Actions

Work Header

Dignity

Chapter Text

Dignity

Getting There


 

 

Here he was again, the lonely pathetic beggar kid straight out of a Dickens’ novel, standing outside and looking in. It seemed so much like the story of his life, this continued, persistent loneliness. Sometimes he thought that there was something innately wrong with him, something that kept people at bay. Yeah, Tony DiNozzo was good for having fun, the perpetual college kid, the wild-child in the sack but nothing more. Not a friend, not a lover, certainly never a husband or a father.

 

Times like these, when melancholy overcame him, he wondered exactly what he was doing with his life. Here he was, lamenting how hollow he felt and not far from him, his father was dancing with his new wife.

 

Jesus Christ.

 

He looked down at the flute of Moscato d’Asti and smiled a grim smile.

 

He couldn’t begrudge his father… it wasn’t in his nature to be angry for long. Isn’t that why he was the door-mat for his team sometimes? They knew he’d forgive, let everything slid off his back, the unshakable, irrepressible Tony DiNozzo.

 

He looked up and frowned. St. Albans Parish. It had been his solace for so long. How many Sundays he had spent here, his mind blissfully blank, just basking in the environment of the Church? Would it offer him the same comfort, after this farce of a wedding? Watching his father try to another hand at furthering his riches at the cost of someone else? Recapturing glory days of old, as he said? A new wife and a new opportunity.

 

Another rich heiress in a long line of rich heiresses.

 

“May I sit with you?” A soft, accented voice questioned, startling him out of his increasingly morose thoughts.

 

Tony blinked, looking up before his lips curled into a faint, empathizing smile. “Mary, yes, of course.”

 

Mary Darwin, his new step-sister, was intriguing in her own right. When he had first been introduced to her, he didn’t give her much thought. She was very pretty, of course, but not in the way Tony usually found attractive. She looked entirely too fresh and innocent. No makeup, pale skin, hair that was washed and cared for but never styled, eyes that were a shade of hazel, too perceptive and honest for Tony’s comfort.

 

Their subsequent meetings altered his opinion. She might have looked like an innocent English rose from some regency-era chick-flick, but she had a mouth that cursed like a sailor and a blunt manner to her that was borderline rude.

 

Tony liked her.

 

“Did you ever wish that your dad had died instead of your mum?”

 

‘Exhibit A.’ Tony thought to himself dryly, even as he reeled under the loaded question. His shoulders slumped as he let out a soft, stunned laugh. “What a question, Mar.” He murmured, shaking his head. His gaze traveled to the dancing couple, the people surrounding him, the pretense, the high-tittering laughter. “Sometimes.” He admitted, his voice soft and reluctant, laden with guilt. “When things got a bit too rough… when the burden of essentially raising myself got too much.” He confessed with uncharacteristic openness.

 

Mary made a knowing sound at the back of her throat and Tony knew her life had been no different. She was fortunate to have her father longer but that hardly meant anything after the finality of death set in.

 

After all, what was left but memories?

 

“Mom was no angel.” He went on, confessing truths in the shadow of his church. “Eccentric at best, insane at worst. But for the years she was alive, at least I had love.” A small, nostalgic smile crossed his lips.

 

“Dad was the stiff upper lip, the silent and solid presence,” Mary’s smile too was apparent in her voice. “He never said he loved me, you know.” She admitted, “but ever since I was a kid, I was mad about him. I always wanted his attention, always wanted to sit by his side, hated it when someone took his attention from me.” She laughed and Tony grinned at that, imagining what it would be like. “Not a word of love ever passed his lips.” She whispered, “But it was so blatantly present in his actions, I never doubted it. He’d never leave for work without seeing me. Always wanted me before his eyes whenever we went out. Every time I developed a new interest, he was right there with me, be it ballet, guitar, my odd obsession with cooking and baking.”

 

Tony turned to look at her, finding her smile a thing of enthralling beauty because it was so content. Like remembering her father brought her nothing but pleasure.

 

“As I grew older,” She continued, “We used to have these long conversations every night. I remember us discussing Star Wars and Star Trek and Doctor Who, of all things. Then the next day, we were debating about Mozart and Beethoven and the next, considering the merits of various cars on the market.” She sounded so happy, so immersed in the memories that Tony envied her even though he didn’t want her to stop.

 

“He sounds wonderful.” He murmured, turning to look back at his own father, wishing things were different.

 

“To me, he was.” She replied. “I remember, one time my friend’s dad died.” She confessed, “And I hid in the bedroom and cried for ages. Not because I was sad for my friend… because I suddenly realized I might not have him around one day.” Her voice was soft as she continued, “And I loved him so fiercely that I prefered, really prefered, the thought of dying before him.”

 

Tony swallowed.

 

“When he went, it was such a surprise.” She confessed, “Softly, in his sleep when just that morning, he had gone on a jog and then to work. Hale and hearty as any other day.”

 

Tony knew how her father had died. A heart-attack in the middle of the night, silent and nearly unnoticed because of his diabetes.

 

“You know, Tony,” Mary continued, “I was sad, missed him terribly but made peace with the fact that he went like he wanted to go. Silently, no hospitals, no medicines, no burdening others with worry. It was peaceful, it was painless and it felt like God had taken him gently because he knew that this man was Good. He was not great, not ambitious, not rich, not famous but good, solid, loved his wife and daughter, never let them hurt if he could help it.”

 

“What more can one ask?” Tony said, his voice soft and respectful.

 

She smiled at him and Tony felt instantly connected to her. When she thread her arm through his, it felt like trust, like the blossom of a warm friendship. For once, Tony thanked his dad for getting married.

 

“Would it have been better if you had died instead?” He asked softly, smiling when she rested her head on his shoulder.

 

“Sometimes… when I look at my mom, I think, yes.” She admitted, “I always thought that he was of more value to this world than I.” And wasn’t that exactly like his own thoughts?

 

“And then I realized, I was of more value to him than the world.” Tony stilled, feeling his breath freeze in his chest. “I was the center of his world.” The confidence in her voice was stunning and envy reared its ugly head once again. “As I said, I never doubted his love. It was what I thought I’d miss most fiercely when he was gone.”

 

“Wasn’t it?” Tony asked, fascinated by their conversation, feeling like he was a part of that world, of her relationship with her father.

 

She was silent for a long moment before laughing unexpectedly. “This one time, not long after he died,” She said instead of answering, “I was up late, reading a book. It was a habit of mine that dad despised. He wanted me to sleep on time and be up early. I remember many nights hastily switching off the lights whenever I heard his footsteps in the corridor. I remember that when I wasn’t fast enough, he’d call out my name. Just a simple ‘Mary’ in this one particular tone of voice, half reprimanding, half exasperated.”

 

Tony’s lips quirked at that.

 

“That night, I heard footsteps and I hastily shut down the lights. I could almost hear the echo of his voice calling my name, the same tone, the same manner. I remember how my heart was racing, half afraid.” She laughed a little incredulously, “And then, after dad had passed away, on that night, I realized that I respected him, loved him so much that I was frightened of him.” Tony arched a brow in surprise. “Scared of doing something he disapproved of, scared of disappointing him, scared of hurting him.”

 

“That’s…”

 

Odd, right?” Mary said, amused. “I started remembering all those times I did something wrong, how he never scolded me, just gave me this disapproving look and a gentle lecture. I remembered those times, when every girl I knew was sneaking about and I didn’t step a toe out of line… it was weird, just how successful he was in ensuring I didn’t fuck up in a big way. I thought I was being rebellious when I came home an hour late, or was sneaking a glass of mom’s Merlot.”

 

Tony laughed, “You must’ve been popular.”

 

She grimaced ruefully, “Not very. More the bottom-rung on the school social ladder.”

 

He chuckled and wrapped an arm around her shoulder, feeling completely at ease. “On the anniversary of his death, I was at his grave, talking like we always did, nonsensical things that meant very little, something I’d learnt at school.” She explained, “And Tony, I realized something,” He looked down at her questioningly.

 

“I don’t miss his love as much as I miss loving him.”

 

Tony froze, his breath still and his eyes wide.

 

“Do you understand?” She asked, turning to him.

 

“I do,” He rasped and he did. Lord, didn’t it make so much sense? It was such a simple comment, so easy to understand but not fully comprehend the meaning. Because didn’t he know this love? Feel it every day crushing his heart under its weight? It may have been different in nature but not in intensity, not in its sincerity. It was a powerful thing, a painful thing to love someone like this. To love without restraint, without expectations or demands, to love and to respect enough to be content with just having that person in your life.

 

This unselfish thing, this hurtful, agonizing thing.

 

This thing that he couldn’t live without. Because whether it was reciprocated or not, Tony wanted to continue loving this way, continue living this way. And didn’t that explain so much?

 

Swallowing the ball of ice in his throat, he closed his eyes against tears as he dipped his head to kiss Mary’s forehead. “Why did you come out here,” He paused, “sis.”

 

“Because I was thinking about him,” She replied, “And I saw you sitting here.” She snuggled closer to him, “Because you remind me very much of him. You have his silence, his steadiness.”

 

Tony snorted, “Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m anything but silent.”

 

Mary shook her head, “You’re silent, Tony even when you’re talking, all that fucking movie trivia and teasing and the bloody pranks… that’s just background noise. In the end, you say very little. You remind me of him… that gentle, dutiful, protective and good man.”

 

She stood a little unsteadily and Tony instantly reached out, his heart in his throat as he glared down at her heels. “Do you really need those? Now?” He looked pointedly at her gravid form and arched a brow sternly at her. Her husband hadn’t accompanied her and really, Tony wanted to have words with that man.

 

Who let their pregnant wife go across an ocean to a wedding she didn’t want to attend, alone?

 

“Your glaring isn’t gonna make Henry appear, you know?” Mary pointed out in amusement and he glowered at her. With a sigh, she braced herself against him and removed her heels, her toes curling in the cool grass, “Happy?”

 

“If you have spares without heels somewhere around, yes.” He grumbled. When she mentioned she had a pair of flats in the reserved bridal changing room, he nodded, gesturing her towards the bench, “Sit, I’ll get you something to wear.” Before she could protest, his long legs carried him to the church. He easily found the room and the flats, placing her heels inside her bag before walking out. Thankfully, he didn’t encounter any of the guests nor the bride and groom.

 

Tony found Mary looking up at the tree they had been sitting under, studying it. Uncaring about his meticulously tailored Burberry tux, he knelt down and quietly slipped the flats onto her dainty little feet, smiling when she wriggled her toes playfully at him. “You’re a regular knight in shining armor, Special Agent DiNozzo.” She grinned.

 

“Why thank you, Lady Mary.” He replied, chuckling, “Now, why didn’t Henry come?” He demanded.

 

She shrugged, looking a little sad, “He was called back in.” She explained, “And said he’d rather go now and be back when the baby was due to be born.” Henry Darwin was SAS, that formidable bastard. The one time he had met the man, Tony found him utterly besotted with his wife and carefully gentle with her.

 

It was mildly amusing that both of them fell for someone from the Special Forces.

 

“What about you? Why didn’t you bring a date?” She asked.

 

Tony shrugged, “Didn’t want to tempt the old man.” He replied bluntly and that was only half-true. To be frank, Tony was finding himself increasingly disinterested in casual flings. “So when is Henry coming back?” He asked.

 

Mary shrugged, “Not for a few months yet…” She admitted, “He asked me to stay with my mum but after this,” she waved at the wedding in a grand, mocking gesture, “I don’t think I’d be able to abide by it.” Tony grimaced sympathetically. “So I’m looking at other options to soothe his protectiveness. I don’t want him distracted on the field.”

 

Suddenly Tony had to offer. “You could stay with me.” He said softly and before she could reply, he continued, “It’s a small apartment in a relatively safe area, I have a spare bedroom that’s basically storage right now. My building’s elevator was finally fixed and there’s a park close for you to walk about.”

 

Mary looked at him, surprised. “Ninety percent of the time, I won’t be there.” He admitted, “Consequence of the job. But I’ll come with you to all doctor’s appointments, you can contact me anytime and we both will have company.”

 

She bit her lip, tilting her head to the side consideringly. “You aren’t just offering out of politeness, right?”

 

Tony snorted. If she knew just how possessive he was of his own space, she wouldn’t be asking that question. He offered because he was starting to adore her. Because they had jelled instantly and because he knew Henry would prefer it. The man had asked him to keep an eye on his wife during the wedding, after all.

 

“I’m not that polite, Mar.” He replied, smiling reassuringly at her. “I wouldn’t have offered if I really didn’t want to.”

 

“I’ll talk to Henry… better yet, we will. I’m due a video call from him this evening, we could do that from your place?” Mary suggested and Tony grinned, already excited by the prospect. 

 

That decided, they endured the wedding as best they could. Tony danced with Mary, danced with his new stepmother out of sheer politeness, danced with a few other high society maidens, got a number of a few. Had it not been for Mary, he would’ve taken one to bed just to get his mind off the new marriage.

 

That evening, Henry recommended the idea to full-hilt. “Of course, I agree, love.” He insisted, “A Senior Special Agent? Tony? Of course, I agree. In fact, I insist because it’s a bloody brilliant idea. I finish my five month stint here while you’re safe there with family that actually cares about you.”

 

Tony felt something unhinge at that. That trust, so readily given, meant more to him that he could ever voice.

 

Mary smiled, “Then it’s done.” She declared to both men, “I’ll stay in the hotel until Tony can arrange a bed for me.”

 

“Oh, no need.” Tony dismissed her, “You’re taking my room, it’s the one with an ensuite bath.” He told her, “For now, I’ll settle for the couch, come weekend, I’ll fix up the spare room.”

 

Mary frowned, “Tony-”

 

The NCIS agent shook his head, “You’re still having morning sickness, right?” He interrupted, “It’ll be more convenient to have the bathroom close. Don’t worry about it, Mar, I’ve slept in worse places. My couch is actually comfortable.”

 

She didn’t look happy and neither did Henry, judging by his frown. But both of them couldn’t deny the solid logic of his suggestion and conceded reluctantly.

 

Tony didn’t know just how much his life would change then… just how much he would change.

 


 

It went unnoticed for a while.

 

Tony started goofing off less. Gibbs had worried about it for a bit but he realized why and let it go. Tony had stopped dropping by at nights to get his work done. For the lead agent, it was good news. He spent his time in the office finishing everything and he still handed the reports in before McGee and Ziva could manage.

 

He looked healthier some three months after the first time Gibbs noticed that small change. His smiles were softer, somehow, the edge of cunning melting off. He also had slimmed down considerably and Gibbs knew from experience that his SFA lost and gained weight easily. When his suits started hanging off him slightly, he confronted Ducky about it.

 

“He’s just eating healthier and exercising more these days. Sleeps in early too.” Ducky said, “I must admit, I supported it fully when I found out. His weight-loss concerned me at first. One can never be too careful with Tony with regards to his health, after all.”

 

“So he’s not hiding something.” He prodded.

 

Ducky shrugged, “About his health? No, I imagine not. Anything else? Well, I wouldn’t know better than you, Jethro. He does seem a bit altered. More focused, sharper and a tad brisk, if you ask me.”

 

Brisk would be the right word. Tony was still a fount of jokes, one liners and movie trivia that sometimes, inexplicably, solved their cases. But he was cooler, more prone to silently enforce his authority as SFA, not that anyone but Gibbs noticed it.

 

It amused him that Ziva and McGee actually were subconsciously responding to it. Of course, they’d protest, loudly, if Tony enforced the chain of command blatantly but this subtle authority was flying over their head. He didn’t know whether he was proud at Tony for finally getting to it or disappointed that Ziva and McGee were both so ignorant.

 

When he returned to the bullpen, he knew instantly, there was a case. Tony was on the phone and the one in his pocket was ringing.

 

“Case?” He demanded, stepping behind DiNozzo.

 

The younger man glanced at him over the shoulder and smiled that smile that Gibbs was becoming increasingly familiar with. Soft, accepting and mysterious. “Yes boss.” He hung up the phone and gestured towards the plasma, “Lieutenant Riley Stanton, found in a dumpster in Bethesda, first responders say he must’ve been there for over a day. A jogger found the stink suspicious and called it in.”

 

“What do we have on Stanton?”

 

“He was stationed at Guam, was here on leave with his wife and kid. His mother just had major surgery.” McGee informed them, typing quickly to get the last minute information out.

 

Tony was already off his chair, grabbing his backpack and pucking keys from Gibbs hand. “Ziva, call Ducky.” He instructed absently, missing Gibbs’ arched brow and indulgent smile.

 

And apparently, he was responding to Tony’s softened attitude towards him. Shaking his head to dispel that thought, he quickly gave out instructions.

 

It took them thirty minutes to reach Bethesda, which was incredible and a testament of Gibbs’ insane driving. Gibbs immediately went to the first responder, questioning the LEO. “We spoke to the wife already. She demanded NCIS, said that it couldn’t be some random mugging.” Officer Evans seemed like he agreed. “By the looks of the guy? Must’ve taken a lot to bring him down.”

 

“I have to agree boss.” Tony said, crouched by the body, “He put up a serious fight and I think Ducky might be able to pull some biological evidence.” He took some photographs carefully, “And it looks like more than one person… I’m seeing two distinct patterns but Duck will be able to tell to more. I think one is either very small in stature or a woman.”

 

McGee made a small sound of agreement but didn’t add anything so Tony ignored it, frowning over the body, taking photographs.

 

“Once we take out the body, we need to search the trash.” Tony said with a grimace, “And look for needles, there’s foam in his mouth, boss.”

 

“What?” Gibbs leaned forward, bracing a hand on Tony’s back to keep his balance as he peered into the dumpster. “Where-” He paused and finally saw it, a white line between his lips that didn’t seem like foam but it certainly was. “Good eye, DiNozzo.” He murmured, leaning forward to see if there were any visible marks. Tony hastily steadied him because the small step-ladder they had provided was ricketty at best. Gibbs shot him a glance to which Tony only met with a patient gaze before turning back to the body.

 

“Er, boss, do you want me to-”

 

“Touch me and die, McGee.” Gibbs bit out, letting Tony bear his weight. “Yeah, those are small fists. How long for Ducky?” He demanded.

 

“Hold your horses, Jethro, I’m here.” Ducky declared, “Timothy, if you would assist me please.”

 

McGee quickly jumped out of the dumpster and found a small crate that could bear Ducky’s weight. The ME stepped up and looked at the DB. “Ah, such a pity to see such a fine, healthy man in this state.”

 

“Duck, Tony says there’s foam in his mouth and multiple assailants. One of them, at least, might be a woman.” Gibbs informed curtly, carefully stepping down. DiNozzo stayed and helped Palmer remove the body carefully.

 

Once they had laid out the body, Ducky hummed, “I concur, Jethro, most astute observation, Tony.” He said, “That is foam. I advise you conduct the search carefully, if there's an injection, it might be in the bin. I wouldn’t have any of you being pricked by it.” The advice was unnecessary, they were always careful when they searched trash, always in protective gear.

 

“I can’t conclude anything now,” Ducky informed before Gibbs could ask, “I’ll let you know soon.” Gibbs nodded and the ME and his staff took the body away. Ziva was interviewing the jogger who had reported it in while Tony and McGee navigated the trash.

 

“Wallet.” Tony announced, bagging it before handing it to Gibbs. “It’s the Lieutenant’s, cash and cards still inside. That, along with his Tag, I’d say it wasn’t a mugging.” Gibbs had seen the expensive watch too. Too much effort had gone into subduing the guy for it to be just mugging. And usually, guys like the Lieutenant weren’t targeted by muggers, even a fool could see he wouldn’t be easy to take out at first glance.

 

Once the trash was bagged and organized, Tony and McGee jumped out of the dumpster, Tony quickly removing his protective gear. “No injections, boss.”

 

“Ziva?”

 

“Wife says that he had gone to meet up with a few friends, I’ve got a list and will contact them soon.” She replied, “She also insisted that I speak to Commander Aaron Wilder, his C.O.”

 

“Wilder?” Tony asked in surprise, “Wait, hold on, Wilder’s in DC?”

 

“You know him?” Gibbs asked, narrowing his eyes at him.

 

“Yeah,” Tony frowned, “I used to date him, way back when. We still keep in tou- what?” He asked at McGee and Ziva’s wide eyed expression.

 

“Date him?” McGee squeaked.

 

Gibbs scowled at him before turning his attention back to Tony, “Call him, ask him why Stanton’s wife pointed to him.” Tony nodded, already reaching for his phone.

 

“McGee, David!” He snapped, “Stop gawking and start working. McGee, I want background, Ziva, call the people who met up with. Once that’s done, do door to door and ask if anyone saw or heard anything. Meet us back in HQ. DiNozzo, with me.”

 

“On your six, boss.” Tony called out, following him as he tucked his cell at his ear. “Hey, Aaron,” He greeted, slipping into the car and hurriedly pulling on the seat belt, “Yeah, no time for pleasantries, bud. You have Riley Stanton in your unit?”

 

Yeah, well, he will be. I’m heading intel here and he’s gonna be on my team. Why? He’s in trouble?

 

“Unfortunately.” He replied, “You’re gonna have to find a replacement. His wife was pretty adamant I needed to talk to you, though.”

 

“Wait, Stanton’s dead?” Aaron demanded, “You fuckin’ with me, T?

 

“Are you nuts? Why would I? We just caught the case and it definitely looks suspicious.” Tony replied in a snap. It was always like this with Wilder, angry, hot and intensely passionate. “Either you’re coming to me or I’m coming to you, cause something tells me, Aaron, that this is major.”

 

He missed Gibbs frowning glance, focused on the conversation.

 

Hell yeah, it’s major. It was difficult enough to get the man here, T! He did some very important intelligence work. His mother’s surgery was just pretense, he was here to brief SecNav at the Pentagon. Fuck.” Wilder cursed while Tony’s eyes widened, “Look, I’m making some calls and then I’m there. Let your prissy-ass Director know.

 

Tony snorted but agreed. “Ok. Better have everything, my boss’ already impatient for answers.”

 

I’ll see what I can do.” Wilder assured and Tony hung up, scowling.

 

Before Gibbs could ask, Tony spoke, “Stanton was recently transferred, apparently, he had some intel and was gonna brief SecNav. He’s gonna make some calls before reading us in. We need to tell Vance.” Gibbs silently gestured him to make the call and Tony grimaced. “Really, boss?”

 

“Get to it, DiNozzo. I don’t care if you’d like to see him burn in hell, do your job!” The lead agent snapped.

 

Tony grinned, letting the bad temper go unnoticed. Keeping his voice soft, he called Vance, in short sentences, filled him in and hung up as soon as he was done. He never liked dealing with Vance but better him than an irritable Gibbs any day. 

 

“Is Wilder gonna be a problem?” Gibbs asked and Tony chuckled and shook his head.

 

“He’s a great guy, boss. Was a SEAL and is intensely protective of all his friends.” He commented with a slightly nostalgic smile.

 

“Including you?” Gibbs asked with an arched brow as he took a turn into DC.

 

Tony smirked, “Oh yeah, you’ll see for yourself, I guess.” He admitted, “It might be amusing because he’s kinda territorial sometimes and you won’t like that.”

 

Gibbs slid him a glance, “Why would I care, DiNozzo?” He asked dryly only to get that same damn smile again. Soft, indulgent and accepting. “As long as he doesn’t screw with our case, he can do whatever he wants.”

 

“As you say, boss.” Tony replied, amused before looking out the window, judging they had around fifteen minutes to reach HQ.

 

Gibbs glanced at his SFA after a couple of minutes, frowning at the silence. This was another thing that was constantly bugging him. Tony was quieter and he wasn’t sure he liked it. Not to say Tony wasn’t capable of being quiet when required but Gibbs liked it when he talked.

 

He had a talent of teasing out long, interesting conversations with Gibbs and most of the time, it wasn’t even related to work. The lead agent could admit to himself that he liked those conversations, liked those late evenings with steak and beer and nothing but simple friendship.

 

He also knew that he’d never be able to start those conversations. If Tony fell silent, what else was there?

 

“Something on your mind, DiNozzo?” He prompted finally, unable to bear it.

 

Tony glanced at him, arching a brow in question, “Other than the case? Nothing.”

 

Gibbs pursed his lips. Tony was gonna be difficult about this. “Something’s been off lately. Wanna tell me what’s going on?” He demanded lowly, sliding a glare at the younger man.

 

Tony turned his attention to him fully, “Boss, nothing’s wrong.” He assured. “I don’t know what gave you that impression.”

 

Gibbs was silent until the next red light came on before turning to look at DiNozzo, his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Since when do I need to force conversations outta you, Tony?” He asked seriously, “How long since you goofed off or played a prank?” Tony’s frown was puzzled and that’s when Gibbs realized that his SFA hadn’t even noticed these changes in himself. The younger man glanced at away, contemplative but Gibbs felt something ease within him. Tony offered no explanation and didn’t speak, further enforcing the fact that his SFA had changed somewhat but Gibbs decided not to let it bother him.

 

When they reached HQ, Gibbs went straight to autopsy while DiNozzo headed for Abby’s lab. The case attracted the former Marine’s complete attention so there was no time to spare for Tony. Ducky's report contained no surprises. Someone had gotten creative with the poison and taken snake venom, they just hadn't yet identified which type of snake and perhaps where they got it from. That puzzle kept all of them engaged and the situation with Tony just slipped out of his mind.

 

But his SFA was against brought back to sharp focus when Commander Wilder stepped into the bullpen about an hour and a half after their return to HQ. With no thoughts of formality, Wilder stalked over to Tony and pulled him off his seat like his solid six-feet two, well-built body was no obstacle at all. Tony only laughed when he was tugged forward in a rough embrace, “Aaron, you bastard. Good to see you.”

 

“Looking gorgeous as always, T-man.” Wilder smirked and Gibbs felt his jaw-clench at the frank appreciation in his gaze as it traveled over Tony’s frame. “But come, we’ve a fucked up situation, bud.”

 

“In that case,” Gibbs felt a sliver of satisfaction when Tony stepped away from the man, “Aaron, this is my boss, Special Agent in Charge of MCRT Gibbs, that Junior Special Agent McGee and that Probationary Agent David.” He introduced, “Guys, this is Commander Aaron Wilder.”

 

After they all had shaken hands, Wilder assumed a formal pose. “Agent Gibbs, only you and Tony have the clearance for this so I’m afraid rest of your team is need-to-know only.”

 

Gibbs nodded in acceptance, watching as Wilder passed a file to Tony. Because of his undercover work and the tendency of the Directors to give Tony on loan to other agencies, he had a high security clearance. Gibbs even suspected it was above his own though his SFA never came out and admitted it.

 

Tony’s brows arched and a grim look settled on his face, “Boss, we better take this to MTac and get Vance.” He murmured.

 

Gibbs nodded and led the way, strictly forcing his attention away from the way Wilder’s hand settled on Tony’s back, too possessive for his liking. The muscle in his jaw flexed when the Commander dipped his head and said something to Tony, a serious look on his face.

 

Tony scowled at him but didn’t comment.

 

Director Vance was waiting for them in MTac, “Ok, what’s going on?”

 

“Stanton was the handler of a deep-cover agent.” Tony said as he read the file, “The agent sent a request for extraction, his mission was successful. We have virtually no information aside from the agent’s name. Stanton was the only one who knew what the extraction details. Obviously, this puts our boy in danger and spins another angle for Stanton’s murder.”

 

Gibbs narrowed his eyes while Vance hissed out a low curse. “We have nothing?” He demanded.

 

Wilder stepped forward, “Nothing, sir. For security reasons, Stanton was the only one to know where our agent is. Of course, as a back up, he had encrypted files containing communications between the two ready, just in case. We’ve already got Stanton’s laptop. I’ll need NCIS to liaise with us on this. The information is highly classified and since Tony has deep-cover experience, he’d be best to go through the information.” He glanced at Tony who nodded, “And he’ll pass on information that’d be important for catching Stanton’s killer.”

 

Gibbs stiffened in protest. The assignment would put DiNozzo in considerable risk. If someone wanted that information buried, they might get to DiNozzo to keep it that way. “Don’t you have people in your department for this? Why am I putting my agent on the line?”

 

Liaise, Agent Gibbs,” Wilder met his gaze squarely and those were strong eyes. This was not the man who backed down from anyone, not even Gibbs. “Both investigations might be linked or might not be linked at all. You’re telling me you’ve someone better than Tony who can see both sides of the picture and work both angles?” His smirk was sardonic, “Or will your infamous gut lead us to our boy behind the lines, Gunny?”

 

Tony’s slid a cutting glare at his friend, “Mind yourself, Aaron.” He warned, his voice low. Gibbs didn’t think that reprimand was meant to fall on his ears, but it did.

 

Before Gibbs could say anything, Vance intervened, “Alright Commander. DiNozzo, you analyze the information, see what we can get from it. Your priority is getting the agent out. Living over the dead.” Even Gibbs didn’t disagree with that.

 

Tony looked at his watch, “Alright, Aaron, would you wait until I get some preliminary reports from our forensic expert and ME? And perhaps a background from my teammates.”

 

Aaron nodded, “Get to it, T. We’ll grab lunch on our way out.” They walked out of MTac but before they could go down to the bullpen, Gibbs touched Tony’s elbow and gestured sharply towards a conference room.

 

Tony dipped his head in acknowledgement, “Hey, why don’t you go on ahead, buddy.” He nudged Aaron forward, “I need to have a word with the boss.”

 

Aaron accepted  the suggestion and went down the stairs while Gibbs and Tony slipped inside the room. “I thought you said he wasn’t gonna be any trouble.” Gibbs snapped, narrowing his eyes, “First thing he does is pull you into a risky op.”

 

Tony sighed, “I gotta say, boss, I agree with him. Who would you send instead? McGee? Ziva would’ve worked but she doesn’t have enough clearance and no way they’re gonna let any foreign asset touch this situation. Our only other option is you going in but we both know that doesn’t sit well with the babies.”

 

“What the hell does that mean?” Gibbs demanded, scowling at Tony.

 

The younger man winced but recovered quickly, “Boss,” his voice was soft, coaxing, “They work better for you than they’d ever be able to for me.” He said without any bitterness. “You know this arrangement is better.”

 

Gibbs reached out and grabbed the back of his neck, looking at his SFA sternly, “They need to learn sometime, DiNozzo. Eventually, this team’s gonna be yours.”

 

Tony didn’t argue, “But now’s not the time to experiment with that.” He said as he carefully stepped away. Gibbs felt an unexpected pang at the withdrawal. Since when did Tony step away from his touch and not lean into it? “Let’s not keep Wilder waiting, huh?”

 

Gibbs watched Tony walk away, feeling bereft.

 

Gritting his teeth, he walked out of the room, soundly putting the situation at the back of his mind. He needed to focus on the case.

 


 

“Hey, Tony, how was your day?” Mary asked as he stepped into the apartment. Despite his tiredness, Tony felt a smile crawling onto his lips. There was something to be said about having someone to come home to.

 

Mary makes for a pretty little picture in her maternity frock, reading a book. Her smile had the secretive radiance of a well-loved woman and Tony just knew Henry had called. The smell of basil, Parmesan and bread permeated the house and he smiled, ruffling her hair affectionately. “As well as I can expect, lil’ sis.” He replied. “Caught a tough case.”

 

He discarded his coat and tossed it over the chair, drawing a noise of protest from Mary, “Tony! Don’t mistreat Zegna!” She scolded, scowling at him. “Jesus, why do you buy such pretty clothes and wear it to work?”

 

Tony chuckled as he fetched a beer and went about making some tea for her. “Where else would I wear it, kiddo?” He asked, “I take it Henry called. Doing well?”

 

“Yes,” She nodded, “They assigned him a few recruits so he’s busy removing the blinding shine of newness off of them.” She quoted in amusement, “He was sorry to have missed you, though.”

 

“Me too.” He and Henry got along unexpectedly well. He glanced at the calendar pinned on the fridge, “We’re going to the doctor tomorrow, the appointment’s just before lunch.” He informed her, “How about we have a small break at my favorite Italian place after that? They have the best Tiramisu.”

 

“Tony, if it interferes with your work, I’d rather you don’t come with me.” Mary said seriously, “I can go alone.”

 

“Taking two hours away isn’t gonna harm me, Mar.” He assured her, “And I’m, working with Aaron not Gibbs right now so I might even get away with it without a head-slap.” He grinned.

 

Mary pursed her lips disapprovingly. She didn’t like him casually accepting his boss’ physical reprimands.

 

“Don’t make that face,” He said gently, “Regardless of what you think, he never does it without cause and never without affection.” He said plainly. He leaned forward and tapped her cheek with a smile, “He’s an old-school kinda guy.” he placed her tea before her and sat down, sipping his beer. “How was your day?”

 

She shrugged, “Mum called.” She replied, “They’ve decided to permanently settle in Manchester.” Mary looked at him intently, “Something tells me that doesn’t bother you.”

 

Tony leaned back, “Yeah? Good guess.” He admitted, “There’s nothing there, Mar.” He teased the logo of the bottle, trying to gather his thoughts. Mary and him had established a beautiful, honest rapport, confessing things to each other that they’d never be able to confess to others.

 

He took a deep breath and continued, “The things he did… the things he said to me… he may have forgotten it, Mar but I didn’t. I doubt everything now, every kind gesture, every sliver of affection and it all leads back to him.” He admitted, running a hand roughly through his hair. “It’s frustrating. I’m a grown man. I made myself who I am. At times, some advice, some security would’ve made things so much easier.” He closed his eyes, hunching. “But I managed. I get furious when I realize I’m still not free of him. After so long, after going through so much, I still am hindered by my childhood.” He shook his head, “What use is he now? I can’t believe a word he says. Might never be able to.”

 

Mary nodded, understanding but not advising.

 

“Mum wants me to go back to England.” She admitted, “She insists she’d be better able to support me.” Mary sneered, “I told her that she should be able to enjoy her new marriage without me burdening her.”

 

Tony chuckled, “You don’t wanna go, admit it.”

 

“I don’t. She doesn’t approve of Henry and I don’t approve of her opinion. I politely told her to put a sock in it.” Mary said bluntly, “Though I was tempted to just say piss off, you tart.” Tony choked on his beer before chuckling. “And then your dad, the wanker, advises me that you’re a very private person with a very busy job. Saying in no small words that I’m bothering you.”

 

Tony scoffed.

 

“You know, this is kinda fun, even if it’s juvenile.” Mary confessed with a grin, “Whinging about our parents over alcohol and tea like fuckin’ twenties something jobless uni grads.”

 

Tony laughed in agreement, touching the neck of his bottle to her tea-cup in a mock cheers. With mutual agreement, they moved onto a different, lighter topic before Tony went to take a shower and get out of his day clothes.

 

After dinner, they both settled down to watch Alien because Mary loved the Alien/Predator movies. In fact, she had a rather disturbing fascination with the Predators.

 

“They’re ugly.” Tony said bluntly, after watching Alien vs. Predator at nearly 10 P.M. “He has mandibles. I’m gonna have nightmares about his ugliness.”

 

“Hey, don’t diss Scar!” She protested, “I wish he hadn’t died.”

 

“Scar?” Tony asked, watching the final scene, “That elder dude is even more ugly.” He shuddered at the chest-bursting scene, pushing his pop-corn away in disgust. He could feel his throat closing in reaction to the mere thought of how the chestburster got there.

 

Face-rape.

 

“Brr.” He shivered, “That’s nasty.”

 

“Weakling.” Mary sneered.

 

He scowled at her, “Should you be watching this while you’re pregnant?” He asked, “What if the baby gets scared or something? You know, in some cultures, they say that a pregnant woman watches someone for a long time, her baby turns out like it. So, what if your kid turns out ugly like that Scar-dude, huh?”

 

She laughed, not even knowing how he got to that. “First of all, my baby won’t get scared. Secondly, a ninety minute movie isn’t a long time. And if there’s any truth to that myth, it’d mean that my kid would turn out looking like you.” She pointed out, “Now, I’d say my kid would be lucky but you wouldn’t be so fortunate because Henry would kill you.”

 

Mary smirked when he scoffed before leaning down and kissing his cheek, “I’m off to bed. Goodnight.”

 

Tony smiled and switched off the T.V as she left. Out of habit, he cleaned up, picking up the DVDs and placing them on the shelf. He wiped down the kitchen counters after quickly washing and drying the dishes. Once he was done, he discarded the two beer bottles that he had drunk. One of his pet-peeves was to find his apartment disordered the moment he woke up in the morning.

 

Shaking his head, he headed towards his small closet turned wine-storage space and picked out a lovely Barolo. Pouring himself a glass, he walked over to his piano. Mary didn’t mind his late evening indulgence in music, whether it was guitar or piano but he tended to play his Baby-Grand more often.

 

Closing his eyes, he found the middle C, sighing at the perfectly in-tune response. He lingered for a moment, searching his mind about what he wanted to play.

 

With a smile, he decided to try and play a piece he had come across a few months ago but couldn’t find sheet-music for. He had painstakingly pieced it together by playing by the ear and watching the videos of the original pianist playing.

 

Taking a deep breath, he started off. Searchin

 

The first mellow tones flowed off his fingers smoothly and soon he was immersed in music, his eyes closed and his body swaying. The tune was melodious and hopeful, gently uplifting in the beginning. Soon chords came in, giving the music a bit of an edge, adding a serious but modern color to it. It built up and up, echoing throughout the apartment grandly and Tony was in a high place with nothing inside his head but the music. Even the few slight missteps he made didn’t distract him and corrected almost automatically as the music went on.

 

Music was his meditation, the one thing in this world that wasn’t associated with bitterness or failure. It was a clean slate. It didn’t remind him of his parents, Military school, his days as a professional athlete or his failure as one.

 

Instead, it reminded him of the days he used to sneak off into his friend’s house, listening to his mother play. It reminded him of electric concerts. Of Freddie Mercury’s commanding presence, Axl Rose's energy, Kurt Cobain’s tragedy and Rolling Stones. Of evenings spent in grand halls listening to anything from Schumann to Ravel, from Beethoven to Bach. Of Hans Zimmer, John Williams and Howard Shore.

 

He smiled, of Moon River, and Favorite Things. Of Sway and Ain't that a Kick in the Head.

 

Slowly, the music tickled to a stop and he was almost mournful, smiling sadly down at the piano. Taking a sip of his wine and browsed through his collection of sheet music, finding his copy of Searchin’ and editing a few notes, playing certain passages again.

 

He spent nearly forty minutes just playing different tunes, piano versions of his favorite songs and ended it with the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight, knowing that Mary loved the piece and would be pleased to hear it if she was still awake. By the time he was satisfied, he had finished two glasses of wine and his shoulders felt unburdened. Running a loving hand down the keys, he parted with his piano and went to his room. He planned to go early tomorrow so he’d have time to take Mary to the doctor. 

 


 

Gibbs felt uneasy, distracted and edgy in a way that pissed him off. He knew it wasn’t because of the case. DiNozzo had spent two days with the encrypted data and delivered perfect results. He had carefully teased apart the details and the hidden clues, established a timeline and tracked the movements of their operative behind enemy borders. It took them another day to establish contact with the man and soon, a SEAL team was dispatched from Diego Garcia to retrieve their asset.

 

With that out of the way, his SFA was back in their midst, working to get Stanton’s killer.

 

Only this time, it seemed like Tony was even more distant. Something was going on, something had changed but Gibbs had no clue as to what it was. DiNozzo was at his peak of efficiency. Ziva and McGee were responding to it without even knowing. The warm, playful atmosphere was slowly being replaced by professional sharpness that even Vance had acknowledged and appreciated.

 

Gibbs didn’t have any excuse to touch Tony. He had no excuse to pull the emergency stop button on the elevator. Whenever he even so much as glanced at his SFA questioningly, the younger man smiled that same, enigmatic, infuriating smile and brushed it off.

 

The problem was? No one else noticed it. Abby still got teasing grins, blatant flirting and hidden protectiveness and she was content with that. Ducky still got affectionate respect and he was happy for it. McGee and Ziva were subtly pushed and prodded to perform their best, to think outside the box with varying degrees of success.

 

So was it just him?

 

But no… it wasn’t him. It was Tony.

 

With a muffled curse, he tossed his sander away and swept out of his basement. He didn’t even think, frustration making him angry as he snatched his coat from the hanger and headed for his car. This late in the evening, with traffic in reverse direction, he travelled from Alexandria to Adams Morgan in around twenty-five minutes.

 

His furious march from his home to Tony’s came to an abrupt halt when he entered DiNozzo’s apartment to find a stranger sitting on his couch.

 

She started when he slammed the door close and looked up with wide eyes before scrambling to her feet, her hands curling protectively over her middle. “Bloody hell,” She hissed, grabbing a popcorn bowl as it would defend her from him, “Who are you?” She demanded.

 

Gibbs mastered himself forcefully, raising both his hands, unintentionally showing her the keys. “Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, DiNozzo’s boss.” He announced calmly, “Easy there, miss-” he glanced at the wedding band on her finger and felt his blood turn to ice, “I’m not gonna hurt you.”

 

She observed him for a moment before cautiously lowering the bowl. “Tony’s out for an errand.”

 

Gibbs swallowed, all his fury and frustration draining away, leaving him feeling gutted.

 

She was dressed in her night clothes, looking at home. A glance picked out many things that proved her to be long-time resident. A feminine umbrella, several pairs of women's shoes on the rack, two different coats.

 

She was beautiful. Her hair brown, stark against her skin. Her eyes were hazel, focused and she possessed a fresh radiance that made it difficult for him to breath around the tightness of his throat.

 

“He’ll be back soon.” She said, discomforted by his silence, “Please, have a seat,” She gestured at the couch, “Would you like something to drink? Tea?” She asked with a tentative smile, “Or coffee… Tony said you preferred coffee.”

 

To be greeted as a guest in Tony’s home brought him out of his stupor sharply and he shook his head, “No, no… miss?”

 

“Call me Mary,” She replied, “And I insist. I’m sorry, I didn’t know Tony had given you the keys…”

 

“No, it’s alright.” He backed away, tossing his keys into a bowl by the door, “It’ll keep till tomorrow.” Before she could say a word in edgewise, he fled, not stopping until he was in his car and crossing the Potomac into Virginia. He slowed down when the desperation drained away, leaving him hollow. In a sort of distracted haze, he parked his car and leaned back in his seat, rubbing his face.

 

Hell.

 

For a long moment his thoughts were silent but a sense of loss clung to his throat like acid.

 

Didn’t it make so much sense now? The new seriousness, the distance, the more responsible behavior? Of course DiNozzo wouldn’t crave attention now, wouldn’t make himself the butt of all jokes now. He had someone in his life who loved him enough to marry him… he had a child on the way.

 

Even as he struggled to comprehend that, denials scrambled for attention. When did he get married? Why didn’t he tell them? His personal file wasn’t altered… was it? Had Gibbs even bothered to check? His medical proxy must’ve changed? Ducky must’ve known. But Ducky would’ve told him…

 

Did he deserve to know? 

 

With slow, deliberate movements, he restarted his car and headed home, trying to keep his head above the water. This was a mess of his own making. Nothing had been right between DiNozzo and him, DiNozzo and the team. They had been taking Tony for granted so something had to give right?

 

And this was the most blatant proof of the wall Tony had placed between them.

 

Gibbs somehow managed to get himself back to his basement but the boat gave him no solace. He just sat by it, his shoulders hunched and head in his hands.

 

He remembered all those times when Tony had carefully stepped away from him. Times when he seemed to just sense Gibbs’ presence at his back and acknowledged it rather than letting Gibbs surprise him. He stopped coming to Gibbs house as often as he wished.

 

In fact, those visits had stopped entirely.

 

“God damn it.” He cursed, understanding those smiles now. Those gentle, infuriating but resigned smiles.

 

That was DiNozzo throwing the towel. That was Tony taking another silent, persistent rejection and gracefully bowing out.

 

And didn’t it sting? The one person who had always had his six, who seemed to take all this cruelty, all his aloofness and bear it without flinching was now backing off.

 

It hurt.

 

Gibbs covered his eyes in dismay, feeling dread coiling in his gut. It had been a big, horrifying mistake. The regret was fierce and merciless when it attacked him, bringing all those ill-conceived little rejections to fore.

 

In short, abrupt movements, he poured himself a tumbler of Bourbon and drank it down in one toss before refilling. He didn’t think, drowning himself in alcohol.

 

Life had given him too many second chances with DiNozzo, he knew it. Right from the start, with the younger man going missing during a case, to the Chris Paci case and then the plague, the car-bomb and God knows how many other times. He had been so selfish about it, keeping DiNozzo tethered to him. Rejoicing that there was someone who loved and respected him so much and he gave nothing but pittance in return.

 

He deserved this.

 

“Aww hell,” A low voice murmured, gentle fingers running through his hair and coaxing him awake, “Come on, boss, easy does it.”

 

“T’ny.” Gibbs whispered in greeting, “Why’r ya here?” And when had he passed out? He could see sunlight from the small window in his basement stabbing him in the eye.  

 

“It’s ten in the morning.” Tony replied, helping him sit up, rubbing his back, “We called, you didn’t answer.”

 

Gibbs winced, rubbing his face and feeling pathetic. He selfishly sat there for a long moment, leaning against his SFA, taking in his presence and his solid strength.

 

Suddenly, he felt old.

 

Stiffly, he pulled away from Tony and managed to get to his feet. Staunchly ignoring the careful hand on his back, he walked up the stairs and into his room, closing the door soundly behind him.

 

Gibbs didn’t know how long he stood under the shower, trying the wash the odd, disconnected feeling away but he just couldn’t. Painfully, he gathered his composure and finished bathing, drying up and dressing quickly before heading back downstairs. Somehow, it didn’t surprise him that Tony was still there, even though after last night, it should. The younger man said nothing, handing him a tall glass of grape juice and a bowl of fresh fruits. “No coffee for now.” He said softly and Gibbs wasn’t in any mood to argue.

 

Wordlessly, he drank the juice and ate the small breakfast. After his stomach had settled a bit and he was looking less peaked, Tony handed him some toast along with Tylenol for his headache.

 

“I called in sick-leave for you.” DiNozzo said softly and before Gibbs could open his mouth to argue, Tony shook his head, “McGee and Ziva are working on the case. I’ll join them soon. You need to sleep this off.”

 

“I need to get back to work,” Gibbs snapped, “and so do you, I don’t need a nursemaid, DiNozzo.”

 

“Boss...”

 

“I didn’t ask for your advice or help.” He growled out and took the medicine before standing, “I’m not sitting at home and lazing about when we have an open case.”

 

He reached for his keys but Tony snatched them, arching a brow when Gibbs spun around to glare at him. “You’re not driving.” He said bluntly as he pocketed the keys, “Either you let me drive or I’m calling Ducky to place you on mandatory medical leave.”

 

Gibbs gritted his teeth before nodding curtly. Tony’s sigh almost made him flinch.

 

“I heard you dropped by yesterday.” Tony broached, taking a left and heading north towards DC. “Gave Mary a scare.”

 

Gibbs ruthlessly suppressed a sarcastic response and nodded shortly. “Didn’t know you had company, DiNozzo and I wasn’t in the mood for strangers.”

 

Tony nodded, “I thought so when you just left instead of staying. That’s why I didn’t call you either but I guess that was a mistake.” He replied, almost to himself. “You could’ve called, boss.”

 

“And you could’ve told me you had a pregnant woman in your house.” He controlled his temper with a firm hand.

 

Tony chuckled, “Yeah, I bet that surprised you.” He commented, a fond smile on his lips, “You should’ve seen my neighbor, Mrs. Poole’s reaction. She thought I had seduced her couldn’t even give her the dignity of a proper wedding.” He said in amusement, unaware of Gibbs’ tightening expression. “I had to sit through an hour-long lecture before Mary finally put me out of my misery. Even then, it took at least half as long to convince her that Mar was my sister.”

 

Gibbs forcefully reeled back his own instinctive reaction, viciously biting his tongue before speaking an a controlled voice, “Sister?” The relief was almost debilitating.

 

“Yeah, well, stepsister but neither of us care.” Tony admitted casually, unaware of the havoc he was causing. “Her husband’s SAS in the middle of a tour. We kinda connected well and since Henry was so worried about her living alone, I offered my place and company.” He grinned, “Working out well for us.”

 

Gibbs felt foolish. He was grossly misjudged the situation, drunk himself to a stupor and he couldn’t even keep his pathetic break-down to himself. The sheer embarrassment was like a rush of hot lava in his veins but it also felt liberating. It broke through the strange, distorted haze that had come over his mind and finally he was able to master himself, push back his anger completely.

 

“Didn’t scare her too badly, did I?” Gibbs asked, feeling vaguely guilty for just up and leaving her like that.

 

Tony chuckled, “Nah, she just ranted at me about your rudeness but I just think she was embarrassed. She was very curious about you, always pressing me to introduce her to you guys.”

 

Gibbs slid him a glance, “Why didn’t you?”

 

His SFA paused, considering the answer before shrugging, “Didn’t want to.” He admitted frankly, “Finally learned to keep my personal and professional life separate, I guess.”

 

And suddenly, that feeling was back. The unease and dread that he was gonna lose Tony. Just because Tony wasn’t married, didn’t mean that the problems had disappeared, it didn’t mean that Tony wasn’t still distancing himself from them.

 

But he was at a loss about how to deal with it.

 

They arrived at HQ in about half an hour but by then the strange new silence had already fallen over them. Tony seemed completely at ease over it while Gibbs was feeling off-centered.

 

It was a role-reversal.

 

McGee and Ziva looked at him questioningly when he arrived at the bullpen, DiNozzo taking a step back to follow behind him. “You ok, boss?” McGee asked, looking at him in concern.

 

Gibbs scowled in response, “What do you have, McGee?”

 

“Didn’t Tony tell you, boss?” McGee asked, glancing over his shoulder at the SFA, “We have a suspect in custody, Tony kept him in interrogation.” Their IT expert explained how he had discovered a small detail, an extra charge on Stanton’s credit card that stood out. Tony and McGee had gone out early morning and stalked their suspect only to find him foolishly revisiting the scene of the crime. They arrested the man and brought him back to HQ.

 

Gibbs glared at Tony, gesturing sharply for him to follow. “Why didn’t you tell me?” He demanded as they walked toward interrogation swiftly, “You should’ve explained the entire situation to me the instant you could.”

 

“Before you got your head on straight? No way, boss.” Tony replied, observing him from the corner of his eyes. “Something was bothering you. That’s why you came to my house last night, right?” He asked, looking concerned. “And you really should’ve stayed. Mar sleeps early and has a white-noise machine in her room.”

 

Gibbs waved his hand dismissively, pointing towards the observation room as he slipped into interrogation.

 

He focused on their suspect, getting some satisfaction from his battered state. “Roughed up pretty nicely there.” He commented and sat down, “Robert Swanson.” He read from the file, “Wanna tell me why you were sniffing around our crime-scene?” He asked.

 

Swanson shrugged, “It’s a free country.” He replied, leaning back causally. “And I want a lawyer.”

 

Ahh, no wonder Tony wanted his head on straight.

 

He nodded to the camera, “Well, that’s your choice.” He walked towards the door, appearing like he had mistakenly left it slightly open. “DiNozzo,” he said in a casual voice, “Did McGee bring Lauren McMillan in yet?”

 

Tony got the cue instantly, “Yeah. Enroute.” He replied, glancing at his watch, “About five or so minutes, given McGeek’s driving. So he lawyered up, huh? He realizes that’s this is a Navy matter and the rules are different?” He asked and Gibbs smirked at the sly rejoinder.

 

“What he doesn’t know only benefits us, DiNozzo.” He murmured, “Now, get to it.”

 

Gibbs didn’t go back into the interrogation room, letting the man stew while McGee tried to find the whereabouts of Lauren McMillan. As they walked out towards the bullpen, DiNozzo produced a bottle of Gatorade, narrowing his eyes pointedly when Gibbs scoffed.

 

“Don’t make me call Ducky, boss.” He warned.

 

Gibbs wanted to be irritated but the fact that Tony was openly showing his concern seemed like a blessing to him. “You better get me coffee sometime soon.”

 

Tony nodded, “After you’ve some liquid in you.” He replied, “You know the drill.” He walked over his desk and sat down, quickly engaging himself in work. Gibbs’ head was pounding and this thing with Tony just wouldn’t leave his mind.

 

He needed to resolve it, one way or another.

 

He successfully managed to push the situation in the back of his mind and commanded McGee to speed up on McMillan. He was tracking her credit-card, her bank accounts, her cellphone records but nothing was popping up and Gibbs was getting increasingly frustrated. His headache was worse and his eyes felt dry and and rough like someone had poured sand on them. Every noise felt amplified and McGee’s typing and the frequent phone-rings were a nightmare.

 

He nearly flinched when a gentle, careful hand cupped the back of his head and the smell of coffee invaded his senses. “You should really cut down on coffee a bit, boss.” Tony sounded very worried, “And perhaps the Bourbon too.”

 

Gibbs looked up to snap at him but Tony’s pinched, concerned expression halted his tongue. Green eyes were studying him intently and a tall body was blocking him from everyone’s prying eyes just to give him a semblance of privacy.

 

As solicitous as ever.

 

He nodded curtly in thanks and mourned the loss of warmth from DiNozzo’s hand as his SFA moved away.

 

“We have motive.” He kept his voice low, “Stanton’s inheriting about five mil from Rudyard Stanton, his uncle. Lauren McMillan’s his cousin, daughter of Rudyard’s sister. She isn’t getting anything so she thought if Stanton’s outta the way, the uncle will leave her the money.”

 

Gibbs grimaced, people killing and getting killed over something like money always pissed him off. “And how does Swanson figure into this? Lover?” He asked.

 

Tony looked over his shoulder at McGee, raising a brow in question. “More like hired gun, I guess. There’s no prior evidence of contact between the two, boss.” McGee said.

 

“I might have some evidence to support the hired gun theory.” Tony said, “They have two cold cases in MPD with suspects matching Swanson’s descriptions. I spoke to Judge Homura about a warrant for Swanson’s apartment and prints just now.” At Gibbs questioning look, he nodded. “Granted.” He turned to McGee once again, “McGee, Ziva get the warrant and go over to Swanson’s apartment, see if you can find anything related to McMillan there. I’m gonna look into the files MPD sent over.”

 

Gibbs narrowed his eyes sharply when McGee and Ziva went to protect, “Get to it.” He snapped. He knew exactly why DiNozzo hadn’t gone himself. Tony wanted to keep an eye on him and at that moment, Gibbs was far from denying his SFA anything.

 

The small amount of coffee that DiNozzo had allowed him eased his headache somewhat. He spotted something white on his table and turned to see a set of earplugs. Sliding an amused look in Tony’s direction, he placed them in his ears, sighing when the ambient noise of the office dimmed. He was halfway through reading Tony’s report on his work with Navy Intel on the deep-cover agent when his SFA caught his attention. He removed his earplugs. “Swanson broke. Masters called for you.”

 

Gibbs nodded and headed towards interrogation. As they suspected, letting him stew turned out to be the best course of action. He openly admitted to assaulting Stanton but not killing him. He even told Gibbs everything about how McMillan had contacted him and offered him money.

 

Since Tony had confirmation of the warrant from the Judge, they took the prints as well as DNA sample. If he matched the cold cases in MDP, he’d go in for two homicides as well. In the grand scheme of things, it was a relatively smooth sailing case. Stanton’s killer had been identified, Tony’s keen eye of detail saved the life of a SEAL and the man’s work didn’t go to waste.

 

Gibbs wasn’t so sure why he still felt unsettled. It could be a great combination of things. His binging on alcohol for one, Tony for another or the fact that the killer was still out there.

 

But it didn’t feel like it was about the case. There was this phantom clock ticking at the back of his mind and it had been there for months now.

 

He was certain something was coming, he just didn’t know what.

 


 

Tony didn’t proclaim to have the Gut that his boss relied so much upon, but he knew something was up.

 

When Gibbs hadn’t showed up to work before them, Tony had been worried. Mary had said that Gibbs looked rattled, nearly fleeing his apartment without a word.

 

Finding Gibbs on his back, on the cold basement floor had nearly stopped his heart. For a few, long moments, Tony couldn’t make himself move. Stunned because he hadn’t anticipated this. He hadn’t left the HQ thinking that he’d find his boss on the floor, not moving. It took sometime for the roaring in his ears to subside and see that his boss was still breathing.

 

The stench of alcohol told him the rest as he gently woke the older man up, weak with relief.

 

The car ride to HQ had been weird too, Gibbs looked shaky and somewhat pale. Tony was seriously thinking of dragging his boss to Ducky, hoping Gibbs’ oldest friend would get the problem out of him but forcing him didn't seem like a good idea.

 

So he spent the entire morning carefully monitoring the older man, watching helplessly as all the headache and frustration visibly soured his mood. It took a mental argument to get Gibbs coffee but he knew his boss’ coffee addiction was only adding to his headache.

 

Of course, coffee helped, interrogating the suspect also placed Gibbs in a better mood. Still, Tony knew he wasn’t at hundred percent. So he was actually thankful that when they were required to go out on the field again, Gibbs was called into an important conference in MTac. He wasn’t bringing his A-game today and Tony already had a near heart-attack in the morning. He didn’t want to chance another one if things went south.

 

Problem? Things did go south. By the time they found McMillan, they knew that Stanton’s death had nothing to do with the Navy and everything to do with the money he was apparently set to inherit from an uncle.

 

McMillan, trying to be smart, had locked herself in a fuckin’ day-care center, threatening children unless she got a free-ride out of the country. ‘Children. This just proves that women are hundred time more vicious than men when they reach that point.’ He thought to himself. The woman had already shot a day-care worker in front of terrified kids and Tony didn’t have much time.

 

“McGee, Ziva, coordinate with the LEOs and call Balboa’s team for backup in case this blows.” He ordered, carefully locking away his primary weapon, deeply thankful that he wore his jeans today. they hid his secondary well. He removed his shirt and carefully slipped on a bullet-proof jacket, ensuring it was strapped correctly.

 

“Tony,” McGee hissed, “You can’t just walk in there!” He protested, “Boss will kill you.”

 

Tony arched a brow as he donned a looser, thicker shirt, it was the middle of winter and a think jersey wouldn't look suspicious. “Boss will understand McGee.”

 

“Damn it, Tony, we need a plan! This isn’t the time for heroism and pranks!” Ziva snapped, “We need to call Gibbs.”

 

“Call away.” Tony said lowly, “But you stop me from doing my job, I’ll write both of you up for insubordination.” His threat was dead serious, his eyes focused and icy. He stepped away from them with a scowl, “Now, as I said. Balboa for back-up, co-ordinate with MPD SWAT.” He bit out.

 

McGee reached out and grabbed his arm, “Tony-”

 

Tony grabbed his wrist and effortlessly removed the grip. “Your concern is duly noted and taken under advisement. Now, get!” McGee flinched at the sharp tone and took a step back, already reaching for his phone to call Balboa while Ziva called Gibbs.

 

Tony nodded to the SWAT captain, “You have any good vantage points?” He asked, looking at the snipers he could easily spot. Being Gibbs protege meant he had spent many long weekends with the man being personally trained in his craft. He was as good at making calculations and plotting kill-shots and according to his boss, better than any Fed or MDP sniper at taking his target down.

 

That was Gibbs’ pride talking but Tony didn’t dare disagree.

 

Captain Rice nodded, “Get her to the northeast corner, about eight feet away from the window. That’s my best sniper’s field of fire.” He advised. “You’re going in without a earwig?”

 

Tony nodded, “I don’t need the distraction.”

 

He clapped the captain on the back before slipping inside the building.

 

“... up, shut-up, shut-up!” A loud, frustrated voice snapped, almost drowned out by the voices of crying children.

 

There was a loud bang and Tony raced forward, sliding to a halt just outside the room door. He peeked inside and paled when he saw McMillan had actually shot a little kid. By first glance, he could tell it was just a graze but she was just a baby, no more than five years old.

 

He quickly pushed down all his fury and before she could fire another angry shot, he stepped in the room, a genial smile on his face. “Ok, let’s not do that.” He said, instantly getting her attention.

 

Tony didn’t even flinch when she pointed the gun at him, thankful it was off the child. “You’re gonna need those bullets to get out of here, lady. Do you really wanna waste them on some brats?” He asked and didn’t even expect her to just shoot.

 

He hissed when the bullet tore through his arm.

 

“Why are you here?” McMillan demanded, waving her weapon about. “You a cop?”

 

His keenly honed instinct told him not to answer in a positive. “No.” He said slowly, “some rich brats here so I’m a security guard. Just getting off duty.” He admitted, “I got them all out but I need to look after the rest of the kids too. You understand, right?” He asked.

 

She looked like she was about to shoot him again but remembered his point and realized it had merit. “What d’ya want then?”

 

“I can’t be seen running out when there are children here, lose the job.” He replied, “You’re gonna get out, right? Kids would make things difficult for you.” He said, “If you don’t know, each and every one of them is a fussy, whiny brat.” He spat out and watched, inwardly triumphant that she relaxed a bit. “If it wasn’t so hard for just a high-school graduate to get a job in this city, I wouldn’t even be working here.”

 

The disgruntled employee routine was working. He played by his injury too, wincing and squirming.

 

He shifted a little and looked at her pitifully, “Can I sit? It hurts, man.” He whined.

 

She sneered, “Man up, the kid’s taking it better than you!”

 

He flinched but kept an eye on the injured kid, who looked alarmingly pale.

 

“Look, lady, no one knows this but there’s an employees only exist.” He told her, “in the back. Woa, don’t go there!” He exclaimed, causing her to start, almost drop the gun, “Snipers out there, lady! Just like in the movie SWAT, with Colin Farrell and that awesome poker-shooting-training scene,” Just as he expected, she took a few scrambling, distracted steps back in surprise and the sniper took his shot with pin-point accuracy.

 

The round pierced her shoulder-blade, shattering it and Tony leapt forward, snatching her gun and immediately putting the safety on and removing the clip and tossing it away.

 

While she was squirming on the floor in pain, he took a few zip-ties from his pocket and secured her. The moment he was certain she was no longer a danger. He immediately raced towards the bleeding kid, finding a clean handkerchief and pressing against her wound. “Hey, honey, it’s alright.” He whispered soothingly to her, not looking at the dead-body of their likely caretaker. “I’m a Navy Cop,” He assured all the children, “And my friends are outside, already calling your parents and getting them here.”

 

“You’re a brave, brave girl,” He assured the little kid, rubbing her back soothingly, “My name’s Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo.” He announced cheekily, drawing some tentative smiles. “And since you all were so brave today, you get to call me Tony. Very few people have that right, you know? Now, since we have matching owies, I think I should know you name too, right?”

 

The crying girl nodded shakily, “Mia.” She admitted.

 

Tony widened his eyes, “Mia? That such a pretty name. Sounds like a song, don’t you think? Mia~” He sung out musically, causing a few to giggle. He carried her and smiled when the other children started introducing themselves, just to hear him sing out their names.

 

It made him feel a bit like Julie Andrews but he wasn’t about to deny them their comfort.

 

The NCIS agent led them out of the building and immediately handed Mia to the paramedic. “Captain, McMillan’s wounded but alive. We have two DBs, who’re likely day-care workers.” Tony reported. The MPD were already corralling the kids and a couple of parents had already arrived.

 

“DiNozzo!” A familiar voice barked and he couldn’t help the smile that crossed his lips, even though his head was starting to feel woozy because of blood-loss. He almost swooned like some heroine as he turned around, the movement jarring his arm and making bile rise in his throat due to the intense pain.

 

Gibbs immediately reached out the steady him. “Damn it, I leave you alone for one moment!” He cursed, sharply gesturing a paramedic.

 

Now that the adrenalin had faded away, he felt faint, drained. Sometime between Gibbs’ curses and his own spinning head, they managed to upload him into the ambulance but after that, he knew nothing.

 

Well, he was screwed anyways.

 


 

“Agent Gibbs!” A voice exclaimed and he turned, immediately rising to his feet when he saw Mary rush towards him. “Is he alright?”

 

Gibbs gently caught her arm and guided her to a chair, ignoring everyone’s curiosity. “Yeah, Mary, he’s alright.” He assured, “There was some blood-loss but they were able to deal with it. You need to calm down, now.” He said in a low, soothing voice. “I thought I told you to wait until I sent someone to pick you up?”

 

She still looked worried but a little calmer. “I couldn’t wait. Blood-loss? How much blood-loss we’re talking about here?”

 

“Nothing to be very concerned about, miss.” Ducky intervened, “Tony is a strong young man, healthy and determined. Now, I don’t believe we’ve been introduced. I’m Donald Mallard, the ME at NCIS. Tony’s a dear friend.”

 

Mary smiled at him, “Yes, Dr. Ducky,” She identified and Ducky chuckled in agreement. “Mary Darwin. Tony’s sister.”

 

“Tony has a sister?” Abby blurted out, surprised. “I didn’t know that, Gibbs, did you know that?”

 

“Not until yesterday.” Gibbs replied dryly, observing her in concern. “You ok? I don’t think Tony or your husband is gonna like you rushing over like this.”

 

Mary rolled her eyes, “That’s because they’re overprotective arses.” She replied bluntly, “Besides, if Henry calls and I don’t have information about Tony, he’s gonna be worried.” She looked at others curiously before arching a brow demandingly at Gibbs, “Well, are you gonna introduce us or not?”

 

Gibbs smiled in amusement at her posh accent and daring expression. “They can do that themselves.”

 

She frowned, “You’re very rude.” She waved her finger at him, “Tony said you’re a man of few words and apparently affectionate head-slaps, but he made no mention of rudeness.” She studied him with an intent expression, “But then again, he thinks you’ve hung the fuckin’ moon.”

 

Abby let out a giggle while McGee looked at her with wide eyes. Ziva was smirking in amusement.

 

Gibbs rolled his eyes but there was something in the way she spoke to him that reminded him of his Tony. The gesture was automatic when he gently tapped the back of her head in reprimand.

 

Mary stilled for a moment before her lips formed a wide smile, “Ah, now I get it. Affectionate head-slaps.”

 

“I don’t claim to have Tony’s deductive skills,” She said after a moment of silence, “Well, outside of watching Sherlock a couple of thousand times,” She grinned. “but I bet I can guess who’s who. You-” She pointed at Abby, “are Abigail Sciuto, to be called Abby and nothing else.”

 

“Right on the money, but I’m easy to guess!” Abby replied enthusiastically.

 

Mary dipped her head in acceptance, tilting her head to the side, “And you’re Ziva David. Tony’s badass Mossad.” She said. Ziva simple nodded, looking disinterested.

 

“Curly hair and Harry Potter spectacles means Jimmy Palmer. Tony said you were cute too.” Palmer blushed. “And that leaves Tim McGee, ye of a thousand pouts.”

 

McGee flushed while Abby let out a helpless burst of laughter before slapping her hand on the mouth. Ziva smirked while Gibbs slid an amused glance at McGee. The man did tend to pout a lot.

 

Mary abruptly turned serious, “What happened?”

 

Gibbs sighed, “Hostage situation in a day-care center.” He explained, “The woman wasn’t good with the gun but was a lucky shot. .22 caliber, deep that nicked the artery.” The shot had been a dangerous one, going between Tony’s arm and side. It grazed his inner arm which told him she wasn’t aiming and if she wasn’t aiming, she could’ve hit anything. “Very little muscle damage so he’ll be back to full function in about a month.”

 

“The blood loss was concerning.” Ducky commented. “I’m pretty certain he lost about twenty percent but not enough to get him into shock. His hemoglobin levels are low so he needs plenty of rest, good food and fluids. I wouldn’t recommend anything less than two weeks of leave before desk-duty and a couple more before field work, Jethro.”

 

Gibbs sighed and nodded. “McGee,” He called, “Go with Mary and help her pack, she and DiNozzo are staying at my place at the moment.” Before Mary could even protest, he arched a brow sternly.

 

An indecipherable look crossed her face and she nodded, suddenly smiling in amusement. “Can I see Tony before you pack me off like a child?” She asked teasingly.

 

Gibbs huffed and nodded before turning to others, “You’ve all seen him, no need to stay. There’s still work to be done. Ziva, go back and start processing McMillan and Swanson. Abby, finish up with the evidence work and log. Ducky,”

 

“Process the new guests on my tables, yes, Gibbs.” He replied, “Come along, Mr. Palmer.”

 

The lead agent paused for a moment before sighing, “McGee, call Wilder and let him know about the situation.” He said reluctantly, “Mary, come.” He led her to DiNozzo’s room.

 

“Oh dear Lord, he looks pale.” Mary breathed out worriedly, reaching forward to cup Tony’s cheek. “And cool. Are you certain he’s alright, Agent Gibbs?”

 

Gibbs nodded, slumping against the wall as Mary sat down on the only chair in the room. “This isn’t his first rodeo,” He replied dryly, “He’ll be fine.”

 

Mary was silent for a moment, gently combing her fingers through his hair. “And here I was, congratulating myself that at least the second most important man in my life wasn’t in the military.”

 

Gibbs softened at that, sighing. “He won’t get into as many dangerous situations as your SAS husband but… a bullet’s a bullet, whether on home soil or some foreign desert.” He looked at her, “If it’s any comfort, I’ve personally trained him to be the best he can be.”

 

She smiled softly at him, “I know.” Reaching forward, she grasped Tony’s hand, rubbing his knuckles. “He admires you a great deal.” She admitted softly. “Respects you a lot too. A rare thing these days, I think. That kind of love and respect.”

 

Gibbs didn’t say anything, just looking at Tony.

 

“And I didn’t think that was returned.” The lead agent stiffened, turning to look at her in surprise. “The way he described your interactions… it seemed like a highly unequal relationship… even for boss and subordinate, let alone for friends.”

 

And suddenly, Gibbs got it. The realization was so intense that he just stared at Tony, unable to hear what Mary was saying. He replayed their relationship over the years and it was like a veil had lifted from his eyes.

 

Equals.

 

They had never been equals. Tony had always treated him with a degree of fearful respect that all his agents gave him, even though he sometimes managed to wrestle it down. Everyone commented on his loyalty, Fornell had even compared them to dog and master one time and it never occurred to Gibbs how unjust that was.

 

That had changed. It wasn’t distance, it was freedom. Tony had shed that intense dependency he had on Gibbs’ approval, on Gibbs’ regard and taken a step away. Somehow, without even knowing it, Tony had done the best thing he could’ve ever done for their relationship.

 

He had made them equals.

 

It didn’t mean that Tony didn’t care about him, it didn’t mean that Tony was pulling away completely. Hadn’t that morning proven it? Just how carefully Tony had watched him? How gently he had helped him through the hang-over?

 

Suddenly, all pieces of the puzzle just fit and something unhinged in his chest. He let out a deep, unhindered breath for the first time in months and smiled.

 

“-t Gibbs? Are you alright?” Mary asked.

 

“Yeah, just thinking.” He waved her off and glanced at his watch, “Mary, it’s getting late. Why don’t you go with McGee and get things ready. He’ll drop you off at my place before dinner time.”

 

She looked at him intently, “Agent Gibbs, I can stay alone for a few days.”

 

He shook his head, “Tony’ll need some lookin’ after and he won’t stay at my place if you’re alone in his apartment. Besides, I live in a better neighborhood so you’ll like it. Parks and friendly people.” He assured. “Unless there’s a reason you wanna stay in Tony’s apartment. You work in DC or something?”

 

Mary shook her head, “I’m an editor so no, as long as there’s internet access, I don’t mind.”

 

Gibbs nodded, “McGee set it up. I don’t use it much. He’ll tell you everything about it.”

 

She agreed and after one final look at Tony, she walked out of the room, finally leaving him alone to deal with the revelation. He sat down heavily on the chair and bowed his head, letting out a small, disbelieving laugh.

 

This changed everything. Subconsciously, he had begun to recognize it. It changed how he reacted to Tony, how he spoke to him and how much leverage he gave to his opinion. It explained why he let Tony coddle him a bit, why he hadn’t demanded coffee when his head was pounding. He simply obeyed his SFA’s directive to not drink it.

 

He hadn’t drunk it until Tony brought it for him.

 

It was a small thing, but it was telling. Threats about Ducky or not, he hadn’t gone against DiNozzo’s instructions. If Tony had demanded he stay at home, fought him on it, Gibbs realized that he’d have given it.

 

Equals.

 

Letting out an amused huff, he reached towards Tony, running his fingers down the younger man’s cheek. “You’re a wonder, Tony.” He whispered and watched, eyes intent and dark as his thumb caressed the corner of Tony’s lip. “And I’m done staying away.”