AN: Thanks to all the reviewers and for all the encouragement.

Chapter Thirty-Five

Winding Down, Gearing Up

Hate is a terrible burden. Consider such when contemplating forgiveness.


"I was a little surprised to see so many FBI agents here Jethro." Palmer's off doing god knows what with god only knows who, it's just him and Ducky, Gibbs loitering about waiting for the T.O.D. on their latest body, which is proving tricky due to a large infestation of rats congregating where the body had been dumped. They'd gotten to the liver before the ME had.

"Yeah, well we could use the help."

"A prolific serial killer who has none of the traits that would usually used to apprehend him or her… or them. Just the grizzly habit of slamming the lower jaw shut on the victims' dog tags, wedging them between their teeth-"

"Like world war 2."

"Yes- I am not surprised you're excepting help from other agencies, it just seems strange that it's the FBI-" Gibbs knows from prior conversations where this one's going.

"They had the case first. We've worked with them before. I trust them too do their jobs."

"You trust Tony."

"Duck I haven't had a fourth cup of coffee yet."

"Fine, I won't mention dear Anthony then."

"Though if we were discussing it, which we are not- a sharp mind could suppose that accepting help from the FBI may also be a way for you too see him as well."

"And why would a sharp mind suppose that I would want something like that?" He asks since obviously they're not having this conversation.

"Regardless of whatever else the two of you had going on- Tony was family for a long time Jethro- and you liked the boy before you ever hired him. Those ties are never cleanly severed." The ME explained.

"I thought Tony was good cop."

"No you hired Kate because she's a good agent and although Tony is a wonderful investigator- you hired him because he liked him Jethro… That week you were off in Baltimore chasing down Tad Williams, you never told me what happened. With you and Tony."

"Does your sharp mind suppose I had him over a table, Duck?" The ME doesn't so much as bat an eyelash.

"Nothing quite so common Jethro- Dianne left you in a particularly foul mood, a year later you still sent agents running. In tears no less. Even Stan couldn't hack it and I was very close to clubbing you over the head and hiding the body." The last part is said with a wry twist of lips.

"Then you came back from Baltimore- with Tony in toe and…"

"It was a bad case Duck- for both of us."

"I've no doubt- I've seen the reports… but you came back laughing Jethro. Tired and still very bitter- but laughing."

Gibbs stands for a moment- unsure of how to answer- not sure anymore of what the question actually is.

"So Ari threatened to rape Tony, you tried to kiss him- then left Ari bleeding on the floor. What happened after Jethro?" Duck asks- like it can really be summed up that simply.

"I got a string of ex-wives…" The two don't much relate- because the string of segues in his head are only in his head. Duck seems to follow though.

"Jethro- Tony's not a boy- he's capable of taking care of himself." Duck's right of course- but it doesn't much seem that way.

"I led him on- then tossed him aside Duck cos I got cold feet. Because of Ari- I let myself get conning by that bastard."

"And you think it's your fault that Tony's with him now?" Ducky knows him too well- it's becoming a problem.

"Isn't it?"

"Once again Jethro- Tony's capable of making his own decisions." He sounds so damn casual about it.

"Oh the hell he is. Ari is a manipulative, lying, sadist and Tony's having sex with him. How does that even happen?" He snaps and Ducky chuckles.

"And you can't give him a good slap and order him too stop can you?" The amusement should fuel his anger, instead it stamps it right out.

"It's not funny Duck." Gibbs sighs, squeezes his eyes shut for a second. Tony's having sex with Ari and working for the FBI and it's just- not how it's supposed to be.

"No- it's not, it's dangerous and stupid and Tony's probably going to end up hurt- again and you know it, which is what's got you so worked up and even though Tony's hard-headed, if you actually tried explaining that, maybe he'd listen. Because he's not a boy Jethro and is quite capable of seeing reason." If he can explain it.

"Maybe ask him why, while you're at it?"

"You got TOD yet?"

"I had it 20 minutes ago, 2 am- give or take a half hour. Rigors a good indicator, though I do so like having the liver temp to compare to. Jethro- please talk to Tony." The ME calls the last part as he's leaving- heading for the lift. Like Kate he's persistent and the universe seems to be backing them or he just has the worst luck, because when the steel doors slide open, Tony's already there- in the tiny little room, sitting in the corner with his knees pulled up, arms resting on them.

Tony has that look on his face- like something's knocked the breath from him. Jethro's seen the look before.

Once.

The second week he and Tony had worked together, when Tony had still worked for the Baltimore PD. Tony had worn that exact same look. After they'd caught the guy, just in time for Tony to have arterial blood covering half his face. Katie Pierce was the last little girl that particular bastard had ever gotten to rape and murder and after he'd found Tony sitting in the open backdoor of his car, wearing that look. Eyes downcast, chewing his bottom lip, watching his own fingers twist together.

'We didn't save her.' Tony had looked floored, like he couldn't comprehend his own words.

'No.' He'd said and propped himself against the boot near Tony

'Should've.'

'Yeah.'

'Do we ever?'

'Sometimes.'

-.-.-

"Moron." Donald mumbles when Jethro leaves, shakes his head. It's part affection and part frustration. He's already smacked Tony on the nose, knows he isn't seeing Ari any longer. Though everybody, but Jethro knows that.

He could be kind and clear it up for the man, but is rather of the opinion, like Caitlin, that they both need to stop being utterly idiotic long enough to work it out for themselves.

'You didn't tell him?'

'Well obviously neither did you, my dear.'

'Hey if there both two clueless to work it out for themselves, then they don't deserve each other…'

Pushing, nagging, hinting, and handholding still seemed to be fair game though.

-.-.-

Tony has to start anticipating these things- he gets fair warning- his life always starts going a little better before the carpets pulled out from under him again. He likes his team, he's talking to Kate and McGee and Ducky again and has even under slight protest gone on a date with a friend of Kate's, which although a nightmare was progress at least. Therefore, he really should have seen it coming, but he didn't and it just; feels like he can't breathe. Is sitting in NCIS elevator and frankly just really hopes it's the most pathetic he's ever been.

Gibbs does that annoying thing where he doesn't say anything- just lets the doors slide close before hitting the emergency stop and leaning against wall. Legs outstretched, hands cupping the rail. The numbness that he's feeling turns to annoyance fast.

"How long are you planning on just standing there?" He snaps finally, when they've been there in the dark for a good long while, though Tony isn't entirely sure of how long, realities still a little hazy around the edges.

Daily calls from the family lawyer, he should've guessed.

"Till you're ready too move." So casual like he can fix anything- doesn't even know what the problem is.

"You're a patronizing arsehole- you know that right." None of it has anything to do with Gibbs really, but he's there.

"Been told a few times before." Gibbs says, without any real investment in the sentence- he doesn't care about Tony calling him names.

"Ex-wives right? They were right and if I were them I would've hit you with cricket bat too." Typical, Gibbs has been so volatile with him up until now- up until when he wants it.

"It was a golf club."

"Shut up-" He clutches the rail and heaves himself off the floor then and if he were in a better frame of mind, he might be proud of himself, because he never would have had the nerve to say these kinds of things to Gibbs a few months ago.

"I don't give a fuck what you think about anything- spent four years of my god damn life on eggshells trying to get you to like me- to respect me. But I don't care anymore, I don't care what you and Abbey do too each other and rule 12 my arse, you such a damn hypocrite. So just shut-up." His self-controls shot and he knows it- he just doesn't care. Gibbs doesn't say anything, just waits, stares at him.

"And where the hell do you get off playing the paternal figure anyhow- after you tossed me out on my arse?" That gets a reaction at least, if not an actual angry one.

"That how you remember it?" Yes… No…

"Are we really gonna do this now… here?" Has an odd sense of symmetry too it though or déjà vu, it's not really an eerie enough feeling though for the latter.

"Because I remember you walking out on me- with Ari." Gibbs hasn't shifted, his expression and tone haven't changed at all.

"I didn't walk out on you with anyone- I didn't cheat- there wasn't an us to cheat on. I tried- you turned me down, repeatedly, remember that, cos I do. Vividly." The bickering at least eases the pressure on his chest.

"Yes there was- we weren't fucking Tony- but there was definitely a we." His tone goes from calm to clipped and annoyed in a breath and it brings Tony up short, he loses the insult that's on the tip of his tongue.

"Him- it just had to be him. You knew what it'd do to us and you did it anyway. Why- why fucking him?" Gibbs oddly sounds somewhere between seething and bitterly amused.

Tony runs his tongue over his teeth, sucks his bottom lip.

"I don't know." Which is exactly why he's been dreading that question from one of them and it only makes sense that Gibbs would be the one to ask.

"He was there." He shrugs and Gibbs thankfully doesn't comment.

"Tony, why were you sitting on my floor?"

Tony sighs, dusts the back of his jacket, and pants off before restarting the lift.

"My father died last month- lawyer just managed to get a hold of me."

-.-.-

His father's latest bimbo had arranged the funeral, two weeks ago. Tony's pretty sure he wouldn't have gone anyway, so it doesn't much matter to him that no one bothered to pick up a phone, it'd happened before with his mother. Old hat- all that.

Apparently, though, not everyone thinks he's taking it as well.

Fornell calls him in at an obscene hour on his day off because he's forgotten to sign something and the ADA's in a mood. Which he did and the ADA is, but when he steps back out into the morning light and finds Gibbs standing in the open door of his car, hands resting on the top, waiting for him, it become apparent that Fornell sold him down a river.

"If I throw a stick will you leave?" He's tired of the man- tired of the back and fourth, the push and pull and getting no where.

"Get in the car." Gibbs answers, sliding in behind the wheel, fully expecting Tony to follow the order. No, no… He should definitely say no. He sighs instead and hops in.

"Where are we going?" Tony asks an hour into what turns out to be a three hour drive- Gibbs doesn't answer and since there still tension rolling right beneath the quiet neither of them says much. Tony spends three hours watching scenery move past his window.

When they hit Cherry Hill it finally makes sense to him.

"I'm not getting out of the car and why don't you try minding your own damn business." Gibbs still isn't talking to him though, just parks along the side of the road and gets out, shuts his car door and Tony watches him walk off, through open wrought iron gates.

Locustwood Cemetery.

Tony drums his fingers and whistles; feels himself grow more irritated by the second. It's the longest ten minutes of his life before Tony finally give and gets out.

His father's gravestone is all shiny and new, not so fresh flowers decaying on top of it.

I had a lover's quarrel with the world.

The inscription makes him grin; he knows his father must've picked it. A little funny and largely inappropriate, that was his father all over.

"Good to see you didn't go with the ironic 'loving husband, devoted father' one." He's glad no one else is there, because it comes out more bitter than he'd like- though god only knows what the hell Gibbs is doing- Tony can't see him amongst the rows anywhere.

He stares at the stone a little longer, but really has no idea what he should be doing. That weights still pressing on his chest, usually lightly, though here and now, faced with his father's grave it's becomes a little stifling. He doesn't feel the urge to toss himself on the ground and sob though, doesn't wanna go on a bender and certainly doesn't wanna probe all the deep seated problems he never knew he had with his father with any damn shrink or well-intentioned friend.

"Bye… Sir." The ache in his chest eases as he walks away from the grave- his attention turning to the whereabouts of his ex-boss and by extension his earlier irritation.

"Hey- again, can't you mind your own business anymore?" If he were smarter, he'd probably still be a little weary of the man. Finds Jethro lurking down at the bottom corner of the cemetery and briefly notes the headstone he's staring at before snapping at him.

Shannon Gibbs… mummy… His heart bleeds. A little while ago he would've been thrilled to know something like that about the man, but now he couldn't much care, tired of him, of tagging along at his heels.

"Hey-" He sees the date when he sees the name but that the math doesn't work takes a minute to sink in; no way Leroy Jethro Gibbs is that young.

Shannon and Kelly's right beside her.

"They were your…" Sister and niece… sister in law and niece… please.

"Wife and daughter." Of course and Tony now also knows why the man has a slew of women walking in and out of his life. Well why they walked back out anyhow- hell he's probably technically one of them and he still doesn't get the walking in thing.

Small world after all… Tony bites his tongue to keep from actually saying it. Stares at the worn headstones till they start to blur out completely.

"Sorry-" But that just adds to the awkwardness and he feels that weight more sharply again. The silence stretches and stretches.

"Tony- about Ari-" Gibbs says finally and Tony looks up at him again finally, willing to listen because even that conversation's better than the silence.

"I didn't handle it real well." Gibbs is still staring at the stones and it's not what Tony expected at all, but then when does he ever get what he's expecting from the man?

"I told you we wouldn't be a good idea- I did turn you down and then I still tried to treat you like a cheating spouse. I can't have it both ways like that. The comment about the two of you was out of line and hitting you was-" It amazes Tony how much things have changed- he's kind of sort of getting an apology from Gibbs- as close as the man likes to get too one- not too long ago he would have been ecstatic, now… They both acted like tools and Tony can square with what he did by himself.

"Look Jethro- you're right, we weren't a couple- but I did know it would piss you off and that was one of the reasons I did it and hitting me…" Tony shrugs- he's never much thought about it, beyond initial outrage, takes him a second even to understand why it's still on Jethro's mind, since the man's knocked him around plenty.

"Gibbs I'm not some battered partner-" Okay he gets it- Gibbs had been very, very angry and the man can take him- it's however, not the same thing.

"We were both pissed off and we both clocked each other. A not so proud moment of yours? Well I had a few myself around that time."

"You had a lot around that time." Gibbs states, finally looking up at him and Tony's surprised again, mouth hanging open for a second before he snaps it shut- because it's stupid to be surprised, though it's not the words as much as the rapid shift.

"Don't misread me saying 'I screwed up as well' as me saying 'you didn't do anything wrong'. You screwed up- worse than me Tony… Ari's dangerous and I don't how it happened Tony and frankly I don't care- he is dangerous and you should have more of a damn brain in your head by now. He does something stupid and you better believe one of the other acronyms in DC will string you up for it… you're not risking your job Tony, you're risking your neck and for what?" Tony bites his tongue, is betting it's a rhetorical- besides he doesn't have an answer really, has rolled it over and over in his head so many times and still can't come up with anything other than 'just because'. Gibbs is also, oh so right and that he'd never considered that angle before kind of floors him.

"I don't… I can't…" Tony sighs, decides he should probably work out what he's going to say before he opens his mouth.

"You're right-" Wants to add in an 'of course' but figures it'd come out snarky.

"But I'm not… seeing him anymore. Haven't been since before I left NCIS."

Gibbs stares at him for a while then but doesn't say anything, looks back at the gravestones instead. Tony sighs.

"He wasn't a bad person-" Tony says, digging the toe of his shoe into the grass.

"My father." He adds when Gibbs looks back up at him.

"He had a thing for expensive alcohol and cheap women but as far as fathers go he wasn't terrible." Maybe his scales off though- he's started to judge by the guys he deals with during work hours and there've been some horrors.

"We kind of just didn't talk after my mother died though." It's weird that he didn't really know his own father enough to mourn, though it's a hell of a lot weirder having this conversation with Leroy Jethro Gibbs of all people and it's reaching that insane level of awkwardness where Tony's starting to babble to keep from twitching. Like a meth bunny.

"So- what happened to them?" He gets glared at.

"They died." Tony frowns, sucks his teeth… then drums his fingers on his leg, because apparently their not discussing that and Tony's said just about everything he's ever going to want too about his and his father's lack of relationship and so he's got nowhere to go now- except the weather and that'd probably get him glared at too.

"What are we doing here Jethro?" He doesn't get them anymore- use too, but then it use to be as simple as Gibbs ordering and him scrambling to obey. Gas the truck DiNozzo, sketch DiNozzo, photograph DiNozzo… stop flirting with the co-eds or I'll toss you in the pond DiNozzo… and the occasional slap when he got distracted. It was very simple and clear and it's Gibbs' fault it went too hell and it's his fault everything else went with it.

"I do like you- I do respect you-" Gibbs says and well… at least they both sound awkward. Tony frowns… spent four years of my god damn life on eggshells trying to get you to like me- to respect me… remembers that rant well, it's too proud of it either. Had been hurting at the time but that doesn't excuse it.

"So act like it." Maybe he doesn't have the right to make requests like that- but he's kind of tired of being glared at and is frankly half expecting to be told to piss-off anyhow.

"Fair enough. Want lunch?" Since Gibbs steps around him and heads towards the gate- it's more of a statement than a question. Tony doesn't get it.

"That's it?" Months of 'you stabbed me in the back how could you' and suddenly that's it.

Gibbs stops, turns on his heel, a few headstones between them.

"That's it. I hate you or I let it go and I don't hate you- so I'm letting it go. We good?"

"We're good."

AN: Yes, I know, the chances of Shannon and Kelly being in the same cemetery as Tony's father are tiny... less than... But well... if that's the biggest leap of faith you can find thus far- clearly you aren't reading most of the paragraphs.