Apologies for the delay... I live in southern New England, and we got hit pretty hard by Superstorm Sandy. I got lucky; only minor property damage and power came back up late Friday afternoon. My town isn't fully restored with electricity yet, and where I work is still shut down at least another day. I have friends who lost their homes... been a difficult time.
Thanks to everyone for the reviews and alerts, especially to you guest reviewers! Special thanks go out to gosgirl, Zivacentric, and HidingLight for the support over the past week.
9: Retracing Steps
Gibbs set a fast pace at first, but slowed down the first time Tony slipped while going over some rocks. The sky continued overcast, and the air had a definite chill, but Tony was comfortable as long as they kept moving.
It was late morning when they reached the Crawford Path. There were a few hikers heading up toward the top; it wasn't much further to the tree line. The hikers paused in their argument about the weather to nod and smile in greeting, then continued on their way. Gibbs watched them as they went; Tony watched Gibbs.
"Still feel good about the weather?"
Gibbs looked up at the sky and nodded slowly.
Tony motioned toward the hikers. "We're not that far from the top… seems sort of un-Marine-ish not to go."
Gibbs snorted and shot Tony an annoyed look that had no real bite to it. "Un-Marine-ish?"
Tony grinned. "Well, yeah. What do you want me to call it? FBI-ish?"
Gibbs' lips twitched a little; Tony counted that as a win. Gibbs looked up the path again, shifting his feet a bit and rotating his shoulders to settle the pack more securely. Tony felt a small twinge of concern as he took note of the slightly unhappy look on Gibbs' face.
"You may be right," Gibbs said slowly. "But… if it's all the same to you, I'd just as soon get off this mountain."
"Fine by me, Boss." He hesitated a moment, then plowed on. "Sorta thinking we could come back some day, do this for fun."
Tony shrugged. "Yeah, well, this whole hiking thing, it's not so bad, really."
Gibbs turned to face him, smiling. "I'd like that."
Tony grinned and waited for Gibbs to set off, taking up his position on the man's six.
They made their way down the path, and Tony was gratified to see the tension leaving Gibbs' body as they got further down the mountain. They stopped at one point to grab some lunch: more energy bars. Tony sat forward as Gibbs reached for the pack to secure their water bottles after they finished. "Wanna push to get back to the motel tonight?"
Gibbs sighed, and Tony could see man was torn. "It'll be dark well before we get off the trail. Best not."
"Camp where we did on the way up?"
They made it back to their original campsite by late afternoon. Gibbs took over, setting up the tent and telling Tony to just sit back and relax while he got a fire going. Tony watched, noticing the change in the set of Gibbs' shoulders as it got progressively darker and colder.
"I should call Abby, Boss, tell her the good news."
Gibbs nodded. "She'll likely kill you if you keep her in the dark much longer," he commented, with an admirably straight face.
"Hey! Why just me?"
Gibbs smirked at him. "She'll be so thrilled that I'm back to normal – who do you think she'd blame?"
Tony shook his head, a slight smile on his face as Gibbs walked over and sat near him while he pulled out his cell phone.
"What uh oh?"
"I'll make sure you get a nice funeral."
Tony sighed. "Thanks, Boss. Gonna have to wait until we get back to the car, I guess."
Gibbs shrugged. "Makes you feel any better, Vance will likely ride my ass for not keeping him informed."
Tony wrinkled his nose. "Not really a mental image I wanted to have there, Gibbs."
The head slap was swift and not unexpected.
"Thanks, Boss!" Tony said hurriedly. "I missed those. The paw slaps were just too… cute."
Tony smiled a bit as he looked into the fire. "Yeah. Cute. You had such tiny feet, Gibbs."
Gibbs shook his head.
Tony looked at him curiously. "What was it like?"
"Being a fox?"
Gibbs shifted a bit closer to the fire. He poked at it with a stick, then dropped the stick on the ground and stared into the flames. "It was… strange. My eyesight seemed normal, but the sounds and smells… they were intense. Everything was just – off. You were huge."
Tony grinned. "I am taller than you normally, you know."
Gibbs rolled his eyes. "Uh huh."
"Well, I am."
Gibbs shook his head and got up to go to their pack, digging out some food. "Hungry?"
"You're kidding, right?"
"Sorry, no pizza."
"Don't rub it in."
They were quiet while Gibbs got dinner ready. They didn't speak much while eating either; Tony waited until after Gibbs cleaned up – and didn't that feel strange, having Gibbs wait on him – to resume the conversation.
"Did you like it?"
"Did I like what?"
It was Tony's turn to roll his eyes. "Did you like being a fox?"
Gibbs shrugged. "It was ok, I guess." The side of his mouth twitched as he poked at the fire. "Once I got my bearings, it was sort of funny watching you freak out."
Tony shot him a disgruntled look. "You'd have freaked out too if it had been me. Or Abs."
Gibbs just looked at him, raising his eyebrows.
"Okay, fine… you'd have freaked out in a more productive manner."
Gibbs tilted his head, then shrugged. "Maybe." He stretched, rolling his head from side to side. Tony automatically reached out and started rubbing Gibbs' neck; the older man relaxed into it. "The longer it went on, and the weirder it got, with Abby's ritual and all… the more worried I got that maybe I wouldn't get back to normal."
Tony nodded, his hand moving to one of Gibbs' shoulders and continuing the massage.
"Thing is…" Gibbs hesitated, then shook his head. "I wanted to get back to being human again, and I wanted that tree spirit or whatever it was out of my head."
Tony's hand stopped moving. "It was in your head?"
Gibbs reached up and ran a hand through his hair, grimacing a bit. "Not all the time, and not like it was talking to me or anything… it just… there were dreams." Tony made an encouraging sound, and resumed the neck rub. "I relived that moment of waking up as a fox the first time over and over again," Gibbs said quietly. "It was… disconcerting. And then there was a sort of pull, sometimes… like something was telling me go here, do this…"
"No wonder the leash drove you nuts." Tony squeezed Gibbs' neck. "I'm really sorry about that, Jethro. I should have handled it differently."
Gibbs shook his head and waved one hand aimlessly. "Don't worry about it, Tony. You did what you thought you had to do at the time. Not like we had a manual or something to refer to." He reached over and touched Tony's bandaged hand. "And I shouldn't have done this."
Tony turned his hand over the grabbed Gibbs', squeezing for a moment before letting go. "Don't worry about it… I get why you did."
They were quiet for a while, and then Gibbs spoke up again, surprising Tony. "It wasn't all bad, though."
"Felt… nice, being able to relax sometimes. Play, even."
Tony grinned, remembering the previous morning and chasing Gibbs around the campsite. "Yeah." He glanced over at Gibbs, who didn't seem to know quite what to do with his hands. "I'm gonna miss that."
Gibbs didn't say anything, but he did lean into Tony's touch on his neck, just a little.
"You know, Boss… I think maybe that tree spirit got in my head too."
Gibbs turned and looked directly at Tony. "How so?"
Tony shrugged and dropped his hand from Gibbs' neck. "Can't really say for sure… just, last night, I dreamt about you, a lot. Only they weren't dreams so much as memories… nothing was different about them compared to how it all really happened."
Tony went on to describe the dreams, listing the different scenarios. "It was like something was sifting through my head. Thought it was just the stress of you not turning human right away, but now I'm wondering if maybe it wasn't the spirit… like maybe it was learning about us, about you… deciding whether to turn you back?"
Gibbs looked pained. "Not a pleasant thought."
Tony stretched and looked around. It was completely dark now, and the temperature was dropping fast. "What do you say, Boss… time to get inside and catch some z's?"
Gibbs sighed and looked at the tent. He nodded, then, and stood, but didn't move for a minute. If Tony had to guess, he'd have said Gibbs looked uncertain, although he'd never seen the man look that way before.
Gibbs turned to look at him.
"You're going to be human when you wake up in the morning."
Gibbs blinked a few times, then shot Tony a small half-smile. "You sure about that?"
Gibbs tilted his head slightly, moving so much like the fox that Tony felt a small pang of loss.
"Seriously. You were right next to the spirit when you first turned into the fox, and maybe you had to leave the tent this morning because the spirit made you… maybe you had to be close to it for it to turn you back."
Gibbs' eyes narrowed slightly, then his whole body seemed to relax. "You just may be right."
Tony grinned. "You don't have to make that sound like such a miracle, you know. And hey, didn't Abby say something about you having to be close to it when she was explaining about the tree spirit in the first place?"
Gibbs ducked his head. "Okay. Point taken."
They each headed off into the trees in opposite directions; Tony made it back to the tent just as Gibbs was putting out the fire. Gibbs crawled in after him, and they each took only a moment to strip down to appropriate sleep wear. Tony got into the sleeping bag, then turned to look at Gibbs, who looked oddly indecisive again.
"Jethro… remember what I said about having your six no matter what species you are?"
Gibbs nodded. "Yeah… so?"
"So get in the damn sleeping bag already."
Gibbs stared at him for a moment, then smiled widely, suddenly appearing years younger. "Yes, sir."
Tony rolled his eyes.
It was a large sleeping bag, but still a bit cramped for two men. It took a bit of jostling, but they finally settled on a position that worked, with Tony spooned up behind Gibbs.
"Don't worry, Gibbs, I'll still respect you in the morning."
Gibbs snorted and jabbed Tony in the side with his elbow.
"Hey! Just like that damn pointy fox nose."
"Goodnight, Tony." There was a hint of laughter in Gibbs' voice.
If Tony noticed that the sense of loss disappeared as he snuggled a little closer to Gibbs' body heat, he didn't dwell on it.