"I haven't, I swear. Horses and I just seem to understand each other. When I get back on, no matter how long it's been... it's just easy."
Tony grimaced slightly over that comment, pulled a bottle of water from his pack and took a long gulp before responding.
"If only that were true for everything."
Tim lowered his gaze to the horse's neck and began to stroke the animal idly with one hand.
"I hate that you've been hurt that way, you know? It's made part of you hard... and cynical. Sometimes, when you put on the 'party-boy/class clown' mask at work, I sit there and wonder how nobody else sees it."
Tony tensed and began adjusting and playing with the reins.
"That it only happens when one of us gets too close or touches a wound you didn't know was still open. All that stuff you say... it's nothing but a cover for a pain you've buried so deep you probably don't remember what created it in the first place."
"You've been watching too much "Dead Zone', kid. You're no psychic, trust me. C'mon. Let's get started back. There's a filly I wanna check out back at the barn and I don't mean a horse."
Tim knew better than to be hurt or disappointed by Tony's comment. Instead, he took a deep breath and did something he'd never found the courage to attempt before: he called Tony out.
"You're doing it right now. Or don't you listen to yourself?"
Tony responded tersely, but refused to look at Tim while he did so.
"Cool it, *Probie*."
"Sorry. Insults aren't enough this time. Even if neither one of us ever tells the rest of the world you have it, you need somebody who sees right through you, Tony... somebody you can't hide from, who won't let you get away with keeping all the... *crap* inside. I think... I think it's me."
"Oh do you, now?" Tony shot back, voice low and ice-cold.
The tone and expression combined made Tim swallow hard. He'd had his brave, determined moments with Tony, standing strong in the face of anything the older agent could throw at him, but his fire always died at this exact moment. Knowing some of Tony's background, Tim could never bear to push beyond the point where DiNozzo showed genuine anger, fearing an explosion that would end with both of them injured. This time, however, Tim sensed something immensely precious was at stake. It might still be an unknown, and maybe it would fade to nothing before he could change that, but he wasn't about to surrender even a possibility.
Nudging his horse, he swiftly moved within reaching distance of Tony, grasped his face in both hands, locked their gazes together and spoke softly, but with powerful sincerity.
"Yes. I do. Don't ask me why or how... I just do."
For a long moment, Tony could only stare in shock and confusion, not knowing what to do now that Tim had altered the familiar, comfortable routine. Shaking his head, he wrenched out of Tim's firm grip, flung himself off the horse and stalked away down the trail. He only stopped after he'd traveled several yards, first viciously kicking a tree then leaning against it while he tried desperately to collect his wits and figure out how to regain control of the situation. Tim gave him a few seconds of breathing room then dismounted, tied the horses loosely to a nearby limb and followed his friend.
"No! I get really mad, you fold like origami, *that's* how this works! You don't get to change it!"
"I had to. I feel like... like I'm fighting for something now... fighting for some*one*. You're too important for me to just stick to the status quo."
"Take that back."
"That you're important? Not a chance. Taking it back would be lying."
"Damn it, McGee..."
"You saved me back at that bar... at least my sanity and my job... maybe my life. That makes you important... even if it's just to me."
Tony finally raised his head, tossing Tim a confused, exasperated look.
"What, you don't count?"
Tim glanced away, actually stepped away a little, and pretended to study the foliage.
"I never have... not to anybody but my parents and my trouble-magnet sister. I throw around my degrees like they make me somebody... but I know the truth. They just make me a geek. Sure, the world may need us... but once we serve our purpose, who wants us around except other geeks?"
Shoving away from the trunk that was supporting him, Tony strode around McGee so that they faced each other and studied him intently. Abruptly, he gripped the younger man's shoulders and exerted pressure, urging him backwards until Tim bumped into another tree and could go no farther. For a terrifying, exhilarating moment, he was sure he was about to be fiercely, passionately kissed, but the moment dissolved, and instead he received only the faint clunk of his forehead and Tony's gently falling together
"Hell... the only thing in my brain right now... is those one-word question journalism thingies..."
"Where, why, how... yeah, I know. I don't understand this any better than you do, Tony... but it feels so strong already... I need to give it a chance. We both deserve what you told me back at the house. Remember?"
"Different, better, more? Whatever else this is or may become... it's that."
"For damn sure it's different..." Tony chuckled thinly. "We need to get back... and have a long, long talk."
"No hot tub?" Tim asked, his voice colored with slight disappointment.
"A stinky, very public locker room is *not* where I want to see you strip down for the first time, so no... no hot tub."
Tim grinned sheepishly and turned his head away, drawing a pleased, mildly wicked smile out of Tony. "He blushes. Damn, damn, damn. I... am a dead man walking..."
TWO HOURS LATER:
Still toweling his hair, Tim moved cautiously into the living room, tightened the belt on his robe with his free hand and settled on the sofa beside Tony. Dropping the towel to hang around his neck, he produced a comb from his pocket and began running it through his damp locks, trying to neaten up the best he could without a mirror. A moment later, Tony tugged the device out of his hand, earning him a mild protest.
"Relax. I just wanna see something..."
"You're spiking it. Tony, you're spiking it..."
"I know. Looks good... *really* good. I like it." he concluded, proceeding to flatten it again, styling it the way he knew Tim preferred. "There... back to boring."
"You're not in the bullpen, McGee. Loosen up a little."
"Hmmm. Maybe... once in a while. Not like at the bar, though. I vowed never again and I meant it."
"I won't let you, so it's a moot point." Tony countered, rising briefly to add wood and stir the fire then resuming his place. "Like I said, you've got way too much going for you to make that kinda thing a habit."
"Yeah... um, you never told me the story."
"Hard to remember what I promised when we were fighting like pit bulls out there. You tell me something first?"
"If I can."
"When I got you home that night, you said you didn't wanna get over how you were feeling. You remember that?"
"Okay... think about it hard, then tell me why."
Tim scowled at the flames, but, knowing that no matter what Tony had gotten out of their trip so far they were actually there for his benefit, he grudgingly did as he'd been asked to. Several minutes later, he quietly spoke up with as honest a response as he could give.
"I... I was feeling guilty, responsible... still am. I did pull the trigger, so I'm at least partly at fault. I might not've killed him, but I wounded him. I wounded an innocent man..."
"Wrong, all wrong. You're only at fault if you knew."
"Knew? He was innocent? How could I... oh. Oh my God..."
"Now you're starting to see the light, Timmy. To drive the point in even deeper... you get my story. I'd been chasing this gang banger for weeks... had a habit of snorting cocaine, going out on the town, raping and killing little girls... He... he carved a graffiti tag with his name in it into their backs. Took us way too long to work out the symbols and untangle it to figure out who we were looking for. By then his victim list was up to nine. I was crazy, out of control... my lieutenant was on the verge of forcing me off the case. This night... I was closer than I'd ever been to him. I could practically smell his blood... I'd fantasized about watching his execution. I caught up with him in this... falling down apartment building. He had another kid in his arms. She was so amazing... sounds weird, but this makes me laugh... somebody taught her to defend herself I guess, 'cause when I showed up pointing a gun, she must've thought I was just another threat. With nothin' to lose and him distracted, she got off an elbow into his gut and when he let go, she turned around, kicked him hard right where he needed it most and ran like hell. He, uh... he was so high he only half felt it and he... he came at me with the knife he planned to use on her. That was all the excuse I needed. I put one right between his eyes. He dropped and I... I went lookin' for the kid. The place was a wreck, you know? After what she survived, I didn't... I didn't want her getting hurt. I'd barely started and... there was this noise... cracking, booming... never heard anything like it and I pray I never do again. The scream, though... I hear her scream all the time. All she wanted was to hide... to be safe. She picked an old elevator... floor rotten and rusted out... it collapsed under her."
Tim squeezed Tony's shoulder and tried to offer words of comfort, but his throat felt swollen and achy and he was fighting back tears. Tony glanced at him and chuckled brokenly. "Yeah... always hits me that way too. That's why I don't tell this story. The jist of it is that it took me a long, *long* time to understand that I wasn't working the case alone. Other detectives, other cops tried to stop him... none of us were fast enough or smart enough to save that last little girl. For months I took it on myself, but... it wasn't my fault. Wasn't anybody's really, except the bastard who dragged her in there. Gibbs put you in that alley, but he got his orders from somebody higher up, who got theirs from somebody else... none of you could've predicted what happened, Tim. You get it? It's nobody's fault."
"I'm starting to. It still... hurts."
"It will for a while, but as long as you've got the basic message I'm trying to send... your self-destructive bar-hopping streak should end at one. Right?"
"Okay. Good man." Tony praised, drawing Tim into a powerful hug.
"I'm ready to go home in the morning."
"Great." Tony replied, slowly pulling back. "What should we do with the vacation we have left?"
"Tomorrow, before we leave... I want to go to the beach again... see how close I can get to the water."
"Ambitious, but I'm there for you. How about tonight?"
Tim blushed again and Tony believed he could actually *feel* his temperature and blood pressure begin to rise. "What? C'mon... can't be that bad."
"Not bad... embarrassing. Back in the woods when you pinned me to that tree, I thought... I swore you were about to..."
"Oh, I was. You don't know how much effort it took for me *not* to."
"Could... I mean, would you..."
"You'd be okay with that?"
"I just asked, didn't I?"
"Not exactly... but I'm good at interpreting. Just hold still, okay? Let me work out the... logistics on my own..."
Leaning in, Tony brushed his lips against the corner of Tim's mouth then pulled back a bit, smiling and fighting to hold back laughter. "Timmy. You're vibrating."
"I ca-can't help it! Th-that's what people do when they're n-nervous and excited!"
"About kissing me?"
"Oh, Tony, if you could've seen inside my head back in the woods, you never would've waited this long!"
"You mean it, don't you? You want this... and a lot more."
"Eventually, but I haven't even had the kiss yet. Make me wait much longer and you *and* the logistics are going out the window."
"God, you're pushy." Tony snarked, shifting forward again.
"You don't seem to mind."
The kiss this time was full, deep and sensuous. Even if he had wanted to resist, Tim found all his strength draining away. Unable to hold himself up, he wrapped his arms around Tony's neck and sank backwards, pulling the other man with him. Tony broke the kiss and gazed down at him solemnly. "What is it you're expecting, here, Tim?"
"I have no idea... but I'm begging you to keep kissing me until I figure it out." He responded, his face and neck once again shaded a deep rose. Tony breathed in slowly and felt his body react. Tim noticed the change and questioned it.
"Wow... uh, is... is that because of me? I know you said something back there, but..."
"Just know... that if you ever learn how to blush on cue... and you do it even once in public when I'm around... we're both getting arrested."
"What for?" Tim murmured, his pupils dilating as he watched Tony lick his lips.
"Lewd and lascivious, public nudity, disturbing the peace..."
"Just for starters."
"Suddenly... jail doesn't sound so bad."
Tony grinned and repeated himself,
before initiating another kiss. Gradually, he began to feel Tim hardening beneath him and minutely pushing his hips up every so often. Pulling back, Tony asked a question with just his eyes. Tim replied with a shaky nod.
"Okay... hang on and remember I'm playing this by ear, not working from experience." Tony warned as he lowered his weight carefully until he was stretched out along Tim's frame. Dropping his head to his lover's neck he began to place a slow series of lingering kisses anywhere within reach of his mouth. Tim gasped and pushed up more sharply against Tony's body.
"Nnnnh... not your... ear that does... this to me... oh... oh, Tony... my God..."
"Here too, Timmy... more... lift up again... yeah... so amazing... I never knew... never guessed you'd be... this passionate..."
"Me... either... ah! Oh no... it's... Tony, I'm..."
"It's okay, I'll be there with you, Tim... let go... let it... happen... hell... oh shit... yeah..."
It was several minutes before the pair caught their breath and were capable of creating full sentences, and Tim's first effort made Tony laugh out loud.
"Do I get to wash your mouth out with soap?"
"Anytime, love... anytime."
Car packed, house cleaned and locked, Tony guided Tim back down to the sand, this time with a bandanna tied around his eyes.
"That's it... good. Stop right there. Okay. You ready?"
"Wanna try anyway?"
"You know I do. Why the blindfold?"
"I figure if seeing the ocean is your problem, getting to know it through your other senses might be a cure."
"Uh-huh... keep going."
"You'll hear it first. It's a really soothing sound. I love falling to sleep listening to it. As we get closer you'll start to smell the salt... then your skin will tell you there's a difference in the air... it's heavier, it seems to cling to you. If you make it right down to the edge, I'll take a little in my hands and you can taste it. Not exactly dark chocolate or lobster, but it's completely unique and in tiny doses... pretty fascinating."
"Huh. You could be right. Okay... let's start, at least. The whole thing may be too much, but..."
"It's up to you. You say when. Here we go. Getting it yet?"
"I am." Tim answered, deeply surprised. "It is a beautiful sound... rhythmic, like a slow heartbeat... and calming."
"Good... good man. How about the nose?"
"I smell it. It's... it's not bad, but... I don't like how the air feels... Stop, Tony!"
"Okay, okay. Over and done. You did really well."
"Car... back to the car, now."
"I hear you, we're going..."
It wasn't until they were well on the way home that Tim began to relax. When he finally spoke, it was Tony's turn to be surprised.
"Back home... I want to try again."
"As long as you're with me. I can do it as long as you're there."
"You can do it without me, too. You're strong enough to do just about anything."
"But you will be there?"
"Wouldn't miss it for the world, Timmy."