The welcome back cake had been Abby's idea - -
(The entire welcome back party had actually been Abby's idea, and that was a good thing, because no one else could get away with filling Gibbs's basement with blood-red streamers and black balloons, no matter how relaxed he looked with his shaggy non-haircut and his new grandfatherly mustache.)
- - but Tony was the one who had to clean up afterwards. He stacked the eight paper plates together and licked a smudge of chocolate icing off one laminated edge. They had used real silverware, not Gibbs's or Abby's but Tony's, and so he gathered up all of the forks, too, and dropped them in a paint can filled with water to soak. He tried to concentrate on the taste of the sweetness still in his mouth, but it was hard. He was developing a headache. He pushed all the napkins into a pile. The Director had dabbed at her mouth between bites of cake and left orange-red lip marks on her napkin—Tony looked dully at the pursed and painted imprints and then ripped her mouth in two.
He had had too much to drink. He knew this not because he felt drunk, but because the world went in and out of focus every time he blinked.
(Last week, after they had all seen the petty officer whose husband had drowned her in the bathtub, Tony had taken McGee and Ziva out for drinks. He had allowed himself one, because there had been soap-scum caked in her eyelashes, but after that he had stuck with ginger ale. He paid the tab when they were all done, when Ziva was weepy and McGee was swaying back and forth even when he was sitting down, and he drove them all home. He would never have let them see him drunk then. He didn't lose control when he needed to look after his people.)
He blinked a few times at the cluster of balloons tied to the stern of the boat, just for effect. He thought that he might be miscounting them, because their number doubled every time he tried to focus on their strings. He stuck his fingers into the knots and tangled himself up in an elaborate game of cat's cradle. His watch chipped away at the knot and eventually cut two balloons free and sent them up near the ceiling.
He tried to look up to see if he could reach them, but it only made him dizzy, so he sat down on the floor instead.
It was two minutes before he heard footsteps on the stairs, three before he heard Gibbs say his name, and three and a half before he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"You don't have to worry about the electricity," Tony said. Gibbs was crouched down now, and Tony didn't want to see him, so he just closed his eyes. "I took care of that for you. And the water and the phone bill. Cleaned out your fridge in the first week, did some vacuuming in the second. Tried to keep everything where you left it."
"Thanks, DiNozzo." Gibbs's voice was warm and rubbed-smooth, like the sides of the boat, and Tony knew that Gibbs knew that they were talking about something else.
Tony tried to open his eyes and only halfway succeeded. "Because. I mean. You didn't give anyone a lot of warning. No forwarding address. And you still had a quart of milk." He had drunk it himself, sitting on Gibbs's couch watching the weather channel, wondering what the hell he was supposed to do about all of this. "Do you know what I think?"
"That you should have stopped at two beers?"
"I would've," Tony said, "I could've," but then he didn't tell Gibbs about the petty officer and the Irish Spring soap gluing her eyelashes together and the way he had thrown up once he was home but not before and not from drinking, so it didn't matter. "I think you always knew that you were going to come back. I think you knew before you left."
Gibbs shook his head. "Never planned anything out. Never wanted to."
"One minute to the next," Tony said. He looked at the balloon strings still caught in the band of his watch. "Just keep on keeping on. Go with the flow. Hakuna matata. That must have been nice, Gibbs. Beaches and tequila and the Pacific, that must have all been really great." He heard his voice getting louder but he couldn't stop it. Couldn't shut up. Like that was new. "Must be just peachy to jaunt off to Mexico at a moment's notice and leave everybody else in the lurch, trying to work out whether they should pay your electricity bill or just let it get dark, whether they should get a new agent or just wait for you to come back - - I mean, what were you thinking? Did you think we just stopped when you weren't in the picture?"
"I never - - "
"Yeah," Tony said. "You never." He pulled himself to his feet and stood with one hand against the edge of the table, feeling more tired and stupid now than angry. What had he expected, anyway? He couldn't meet Gibbs's eyes. "You really should shave, you know. That makes you look old."
Gibbs touched his upper lip. "Older," he said, then, "Tony. If you don't want - -"
"No." He had to interrupt before he was sure of what Gibbs was going to say, because he couldn't take the chance that he would say yes, instead. "No. I wanted you back, too. Wasn't the same without you. But it's not the same now, either. I'm not sure . . ." He swallowed. "I'm not sure it should be."
"Maybe not," Gibbs said.
Tony could look at him then. "I didn't do so bad," he said. "I didn't. You only think I did because you didn't get to see anything else."
"I never thought you did a bad job," Gibbs said. Tony didn't know whether or not he was lying. Maybe it didn't even matter.
"I thought that I could just keep the lights on and wait for you to come back. But that's no way to live, Gibbs. I couldn't do it. They deserved better."
He turned to go, thinking that it was all over and hoping that he could still wheedle a ride home out of McGee, but then Gibbs said, "I didn't know that I was coming back," and Tony was too tired and too drunk and too heartbroken for that to really be a good excuse. He thought about how he had sat at Gibbs's kitchen table and paid his bills, how he had taught McGee to unwind, how he had stopped Ziva from shooting anyone, and how there was no good excuse at all, nothing Gibbs could say that would make things all right again.
They had been his and now they weren't. And in a month, they would forget that they had ever followed him at all. None of it would have made a difference.
I didn't know that I was coming back.
Like that mattered.
"Yeah," Tony said, "and neither did I. I'll see you tomorrow, boss."
There was nothing left for him to say.