Oh, The Places You'll Go

Feel My Needle Hit the Groove



Notes:
First, thank you to soupytwist for powers of awesome. Second, there are some images towards the end of the fic. A text version for people using screen readers can be found below the images. This fic brought you by too much time spent creating characters for Band Hero.




"Jeez, McGee," says Tony, twisting around and fixing the kid with a glare. "Hold it together, can't you? The point of the rhythm section? Is the rhythm."

McGee presses his lips together and he slides an unhappy look in Abby's direction. Oh for- This is what he gets for working with freaking kids. Love affairs gone wrong and the inability to get through a whole eight bars without the walking bass turning wandering.

"Look," he says, as patient as he can muster right now, "let's take it from the top, okay? Ziva?"

"One, two, three, four!" hollers Ziva, drumsticks held way up over her head, and crashes in with the drum riff. Tim's a fraction behind, eyes flicking towards Tony to see if he noticed, (he noticed) but he catches up and they're setting the pace as Abby lifts her arm ready to take the first chord. She does everything at full tilt, even when they've been practicing for five hours already. Tony'd thought drugs, for sure, but no, turns out she's the Duracell Bunny made flesh.

The intro builds and Tony feels it pounding through his feet, shaking his bones, filling his lungs. He opens his mouth.

And sings.

"So about before," says McGee, slumped in the passenger seat, "I'm sorry I was off my game. It's just- The thing is I- You see-"

"You don't have to tell me," says Tony, thinking it's better if the kid doesn't. State law probably says it's illegal to beat your head off the steering wheel with frustration at the inability to just fucking spit it out, already.

"I don't?"

"I've seen the McGoo-Goo eyes, McGee. Abby shot you down."

"She didn't!" Tony doesn't have to be looking at the kid to know the indignation is just roiling off of him. He grins.

"It's nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone strikes out sometimes." He taps the wheel to a 3/4 beat. "Except me."

"I did not st- We. Okay. We slept together."

Huh. McGee's not the kind of guy to brag---not about stuff he's not genuinely great at, anyway--and his hurt tone has the ring of truth about it. Now that, Tony was not expecting. He frowns.

"So what's the problem?"

"I wanted to-"

"Do it again?"

"No! Yes! No. I didn't. I wanted to go steady."

The laughter takes Tony by surprise, but not as much as the stoplight. He slams on the brakes, still guffawing. "Go steady?" he grins, turning to stare at McGee. "Go steady? Who even says that? Are you sure Abby's the girl?"

McGee's face blanks. Like, Tony can see it shutting down. It's weird and unpleasant and Tony's not sure he likes being the cause of that.

"You know what, Tony? You can't assign gender stereotypes on the grounds of being in love. Guys do that, too."

Tony's eyebrows shoot up. "In love? Who said anything about that? You're not in love with her, McGee, you're infatuated." He's surprised by the vehemence of his belief.

"Don't tell me what I am or I'm not. You're not my dad," mutters McGee, burying himself deeper into the passenger seat, hiding behind folded arms. "The light's green," he adds, before Tony can think of what to say next.

Tony lets the kid out on the corner of his street, tires squealing as he pulls away.

"Definitely not your dad," he says, and it takes him the rest of the journey home and a couple of beers to shake the feeling of plain not-rightness that's settled in between his shoulder blades. Must be the way he grabs the mic stand. Maybe he should start doing some stretches before rehearsals.

He flicks through the adult channels and cups himself through the heavy cotton of his pants. It's all pretty much autopilot, though, and he gives up after thirty seconds. He needs to get going on that mix-CD anyway. It's still not clear whether Ziva's, "Who's Sinatra?" was a joke or not, but he's taking no chances. See, this is what you get from working with kids. Now, should he start with 'Bad, Bad Leroy Brown' or 'Call Me Irresponsible?'

***






Their first gig they get twenty minutes to open and a shuffling, mostly bored audience who talk their way through the set, the low buzz adding another line no one in the band asked for. There are a few down at the front, though, mostly Abby's friends, and they're into it, body parts and hair on the move and in the groove. It's enough for Tony to surf off of, the energy they're reflecting back at him, and he belts out the closer like they're playing Madison Gardens. Which they totally will. One day.

Gibbs slaps them upside the head one by one as they come offstage. He doesn't say a word. He doesn't have to.

"I know, I know," says Abby. "The vocal is vital, feedback is flawed. I just got too close to the monitor. It won't happen again, Gibbs, pinky swear."

"Stop blowing the tempo change in 'Whadda You Got?' Ziva," says Ziva. "I will do that, Ziva. Thank you, Ziva."

"I oversold the bridge on 'Autopsy Gremlin'. Sorry, boss." Tony flinches as headslap number two knocks the hat off his head. "Oh yeah, the apology thing. I'd apologize for apologizing only I'm concerned about brain damage." He picks up his hat and straightens up in time to see McGee make it offstage, arms full of equipment. He grins in anticipation of the slap.

It doesn't come. Instead, Gibbs strokes the back of McGee's head and says, "Good work out there, McGee."

McGee's face lights up. "Thanks, boss," he says, "I've been-" But Tony doesn't get to find out what he's been because a bunch of hot chicks swarm past him and onstage and Jimmy's yelling for some help here with the amps and Gibbs shoves him back out there.

Tony jams the hat on his head and casts a look back over his shoulder, but McGee is gone and Ziva is yelling something at one of the hot chicks about her drums and they'd better get out of here, fast.

No one's really sure how come Jimmy gets to drive the van because his sense of direction sucks many, many balls. Jimmy points out that actually, he drives the van because it's his van and that if it wasn't for his day job they wouldn't have a van at all. Abby says that if Jimmy says van many more times it'll lose all meaning and then chants, 'van van van van van' until Gibbs shuts her up with a glare.

Gibbs rides up front with Jimmy, of course. Tony's never heard him give actual directions, but somehow he still navigates. Possibly there's a telepathic link--Tony's long since given up trying to explain Leroy Jethro Gibbs. Tonight, Abby's up there with them and Tony's in back with McGee and Ziva. Ziva's curled up on her side, head resting in McGee's lap. She's fast asleep, mouth slack, tiny line of drool caught silver in the intermittent smear of streetlights, and Tony wonders, not for the first time, just how she manages to be comfortable in the most uncomfortable places. It's a talent he really envies.

McGee twists strands of her hair around his fingers, legs stretched across the width of the van, foot knocking into Tony's hip. Tony finds himself hypnotized by the winding and unwinding action, unable to look away from McGee's fingers disappearing and re-emerging long and pale from under Ziva's dark hair.

"You should play piano," he says.

"Huh?" McGee looks up, the frown of concentration on his face smoothing out.

"Your fingers, McManilow. You'd clear an octave easy. You never learned?"

McGee spreads his hands out in front of him, inspecting them. "Never wanted to."

"Fuck, Jimmy!" yells Tony, as the van hits a nasty bump and sends his ass up in the air and then back down with a smack on the hard van floor at the same time as McGee's flailing leg kicks him in the hip.

"Sorry!" Jimmy yells back.

Ziva sleeps on. Amazing, thinks Tony, grabbing McGee's foot and gripping it tight.

"Waste of digits," says Tony.

McGee grins. "Not really," he says, wiggling his fingers in front of his face and shooting a glance at the front of the van so brief Tony can't be sure he even saw it. "Not really at all."

Tony stays up way too late wondering what the hell that even meant.

***


The apology's halfway swallowed already as Tony thrusts a coffee at Gibbs. He's about to start on his usual round of excuses for rocking up late to the studio, but Gibbs jerks his head and Tony spins around to follow his gaze. Okay, so the soundproofing thing's obviously good. Abby and McGee are going at it hammer and tongs in there. Abby's pigtails are practically standing out straight from her head and McGee's managing to pull off pitiful and pissed at the same time, hands cutting the air like he wishes they were sharpened blades.

"What's the what?" Tony asks, wondering if it's too late to start taking bets. Two band members enter, one band member leaves. "Did Abby diss Iron Fist again? She shouldn't do that before he's had his sugar. She knows he gets cranky."

"No, it is him," says Ziva, appearing at Tony's shoulder and pushing his head around. Some kid about the same age as Abby slouches on the sofa. His black hair stands up in spikes, his eyes ringed with eyeliner and his pierced lips painted dark purple to match his fingernails. He's wearing tight, black pants, torn strategically, and a band shirt so faded Tony can't read the logo. The most perfect snake tattoo Tony's ever seen crawls up the guy's left arm and is matched by a silver ring on his right hand.

"Hey," says Tony, puzzled.

"Hey," says the kid, agreeably.

"Sooo...?"

"Abby brought him."

"And I say again, sooo...?"

"Abby brought him, Tony." Ziva flicks his ear.

"Ow!" Tony shoves her lightly, his attention caught by movement in the studio. It's possible Abby just threw something at McGee's head. "Oh crap," he says. "I thought he got past that." His stomach squeezes because Abby brought snake guy here and now she's fighting with McGee and in the movies this is where she slaps him and he slaps her and they stare at each other in shock and then kiss with an optional fade-to-black. But this is Abby so the kiss is more likely to be a black eye. Oh, McGee.

"Boss, d'you want me to-"

"Leave it, DiNozzo."

"But-"

"Leave it."

"Yes, boss."

Tony can't watch any more. He slumps down on the sofa next to the kid.

"So," he says, "Got any more piercings?"

"Sure. Wanna see?"

"Why the hell not?" says Tony and his finger is halfway to touching the kid's belly ring when the studio door flings open and Abby yells, "Are we doing this thing or not?"

Tony snatches his hand away and is pushing past Abby before the kid's had time to tug down his tee.

McGee's tuning his bass, head down, facing the wall. Tony's heart thuds painfully. It's like watching a butterfly being pinned down and its wings pulled off. He lets his hand rest lightly on McGee's back and pretends not to be offended when McGee flinches away.

"You okay, man?" He keeps his voice low.

"Sweet, thanks. You can tell me how I feel later." McGee swings away, leaving Tony staring after him.

"I don't-" says Tony and then Gibbs comes through on the intercom telling them time is money like they haven't just wasted fuck knows how long on the doomed puppy love of McGee. Tony shares a grimace with Ziva and grabs the headphones off the mic stand. This is going to be a long day.

When they're done, McGee's out of there faster than Roger Rabbit on speed, but Tony's got the advantage of a car and he catches up with the kid before he's made it to his bus stop. He pulls over and winds down the window.

McGee walks straight past.

"Oh for-" Tony guns the engine and curb crawls alongside the stubborn bastard.

"Let me give you a ride," he says, leaning across the seat. McGee doesn't even look at him. Tony sighs. He tracks McGee to the corner of the block. "Get in or I'll tell the nice police officer over there that you tried to prostitute yourself to me. Ten bucks for a blowjob, McIris? You're selling yourself short."

That gets his attention. McGee stops and stares at him in horror.

"You wouldn't."

"And how long have you known me, now?"

"Crap."

Tony grins as McGee puts his bass in back and climbs in. He folds his arms and juts out his chin. "Okay. I'm in. Now what?"

"Now you put your seatbelt on because everyone else on the road is an asshole and we go back to my place and get you drunk."

"What if I don't want to go back to your place?" mutters Tim, but he's putting his seatbelt on and Tony chooses to take that as a good sign.

"You're not going back to your shitty apartment to brood about Abby," says Tony. "And if you don't want to hear her name, that's fine by me, I won't say it again. And if you want to spend the whole night sulking on the couch and crying at crappy soap operas, that's fine, too. You're just doing it on my watch."

"You're not my mom."

"Not your dad, not your mom, not any kind of parental unit at all. Jeez, McGee, if you don't want anyone to give a shit about you, you're going the right way."

McGee turns his head away and stares out of the window. They drive on in silence for a minute or two, then, "Sorry. I guess I regress when I'm-"

"Hurt? Upset? Throwing your toys out of the pram?"

McGee's head swings back around and he punches Tony in the arm. "Shut up, DiNozzo," he says, but there's no malice in his voice, not even a hint of pouting, and Tony thinks they might get through this without a band break up after all.

In the end there's no crying and the crappy soap operas are passed up in favor of video games and beer. Lots of beer. And it turns out that drunk McGee trash-talking his ninja-assed way through endless fights is one of his favorite things of all time.

It takes five beers and the horrible deaths of fuck knows how many assassins before McGee says, "I thought I was over it, I swear. It's just...why not me, you know? What does he have that I don't?"

"Body art and piercings," says Tony. "And don't even think about it."

"I could tattoo 'Mom' on my butt," says McGee's, poking at it. "We could draw it on, see what it looks like."

"Enough beer for you, McLightweight!" says Tony, removing the bottle from McGee's unresisting fingers. "You know, the residual jealousy thing's pretty normal. Doesn't mean you're still in love with her."

"Really?" McGee's eyes go all round and hopeful and surely he hasn't ever turned this look on Abby because how could she resist? It would be like kicking a puppy. A really cute puppy dog for the blind.

"Sure, why not?"

McGee smiles, slow and lop-sided. "Why are you being so nice to me?"

Tony blinks. What kind of question is that? Isn't it obvious? "Because I like you," he says.

"Oh," says McGee. "I thought you were going to say because you don't want the band to break up."

"That, too," says Tony, frowning. A few hours ago, that's the answer he would have given, but something is different now, something he can't pin down. He shakes his head. "We should probably hit the sack. Pretty sure Gibbs will flay us with his laser eyes if we turn up wasted tomorrow, um, later." He stands up. "You'll be okay on the couch?"

McGee nods, sliding easily into the horizontal plane. He looks up at Tony, all eyes and limbs.

"You want a blanket or something?"

"I'm good. Hey, Tony?"

"Mmm?"

"I like you, too."

It's got to be the beer that's making Tony feel all warm inside. "Why wouldn't you? I'm awesome. See you in a few, McGoo."

"Yeah," says McGee, and closes his eyes.

Tony goes to bed and has strange dreams about snakes and ninjas.

***


They make it to the studio the next morning with ten minutes to spare, probably due to the wet cloth McGee had thrown at Tony's head to wake him up.

"Hey, I'm just trying to stay attached to my balls," McGee'd said, grinning and holding up his hands. "You heard what Gibbs said about tardiness."

Tony'd wiped a forearm across his face and grimaced. "You do that again and I'll remove your balls. Without anesthetic."

"Okay," McGee'd said cheerfully and Tony frowned. Did the guy have an identical twin or something? Because this was not the same kid that wanted to Sharpie his ass last night.

Abby's running a line when they get there, the same eight bar phrase over and over, her mouth tight with concentration.

"You could try sliding that shift in the third measure instead of hammering on," says McGee. "It'll make it easier for the downshift after."

Abby's fingers still on the strings, her head whips up and she purses her lips. "Huh. You could be on to something there, Timmy." She tries again. "Well, it doesn't suck."

McGee nods and is about to move off when her hand shoots out and stops him.

"Listen, McGee, I'm sorry about yesterday. I didn't mean-"

McGee straightens and Tony prepares for evasive action. "No, don't. You've got nothing to apologize for. I pay my own bills, gotta take responsibility for my feelings. I'm sorry for making it about you, Abby. It's not."

Abby squeezes McGee's arm and beams at him. "And this is why you'll always be one of my favorites," she says.

Tony can only stare. When he was McGee's age he wouldn't have been able to spot maturity if it had leaped out of the bushes and smacked him on the nose. He feels a strange rush of warmth to his belly and whadda you know? Turns out he's proud of the kid. No band death today.

They lay down the rest of the demo without incident. Well, without incident if you don't count Ziva's best Animal impression when a glitch manages to erase the whole drum track after she's just laid down what she says is a perfect performance. It's pretty late when they're done. Gibbs sends them all home, telling them to take a week off rehearsing, he'll call them with any news, and whatever they do, don't quit their day jobs.

"I don't have a day job," says Tony.

"Shut up, Tony," says everyone.

Tony makes it nearly a whole 24 hours before he's bored with his four walls. The band's only been together a few months and he already can't remember what he did with his time before it existed. Drank more, he thinks. Clubbed, hooked up. Ah screw it. He takes a shower, dresses up, spends way more time in front of the mirror fixing his hair than any self-respecting guy should, and heads into the city.

He cruises a couple of bars but the ants are in his pants or the streets are in his feet, or some other rhyming crap, and he can't settle. He meanders a random course through downtown, picking up faint snatches of music that ooze around closed doors and tapping his fingers against his leg to the counterpoint of laughter and yelling bombarding his ears from every direction. It's a warm, spring night and people spill over the sidewalks, owning this town, dressed up or dressed down it doesn't matter. Tony's humming it in his head, the melody that the night is building to and then he stops, the storefront up ahead catching his eye, and the song fades before he can stuff it in his pockets for later. Usually, Tony would take a minute to mourn the fact that he's lost his first platinum-selling song, but tonight he simply smiles and pushes the door open.

The place is crammed with books, floor to ceiling, wall to wall, shelves bending out of sight in a way that suggests that there are some laws of physics being broken here. There's the clink of cutlery and the smell of something really good wafting over from the café in back and Tony's stomach points out that they haven't eaten in hours, and could Tony get on that, thanks? Tony couldn't, as it happens, he's looking for someone.

He turns a full 360 and is on the receiving end of at least one appreciative look, but he doesn't see what he wants. Tony brushes off the owner of the appreciative look with a smooth smile and makes his way between Criminology and Tourism, rounds Fiction G-L and finds himself at eye-level with a pair of solid thighs. The wooden ladder supporting the thighs is on wheels and for a second Tony flirts with the idea of giving it an idle shove, but if he kills the bassist Gibbs will kill him. He settles for a "Hey there, McBookworm," and the startled, "Jesus fuck, Tony, when did you get so ninja?" accompanied by a satisfying wobble of the ladder.

"I'm not exactly stealth," says Tony. "Are you coming down now, or what?"

"What," says McGee and the slight shake in his voice makes Tony look up. McGee's face is smushed against the ladder and his knuckles are white, they're gripping the rails so tight.

"Oh my god, are you scared of heights? Seriously? You're, like, three feet off the ground. Max."

"Feels like nine," mutters McGee. "Shut up."

"Would you get down here, you big baby?"

"That's right, poke fun at the irrational phobia. Be the big man."

Tony watches as inch by excruciating inch, McGee makes his way down the four whole steps that separate him from ground zero.

"Do you need to sit down? You want some hot, sweet tea for the shock? How about sticking your head between your legs? Someone else's legs?"

"Jerk," says McGee. "What are you even doing here? Did you just come here to make fun of me? Because I figure I've maxed out on humiliation this week."

"Hey, no! None of that," Tony doesn't say. He isn't sure why. He settles for, "Would you believe book shopping?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Because I've worked here since I graduated high school and I've never seen you here before. Also? I know people come here for dates and stuff, but you're kinda dressy for a bookstore."

Tony looks down at himself and is mildly surprised to find the kid is right. He's looking pretty sharp. No wonder the blonde in Thrillers gave him the eye. He leans against the shelves. "I'm bored," he admits. "Come and hang out with me."

"I'm working, Tony."

"So this place has to close sometime, right?"

McGee rolls his eyes. "Don't you have anything better to do? There's some girl pretending to read self-help books who keeps looking over at you. She's into you, for sure."

Tony shrugs and doesn't even look round. "Not tonight. Tonight I want to watch rock mockumentaries and I want to watch them with you."

"Tonight's pretty much tomorrow."

"So stay over again. Your back won't be screwed by couches for years yet."

McGee narrows his eyes, considering. "Tap and Fear of a Black Hat, right?"

"Yeah. And this Canadian one Abby lent me. Hard Core something. Rock, rap and punk--we've got the bases covered. C'mon, McHubbins, don't make me quote alone."

McGee checks his watch. "Gimme thirty minutes. Go get a coffee or something. Sounds like you'll need it."

Tony pushes off the shelves and claps his hand on McGee's arm. "Good soldier," he says, walking off backwards. "Never leave a man behind."

He spoils the exit by tripping over a table of books, but hey, at least the self-help girl isn't looking any more.

Afterwards, Tony will swear that it's the trauma that bonds them. He doesn't remember who clutched whom first, but they stare at the screen as the credits roll in silence gripping each other's arms, until McGee swears he's never watching anything Abby owns ever again and maybe he doesn't want to be in a band anyway. Tony points out that they don't do punk rock and he's never worn a ripped sweater in his life and McGee makes a crack about poor little rich kids and somehow this ends up with Tony putting McGee in a headlock until he promises to stop singing Baby, You're a Rich Man.

McGee does stop singing because he values his life and also it's way past time they called it a night, traumatized or not. Tony's been in bed maybe five minutes tops when, "How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?" floats in through the open door.

He chokes back a laugh, yells, "I'll get you next time, Gadget!", turns on his side and falls asleep.

***


The next morning he's awake way before McGee. Tony briefly considers throwing a washcloth at his head in retribution, but figures he'll let the kid sleep. It's not been an easy few days for him. He makes coffee, leaning on the counter and zoning out on the gentle rise and fall of McGee's chest, then heads back into his room, grabbing his guitar from against the wall. He sits cross-legged on the rumpled sheets, noodling away, trying to get something back of the melody he'd found the night before. It's elusive, though, just like he'd known it would be and he lets his fingers run away with themselves, the quiet notes dropping into the still air like rain into a stream.

"Hey," says McGee and Tony zooms back into focus, looking up to see the kid leaning against the doorframe. "Sounds good. What is that?"

"Nothing. Just playing around."

"You ever write songs?"

"Sometimes," admits Tony warily, wondering where this is going.

"Why don't you bring them to the band?"

Tony shrugs. "Abby's mostly got that down. We don't need to get distracted. Besides, I'm not so handy with the lyrics."

"I am," says McGee. "And you should."

"You are, I should, what?"

"I'm good with words. When I get to write them down, you know? They're...not exactly easy, but I know where I want them to go. And you should bring your stuff to the band. That's a good melody, we could do something with that."

Tony's fingers still as he thinks, then start up again. He can do the music, Tim can do the lyrics, it's a ready-made perfect partnership. Why the hell not? "Write with me," he says, "and I'll think about it."

"Really?" There's a hint of eagerness to McGee's voice that reminds Tony of that puppy again.

"Really," says Tony. "Now come and sit your butt down over here. We'll be the new Lennon and McCartney. Of course, you'll have to be McCartney 'cuz you both have a 'Mc' and everyone knows Lennon was cooler and c'mon, Timmy." He grins.

"Sweet," says Tim, flopping down onto the bed. "I get to be rich and not-assassinated. I'm prepared to give up cool points for that."

"Who exactly told you you had cool points to start with? Because the pharmacist called and said they forgot to pick up their refills."

"I heard it's possible to kill someone with a ballpoint pen. I bet Gibbs could teach me."

Tony jabs at McGee's side with his guitar and wonders if this is how Lennon and McCartney started out. He doesn't think about how they finished up.

The week goes by in a blur, faster than anything Tony can remember. McGee has to work, but Tony picks him up every day and they eat and then head back to Tony's place and write songs and watch movies and on Wednesday McGee drags him to Big Planet Comics, picks up his standing order and spreads out on Tony's floor, trying (and mostly failing) to get him to understand that Green Lantern will never fight Doctor Doom, Jesus, Tony get it right, except in JLA Avengers, but no one with any sense even admits those exist so shut up and get to reciting Robins, okay?

Tony's surprised at how well the writing goes. He's used to messing about alone, not getting further than a hook here, a riff there. But McGee's got more focus. He has this battered notebook, all scribbled notes and angry cross-hatching. He doesn't meet Tony's eyes when he hands it over and leafing through Tony gets it. This stuff is personal; it's layers of McGee that Tony didn't even know existed. He's not so good at hiding who he's writing about--sometimes it's painfully obvious and the pages and pages about Abby fairly break Tony's heart--but the lyrics themselves...Tony's blown away. They're sharp and witty and devastating and beautiful, sometimes all at once. Tony doesn't know if he can do any of them justice, but he's going to try. He riffles back through the pages and hands the open book back to McGee--Tim--pointing at a set of lyrics.

"That one," he says.

Tim chews his lip, nods and says, "Okay."

They get to work.

On Saturday evening Tony's phone rings and he stares at it for a while before picking it up. It's like he knows that once he answers it, this bubble they've been in will burst and everything will crowd in, voices and obligations and be-here-at-1800-hours and his hands are clammy as he grabs the receiver and he doesn't know why.

"Uh-huh," he says. And, "Sure thing, boss." And, "You know I can be on time, I just ch- Um. Yeah. Sharp." He puts down the phone and turns to Tim who's hanging over the back of the couch doing a really bad job of pretending not to listen in. "That was Gibbs. Rehearsal and band meeting tomorrow at seven. Sharp."

Tim nods so fast it makes Tony feel seasick. "We're putting the band back together. Sweet."

"Um. We weren't ever not together, McGenius. Hey, we should bring 'South by Southwest', it's about ready."

Tim's head stops mid nod. He looks up at Tony through his eyelashes, face shaded. "If there's time," he says. And, "I should probably go home."

"Oh," says Tony, confused for a second because somehow he'd managed to forget he lived alone. "Sure. Because you need to check on the bathroom mold, it's probably developed limbs or a functioning immune system and is preparing for world domination."

"Oookay," says Tim, pushing up off the couch, "Too many B-films for you, DiNozzo. Try an early night. See you tomorrow, yeah?"

"Yeah," says Tony on autopilot, watching Tim buzz around, picking his stuff up and shoving it in his backpack. There's a whole day before band rehearsal. What's he supposed to do with all that time?

***


Tony gets to Gibbs's place a whole twelve minutes early, which is totally because of Gibbs's order and not that he spent the last hour at home checking his watch every couple of minutes to see if it was time to leave yet.

"Heeeeeeere's Tony!" he mugs as he opens the unlocked door. There's no answer, only the sound of banging coming from the basement, and Tony heads towards it, intrigued. Gibbs has threatened more than once to throw them out of their rehearsal space and use it to build a boat instead if they don't get their heads out of their asses and start playing like a band instead of insert this week's metaphor here.

"A new Noah's ark," he says. "Because surely the end is nigh."

Abby asks (because she's the only one who'd dare) how Gibbs is so certain he'll survive the coming end and Gibbs stares at her, a long, hard stare with only the barest hint of a smile on his lips.

"Because I'll have a boat," he says. And that's that.

So it could be the boat Gibbs is hammering, and he's called them all there to make a big showy demonstration about how fired they all are, but Tony opens the basement door to find Abby crouched at the bottom of the stairs nailing blankets to the walls. She's obviously been at this some time because wherever once flat wall space had been, now hang multi-colored blankets in draping folds. Really multi-colored.

"Abby, why are you nailing blankets to the walls?" he asks, in a brief bang-free interlude.

"Sown' weduction," says Abby through a mouthful of nails.

"Pretty sure blankets aren't going to stop the Robsons complaining if we go a second past ten thirty."

Abby stands up, opens her mouth and lets the nails drop into her waiting hand. She shakes her head. "Did I say soundproofing? No, I did not, Tony. I'm talking about sound absorption. If I'm going to reverb it's because I decide and not the room. Physics is my bitch. Are my bitch? Is my bitch? Are my-"

"Okay?" interrupts Tony, walking down the stairs. "Only I'm gonna need to start wearing my sunglasses in rehearsals, is what I'm saying. Does Gibbs know you're doing this? Where is he anyway?"

"Duh!" says Abby. Then, "Plurals are hard. This is his house, of course he knows. I sent him to get more nails."

"You sent him to- Wow. How come you get to tell Gibbs what to do and live?"

Abby grins, leans forward and kisses Tony on the cheek. "Because he loves me best. Live with it."

Just at that moment, Tony hears a "Hey!" and turns to see Tim at the top of the stairs. He's looking down at them, the wide smile on his face suggesting he's really happy to be here. Even with the scary blankets. Tony grins up at him. Spend a whole week practically in someone's pocket you're going to miss them when they're gone, right? He's about to take the stairs two at a time and noogie the hell out of Tim or something, but he stops sharp, foot hovering over the first stair. Who's to say the smile isn't for Abby? He hasn't seen her in a week. Tony's read Tim's notebook--it's all there in black and white--apparently everyone loves her best. Maybe Tony should check in with Ziva, see if they go three for three.

"Cool," says Tim, staring around the room. "Nice damping."

"It's no Carnegie Hall, but it'll do for now," says Abby, spinning on the spot. Tony flinches in anticipation of flying nails.

Tim lollops down the stairs, shoulder-barging Tony as he passes. "Dork," he says. "Given distance and velocity they'd totally ping right off. If she wanted to maim you she'd need a nail gun."

"Ooh! Nail gun! Why didn't I think of that?" Abby races to the shelves and starts to search.

"Because I have a strong sense of self-preservation," says Gibbs, somehow appearing in the middle of them, Ziva in tow. Some days, Tony's ready to swear the man is Mephistopheles. "No maiming, Abs. Accidental or otherwise. Now can we have this meeting?"

Turns out that on the strength of their demo Gibbs has managed to score them a few dates in and around the local area.

"Like a tour but you get to sleep in your own bed every night?" says Ziva. "That sounds most acceptable. I am very fond of my pillows."

"Speak for yourself," Abby grins. "I like new beds. And what's in 'em."

Tony shoots a glance at Tim, but the kid doesn't react. He's developing quite the poker face these days, it would seem.

"We're not headlining, though, right?" he asks.

"Do you think you're ready to headline, DiNozzo?"

"No, boss."

"Well, then."

Tony presses on. "So, ah, we just playing the same set or is there space for something new?"

"Do you have something?"

Tony looks at Tim again, who shakes his head at him minutely. "Maybe? Soon?"

"Then don't waste my time. We've got ten days. Let's make them count."

"Sorry," Tim mouths at Tony as they set up.

Tony shrugs. Their time will come.

The rehearsal lets out at ten thirty precisely. Tony's shirt sticks to his back with sweat, the blankets doing their damping job in more ways than one. It's only going to get worse as the summer kicks in for real--this had better be worth it.

"You done communing with the bathroom mold?" Tony asks Tim as they head out. "Oh, thank fuck," he adds as the cool night breeze rolls across his grateful body.

"Why?"

"You want to come over?"

Tim swings his bass onto his back, adjusting the strap across his chest. "I don't want to work on the song tonight, okay? I'm beat."

"Screw the song," says Tony. "Just come and hang. You're not on till tomorrow afternoon, right?" And apparently, Tony's managed to memorize Tim's schedule. Must be all that practice learning lines.

Tim twists his lips, considering. Ziva emerges from the house and shoves her hands in her pockets, closing her eyes and lifting her face up to the breeze. She has a strand of hair stuck across her face from where it's escaped from her ponytail and Tony reaches out to unstick it. Ziva grabs Tony's wrist before he can even connect.

"Do not even think about it," she says.

"How do you do that?"

"I have many skills, Tony. I choose not to share them all with you." Ziva lets him go and opens her eyes. "Abby and I are going for a drink. Do either of you wish to join us?" She makes a weird cross-eyed, puff-faced expression as she tries to blow the strand of hair away.

"May I?" says Tim, and tucks the hair behind Ziva's ear. Tony would complain about the double standard, but Tim is saying, "We already have plans, maybe next time?" and the hair thing doesn't seem that important any more.

***


The shrill nag of the phone shocks Tony awake from what he's willing to swear was the best dream ever, even if he can only remember that it involved feathers and a running commentary from Joe Pesci. He squints at the clock to dim it because apparently the red of the numbers was forged in hell. It's 4:03. Who is stupid enough to call at 4:03? Tony snatches up the phone.

"Who is stupid enough to call at 4:03?" he growls.

"Um, me?"

It's Tim. There's something not quite right here and it whines around Tony's brain like some annoying mosquito just out of reach.

"'S up, Tim?"

"We can bring the song to the band."

"'Kay." Tony scrubs a hand through his hair. "I thought it wasn't done?"

"Yeah, about that. I lied. It's been done a while, I just...I wasn't ready."

Tony's about to say something about how he knew that because he knows how to rub two brain cells together and make fire, but then he's Mr. Miyagi with the chopsticks and the mosquito is waggling its puny legs between them, caught.

"Why are you calling me?"

"I wanted to tell you-"

"Tim," interrupts Tony. "You're on my couch. Hang up the phone and get in here now."

"Um," says Tim and then the line is dead.

Tony puts the phone down and leans back against the headboard, hands clasped behind his head. He watches as the handle turns and the door opens just enough to let Tim's head peer around it.

"Um," says Tim again.

"You know, I'm beginning to think you stole all those lyrics, McSpeechless. Your vocabulary is very limited. And to think you work in a bookstore. Get. In. Here." Tony jerks his head to indicate the bed.

Tim does as he's told. His shoulders are hunched and Tony's willing to bet that if he had pockets he'd be shoving his hands in them. Only he's in boxers and a tee so there are no pockets to be found, and Tim's arms flail around at his sides as he tries to figure out what to do with them.

"Folding's a classic," says Tony as Tim sits right on the edge of the bed.

"Huh?"

"Never mind. So what's with the early alarm call? You forget how doors work? Or sleep?"

"The only room I ever snuck into in the middle of the night was my parents' after I had a nightmare. I'm unclear on the procedure."

"Unclear on the- How does your mind even work?"

"And I didn't want to chicken out, so I thought, yeah, phone, why not?"

Tony sits up. "There is no one in the world like you, is there?"

Tim gives him a half-grin. "Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"

"Good," says Tony. "Mostly. And I'm glad you're ready--it's a great song. We totally nailed it."

"We did, didn't we?" The grin is at full stretch now. "We're pretty good at this."

"We? Are awesome." agrees Tony. "Now can we also be awesome at sleeping?"

"Sure," says Tim, and gets up. "I'll probably be gone by the time you wake up. See you at seven."

"U-huh." Tony watches the door close behind Tim, brows furrowed. Something feels slightly off. It shouldn't. They're bringing the song to the band, in a couple of days they start their not-exactly-tour, Tony's the happiest he's been since he lost his mom, but still, not quite right. Must be the being woken by his imbecile best friend at 4:03, he figures, and lies back down to sleep.

***


The temperature soars the next day, and the air is heavy, weighted down with the expectation of some kind of release. It feels like a storm is coming. Four bodies pumping out heat and energy makes the basement, cool when they first arrive, a raging hellhole by the time Gibbs lets them go sit on his porch to cool down.

"Not that it is much better out here," says Ziva, spread-eagled on the deck, a snow angel out of season.

"Shouldn't you be used to the heat? Israel's not exactly cold," says Abby, who is attempting to fan herself with a random piece of wood she'd found lying around. Tony can't imagine it's doing much good.

"It is the humidity," says Ziva. "I am oppressed. Everything is wet. My hair, my clothes, my armpits, my-"

"Stop you there," says Tony, holding up a hand. "There are innocent ears present."

"Whose?" chorus Tim and Abby.

And Ziva says, "What is not innocent about feet?"

"So, I have something to take your mind off the heat," says Tony, ignoring them all. "Wait there."

He saunters back into the house to grab his guitar from where he'd left it leaning against the refrigerator. Gibbs is at the table doing something complicated and mechanical that involves several kinds of screwdrivers, a lot of wire and some dirty rag.

"Got something for you, if you're interested, boss," he says. "I'm just about to show the others if you want to join us."

Gibbs nods, but doesn't stand. Tony figures he can hear through the open door anyway. He heads back to the porch, kneels down and flips the catches on the case.

"Ooh! You brought your guitar! Are we going to have a battle because first? Cool! And second, you know I would kick your scrawny little butt."

"My butt's not scrawny, it is well-formed, and no. No battle."

Tony sits on the top step, settling his guitar against him, testing the strings. He winces. Heat always sends it way out of tune. He can feel the others behind him as he concentrates on getting the tuning right. Ziva's sitting up, Abby's come to lean on the post across from him and Tim? Tim's not moved, but Tony doesn't need to look around to know that he's a bundle of nerves. The worst that can happen, Tony figures, is that they don't like it. The thing is, that they do, he and Tim, and that's not going to change, so the worst isn't that bad at all.

He flattens his palm against the strings, cutting the sound dead.

"So this is called 'South by Southwest," he says. "And it goes a little something like this." He starts to play.

He starts to play and it's like the world fades away as he sings. He is the song and the song is him.

"...blot the stars like cosmic dust, the bonds between us tear. What should have been a blessing has become a curse. Oh, let me be," he sings and is only half-aware of Abby creeping down the steps to sit below him, chin in her hands, intently focused, of Ziva's fingers curling around the porch railings, hair caught in the faintest breeze that has finally sprung up.

He sings on.

"South by southwest you're sending me," he sings for the last time, "And I'll never make it home." And, just like that, his throat is dry, as if his body doesn't want to sing the final words. But that's ridiculous; he's done it plenty of times as they were putting the song together.

"North by northwest I turn away from everything I've ever known," he grinds out. "Don't know if I can do this, stay here, out here all alone." He's made it, he's through the outro and he's done.

"So?" he asks, and isn't it typical that the nerves kick in now?

"That was beautiful, Tony," says Abby, clasping her hands, eyes wide with sincerity.

"I liked it very much," says Ziva from behind him. "Although it is sad."

Tony grins and turns to look for Tim. Instead, he sees Gibbs leaning against the doorframe. He raises his eyebrows in a question.

"Not bad, DiNozzo. Let's get through these gigs and we'll see what we can do."

"Great!" Tony finally sees Tim, hidden away at the edge of the porch. "Told you."

"Yeah." Tim looks like he can't decide between being thrilled and wanting to puke. "You did."

"Tim wrote the words," says Tony. "It's all him. I'm the music guy."

Abby's expression flickers then, Tony reading wariness into the thinned lips and narrowed eyes. It's gone in a second and Abby is congratulating them both again.

"How sweet," says Ziva. "You are like Hall and Oates."

Tony refrains from bashing his head off the railings.

"Break's over," says Gibbs. "Back to work. Good job, McGee."

Tony wants to go and grab Tim and hug him and say, "See? We done good," but he doesn't want to risk a headslap, not on a night where Gibbs's hand may well stick to Tony's head what with the combination of product and sweat. Later.

Later, Gibbs needs Tony's finger to stop some random metal blob A falling off a random metal rod B while he does something complicated with plasticky strip thing C and Tim is out the door with Abby close on his heels and Tony's stuck.

Gibbs has all his windows open, though, and their voices float inside. Tony strains to catch what they're saying.

"Timmy, wait. Listen, I really like the song, but it's about me, isn't it? Oh my god, I know that sounds totally bigheaded, but I think it is and if I'm right I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I never meant to hurt you, you know?"

"Don't press so hard," says Gibbs.

"Sorry, boss." Shut up, thinks Tony, and tunes back in.

"-worry about it. I'd never have let Tony use those lyrics if I was still...you know? If I was still. I'm over you, I promise, okay? I do love you, Abby, but like a sister. Although mostly you're less annoying than Sarah and I haven't seen her naked since she was eight. What I mean is, we're good."

"Oh. That's great! Because I love you, too, only like a brother not a sister because you're totally a guy, not that you couldn't be a woman if you wanted to only you don't, or at least you've never suggested you do, so I mean I'll just shut up now." She doesn't sound one hundred percent happy. Residual jealousy works both ways, Tony thinks.

"Good," says Tim. "So we're both good. That's...good." There's a pause and then he adds. "Man, my vocabulary is limited."

Abby giggles. "Do you want me to walk you to the bus stop?"

"Nah, you're okay. I'm waiting for Tony."

"You guys spend a lot of time together these days."

"Well, he's got A/C, hasn't he?"

Tony isn't even remotely offended. In fact, it's all he can do not to grin so wide he cracks the universe. Tim's finally past the Abby thing. He'd hoped that the song would help get him there, but it had been a wild shot in the dark. Now it looks like it worked and Tony's so happy for the kid. He's going to get his chance to move on.

"Stop eavesdropping," says Gibbs.

"Like you weren't. Aren't you pleased it's all fixed?"

"Sure."

"But?"

"But nothing. You can move your finger now." Gibbs picks up yet another screwdriver and inspects a pile of screws. "I know I can be a hardass, but I want you guys to be happy or what's the point?"

Tony stares at him. "You have rules for everything, you don't have rules for this?"

Gibbs considers. "Used to. Lots of different ones. Now I figure 'take care of each other' covers all bases."

"Huh. Okay. I guess that makes sense."

"You bet your ass. Now go home."

"Yes, boss."

Tim's leaning on the hood of Tony's car, waiting. He looks up at the sound of the door closing and his face lights up.

"They loved our song!"

"They totally did."

Tony unlocks the car, but they don't get in for a moment, grinning like fools at each other across the car.

"I think I might change the ending, though," says Tim. "Not sure about it any more and it looked like it wasn't working for you, right?"

"Yeah," agrees Tony. "Although I was dying of thirst, so, there's that."

"Here," Tim thrusts his notebook at Tony. "See what you think."

There's just enough light from the nearby streetlamp to read by. On a clean page in neat, bold writing, no crossings out, Tim has written:

South by southwest you're sending me,
And I know I'll make it home.
North by northwest I turn away,
Finally finding what I need to know.

I know that I can do this, make it out here on my own.


Tony rubs his thumb across the words and looks back up at Tim. "Yeah," he says, and clears his throat before he continues. Stupid weather. "That works for me. It works a whole lot."

Tim beams.

They get into the car and Tony puts an arm around Tim, yanking him over and pressing a kiss into his hair before shoving him back to his side.

"What was that for?"

"For being awesome," says Tony. "Keep this up and one day you'll be as awesome as me."

"I can hardly wait," says Tim dryly. "Will there be a parade?"

"You betcha," says Tony, and starts for home.

The storm breaks in the night and Tony wakes to a loud smash as the window crashes back into the frame. The latch is tricky and he must have screwed it up again. The window's in one piece, luckily, but the curtain's being pulled in and out of the other side of the frame like the wind's a teenager playing some crazy suck and blow game. Tony gets out of bed and yanks on the curtain, getting a face full of rain for his trouble. He curses loudly, pulling the window closed and makes sure both halves are secure. There's a pool of water on the window ledge but he can't be bothered to do anything about it.

There's no sound from the other room. It's hard to believe Tim slept through the window's suicide attempt. Tony's got to go to the bathroom anyway to grab a towel, might as well check in on the kid as he passes.

He's not there.

He's not anywhere. Tony checks. He flops onto the now-uncharacteristically empty couch, tracing the dent in the pillow Tim'd been using with a finger. Is it possible Tim hadn't stayed and Tony's just forgotten? He shakes his head fast, as if the rain's got in his brain. Nope. Tony remembers levering Tim's legs up onto the couch and gently taking off his shoes after the kid had fallen asleep mid-movie. Clark Gable takes some folk that way.

But he isn't here now, so- Tony's train of thought trails off, or, more precisely, is entirely derailed by sudden certainty that Tim has been abducted by aliens or ninjas and is somewhere being probed or tortured or ninja'd at, which all makes way more sense to Tony than the fact that Tim would just up and leave in the middle of the night.

Crap, he thinks. What if something's happened to him? What if he's struck by lightning or caught in a flash flood or menaced by overbearing thunder? He's up and halfway to his room to get dressed and get out, when there's a hammering on his door.

"Oh god, the police, I'm going to be sick," says Tony, and he stops, breathing hard and bending over hands on his thighs. "C'mon, DiNozzo, get a grip."

He straightens up and answers the door. Tim's standing there, soaked to the bone, light brown hair plastered dark against his head. Water is literally dripping from the end of his nose and in his arms is a bundle of wet fur. Wet, smelly fur equipped with a pink tongue that snaps out and licks at Tim's nose, stopping the waterfall in its tracks.

"What the hell, Tim?" he demands, gripping the door so tight his knuckles whiten. "I thought you were- Whatever. Get inside before you flood the hall."

Tim has the common decency to look at least a little ashamed and he brings his wriggling bundle inside.

"Bathroom. Both of you. Seriously, if either of you go near my furniture you are so much dead meat? You get me?"

"I get you."

Tim drips water to the bathroom and Tony buzzes about, yanking fresh towels out of the linen closet as if they were his mortal enemies. He throws them at McGee's head.

"Blue one for you, green one for the mutt. Well, it used to be green, something happened to it. It's not important. Do you have spare clothes in your backpack?"

"Yes, Tony," says Tim all demure. He's drying the mutt first--of course he is--and this only serves to make Tony madder.

He stalks off and retrieves the clothes, refraining from throwing those at McGee's head because they'll only wind up wet and perpetuate the vicious cycle. "I'm making you some tea," he says, belligerent. "And you are going to drink it. We have a tour. You can't catch a cold now."

"That's not how you catch cold," Tim calls after him. "It's viral, not water-based. No one catches a cold every time they shower."

"I'm not listening to you," Tony yells back and puts the kettle on.

By the time the tea is made, Tim and the mutt have made it out of the bathroom. They both look a whole lot happier. Tim's hair, toweled dry, sticks up randomly over his head, matching the dog's furry spikes. The dog is not much more than a puppy, Tony figures. Its paws are still too big for its black and tan body and it has huge, pointy ears that seem to take up half its head. It's pressed close into Tim's legs and reaches just to knee height. Tony ignores it.

"You may sit on the couch, now," he tells Tim, thrusting the tea towards him. "Your friend may not."

Tim takes the tea and sits. He holds a closed fist out to the dog. "Lie down," he says. The dog lies down at his feet.

"What do you do for an encore?" asks Tony. "Charm snakes? Also? What the fuck?"

Tim wraps both hands around the mug. "Sorry," he says, "I didn't mean to worry you."

Tony puts as much scorn into his laugh as he can manage. "You didn't worry me. You-" He gives up. "Okay, you worried me. Seriously, Tim, what happened?"

"I woke up and I was listening to the rain 'cuz, you know, soothing, and then I heard this howling. And it went on and on and I started to think that maybe something was hurt or trapped or lost and it was raining so hard, I couldn't just leave it. So I didn't."

"And what was it?"

Tim pulls his head back and looks at Tony as if his brain has escaped and skittered across the floor. "A dog, Tony."

"Hurt? Trapped? Lost? Are you waterlogged?"

"Trapped. He was trying to get through a hole in a fence that was way too small--trying to get to shelter, I guess--and his fur was caught."

Tony looks down at the dog, docile and sleepy on the floor. Looks can be deceiving, he knows. "Wasn't he scared? I can't believe you got away without vicious dog wounds."

"I didn't," shrugs Tim. He sets down the tea and leans back, tugging up his t-shirt. There are three jagged red lines stretching from his belly button halfway up his chest.

"Christ, Tim! Why didn't you say something?" Tony starts towards him, then stops himself. Touching it is not going to make it better.

"I cleaned them. And I found antiseptic cream. It's not like I'm going to die or anything. I had tetanus when my rabbit decided to go all rogue and mauled my face."

"You? Were mauled by a rabbit? Of course you were." Tony collapses next to Tim, laughing. He reaches over and carefully pulls Tim's tee back over the scratches. "Don't go playing the hero by yourself again, okay? I thought we were a team."

Tim says, "We are." And, "I promise to let you do the potential death-by-pneumonia thing next time."

Tony says, "Ha! See?"

"Kidding," says Tim, sliding down the couch, leaning to the side until his cheek meets Tony's shoulder. "Also tired. Can we keep him?"

"Can we what?"

"Can we keep Jethro? My lease says no pets, but yours doesn't, does it?"

"So let's get this straight. You want me to take care of the dog you want?"

"Mmm," mumbles Tim into Tony's shoulder, damp hair brushing against his neck.

Tony grips Tim's thigh and gives it a shake. "Are you crazy? And Jethro?"

"Not crazy. Like dogs. Girls like dogs. It'll help, you'll see. And he's the complete opposite of Gibbs. It's funny."

"It's not."

"To me, it's funny. C'mon, Tony, say we can keep him."

It's the 'we' that keeps tripping Tony up and stopping the 'no' that was right on the tip of his tongue about the same time Tim was pointing out that girls like dogs. He hasn't owned a pet since the traumatic demise of his sea monkeys when he was a kid. His dad had said he couldn't be trusted. But Tim trusts him. Tim thinks Tony can do at least a halfway decent job of dog owning. It's pretty compelling.

"We'll have to see if someone's lost him first. He might already have a home."

"Really?" exclaims Tim, jerking upright. Jethro mimics him and barks as if his life depended on it. And it might.

"Shh," says Tim, and the dog quietens.

"How do you do that?"

Tim ignores him and grabs Tony's arm. "And then if no one comes forward we keep him, right?"

Tony can't help it, the excitement is catching. He grins and leans past Tim to scratch the dog--Jethro, for the love of god--between the ears. "Sure, why not?" And maybe he's the crazy one after all.

***


Jimmy and Ziva are standing in the middle of the street, arms around the bass drum, locked in some kind of standoff.

Tony hipslams the car door shut and saunters over. "What's going on here? This isn't how Jedi mind tricks work, either of you. Do I need to get Tim to explain the Force again?"

"Ziva won't let me do my job," says Jimmy, the edge of whine to his voice suggesting they've been at this glaring thing some time.

"What Jimmy does not appear to understand, Tony," says Ziva, not taking her eyes off her opponent, "is that I can carry my own drums."

Tony opens his mouth, but it seems like he's a ventriloquist now because it's Jimmy that speaks.

"What Ziva doesn't get, Tony, is that I know she can carry her own drums, but that if something happens to her when she's getting them in the van--through no fault of her own, obviously, as she is totally competent and blah blah strength of ten men--then Gibbs will kill me."

"More likely to kill you if something happens to one of the drums," says Gibbs appearing around the van and double headslapping Jimmy and Ziva. "Plenty more drummers where she came from."

Ziva lets go and Jimmy staggers back at the sudden unbalancing of force. Tony grabs his arm and steadies him. "Whoa there, Palmer."

Ziva narrows her eyes and stares up at Gibbs. "I do not believe you mean that," she says. "You like me."

"Maybe so, maybe not," says Gibbs, but his lips curve in a half-smile and he pats her on the shoulder as he climbs into the back of the van. "Come on, Palmer, move it," he yells and Jimmy leaps forward, Tony getting his foot out of the way just in time to prevent him stumbling and sending the drum flying.

Tim struggles out of the house with an amp in each hand and a roll of cable stuffed under his chin. Tony jogs over to help. He pulls the cable out and it's like he tugged the pull-cord on an even-more-annoying-than-the-original Beary Smiles. Beary 2.0.

"Did Animal Control call yet?"

"I swear that's the only thing you've said to me for three days. I'm beginning to worry you're waste of my hard-earned cash, Beary," says Tony.

"But did they call?"

Tony rolls his eyes and tosses the cable to Jimmy. "No, they did not. Patience, grasshopper. Seriously. You're driving me nuts."

"I can't believe you're adopting a puppy," says Jimmy, jumping out of the van. "You don't seem like the type."

"And what type would that be, Jimmy? Wholesome, outdoorsy, a strong predilection for beef jerky and a poor sense of smell?"

"Um."

"He has a point. I did not think you would embrace such responsibility readily."

"Really?" asks Abby, handing off her guitar to Jimmy. "Because he's totally had tons of practice."

Everyone stares at her.

"Timmy!" she crows. "And look!" She ruffles Tim's hair and pinches his nose. "His coat is all shiny and his nose is wet. All is as it should be. You'll be a good doggy daddy, Tony."

Tim slaps her hands away. "Hey! I'm not a puppy."

"You totally are," says Abby.

"U-huh," nods Jimmy.

"Sorry, McGee. I must agree." Ziva stands on tiptoe and kisses him on the cheek. "But you are a very cute puppy. And housetrained, I expect."

Tony's torn between feeling offended on Tim's behalf and realizing that yes, he'd totally taken Tim under his wing like some kind of stray. It had gone entirely against his usual modus operandi of every Tony for himself that had got him by so far. What the hell had made him change now?

There's no time to think about it, though, they're on a schedule and Gibbs is the king of the stopwatch.

"Oh god, I feel sick," says Jimmy, leaning against a wall backstage.

"You're the roadie, Jimmy. You don't get to have stage fright, you nitwit. What did I do with my hat? Where's my hat?"

"You're wearing it," says Ziva, coming to stand next to him. "Now who is the nitwit?"

Tony breathes out, relieved. "Okay! I'm ready. You ready?"

"You'd better be ready," says Gibbs. "T-30 seconds."

"What, no band huddle? No pearls of wisdom?"

"Bandslap?" suggests Abby.

"Yeah, we're going on. C'mon guys, let's rock this joint."

"Rock this joint," Ziva is muttering as they go out on stage to absolutely no response whatsoever. "Rock what joint? Shoulders? Hips?"

Tony prowls around the stage as Abby and Tim plug in. They signal Ziva that they're ready and Tony cradles the mic.

Abby takes the intro and sets the tempo fast; this is going to be a hell of a ride.

Tony figures it out when they're four songs in. When Tim, long-limbed and owning his bass crosses the stage and stands right next to Tony, singing into the same mic. It's nothing they haven't done before, but tonight Tony turns into Tim until they're practically singing into each other's mouths, sweaty and grinning and high on this thing they're creating.

Tony figures it out when it hits him with the power of Superman's fist that he could close the minute gap left between them and kiss that smiling, singing mouth. That he wants to. It's like being plunged into freezing water and the air rushes out of Tony's lungs. He fumbles the line and sees Tim's face crease with concern. He shakes his head and tries to look reassuring and pulls it back together. Tim relaxes and seconds later he's back at his own mic and they make it to the end of the set without further incident.

He's ice cool as they break the stage down, ice cool as they hang out backstage, coming down off the gig high. Ice cool as they pile into the van and head back to Gibbs's house. He'd like to think he's ice cool as Tim tags behind him to his car and he says something about probably Tim should check on his mold and Tony's got some stuff he needs to do so maybe not tonight, okay? but the kicked puppy look on Tim's face suggests that maybe he'd only managed lukewarm.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck," he mutters under his breath as he reverses at speed, the high-pitched whine of the engine riding the edge of his nerves. He slams the gear lever forward, spins the wheel and gets the hell out of there.

If there were contests for not-thinking-about it, Tony would totally own them. He's done a pretty good job of living his life on the surface so far--it's gotten him through boarding school, his first (and only) bad breakup and the deaths of both his parents. Dealing with this stupid-assed crush on McGee should be a breeze. He keeps up the whole not-thinking thing all the way back to his apartment, which probably means he's the safest driver out there on the road. Who knew there'd be vehicular benefits to blunt force trauma to the soul?

He keeps it up as he hits the shower and manages to tread the fine line between a thorough clean and rubbing his freaking skin off. He keeps it up through wandering into the kitchen and interrogating the refrigerator for something, anything, edible, throwing himself with abandon into the potential for serious cheese dreams. Then he flings himself down on the couch, sprawled and horizontal, his head hits the pillow and he doesn't keep it up any more. McGee's scent is all over it and all over Tony. Tony didn't even know he knew how Tim smelled.

He jumps off the couch like it bit him and barricades himself in his bedroom where Tim barely goes, thank fuck, because the last thing Tony needs is the image of Tim, flat on his back on Tony's bed, smiling up at him with those big puppy eyes. Waiting. Tony pummels the bed with his fists, and rocks forward, hitting his head off the mattress over and again. He is so screwed.

Tony lies in bed, staring at the black shadow of the ceiling fan trying to make it rotate with his mind. The fan hasn't worked since he moved in--there's something wrong with the motor, he thinks--but he has A/C so he doesn't usually care.

"Move," he thinks at it. "Mooooove." As if being able to shift the fan with brainpower means he'll get back control over everything else. He'll be able to get over this...this whatever it is, or he'll be able to turn McGee bi and they'll live happily ever after, just the two of them and their dog, or at least have some really great sex before the inevitable doom part and oh fuck, the band will have to break up and it will all be Tony's fault and then who will get Jethro in the split and...

"Jethro!" Tony smacks his palm into his forehead. The dog! Oh god, what's he going to do now? Animal Control has him for twenty-one days to see if his owner shows up, but then what if no one does? He can't have him, not now. Not when McGee will want to spend every spare moment with him, and by extension, Tony. But he can't not take him, either. It would break Tim's heart, and that's not something Tony wants to contemplate.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid," he mutters, bashing his head off the pillow. "How did you not see this coming?"

He should have. He may be shallow, but he sure ain't slow and the signs were all there. But Tony's never been too hot at all that intimacy stuff, so maybe he couldn't tell the difference between finding a best friend and falling in l...developing a big-assed crush on a straight guy. Tony racks his brains to find any indication at all that Tim might also be in the grips of a crush because Tony is hot and awesome and probably the kid's best friend in the world, and if there are better conditions for crush-having then Tony doesn't want to know them. He can't think of anything that can't be explained away, though. Tim's not exactly a touchy-feely guy, unless he's wasted (either through alcohol or exhaustion) and Tony's never felt like they were on the edge of something. Not until tonight, anyway, and that was him. That was all him.

"Okay, DiNozzo," he says into the darkness. "You need a plan. You also need to sleep, so go do that. Plan tomorrow." He closes his eyes.

About half an hour later he opens them again, still in the exact same position. "Screw it," he says and gets out of bed. He goes to the living room, picks up the pillow Tim uses, heads back to bed and swaps out the pillow for his own. He curls up on his side and breathes in slowly. With his eyes closed he can almost imagine Tim's right there with him. He's prepared to be a sap just this once, if it'll get him some sleep. It does.

***


Tony swims towards consciousness with Tim's scent in his nostrils and his hand on his morning-hard dick. He's still half-entwined in sleep and random images float across his closed eyelids as he strokes himself slow and easy. Memories are mixed up and muddled in with things that Tony only wants to happen, but he's too tangled with his subconscious to tell the difference. He closes the distance and they kiss and the audience hoots and hollers. He traces the lines of the scratches across Tim's belly and then bends to kiss them. When he sits up, they are gone. He stands with Tim in the bathroom and reaches for him, saying, "Let's get you out of those wet clothes, shall we?" He peels off Tim's t-shirt, unbuttons Tim's jeans, pushes them down and...

Tony's eyes fly open and he realizes too late what's happening. "No," he says. "No," as he comes into his hand. "I don't want this. I can't have it," he says, and this has to be the first time he's wished an orgasm away. This is not going to be a good day.

He makes it through with a combination of a long, long run, several discs of Ozzy and Harriet, a liter of milk and many cookies. He only thinks about the McGee-situation (and yes, it is upgraded to situation: status orange) every three minutes or so, which is...okay, not great, but better than the all-Tim all-the-time Technicolor of the morning.

When his phone rings for the fifth time in an hour, Tony doesn't even need to look at the caller ID to know it's McGee on the other end. He shakes the phone at arm's length. "I have not heard from Animal Control," he yells at it, then jabs the off button and tosses the phone onto the couch. Kid'll get the message. Eventually.

Gibbs insists they all travel in the van whenever they gig.

"Unit cohesion," he says, but Tony figures it's because he likes them where he can see them.

"Never leave a guitarist behind," he'd said once, and earned himself a slap.

What this means is, that as much as Tony wants to drive himself to the gig, thus limiting the time he has to spend with McGee, he can't. He's still muttering about unit cohesion and how's that supposed to work with him not being able to tell and no one knowing they need to ask, not that he wants them to ask because there's no way he's telling anything, not unless they start yanking his nails and he's pretty sure that's not allowed under the Geneva convention, when he pulls up outside Gibbs's house.

His luck is totally out because there's McGee, sitting on the back of the van. He hasn't noticed Tony yet because he's looking up at the sky, long neck stretched upwards. Tony wants to lick it. No! No, he does not. So vehemently does he tell himself how much he does not want to do this thing that he doesn't notice Tim noticing him. He's halfway out of the car, defenseless, when McGee bounds over, all big smiles and happy to see him. It would be the easiest thing in the world to reach for him and tug him into a kiss. Why doesn't he do that? Abby scrambles out of the van behind him. Oh, yeah. That's why not. Tony's been privy to Tim's innermost thoughts via the medium of his lyrics and as far as he can tell there's nothing in the notebook about boys who like boys.

"Did you get my messages? Did you hear-?"

"Yes, all three thousand of them, no, and I will call you, okay?" He doesn't mean to sound like he could take the kid's head off with a single bite, but he does, and McGee's startled face makes Tony sick to the stomach. Oh crap, maybe he should just quit the band now.

Abby leans her head against Tim's shoulder and wraps her arms around his chest and Tony clenches his teeth to stop the jealousy oozing between his lips.

"Are you okay, Tony? You look kinda pale." She lets go of Tim and comes around him to lay a hand on Tony's forehead. "Well, you're warm but it's, like, eighty out, so probably you're not going to die of a fever, though there was this guy back in New Orleans who- Okay, that's so not important. The thing is, do you feel good to sing? We can totally cancel."

"Not unless he has a signed death certificate," says Gibbs. "If you're going to throw up, DiNozzo, can you do it before you get in the van?"

"No puking in the van!" yells Jimmy, hanging out of the driver's window. "My job's pretty much hanging by a thread as it is, puke would definitely finish it off, and then there'd be no van and no me and where would you be then?"

"Looking for a new roadie with independent wealth," says Gibbs.

McGee's all pinch-faced concern and are-you-okay-Tony? and looks like he's going to join Abby in the touching spree, which Tony is torn between please and don't and he does this half-swerve away from everyone, calling shotgun over his shoulder and escapes into the van.

"Hey," says Ziva, clambering into the back. "It is my turn to ride stick."

Tony whips his head around to stare at Jimmy who's bug-eyed right back at him.

"Fairly sure you mean shotgun," says Tony after about ten seconds of dead air.

"Stick, shotgun, what is the difference?"

"About a million views on PornTube," says Jimmy.

"Up top," says Tony, and they high five.

"Feeling better, DiNozzo?" Gibbs climbs in beside him and slams the door shut. Tony winces.

"Just assisting our foreign friend here with some basic language skills, boss."

"I must admit I have some trouble with the English alphabet," says Ziva. "I have particular difficulties remembering the letters that come sixth and twenty first."

Tony counts in his head, "F..." fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, "...U. Oh, yes, very mature, Ziva."

Ziva blows a raspberry.

"Hit the gas, Palmer," says Gibbs.

Tony tunes out the chatter from the guys in back, concentrating on 'helping' Gibbs navigate which he mostly does by yelling out street names once they're already past. He's been more effective, he has to admit. He tells himself not to check in the mirror, but he can't help but look. The third time he catches McGee's eyes. He can see the worried smile start to form on the kid's face, but he slides his gaze away fast, pointing at something in the street that he'd thought was a moving street lamp but turns out to be the Statue of Liberty selling insurance.

"Stop moving," says Jimmy. "I'm too young to go to jail for manslaughter."

When Tony steals another glance in the mirror, Tim is looking away, into the back of the van. He's unhappy, Tony can tell. It'll be fine, though, it's not like he's breaking the kid's heart like Abby did. They just need to find a friendship equilibrium that works without making Tony feel like his insides are being scoured every time he looks at Tim, that's all. It'll all come out in the wash, Tony's mom always used to say. But then, she had a maid, so she'd never hot-washed off-white curtains with a black t-shirt and had to learn to live with grey.

The gig is good, but not great. Tony's distracted, despite his best efforts, and he knows he totally deserves the headslap that's coming his way. He plays off Abby way more than usual, and he knows McGee's noticed from the dropped notes and flubbed entrances. All this from a few harsh words? Tony can't imagine what would have happened if he'd manned up and told the truth, or if they'd gotten together only to break up. It would totally mess up the band. No, he's doing the right thing. It's just that it feels entirely wrong.

"Do you want to hang tonight?" McGee'd asked while they lugged the amps from the van. "I picked up some cool trades. You know you're hooked, admit it."

Oh, how true. Tony had shaken his head. "Can't. Family stuff."

"I thought you didn't have any family."

"You don't know everything about me, McGee," Tony had snapped.

Tim had frozen, wobbling on the spot. "Oh. Okay. Sorry. I didn't mean- Let me know if you hear about Jethro."

Jimmy, who'd been coming past the other way stared at Tony like he'd just noticed the producer of a really, really bad smell.

"What?" Tony'd growled. "Go. Move stuff."

Jimmy had narrowed his eyes and walked on. Tony had trailed Tim into the club feeling like maybe he did have that fever that Abby'd suspected.

There's no gig booked for tomorrow, so Tony that'll give him close on 48 hours to get this under control. Only they pile into the van, Tony once more in back because Abby totally cheats at Shotgun, Gibbs turns around, takes in Tim and Tony with a measured stare and says, "Extra rehearsal tomorrow. We'll work on your song, I think it might give us what we need," and Tony is fucked.

"Ooh!" says Ziva, patting McGee's leg. "That is very exciting, yes?"

"Yeah. Cool. Right, Tony?"

Tony mumbles something that sounds vaguely positive, then closes his eyes and pretends to sleep the whole way home.

***


He arrives as late as he can the next day without incurring the eternal wrath of Gibbs and everyone's already there. He stands outside the basement door and counts to ten, breathing like he's practicing for some birthing video.

"Be cool," he tells himself. "You are awesome, be cool."

Everyone looks up when he opens the door. Abby greets him with her usual pigtail-waving enthusiasm, but he can't help but seek out McGee, even though he'd told himself not to.

McGee nods, his expression completely bland. "Hey," he says. "Abby and I got here early. I gave her the first chords, wanna hear?"

"Sure," says Tony, coming halfway down the stairs and leaning against the wall. "Hit it."

They pick up their instruments, settle them and begin to play. Tony tries to pay attention, but his mind is whirling. Tim and Abby got here early? Does that mean they got here together? Are they back on? Is that why Tim doesn't seem to care if Tony's there or not?

"What do you think?" Abby bounces on her toes, her face scrunched up.

Tony twirls his index finger anticlockwise. "Go again."

Abby looks at McGee who shrugs at her. They go again. This time Tony forces himself to listen. It's only the intro, but Tony can already tell that it's not just going to work, it's going to rock. There's something about the way Abby takes the melody he's written and gives it a twist that is totally hers without stripping anything that was already there that's beauty in action.

He bounds down the stairs and grabs Abby, kissing her on the cheek with a loud smack.

"Did I ever tell you you're a genius?"

Abby bounces again, only this time she's beaming. "Three times, actually, but who's counting?"

"Okay," says Tim. "I'm glad that's working for you. You wanna work on the verse or wait for Ziva?"

Tony knows it's McGee speaking, he sees the lips move, but it's like he hardly recognizes him. The enthusiasm he'd always had when they worked together is gone. It's not that he's not interested, it's just that he's completely and utterly calm, deadly professional like this whole thing's a business transaction and nothing more.

"Ziva is here," announces Ziva from behind Tony, making him jump half a foot in the air. "You do not need to wait for me. Shall we continue?"

"Ziva! Let me escort you to your drums, my lady," says Tony, recovering fast, smooth as silk, spinning around and offering his arm and breaking out his most charming smile.

Ziva swats at him. "It is five steps, Tony. I think I can probably manage that by myself." She turns to Abby. "Why is he flirting with me? Did we not cover this in the first week?"

"I believe you told him you could see the quality of his baritone, but if he even attempted to sleep with you, you'd give him a poor second career as a soprano."

Ziva points at Abby. "Yes! That! Exactly." She whirls back to face Tony and pokes him in the chest. "I like you better when you are not oozy," she says.

"Oozy?!"

"Oozy." Ziva gives a sharp nod.

Tony turns to the others with a help-me-out-here gesture, but McGee's doing something to an amp and Abby touches her nose with one finger and with the other hand points between Ziva and Tony. Tony sighs. He's going to have to get better at handling this. He totally will.

Putting the song together changes it. Tony had known it would, he's seen it in action before, but it's weird, somehow he'd expected it to stay exactly the same, the stripped down version that he and Tim had written together. But Ziva's drums build and build through the bridge and out the other side and she stops and changes and tries out different rhythms to the implacable beat. Abby's solo assumes a life of its own. Even Tim's bass line, which Tony'd heard plenty of times before, takes on new facets when it hangs together with the other three. Tony mostly watches, singing a verse here, a chorus there. He was right, it is totally going to rock, it's just it doesn't belong to the two of them any more--it belongs to the band. Tony isn't sure how he feels about that.

"Tony," says Abby, and Tony, sitting on a step, jerks his head up. "Pay attention, DiNozzo, we need you. We're going from the top, full run through."

"Sure."

He takes the mic, nods to Abby, who counts them in, and lets the intro wash over him. He knows the song so well by now that he can open himself up to what else is happening, hearing the sound of his own voice twine and tangle with the instruments, surfing over the rhythm section and playing off of the guitar for dominance. Without thinking he sings the new ending Tim had handed to him just a few days before. Abby falters on the outro, stumbling to the finish with a jagged discord.

"Sorry, guys. I lost my concentration for a split second, won't happen again."

"Take a ten minute break," says Gibbs, leaning over the railing at the top of the stairs. "And then get it right. I want this closing tomorrow."

They all pile onto Gibbs's porch. It doesn't escape Tony's notice that McGee stands as far away from him as possible. He can still hear the conversation he's having with Abby, though. Not that he's listening in or anything.

"You changed the end."

"Yeah, seemed time."

"Right."

"You okay with that?" Tony can't decide if it sounds like Tim wants her to be okay or would rather she wasn't.

"Yes! Of course! I'm happy you're happy, Timmy. You are happy, aren't you? That's what the new ending is about?"

There's a pause. And Tony's mouth is open before he's even managed to string together a coherent thought. "It's about finally figuring out that falling in love with a friend who's never going to love you back because hello have you seen the two of you together? is the world's worst idea and that pulling your head out of your ass and getting the fuck over it is the best of a bunch of crappy options."

"Tony!"

"Whatever. You know I'm right. He knows I'm right. You all know I'm right." And, boy, does Tony know he's right.

McGee's got that pinched and unhappy look about him again and Tony wants to shake him and yell, "It's about me, you self-absorbed perky goth obsessive. I'm talking about me." But he can't, so instead he storms back inside, slamming the screen door behind him. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of the slam is hindered by the lightness of the door, so he doesn't even get the satisfaction of a really good crash. Everything hates him.

Gibbs says, "You okay, DiNozzo?" as he stomps past him to the bathroom.

"Musical differences," lies Tony. "It's cool."

"It'd better be."

And it is cool when he goes back to the basement. Frigid, even. Ziva tosses her hair and hmmphs at him, Abby looks really, really disappointed, and McGee...he's back to the calm robo-Tim that he'd barely shifted from the whole rehearsal until Tony'd pissed on his cornflakes. This is not good for the whole band ethos thing, Tony knows. He should probably suck it up.

"Yeah, okay, I was an asshole," he says to the general assembly, avoiding eye contact with any of them. "I apologize. Can we move on?"

"Soon, Tony, soon. First, you should hug Timmy. It was his feelings you hurt. Ziva and me are just annoyed by association."

"No!" says Tony, hoping he doesn't sound as panicked as he feels. He is so not ready for full body contact. Not even for those weird air hugs he sees wannabe models do on those reality shows that he doesn't ever watch, nu-uh. Abby's eyes narrow dangerously and he adds, "I'm sweaty and gross and that's no apology, now, is it, to be swathed in body odor? It'd be like being molested by the combined noxious power of the post-meet varsity wrestling squad and no one wants that, do they? Not without oxygen on standby. Right, McGee?"

"Sure," agrees Tim. "I prefer my cerebral hypoxia via autoerotic asphyxiation. I look good with a noose around my neck."

"Really?" Ziva's eyes are wide as saucers.

"No." Tim grins over at Tony, who can't help but grin back. It's almost like old times, if by old times Tony means two days ago. What has his life become?

"He prefers a plastic bag," Tony says.

"Two geishas sitting on his chest," offers Abby.

"There is something very wrong with all of you," says Ziva. "It should be three geishas, not two."

"Do you even know what rehearsal means?" asks Gibbs. "Because I probably could find replacements. The Diaz kids across the street are handy with a banjo and kitchen pans."

"Sorry, boss, on it."

By the time they finish up they're sounding pretty damn awesome, if Tony does say so himself. It's the first time that he can remember ever creating something that he actually saw the whole way through. He has so many half-done tunes in his head, and the almost-there handful he's working on with McGee, but this one? This one is whole and complete and, without thinking, he bounds over to Tim, the one person he knows will understand, and shakes him by the scruff of his neck.

"Look what we did, McPaul!" Tim is slick with sweat and so is Tony's hand, his fingers skidding across warm skin as Tim turns around in Tony's grip.

"Right? I can't believe how good it sounds, can you? I mean, it was just this little song and now it's all...." Tim's eyes are alight with pleasure and Tony can feel the beat of his pulse speeding under his palm, spiked from the adrenaline rush of success, probably. It makes Tony's heart thump in response and he yanks his hand away as if the rushing blood carries an electric current to shock Tony into something stupid.

He backs away, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. "I gotta jet...there's stuff...you have a good...yeah."

The last thing he sees before he turns and flees up the stairs is the light dying in McGee's eyes and the blank look settling back over him. Tony takes himself out of the house as fast as he can and gives himself the hardest headslap he can manage. Get over it, he tells himself. Get over it faster, get over it now.

It occurs to Tony when he's halfway home that he has two choices: liqor store or club. One way or another, he's not thinking any more about Tim tonight.

***


He chooses the liqor store, and in the morning, hangover attempting to lever his eyeballs from his skull, he's pathetically grateful that he can't think, even if he wanted to. It takes him a long bath, vats of coffee and many episodes of Airwolf on mute to get over it and by that time he has to head out. There's no one around to pat him on the back for avoidance well done, so he does it to himself. It makes him wince.

Gibbs has changed up the set list to slot in the new song. He makes them recite it at intervals the whole way to check they have it memorized. Tony wants to know why they can't just write it down like normal people. Gibbs glares, Abby wants to know what he means by 'normal people', Tony, and doesn't he know that's a problematic term, Ziva points out that she knows ten languages, thank you, and she would be ashamed of needing to have so few things written down. McGee just smiles a pleasant smile, shrugs and recites the tracks as ordered. Tony isn't sure who he wants to punch most.

Tony likes to banter with the crowd, always has, even when the crowd is mostly randomly bored fans of whoever is headlining staking their claim to the front early. They haven't been on with the same band twice so maybe that's why Tony--telling the people who mostly couldn't care less that 'Autopsy Gremlin' is based on Abby's real experience in the morgue with the supernatural, true story, guys--is drawn to a grinning girl with pigtails like Abby's, but at least a foot shorter than her, standing towards McGee's side of the stage.

"Hey," he says. "Haven't I seen you before?"

The girl does a big, 'Who me?' mug then kind of folds in on herself, and Tony's pretty sure that if her cheeks hadn't already been pink from the ridiculous heat she would have been blushing.

"Yes, you," he says, and then clutches his hand to his heart, gasping. "Are you...are you a fan?"

She nods vehemently and yells something about having been to all their gigs.

"Oh my god," Tony turns around and gestures to the others. "Our first fan, you guys. And no, Jimmy does not count." He whirls back to the girl, tips his hat to her and says, "Then this one's for you, number one fan." He lifts his hand, Ziva hits her sticks together and counts them in and they're away. The girl grins so wide Tony's scared her head will fall off.

He gets lost in the song, but checks back on her as it's closing out. She's dancing in that body sway kind of way, but her entire attention is focused on McGee. Huh.

First chance Tony gets he crosses to Tim, leaning in so he can't be seen from the floor, and says. "Dude, you've got a groupie." Tim raises his eyebrows. "No, really. I think she might need glasses."

Tim shrugs, relaxed and in control. What Tony should do now is stalk back to his mic and slide back in on cue, but instead he stands half behind Tim, grabs his mic and yanks it forward, singing over Tim's shoulder, faces so close that they're almost swapping sweat. He wraps his free arm over Tim's other shoulder, splaying his hand on Tim's chest. It's furnace hot and the steady thrum of bass and heart vibrates through Tim's body into Tony's hand. Tim stiffens and then relaxes, leaning into Tony a little and then rocking away to the beat of the song. Stagecraft is what this is, right?

Tony checks out number one fan, who's gaping at them. Maybe she wants to be Tony more than she wants to do him, but that's okay. Tony feels a momentary flare of dark exultation. He's mine, he tells her, planting a kiss on Tim's cheek before jamming the mic back in the stand and peeling himself away. And then he thinks, no. No, he's not. And it's a good thing there's a glass of water right behind him because throwing up on stage is not the image (or the vomit) he wants to project. He looks back at Tim, who seems totally unfazed, even with the imprint of Tony's hand still visible on his tee, and it's got to be the most unfair thing ever.

When Abby hits the opening chords of 'South by Southwest', number one fan stills, her eyes widening and then she bounces on the balls of her feet. If her pigtails were motorized they'd be twirling with not-so-suppressed excitement, Tony thinks. She might even take off. Her eyes are everywhere now, on Abby, on Tony--he can even see her straining to get a glimpse of Ziva over the riser--but it's still Tim she's pulled back to every time.

Tony sings as though his heart is breaking, as if there's nothing in the world can put it back together. He sees some guy grab his girl and pull her in tight to him, like he's telling her (or telling himself) this can never happen to them. Tony hopes it doesn't, but he's not betting on it. It's amazing, seeing a reaction like this to a song he's written. Tony doesn't know what to do with it and lets the emotion pour into his voice. He looks back at Tim for the last chorus, the swelling harmony of all their voices putting hope back where none had been and it rises, in his belly, in his throat, and he can't tell what it's for--the hope that Tim will, against all probability, want him, too, or the hope that Tony will get over it and get his best friend back.

"Got some business," Gibbs had said, and disappeared back into the club. Abby and Ziva had given it a whole five minutes and then gone in to catch Dead Reckoning's set.

Tim and Tony help Jimmy stash the rest of the gear and then there's nothing to do but wait. Jimmy has his feet up on the dash and is mindlessly fiddling with the tuner. Tim sits in the passenger seat, leaning against the back, long legs dangling out of the door and Tony hangs through the open window, swinging the door gently backwards and forwards.

"So," he says. "That groupie, she's kinda cute."

"There is no groupie, Tony," says Tim.

"Sure there is. Short, pigtails, baby doll tee with I heart bassists on it."

"You're making that up."

"Not all of it. Swear to god, she didn't take her eyes off you the whole time. And I was right there."

"She's probably plays bass or something. No need to start feeling all emotionally fragile about it."

"Maybe you're not her type," says Jimmy, leaning past Tim.

Tony winces. "How are you doing that with your spine? No. Don't even answer that. And I'm everyone's type, okay?" Everyone except the one person that matters, he doesn't add.

"Not mine," says Jimmy. "You lack breast tissue. Also, sometimes you're kind of a dick, as well as owning one. Three strikes."

"Shut up, Palmer." Tony looks to Tim for support, but gets only a slight shrug and a reserved smile.

It's then he sees her, hovering about 100 yards away. She's obviously having some kind of frantic internal dialogue because she's shuffling about like someone's stuffed hot coals under her feet. Oh, for the love of...he waves.

"Hey! Number one fan! Just get over here before you spontaneously combust and I have to hand your smoking shoes over to the authorities."

She double-takes and Tony thinks she's on the verge of splitting before she comes over, walking as fast as she can without breaking into a run.

"Oh my god!" she says, hands clutching the strap of her messenger bag that crosses her chest. Tony takes a second to admire the excellent rack it gives her. "You guys! New song! It was super awesome."

"Thank you," grins Tim. "We like it."

"It felt...I dunno...different to the other ones, you know? Not different bad or different better just...I don't even know what I'm saying. I ramble a lot; it's my failing. I'm okay with being told to shut up."

"That's okay." Tim's still smiling. "We've never been admired in public before. It's nice. The new song, me and Tony here wrote it."

The girl's hands flex on her strap and she beams. "You wrote it? That's so cool, oh my god! I thought Abby wrote all your songs."

"We wrote it, yes," says Tony, poking his head further through the open window.

"That's great," says the girl, turning towards him. She's still smiling and her eyes are warm, but her attention is back on Tim before Tony's even had a chance to formulate a response.

"I love you guys," she says. "I caught you at 9:30 when you opened for Kort and you were kind of rough...sorry, should I say that? I don't know. I don't usually do...so. Yeah. But super good. Like, the songs are so real? And you always look like it's the best job ever except for that one time and everyone's allowed an off day, right? And...I'm running my mouth off again, aren't I? I told you, you need to shut me up."

Tony does his best to rein in the vicious thoughts about how exactly he could go about shutting her up. It's not her fault she's cute and peppy and talkative and Abby-in-miniature. It's not her fault she's way more interested in Tim than Abby ever was. He hates it, is all.

"We're really grateful for the support," says Tim. "You know we have a MySpace page, right?"

She nods, her pigtails about half a beat behind. "I know. You added me. I'm Bean16."

"Oh, hey, I recognize that name," says Tim. "Hi, I'm Tim."

"I know."

"Yeah, of course. Stupid." Tim has his aw shucks smile on and Tony wants to kick his shins.

"My real name's Claire," says Claire, yanking her bag around and fishing in it. "Listen, I've gotta go--my mom's picking me up out front any second, it's totally a school night--but could I have your autographs?" She pulls out a spiral bound notebook, covered in worn stickers and doodles and flips through it until she finds a blank page. "Here," she says, thrusting the book at Tim then going back to rooting around. "There's a pen here somewhere."

"I've never...okay, wow," says Tim, locking eyes with Tony. "What do you even write?"

How about 'glad you're on our side, now get back behind the fourth wall', Tony manages not to say. Not her fault, he repeats to himself.

"This'll be worth more when we're big?" he suggests.

Jimmy snorts from inside the van. "Oh, ye of little faith," says Tony and flips him the bird.

Tim sits for what seems like forever, tapping the pen against his lip and Tony would say it was a special torture made to fit for him, but he can see the hunger in Claire's eyes so maybe he's not the only one suffering. Finally, Tim scribbles something and then passes the book and pen over to Tony.

He reads, "To our number one fan, thanks for being the first. There's a place on a sleevenote for you somewhere." And then there's a scrawl, which Tony can just about make out the T and M in, but McGee's definitely winning the illegible signature Olympics. He adds, "It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it. Stick around," and signs.

"Thank you," says Claire, clutching the book to her chest, eyes shining. "You guys, thank you. For everything. I'm sorry I didn't get to meet Abby and Ziva."

"Next time," says Tim. "Because there'll be a next time, right?"

"Right!" says Claire, and Tony is once again worried about smoking Converse.

"Don't mind me," yells Jimmy. "I'm just the roadie."

Claire giggles as she walks backwards away from the van. "Bye," she says. "Bye, Jimmy!"

Tim leans forward, half-obscuring Tony's view. "Bye, Claire! See you soon."

There's a horn blast up the road and Claire twists around. "Oh my god, my mom." She starts to run.

"Her mom," says Tony, with a curl of his lips. "Nice going, McPedo, you've got yourself a jailbait groupie."

"Actually," says Jimmy, "it's not pedophilia if they're past puberty, it's ephebophilia."

"You are very strange," says Tony, blinking at him. "Didn't you want her number, McGee? She was very into you. And cute. And didn't she remind you of someone we know? Huh?"

"Leave it, Tony," says Tim, frowning. "She's a sweet girl and she's a fan. That's all there is."

"But put her on some ladders, dim the lights and call her Abby and you could-"

"I said leave it," says Tim. "If you're having problems with hearing because of the sound levels, take it up with Jimmy or go get some moulds. Okay?" Tim delivers this with perfect pleasantness and it's like the anger Tony was hoping to provoke gets reflected onto Tony instead. He clenches his teeth and flings himself away from the van.

"I'm going to find Gibbs," he says. "I'm bored."

"No need," says Gibbs behind him. "We're done here. Let's go."

Tony jumps. "Wow, boss, you're stealthy. How long have you been standing there?"

"Longer than you'd hope."

Tony swallows hard.

"Don't forget to bring your overnight bags, Thursday," says Gibbs, as they all get out of the van after a ride during which Tony'd flinched every time Gibbs made the tiniest movement.

"Ooooh," says Abby. "Are we staying in a motel? Can we trash it? I've always wanted to throw a TV through a window."

"Yes, motel. No trashing."

"Not even a little bit?"

"Nope."

"Spoilsport."

"I could make you sleep in the van. With DiNozzo's feet."

Abby leans over and kisses Gibbs's cheek. "Then you're my hero," she says.

"I do not have stinky feet," says Tony.

"Shut up, Tony," says everyone.

***


The plan is to spend every second from the moment Tony roars away from the others to the moment he rocks back up, bag in hand, doing his damndest to get past these inconvenient emotions that seem to refuse to let up. First stop is porn. Straight porn, gay porn, threesomes, cheesy softcore with an attempt at plot and romance or full on wall-to-wall rutting with no inclinations towards 'art', it's never mattered. People getting off gets Tony off. It's foolproof. Only now, not so much. He can get hard, sure, but it's all a bit paint-by-numbers and, okay, so Tony likes a mindless orgasm as much as the next guy, but sometimes it doesn't work if his head's not engaged. And it's not. For all the writhing and grunting bodies on screen are doing for his mental state he might as well be watching that DVD with the fish. At least they'd be pretty colors. And less surgically enhanced.

He thinks maybe he just needs to get it out of his system, give himself permission to think about all the things he would do to Tim, all the things he'd want Tim to do to him, if only McGee was wired up the right way. It's less than helpful. Each fantasy gets him hotter than the last, and when Tony finds himself jerking off with his finger up his ass and muttering aloud both parts of the sex-talk ("Fuck me faster, Tim. Jesus, please" "You're so hot and tight for me. God, I can't stop. Don't want to ever...") he realizes that the flaw in his plan was the plan.

It's not only that he wants to show Tim the best sex of his probably sheltered life, it's that he misses him. He misses Tim's face and the way he scrunches it up when something is making no sense to him. He misses taking four hours to watch a ninety-minute movie because Tim asks so many questions and Tony won't watch and explain at the same time. He misses writing with him and poking fun at him and watching him sleep through the apparently-sinus-impaired coffee machine every morning as if it's some rainforest sounds CD. Everything. He misses everything. Even the stuff they still do together. Especially that. This is so much worse than he'd thought.

Maybe he should just say sorry. Maybe he should say I know I'm screwing up, I can't help it. Maybe he should say things are happening and I can't talk about it. Hang on in there, please, I'm coming back.

Maybe.

Tony lasts until halfway through Wednesday before he can't take it any more. He gets out of the apartment and walks and walks and pretends to be totally surprised when he winds up in front of Kramerbooks. He'd give himself a headslap for being obvious, but there are people about. It takes him five turns of the block to get up the courage to go in. Tim's not immediately in sight, but that's okay, there are more nooks and crannies in the store than in Mick Jagger's face and Tony's got time to hunt. Turns out that Tim is exactly nowhere. In the end, Tony gives up and asks one of the other store assistants.

"We did inventory last night? He totally worked all the hours. If I was him? I'd be rocking the sleep right now," says a skinny dude labeled 'Steve'.

"You mean he has the day off."

"Yeah. You want me to say you stopped by?"

"No, you're good. I'll catch up with him soon."

"Sure," says Steve, and wanders off.

Tony stands in the middle of the store for a little while, wondering what to do. And then he does something he hasn't done for a really, really long time. He buys a book. In actual fact, he buys several. He picks up a couple of trades that he remembers Tim mentioning, briefly considers a self-help book entitled, How Many Petals Does Your Flower Have? Emotional Expression and You, but settles for a biography of Jimmy Stewart, a thriller, and a copy of Forever to replace the one his dad had confiscated from him when he was twelve and in a Judy Blume phase (his dad was always more of a Sports Illustrated guy). He has a cover story about a niece ready to go, but the clerk seems more troubled by the thriller than anything else.

"You really want this?" she asks.

"Why not?"

"I always think, never trust an author whose name's in bigger letters than the book title, you know? And it's in gold." Her red-painted lips curl in disgust.

"Just sell me the book," says Tony. "We make up our own minds in America."

He thinks he hears the clerk mutter, "Don't get me started," as she taps at various buttons. He's totally asking Tim about her next time he sees him. Or. Yeah. Whatever.

Tony not only buys the books, he reads them (Forever first. What? It'd been a long time. He needed to check in on Ralph). As a diversionary tactic it works better than anything else so far and he nearly ends up late to the meet up.

"Huh," says Jimmy. "Is that a book in your pocket or are you pleased to see me?"

"It's a book," says Tony. "I'm never pleased to see you."

"I did not know you were past picture books, Tony," says Ziva. "I can tell you what the hard words say, if you like."

"Yeah, funny," says Tony, settling into the van. He pulls out the book and starts reading, and it's only partly because it's an excuse not to have to talk the whole way.

Gibbs has a whole extra subset of rules for gigs. If they're more than two hours drive away and you don't come off before midnight then you stay put. He says it's because he's not putting Jimmy's job at risk by increasing the likelihood of him wrecking the van, but Tony figures it's because Gibbs preserves his ageless complexion due to some complex beauty sleep routine involving magic and potions and without it he'll wither into dust and blow away. Whatever. The net result is crappy motel.

It was a good gig, and they're hanging around outside the office waiting for Gibbs to come out, working off their post-gig high. Ziva sits on Tim, piggyback, long hair hiding her face as she whispers in his ear. Tim is bouncing her up and down and grinning. Abby twirls in circles, arms outstretched, eyes tight shut while Jimmy yells 'colder' and 'warmer' at her at seemingly random intervals. Tony watches them and thinks what a difference five or six years sometimes can be. He glances at Gibbs through the dirty glass door and sees him palm three keys. Shit, he thinks. Shit, shit, shit.

"Do I need to ring the bell for the end of recess?" calls Gibbs, the bell producing a coughing tinkle as he steps out of the office. They all freeze in place and Tony wonders if he blew in their faces would they all fall down?

Gibbs holds up the keys. "Abby and Ziva," he says.

Abby hop skips up to him, drops a shallow curtsey, wiggles one of the keys free and signals Ziva who slides of of Tim, picks up their bags and follows.

"McGee, you're with me. DiNozzo, you're with Palmer. Please let him get some sleep, I need him more than I need you."

"Okay, boss," says Tony, so relieved that he doesn't have to spend the night with Tim that he lets the Jimmy thing go.

Gibbs gives him a long measured look before he hands over the key. "You might want to investigate that sleep thing, too," he says.

Tony bites his lip and nods. "Yes, boss." Is there anything Gibbs doesn't know?

McGee hovers with his and Gibbs's bags. Gibbs jerks his head in the opposite direction to Tony's room and they walk off together. Tony watches them go. McGee says something Tony doesn't catch, and Gibbs reaches out and strokes the back of his head. Tony could swear that Tim's leaning a little into the touch. His stomach clenches tight. There are some places his mind really needs to not go.

He's brushing his teeth when Jimmy pokes his head around the bathroom door.

"Hey, Tony, can I ask you a question?"

Tony does a complicated mime that means 'oh my fucking god I have a mouthful of toothpaste, do you have no sense of appropriate timing?' and Jimmy says, "Yeah, sorry, when you're done," and his head disappears. Presumably it's with the rest of his body on the other side of the door. Tony doesn't really care.

By the time Tony is finished, Jimmy's changed and sitting up in bed, hands folded neatly on the stretched-tight sheets.

"I'm sorry, I don't do bedtime stories," says Tony, throwing himself back on his bed. It creaks ominously. "But you can probably get hot milk from the vending machine if you can't sleep without it."

Jimmy blinks at Tony from behind his glasses. "So the question? I did this whole thing where I told myself it was none of my business, but then I was on the phone to my mom and she was talking about Kennedy--this girl I went to school with--and how she'd had this kid under a bush and it had nearly died and no one had even known she was pregnant and she said, well, no one asked, and my mom said sometimes we're not nosy enough when it's people we care about, so then I figured I should probably say something."

"Breathe, Jimmy. And then spit it out, I'm supposed to be letting you sleep."

For a second, Jimmy screws his face up tight, like he's in pain, and then he says, "What happened? Did Tim do something?"

Tony freezes, mid-scramble under the covers. "I don't know what you mean."

"Oh, come on," says Jimmy. "I have eyes. They might be less than twenty-twenty, but I know how to use them. He's all-" Jimmy flaps his hand in the air. Tony has no clue what that's supposed to represent. "-wrong," he finishes.

"Very descriptive, Palmer. He seems okay to me." And really, the kid seems fine. Not full of joy or beans or anything along those lines, but he's on an even keel and isn't that all anybody should need? Tony would give anything to find his.

Jimmy screws up his face. "Yeah, I don't think so. You guys were practically living in each other's pockets and he was all happy and there was banter, and derring-do and then, poof! Gone. What happened to the puppy, Tony?"

"He grew up."

"No, you confused him. You're kicking him one minute and feeding him treats the next. He doesn't know if he's going to get a boot to the head or a belly rub, no wonder he's gone for flat-line inoffensive. It's the only way he can keep under your radar. You have to stop. Like now. Or, you know, tomorrow, because I wouldn't recommend waking Gibbs up unless you're not attached to your life at all."

"It's none of your business, Palmer. Leave it."

"Hmm, yeah, no. I like you guys. Tim's not happy and I'd give good odds you're not either. So you could tell me whatever it is that's going on voluntarily or I could get Ziva to make you tell me. I think she has contacts with Mossad, you know."

"Wow, you're kind of mean, Palmer. Did anyone ever tell you?"

Jimmy swells, wriggling with pride. "I'm working on it," he says. "Now talk."

Tony bashes his head off his pillow. Maybe getting it all out will make it go away. And it's not like Jimmy's leaving him with any choice. "I kind of- Swear to god, Palmer, if any of this leaves this room I will find many, many ways in which to make your world miserable. Starting with throwing up on your van's steering wheel. Deal?"

"Deal."

"Right. So. Okay." Tony takes a deep breath. "Last Friday--fuck, how has it only been six days?--I kind of, maybe, sort of...It's possible that I...Fuck it. I have these feelings, okay? For McGee. For Tim." Huh, it really does feel better out than in.

"Oh," says Jimmy. "I don't think I was expecting that. Okay. So you shut him down because you couldn't handle these 'feelings'." He does curly air quotes rather than smart ones. It figures. "That makes sense."

"Yeah?" Tony lifts his head off the pillow and looks over at Jimmy.

"No. No, it does not make sense. Why don't you do something about it instead of making him feel like crap? What is your problem?"

Tony slams his head back down. "I've tried, okay? They don't sell feelings' weedkiller."

"Duh, did I say get over it? I want to know what the problem is."

Tony struggles up onto his elbows and glares. "He's straight, Palmer. That is the essential problem in this matter. The straightness of him versus the not-straightness of me. And I'll ask and he'll say no and then the band would be fucked and it would be all my fault for not settling down with that nice girl with the freckles my mom picked out for me when I was ten."

"You're projecting. Just ask. You're not going to melt down the world. Tim survived the Abby thing, you can survive this. Ask."

"It doesn't matter."

"Why?"

Something inside Tony snaps, and he blurts out, "Because everybody leaves, Palmer. Everybody. Leaves." And, sweet fuck, it's the first time he's ever admitted that to himself, let alone anyone else. It's suddenly hard to breathe.

"Wow!" Jimmy leans back against the headboard, blinking fast.

"See? My mom, my dad, Cam. I loved them and they left me and it can't happen again, okay? I can't handle it. You get it, right?"

"Yeah, no. You're a dick, Tony. Stop making excuses and fix it."

"What the hell? What do you even know? Your job is to roadie, not to dispense advice."

Tony shuts off the light and presses his hands hard against his mouth. Fuck, shit, damn, he is not going to cry. Not here, not now. There's lead balling in his chest and he can't move.

"Tony?" Jimmy's concerned voice weaves out of the dark. "I'm sorry, I was kinda harsh. If you want to talk..."

"Shut up," Tony squeezes out from behind his fingers. "Shut. Up."

He slides down in the bed, lying flat on his back, staring up at the ceiling that slowly resolves into murky grayness, hands still over his mouth. After a while, Jimmy's breathing deepens, a rasping hitch every few breaths. He's out for the count.

Tony peels his hands away and whispers, "What if he says yes and then he leaves?" The words hang in the air, red and malevolent and ugly. It's the raw center of the part of Tony's psyche that he keeps hidden under tight lock and key. He has to look at it now, though, because it's escaped and there's no putting it back. Jimmy's right, he could take the asking and being turned down; the band wouldn't fold and neither would he.

What he doesn't think he could take is if Tim said yes.

***


Tony puts his hand on the door handle and twists around to face Jimmy. "Don't say anything," he says. "Please."

Jimmy shakes his head, his face assuming an expression of compassion Tony doesn't want to see. "I promise. But do better, okay? For Tim and for everyone."

"I'm working on it," says Tony. "That's all I've got." He turns back, and Jimmy's hand lands on his shoulder and squeezes.

Gibbs takes one look at him and says, "Am I going to have to order you to sleep, DiNozzo? You look like crap."

"Motel beds, you know how they are. I'll take a nap when we get home, be right as rain for tonight."

Abby says, "Everything can be fixed by pancakes. Also coffee. Who's with me?"

Tim says, "Bacon. Mmm, baaacon," and gets a dreamy look in his eyes.

Ziva says, "Hash browns. They are a poor substitute for levivot, but it is not the potatoes' fault your American cuisine is lacking."

Jimmy says, "Scrambled eggs!"

Gibbs mutters something about scrambling their eggs, but Abby coaxes him with the thought of a bottomless coffee and soon they're all arguing about who saw what diner where on the route yesterday. Tony, tired as all hell, watches them go at it, a small smile curving one corner of his lips. This is his family, right here. Jimmy was right, he has to fix it, and he will. Just as soon as he figures out how.

The (mostly) regular two-weekly band meeting is scheduled for the next morning, so Tony drags his still-tired ass out of bed and heads for the usual place. When he arrives, Tim and Abby are already there, sitting on opposite sides of the booth. Together again. Tony tightens his lips and tries not to think about it. He greets them with a hey and is about to slide in next to Abby, but Jimmy, who has somehow snuck in behind him without him noticing, bodychecks him, hipslamming him in next to Tim and then shoves in, pushing them close together. They always crowd into one booth, this is nothing new, only Tony's thigh is pressed tight against Tim's and there's nowhere safe for Tony's arm to go. He's about to protest the unbalanced (and unfair, thank you so much, Palmer) seating arrangements, but then Gibbs comes out of the restroom and Ziva dashes through the door and there's no way he can move now even if he wants to. Fuck my life, thinks Tony. Fuck it so hard.

They've been coming to the E-Z Diner for months now. Gibbs set up the band meetings in a neutral place so that they could talk about anything Ya Think?-related, from who owned what, to coordinating work schedules, to complaints about the eye-bleeding problem caused by the background to their MySpace page. They're well enough known by now for the waitress, Debrah-Lee, to stop by their table and say, "All in? Five coffees, extra cream and a chocolate milkshake coming right up."

Jimmy grins up at her. "Strawberry today," he says. "I'm experimenting with the other side." Tony hates him.

"Oooh," says Debrah-Lee, "I like a little experimentation, my own self." She winks at him, scribbles on her pad and heads behind the counter.

"Okay," says Gibbs, slamming his folder on the table with what Tony considers way more noise than necessary. "In case you hadn't noticed, we're doing good. On Tap wants an interview, we’re getting some good word of mouth out and I've got interest in repeat bookings. Pat yourselves on the back."

Everyone duly pats.

"Now, stop."

They stop.

"What this means is we need new tracks in rotation. We can't give exactly the same show every time. By my count we've got another four we can slot in. Are there any more?" Everyone turns to look at Tim and Tony.

"Ah," says Tony, wishing DC was on a fault line.

"You know, with the bookstore and the gigs and everything, there hasn't really been any time to get stuff finished," says Tim, and Tony flashes him a grateful smile.

"Get to it. 'South by Southwest' is good, but I want to see what else you've got." He makes a note in the folder.

"Yes, boss," chorus Tim and Tony.

Debrah-Lee returns with the drinks and they all sit back while she hands them out. Tony's arm is pressed along the length of Tim's, and it would be so easy to tangle their fingers together, to just sit there, holding Tim's hand like it's the most simple and obvious thing in the world. Tony resists hard against the voice in his head screaming at him to move, move now, get away because not only will that freak Tim out again, which Tony does not want to do, but, strangely, Tony has an aversion to a potential lap full of scalding hot coffee, even with extra cream in it.

"You like it, sugar?" says Debrah-Lee, watching Jimmy as he takes a sip of his milkshake.

Jimmy nods. "Fruity," he grins around the straw.

"U-huh," says Debrah-Lee. "Don't drink it too fast, now. You don't wanna make yourself sick."

Tim leans forward, elbows on the table, and Tony breathes a sigh of relief.

"We're getting more hits on MySpace," says Tim. "And people are streaming the demo, but I'm getting requests for 'South by Southwest'. We should think about recording it, maybe?"

"Studio time costs money. They'll have to come and see us live for now."

"What about an unofficial vid on YouTube?" Abby says. "We could embed it, and then it solves the recording problem."

"I like it," says Tim. Of course he does. "Who do you know with a video camera?"

Tony tunes out as they hash out all the details, mindlessly adding sugar to his coffee until he's stopped by Ziva's horrified look.

"Blah blah blah technical details. Blah blah refresh rates, no one cares," he mutters under his breath and then coughs as Jimmy punches him in the side.

"Anything else?" Gibbs asks, flicking through pages in the folder. Tony glares at Jimmy, who glares back.

"Well-" starts Jimmy, kicking Tony's ankle.

"Why is Palmer here, anyway?" Tony interrupts. "He's not in the band."

"He's a functioning member of this group, DiNozzo. You want to do his job as well as yours, be my guest. Or how many jobs is it you do, Jimmy?"

"Oh, um, ten? Fifteen? I lost count."

"You are a Trojan, Jimmy," says Ziva.

"A trooper, Ziva. A trojan's a computer virus, even I know that," says Tony. "Also, a condom."

"Or someone who likes big, wooden horses," adds Abby.

"Troopers, Trojans, they are all soldiers. I do not see the problem."

"Sorry, Jimmy," mutters Tony, while Tim and Abby futilely attempt to explain the difference.

"Me, too. I was pushing and I shouldn't."

"I'm getting there, okay?"

"I trust you."

It's a good thing someone does, thinks Tony, because he's not entirely sure he trusts himself.

The meeting breaks up and Tony heads for the Smithsonian, choosing a museum away from the main drag. It's a habit he'd picked up on the bad days when his mom's treatment wasn't going so well and he'd needed to lose himself, to find space and distraction. It's cool inside and everyone is talking in those hushed tones of awe, and Tony finds himself sitting in front of a huge painting of some semi-naked guy wrestling with a bull and he stares and stares at it as the world buzzes around him. When he finally stands up, he's made a decision. Nothing has gone away, nothing has changed, not really, he just chooses to go with a new tactic. Tony's never been too hot at figuring out how his actions affect other people, it's so much easier to be all about him, but knowing that he's confusing Tim, hurting him, even, means something has to give. As much as Tony wants to blame Tim, say he made Tony fall in love with him, he knows it's not true, and it's not fair to make him suffer for it. So, new plan. Tim can do pleasant? So can Tony.

And he does. It's weird and a little uncomfortable, but Tony catches Jimmy's nod of approval and the more Tony does it, the better it feels. Tim is exactly the same as he's been the past week, but Tony can't expect miracles, not from either side. This isn't friendship, not yet, which is okay, Tony's not ready to handle anything other than the friendly distance they've got going right now anyway. It'll do as a placeholder until Tony can figure out what comes next.

***


When they come offstage from their third gig in as many days, a stocky, sharply-dressed guy approaches them.

"Hi," he says, "Name's Vance. I'm with NCIS Records. I'm here for Kort, but I caught your last couple of tracks. Interesting. Very interesting. Do you have a demo? Or any other gigs lined up?"

Gibbs holds up a hand. "One second." He turns to the others, to a one standing with their mouths open. Tony slams his shut. "Go. Load the van. I'll take care of this." He shoos them away. Reluctantly, they obey.

"Oh my god!" says Abby, once they're out of earshot. "NCIS Records! They're who Gay in LA are signed with."

"Yes! And Orange Cap. I love them!" says Ziva.

"You guys," says Tony, opening his arms and tipping his head to the side. "You guys. Group hug!" It's a testament to how excited they all are that they just glom on, Tim included, and there's a mess of sweaty limbs and hair and faces and everyone is kissing everyone and Tony finds himself pressing his lips to the corner of Tim's mouth. He'd been aiming for his cheek, but missed. For the briefest of moments he lets himself pretend that it would be okay to slide his lips against Tim's, pushing them open with his tongue, cupping his head and kissing him thoroughly, celebrating what this next step might be. And then he lets reality take back over and pulls away, careful to keep the grin on his face.

Tim reflects excitement back at him, but it slips for just a second and he looks at Tony with open, naked sadness. Then the second passes and he is grinning again and kissing Ziva's upturned face. This time it's not Superman's fist, it's Thor's hammer. Tony gets it, now, on a gut level that had been escaping him. Tim misses him, maybe not as much as Tony misses Tim, but enough. Enough to make Tony swear to himself that screw how he feels, Tim needs to come first, and he's going to put this friendship back the way it was if it kills him.

"Should we be counting our eggs before they are laid?" asks Ziva, when they break the hug.

"You can't count eggs before they're laid. How does that even make sense?"

"Most of your idioms are nonsensical, Tony. You can't expect me to know which ones are even more stupid than usual."

Tony sighs.

Jimmy says, "You know, she has a point."

Tony sighs again.

"We can get a little excited, though, right?" Abby crosses her feet over and spins around, finishing with a flourish. "A guy from NCIS Records wants to hear us play. Okay, we might not get signed, but holy step forward, Batman!"

"Right," says Tim, grabbing her around the shoulders and pulling her in tight. "And bonus points for the Batman reference."

"I hate to break up the party," says Jimmy, "but I need to load the van."

"We'll help. Many hands make light work," says Tony pointedly at Ziva. "That's not stupid."

"I thought electricity made light work," Ziva says, eyes wide and innocent.

Tony's lower lip wobbles. "I probably hate you the most," he says.

Ziva grins, picks up a couple of stands and sashays away.

Jimmy claps Tony on the shoulder with one hand and passes him an amp with the other. "She can probably kill you with her little finger," he says. "Or she knows someone who can. Whatever you're thinking? You should stop that."

Tony yanks the amp from Jimmy's grasp and glares.

When Gibbs joins them, they're clustered around the back of the van, waiting. They turn expectant faces to him. He's deadly serious. Tony's heart sinks.

"Well?" asks Abby, her face twisted with worry.

Gibbs face splits into a rare smile. "He's gonna make the Black Cat gig, Sunday. One more reason to make our last show a good one."

Abby jumps up and down, clapping her hands, Ziva punches Jimmy in the arm and Tony slings an arm around Tim's shoulders, tugging him in and knuckling his head.

"Told ya, kid," he says as Tim's hands flap at him.

Tim pulls away, "You totally did not," he says. "Liar." But his smile is wide and genuine and Tony's heart grows maybe three sizes, maybe four, and he thinks, yeah, he can do this thing.

Both Abby and Ziva decide to abandon the front seat in favor of the back of the van. They need to be together, the four of them--Tony feels it, too. It's pretty cramped with all of them there, though, and Ziva sits between Tim's legs, his arms wrapped around her waist, chin resting on top of her head. Or it is until Jimmy hits one roadbump too many, Ziva yelps and tells Tim to find somewhere less painful to keep his chin.

Abby is squeezed up next to Tony, and he says, "Don't they make a pretty picture?"

She laughs. "Jealous, Tony?"

"No! Ziva's not my type."

"Yeah, thought not." Abby leans her head against Tony's shoulder and picks up his hand, playing with his fingers. "I have a feeling she's not Timmy's type either. He's definitely not hers."

Why not? Tony wants to demand. Isn't he good enough for her? But demanding that Ziva be into Tim seems kinda self-defeating, so he keeps his mouth shut.

"And what's yours?" he asks, leering down at Abby, tugging at a pigtail.

"Not you!" She gives him a shove, he shoves back and they're in a full on slap fight when Gibbs yells, "Hey!" and they spring apart.

"I dunno," says Gibbs. "I think I deserve some time off. No more rehearsals. Be at my place seventeen thirty on Sunday. Sharp. Don't call me unless you're dying."

Tony and Abby secretly poke each other the rest of the way back. Abby has very bony fingers; Tony's going to be all over bruises in the morning. He has very delicate skin.

"Should we go celebrate?" asks Tony, when they're all standing on the sidewalk. "It seems like something we should do."

"Can't. I'm pulling a double shift tomorrow. I'm on at seven. You guys go, though." Tim straps his bass on his back.

"Oh, that's right, abandon us and head back to the House of Mold," Tony says. Adding, "You know, my head tosses would be way more effective if I had more hair."

"Mold's all gone," says Tim. "It's been...a project." He shoves his hands in his pockets and looks away.

"The something about eggs," says Ziva, twirling a finger in the air. "It is too soon. Celebrate if we are signed, yes? McGee, can I give you a ride?"

"Thanks, Ziva, that'd be great."

"He's too young to die, David. Watch the road."

"Yes, Mommy," says Ziva and pokes her tongue out at Tony. She takes Tim's arm and they walk away. "Now what is the red light for again?" Tony hears her say.

"Wow, I did not think human beings could actually growl like bears," says Jimmy. "You learn something new every day."

***


Tony wakes up with an honest-to-goodness smile on his face. He's like an ad for cornflakes or something, he thinks, all bed-mussed hair and rosy cheeks and a beam on his face to put the sun to shame. An A&R guy is coming to their next gig and he's finally starting to put things back on track with Tim. Okay, so if Tim could be just a little bit more gay and a lot more in love with Tony, that would put the icing on the cake, but hey, life's pretty sweet, even without the benefit of chocolate frosting.

He doesn't want to hang around the apartment all day, there's nothing to do. He's even out of books. So it makes sense, Tony thinks, to go down to the bookstore, pick up some more reading material, maybe see how Tim's getting through his shift. Two birds, one stone. Simple, really. Tony belts out 'Ignition' in the shower and it sounds amazing. Of course it does. Today is a good day.

Kramerbooks is bustling and it takes Tony a while to track down Tim. He's around a corner in Military History and he's not alone. A tall, slim-hipped guy with dark hair that looks like it's been in one too many experiments with static electricity is with him, leaning against the shelves and towards Tim in a way that Tony can only characterize as 'up to no good'. He's talking and demonstrating something vigorously in the air with his non-leaning hand, and Tim is laughing, his whole body twisted in Crazy-Hair's direction, like it's magnetized or something.

Tony clenches his jaw. No. No no no. If Tim is not going to be a little bit gay for Tony, then he's not going to be a little bit gay for anyone. Even if they're tall, dark and handsome with a...is he showing Tim a scar? Seriously? Oh for-

"Hey, Tim!" he calls, and two heads swivel towards him. "I came to see you! And get books. To get books and to see you. Two birds, one stone." He demonstrates an extra-special bird-concussing shot as he comes to a stop next to the two of them. Crazy-Hair looks amused. Tony does not like Crazy-Hair.

"So this reading thing is sticking, is it?" says Tim, raising his eyebrows. "Who'd've guessed?"

"Listen, just because I don't usually buy my books from here, doesn't mean-"

"I've been to your place, Tony," says Tim. "Give it up."

Crazy-Hair smirks. He is so not winning this one, thinks Tony. He insinuates himself between Crazy-Hair and Tim, patting at Tim's chest.

"Forget the books," he says, smoothing the shoulders of Tim's t-shirt, "We need to work on the other songs. Come over to my place tomorrow, McPaul!" He grips Tim's upper arms and gives them a squeeze. "I'll order in."

Tim narrows his eyes, obviously still in two minds, and Tony gives him a little shake. "We can call Animal Control," he says. "You know you want to."

That does the job. Tim lights up at the thought of Jethro and he nods. "Okay. I'll come by in the morning."

"Awesome! I will see. You. Then." Tony punctuates each of the last three words with a poke at Tim's chest, then turns on his heel delivering his best death glare to Crazy-Hair and leaves, triumphant.

He's halfway down the street when the panic catches up with him and he stops like he's run smack into a brick wall. Oh fuck, he thinks, clutching his churning stomach. What did I do? What did I do? He isn't ready for this, to have Tim back in his place, sitting on the bed, writing with Tony like nothing ever tipped over into the most-definitely-awry category. He can't do it. There's only one thing he can do.

He heads for a bar. Somewhere, the sun is over the yard-fucking-arm, and Tony's going to take full advantage.

The buzzer saws through Tony's brain. He presses the heel of his hand into his eye and rubs hard, flailing his legs until they're free of the covers.

"Coming, coming, coming," he mumbles, hitching his boxer shorts further up his hips and navigating his apartment with difficulty. Who even left the couch there? Idiot. He stumbles on something sharp and yelps, managing to eventually answer the door while hopping, one foot clutched in his hand.

Tim's on the other side, backpack slung over one shoulder, dirty blond hair belying the first part of its description by being still damp from the shower. He's in a faded blue band tee and jeans and he looks good. Really good. Tony winces.

"McGee, I, um. Is it that time already?"

"What? Morning? That happens every day after night, Tony." Tim grins at him. "Jim Beam came around last night, huh?"

"I don't- Can you just-" Tony's trying to rub two thoughts together when Tim stiffens, staring. Tony turns to see what he's staring at and freezes.

A tall, black-haired, pale-skinned girl is standing in the middle of the room in panties and one of Tony's t-shirts. She's obviously just walked out of his bedroom. She stretches and yawns and says, "Hey, do you like eggs? I like eggs."

"Just one second," says Tony and turns back to Tim.

"Yeah, so, I didn't mean to intrude, I should probably have called first," says Tim, pale and unsteady, backing away from the door. "Another time, okay?" and he can't get away fast enough.

Tony braces himself against the doorframe, leaning out into the hallway. "Wait!" he yells. "Come back, it's not-" Only it is. It's exactly what it looks like, and Tony would chase him down and explain, but he's practically naked and getting arrested is not going to help anything.

He slaps himself hard upside the head. Dick move, DiNozzo. The dickest move ever. Everything is truly, truly fucked now. If there was a prize for worst person in the world, Tony would be expecting the nomination in the mail any second now. He turns back around.

"So no eggs for him?" the girl says.

"Abby," Tony says, trying to stop his voice shaking. "You may need to hide all the sharp objects. Now."

"Wait. Was that Timmy?" Abby drops like a stone onto the couch. "Oh, Tony, what did you do?"

***


Tony has watched time slow before, each second of each minute catching and dragging on the next, reluctant to let it pass. He has waited long hours and days in endless, echoing hallways and sterile hospital rooms, the loud tock, tock, tock of the clock stretching out into infinity. He has never known it like this before, the minutes barely ticking over, while he never stops, rushing from one place to another and back again, stuck in a frantic loop. He can't make it better if he can't find Tim, and Tim doesn't want to be found.

It's seventeen forty nine, approximately 56 hours since Tony stumbled into his jeans, explaining everything to Abby as he shoved his feet into his sneakers, and there's still no sign of Tim. The van is loaded and ready to go and nothing.

"Did you find him?" mutters Abby.

"No. He's not been home or to the bookstore or anywhere. He's not picking up his cell. Nothing. Two days of nothing."

"Yeah, no luck here either. Did you even sleep?"

"Not so much."

"Oh, Tony." Abby pats his arm.

"You're not going to tell me I'm a gigantic ass?"

"Would it make you feel worse?"

"Doubt it."

"Then it's a waste of my energy and I have to channel for tonight."

"If there is a tonight." Tony leans his head back and bashes it not-so-lightly off the side of the van.

"He'll show up. Timmy's the most reliable person I know."

"Yeah."

Because the world basically hates Tony, this is when Gibbs steps out of the house and says, "McGee just called. He's not coming."

"What do you mean, not coming?" asks Ziva. "He has to come. He always comes."

Gibbs fixes his stare on Tony and walks towards him. Tony stands up straight, squaring his shoulders, unable to do anything else.

"What did you do, DiNozzo?"

"Me, boss? N-n-nothing."

Gibbs stares harder and Tony can swear the man is rummaging right into his soul. "You have exactly two hours and seven minutes to fix this and get both your asses to the show, am I clear? Good. The rest of you?" He clicks his fingers. "In the van. Now."

"Yes, boss," says Tony and casts a despairing look at Abby. She shrugs and mouths 'good luck' at him, and then he's on his own.

Think, DiNozzo, think, he tells himself. Where would Tim be? He's already been everywhere he can think of and then some, there's nowhere e- Oh! Of course. It's got to be. He sprints for his car. Two hours and six minutes, he hears Gibbs intone in his head. Screw the gig, he thinks. He''ll settle for having Tim look him in the eyes.

Tony pushes open the heavy door and is assailed with the barking of what sounds like a thousand dogs. Whoever had thought bare concrete walls and floors was the way to go obviously knew nothing about sound reduction. They should get Abby on the case. Tim, crouching by Jethro's cage, jumps to his feet, startled. Something falls from his lap and skids across the floor running out of momentum a couple of feet away from Tony.

"Go away, Tony, I'm trying to say goodbye to my dog."

"Can't do that," says Tony, taking a step closer. "Gibbs said I had to come get your ass, so I'm here to do that."

"I told him I'm not coming." Tim crosses his arms and raises his chin.

Tony tries another step forward. "Listen, about the other day, I-"

"Don’t talk to me. I don't want to hear it."

"Tim, please." Another small step.

"Go. Away."

Tony's toe is touching the object now. He looks down and sees Tim's notebook. He bends and scoops it up. "Let me explain and you can have this back," he says. "Tell me to go away again and I'll eat your lyrics, starting with the newest." He pages through the book, easily side-stepping Tim as he lunges towards him.

"Give it back, you fuckhead!" yells Tim, and the dogs' wild barking sounds like backup.

"I don't think so. I know krav maga," says Tony, striking a vaguely martial-arty pose.

Tim's so surprised he stops in his tracks and Tony has time to read

In the Dark

You stood behind me, held me up when all I did was stumble
You were my guiding light when the whole world was grey
You helped me grow, how could I know how easily we'd fumble
The chance to be, to be us two,
And find our way together?


before Tim lunges again. This time Tony catches his arm and twists it gently, but firmly, behind Tim's back.

"Shut up," he says. "I'm reading."

How can it be over when we never even started something?
How can you leave me when you're still standing in the room?
Did I change or was it you?
I take it back, I promise you.
But your light is gone, I'm in the dark, alone and broken hearted.

You opened up your door to me, gave me a place to lay my head
I walked in step with you, for once not falling far behind
I can't believe I couldn't see how powerfully I wanted
The chance to be, to be us two
To find our way together.

How can it be over when we never even started something?
How can you leave me when you're still standing in the room?
Did I change or was it you?
I take it back, I promise you.
But your light is gone, I'm in the dark, alone and broken hearted.

And every time I think I feel you standing by my shoulder,
I turn around and see that you're no longer there
It's only when something is lost you discover its true value
If I call will you pick up?
Let me tell you how much I care.

How can it be over when we never even started something?
How can you leave me when you're still standing in the room?
I'm still the same, you know it too,
I'll make this work, I promise you.
Let me light you up, just let me in, don't leave me broken hearted.


Tony snaps the book shut and lets Tim go. Tim twists around, glaring and rubbing his arm.

"You wrote a song about the dog?" Tony says. "You've barely even seen him, how can this-" and then he stops because Tim's face is pale and unhappy and he holds out his hand. Tony puts the book into it.

"It's not about the dog."

"It's not about the- Then what?"

Tim looks at Tony, and his eyes out-puppy every canine in the room. He turns his head away. "Too hard," he says. "I had to stop. It's too hard."

Tony's heart catches and it must be the strong scent of canines that's making it so difficult to breathe. "Tim," he says. "Look at me. Look at me."

Tim's eyelids flutter, and Tony sees the whites of his eyes as he tries to look without looking.

"It's about me?" Wow, of course it's about him. With the door opening and phone up-picking. And if he weren't so busy trying not to explode from relief and happiness he'd spare some time to be concerned about his reading comprehension.

"I'm sorry. I tried not to. I know you didn't want...me. You didn't want me. It's okay, really."

"Oh, Tim. You are so so smart, and so so wrong." His face is broken, he thinks. He can't stop smiling.

Tim looks properly, then, eyes searching Tony's face. "But Abby?"

"I got really drunk, I called her and asked her to come pick me up. We drank some more at my place and I fell asleep on the couch. Abby took the bed. Nothing happened. We wouldn't do that to you, Tim, I swear. We love you."

"You...you love me?"

"Well, if we're going to be pedantic about it, she loves you and I'm in love with you, a small, but significant, difference."

"You're-"

"You know, I would really love to discuss this some more, but I am genuinely frightened for my life if I don't get you to the gig. Will you come?"

"Yeah," says Tim, totally dazed. "Okay." They start for the door, but there's a whine and Tim stops. Tony looks back and sees Jethro pressed up against the bars, wheezing his unhappiness at being deserted. "It's okay, Jethro, we're coming back." Tim turns to Tony, worried. "We are, right?"

"Right," agrees Tony, happy to see the worry disappear. He desperately wants to reach for Tim's hand, but it's difficult to believe that this is real, and he doesn't want to break the spell.

Tony fumbles with the car keys, too busy looking at Tim to get them into the lock. Tim folds his arms on the roof and rests his head on them, laughing at Tony's pathetic attempts to open the door.

"Yeah, I'd like to see you do better," says Tony. "You're making my hands fizz, I can't help it."

"I can make other things fizz, if you let me."

Tim looks so young, head wobbling as he bounces on his toes. They don't have time, but Tony can't help but ask, " You sure this isn't hero worship, like I'm totally your older-"

"If you say 'and better' I will walk away." Tim laughs. "Hero? You're, like, six years older than me, you've never held down a day job, your only definition of commitment involves a psych ward, and you genuinely believe that Atari was superior to Intellivision. I love you, man, but you're not my hero."

Tony's poised to be affronted, but his left-brain pokes his right-brain and tells him not to miss the point because, "You love me?"

"Didn't we cover this?"

"But you love me, love me, you don't just love me?"

Tim reaches across the car, grabbing Tony's arm and giving it a little shake. "I really do, and if you want, we can talk about it some more later, but if you could just kiss me now, that'd be sweet."

It's only fear of total public humiliation that stops Tony attempting to slide across the bonnet of the car. Instead, he says, "Wait there," and sprints around it to meet Tim as he straightens up. For a couple of moments, Tony folds his arms and gazes at Tim, lips twitching with suppressed happiness. And then he can't wait any more--gig or no gig--and he takes Tim's head in both hands, leans in, and kisses him. It is absolutely, totally and in all ways better than any fantasy Tony's created (and there have been many). Because, while real Tim might not have a handy non-bumpable nose, he does have warmth and softness and strength and wetness and reactions that Tony could never have dreamed up. He has hands that clutch at Tony's shirt and dig into his skin, and a throat that makes a desperate keening sound as if he's the one that needs to be rescued, not Jethro.

Tony pushes one hand through Tim's hair, rubs his thumb along the length of his cheekbone and kisses him as if he's finally made it home.

With huge reluctance, Tony pulls himself away. "Later," he says. "I'll write you the biggest rain check ever, but we have to go."

Tim wipes his mouth with his forearm (and, damn, that should not be so hot) and nods. "Gimme the keys," he says. "Or we'll never get the car open."

"Oh, this is how it's gonna be now?" Tony hands over the keys.

"You just be the pretty front man," says Tim, unlocking the door with ease. "Let me do the complicated stuff." He gets in. After a second, he pokes his head back out. "Well?" he says. "Are we going?"

Tony shakes himself and gets moving.

Turning the key in the ignition, he says, "You should probably call ahead, stop them worrying."

"Yeah, good idea."

Apparently Tim's cell is not that accessible judging by the writhing Tony can see going on out of the corner of his eye. He licks his dry lips. "And then if you could try, I don't know, being less hot? Because it's distracting and I have to break precisely the right amount of traffic laws to get us there on time, but still avoiding being pulled over. It's a complex process."

There's a rumbling squeak and a pause and then Tony hits the window button. "That'll do it," he says. "Thank you so much."

"Hey, boss," says Tim. "We're on our way. Yeah. Yep. Okay. Bye."

Tony spares him a quick glance. "You didn't apologize."

"Nope."

"You're learning, young Jedi. Soon there will be nothing left to teach you."

"Oh, I'm sure you can think of something," says Tim, managing to infuse his voice with the entire eastern seaboard's annual supply of innuendo.

"No hot!" Tony flaps a hand in Tim's general direction. "It's a rule!"

With time to spare, ("Bow before the god of DC traffic," says Tony) they pull up right behind the van. Jimmy is going to be pissed at Tony for parking so close, but he doesn't care. They sit in silence for a long moment, and then Tony turns to Tim, gripping the handbrake tightly.

"Listen, I just want you to know...What I mean is I...I owe you stuff--explanations and yeah, even apologies--and I want you to know I know. We can't...They're waiting and we need to go, but you can trust me, okay? To want to get this right."

Tim says nothing, just leans over and kisses Tony lightly on the mouth, stroking the taut skin covering Tony's knuckles.

"Let's do this thing," he says, and Tony doesn't know if he means the gig or the relationship, so he's going for both.

Abby is hovering at the back door, waiting for them to arrive. She takes one look at Tim and throws her arms around him, mugging a question over her shoulder at Tony. Tony grins and gives her the thumbs up, and her black-painted lips split into a huge smile. She pulls back from the hug, grabs Tim's face in both hands and says, eyes wide and round, "You should always be happy, Timmy." Then she lets go, points over Tim's shoulder at Tim, narrows her eyes and says, "Don't screw it up, Tony." She spins on her heels and starts to walk away, looking back with an, "Oh, and totally vice versa."

"I love Abby," says Tim.

"Yeah?" Tony's not worried, not really, but he's pretty sure the tiny percentage of doubt that insists on hanging around has worked its way into his voice. This is why he stays away from emotions, they are tricky, difficult to corner and keep escaping inappropriately. Or is that spiders?

"Yeah. I mean, I love her, but I'm in love with you--a small, but significant, difference." Tim reaches behind him, wiggling his fingers. "C'mon, we have to get set up."

Tony takes Tim's hand and holds on.

Tony figures it out when they're four songs in. When Tim, long-limbed and owning his bass crosses the stage and stands right next to Tony, singing into the same mic. It's nothing they haven't done before, and tonight Tony turns into Tim until they're practically singing into each other's mouths, sweaty and grinning and high on this thing they're creating.

Tony figures it out when it hits him with the power of Superman's fist that he could close the minute gap left between them and kiss that smiling, singing mouth. That he wants to. That he can. It's like being bathed in warm, syrupy water, and he breathes in deep, filling his lungs with the air Tim is breathing out. He's a half-beat late on the line and Tim's face gleams with shared understanding. Tony pulls a face at him and keeps right on singing. Tim leans right in and says, "Soon," the tiny hairs on Tony's ears shivering to instant attention. He pulls back, smiling, and seconds later he's back at his own mic and they make it to the end of the song without a single act of public indecency being performed.

Though when he scans the front of the crowd and sees Claire staring between the two of them, eyes saucer-wide, he thinks maybe they had, and just failed to notice.

They're under strict instructions from Gibbs to let Vance come to them, to not bug him with endless questions and, seriously, Palmer, do not refer to yourself as the Fifth Beatle, it does not mean what you think it means.

Vance doesn't keep them waiting, shakes hands all around without cracking even a close-lipped smile, never mind demonstrating that he has teeth.

"Good show," he says.

"Yup," says Gibbs.

"Liked the energy."

"Good crowd. Always easier to play off."

"Mmhmm. Nice variation in song structures. Shows depth."

"We wouldn't rest on laurels even if we had 'em."

"And solid performances. Good to see kids who can actually play."

"Be the best you can be."

"Vance is trying to out-Gibbs Gibbs," whispers Tony. "I think they might be about to create a black hole or a vortex or something else bad and sciency."

"Shh," commands Ziva.

Vance has pulled a card out of his pocket and is handing it to Gibbs, who stares at it and then tucks it into his jacket.

"Call," says Vance. "We'll set up a meeting." He nods at Gibbs, who nods back. Tony's fairly sure they just had a whole new conversation without even needing words. He feels he has a legitimate right to be terrified.

Vance finally looks over in their direction. "Tony, you have real emotional range. It gives the songs another layer. I like that."

"Thank you, sir." Tony kicks Ziva. He doesn't have to see to know the snort came from her.

"Tim, great bass line. It makes all the difference."

"Thanks," Tim brushes the back of his hand against Tony's and ducks his head, smiling.

"Abby, what can I say? You are extremely talented and they're lucky to have you."

"I keep telling them that. Maybe I could have it in writing?"

Vance gives her a measured stare. "Maybe. And Ziva?"

Ziva stands to attention. "Yes, sir."

"Your drums kick ass." He turns back to Gibbs. "Call. Soon," turns around and walks away, hand raised in a farewell salute.

"Did he just smile?" says Tony, awed. "Because I think I maybe saw some tooth enamel."

"Yay!" Abby jumps up and down. "He wants us! He wants us!" and then it's a melee of arms and legs and hair, and through it all Tony sees Gibbs watching them, arms folded and grinning like Tony'd never seen before.

"Okay, this time we celebrate," says Abby. "Unless Ziva wants to talk some more about chickens."

"You are mischaracterizing my relationship with chickens, Abby," says Ziva. "But yes, I am superstitious about celebrating before ink is dry on the paper."

"Ziiiiiiiiva, c'mon. We can't do it without you."

Ziva screws up her face and taps a finger on her lips. "Well, we have just finished the tour."

"Yes?" chorus four voices.

"And it has been quite an achievement."

"Yes?"

"So a drink to celebrate this would be quite in order. And if some of you wanted to express excitement about recent developments, how could I stop you?"

"YES!" Four fists punch the air.

"He totally thinks I kick ass," she says, tossing her hair and doing an air drum roll.

It takes them another ten minutes to figure out where to go, during which time Jimmy and Gibbs silently traipse back and forward, loading the van. (Jimmy pokes Tony hard in the ribs and demands keys. It's fair.) They're still debating between P Street, staying where they are, or hitting the Velvet Lounge, when Gibbs comes back, points out he has beer, bourbon and steaks as well as free parking and room to crash and if they think Palmer and him are doing all the unloading by themselves they've got another think coming.

So that's settled.

Riding back in the car, Tony and Tim pull the gig apart and put it back together and it's not until they're most of the way back that Tony says, "I want to take you home. I mean, I want to have a drink with the others, I really do, and I will. Mostly, though, I want to take you home. Is that okay?"

"Y-" says Tim, stopping and clearing his throat. "Yes. Totally okay."

"So we'll show up, stay a little while, and then..."

"Mmhmm. And then." There's a pause and then Tim says, "Can I be hot now?"

And Tony says, "You never really stopped."

They arrive before the van ("Maybe the Gibbs-map is offline," says Tony,") and sit on the steps waiting for the others. It's practically mandatory that they make out; at least that's how Tony sells it to Tim--not that it really needs selling. Tony's just considering saying screw it to the drink and dragging Tim off home right this second when there's the rumble of an engine, a stuttering honk and Jimmy yelling, "Way to man up, DiNozzo!"

So they're pretty much busted, but it's not like Tony cares. He stands up, pulls Tim to his feet, sliding his hand down Tim's forearm to take his hand.

Ziva stares at them as she climbs out of the back of the van, so Tony nudges Tim with his shoulder and swoops in for a kiss as Tim turns his head.

Ziva leans backwards, twisting her head around. "Abby, I owe you ten dollars," she calls. She turns back towards them, eyebrows raised. "Please, you think being 'loved up'-" Ziva goes for straight quotes. Tony is not surprised. "-gets you out of equipment duty? I do not think so. Move your buttocks."

Tim wriggles out from Tony's grip and jogs down the path in easy strides. He disappears behind the open door of the van. Gibbs appears in his place and the mental disconnect is enough to shock Tony out of his Tim-daze and into movement.

As Gibbs passes, he says, "You remember what I said."

Tony doesn't know if it's a question or a statement, but he says, "I'll take care of him, I promise," to Gibbs's retreating back.

He thinks he hears Gibbs say, "I know."

Tony's pretty much off alcohol after the last time, but he takes a beer, glass clinks all around and it's a whole one-thing-ends-another-thing-begins circle they've got going, only there's two new things starting and one can't come soon enough for Tony. They crowd out onto Gibbs's porch and Tim settles two steps down from Tony, between his legs. Tony tries so hard to pay attention to what Jimmy's trying to tell him about tap-dancing yetis (he's not willing to swear that's right), but he can't. Not when his thumb grazes the warm, downy skin of Tim's nape. Not when Tim's body is pressed against his thighs, tantalizingly close to his groin. Not when Tim turns to Tony every so often to share something, glass bottle pulling from his mouth with a soft, sucking pop, leaving his lip glistening. Tony can't help but imagine how he would taste of beer and lime and his mouth would be cool instead of warm and what that would be like pressed on Tony's over-heated skin. He shivers.

Tim looks up again. "Are you okay?"

Tony shakes his head.

Tim looks concerned, the shining happiness on his face fading, just a little. "Do you need to go?"

Tony nods, trying to do that non-speaking communication thing Gibbs and Vance had going.

"With me?"

Tony nods again, more fervently.

"Ohhhh," says Tim, brightening. "Right."

There are catcalls and jeers and applause from the peanut gallery as they leave, but Tony really doesn't care. The last thing he hears is Gibbs threatening headslaps all around, and then they are gone.

Tony once watched a documentary on the dangers of inattentive driving that made him quit using his cell while driving for at least a month afterward. The research scientists would have a field day with him, now, he imagines, because he can't remember a single thing about their journey home. All he knows is that he's here, now, the door to his apartment is open and he's kissing Tim into the room, letting go with one hand to slam the door behind them.

Tim has his fingers looped under the waistband of Tony's pants, grazing his hips, making his skin buzz and hum, and Tony doesn't know if he's maneuvering Tim towards the bedroom or being pulled. His hands are splayed across Tim's chest soaking up the waves of heat that radiate through the thin cotton. They kiss in sharp, darting movements, like there's no time to rest for long. Tony backs Tim up against the bed and they fall, knocking their heads together as they bounce back on the soft mattress. Wincing, Tony kneels up, and straddles Tim's thighs, pushing up his t-shirt. Tim's skin is pale and washed-out in the demi-light and his chest rises and falls with shallow, rapid motions. Tony ducks his head and impulsively licks up along the trail of hair that bridges the distance between Tim's belt and his belly button. Tim sucks in a breath, loud in the silence, and Tony circles Tim's belly button once before kissing his way up Tim's chest, pushing the t-shirt higher so he can rub the palm of his hand over Tim's nipple as he renews his acquaintance with Tim's mouth.

He's arched over Tim now, and it's easy for Tim to unbutton Tony's shirt and shove it down his shoulders so Tony can shuck it one arm at a time, never interrupting their kisses. It's a little harder for Tim to reach for Tony's belt buckle and to work it loose, but he's persistent, and Tony knows he can always be trusted to get the job done. And then Tim's hand dips inside Tony's waistband to unpop the fly button and--jesus fuck--his fingers graze the tip of Tony's dick that's been ready and willing for longer than Tony wants to consider. For a split second they both freeze, and then Tim's hand is moving again and he's having trouble with the button and oh it's good trouble, but that infinitesimal pause is enough to make Tony switch gears from hindbrain to forebrain and he sits up, grabbing Tim's wrist and stilling it.

"What?" asks Tim, and the edge of concern in his voice cuts the air in a blade-keen line to Tony's ears. "Did I do something wrong?"

"No! Oh my god, no. No. No. Everything is great. Better than. And more than anything I want to keep going with this whole mutual touching thing we've got going, but--fuck, I can't believe I'm doing this---we have to start this off right, don't we? I have concerns, okay, and I need to...you need to know. You deserve to know."

"Okay," says Tim slowly, drawing his brows down. He moves his hand and Tony takes a moment to berate himself for passing up a chance of immediate off-getting.

Tim props himself up on his elbows and Tony rocks backwards until he ends up sitting between Tim's legs, his own legs hooked over Tim's hips.

"Right, so I should...yeah." It's not the best start ever, but Tony's pretty sure he can pick up speed once he gets going. "So, let's start with how I was an ass. Something we can all agree on, right?"

Tim scrunches up his face and nods.

"I'm sorry," says Tony, "Really. This is a time when the no-apologizing is clearly bullshit, but if you ever tell Gibbs I said that I will do something so unspeakably dire that words can't even begin to describe it."

"You have no idea what you'd do, have you?"

"None at all," agrees Tony. "Anyway. The point. I was shitty and awful, and it was all because I was worried about if we did get together and I fucked it up what that would mean for the band."

"I totally handled it before, Tony, didn't I? Shouldn't I at least get a say in whether I want the chance to see if we do or don't fuck things up?"

"Yeah, I know. You're right, I just- Okay, so look. I have this- Crap." Tony scrapes his nails down Tim's jeans, trying to figure out how to say what needs to be said. Shouldn't it be easier the second time around?

Tim says nothing, just waits, quiet and thoughtful, and Tony loves him for it.

"Everybody leaves, is the thing," he says, when the silence has stretched so thin he could garrote himself on it. "That's the thing, right there. The big one. Everybody leaves. And part of the thing is, Timmy, that you're still functionally an adolescent--and yeah, I may not have finished school but I remember stuff from Psych 101, okay?--and I'm not. Well, not clinically. I think. Anyway. That means of the two of us, you're most likely to undergo some kind of major renovations of the brain kind, and if that happens, what then, McDSM? What if you change and don't love me any more?" Tony really hopes he doesn't sound as pitiful as he thinks he does, but he's not counting any chickens. No, nor pre-laid eggs neither.

Tim frowns, considering. "Um, what if I change and you don't love me any more, Tony? Are you deranged?"

Clearly it is Tim who is deranged here, Tony thinks. "Well, how could that ever happen?" he says, and frankly, no more proof is needed.

Tony nearly overbalances as Tim's legs jerk away under him as he sits up and kneels close to Tony, grabbing him by the back of his neck.

"How are you so epically stupid you don't get that works in reverse?" he says, shaking his head. "Seriously, how?"

Tony's heart stutter-leaps and he says, "But, like, your brain is all fizzy with hormones and stuff, and this is when people make bad decisions and on the face of it, I'm a really bad decision. You said it yourself before, and you were right. Except for that bit about Atari because I don't think you understand the sheer cultural importance of Donkey Kong."

Tim leans forward, pressing his forehead to Tony's. They stay like that for a long moment and then Tim pulls back and says, "You have to stop talking in generalities. I'm me--Timothy no middle name McGee. I choose you, you bad decision. And you know what? It will be epic growing and changing and experiencing stuff and doing it all alongside you, okay? And now you'd better do something awesome to me or I might change my late-adolescent mind. I hear we do that."

"You're wearing too many clothes," says Tony, and Tim yanks off his t-shirt.

"Still too many." There's some pretty inept fumbling as they try to get each other's pants off, but are foiled by the presence of shoes.

"This never happens in porn," says Tony, viciously hating his triple knotted laces, ankle crossed over his knee, pants bunched around his thighs. It's totally romantic. "Why don't I have a scalpel?"

Tim giggles, kissing Tony's shoulder and running a finger down his spine, making Tony shiver. "This is why old sneakers beat out your designer two-tone leather upper whatevers. Easy on, easy off."

"I'll easy off you," says Tony, finally freeing himself from the recalcitrant shoe, getting his pants off the rest of the way, twisting and pouncing.

Tim falls back against the mattress and smiles up at Tony. "That doesn't even mean anything," he says. "Also? Socks."

"They come off with the boxers. Baby steps, McGee." Tony grins and lowers himself down over Tim's chest nudging Tim's chin up with his nose, kissing down his neck and sucking on the pulse points, feeling Tim's heart in his mouth.

Tim whispers a breathy, "Yes."

It's the last turn of the key in the door Tony's kept locked all these years, taking Tim's life into his in all the ways he can. Tony feels light-headed. He rests his forehead on Tim's chest, his belly pressing against Tim's erection, his own cock riding the groove between Tim's thighs. He can't help but thrust up, nudging Tim's balls.

Tim makes a sound that could fall either side of the atom-wide divide between pleasure and pain, and Tony feels a stab of concern, realizing that he's never actually asked if Tim's had any kind of gay sex before. What if he's making him uncomfortable? Doing too much, too soon?

"Is this okay for you?" he asks, stilling. "We don't have to do anything you don't want, you know, if you've never..."

Tim wriggles under him and pulls a face. "Will you stop? I don't need babying through this. I still have my ex-boyfriend on speed dial. Would you like to call him up and get a list of what we did? Because I'm pretty sure he'd be happy to supply details--he always did like to talk."

"So much for caring," Tony says, simultaneously relieved and unhealthily curious.

"Exactly," says Tim and pushes up into Tony's belly, his solid hardness backing up his words.

Tony's definitely way beyond caring now. He's way beyond most anything that isn't direct-wired into every nerve ending he owns. Tim's long fingers trail Tony's skin as they kiss, setting off sparks that chase across Tony's body, baby electrical storms playing kiss chase. They rub against each other almost lazily, as time moves away from them in all directions, the light friction building a strange pressure in Tony's groin and then spreading throughout his body, leaving him shuddering and breathless.

"Look what you're doing to me," he says. "Tim, I've never- What is this?"

Tim loops his arms around Tony and twists them over, pressing him into the bed. He bends down, nuzzling Tony's ear. "You know what it is," says Tim, and the goosebumps that chase down Tony's spine curl his toes. "It's a four letter word." Tim grinds down against Tony hard.

"Fuck!" Tony exclaims, back arching off the sheet, damp under his skin with Tim's sweat.

"Nope. Wrong one." Tim runs the tip of his tongue under the groove of Tony's ear. "Two more strikes and you're out." He grinds down again.

"You might be right about that." Tony is ready to burst at the seams. He pushes up again, the cotton dragging against his sensitized head. "Socks!" he exclaims, and, yes, he's aware of how random he sounds, but Tim gets it, and there's another scramble and then they're pressed together again, nothing between them but air.

"No stamina," pants Tony, clinging on to the edge of his pleasure as if his life was really in danger. "I can't hold on."

"Don't," says Tim, thrusting against him, in little circular movements, the silky glide of his skin a sharp contrast to the hardness underneath. "I want to see you come. A million times I want it. Give me number one."

Tony may need to rethink his attitude towards doing what he's told. Starting now.

When he comes back down, Tim is stroking his face and calling him beautiful. It's too much after the bright intensity of orgasm and Tony distracts attention by wrapping his hand around Tim's cock and stroking it hard until Tim's eyes roll back in his head and he's gone. In a really weird way, it is beautiful, Tony thinks, because it's a transformation of a seeming grimace of pain into pure bliss. Ugly-beautiful.

"I love you," he thinks, and promises himself he'll get better at saying it aloud.

"Oh," says Tim, a little while later, as they're settling to sleep. "I recognize this. Comfy." He snuggles into the pillow that had never made it back to the couch. Its scent had long faded but Tony'd never been able to bring himself to put it back. Tonight it doesn't matter because he gets to sleep with the real thing.

***


"Tony,'" Tim whines, slapping his hand over Tony's thumb, which has been rubbing persistently over Tim's nipple. "Stop it. We've had all the sex ever. All of it. We do not have time to have more, right now, even if I wasn't riding the train to friction-burn-land. We have to go pick up Jethro."

"Spoilsport," mutters Tony against Tim's neck, but he knows he's right on both accounts. They've totally had all the sex. Three days where they've only left the apartment to pick up food and everything they need for Jethro, including a crate big enough for Tim to mutter, "Don't even think about it," when they put it together. That's been plenty of time for all the sex ever. Everything that can be sucked, licked, nibbled, kissed, thrust, stroked, pinched or fucked has had the appropriate verb done to it. Still, it's not like Tim can blame Tony for not wanting to stop--he has looked at himself in a mirror recently, right?

Slowly, stickily, and with great reluctance, Tony peels himself off Tim, sitting up. "You wanna take first shower or should I?" he asks. "I'd suggest we do it together only we both know how that would wind up."

Tim tucks his hands under his head and grins up at Tony. "Unless I eat something, it'd probably wind up with me breaking something due to muscle weakness. You go. I'll start breakfast."

"All the sugar," Tony says over his shoulder as he wanders off to the bathroom. "After all the sex comes all the sugar."

There's a new melody in his head as he soaps himself down and Tony futzes with it, turning it this way and that, whistling it out louder and letting it bounce off the tiles and roll back down over his body, mingling with streams of foamy water. It's a good tune--a happy one. He'll have to get it down before it vanishes. One day he'll get Tim to invent a waterproof recorder and he'll stop having this problem. The whistling stutters and stops. It's not an easy thing to do with a smile as wide as your face. Tony tries humming instead. They usually work lyrics to melody, he and Tim. Tony wonders how it might work the other way around. It doesn't for a second occur to him to doubt that it will work.

"Okay," says Tim, as the warden disappears, "remember: No touch, no talk, no eye contact. Don't get excited, just stay calm."

"That's not what you said last night," grins Tony. "Pretty much the opposite if my memory serves me correctly, and you know it does. Also? I know. You've told me a thousand times. I've been present at your Cesar Millan pornfests masquerading as educational programming. I get it. I promise."

"He's pretty hot, though, right? All that competence."

"Mmm," agrees Tony. "When he did that thing with the...what was it? A Rottweiler? When it looked like he was dead meat for sure and then the dog rolled over and showed his belly? Yeah, I'll give you that."

"I'd show him my belly any time."

"Really?" Tony arches an eyebrow. "What about for me? C'mon, puppy, roll over." He pokes Tim in the stomach.

Tim grabs his finger and Tony's pretty sure he's saved from having the tip of it bitten off by the door opening. Tim drops Tony's hand and is immediately perfectly calm. Tony has no idea how he does it. All he knows is that Tim is radiating this aura of utter chillness and yet he's totally owning the room. It's fascinating. And, Tony's buzzing groin tells him, a big turn on.

Once Jethro's safely stowed in the car, his initial excited yips and barks transformed into happy panting, Tony says, "How do you do it?"

"Do what?"

"Get that whole 'I am Zen, see me fail to roar' thing working for you?"

"Oh, that's easy. I imagine I'm you on stage just before we go into the opener."

"I...You...What?" Tony looks at Tim out of the corner of his eye. He's perfectly serious.

"You're...I don't know how to describe it. You have all this energy before? And it's all springy and bouncy and shooting out at angles and kind of crazy? And then you get up there and it's like you coil it all up and wear it like a crown because you're the king and you are right where you should be. Does that make any sense at all?"

"No," says Tony, only it does, a little. He's too busy being overwhelmed at how much attention Tim's been paying to him without him noticing, though, so everything's a little blurry, even the road. He blinks. Fast. "Is that how you really see me?"

"Yeah."

So this is the moment where Tony has to decide not to be freaked out that his boyfriend doing his impression of Tony had turned him on, but instead to be amazed, once again, at his good fortune in being loved so well when he'd worked so hard not to deserve it. Turns out it's an easy decision to make.

"Then I'm a lucky guy," he says, and reaches out to squeeze Tim's hand.

They spend the day introducing Jethro to his home and surroundings, Tim with a ready supply of treats for every time he does something right. Now, he's lying curled in his crate, paw resting over his new best friend--a plastic, squeaky rabbit--fast asleep.

"What I don't get," says Tony, standing next to Tim as they stare down at their newest family member, "is how he does practically everything you want him to and you barely even say a word."

Tim shrugs. "Sheer natural genius, I guess."

Tony jabs Tim with an elbow. "No, but really. Like, shouldn't it take longer? You're pretty awesome at this dog-whispering thing, Tim. I mean, wow!"

Tim turns to face Tony, expression calm and impassive. "On the bed. All fours. Now."

Tony sways back a little. "Hey, you're the puppy, not me."

"Dude, no," Tim folds his arms and grins a very scary feral grin. "You know you like to take it as well as give it. Either that or you're an awesome faker." The grin drops so fast it's like it was never there. "Bed. Now."

Tony gulps and tugs at his collar. Without a word he walks into the bedroom, strips naked and gets into position. Like he could do anything else. He drops his head, looking between his legs and there's no way he can even think of pretending that assertive McGee is not making him hotter than he'd thought possible because there's the sly eye of his ready-to-go dick staring right back at him, a tear already welling up.

He hears the familiar sounds of clothes being shucked and is aware of a dark shape of presence to his left as Tim comes around the bed and roots in the drawer. Tony's chest constricts and he pants short, shallow breaths. He stares down at the sheet, pulled tight between his flattened hands. There's a worn patch and Tony can see the individual threads straining to hold on. He probably needs to shop for new bedding, he thinks; this one isn't going to hold up under much more abuse.

The threads relax and then pull tight again as the bed dips under Tim's weight. Tim's hands grabbing Tony's hips take him by surprise and he pushes down hard to stop from overbalancing. Tim nudges Tony's leg with his own and Tony moves, unable not to do as he's told. The gripping fingers on Tony's hips disappear and Tony feels Tim settle behind him. He feels completely exposed, ass cheeks spread, balls and cock swinging like ballast on a hot air balloon. There's a part of Tony that thinks he should at least be squirming uncomfortably at this state of affairs, but he's too occupied (or his dick is) at wondering what Tim will do next, and where the hell is the friction going to come from?

Soft fingertips land on the sensitive skin on Tony's inner thighs and he barely avoids kicking out. Tim trails his fingers slowly upwards and Tony locks his elbows, shaking as Tim grazes a fingernail along the curving crease separating ass from thigh. Tony hears the snap of the cap being flicked off the lube bottle and he digs his fingers harder into the sheet. A frayed thread gives up the ghost, snapping, ends waving feebly as Tony just keeps on breathing.

Tim strokes one hand over the curve of Tony's ass, pressing kisses to the dimples either side of the base of Tony's spine. His wet thumb presses into Tony's hole and Tony takes it easily, rocking back a little. Tim gently tugs on his balls.

"Good dog," he says. "Good dog."

Tony can hear the shake of a suppressed laugh in the wobbling 'o' of 'dog' and his lips twitch. "Just you wait, Scrappy Doo. You'll get yours," he says.

"Oh god," says Tim, twisting his thumb and making Tony squirm, "I don't know which is worse---imagining you as Scooby or Shaggy. Either way I think I'm broken."

"Ruh roh," agrees Tony and Tim snorts an explosion of laughter. Tony starts to laugh, too, arms giving out at the elbows, collapsing forwards, ass still waving in the air, Tim's thumb attached.

"Pretty sure we're doing this wrong," he says, voice muffled by the pillow he's managed to shove his face into.

"Pretty sure we're doing it right." Tim pulls his thumb out and drapes himself over Tony's back, body rippling against him as he laughs. He strokes Tony's hair, tugging his head around enough for them to kiss awkwardly.

"Bark for me, baby," he says, rubbing his nose against Tony's cheek. "You know you want to."

"You. Are so. Dead," says Tony and bucks up, determined to dislodge Tim and to get even, whatever that means.

By the time they're done, sweaty, panting, sated and not entirely on the bed, Tony's surprised that Jethro hasn't woken.

"Don't tell me you can control him from a distance," Tony says. "Because I'm prepared to believe in your genius, but that's stretching it. Literally."

"There are things a child doesn't need to know about its parents," says Tim. "He's probably ignoring us. Why d'you think I set up the sleeping crate so it's not facing the bed?"

"And there I thought you were embarrassed about him seeing you naked," says Tony. "And now I'm having performance anxiety. Do we need an audience?"

Tim looks at him. "You do," he says. "You're always better in front of one."

"Not exactly the same thing, McAlwayswiththecomebacks." Tony narrows his eyes.

"He'll mostly be asleep if that helps. We’ll get used to it."

"Oh, the joys of parenting."

"Mmm." Tim untangles himself and stands up. "Getting us used to the pitter patter of tiny feet. I'm thinking a baby by next Christmas."

"You're what?" Tony explodes, horrified.

"Your face!" crows Tim, grabbing his pants and running.

"You can run, but you can't hide!" yells Tony after him, but Jethro is barking and he can't be sure he's been heard. He'll get his own back, he thinks. At some point. In the vague and unidentified future. Probably.

***


"'K, we'll be there," says Tim, and hangs up the phone.

"What?" asks Tony, elbow deep in flour and chicken bits.

"Band meeting at the E-Z in an hour."

Tony looks down at his sticky hands and back up again. He shrugs. It'll keep. "You think it's about Gibbs's little trip out to LA?" He rinses off under the faucet.

"Yeah. I thought he wasn't due back in until tomorrow. I hope this isn't a bad sign."

"It'll be fine. We rock, how can they not want to sign us?"

"True. Also, pie."

Tony makes a happy drooling sound. "Yes! So band meeting and pie. If music be the food of love, lead on, McDuff."

"Yeah, no," says Tim, shoving his foot in his sneaker. "Wrong in so many ways. Really. I don't have enough fingers to count."

They're still arguing about just exactly wrong Tony is when they pull up at the diner, which Tony is fine with because it's taking Tim's mind off having to leave Jethro back in the apartment, and being wrong about some dead English writer guy is way better than listening to another muttered treatise on DC's failure at dog friendliness. Tony thinks he's possibly agreed to watch movie versions of Twelfth Night and Macbeth (and, for reasons unfathomable, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), but he figures it'll be a small price to pay. It'll make a change for Tim to be explaining a movie to him.

Gibbs is alone at their favorite booth, rocking a brand new manila folder. He nods a greeting at the two of them, and Tony knows better than to ask until everyone's there.

"How's the puppy settling in?" Gibbs asks.

"What, you're not talking direct to Tim now?" Tony flinches from the inevitable shoulder punch.

"He's doing great, thanks, boss," says Tim, kicking Tony's ankle instead. "We’re getting him into a routine. We've had a couple teething troubles, but, you know."

"It's only to be expected," Gibbs nods. "It's not the bumps in the road, it's how you navigate them."

"Yeah, I know."

"Wait a minute," says Tony, light dawning. "You're not just talking about Jethro, are you? Don't think I can't see through the cryptic bullshit because I am sharp as a tack."

"Tony, I-"

"As a tack!"

"Dork," says Tim, and pinches Tony's thigh under the table.

"Don't worry, Papa Bear," says Tony, soothingly, "we're just fine."

He gets a pair of raised eyebrows for his trouble. Raised eyebrows and a paternal look of approval that gives Tony a strange urge to babble about how exactly they're doing just great, the two of them, including some of the finer points of what Tim likes to do with his long, not-pianists fingers and how Tony sometimes sings snatches of their songs to take his mind off the fact it feels like all the bonds between his cells are dissolving into goop when Tim twists them just so, and he has never been so relieved to see Ziva in his life. Out of all the things Gibbs does not need to know, not now, not ever, that has to be pretty high up on the list.

Abby is right behind Ziva and when she sits down, Gibbs nods Debrah-Lee over.

"Where's my milkshake Jimmy today?" she asks. "He sick?"

"Nope," says Gibbs.

Debrah-Lee shrugs, knowing Gibbs well enough that she's getting nothing else out of him. "Well, you tell him I said hi and that we're trying out a new peanut butter and chocolate shake if he wants to come by. Just coffees today, then?"

"For now."

"You got it. Coming right up."

"Where is Jimmy?" asks Ziva.

"All in good time," says Gibbs and leans back against the bench.

No one says anything until the coffee arrives. Tony can see everyone trying hard to look like they're not looking at the manila folder, but they all want to know what's in it. Gibbs is giving nothing away, the cagey son of a bitch. There are knots tying themselves into knots in Tony's stomach. He grabs Tim's hand and holds on tight.

"Abby," says Gibbs, when Tony's finished with the cream and sugar, which is pretty darn complicated when you're doing it one handed, "you may want to put that coffee where it can't harm you or anyone else."

Abby pushes her mug to the center of the table. "But-"

"Jimmy isn't here because this is one decision that doesn't concern him," says Gibbs. "Not directly."

"Gibbs, you must just shit it out, already," says Ziva, and then, "What?" as everyone bursts out laughing.

At least it's broken the tension, Tony thinks. "Spit it out," he says. "Bears shit. Usually in a wood-related incident."

"Oh," says Ziva, lifting her chin, "I am so sorry. I was so busy being distracted by the fact that, oh, I do not know, my whole life might be about to change that I did not recall the correct idiom. Mea culpa, I shall beat myself with sticks."

Abby leans over and kisses Ziva's cheek.

Ziva smiles, shoulders relaxing. "You may carry on," she says, waving a hand in what Tony can only describe as a regal gesture.

"Thank you, David," says Gibbs, dry as dust. "I'm not going to keep you waiting. NCIS want to sign you-" he holds up a hand to stop the inevitable whooping and hollering.

Tony presses his thigh tight to Tim's and grips his hand even harder before remembering Tim needs it to play bass. He lets go and grabs Tim's arm instead.

"They're offering you something called a service deal," says Gibbs, tapping the folder with one finger. "It's an uncommon practice, but NCIS believe it will become industry standard. I agree. What this means is, they market and promote you for a share of revenue."

"No royalties?"

"No royalties. It's all about maximizing potential of alternative revenue streams and keeping more than the usual artistic control. Which I figured you'd want. They've offered us a three-album deal with a no-fault escape clause after the first. It's a good deal." Gibbs opens the folder and hands around sets of documents. "Have your lawyers look them over."

"If you say it's good, then it's good, Gibbs," says Abby. "Where do I sign?"

"Have your lawyer look it over, Abs," insists Gibbs. "Don't matter what I think, I never went to law school. Except that time with the goat."

Tony wonders if it will ever be time to ask about the goat. He thinks probably not.

"How much time do we have?"

"Fourteen days. Quicker works, too."

Tony stares at the contract, the words jumbling together and making no sense--not that he understands 'heretofore' under normal circumstances, if he's totally honest. There's a pressure in his throat like he wants to throw up and he can't stop his leg jiggling. They're really going to do this. They're getting a deal and an album and, god, a video, most like, and this is it. They're a proper band. And it's like he'd known that they were serious all along, but fuck, now it's actually serious and Tony's gone from never being invested in anything to being totally, one hundred percent, butt-over-heels invested in Tim, and now this. This is asking for a whole new set of commitments from him, and it is utterly terrifying. He wants it...he's pretty sure he wants it, but the 'what if I fuck this up?' is back with full force.

"Boss?" he says, managing to keep the shake out of his voice. "Did you say anything about, you know, about Tim and me? Like, do they have a problem with promoting a band where the guys are...where the guys are in a relationship?"

Tim puts a hand over Tony's.

"Are you kidding?" says Abby. "Dude, seriously? Have you even seen G and Sam? You could try to out-gay them, but you would fail. That's why NCIS is so awesome--they're into the music, you know? Right, Gibbs?"

Gibbs nods. "We discussed it. It’s not a problem. Even sells well with a subsection of the female demographic. Wouldn't question it."

The knots in Tony's stomach give way all at once. "Well, okay then," he grins. "I'll call my lawyer."

"This is ridiculous," says Abby, and leaps to her feet, punches the air, whoops and does a little dance. "C'mon!" she encourages, and then they're all joining her, until Gibbs reminding them to use inside voices quiets them down.

"Who won the lotto?" asks Debrah-Lee from the counter.

"We are getting a deal," Ziva explains. "It is possible we are a little excited."

"You bet!" says Debrah-Lee, coming over. "Hey, everyone!" she yells, turning in a circle. "You heard it here first, these guys got a record deal. When they're up at the Grammy's you can tell the story of how you knew 'em, way back when. How about some appreciation?"

She leads a ragged round of applause from the random assortment of clientele and staff, then hugs them all in turn, even Gibbs. "Get yourselves on WASH-FM," she says, jerking her thumb over to the small radio on the counter, pumping out tinny electro-pop, "and then maybe we'll even get to listen to you in here. Remind us of when you used to come by."

"Hey," says Tim. "Who said anything about not coming by any more?"

"That's right," Tony agrees. "Everyone knows that you have to keep in touch with your roots, that way it doesn't matter when you forget how much a gallon of milk costs or basic Laundromat etiquette. You can be our touchstone, Debrah-Lee."

Debrah-Lee snorts. "Something's touched, all right," she says. "But I'd miss you if you were gone for good, God's honest truth."

"We'd miss you, too," says Abby.

"Also, the pie," says Tony.

"Slap him," say the three women simultaneously. Tim does as he's told. Now is that being a good puppy or a bad puppy? Tony can't decide.

"What about Jimmy?" asks Tim after they've ordered and eaten some of the not-to-be-missed pie.

"NCIS will be handling some of the operational side of touring--it's part of the deal--but we'll need support crew. Obviously, we'll give Jimmy first refusal, but it might be difficult to match his earnings. I'll sit down with him and we'll work it out."

"We need him," says Ziva.

"We're not team without him," says Abby. "Well, okay, we are team, but we're not team. Jimmyless us makes me sad."

Tim nods.

"He has fungal growth properties," says Tony. "He's weird looking and irritating."

"But..." prompts Ziva.

"That's it." Tony grins, and then cringes behind his hands as Abby prepares to launch a spoonful of pie at him. "Okay, okay! You get used to him being around, weird looking and irritating as he is. Let's get him on board if we can."

"It's going to be a lot of work," says Gibbs. "You probably shouldn't give up your day jobs just yet, we need the income. But we have to step up our game and that means extra rehearsals before we hit the studio. Assuming you all sign."

"Wanna run the statistical probability on that one, McMathy?"

Tim grins. "Approaching one."

"Approaching?"

"I had to allow for death by bus on the way to the lawyer's office."

"Fair."

"So," interrupts Gibbs, standing up. "Don't spill anything on the contracts. Ms. Lange does not look like the kind of person who approves of coffee stains. And, no, Tony, not pie stains either. Let's make a good impression. Anything else?"

"Nope."

"No."

"Nu-uh."

"Can we expense the pie?"

"Shut up, Tony," says everyone.

Heading back to the apartment, Tim sits quietly in the passenger seat, scanning the contract. Tony thinks. He thinks hard. He thinks about what's coming up for them, how busy it's going to get over the next few months at least. He thinks about Jethro and Tim's already unshakeable bond. He thinks about schedules and money and tours and logistics and rental leases. He thinks about waking up every morning to Tim in his bed.

"Hey, Tim, listen," he says. "You should probably move in."

Tim stops, mid page-flip. 'I should what?"

Tony pulls over, turns off the engine and twists around to face Tim. "There's lots of reasons," he says. "Good, solid, financial and logistical reasons, but basically? It boils down to one simple thing. I love you and I want you to move in with me. Will you?"

"We just...I mean, we only just...Are you sure? This isn't crazy?" Tim's doing his best impression of a startled hamster and it makes Tony want to pinch his cheeks, give him a noogie and then suck his dick. Yeah, his life is strange these days.

"Oh, no, it's totally crazy," says Tony, grinning, his heart playing hopscotch. "But I want it. Really. A lot."

Tim's brow creases, and Tony doesn't need to see inside his skull to know that the cogs are being cranked up to highest gear as Tim cycles through the pros and cons at record speed. But then his brow clears and it's so sudden Tony wonders if one of the cogs has shucked its teeth and sent the whole shebang careening off track.

"Screw it," says Tim. "Yeah. Why not? Yeah."

"Good decision," Tony says, already pressed up against Tim's mouth. He kisses him soft and long, dragging a thumb across Tim's lower lip as he pulls away.

"Where to?" he asks, lips quirking.

And Tim says, "Home, James."

Today is a pretty good day to be a Tony DiNozzo. Or even a James.

***


Epilogue:

The Muso Magazine, page 1

The Muso Magazine, page 2

The Muso Magazine, page 3

The Muso Magazine, page 4


Text version: The Muso Magazine

Issue 10.

Title: Who'da Thunk?

Subtitle: Pie-obsessed journo, Claire Shih, sits down with America's indie sweethearts, Ya Think?, to discuss life, the universe, ten years in the biz and the pitter patter of tiny feet.

Sidebar: The Amazing Adventures of Tony DiNozzo.
Name: Anthony D. DiNozzo.
Age: Of legal majority, thanks.
Location: DC.
Occupation: Dad. Singer.
Favorite superhero: Green Lantern. Or Gibbs. It's a toss up.
Favorite anti-hero: Sam Spade.
If I had a superpower it would be: Who says I don't?

Sidebar: Top Diner Tips
Jimmy Palmer: Milkshake is never a bad choice.
Abby Sciuto: Always tip your wait staff, please! Minimum wage sucks.
Ziva David: Your eyes are not bigger than your stomach, it is a lie. But! Your brain isn't as smart as you think. Eat only what you need.

I'm in a diner somewhere in DC. The waitress, streaks of gray running in thick lines through her dark hair, slaps Ya Think? tour manager, Jimmy Palmer, upside the head for changing his mind mid order. He catches her hand and kisses it and gets another slap for his trouble. Everyone laughs and singer, Tony DiNozzo, points out that they've been coming here for years and, "In the end, everyone learns from Gibbs."

I'm sitting down with Ya Think?, sipping coffee (or milkshake, if you're Palmer) and eating some of the best pie I've eaten since I last saw my grandma, as they look back on ten years in the business. LJ Gibbs is conspicuous by his absence today. More usually a quiet, but powerful, presence wherever his band goes, today he scored baby-sitting duty. Yes, that's right. Leroy Jethro Gibbs, the hardest manager in the world of alternative rock, is changing diapers and playing nanny. Whose kid you might ask? Well, you might if you lived on top of a flagpole in Timbuktu. The birth of Peggy McGee was long awaited by anyone with even the slightest interest in Ya Think? It's still a wonder, given how tight-lipped this group is about their private lives, that we know anything about the little girl at all. I raise this point with the band.

TONY DINOZZO: Well, it wasn't exactly what you'd call 'normal circumstances'. When Ziva [here, he leans across the table and squeezes Ziva's hand] said she'd be our surrogate, we knew we'd have to talk about it. Or it'd be all, "Oh, Ziva is pregnant. Who's the babydaddy? What's she gonna name it? Pressure, pressure, pressure. And at the end she has no baby, but we do? I can see the headline now: Invasion of the Gay Babysnatchers.

TIM MCGEE: Bi.

TONY: [snorting] Like they'd care. Though it's way more alliterative, so...

I ask if they had worried at all about the implications of the surrogate mother being around after the birth.

TONY: Are you crazy?

TIM: No. Not at all. Ziva's an important part of our daughter's life. So is Abby, even though she didn't go through the sixteen hours of labor.

ZIVA DAVID: [interrupts] Eighteen, McGee. Get it right. I want every last second of that screaming pain acknowledged, thank you very much.

TIM: Eighteen. What I'm saying is that Tony and I have parental responsibility, yes, but effectively our child has two dads and two moms who love her and love each other. It's a pretty sweet deal.

ME: A band baby!

TIM: [shrugging] If you want to be reductive, sure.

I ask Ziva about her decision to keep touring up until a couple of weeks before the birth. Didn't she want to take it easy?

ZIVA: I was pregnant, not sick. The baby was healthy, I was healthy, why should I not work?

ABBY SCIUTO: Patriarchy, Zee. They'll never get it.

ZIVA: And before we have the letters and the e-mails and the oh you should take better care of the baby comments, we had a doctor traveling with us the last month. He is very good. We are keeping him.

TONY: Yeah, we totally have an entourage these days.

JIMMY PALMER: And they let me manage them! I'm all responsible now.

TONY: Stow it, James, you're still not holding the baby.

Some mutual raspberry blowing occurs here. Peggy McGee is obviously keeping them young.

JIMMY: Maybe me and Brianna will have our own. Then there'll be lots of holding and you can't stop me. [Brianna Maddox, lead singer of hot electro-punk band The Meat Puzzle, Palmer's on-again, off-again fiancée. Today it's mostly on. I checked.]

TONY: Well, if you think you have the swimmers, Jimmy...

It's then I put my size nines right in it. I ask who the father of young Peggy McGee is. The entire band, Palmer included, shuts down. I wait for what seems like agonizingly long minutes, but can only be a few seconds.

ABBY: You don't get to ask that. Change the subject.

It's a faux pas and I effuse gracelessly about their soon-to-be-released ten-year retrospective until I feel them warming up again. We talk a little about the graphic novel short and video that accompany the release. In them, the band play undercover agents who solve crimes by day and rock out by night.

ME: So why choose the graphic novel format? What does that give you that the album doesn't?

ABBY: Don't you ever get bored of bands recycling and repackaging material you already have? I mean, sure, there are new fans all the time and hey! New fans! We love you, guys! But we love the people who've been there since the beginning, or near it, and we wanted to give them something different, something extra, you know?

ZIVA: Besides, we get to fight crime, but do not have to wear stupid tights and capes to do it. It is very cool.

ME: I see you looking at Tim there, Ziva. Did he want the tights?

TIM: Hey, all I said was that spandex was classic. Not that I wanted to wear it.

TONY: That's what he says now. [There's some slapping. Let us draw a veil over it.]

ABBY: Also, I really don't like guns, so I get to be the lab rat, you know, the forensic tech? And it is awesome. For the video I got to be surrounded by all these crazy-named machines and vials of blood and all sorts of cool stuff. I would totally do that job in another life. White coats look good on me.

ME: Can you tell our readers any more about the crime you solve? I was lucky to get a sneak preview, I know, but they're going to have to wait.

ZIVA: The butler did it.

TONY: All those years of cultural education finally paying off. I'm so proud. Also? The butler didn't do it.

TIM: Or did she?

ME: I'm not going to get anything out of you, am I?

ALL: No!

I try a different angle and ask about the choices of songs on the retrospective. I ask why they chose to feature 'In the Dark', one of their earliest releases, and not a big seller. Tony and Tim exchange the briefest look, one I would easily have missed had I not been looking the right way at the right time. Abby, Ziva and Jimmy act nonchalant in only the way that people who are totally not feeling it can.

TIM: Let's just say that there were some rough times once. The song reminds us why we're still here.

It doesn't take a huge leap to conclude that it has something to do with Tony and Tim's relationship, given their shared look and how cryptic the lyrics aren't. I don't push my luck by asking, however, because there's something else I want to know, and we all know where Tim and Tony wound up, anyway.

ME: The one new song, 'Boxed In', seems like it was written about an unsure, dark time, maybe. Like it was hard to come to a decision. Tell me, was that about difficulties you had with the label? Did they stand behind your choice to have a child in the, ah, unusual way you chose?

TONY: Really? It wasn't their business. We make money for them, so they're happy. To tell the truth, we were more worried about how Gibbs would react. But, yeah, it was an interesting discussion. They back us one hundred percent.

ZIVA: We are very lucky to work with Hetty Lange and her crew. They are incredible and our partnership only gets stronger.

TIM: Yup. Gotta say I enjoyed the standoff between Leon [Vance] and Gibbs over who would get to be godfather, myself.

ME: Oh, wow, scary. Who won?

TIM: Godfathering is archaic, man. If you're family, you're family. They both know they are.

ABBY: Hetty's totally the fairy godmother, though. Try and stop her.

TIM: Point.

When Abby and Tim have finished comparing the awe-inspiring Hetty Lange to a range of Disney fairy godmothers, I ask what the band see as the high point of their careers, excluding the birth of the band baby, of course. Unusually for a band who tend to speak as one voice, they all have different answers.

ZIVA: When we played the benefit to celebrate five years of the Israeli-Palestine peace accord, which is still going strong and proves the doubters so very wrong. It was deeply emotional for me. People like Ahad Tamari and I grew up separated and hating each other, and there we were, playing together on the stage as the children can now play together in the streets. Beautiful.

TONY: Follow that. Wow. I can't. Yeah, so, taking it way to the personal side of awesome. We went to the Grammy's, what, five years ago now? I was heading, um, for a natural break, took a corner and collided with Bruce Springsteen. I stammered out some kind of apology because, wow, The Boss, you know? And he said. He said. "Hey, you're Tony DiNozzo, right?" Bruce Springsteen knew who I was. That was...yeah.

TIM: Tony didn't even realize we'd won the Grammy until three days later, no lie.

TONY: It was The Boss, dude. The Boss.

Tim pats Tony's arm. You can tell they've had this conversation many times before.

TIM: For me it was when 'Grace Period' hit the top slot on the download chart. It wasn't our first number one, but it was the first I'd written. We'd written. [He waves a finger between him and Tony, his writing partner] It was tangible evidence that people loved what we'd written enough to want to own it forever. It blew me away because it's so personal, writing songs, and to have so many people responding positively to what I was sharing with them... [He pauses] I'm probably not making any sense, am I?

I reassure him that, no, he's making perfect sense--I think everyone can identify with the need to make connections and the joy that shared understanding brings. Tim nods, smiling at me, and Tony wiggles his fingers between us.

TONY: See? Shared understanding. Look at all these connections. It's like Union Station.

TIM: Best to ignore him.

ME: Understood. Abby?

ABBY: Every day. Every time I'm with these guys. [She reaches out and grabs each of their hands in turn.] They're my team. It's simple.

When I grow up, I want to be Abby. Or possibly marry her--it's a tough call.

ME: So, you're ten years down the line, now. In another ten years, where will you be?

TONY: Worrying about guys hitting on my daughter.

TIM: She'll be ten, Tony.

TONY: They grow up fast these days, dude.

And the conversation degenerates into exactly how soon puberty hits these days and shouldn't they be getting back to relieve Gibbs because babies don't work to military-style schedules, not even Gibbs's, and they may get back home to find some kind of standoff situation in progress. As one, they're on the move, Peggy McGee a powerful motivator. That, or fear of Gibbs. Before I can say another word, they're all milling by the door, Jimmy slipping off to the counter to pay.

As they leave, Ziva looks back over her shoulder. "We'll be making music," she says. "It's all we've ever wanted to do."

And I for one will still be listening.

For me, as for many like-minded fans, Ya Think? has been the soundtrack of my life over the past ten years. From the early days, where tracks like ‘South by Southwest’ spoke directly to my teen-angst pain, through the rockier album ‘Murder 2.0’, which seemed to encapsulate what it was to be negotiating the world and all its mysterious ways, to the bluesy ‘Borderland’ of last year that is about accepting that compromise can still be a force for change, I’ve grown up alongside this band, or they’ve grown up alongside me. They don’t merely write songs that reflect modern life in all its glory and complexity; they live it. And they make me want to live it, too.


Judgment Day (Part 1) -- A Retrospective by Ya Think? will be released on July 20
th. Available in stores and online.



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