Oct 12 2017

…I’ll Forgive

Title: …I’ll Forgive
Author: Jilly James
Series: For You…
Series Order: 1
Fandom: NCIS
Relationship(s): Tony DiNozzo/Ethan Moore (OMC)
Content Rating: R
Beta Thanks: Naelany. And thanks to my alpha readers: desertpoet, Ladyholder, & Keira.
Warnings: Mentions of events around 9/11 could be upsetting, discussions of homophobia.
Challenge: Written for the NCIS Big Bang on LiveJournal. Thank you to RPDots for the artwork to go with this episode. There’s banner art up top and cover art at the bottom of the post.
Author Notes: Pre-series, but spoilers for 08×22-Baltimore and references to Tony’s relationship with Wendy. I know it’s canon that the Macaluso UC op happened in Baltimore, but that makes little sense for several reasons, so I changed it to Philly.
Word Count: ~27k
Summary: After the end of his relationship with Wendy, someone from Tony’s past resurfaces in an attempt to get Tony back in his life. Ethan’s willing to work for it if there’s a chance Tony can forgive him.

Cast page and additional series information can be found on the main series page.

Art provided by RPDots

– – – –

Part I

30 June 2001

Tony adjusted his tie again, wondering what was causing the holdup. Wendy was usually fanatical about starting things on time, so the fact that they were five minutes past when she should have been walking down the aisle was strange.

Steve Douglas—frat brother and now best man—clapped him on the shoulder. “Patience, Grasshopper,” he murmured in Tony’s ear. “She has to get everything perfect.” That was true, and certainly nothing had been perfect lately, so if she needed a few extra minutes on her hair, he’d deal with no complaint.

Sarah smiled at him from the front row on his side. She was the baby sister of his Alpha Chi Delta roommate, and Tony had virtually adopted her when she was fifteen after Isaiah died. For him, there was no one more important to be at his wedding, so he was glad she’d been able to fly out from the West Coast.

Tony’s side of the church was a little more sparsely occupied compared to Wendy’s. Aside from Sarah and Steve, some of his buddies from Baltimore had come despite his recent defection to a federal agency; a few cops from Philly had surprised him by accepting his invite; several of his frat brothers had come, of course; and a couple people he’d impulsively invited from his new job at NCIS—Ducky and Abby. Gibbs was propping up a wall in the back of the small, historic church dressed in a relatively nice suit. The biggest surprise amongst the attendees was his uncles, Clive and Jeffery, had made the trip from England along with Clive’s wife, Catherine. Grandfather Jasper and Grandmother Elizabeth weren’t up to that kind of trip but had sent some big gift. Tony hadn’t even bothered inviting his own father, though he suspected that Wendy had tried anyway.

It stung that Danny wasn’t there. Danny’s betrayal was still an open wound—he’d been the person Tony was closest to for the last couple years, and he couldn’t help but feel his former partner’s absence. But he wasn’t going to let himself dwell on that on his wedding day.

Wendy’s maid of honor, Michelle, appeared in the archway at the back. She flashed a quick smile that looked nervous then walked quickly up the aisle. Tony got a sick feeling in his stomach.

“Tony,” Michelle murmured as she stepped up to him then closed her mouth with a look of consternation.

“Is Wendy okay?” he pressed immediately.

Her smile looked strained. “Yeah, she’s fine. But…” She reached out and squeezed his arm. “She’s not coming.”

Tony blinked. “What…like right now? Or ever?”

“She doesn’t want to marry you,” Michelle delivered bluntly. The delicate hand left his arm. “I’m so sorry.” She darted back up the aisle, and Tony wondered why the fuck she’d carried the damn bouquet.

“Fuck, man,” Steve muttered as Tony stared at nothing, trying to get his bearings.

Locking down his emotions with skill born of much practice, Tony turned to face the crowd, who had been whispering to each other but stopped once they realized he was about to speak. “Well…” He paused, needing to clear his throat. “Guess I’m cast in the role of Robbie Hart in our little Wedding Singer drama. So, uh, Wendy’s decided not to come to this shindig, but there’s this tent up the hill with food and booze. I hope everyone will go and enjoy it—which is probably easier with no toasts or having to wait around for wedding pictures. Have a drink for me, yeah?” He turned on his heel and exited through the antechamber that was usually reserved for the priest for before and after services.

Steve and Sarah immediately followed him, and he wasn’t all that surprised even though he just wanted to be alone.

“What can I do?” Steve asked.

“Tony,” Sarah murmured, stepping close and wrapping her arms around him.

“Sorry you came all this way for nothing.” He was always happy to see Sarah, but she was in medical school in California and downtime for her was precious. He hated that she’d traveled so far for no reason.

“Don’t be an idiot. I wanted to see you this summer, wedding or no. Just let us help. What can we do?”

“I need to get out of here.” He desperately did not want to face all these people. “Can you guys handle…whatever? Make people eat, drink…take their damn gifts back?” Especially take the gifts back. He pulled away from Sarah and rubbed his hands over his face.

“Go.” Sarah nudged him. “We’ll take care of things, and I’ll swing by your place and pack a bag for you. Just don’t be gone too long, okay? I’ll worry.”

His place.

Jesus. Where was he going to live? Wendy hadn’t been thrilled about moving to DC but had made the most of it and picked out a great house in Falls Church that she had been decorating while Tony had been at FLETC for two months.

Steve tossed him a keyring. “Come stay at mine for a couple days. I’ll go with Sarah to pack you a bag. And feel free to take my car. You might run into people on the way to yours.”

“Thanks.” He nodded to Steve and pressed a kiss to Sarah’s temple.

To his surprise, he found Gibbs leaning against Steve’s car—how he’d known to go there was a mystery. His new partner gave him an assessing look. “Feel free to come over and talk if you need to.”

“Thanks.” He hesitated, not sure what else to say. “Might take you up on that.”

“Go.” Gibbs tilted his head toward the car. “Before someone sees you.”

– – – –

Tony contemplated the glass of Scotch. The first drink had been like a balm to his nerves, but the smell made him think of his father—the king of failed marriages. He huffed a little. Tony couldn’t even get a relationship off the ground much less have a failed marriage. The second drink made him feel like his father. He wondered if the third drink would make him feel like his mother.

“I don’t think that’s gonna help,” a familiar voice said from behind him, and Tony squeezed his eyes shut, wondering how this day could possibly get any worse.

Instead of responding or turning around to see the apparition from his past, he threw down a twenty-dollar tip, grabbed the glass of Scotch, and headed for the booth in the back corner. It was a Saturday afternoon and the bar only had a couple of patrons, and all of them were at the counter. He settled in the seat and curled his hands around the glass, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Barely a minute passed before someone slid across from him.

“Is there something I can help you with, Senator?” Tony asked with not a small amount of bite. He’d been completely in love with Ethan during his last four years of college, but Ethan had wanted a career in politics and was certain he couldn’t do that and be gay. He’d broken up with Tony and they hadn’t spoken since.

“I wanted to make sure that you were okay.” The deep timber of Ethan’s voice made his stomach flip over and he sort of hated himself for that reaction after all these years—especially after the fucked-up day he’d had.

“Fuck you, Ethan,” Tony said softly. “People who throw me aside like a cheap, ill-fitting suit you’re embarrassed to wear don’t get to worry about me. You don’t have the right.” Annoyed, he looked up into the dark brown eyes, wincing at the sympathy he saw. “How the hell did you find me anyway?” Fuck it all if he didn’t hate that Ethan looked so damn good.

Ethan had hair back when they’d been together in college, but sometime after law school he had shaved his head. The first time Tony had seen bald Ethan on the news, he’d had a hard time breathing from how good his ex-lover looked. He’d always been beautiful—6’5, strong, broad shoulders, dark warm-colored skin—but somehow shaving his head took his attractiveness to the point of ridiculous.

“There are three bars within fifteen miles of the church that are the type of place you’d go to be alone.” Ethan gave him a pointed look. “This is the second one I tried.”

Tony hated being predictable. “You must have talked to Sarah.” His adopted sister was the only person who knew Tony’s ex’s identity, and someone had to have told Ethan the wedding hadn’t happened. Well, to be fair, Steve probably knew too. Steve had met Ethan under the guise of Ethan being a friend of Tony’s, but Tony had always suspected that Steve had figured it out considering how Tony reacted when Ethan had left. Steve had never asked just been supportive in his always-too-busy way.

“Over the years, she and I have kept in closer touch than you might be happy about.”

“Wh–” He broke off, waving his hands as if he could ward off the crazy. “Never mind. Today I don’t care how creepy you’ve been.”

Ethan snorted, smiling faintly, then he sobered abruptly. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry, Tony.”

“For what? Kicking me to the curb because your career aspirations were more important? For spectacularly changing your mind about being an out, gay senator? What is it you’re sorry for, Ethan?” The newly-elected senator’s press conference just a couple months ago had been like a dagger in the heart. Ethan had announced to the world that he was gay. He just couldn’t do it for Tony when it had mattered.

“That she hurt you,” he said evenly.

Tony had never wanted to punch anyone quite so badly. “I don’t need this, Ethan, I really don’t. You’re like salt on a wound, and I can’t begin to imagine why the hell you’d come after me today.”

Ethan blew out a breath and rubbed his hand over the shiny dome of his head. “I’m also sorrier than you’ll probably ever believe that I gave up on our relationship.”

Tony flinched then started to lift his drink, but Ethan reached out and covered the glass with the palm of his hand, keeping it on the table.

“Don’t.” Ethan shrugged off Tony’s glare. “When you lost the chance to go pro and had a year of rehab ahead of you, you never touched booze. You told me you didn’t want to be like your parents. You reconciled with your mother’s family practically over the fact that you’re nothing like your father. If you get drunk, I know you’ll regret it.”

Tony’s glare was poisonous. He didn’t need the reminder of everything Ethan knew and why he knew it. “Skip the sympathy and the feigned support. Why are you here?” The only way either of them would risk this kind of thing in public was because no one was paying them any mind. Instead, the few patrons were watching a repeat baseball game.

“I want to help. If you’ll let me.”

“You can’t help me.” Tony glanced away. “You broke me, and after six years I finally thought I’d found someone I cared for almost as much as you, and she left me standing in the front of a church. So you tell me how you can help with that?”

Ethan let go of Tony’s drink and spread his arms wide, leaning back against the booth. “You’re right, I can’t help with that. I can’t do anything about her leaving you.”

At least that was honest. Trying to find something to distract himself, Tony idly wondered why the new junior senator from Virginia was so dressed up on a Saturday. “Why are you wearing a suit?”

“Honestly? Because I had been trying to talk myself out of going to your wedding.”

Brow furrowing, Tony wondered what in the hell that meant. “Why would you want to attend my wedding?”

“I didn’t. I wanted to ask you not to marry her, but I talked myself out of it because it was more dickish than breaking up with you in the first place.”

Tony stared. “What?” he finally managed.

“Jesus, Tony!” Ethan stared at the ceiling for a second, the pose familiar enough to make Tony’s breath catch. “You always thought I didn’t love you enough to get past the bullshit with my family, my church, the military, and the job expectations…” He cracked his neck and rolled his shoulders, which Tony knew meant Ethan was in uncomfortable feelings territory. “But the truth is that I loved you so much I managed to stay with you for four years despite all the fear and doubt and the bullshit feeling like it was choking me all the time.” He leaned forward and braced his arms on the table. “I know I broke your heart. I broke mine too. I can’t even blame it on being young because I’m five years older than you, but you’ve always been braver than me.”

Tony made a face and glanced away for a second. “Why are you telling me all this?”

“Come on, Tony, you’re not dense. I finally got the dream—made it to the US Senate.” Ethan stared at the table for long moments and blew out a breath. “And before the 107th Congress was even convened, Dad died, and I started questioning everything.”

Tony pushed the glass of Scotch away. “I was sorry to hear about the Reverend.” He’d always felt like Reverend Moore’s expectations were hugely why Ethan left him, but he’d known how much Ethan loved his father and feared disappointing him.

Ethan met Tony’s gaze and nodded. “I don’t want you to think that I came out because Dad wasn’t around to be disappointed in me. It wasn’t that, never that. I just… Well, one day I wondered if my father had ever been happy, you know? It struck me after he was gone that, on some level, I’d always known something wasn’t right. I wondered what regrets he had, what he’d given up that he wished he hadn’t. I knew for myself that it was you… I’d given you up when you were all I ever wanted. But even beyond us, I’d sacrificed a life of honesty, and I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to lie to myself and everyone around me for the rest of my life.”

On one hand, Tony didn’t want to get wrapped up in Ethan’s reasons. Not today. But part of him desperately wanted to hear this. Wanted—needed—to know it hadn’t really been about him. That there wasn’t something Tony could have done to make Ethan stay.

He could only imagine how a life of lying like that might destroy someone. Because while Tony was bisexual with a strong preference for men, Ethan was definitely gay. And Tony knew he’d been forcing himself to date women these past six years.

“I decided to come clean in that press conference,” Ethan continued, “but I talked to my mother the day before to warn her.” He rubbed the back of his head, looking uncomfortable. “She was worried about the difficulties I was putting in front of myself, but then she told me that Dad had always suspected about me. About us, really.”

Tony’s brows shot up. He’d met Reverend Moore a few times and couldn’t figure out what they might have done that let it slip.

“Mom said that he struggled with the idea for a while—though he certainly would never have confronted me—but that he’d found some peace with the idea.” Ethan glanced away. “That he loved me too much to draw that line in the sand.” Their gazes locked again. “But she knew that one of his regrets was not telling me he was okay with it. Because they both saw how I became closed off after you and didn’t want that kind of misery for me.”

“I’m sorry you lost your father, Ethan, but I’m glad, for your sake, that your mother was able to give you that comfort.”

Ethan just shook his head, smiling faintly. “You don’t have to be so nice about it, Tony. Your fiancée left you at the altar today and now you’re empathizing with me. It’d be understandable if you just told me to fuck off.”

“Yeah, well…” Really wanting that drink again, Tony curled his hand into a fist and dropped both hands into his lap, fighting the temptation. “I never wanted you to have a falling out with your parents.”

“That’s gracious of you, but we both know I should have chosen you over any fears I had about what my parents might say.”

Tony shrugged one shoulder. “If you didn’t…” he trailed off, not wanting to put his thought into words.

“What? Love you enough?”

Tony winced.

“When it came down to it, it wasn’t my parents who were the problem. And certainly loving you wasn’t the issue. It was all me and my fear of facing the world as what I truly am.”

He wanted to not get it, and he kind of hated that he understood. Not the idea of leaving someone he loved but rather the idea of facing the world with your masks stripped away. “I sort of don’t want to be, but I’m happy for you,” Tony admitted.

Ethan chuckled. “I can’t really blame you for not being overjoyed right now.” He cocked his head to the side. “So you’ve heard my sob story. What happened with you?”

“You probably know plenty since you’ve been in touch with Sarah,” Tony said a little bitterly.

“Hey,” Ethan said seriously. “Sarah would never betray your confidence. And she never told me anything that wasn’t easily found out or well known. I just…couldn’t let go.”

“That explains you. Doesn’t explain why she’d keep talking to you.”

“Honestly, I think she may have hoped I’d get my head out of my ass. But remember, Tony, I knew her, too. I was there with you helping Sarah after Isaiah died.” That was fair. More fair than Tony was comfortable with. In a way, Tony had gotten Sarah in the “divorce,” and Ethan had been just as close to her. Ethan was the one to break things off, and Sarah had been clear that she felt Ethan was wrong. Tony would never have asked her to choose, but he hadn’t known that she’d kept some ties.

After Isaiah had died, leaving a teenage sister behind with no viable relative to be her guardian, Tony had enlisted Ethan’s help—he’d been in law school at the time—to ensure Sarah could be emancipated and finish out her schooling at her girls’ boarding school in Ohio before going to college in California. They’d untangled the issues legally and then stood in the gap of surrogate older brothers.

“She was always loyal to you,” Ethan stressed.

“It never occurred to me to doubt it,” Tony retorted quickly. “But the idea that you two have been talking all this time is taking me a bit to get used to.”

“She didn’t want to hurt you by bringing up a painful subject. And while I admit that I wanted to know how you were doing every time we talked, she rarely indulged my curiosity.” Ethan rubbed his fingertips over the tabletop as if he were feeling the texture of the wood through the thick layers of lacquer. “I was surprised when you became a cop, but then I felt stupid because I probably shouldn’t have been. That cop from when you were a kid, McGarrett, he was a big influence.”

Tony leaned forward, bracing his elbows on the table and rubbing his hands over his face. Peering at Ethan, he managed, “Really? We’re doing the ‘how’ve you been, what have you been up to’ thing?” He waved off Ethan’s reply and slouched down in the booth again. He pulled the bowtie he’d removed earlier from his pocket and started fiddling with it. If he couldn’t drink, he’d reshape his bowtie. “I agree, you shouldn’t have been surprised. You knew it was one of the possibilities I was considering while I was in rehab.”

He’d blown out his knee in his senior year during The Game, but he’d actually completed his course work for his degree program in the first semester of that year, so he’d spent the next year and a half on his master’s in kinesiology while rehabilitating from the career-ending injury. Tony had finally gotten rid of the cane and was three months from finishing his master’s when Ethan had ended their relationship.

But Tony didn’t want to rehash why he’d decided to be a cop, or why he hadn’t gone with any of his other options. He twisted his bowtie around his first two fingers, holding it tight and feeling the tingle of impaired circulation. “It’s been more than six years, Ethan. What is it that you want? Why are you here?”

Ethan huffed a little. “I came here to make sure you were okay.”

Tony’s eyes narrowed. “I’m gonna call bullshit because no one thinks you are the right choice on this momentous occasion.”

“Aren’t I?” Ethan’s tone was dry. “Who knows you better, Tony? Who else knows that you would go find a bar and do this?” He leaned forward and bit out, “Who else is going to know that you’re sitting here comparing yourself to your dick father and somehow finding yourself lacking. And that you’d justify getting hammered because somehow you’re just like him?”

“Oh, fuck you, Ethan,” Tony snapped, somehow managing not to yell despite the hot flash of temper. “Reminding me of just how well you know me, and why, isn’t doing you any favors at the moment.” He took a moment to rein in his anger. “So you’ve completed your self-appointed mission and made sure I wasn’t drinking myself into a stupor. You can go now.”

“Tony—”

He slammed his hand on the table top. “What do you want from me?”

“I want you!” Ethan snapped.

Tony jerked back and blinked stupidly. “Wha…?”

“Today, I’ll settle for making sure you’re okay and not trying to pickle your liver. But…” Ethan sighed. “I want you. I never stopped. I was an idiot back then and probably one now because my timing is so bad. But that’s the truth.”

All he could manage was to stare, not sure how to take Ethan wanting to pick up where they left off six years ago. Part of him really wanted that, but the rest of him told that part to shut the fuck up. Peripherally, something caught his eye, and he glanced over to find one of the men at the bar glancing over his shoulder at them. Ethan’s back was to the room, but all it would take would be for someone to figure out who he was and call the media. That would be a clusterfuck of epic proportions.

“What’s wrong?”

“We need to get out of here. Someone’s gonna realize who you are and call the press.” Tony got to his feet, unwrapping his now-numb fingers and tucking the tie in his pocket.

Ethan caught his arm. “I don’t care if people see me with you. It’s different now.”

“I do care.” He shook off Ethan’s hand and headed for the exit.

When Ethan caught up to him at Steve’s car, he held out his hand. “Keys.”

“I’m not drunk,” Tony snapped.

“You’ve had enough that I’m not letting you drive. So give me the damn keys.”

Someone at the door was paying too much attention to them, so Tony threw the keys at Ethan. “And your car?”

“I’ll send an aide for it.”

Tony made a face at the reminder of what Ethan did but got in the passenger seat. Barely a minute later, they were on the road. “Steve’s in Fairfax.”

“I’m not taking you to Steve.”

“Is that right?” Tony asked dangerously.

“Tony—”

“You have zero input on what I do.”

Ethan glanced at him quickly then focused back on the road. “I know, but will you hear me out?”

Tony crossed his arms and turned a bit in the seat to glare at his ex. “I’m dying to hear this.”

“You need to be with your family. And before you go nuts, just listen!” Ethan blew out a breath. “I know you’re hurt and rightfully angry with me, but you and your uncles worked hard to reconnect. And I know if you go on a week-long bender and avoid them, which is exactly the sort of thing you’d do—avoid everyone you know when you’re vulnerable—you’re going to regret it. They’ll wonder where the hell you are or you’ll show up smelling and acting like your dad—on purpose, of course, because why not piss off the men who hate your father—and they’ll head back to England and you’ll be too embarrassed to reach out and they’ll be too…British.”

Tony couldn’t help it, the laugh escaped. “You asshole.”

“I know you, Tony. Better than I think I know myself sometimes. And you go to ground when you’re hurt—when you’re vulnerable. So don’t fuck up your relationships over something that isn’t even your fault. She’s the bitch in this scenario. Go let your family take care of you, let Steve and Sarah get your shit, and let me get a friend on getting your share of the down payment out of that house.”

“I don’t care about the fucking house.”

“Right now you don’t, no. But you will. And you caring isn’t even the point. She no-showed on her own damn wedding and couldn’t be bothered to speak to you in person. She doesn’t get the house.”

“And, yet again, it’s weird that you think you have a say.”

Ethan shot him an irritable look. “Tell me why you care about being seen with me.”

Tony frowned. “Are you thinking we’ve changed spots and I’m in the closet now that I’m a cop?” There was no verbal reply but the closed-off expression was answer enough. “I haven’t been in a relationship with a man since you, and that sure as hell isn’t information I’d volunteer to my brothers in blue. But in most cases, if I were with someone I’d be with them.”

“But…” Ethan prompted after a long silence.

“Oh come on, Ethan, you’re famous—you were already well-known before you outed yourself on national TV. You don’t get to have anonymous lovers, and I work undercover. My employers expect it, and it’s not a small part of why NCIS hired me.”

Ethan’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. “Why a fed?”

Tony stared at Ethan’s profile, not sure how to answer that. When Ethan shot a quick glance his direction, Tony sighed. “Found out my partner in Baltimore was dirty… I couldn’t stay, and NCIS was there, offering me a job.”

Abruptly, Ethan pulled onto a small side road, parked on the shoulder, and turned off the car. He twisted to face Tony, obviously watching closely. “I take it Sarah doesn’t know why you left Baltimore.”

“No. I…didn’t want her to be disappointed in me,” he admitted somewhat reluctantly.

“Disappointed? Tony, that woman worships the ground you walk on.”

Tony shook his head. “She’d ask details about when I had to testify or his jail time, and I’d have to tell her I just walked away. She wouldn’t understand.”

Ethan nodded slowly. “I get it. Never been a cop, obviously, but I don’t imagine it’s much different from the military in this regard.”

“Probably not.”

“I take it the crime wasn’t…” he trailed off, looking uncertain, but Tony got what he was asking.

“Of course not. I’d never knowingly let a killer or violent criminal walk.”

“I figured.” After a beat, Ethan asked, “I take it your fiancée didn’t know either?”

“I didn’t tell anyone but my new partner at NCIS. Well, I only sorta told him. I think he figured it out. Maybe I should have told Wendy. Maybe the sudden move and then me being gone for two months at FLETC and then a wedding a month later was too much. Obviously I missed something important.” He shrugged. “Although, I’m trying not to beat myself up too much in the assignment of blame over someone who was willing to throw me away without an explanation.”

Ethan flinched.

“Shit.” Tony ran his hand through his hair, fisting the short strands in his frustration. “That wasn’t directed at you. Or maybe it was. I don’t even know.” He let his hand fall back into his lap. “This is too easy…talking to you, confiding in you.”

“That’s not bad.”

“No, it really is. Because I don’t trust you.”

“I’d be surprised if you did.”

“Jesus, Ethan, what do you want? Because we can’t just pick up where we left off. That was a whole other life and two different people.”

“A chance, maybe? I don’t expect anything. I just wanted to be here for you, make sure you didn’t do something epically stupid. And, I admit, I wanted to see you again.”

The car was too close, too intimate, and Ethan was too comfortable. “I don’t even know how that would work. I can’t be seen with you.” He looked away and studied the house they’d stopped in front of. It had a SOLD sign on the front lawn, and whoever had been replacing the sod was only half finished before quitting work on Friday. “But I’m not saying no,” he finally said, surprising himself by more than a little.

Before Ethan could respond, Tony added, “But no more. Not now. I need to think and figure shit out.”

“All right.” Ethan put the car in gear and got back on the road.

After a few minutes, Tony realized they were going toward DC. “Steve,” he reminded.

“Your family,” Ethan countered. Tony’s family were all staying in DC. The wedding had been in Maryland to be closer to Wendy’s friends, even though they’d bought a house in Virginia. “Look, I know I have zero right to ask you for anything, but I’m gonna do it anyway. Please trust me. You need to not do what you’d normally do. So go be with your family and let them help. And if your uncles are being dicks then go to Steve’s.”

He just shrugged. Tony didn’t have the energy or will to fight with Ethan. It would just drag them into more conversations with reminders of why Ethan knew him so well. He could always catch a cab after a quick hello to his uncles.

Ethan tossed him some gum. “Chew that now and drink some water. That way you’re not obviously minty fresh when you arrive.”

He thought about snapping at his presumptuous ex because Tony had no intention of hiding where he’d been or what he’d been doing—he wasn’t drunk, dammit—but he didn’t have the energy to argue. And, really, DC would end this uncomfortable yet too-comfortable car ride sooner than going back to Virginia. He chewed the damn gum.

When Ethan pulled up at the end of the block where the Fairmont was, Tony said, “Thanks.” It was partly for the ride but mostly for stopping down the block where a valet wouldn’t get a good look at Senator Moore dropping an unknown man off at a hotel in Georgetown.

Before Tony could get out of the car, Ethan asked, “May I call you?”

Yes and no were both on the tip of his tongue. Instead of replying, he just nodded shortly.

Ethan passed him a business card with an extra number scrawled on it. “You’ll have to text me your number. Sarah wouldn’t give me your contact info come hell or high water.”

Avoiding any physical touch, Tony took the card, staring at it for several seconds. “So you’re just going to take Steve his car? He might hit you, you know. He sort of hates your guts.”

“I thought I might try to induce Sarah into meeting me for coffee and then taking Stephen his vehicle.”

Tony snorted. “Smart man.” Before he could give in to temptation to stay in the car, he climbed out and headed down the block. Walking away felt uncomfortable and that annoyed him because it shouldn’t.

He thought about just ducking into the lobby for a bit and calling a cab, but decided to go up and at least speak to his relatives. He’d barely had any time with them in the pre-wedding chaos since they arrived just yesterday.

Jeffery let him in the room and, in an uncharacteristic show of sentiment, pulled Tony into a hug.

A half an hour later, he’d changed out of his wedding tux and into some clothes provided by Jeffery who was nearly the same size. He had a glass of ginger ale and was listening to his uncles recount all the “crazy” things they’d seen Americans do in the last twenty-four hours while Catherine sat next to him and whispered amusing asides about his Uncles’ inability to adapt.

He thought that maybe Ethan actually knew what Tony really needed after the catastrophe that was today. And that thought unnerved him a little.

– – – –

Ethan pulled up in front of the coffee shop Sarah had chosen and immediately spotted her sitting at a curbside table. She recognized him immediately, got to her feet, and headed for the car. She looked different than the last time he’d seen her—grown up. The years that had passed hit him like a freight train.

She was wearing ratty jeans and a t-shirt with a duffle bag in hand. After tossing the bag in the backseat, she flopped into the passenger seat and huffed. Her tiny frame was dwarfed by the sedan’s bucket seat. She was a blonde again—the last time he’d seen her, she’d been going through a redhead phase. She changed hair color on a whim, but he was pretty sure blonde was her natural shade.

Before she could get snarky with him, he leaned over and kissed her cheek. “Hey, sweetie.”

“Asshole,” she muttered but curled her arms around his shoulders. “I’ve missed you.”

“Me, too.” He kissed her hair. She’d only been fifteen when they’d first met, but he’d known about her a couple years prior. In fact, Sarah was indirectly why he and Tony met. Her brother, Isaiah Jones, had been Tony’s best friend and roommate.

Sarah and Isaiah’s parents had died when Sarah was just thirteen but the state of Georgia hadn’t wanted to give her brother custody. There was no one else willing to step in to be her guardian and she’d been headed for foster care. While Isaiah was in Georgia burying his father and step mother, Tony had been looking for ways to help his friend who was concerned about losing his sister to a bad system. Isaiah was old enough to take care of his sister, but the state claimed he wasn’t fit. Initially it was because he was away at school, but when he said he’d quit school for her, they’d said his lack of job prospects would be a problem. The real issue had been that Isaiah was the child of his father’s first marriage to a black woman, and the state wasn’t going to give him custody of his white sister. It was backwards and disgusting, but it was the situation they’d had to deal with.

Even though Ethan was in law school and five years ahead of Tony and Isaiah, he knew who Tony was from Buckeyes’ football, and Isaiah from basketball. The Moore family were longtime fans of the Buckeyes, and Ethan was pretty sure his father never missed watching a football game in his entire life—he watched most of the basketball games too. So when Ethan had come into the library and seen the star quarterback up to his eyeballs in legal books, he’d offered to help out.

Ethan handled the legal side, Tony charmed a cousin of Sarah’s mother into being the guardian with the promise she’d never be financially responsible or even have to see Sarah, and Isaiah put everything from his parents’ estate into an education trust for his sister. They’d gotten Sarah into an all-girls’ boarding school forty-five minutes from Ohio State so she could see her brother every weekend.

When Isaiah died two years later after being hit while walking home by a drunk driver, Tony and Ethan had stepped into the role of older brothers, visiting Sarah every weekend and spending summers with her. Tony thought of her as a little sister, but she’d always felt more like a niece to Ethan. She’d been furious with him when he’d walked away from Tony but hadn’t been willing to cut him from her life. They’d had phone calls over the years, but he’d missed her terribly.

He released her from the hug. “You said to pick you up but not why.”

Settling back in the seat she gave him a searching look, seeming to find whatever she was looking for. “Take me back to whatever dive bar you found Tony in. You can be on your way and I’ll take Steve his car tomorrow. I think Tony’s gonna stay with his family tonight, which is a good thing.”

She didn’t need to manage him, he was happy to send an aide after his car and take a taxi back to the condo he rented in DC, but he tried not to argue with Sarah if he didn’t have to—she could be meaner than his own mother.

“So…” she prompted immediately.

“Is that your way of asking how it went?” He pulled back into traffic.

“Was I being subtle?”

“Perish the thought.” He shrugged one shoulder. “He agreed to let me call him though he has my number now but I don’t have his. He’ll text me when he’s ready.”

“He may not ever be ready.”

“I know.” Ethan had been living on the fantasy of getting Tony back for a long damn time. Even before he had decided to stop lying, which made the fantasy completely unattainable. Unattainable fantasies were the safe ones. “I wouldn’t blame him if he never called, but I hope he does.”

“He’ll call,” Sarah said softly. “But if you mess with him again, Ethan, he’ll never get over it.”

“Sarah–”

“No, you need to hear this. You broke him, but he was finally starting to get better. So if you aren’t prepared to go the distance, no matter how hard it gets, you need to walk away. He can’t take that again.”

Ethan winced. “I know I hurt him–”

“Hurt?” she echoed, sounding incredulous. “That’s such a tame word for a broken heart, don’t you think?”

His hands tightened on the wheel. “I get that you’re pissed, hon, but I thought you’d finished yelling at me about this years ago.”

She huffed and crossed her arms. “The flames of my anger have been renewed today.” She blew out a breath. “But that’s not your fault. God! I could kill that bitch.”

He glanced over quickly and raised a brow.

“Yeah, I get it…you’re not exactly sorry she’s gone.”

“Hey,” he interjected, “I never wanted Tony hurt again even if that meant he was out of my life forever.”

“I know, but he is hurt, and since you damaged him most of all, it’s only fair that you fix him.”

“But how do I do that?” Ethan had no idea where to begin with that. Their relationship had always been natural and easy. They’d never had to tiptoe around each other.

He imagined he could feel her gaze boring holes into his head. “There’s no magic, Ethan. It’s going to take time. Which means you have to be prepared for whatever he throws at you. So if you can’t hold on for the long haul and endure some bumps and bruises, you should forget it.”

Shooting her an incredulous glance, he remarked, “Becoming a senator is a test of endurance. I can deal with whatever Tony deservedly throws at me.”

“I’m going to remind you of that one of these days.”

– – – –

Part II

July 2001

Tony exited the elevator into the crazy pumpkin he still hadn’t gotten used to and nearly had a collision with the MCRT who were piling in on their way to somewhere.

“Don’t worry about me, I’m still learning,” he muttered as the doors began to close behind them, “that it always works best when people get on before other passengers get out of the way.” The premier team occupied the main bullpen on Tony’s floor while he and Gibbs had desks against the wall. Tony was seated between Gibbs and Chris Pacci, another veteran agent. He had already learned that Gibbs had a hard time keeping permanent partners and teamed up with other senior agents on cases or worked with larger teams when they had a hot case. Gibbs even took cases alone on occasion, which Tony found to be strange and made him question his management chain a bit. Gibbs had had a team at some point but no one was telling Tony what had gone wrong there. But Tony was pretty confident in his ability to work with anyone, and he wasn’t the type to be bullied by Gibbs’ bastardry, so this would either work out great, or they’d kill each other. Either way, it would get sorted.

Gibbs was already at his desk, but he always beat Tony to the office. He noticed the other man giving him an assessing look. Probably looking for signs of heartbreak and excess. Tony settled his gear but didn’t say anything. After a couple minutes, Gibbs tilted his head toward the stairs. “Coffee.”

“Are you asking me if I want coffee or is this some sort of morning, primitive ‘get my coffee’ thing?” He and Gibbs had worked some cases once Tony got back from FLETC but before the wedding, but that didn’t mean he had figured out all Gibbs’ weirdness yet.

On his feet and already striding away, Gibbs shot back, “Means we’re going for coffee.”

“And the ‘we’ is significant I take it?” Tony called after him. “Because I’ve had my coffee!”

Gibbs stuck his head back around the corner leading to the stairwell. “DiNozzo!”

Tony chuckled. “On your six, Gibbs.” He caught up with Gibbs by the time they reached the lobby and silence reigned until they left the building. “I’m fine,” Tony offered once they were away from everything.

Gibbs made some sort of skeptical-sounding grunt.

Not feeling the need to chatter at the man, he stuck his hands in his pockets and waited to see what Gibbs had on his mind.

“You need a place to stay?” the other man finally got out. “Ex-wife finally got all her crap out, so there’s room.”

Tony blinked at the offer. The wedding disaster was a week ago. Instead of going to Gibbs’ house for the offer of bourbon and no-doubt silent commiseration, Tony had spoken to him briefly on the phone before going out of town with his uncles and Sarah. He was surprised the offer was still open.

“Nah, I’m good. Thanks though.”

Gibbs shot him a look with a raised brow. “You get the house?”

He laughed but there was no humor in it. “No. My uncles circled the wagons and got some attorneys involved. The house is on the market, and my lawyers tried to stick her with all financial losses, but I told them to stop being dicks. I told her we’d split the losses on the house sale provided she didn’t get bitchy about me getting my stuff.”

“That work?” Gibbs asked with a note of incredulity.

“Well, no. At least, not at first. Turns out I missed some cue—you know, in those moments when I never saw her at our wedding—where I was supposed to do the noble thing and let her keep the house. Kind of weird, if you ask me, since I put up the entire down payment.”

“What’d you do?”

“Nothing at first, but then she made a threat about burning my mother’s piano. I was pissed, but my Uncle Clive lost his mind because it was a gift from their father when she was a girl. He had Wendy served with a huge lawsuit outlining all the financial damages she’d be liable for plus some trumped up amount for the emotional trauma or some such thing.”

“Never, ever involve lawyers,” Gibbs said like he was reciting something.

“Huh?”

“Rule 13.”

“How about I not commit that one to memory. Because you can’t do anything these days without a lawyer. Besides, timely lawyerly intervention saved my mom’s piano.” Before Gibbs could counter about his rules that Tony was still skeptical about, he added, “Anyway, I got on the phone with her, told her to knock it off, get out of the damn house so they could stage it for buyers, and suck up her share of the losses. Then I told my uncle’s lawyers to back off.”

It hadn’t really been quite that simple. There’d been a lot of anger from her about Tony taking her to Virginia and how he owed her something. He countered every accusation with, “left at the altar,” until she’d been ready to murder him. Their communication had clearly broken down a while ago considering how angry she was over the move, and he’d never even noticed. But she could have sorted shit out before the day of their wedding! In the end, she’d gotten out of the damn house and, last he heard, was back in Baltimore getting back into the groove of the life she actually wanted.

He should probably care more about what happened to her, but he was still stuck on her not being able to find any opportunity to communicate a very vital thing before he was standing in front of a church. Waiting.

“Where you staying?” Gibbs finally asked.

Tony huffed a little laugh. “In a hotel right now, but Uncle Jeffery bought me—without my knowledge, mind you—a townhouse in Georgetown. Short close on a cash buy so I should be able to move in within two weeks or so.”

“You were okay with that?” Gibbs asked somewhat cautiously, the tone conveying easily to Tony that Gibbs thought he shouldn’t be okay with it.

“Eh. Not at first.” They’d had a bit of a spat about it, actually. But then it had come out how little of his inheritance he’d actually gotten, and fighting over one house seemed stupid when it was a drop in the bucket, relatively speaking. Plus, he really liked the house even if it was too damn big.

“You know you’ll have to disclose it.”

“Already did.”

Gibbs shot him a look.

Tony laughed a bit. “I had a long talk with Morrow about my mother’s family after NCIS offered the job. This was just an add-on.” His new partner looked a little disgruntled at being out of the loop. Tony sighed and came to a halt, waiting for Gibbs to backtrack a bit. “I talked to Morrow in confidence because I don’t want my family info getting out.”

“You think I’m gonna gossip?” If Gibbs had more emotional range than a grazing bull moose, Tony might think he was indignant.

“Gossip, no. But I’m not sure if you’re the type to concern yourself with things I want kept private. I’ve known you for like a minute, Gibbs. For all I know, you might think you were entitled to reveal my personal information to whomever you wish.”

“I don’t think that.”

“All right. I’m willing to extend a little faith.” He started walking again then offered, “My Grandfather is the Earl of Campion, and the whole family is wealthy. Like obscenely. I had some assets I needed to disclose to NCIS, which is why I talked to the director, and I had to reveal the source even though I don’t have anything like the kind of money my family does. Their wealth is well-known, so my uncle dropping a house on me wouldn’t be all that peculiar.” Although his grandfather and uncles were intent on changing the deficiencies in Tony’s assets. That’d be another conversation with Morrow.

Tony apparently had a huge trust fund he knew nothing about that his grandfather controlled absolutely and never announced to keep it away from Senior. The trust fund he thought was his whole inheritance was something his mother had set up on her own. He still wasn’t sure how he felt about the knowledge being withheld to begin with or the plan to release it to him now. It was just one more thing in a really shitty week that Tony was setting aside to deal with some other time. But none of it was germane to his conversation with Gibbs.

Gibbs made another noncommittal noise, and Tony was eager for the day when he could read the man better.

“I’ve got the house sorted, but thank you for the invite. And thanks for the offer of a safe place to land when the thing,” he made a vague gesture, “happened.” Tony hated to think what might have happened if he’d gone with his original plan to get smashed and take Gibbs up on the offer of his couch. No doubt he’d have revealed too much and felt foolish and then floundered to cover—he tended to act like an idiot in those situations. Tony had never dealt well with personal embarrassment. It was a damn good thing it was hard to embarrass him.

And because of the way he got when he felt wounded, he’d have likely avoided his family and possibly alienated them entirely. Post-Wendy, with his family back in the UK, and Sarah going back to Stanford, that could have been an emotional wasteland for him. Steve was no help because he was always working these days. God, what if he’d developed some weird emotional dependence on Gibbs in that vacuum? He nearly shuddered. The idea didn’t bear thinking on.

– – – –

Pacci slid his chair closer and pointed at the screen. “Okay, when you’re running a background check—”

“Seriously?” Tony interrupted. “I’ll admit that the resources are better and faster here, but you do realize cops don’t work out of caves, right?”

Chris chuckled. “Sorry. Forgot. Most probationary agents are green as grass.” He leaned back and gave Tony a speculative look. “Not sure what Gibbs thought I’d be able to show you. So far you haven’t needed my help with anything.” Gibbs was running a classified op in MTAC and had ordered Pacci to, “show Tony the ropes.”

Tony snorted. “We both know what’s going on.”

“Right.” He took a breath. “So, do you need to…”

“Oh my god. No.” All week, Gibbs had been giving Tony assignments with people who were better talkers. As if Tony needed to unburden himself about something. And if Tony did need to talk to someone it sure as hell wasn’t going to be a random person at work who he barely knew.

“Thank god.” Pacci looked so relieved it was almost comical. “So, there’s a pool on where you went on your not-honeymoon.”

Tony was much more comfortable in the semi-insensitive cop zone. “Never gonna tell.” And he wouldn’t. There was no force that could pry that information out of him.

Sarah had somehow persuaded everyone that what they really needed to do was go to Disneyworld. Him, his surrogate sister, his uptight British uncles, and his British aunt who had a wicked sense of humor. At Disney. To be fair, his uncles’ reactions to everything really had taken his mind off or Wendy.

But not Ethan.

He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Ethan, but other than a quick text before they left giving his number and asking Ethan to give him time to think, there hadn’t been any contact.

In a way, it annoyed the fuck out of him that he desperately wanted to call Ethan. It was stupid for so many reasons. Not the least of which was getting involved so soon after being dumped was really shitty judgment—even for him.

It’d be easier to keep his mind off Ethan if the man wasn’t on the TV all the damn time. An openly gay senator was constant fodder for the media. There’d been a couple out people in the House, but Ethan was the first in the Senate. So Tony had to deal with hearing about and seeing his ex all the time.

Most NCIS agents were careful about making disparaging remarks about LGBT people because Morrow had a zero-tolerance policy on any sort of bigotry, but Tony had noted a couple facial expressions and muttered bullshit from a couple agents whenever Senator Moore was mentioned around the office. It was always good to know who you had to keep an eye on.

– – – –

“So, have you called him?” Sarah asked unsubtly as soon as she answered the phone.

Tony rolled his eyes as he juggled the phone, his dinner, and his beer while getting settled on the sofa. “No.”

“Tony! It’s nearly been a month. It’s almost August!”

“Sarah.” He sighed. “It’s probably a bad idea. Besides, wouldn’t this be like a rebound relationship?”

“I’m not sure you can call it a rebound when you’ve always been in love with him.”

“Ouch. Don’t hold back on my account.”

“Sorry.” Her huff was completely audible. “I just want you to be happy, and if I didn’t think Ethan was going to make you happy, I’d never bug you about it. But I’ll stop.”

“Thank you.”

“Tell me about the house.”

“Actually, it looked better when you saw it all staged and shit. Why did Uncle Jeffery think I needed a five bedroom, five bath house? This place is stupidly empty. I’ve got a couch and that annoying pile of gifts.” A bunch of people hadn’t wanted to take their wedding gifts, insisting that Sarah be sure they went to Tony and only to Tony. They were stacked next to the fireplace, annoying him every time he saw them. He should have put them out of sight.

His piano was also already here but that was because he’d had it moved out of the house in Falls Church as quickly as possible, and it had been delivered separately from everything else.

“When does your furniture arrive?”

“Tomorrow. What there is of it.” He made a face and speared some pasta with excessive force. “I’d missed on the inventory that Wendy kept my bed.”

“That bitch.” She made a huffy sound. “I say that in solidarity, of course, but I wouldn’t want to part with that divine bed either.”

Tony laughed. “I’m leaving one of the rooms for you to decorate when you come home for Christmas. But I’ll buy you that same bed. You want a queen or a full?”

There was a long pause and he heard a funny sound he couldn’t identify then she whispered, “Is that home?”

It took him a second to figure out what she was asking. “Oh god, Sarah. Of course it is. If you were actually wondering that, I’m sorry I never said anything. I don’t care if you decide to stay out there with those crazy Californians for the rest of your life, home is with me. You’ll always have a place here.”

After another long pause, she whispered, “I love you, Tony.”

“Love you too, kiddo.”

“Queen,” she answered, obviously changing the subject. “What about you? I think you should get a Cal King. You’re not exactly short.” There was a brief pause. “And Ethan is three inches taller.”

“Brat.” He made a face. “I’ll get a twin, the extra-long version.”

“No, you won’t.”

“Seems like a good idea. No way for people to stay over, so no messy attachments.” He was on call this weekend but hoped they didn’t catch a case because he needed to buy stuff.

After a beat, she snapped, “I don’t care how much studying I should be doing, I’m going to fly back there and kick your ass.” Her indrawn breath was slow and audible, obviously at her wit’s end with him. “I get it. Every time you open yourself up, they disappear. But, Tony, you can’t close yourself off. I’m not there, Steve is so busy trying to get his business going that you never see him—not that you ever really did because Stephen is always busy with something—your family is across a damn ocean, John’s in Hawaii and you hear from him once a month at best, and your father needs to die in a fire. I just…I’m afraid you’re going to do nothing but work and lose yourself in it.”

“Sarah—”

“No! You need to listen to me. And not in that tolerant she’s-my-little-sister way. I’ve seen you abuse distractions.”

“What does that even mean?” he asked, half laughing.

“Don’t be obtuse. You know how you get when you’re trying to avoid your feelings or getting hurt. You go crazy trying to distract yourself, overwork, under sleep, and under eat. Just…don’t. This isn’t like getting obsessional about your rehab—you set yourself back a bit but it was recoverable. This is like you trying to make detective before anyone ever in Philly and nearly getting yourself killed. Law enforcement will take as much as you will give even when it’s not good for you. And from everything I’ve heard, you’re exceptional at it. That’s a lot of validation coming your way when your personal life is in shambles.”

Tony set his food aside and rubbed his hand over his face. “You had a psychology class this year, didn’t you?”

“Asshole. And, yes, I did. I’d be happy to start slinging around the clinical jargon if it makes you feel better about trying to ignore me, but what I just said has nothing to do with a recent class and everything to do with knowing you for a decade. And you think I don’t get it? I have an aunt who doesn’t want anything to do with me and some distant cousins. You’re the only real family I have and, believe me, that’s a lot and I’m so grateful for you. But I know what it’s like to throw yourself too hard into something because you feel alone and adrift and you need something outside yourself to fill the void.”

“Sarah…” He trailed off, not even sure what to say.

“Don’t call Ethan if you don’t want to—I promise I’ll lay off—but don’t use work to get over Wendy and avoid thinking about him.”

“I’ll try.” He wasn’t sure he could commit to not losing himself in work. It felt like all he had. But then he checked himself because he was talking to someone who loved him unconditionally and that thought had been completely unfair to her. “I promise I’ll at least try to be aware of when I’m doing it. Plus, you can yell at me as much as you want.”

“Deal. Now be sure to send me the dimensions and layout of my room. I’ll get some furniture catalogs so you can get the rest of the basics before I come home for the holidays to do the fine details.”

He started laughing.

– – – –

Not wanting to go home to the big empty house, Tony contemplated the stack of cold case files, trying to decide which one to pick up next. He was debating between a double murder and an embezzling case when he realized he was doing exactly what Sarah had warned him about. He’d talked to her on Friday night, spent the weekend dealing with getting furniture and the movers, and then been putting in sixteen hour days the first two days of this week. At the rate he was going, Wednesday would be another marathon. And there was no reason for it. Nothing was urgent, he just didn’t want to go home. Didn’t want to be alone with his own thoughts.

“Shit,” he muttered, pushing away from the desk. Gibbs was still here somewhere but most of the other agents had left more than two hours ago. “What am I doing?” He scrubbed his hands over his face and decided to get out of the office before he could second guess himself.

On the fifteen-minute drive home, he considered his own willful blindness. He knew from long experience that he was sharper and better at the job when he slept enough, ate properly, and exercised, but it was common for him to slip into patterns where he slept four hours a night, ate out of vending machines, and only got in a run when he was chasing a suspect. Then he started having to work those long hours to accomplish what he could do in ten hours if he were rested, fed, and relaxed. It was a vicious cycle and one he’d told himself he’d stop.

He went into his house with too little furniture and no mind to décor, which was annoying him on several levels. With the way things were at NCIS, he figured he’d need to schedule a vacation to decorate his house.

He thought about making dinner but impulsively decided to do the thing he’d been avoiding for the last month. The very act of avoidance was driving him to make stupid choices, so he needed to get it out of the way. Grabbing his home phone, he punched in the number he’d already memorized.

“Yeah,” was barked over the line after the third ring.

“Bad time, Ethan?”

After a pause, he heard a slow breath. “Yes. I mean, no. Anyone else would be yes.”

“I get special treatment, huh?” He tried not to be pleased by that.

“Well, yeah, Tony. Always.”

Not sure what to do with that statement, he deflected. “If it’s a bad time, I can call some other day…”

“No,” Ethan said sharply. “Sorry, I just didn’t recognize the Caller ID. I only picked up because so few people have this number.”

“My land line,” Tony commented to explain the unfamiliar number. “I just got home, and my cell needs to charge.”

“I’m not complaining about having more than one way to get in touch. How are you?”

“I…” Banal conversation seemed so fucking weird, but he’d go with it. “It’s an adjustment. A lot of the skills apply, but, basically, federal agencies are different. I have a leg up on some of the newbies because I learned all that military crap in prep school, plus all that stuff I picked up so I could understand what you were talking about all the time.” Ethan had done a tour in the Navy between undergrad and law school. He’d still been in the Reserves when he decided to come out in spectacular fashion. They’d met originally when Ethan was starting law school and Tony was in his second year of college.

“Even back then, I’m pretty sure you knew the ins and outs of the UCMJ better than I did.”

“Well, I read the whole damn thing.”

“And you have an exceptional memory. You always were an overachiever.”

“So, what’s wrong?” Tony prompted, not wanting to talk about himself.

“Pardon?”

“When you answered the phone…you sounded like you were ready to rip someone apart.”

Ethan made a disgusted noise. “Just a vote coming up tomorrow.”

“Ah. The banking regulations that do nothing except loosen federal regulations on foreclosures and give financial incentives to the biggest banks? That bill?”

“Right.”

“So why the stress? Voting is a yes or no thing.”

“Except I’m expected to vote yes, and I’d rather vote no.”

“You’re expected to vote yes?”

“Tony…” Ethan sighed. “Getting this bill passed was on the GOP agenda, not ours. But we’re compromising on it in order to get something else passed. Politics are complicated.”

“Of that I have no doubt.” He hesitated but decided it didn’t matter if he got all up in Ethan’s face. “You know, I read that article on you in Essence magazine a couple months ago. And, really, it was appalling how good you looked in that.”

Me?” Ethan said incredulously. “Have you not looked in a mirror?”

Tony actually felt himself blush and was profoundly glad he was alone. He was also glad that Ethan hadn’t pointed out what Tony had implicitly admitted when he’d said he read Essence. It was a women’s magazine and Ethan knew Tony well enough that his only interest could possibly have been Ethan being on the cover. “Yeah, well, I wasn’t the one in Essence. Anyway, in that article you said that since you decided to come out, you’d reconciled yourself to being a one-term senator.”

“Well, yeah. My approval ratings plummeted, and anytime Congress is in session, the Capitol Police have a bitch of a time with my threat profile. That doesn’t seem to be getting better, so I figured this is it. If the voters had known I was gay, a large majority of them wouldn’t have voted.”

Tony had seen the polls and had been a little surprised people admitted their bigoted shit to pollsters so readily. “So you really believe this is your one shot?”

“Yeah. I’m not going to take it lying down. I will run again in 2006, but I’m reconciled to losing.”

“If all that’s true, why do you have to toe the party line? Why do you have to follow the lead of the party whip? I know you’re a junior senator, but you’re representing your constituents. Aren’t you supposed to do what you think is best for them?”

“Well, yes, but—”

“Come on, Ethan. Remember who you’re talking to. I know what your values are, and you’re quite a bit left of most of your party. And that’s a good thing. I get that you’ll have to compromise sometimes but don’t pretend to be a centrist when you’re not. You’ll just be throwing away the one shot you do have.”

There was a long silence, and Tony thought he’d massively overstepped. Then Ethan blew out a breath. “Damn, Tony.”

“Too much?”

“No. I needed to hear that. Sometimes I forget that I don’t need to placate people all the time.”

“Glad I could help.” He wasn’t sure what else to say.

“Can I see you?” Ethan asked, startling him.

“What, now?”

“As much as I’d like that, it wouldn’t be easy. Had some death threats recently so I have a full-time security detail.”

Tony’s stomach tightened. “Ethan…”

“It’ll be fine…don’t worry. There’s just no easy way to get us in the same place without drawing attention right now. We break in a couple days for the rest of August and I’ll be heading back to Richmond.”

Richmond was about two hours away, which wasn’t ideal for Tony, but it could damn sure be worse. “They worried about security there?”

“Yeah, but the Richmond police are prepared. I’m going to be moving closer to DC, I think.”

Tony decided not to read anything into that.

“Once I leave DC on Sunday, I’m no longer the problem of the Capitol Police. Can I drop by?”

“You think you can get to my place without being seen?”

“I think I can manage.”

Tony made a face. It was risky for him to let Ethan anywhere near his home. All it took was one person to recognize Ethan and people would learn everything about the man the senator went to see. And it wasn’t like Ethan wasn’t easily recognizable. “You know I’m in the heart of Georgetown, right?”

“Well, hell, Tony. No, I didn’t know that, and it’s not exactly what I was expecting.” There was nothing low profile about Georgetown.

“Look, meet me at Steve’s. I’ll set it up with him. He’s never home since he started that big condo project in the Capitol Hill area, and if someone sees you at his place, it’s easily explained as your connection to OSU. It’s not like he’s not a skirt chaser of the first order.”

“Okay, then, I’ll see you Sunday.” After a pause, Ethan added, “Thanks, Tony…for giving me a chance.”

– – – –

Tony closed the door on the holding cell, stuck his cuffs in a pocket, and then rotated his shoulder, trying to get the kinks out.

“You all right?” Gibbs asked from the end of the hall. “You need Ducky to look at that?”

“Nah, I’m fine. That tackle jammed it a bit…just need some ice and ibuprofen.”

“Pacci was checking our BOLOs. Follow up and see if there’s a lead on the accomplices. I’ll be in MTAC until tonight, so run with the case. Take Pacci with you if you have to go into the field.”

“Gotcha.”

“And if the pills don’t help, go see Ducky,” Gibbs called back.

Tony rolled his eyes. Gibbs wasn’t really the boss of him, so he couldn’t order him down to the freaking morgue for medical care. While Tony was definitely the junior agent, on paper, they were peers. They both reported to SAC Ayres, who was never around as far as Tony could tell.

When he made it back to his desk, he noticed Pacci had headphones on and was watching something on his computer. Chris immediately held up a note that said: No hits on the BOLOs. Tony blew out a breath. He wasn’t supposed to be on call this weekend but he’d be working if they didn’t figure out where their missing Marines were with a whole truckload of missing M40s.

He glanced at Pacci’s monitor and did a double take when he saw Ethan’s name scrolling across the bottom of the screen on ZNN. Senator Moore disrupts Senate vote on banking reform.

“What’d he do?” he asked immediately.

“What was that?” Chris asked, pulling the headphones off one ear.

“What’d Moore do?”

“Gave a speech on the Senate floor about liberal values and disrupted things enough that the so-called banking reform bill was voted down. Both the majority and minority leaders are furious. Moore’s supposed to be out to answer questions from the press any minute.”

“Let’s hear it,” Tony prompted.

Pacci shrugged and unplugged the headphones. “Fine with me. NCIS agents aren’t supposed to officially have political opinions on the job, but there’s almost no one here. Besides, the more I learn, the more I like this guy.”

“He seems all right. As politicians go.” Tony would never pretend to hate Ethan but it wouldn’t serve him to be a huge fan either.

“So you don’t care?”

Frowning, Tony met Pacci’s gaze. “About what?”

Pacci glanced around for a quick second. “That he’s gay.”

“Unless they’re doing the deed with me, other people’s preferences are none of my business. And when it comes to a senator, I care more about their political positions than their sexual ones.”

Snorting in amusement, Pacci turned up the volume a bit. Ethan was already stepping up to where some mics looked barely cobbled together for an impromptu press conference. Tony made himself not react in any way to how good the man looked—it was just obscene to be that hot. Tony had never been a fan of facial hair, but the stubble-beard Ethan sported these days threatened to make him a convert.

Ethan answered a couple softball questions and then got the question about his last-minute objection to the bill.

Let me be clear, I’ve never supported this bill.” Ethan spoke confidently with one hand gesturing and the other tucked in his trouser pocket. “However, I was persuaded to cooperate in the interest of bi-partisan compromise. If you paid attention to my platform during my campaign, it would be patently obvious that I would never be in favor of this kind of legislature.”

Senator, why the last-minute about face? What happened to that spirit of cooperation?”

One of the things I’ve learned in the few months I’ve been in Washington is that not many of us have the time to read every bill from cover to cover. Which is a travesty because how can we make informed decisions about something we haven’t read? I read this bill in its entirety and what has been called a compromise is nothing of the sort. And to be sure there is no confusion, allow me to speak plainly. I am a liberal and a progressive. Giving financial incentives to big banks that don’t need them on the backs of taxpayers offends me deeply as a liberal. Loosening federal regulations around foreclosure that will unduly penalize the poor offends me as a progressive.

I recognize that we need to work together to strike a compromise on many issues, but this was no compromise. The meat of the reform was all stripped out until what was left was simply offensive. It’s not something I could vote for in good conscience. Nor could I sit quietly next to my fellow democrats and pretend that voting for this bill was anything other than an anathema to what we stand for.”

And what exactly would that be, Senator?” a reporter chimed in.

Ethan smiled, the kind of smile that wound up on the cover of magazines. “I think liberal values should be well known, but let me be clear about my values. I believe that every child should be fed, that going hungry in this country is an obscenity; I believe every American has the right to health care, and that no one should die in this modern age of treatable diseases; I believe in equal pay; equal rights regardless of color, creed, age, disability, sexual orientation, or scrabble aptitude.” He paused for the chuckles to subside, and then continued. “I believe in a woman’s right to control her own body; I believe in the fundamentals and foundation of our system of government and that our government has the responsibility to help those of our people least able to help themselves. These shouldn’t be liberal values, they should be American values.

The people of the great state of Virginia elected me to serve as a senator knowing that I believe in a liberal, progressive agenda. To vote for this bill would be to tell them that I wasn’t serious about what I believe in or the promises I made to them. While compromise is vital to governance, on some things we cannot afford to bend. And this was no compromise. It was simply more of the same.

Last time I checked, corporations and banks were not ‘We the People.’ Myself and every one of my fellow senators are here to represent and protect the citizens of the United States of America. Banks don’t get a vote. We need to stop acting like they do.”

“Well, shit,” Pacci murmured as he muted the computer. “I’m not sure if that was stupid or incredibly brave.”

“Maybe a bit of both,” Tony said with a faint smile.

“I like him more now.”

Tony raised a brow and grinned. “Gee, Chris, you’d think you had a crush.”

“Yeah, man, I have a political boner for the junior senator from Virginia. Just don’t tell my wife.”

– – – –

Tony tucked the phone between his shoulder and his ear and stirred the sauce, thinking it looked a little watery. “Everything’s fine, you big worrywart.”

Steve made a vague grunting noise. “Don’t let him snow you.”

“Please.”

“And if you fuck him, change the sheets. Or at least let me know so I can change the sheets.” And that was the first overt statement Steve had ever made acknowledging that he knew what was going on with Tony and Ethan.

“God, Steve, we’re not going to have sex. We’re going to talk.”

“And have dinner.” Steve was fine with sacrificing his house since he was rarely home anyway. He had a big condo development underway in Capitol Hill and was either glued to the office or meeting with investors.

“For fuck’s sake…” Tony wanted to bang his head on the stove. “Yes, there will be food involved.”

There was a long silence. “Just be careful, Tony.”

“What do you think he’s gonna do?”

“Break your heart again,” Steve shot back.

Tony sucked in a breath.

“Man, I’m sorry.” Steve was the only one of Tony’s frat brother who’d figured out his relationship with Ethan—at least, as far as Tony knew—and he’d always been supportive and kept the secret. For Tony’s sake. So it wasn’t surprising that he’d be tetchy about the situation. It was just more than Tony expected because he and Steve were friends, but he’d never thought they were close enough for this kind of reaction.

“It’s fine. How you feel is how you feel,” Tony finally got out.

“All I can ask is that you take care of yourself, man. I’m gonna be staying in one of the condos here most of the time, so my house is yours. Pretty much whenever you want it.”

“Dude…I thought your building was still a glorified frame.”

“Eh. Sort of. We pushed through getting a couple models done so we can get buyers interested.”

“Your tone of voice sounds like it’s not going well.”

“It’s kind of a mess. One of my investors backed out, which is why I’m here more often than not.”

“Can I come down sometime and see things? There’s the chance I can hook you up with a new investor.”

“You can see it no matter what, bud. Just pick a time.”

They chatted for a couple minutes then Tony hung up and turned his attention to dinner. He wasn’t sure exactly when Ethan would arrive, but the sauce would only improve with time, and he’d cook the pasta when it was time for dinner.

He was two chapters into a book he’d selected from Steve’s shelves when the doorbell rang. Standing to the side of the door, he called out, “Who is it?”

“Special delivery,” was said in Ethan’s distinctly deep voice.

Tony opened the door but stayed out of line of sight of the street. As soon as Ethan was inside, he shut and locked it.

He couldn’t help but appreciate how good Ethan looked in jeans and a Henley. The casual clothes were a switch from how he was usually dressed when Tony would see him on TV. It wasn’t better, but the novelty of it was really attractive. Tony was in jeans and a t-shirt so they’d gone for almost the same level of formality.

“Hey,” Ethan said softly, giving Tony a once-over. “Something up with the peephole?”

“I never look through peepholes unless I don’t have a choice.”

“Why not?” Ethan queried as he followed Tony to the living room.

“When I was in Philly, one of the cops took a shotgun blast to the face looking through a peephole. Since then I’ve avoided it.”

“Oh.” Ethan swallowed. “Damn.”

“Sorry. I guess that was too blunt.”

Ethan snagged Tony’s wrist, giving it a squeeze. “No. Don’t ever feel like you have to hide what you do or what you’ve had to face from me. I’ll deal.”

Tony tried not to react to the touch, just nodded an acceptance of what was said. “You have problems with being followed?”

“Yeah, but my aide helped me do a car switch in a parking garage so I was able to give the reporter the slip.”

All Tony could do was hope Ethan was accurate about when he was being tailed. “So you made quite a stir the other day.” He subtly pulled against the hold.

Not making a big deal out of it, Ethan let go. “To my surprise, my approval ratings went up seven percent. It’s ridiculous.”

“Not really. Sometimes people seem to want to be told fairy tales, but I think more often than not they want to be told the truth. And they feel lied to by politicians all the time. You came across as honest. It was refreshing.”

Ethan shrugged. “I think trying to predict what the American people will do or think is an exercise doomed to failure.”

“So don’t try. Just be yourself and do the best job you can. Your values are in line with what’s best for people. Anyone paying attention should be able to see that if you shoot straight. Basically, you don’t have anything to lose, so why play the game?”

“Point.”

“What’s next now that the leader of your party is massively pissed at you?”

“Not much change, really. We’re on a break, and I have a couple meetings lined up with various bank executives and financial lobbyists. Both in New York—one this month and one next month. We’re in session next month, but I’ll just be missing a couple days. I don’t expect we’ll get anywhere because I’m not interested in the perspective of a corporation. But I’ll keep the meeting so the majority leader doesn’t get more pissed at me.” He made a dismissive gesture. “But enough politics. I’d rather talk about you.”

“Meh.” Tony headed toward the kitchen. “Sounds dull.”

“Not hardly.” Ethan took a seat on a barstool on the far side of the kitchen island. “I’ve tried following the changes in your life as best as I could without actually stalking you, which means I know way less than I’d like. And I do want to know how you got to this point.”

It was easy enough to give biographical data and fill in the blanks while putting the pasta on and finishing dinner. Tony thought it was boring, but Ethan had lots of questions.

They switched to discussing current events over dinner and steered completely away from personal conversations. Still, the setting was intimate and Tony could feel the past pulling at him.

Afterward, they wound up sitting on the couch, angled to face each other.

“Tony…”

“I don’t know how we can do this,” Tony interrupted.

“We’ve got some logistical issues, but we can figure it out.” He hesitated. “Please tell me we can figure it out.”

Tony blew out a breath. “It’s more than logistics. I can’t be seen with you. How does that even work?”

“I know you’re not sold on us resuming our relationship, so there’s no point in making a drastic change while you’re deciding. But we can be discreet and get to know each other again. See where it goes.”

“And if it goes somewhere?” he pushed.

Ethan was watching him closely. “I don’t think you’re ready to hear this, but I’m going to say it anyway: I want you back. If I knew today that I could have that, but the cost was giving up being a Senator, I’d do it in a heartbeat. No regrets.”

Tony sucked in a breath through his teeth and glanced away. “Jesus, Ethan, that’s all you’ve ever wanted.”

“No. You’re what I wanted, but I fucked up. I didn’t choose being a Senator over you, though I know it doesn’t look that way. I chose my fear over you, and it’s my biggest regret. Our experiences the last six years are completely different—you got over me, but I never even tried that with you. So I’ll do what you want, your pace, whatever. But the honest truth is that I never stopped thinking about you, and there’s nothing I want more than you.”

Tony was completely floored. “Well, damn…” He cleared his throat. “I never got over you. That’s just…wrong.”

Ethan reached out and took his hand and, this time, Tony didn’t try to pull away. “You can decide now or decide in a month. It’s okay. I’ll wait.”

“A big part of me wants this, but I’m not ready to trust you,” he admitted.

“I’d feel the same way if I were you.” Ethan didn’t offer anything else, just held onto Tony’s hand.

“I don’t know how to promise anything—and promises feel pretty empty right now—but…I’ll try.”

– – – –

Tony flipped idly through the proposed floorplans for various units in Steve’s new construction-baby waiting for Steve to get back from wherever he’d gone. The week since he’d seen Ethan and agreed to give their relationship another shot had been surreal. Ethan was back in Richmond—the Richmond PD monitored his public appearances, and private security handled things at the family home where Ethan and his mother lived. They talked on the phone almost every night for a bit, but the odds of Tony going to see Ethan in Richmond were slim. The risk factor was high and Tony flat out didn’t want to see Mrs. Moore until he’d decided if this thing was happening.

That left Ethan coming to see him at Steve’s house, which was on the outskirts of Fairfax. The idea of months on end of secret meetings at Steve’s was just too weird. They’d talked about Ethan coming up to Steve’s this weekend, but Tony was on call and Ethan couldn’t slip away from Richmond every weekend.

Steve finally returned, muttering under his breath about people needing constant supervision. Then he flashed Tony a grin. “So, what do you think?”

“They’re nice,” he remarked, gesturing to the floorplans.

Steve made a face. “Okay, spill. What’s wrong with it?”

“Nothing, man, it’s great.”

“Tone, I know that face. You’re holding back.”

“Ugh. Don’t call me that, Stevie.”

Looking even more disgusted, Steve flopped on the couch and started rubbing the back of his neck. “It’ll be annoying nicknames all damn day if you don’t shoot straight.”

“Well, I can’t tell who you’re marketing to,” he confessed.

Steve took the pages and frowned, but he didn’t look surprised. “Go on.”

“Well, who was pushing this family friendly vibe?”

“One of the investors,” Steve admitted.

“One still on the project, or the one who left?”

“Still on.” He shot Tony a look. “Seriously, man, don’t hold back. I need another perspective.”

“This is Capitol Hill. You’re close to the Pentagon, a stone’s throw from my work. I dunno…seems like you should be focusing on singles and people who only live in DC part time. I just don’t think semi-high rise condos in Capitol Hill and families. Nothing about this particular part of Capitol Hill says ‘family’ to me. You’re marketing this place as too kid friendly when the neighborhood isn’t. And a bunch of kids are going to turn off the people who will find this location alluring. People with school-age kids are going to be put off by the neighborhood.”

“Shit.” Steve blew out a breath. “You’ve been in DC like a minute and you’re saying exactly what my gut said. But my biggest investor is adamant about the tone of the place.”

“Why’d the other investor leave?”

“Over this shit. He said we had too many three-bedroom units on the lower floors and not enough studios and one-bedroom units to appeal to the young professionals. Griffin threw a fit about cutting back on the family friendly vibe, and so Stewart walked.”

“Well, I agree with Stewart. I get having bigger units on the upper floors—hell, you’re selling to money on those top two floors and they’ll expect bigger places—but the rest of the building? No. And I know you know this, so why compromise?”

“Because I need the financing and I couldn’t afford to disagree with Griffin. As it is, I’m going to have to pre-sell a quarter of the units in the next sixty days.”

“How about I get you in touch with Clive? He liked you, and even if he’s not down, he can definitely hook you up with someone who just wants to make money and doesn’t care how many three-bedroom units you have.”

“Tony, man, no…I don’t want to…” He trailed off, looking uncomfortable.

“Stop. I don’t think you were trying to con me into investing. Remember, I know just how bad you are at being subtle in your manipulations—this clearly wasn’t that. I think my uncle will make lots of money once you fix shit. So shut up and show me your skeletal baby.

Steve laughed and got to his feet. “Come on then.”

“There’s a price, though,” Tony said idly, taking one last look at the model unit Steve was using as a home base.

“Oh?”

“Hook me up with who did the decorating for your show units. My house needs help.”

“Deal. That place is creepy with how empty it is. It feels like it’s you, some gifts, and a piano.”

Tony glared. It wasn’t that bad.

Steve waved him off and took him to the elevator, skirting around some construction detritus. “How are things with Ethan?” he asked once the elevator was ascending.

“We’ve talked a bunch but it’s gonna be hard to find time to meet. He’s in New York most of the week of the 20th. We talked about getting together before he leaves on the 19th, and then on his way home the 25th. I’m on call the weekend he comes home, so that’s unlikely.”

As they stepped off the elevator, Steve stopped and gave Tony a serious look. “You’ve got the key to my place. Use it any time. Just send me a text so I know you’re there and we don’t have a shocking moment we’ll never recover from.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “How many times did I walk in on you with the girl of the week? I survived.”

“It was like your knocking skills were challenged.”

My skills?” He shoulder checked Steve. “I think it’s your hearing that’s at issue, Douglas. Not to mention your inability to write a damn note!”

– – – –

Part III

August 2001

Ethan had barely made it in the front door when his mother’s voice rang out from the direction of the music room. “Ethan baby, is that you?”

“Who else are you expecting?” he called back. Leaving his briefcase on the entry table, he entered the room to find her staring at a giant pink stain on her ivory area rug. “Do I even want to know?”

She had one arm across her body and was using it as a prop for the other arm which supported her chin. “Christina went to get another brand of rug cleaner. We’ve tried everything already in the house.” Crossing to him, she tilted her head and he leaned down to drop a kiss on the proffered cheek. “Hello, dearest. How was the town hall?”

“Could have been worse,” he said vaguely, not wanting to get into it now. He gestured back to the basketball-sized pink blot. “What happened?”

“I took pity on Miranda Modine’s musically challenged daughter, Belinda. That girl has been through four music teachers already. Her mother said her playing was likely to raise the dead, and I have to agree. I thought I might be able to suss out the problem and recommend another music tutor.”

“And that has what to do with the pink?”

His mother sighed and gazed sadly at her rug. “That’s where she set her tote bag.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I, baby.” His mother shook her head. “That girl is a challenge to be sure. Bless her heart.”

Ethan shook his head. “Leave the carpet to the professionals, Mama.”

She waved him off. “Don’t worry, we’re just going to give it one more go before I surrender to the inevitable. Now, go relax and get changed. Dinner will be in two hours.”

Since he’d half expected to get roped into helping scrub carpet, he readily took the escape and headed for his study on the second floor. His mother had tried to get him to take his father’s study when Ethan had moved back into the family home after his father’s death, but he hadn’t felt comfortable taking over his father’s space. Nearly eight months later, the study on the first floor was exactly as his father had left it. They’d converted a guest bedroom for Ethan to use for work, but his mother still asked him to consider moving into his father’s study. He wondered if perhaps Ethan taking over the space was for her, something to make it easier for her to let go of it.

The decision to move back home had been an easy one at the time. Even though he had to be in DC when the Senate was in session and so wasn’t home often, he hadn’t wanted to think about his mother alone with her grief rattling around in this big old house. He came home at least a couple weekends a month and whenever the Senate was in recess. But now that he was contemplating moving to DC permanently, the issue of his mom remained. He wondered if she’d consider moving closer to the capital?

Ethan still owned the condo in town but lent it to whichever of his staff were with him. It saved on lodging bills.

After changing into casual clothes, he sat at his desk and began reading the reports from his aides regarding the town hall he’d conducted this afternoon. He’d assigned his staff to stay after the event to gather more questions and get feedback from people. He went through preliminary summaries and sent some emails to his assistant. Then he perused follow-up questions about banking reform and financials in general but noted he needed to schedule another town hall to discuss healthcare. Unfortunately, Ethan’s sexuality continued to be an issue for too many of his constituents.

— I like his policies but why does he have to talk about those things he does?

He’d never in his life spoken publicly about “those things” he did. Maybe he should have just started dating men rather giving the press conference—kissed one or two in public and then watched the media lose their minds.

— Couldn’t he just keep pretending to like women?
— Is he sure he’s gay? Because he looks like a real man.
— I’m sure if he found the right woman he’d come around.

Ethan sighed and rubbed his forehead. It didn’t matter what the issue was, his sexuality always came up to some degree. His approval rating was currently running around forty-eight percent, with a disapproval rating of forty-four percent. The disapproval rating made him the third from the bottom amongst all senators. And it all came down to him being gay.

He shut his laptop, not wanting to deal with any more for now. He’d take another look at things after dinner.

When his mother called him down, he detoured by the music room and frowned at what he found. He intercepted his mom and helped her carry the food to the table. With just the two of them eating most nights, Ethan had suggested they serve themselves in the kitchen and save some hassle, but his mother had refused. She’d said she ate like that most nights, and they’d be eating like a proper family when he was home.

As soon as they were seated, he asked, “Is that pink stain bigger?”

His mother scowled. “Yes. I’ll call Mr. Carruthers tomorrow and see if he can do anything with it. Say grace, dear.”

He complied—another ritual he only went through around his mother. The older he got, the more he disliked religion. Ethan was at the point in his life where he’d accepted that he was the way God intended him to be, and he didn’t have a lot of patience for institutions that said he wasn’t “right” or that loving someone of his own gender made him a sinner. He had no issue with the notion of gratitude but he had begun to take exceptions to the trappings of a religion that was instrumental in his own self hate.

“I thought old man Carruthers retired,” he offered.

“He did. He’s harassing Mark Junior from his recliner about the right way to clean a carpet. Poor boy. How many ways can there be to a clean a carpet?”

“Apparently, several. Judging by the way the pink is spreading in the music room.”

His mother chuckled. “I’ll put down a tarp if I ever have Belinda over again.” She shook her head. “That poor dear. She’s very challenged.”

“Not really.”

She shot him a look. “How’s that, dear?”

Ethan shrugged. “Belinda Modine is a thirteen-year-old tomboy. She’s the best soccer player in the school, and that includes the boys.” He tried to attend the games of various schools in Richmond when he had time. And the Modines had been family friends for years. “Yet her mother keeps trying to stick her in pink fluffy dresses, learn ballet, and play the violin.” He glanced over his shoulder toward the music room. “I don’t get the pink.”

“Oh dear.” His mother tapped her fork on her lower lip, a habit she’d tried to break repeatedly but couldn’t. Whenever she had something on her mind, she tapped her lip. His father had managed to get her to stop doing it with sharp knives. “I’ll have to give Belinda a call later. She was upset and I thought it was either her poor progress with the violin or that her bag made a mess. But perhaps the girl was pranked.”

That was possible. “Why are you helping the Modines?” She’d had so many odd projects lately.

“I have to keep busy, Ethan. I’m fifty-eight, not dead. A woman needs hobbies.”

“Managing our neighbors’ lives isn’t a hobby.”

She pointed the fork at him. “Never tell a woman that interfering isn’t a hobby.”

He snorted. “Fair enough.”

“Oh! You got a small package today. Let me get it.”

They didn’t get mail at the house anymore. Since he’d been elected and come out, hate mail was a common occurrence and he didn’t want his mother upset by that. He also worried what harmful things a hateful person might send to the house. His mail usually went through his staff, but anyone he knew personally sent mail care of his mother at the private mailbox she had in town.

She returned to the table with a small, lumpy envelope.

He blinked at the return address. There was no name but the actual address was Steve Douglas’. He couldn’t imagine Steve sending him mail so figured it had to be from Tony. Smiling, he tore open the end and a note and what looked like a garage door remote fell out.

SD said you should park in the garage in the future and enter through the garage door. See you this weekend. –T.

That was smart. The most likely time for him to be recognized was on his way into the house.

“Are you seeing Tony again?”

His head snapped up. “What? Why’d you… How… Mama!” he stuttered out. He’d only admitted to her two days ago that he was seeing someone.

“It does my heart good to know I can get you so flustered.” She was clearly trying not to laugh. “The smile on your face just now gave it away. That’s a look that says love, baby, and there’s no way you’re smiling like that over someone you barely know. You’re too reserved for that kind of emotional display over a new beau. You’ve only ever been in love with one person.”

Ethen slipped the note and remote back into the envelope. “He agreed to give me another chance.”

“Seems I recall you being morose a few months back because you’d heard he was getting married…” Her question was implicit. He knew he’d better quickly answer her worry that he was seeing a married man or she’d do something like bust out with his full name in that disapproving-mother tone.

“She left him at the altar. I know him…he’d have self-destructed for a while in a way that could hurt him in the long run.”

Her brows shot up nearly to her hairline. “You showed up after he’d been jilted by his fiancée to save him from himself?”

“I’d like to say it was entirely altruistic, but I was already dressed and had been thinking of going to the church to ask him not to marry her.”

“Ethan!”

“I know, Mama.” He sighed and pushed his plate away. “I gave up on that because it would have been cruel. But I was in the middle of taking off my tie and contemplating a very large glass of brandy when I heard she’d left him standing at the altar, and that he’d disappeared after he got the news.”

“And you thought you were the best person to handle that situation? Really, Ethan?”

“His non-wedding was over six weeks ago and, yes, I think I made the right choice.”

His mother was frowning but only said, “So, he’s willing to give you another chance?”

“He’s trying. I hurt him when I left, and there’s a chance he might still decide that he’s not ready to trust me. Now or ever.”

“If you boys get over that hurdle, I take it this hiding nonsense is over?”

Ethan winced. “Not exactly.”

“Ethan!” Considering her tone, she was edging toward full name territory.

“It’s not me, Mama. Tony’s a federal agent.”

She blinked. “I thought he was going to be a doctor?”

“He became a cop. I knew that was something he’d been considering—the only positive male role model in Tony’s life besides’ his coach was a cop he met when he was a kid. Anyway, earlier this year, he went to work for NCIS. One of his specialties is undercover work.”

“Ah.” His mother gave him a sad look. “Well, at least he has a good reason.”

Ethan flinched a bit then sat back in his chair.

“I’m sorry, baby. I shouldn’t have said that.” He met her gaze and saw the sincere regret but also confusion.

“You have questions,” he observed.

“You’ve never wanted to talk about it. One day you told me you were gay and were planning a press conference that you didn’t want me blindsided by. Other than confirming my suspicion that you’d been with that young man back at OSU and had left him because you were closeted, you’ve never been willing to discuss it. You change the subject, usually with the skill of a politician, every time I ask.” She smiled faintly. “I don’t want you to feel like you can’t talk to me, and I know this is very difficult for you but you won’t accept help.”

He sighed. “I’m not used to talking about it, and you’ve had a lot to deal with this year. I didn’t want to add to it.”

His mother made an indelicate sound suspiciously like a snort. “I miss your father every day, but having nothing to do and a son who protects me from everything just highlights the loneliness. I appreciate the intention behind you trying to give me space to grieve, but I need something to do.”

“Even if we talk, I am not going to be your project.”

“Ethan James Moore! You’ve been my project since I spent nine hours getting you out of my body. You’re just gonna have to suck it up, baby boy.”

He laughed. “And the nine hours rears its head again.”

“It’s never gonna get old. Now, talk to me—actually tell me something real this time.”

“You mean about back then?”

“I mean about any of it, Ethan. I haven’t wanted to push, but I don’t even know when you knew this about yourself.”

He blew out a breath. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know.” He was thirty-three years old, he could handle telling his mother about his sexual identity.

“So the girls in high school…?”

“It’s what was expected of me.”

She looked sad. “So there was never any interest in women?”

“None,” he said emphatically.

“And Tony? He was marrying a woman…”

“I think he’s actually bisexual though he told me once he preferred men. That could have changed in the intervening years.”

“I’m sorry you never felt you could tell us.”

He wanted to give some sort of absolution, but his parents had contributed a lot to why he’d felt he couldn’t talk about being gay. Or, at least, some of the choices they’d made had that effect.

“Was it that church?”

“That didn’t help,” he admitted. The church his family had gone to since he was little had been led by a man who hated gays. When Ethan had come home from his first tour in the Navy before going to law school, he’d refused to go to church with his family anymore. It had caused a huge fight because the Moores went to church on Sunday, but Ethan had drawn a line in the sand. He had pointed out how un-Christian the man’s hate toward gays was and that he’d been known to make anti-Semitic remarks as well. He’d refused to sit in that toxic crap every Sunday. He’d thought they hadn’t heard him, but two weeks later they started attending the Presbyterian church downtown, which was led by a kindly older minister whose biggest fault was being incredibly absentminded.

“You know that your daddy and I never agreed with those hateful things.” When he started to say something, she held up a hand. “We’ve always looked at church as taking the parts that are uplifting and beneficial to our lives and ignoring the bits that don’t fit. And that was our mistake. I think about taking you there every week and how you must have felt if you knew you were the thing he was railing against, and I’m ashamed of myself. It’s too easy to let people say ugly, hateful things, and think it’s okay because you disagree in silence. Something should have been said. We should have said that it wasn’t acceptable. I’m so sorry, Ethan.”

“Mama, I can’t…” It wasn’t about forgiveness.

“I know you don’t want to talk about it, but I needed to apologize.”

“I hated myself,” he blurted out.

“What?”

He blew out a breath, meeting his mother’s pained gaze. “Every day, I didn’t want to be what I was. The church said I wasn’t right, the Navy said it, all my friends… I pushed it down and told myself it didn’t matter. After my undergrad and first tour in the Navy, I told myself I’d accepted being gay but I’d just have to hide it. And that it was okay to make that choice. Then I met Tony, and I wanted him to be more than a one or two-night stand. He loved me and accepted me for who I was, and, in return, I asked him to be sure to be extra straight in his appearance and behavior so no one would suspect about us. I told him it was so I wouldn’t get booted out of the Navy, but I just didn’t want anyone to know. I didn’t want to be a gay man.” He huffed out a humorless laugh. “I didn’t want to be what I was,” he whispered again.

“Oh, honey.” His mother’s eyes were filled with tears. “Your sexuality doesn’t define you.”

“Honestly, Mama, only a straight person can say that. And that’s probably harsh, but ninety-eight percent of the hate mail I get is about my sexuality. Although, to be fair, some of the hate mail about me being gay is also about me being black. The heterosexual world defines me by my sexuality—positively or negatively, it’s part of my identity in their eyes.

“If someone were to describe me, they might say I was an alumnus of Ohio State, that I’d played basketball in high school and undergrad, that I’d been in the Navy and the JAG Corps, that I never lost a case, and was now a US Senator. And because I’m black, and that’s not the majority, they’d say, ‘Oh, and he’s a black man.’ It’s not like they point out the senior senator from Virginia is white. But that’s what they do to me…tack on my skin color because it’s somehow relevant when a white person’s wouldn’t be.”

“And now people add that you’re a gay man.” He saw the understanding in his mother’s eyes and knew she’d faced the same thing her whole life. She was born in 1943 and remembered riding in the back of the bus as a child.

“That’s how society looks at me—how they define me. But how do I define myself? I don’t know how to be anything other than a black man. It was always just a fact. You know as well as anyone that every black person in this country deals with hatred—both overt and subtle forms of racism. We wonder if we’re safe in certain places, and that leaves a mark on all of us. But we can’t hide that we’re black, so we learn how to deal with it from a young age. Whether through acceptance or fighting for change or something in between. Or maybe through a rage brought about by hundreds of years of injustice.

“But I can hide that I’m gay if I want to. I did until I was thirty-two! You think that your sexuality didn’t define you and so it should have been that way for me. And I agree that it would be ideal if the world worked that way. But most people who are gay have to live with a secret for some amount of time—some for their whole lives. They have to live with the uncertainty about what life will be like after they admit who they want to hold hands with, who they want to marry. And the longer they hold onto that secret and worry about the future, about being loved and accepted for who they are, the more the burden of bearing the secret becomes a part of them. Even when you let go of the secret, even if everything turns out perfectly, it’s still part of you.

“It’s not that my sexuality defines me, Mama, but the years of secrets do. The years of hating myself. Giving up what I loved the most because I couldn’t bear to be openly gay. It will always define me because of the scars bearing the secret has left behind.

“And I have to look at myself in the mirror every day and know that my secret was harmful to someone else. I knew every day I was with Tony that I was selfish because I knew I wasn’t going to come out. I kept thinking I should break it off before we got in too deep, but then we were in too deep. Every day I thought I’d end it tomorrow. And then I had to do it. I was headed for the Naval Justice School in Rhode Island and Tony thought he was going with me.”

Ethan shook his head, hating thinking about those times. “So I left him. Not because of lack of love, or the Navy, or the church, or even what I thought you and Dad might think, but because I didn’t want to be a gay man. I so desperately didn’t want to be what I was that I walked away from everything that mattered. If there’s even a tiny chance I can get him back, I’m gonna take it. Because I can live with that… I’m okay with my love for him defining me.”

– – – –

Tony heard Steve’s garage door open and then close but waited on the couch for Ethan to make his way inside. Steve had been the one to suggest that Ethan should use the garage when he came up. It was all very clandestine and weird, and Tony still wasn’t sure how he felt about it. But Tony had gamely mailed the remote to Ethan the day after he’d seen Steve’s building.

Ethan was flying out of Dulles tomorrow night, but Tony had suggested he come up today even though that meant an overnight stay. He wasn’t sure what had possessed him because he wasn’t ready to climb back into bed with Ethan. He was pretty sure sex would fuck up his ability to have any perspective—he was already too emotionally involved.

Ethan strolled in from the hallway off the kitchen looking fine in black trousers and a casual button down.

Tony huffed and tossed his book aside in annoyance.

“What?” Ethan asked cautiously, dropping his duffle out of the doorway.

“It’d be a lot easier for me to follow the plan if you didn’t swan in here looking so damn good.”

Ethan grinned. “I never swan.” He moved to the couch and leaned down, bracing one hand on the back of the couch and one on the arm, getting right in Tony’s space. He paused, obviously giving Tony a chance to move away. Tony wasn’t interested in moving away, however, and after a beat, Ethan closed the distance and pressed his mouth to Tony’s.

The kiss was entirely too short but devastating in its effect. Ethan pulled back and whispered, “Hey.”

“Hi,” Tony managed.

Ethan moved to the side and folded his long frame onto the couch until he was sitting sideways, leg on the couch, with his shin pressed against Tony’s thigh. “What’s this plan?”

Tony blinked a few times and rebooted his brain. “The take things slow plan.”

“Ah.” Ethan reached out and his fingertips touched Tony’s jaw. “What happened?” he asked with a frown.

The bruise was mostly just fading bits of yellow with some touches of green. “Resisting arrest. Typical Monday.”

Ethan blew out a breath. “I hate how dangerous your work is.”

Tony’s brows shot up. “No one sends me death threats. Well, not recently,” he admitted, feeling like an idiot for even saying something that stupid. Just because he hadn’t had any death threats since coming to NCIS didn’t mean much considering how long his sworn-enemies list was.

Ethan rolled his eyes as he grabbed Tony’s hand and got to his feet. “Help me find stuff in Steve’s kitchen. I brought lunch but it needs to go in the oven for an hour.”

“I thought you were just going to grab takeout.” Tony was confused but let Ethan pull him along.

“Mom sent enough food to feed five for the whole weekend. She said ‘hi’ by the way.”

Tony halted abruptly and since they were both big men, it wound up pulling them both off balance rather than just one of them, and they kind of knocked into each other. “Your mom knows you’re seeing me?” he asked incredulously as Ethan steadied them both.

“Yeah.” Ethan rubbed the back of his neck looking a bit sheepish. “I’d planned to keep it quiet until we were a little more settled, but she figured it out.”

“She figured it out?” Tony echoed.

Ethan let go of Tony and rounded the island to begin unpacking a couple bags he’d left by the garage door. “She asked me if I was seeing someone, and I admitted there was someone new in my life. Two days later over dinner, she flat out asked me if it was you.”

Tony coughed. “What?”

Shrugging, Ethan continued. “She said there was no way I’d be so happy about someone I barely knew. That I was too reserved to be ecstatic over a new relationship, which left an old one.” He looked at Tony. “The one.”

It felt like Tony’s heart was about to pound out of his chest, but he forced himself to chill out.

“I didn’t see any point in denying it. She’s happy for me—for us. Of course I tried to rein her in, but she just started cooking and I gave up.”

“I’m…not sure what to say.” This felt like full-on relationship territory.

“You don’t have to say anything. I told Mama we’re working our way through the old hurts and she shouldn’t get her hopes up. She said since I obviously had my hopes up being anything less than hopeful would be unmotherly.”

Tony laughed. “That sounds like a mom thing.”

“She invited you to the house whenever you want to come, but I explained the situation to her. She said, ‘Well, at least that young man has a good reason for keeping the relationship quiet.’”

“Ouch.”

“Nah. If Mama started pussyfooting around her feelings about things, I’d have to do a pod check. Still, if I’m in Richmond and we decide to risk it, you’re definitely welcome at the house.”

“Your mom aside, I’m sure people pay undue attention to who comes and goes from your house.”

“Can’t deny that. The delivery guy who brought Mama flowers from Aunt Althea for her birthday was reported in the Times-Dispatch as being my secret lover.” Ethan shook his head, and Tony started laughing. “Mama had to go set that boy’s girlfriend to rights because she was crying all over town about never knowing he was really gay.” Smiling at Tony’s amusement, Ethan unpacked a bunch of food, leaving one covered pan out while he put the rest in the refrigerator. “She also made the paper issue a retraction and an apology for their sensationalist gossip mongering. I think she scared the editor because they’ve been more circumspect since then. Still, they definitely watch.”

When Ethan pulled the cover off the baking dish, Tony frowned. He’d been expecting Southern food. “Are those enchiladas?”

Ethan huffed. “My parents went to Mexico for two months last summer—their last trip before Dad died. She spent all her time learning to cook from the woman who tended to the house they were renting. Her cooking is always great, but I miss the old stuff.” He fiddled with the oven controls for a second. “I think maybe the constant flood of Mexican dishes is her holding on to one of the last things she and Dad did together.” He grinned and shook his head. “After I was elected, we had a celebratory dinner at the house. Wound up having to evacuate.”

Tony stared. “What happened.”

After getting the food in the oven, Ethan braced his hands on the island, shaking his head in obvious exasperation. “Mama needed jalapenos for this dish and the kid at the market brings her some red peppers and says they’re red jalapenos.”

“I’ve had those…little bit sweeter to me than the green ones.” Red just meant they weren’t picked early.

“Except these weren’t jalapenos. They were ghost peppers.”

“Oh god.” Tony actually felt his heart clench. “She didn’t eat them, did she?”

“No. Mama always wears gloves when she’s cutting anything with an odor or heat, so she didn’t realize what was going on until she dropped those peppers in a hot pan. So we had to evacuate.”

“Was everyone okay?” Ghost peppers were no joke. Tony liked moderately spicy food, but those were way beyond him.

“Mostly. Mama was coughing really badly and they took her to the hospital to get checked and flush her eyes. Now I screen all the peppers.”

“Bet you’re wishing you’d sent your parents to France instead.”

“That’s no lie.” Ethan cocked his head to the side. “How’d you know I was behind Mexico?”

Tony shrugged. “Seems like something you’d do. You were always protective of your parents, and I imagine stress levels were high with the election coming up. I figured, considering the timing, the trip was your idea because you wanted them to chill out and decompress before the high anxiety of the fall. It doesn’t seem like your mom or the Reverend would come up with the idea to go out of town with the election looming.”

“Hmm.” Ethan’s expression wasn’t easily decipherable, but, after a couple seconds, he came around the island and stood right in front of Tony, snagged his hand, and pulled him up from the barstool. “I’ve missed you,” he whispered.

“Ethan…”

“Just let me do this.” And then he pulled Tony into his arms and just hugged him.

Tony returned the embrace, pressing his face against Ethan’s shoulder. Damn. He was totally screwed.

– – – –

Ethan swirled his wine around in his glass giving it undue attention.

The day had gone well, almost too well for Tony’s comfort, and dinner had been actual Southern food this time, and now they were on the couch talking and finishing the single bottle of wine Ethan brought with him. They’d been talking about Tony’s work and Ethan had gone silent.

Tony poked Ethan’s thigh. “What’s on your mind, Ethan?”

Concerned, dark eyes finally met his and Ethan frowned. “Infiltrating the mob is the kind of undercover work you do?”

“Well, not anymore. NCIS hasn’t got any reason—if it’s not a local investigation, organized crime is the FBI’s purview.”

“Semantics. I remember when Don Macaluso’s arrest made national news. That was barely two years ago. He was sentenced last summer.”

“Yeah, I know. I was there.” For both. He’d had to turn down another undercover op in Baltimore to give testimony in Philly, which had been a security nightmare since there was a price on his head there.

Ethan put his glass down with a jarring thump. “Right. The undercover officer testified in a closed court to protect his identity.” Her rubbed his hand over his mouth. “Jesus, that was you. That was you, Tony. I stupidly assumed that undercover officer had been given a new identity or something.”

“It wasn’t necessary,” Tony began.

“It wasn’t necessary?” Ethan stared at him, mouth agape.

“No,” Tony said sharply, “it wasn’t necessary. Little Mikey flat out told me the family didn’t plan any reprisals as long as I wasn’t in Philly, and he was in charge with his father in prison.”

“He told you?”

“Oh my god, what is the matter with you?” Tony asked, getting annoyed.

“You’re so cavalier about the fact that you took down a mob boss and then continued to live and work under the same identity in the same line of work barely a hundred miles away. It’s insane.”

“Look, this is what I do—”

“Take stupid chances? That’s what you do?”

Tony got to his feet. “You’re crossing the line.”

“Which line is that?” Ethan moved to the edge of the couch but didn’t stand up.

“The asshole line. Because this isn’t any of your damn business, Ethan. You lost the right to have an opinion six years ago.”

Ethan’s jaw muscles clenched repeatedly. “You’re correct. I completely threw away the right to say anything to you about the choices you’ve made. But, Tony, you agreed to try. And that doesn’t mean that you get to lay on me that you take stupid chances with your life, have a long history of it, and I don’t get to have a damn opinion about it now.”

“I’m not doing anything!”

“But you would!” Ethan surged to his feet. “The fact that you don’t see how crazy it was for you to infiltrate the mob in Philadelphia, bring down their Don, and then keep working as a cop under your real name tells me you’d do the same thing again!”

When Tony started to reply, Ethan held up a hand and took several deep breaths. “Can you be objective enough to tell me what you’d think about another officer in the same situation.”

Tony crossed his arms and glared, but he thought about it. And the more he thought about it, the uglier it was. It all made sense to him at the time, but if it had been Danny or one of the other guys he’d worked with, he’d have thought it was stupid not to take the relocation and protection.

Flopping back on the couch, Tony buried his face in his hands, trying to get his thoughts in order. He felt the couch shift and looked over to Ethan, who was now seated, watching him closely. “Your point is taken, and I get it, okay? And maybe, maybe, you get an opinion going forward, but, Ethan, you don’t get to be mad about what I’ve done since you left me. You just don’t.”

“So you’re okay with me having refused my protection detail?”

Ethan!” Then Tony winced. “Asshole. Tell me you didn’t.”

“I did. Right after I came out, I refused 24-hour protection and nearly got myself killed. That was before you. Do you not get an opinion about my hardheadedness just because it was before the 30th of June?”

Tony wanted to say that he got to have as much double standard as he wanted because he wasn’t the one who left, but he knew he couldn’t keep throwing that six years down like a gauntlet every time they had a disagreement. If all he could do was bring up that Ethan left him then there was no point in trying this.

“I have to reorient my brain, and I don’t know what the right answer is. Maybe I’ve been careless with my safety. Or maybe you don’t have all the facts. Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle.” Tony stared at Ethan, getting back mostly openness and not the anger he’d expected. “And, yes, you get an opinion going forward. If you think I’m being careless, let’s talk about it. But we can’t do the being pissed off over things you weren’t around for. That’s not gonna fly. Even if you’re right, I’m just gonna get angry.”

“Yeah, okay.” Ethan blew out a breath. “That’s fair.”

Hours later, Tony was in bed in Steve’s room, staring at the ceiling. Ethan was sleeping in the guest bedroom—it’s what they had agreed to when arranging the weekend plans. But Ethan being so close was distracting, and the semi-argument from earlier was rattling around in Tony’s head.

If Tony wasn’t already more in this than he’d planned to be, he’d have walked out over Ethan second guessing him. So he was shaking off that denial and wondering where it left him. Other than a couple overtly affectionate moments, Tony had been keeping Ethan at arm’s length. He figured since the plan was going off the rails anyway, he needed to stop trying to control things so much and see what happened.

Abruptly, he swung to a seated position and grabbed his t-shirt, pulling it on. He walked down the hall to the guest room, finding the door open but everything was dark. Hesitating in the doorway, he considered going back to his room.

“I’m awake,” came softly from the direction of the bed.

Eyes already adjusted to the dark, Tony made it to the bed and sat on the edge opposite from Ethan. It was too dark for him to make out much more than Ethan’s shape. His hands were behind his head as he lay on his back.

“What’s wrong, Tony?”

“I’ve missed you, too,” he whispered.

Ethan shifted and Tony felt the body heat a fraction of a second before arms came around him, guiding him to lie on the bed. Covers were shifted and rearranged and then Ethan curled up behind him, arm coming around Tony’s waist.

It was too damn easy to just relax into the hold. “You always preferred being the little spoon.”

He felt the laugh against the nape of his neck. “We’re trying something new. No expectations. Just…stay with me?”

“Yeah, I can do that.” Tony closed his eyes and threaded his fingers with Ethan’s

– – – –

Tony woke slowly, feeling unusually comfortable considering all the extra limbs he seemed to have acquired. It took a few moments for his brain to catch up and realize he was in bed with Ethan, face to face and wrapped around each other with Tony’s face almost pressed to Ethan’s throat. He hadn’t really noticed last night that Ethan wasn’t wearing a shirt, but he sure noticed it now.

It shouldn’t have been so easy to fall back into old sleeping patterns, and it was a little disconcerting. From the beginning of their relationship, they’d had an easy time sleeping together. It wasn’t uncommon for them to be on a glorified twin bed together and yet somehow managed to sleep without a problem.

They’d been seeing each other for a year before Ethan moved to off-campus housing, and Tony all but moved in with him. Tony maintained the room at his fraternity and spent time there, but slept at Ethan’s easily five nights a week. Even with the bigger bed available to them, they’d always awoken in some position that was practically glued together. In his life, Tony had never slept with someone as easily as Ethan, not even Wendy.

The thought of her hurt less than it had, though the bitterness was just as strong. But for all that they’d been very compatible in most respects, Wendy preferred to be left alone when she slept. She had been all about cuddling after sex—or, really, anytime—but she’d always pulled away to sleep. Tony had never had a problem with it, happy to let her do what made her comfortable, but he hadn’t realized until that moment how much he’d liked and missed sleeping like this. Waking up like this.

Ethan’s muscle tension went up and he twitched, taking in a deep breath; Tony knew he was waking. The arm around his waist tightened briefly before a big hand slid up his spine and then back down to his hips.

“Morning,” Tony murmured against Ethan’s throat.

The hand on his hip squeezed gently. “Hey.” Ethan’s voice was raspy. “I remember this. Missed it,” he whispered against Tony’s hair.

“Me too,” Tony admitted. He knew he should get up—it was too tempting to lie in bed like this, too easy to move on to the next thing they’d do on mornings like this. Sex. Physical contact and intimacy made it easy to forget why he was taking this slow. He needed to be sure that Ethan wasn’t going to take off again when things got hard. And Tony needed to be absolutely certain that he could let the past go because any relationship had no hope if he was mistrustful and resentful about the past.

Despite what he knew, he tried to move closer and let himself have this for now.

– – – –

Tony packed up the washed containers from all the food Mrs. Moore had sent with Ethan while Ethan put his bags in the car. There was still food left, but he’d transferred it to Steve’s kitchenware rather than keep Mrs. Moore’s vintage casserole dishes for who knew how long.

Ethan came in from the garage and leaned against the island. “It doesn’t feel like we had enough time.”

“Yeah.” Tony blew out a breath. He didn’t want Ethan to walk out the door and go to New York, but he was fine with having some time to himself to think things through. He was getting accustomed to these warring impulses.

“I can see you this weekend?”

Tony nodded. “I’m on call, but if I don’t have to go in, yeah. Just be prepared for interruptions.”

Ethan moved closer, crowding Tony a bit. He stroked his fingertips over Tony’s jaw and then briefly touched his lips. “Getting out of bed this morning—pulling away from you—was the hardest thing I’ve done in a long time.” The hand cupped his face. “I’m trying to be good about the limits you set, but I want to kiss you so damn badly.”

“Yeah,” he rasped and then cleared his throat. “Yeah, that’d be—”

Their mouths met in a hard press of lips and tongues. Tony sank into the kiss like he was starving—and he was. He’d been hungry for this for six years. The kiss escalated more quickly than Tony was prepared for. He wasn’t sure how he wound up on the island, but his legs coming around Ethan’s waist and their hard cocks rubbing together was a jolt of reality. Great reality, but something he wasn’t ready for and they didn’t even have time to indulge in.

Pulling apart seemed mutual, but Ethan pressed his face into Tony’s throat and shoulder, arms tightening around his waist. Almost too tight, but Tony didn’t mind.

“Damn,” Ethan whispered, breath caressing the skin of Tony’s throat and making him shiver. “I thought I’d built our chemistry up in my mind, turned it into more than it was. But…damn.”

Tony felt the same way. How could it be better than he remembered it? “You have to go,” he murmured but held on tighter.

“Yeah, I do.” Ethan didn’t let go until he had barely enough time to make his flight.

– – – –

Once Gibbs pulled out of the sharp turn, Tony released the oh-shit handle and dug out his phone. He hadn’t had time when they’d been sprinting out of the office, and he’d been waiting for a straight stretch of road to make the call.

He got Ethan’s voicemail, which was exactly what he expected since Ethan was supposed to be in meetings all day. “Hey, looks like my case is headed out of town so I won’t be here this weekend. I know you’ve got things over Labor Day.” He knew Ethan was giving a speech in Richmond on Sunday and then one in DC on Monday. The Senate would be back in session on Tuesday and for the whole month of September. “I’m not sure when our schedules align again, but I’ll call you when I’m back in town.” He hesitated, but didn’t feel like he could say anything more personal so he just flipped his phone shut. They’d talked twice this week on nights when they both were up after Ethan’s endless rounds of dinner out.

Gibbs shot him a look then focused on the road again. “You seein’ someone already?”

Tony nearly choked but refused to give anything away. “Not sure how you came to that conclusion since I didn’t say anything to that effect.”

“It’s the tone.”

He made a face because that was entirely possible. “Sort of…yeah.”

“Not sure what ‘sort of’ is. Either you’re with someone or you’re not.”

“Wise words, Master Yoda.” Even with just his profile to work from, Tony could see the exasperation cross Gibbs’ face. “But in that case, yes. But it’s a trial period.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

Tony wasn’t sure why Gibbs was even asking this question. “It means I’m thinking about it.”

Gibbs flashed him another look. “You keepin’ it secret?”

“For now, yes.”

“Then be careful who you’re around when you make calls or work on your tone of voice.”

“Why’s that?”

“Couldn’t hear specifics but know a man’s voice over the line when I hear one.”

Now Tony did choke. “Well, shit.”

“You think I care?” Gibbs asked sharply.

“Well, gee, Gibbs, I don’t know. Do you?”

“Can’t say I really understand how you were engaged to a woman a month ago and trying to decide about a man now, but who you sleep with is none of my business.” He glanced at Tony. “Not saying everyone will agree.”

“We’re skirting dangerously close to personal, Gibbs.”

Gibbs shrugged. “Work with people long enough, things eventually get personal. Just can’t let it get too personal.” Tony clearly got in the tone and emphasis that Gibbs was talking about relationships on the job.

“And which rule is that?”

“Twelve. Never date a co-worker.”

Tony snorted. “Don’t worry, Gibbs, I promise not to develop a crush on you.” Tony caught the eyeroll and smiled. “The new relationship isn’t new exactly. We were together for four years before Wendy. He turned up after Wendy bailed and asked to try again.” He realized belatedly that it made Ethan sound mercenary but he wasn’t going to go into the details. He didn’t know Gibbs that well.

Gibbs was silent for a while but eventually shrugged. “If you decide not to keep it quiet, you let me know if anyone gives you grief.”

Bristling, Tony shot back, “I can take care of myself.”

“Not the point,” Gibbs snapped. “Morrow doesn’t want that kind of shit, but he can’t do anything if he doesn’t know where the problem is.”

“And what about SAC Ayres?”

“He’s an ass.”

Tony laughed. “Right. So I can expect bullshit from him?”

“Probably. Morrow inherited Ayres. I’m sure he’d be happy for any reason to send him to another sensitivity seminar.”

“Right. Because getting my boss sent for sensitivity training is a good idea.”

Gibbs looked at him again, eyes off the road for longer than Tony was comfortable with. “Ayres doesn’t matter. I’ve got your six. Just don’t be an idiot.”

“So you’ve got my back as long as I’m not an idiot?”

“Got your six either way but might headslap you if you’re an idiot.”

“Yeah, go ahead and see how that works out for you,” Tony challenged, not prepared to put up with that kind of crap. Still, he appreciated the sentiment. “Thanks, Gibbs,” he said softly, appreciating the blunt statement of support.

Gibbs grunted. It probably meant something but Tony didn’t feel like he needed to figure it out.

– – – –

Tony was annoyed though he was trying not to take it out on anyone. It was nobody’s fault that they couldn’t get back to DC until morning, which fucked up his plans to see Ethan for the only slot they could work out before the end of the month!

After Ethan’s trip to New York, Tony had been out of town on a case, then Ethan had political events over Labor Day weekend, and now the majority leader of both the Senate and the House had pulled Ethan into meetings over the weekend before legislative sessions resumed again next week. Ethan had shortened his trip to New York based on stuff Tony didn’t know and he was currently slated to fly up Monday morning and back on Tuesday night to ensure he didn’t miss some vote on Wednesday. That left them a four-hour window to meet at Steve’s house on Saturday morning. Which was now totally fucked because they’d missed the last flight back to DC, and the drive back was about sixteen hours.

Gibbs was going to a bar with Pride, but Tony begged off. He liked Pride and would no doubt have enjoyed time in a New Orleans jazz club, but he wanted to talk to Ethan. He split off from the other agents and caught a taxi from the NCIS offices back to their hotel. At least with Gibbs out, Tony could have a real conversation. Well, provided he could get Ethan on the phone.

Ethan answered on the third ring, and the sound of his voice made Tony relax.

“I’m stuck in New Orleans,” Tony said without preamble.

Ethan blew out a breath. “Well, damn.”

Tony echoed him. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing I want more than to see you, but it seems like everything is getting in the way.”

“You on call next weekend?”

“No, but I wasn’t on call this weekend and yet, here I am, not in DC.”

“Regardless, I’ll tell my protection detail that I’m headed back to Richmond on the evening of September 14th. If you can get away Friday night, we could have the whole weekend.”

“Are they going to freak out if you never arrive in Richmond?”

“If you can make it, I’ll let them know that I changed my plans. Once I’m out of the city, I’m not really their concern. But if you can’t get away, I will go home for a couple days and drive up early on Monday.”

“I’ll do everything I can. In fact, I’ll tell Gibbs flat out that I need the weekend off. He expects that if a case is hot that we’ll pull it out until it’s solved. And, in principle, I agree. But Gibbs thinks every case is hot—the man has no perspective. I’m about at the point of telling him that there better be an abducted child, a spree killer, or an act of terrorism. Otherwise, I’m taking the weekend.”

Ethan chuckled. “And may none of those things darken your days. So we’ll plan for the 14th and hope nothing comes up.” There were sounds of Ethan moving around. “So how was the case?”

“We figured it out. The connection to this case in New Orleans seemed thin but Gibbs let me run with the hunch, and it was connected, so we solved two seemingly separate cases. Score for the good guys, but epic fail on the personal life front.”

“I never really envisioned you in law enforcement, but it’s kind of hot.”

“Is that so? Would that be a hidden cop kink—maybe guns or uniforms?”

“If I had a uniform kink, I’m sure it would have come out when I was in the Navy. Although, if you’re ever in tactical gear, I wouldn’t mind a picture…”

Tony laughed. “So guns?”

“No. I don’t think firearms are sexy. It’s more a competence thing.”

He grinned. “You think competence is hot?”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

Tony snorted derisively. “Not hardly.”

“I’ve always found competence alluring, and you’ve excelled in that regard since the first time I met you. That said, competence and a thigh holster is a deadly combination.”

“Weirdo. You just said guns weren’t sexy.”

“They’re not. But you…you’re incredibly sexy.”

“If you keep waxing poetic about my awesomeness, I’m gonna blush or something,” Tony teased.

“Really? Making you blush has always been such an undertaking. But I’m up for the challenge.”

– – – –

Frustrated, Tony pushed back from the desk and ran his hands through his hair. “This case is going to make me insane!”

Pacci’s laugh caused him to turn and find the veteran agent leaning against the partition. “You’re what, thirty minutes into the day? And you’re already losing your mind?”

“Ninety minutes, nosy.” Tony’d even beaten Gibbs into the office this morning, arriving before 0700. He just felt like he was missing something obvious and it kept waking him up last night. “There’s something there. Something I’m missing.”

“Try thinking about something else. It’ll come to you.” Chris jerked his chin towards Gibbs’ empty desk. “Where’s your grumpier half?”

Tony made a dismissive wave toward the stairs leading to MTAC.

“Right. Well, if you want some fresh eyes catch me up?”

“Yeah, that’d be great.” His cell rang and he held up a finger to Pacci. The caller ID showed Ethan’s number. He answered quickly. “Hey, hold on just a sec.” Handing a notebook to Pacci, he said, “I need to take this, but it won’t take long. Those are my notes. File’s on my desk.”

Pacci gave him a thumb’s up, so Tony headed toward the stairwell. After his conversation with Gibbs, he was more careful about talking to Ethan with anyone in hearing distance. And if anyone were around, he was more mindful of his tone of voice.

“Hey,” he said into the cell as he jogged downstairs. “I’m headed outside. What’s the problem?”

“No problem, Tony. Just wanted to hear your voice.”

“Oh.” Tony frowned. “Thought your meeting started at 0830?” That would have been about four minutes ago.

“It did. I told them I needed to make a call. I’m out in front of the building. I can’t put the meeting off forever, but they can’t proceed without me.”

“So, what’s wrong?” Tony asked again. Ethan wasn’t the sort to be late to a meeting. Certainly not so he could call for silly reasons. Tony came out in the lobby and headed for the doors to the parking area.

“Would you be surprised if I said eighty percent of politics is stupid?”

“I’d have thought ninety,” Tony countered.

Ethan laughed. “Right. After yesterday I’m just fed up. Me meeting with lobbyists and executive from big banks is just pointless.”

Tony made it to a bench in a small grassy area off the parking lot. People were so focused on getting into the building no one was getting near his spot. “Do you see their side?”

“See it? Yeah. I just don’t think it trumps the interests of individual citizens and I never will.”

“That’s fair. All you can do is hear all the sides and then make the best call you can.”

Ethan blew out a breath. “Well shit.”

“What?” Tony asked, thoroughly confused by the seeming non-sequitur.

“I have to hear all the sides.”

“Uh…yeah?”

“No, you reminded me that I have to hear all the sides, and you’re right. I do. Even if I’m predisposed against it, it’s my job to listen.” Ethan sighed.

“I wasn’t trying to preach at you.” He didn’t want to cross that line with Ethan. It wasn’t his job to tell Ethan how to be a senator any more than it was Ethan’s to tell Tony how to be an NCIS agent.

“No, babe, I know. I’ve been so busy being annoyed by these meetings that I forgot something important. I think we’d have wrapped this yesterday if they felt like I was actually hearing them.”

The endearment was new and obviously not thought out. He didn’t hate it. “So go hear them out and then get your ass back to DC.”

“I will. I just needed to hear your voice. It seems like months since I’ve seen you.”

“And yet it’s only been twenty-two days and,” he glanced at his watch, “just shy of fifteen hours.”

Ethan laughed, which was exactly what Tony wanted. “It sounds even longer than it feels. Thank God for phones.”

“Exactly and I expect a call tonight.”

“Of co— what the hell?”

Tony heard an odd sound he couldn’t quite identify over the phone. “Ethan?”

“I’m hearing a plane. Really loudly.”

“In Manhattan?” Tony asked incredulously.

“Yeah, it’s— Oh my God!” A cacophony of sounds came over the phone. “It hit the North Tower.”

Tony got to his feet. “Ethan!”

Run!” Ethan’s yell was muffled and barely audible over what sounded like explosions and screaming. “Move it! Don’t just stand there!”

“Ethan!”

The line went dead.

Tony sprinted into the building, hitting the pre-set for Ethan as best he could while running up the stairs, shouldering people out of the way. The phone rang through to Ethan’s voicemail. He hung up and hit redial as he made it to his floor, nearly knocking one of the MCRT agents over as he shoved through the door.

“Hey!”

“DiNozzo!” Gibbs barked as a fast busy came over Tony’s phone.

Tony skidded to a stop. Gibbs annoyed look shifted to concern but before he could say anything, Tony blurted, “A plane flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.” Tony started trying to dial again.

“What?!” came from several people at once.

He got an, “all circuits are busy” message. “Fuck!”

Gibbs’ hands settled on his shoulders and Tony realized how close he was to coming apart. “Slow it down and tell me what’s going on.”

“I was on the phone with a friend who is in meetings in the North Tower today. He said he heard a plane low to the ground—”

“In Manhattan?”

“and then there was an explosion and screaming. The last thing he said was that the plane hit the North Tower.” Tony dialed again and got the same “all circuits are busy.”

“Pacci, notify Morrow. Masterson, see if there are any reports yet. Warren, bring up the plasma and go through all the news channels. What are you getting, DiNozzo?”

Tony was listening to the same busy message again.

“Tony,” Gibbs said more gently. “What happens when you call?”

He met Gibbs’ concerned gaze. “All circuits are busy,” Tony repeated dully. He barely noticed the activity going on in the bullpen as everyone tried to get news.

The plasma in the MCRT bullpen came up with ZNN and Tony could only stare as silence fell over the bullpen. They already had pictures of the North Tower being broadcast, and there was a huge hole in it.

Gibbs leaned close. “This him?” was whispered too lowly for anyone else to hear.

Unable to speak and feeling like a part of him was dying, Tony barely nodded. Gibbs pushed him into a chair. “Keep trying.”

– – – –

Tony was numb. But he kept hitting redial on the phone every ten minutes. The call never connected.

He’d been watching with everyone else when the South Tower was hit by another plane. They’d all been frozen watching as the South Tower came down. Then the North Tower.

Gibbs had ushered Tony to a conference room at some point and now Tony just kept hitting redial.

The door opened and Gibbs stepped in again, setting a bottle of water in front of Tony. He reached out and set his hand over where Tony was robotically pressing numbers on the phone. “He might not have been able to keep up with his phone.”

“He was on the ground in front of the building when the plane hit. I’m sure he lost his phone in the chaos. I don’t know how to stop trying to call.”

“Then he probably had plenty of time to get away.”

>>Tony shook his head. “He was military. There’s no way he evacuated. He stayed, I know he did.” He knew Ethan, knew he wouldn’t have left if people were in danger. He finally met Gibbs’ eyes, seeing too much understanding in them. Tony knew about Gibbs’ family and what happened to them. He didn’t want to understand that kind of pain. He didn’t want this. He just wanted Ethan back.

Gibbs started to say something but then hesitated. After a moment, he offered, “Flights are grounded but Morrow said we can go to New York. He’s selecting agents to temporarily supplement the offices in New York and New Jersey. I told him you may have…lost someone. He okayed you to go and if you need bereavement once we get there, you’ve got it.”

“How long?” Tony was going either way. If Ethan had survived, he needed to be there. And if he hadn’t… Well, Tony wanted to be there until he knew every chance was gone.

“We’ll be in New York at least a few weeks. Pacci’s taking over our case.”

Tony got to his feet. “My go bag won’t cover a couple weeks. I need to run by the house.”

“Meet back here in an hour.” He hesitated. “Need me to drive you?”

“No, I’ll manage.”

He somehow avoided all his shell-shocked coworkers as he made his way to his car. He paused before pulling out and returned Sarah’s call. She’d left a message for him right as he was watching the North Tower come down. Since she was in California and wasn’t an early riser, someone had to have woken her up with the news.

“Tony?” she answered, obviously crying.

“Hey.” He rested his head on the steering wheel.

“Why is this happening?”

“I don’t know, sweetie.” He took a breath. “Ethan was at the World Trade Center.”

“I know.” She choked on a sob. “It was on the news about ten minutes ago that it was speculated that he was in meetings on the 100th floor at 8:30. Tony…”

Eyes burning, he squeezed them shut as his heart felt like it was breaking. “He wasn’t in the meeting.”

“He wasn’t?” she interrupted immediately.

“He was out in front of the building, delaying going up while talking to me. I…lost connection with him right after the plane hit.”

“Did he get out?” There was a hopeful tone in her voice.

“I don’t know.”

There as a long silence and then he heard her shuddery breath. “Ethan would never leave,” she whispered.

“Yeah.” He cleared his throat and sat up straight. “I’m going to drive up there. I need to be closer but my timeline is short.”

“Go. But please call me?”

“I will.”

– – – –

Tony was barely inside his apartment when his cell rang with Sarah’s ringtone. He sent it to voicemail but she rang back immediately. Knowing the cue for urgent, he answered. “Hey. I’m in a rush. Gibbs—”

“The news is talking about Ethan being okay!”

He froze. “What?”

“They briefly interviewed a couple people who reported seeing him or being helped by him. They say he was in the North Tower helping evacuate people when the firefighters made everyone leave. Supposedly he was helping with first aid for people who were injured and rounding up people to carry those who couldn’t walk.”

“They’re sure he escaped the second collapse?” he repeated senselessly, feeling like he could breathe.

“They think so. One guy being interviewed says he saw him afterward.”

“Jesus.” Tony pressed this hand to his forehead as if that could contain his runaway thoughts. “Now I really have to get my stuff together and get out of here. It’s going to be hard to get news on the road. Let me know if you hear.” He paused. “No matter what it is.” If they confirmed Ethan as dead, he’d rather know immediately.

“I will. They say cell service is unreliable in New York right now. Overloaded cell towers. So if I can’t reach you, I’ll keep trying.”

“Yeah, same. And I’ll let you know where I’m staying when I know.”

– – – –

Tony stared out at the passing scenery, grateful that Gibbs wasn’t the chatty sort. It gave him time to think. Time to try to pull himself together.

It had been just barely over ten weeks since Ethan walked back into his life, and Tony knew he wasn’t ready to have Ethan be out of it again. He’d been holding himself back, worried about getting too attached. Actually, that wasn’t true and he was just lying to himself. He’d never stopped being attached to Ethan. He just hadn’t been sure he could forgive him for walking away all those years ago.

“I thought there’d be time,” he whispered to the passing scenery.

After a beat, Gibbs replied, “We always think there’ll be time.”

Tony glanced over, noting the pinched expression on Gibbs’ face. “I thought I’d have time to forgive him. Time to work through being angry before telling him that I’d never stopped loving him.” He fiddled with his cell phone, which he had a hard time putting away. He needed to charge it soon or it’d be dead as a post. He’d dig his charger out when they stopped next. “This morning doesn’t erase the past, but it…” He trailed off, not sure how to finish.

“Perspective?”

“Yeah. It puts it in perspective. He still fucked up, but it doesn’t matter anymore. I just want him to be okay.”

Before Gibbs could say anything, Tony’s phone range. He answered quickly after checking the number. “Sarah?”

“He’s okay.”

“Oh god.” Tony braced his hand on the dash and focused on breathing.

“A news crew caught him on camera working with paramedics in a triage area after the second tower went down. Then when they tried to find him again, he’d slipped away. The film showed him catch sight of the camera and frown. I don’t think he wanted them filming him.”

“No, he wouldn’t.” Ethan would only stay as long as his presence was helpful. If reporters were noticing him, he’d move elsewhere to prevent his presence from affecting those who needed help.

“Do you know where he’s staying?”

“The Kimberly.”

“He has to be heading there, don’t you think?” she asked, sounding worried.

“I hope so.” He blew out a breath. “My phone is dying. I’ll get it on to charge at the next stop. Just leave me a message if you hear anything.” They exchanged promises and goodbyes and he hung up. “He’s alive.”

Gibbs shot him a sharp look. “How?”

“A friend—surrogate sister really—saw him briefly on the news at a first aid station set up after the second tower collapsed.”

“I’m glad, Tony. Real glad.”

And Tony knew that he was. Gibbs wouldn’t get that second chance, but it seemed like Tony would.

– – – –

Tony strode through the lobby of the Kimberly hotel, noting how wrong the vibe was—there and everywhere in New York. The whole country was grief stricken but nowhere more so than here.

The four-hour drive had taken six and somehow Tony and Gibbs had both forgotten their cell phone chargers. Gibbs’ phone would probably last another day on its charge, but Tony had drained his due to constantly trying to reach Ethan. It wasn’t even uncommon for Gibbs not to have his charger because Tony always had his, and they used the same model phone. Except today Tony was a mess and had forgotten it on his desk.

Gibbs had promised to pick one up for him and leave it at the front desk. Tony hadn’t given Gibbs Ethan’s room number, and Gibbs hadn’t pushed it, but Tony would need to charge his damn phone and call Gibbs tomorrow to find out the plan. Gibbs was headed straight to the NCIS offices after he found a place to buy cell accessories.

The elevator ride up to the 29th floor seemed to take for ever. Tony knew Ethan was alive and safe—they’d heard it on the news a couple times over the car radio, and Tony had to make himself not pay too much attention. During the chaos of the morning, if he’d outed their relationship he wouldn’t have cared. But since he’d somehow managed to not give it away, he figured there was no point in doing it once he knew Ethan was alive.

He knocked sharply on the door to Ethan’s suite, waiting impatiently, not even sure his would-be lover had arrived back at the hotel, not sure what he’d do if Ethan wasn’t here. He knocked again, getting a brusque, “Coming!” in response, and he nearly sagged in relief.

The door opened wide to Ethan standing there in a towel, clearly fresh from the shower, and looking confused but relieved at finding Tony on his doorstep. “I’ve been trying to call you,” he whispered.

While herding Ethan inside the room, Tony took in a bunch of scratches and small lacerations, some bleeding sluggishly, and bruises of varying severity all over Ethan’s body.

Tony dropped his duffle and kicked the door shut. “My cell was dead…forgot the charger,” he murmured as he pulled Ethan into a hug.

“I’m bleeding on you,” Ethan mumbled against Tony’s shoulder even as his arms snaked around Tony’s waist.

“I don’t care.” Tony’s chest felt tight and his eyes burned. “I can’t believe you’re okay.”

Ethan held on tighter, almost too tight. “Our meeting was above where the plane…hit. I haven’t heard word on any of them, but how could they get out?”

“I don’t know.” He pressed a kiss near Ethan’s ear, then one to his jaw, finally pulling back enough to meet Ethan’s pained gaze. “I couldn’t bear to…” he stopped, swallowing hard. “I love you so much, and I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner.”

A strong hand curled around the back of Tony’s neck, pulling him close, their mouths fusing together. Ethan let go enough to whisper, “I love you, too,” then licked into Tony’s mouth.

Tony melted into Ethan, letting him take what he needed, reconnecting in the kiss. He felt fine tremors in Ethan’s muscles and the occasional hitching of his breath. Tony felt like he was going to shatter and he couldn’t imagine what today was like for Ethan, how he’d be trying not to fall apart.

He pulled away and noted the glassy eyes filled with grief and horror. “Let me help. Do I need to go get first aid supplies?”

“Paramedics gave me a couple things and the hotel gave me a first aid kit. I just needed to…” he paused and shook his head. “I had to shower it all off.”

Tony could handle first aid, and it gave him something to focus on. “Are you bleeding anywhere on the lower body?” He started looking for himself.

“Few cuts on the legs maybe.”

He pulled away to get stuff, but Ethan grabbed his wrist, and Tony didn’t want to lose connection either. He saw all the first aid stuff dumped on the couch, so he took Ethan’s hand while maneuvering one of the chairs over by the couch. “Sit. Let me fix this.”

It took nearly forty-five minutes to get everything cleaned up and bandaged. Tony thought one of the lacerations on Ethan’s arm needed stitches, but Ethan refused to seek out medical care, taking resources away from seriously injured people. Tony could place the stitches himself if he had a suture kit. He settled for some butterfly closures and a couple gauze pads taped over them.

He had a pile of bloody gauze and towels to deal with but stopped when Ethan wrapped his arms low around Tony’s middle and pressed his face against his stomach. He rubbed his hands over Ethan’s strong shoulders, being careful of areas where deep bruises were blooming.

“Can I sleep with you?” Tony asked. Even though it was barely dinnertime, he knew Ethan needed to rest and Tony just needed to hold him.

Ethan nodded but didn’t say anything.

Tony prodded and cajoled and got Ethan settled under the covers. He was sure some of those cuts would leak through their bandages all over the hotel sheets, but it wasn’t even a consideration.

Ethan had just pulled off his towel and was naked under the blankets. Tony shucked his own clothes and killed the lights before climbing into bed and curling up around Ethan. The hand resting on Ethan’s abdomen was grabbed and pulled up so that Ethan was holding it right above his heart.

Tony pressed a kiss to an uninjured area on Ethan’s shoulder then one to the back of his neck. He wanted to promise that everything was going to be okay, but, after today, he wasn’t sure what okay even meant. But he knew that whatever was coming, he wanted to face it with Ethan. They would be okay. Whatever it took, he’d make sure of it.

The End

– – – –

This is the first episode in the series. The entire series has been plotted. Please don’t guess my plot or make suggestions. Thanks.

Additional art provided by RPDots

66 comments

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    • silverharmony on October 12, 2017 at 10:29 pm
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    Omg!!! Amazing!!! I love the emotional depth your characters have in this story.

    • Ohm on October 12, 2017 at 10:34 pm
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    Oh Stars! This was wonderful.

    • Allyson Martin on October 12, 2017 at 10:54 pm
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    Yay! Very much worth the wait and the mad refreshing I’ve been doing… I like how you’re doing the slow burn as they figure out each other again while respecting each others’ choices.

  1. Thank you for a wonderful start of the day! I really loved the story. (Not really a surprise since I’ve loved everything else you’ve written)

  2. What a gorgeous story! I was so wrapped up in it that I forgot about 9/11 and then, so much like that day, there it was. I can’t say enough about how excellent this entire story is but my typing skills are all wrapped up in the feelings about Tony and Ethan and that most difficult day.

    thank you for sharing this with us.

    • Twisted Sister on October 12, 2017 at 11:30 pm
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    Wow, you’ve been Jilly. Do wish Ethan was a real Senator because we need him.

  3. Loved the story.

    • chanel on October 13, 2017 at 12:33 am
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    Omg. I completely skipped sleep to read this (it’s 3:30am right now) but it’s SO WORTH IT!!! Omg it was so amazing and I just LOVE Sarah and Ethan and their relationships with Tony. And…And…And…*squee* Just wanted to let you know. I’m gonna go sleep now, kay bye. (Thanks for sharing!!!!!)

  4. *fangirls like whoa* Amazing!

    • Marg O. on October 13, 2017 at 12:49 am
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    Good lord, that was an awesome read! Just so good. 😍😍

    • Aibrean on October 13, 2017 at 2:03 am
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    This is amazing! It was great to see the notification, and thank goodness for Friday tests so I didn’t have to wait to read it ;-). I will be looking out for the rest, so good luck with your writing.

    • Sandra on October 13, 2017 at 2:05 am
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    Lovely Story, I especially liked how Ethan explained to his mother how being gay influenced his life and how it made him feel. That’s very powerful stuff.

    • AlisonK on October 13, 2017 at 2:17 am
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    This is lovely! Delighted to find that it’s an initial episode – I started off sort of expecting a big time jump, but quickly realised you weren’t going there. I loved the “they’d be too British” remark 🙂 Spot on!

    I don’t think I have read an NCIS story with a departure point from canon at this juncture before & it’s food for a lot of thought. I did like Tony imagining himself having a different post-wedding experience and ending up with a weird emotional dependence on Gibbs. Just think what a mess that could have lead to!

    Thanks, as ever, for a terrific read. I gather you are moving soon, so all the best for that & I hope you will be very happy in your new home.

    1. In the writing, I waffled a bit on Tony thinking about how he could have become dependent on Gibbs, but I really liked it so it stayed. Glad you enjoyed it 🙂

      The time jumps will usually be between episodes rather than within an episode.

      Tony will still be with NCIS for a while (though he will leave eventually) and I’m having fun exploring how he’ll evolve and grow with such a different beginning.

      Thanks for the well wishes on the move. It’s total chaos here! But I should be settled in Oregon the first of week of November. Maybe I should play the Oregon Trail on the way out of town 😉

    • irinamarenco on October 13, 2017 at 2:18 am
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    Fantastic. I loved the depth of emotions. And the fact that they’re human and they fuck up and they try to make it better. I’m looking forward to see where you’re going to take them and how it will impact Tony at NCIS. Thanks for sharing!

    • Sharla on October 13, 2017 at 2:22 am
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    Great story. I love them as a couple. I really like how the story changed so that Tony never became so dependent upon Gibbs. But since it’s going by canon,is Vivian Blackadder going to be in the story too?

    1. It’s not exactly going along with canon. For instance, Tony and Gibbs didn’t get assigned to the New York office after 9/11 in canon. So that’s going to have an impact on how things shake out. Vivian will be more of a mention in an episode—she’s not important to my plot so I’m not going to dwell on her.

      Thanks!

    • AlisonK on October 13, 2017 at 2:23 am
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    Sorry, I completely forgot to ask – should I recognise the (gorgeous!) chap you have cast as Ethan? I’m afraid I don’t, but I totally agree with the commenter who said they wished he were a real Senator. You wrote some excellent political views for him!

    1. That’s Boris Kodjoe. He’s done a few movies and a lot of TV movies, but he currently plays the head of surgery in the CBS show Code Black, which is where I first came across him. In terms of views, I figured I might as well write my ideal senator 😉

        • AlisonK on October 15, 2017 at 4:28 am
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        Thanks! He’s certainly easy on the eye.
        (I have just now found the main story page and your Cast tab; oops! :))

  5. That was amazing! Thank you for the story and an even bigger thank you to for planning to continue it in the future at some point. Greatest piece of news I’ve heard all week. I love Ethan and could definitely get where he was coming from 6 years ago and how’s he’s finally pulled his shit together to get what he really wants. Although I’m curious to know if Wendy hadn’t left Tony the way she did and if Ethan had approached him months ago or even last year, what do you think the results would have been? Would Tony have rejected the love of his life for Wendy especially with the way Ethan hurt him in the past? Thank you again for writing this wonderful story and introducing an awesome new character.

    1. If Ethan had approached Tony before he got engaged to Wendy, I think it would have thrown him for a loop and he’d have told Ethan to go away at first but probably held off on proposing. The fact that he wouldn’t be able to stop thinking of Ethan would have him end his relationship because clearly he wasn’t 100% in the relationship with her, but he wouldn’t have jumped right into with Ethan, either. If he’d already proposed, it’s a little more complicated. I think Tony would have told Ethan no, but, again, the distraction of it would impact his relationship with Wendy in a negative way. My headcanon is that Wendy never wanted to move to DC. Between her unhappiness about moving and Tony being distracted, I think she’d end it sooner than how I wrote it in …I’ll Forgive. I think in either scenario, Tony and Ethan would get back together eventually but it would take longer than in this story because Tony’s going to react negatively to Ethan busting into his life again when he’s happy in the relationship he has.

    • Emma on October 13, 2017 at 2:48 am
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    Yay New story to think about. Thank you

    • Greenamber on October 13, 2017 at 3:00 am
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    Wow. Just wow. This is simply gorgeous.

  6. Awesome story, thank you Jilly! I love how Tony and Gibbs interact. They work so well together, even from the beginning!

  7. As usual you have written another amazing story! I can’t wait for the next part, but until then, I will amuse myself by coming up with different scenarios that will never come close to what you will provide us with so I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

  8. Thank you for sharing.

    • seachange63 on October 13, 2017 at 4:08 am
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    Really enjoyed this. You always write Tony so well. Great characters. Looking forward to the rest. Thanks for sharing.

    • nimueofthenorth on October 13, 2017 at 4:39 am
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    This is amazing! I was glued to my tablet all the way through. I love the support network you’ve created for Tony and the look into his early days with NCIS, all the little nods to the beginnings of what we see in canon and why it doesn’t go that way in this verse. Wonderful characterisation of Tony and Ethan and I was fully invested in the worry about them during the 9/11 scene. I’m very much looking forward for what else you have planned for this. Thanks for sharing!

    • punctuationvigilante on October 13, 2017 at 5:02 am
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    I love this! At the beginning, the “what-ifs” if Ethan hadn’t convinced Tony to see his relatives were great for showing how Tony’s relationship with Gibbs and work practices were going to differ from canon. And Ethan is a wonderful, three-dimensional OC. I’m looking forward to reading more!

  9. Just amazing!

    • neeliemom on October 13, 2017 at 6:03 am
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    Oh wow, this was just lovely! The depth of the relationship and the struggle to work through past hurts made the whole thing so true to life. Thank you so much for posting it. (I wish Ethan was a real Senator too, we could use a good one.)

    • Kalissa on October 13, 2017 at 6:17 am
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    Your writing always manages to suck me in 🙂
    Great story. I like the original take on Tony’s attitude and relationship. Haven’t seen any AUs lately which split off this early in the series’ plotline and its great to be able to read something different.
    Thank you for sharing!

    • Alexi Cyn on October 13, 2017 at 6:31 am
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    DDDDDaaaaaammmmmnnnnnn!!!!! 😀

  10. Incredible story! Thank you so much!

    • Frankie Phoenix on October 13, 2017 at 7:19 am
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    This is amazing. I Love this and you don’t know how happy i was when i saw that you’d posted something new. I love your Writing.

    • sperrywink on October 13, 2017 at 7:34 am
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    That was lovely. I like how you framed the different set-up for Tony’s NCIS life, and the relationship re-developing with Ethan.

  11. I’m sure you already know this because you’re awesome but this is amazing. <3

    • Megs on October 13, 2017 at 10:49 am
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    Oh my! Wow. I have read and reread your stories so many times (and still do) and now I have even more to come back to. This was an amazing story and amazing start to your series. I am eagerly looking forward to what comes next.

    • MKM1963 on October 13, 2017 at 11:18 am
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    Another masterpiece. I absolutely adore your writings and this story had me captivated from the first sentence. I am so happy this is just the beginning. Looking forward to more!!! Thanks for sharing

    • Lunanimes on October 13, 2017 at 12:03 pm
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    This was so beautiful and emotional. Thank you so much for writing this.

    • garnettac on October 13, 2017 at 1:12 pm
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    That was completely amazing. Which is not surprising because everything you post is amazing, but this had so much weight to it. The issues your Tony and Ethan discussed were so relevant and real. I also loved the dynamic with Tony and Gibbs. I enjoyed some of Tony’s musing about how bad it would have been if he hadn’t turned to his family after being jilted instead of focusing solely on Gibbs and the job. Thank you for writing and sharing!

    1. Thanks 🙂 Those internal musings of Tony’s were one of my favorite parts to write.

    • Kristin on October 13, 2017 at 1:38 pm
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    Absolutely beautiful.

    • Cat on October 13, 2017 at 2:58 pm
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    Hi Jilly,
    I enjoyed this and look forward to reading more. I did have one major question. On 9/11 one of the planes hit the Pentagon. This was something you did not mention during the description of a day I’ll never forget, but was also not addressed with Tony and Gibbs going to NYC. Is there a reason you elected to do this? It just strikes me as off that Gibbs and Tony went north when they probably would have been used in Arlington.

    If you feel this is inappropriate or a “non-consensual beta,” I’m sorry for offending you, but I simply had to ask about what seems like a glaring omission (for someone that grew up in the D.C. Metro area) and I understand if you elect to delete this comment.

    1. For me, the most painful event of that terrible day was the crash of flight 93 since I knew someone aboard that plane. I didn’t mention that part of the day because it wasn’t germane to Tony’s story. And you didn’t mention it, I guess, because it’s not the point you wanted to make because your focus was DC.

      My personal pain wasn’t relevant to Tony’s story. Just like the crash into the Pentagon wasn’t relevant. The story is written from Tony’s point of view and his sole focus was on New York because that’s where someone he loves was. Tony would never have agreed to be sent to the Pentagon considering the situation.

      In terms of your mention of my inaccuracy in having NCIS bolstering their New York office over the Pentagon… The Pentagon was a contained site under the sole jurisdiction of the Department of Defense. Security for the Pentagon, including everyone who works in the building and the site itself, is under the umbrella of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency—they have jurisdiction. If they needed additional support it would probably be security in the form of military assets rather than investigators.

      New York was a very different site compared to the other two crashes. The disaster was in a wide-spread civilian area with logistical issues that were massively more complicated than what happened in DC or Pennsylvania. Law enforcement agencies were strained in New York in ways they weren’t at the other locations. I’m not minimizing what happened at any point on 9/11 because it can’t possibly be minimized. You’re looking at things from YOUR point of view when this is TONY’S story. A writer’s task is to write from the character’s point of view.

      Tony was solely focused on New York and Gibbs was engineering things to get them officially sent to where Tony needed to be. I thought all that was obvious in the story.

    • annette-ella on October 13, 2017 at 3:29 pm
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    Awesome

    • Barb/twi on October 13, 2017 at 3:45 pm
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    I really love this. My only problem is that considering this is YOU..whenever I here the name Steve in a Tony story…My mind goes straight to McGarret…xoxoxoxo..this is so awesome..

    1. LOL. Yeah, Steve McGarrett is half of the mothership so I can see why you’d go there. I thought about using another name, but a frat brother named Steve is NCIS canon, and I need him later in the series. Glad you enjoyed it 🙂

    • Browneyeblue on October 13, 2017 at 5:47 pm
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    Absolutely wonderful, I cannot wait for more! Thank you for a lovely read.

    • Amy on October 13, 2017 at 7:07 pm
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    I absolutely loved this! I already love the way you write Tony, and while Tony/Gibbs is my favorite, I have discovered that I really enjoy all of your pairings and this one was every bit as good as I was expecting, if not more so. I actually found myself crying when Tony thought he had lost him. I have never done that with an original character. I am definitely looking forward to more of this.

    • Eden on October 13, 2017 at 8:22 pm
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    Wow, I loved this thanks!

    • Ash on October 13, 2017 at 10:57 pm
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    Wonderful as always! A new story by you is always such a pleasure… and I don’t know how you managed to make me love an OMC so quickly, but here we are. If I had time travel powers, I’d be back at the pilot insisting that they write him in. (Man, wouldn’t that have made an improvement to the series?)

    Thanks very much for the treat!

  12. Great story. Loved seeing your Tony and his improved self-esteem.

  13. Such an amazing story! Thank you for sharing it.

    • addywoods on October 14, 2017 at 2:21 am
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    What an awesome story! This twist on Tony’s first months at NCIS with all its potential consequences is very intriguing. I especially liked the little bit where Tony muses how making different choices after the failed wedding could have led to him having an unhealthy emotional dependence on Gibbs 😉

    I’m also amazed that your writing made me care about an OC so quickly. I usually warm up to OCs very slowly if at all, but you managed it brilliantly.

    And last but not least something that amused me greatly: In last night’s episode of Hawaii 5-0 someone was shot through a peephole and I don’t think I’ve seen that before on TV (at least not in a long while) so Tony was very right to be concerned about that 😀

    Thanks for this story and I’m rooting for these boys and for them finding a way to make it all work!

    1. I saw that peephole thing on a TV show many moons ago and it so freaked me out that I hate using them. Not that I think people are waiting around to shoot me, but EYES. I have an eye thing. Eyes getting injured just freaks me out.

    • Tidaof2 on October 14, 2017 at 3:59 am
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    Thank you for sharing, Loved it and as always your Tony are awesome

    • Magis on October 14, 2017 at 5:37 am
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    Wow. What an amazing journey…

    • Emma Gerhardt on October 14, 2017 at 7:53 am
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    What a beautiful way to deal with hate.

    • Nane on October 14, 2017 at 8:14 am
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    Wow, you are amazing, this story is incredible, I cried, I smiled, I wanted to kick someone’s behind, I fell in love with Sarah and Ethan and a bit with Steve, you put me in a rollercoaster of emotion and I loved it 🙂

    Thank you so much for this fantastic story
    Nane

  14. Wow. This is terrific. Thank you so much for writing and sharing this. There’s nothing about this that I would change.

    Couple of things that jumped out: I didn’t actually realize the Macaluso case was canon Baltimore. I thought Philadelphia WAS canon, so head canon emphatically accepted, because holy cow, that case being in Baltimore is unbelievably stupid writing – Dead Air levels of stupid.

    Also, I love Sarah and Mama Moore. You are so great at writing OCs who are just on screen for a minute or two, but leave a lasting impact and become very present throughout the story. Bravo. Also, I adore Alfre Woodard and will celebrate her in anything and everything.

    But really – Tony. This is such a great premise. The huge changes that spring from this little change – Tony doesn’t disappear into himself, alone, after the wedding falls apart and suddenly, everything is up for grabs. The dynamics with Gibbs are fascinating. I can’t wait to see how you handle the two of them. I would never have thought of this premise! It’s such a great idea and a wonderful ride.

    Thank you!

    1. The Baltimore thing surprised me too. I was carefully rewatching Frame Up before writing If Found, Please Return to get the timeline of events down. About a third of the way through the episode, Tony’s making a list of people holding a grudge who might try to frame him. McGee asks who Mike Macaluso is and Gibbs replies that it’s a Mafia boss Tony put away while he was in BALTIMORE. OMG!! I rewatched it several times because I’d always thought it was Philadelphia. Tony then says that those kinds of guys take it badly when they treat you like family and you turn out to be a cop. So how Tony continued to work in Baltimore is beyond me. I couldn’t work with that kind of crazy so wrote it as Philly.

      And now that I’ve ranted… 😉 thanks for the lovely comments. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    • jeckissalynn on October 14, 2017 at 1:55 pm
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    This is fantastic, thank you so much for sharing it with us!

    I really love the character of Ethan (and as some others have already said, seriously wish he was an actual Senator!). The conversation he had with his mother about not accepting/being open about his sexuality because it was something that made him different that he could hide was incredibly moving. As someone who only decided to come out as bi into adulthood it felt very real to me; though I am in a position of far less prejudice as a white woman. I don’t know if you ever read comics, but in recent X-Men continuity, Bobby Drake (Iceman) came out as gay and in a conversation about it he says something to the effect of “I just wanted one part of my life to not be something I’d be judged for”, its a really beautiful moment and I felt a strong parallel to Ethan’s moment with his mom.

    Tony’s musing that if things had gone down differently, he’d have ended up dependent on Gibbs was completely, hilariously fantastic. I really enjoyed reading your Tony before he puts up with any of the crap he does in canon, and seeing how clearly and quickly he sees all of Gibbs’ messed up attitude as the bullshit that it is. I’m excited to see how his place at NCIS evolves/changes from this point!

    Thank you for warning for the 9/11 stuff. As a New Yorker, though one who was so incredibly lucky enough to not lose anyone, its a rough topic and I usually avoid fics that deal with it, but I thought (correctly as it turns out) that you were a writer I could trust with it, and I’m glad to have read this. In reading through earlier comments, I saw that you lost someone on Flight 93, I am so sorry for your loss <3

    Thank you again, and good luck with your move!

    1. I’ve had that coming out moment myself, so I feel you. It’s hard to hold something secret that you don’t want to hide. Over time, it can be wounding because secrets can get heavy. In a very fangirl way, I mentally liken it to Frodo carrying the one ring. The longer he carried it, the more damage it did. Of course, some secrets we want to keep, but it’s the ones we shouldn’t have to keep but do out of fear or shame that do the most damage.

      I do read comics sometimes, but I hadn’t read the one where Bobby comes out. I’ll have to look for that. Thanks!

      In terms of 9/11, thank you for your condolences. I can’t imagine what that day and the subsequent years must have been like for someone in New York. I’ve always been hesitant to write events from 9/11 into a piece of fiction and had never done it until this story. I wrestled with it for this story too, but the events of 9/11 are referenced canonically in NCIS so I decided not to write around it or pretend like it didn’t happen. I tried to keep the brush strokes pretty broad and stay in Tony’s POV because I don’t want to upset people unduly. Although, in keeping my focus narrow and moving through it quickly, I seem to have upset people by not mentioning certain things. Such is life. All I can do is warn and hope people take good care of themselves.

      Thanks for reading. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    • Kelly on October 15, 2017 at 4:06 am
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    Really enjoyed this story. Loved how Tony didn’t take Gibbs shit and stood up for himself. Thank you for sharing.

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