Tony wasn’t sure how long he had clung to Gibbs while he cried his eyes out, but as his sobbing slowed and he regained his composure, he realized that Gibbs’ shirt was soaked with his tears and snot. He tried to pull away, but the arms around him tightened and held him firmly. Rather than feeling restricted and trapped, Tony just felt safe, so he didn’t fight it.
He was completely drained both physically and emotionally, like a deflated parade float left crumpled and unrecognizable on the ground. He knew he should be mortified - probably would be in the morning - but he had no energy left to waste. It took everything in him just to remain upright.
He felt strangely empty, a sharp contrast to the firestorm of panic and shame that had been burning in him earlier. It wasn’t peace, exactly, that had settled over him. It was more like a numbness or dullness, the whole world somehow muted as if everything were coated in cotton.
He was faintly aware of Gibbs moving, lifting him to stand, guiding him into his tent and stripping him down to a t-shirt and boxers. He must’ve imagined Gibbs tucking him in, though, with a soft kiss to his forehead and a hand that brushed gently through his hair. Before he could ponder it more, he was asleep.
Tony woke up to the smell of coffee and woodsmoke.
At first he was disoriented and a bit confused. He couldn’t remember where he was or what he had been doing. When the memories of last night finally hit him, he sat up and sucked in a deep breath.
Oh God, did I actually cry in Gibbs’ arms? Ohgodohgodohgodohgod…
Tony’s brain was stuck in a loop, skipping back to that one thought like a scratched record. He felt his chest tighten and suddenly found it hard to breathe, his heart hammering heavily in his chest. He hadn’t had a panic attack in a long time, but that didn’t mean that he no longer recognized the signs.
He rode it out, hunched over with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands, shaking like a leaf in a storm. He concentrated on his breathing: in… out… in… out. Once he regained control of his lungs, he found the panic receding and his mental acuity returning. Aside from the harsh breathing, he hadn’t made a sound.
When he finally felt put enough together to function, he got dressed and made his way out of the tent. He quickly walked into the woods, not looking towards the fire where he knew Gibbs was, heeding the early morning call of Nature. He dawdled as much as he dared before he thought Gibbs would mount a search party, but he still found himself approaching the fire far sooner than he would have liked.
“Morning, Tony,” Gibbs grunted at him.
The dawn light seemed to coalesce on Gibbs’ gray hair, and it took Tony a considerable amount of effort not to start laughing at the sight of his boss’s bedhead. Did the man wrestle a multi-armed Hindu god in his sleep? The striking surrealism of the scene before him did more to calm Tony’s nerves than a thousand reassurances, and he wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t every day that he went camping with his boss or confessed his deepest secrets while openly weeping, so why did this all seem so normal?
When he gave it a moment’s thought, though, he realized it really wasn’t that strange. How many times had the two men shared a hotel room while on a case? Their early morning routines around each other followed the same general pattern, and Tony took comfort in the familiar scene. True, his boss didn’t normally prepare coffee over a fire pit, but the general sense of the situation was the same. Gibbs awoke before him, Gibbs found coffee, Gibbs grunted a muted greeting.
The man wasn’t very put-together before his first cup of Coffea arabica, and it was clear that the coffee wasn’t done percolating yet. Tony was actually mildly surprised that his boss had managed to scrounge up wood for a fire and get everything together without his first caffeine fix of the day. Must be that Marine training can override even a crippling coffee addiction.
Gibbs, for his part, had apparently decided to act like nothing had happened, and Tony was more than ready to go along with his boss’s lead. Tony was sure that it wouldn’t last long, but he would take whatever respite he could get. At least the man wasn’t much for conversation, especially before his first cup o’ Joe.
Hmm, cup o’ Joe, coffee, jitter juice, drip, caffeine fix, espresso, brew, bean juice, mocha, java, tar… Tony was drawn out of his mental soliloquy on the various names and types of coffee by Gibb’s rough voice.
“Hey, DiNozzo, you gonna just stand there looking pretty, or are ya gonna find something useful to do and start fixing us some breakfast?”
“On your six, Boss!” Grinning, Tony turned towards his tent to grab his gear.
Breakfast was a quiet affair, and neither man dallied long over their food. They made quick work of their cleanup, and before Tony knew it Gibbs was motioning him to sit, first-aid kit once again in hand.
“Gotta check the cut on your arm, Tony,” Gibbs said gruffly by way of explanation.
Tony sighed but allowed Gibbs to check him over. Gibbs certainly wasn’t one to coddle, nor was he an overly demonstrative person in general, but the man had a rough sort of caring about him that Tony knew was his way of mother-henning. Not that I’d ever call it that to his face. I value having all my limbs attached and in working order.
Gibbs carefully unwrapped the bandage around Tony’s left bicep and gently probed the cut. Tony winced but didn’t make a sound as Gibbs’ fingers touched tender flesh. The wound showed no signs of infection, so Gibbs reapplied some antiseptic ointment and wrapped it in fresh gauze. Before Tony could move to stand, Gibbs was pulling off Tony’s right boot to check his ankle.
The swelling had gone down, though the colorful array of blue and purple bruising still spread across his ankle like some avant-garde tattoo. Again Gibbs pressed various spots and assessed Tony’s response. Satisfied with what he found, Gibbs rewrapped the ankle with a compression bandage and carefully put his boot back on.
“Looks like a Grade I sprain. Don’t do anything stupid and you’ll be fine.” With that bit of sage advice, Gibbs was up and moving towards his tent.
Tony chuckled to himself before rising cautiously to his feet. He was happy to discover that his ankle held his weight fairly well considering the circumstances. He wouldn’t want to be running anywhere on it, but he could walk as long as he was careful.
“So, Boss, I was thinking we should grab our gear and go fishing. There’s a nice spot about half a mile from here down a side trail. It’s an open harvest stream, too, so we can catch some fish for lunch. You game?”
Gibbs walked out of his tent, fishing pole and tackle box in hand, halfway through Tony’s question.
“I’ll take that as a yes, Boss. Give me a couple minutes and I’ll be good to go.”
Tony quickly made his way over to his tent and grabbed his pole and tackle box from his pack as well as his Swiss Army knife. He realized that he was actually excited to go fishing with Gibbs. He knew it was something that the older man enjoyed. Tony had never had the chance to go fishing with anyone, and he wondered if Gibbs would somehow become slightly less recalcitrant regarding verbal communication with a fishing rod in his hands.
Of course, that would mean talking about last night. And with that thought, Tony’s excitement vanished only to be replaced by stone-cold dread. He knew the conversation was inevitable, but that didn’t mean he wanted to have it. He’d rather be handed over to Ziva to be tortured with her crazy Mossad skills or given to McGee to be tortured with his unfathomable geekdom.
Knowing there was nothing he could do about it, Tony stepped out of the tent and led the way to the stream like a man walking to the gallows.
He watched them, carefully concealed in the late spring foliage. His expression was twisted into a sneer of hatred, hands clutching his binoculars in a white-knuckled grip.
He had followed them to the park, stopping into the ranger’s station after they pulled out. A friendly, casual conversation with the young lady at the desk revealed their destination, and he drove to the trailhead with a sick sort of glee that bubbled up into a cruel smile.
He had made camp far enough away to avoid detection, carrying nothing more than a bedroll and a backpack full of gear. He had seen their confrontation, though he was too far away to hear the details, and he had almost followed them into the darkness. Some strange, feral instinct held him back, though, and his patience was rewarded when they returned to camp with injuries. Injuries made prey weak, made them vulnerable. He grinned in the darkness, all snarl and teeth.
He couldn’t make out the ensuing conversation, had been frankly surprised and disgusted at the emotional explosion that followed. When Gibbs had half walked, half carried DiNozzo to his tent, he had tensed to strike. Again, some animal instinct held him back. Not yet, his mind whispered.
He had caught a few hours’ sleep before returning to his post in time to see Gibbs emerge. He could have taken the man when he gathered firewood, but it wasn’t quite the right time. Another opportunity appeared when Tony relieved himself, but still he held back. It had to be perfect. When he saw them gather their gear and begin the short hike to the stream, he knew it was close.
Soon, he thought to himself. Soon.