Oh, The Places You'll Go

Starting From Scratch

Notes: I watched NCIS 902 and was compelled to write this episode tag. And so a coda 'verse was born. This is the first fic in the Starting From Scratch 'verse. It is, unsurprisingly, spoilery and will probably be more sensical if you've seen the episode. I have heard you can read it without, though, so take your pick.

"It wasn't me," says Tony, hopping up onto the kitchen bench next to Tim doing something stinky and involved with chicken necks.

"What did you break, Tony?" Tim asks with an air of long suffering.

"First, no fair," Tony says, "I haven't broken anything for weeks and, no, Gibbs's rules don't count." He's distracted by the truly awful smell that hits his nose the second Tim drops the meat and what Tony can only describe as leavings into the boiling water. "And Jethro really likes that, does he?"

"He does," nods Tim, running the chopping board under the hot water.

"I thought dogs had a good sense of smell. Trust yours to be broken, McDogShouterer."

Tim shuts off the faucets and lays the chopping board down and wipes his hands on a towel, turning to fix Tony with a clear-eyed expression. Fond even, Tony thinks.

"You're avoiding," Tim says. "Second?"

Tony clenches the edge of the bench, noticing how pale his knuckles look. The tan sure wore off quick this year. Too bad moles live underground. "Second is Stinky John." He waits for Tim to fill in the gap with a question. It doesn't come. Tony sighs and continues. "I went through with it," he says, eyes skating past Tim's face to settle on the picture of Jethro stuck to the fridge with a cookie-shaped magnet. It's obviously drawn by a kid and a thousand jokes crowd into Tony's head, jostling to get out. It's more deflection, Tony knows, and bats them away with blinking eyes.

"I went through with it," he repeats, hoping Tim doesn't think the blinking is a stroke or something. "I apologised to him and you know what?"

Tim shakes his head, openly intrigued.

"It wasn't me."

"Observer not participant," says Tim with a nod. "That's a step up for sure, but it's still…"

"Don't, Tim," Tony interrupts. "I was a participant. I just had the order switched up, is all."

"I don't-" Tim furrows his eyebrows in confusion, but he's smart so Tony's going to let him figure it out for himself.

Tony hums a quiet tune and tries to unclench his fingers. He may need some olive oil or something because those little soldiers are clamped as tight as a virgin's ass on washday at the local pen.

The furrow between Tim's eyebrows deepens and then disappears as his eyes widen and he says, "You…you. I mean, you? You're Stinky John? I think I need to sit down." He doesn't, though.

"Yeah, laugh it up, Geek Boy," says Tony, fighting with his shoulders that seem to want to fold themselves up into his neck. He's not a Transformer, he's checked. His limbs will just have to stay where they are. "Lay it all on me."

"Lay what?" asks Tim and he sounds genuinely puzzled.

This won't stand. Tony's psyched himself up to come here in the first place, to bare his soul to the man he's taunted and teased for years and now here he is, handing the guy the perfect opportunity to get it all back and he's not taking it. That's wrong, whichever way you slice it. "Come on, Mc??," Tony says, sliding off the bench and managing not to leave his fingers behind. "You know you want to give it to me but good." He takes a couple of steps forward, grazing the edge of Tim's personal space bubble. Tony's never had much patience with Tim's boundaries and even the ritual humiliation he figures is his due isn't going to make him start caring now.

He's close enough to see Tim blanch. "You think I want to-" his voice fades out and his tongue flicks out to wet his lip. It's a nervous habit Tony used to see a lot in the early days, but it hasn't been in evidence for a good while. Tony's momentarily distracted by the shine of saliva on Tim's bottom lip and almost misses the flicker of panic in Tim's eyes. He thinks he should feel affronted. He's the one opening himself for endless ridicule here--what right does McGee have to worry?

"Yeah," he says. "Take your best shot. I know I've not always, ah, respected your geekular tendencies and I may have--once or twice, or, you know, a couple hundred times, teased you about, oh, face cream or Elf Lording or your internet friends or…wow, the list is pretty long, isn't it?" He pulls a face that he hopes expresses contrite. Or constipation. Either way. "So, yeah, I've been…well, I've been pretty shitty and all along I had this big thing up my sleeve. That some guy called Stinky John because he played all the sport ever and never took a shower took me by my crisply laundered underpants and strung me from a flagpole. And it wasn't exactly out of the blue." He takes another step forward and pokes Tim in the chest. "I admit it. There are parts of me that are kind of geeky." He twists his lips and looks down and then up again. "I don't know if you've noticed? But I like movies kind of a lot."

The amused humph of air from Tim says it all.

"I was maybe president of the AV Club, possibly?" Tony continues. "And it wasn't always regarded as the most manly of pursuits by my fellow teammates. Life in the locker room wasn't always the best of times. I don't know why, I don't know when, but I rewrote it. I rewrote it until I believed it and I'm sorry and do what you want. You deserve it." He takes a step back and takes hold of his jacket, opening it out wide. Nothing wrong with a grand symbolic gesture. It always goes down well with the ladies.

Tim turns away and fiddles with the burner, putting a lid on the pan, flicking on the extractor fan over the hob. "I don't know about Stinky John," he says. "But, man, this is going to make for a Stinky Jethro. Stupid dog eating things he shouldn't."

Tony says, "Well?" because he can't stand here all day with his jacket spread out. He'll get cold and his arms will want to fall off.

Tim shrugs, and it's odd, but Tony could swear he looks relieved. "You should've been at my high school," he says. "Our AV Club was awesome. And the president was this really hot girl. Elisa May, she was called. Long, wavy, black hair and glasses. Totally smart and she could recite the whole of Taxi Driver by heart. You'd've loved her."

Tony lets the jacket fall, tipping his head to one side in bemused resignation. "That does sound cool," he says. "I'd've had to have done a Lindsay to be in the same class as you, though."

"True." Tim opens the fridge, the picture of Jethro flapping with the motion. "I think I have some beer somewhere. Want one?"

"Sure," says Tony. Suddenly he wants to sit down so badly. He's all off balance. It must be the concussion.

Tim hands him a beer and says, "Let's get out of here before we die of asphyxiation." He leads the way out of the kitchen and Tony follows behind him feeling like if there's a loop somewhere he is most definitely out of it.

They sit in silence for a few minutes, sipping their beers, Tim fondling Jethro's ears as he sits at Tim's feet. Finally Tony can't keep it in any more and he blurts out, "What's the matter with you?"

"What's the matter with me?"

Tony nods vehemently, instantly regretting it. He's still not quite lost the headache from the previous weeks piece of crappy timing and the whole Stinky John thing has got to have set him back at least a day recovery-wise. "Yes what's the matter with you? I'm giving you carte blanche here, Original Flavor Probie. All those things I said to you over the years, now's your chance. Offer ends at midnight, only not really because that's not exactly fair, is it?"

"Tony, what happened to you?" asks Tim, and he sounds genuinely concerned. "Restitution, apologies, fairness? I'm this close to hacking into the CIA and finding out if pod people are real. What happened to you, really?"

Tony puts down his beer bottle and drops his head into his hands. "I don't know." He rubs at his eyes with the heels of his hands and looks up at Tim. "Don't you like it?" he asks and then wonders where the hell that came from.

"Actually, I do," Tim says. "Gotta tell you the truth, I'm a little frightened by it. Half of me is trying to figure out what game you're playing and the other half-" he fades off again. He should get that fixed, thinks Tony. Can't have the tape running out halfway through the interview, so to speak.

"The other half?"

"The other half likes it a lot," says Tim in a low voice as if he's hoping Tony won't catch it.

Tony does catch it, though, and he sits up straighter, a smile warming his face. "Cool," he says.

"I mean," Tim continues, stroking Jethro's ears so rapidly that Tony expects to see fur flying, "if you're trying to be a better human being that's, you know, that's kind of, I like it. Not that you aren't- But you said yourself you can be-"

Tony nods because he doesn't need complete sentences to get exactly where Tim is coming from.

"And maybe the whole Stinky John thing is part of that?" Tim sneaks a glance at Tony, fingers still rubbing at Jethro's ears with repetitive motion.

Tony wonders exactly what Tim is worried about here because there's something bugging him and it's not Jethro's fleas. "What do you mean?"

"I don't know. Maybe you're on this quest to do better, to be the person you think you are…deep down..and not the one you think you should be…the one you have been? Like, figuring out the whole flagpole thing means that you haven't always told yourself the truth about who you are and maybe-" Tim fades out for a third time and Tony can see there's some sort of fight going on, like he's trying to talk himself into or out of saying something. He finds himself leaning forward, waiting for what comes next. Tim's tongue flicks out again and he nods to himself, firm and steady. Incompatible evidence, thinks Tony. Nerves and steel. But Tim is talking again and he can't spare the time to consider what it means.

"Maybe there are other things you've told yourself that aren't true, either. Maybe there are these deeper things about you that you think are failings, that you're doing being a man wrong because some idiot told you once that you were messed up or said you couldn't hang with the cool kids or said you didn't belong on a team with real men, whatever the hell they are. And the movie geek thing--that's only one of those things. Maybe you're not on a quest to be a better person, Tony. Maybe you're just finally figuring out who exactly Anthony DiNozzo is. You want me to make fun of that? I can't. I don't want to."

Tony puts a hand to his head. He feels concussed all over again. He should probably go home, get some sleep, start figuring this all out in the morning. It's a lot to dismantle and kind of scary now he's looking at it from Tim's end of the telescope. He tells his legs to move, but they don't. His legs are pretty damn comfortable where they are and there's not a whole lot he can do about it.

Tim's face is so close to Jethro he's practically buried in his fur, so Tony can be forgiven for only half-hearing when he says, "What else have you been lying about, Tony?"


Tim sits up and Tony's sure he isn't imagining the slight defiant tilt of Tim's chin as he repeats, "What else have you been lying about, Tony? If it's my right to get my own back because you've been pegged with the geek card then it's my right to know what parts of you are actually my friend and what parts are imaginary Tony."

There's a logic mismatch there, but it's been a long day and Tony can't put his finger on it and wrap it up in a tidy bow. "I wish I knew," he says. "Everything's so tangled up."

And there's the war in Tim's face again. Tony watches Tim's adam's apple bob as he swallows hard and calls Jethro over before the poor mutt's ears are completely bald. Jethro totally ignores him, but flops onto the floor out of reach of Tim's hands so it's a win anyway.

"Before," starts Tim, and then stops.

Tony gives him as much silence as he can manage, but there's nothing else forthcoming. He sighs. "Subject and predicate, McMerriamWebster. You know that."

Tim wears the familiar pissy expression like a well loved sweater and Tony grins. When that look is on McGee's face, all is right with the world. Tony admits his world is a strange place full of murder and being slapped upside the head, but what are you gonna do?

"You said something," says Tim, the pissiness fading into subdued panic. "When you were confessing to your repressed trauma. To me. You said something to me."

Tony shakes his head. "I said a lot of things. Specifics, Timmy. Have we taught you nothing these past seven years?"

"How to break the law and get away with it?" Tim's smile is wry but affectionate. "You said…ah, nuts…you said, 'You know you want to g…to give…to…'"

"Give it to me but good," Tony finishes for him or they'll be here until Thanksgiving. It's pretty straightforward. Why Tim is having a hard time spitting it out is a mystery. "And?"

"I thought- I mean, I wondered." Tim's jaw twitches as he clenches it. "Screw it. I hoped. In that second, I hoped. Words have multiple meanings. That's-" He slumps in on himself as he trails off yet again and Tony wonders if he's also regretting the inability to play turtle with limbs that suddenly seem too out there. Too present.

Words have multiple meanings. Tony tries to wind it back, to figure out where Tim is coming from. It's all about lies and truth and what words mean and how Tony was advancing on McGee and asking him to give it to him but-Oh! And now his legs are all about getting out of here, but now it's his head that won't co-operate because it's whirring like his laptop after the time he accidentally threw it across the room.

"I-" he starts, but this time it's him that fades out, and across the room Tim blanches.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said anything. I don't want things to get awkward." His laugh is dry and brittle and with every ounce of mirth sucked right out. It grates on Tony's ears and makes his stomach tighten. "Too late, I guess. I figured it was worth a shot. Get in on the ground floor, kinda, with all the mental renovating. I was out of order."

"No," Tony shakes his head. He doesn't have the coherency of thought to put together anything more than that, but he needs Tim to know right here, right now that it's okay, that they're okay. He picks up his beer bottle, sucking down the dregs with a wince and another shake of his head. Tim still looks like he's half ready to run out of his own apartment and Jethro points his muzzle up, ears pricked as if he senses the sharpened atmosphere in the room. Tony's almost afraid to move, wary that he'll slice himself on it and he's done enough internal bleeding for one day.

He presses his hands palms together between his thighs and leans forward. "McGee," he says, "Tim. I don't know what to tell you."

"The truth is best, even if it hurts. Do it like a Bandaid," Tim says and relaxes back into his chair. Tony has no clue what just happened inside the guy's head, but whatever it is it's left him sprawling and at ease and looking entirely present, all limbs accounted for and working just fine. Tony has time to notice the paleness of Tim's skin against the open V of his wine dark shirt and the way fine strands of hair escape his attempts to defy gravity and curl lazily against his forehead. Well, sure, Tim, the truth is best, but that only works if you know what the truth is.

Tony shrugs. "I would, I swear. But I can't. It's not that I don't want to, it's just I don't know. It took finding Stinky John to figure out I'd--what did you say?--repressed my trauma. I can't track down every last person I ever interacted with and ask them if they called me a girl or a geek or a…or gay, can I?" He looks at Tim for reassurance and finds it in his face. "I have to do the heavy lifting for this one on my own."

Tim looks back at him, eyes big and solemn. "I got your back, Tony," he says and Tony's breath comes out in a rush as if it had been waiting for the magic words to set it free.

"I don't have the time," he says. "This is crazy. I'm crazy, I can't be figuring this out, cracking murders and wise." He stands up and is over by Tim, hauling him out of his chair before the small part of his brain he's devoted to making sensible decisions wakes up. He cups the back of Tim's neck and pulls him in close, thumbing the soft hair of his nape as their lips meet. It's barely a kiss to begin with, more a proximity of mouth parts, but it only takes Tony a second to move past his startled realisation that he's initiating a kiss with McGee and then he's pressing harder, blowing straight past 1940s movie kiss into persuading Tim's lips to open against his. This is kissing as he remembers it, only with less squishy frontal parts. And it's good, the familiar strangeness of a new mouth and a new person under it, Tim's long fingers wrapped tight around Tony's shoulder, the soft scrape of Tim's vague attempts at stubble.

Tony jumps back as if he'd heard the crackle whine of a Geiger counter. Tim looks horrified. "What? Did I do something wrong?"

"Oh for-" Tony says to himself and then, "No! No! Just give me a moment." Now who'd had the Bandaid ripped off? He bends down, hands against his thighs, wheezing out breaths of air and trying not to retch. This could not look good, but seriously, universe. Seriously. How many revelations per day was one man supposed to handle? He wasn't freaking Saint John. And that dude was certifiable--what chance did Tony stand?

"Tony?" Tim's hand is back on Tony's shoulder, warm and solid and real. Tony holds up a finger, takes a few deep breaths and stands up, Tim's hand dropping back to his side.

"Yeah," he says. "His name was Darryl and he was the running back. We got found out and he turned it all back on me. It was…not good, shall we say? The whole thing went down about three weeks before we graduated. Worst three weeks of my life."

"So you went the college reinvent yourself route? Became the Ladies' Man DiNozzo that we all know and roll our eyes at?"

Tony nods.

"You are aware there's this thing called 'middle ground', right?"

"Never cared much for it myself." Tony grins and it hurts way less than he'd thought it would.

Tim runs a hand through his hair, the escapee strands refusing to be tamed. "Kudos on your powers of recall and everything, but-" The echo of the unspoken 'what about me?' hangs in the air between them.

Tony swallows, the faint taste of Tim still in his mouth. "Can we wait?" he asks. "Not, like, forever, but a while? I'm so screwed up right now and I only know two things. First, I'm no good to anyone." He stops and sniffs the air. Something's not right. "Can you smell burning?" he asks and Tim is through the kitchen door and switching off the burner under the bubbling over pan before he's even finished the sentence.

Tony follows him and hands him the roll of paper towel, watching the curve of Tim's body as he mops up the mess. "Are you really going to feed Jethro that?"

"Vet's orders," says Tim. And, "You're avoiding. Second?"

"Second is I liked it," he says, shoving his hands into his pockets to stop himself grabbing Tim and proving just how much he liked it over and again. "But this new me--or the old one, it's confusing--I can't start something when I don't know if I'll wake up the same person tomorrow as I am today. Am I making sense?"

Tim balls up the paper and tosses it in the trash. He nods. "Major renovations I'll wait for," he says. "And I'll be front row at the grand opening. But you've got to know we're all just figuring it out day by day. I can't hang around waiting for the perfect bathroom faucets handcarved by Italian craftsmen. Am I making sense?"

"Barely," says Tony, but his hand escapes his pocket and brushes imaginary lint from Tim's shirt. In return, Tim straightens Tony's jacket. Tony's flooded with a sense of peace that's been missing for far too long. Maybe since forever. "I have to go," he says. "I'll see you at work and I promise to try to leave imaginary Tony at home. Can't speak for him, though, he's pretty wily."

"Not as wily as he thinks." Tim smiles and walks Tony to the door.

Tony doesn't hear the door shut behind him and halfway down the hallway he turns back to see Tim watching him walk away. Tony would like to think it's because Tim was checking out his ass, but he's thoughtful, not leering, and Tony can only imagine the maelstrom of analysis and logic train chasing that's happening behind that quiet exterior. It makes him want to jog back and kiss all thought out of Tim's head, just to see if he could do it, but he is going to do this right if it kills him. So he pulls a face, wiggles a hand in farewell and keeps on walking. He's had enough of letting tomorrow look after itself. It's time to give it some boundaries; make it get up on time, eat its greens and come in before curfew. Imaginary Tony would have let it stay out all night, but real Tony's got it covered. And for those days when it's too damn hard? Well, Tim's got his back and so do the rest of the team. Real Tony's a lucky guy.

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