Jethro grunted softly and shifted a bit as he woke up, then quickly looked down to be sure Tony hadn't been disturbed. When he saw drowsy green eyes blinking at him he felt a moment of regret, but it passed as soon as Tony smiled.
"Hey, you. Feeling better?"
"Yeah. Pretty much."
"That's enough for now. With more time, you'll resolve whatever's left over. If you want, I'll be sure you stay in the bullpen next time we get a case with a kid."
"No. They don't come up all that often and like you said, I'll have the time in-between to find peace with what happened. Besides, maybe the next one… I won't be too late."
"Great way to think about it."
"Only way. Where's Cody?"
Jethro directed an ear toward the guest room.
"Shower's running. You and I better get ours in, too. Making him wait for supper is never a good idea."
"I hear and obey, my master." Tony chuckled as he swung his feet back to the floor and started to rise. Jethro held him back for a moment, one hand on Tony's chin to guarantee his sub's attention.
"You remember the talk we had in the car that night, on the way to the club?"
"I'm not your master. I know you were joking, but you really need to get this. Masters have slaves, Anthony, and that's a whole other world… one I don't want you to ever see or experience."
"I understand, I promise I do. We're about mutual respect. I show it by calling you sir, you return it by treating me like I'm valuable and giving me your trust."
"That's right. If you ever start getting curious about the other side of this life, you come to me and I'll go into more detail, but don't you ever go exploring on your own, you hear me?"
"Not a chance, sir." Tony responded with a slight shiver. Jethro gathered him into his arms and held him tightly for a minute or two.
"Glad to hear it. Now go get some dinner clothes picked out while Cody finishes washing up."
"On my way."
As Tony jogged up the stairs, Cody emerged from his room in tailored black pants, a jewel-tone blue button down and stylish boots, a towel still curved around his neck.
"You hear any of that?" Jethro asked quietly.
"Enough. He's not the type, bud. Pain, blood, humiliation… they'll never interest that boy. You've been too good to him. Showed him how much green grass there is on our side of the fence."
"Yeah. I just can't help wondering, ya know? If I hadn't made a move, if he'd been offered a life over there, convinced that what he needed was to have his fear and insecurity beaten out of him…"
"Quit, Jethro. Just quit it. Tony knows how much he's loved. Why would he ever go anywhere near the darkness? I heard him acknowledge that you trust him. When are you gonna start trusting yourself? Damn it, put your big boy pants on and find some faith in what the two of you are building, here. Which, by the way, is one of the strongest bonds I've ever seen."
Jethro finally grinned, just a little.
"I guess your evaluation is done, huh?"
"Just about. If you agree to help me try out my theory when we all get back tonight…"
"Definitely. I really hope you're right."
"We'll see. High hopes an' all that…"
5:15: A LOCAL SAFOOD RESTAURANT
"You sure this is okay, Tony?" Gibbs asked as they slid into their seats. "No allergies?"
"Nah, fish and shellfish are no problem. The only things I worry about are blackberries and macadamias and even those just get a mild reaction."
"I'll remember that."
"I know." Tony responded softly, a light grin curving his lips as he studied the menu.
"You Rule 5 the server, just in case."
Once their orders were in and the drinks arrived, Cody looked to Tony and asked a question he'd been hoarding, even though he wasn't sure he'd get an answer.
"It's clear you took to being a sub pretty quickly, Tony. Have you thought about why that was?"
Tony paused for almost a minute, before deciding Cody had earned the full truth instead of an evasion.
"Only every day. My parents weren't… casual drinkers. There was luxury everywhere you looked in their house. Just not the one I really needed and wanted."
"Nail on the head." Tony confirmed. "When Jethro started all this, I was anxious, unsure… and everything else, all at once. The first time he knelt with me, though, suddenly the only thing I felt was safe. I mean, yeah, I depend on him all the time at work, trust him to have my back. This was different. He made promises and for probably the first time in my entire life… I had absolutely no doubt they'd be kept."
Jethro stared at him, captivated and completely focused.
"You actually said that, remember? That you felt safe. Up until that moment, I have to admit… I couldn't see it."
"Yeah, well… I trusted you, sir. It was myself I had no faith in. It took so long that night to even *start* believing that what I felt was real… that someone could say the things you did and mean every single word."
Sharply aware that they were in public, and not in a business run by someone in their world, Jethro caught himself reaching for Tony's hand and shifted the touch to his sub's shoulder instead, giving it a strong squeeze.
"You've walked a long road since then, kiddo."
"Not alone. Never alone."