I should have known better than to get sucked into the conversation brewing between Abby and Ziva down in the lab during work hours, especially with Gibbs breathing down my neck to fetch our current case's tech results back to him as quickly as I could...or quicker...but when I'd heard the words 'sexually aroused' and 'pleasure' and 'release' rolling tartly from their mouths as they huddled closely together over something showing on Abby's computer screen, well, I got momentarily sidetracked. Okay, maybe it was more than momentarily but, in my defense, women just shouldn't be allowed to talk like that with males in the general vicinity; it's simply too hard to keep the brain from immediately regressing into it's favorite and preferred state: thinking about sex.
Anyway, I was instantly sucked in and all thoughts of Gibbs and his pissy mood and his sharp, snappish commands and his pale, all-knowing, all- burning, all-freakish eyes that fairly singe my body each time he looks my way were quickly forgotten. In a heartbeat. Sometimes a guy's just got to go with the flow and follow his dick...and damn be the consequences. Besides, curiosity never killed this cat. Yet.
"Oh, this is romantic," Ziva is now pointing to the screen, her accented voice heavy and ripe with sarcasm as she reads aloud something she thinks is interesting. I hate that tone of voice, probably because it's usually directed at me. "Number thirty: 'I was married and you're supposed to'." She snorts softly and shakes her head in disbelief, her whole posture reflecting her irritation and condemnation. "That one is worse than the, 'I was bored' response."
I can see Abby is agreeing wholeheartedly, her dark pigtails bouncing as she nods her assent, the soft, feathery tips just brushing the wide collar of her pale blouse. I like when she wears girly stuff like this and, more importantly, she knows it, too. Our little forays into flirting have never really gone anywhere but, sometimes, I think we're teetering right on the edge of something we both know would ultimately be disastrous. Still, it's a great ego boost to see her eyes dilate and her nipples harden when we exchange whispers and lies and secret smiles. Oh, yeah.
Anyway, neither women have noticed my presence by the doorway of the lab yet and, even though I still don't have Gibbs stealth, I think I'm gaining some ground in that area. He is the Master, I am the Grasshopper, and I have much to learn under his tutelage but it's my goal in life to snatch that pebble from his hand one day.
"Whoa," Abby is leaning back in her padded chair and I take a silent step closer, pressing surreptitiously to the wall, wanting to see how far I can get before one of them notices my presence, "this is harsh. Number seventy-eight: 'I wanted to hurt/humiliate the person'. Sounds like this one is into some dark, spiteful stuff." She looks directly at Ziva and tilts her head to one side. "You know, you just have to wonder how many sickos were in the group that responded to this questionnaire."
Ziva hums her agreement and they grow quiet as they continue to read, both dark heads close, almost cheek-to-cheek in front of the monitor, and I get a wild rush of excitement seeing them like this. Abby has always been able to get my motor running but I'm just now beginning to appreciate Ziva's finer points. Sort of. Our initial hostility upon her arrival at NCIS has tempered...somewhat...and she's proven to be a valuable asset on many occasions but I'll never be as close to her as I was with Caitlin Todd. Don't get me wrong, she's a beautiful woman and plenty sexy, when she wants to be, but, honestly, she's scared me like nobody's business too many times in the past and I get the real impression she'd just as soon bite my dick off if it ever got anywhere near her face. Not that my dick would. That's a risk I'm not willing to take. No way.
Still, there's just something really? *hot* about seeing Ziva and Abby together like this: this close and this quiet and this intimate. And talking about sex. Oh, yeah. How often am I able to be privy to something like this? Not too often, that's for sure.
Now, if I can get just a little closer...
Crap. Foiled again.
Abby's quiet, bright greeting thwarts my plan and I heave a small sigh in resignation. Looks like Gibbs is going to be keeping his current ranking as King of Cunning for a while longer.
I sulkily shuffle forward, stuffing my hands into the pockets of my pants, and can now clearly see their faces reflected on the monitor's flat screen, their smug expressions overlaying the information they'd been studying. So, *that's* how they saw my approach. Probably knew I was here from the moment of my arrival. Ah, well...
"We were just reading the results of a new study from one of your southern universities," Ziva turns and smirks boldly, eyes raking me quickly from head to foot, and I immediately get suspicious. I can't help it; when she does that little 'I-can-eat-you-alive' scan with her gaze, my nuts reflexively tighten up and I have to take notice. It's just self-preservation, for Christ's sake.
"Oh?" I inquire, not really sure I want to know now, especially with that stomach-tightening, ball-shrinking leer directed my way. I step up closer to their position but consciously make sure Abby is between me and Ziva, just to keep my drawn-up boys a bit happier. I think they just instinctively know she?d never harm them. "I came down to get the Ferguson results for Gibbs and..."
"...and you just couldn't resist eavesdropping on us instead," Ziva accuses knowingly, crossing her arms over her chest.
"I don't know what you're talking about." I make sure the expression she sees reflects nothing but pure, unadulterated, DiNozzo innocence. It's a pretty neat trick I developed early on in life and it's gotten me out of a world of sticky situations in the past but I'm not sure how many more times I'll be able to get away with it, especially when she seems to be channeling Gibbs' lie-detecting stare more and more often each day. I try not to think about that grim possibility and turn immediately to focus my attention directly on Abby's monitor, scanning the information presented there. "So, what's so interesting about it?"
Abby grins warmly at my obvious interest, her genuine, welcoming smile instantly relaxing all my tensed-up body parts. God bless her. I lean in close and peer over her right shoulder, pressing my chest slightly against her back. She smells so damn good, as usual, and I almost forget the reason I came down here.
"Well," she's leaning back gently, content to be sharing my space, "Ziva and I were just reviewing the results from that study done at the University of Texas. It was done to discover the reasons why people have had sex. There's some pretty diverse answers here."
"Oooohhh, "I purr out a low rumble and begin rapidly scanning down the list. "Sounds right up my alley."
"And that's most likely where you had sex last," Ziva mumbles a bit too loud and both Abby and I cast a dubious look her way. I know she's just trying to be funny but it's coming off a tad harsh, even for her, so she squirms a bit under our combine gaze before pointing to the monitor. Yeah, that's right: diversion is always a good tactic when in an uncomfortable situation. "So, there's two hundred and thirty-seven reasons listed here and?"
"..and you're doing *this* instead of helping Abby process the evidence Gibbs has been chewing my ass out over for the last half hour," I finish without any real bite, letting her know I'm capable of making a point without being hurtful. She frowns and, as she starts to respond, I quickly cut her off with a small, cheeky grin and a shrug of one shoulder. "That's okay...I'd probably be doing the same thing if our roles had been reversed." I switch my focus back to Abby. "So, what did you find?"
"What *didn't* we find?" Abby is grinning again as she scrolls back to the top of the page. "Most of the usual stuff to begin with: 'I was attracted to the person' and 'I wanted to express my love for the person' and 'I was sexually aroused and wanted release' but there's some hinkie stuff here as well that makes me wonder about some of the responders."
"Like?" I prompt automatically, knowing she was planning on sharing that, too. I get a slight nudge for my impatience but it feels more like a caress than a reprimand.
"Well, like this one for instance," she points a black-polished nail at the screen. "'I was slumming' or this one," the nail moves down a bit, "'I was punishing myself'."
Okay, I have to admit it: I'm really confused at that response. "How is having sex a form of self-punishment?" In my eyes, that's pretty damn impossible.
"I suppose that would depend on the sexual partner and what transgressions had prompted the need to feel some sort of discipline."
Ziva was speculating aloud now and both Abby and I tilt our heads in her direction. She has that pensive, little frown line between her eyes and hasn't noticed our perusal, so, naturally, we just let her keep on rambling. Many a deep, dark secret has *almost* revealed itself when she gets like this and I think we both are hoping for a bit more insight into the twisted mind of our newest colleague.
"Maybe there was an unfortunate incident, an event that caused a loss of respect or trust," her eyes seem to lose a little focus and her words come softly, almost in a whisper. "It could have been a way to show remorse for a wrong done to someone special...or a way to prove complete allegiance." She seems to brighten a bit at that thought. "Yes, that could be it. Self-punishment doesn't seem that strange when you think about it like that."
Ziva nods to herself and turns, finally realizing we're kind of staring at her. Okay, there's no 'kind of' about it...we *are* staring. There's a brief moment when it looks like there's a blush starting to pinken her cheeks but she blinks and it's instantly gone and, instead of a slightly embarrassed young woman, I'm looking into the eyes of a cold, hardened Mossad officer. Bam, just like that. From one personality to another.
"Oookay," Abby drawls out and I have to take a deep breath because, frankly, I can understand some of what she was hinting at. Some. I continue to look into Ziva's flat, frosty, brown eyes until Abby speaks again and, then, I glance back to the monitor. "Well, anyway, there are a lot of reasons listed here but I bet there's got to be even more."
"Why would you think that?" I ask, genuinely interested. I mean, two hundred and thirty-seven completely different responses to 'I have had sex in the past because...' seems like an awful lot to me. A plain, old 'because it feels good it' or 'I was horny' would have been enough for me any old time. More than enough.
Abby tips her head back so she's pressing slightly against my shoulder, her wicked gaze peeking upward toward my hovering face. God, I love when she's playful like this and I can almost forget all the reasons we *haven't* had sex yet. Almost.
"Tony, all these respondents were college-aged people," she offers that sultry, little grin that always makes me wish I could slip my dick between those dark, full lips and let her suck me dry. "Don't you think those with a bit more sexual experience could find other reasons? I mean, come on," she wets her tongue on her lower lip and I know she's aware of what I'm thinking. The little tease. "With our job, alone, I bet we could?"
And just like that, I'm cold inside and pulling back, straightening up and backing away from her, away from the comfort of her touch and the warmth in her eyes. I don't want to hear the rest of her thought, don't want to think about what she could suggest, don't want to let my past demons loose. Not now. Not ever. There are dark, dangerous thoughts running through my head and the word 'job' is echoing through those hollow spaces in my memory I thought had been filled with other, happier things.
I guess I was wrong.
Abby's immediately turning away from the monitor to follow my sudden retreat, her pale eyes wide with genuine concern. I want to shrug this off, to make some lame, humorous excuse for my abrupt shift in demeanor but there's a bitter, burning rise of bile in the back of my throat and, if I try to speak now, I'll just end up puking all over her lab. Not an option. Ziva already thinks I'm just some weak, pampered American playboy and I'm not about to give her any more ammunition to add to her arsenal against me.
I swallow thickly and turn away, stumbling a bit before regaining a small measure of composure, feeling a fine, cold sheen of sweat break out across my forehead and upper lip. I need some fresh air...*now*...and I'm sure as hell not going to get that down here.
"Sorry," I manage to choke out without looking at either woman, barely getting my feet to move back toward the safety of the doorway. "I just...I have to...I need to..."
That's all I can get out before I all but flee the lab, leaving Abby and Ziva behind, the rapid sound of my shoes slapping against the hard, slick flooring a matching beat to the pounding of my heart. I can't stand the thought of waiting for the elevator, so I head directly toward the staircase, regaining enough composure to take the steps two at a time. I stumble once as I reach the main floor landing and end up cracking my shin soundly against the rise of the last step, the sharp, biting pain momentarily blocking out the hurt in my heart and the whirling torment of my thoughts.
Yanking open the doorway and stepping quickly into the narrow hallway leading to the bullpen area, I ignore the startled squeak of a woman exiting the restroom and barrel on by, keeping my chin lowered and my eyes to the carpet. I know where I'm going, have walked this path many a times, and don't need to look to get to my final objective. The only roadblock between me and my destination now would be?
Gibbs' loud snarl of my name is like a physical slap to the back of my head but I do the unthinkable and totally ignore his bellow, keeping my pace quick and my direction on track. I can feel surprised eyes following my progress and know there must be several agents shifting their attention back and forth between me and that silver-haired bastard but I need air right now, more than I need to have Gibbs in my face, so I keep my strides long and hustle on toward the exit.
I'm actually a little surprised to make it out the front door without hearing my name shouted again or being ambushed from behind, and the cool, clean air feels wonderful on my sweat-slicked face. I detour away from the regular concrete path leading to the visitor parking area and make a quick diagonal trek across the slightly damp grass, heading toward the row of old, weathered benches overlooking the Anacostia River. It's a good place to be alone to think or to have a private conversation or, in this instance, to simply escape. I plop down on the nearest wooden seat and the impact reminds me of the hard, unforgiving pews my ass endured when I was a kid, thinking only about being anywhere but in church and not caring if God was listening or not.
I huff out a harsh sound and then fill my lungs with a deep, cleansing breath. I haven't thought about church in a very long time. Or God.
I don't know how long I've been sitting out in the light rain, absently watching the comings and goings of assorted tugs and barges on the swift, dark water, but I suddenly become aware of the soft tread of approaching footsteps. I hunker down a bit and hope my posture reflects my desire for solitude. I'm just not ready to go back inside and I'm sure as hell not ready to face anyone who wants to talk, so I'm hoping whoever is coming my way will just pass right on by.
When Gibbs sits heavily down at the opposite end of the bench, my stomach tightens reflexively. Of all the people who could have come out here...Abby, Ducky, hell, even McGee...Gibbs is the last person I would have expected. Unless he's preparing to chew me out for ignoring him back in the building. Yeah, that's got to be it.
But he doesn't say a word. Just sits there, taking up space and watching the water like me, seemingly content in our shared silence. The fine mist is finally letting up but the air remains heavy and humid after the shower and the stickiness of my clothes is starting to become slightly uncomfortable. I should just get up and go inside, change my shirt and socks, and save whatever face I have left with my colleagues by getting back to work.
Before I can move, Gibbs begins to talk and I have to fight back a moment of anger and disappointment. I should have known this was too good to be true.
"When I was new to the game...maybe two years or so into the agency...I got an assignment that made me question my choice of occupation." Gibbs' voice is low and measured and holds a hint of something I've never heard before from him and my anger easily evaporates. I want to call it 'softness' but that's not quite right. Not from Gibbs. Still, it's almost hypnotic in cadence and tone and I find myself automatically turning slightly to face him on the bench. "The Director at that time was a real bastard," I have to smirk at his choice of descriptors, especially since it's been aimed his way many times, often by me, "and didn't mind putting his agents into uncomfortable situations. As long as it got the results he wanted, anything went. Anything."
I have to look away because I think I know where this is heading and, damn it, I don't want to go there now, not that I've finally succeeded in getting a rough handle on my own splintering emotions. If Gibbs is going to share some deep, dark, personal secret about a job related incident, I'm going to bail. Quick. I get ready to rise but stop when he speaks again.
"I know what happened to you in Peoria, Tony."
No. Oh, God, no...
The world starts to slowly spin in some weird, looping circles and I suddenly feel myself being forced forward, my head hanging down between my spread knees. I can barely feel the light but constant pressure of Gibbs' hand on the back of my neck as I try to breathe and I think I'm really going to be sick this time. I choke back the surge of bile and then just give up, letting it rip in a splattering, stinking, messy mix of coffee and cola and the cereal I scarfed down before leaving home earlier this morning. I really don't want to look but I can't help but notice when it's right in my direct line of sight, so I end up hurling again...and again.
Crap, this is more embarrassing than the time I stood up in front of my sixth grade English class, ready to give some lame book report on Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron or some other big-time baseball player, and realized I'd forgotten to pull my zipper up after hitting the restroom earlier in the day. That had been, pretty much, the most embarrassing moment in my life...until now. Now, here I was, upset and up-chucking in front of my boss, over something that happened years ago in a city I never intend to set foot in again. Ever.
I try to ease away from that comforting hand but, damn, if he isn't keeping me in place, gently running his fingers up into my hair and slowly massaging the back of my skull. It feels so good and it's so different from what I'm used to getting from him that I don't know what to think but it's calming and soothing and I feel myself melting into the sensation.
"It's okay, Tony," I can hear him murmuring constant assurances and, for some reason, I reach diligently to focus on the words drifting my way. "You did what was required for the job, that's all. It didn't make you any less of a good officer or a good person. You were a professional and got the results needed to put one sorry piece of scum away for a very long time."
I force my head to one side and blink blearily his way, wanting to try and make him understand what that horrible experience did to me and how it still haunts me at the most inopportune times,like today in Abby's lab. "I...I had to...I was told to..."
"Tony," he silences me swiftly and offers me a clean, white handkerchief. I look blankly at it, not really understanding what I'm seeing, and then he just takes it back, swiping it quickly under my dripping nose and over my foul-tasting, moist mouth. Hell, I didn't even know Gibbs carried a handkerchief. Once done with his ministrations, he sighs and speaks again. "Look at me."
I blink in confusion. I *am* looking at him.
I guess he can read my bewilderment because he rolls his eyes and slaps me gently on the back of the head. "No, *really* look at me and listen carefully."
"O...okay, Boss," I stutter embarrassingly but keep my eyes solely on his face.
Those strong, soothing fingers are once again carding through my hair at the back of my head and, even though I feel like I should be purring at the sensation, I keep silent and focused. I think this is very important and, maybe, a turning point in our personal and working relationship. I don't want to miss a moment.
"You reacted badly in front of Abby and Ziva," he starts and I have to glance away, humiliated once more by my weakness, but those remarkable hands are suddenly on my face, cupping my cheeks, holding me captive and keeping me from retreating back into my sullen web of despair. Gibbs' blue eyes are clear and captivating and there's a raw, open sincerity reflected in their depths that immediately soothes my wounded soul. "No, don't ever think you're alone in this or that we would think less of you for doing your job. We've all had experiences we're not proud of but we do the job to the best of our abilities and hope, in the end, we can make a difference. You made a huge difference in Peoria because of what you did."
"I couldn't stay there after that," I admit in a harsh whisper, suddenly feeling angry and needing for Gibbs to hear what I've never told another living soul. I can clearly remember hearing the cool, detached voice of my Captain ordering me to cater to our twisted suspect's perverted sexual wishes but it was the memory of those damp, slimy hands on my body and the total lack of support I received after finishing my undercover assignment that sent me packing in a hurry. "I was ridiculed, Gibbs, even by my own partner. I was the butt of all kinds of comments and jokes and, you know what, no one treated me the same after that. No one." My anger is growing exponentially into an open, barely controlled fury but Gibbs never blinks or looks away. The guy has balls the size of Montana. "I was called every name you can imagine...and some you probably can't...and they made my life hell because of that one assignment. Being called a cocksucker was tame and mostly easy to ignore," I shake my head at the memory, "but when the Captain, himself, started trying to pimp me out for other assignments like that, saying I had a natural talent for taking it up the ass, I knew I had to get out."
And it's all out in the open now, every thing I never wanted him or anyone else to know. I bite back the frustrated scream that's been building in the confines of my tight chest and heave myself up quickly from the bench, taking several paces away and stopping only when I'm right by the waist-high fence by the water's edge. I release the silent shout in a rush of heated air, emptying my lungs of all breath, trying to let go of the hurt and the disappointment and the bone-deep humiliation that has, once again, wormed it's way back into my sorry excuse of a life. I know I should say something light and humorous and pretend all's right with my world but I just...I just can't.
"You're not planning on taking a swim, are you?"
Gibbs' absurd question has me baffled and my slightly addled brain tries desperately to rationalize why he's asking me something stupid like that right now. How does me spilling my guts and swimming compare to each other? Before I can make sense of it, he's suddenly at my side, his closest shoulder almost touching mine, and his posture mimicking mine all the way down to the positioning on his hands atop the cold, metal rail. I tilt my head and frown at him in obvious confusion and if he's noticing that I'm looking at him like he's some fucking maniac, he's not letting on.
"What?" I all but choke out.
He tilts his head, too, and nods toward the water swiftly swirling only meters away, his lips quirking slightly up on one side. I follow his gesture and...okay, now I can see where he's going with this. Bastard.
He catches the change in my demeanor and smirks outright, turning to face me fully. "A swim, DiNozzo. If you decide to jump in, I'm obligated to try and rescue you and, I gotta tell you, swimming's not my thing."
This is getting crazier and crazier and I have to wonder if our little sharing session has loosened a few screws in that rock-hard head. Still, this is *somewhat* better than continuing on with the other conversation. Looks like Ziva's plan of diversion works in just about any situation.
"Not your thing?" I manage to get my brain and my mouth to work and try to reason with him. "Boss, you build boats in your spare time."
Gibbs relaxes a bit and turns his back to the river, leaning against the rail and facing me directly. "Building boats, DiNozzo, has nothing to do with swimming."
I just can't help what erupts out of my mouth. "Oh, I don't know. I don't ever recall seeing any of your finished boats floating."
Those sharp eyes narrow briefly but, to my amazement, there's a just-as-brief grin that follows but it's gone in a heartbeat and I have to wonder if I'd only imagined it. Gibbs straightens and shoves his hands deeply into the pockets of his damp slacks. Looking back toward the building, he uncharacteristically clears his throat, like he's a little unsure of what to say next. What comes momentarily surprises me again.
"You going to be okay?"
Ah. I understand now. Sharing time is officially over.
I straighten up and shrug. "Sure." I mean, what else can I say at this point?
"Need a little more time to sort things out?"
Well. I'm actually a bit surprised by the kind offer but, like him, I know there's work to be done and, really, I can't change the past...only make sure my present and future are secure enough that I'm never placed in a situation like that again. And I can do that. Easy.
"Nah," I shrug and turn away from the flowing Anacostia, shifting so I'm standing just like him, mirroring his posture without thought. I have to resist the urge to shove my hands into my pockets and end up just crossing them over my chest instead. It'll have to do. "I'm good."
"Uh huh," Gibbs quietly vocalizes with a hint of disbelief and the soft sound instantly brings a smile to my face. It's so familiar and so comforting and so...Gibbs.
What isn't like him is the hand he slowly places low on my back, the heat immediately seeping through the damp fabric of my shirt and warming the chilled skin beneath. I tense a bit, I just can't help it, but the solid hand remains in place and slowly grounds me to the here and now. There's nothing inappropriate or suggestive or remotely sexual in the continuing touch; just the feel of genuine, friendly support. But, damn it, it's enough to choke me up a bit anyway. I take a deep breath and let it out nice and slow, using a technique I've all but perfected over the years, calming the escalating emotions once more.
When the hand finally slips away, we move in tandem, retracing our steps back toward the front doors of NCIS headquarters but my mind's not on the case, as it should be. I'm thinking of Abby and Ziva and how the hell I was ever going to explain my actions to them. I don't want Ziva to know about Peoria, that's for sure, but telling Abby wouldn't be so bad. I think. I might have to think more about that for a while.
Gibbs suddenly stops and faces me again and I instinctively take a small step back. He sighs and shakes his head at my movement and I feel a little bad. After all, he's been nothing but supportive during my trivial tantrum but some habits are hard to toss off, especially after years of private, silent brewing.
"Sorry, Boss," I quickly offer a lame apology but his hand on my shoulder is enough to shut me up.
"If you ever need to talk about *anything*," his voice is low and so full of sincerity I'm almost afraid I'm going to get choked up again but he momentarily tightens his grip and I can see a flash of deep compassion in his clear eyes, "I want you to come to me. Things like this can eat you alive, Tony, and just pretending they didn't happen won't make the memories go away. So forget about that stupid questionnaire of Abby's and forget about adding a reason to those statistics. All you have to do is concentrate on doing your best each and every day and everything else will fall into place. Believe me."
And I do. It's there in that patient, piercing gaze: the understanding, the ability to listen without judgment, and the lingering hint of knowing exactly what it's like to have those you trust and count on turn away and leave you without any assistance. But there's also evidence of a peaceful soul, of someone who's accepted past mistakes and found the ability to move on without remorse.
I want that, too.
I nod dumbly and, when it's removed, I immediately miss the connection of his hand on my shoulder. Gibbs grunts and turns away and I watch as he treks back toward the front doors, the sudden appearance of sunlight breaking through the overcast skies and falling on his retreating form is slightly spooky. It's almost like God is speaking to me now, pointing the way, telling me to open my eyes and recognize the source of my salvation.
All I have to do is set my feet into motion.
And I do. Following Gibbs has never been a problem for me and, now, I have even more reason.
Taking that first step is easier than I ever imagined it would be.
Author's Chapter Notes:
Memories of Peoria make an ugly appearance.