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Punch Drunk and Reeling

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From the moment Gibbs entered the apartment's parking lot, he's been on high alert.

DiNozzo's car was in the the driveway as it should have been, but the driver's side door had been left partially open. Given Tony's love for the car, he might as well have left his hazard lights flashing.

Before he was even out of his seat, Gibbs had peeled open the velcro strap on his holster, and slid his gun out, holding it just out of sight as he climbed out of the truck. After quickly scanning the lot and checking the shadows beneath and behind his agent's car, he carefully edged toward the the vehicle, but stopped when he was close enough to see the steering wheel and driver's seat through the open window.

The sight of two rusty half-moon smears that might be palm prints wrapped around the leather steering wheel cover made his stomach feel as if he'd dropped sixty feet below sea level in the breadth of a second, without warning. More rust brown smears, decorating the driver's seat, painted a gruesome picture in Gibb's mind, and he had to close his eyes for a moment to deny the sudden light-headed feeling that swept over him.

Regaining his composure, Gibbs grabbed his cell, flipped it open, and hit the top button on his speed dial without thinking. He realized his error a moment later, when it went straight to DiNozzo's voice mail. His throat tightened sharply at DiNozzo's recorded message, and he slapped it closed with a pained exhalation.

Tony was the agent that he called to get the others in order... his second... and calling anyone else to do the job that felt wrong, almost as if it would jinx what little chance there was that Tony wasn't already injured, if not worse. In any event, he wasn't going to lie to himself that he'd wait for them to arrive before he secured the scene, so there really wasn't any point to call someone else before he did. Back up, if he needed it would most likely be too little, too late, and probably more than he deserved if his gut feeling was correct.

It was a weak, bullshit argument, but Gibbs slid his phone back into his pocket and reached in, using a pen, to pull the trunk's latch.

He paused, steeling himself, as he walked around the end of the car and slid the pen under the trunk lid. It took another two breaths before he was able to jerk the pen up, his eyes dropping closed briefly as he forced the trunk's lid open.

The absence of sound as the lid rose was almost ominous, and Gibbs had a heart flip of dread as he forced his eyes open, staring over the top of the trunk first, until he there was no choice but to look down... into the empty trunk.

Clenching his fist on the lid, Gibbs dropped his forehead against it briefly before gently closing it and turning toward the apartment.

Using the spare key, Tony had given him, Gibbs enters the apartments without buzzing, but not without noticing an unpleasant slickness on the door's handle. The hallways are thankfully empty as he climbs the stairs to Tony's floor then approached his door.

The silence was less welcome.

At that moment, he would have preferred the thuds of over-turned furniture, the shattering of broken lamps, even pained moans... anything other the peaceful, too-late sounding silence. Whatever had happened, it seemed, was finished.

Tony's doorknob had the same unpleasant slickness as the front door and turned immediately, sending another wave of near dizziness through Gibbs. Unlike himself, Tony never, knowingly, left his doors unlocked. The thought of him being too far gone to notice or care spawned another round of gruesome thoughts.

Dreading that he would find Tony just inside the door, beyond help, Gibbs pushed the door open slowly waiting for the slightest resistance, but it opened easily and beyond the door, Tony's foyer and living room looked almost normal... if you didn't count the trail left by thick drops of blood that led in the direction of Tony's bedroom.

It was less than three seconds work to verify that the foyer, living room, kitchenette, and bath were clear. Gibbs was at his open bedroom door, by the fifth, staring at an unmoving lump, wrapped in blood-stained sheets and blankets, and curled in on itself.

A quick glance between the mirrors on the closet, over the dresser and on the far wall, confirmed that the room was clear, and the sheets were pulled far enough up that he could see from where he stood that no one was hiding underneath the bed. Before he was aware of even thinking of moving, Gibbs was on the other side of the bed reaching for the edge of the outer blanket... then jerking his hand away as he felt it shiver in his grasp.

A lump that wasn't purely relief rose in his throat, feeling like it would choke him as he questioned, “Tony?”

“Bo-ss?” a familiar, rasping voice questioned back as the blanket fidgeted, and an edge seemed to try to flip weakly back before the limb beneath it dropped.

“Tony!” Gibbs barked, his heart pounding a rapid staccato in his chest. “Hold on! I'll get you out of there.”

Beneath the blankets, and the rasp, Tony's voice sounded thick and vague, with a tone almost like the thickness of sleep, but less focused and noticeably off off. “Boss?” He asked again.

Gibbs cursed as he pulled the sheets and blankets away – counting six on the floor before he revealed the top of Tony's head. In addition to other wounds, wrapped in so many blankets, Tony had probably been suffering from oxygen deprivation.

“Hold on. Tony, almost there.”

Three tightly wrapped blankets later, he pushed back a makeshift hood formed by a corner of the fitted sheet pulled down around Tony's face and stared half in relief, half in dismay.

Tony's hair was matted down against his forehead from sweat, and his face was strangely flushed for seeming almost bloodless. Cracked and swollen, blotchy with spots of blood, his lips looked almost parched. His eyes were glassy and bloodshot, but didn't look as dilated as he thought they would if Tony had been drugged. There were pinched bruises on his chin and a smear of something oily yellow coating the skin just below his nostrils and at the edges of his mouth.

“Boss?” Tony asked blearily squinting at him.

“Yeah, Tony?”

“ What... cha doing here?” Tony asked again, seeming to forget that he'd had already been speaking to Gibbs for some minutes, “Thought weekend … off.”

The tone of genuine confusion in Tony's voice worried Gibbs with possibilities that on top of whatever other injuries his agent had suffered, there might be head injuries, severe blood loss, drugs, clots from being tied in stress positions too long.

“We did, Tony, but it's Monday; when you didn't come in and failed to answer any of our calls, I came to check on you. Damn good thing that I did, too.”

“Didn't hear a call. Should've. Probably should've. You wouldn't have come, 'nless I missed answerin'... but, thought we had the week'nd off.”

Gibbs knew too many causes for the sort of disorientation that he heard in Tony's voice, and the more he tried to push those thoughts away the more they came to the surface

“Don't think I can come into work, today.” His tone apologetic and somewhat sheepish, Tony didn't seem to realize how obvious that fact was.

“Ya think?” Gibbs couldn't help but smile, if somewhat sadly, at the apology.

“Yeah.” Tony confirmed, adding, “Not feeling so good.”

“I can see that.” Gibbs agreed, and stiffened when Tony flinched, clearly remembering the last time he'd said that particular phrase.

“Hey, didn't mean it that way, Tony. That's not how I meant it at all. I just let my nerves get away with me. You'd dropped off radar, and then we found out what that little shit was setting you up for, and when I walked up to the car... and your head was laying over like that... I was sure that he'd … well, you can guess what I'd thought, and to tell you the truth, I felt like ripping him to pieces, but then you lifted your head, and I realized that you'd made it... again... and shit, you get yourself in too many of these close scrapes, Tony... anyway, I still had that urge to rip something to pieces, but my preferred target had a bullet through his head, and I let my mouth run away with me. I regretted it as soon as it was out of my mouth. One of the reasons I don't say much, you know. If your mouth's shut, can't stick your foot in it.”

Gibbs waited -stiff and still - for Tony's response, but when Tony remained silent, he glanced back down and saw that his agent's eyes were unfocused and glassier, if that was possible.

Tony's hands were tightly clenching two fitted sheets around himself cocoon like.

“Let go of the sheets, Tony.” He ordered coaxingly, but Tony's eyes were barely focused on him, and Gibbs wasn't entirely certain that he understood what was being asked.

Pulling at them gently, he was startled when Tony's fingers grasped them tighter.

“It's okay. Everything will be okay. Just let go of the sheets.” Gibbs coaxed.

“Yes, Sir.” Tony agreed, uncharacteristically formal, but while his hands flexed spasmodically, it wasn't enough to actually release the sheets, if that had even been what he'd been attempting to do.

Starting with Tony's right hand, Gibbs closed his hand over Tony's, and jerked his gaze back up to study Tony's face as he felt the burn of a high fever beneath Tony's skin.

Moving very slowly and gently, he lifted one finger after another, dislodging each finger's grip on the blanket before he moved to the next.

Tony cocked his head, hissing slightly in pain as he did, but seemed to ignore it as his eyes focused in the general direction of Gibb's.

Tony rambled on in a repetitive stream of conscious spattered with more 'Sirs' and requests that seemed to mean something, but didn't make sense to Gibbs as he gently unwound the last to sheets from Tony's legs, careful not to jar his back where most of the blood stains seemed to have originated.

Although he didn't see how he could be more alarmed - when Tony was finally unwrapped and he stared down at his agent – Gibbs couldn't quite believe his eyes.

Instead of Tony's customary far-too-expensive if stylish business casual shirt and slacks, Tony looked as if Abby had picked out his clothing: a long-sleeved, tightly-fitted, mesh tunic over equally-tight leather pants that barely covered the tops of soft black moccasins.

Shocked back to his senses, Gibbs groped his pocket for his phone, flipping it open as he dragged it out.

He fingers grope out the number blindly, but he's dialed it so many times before in various stages from blind rage to blind drunk that his fingers know it by heart as much as his mind does.

Staring at DiNozzo as he spoke, Gibbs went with the sudden feeling deep in his gut, throwing out rapid -fire questions and orders in a quiet non-stop stream of words that gave Ducky no opportunity to get a word or question in edgewise that wasn't a direct response to one of his: “you still carrying you're emergency bag in your car? Good. Don't tell anyone that I've called you, or why, just get to Tony's apartment ASAP. Call me when you're near. I'll buzz you up.”

When Tony was clearly hurt and possibly needed a hospital, Gibbs wasn't certain why he felt he needed to keep whatever happened on low profile until Tony was more coherent, but he wasn't in the habit of ignoring his gut feelings - feelings that were screaming at him loudly and insistently.

Not certain what else was safe to do before Ducky arrived, Gibbs settled for grabbing a metal salad bowl from the kitchenette, filling it with ice water, and grabbing a handful of wash clothes from the linen closet he'd found while securing the scene.

Dipping one of the cloths into the bowl, he squeezed it out until it was comfortably damp and, after a slight hesitation, began to wipe Tony's face, starting with the yellow oil under Tony's nose that he somehow found more disturbing than even the blood. He was probably destroying evidence, but couldn't care less – at that moment. If Tony couldn't remember enough about his assailant for Gibbs to track the bastard down, he could have Abby try to pull it; but looking down at Tony's choice of dress again, Gibbs was almost certain that Tony would have a very good idea of who had hurt him and where to find the soon-to-be-seriously-hurting son-of-a-bitch.

Moaning softly, in reaction to the cold, Tony turned with a hiss of pain and pressed is face into the wash cloth, probably trying to find relief from the fever.

“Easy,” Gibbs coaxed, dipping and squeezing out another washcloth, one handed, and folding it into neat thirds with a few quick folds of his fingers.

“Here, this should help.” He offered, laying the chill cloth across Tony's flushed and heated forehead.


“Yes, Sir.” Tony repeated with that odd monotone formality as he relaxed back into the pillows with a sigh that broke off in a gasp.

“Hey Tony, stay with me. Ducky will be here, soon. Hear me? Ducky's on his way.”

“Yes, Sir.”


“In here,” Gibbs bit out, trying to suppress the urge to bark at the man for not getting there sooner. Ducky, of course, had come as quickly as he'd been able, but all the same, it had been a difficult fifteen minutes waiting as Tony drifted in and out of lucidity, his fever entirely unaffected by the icy towels wrapped across his forehead, neck, and wrists.

“Anthony, My Dear Boy,” Ducky sighed sadly as he reached out and wrapped his fingers around Tony's wrist. “How much longer can this continue?”

This?” Gibbs growled, “This … has happened before?”

“Now is not the time, Jethro.” Ducky snapped sharply. “Help me lift him and take him into the shower. We'll need to remove his shirt, it will be less painful if we rinse and debride the mesh as much as possible.”

Wrapping one hand around Tony's upper arm, Gibbs tested his grip to be certain that he wouldn't add to Tony's pain as he pulled the younger man up.

“Slowly, Jethro, slowly.” Ducky cautioned. “Let's get him to the shower.”

Working together, they supported Tony as he trudged into the bathroom. Neither resisting their efforts, nor assisting them, Tony seemed oblivious of their intention, only moving forward in response to their coaxing.

When they reached the room, Ducky pulled Tony's weight over, gesturing for Jethro to move ahead.

“He'll need your support, Jethro.”

Kicking his shoes off, Gibbs stripped to his undershirt and boxers, stepped into the shower, turned the water on, and reached out for Tony.

“Step up, My Boy.” Ducky coaxed gently. “And allow Jethro hold your weight, while I take off your slippers.”

“Yes, Sir.” Tony answered, complacently raising his arms to wrap them over Gibbs shoulder without question.

Sir?” Gibbs mouthed at Ducky, trying to draw his attention to Tony's odd response, but dropped the question at Ducky's rather formidable glare.

“You need to turn him into the water Jethro, to loosen the dried blood enough that we may remove his shirt.”

Turning slowly, Gibbs coaxed the younger man to follow his lead, and stiffened when Tony whimpered and jerked when the water hit his back.

“There, there. My Boy. There, there.”

“It hhurttssss,” Tony whined pathetically.

“Yes, My Boy, I know, but needs must.”

Tony nodded into Gibbs shoulder, clenched his hands convulsively, and seemed to catch and hold his breath against the pain without further complaint. Despite his silence, Tony's pain was obvious in the way he clung to Gibbs shoulder, taking breaths in gasps and shudders.

“Ducky...” Gibbs protested, but trailed off when Ducky, surprisingly, joined them in the shower, barefoot and stripped to his own undershirt.

Ducky ran his hand gently over the back of Tony's head, coaxing gently, “such a very, very good boy.”

To Gibbs surprise, Tony stilled in his arms relaxing his clinging grip and slowing breaths, and it struck him suddenly that Ducky already knew what was going on. Gibbs wasn't certain what detail clenched the truth for him, but something had, and he was certain without question that whatever was going on, Ducky was not only aware of it, but it had dealt with it before. Perhaps even many times before as Ducky and Tony almost had an established … routine, if that was the right word for it.

“That's it. My Boy.” Ducky continued to murmur as he moved around to the other side slipping scissors under the edge of Tony's shirt and carefully cut the shirt away.

“Such a good boy...Such a good boy.” Ducky murmured over and over, seeming to avoid Gibbs gaze as he worked until the front of Tony's shirt dropped off his chest and slid down between them.

Finally lifting his gaze to meet Gibbs, Ducky held his gaze, pressing the scissors into Gibbs hand before lifting his free hand to gently stroke the back of Tony's head.

As Gibbs watched, the expression in Ducky's eyes became, at once, more harsh and more bleak, but they held his gaze unrelentingly as Ducky spoke in an demanding tone.

“My Boy, when I remove your shirt it is going to hurt, but you'll need to hold perfectly still, until I give you permission to move. Do you understand?”

Gibbs opened his mouth to argue that at the very least they needed to move Tony back to the bed, but Tony's weak agreement, “Yes, Sir. Hold perfectly still” temporarily forestalled him.

“Good boy.” Ducky patted the back of Tony's head gently, staring directly into Gibbs eyes as he continued... “Good boy. It's going to hurt, but you can take it, can't you?”

“Yes, Sir.” Tony answered softly, before Gibbs could question their bizarre dynamic.

Ducky finally turned his gaze to Tony's back, took both edges of the cloth between his fingers and began to pull them away from Tony's skin, revealing as he did, long deep scores cutting the length of Tony's back that had been hidden by the dried blood and material. True to his word, Tony sunk into Gibbs chest for support then held perfectly still and silent as Ducky painstakingly peeled the shirt out of each long groove and away from his skin until Ducky finally dropped the sodden mass to the shower floor, where the shower water drained off of it in blood-tinted streams.

Gibbs had expected Ducky to give him the okay to help Tony out of the shower, but instead, Ducky turned the water higher almost - to full blast- and lifted the shower head to direct its full force in the center of Tony's back.

“What the hell?” Gibbs barked, as Tony convulsed against him, fighting to stay still despite what must have been a tremendous amount of pain.

“We must get the weals cleaned, Jethro, even the smallest thread can cause additional infection if left in when I suture the deepest cuts.” Ducky wielded his explanation like an unexpected weapon, giving Gibbs no option but to comply...

And, he hated it.


“Is NOW 'the time', Ducky?” Gibbs growled angrily as soon as they shut Tony's bedroom door behind them. “NOW, can I ask what the HELL is going on with my agent, how long you've known, and WHY in the Hell you haven't told me?”

“Jethro, sit! I will gladly answer your questions, but I find that I have had quite enough to deal with this afternoon without adding your customary surly chastisements.”

Too angry with the doctor, at the moment, to cooperate, Gibbs nevertheless recognized that he wouldn't get anything from Ducky if he continued arguing so grumbled, “Go on!” and paced around the room to blow off steam.

Ducky sighed with a 'put-upon' sigh that made Gibbs want to call him on it, but he stifled the urge, turning away from his friend and doing another circuit between Tony's couch and entertainment center.

While he waited for Ducky to gather his thoughts and follow through on his promise to explain, Gibbs began to study the room trying to gather is own intel on Tony's mindset and how his agent had seemingly gotten into the trouble that he clearly had.

Strangely, it was tidier and more sedate than he had expected from his agent.

Gibbs had been to Tony's apartment before, at least a couple of times, but it had always been with enough notice for Tony to straighten up before he had arrived. Now that he thought of it, Gibbs supposed that he had, at least subconsciously, been expecting that without the threat of his impending arrival, Tony kept house like any non-military thirty-year old bachelor kept house, in other words, just neat enough that it didn't turn off potential dates, but -by no means - military straight, or nearly so.

Despite his expectations, though, Tony's apartment was, or nearly so. Gibbs couldn't say for certain, but even his own apartment after he returned from Iraq probably hadn't been so orderly, but then Gibbs had still been mourning for his late wife and daughter, drinking more that his mentor – no light-weight, himself, to drinking – was strictly comfortable with, and slowly recovering from lingering injuries suffered shortly before his release. His customary discipline had slipped for several months, before he'd finally come back to himself.

Seeming to sense Gibb's attempt to mitigate his attitude, Ducky finally started off in a contemplative tone, as if he was just then piecing together the mystery of Tony's behavior for himself, though Gibbs was certain that was not the case.

“It might interest you to know, Jethro, that until you introduced me to Young Anthony, here, I had firmly believed that I had never met anyone as firmly driven as yourself.”

“Wait, just a second, are you trying to say that I drove Tony to this... whatever this is? This wasn't for a case, Du--”

“No, My Boy, quite the opposite. Were it not for you, I believe that Anthony would not be here, today.”

“So, What?!? Are you trying to say that this was a botched suicide attempt? Because that's BS,and you know it. I don't know what this is, but it's not that.”

“JETHRO, if you wish for an explanation, it might behoove you to be silent long enough to receive it. I doubt anyone who has met you would credit it if I told them how many times you've interrupted me in the past two minutes, and with entire sentences to boot.”

“Oh, they'd believe it.” Gibbs muttered uncharitably, knowing he'd feel guilty for it later, and resenting the Doctor just a little bit for that later guilt. It wasn't as if Ducky wasn't stalling AND withholding important information.

“First of all, I am doing no such thing.” Ducky retorted, reading his opinion from his resentful glare. “Second, while I can not speak directly to the specific cause of Young Anthony's suffering, I can speculate on the effects as they pertain to his motivation to … engage in certain activities that contain a component of... self-harm.”

“Then stop beating around the bush and do it.” Gibbs snapped.

Ducky managed a rather formidable glare of his own toward Gibbs, but Gibbs ignored it, gesturing with his fingers for Ducky to 'get on with it'.

After a harsh sigh, Ducky did continue, but not in the direction that Gibbs expected: “Jethro, have you never wondered how Anthony, who previously barely managed to stay at any of his prior assignments longer than eighteen months managed to gain the investigative and administrative experience required to integrate almost seamlessly into the NCIS without additional formal military training? I quite strongly remember your complaints about his predecessor's incompetence in filing reports properly continuing at least three months, and he was straight out of the academy... Where your complaints about Young Anthony ceased after the second week.”

“I don't know. He's a fast learner. I saw that right off. It was part of the reason I offered him the job.”

“Well yes, perhaps, but isn't there more to the matter than that?”

“I don't know what you're getting at. Tony's a good agent; has the potential to be one of the best. I know he acts up, but some of that's to keep others from paying attention to what he's really getting at on a case. It's been to our benefit more than once, or I wouldn't let him get away with it. Besides that he's smart, and he's one of the best undercover operatives we've had in at least five years.” Gibbs argued, crossing him arms across his chest defensively.

He really wasn't comfortable talking about his team like this, but didn't like the feeling that Ducky seemed implying that Tony wasn't as good an agent as he was.

“Yes, yes, of course. I, truly, was not slighting the young man, Jethro, merely hoping to point out something that I believe you have just pointed out to yourself. An interesting choice of words by the way: that Anthony 'acts up to keep others from paying attention to what he's really doing', perhaps that even applies to yourself? That his act has been so successful even you, yourself, may have missed what he was doing?”

Gibbs wanted to protest that Ducky was misreading the situation, but with Tony laying in the other room, his back newly sewn up from some sort of 'activity that contained a component of self-harm', it was impossible to deny that he had missed something - something critical.

“For instance, the file drawer, just on your left, by your calf... You mentioned that Anthony is a fast learner, which I don't doubt, nevertheless, even fast learners, such as Anthony require a text book, of sorts, if they wish to stay ahead of the curve. If you'll look in the drawer, you'll find Anthony's text book.”

It was an invasion of Tony's privacy, and Gibbs knew that even his discovery of Tony's injuries didn't quite give him the right to go poking around in Tony's private files, but despite himself and his misgivings, he pulled out the drawer, and started going through the files.

“These are... my case notes and incident reports all the way back to my first day at the agency.” Gibb glanced through them, feeling off-balance, exposed and more than a little confused.

As he thumbed through the files at the back of each one, he came to a detailed case analysis, in Tony's careful script, with annotations to any of the relevant rules that Gibbs had taught him over the years as well as cross-referenced notes to Tony's own performance on various cases. Tony didn't seem to cut himself any slack, either. As he got into the files at the back of the drawer, filed with Tony's own case notes, Gibbs was more than a little startled to see in-depth critical notes on even minor errors that Gibbs had felt, in some cases, were beyond Tony's control. Sure, he'd made it a rule not to assume anything, but even he recognized that it was impossible to anticipate every eventuality. Glancing at Tony's notes, it didn't appear that Tony had come to that realization yet, himself.

“I didn't ask for him to ...” Gibbs trailed off as Ducky raised a forestalling hand.

“Not explicitly, I am sure, but you have set high standards for him to live up to, My Boy, as high as the standards that you set for yourself, BUT,” Ducky sharpened his tone to override Gibbs, who had opened his mouth to protest, “But, in doing so, you have given Anthony something that he sorely needed: a sense of worth. He mentioned to me, once, that you were the first person who had ever expected anything good from him and never let up until you got it. You've given him a direction and purpose.”

“If that's true, then how did this happen? What's eating him, Ducky? Why didn't he come to me if he's having problems?”

“As to how this came about, Anthony has never shared the tale of how he became habituated to what I can only describe as base masochism, but from what has shared and from my own indirect confirmation, this has been going on for a very long time. He admits that he has engaged in this behavior even as far back as his college days; however, the very few hints that have slipped his guard suggest either a much earlier emergence or a disturbingly swift descent into high risk behavior. I believe the former is the more likely possibility given Anthony's reticence to discuss any aspect of his life before college.”

Replacing Tony's case files back into the drawer, precisely as they had been before he had removed them, Gibbs pulled out the desk chair, turned its back to face the doctor, and straddled it- crossing his arms over the back of the chair. Turning his gaze away from Ducky, he stared at the closed door to Tony's bedroom trying to reconstruct his mental image of Tony to include the possibility that his agent... his senior agent... his second in command routinely and secretively placed himself in situations where he had been injured severely enough that Tony had been compelled to call Ducky for assistance.

“As far as what's eating him,” Ducky continued, “As I said, I can't speak to the direct cause, and truthfully, I doubt that even Anthony recognizes what is truly at the root of his anguish; although, you must understand that his lack of understanding, in no way, makes it any less real, as you've seen. As for why Anthony did not come to you with his difficulties... Jethro, surely you must realize that as far as Tony is concerned, you are the only person who doesn't think he is 'a screw up', in one form or other. I believe that he would quite likely suffer almost any indignity to preserve your opinion of him.”

After Gibbs conceded to his point with a reluctant and rueful nod, Ducky maundered on for close to three hours without repetition or diverging into personal anecdotes. He laid out, for Jethro, in minute and specific detail what he knew, strongly suspected, and merely speculated on regarding Tony's various coping mechanisms, masochistic behaviors, and Tony's behaviors prior to and following what Tony apparently called 'discipline' sessions. By the time Ducky was interrupted by a phone call from Palmer, informing him that his mother had been attempting to contact him, Gibbs had a much clearer and more grim impression of his second, as well as a far more sobering estimation of his role in his agent's life.

“Thanks, Ducky.” He cut the doctor off, before Ducky could offer to stay with Tony. “You go on. I'll stay with him till morning, but stop by on your way in, if you could. I need to talk to the Director and make some arrangements.”

Ducky opened his mouth to protest, clearly feeling that he had to intervene on Tony's behalf, but Gibbs still irritated at Ducky for keeping Tony's issues a secret, frustrated with the situation, and more than a little exhausted by the day - to hear Ducky out, much less explain himself.

“It's my team, Ducky, and I'll handle it my way.” He growled, cutting his friend off before the doctor could utter a single syllable.

“Of course, Jethro, of course. Far be it for me to suggest that you rethink the wisdom of rashly-made decisions; however, it would be remiss of me if I failed to caution you to go gently with Young Anthony when he awakens. It is not uncommon for him to be particularly affected following one of these incidents, and it is not too fine a point to mention that your discovering his extra-curricular activities has been his second greatest fear, even greater than that of his own death.”

“Greater than...” Gibbs repeated softly, almost questioning what his agent's greatest fear was – if not his own death – but the significant stare Ducky was aiming at him told him more than he needed to know about the answer. “Fine,” He grunted. “I'll keep it in mind.”

“That's all I ask, Jethro.”


Tony clarified Ducky's definition of 'particularly affected' four hours later, when he shuffled, barefoot, into the living room and leaned, clutching heavily at the door frame as he watched Jethro thumbing through a well worn copy of The Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance. Watching Tony, in his peripheral vision, Jethro continued thumbing through the book, waiting for Tony to make the first comment. Much to his surprise, though, Tony stayed silent, and after a moment, padded past him into the kitchenette.

Torn between ordering Tony back to bed, and seeing how Tony intended to deflect his attention, Gibbs waited silently as Tony puttered around the kitchenette, gathering a mug, a plate, a jar, and a package of something that rattled softly. After organizing them on a larger plate, Tony worked near silently, drawing Gibb's curious stare.