a lot more valuable. Which means it's worth more risk."

Gibbs raised his eyebrows, not giving anything away. "Which means?"

"It means that if I thought I could convince you we could get away with living together, I'd take a shot at it. But--" he cut off Gibbs's incipient protest, "since I know I can't, I'll settle for sleeping over a hell of a lot more often." Tony paused, mentally sorting through all the things he'd wanted and trying to separate out the ones he thought he could get away with now. "And I want us to go away together sometimes. For more than a weekend. And I want to tell Abby that we're together." At that, Gibbs suddenly looked almost sheepish. Tony's eyes narrowed. "What?"

"Abby already knows," Gibbs confessed. "About you and me and about me being what I am."

"And when did this happen?" Tony demanded.

Gibbs actually rubbed at the back of his neck briefly. "After Kate and McGee found out."

Tony knew he was glaring, though it didn't seem to be making much of an impact. "All right then," he said abruptly, folding his arms across his chest. "Now I want to tone down the dating stories, too. And I want them to come over for Christmas."

Now Gibbs was glaring. "The entire team is not invading my home on Christmas."

"Fine. We'll do it at my apartment," Tony shot back.

"We'd be sitting on top of each other at your apartment!"

"Well that won't be much of a surprise, will it!"

Gibbs smacked Tony upside the head. Tony worked at looking affronted, but after a moment the grin broke free.

Gibbs snorted. "You were asking for that."

"Well, yeah."

Abby poked her head around the curtain. "Were you two arguing?" she asked suspiciously.

"No," Gibbs and Tony said in unison.

Abby grinned, her eyes lighting up. "That is so cute," she declared. "Do it again."

"No!" Gibbs and Tony chorused again. They turned to glare at each other, Abby giggling in the background.

"I'll go let the others know it's safe to come back," she declared, and disappeared back around the curtain.

Tony watched her go. When he looked back at Gibbs, that serious expression was back. "What?"

"Legal next of kin?" Gibbs prompted.

"Ah." Tony shifted uncomfortably and shrugged. "For a couple of months now. I didn't want anyone else making decisions for me."

"Looks like I have some paperwork to do," Gibbs said quietly.

"You don't have to."

Gibbs reached down and took Tony's hand, twining their fingers together. Tony stiffened in momentary shock, suddenly vibrantly aware of just how public a hospital could be. But Gibbs held on and eventually Tony had to look up at him.

"I don't want you to think for a moment that I am any less serious about this than you are," Gibbs said. Another person might have been insistent or defensive, but from Gibbs it was just a statement. Somehow, that was more reassuring than any outpouring of emotion could have been.

Tony looked down at their entwined hands and heard the others coming back and didn't let go. He could feel a smile slowly stretching his lips.

"Okay."

--End--

Chapters: 1

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MTAC - NCIS Fic