Tony's last coherent thought before giving into the pharmaceutical coma was that he should've listened to his gut and just stayed home today.
The temperature in the bedroom dipped enough to slice through his drugged induced slumber as uncooperative fingers sought out the edge of the quilt.
"Fivemoreminutes," he mumbled.
"Tony." The voice was filled with an insistence he didn't want to obey.
"Go away," was what his brain said but his mouth produced something sounding more like "gwa."
"DiNozzo." The insistence was still there, but now tempered with softness that was harder to ignore.
"What?" He didn't give a shit that he was whining. He had every right to whine and complain. This was his home. His bedroom. His space. His drugged sleep. He opened one eye then made an uncoordinated attempt to bolt upright, catching himself at the last minute before he slid sideways. Kate's name rode along the crest of an embarrassing groan filled with hurt.
"Crap, Tony." She took a step towards the bed then hesitated. "Easy does it."
Tony squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them one at a time. Nope, still there. "You're dead." "Nice way to say hello." In a way too familiar gesture, Kate tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and smirked.
"Um hello," Tony stuttered, trying to be polite.
"It's my birthday," the Kate ghost said as if that simple sentence explained everything.
"Happy birthday." See this was why he hated taking pain medication. He wondered if talking with one's dead partner in the bedroom was a side effect. "Did you have a good day?" Tony grimaced. This was another reason not to indulge in pain relief crap; it screwed with his ability to make small talk. "Sorry, that was stupid. I mean being a " He let the sentence just fade away.
"I'm not a figment of your imagination."
"Sure you're not, you're drug induced, right? A hallucination? Synapsis short circuiting type of thing?"
Kate pursed her lips. "A hallucination?" She gave a very unghostly and very unladylike snort. "I don't do drugs."
"Not you drugs, me drugs." A horrible thought occurred to him. Maybe he'd never made it home. Or to the ER. Maybe he was still lying in the street where the car had hit him. "I'm not dead, am I? I mean you're not my guide to the great beyond?"
Kate crossed her arms and shook her head, "No, I'm not, although lately you do seem in a hurry to meet the woman upstairs."
"God is a woman?" If that was the case, Tony was up shit's creek without a paddle and he probably had an eternity of harassment seminars to look forward to.
"Hey, it's not funny to kid an injured man." He added a grimace for good measure and wrapped his arm around his midsection.
"You'll be okay," she said with a soft smile.
His heart broke just a little. He'd missed her. A lot. More than he'd ever admitted to anyone else, least of all himself. "You look good." Tony tripped over the words wondering if he was being politically correct. "I mean for being passed on and all. You look," he did an up and down appraisal, "really good."
"I have more than enough free time on my hands. Spa. Personal trainer."
"What?" Her eye's widened in mock shock. "I leave you and you become gullible. Really, Tony, I never would've expected that of you. "
"I am not gullible. I mean I'm sitting here carrying on a conversation with a dead " he glanced sheepishly at Kate. "Am I allowed to use the "d" word?"
"That's alright, Tony." Kate gave a short nod. "It's not a curse word, I know I'm dead. Deceased."
"Good, I'm glad. I mean not glad that you're dead, I mean glad that you know that you're dead ," he sighed deeply. "I'm rambling, aren't I?
"Yeah, you were, but that's okay." Kate rolled the conversation along with a slight hand movement. "Feel free to continue, you were reminding me of McGee. It was kind of nice."
"Hey!" Tony gave an indignant snort. "If you miss the McGeeister so much, why aren't you visiting him?"
"Because he didn't give me flowers for my birthday."
"I noticed." There was that damn smile again. "They were very pretty. Thank you."
"You're welcome." Tony decided not to mention that he hadn't woken up this morning even remembering it was Kate's birthday. It had been the local flower vendor's fault. The one right next to the corner coffee shop he frequented. He'd been putting out the fresh cuttings and there had been a dozen daisies all wrapped in cellophane. Kate had loved daisies and that simple thought had triggered the Kate's birthday memory.
So before work he'd taken the dozen fresh daisies in the pretty pink cellophane to Kate and while she'd obviously enjoyed the flowers, he'd had his coffee and Danish by the gravesite. Embarrassed, he ducked his head, recalling how he'd used the top of the gravestone as a table.
Kate brushed imaginary specks from her shirt sleeve. "Flowers were a wonderful gesture. Eating breakfast and getting crumbs on my grave," she shook her head, "not so wonderful."
"You're just jealous that I didn't share."
"Have no desire to eat." Kate gave a haughty huff of air.
"It was the hot cheese Danish from Everbest," Tony teased. "Warm. Melt in your mouth "
Kate licked her lips.
"Ahha!" Tony cried, victorious. "I saw that. You're salivating." He stuck out his chin in her direction. "I think you're even drooling." Tony used his hand to touch the corner of his own mouth. "Right there. In the corner. Drool is just hanging "
"Tony," she threatened with a slight stamp of her foot but not before her tongue flicked to the spot he'd mentioned.
A slow wicked smile lit up his face. "Just like old times." Like a comfortable pair of sweats, he'd missed their relationship. Their friendship. Their love/hate relationship. He missed her.
"Yeah. Right. At least in old times I could throw something at you."
"Feel free. Throw. Give it your best shot." One handed, Tony tossed his pillow at her. His smile slid from his face and his stomach gave a nauseated little roll as the pillow passed right through her and knocked his change jar sitting on his dresser onto the floor. "Sorrysorrysorry " Tony swallowed down a mouthful of bile. "Did I hurt you?"
"Didn't hurt me." She glanced down at the change scattered around her feet. "Oops."
"You really are "
"Yeah, I am," she replied softly.
"What's it like?" he asked, suddenly serious.
"What's what like?"
"Stop it, Kate, you know what I mean. Being dead. Being a ghost. The great beyond. Is it like in the movie, Ghost? Is it worth dying for?"
"Nothing is worth dying for, Tony."
"Giving your life for a friend is." In the truest sense of the word he glanced through her and studied the pillow on the floor. "I should've "
"Don't even go there," she warned with a Gibbs' like toughness to her voice. "My time. Not yours."
"You're not going to win this one."
"That's right. I won't. You're dead. I'm not."
"So I win by default?"
"That sucks." Tiredness hit him like a wave, the pain pill's effect coming back for a second go round and he yawned hugely, not even bothering to cover his mouth or apologize.
"Go to sleep, DiNozzo," she said gently.
He swallowed back another yawn. "Don't wanna."
"Still a stubborn toddler."
Tony offered up an off kilter, lazy half smile as he slowly levered his body onto the mattress. "Guess it would be too much for you to hand me the pillow."
"No can do."
"Sorta figured that." He patted down the remaining pillow under his head. "I hate sleeping with only one "
"I am," Tony shot back then waited a minute for retribution and when there was none, he closed his eyes.
"Don't go." He opened his eyes fearful that she was going to disappear in front of his eyes. Like last time, gone between one breath and the next. "I have a question."
With a huff of annoyance she rolled her eyes. "What, DiNozzo?"
"If my pillow goes right through you, how come you're not slipping through the floor into the apartment below me?"
She put her fingers to her lips. "Your security clearance isn't high enough for me to answer that question."
"Happy birthday, Kate." Gibbs closed the oven door slowly then turned around.
"Thanks, Boss." She sniffed the air like a dog. "Smells delicious."
"Lasagna. Family recipe." He studied her relaxed stance, the minutest of smiles tugging at the corner of his mouth. "Since when do ghosts have a sense of smell?"
Kate answered his smile with a huge grin and a shrug. "The flowers were nice. Thank you."
Gibbs opened the cabinet, took out a small glass and hooked his finger around the bottle of bourbon, sliding them along the counter next to where he was standing. He poured himself half a glass before answering, toasting Kate before taking a sip. "I noticed that someone else remembered it was your birthday." His bouquet, for the first time since Kate had died, shared the space in front of her headstone with another grouping of flowers wrapped in pink cellophane.
"Tony. First time "
"Always a first time for everything, Kate." The remainder of the drink disappeared in one swallow.
"He almost died today, Gibbs."
Another tilt of the bottle. Another glass half filled. Another drink disappeared. "But he didn't."
"But he could have."
Kate had started visiting him the birthday after she died, the first time he'd put flowers on her grave. Six birthdays. Six bouquets. Six visits. "Kate, you sound like my ex-wife."
"Which one?" She narrowed her eyes and glared at him.
The temperature in the kitchen dropped more than a handful of degrees.
"Okay. Okay." Gibbs relented.
"Thought for a second you were going to apologize."
"Yup. Silly you."
The warmth of the kitchen returned.
"You look tired, Gibbs."
"Long day," he admitted, glancing in the direction of the bedroom then changed his mind. "Bad day."
"So that's why you've become Rachel Ray in Tony's kitchen instead of building a ship in your basement?"
"It's a boat, Kate, and who the hell is Rachel Ray?"
"She's a " Kate shook her head. "Never mind. Forget I even mentioned it."
"Already forgotten." Gibbs turned off the oven then opened the door again.
He opened a drawer, removed two oven mitts then carefully removed the dish from the oven, placing it with precise care on the counter. "Yup, definitely lasagna."
"Tony likes lasagna."
Kate's burst of laughter made Gibbs smile. "Tony also likes young, attractive girls. Hopefully, you're not pulling one of those out of your hat?"
Now it was Kate's turn to smile at his huff of amusement. "Stick around, Kate, you might be surprised." He closed the oven door with his foot.
"Tony thought I was a pain killer induced hallucination."
"Are you surprised?"
"Well, no "
"I remember thinking you were a bourbon induced hallucination "
"You were angry."
Gibbs sighed. He had been angry all those years ago. And even now, when she made her yearly appearance his gut churned with unanswered questions. Why Kate? Why not Kelly and Shannon. Why didn't they visit? What had been so special about Kate?
"You're still angry," Kate said stepping closer. "I wish "
"And as my grandmother used to say, 'If wishes were "
"I'm sorry," she interrupted, cutting him off.
"Don't," he ordered. Another opened drawer revealed a roll of tinfoil and Gibbs worked on meticulously wrapping the lasagna.
"You should wait until it cools, you know."
Without looking up from the task at hand, Gibbs responded. "Now, you really sound like one of my ex-wives."
"I was always taught "
"Rule #51 - sometimes you're wrong."
Kate's brow furrowed. "I don't remember that rule."
"It's been a while, Kate, sometimes things change." Gibbs opened the fridge door, made a space on the shelf, slipped the lasagna in then closed the door. He kept his back to Kate, resting his hands on the stainless steel.
"You're going to leave fingerprints," Kate said softly.
"Ex-wife," Gibbs answered, slowly turning towards her.
"I miss you."
He grunted his agreement and wished what he wished for every year at this time - that he could just touch her. Just once and even though it would be breaking one of his rules, just tell her how sorry he was.
"Take care of Tony."
"Always do." Gibbs shrugged. "Though some days it's easier than others."
Tony didn't move an inch when Gibbs pulled the covers down for a look see. Even in the dim street light seeping in through the blinds, bruises were beginning to blossom. Cheekbone, jawline, shoulder, the rest hidden under the blanket come morning Tony wasn't going to be a pretty sight but for now, all was okay in Gibbs' world, and on days like today, you couldn't ask for anything more.
Though he was pretty damn sure at this moment a brass band wouldn't wake Tony up, he undressed in quick, quiet efficient moves, tossed the fallen pillow onto the bed (the change could wait until morning) then lifted up the covers and slid into bed.
"Oh my god."
Gibbs jerked upright. "Kate? I thought you'd left."
"You're in Tony's bed."
"Yeah, and I was cooking in Tony's kitchen." Gibbs sighed, he'd really just wanted to go to bed and put today behind him.
"You're in your boxers and tee shirt and " she stuttered, "you're under the covers." She swallowed audibly, "With Tony."
"More than a few years," Gibbs answered her unasked question.
"Oh?" He could feel his eyebrows slowly move up his forehead.
"You and Tony "
"Is there a problem, Agent Todd?"
"Problem?" Adamantly, she shook her head. "Definitely not, Boss, as a matter of fact, it's one of the best birthday presents I've ever received. Very "
Gibbs wondered if it was normal for ghosts to blush. "Very what?"
Her hands traced the length of the bed in the air. "Very thought provoking. Visual. Visually thought provoking. Hot. Very hot "
"Enough," Gibbs hissed. "I get the point."
"Me too," Kate sighed. "Years?"
"Really? Even when I was "
"Wow." Kate's expression slid into one of dismay. "Damn, Abby was right. I owe her ten dollars."
"You and Abby bet on if Tony and I were "
Kate nodded. "We didn't have any proof. Abby insisted but I needed something a little more concrete than a feeling in my gut."
"Should've listened to your gut, Agent Todd."
Gibbs knew Tony was hurting when he was willing to stay home with his ass glued to the couch. The remote in one hand and within arm's reach, a pain pill, a bottle of water, a box of cereal, a peanut butter sandwich, and his cell phone sitting on the coffee table. He'd smiled at the promise of lasagna for dinner and mumbled something about the ghost of agents past visiting the bedroom last night.
"You're funny, DiNozzo."
"Funny ha ha or funny in the head?" Every movement he made looked cringefully painful to Gibbs.
"A little bit of both," Gibbs whispered in his ear, placing a gentle kiss on the bruise closest to Tony's cheekbone.
Gibbs placed the ginormous cup of Caf-Pow on Abby's work bench. He'd beaten her in by about fifteen minutes. More than enough time. He took a ten from his wallet, slid it under the drink then located a blank piece of paper. With a skull and crossbones-decorated pencil he wrote - 'Kate said you'd know what this was for.'