AN: Not much I can say about this. I had an idea, and then it morphed, and I'm not sure if I really like this. But anyway, this stems from the conversation Tony and Ziva have in Cloak. There is a slight crossover with Stargate Atlantis, but you really don't have to know anything about it. I don't think there is a point to this story. For Ducky'sgirl4ever who keeps telling me to get something new out.
As much as he'd hated his time as Agent Afloat, Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo had to admit that he occasionally missed the close camaraderie of the on-ship environment. In those few unguarded moments of shore leave when he wasn't the only cop on a ship of thousands, he could relax over a beer and enjoy the inevitable fraternity-style party any grouping of three or more sailors would turn into.
In the past, Fleet Week at Norfolk had been hell for Tony. Thousands of sailors and marines from dozens of ships, most of them drunk, frequently doing things that were at least questionable if not extremely against the law. That was the week when NCIS agents carried around multiple sets of handcuffs and adopted the attitude of 'arrest first, ask questions later.'
This year, Tony had talked Gibbs into taking advantage of the half-week mandatory leave. Each year, the teams were divided between front-week and back-week, and each year, Gibbs had ignored their assignment and taken cases all week. Tony hadn't minded (much), but the last year had given him a different perspective. To be perfectly honest, Tony had been prepared to appeal to the Director for his time off. Thankfully, it hadn't come to that.
It was no surprise, then, to see Tony bar-hopping with sailors and marines that week without a handcuff or suit in sight. A few of them recognized him from the Ronald Reagan or the Seahawk, but once he established that he wasn't there as a cop, they were more than happy to vouch for him.
After the third bar kicked them out, it was inevitable that the cash flow would be dwindling significantly, and as expected, the coins came out. The rules were simple. Each man had one chance to name names. If you couldn't beat the previous name, you bought the guy a beer. If your name held up, you were guaranteed a hangover in the morning.
"All right, coins down, gentlemen. Who's in?"
One by one, coins hit the bar. Most of the names were small change, ship commanders and one vice-admiral fleet commander. Tony sat patiently as the Petty Officer next to him told about being in the same hallway as Commander Fifth Fleet during an inspection. He finished his story with a satisfied grin on his face, obviously used to winning the challenge, and turned to Tony with an expectant look.
Tony was fully prepared to wipe the smirk off the guy's face, but he was cut off by a black-clad arm ducking in to pull a beer off the bar. It wouldn't have been that big of a deal, except white and tan were the rule of the day, and no civilian would be stupid enough to get between a sailor and his beer.
"What the hell is the Air Force doing here?"
The arm pulled back, and Tony was able to get a better look at the person who owned it. Sure enough, the black BDU jacket had Air Force tabs. Tony thought the BDU's were a stranger thing to see than the Air Force insignia, but he supposed the natural rivalry that existed between the branches of the military took precedence.
"Enjoying the floor show provided by our brothers in the U.S. Navy."
The man was evidently trying to goad a reaction, because he seemed pleased with the one he got. Tony had to move quickly to pull the Petty Officer back down on his stool.
Less than pleased with having to play peacemaker, Tony addressed the newcomer. "Did you have a point to coming over here?"
The Airman grinned. "A proposal, actually. We," he said, waving vaguely at a table in the corner, "provide someone who can beat your challenge. You," waving at the group of sailors, "buy us a drink."
Tony could tell that his group was interested, but unwilling to show it. "Why should we let you join in?"
"A coin is a coin," he said, pulling out his own. "We would play on our own, but we'd all lose. This way, you get the honor of providing your Air Force brethren a free drink."
"What makes you think you'd win?" slurred the Petty Officer.
"Trust me. We'll win." The man grinned. "Do we have a deal?"
It was a sucker bet. Tony hadn't had nearly enough to drink to miss the absolute certainty in the Airman's eyes, but the sailors around him didn't have that advantage. They agreed with a raucous, and slightly incoherent roar of approval. Tony slid back onto his bar stool as the Airman waved at his table.
Naturally, this caused a stir among the sailors, because the rules had just been changed. "Hey! No officers in the game!"
"That wasn't part of our agreement. All we agreed to do was provide someone who could beat your challenge."
The logic of this argument was lost among the derisive jeers of the sailors. These died down, however, when the officer in question loped up to the bar.
"Johnson, this better be good."
Tony had always admired officers who could command the respect of their men without ramming their stripes or stars down their throats. It was immediately apparent that this officer was held in high esteem by his men even when in an extremely non-military environment. Just the fact that he would be seen in such an establishment with enlisted personnel was a testimony to his very relaxed attitude on command.
"Well worth it, sir. Who's your best?"
It took a minute for Tony to realize he was being addressed, having apparently been nominated spokesperson when he wasn't looking.
"Sec Nav." As he said it, his eyes caught the Colonel's, and he shivered, suddenly quite certain that they were about to lose the bet.
"Trading names for free beer, Johnson?" The Colonel raised an eyebrow.
Johnson apparently read something in the expression, because he ducked his head slightly before nodding hesitantly. "Ah, yessir."
"We'll discuss this on the way back." The Colonel sighed. "Carry on." He stuck his hands in his pockets, nodded once to the sailors, and returned to his table in the corner.
The sailors looked confused, and Johnson nudged one of his fellow Airmen, who held up his hands. "This was your idea."
Johnson took a breath, suddenly very serious. "Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard was awarded the Air Medal this morning by the President of the United States."
The implications of this were not lost on Tony's friends, but he wasn't paying attention to them anymore. He held up two fingers to the bartender, and upon receiving the requested bottles, made his way back to the table where Colonel Sheppard was sitting. Sheppard gave him a questioning glance, grabbed a bottle, and leaned back in his chair, waving a hand at the opposite seat.
"I kinda guessed you'd be over here sooner or later."
"Tony DiNozzo, NCIS."
"I suppose Johnson told you my name." He took a sip. "Sec Nav, huh? Bet there's a story you'll never be able to tell behind that one."
"Air Medal, huh?" Tony parroted. "Ditto on the story, I'm guessing."
"It's amazing what they hand out pieces of tin for these days." Sheppard's sardonic grin explained a lot of what was hiding behind his eyes.
"Just out of curiosity, what would your answer have been before this morning?"
"Brass, you mean? Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security. I'd still win in most crowds."
"You know Major General Jack O'Neill?"
"Full General now, actually. He found out this morning."
Tony took a swig of his beer to cover his surprise. Obviously, this Colonel was much bigger news than anyone he'd come across before. "Damn. Know how I can get invited to those kind of parties?"
"You can take my place next time," Sheppard muttered. At Tony's raised eyebrow, he continued. "I got pulled off the line to attend this little shindig. Let's just say, there are better uses of my time."
"So why aren't you on your way back right now?"
"It's a little complicated. My base isn't exactly on the beaten track."
Well, that answered another question. Whatever Sheppard did, it was important, and it was secret. "How'd you get talked into coming here?" Tony left unsaid the part about fraternizing with enlisted personnel, but Sheppard could read between the lines.
"My guys don't get a lot of time off." He pointed out each of his men. "Johnson's wife had a baby six months ago that he got to see for the first time yesterday. Martinez took his kid sister to an amusement park. Peters visited his dad in the hospital. I think they deserve a little downtime before I ask them to put their lives on the line again."
"What about you?"
Sheppard sighed. "I got to sit in meetings where they questioned every decision I've ever made."
"Hardly seems fair."
"Welcome to command. Anyway, enough about me. It's depressing as hell. Talk about you for awhile."
"What's to say?"
"Please," Sheppard said. "You're not the type to hang out in a bar with a bunch of drunk sailors you'll end up arresting somewhere down the line."
"Yeah, I never thought so, either. Turns out to be one of the only things I'm good at."
"Been there before."
Tony was just past well and truly drunk, and he'd been thinking about the crap hand he'd been dealt for quite some time. "In the past year and a half, I've been undercover dating an arms dealers daughter, broken up with said daughter, nearly blown up, nearly blown up again, accused of murdering said arms dealer, killed my boss, reassigned to the ass end of the Navy, brought back to Washington despite my new boss's best efforts, fallen in love with my crazy ninja partner, and uncovered a spy who used to be on my team. If you want me to go back farther, I can. Lots of nice things like plague and bastard fathers."
Sheppard would have laughed if he didn't feel so much like crying. "Five years ago, I had a nice life in Antarctica. Next thing I know, I get reassigned to the biggest freak show in the universe. I kill my commanding officer the first day. A week later, I'm dead. Get brought back from that one, I help create a virus that kills a lot of people. I make lots of enemies, kill more people, lose my second-in-command, get turned into…something really creepy, help create a terrorist, get older and younger in the same day, shoot two members of my team, lose my command, disobey orders to get it back, lose one of my best friends, leave my boss to die, kill another friend in her dreams, convince a man to commit suicide, leave my boss to die again, learn that my bastard of a father died, lose another member of my team, actually kill my boss, and get put on trial for crimes against humanity. Somehow, all that got me the Air Medal."
Tony had a feeling he would be kicking himself for something in the morning, but at the moment, he was feeling no pain. "Life sucks, y'know?"
Tony awakened the next morning with a pounding headache. It took a few minutes for him to realize that the pounding wasn't just in his head. He scrunched up his eyes, glaring blearily at the clock. What inconsiderate bastard was disturbing him at 10:30 on his day off?
As he padded slowly to the door, he happened to glance in a mirror as he passed. He looked like shit, bloodshot eyes glazed over, coarse stubble peppering his jaw, hair flattened on one side and sticking out wildly on the other. Overall, he looked like he had enjoyed his night just a little too much.
He reached his door and yanked it open, prepared to rant at whoever was there. He revised his plan, however, when he came face to face with Ziva.
"Whada you wan'?" Not his most intelligent sentence ever.
Ziva raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps some clothing, yes?"
Tony looked down, realizing that he was, in fact, stark naked. He frowned with mild curiosity, unable to work up the energy to be that concerned about his state of undress. "Nothing you haven't seen before."
Despite the truth of that statement, he sensed Ziva's growing impatience with his casual attitude. He shuffled back to his room, apparently leaving the door open, because Ziva followed him. She poked idly at random objects as Tony pulled on a pair of boxers, loose jeans and a button-down shirt. He ran his fingers through his hair, trying to flatten one side and fluff out the other. He gave up when he succeeded only in making it all look like a victim of electro-shock.
"Did you have a point in coming over here?" Tony frowned at the feeling of déjà vu, but tried to focus on what Ziva was saying.
"We have a case. When you did not answer your phone, Gibbs sent me to rooster you out of bed."
"First, it's roust, and B, it's my last day off."
"Which you would no doubt have wasted like the rest of them." Ziva sniffed the air and wrinkled her nose. "What exactly did you do last night?"
Tony frowned, trying to recall where he had gone. Brief images began to assault his senses. "There was a lot of drinking involved."
"Really?" Ziva could barely hide her complete non-disbelief. She knelt suddenly, peering at an object that had slid underneath the bed. She stood, bringing the object with her. "Did you win?"
It was Tony's challenge coin, and suddenly the images were coming in full Technicolor with light and sound and smells. A line of ships, at least three different bars, a sea of white and tan, and then black cutting in. A lonely table in the corner, an existential conversation. Sweat and alcohol and sewage as he stumbled into the street, his new friend steering him toward the alley and tucking a blinking light into his pocket. It's the least I can do. Watching dumbfounded as the man and his two friends disappeared into a bright light. His apartment suddenly appearing around him. There is some good out there.
There was something important that he wasn't remembering, something he really needed to look into, but he had no idea what it was. It was an extremely frustrating feeling. He had a sudden burst of inspiration, and a moment of stupidity as he moved Ziva out of the way. She was so shocked by the action that she didn't try to kill him, instead watching as he hunted around the room for the clothes he'd been wearing the night before. He found the jeans and rummaged through the pockets, pulling out loose change, lint, and finally, a small, pen-shaped object. There was no light blinking, and no obvious use for the device, but it made him grin widely nonetheless.
"I think I lost. But for once, I don't mind all that much."
AN: Air Force challenge rules are a little different. Basically, a challenge is made whenever the coin connects with something loud enough to make a noise. If you cannot produce your coin (and you're allowed a step and an arm's reach), then you are responsible for buying everyone a beer. If everyone can produce their coin, the challenger has to provide the beer. My ex-boyfriend told me a story once about a General who was presenting coins upon graduation from the Academy. The last student took his hand away before being given the coin, and the General dropped it. Every student immediately stood and presented their coin. I think the General had to buy drinks for about three hundred.
RE: Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security – I don't think the Department of Homeworld Security has been declassified, yet, so I think Jack would be given a title as close to the one he actually holds as possible. This is not canon.