Chapter 1: Time of Discovery
Dandum semper est tempus: veritatem dies aperit. (Time must always be given: time discovers truth.)
– Lucius Annaeus Seneca, De Ira (Liber II, XXII.ii)
Chapter One: Time of Discovery
Another typical Monday. Or at least what Mondays are now typically like for him for the last six weeks. No. It’s been seven weeks now.
Seven weeks since…
On Mondays, he usually didn’t spend the whole day here unlike most of the other days of the week. On Mondays, he’d usually vacate the premises just after lunch to make up for the horrible creature he usually was on Sundays.
The first couple of weeks after his life had imploded, his days and nights were full of alcohol and his memories of that time were essentially one giant blur. Then one morning after waking up in his apartment next to his toilet and having no idea how he’d gotten home again after going to a bar with the intention of drinking himself into a stupor, he’d made a decision.
He’d decided that drowning himself in alcohol day after night after day was not the answer. He needed to start living again. Existing as a burgeoning alcoholic wasn’t really how he wanted to go through life any more, and as soon as his stomach began behaving enough for him to be more than ten feet away from his bathroom, he’d made his way to a diner he’d rarely visited just down the street from his place.
He spent the whole day there drinking cup after cup of strong coffee pretty much ignoring everyone except his waitress who became his server after the first one went off shift. For some reason that second waitress took it upon herself that day to nurse him through his hangover, which was apparently from the deepest depths of hell.
She kept the coffee coming, forced him to take OTC painkillers for his monstrous headache, ignored his sullen temper, and even forced him to eat food his sour stomach could tolerate. Essentially she lived up to her name that day. And when he finally left that first time, a Sunday, he left Grace a $50 tip.
He’d gone home that evening and drank too much again. It’s not like his problems had magically gone away or he was just going to stop drinking altogether. But the next day, once he could walk in a straight line, he found himself heading back to the diner, and again, Grace lived up to her name. Day after day, he went back to the diner, not really understanding why other than it somehow helped.
Maybe it was because he was simply leaving his apartment which was a place that held too many tangible memories of his previous life. Or, maybe it was because he’d always been a people person and the diner had a handful of regulars that he could say ‘hello’ to everyday. Or, maybe it was because he was simply not where the alcohol was. Or, maybe it was just too hard to resist coming back when every night Grace said, almost as if it was an order, “See you tomorrow, Tony.”
Whatever the reason, he began to drink less and live more. He ate better, more healthfully than he had for far too long. He kept his mind sharp by spending the day reading the newspaper or catching up on books he’d bought but never before had the time to read.
Being there at the diner kept him from dwelling on his misfortunes and helped him distance himself from them. And Grace was always on shift whenever he was there. He still over-indulged on alcohol from time to time. Mostly, he spent his Saturdays on his couch drinking the night away. After not being able to remember coming home from the bar that one time, he now did his drinking only at home so he wouldn’t again risk exposing himself to a potentially bad situation.
There was a time he would have been headslapped for having done something so stupid, but not anymore. Now, all he had to rely on was himself. He’d lost everything, including those people most important in his life, people he had considered family. Somehow, he’d lost it all and he still didn’t know how exactly that had happened.
Sundays, though he would head back to the diner. Grace was always there, and she would give him this look of disapproval before bringing him strong coffee and several acetaminophens. They didn’t talk to each other a lot, he rarely spoke to anyone anymore, but she was a much needed steady presence in his wrecked life.
His new routine settled him, helped him to drink less, to regain some focus and made him want to begin planning for the future. He’d begun by making some phone calls to some of the contacts he’d made over his long career in law enforcement, but he quickly discovered that word had spread around as to the circumstances surrounding his leaving NCIS. It became pretty clear pretty quickly that the black mark on his record pretty much spelled the end of his law enforcement career for good.
Once he’d realized that, he’d left the diner early that day and didn’t return for almost a week. He spent that time away from the diner in his darkened apartment drinking away those days and nights except for when he was passed out or throwing up. He barely took care of himself during the time when he was finally grieving for his loss. The loss of a life he had loved. Up until those phone calls, he’d still maintained some hope, but now it was completely gone.
It was a major set-back, but eventually he came enough to terms with the idea that his chosen career was now just a memory and was able to once again join the outside world. Thank God Grace was still there at the diner when he returned. Her calm but gruff presence and her warm smile helped ease him back into some semblance of a life.
Several days later, he got a call.
Erik Hawthorne, co-owner and senior recruiter for Hawthorne Security called to say that word had gotten around about his messy dismissal from NCIS and the fact that no one in law enforcement was willing to hire him. They’d done some checking and decided he just might be a good addition to their firm. In fact, his overall record was so impressive that Daniel Hawthorne, Erik’s older brother and co-owner of the company, wanted to meet him for an interview. Something seemed off about the situation, but not quite knowing what to make of the invitation, he agreed and they set up an appointment for the next afternoon.
The next day, the younger Hawthorne picked him up in a limousine and drove him to the corporate home offices of Hawthorne Security. The first moment he’d laid eyes on Daniel Hawthorne, he’d felt his gut give a little twinge, but didn’t see the harm in listening to what the man had to say.
It was a job offer with an extremely generous pay package as well as more than adequate added perks and other benefits. He’d be part of a team assigned to the security of the firm’s more high profile clients who preferred anonymity in their dealings. And, apparently, he was just the man for the job given all his years of experience as a cop and a federal agent.
He had his doubts since ‘years of experience’ told him that the majority of the non-support, i.e. administrative, personnel he’d seen were all obviously ex-military including both Daniel and Erik. To his eye, only perhaps a handful of the people he’d seen were ex-cops or ex-feds. Why would they need him? What could they possibly want with someone who could be indicted by NCIS for multiple crimes at any time?
By the end of the meeting, the feeling in his gut had transformed from a minor twinge into a full-blown someone’s-gonna-die bad feeling. The brothers had laid it on pretty thick about the benefits of working for their firm and the fact that they were probably going to be his last chance to find a law enforcement-type job. In the end, they gave him a couple of days to consider their offer.
He’d politely thanked them for the offer and said he’d get back to them as soon as possible with a decision. He’d actually already made the decision to reject their offer before they’d even finished their heavy-handed pitch, but he thought he should not antagonize these guys in any way.
Something was off, really off, about that place and their offer, but he had no idea what. His past training had come in handy as he slipped into a version of himself that sounded like someone who was trying not to be too interested in the job. But the idea of working for Hawthorne Security sent chills down his spine. He’d play his part, the part of someone truly considering the offer, and then he’d decline it just before the deadline.
Now all he had to do was come up with a plausible excuse. The obvious reason not to accept was he didn’t have the heart to be in law enforcement anymore given how things had ended at his last job. And could he help it if that excuse was a little too close to the truth?
Until the meeting with the Hawthornes, he hadn’t thought about trying to get private security work. Maybe he could try applying to other, hopefully more reputable firms, but he had the feeling they probably wouldn’t want him. How could a washed-up forty-plus year old ex-investigator of major crimes be of any use to a private security firm?
He realized then that he’d have to find some way to reinvent himself and move on. He’d managed to do it a few times before in his life, and he could do it again. So unsettled by the meeting with the Brothers Hawthorne and the realization that his old life was well and truly over, he didn’t go back to the diner that day even though that morning he’d told Grace he’d see her later.
When he got home, he had a few drinks, but instead of losing himself like he usually did in the alcohol, he spent the majority of the night thinking about his life and his career – past, present, and future.
The next morning at the diner, Grace must have noticed how little sleep he’d had the night before and supplied him with more than enough coffee to get him through the day. After spending so much of the previous night thinking about his life, he decided to basically ignore it today.
He spent the day reading the newspaper, doing its crossword puzzle, chatting intermittently with Grace, and basically living out that day as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Tomorrow he’d face the battered remnants of his life. Tomorrow he would call Erik Hawthorne, decline the offer, and then he’d start his life over again.
Eventually even the strong coffee couldn’t make up for his lack of sleep, and he decided to call it a day a couple hours or so after noon. He would go home and watch a marathon of Magnum P.I. episodes and go to bed early.
He asked Grace for his check and when he got it, he immediately spotted some familiar handwriting at the bottom; handwriting he hadn’t seen in more than seven weeks and never expected to see ever again after the falling out they’d had.
It took a couple of read throughs of the short, five-word note for him to be able to comprehend its contents. But when he read the note at the bottom of his bill yet again, it still said:
Take the job. Semper Fi.
Chapter 2: Time and Again
Tony struggles to come to terms with the note he'd been left.
Chapter Two: Time and Again
It took everything he had within him to not outwardly react to the slip of paper he’d just received. Inwardly though, his heart rate had skyrocketed and his lunch had started threatening an immediate return appearance. It took everything he had, but somehow he did it.
He took a deep breath, swallowed down the bile that had started to come up his throat and forced himself to simply nod as if the amount was correct before fishing a twenty out of his wallet. Picking up the check, he used his fingers to obscure the handwriting he knew almost as well as his own, and waved it and the money out towards Grace. He wondered briefly, as she made her way towards his table, if the woman was even a real waitress or an agent tasked with an assignment.
Smiling, Grace asked if he wanted any change. Still too shocked at receiving the note from someone who he had thought gone from his life forever, he said no and without realizing it gave her a thirty percent tip. It was probably a tip off as to his real feelings, but he didn’t really care at the moment.
Forcing himself to act as if this was just another Monday, in which he left right after lunch, he took his time gathering his things and left the diner as calmly as possible. On his way out he finally decided that it didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things if Grace was a real waitress or not. She had gone above and beyond and had helped him through the raging storm his life had become. He’d always be grateful to her for that.
The immediate consequence of the note was that he was now paranoid that he was being monitored twenty-four hours a day. Had he not had any privacy in all the time since he was kicked out of NCIS? Had there been witnesses to his getting lost in the alcohol, to his rage against how unfair life had turned out to be for him, to his complete depression in which he very, very briefly contemplated leaving this world? And was it just his former employers watching him or someone else as well?
Once outside, he maintained his usual – since it was also expected by whoever might be surveilling him – level of vigilance of his surroundings. His hands felt like they were shaking so badly that he jammed them into his jeans pockets to hide the involuntary reaction. He squeezed his hand tightly around the keys in his right front pocket hoping that the pain from their irregular edges would curtail the shaking and help force him to think more clearly.
Up until that moment, he’d barely given thought to what the note had meant. But now that he was walking back to his apartment, that note was all he could think about. So very few words, and yet they said so much.
Those words said Gibbs knew what was going on the whole time. That his former boss had set him up for a fall. Set him up so that he was not only kicked off the team, but out of NCIS altogether.
Those words also told him that Gibbs, a man he used to trust above all others (including himself at times), had allowed and been complicit in turning his life completely upside down and inside out. That his mentor didn’t trust him with the truth, the plan or anything else.
Gibbs, with no doubt the help of Director Vance and SecNav Jarvis, had betrayed him, not trusted him, lied to him, and basically abandoned and destroyed him. And for what? What was going on that it required his life to be in near-complete shambles?
He understood the necessity of ‘need to know’ and ‘classified,’ but this, assignment or whatever it was, had gone way past too far. Last time Gibbs said he’d done what he’d done because he knew that Tony could handle it, but this time his former team leader had crossed more than one line. And this time, he didn’t think that they could just go back to the way things were.
He considered his options and found he really didn’t have many. In fact, he really only had two choices: take the job with Hawthorne or chance that black mark on his record becoming a permanent fixture.
With that black mark, no law enforcement agency of any kind would ever hire him. And he wouldn’t put it past Vance or Jarvis to not restore his record as some sort of punishment for not taking the assignment. They’d gone to a lot of trouble to ensure that their plan involving him would succeed. They’d played hard ball with his life to get what they wanted, and apparently they wanted something from the Hawthorne brothers.
At least now he had some confirmation that he hadn’t begun to lose his abilities as an investigator and hadn’t messed up investigation after investigation. He still didn’t know how all those mishaps had been arranged, but now he at least had some consolation that maybe none of the things that had gone wrong or the things that he’d been accused of had been his fault.
But that was his only consolation in all this…this…mess. A mess not of his own making, but one which had swept him up like an outgoing tide that left him unable to make his way back to shore. Law enforcement was all he knew and if he wanted to clear the black mark off of his record, if he wanted any semblance of his life back, he had no choice but to give in and take that job.
He now knew part of the reason for that gut feeling he’d had when he met with the Brothers Hawthorne, but he also knew that wasn’t the whole of it. And, in that moment, he wondered if he would make it out alive from this forced assignment. Maybe it didn’t matter anymore if he did survive this assignment. Weren’t pawns routinely sacrificed for the good of the overall game?
By the time he reached his apartment building, he decided he didn’t care what day or time it was – he needed a drink. So instead of entering the building, he detoured around it to where he’d left his car. He had plenty of alcohol upstairs in his apartment, but now he was too paranoid to indulge in case someone was watching him. If he drank too much, he couldn’t guarantee that his mouth wouldn’t betray him. Fortunately, he’d been all too frequently hitting the bottle because of his recent misfortunes and his tolerance was now higher. His plan was to have a couple of drinks not get drunk, but plans change all the time.
His thoughts came back around to the mess his life was in. His team had just let him go and hadn’t even fought for him; hadn’t even attempted to defend him after the first couple of minor incidents. Did they know? Was all of his former team in on this operation? Was he the only one who didn’t know?
When he’d been fired and escorted out of NCIS and the Naval Yard, he would have bet tons of cash, that his teammates hadn’t been involved. But now? Now, he wasn’t so sure. At the time, his life had dwindled down to the fact that the person closest to him had vehemently denied him in a way that hurt far, far worse than any injury ever could. He’d been so devastated at the time that he really hadn’t paid attention to his teammates’ reactions, and now he has no idea how much the rest of the team had known or now knows.
Maybe he’d been too complacent and it wasn’t the confusion and devastation of that last day at NCIS. Maybe he’d lost the ability to read when his former teammates were up to or hiding something. If that was the case, then should he really be the one forced into this assignment – whatever it was?
Unsure who was watching him and how, but confident no one had tailed him, he decided to still be cautious and park a couple of blocks away from his final destination. Once parked, he turned off his cell phone and tossed it into his glove compartment. As he walked towards the bar, he recalled that he hadn’t been there in nearly ten years. Not since just after he’d begun working for Gibbs.
Knowing he couldn’t get too drunk, because he was apparently now on some sort of secret undercover assignment, he opted for a beer and a shot of whiskey. Paying cash for his drinks, he took them to a booth which was located in a semi-dark corner of the room.
After taking a huge swig of beer, he began to plan out his next moves. Some of them he couldn’t make without more information from his handler, but he expected to hear from whoever that was soon. One move he definitely could make was to call Erik Hawthorne tomorrow and accept the generous job offer.
It was a good thing for those pulling his strings that he’d gone the polite route and not immediately turned down the job; that he’d said he’d think it over first. He wondered if anyone had ever considered that he might outright turn down the offer of employment. Gibbs probably did, but then again his former boss likely guessed that Tony would at least pretend to consider it first even if he knew that his agent wouldn’t take the job.
Gibbs’ note was forcing him to go in a different direction. His mentor had orchestrated one of the darkest times of his life. All the crap that had kept happening to him, his failure out in the field and in the office… Gibbs and his bosses had been behind it all.
The confrontation between him and Gibbs in the bullpen that last day and later that night at Gibbs’ house now had to be looked back on in an entirely different light. His entire life had been manipulated to get him to this point. Everything had seemed so real and he’d never suspected Gibbs of lying to him or manipulating him.
He’d thought it had all been genuine, but he’d been so, so wrong. And, he had thought he knew Gibbs well enough to be able to read him, but he’d been wrong about that too.
Had Gibbs been under orders to do this to him? Was the idea to manipulate him into this position his former mentor’s idea? Did either of those possibilities even matter to him anymore?
Even if none of what had gone down had been real, he didn’t know if he could ever forgive Gibbs for the things he’d said. Didn’t know if he could ever go back. If they could ever be teammates, partners, or friends ever again.
He’d handled Gibbs’ manipulation of his actions last time, but this time he thinks he’s reached his breaking point. After this was over, after his record was wiped clean, he would move on. Move on from NCIS and perhaps back to the police force or maybe even get his private investigator’s license.
The way his cover had been set up, it looked like all his ties to his friends and family had been broken. When this was over, he thought he might just make sure they were permanently broken. His best friend and mentor had set this hell up and said things that had cut him to the quick and much deeper than that in one instance. Things he didn’t think he could ever get over hearing from Gibbs despite knowing it was in the name of national security.
For his former bosses to have gone through so much trouble, it could only mean it was a matter of national security. He’d been forced into this situation without consent, without intel, and without back-up. There was no way this case didn’t potentially seriously threaten the country in some way.
He threw back the shot of whiskey and winced at the burn as the liquid coursed down his throat. Hopefully he wouldn’t have to wait for intel much longer; he didn’t want to go to work for the Hawthornes without it. And he would really like to know why he’d been put through hell for the last five months.
He was just wishing he’d ordered more than one shot of whiskey when a voice to his right said, “He said you’d be here.”
Chapter 3: No Time Like the Present
Tony learns about his assignment from his handler.
Chapter Three: No Time Like the Present
“He said you’d be here,” a familiar voice said to his right before a glass filled with three fingers of some type of alcohol – whiskey judging from the smell – was placed in front of him.
Tony shifted his gaze from the ‘rocks’ glass in front of him to the man now sitting uninvited across the booth from him. Despite the opening given to him, he chose to remain silent. Since he was just a pawn in a larger game, it really wasn’t up to him to get the ball rolling in the here and now.
Several long moments later, the man in front of him finally broke the silence between them with the proper Italian pronunciation of his surname.
“DiNozzo,” he said in greeting. Tony watched as the expression of the man in front of him, who was once again sporting a beard, changed from indecision to determination.
“We were under orders from the top.”
“I don’t care,” Tony replied as tonelessly and unemotionally as possible.
“He didn’t have a choice,” the FBI agent tried again.
“I don’t care,” was the highly enunciated reply which allowed some of the speaker’s anger to slip through.
“It’s been killing him these—”
“I don’t goddamn care!” His voice exploded from his mouth in a quiet but highly menacing tone that promised damage if this line of conversation continued.
“I don’t care,” he repeated after taking a moment to calm down aided by a healthy swallow of the whiskey provided by his companion. “Just tell me what I’m supposed to do, Fornell.”
Fornell held his hands up in surrender and nodded before beginning to read him into the situation.
“This all began about six, almost seven, months ago. Three high school buddies have a reunion after not seeing each other for nearly ten years. In the process of them catching up, they find out they are all analysts but for three separate federal agencies. Which makes a certain amount of sense given their common interests and skills back then…”
“Let me guess,” interrupted Tony. “FBI, NCIS, and…. Homeland Security?”
Fornell smiled slightly, “Exactly right.”
“Not long after their reunion, one of them notices an irregularity, actually several irregularities in her data. The analyst goes to her superiors knowing something’s not right, but they don’t agree that there could be a problem.
“Convinced she’s right, but needing more data, the analyst contacts her buddies. It turned out that the three of them each had the different missing pieces to the same puzzle, which lead to—”
“Yes,” Fornell confirmed with a nod. “But despite all the data collected, all we have is supposition and no proof.”
“So, I’m supposed to find proof of whatever the Brothers Hawthorne are doing before it further endangers national security.”
“Exactly. But how do you know it threatens national security?”
“I would hope that my life wouldn’t have been so thoroughly and completely screwed over if it didn’t.” He tossed back another drink of his whiskey. “Are you my handler for this, Toby? My go-between among the agencies?”
“I was brought in due to my past association with you since you can’t be seen with anyone from NCIS.”
“Good,” the word slipped out before he could stop it and he rushed to cover himself. “It’s good to deal with someone familiar.”
Fornell doesn’t say anything, but their eyes briefly meet and Tony knew the man in front of him had seen right through his words.
Deflecting attention from the awkward moment, he asked, “So what does the nerd herd and the higher-ups suspect Hawthorne Security is doing?”
Fornell launched into a debriefing of what was thought to be going on at the security firm. While he’s carefully listening, a part of Tony’s brain extracted and started contemplating the most pertinent information.
Hawthorne Security had apparently started out as a completely legit company that provided personal security primarily for big wigs of the business world. But over time, once Erik brought his older brother, Daniel, into the business their clientele changed.
More and more of their clients were foreigners, people known to have anti-American sympathies. Other clients were suspected of being part of domestic and international crime syndicates.
His handler continued by explaining that a three-agency task force had been set-up to investigate the allegations that Hawthorne was aiding and abetting the smuggling of contraband, criminals and terrorists into the United States. The aid was in the form of getting the people illegally entering the country passed security at various entry points and providing them with perfect IDs, visas, the whole works. Contraband of all kinds was also being smuggled into the country including conflict diamonds and, in one case, there was a rumor of some reportedly long-lost Nazi U-boat treasure being brought in by an Argentinean of German descent. There’s even some evidence to suggest that the firm might also have been responsible for some high-profile assassinations over the last several years.
As Tony had already surmised, the shop’s employed ranks consisted primarily of ex-military Special Forces types, but on occasion they would hire ex-federal agents though the brothers had also been known to hire suspected bent ex-cops.
The analysts had discovered what they thought was a correlation between the dates of new hires and changes to national security protocols. The working theory was that the brothers hired the most recent of ex-feds in order to get, through coercion or cooperation of some sort, information they couldn’t get any other way. Information only certain federal and state agencies were supposed to know about. The last major change of protocols had been just before Tony was fired, and he’s the only one in the last two months to have been let go from his job under questionable circumstances.
Due to the fact that NCIS wasn’t as well known among the federal agencies, Tony, with his record of excellence was chosen to be the one to go undercover. His mission was to get in tight with the brothers and get the evidence of their wrongdoings including how complicit all the employees were in the firm’s unscrupulous dealings.
“Any questions?” Fornell asked concluding his briefing.
“Just one,” Tony replied then hesitated. Finally he asked, “Was any of what I was accused of real?”
“What do you mean?”
“I know I didn’t misplace, steal,” he flung up a hand in frustration, “whatever…the money, but did I really lose or damage evidence critical to any of NICS’ cases? Please don’t tell me that I’m going to be responsible for letting killers go free.”
A brief look of sadness, pity, concern or some combination of the three passed over Fornell’s face, but it’s gone by the time he gently answered, “No, Tony. You don’t have to worry about that. No killers are going to go free. You’re in the clear. It was all a set-up as part of your cover.”
Relief washed over him because the idea that several murderers were going to go free because of something he’d done had been a frequent source of nightmares since this whole ordeal had begun. But as quickly as the feeling of relief had come, it was just as quickly overcome by the anger and bitterness of the fact it had all been a set-up.
All of this had been done without his permission and with no guarantee that he would be the right bait to lure the Hawthornes into the Feds’ nets.
“Check-ins will be handled by a go-between that’s already in place.”
“Grace,” Tony involuntarily whispered, closing his eyes and lowering his head.
“How did—? Never mind,” he said shaking his head with a sly smile. “Your continued patronage to the diner will serve as a means for you to regularly check-in. Grace will serve as our intermediary, help set-up meets, act as an information drop, etc. Are you clear on what your mission is?”
“Crystal,” Tony snapped before lifting his head to lock eyes with his handler. “Just one more question, Toby. What would’ve happened to me if the Hawthornes hadn’t taken the bait?”
“They did and that’s all that matters, Tony.”
Fornell got up from the booth and started to leave, but then he turned back towards Tony. He lifted a hand to Tony’s shoulder, causing the ex-NCIS agent to look up.
“He didn’t have a choice, kid,” the FBI agent said then sighed removing his hand. “None of us did.”
“I still don’t care, Fornell.” He looked down at the last swallow of whiskey in his glass and continued to speak. “Can you pass a message on for me to whoever is in charge?”
The bearded man shrugged and answered, “Sure. Don’t know if they’ll listen, but…”
“Great. Tell them that I’ll do my job to the best of my ability and when, not if, the bad guys are taken down, I want my record wiped so clean I can see my reflection in it. I also want my back pay plus expenses for the time between I was fired and the end of this mission. Hazard pay would be nice, but I’m not holding my breath over that one.
“And when this is finally over, I want either: a transfer to a federal agency of my choice with no hassles and my pay grade and benefits intact or an early, full retirement from NCIS. Dealer’s choice. Right now it doesn’t really matter which.”
“I’ll pass along your message,” Fornell stated with a barely concealed look of shock at Tony’s words.
“Until next time, Toby,” was the flat-voiced reply.
Once he was sure Fornell was long gone from the bar, Tony, who had been in perfect control just seconds ago, simply wilted like a flower that had been in the full summer sun for far too long. He put his hands over his face and as much as the table would let him, he curled in on himself and let his head drop down with a loud thunk. Then he lifted his a little and let it hit the table again with an equally loud thunk before straightening up and forcing himself to regain control.
It was said in the heat of the moment and without really considering the consequences of his ultimatum, but it felt right to have said it at the time.
He was done being manipulated and sacrificed for the greater good.
When this was over, he was done with NCIS, done with being a federal agent, done with D.C.
It was time for him to move on and see if he could beat his record of ten years somewhere else.
When I posted this story on FFnet, some people stopped reading before the actions of the main characters were explained. At this point only a few facts have been revealed with only a minimum of explanation. Subsequent chapters will provide background, more explanations and more revelations. I hope you'll give it a chance.
Chapter 4: Time of Reckoning
Fornell and Gibbs discuss Tony and the consequences of following orders.
Chapter Four: Time of Reckoning
He sat on the end of the couch farthest away from the fireplace sipping at a more than half-full glass of bourbon. It had once been full to the brim, but the last couple of hours he’d been careful to keep a clear head and not drink too much – at least not until he had news.
His gaze traveled from the cold, dark hearth of the fireplace to his darkened TV set to the chair sitting empty next to him. Everything reminded him just how much he missed his friend. A friend that he’d so thoroughly betrayed just over seven weeks ago right here in his own home. One could argue though that the betrayal went back much further, back to the first time he’d set up something to go wrong ‘because’ of Tony.
But, in his mind, the final and most devastating betrayal had taken place seven weeks ago in his basement. A room he hadn’t been able to go in ever since the night he’d broken into a thousand pieces the heart of a man who over the years he’d come to think of as family. His senior field agent had come to him that final night desperate for some answers, something to explain their deteriorating relationship, the accusation that he’d stolen the money that had gone missing from their last case, and the fact that he’d been so suddenly dismissed from NCIS. Tony had been desperate for the back-up he thought would always be there for him, that he thought his boss would never deny him.
And yet Gibbs had done far more than just deny his agent the back-up he’d deserved; he’d gone way beyond that. Tony’s faith in him, his unwavering trust and respect in him had run too deep. So, in order for the mission to succeed, he’d had to vehemently and maliciously deny that he ever had any familial feelings towards his friend and protégé. He’d taken every positive thought and feeling he’d ever had for Tony, turned them upside down and inside out, and had gone for the jugular giving him words that said the exact opposite.
He’d had to watch as his words of contempt and ridicule crushed his friend’s hope and perhaps even his spirit. He’d had to watch as Tony’s face finally registered the ‘truth’ behind his words – that their relationship of the last ten plus years was really nothing more than that of a boss and a subordinate. That the time they’d spent together was due to, as Tony’s superior officer, Gibbs’ sense of duty and nothing else. That Gibbs felt it was important to keep the rank and file as happy as possible even if he personally couldn’t stand to be in the other person’s presence.
When Tony had finally, finally, accepted what he’d said as ‘truth’; when Tony’s faith, trust, and respect in him had finally been destroyed, it had nearly killed him as he’d done nothing, just stood there and watched, as his now ex-agent fell apart right in front of his eyes. Tony’s face had gone white and he’d staggered back a little as if he’d been hit. Then with the stony, uncaring expression he’d forced upon his face, Gibbs watched as his ‘former’ friend struggled to gather the shattered pieces of his heart before turning to leave the basement.
Gibbs had turned his back as the best agent he’d ever worked with had made his way slowly up the basement stairs – the sound of each footstep acting like the tell-tale heart from Poe’s story and condemning him. Normally he could hear the arrival or departure of anyone to his house, but the night Tony had left perhaps for good, he hadn’t heard a thing – not even the closing of the front door. It was as if the man had already literally become just a shadow of his former self. A self that was missing the genial and sometimes boisterous attitude and steely determination that Gibbs had come to associate with the younger man.
Not completely sure Tony had even left the house; Gibbs had rushed up the stairs and found the front door closed and his broken friend’s car gone. He’d barely made it to his upstairs bathroom before he violently lost the contents of his stomach. If he hadn’t have known that the bad guys had left listening devices in his living room and basement, he might have told Tony the truth. But, as with many other things associated with this assignment, even that choice had been taken away from him.
And except for going down a week later to remove the now dead listening device, he’d not spent any time in his basement. Every time he’d tried, he’d only made it a few steps before the nausea came back full force. If not being able to go into his basement to spend time working and shaping the wood – an activity he pursued because it calmed his mind and focused his thoughts – was to be his punishment for what he’d done to his friend, his kid, then so be it. It was far less punishment than he deserved for what he’d agreed to do and had done in the name of national security.
His gaze traveled around his living room once more and landed on the empty chair beside him. Without his permission, his thoughts traveled back in time to around four months ago – just after he’d begun to implement his plan to ruin Special Agent Tony DiNozzo’s life. Feeling a little guilty for what he’d recently started doing to his senior agent, he’d invited Tony over for dinner on their next day off. He knew it’d likely be the last time he’d be able to enjoy his friend’s company. And he knew that it’d be the last time he could demonstrate, even to the smallest degree, how much the younger man meant to him before everything went to hell.
His friend had brought the beer and a movie and he’d provided the dinner. Coming back into the living room with coffee after dinner, Gibbs had found DiNozzo’s feet on his coffee table. He’d had to fight a smile back then, because they played this game every time they watched a movie together.
Tony would nonchalantly put his feet up on the table when Gibbs was not in the room. And when he would come back in the room, he would headslap Tony, shove his feet off the table, and growl out the word “shoes” like it was a curse word. He actually didn’t mind feet on his table so long as they didn’t have shoes on them to scuff up the finish. Openly grinning, Tony would make a big production out of having to take his shoes off, but he’d do it anyway and put his socked feet right back up on the table.
Shaking his head a little as he came back to the present, Gibbs wondered if he and Tony would ever be able to reclaim that level of camaraderie again.
Suddenly and without any real conscious thought, he was reaching for the gun he had hidden between the cushion he was sitting on and the couch’s arm and was pointing it towards his front door.
Just inside the entrance to his house stood Fornell who, with his hands up, said, “Jethro.”
“Tobias,” Gibbs returned mildly as he put the safety back on his weapon and returned it to its hiding place.
“Do you always point guns at friends who drop by for a visit?”
“No, just you,” he lobbed back as he watched Fornell take his overcoat off and hang it on the coatrack.
“Did you—?” the FBI agent asked with a vague sweep of a hand.
Gibbs glared then nodded, indicating that he’s already checked for any new listening devices or cameras of which there had been none since those first couple of weeks after Tony was dismissed from NCIS. When his friend made a move towards ‘Tony’s chair’ the Marine stood and asked in as calm a voice as he could muster, “You find him?”
He indicated that they should sit at the dining room table.
Fornell nodded and replied, “Yep, he was right where you said he’d be. How did you know?”
“I know Tony,” he answered with a shrug and not bothering to explain further. “How did it go?”
“’Bout like you’d expect,” he began then looked down at his hands which were resting on the table.
“What is it, Tobias?”
“DiNozzo… He said he’d do the job. I think he knows he doesn’t really have any other choice if he wants his life back.”
Gibbs ducked his head a little to get a better view of his friend’s face. He could tell there was more to the story. “But…”
“But, after this is over, it sounds like he’s done. That this was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back.”
Gibbs slammed a hand down on the table in frustration and stood so abruptly that his chair fell backward to the ground. He started to pace back and forth as he nearly yelled, “Damn it, Tobias! I told them! I told them this would happen, but they wouldn’t listen to me.”
“When do the guys in the big, comfy chairs ever listen to the soldiers on the front line?” Fornell calmly retorted.
The team leader took a deep breath and released it before bending over to pick up the fallen chair. Instead of sitting in it, he grabbed the chair tightly with his hands.
“Well, now Leon and Jarvis are going to get what they threatened to do to the team when this whole thing started if I didn’t follow orders. Once Ducky, Abby, Tim, and Ziva – heck, even Palmer – find out what has been going on behind the scenes… What they’ve – what I’ve – done to Tony… When they find out, the team with the highest closure rate in NCIS history will likely break up anyway. How could they ever trust me or the higher-ups ever again once they find out the truth?”
He ran a hand up his neck and squeezed at the tension that had been building up in his muscles.
“That was what they threatened me with if I didn’t follow orders – did you know that, Tobias?” he asked as he looked over at his friend who had apparently chosen to remain silent for the time being. “If I didn’t agree to destroying my best agent’s career, they were going to immediately and without recourse split us all up and scatter us to the four winds. They threatened my and Ducky’s future retirement packages. And they were willing to ruin the careers of their most successful team, if I didn’t agree to this operation.” Gibbs trailed off thinking back to that cursed meeting with Vance and Jarvis.
“I think that’s the most I’ve ever heard you speak at one time, Jethro,” Fornell cracked trying to inject some humor into tense situation.
The glare Gibbs sent towards the FBI agent would have been considered to be scorching and, were it a superpower; it would’ve reduced Fornell to a very small pile of ash.
“I was forced with an impossible choice: Tony or the rest of my team.”
The FBI agent’s smirk faded and was replaced with a sort of sadness as he indicated that Gibbs should retake his seat.
“Orders. I don’t like or agree with these orders any more than you do, but you know how it goes. We’ve both followed orders in one form or another all our lives and from all sorts of people: parents, teachers, D.I.’s, superior officers, Directors.”
“How can you be remotely okay with this?” Gibbs asked in an incredulous tone.
Fornell moved forward and leaned his arms on the table. “Once I heard what was at stake, what those bastards were doing… This was one order I knew I had to obey even though I knew what it would do to my friend and his team and especially his boy.”
His friend grimaced and leaned back in his chair. “If even half of what the Hawthornes are suspected of doing is true, then it’s our country’s safety that’s at stake. These people don’t seem to care that they’re selling out their country and putting it at extreme risk.
“All they seem to care about, all they seem to want is money. Cliché, but true. They think they can get away with betraying their country and then retiring to their own private island where they believe they’ll be untouchable. We’ve gotta stop these guys before they can do anymore damage.”
Gibbs lifted up one of the hands he had resting on the table and brought it up to rub his face. “Why did it have to be Tony? Why did it have to be done this way?”
“You of all people know how good he is at his job, did you think no one else would notice or take advantage? Rule 5, right?”
“Yeah,” he agreed with a slight cringe and almost wished that he’d never thought up the rule in the first place or applied it to Tony. “But we should have read him in, should have given him a choice. Instead, we – I – just ruined his life, ruined the team, ruined…everything.”
“Anyone who has ever seen you two together would never believe Tony would ever leave you or your team of his own free will. The deterioration of your relationship, the accusations about his poor performance and the money ‘theft’, the fall-out – everything had to be real. His reaction had to be completely genuine in case the bad guys had any eyes and ears in your agency. This was the only way. Otherwise Tony wouldn’t be in a position to take these dirt bags down.”
“Yeah, well… I think I played my part a little too well this time, Fornell. In order to break his trust and faith in me, I crossed some lines that I don’t think Tony can ever forgive and I don’t just mean about the job. I wasn’t kidding when I said I knew Tony. I used everything I knew about him personally against him.”
Gibbs crossed his arms and let his head sink a little before he finished by saying with a slightly forlorn voice. “Hell, I wouldn’t blame him for not wanting to have anything to do with me or NCIS when this is all over,”
The lead agent noticed that Fornell had shifted in his seat. “What?” he asked, suspicious of the sudden fidgeting.
“I tried talking to him.”
“You shouldn’t have done that. It was too soon,” he ground out. But, not being able to deny his curiosity, he asked, “What did he say?”
“He doesn’t care that you were under orders.” Fornell paused briefly at Gibbs’ muttered ‘damn’ before he revealed the bombshell he’d been holding back since he’d arrived. “What you said was true, Gibbs. You know the kid very well. So you were right in what you’d said just a minute ago. He asked me to pass on a request that would basically have him leaving NCIS and probably the East Coast behind for good.”
There was nothing that Gibbs could say to that news so he got up from the dining table and went for his previously abandoned glass of bourbon, mumbling curse words along the way that even the most foul-mouthed of sailors might blush at. He took a large gulp of the dark amber liquid as Fornell stood and said, “Don’t lose yourself in the bourbon, my friend. Tony will need you to be at his six when all this goes down – whether or not he knows it or wants it.”
The FBI agent stepped around Gibbs and headed for the coat rack. “In the meantime, Gibbs,” Fornell smirked then pointed to himself, “he has a familiar face as his handler. And your insistence on Grace being there at the diner from the beginning was smart thinking. There’s an established relationship there that will make things much easier for us in the long run.”
Tobias paused to put his coat on. “Because you know him so well, that allowed you to be able to somewhat predict what Tony would do. And you knew that he’d want to eventually be around people again. Knew he’d need someone on his side to help him through the rougher days and watch his six when you couldn’t.”
Fornell paused once more in order to fix a sleeve and his lapels before he concluded with, “You’ve done everything in your power to help Tony get through this assignment. The rest is up to him now.”
Tony’s handler opened the door and walked out in to the night. As Gibbs closed it, he said out loud to the empty house, “No Tobias. I didn’t do everything. I could’ve told Tony the truth and we could’ve figured out how to get through this together.”
Walking back towards the couch, he gulped down the rest of the bourbon in his glass and then detoured to the kitchen looking for the bottle and a generous refill.
He would allow himself this one last time to drink himself to oblivion before he began the fight to get his best friend, best agent, and kid back where he belonged – with NCIS, his team, and him.
Just in case… Rule 5 is “You don’t waste good.”
Chapter 5: A Time for Every Matter
Gibbs' is forced to make a 'choice.'
Zero or center point of the timeline for the next few chapters is the day Tony accepts the job with Hawthorne Security.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Chapter Five: A Time for Every Matter
Just over five months ago….
Like so many times before, Gibbs just walked right into Leon’s office – without knocking and without waiting to be announced.
“You wanted to see me, Leon?”
As Director Vance rose from his chair, he pressed a button on his desk phone.
“Pam, make sure we’re not disturbed.”
“Yes sir, Director,” replied his receptionist.
Vance straightened and gestured towards his conference table which called Gibbs’ attention to the other man in the room – the SecNav.
“Would it kill you to knock once in a while?” Vance asked in an undertone as he walked around his desk and towards the awaiting chairs.
“It might,” Gibbs quipped in an equally quiet tone before raising his voice to normal levels. He addressed Jarvis, “You called me in on my team’s day off, Sir, so I’d appreciate it if you’d skip the social niceties.”
Vance said, “Gibbs,” with a hint of warning as Jarvis began to speak.
“It’s no problem, Leon. It is the man’s day off,” he said with a smirk. “I’ll get right down to it. A multi-agency task force has been set up to eliminate a potential threat. So far we only have the supposition of wrongdoing which was discovered by analysts from the task force’s three agencies. NCIS, along with the FBI and Homeland Security, are tasked with finding proof that Hawthorne Security is committing crimes that endanger the security of this nation.”
“What does this have to do with me?” Gibbs bluntly asked. His gut was starting to act up, which caused him to be suspicious of the intent of his commanding officers.
“You and Agent DiNozzo have been chosen to go undercover long term to help catch these guys.”
Upon hearing Tony’s name, it immediately felt like he got a sharp kick to his gut. He can’t help but be well beyond suspicious at this point, because why wasn’t DiNozzo here at this meeting? For a few seconds he worried that his agent had already been sent out on this op, but the looks between Leon and Jarvis told him otherwise.
He decided to ask the obvious. “Shouldn’t Agent DiNozzo be here for this meeting, Sir?”
“Gibbs,” Vance answered sending an odd look to the SecNav. The slightly annoying kick to Gibbs’ gut turned into a herd of elephants rampaging across his stomach. “Agent DiNozzo is not to know that he’s going to be going undercover until phase two of this operation. You are critical to phase one of this plan.”
“What the hell are you talking about, Leon?”
“Special Agent Gibbs,” Jarvis interrupted him with a curt tone before the lead agent could get up a full head of steam. “Your part of this mission is to set up DiNozzo so that he will be in the perfect position to go in undercover at the Hawthornes’ security firm.”
“Without his knowledge or his consent?” he asked angrily.
“Yes,” was the too-calm reply from the SecNav.
“Hell no!” he exclaimed, indignant on Tony’s behalf.
“Hell, yes, Gibbs,” Jarvis retorted, locking eyes with him from across the table before he took both him and Vance into his gaze. “You work for me. I own you both. It’s time all of you get used to that. DiNozzo is going into this operation blind because his responses need to be real to everyone who witnesses the eventual fall-out between you two.”
“Fall-out?” he asked as he began to feel even more nauseas than he had just a moment ago.
“Gibbs, you are going to frame DiNozzo so that his abilities, skills, and ethics are called into question. Enough so that he will be disciplined at work to the point where he is let go from this agency.” The team leader was so shocked at the task he’d been given that all he could do for the moment was sit there completely speechless. “At the same time, you are to gradually cut your personal ties. It has to be real because anyone who knows you, anyone who’s seen the two of you work together will not buy any of this unless the break between you isn’t both professional and personal.”
Finally his mind decided to rejoin the meeting and he was speechless no more.
“So what you’re saying,” he began and tried to keep calm and rational, “is that I’m going to be responsible for ruining my best agent’s career and as an added bonus I get to destroy his personal ties with me and everyone else. I’m going to have to make him believe that after ten years of working together that I don’t care about him or his welfare. That he’s not—”
He stopped for fear of saying too much, and noted that Vance had given him a brief pitying look.
“That’s correct, Gibbs,” Jarvis replied. “He’s the best agent for the job.”
“You mean you volunteered DiNozzo because of all the crap that happened the last time he worked for you and you want some sort of revenge. Or more likely, you just want all the glory for NCIS and don’t care what happens to him! He’s expendable to your eyes, isn’t he?” He paused trying to keep himself from beating the crap out of Jarvis. He shook his head and declared, “I won’t do it. I will not ruin his life like that. NCIS is his family and you’re asking me to take it all away from him.”
His determined gaze went from Vance to Jarvis, with whom he locks eyes with. “I’m sorry, Sir, but I respectfully refuse to participate in this assignment.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way, Gibbs. But, I’m afraid you don’t really have a choice.” Jarvis leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. He lifted a hand and pointed it at Gibbs. “If you do not agree to do this, then I’ll be forced to take action.”
With that declaration, Vance’s head snapped to his left to look at the SecNav with obvious concern. Gibbs was pretty sure at this point that Leon didn’t know that Jarvis had blackmail in mind to achieve his agenda.
“If you don’t accept; effective immediately, you, your team, even Ms. Sciuto and Dr. Mallard will be reassigned elsewhere. Each of you will be sent to separate postings of my choosing with no recourse except to resign from this agency.
“Yours and Dr. Mallard’s pensions will be severely and negatively impacted, and Mr. Palmer will simply be fired and a black mark added to his record. In fact, everyone on your team will have black marks added to their records. Promotions will be virtually impossible for Agents McGee and David for the foreseeable future.
“As for Agent DiNozzo, he will be busted down from Senior Field Agent and permanently tied to a desk assigned to tasks which would be a complete waste of his skill set. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t quit in a month. And just for spite, if he does quit, I’ll make it nearly impossible for him to be hired to any law enforcement job of any kind. His career will be over regardless, but this way it will be permanent.”
Jarvis leaned back in his chair. Gibbs didn’t think it was possible for the SecNav’s smile to be any more condescending and smug. “Now, do you want to re-think your decision?”
“You goddamned bastard!” exploded from his mouth as he surged to his feet. Vance grabbed his forearm and he altered his movements to instead put his hands on the table and leaned forward on them to practically hover over Jarvis. “You’d rather destroy the best team in NCIS history, the team with the highest closure rate ever, the highest of all the federal agencies, just so you can get your way. Just so you can get all the glory and curry political favor on the Hill when DiNozzo succeeds.”
“So, you have changed your mind,” Jarvis responded smugly. Apparently Gibbs had been wrong; the SecNav’s smile could still get even more condescending and smug.
“It’s like you said, Secretary Jarvis. I don’t really have much of a choice. I either destroy the life of my senior field agent or watch as you dismantle and destroy my entire team. DiNozzo would kill me if I allowed anything like what you’re threatening to happen.”
“You’re on board with our agenda?” Jarvis asked in a way that included the Director which convinced him that Leon had little choice in this matter either.
“Yes, Sir. But mark my words. Once Tony finds out what I’ve done and why, you are going to permanently lose one of your best agents and still destroy the best team the agency’s got,” he promised, standing straight. “I hope it will be worth it,” he finished as he started to leave.
“It will, if the country remains a safe place to live,” Jarvis threw out.
“Gibbs, please sit,” Vance requested and at that moment he realized that the Director had been mostly silent for the majority of this damned meeting. He’d bet money that his boss was not all that happy with the SecNav for his interference in his agency. It was only because of Vance’s tone of voice that had him deciding to retake his seat.
“I know this operation will be difficult for you, but your sacrifice and that of Agent DiNozzo’s will be noticed and rewarded.”
“I don’t give a crap about that, Director Vance, and neither will DiNozzo. I hope you’re prepared for the consequences of your actions.”
“Gibbs—,” Jarvis began, but Gibbs interrupted.
“With all due respect, Jarvis, forget the threats, promises and whatever else you were about to say and just read me into this snafu.”
Just over two weeks into Tony’s undercover assignment…
Gibbs had been expressly forbidden to be involved with the investigation in any way, shape or form once DiNozzo had been forced out of NCIS. But he managed to keep informed to some degree regardless of those orders.
There was no way he would jeopardize DiNozzo’s cover, but he felt compelled to keep an eye on his friend’s six as much as was possible. It was his personal reason for his insistence on Grace being involved though the reason he gave NCIS was completely different. To them, he’d argued that they needed to keep eyes on Tony and that Grace would come in handy down the line. He’d been relieved when Vance agreed with his reasons and allowed Grace to come off of desk duty and come back into the field for this one assignment.
And she had been a godsend for his wayward agent – providing him with the back-up he had not been able to directly provide. Well, except for that one time, and he was damned lucky that no one has figured out that he’d interfered that night by managing to push DiNozzo back on track.
He knew he was putting his kid in to the line of fire that much sooner, but he also knew that Tony could handle himself and would succeed in his mission. And through Grace, he had been able to keep tabs on his agent.
Twice a week, Grace sent him a coded text message on a burn phone about how Tony was doing, which was all that he really cared about, and how the investigation was proceeding. He’d swallowed his pride and asked his teenaged neighbor from across the street how to send and receive the texts, but it’d been worth it in order to be able to keep tabs on his friend.
In fact, he expected a text from Grace to come any minute and hoped he could get McGee to speed up the delivery of the intel on the latest suspect in their current case. Life had gone on even if his friend was absent and much missed.
McGee had been doing as great a job as his new Senior Field Agent, but the computer enthusiast was no Tony. He and McGee just didn’t mesh as well as partners out in the field because they seemed to lack the simpatico that he had with Tony. So, he had left McGee and Ziva partners, and instead took on the seemingly endless string of probies the Director kept pushing on him.
What number were they on now? Nine? Ten?
He chuckled to himself as he remembered the one young agent who had only lasted three hours before he’d gone up to the Director’s office begging for reassignment. As far as he knew, no one was doing anything overt, it was just that each new person assigned to their team wasn’t Tony.
And what made it worse was that their jobs had been threatened if they made any sort of contact with DiNozzo before the investigation into the missing money was concluded. Because he hadn’t defended his ‘former’ agent, most of the agency, including his team, was already convinced of Tony’s guilt in the alleged theft of the missing money.
It was only a matter of time before his team found out the truth. It was only a matter of time before he lost the remaining members of his team and his family – just like Tony had. It was only fitting.
McGee finished just as he felt his phone vibrate at the arrival of a new message. He issued orders for their next avenue of inquiry and left to go get coffee so that he could read the latest text from Grace in private. But, probie number nine (or was it ten?) blocked his exit.
He glared at Grayden – Grayson? Gregson? Whatever. He glared at the guy and the obviously green agent simply shut his mouth and stepped out of the way too afraid to speak. Over his shoulder, he called out to his agents:
“McGee, David, inform the probie about the subtleties of Rule 23.”
Finally alone with his coffee ten minutes later, he accessed the new text message. Translating the code words from the message, his ever present worry for his friend flared up.
DiNozzo was doing well at his job not that he’d had any doubts on that score whatsoever. Various co-workers, along with Daniel Hawthorne, had been subtlety trying to extract information from him. The Plan was working, but Grace was worried about Tony’s mental well-being more so than ever before.
Gibbs had no details, but then again he knew DiNozzo. Having no choice but to protect people he’d rather arrest, along with the pressure of being undercover, and the knowledge of how he came to be in his current position – it must be killing Tony to have to live like that.
Hell, he couldn’t blame his friend, as all this was killing him too.
Just in case… Rule 23: Never mess with a Marine's coffee if you want to live.
Chapter 6: Time is of the Essence
Gibbs steps up on his plans, while Tony continues on undercover.
As a reminder, the zero or center point of the timeline for this chapter is the day Tony accepted the job with Hawthorne Security.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Chapter Six: Time Is of the Essence
Four months ago…
After that last dinner together at his house, Gibbs began to step up his plan to ruin his friend’s life. He reasoned it was better to just to get it over and done with rather than inadvertently torturing Tony by dragging it out too long.
With the help of the FBI, he’d begun replacing evidence that Tony had collected on cases with damaged duplicates, making it look like Tony had ‘lost’ evidence, and he also set up other procedural errors to be blamed on his agent. He did make absolutely sure that, though he was setting this all up and that Tony was getting the blame, none of the criminals involved would be able to get off on a technicality and escape the justice system. He owed that much to DiNozzo.
He had also started acting as if he was getting more and more disillusioned in his agent, gave him more headslaps than he deserved, blamed him for everything that went wrong on every case, and nearly constantly berated his agent. As a consequence, he had to watch his friend spiral downward for real.
Gibbs could see that Tony was truly beginning to doubt his abilities and ordered his teammates to handle tasks he normally would’ve fought to do in the past. Tony also began to only offer theories or opinions about the case when he was ordered to, but mostly kept quiet the rest of the time. His agent also kept trying to get some time alone with him – no doubt to try to figure out what was going on – but he made sure he was either not ever available or turned him down to his face.
He wished Tony’s teammates would do more to support their co-worker, but so far they’d only made snide remarks and occasionally mocked him. Otherwise they generally tried to stay away from him hoping to not be sucked into his troubles. It was easy for him to see that the former cop was getting frustrated – not only with himself but with his teammates and especially with Gibbs – to the point where he hardly ever interacted with any of them anymore. If it weren’t for Abby and Ducky providing some measure of support when they could, Gibbs thought Tony might have quit long before now.
Looking at his watch, he noted that DiNozzo was almost an hour late today and he hadn’t heard from him yet. McGee had tried to get in contact with Tony, but so far there had been no luck and he had started to get worried though he wasn’t able to show it. At least this was something he hadn’t set up to go wrong, but knowing how he had planned to react when Tony did finally show up…that knowledge didn’t help to alleviate any of his guilt.
Finally, the elevator dinged and seconds later Tony walked into the bullpen dropping his backpack at his desk on the way to his boss’.
“Boss, I’m sorry I’m late. My car broke down and—”
“DiNozzo, I don’t want to hear your apologies or your excuses. You are over an hour late and protocol says you should’ve have reported in long before now.”
“Boss,” Tony began with a worried look on his face. “I was visiting a college buddy last night and ended up spending the night because I drank too much. The location where my car died seemed to be in a dead zone for my cell phone. I had to walk a ways to get a signal then go back and wait for the tow truck. I tried calling, but—”
“It’s obvious you didn’t try hard enough. Rule 3, DiNozzo. I’m supposed to believe you couldn’t get hold of any one of us?”
“You sure you’re not just trying to cover up for the fact that you’re doing some side work for either the Director or the SecNav?” I ask knowing the question would not only throw him but would probably be the only time I’d be able to give him a hint about his troubles even though he wouldn’t know its significance until much later, if ever.
Gibbs snorted out disbelief he didn’t actually feel which prompted Tony to look him right in the eye. “Are you saying you don’t believe me?”
“I’m saying you need to stop with your excuses – not just about this morning, but with everything else you’ve been screwing up lately. I’m getting tired of you messing up. You’re getting a disciplinary letter added to your file. Now, get to work!” I growled out and threw in a plainly dismissive gesture for good measure.
Looking like he just had his dog kicked and also confused at Gibbs’ attitude towards him, Tony closed his eyes for a moment, but when he opened them again, there had been a nearly flawless mask of indifference on his face.
“Yes, Sir,” he said dropping his eyes to the ground and turning to go to his desk.
Two months into Tony’s undercover assignment…
The latest text from Grace had been both good news and bad. The good news: Tony was working his way up the ranks and he’d finally given the Hawthornes the intel they’d wanted. Tony was also closing in on the proof the taskforce needed to take the dirt bags down for good. The bad news: More and more often Tony was coming into the diner refusing to eat much of anything and usually just had coffee and a dessert which he mostly left half-eaten. It was obvious to Grace that DiNozzo was losing weight and from the dark circles under his eyes, was losing a lot of sleep too. Even Fornell had mentioned that Tony was not looking so good these days.
This undercover op and the circumstances surrounding it were affecting his friend more than he was presently capable to handle despite how good an agent he was. There’s only so much a man can take, and DiNozzo was being hit from all sides every single day.
From the sound of things, Tony needed this assignment to be over today, but until the proof was in the Feds’ hands, things had to continue as they were. He badly wanted to check up on his friend in person, but knew it would be much too dangerous to do so at this point.
Gibbs was positive that Tony needed this assignment over yesterday, but he was also confident that Tony would find the needed evidence soon.
Just over two months ago…
They’d just wrapped up a case that had resulted in some money being seized. For a couple of weeks now, Vance had been getting on his case saying he needed to step up his plan. A new set of national security protocols had just been released the previous week, so Tony had to be fired soon or they risked the mission failing before it had hardly ever started.
It turned out that the seizure of the money was the perfect catalyst to ruin his agent’s career. Ten thousand dollars had been confiscated – it was ridiculously easy to change the logs. They now reflected that seventy thousand had been seized instead of ten thousand. He’d only had to work against the clock to do it before the serial numbers had been logged in. Other than that, it was as simple as changing a one into a seven. One stroke of a pen and Tony’s career was over.
The next day, Vance requested that he and Tony come up to his office. Knowing what was to come, he couldn’t help the nausea that overcame him and he swallowed thickly to keep the bile where it belonged.
It took all his willpower to not say anything, to not come to Tony’s defense as Vance accused him of stealing sixty thousand dollars. Tony had stood there openly shocked and more than once his agent had sent him pleading looks which he had pointedly ignored. The Director then opened up Tony’s file and brought up all the orchestrated incidents of incompetency that Gibbs had reported over the last few months.
Without really giving DiNozzo the chance to defend himself, Director Vance fired Tony on the spot. Vance informed DiNozzo that there’d be an investigation into the missing money and that he’d be contacted if NCIS decided to press charges against him for theft. The now ex-agent was also told he was not allowed to leave the area until the investigation was over.
And while the Director destroyed Tony’s career, Gibbs had just stood there and done nothing. He hadn’t defended his friend at all – he’d just gone along with everything Tony was being accused of – including, but not limited to “gross incompetence” and a “severe decline” in his work. Vance had even called in two guys from Security to escort the now former agent out of the building once he’d picked up his personal belongings.
Once downstairs, it wasn’t until he’d requested that DiNozzo turn over his service weapon and badge that the man had come out of his shocked stupor.
“Boss, you have to know that I would never take that money.”
“Do I? After all the snafus surrounding you and your work,” he stressed the word as if it was distasteful and as if he didn’t believe that Tony had ever really done any work as an agent, “what am I supposed to believe? I don’t know why I’ve put up with your screw ups all these years and I don’t know what ever possessed me to keep you on my team all this time.
“Your undercover work is a joke, your theories about cases inane, and your skills over all are questionable. And all those pathetic attempts to get laughs and any sort of attention… Well, I’m glad that Vance finally got rid of you, because my only regret is that I didn’t do it myself sooner.”
The hurt in Tony’s eyes, his ever more defeated appearance made him want to call this damn assignment off right that second. But he didn’t do it.
Tony hadn’t been the only one stunned by Gibbs’ words; it seemed everyone on the floor had stopped to listen. Soon everyone in the building and all the other federal agencies would know about this confrontation. Only McGee and Ziva were even close to being more surprised than Tony, but yet they still didn’t interfere.
His agent – ex-agent – had opened his mouth to say something, but the words he usually had no problem stringing together before had failed him in that moment. But in the next moment, he quietly said, “I’ve worked for you for ten years, Bo--, uh Gibbs, watched your six… Doesn’t that count for anything?”
“Except for still being alive today – which I’m sure is a happy accident and not skill on your part – no, not really.” He held out a hand. “Weapon and badge, Mister DiNozzo.”
Gibbs could swear the light in Tony’s eyes dimmed at what he’d been forced to say for the good of the operation. As Tony ejected the mag and cleared his gun’s chamber, he still felt that his friend hadn’t quite lost complete faith in him yet.
Professionally, yes; but personally, not yet – or at least not completely yet.
And that’s when he knew he would have a visitor that night. That’s when he knew he’d have to thoroughly finish destroying the relationship they’d been building since the first day they’d met in Baltimore. He knew he’d have to completely destroy his kid’s faith and trust in him so that Tony would be the bait the Hawthornes would not be able to resist.
Having surrendered his weapon and badge, DiNozzo then went to his desk to grab his personal effects. He watched as Tony’s hand hovered over his Mighty Mouse stapler – a symbol of how he ended up at NCIS – before he moved it to open his top drawer and taking out his keys and wallet. Then the bottom drawer, the one containing the lock box of his medals was opened. Tony sighed and closed the drawer again without removing the box.
Tony removed his coat and took his shoulder holster off and laid it on the desk. Putting his coat back on, he looked at his escort and said, “I’m ready.”
Grabbing his keys and wallet, Tony moved around his desk without taking any of the other things he’d accumulated over the years. Gibbs could understand why he had left it all behind, but his now ex-teammates couldn’t. In response to their query over his actions, DiNozzo replied, “There’s not anything I want or need anymore.”
Gibbs couldn’t help the feeling regret and guilt that had settled on him like a layer of ash. And it was then that he’d decided he would box up and store his agent’s belongings until such time as Tony wanted them again – if ever.
Three months into Tony’s undercover assignment….
Grace’s last text message brought a smile to his face that had rarely been seen by anyone the last eight months.
Tony had finally located the evidence needed to take the Hawthorne brothers down, but had learned of, and had been asked to participate in, helping a known terrorist and his cronies sneak into the country. Not willing to pass up the opportunity to capture a known killer of innocent Americans, Tony had requested that the task force wait a few more days so that they could get two sets of scumbags for the price of one undercover mission. Gibbs couldn’t help but be proud that his agent wanted to stick it out for a few more days.
The take down was being planned for just three nights from now. Gibbs immediately called Fornell and asked to be included in on the bust. The higher-ups reluctantly agreed when the SecNav argued that all three agencies should be in on the end game.
In just three days, this thrice damned mission would be all over and Gibbs could finally try to rebuild the partnership and friendship he’d previously had with Tony.
That was if Tony would even give him a chance to try after everything he’d done.
I hope you’ll cut me some slack on a couple of things in this chapter. First, I have no idea how federal agencies fire their employees so I went for the angst factor instead of reality. Second, I know I’m not being totally fair to the rest of the team regarding their behavior towards Tony. In my head, this story is centered on Tony and Gibbs’ relationship and whether or not there can be any sort of forgiveness, understanding, etc. in their situation – not the team’s actions or reactions or the undercover mission itself.
Just in case: Rule 3 is “Never be unreachable.”
Chapter 7: Desperate Times
Basement confrontation. The end of Tony's undercover assignment.
The zero or center point of the timeline for this chapter is the day Tony accepted the job with Hawthorne Security.
Chapter Seven: Desperate Times
Two months ago…
Three hours after Security had escorted Tony out of his bullpen, he heard the front door open and slam shut from down in the basement.
Seconds later, Tony was storming down the steps. He’d obviously moved way passed shocked and stunned and had hit ‘pissed off’ at full speed.
“What the hell, Gibbs? Why didn’t you help me out earlier?”
“Why should I help you?” he casually, but matter-of-factly replied, which stopped Tony cold.
“I… I thought—”
“You thought what? That I wasn’t just your boss, but your friend too? And that based on that ‘relationship’ you thought I should help you out of trouble of your own making? Or maybe you thought that we’d developed some sort of familial bond like brothers or father and son? That I’d help you cover up your incompetence and criminal behavior because of that supposed ‘bond’ we shared?”
Tony’s eyes were wide and he seemed to be turning an interesting shade of green. Gibbs realized that he wasn’t feeling all that intestinally sound either as he watched Tony swallow heavily and force himself to take a deep breath.
“You mean that you’ve been lying to me all these years? Why did you even bother to steer me towards joining NCIS if we – if you and—”
“Director Morrow kept pushing worthless probies on me, but with you I knew I wouldn’t have to do much house training. You were the best of a bad lot. You were willing to take my crap, willing to work hard for just a few scraps of praise. It was really quite pathetic, but it worked for me – until your most recent screw up.”
“So basically you tolerated me because I could take all you could dish out?”
“Yep. Wow, and people say you’re not that great an investigator,” he replied with a snort, but inwardly hating himself for the lies he was being forced to tell Tony. “I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me why I kept you around.”
Tony turned slightly away at that comment, and he wondered how many times that his friend had actually been asked that very same question.
“What about all the time we’ve spent together off the clock?”
“A good C.O. makes sure those under his command are happy. It was my duty. If I’d known that you’d be so needy, that you had so many personal issues, I would have thought twice about asking you to be on my team.”
“None of it was real?” Tony quietly asked, and Gibbs wished he didn’t have to answer the question; wished he didn’t have to destroy a great relationship that had taken them years to develop. He could wish all he wanted for things to be different, but it was too late and had been for months now.
“You may have thought of me as family, as some sort of replacement for the father who constantly ignores and abandons you, but I’ve never felt that way about you. My family died a long time ago, and I’ve never wanted or needed another one. I don’t need or want someone to fill that spot in my life. Especially a failure like you. Sports, relationships, Baltimore, and now NCIS. I think I’m actually ashamed that you were ever on my team. That people thought, like you did, that we were family.”
The negative emotions that flickered over Tony’s face, the devastation in his eyes, were like someone was stabbing a knife into his heart. Gibbs knew this had to be done and done well so that whoever was listening would believe DiNozzo meant absolutely nothing to him. Whoever they were, they needed to absolutely believe Tony had no job and no one in his life that cared about him.
He thought he could still detect a tiny remnant of hope coming from Tony. Hope that his boss wasn’t really this distant and cruel. Hope that everything they’d been through over the years had meant something to Gibbs. Hope that he still meant something to Gibbs.
But he knew that their conversation was being monitored and he couldn’t show any mercy. He had to make the killing blow even though he thought it would kill him too to make it. He had to do this to keep his kid safe; to protect him as much as possible from the fate of some of Hawthorne’s other employees.
“You know, I finally get why Senior sent you away to school, why he doesn’t keep in touch, why he’s left you behind so many times…” Tony’s head snapped up and whipped towards him.
Their eyes met, and his ex-agent quietly asked in a voice that was steeped in emotion, “Why?”
“Just look at you. There’s nothing special about you. You’re not worth the trouble of keeping around. Frankly it’s a relief to be rid of someone so pathetic and disappointing. Who would want a son like you? I know I wouldn’t.”
And with that sentence, he saw in his friend’s eyes, the last remnant of Tony’s hope flicker and die.
He’d done it. He’d destroyed the last vestiges of their friendship. The mission could proceed.
The last night of Tony’s undercover assignment…
Looking back over that night, he still didn’t think he would ever be able to accurately recount what had happened – how it had all gone to hell.
How Tony had been injured and almost died because of what he’d set in motion all those months ago. One minute he was waiting with one of the take down teams for their terrorist to arrive and the next…all was chaos.
The Hawthorne brothers had personally come out to the airport to take care of their ‘extra-special’ client along with Tony and several others who were there to secure the scene. Everything seemed to be going well until the terrorists deplaned. From what he’d heard, he theorized that one of the terrorist’s henchmen might have gotten spooked and pulled a weapon causing Hawthorne’s men to do the same. A shot somehow went off and suddenly it was the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Even after the investigation of the scene was completed, he still didn’t think he’d ever have a clear picture of what had happened.
But when the shooting had begun, his blood had seemingly and instantly turned to ice because his gut was screaming at him that Tony had been hit. And, because of where he’d been positioned, he hadn’t been able to have eyes on his agent. Hadn’t been able to properly watch his friend’s six. He’d failed his agent and friend yet again.
The task force had charged in and quickly got control of the scene, but once he’d secured a suspect who’d tried to escape, his sole purpose had been to find his long absent friend. He had rushed to where the plane still sat, now full of bullet holes, and had carefully scanned the area for Tony. When he couldn’t find his friend within the immediate area, his worry ratcheted up another notch.
Taking a deep breath, he forced the worry down and brought the skills he’d learned as a Marine to the forefront of his mind. Without any real thought, he picked a direction and began systematically looking for Tony. It took a couple of minutes, but eventually he’d found some drops of blood that led away from the scene. The moment he’d found the blood, he knew he’d find Tony at the end of the trail.
And he had been right. He found DiNozzo slumped unconscious against the wheel of a fuel supply truck out of sight and out of the line of fire. Checking him over for injuries, he had discovered that the upper thigh of Tony’s right leg had been hit. Too much blood seemed to be pooling underneath it on the concrete. Concerned about the amount of blood, he had taken off his belt and used it as a tourniquet hoping the wound wasn’t as bad as it appeared.
There had been a couple of requests for his status over his comms the last few minutes, but he had ignored them in his determination to find Tony. Now that he’d temporarily treated the most obviously dangerous wound, he didn’t hesitate to check in and requested an ambulance for a downed suspect. All the agents assigned to tonight’s take down had been tasked with preserving DiNozzo’s cover for the present and arrest him, but with his friend injured before him, he wasn’t sure it mattered anymore.
Not being able to stand Tony being so quiet, he patted DiNozzo’s cheek trying to rouse him, but had no luck. Gibbs didn’t think the blood loss was to blame, so he checked to make sure there were no further injuries and found a bloody gash along the left side of Tony’s head above the ear, which had been hidden until now by the poor lighting of his surroundings.
As he waited for the chaos to reach them, Gibbs moved a hand up to cup the juncture between Tony’s neck and shoulder. He asked, “Tony, you listening to me?” He paused hoping for some sort of response, but received none. “You better not even think of checking out on me before we’ve had a chance to talk. You got that?”
He could hear footsteps approaching so he bent over and put his lips right next to Tony’s ear and pleaded, “Live, Tony. I can’t lose you. Not like this. Please, just live.”
Chapter 8: The Truth Hurts
Gibbs waits. Tony reacts.
I'm not a medical professional, so please excuse/overlook any inaccuracies. Thanks!
Chapter Eight: The Truth Hurts
Gibbs had lost track of how long he’d been sitting next to Tony’s bedside. He looked at his watch and noted it had already been more than sixteen hours since DiNozzo had been brought into the hospital.
Sixteen hours had gone by and his friend had yet to wake up properly. His eyes had flickered and just barely opened and he’d vocalized some discomfort in the ambulance, but he had yet to fully regain consciousness. It was something the doctors were concerned about, but not overly so just yet considering his condition.
The bullet had nicked a major blood vessel, the name of which he couldn’t remember right now, and then it had lodged in Tony’s leg next to his femur. The bone had slightly cracked and DiNozzo would have to stay off it for a while until it healed sufficiently. Blood loss had been a concern at first, but with infusions it had been easily taken care of. His friend also had a minor concussion due to just getting barely creased by a bullet to the left side of the head. If the trajectories of the bullets had been at a slightly different angle, then Tony most likely wouldn’t be here in the bed in front of him right now. Tests had also revealed some other not too surprising results: minor malnutrition, minor dehydration, and extreme exhaustion.
These symptoms combined with the gunshot wounds – the doctors seemed to think this was why Tony had yet to fully awaken. His friend was exactly where he needed to be right now. All Gibbs had to do was be patient, and despite most people’s opinions to the contrary, he knew how to be patient. His time as a sniper had taught him that, though he hadn’t exercised that skill very often the last decade or so.
Gibbs had been assured that Tony would recover; that his injured friend would wake up. All the man in the bed before him needed was time.
Time that, during the shoot-out between the terrorists and Hawthorne Security’s people, Gibbs thought he had run out of. The lead agent had thought he’d run out of time to tell Tony the truth about everything that had happened, everything the younger man had not been privy to regarding a mission that had been fubar from the very beginning.
Now, it seemed he would have all the time in the world to tell Tony the truth, to repair the damage he’d inflicted not only on their personal and professional relationship, but to his friend’s emotional well-being. He just had to hope and pray that his boy would forgive him eventually.
He reached forward and grabbed Tony’s lax hand which was still too pale for his liking. Gibbs squeezed the hand to let its owner know someone was there for him and to perhaps coax him awake, but to no avail. Sighing, he released his grip, patted the hand and let go.
Sitting back and trying to relax in the uncomfortable seat, his mind began to wander. Eventually it settled on recalling the ambulance ride to the hospital.
The ride over had actually provided him with a measure of hope he’d not had in over five months. He’d bullied his way onto the ambulance with the half-truth that Tony was in his custody. The words were essentially true even if it made his skin crawl to say them.
Anxiously he watched the EMTs work on his friend, having to listen to their concern about Tony’s falling blood pressure, and watching for any sign that his injured agent would be okay. Periodically the EMTs would try to rouse Tony to consciousness, but they’d only been partly successful one time, and that one time had been because of him.
His agent had begun to stir and his vitals had begun to speed up, but it seemed full consciousness was beyond him. Impatient, Gibbs had reached his hand over to very gently tap his hand on Tony’s head.
With concerned looks from the paramedics, he leaned in and ordered, “Hey DiNozzo, wake up! Not paying you to sleep!”
He hadn’t expected it to actually work, but it did.
Tony’s eyes opened to the tiniest of slits, but they did open. Unfortunately, he’d panicked at the unfamiliar surroundings and probably the pain he was feeling. Gibbs grabbed his friend’s chin and forced the barely open and unfocused eyes on him.
Forcing his voice to sound its normal gruff self, he said, “Easy, Tony. Stand down. I’ve got your six.”
And for the briefest of moments, Tony’s eyes looked clearer and actually focused on him before he saw a tiny smile form on his partner’s lips. Then the eyes closed, and DiNozzo was unconscious once more. Since then any attempts to rouse him had failed.
But that little smile, that one look, that one moment of clarity in Tony’s eyes… Tony’s unconscious reaction to him told him there was still a chance that they could work through everything. That this trial – this test that life had thrown at them – would make them a stronger, closer team than ever before.
He woke up.
One minute, he was stumbling then dragging himself out of the line of fire, and the next, he could swear he heard Gibbs’ voice ordering him to wake up. One minute, he was in the middle of a shootout Wyatt Earp would be proud of, and the next, he was here.
And from the smell assaulting his noise, the ‘here’ was a hospital. He hated ‘eau de hospital’ more than any other smell, but given how craptastic he was feeling, including dull aches and a feeling of exhaustion, he supposed this was the best place for him to be right now.
While staring at the ceiling not wanting to risk moving, his usual sense of his surroundings kicked in and he knew he wasn’t alone in his room. He knew without one iota of doubt and without turning his head who was sitting beside his bed. And, given the fact that his former C.O. had yet to appear by his side, he deduced that the older man was currently asleep.
He honestly wasn’t sure how he felt about Gibbs being here as if he still had the right to be there, as if the man was still his friend or his family. He knew one of the terrorists must have shot him, but it was Gibbs who had put him in a situation where he could get hurt or killed in the first place. It was Gibbs’ fault he didn’t know anymore who his allies were, who he could trust.
He knew it was slightly irrational, but Tony blamed the Marine for his physical injuries. It was definitely not irrational to fault his former friend for his revived trust, self-worth, and confidence issues. It may have been done under orders, but the man had crossed several lines in order to execute them. He could barely think about his former team leader without feeling sick to his stomach while at the same time wanting to throw a roundhouse punch at the guy.
Okay, then, he thought. Anger it is.
At least he had a clearer idea of how he felt about the man sitting by his bedside; the man he used to trust and had allowed, as so few in his life had previously been allowed, to see around his walls and behind his masks. Gibbs no longer deserved a place by his side, and now, more than anything at this moment, he wanted the one who had betrayed him to leave.
He shifted to get more comfortable in the hopelessly uncomfortable bed. Big mistake. A host of aches and pains flared to life and all he knew for a while was a dark haze at the edge of his vision and sharp pains in his head and leg. Forcing himself to breathe through the pain and get a handle on it, he eventually regained awareness of his surroundings.
Along with that awareness, came a voice that eventually became clear enough for him to understand the words rather than just recognize a concerned tone of voice. As the pain receded, he heard Gibbs calling his name and knew it was not the first time it had been called. If nothing else, at least the pain had saved him the trouble of getting the man’s attention.
“Tony? Hey, DiNozzo! You with me now?”
What he really wanted to say was: No, I’m not with you, and I’m not sure I ever want to be again. But what came out was a croaky, barely audible to even his ears, “Out.”
“Tony? What?” he heard Gibbs ask as a cup with a straw came into his field of vision.
Annoyed with this display of false concern and consideration, but not wanting to pass up a chance to slake his thirst so that he could say what he needed to, he took a long draw of the water anyway. After swallowing a couple of times to make sure the water stayed down, he tried speaking again.
“Get out.” His voice was still raspy, but even in his condition; he could clearly hear the words.
Gibbs, who had leaned forward to hear the words, reared back as if he’d been struck. “Tony, I—.”
He wasn’t going to listen to any cock-and-bull excuse his former team leader’s mouth could invent, so he interrupted the man beside him.
“I. Said.… Get. Out.”
He enunciated each word as calmly as possible, but his body and the monitors attached to him were giving away his true feelings.
He didn’t notice the nurse until she’s right next to his bed, “Mr. DiNozzo, you need to calm down. Your body has recently endured some trauma…”
Tony blocked out the rest of her words thinking, You’ve got no idea, Lady!
He lifted his head and shoulders up off the bed, interrupting her speech.
His body was screaming at him for relief, but he managed to yell, “Get out…Gibbs! You have… no right… to be here… anymore. Get out and… don’t ever… come back!”
Gibbs and the nurse spoke up at the same time and he had difficulty concentrating on what either of them said.
The nurse said, “You need to calm down Mr. DiNozzo or—.”
Gibbs said, “Tony, please. Just—.”
Tony didn’t care what either of them was trying to say, “I don’t… Just… Out!”
Whatever strength he had gave out and he let his head drop back to his pillows. He closed his eyes completely exhausted by everything that had happened since he had awakened just a few minutes before, and yet it seemed like he’d been awake for days at this point.
In the background he could hear the nurse trying to get his former friend to leave the room. It wasn’t until it seemed he was half-asleep or half-unconscious – Tony wasn’t sure which – that he thought he heard the nurse ask Gibbs to leave the room for his sake, that the man was doing him more harm than good.
He wasn’t aware enough to hear what Gibbs’ response was, but one of his last thoughts was to hope that he wouldn’t ever have to see the bastard again. But then his very last thought before his mind went dark was to realize that he wouldn’t be that lucky.
Chapter 9: The Sad Truth
Gibbs is stubborn. Tony reflects and observes.
Chapter Nine: The Sad Truth
When he saw Tony slump back against the pillows, he fought to stay by his injured friend’s bedside, but the nurse who’d rushed in when the alarms had gone off was pushing him back towards the door. Even though his attention was focused on Tony, he couldn’t help but notice when another nurse slipped by the two of them.
The nurse attempting to get him out the door said, “All you’re doing by staying is hurting him. He doesn’t want you here. For his sake, you need to leave.”
“He’s in my custody, I can’t leave,” he said sticking with the official story.
“Well, as long as your presence adversely affects my patient, then I can’t allow you to stay in his room.”
“I get it. I do. But you’re going to have to figure out something else until he’s willing to see you again. Mr. DiNozzo’s health is our first priority.”
“Fine,” he growled.
The other nurse that had gone in emerged from Tony’s room.
“How is he?” Gibbs asked, concerned that he yet again was the cause of his friend’s suffering.
“He’s asleep again. I’ve paged the doctor and he’ll be here as soon as he can to assess him. Agent Gibbs, did Mr. DiNozzo recognize you?”
“Oh yeah,” he ruefully answered. “It’s why he reacted the way he did.”
The nurse smiled crookedly, and said, “I’ll let the doctor know what happened.”
As she walked away, the first nurse spoke up, “Go to the cafeteria and get some more coffee. Take a break. He should be asleep for a while. Trust me. He’ll be fine – eventually. Besides, with that leg, he’s not going anywhere just yet.”
From her words, she obviously didn’t believe or thought there was more to his lie about Tony being in his custody.
Gibbs turned towards the elevator, but then suddenly found he couldn’t bring himself to start walking despite knowing his friend was safe and in good hands. He let his head drop. “I can’t leave him.”
“Then at least go down the hall to the vending machines. You can still see Mr. DiNozzo’s room from there.”
“His name is ‘Tony’,” he said turning towards the direction she’d indicated and surrendered to his need for more coffee no matter how horrible it might taste.
While watching the machine fill a cup with coffee, he finally fully registered what Tony had yelled at him earlier.
Don’t ever come back!
The phrase seemed to echo all around him, but he knew it was only in his mind.
His shoulders slumped and he allowed himself to fixate on the last few errant drops of coffee still trickling into his cup. He knew Tony would be beyond furious at him, but he did not anticipate this reaction. He had thought Tony would at least hear him out, give him a fair chance to explain…but apparently he’d been fooling himself. He should’ve known that he’d too severely damaged their relationship for his agent to cut him any amount of slack and listen to what he had to say.
Taking a sip of the scalding hot coffee, he wondered if Tony would ever forgive him, if his friend would ever understand the motivations behind his actions. He’d been following orders, forced into this position by a SecNav who didn’t care about his people other than to consider them pieces to move around a game board.
A while ago he’d thought that he could’ve – should’ve – found a way to tell Tony the truth; that they could have found a way to do the assignment together like always. But, to his great regret, he had made the massive mistake of letting his anger at Vance and the SecNav as well as his worry over Tony’s well-being cloud his judgment in the beginning. His team may think he always knew everything; that he always knew what he was doing and always had a plan, but that simply was not the case. He was only human and made plenty of mistakes, and by not reading Tony in on this mess, he’d made a mistake that had cost him dearly; had ruined an unorthodox friendship and had almost cost DiNozzo his life.
‘Don’t ever come back!’ echoed through his mind once more as he made his way back to Tony’s room. The phrase was like a much deserved dagger thrust into his stomach. He had failed to listen to his gut, failed to stand up to the SecNav, and most damning of all, failed his friend by crossing lines that should never have been crossed. He may have managed to eventually manipulate the situation enough so that his agent had people he could trust around him while on assignment, but that in no way even began to erase his culpability for having crossed those lines.
Despite that though, he still wanted to continue the fight to get Tony back in his life. He wanted more than anything to regain some measure of DiNozzo’s trust even if he had to settle for being only co-workers or merely acquaintances. He’d had a taste of what it would be like without Tony in his life these too long past months. And even if they never got back to having that sense of being family between them ever again, he was determined to keep the Tony-shaped hole from becoming a permanent fixture in his life.
Arriving at the doorway, he hesitated for a moment before risking a glance into his senior field agent’s room. Even asleep Tony didn’t look completely at peace and Gibbs knew he was mostly to blame for that. He was aware of how incredibly hypocritical it was for him to still call Tony a friend given what he’d done, but Gibbs would concede to his injured friend’s wishes and stay out of DiNozzo’s room.
Tony was too important to him professionally and especially personally; he was going to have to work hard to keep DiNozzo where he belonged. He knew that they could never go back to the way they were, but maybe they could eventually become a better team than they ever were before.
The next time he woke up, he quickly discovered his ex-team leader was not in the room. He wasn’t sure if he was relieved or disappointed.
He should be relieved that his traitorous ex-friend was not there feeding him more lies trying to cover up his actions and that the man had done what Tony wanted for a change. He should be relieved that Gibbs wasn’t trying to attain forgiveness for just how badly he’d screwed up, for crossing the line in such a way as it couldn’t even be seen anymore except with binoculars.
He should be relieved, but oddly enough he was also disappointed. He found himself disappointed that Gibbs wasn’t stubborn enough to keep trying to make amends for his actions. He was disappointed that he was never worth the effort like he’d been told so many times before. He was tired of being disappointed.
His self-esteem might be at one of its lowest points ever in his life, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t still angry for being used – again – by the higher-ups. It didn’t mean he wasn’t still angry at Gibbs for giving in and throwing him to the wolves both personally and professionally. He was still angry at so many things that had happened over the last eight months.
Quickly though, he found out that anger as an emotion was exhausting and he sought out sleep once more.
Some unknown time later – maybe the third time he’d awakened since he’d found his ex-mentor next to his bed – he could tell that he’d had no visitors other than the hospital staff, which reinforced his anger not only at Gibbs, but his former teammates. If they didn’t know the whole story before, then they certainly knew it by now. They certainly had to know that he hadn’t done anything wrong, hadn’t messed up investigations, and hadn’t stolen that money. He had at least expected to see Vance or Jarvis by now, but even they hadn’t yet dared to show themselves to him.
Perhaps he wasn’t allowed visitors in order to keep up the façade that he was in custody. He’d have to ask one of his nurses about that.
His doctors had finally come by when he’d been awake and able to discuss his injuries. Once he was out of here in a couple of days, he would be required to use crutches until his leg had properly healed. His main obstacle to getting released from the hospital was the fact that it was impossible for him to go home to his apartment. He lived on the top floor and the elevator was more often than not down for repairs. Having to use crutches on that many flights of stairs was just asking for more trouble.
By now his bank accounts would be closed to him until the forensic accountants could do their thing and separate his ‘ill-gotten gains’ from his rightfully earned income. God alone knew how long that would take. So the only money he had was the emergency cash he had stashed away in an apartment he couldn’t access. He didn’t trust anyone to get it for him, so he had to figure out something else, and given how he had been dropped like a hot potato after he’d been accused of theft, it wasn’t like he had anyone he could crash with either. Maybe he could convince NCIS (if anyone ever bothered to show up) to foot the bill for a cheap hotel room until he was able to use the stairs at his apartment complex again – it was the least he was owed for what they’d done to him.
He sighed. He was tired of being alone with his thoughts and reached for the remote hanging off the bedrail. Maybe TV would drown out the thoughts for a while.
A half hour later, he shut the TV off, bored with what daytime programming had to offer. Because he couldn’t see out his window, he decided to try amusing himself with observing the comings and goings of people passing by his open door. He was fortunate in this endeavor in that his room seemed to be close to the nurses’ desk which meant there was plenty to see from his bed.
After a while, he began to notice something odd in the way people walked past his room. It seemed they were side-stepping an obstacle that seemed to be outside his door that his line of sight wouldn’t permit him to see. Just minutes after making this realization, a nurse who seemed to be of below average height not only stepped around the obstacle but glanced up at it and smiled which proved something, or someone, tall was out there.
Someone must be stationed outside his door. No. Not someone. Gibbs.
Gibbs was outside his door – he had absolutely no doubt about that. His former mentor had actually done some of what he’d demanded, and got out of his room and had stayed out. But the Marine had obviously demonstrated his usual stubbornness and situated himself just outside his room. When he’d loudly expressed his wishes for Gibbs to get out of his room and never come back, Tony had meant that he would prefer never to have to see or talk to the man ever again. Tony was positive that Gibbs had understood what he’d meant at the time.
To be fair though, he considered that maybe Gibbs was out there in an attempt to keep his cover as a prisoner under guard. But, if that were the case, then the higher-ups could’ve had ordered just about anyone else to stand guard, which probably meant that Gibbs’ presence outside his door was purely voluntary. Tony reasoned that if his ex-friend couldn’t be in the room with him, then the bastard would manipulate the situation so that he could remain close regardless of his wishes. Typical. Again, his wishes and desires had been completely disregarded for some reason completely outside his control.
That thought had him wondering what was taking so long for either Vance or Jarvis to show their faces and demand a debriefing. The longer they took, the more he was convinced that his former superiors would blame him for the case not turning out exactly as they’d planned. He thought it was highly likely they’d do something to jeopardize his future career in law enforcement, which he wasn’t even sure anymore he wanted to resume. He was done being manipulated for the greater good and at this point was convinced he should leave his former life behind and start over on the West Coast.
The knowledge that Gibbs was just outside his door weighed heavily on his mind and kept the embers of his anger burning bright. Finally it just annoyed him to no end, and he reached for the privacy curtain next to his bed. And though it awakened his aches and pains, he managed to pull it closed enough so that he couldn’t see the door anymore. He thought about turning the TV back on, but it seemed too much of an effort so he allowed himself to drift off to sleep thinking of his future prospects and hoping the next chapter of his life would turn out better than this one.
Chapter 10: The Truth is Rarely Simple
Gibbs reflects on the last eight plus months. Fornell debriefs Tony.
Chapter Ten: The Truth is Rarely Simple
Standing watch outside Tony’s room gave Gibbs plenty of time to think about how completely wrong life had gone for him and especially for his injured friend these past eight almost nine months. If those analysts hadn’t figured out something was going on with Hawthorne Security, then there would be no telling how many more scum bags would’ve been allowed to just waltz right into the U.S. He shuddered to think how many innocent lives would’ve been lost as a result.
On the other, more selfish hand, if the analysts hadn’t discovered the discrepancies, then he and Tony and the rest of the team could’ve gone on as before. They could’ve continued to catch the bad guys; could’ve continued on as before, fostering their unusual familial atmosphere.
Not long before the incident at the airport which ended the mission, he had run the team’s solve rate. Each member of his team contributed their own set of skills and talents towards solving a case. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you take away one team member, then the team as a whole was less effective, less efficient, just…less. Then when you add an annoying series of too green probies into the mix to shake up what was left of their working dynamic – well, it was no wonder their solve rate wasn’t as good as it had once been.
Although Tony sometimes annoyed him with his antics and ill-timed comments, he actually missed them, his senior field agent’s dedication, and his friend in general. Ten years of working together, of developing a friendship…everything they’d created together had been ripped to shreds.
Ultimately the Hawthornes were at fault, but it was Jarvis who had set things into motion that had landed Tony in the hospital and nearly ruined a good man’s life. He hadn’t heard anything from either Jarvis or Vance the last couple of days and wondered if they were shutting him out on purpose. It irritated him to be left out of the loop, but he also didn’t want to leave Tony’s side – even though that ‘side’ was now at least twelve feet away and outside the injured man’s room.
He was a little surprised that none of the team, especially Abby, had been by to visit yet; surprised that he hadn’t heard from them at all. Surely they had heard what had happened the other night and that DiNozzo had been involved; that it was an undercover mission and not that their teammate had, as Tony would have put it, gone to the dark side. If they haven’t been informed yet, then shouldn’t scuttlebutt have reached them by now?
Gibbs could’ve called them – probably should’ve called them – but he had been so focused on Tony’s well-being that he hadn’t taken the time to do it. And, if he was a little honest with himself, then he’d admit that he wasn’t really relishing admitting his role in his agent’s latest mission. He knew he was a bastard to work for, that it was often his way or the highway, and that he lacked patience, but the role Jarvis had forced on him might just have destroyed any remaining confidence or respect they had in him as a man and not just as a boss.
Yet, he couldn’t help be a little disappointed in just how easy it had been to destroy the team’s faith in Tony; how easy it had been to get the team to stop defending and supporting him. Abby and Ducky had still been convinced of Tony’s downfall but at least they had tried harder to stay by their friend’s side and support him. But by then, Tony’s version of self-preservation instincts had kicked in and he had pushed them – and everyone else – away. The ex-senior field agent had apparently decided that he didn’t want his failing reputation to taint his friends.
When DiNozzo had been kicked out of NCIS that horrible day, the team had been stunned. It had taken Ziva and McGee a while to rally around their teammate, but by then Vance had stepped in with threats of dismissal and worse – including accusations of being fully complicit – if anyone tried to contact Tony while the investigation into the theft was still ongoing.
As far as he knew, no one had bothered to even covertly try and find out what was going on. The job Gibbs had done to discredit their teammate plus Tony distancing himself from everyone plus Vance’s threats all combined together to rob his partner of any sort of support system. He’d done his best to keep an eye on his ex-agent from afar, and had interfered as much as could, but there was nothing he could do to prevent Tony from descending into an alcoholic haze.
For two weeks, Tony had shut himself away from the world and drank away the days and nights. There had been nothing he could do to interfere because the Hawthornes had eyes and ears on Tony in order to determine the ex-agent’s usefulness to their scheme. He couldn’t interfere directly, fearing what could happen to the younger man if he did, but indirectly and behind the scenes he could help Tony get back on track so that the damned operation would be over much faster. He’d just needed to wait for an opportunity. Then, one night a situation presented itself, and he had taken full advantage of it. Things had started to get relatively better after that.
If only DiNozzo would give him a chance – just five minutes – to explain his side of the story then maybe—.
“Thought you could use this, Jethro.”
Gibbs refused to show his surprise at the fact that, because he’d been so lost in thought, his old friend had managed to come up on him unawares. He turned to see Fornell holding out an obviously hot cup of coffee.
“Tobias,” Gibbs said in greeting as he took the cup.
He took a couple of sips as Fornell peeked into Tony’s room. Judging by the expression on the man’s face, the FBI agent had noticed the pulled curtain. “He knows you’re here,” his friend stated.
Gibbs grimaced and replied, “Yep.”
“Did he give you a chance to explain before he threw you out?”
“You planning on giving me more than single word answers?”
“Depends,” was the deadpanned answer sealed with a wicked grin.
“I deserved that,” Fornell acknowledged with a small chuckle.
“Yeah, you did.” He tilted his head towards Tony’s room. “They pick you to debrief him and get his statement?”
“I was his handler and Vance and the other two directors thought he’d respond better to me than to them, be less hostile.”
“First intelligent thought they’ve had in this whole mess,” he curtly stated his voice tainted with bitterness.
“Now Gibbs, Tony’s situation is not entirely their fault.”
“You’re right, Fornell, it’s not,” Gibbs hissed, getting pissed off, but trying to keep from disturbing his friend in the room beyond. “It’s SecNav’s fault for forcing me and him into playing his game so he could gain more political clout!”
“Jethro! Calm down or you’ll get yourself thrown out of here. Getting worked up is not going to help anything. Give your boy some time then maybe he’ll be more willing to listen. He’s been undercover 24/7 for far too long and he’s been hurt both physically and emotionally…all that takes a toll. He needs time and for you to be patient.”
“Not my strong suit, Tobias.”
“Don’t I know it,” the FBI agent stated with a chuckle. “Now, get out of here for a while. Go home. Get some sleep. And, for the love of God, please shower. You’re looking a little rough around the edges, my friend.”
“I can’t leave him.”
“You’re not leaving. You’re coming back refreshed so that you can keep up your vigil. I’ll watch out for him, Jethro. I won’t leave until you get back at least five hours—.”
“Five! There’s no way I can be gone that long!”
“You can, and you will. You’ll need some sleep if you want to ever get back on track with DiNozzo.”
He sipped his coffee and thought about Fornell’s offer. His friend was right, he needed some rest, but then again he wanted to prove to Tony that he would do anything to be able to talk to him. Given his and his senior field agent’s stubbornness, the situation could easily become lose-lose. He’d never admit it, but maybe Fornell was right.
“Call me if he needs me,” he said and started moving towards the elevators.
“Will do,” the FBI agent said.
Gibbs stepped forward then paused and looked into the room to stare at the curtain separating him from Tony. He hesitated, unsure of his decision.
“Go. I’ve got his six. Go take care of yourself for a while.”
The Marine turned toward Fornell and said, “Thanks, old friend,” and stalked off down the hall.
He’s not sure what wakes him up, but when he does awaken, all he feels at first is annoyed that he keeps falling asleep so easily. He knew it was partly because of the drugs – they’d apparently found some that didn’t make him loopy – and partly because of the boredom, but he also knew that most of it was the lingering exhaustion plaguing him.
In some ways, these last months kind of reminded him of his undercover assignment with Jeanne Benoit. During that whole time, and especially towards the end, he’d basically been on the job every hour of every day. When he wasn’t working for Gibbs, he was still working for Jenny and NCIS as his alias.
This time around though, he lived the undercover op every hour of his life, with no respite unless sleep counted. He was using his own name though the Tony DiNozzo everyone at Hawthorne Security knew was not the one everyone else had known.
For both missions he had had been a pawn in a much larger game, kept out of the loop for the most part. One night he’d awakened and was chilled by the sweat covering him when he realized that being undercover in a situation like that – using his own identity – meant that if things went according to plan, his life was likely over one way or the other. For the desired outcome to take place, he would have to testify against Erik and Daniel Hawthorne and against people who could kill him while still making it look like an accident. Once he testified he would either have to enter the Witness Protection program as some Phys. Ed. teacher in the Midwest or he was dead.
Had this scenario even occurred to his superiors? Had anyone thought of the consequences of this plan on his life? Either way, they had well and truly screwed him over. The only question that had truly mattered was: Had Gibbs realized any of this? Because things had gone so wrong at the airport, maybe he just might have a chance to keep his life and remain Tony DiNozzo. All he needed was for someone to come and debrief him, and then maybe he could determine which parts of his career he could—.
His bleak thoughts were interrupted by what was unmistakably Gibbs’ pissed off tone of voice – something about the SecNav? Then he heard Fornell’s voice for just a moment before the volume of the voices went down again.
So his FBI handler was here, but was this a visit, a debriefing or both? He relaxed and waited; he would know soon enough.
He was leafing through a travel magazine a nurse had left him looking at an article on California’s top ten beaches when the curtain he’d closed part way slid back about six inches as his handler came into view.
“How did you get passed my guard dog?” he asked mildly curious.
“I’m your handler. I’ve got an all-access pass,” Fornell replied with a grin and then moved around the bed to sit in the chair that had remained unoccupied since he’d thrown Gibbs out of his room.
“Care to explain why the hell no one’s been by before now to debrief me?”
“Not counting the sixteen plus hours you spent unconscious after they brought you in, your doctor ordered that there be no visitors for at least twenty-four hours so that you could rest and begin to heal.”
“That didn’t stop Gibbs,” Tony mumbled, but then said in a louder voice, “Fine. Whatever. What happened at the airport? The terrorists had successfully deplaned but seconds later one of them was firing his machine gun towards us and the whole place erupted in gunfire. I was hit before I could even really react. I attempted to get undercover, but then that’s where my memory gets fuzzy. I’m not really sure what happened after that…”
“With your head injury and the blood loss from your leg wound, I’m not really surprised,” Fornell stated with a slight smirk.
“Just tell me, Toby. I’m not really in the mood to play games today,” he said with a heavy sigh. Was the straight truth really so hard to tell?
“My apologies, Tony. I guess no one has bothered to inform you of the latest developments.
“Good guess,” he snapped.
Fornell held his hands up in surrender. “Just…calm down. Neither of us wants me to get kicked out of here just yet.” With a serious expression his face, the FBI agent stood and leaned on the side rails of Tony’s bed. “Just in case someone tries to tell you differently, I just want you to know none of what happened that night was your fault. You did your job, OK?”
Tony was convinced that wasn’t the case, but he decided not to argue so he just said, “Sure.”
He was a perfect scapegoat and therefore anything that had gone wrong with the mission was his fault. From the look Fornell gave him though, he was pretty sure the guy knew he had doubted the assurance in his performance on the job.
The FBI agent cleared his throat and said, “Apparently someone at Hawthorne didn’t do their research and one of our bad guy’s henchmen had a tie to Daniel Hawthorne. It seems when Daniel was still in Special Forces he was part of a mission that infiltrated the shooter’s town. A firefight broke out and there was a lot of collateral damage – including the shooter’s sister and mother.”
“Jesus,” Tony uttered with closed eyes.
Fornell nodded his agreement about the horrors of war and continued. “The shooter’s cousin – who just happened to have been caught by Gibbs when he rabbited – admitted that his relative had been obsessed with finding the man responsible for the murder of his family members. Somehow the shooter had learned of Hawthorne’s identity while working for our terrorist and worked hard to be chosen for the man’s security detail. It was likely going to be his one and only opportunity to finally seek revenge regardless of the cost. We’re just lucky he only had a machine gun with one clip or there would’ve been many more casualties.”
“How many did we lose?”
“Daniel Hawthorne is in the ICU of another hospital and is not expected to live much longer. His brother Erik was hit a couple of times but he’s going to make it. Except for you, the rest of Hawthorne’s side had minor injuries. Of the other group of bad guys, our shooter plus the terrorist and another guy are dead with several others were injured. Of the good guys, only one caught a bullet that hit just under his vest. Thankfully it was just a flesh wound.”
“So what happens now?”
“Now… Now, you are in luck. With what happened, we now have sufficient evidence to take down everyone involved. And, with his brother at death’s door, Erik Hawthorne has agreed to confess with an agreement that when he’s sentenced, it be carried out under an assumed name at a prison where he’ll be just another prisoner.”
“So, what you’re basically telling me is that I wasted all those months, had my career publically ruined and my life screwed over…for nothing?!”
Fornell stepped up to the bed and placed a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “No. Not ‘nothing’! If you hadn’t gone undercover and found the evidence to get these guys; if you hadn’t learned of that terrorist scumbag coming into the country, then the right circumstances wouldn’t have been in place to get those guys. Some of them might have escaped or killed some of our friends or loved ones.”
His handler smiled and squeezed his shoulder before letting go and pointing a finger briefly at him. “You being there undercover made the difference and I think because of that we got one of the best possible outcomes.” Fornell cocked his head towards Tony’s leg and said, “Well except for you getting caught in the crossfire. You going to be OK?”
“The hair the bullet shaved off will grow back, my leg will heal completely – it will just take time. The rest…”
“Tony, I know it all doesn’t seem worth it right now, but you did an excellent job. You should be proud of yourself. And, with Erik testifying and the evidence we’ve collected, you won’t have to be implicated in any of it. You’re free and clear once you write up your report.”
“So, once I’m released from the hospital and am cleared for work, I’ll just stride right into NCIS, sit at my desk and everything will be hunky-dory,” Tony bitterly spat out. “You’re out of your mind, Toby! I can’t just waltz right back in there as if nothing’s happened…”
“Hey! Calm down. I’m sorry for my poor choice of words. I get that none of this is easy, but you haven’t heard the whole truth yet.”
“Tell me,” Tony demanded.
“Everything I know is second or third hand. I’d prefer you talk directly to those involved.”
“You mean Gibbs?”
“And Director Vance,” Fornell added. “DiNozzo, I really encourage you to learn what really happened before you make any final judgments about people’s actions or any final decisions regarding your future.”
“I’ll think about it,” Tony said sullenly.
“That’s all I ask,” his handler said then sighed and sat down again.
The man next to him pulled out a digital recorder. “I just need a brief report covering your undercover assignment for my superiors at the FBI. A copy will go to NCIS and Homeland Security, OK?”
“Yeah, sure,” he replied tiredly.
Fornell nodded and said, “And after this is done, I have a proposal for you.”
Two things I should mention: (1) Fornell’s proposal is not what you’re thinking. (2) I purposely left out any details about the shooter or the terrorist so as to avoid stereotyping.
Chapter 11: And You Shall Know the Truth
Tony reports to and is debriefed by Director Vance.
Chapter Eleven: And You Shall Know the Truth
Two days later…
When Tony had awakened, he had momentarily forgotten where he was until the pale lavender walls and the feminine, but not overly feminine, décor reminded him he was in the guest room of Fornell’s townhouse. It was obvious from the items in the room and its furniture that the guest bedroom he was staying in doubled as the bedroom of Fornell’s daughter Emily when she visited her father overnight.
Back when the FBI agent had proposed this arrangement, he’d been extremely reluctant to accept at first thinking that it was some sort of an attempt to get him and his former friend together again. Gibbs was Fornell’s friend no matter how much they pretended otherwise, so the Marine could theoretically visit the guy any time he wanted and Tony would have no say in the matter because he was a guest. Having foreseen his reluctance, his ex-handler gave his word that the proposal was no trick and promised that there would be no surprise visits from anyone of their acquaintance. With that assurance, he had relented, and now he was here.
Besides, it wasn’t as if he had all that many alternative places to go. It was either Fornell’s place or be stuck wherever NCIS decided to house him until his finances were cleared and put back under his control. Briefly he’d considered asking to stay with one of his ex-teammates, but given how they’d parted ways and the fact that none of them had bothered to stay in touch, he had quickly dismissed the idea.
The rational side of his mind kept telling him that there was a perfectly logical reason that the people he thought were more than just simple co-workers had seemingly so easily forgotten about him. On the other hand, the emotional side – the side that was hurt and disappointed – was still having a difficult time getting passed how his ‘friends’ had treated him before he’d been fired from NCIS on those trumped up theft charges. With everything else that had been going wrong for him and around him at that time; they’d so easily believed that he would steal that money.
The snide remarks when things had begun going wrong hadn’t been much of a surprise – they teased each other all the time – but the eventual lack of support that he had received from Ziva and McGee had been a surprise. It had been as if they were trying to stay out of the line of fire of Gibbs’ wrath towards him; each of them giving in to their own instincts for self-preservation. He could tell they were sympathetic towards his troubles and concerned about his well-being, but any outright support on the job had barely existed. Abby and Ducky had tried to help him, had been there for him more so than his other teammates and helped to overcome his mistakes and misfortunes on cases, but even they had, despite their protests to the contrary, believed he’d been the author of his troubles. Eventually it became easier to just push everyone away than deal with his admittedly mixed but hurt feelings.
He realized he didn’t know the whole story; knew that they didn’t know the whole story, but even still, hadn’t he deserved better from them? Hadn’t he deserved at the very least a healthy amount of the benefit of doubt from them? Until he knew more, he was going to try to not let his bitter feelings completely get the better of him.
His interactions with his teammates had always included a liberal amount of sarcasm and teasing so he could understand the reactions to his misfortunes on those cases he’d supposedly ‘messed’ up on. Tony could appreciate them not wanting to be tainted by rumor and the charges against him, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to have some negative feelings towards them. He sighed both mentally and out loud. For now, he would focus on the present and let the past rest.
Tony looked at his watch and cursed. His ‘guest’ was going to be arriving in about ten minutes. He’d let his inner thoughts and musings take over for too long and now, given his gimpy leg and the fact he still had to use the bathroom – always an adventure with crutches – he might miss the arrival of his unwanted yet obligatory visitor.
He’d just been released from the hospital this morning, but he was definitely still on the disabled list. He still got tired easily as the result of his injuries, his leg brace was irritating him, and several times he’d been ‘fortunate’ to have headaches that tended to sideline him for a couple of hours until his meds kicked in.
The drama, including knowing Gibbs was lurking around but not seeing him and the trip to Fornell’s place, when he’d left the hospital earlier had been enough to wear him out and Fornell had pointedly suggested several times that he lie down until it was easier just to give in. Just before he’d surrendered to his body’s demands for rest, his host had left him a bottle of water on the bedside table and had brought in his duffle bag. It had felt pretty strange to give the man the keys to his apartment, pretty strange to trust someone again with elements of his personal life, but his ex-handler had insisted that he pick up Tony’s things so that the younger man would be more comfortable during his stay.
The way Toby was treating him… Who would have guessed the guy was such a mother hen? Besides the place to stay, Tony was extremely grateful his friend – and yes, he considered Fornell a friend – for having acted as a buffer between him and Gibbs while he was in the hospital. Since he’d kicked Gibbs out of his room and the man had taken up a position as sentry outside it, they’d not spoken to each other. Sometimes just thinking about the man he once trusted standing outside his room made his blood boil, while at other times he just wanted to give in and let Gibbs explain everything.
When Tony wasn’t sleeping, he had spent a lot of time rehashing the events of the last eight months and thinking about how things could have gone differently had he known from the start about the undercover mission. He realized that there were definitely some pretty huge gaps of information that he still needed to have filled in.
That was why he’d set up this meeting despite the fact that he would rather swallow glass than talk to this person. He sat up, grabbed his crutches, and carefully lowered his injured leg down to the ground. The pain meds he was on didn’t make him loopy, but they did leave him prone to wool-gathering. He’d need to hurry if he wanted to already be in the living room when his guest arrived.
He was just making his way to Fornell’s leather recliner, when the doorbell rang. Instead of sitting, he turned to answer the door, but then Toby came out of the kitchen. His ex-handler and now friend, pointed at him and then at the recliner before heading towards the door. Tony couldn’t help but roll his eyes at the treatment before he felt a small pang in his heart at the sudden memory of Gibbs treating him in a similar fashion when he was injured in times past.
In the hall behind him, he heard Fornell greet his visitor before the two of them headed into the living room. As he pulled the lever so the chair was in a semi-reclined position which allowed him to elevate his leg, one of the two men he didn’t want to speak to but knew he must regardless, stepped into his line of sight.
“Director Vance,” he greeted without any indication in his voice that he despised the man for his part in screwing up his life.
“Agent DiNozzo,” Vance returned as he took a seat on the room’s small couch.
“Don’t you mean, Mister DiNozzo?” Tony pointedly asked.
“No. I mean Special Agent DiNozzo,” Vance replied adding extra emphasis to his old title. “Even though it looked to everyone that you were let go from NCIS, no paper work to that effect was ever processed.”
The director gave him a look that said he would brook no further argument on the subject and continued, “You still work for me.”
“Oh goody,” Tony mumbled with a heavily sarcastic tone.
Vance was about to respond to the sarcasm when Fornell came into the room with a plate bearing a sandwich, some baby carrots, and some pills in one hand and a glass of milk in the other. Tony was given a ‘do as I say or else’ look and before Fornell said, “Don’t forget to eat before you take your pills. I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”
The FBI agent then placed the items on the side table and headed out of the room. Over his shoulder he said, “Director Vance, help yourself to anything in the kitchen. Tony, I put a movie in the DVD player if you feel up to watching anything later.”
Before either he or Vance could respond, the older man was gone.
His visitor nodded towards the direction of the front door with a smile and asked, “Who’s worse? Fornell or Gibbs?”
Tony replied, “Neither. Both,” then shrugged and said, “They’re just different.”
He rolled to his left side and reached into his pocket to pull out a USB drive which he tossed to Vance.
“That’s not why I asked you here. That drive,” he pointed at the object Vance was still loosely holding in his hand, “I just tossed to you contains my full report of everything that happened while I was working undercover. Given my injuries, it took me longer than usual to compile it. If you have any questions or need any further information, you know how to reach me. Though now that Erik Hawthorne and several of his cronies have confessed, I doubt my intel will really be all that necessary. Sooo glad I was able to do my part, Sir!”
He stopped and tried to pull in a calming breath. It didn’t work but at least it prevented him from exploding in anger even though the man before him definitely, in his opinion, at least deserved a portion of the beat down he wished he could give to those who had it coming.
“And while you’re here Director, I would like to take this opportunity to tender my verbal resignation from NCIS. I will have a formal letter out to you in the next day or two.”
A brief look of displeasure flashed over Vance’s face before he said, “I’m sorry, Agent DiNozzo, but I can’t accept your resignation until such time as the current investigation is over.”
“Fine, then I quit. I will make myself available to NCIS and the prosecuting attorneys, but I do not intend on returning to work for your agency.”
His former director’s face had transformed to one of obvious irritation. “It took me a while to see it, Agent DiNozzo, but you are an excellent, if sometimes unorthodox, investigator, but in this instance you are making a huge mistake. You are making assumptions and deciding who the guilty parties are without all the information. I thought you knew better than that. I thought he taught you better than that.”
“I didn’t ‘need to know’ back when you decided to ruin my life and put me undercover without my prior knowledge or consent, so why do I need to know now? Why should I even care? I’m just choosing to remove my piece from the game board. I’m tired of being everyone’s pawn.”
He lifted his hand to rub his face and noticed that the slight throb that had been developing since Vance had arrived was escalating into a higher level of discomfort in his head. He thought of his pain meds, but there was no way he’d take them while his guest was still here. When he opened his eyes again, he could swear he saw a flicker of concern on Vance’s face.
“Agent DiNo—Tony, I would hope that you would at least do me the courtesy of letting me fully debrief you before you make any permanent decisions.”
Tony sighed. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to know the whole story; it was just that he wasn’t sure it would make any difference at this point. The higher-ups had carried out their goal seemingly without one ounce of concern for the fact that his life had been turned upside down and put in constant danger. It didn’t change the fact that Gibbs had gone along with their plan, had betrayed his trust in more ways than one, and had left him feeling adrift again in the world – something he hadn’t felt since not long after joining forces with the older man. Would letting Vance fill him in on more of the missing pieces of this damned mission really change his mind about leaving NCIS or his angry and hurt feelings towards Gibbs?
After a few moments of thought though, Tony’s inquisitive nature won out over his disenchantment with anything or anyone having to do with his former job.
“I’m not sure if it’ll help, but—.” He paused then decided to ask a question that had been weighing on his mind for a long time now. “Uh, but first, I need to ask you a question.”
“Go ahead,” Vance replied with a nod.
“Did anyone ever realize what would’ve happened to me if this operation had gone to plan? I was undercover using my own identity; you know what that would’ve meant to my life, right?”
“Yes,” the director replied in a voice dripping with regret. “I realized the situation not too long after we read Gibbs in. I confronted the SecNav about it, but he—”
Tony decided to fill in the obvious. “He didn’t give a damn.”
The man across from him grimaced and admitted, “Close enough. As you probably have already guessed, the witness protection program would have been the only way to keep you safe until the trial and in the future.”
DiNozzo looked down at his hands to hide his face from the director for a moment. He then nodded, “I figured. My life was never going to be my own again, was it? I was never going to get the chance to….” He sighed and decided he didn’t want to finish that thought.
“It doesn’t matter, Sir. I got lucky. Now, you asked for some time to debrief me. Can we get going with that now?”
“If you’d like.” Vance said then pointed towards the still full plate of food. “Why don’t you eat that sandwich and at least take your antibiotic while I tell you everything you weren’t previously privy to regarding this investigation. I don’t want to get into trouble with Fornell for keeping you from eating or taking your pills.”
Tony snorted a laugh and picked up the plate that had been left for him. Toby probably would give both of them a piece of his mind if at least half of the sandwich and some of the carrots weren’t gone before he got back. He took his first bite as Vance settled back into the couch and began to speak.
“You’re probably going to have questions, Tony, but I would ask that you hold them until I’m finished if possible. Some of the answers might come as I go along, okay?”
With a full mouth, Tony nodded and gestured for Vance to continue.
“I know Agent Fornell has informed you of the how and why the interagency taskforce was set up, but what you don’t know is…”
Director Vance proceeded to inform him of everything he hadn’t known and hadn’t been told before now: the threats Jarvis made to him and the team if Gibbs didn’t cooperate and choose one of the two options he’d been ‘given’; Vance’s own culpability and lack of support towards Team Gibbs at that meeting; the threats against his team if they contacted Tony while the investigation was ongoing regarding the theft of the money and what had actually happened with it; and the seeming never ending stream of probies that Gibbs kept driving away. The Director’s debrief ended with his own observations about how the team hadn’t performed as efficiently without Tony and how much more of a miserable bastard Gibbs had become over the last six months or so.
The most revelatory piece of information though had been the motivation for Gibbs’ utterly believable and extremely cruel rejection of him in both their professional and personal lives. Apparently when Hawthorne Security was vetting potential new employees, the firm set up surveillance of some kind around every aspect of those people’s lives – their homes, their jobs, their closest friends. That was why his ex-team leader had been so vocal and demonstrative of his displeasure towards Tony. That was why his ex-friend had crossed too many lines when they’d talked that last time in the basement.
But what no one had known at first was just how important it had been for everyone to believe in Gibbs’ rejection of Tony, to believe that Tony was losing it and had been corrupted. Sometime just after Gibbs had begun to systematically destroy DiNozzo’s career, the three analysts that had started it all had found another disturbing trend related to Hawthorne’s hiring practices. They found that some prospective hires as well as some employees of the firm had ended up dying – the mortality rate for a corporation of that size had been way above average. The reason no one had suspected anything prior to that point was that the CODs of the various individuals had varied greatly – suicide, accident, random killings, etc. They had varied too greatly to be linked together until the three analysts had joined forces and had dug deeper.
Apparently when Gibbs had found out about the increased danger Tony would be in, he’d gone ballistic. His former team leader had wanted to back out and not put his senior field agent in that kind of danger, but it had been too late. Too much work had already gone into the operation; too much had been put into motion. Things had to play out or they’d lose their best chance to take the Hawthornes down. At least Tony now knew why Gibbs, looking extremely pissed off yet at the same time somewhat devastated, had stormed out of the office without an explanation that one day after a meeting with Vance and had not been seen or heard from again until the next morning.
Director Vance told him everything he would ever need to know about the mission and more. At times, he was so engrossed in the tale that he forgot to keep eating until the agency head re-directed his attention back to his meal. A myriad of conflicting emotions flooded him and eventually even Vance’s gentle prodding wasn’t enough to keep him from losing his appetite and setting the plate aside. He had received a frown because of the action, but wisely his guest did not remark on it. Tony took the antibiotic, which seemed to mostly remove the frown from Vance’s face, but left the pain pill despite his increasing headache and leg pain.
When NCIS’ director had finished speaking, Tony was speechless and his mind was a jumble of thoughts and emotions. He had absolutely no idea how he should feel or what he should think about everything that he’d just heard. As it was he hadn’t even noticed when Vance had gotten up from the couch until the older man had returned with a cup of coffee.
“I know I’ve given you a lot of information in a very short amount of time, but I would hope you’d take a few days to digest it before you decide anything about your future. I also can tell that the headache you’ve been trying to hide from me has escalated to the point where you really need to take that pain pill.”
Tony tried to glare at Vance, tried to think of some witty retort, but both were beyond him at the moment.
“If you have any questions, call me, but at this point I think the remainder of the answers you’re seeking lie with Gibbs. He was given an impossible choice, and he chose the option he thought you would most likely choose for yourself had that been a possibility. Was he wrong?”
Despite the jackhammer going off near the healing graze on the side of his head, he answered, “No,” without hesitation. “He was right about that. I would’ve given him a head slap so hard that his head would have come clean off his shoulders had he chosen me over the team.”
Tony chuckled and concluded, “How very Wrath of Kahn of us.”
“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – or the one,” Vance quoted.
With a smirk on his face and amusement in his voice, Tony said, “I didn’t take you to be a closet Trek fan, Director.”
“That will remain our secret, DiNozzo, if you don’t mind,” was the almost embarrassed-sounding response.
“No problem, Leon,” was the over-enunciated reply which earned Tony a glare that almost rivaled some of Gibbs’ best efforts. He held up his hands in surrender.
“I’m going to head out and let you get some rest. Technically you’re on medical leave right now, so I hope you’ll use that time to carefully consider your options. Plus, I would hope that you’ll give Gibbs a chance to at least mend your personal relationship if not your professional one as well. I’d hate to lose a great partnership. I know you have no reason to ever want to work for me again, but I’d hope you would consider staying with NCIS.”
Tony stretched out a hand to Vance who grasped it. They shook hands once and let go.
“You’ve definitely given me a lot to consider, and I will consider it. That’s all I can promise at this point.”
“I can accept that DiNozzo. Before I go, there’s one more thing that needs to be said. Despite what you may think, Tony, you did an amazing job on this operation under extreme circumstances. You went above and beyond regardless of what the outcome would mean to your personal life, and though things went a little pear-shaped at the end, I guarantee your intel will be useful in aiding in the capture and conviction of criminals and terrorists. It’s something to be proud of despite everything else that happened.”
Vance turned to leave and at first Tony thought he wasn’t going to say anything, but then the words “thank you” escaped from his mouth before he could stop them.
As soon as he heard the door close, Tony grabbed for his pain pill and swallowed it down with the remainder of his milk. He laid his head back, closed his eyes and thought about all he’d heard while wishing for the pill to work faster. It wasn’t long before his thoughts began to drift though it was a while longer before the pain began to subside.
His last thought, before Morpheus sent him to sleep, was that he needed to speak to one more person before he could even entertain the concept of talking to Gibbs.
Chapter 12: Truth Be Known
Gibbs and Vance discuss Tony's debrief.
This chapter picks up seconds after the last one ended and is from Gibbs’ POV.
Chapter Twelve: Truth Be Known
Gibbs watched as Vance left Fornell’s house. His director had started towards his car, but when he was out of the direct line of sight for the house, the man had detoured across the street and towards Gibbs’ truck.
When Vance came around, opened the passenger side door and took a seat, the Marine still didn’t take his eyes off of Fornell’s place and he didn’t bother to acknowledge his new, if temporary, companion. Except for the sound of their breathing, silence reigned within the truck for several minutes.
The team leader didn’t particularly want his director there, didn’t want to really deal with him at all because of the man’s lack of action in preventing the SecNav from being the author of the destruction of his and Tony’s friendship and for putting DiNozzo in a position to get hurt. But he realized that Vance was really the only one who his former senior field agent might listen to at this point. Fornell only knew so much about the circumstances surrounding this mission, and if he were very lucky then just maybe his friend would be more open to the two of them talking after Vance explained things.
Eventually the man beside him spoke, “Some people might consider what you’re doing to be stalking.”
The corner of his mouth quirked up in a sort of half smile as he retorted, “Nah. Surveillance of a potential witness.”
Gibbs couldn’t see Vance as his gaze was still fixed on the small house across the street, but from beside him came, “Try again.”
He shrugged his shoulders and quickly flicked his eyes towards his director before countering with, “Protection detail?”
“Better,” Vance allowed.
“How is he?” Gibbs asked curious to know what his agent and his boss had talked about for so long.
“Doesn’t Fornell keep you up to date on these things? I heard about DiNozzo kicking you out of his hospital room.”
“He does, but you just saw him, so…”
“He seems better, but he was fighting a mother of a headache as I was leaving. I saw him take his pain pill so he should be feeling some relief any time now.”
Gibbs nodded his head once, “Good.”
Silence returned to the cab of the truck. The Marine wanted to know what had gone on inside the house, but at the same time, his gut was telling him that ignorance was bliss.
The next time Vance spoke, the man proved his gut was once again pretty accurate. “DiNozzo had his report finished and ready for me when I arrived. He then informally tendered his resignation.”
The team leader’s eyes closed and his head bowed a little. “I’m not surprised. I’ve actually thought about doing the same thing many times in the past few months.”
“I didn’t accept it though.”
Gibbs’ head whipped to his right and took in Vance’s calm demeanor which seemed to be in perfect opposition to his own. “What?”
“I refused to accept. He’s still recovering, still in pain. He was making a decision based purely on emotion, the anger he feels, the hurt – and not based on any of the facts. I made sure he knew them.”
“He listened. He listened to it all without once interrupting me, and more importantly, he heard what I was saying. DiNozzo promised to take some more time before making his final decision.”
Gibbs was more than relieved to hear that DiNozzo had actually listened to the Director and perhaps now his friend would be more receptive towards him in the future. Maybe now Tony would see that though he made some pretty monumental mistakes, the majority of what had occurred between them was some screwed up mixture of orders from on high, protecting his friend and partner, and letting his emotions get the better of him with a generous side order of stupid thrown in.
At the time, all he could think of was protecting Tony even as he destroyed him. Perhaps they could’ve found a way to get through this mess together, but at the time he’d let the SecNav’s threats and the potential threats to DiNozzo’s life overrule his logic and then eventually it had been too late. And, for those errors, he had paid a too-heavy price – the loss of a partner, a friend, and someone he considered to be family.
“You tell him everything? SecNav’s threats? What happened to previous employees or others who had interviewed with the Hawthornes?”
Vance nodded and confirmed, “Everything. You were right, you know.” At Gibbs’ questioning glance, he continued, “About DiNozzo’s reaction to the SecNav’s threats. You were right. He did think it was better it was him.”
Gibbs smiled slightly thinking that you don’t spend the majority of the last ten years with someone and not know how they’d react to that kind of threat. “He’s a good man.”
“It took me a while to see it Jethro, but you’re right – he is a good man. And, because he is a good man, he’ll eventually come around, be ready to talk.”
“I hope so,” he replied hearing the wistful tone in his voice.
“Be patient. I know it’ll be hard and you’re not exactly the poster child for patient, but give him some time…and space.”
“That’s all I’ve been doing, Leon.”
“Have you? Because from where I’m sitting, it sure as hell doesn’t look like it.”
“I just wanted to make sure he got here okay from the hospital. Didn’t want him to be alone while Fornell was out with his daughter. Once Tobias gets back, I’ll head home. That alright with you?” he concluded with a sarcastic tone.
“It’s not me that has to be alright with it. Do you think he knows you’re here?”
“I’m sure of it. He acted like I wasn’t there, but I’m positive that he figured out that I had stayed at the hospital even though he’d kicked me out of his room.” Gibbs snorted. “I had no idea he was being released and was going to be staying with Fornell until Tobias showed up with Tony’s things this morning. He has to know I’d show up here sooner or later.”
Gibbs took a deep breath and lifted a hand to rub at the tension in his neck.
“By being there all the time, I was trying to remind him that I still had his six despite everything; but he seems determined to keep ignoring me, to keep despising me for what I’ve done. I hurt him, Leon. I let things get out of hand and I said things…”
The Marine paused and glanced at Vance before lifting a hand and head slapping himself as hard as he could. The pain was not enough to dissolve the anger he felt towards himself so he struck the steering wheel once…twice… He raised his hand for a third hit, but Vance prevented the blow from landing, prevented more damage to his hand.
“Gibbs, stop! This isn’t going to erase whatever guilt you’re feeling. Whatever lines were crossed… Maybe you two can lay down a new line. Everyone deserves a second chance, Jethro.”
“To be honest, Leon, I think I’m all out of second chances as far as Tony is concerned.”
Vance opened the truck’s door and levered himself out of the passenger seat. Instead of shutting it, he turned and poked his head into the cab. “When he’s ready to talk, you’ll know.”
The director of NCIS closed the door and Gibbs watched him go. He hoped that Tony would be ready to talk soon. He really missed having his friend in his life.
Chapter 13: The Truth About Grace
Tony gets some more answers.
Chapter Thirteen: The Truth About Grace
By the time he’d made it to what had been his usual booth, he was exhausted. He should have had the cab drop him off in front of the diner instead of first trying to go to his apartment. The elevator had still been out and there had been no way he could handle that many stairs. With two good legs, the walk to the diner from his place was a piece of cake, but on crutches, it was an exercise in endurance. It made him realize that the medical professionals had been right to say he wasn’t ready to endure that much physical activity yet.
Awkwardly, he settled himself into the booth and waited. A waitress, whose name he didn’t bother to learn and who he’d never seen before, offered him some coffee and asked if he wanted anything else. He thought about ordering something but his appetite was still a little off sometimes, so he ended up sending the woman away.
Sure his very presence at the diner had set off a chain of phone calls; he got as comfortable as his stupid leg brace would allow, and settled back to wait. He didn’t have to wait as long as he had thought he would. Just under a half hour after he’d arrived, Grace came through the front door. He watched her look towards the kitchen for a moment, nod slightly, then turn and head towards his table.
After she sat down across from him, somehow avoiding his bad leg, Grace lifted a hand for service and then very obviously assessed his appearance. Tony didn’t attempt to avoid her scrutiny, but allowed it since he felt the friendship they’d struck up had been real and not just part of their mission objective.
Finally, Grace’s gaze focused on his face and tilting her head towards the kitchen, she said, “Danny called me.”
“I hoped he would since I didn’t know how else to contact you.”
“You could have asked Fornell…or Gibbs.”
“No… I couldn’t,” he retorted, giving a sigh that even he could hear the weariness it exuded. “I wanted to see you on my own and without him knowing about it.”
He saw a guilty look flash briefly across her face.
“You called him,” he said in such a way that was both a statement and an accusation.
Grace ducked her head a little. “I’m sorry, Tony, but he’d already called me looking for you. I told him I was meeting up with you. I also told him to back off and give you some space – that one of us would call him…”
He laid his forehead on his arms, and groaned, “Even after everything, what he’s done… Even after all this time apart, he still knows me too well.”
Suddenly he felt a hand squeeze his upper arm. When he lifted his head, he saw that Grace was smiling. “You’re right, Tony, he does know you. You might surprise him now and then, like today, but he definitely knows you. And you know him. Ten years is a long time to have worked together. It becomes inevitable that your partner can predict your every move, know you almost better than you know yourself.”
Grace leaned forward and asked “So tell me, my friend, are you still ignoring Gibbs and avoiding learning his side of the story?”
“What has he told you?” Tony asked now suspicious of Grace’s motives for coming here to the diner.
“Not much. Only what I needed to know…You know how he can keep things pretty close the vest.”
“That’s what got me into this mess in the first place,” he said with a bitter tone.
“From what I’ve gathered, it doesn’t seem like he had much of a choice,” Grace stated and took a sip of her coffee.
“I don’t want to think about that right now. What I wanted to talk to you about was how you got involved in all of this. How was it possible that you were here that very first day I started coming here?” he asked waving a hand to indicate the diner.
“Remember how you said he knows you too well?” she replied with a smirk.
“No... No way! There’s no way he could have known that I’d come here on that first morning – no way he could have had it all set up before I’d even decided to come here!”
Grace shrugged, “Well, apparently, he did. He called me late the night before to ask me for a favor. He wanted to know if I wouldn’t mind doing some field work again; if I wouldn’t mind going undercover as a waitress. Once he explained the situation – or as much as he could tell me at the time – and how much he needed someone he could trust to be there for you, there was no way I could say no. He said he would set everything up and that all I had to do was to wait for his phone call.” A smile broke out on her face. “Did you know that, on the first day we met, it had been more than two decades since I’d last waited tables?”
“I never noticed, but then again I was dealing with the hangover from hell that day.
Grace chuckled a bit, “Not the best first impression. You were worse than Gibbs without any coffee in his system.”
“That bad, huh?” he said with a smile that quickly faded. He took a sip of his cooling coffee as a thought occurred to him.
“Wait. Back up a sec. ‘Field work again’? Were you riding a desk before you got roped into this mess?”
“Until about a month before I met you I was working a desk overseas where my husband was stationed as a Marine. Paul finally decided to retire and we opted to move back to the D.C. area. I was due to start my new position at the Pentagon when Gibbs called. He said you needed someone to watch your six; someone to be there when you finally decided you wanted to talk. Someone who could be there for you when he couldn’t.”
Grace trailed off and Tony looked out the window wondering if Gibbs was already somewhere outside. A hand to his forearm brought his attention back to the woman in front of him.
“Look Tony, I know you don’t want to hear this, but you’re going to sit here and listen anyway, OK?”
Tony nodded despite himself at her gruff tone.
“I’ve known Gibbs for a very long time now, and I could tell that all the guilt and regret were eating him up. He went to great lengths to keep an eye on you even though he wasn’t allowed within a mile of you. He learned how to text so that—.”
“Text?!” Tony interrupted with an incredulous tone. It was like his brain was rejecting the most recent data that had been entered. “Gibbs learned how to text? But he—”
Grace reached out and smacked his hand. As he shook the stinging sensation out, she growled out, “Hey! I said you were to listen, not talk. Got it?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he agreed with a huge grin on his face.
His friend gave him the stink eye. It wasn’t quite up to par with one of Gibbs’ glares, but it was close enough, so he settled back in the booth to listen some more.
“As I was saying…” Grace paused briefly to give him a warning look. “He learned how to text not because he wanted me to keep him informed about the case, but so that I could keep him up to date on how you were doing. He wanted to know how well you were taking care of yourself, how you were coping. It was all he ever wanted to know or cared about. He didn’t give a damn about your assignment except to know when it would be over. I seriously doubt he could feel any worse about what he was forced to do to you.
“I know I haven’t seen the two of you together, but the way he talks about you, or rather doesn’t talk about you… Well, there’s no mistaking that he cares for you more than just as a boss to a subordinate. He thinks of you as an equal and as family even if he doesn’t always – or can’t always – show it. It sounds like what you two had together before this whole mess started is something special and worth holding on to; something worth working together to repair.
“You have no choice what family you’re born into, but to me, it seems like before this mission was forced upon you two that you’d chosen to be each other’s family. Don’t let that go, Tony. For the sake of that past relationship, you should at least hear him out.”
“That’s what Fornell and Director Vance said too,” Tony mumbled and turned his head to avoid looking at Grace. She reached out and gently grabbed his chin and forced him to look at her once more.
“Then it sounds like maybe it might be a good idea. Think about it, okay? I suspect that neither of you need to lose any more family, right?”
Tony bowed his head to hide the moisture gathering in the corners of his eyes. He then brought up both his hands to his face and rubbed the moisture away.
Sighing heavily, he says with a raspy voice, “I can’t guarantee anything else, Grace, but like I told both Toby and the director… I’ll think about it.”
Grace’s smile at his declaration was some combination of smug and blindingly bright. “Good,” she said as she signaled their waitress to refill their coffees.
After the girl left, Grace said with a chuckle, “It’s so weird to not be the one pouring the coffee.”
“I bet,” he said then snorted before quickly sobering. “Grace, was Gibbs here the day I got that note at the bottom of my check?”
An odd look flashed over her features as she answered, “Yes and no.”
His confused expression must have been enough to prompt her to continue.
“When you came into the diner the day after that meeting with the Hawthornes, Gibbs called me. He mentioned that Tobias had informed him of the meeting, and that it seemed things had gone according to plan with an offer of employment with those low-life traitors. Information from the surveillance detail somehow led him to believe that you weren’t going to take the job, which would’ve caused the operation to fail. Knowing that, he asked me to provide you with a nudge in the right direction.”
“But how did he manage to write what he did if he wasn’t even here?” Tony asked, a little frustrated, but genuinely curious.
“I met Gibbs the first week he started at NIS. Mike Franks was excellent at teaching green agents how to be exceptional field agents, but he was hopeless at paperwork and it often fell to me to teach his probies how to do it.” She paused to sip at her coffee and shift in her seat. “Here’s a little something that very few people know about me – though Gibbs figured it out pretty quickly.”
“Of course he did,” Tony grumbled and got the look again for which he shrugged unapologetically.
“Gibbs figured out that I’m able to forge anyone’s handwriting. That day, when he called, he asked if I would write those five words on the bottom of your bill so that you would course correct once again.” She leaned forward and looked into his eyes. “Was he right? Were you not going to take the job?”
Tony nodded his head and smiled sheepishly. “Yeah, the bastard was right – again. Because my superiors had decided to keep me in the dark about my assignment, I was going to listen to my gut and turn down the job. I knew something wasn’t right about that place from almost the first minute.”
“See. You two are meant to be partners. Only God would have the sense of humor to put two people so different and yet so similar together as teammates and family!” she said with a hint of laughter in her voice.
He didn’t know how to react to that statement, so he looked out the window once more. Were he and Gibbs really meant to be a team? What would his life have been like if Gibbs had never come to Baltimore? An involuntary shudder ran through his body at the realization that he didn’t really want to know.
Something must have shown on his face because Grace interrupted his thoughts. “Tony?”
“Hmm…,” he replied without turning back towards his friend.
“Why do you keep looking out the window?”
“I keep expecting to see Gibbs’ Charger pulling up in front of the diner.”
“So, you don’t think he’s waiting for you or me to call?”
“No,” he said without hesitation. “Actually, I think he’s here already. I’m just not sure where. But I’ll bet you any amount of money that, the moment I step foot outside that door, he’ll pull up in front of me in less than a minute.”
Grace rose from her seat and grabbed Tony’s crutches. As she helped him maneuver out of his seat to a standing position, she said, “I know that whatever happened between you turned your life upside down and made you question everything. I dare you though to think back on those ten plus years that you’ve known each other and tell me he doesn’t truly care about you. With Gibbs, you probably better than anyone else knows that it’s in what he doesn’t say.” She laid a hand on his cheek and ordered, “Now get out there before he loses his patience and comes storming in here. He’ll scare away the customers. Actually, if he is here, then I’m surprised he hasn’t come in already.”
Tony grins and agreed, “Me too.” He started to crutch towards the door, but then stopped midway and turned back towards Grace. “You’ll keep in touch?” he asked.
She smiled and replied, “Of course. Now get!”
Again he awkwardly turned towards the door and again he changed his mind. He hobbled back to stand before her. He then leaned forward and kissed her cheek. “Thank you.”
Then before she could react, he as quickly as possible made his way out the door.
Gibbs hadn’t waited for the call back, but had immediately left for the diner after talking with Grace on the phone. Once he had known where Tony had disappeared to, he figured his friend needed Grace to fill him in on things neither Fornell nor Vance had known about. That just left him. If Tony wanted to fill in the final missing pieces, then DiNozzo could not avoid him for much longer. It was part of the reason he was now waiting for the younger man to come out of the diner.
He didn’t know how long he had waited, but from a distance, he finally caught a glimpse of Tony maneuvering himself outside. Without much conscious thought, he turned the car’s engine over and sped towards the injured man.
As he approached though, he thought he saw Tony laugh and smile, before his friend hid his face. He wasn’t positive, but he was pretty sure the bemused expression on Tony’s face meant the younger man had predicted his appearance at the diner. An appearance that he’d made without the benefit of a phone call.
Because he braked so suddenly, the tires screeched which caused him to cringe just a little. He looked over at his injured friend, but only saw the top of the head and slightly shaking shoulders; shoulders he knew were shaking in laughter.
Stifling his urge to headslap the smile off of DiNozzo’s face, Gibbs hurriedly got out of the car and made his way around it to stand in front of the suddenly blank-faced Tony. He had to admit that he always had admired Tony’s ability to make himself look so innocent so fast.
They stared at each other for a couple of long moments. Yes, Tony had gone on this field trip without alerting anyone that he’d left Fornell’s house, but his friend was a grown man who could take care of himself – usually. The trouble was that Tony needed to reacquaint himself with the idea that he didn’t have to take care of himself anymore; that he had friends – Gibbs especially – who were willing to step in and help out.
Coming after DiNozzo had been a risk, but it was a risk he had been more than willing to take. His friendship with Tony was on the line and they needed to talk. He was willing to do whatever it took to get Tony to at least listen to him.
He asked, “Need a ride?”
“Sure,” Tony said and so relieved that his friend had accepted, Gibbs ignored the little warning in his gut and turned to open the passenger side door.
When he turned back around, he was met with a fist coming towards his face. Once the metaphoric little blue birds stopped flying in a circle around his head and he was able to focus on the man in front of him again, he heard:
“I just had to get that off my chest. We can go now,” the not-as-injured-as-he-thought man in front of him said with a serious expression on his face.
Tony accepted his help into the car, and when he turned towards the diner, he saw Grace through the window laugh, then throw up her hands and shrug.
He copied Grace’s shrug then waved goodbye before hurrying around to get into his car.
Gibbs knew that he more than deserved that punch, but he accepted it as first step towards what he hoped would be some sort of reconciliation.
Chapter 14: Face the Truth
Tony has to decide if he's ready to talk to Gibbs.
Chapter Fourteen: Face the Truth
Gibbs was surprised when Tony permitted the team leader to help him into the Charger. The hiss of pain from DiNozzo had made him regret the fact that he hadn’t taken the truck instead today which would have been so much easier to get in and out of, but he knew how much the younger man liked riding in his car. Tony might not want to be in the same car with him – or perhaps even in the same zip code – but at least his friend could enjoy the ride if not the company.
With a couple of curses that could only have been picked up from a Marine, Tony finally wrangled the crutches into the car. Gibbs shut the door and, as he hurried around the car, he copied the shrug Grace had given him and gave her a wave goodbye.
When he was about to start turning the key in the ignition Tony, without taking his eyes off the street in front of him said, “You deserved that.
Gibbs nodded once, and lifted a hand to his chin and the bruise he knew was now forming. “Yep, I did.”
He started the car and pulled out into the road. They didn’t have far to go before they reached the intersection at the end of the block and had to stop. Gibbs glanced at his passenger. “Which way?”
As he waited for Tony’s response, the cityscape and the road before them seemed to melt away, and in its place there was one of those perfect crossroads that you sometimes see out in the middle of nowhere. He’d seen one once off in the distance while on that long train ride with Shannon after leaving Stillwater, and the image had stuck with him all these years. The two roads he had seen had been perfectly straight and had intersected each other at right angles, but what really had made an impression on him was that they had seemed to go on forever even though he knew that was impossible. It had been the kind of crossroads where decisions were made, and if you were Robert Johnson, it was the kind of place rumored to be where deals with demons were made. This intersection felt like one of those crossroads, and the decision about to be made would affect both he and Tony’s futures.
If Tony chose to keep going straight, then they’d end up at Fornell’s place, and the punch would simply be an expression of the anger DiNozzo was still feeling towards him. If they turned right, then they’d be going to his house, and the punch would not only be, according to his jaw, a very tangible expression of anger but the sign Vance had spoken of – the sign that Tony was finally ready to talk to him.
“Turn right,” DiNozzo quietly but firmly said.
And, with those words, the lonely crossroads disappeared and as he let out the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, the proper cityscape popped back into place. He turned right and headed towards his house feeling that though his passenger had chosen to go with him, that this was only one of many skirmishes to be fought in the battle to regain their friendship.
No matter how many times he had endured Gibbs’ head slaps, he had never wanted to hit back – until today. He won’t lie and say he’d never before entertained the thought, but to consciously execute the desire…never.
He hadn’t even planned on punching Gibbs, but the second his former team leader had stepped up to him, his fist had gone flying of its own accord. The decision to punch had gone straight to his fists having skipped all the brain processes in between. And, when he’d realized what he had done, he’d been shocked but managed to cover it up with a flip, but true, remark.
When Gibbs had asked him which way he had wanted to go; that Robert Frost poem he had learned at one of his boarding schools had come to mind. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood… Granted the roads before him were not divergent paths in the woods, but the concept was the same. If he chose the road that led to Fornell’s place, he knew for sure that he would be leaving his life here behind for good in the long run. The betrayals he had experienced in the past had led him down the same path of starting over time and again – Peoria, Philadelphia …Baltimore. But, if he chose the other path, the one that was ‘grassy and wanted wear…the one less traveled by,’ then maybe for once he would salvage the broken pieces and rebuild his life, make it stronger than it ever was before.
Should he cut ties or follow the advice of three very different individuals who seemed to think that he and Gibbs were destined to walk life’s path together instead of apart? He took in a slow, deep breath and blew it out just as slowly. He decided to not think about it and go with whatever answer came out of his mouth first.
He probably shouldn’t have been, but he had been a little surprised that he’d told Gibbs to turn right. Tony supposed that after spending ten years working together being partners and saving each other’s lives, then maybe his subconscious thought the Marine deserved to be able have his say. This was Gibbs’ last chance and he was pretty sure the man beside him knew it. Time would tell if the path he was on now would ‘make all the difference.’
The rest of the trip was made in silence, and it was so difficult to leave it in place. Unless he got the ‘shut up or else’ glare; Tony was used to practically talking Gibbs’ ear off during any car ride they took. He had to constantly remind himself to remain quiet. It was funny in a way because he had so much he needed to say, but a car in traffic was not the best place to start airing out their dirty laundry.
The second the car stopped, he threw the passenger door open and began fighting to get his crutches out of the car hoping it would signal to Gibbs that he did not want the man’s help. When they were out, he slowly and carefully extricated his injured leg intending to use the door and the crutches to help him stand. However, with the Charger being so low to the ground, he immediately knew getting out of the car by himself would never happen without damaging his healing leg. With resignation, he sighed and looked to his right. Sure enough, Gibbs had been standing by the whole time having already predicted his problem.
He dropped his head a little in defeat and Gibbs stepped in front of him with his arms outstretched. Tony grabbed both arms and used them to help get himself out of the car without losing his balance. His former mentor waited until he regained his equilibrium and then handed him his crutches.
As Gibbs started to walk towards the front door, Tony quietly said, “Thanks.”
His ‘thanks’ was acknowledged with a slight dip of the grey-haired man’s head as Gibbs hurried up the sidewalk to open the front door. As Tony hobbled up the path, he realized that it was going to be a very long day and that neither one of them would come out of this ‘discussion’ unscathed.
Here’s Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” in its entirety for those who might not know it.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Chapter 15: Unvarnished Truth
The confrontation between Tony and Gibbs begins.
Chapter Fifteen: Unvarnished Truth
“Take the couch,” Gibbs said indicating the living room. “You can rest your leg.”
Using his crutches to carefully maintain his balance, he took off his coat as the Marine continued, “You may want to call Fornell and tell him that you’re with me before he puts a BOLO out on you. He sounded a little worried when he called looking for you after he realized that you’d gone AWOL from his house earlier.” With an amused look on his face, he added. “Never realized he was such a mother hen.”
Tony handed his coat to Gibbs and headed toward the couch as he mumbled, “He’s not the only one.”
When he heard a pause in the noise Gibbs had been making, he flinched, expecting a head slap, but there was none. Instead, Gibbs said, “Heading upstairs for a minute.”
Tony made his way to the far end of the couch towards the fireplace and gingerly sat down, stowing the crutches mostly out of the way under the coffee table. As he settled with his right leg stretched out on the couch’s cushions, he pulled out his phone and called Fornell. Who knew what the man would do to him if he didn’t follow Gibbs advice and let his ex-handler know he was okay? It had been stupid to sneak out, but he’d needed some time alone and he’d needed to get some of the last pieces of the puzzle from Grace. He just wished that everyone wouldn’t keep forgetting that he was an adult capable of taking care of himself.
Fornell answered on the first ring, and he spent a couple of minutes reassuring his friend that he hadn’t done any further damage to himself. When he informed the FBI agent of where he was, he could picture Tobias’ raised eyebrows in the sudden silence. In response, he’d admitted that Gibbs deserved this chance to have his say. Before he hung up, Toby asked him to call if he needed a ride back to his condo. DiNozzo had no more than said, ‘will do’ and hung up when he caught sight of Gibbs with a pile of clothes in his hand.
“Brought these down from your stash for later tonight.”
Incredulous, Tony said, “Tonight?”
“Yeah. Thought you could stay here tonight.”
DiNozzo visibly bristled. “You thought. You thought? No, Gibbs, you didn’t think! Because, if you had, then you would’ve realized that once again you were taking my choices away from me. If you had thought, then maybe you would have thought to ask me first if I wanted to stay!” Tony’s voice had risen to the point where he was yelling.
“You would have said no,” Gibbs lamely retorted not looking him in the eye as he stepped forward and placed the clothes on the coffee table.
“Maybe. Probably. I don’t know. And now, neither do you because once again someone else decided which path my life would take.”
Tony saw that his words had hit home. More than once he’d not had much of a choice when going through life-changing events, and was plainly obvious when Gibbs realized that fact.
“I suppose if I reminded you of Rule 18, then you probably would want to deck me again,” Gibbs asked trying and spectacularly failing to lighten the mood.
“I’d say that that’s a pretty safe bet, Gibbs,” Tony snapped.
“I’m sorry, Tony. I shouldn’t have assumed. I just thought we’d be talking for a while and it’d be easier on you and your leg this way.”
“I thought apologies were a sign of weakness,” Tony said casually.
“Not between friends,” Gibbs reminded. “I thought you knew that.”
“It’s never actually come up before. You’ve never bothered to apologize for anything prior to today. … So, am I?”
“What? My friend?” he confirmed. “I’d thought so… I still hope so. Despite what happened, as far as I was concerned you never stopped being my friend.”
“If that’s the case, then why didn’t you find a way to tell me what was going on? I know the SecNav threatened the whole team if you didn’t do your part of the assignment, but we could’ve gotten the job done just as well if you had just told me the plan.”
Gibbs was uncharacteristically calm with his response. “When the SecNav informed me of the assignment, I refused it outright. I didn’t want to hurt you, didn’t want to rip your life away from you like that, but then he threatened the team and I gave in because I knew you would’ve hated me even more if I’d chosen you over the team as a whole.”
Tony nodded distractedly, but couldn’t help the anger that was still building within him. “But why not let me in on it afterwards? You could’ve agreed and then gone behind their backs. It’s not like you haven’t done that before. I spent all those weeks doubting myself, doubting my abilities, and then when you basically dismissed me out of hand like that…denied me as your friend, as your—”
He slammed his hand down on top of the back of the couch twice and looked out the living room window wishing he wasn’t injured so he could vent his feelings in more ways than just with words. “Do you have any idea what you did to me Gibbs? Any idea of the hell you put me through? Do you?”
He held his hand up and Gibbs immediately stopped speaking but still sent a glare his way. “Gibbs, I don’t want to hear any excuses. I just want to know why. I want an explanation. Can you please do that for me?”
His former team leader paced back and forth a couple of times and then sagged wearily into the chair beside the couch. As he waited for a response, Tony idly wondered if Gibbs still considered the chair to be ‘his’. Gibbs lifted the palms of his hands to his eyes and pressed hard for a moment before dropping them. They locked eyes as he said, “I can.”
Moved by the emotion in Gibbs’ eyes, he decided to give the man a little time to gather himself before they really got into it. “Any chance I could get something to drink first? Water? Coffee?”
The gratitude and relief in the older man’s eyes as Gibbs got up to go into the kitchen would only have been obvious to very few people, and he was humbled by the fact that even being at odds and after all this time apart, he still could see it. It took several minutes, but eventually his former friend came back into the living room with two cups of coffee and a bottle of water. The Marine handed him the cup of coffee and set the water down on the table close enough for him to reach before he sat down with his own cup. Tony took a drink of the strong brew, thankful some sugar had been added and watched as Gibbs took a couple of sips prior to holding his cup between hands as if he were seeking warmth from it.
Finally Gibbs lifted his eyes and began to speak. “When Jarvis gave me that so-called ‘choice,’ I could barely wrap my head around it and I could tell Vance was having just as much trouble with the things being said as I was. I let it cloud my judgment, let it overrule my gut, and… I gave in. I chose the team over you.”
“From what I’ve been told Gibbs, it was not the team versus me. Jarvis threatened all of us, including me. You made the right choice.”
“How can you say that?!” the older man demanded and surged to his feet, some coffee spilling from the cup going unnoticed for the time being. “After what I did, how can you sit there and be so goddamn calm about a decision that ended up nearly killing you?!”
“First of all, I have no freakin’ choice but to sit here. This,” he said indicating his injured leg, “is not your fault. It’s the fault of some idiot, revenge-seeking terrorist’s bullet! Don’t you dare feel guilty about me getting injured. Second, though I may have been pissed off at you when I thought you had basically thrown me to the wolves… Now that I know the whole story I understand why you did what you did, the choice you made. I realize now that I’m not angry at you anymore for that.”
Gibbs deflated a little and tilted his head narrowing his eyes. “You’re not?”
He shook his head and calmly, but decisively said, “No, I’m not.”
The Marine must have realized he still had a cup of coffee in his hands because he took a moment to set it on the table before asking, “Then—?”
“What I’m really ticked off about are many of the subsequent decisions you made since that choice. I’m angry—no, actually I’m way beyond angry with you for what you did to accomplish your part of the mission.”
“Discrediting you, getting you fired was part of my mission objective and—”
“I get that, Gibbs,” Tony interrupted. “I do, but the way you went about it pretty much destroyed my confidence in my abilities as an agent. You made me think that I had messed up cases; that murderers and thieves were going to go free because of me. I had so many nightmares about that; nightmares that the bad guys had hurt some innocent person or hurt one of the team because I had screwed up. Even after Fornell told me it had been a set-up… I still have nightmares…”
“I don’t know what to say—” Gibbs began, but he had once again interjected Tony’s desire to get everything out in the open.
“There’s nothing you can say. You did what you had to do and you did it so well that everyone, including the team believed everything. They actually thought I had taken the money. People I thought were my friends – people who once thought I would never murder anyone in cold blood – thought I could be a thief. I know McGee, Ziva, and I used to compete for your sparse praise, but once you started your campaign to discredit me; once you started to freely berate me for every little thing, you cost me what little respect I’d earned from them over the years. They followed your lead and I backed off rather than argue about it or defend myself. I figured I deserved it since I was the one who was supposedly making all those mistakes out in the field.”
Tony sighed and shifted his injured leg before looking out the window. He asked, “Do you remember what you referred to me once or twice as in relation to you?”
Confusion spread over Gibbs’ face for a moment before realization sunk in. “My loyal St. Bernard.”
“Yep. You want to know what remarks everyone kept saying to me; the remarks that everyone thought were oh so funny?” When Gibbs took too long to answer, he said, “They kept saying that the loyal St. Bernard was in the dog house, that I needed obedience training. People that I barely knew kept asking me when you were going to put me down for my own good since I’d outlasted my usefulness.”
Swiping at the moisture that had collected in his eyes, Tony took a deep breath before he attempted to speak again. “Do you—” he began but his voice caught and he paused to take a gulp of his coffee to help clear his throat. “Do you realize what that does to one’s self-worth after a while? Huh, Gibbs? Do you?”
“I had no idea that that was going on, Tony. You have to believe me. If I had known, I would have…”
He realized what his mentor wasn’t saying. “No you wouldn’t have. You couldn’t have because of our assignment. You wouldn’t have been able to do anything.”
“If the circumstances had been different…”
“I know. Normally you never would have tolerated that kind of crap.”
“I would have kicked their asses and still might if I ever found out who they were…” Gibbs menacingly stated. He then hesitantly asked, “Did McGee or Ziva—?”
“God, no. No, they never said anything that malicious. Their snide comments became a little more vicious and definitely more disrespectful, but they never were that hateful. Their lack of support is what truly got to me. It was like…once you began seemingly to lose faith in me, then they did too. I guess they just followed your lead and forgot…”
“Forgot how good an agent you are.”
Tony shrugged and said, “I guess.”
“There’s no guessing,” Gibbs declared as he stood. He took the three steps towards Tony’s end of the couch and kneeled down right in front on him forcing eye-to-eye contact. “I know how good you are. I’ve never doubted that despite what I made you believe about yourself. The first time I ever met your father, I told him that you are one of the best agents I’ve ever worked with and I still believe that; I still hold that to be true. Never forget that. Never doubt that again.”
The sincerity bleeding through Gibbs’ eyes made Tony want to believe him, but he couldn’t find it in himself to do that just yet. His former team leader’s actions over the last eight months had too often contradicted the words he’d so longed to hear in the past.
“How can I not doubt it, huh? How can I believe anything you say to me ever again?!” the ex-agent asked, his voice rising with every subsequent word. The lead agent stood in surprise and took a step back at the venom lacing his voice. “I trusted you, Gibbs. I trusted you more than I’ve ever trusted anyone for a very long time. I let you see the real me. Even knowing it was part of an assignment, I can’t seem to forget everything you said to me; all those hateful and dispassionate words. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to forget them.”
“I know I crossed the line, but—”
“Crossed the line?! Are you kidding me?” Without thinking, he moved his legs to get up off the couch, but instead of venting some energy by pacing, he was met with intense pain. He curled up over his injured leg, cursing his forgetfulness and for letting his emotions get away from him. He felt more than saw Gibbs crouch down next to him again and tensed at the hand on his shoulder which then immediately disappeared.
He held up a hand to ward off any further attempts at help from the Marine and said, “I’m…fine. I…just forgot… for a second. You have… no idea how frustrating it is for me to not be able to move around freely.”
“I do know that, DiNozzo,” Gibbs said while returning to his seat. “These last months could never negate the ten years we’ve spent as friends and partners. I know you, Tony, and I know we can get passed this eventually.”
“I’m not so sure, Gibbs. You betrayed me and used some of the most intensely private information that I’d shared with you against me. You more than crossed those lines; you obliterated them. I may understand why you did what you did, but I’m just not sure I can ever completely forgive what you did. I’m not sure I can ever fully trust you again either.”
By the stricken look on the older man’s face, Tony knew he had hurt Gibbs with his words, but they had needed to be said. The older man needed to understand just how much he’d been hurt by someone who he once used to consider family. And, until that very moment, he didn’t think his mentor had truly comprehended the damage that had been done to their relationship.
Until Tony had uttered those words, Gibbs had no idea of just how wide the chasm between them had been. He had been leaning forward, arms resting on his knees, when his friend had spoken and after hearing those words, he had bowed his head in shame and regret. It had physically and emotionally hurt to hear that his kid couldn’t forgive or trust him. He wished he’d never had to hear that, but at the same time, he was thankful that he finally knew where DiNozzo stood in all this. The team leader had known things would never be the same between them again, but it was in this moment that he first began to doubt that they could ever regain even the smallest piece of what they had been to each other.
And Tony had thrown at him what seemed to be a very thin, very fragile lifeline; he reached out and grabbed it, he held on with all his strength. Despite the harsh reality of what had happened to them and between them, he was determined to not lose this battle.
“Gibbs, I—” Tony hesitated and he looked up to see his friend lift a hand to pinch his fingers over the bridge of his nose. “I know that we’ve both kept things from each other; things both personal and professional done by choice or by orders… Why is this time so different? Why can’t I just forgive and forget?”
The team leader decided that brutal honesty was the only way to get Tony to understand some as yet unspoken truths.
“I betrayed you,” was the matter-of-fact reply, knowing that he needed to get Tony to react and to get him to let out the rest of the pent up pain and anger that had been under the surface all this time.
Tony almost imperceptibly nodded.
Gibbs added, “I humiliated you; made you doubt yourself and your abilities.”
“Yes,” the younger man whispered.
“I took everything I know about you and your family and twisted it; used it to hurt and embarrass you, all to suit my purposes.”
This time DiNozzo simply stared at him with an expression bordering on anger.
“I didn’t trust you to be able to handle—”
“Exactly, Gibbs! You didn’t trust me! You never trust me; you never think I can handle the tough assignments. You should have told me what was going on. We could have gotten the job done right instead of things being perpetually about to go wrong. We could have done this without sacrificing my personal life. Please tell me that you at least figured out what going undercover using my own name was going to mean to my life!”
It was like a physical blow had been delivered to his stomach. No, he hadn’t realized that. How in the hell could he have missed something so important? How could he have missed a detail that would have meant Tony would be gone from his life forever if things had gone according to plan?
He sat back and lifted a shaking hand to his face to try to get control of his emotions. As he concentrated on keeping himself from hyperventilating, he heard Tony say, “You didn’t realize that my life was over, did you?”
Lowering his still shaking hand, he tonelessly replied, “Nope.”
“You really didn’t know?” Tony asked again in surprise bordering disbelief.
Gibbs locked eyes with the younger man and answered, “No, Tony. I hadn’t thought of that. You can’t imagine how sorry I am that I missed that fact and I’m more than a little pissed off and disappointed at myself. I spent all these months worried that I was going to lose you because of what I’d done, when I was going to lose you anyway if things had turned out differently.”
He stood and paced back and forth a couple of times before he made a fist and punched it into his other hand. “Everyone seems to think that I’m sort of superman who is always ten steps ahead of my opponent and who always has a plan for every situation; that I always know what the hell I’m doing. It’s simply not true.” He paused unsure what to say next and noticed that he had Tony’s complete attention. The mixture of emotions on his friend’s face somehow encouraged him to go on.
“Where do you think my rules come from? It’s not like they magically appeared out of thin air and Mike certainly didn’t teach them all to me. Nearly every one of those rules is the result of mistakes that I’ve made and lessons I’ve had to learn in my life and in my career. Despite those lessons, I still sometimes disregard my own rules. You know that. I’ve lost track of the number of times that you’ve backed me up or pulled my ass out of the fire because I broke my own rules. In fact, I can think of at least a dozen that I either broke or followed far too closely for that goddamned assignment. The one that killed me the most to follow was Rule 7: Always—”
“Be specific when you lie,” Tony interrupted, looking a little pale.
“Yes,” Gibbs quietly acknowledged. “In order to succeed in my mission, I had to turn every good and positive thought I know to be true about you and turn it all inside out. I had to pretend you weren’t my friend and that you didn’t mean the world to me. Do you know how hard it was for me to have had to say those words? How difficult it was for me to get up in the morning knowing that I had to continue to ruin your life? How much it killed me to deny you and to see your spirit crushed because of what I had said and done?” He walked to the fireplace and stared down into the cold and dark hearth. “Do you have any idea how much of a struggle it was for me daily to not crawl into a bottle of bourbon and stay there because of what I had done?”
With that impassioned speech, Tony realized that Gibbs had been just as lost and hurting as he had been all these long months. SecNav hadn’t done all this just to him, but he had done it to Gibbs and to his team as well. His former team leader had born a burden that he should never have had to bear. The choices he’d had to make, the things he’d had to do, and the brutal words he’d had to say; to have lived through those things and to hear those words had demolished his world and damaged his spirit. What then must it have been like to be the perpetrator of it all?
Yet Gibbs was not done speaking. He watched as the older man turned from the fireplace and kneeled once more in front of him. As they locked eyes, he saw the intense regret and guilt in them, but overshadowing both those things was the obvious pain within. “Nothing I can say or do can ever make up for what I did and said, the lines I crossed all in the name of national security, but I would hope that someday you could find some forgiveness for me, and I would pray that someday you could learn to trust me again.”
Tony finally understood that he hadn’t been the only one to suffer. Gibbs had to live with what he had done to his agent just as he’d had to live with what Gibbs had done to him. They both had so many things to regret in their lives; he didn’t want to regret what he was about to do.
He stretched out a hand in order to squeeze Gibbs’ shoulder – it was meant to let him know without words that they would not let more than ten years of friendship fall by the wayside. He wanted the Marine to know that not all was lost and that they could rebuild their relationship and work to regain that trust. However, in mid-action, his hand changed course and instead of landing on the older man’s shoulder, he reached back and head slapped him with as much force as he could muster given his awkward position on the couch.
His hand connected and, if the sting in his hand was anything to go by, then he suspected that it had hurt a lot. Gibbs lost his balance a little and had to grab the table to keep from falling on his ass, but when their eyes met again, he could see hope in the blue eyes.
He would certainly never forget what had happened between them, but Tony now felt that finally they had made the first steps down the road towards forgiveness.
Just a reminder… Rule 18: It’s better to seek forgiveness than ask permission.
Their ‘discussion’ is definitely not over. More in the next chapter.
Chapter 16: Truth is Out There
The guys take a break before their confrontation continues.
Chapter Sixteen: Truth is Out There
Gibbs was about to stand when he heard a gurgling noise he recognized. He smirked and said, “Hungry?”
Tony flushed and looked a little embarrassed. In general, it was such a rare expression for his friend to have, that it was a nice switch from the multitude of serious emotions he’d seen so far today.
“I guess,” Tony said with a shrug trying to act as if his stomach hadn’t interrupted them.
“How about we take a break for dinner? Sounds like you haven’t eaten all day,” he said as he stood. The pain that shot through his knees and the sting at the back of his head was definitely worth it if he and Tony had truly taken the first steps on the road towards reconciliation.
He looked down at Tony, who had yet to answer. DiNozzo’s face looked unfocused, like he was internally debating about more than one thing.
“Tony?” he tried and the green eyes snapped back into focus latching onto his. “Pizza?” he continued and then without thinking about what he was saying added, “There’s a great new place that opened up a couple of months—”
Abruptly he cut himself off feeling guilty for bringing up a place that Tony would’ve sampled long before now had things been different. His friend had a knack for finding these new, hole-in-the-wall places that specialized in take-out rather than dining in, but this place he’d only known about because of a flier that had been left on his door. He’d expected a different reaction than the one he had received.
The mirthless smile that broke out on Tony’s face was one that tacitly acknowledged the fact that they had walked on separate paths for a time. He then moved his hand in a way that it was as if he were brushing aside the accidental reminder of their separation.
“Pizza sounds good, Gibbs.”
The two of them ate a quiet dinner at the table instead of in the living room. Tony had absented himself for a while and gone to the head with Gibbs trying not to hover once he’d helped the younger man off the couch. He figured that DiNozzo going to the bathroom was not simply a matter of taking care of his bladder but also a desire to be alone for short time. He respected that and recognized he needed that time apart as well to regroup before they got back into things. It didn’t mean he didn’t keep a sharp ear out for any possible sounds of distress.
About thirty seconds before Gibbs was going to go check on his friend, Tony finally came out and went directly to the dinner table. Even though he knew DiNozzo’s leg would be more comfortable stretched out on the couch, he didn’t remark on Tony’s choice of seating. He knew the younger man had felt at a disadvantage being stuck on the couch where he couldn’t pace and was limited in how he could physically express his feelings and frustrations.
They ate mostly in silence, but it didn’t seem anything but natural, almost like old times. A lot of people thought that Tony had a permanent case of verbal diarrhea and was never quiet for long, but then those people didn’t know him like Gibbs did. It was certainly true that he had a running commentary going during a car ride or when they watched a movie together. DiNozzo also, as part of his process, constantly talked throughout one of their investigations, but a good portion of the time they spent together was spent in comfortable silence.
He knew Tony occasionally called him a functional mute, but sometimes the younger man gave him a run for his money in that department, and yet it never worried him when DiNozzo was like that – there were other indicators of his agent’s moods. He thought of it as Tony feeling secure enough to let his mentor see an aspect of his personality that few people have probably ever been shown.
The quiet times were random and often they were spent doing paperwork or helping out on the latest woodworking project in the basement. They also often shared a simple meal after a difficult case. Rarely planned, it was just the two of them seeking companionship when being stuck in your own head got to be too much. Those times allowed them to bask in the presence of a friend that knew you almost better than he knew himself.
Though not exactly the same, the dinner they shared felt a lot like one of those quiet times. Gibbs felt more relaxed, calm, and hopeful than he’d been in months and though Tony’s face showed how tired he was, his overall posture seemed to be more relaxed as well.
Gibbs wondered, as they continued to eat, what more they would talk about this night. He knew that it would take more than just this one particular meeting to even begin to resolve everything that had happened between them. There would be no miracle cure for all the pain that had been caused; any reconciliation would not be effortless nor would it happen overnight.
They may have hit if off fairly quickly when they first met, but their friendship had taken time to truly develop into the level of regard and trust that they had once had. Reconciliation seemed possible now, but a renewal of trust to the level it had been would take time. Forgiveness would take time.
So much had happened, been said, and gone wrong, that he didn’t know if they ever could or even if they ever should rehash everything. He felt this was the turning point for the both of them and was willing to do whatever it took, to discuss whatever Tony wanted in order to keep the younger man in his life. But, at the same time, he was more than happy to let DiNozzo set the pace.
Gibbs was so intent on his thoughts that he forgot he was eating fresh out of the oven pizza and not the cold leftovers he usually had at the office. Like always, he tried to stuff half a slice into his mouth, but this time it caused some sauce to make its way out from under the cheese, pepperoni, and sausage and land on his gray polo shirt. He cursed and caught Tony’s attention who’d obviously decided not to comment, but it was easy to see that his eyes were crinkled in amusement. He grabbed a couple of napkins and cleaned up the worst of it, but knew he should change his shirt soon.
The Marine was surprised to see Tony grab a third slice out of the box having heard from Fornell that his friend’s appetite was not yet quite back to normal. It wasn’t long before it was obvious DiNozzo wasn’t going to finish the slice when he began to pick at the toppings. He finished his own third slice and stood up from the table.
“You done?” he asked indicating the half-eaten piece of pizza on Tony’s plate.
After a brief glance upward, DiNozzo then looked at his plate and sighed before pushing it away. Gibbs grabbed the leftover slice and tossed it back into the box figuring the younger man could have the remaining pizza regardless of whether or not he stayed the night. Gathering their paper plates and the box, he headed into the kitchen.
Coming back out, he was about to tell Tony that he was going upstairs to change when the younger man said, “Gibbs, on your way upstairs, could you grab my water from the coffee table? I need to take my antibiotic.”
Without saying anything, Gibbs retrieved the bottle and set it next to DiNozzo who already had a pill in hand. He wanted to ask about a pain pill but decided not to so he wouldn’t overstep any boundaries – whatever those were anymore.
Leaving his friend sitting at the dinner table, he rushed upstairs to change out of his soiled shirt and into more comfortable clothes. He felt uneasy about leaving like that, but he had to show the younger man that he trusted that Tony could take care of himself for a few minutes.
Gibbs was just leaving his room when he heard it. A muffled thump came from somewhere downstairs and for a second he was frozen. But then, just as quickly, he came to his senses and nearly broke his neck as he raced down the stairs hoping he wouldn’t find a bleeding DiNozzo unconscious on his living room floor.
Bursting into the living room, he automatically swept the room for Tony. When he didn’t immediately see him, he decided to stay where he was and listen instead of wasting time fruitlessly searching the house. After what seemed an eternity later, but was actually only a few seconds, he heard the sound again – a clanging of metal on wood from somewhere to his right. He turned towards the sound and realized that it must be coming from his basement.
Nausea welled up within him at the thought of going in the place that had once provided hours of solace and solitude, but had since become an impetus for nightmares. However, Tony could be hurt, and that was more than enough incentive to overcome his reluctance and his stomach. As he approached the doorway, he heard some cursing and the vice around his insides released its grip slightly in the knowledge that Tony must not be hurt too badly if he could still spout profanity.
At the doorway, he spotted Tony awkwardly sitting on the top of the stairs hunched over and grasping his leg. He knelt down and asked, “You okay?”
“Dandy,” was the sarcastic reply. Tony lifted his head and looked at Gibbs. “I thought this would be a good place to sit for a while.”
Gibbs shifted his gaze to the staircase and saw that DiNozzo’s crutches were laying half-way down them. Tony must have tried to go down the stairs, but slipped and in catching himself on the railing, he had to let go of the crutches which took the plunge. Better the crutches than Tony, Gibbs thought.
“You supposed to be attempting stairs just yet?” he asked, his tone deceptively mild.
Tony winced, but Gibbs could tell it wasn’t because of his injuries. “No.”
“Then why…?” He gestured towards the basement as a whole as he trailed off.
Gibbs didn’t really expect an answer but got one anyway. “I just wanted to…” It seemed trailing off in the middle of sentences was catching.
“To?” he prompted.
“I wanted to see if I could go down into the basement without thinking of that night.”
“And... You saw how far I got,” Tony replied with a grimace.
“I haven’t been able to even get this far until today,” Gibbs confessed.
Tony’s head jerked up and over to look Gibbs in the eye. “You…you haven’t?”
“Nope. Every time I tried, I’d get so sick to my stomach that…” He paused and took a deep breath. “I haven’t been in the basement since about a week after that last night.” He chuckled mirthlessly. “I got to clean up a disgusting mess off my kitchen floor.”
DiNozzo winced in sympathy and asked, “What about now?”
“It’s alright,” was the deceptively mild reply.
“Sure it is, Gibbs. I’m sure that’s why your skin has turned a lovely shade of green,” Tony retorted with a smirk. “Sit down before you fall down. I’m getting a crick in my neck staring up at you.”
Gibbs glared down at the ex-cop for a moment before giving in and sitting beside Tony who had scooted over a little to make some room.
“You hurt yourself?” he asked once he was seated.
“Just my pride,” Tony replied with a small smile. “My leg’s not too happy with me either.”
“I’ll bet,” the Marine said with a nod. “You bust any stitches?”
“Nope,” DiNozzo confidently replied.
The Marine glanced at the younger man’s leg and said, “Good.”
Tony could tell that Gibbs was extremely uncomfortable sitting there with him in the basement, with all the bad memories hanging about them like a shroud. If he were honest with himself, then he would admit that he wanted to leave this place just as badly as the man next to him probably wanted to. The last time the two of them had been down here together was one of the worst times of his life, but if they were going to continue to reconcile, then they needed to confront the demons still residing down here and banish them. They shouldn’t let years of good memories be erased by the words and actions of that one horrible night.
There’s nothing special about you. You’re not worth the trouble of keeping around.
He couldn’t help the flinch at the memory of those words from that night.
“You okay?” Gibbs asked.
“Yeah. Just trying to deal with some old ghosts.”
“Yeah,” the older man breathed out as if he were dealing with some of his own ghosts.
“Ain’t we a pair,” Tony stated with bitterness in his voice.
The Marine didn’t answer. Instead he nodded and turned his head to look out into the basement.
“Gibbs?” he said to get the man’s attention. He wanted the older man to understand some of what he had gone through during that dark time.
“Hmm,” Gibbs murmured turning back to him.
“To say that I was devastated by what you said that night,” Tony said, gesturing down into the room, “would be an understatement of epic proportions.” He paused trying to swallow down the lump that had formed in his throat.
“I know. I saw it in your eyes,” Gibbs interjected so quietly that he almost missed the words even though they came from right next to him.
“Then you either know or can guess what the next seven weeks were like for me.” Tony said watching Gibbs turn away bringing a hand up to rub at his face before nodding. “I’m surprised that I didn’t pickle my liver back then. Ducky would be so pissed to find out just how much I was drinking, how poorly I took care of myself. Nothing mattered anymore except that next drink and forgetting. I thought everything and everyone I cared about had either betrayed or abandoned me, or both! I didn’t think I had anything left to live for.”
Suddenly Gibbs’ head lifted and snapped towards Tony’s looking him in the eyes, concern and fear warring with the guilt written clearly upon his face. The ex-cop laid a hand on his mentor’s forearm, and in a gentle tone said, “It was just a thought. No actions. I never entertained it again.” He steeled his voice and ordered, “Don’t you dare feel guilty. It was the alcohol, lack of sleep, and my own messed up issues that even allowed the thought to enter my mind.”
From the look on the team leader’s face, he could see murderous thoughts creeping into the man’s head. With his hand still on Gibbs’ forearm, he tightened his hold and shook the arm, pleading, “I know you’re thinking about sniping the SecNav or at the very least beating the crap out of him, but I’m begging you not to. I don’t want have to visit you in prison. Okay?”
Tony shook the arm again with more force. “Okay?” he repeated.
Gibbs blinked, his features softening, and looked him in the eyes. “Yeah. Yeah, I hear you. I give you my word.”
“Thank you,” DiNozzo quietly replied, patting the arm a couple of times before removing his hand. Then with a smirk, he added, “I’m trusting you to keep it.”
The Marine’s face went from somber to delight in seconds, and Tony realized what he’d just said. He supposed trust had to begin somewhere.
After a long moment, Tony said, “I’m sorry, Gibbs. I didn’t mean to bring that up.” Gibbs’ expression immediately sobered. “Out of everything that has happened, that one thought that one time is wholly inconsequential in comparison.
“Those weeks are a blur to me now – drinking, puking, wondering what I did wrong.” He chuckled mirthlessly. “I wanted to forget, but all I ended up forgetting was those weeks I spent at the bottoms of all those bottles.” He shook his head in disgust.
“Then, one morning, it all changed. I woke up next to my toilet with the worst hangover I’ve ever had in my life. One which I have absolutely no plans to try and top - ever. I still don’t remember where I had been and how I’d gotten home. Once I could raise my head up off the ground without wanting to upchuck, I decided that I’d spent enough time drowning my sorrows. That was the first day I went to—”
He zoned out for a moment as clues he’s had for a while now came together to form a picture he never saw coming or was even certain he had right. He turned his head at the same time Gibbs turned his and they locked eyes. The expression on the older man’s face was one of curiosity slightly tinged with a smugness and pride. Tony finally realized and accepted that the bastard hadn’t ever truly abandoned him at any point during this whole mess; that Gibbs had always had his six in one way or another.
“That was the first day I went to,” he repeated then added, “the diner and met Grace. Gibbs?”
“Yeah,” the Marine replied, the look of pride winning out over the rest.
“How did you know to send Grace to that diner on that particular day? Even Grace didn’t know the answer to that question. She just said that you’d guessed what I’d do because you know me so well…but I think it was more than that. It was, wasn’t it?”
Chapter 17: Hidden Truth
Gibbs explains. The blame game. Breaking pattern. Hope.
Chapter Seventeen: Hidden Truth
Gibbs couldn’t help the proud smile that surfaced upon his face as he watched Tony figure out at least some of what had happened back then. The kid definitely still didn’t have all the pieces put together, but then again he’d kept the final one to himself this whole time. DiNozzo had asked if there was more to it, to which he replied, “Yep.”
He wanted to see if Tony would remember and figure it all out on his own. His friend’s face had a faraway look and he could practically see the wheels turning behind the green eyes. Tony put the palm of his hand against his forehead and rubbed the spot between his eyes.
“Argh! I know I’m missing something. The bad guys were watching me, making sure I’d be a good candidate for their scheme. The good guys had to have been watching too… I know now that you had to have been around – you had to be keeping tabs on me in some way. Gibbs…please. I have to know.”
With that plea and the haunted look in Tony’s eyes, Gibbs couldn’t help but relent and share his last secret related to their fubar mission.
“It was killing me that I couldn’t directly watch your six, Tony. I fought hard for Fornell to be your handler since it couldn’t be anyone at NCIS and you needed someone who knew you on your side. Tobias kept me up to date on how you were fairing – the drinking and not taking care of yourself. I knew you were going out to bars to drink yourself into oblivion just as often as you stayed home with a bottle.”
Gibbs leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees before continuing. “One day my gut kept screaming at me that I needed to be there for you; it was all I could think about. Despite the risk to your cover and despite the fact that one slip from either of us could mean your death, I went after you using an emergency back-up plan that I came up with once I got my head back in the game. The only problem with the plan was that I could only risk implementing it once. I had to hope that I wasn’t jumping the gun using it too soon and hope that I didn’t compromise an op that had already cost us too much.
“A friend that had been in my unit in the Marines drives a cab. I knew it would be a perfect cover to meet with you in an emergency since Dave and I were often mistaken for each other. He let me take over his shift and all I had to do was borrow my friend’s hat and put on a goatee to match his. That night, I called a contact with the FBI and found out you were courting disaster being a belligerent drunk at the Rusty Bucket. I went in pretending you’d called for a cab; the bartender was more than happy to be rid of you.
“I made a show of fishing out your I.D. and poured you into the backseat tossing your wallet in next to you once I’d supposedly checked your address. You were a mess, DiNozzo, and barely with it. You were so out of it that I was one step away from calling Ducky or an ambulance – I probably should’ve regardless of the risk.
“Thankfully I only had to keep up the act of being a cabbie concerned for his fare’s well-being until we reached the bathroom where I knew no one had planted any listening devices. In there I could talk to you and keep you from damaging yourself further. In that one little room, I could be your friend again for the first time in months.”
Gibbs’ thoughts drifted back to that night…
He closed the bathroom door and allowed himself to slowly crumble, bad knees be damned, to the ground with a passed out DiNozzo in his arms. Gently laying his friend in a recovery position on the floor, he roughly shoved his jacket off along with his hat and tossed them on top of the toilet’s tank. Shifting his position, he grabbed a washcloth, wet it with cold water, and placed it on Tony’s forehead.
“Tony?” he called trying to get some sort of response. Rubbing the younger man’s back, he continued, still not willing to raise his voice, “Hey, Tony? Can you hear me? You need to wake up now. Tony?”
Worry for his agent won out over the guilt he’d being feeling for far too long. Should he call Ducky or an ambulance? He could be signing Tony’s death warrant if he did.
Gibbs was about to make the call one way or the other when the ex-cop groaned and moved slightly. If it hadn’t have been for the hand on his friend’s back, he wouldn’t have noticed the movements which indicated the younger man was going to be sick. Suddenly, he was hauling Tony up off the cold tile floor and positioning him over the toilet bowl. As he held DiNozzo up, he could feel the muscles tense as the younger man continued to vomit everything he’d seemingly consumed the last week. Gibbs started speaking, hoping his voice would be a port in the storm ranging in the semi-conscious body in his arms.
“That’s it, Tony. Get it all out… You’re going to be okay. You have to be okay. It can’t end—.”
He jumped when he felt a hand on his forearm. “Gibbs? You okay?”
“I’m… I’m good,” he lifted his left hand and rubbed his eyes for a moment.
“Of course you are,” Tony countered sarcastically. Then gentling his voice, he added, “You kind of checked out there for a bit. Thinking about that night?”
Gibbs nodded, not bothering to mention that he was still thinking about that night to a degree.
“You stayed with me?” Tony prompted in an obvious attempt to distract him and get him back on track. “All night?”
The lead agent moved to stretch one of his legs out before him noticing that the younger man was gently rubbing the leg muscles near his injury. The Marine briefly wondered how much longer his friend would be able to tolerate the uncomfortable seating on the stairs.
“Seemed like it, but no. I stayed long enough to make sure you were relatively okay and could be left alone – it was probably longer than was truly safe. When I left I made sure to make noise about wondering where your wallet was and to sarcastically thank you for the extremely generous tip on my way out of your apartment.
“It killed me to have to leave you like that. I was up all night worrying that something may have happened to you, that you might have choked on your vomit or hurt yourself in another way. Somehow I managed to channel it all into making plans with Grace and the comfy chair brigade. It wasn’t until Grace called to let me know that you had showed up at the diner that I could relax.”
The corner of Gibbs’ mouth turned up in a crooked smile and he reached up to scratch at the back of his neck. “McGee suffered more than one undeserved head slap because of my sparkling personality that day.”
“I’ll have to remember to apologize to Tim for that,” Tony declared with a smile.
“Not your fault,” he argued.
“Maybe not completely,” the younger man allowed, “but I chose to aggressively drink away my sorrows that night which led to him seeing stars from the hits.”
“I didn’t hit him that hard,” Gibbs defended with a glare.
“Fine. Whatever,” Tony replied with a distracted wave of his hand. “That still doesn’t explain how you knew I would be at that diner on that particular day.”
With a sheepish smile and a chuckle, the team leader admitted, “Actually I didn’t know you’d go there at all or even on that day. I hoped you would be though. I hoped that I had gotten through to you the night before.”
“You’re kidding me,” the man next to him deadpanned.
“No, I’m not,” Gibbs confirmed looking Tony in the eye. “I really didn’t know for sure you’d ever go there, but you did. You said you would and I had to—”
“Wait a sec… I said I would?” the ex-cop asked.
“Yep. If you think that all the talking I’ve done today has used up some kind of allotment for the year, then that night I probably said enough for three years.”
With the ghost of a smile on his face, his friend quietly asked, “What did you say?”
“I don’t actually remember much of what I said except that I kept repeating over and over that you needed to stop drinking so much, that it wasn’t the answer, things like that. During the drive back to your place, I had come up with the idea to use the diner and Grace. All I had to do was convince you to go to the diner so I kept talking about it; that you had to go there, that things would get better if you would just go to the diner. By the time I had to leave, you had promised me several times that you’d go to the diner.”
“I did?” the injured man interjected.
“And you believed me?” was Tony’s incredulous reply.
“’Why not?’ I’ll tell you why not… I was drunk off my ass that night, that’s why not!” DiNozzo exclaimed and buried his face in his hands muttering something he couldn’t quite catch.
“Tony, when I left that night, it felt to me that I had gotten through to you. I think that was when you hit rock bottom in many ways.” He paused and grabbed his friend’s wrist to pull the hand away from the younger man’s face. “You were almost ready to take back your life, and I was just fortunate enough to be there to help you over that last hurdle. I had to hope and pray that you would forget that I had been there and yet still remember your promise to go to the diner. And, apparently, my prayer was answered. Somehow it all worked out.”
His ex-teammate snorted, “Yeah, I guess.”
“’You guess’?” Gibbs questioned and was rewarded with the reply of a set of shrugged shoulders. He sighed and said, “Tony.”
It was his friend’s turn to sigh. “If you call my life crumbling around me, a broken team, and you getting nauseous every time you step foot in the basement ‘working out,’ then more power to ya.”
“You know what I meant!” he defended.
“Yeah I do, but Gibbs, you do realize that you and I have a long way to go before things can be considered ‘worked out.’ Right?”
Regret colored his reply as he said, “Roger that.”
“Good,” Tony acknowledged with a nod of his head.
He nodded back contented by the younger man’s implication that things would eventually work out between them. It was unknown yet exactly how, but at least it was another step forward for the two of them.
“How are things going between you and the rest of your team?” DiNozzo tentatively asked breaking the awkward silence that they had lapsed into.
Gibbs just barely managed to suppress the flinch caused by the words ‘your team,’ and having been surprised by the question, the Marine didn’t answer right away. “We’re still a team – for now – though it wouldn’t really surprise me if one of them requested a transfer. The morning after the shootout, Director Vance informed everyone at NCIS of the basics of your undercover assignment – probably to avoid any potential negative scuttlebutt. He also privately informed the team that I would be the one to brief them on the specifics of my involvement and any other questions they had.”
“You mean, he basically threw you under the bus instead of informing them himself,” Tony confirmed, his voice tinged with anger.
“Not exactly,” Gibbs corrected. “Leon did give the team more details than the rest of NCIS, but he knew I wanted to tell them certain things myself.”
“So how did ‘the talk’ go?” Tony asked, genuinely curious as to how his teammates have reacted to the knowledge that things weren’t as clear-cut as they’d probably thought.
“Ziva seemed to understand, which is not surprising considering her Mossad training. Tim seemed the most disappointed next to Abby – she still won’t accept any Caf-Pows from me. Ducky understands the spy game, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t beyond angry with me and is still barely speaking to me. I think Palmer was the most devastated. I’ve finally managed to topple myself from the pedestal he had me on.
“We’re getting by – barely – but I’m not sure they’ll ever really trust me again, which could be a problem out in the field. I think it will be a while before we know for certain if we can remain a team. I think a lot will depend on whether or not you’re coming back to NCIS, back to the team.”
He held up a hand to forestall Tony from interrupting him. “It’s just an observation. I’m not pressuring you to make a decision. I may be the boss, but you keep us together. They all want to see you and apologize – you know that, right? Fornell and I have been keeping them away though, because I figured you didn’t need that kind of pressure just yet.”
“Thanks, Gibbs,” was the heartfelt statement. “I’m not sure I can deal with them on top of all this just yet,” he said as he waved his hand around to indicate the man next to him and pretty much everything else. “I’ve got a feeling that they’d end up blaming me for some of it.”
“Why the hell would they do that?” his mentor asked, anger obviously evident in Gibbs’ voice and face.
Tony began to use one hand to count out reasons, “I went undercover without telling them – again. They were kept completely in the dark – again. They had to deal with extra work because I wasn’t there – again. McGee probably loved getting the extra head slaps as he dealt with learning what it was like to be your senior field agent. Not to mention them having had to continuously deal with a parade of probies and your wonderful mood swings.” He looked Gibbs in the eye and arched an eyebrow. “Need I say more?”
Shame danced over the Marine’s features before he replied, “Nope.”
DiNozzo wondered for a few moments if he’d been too harsh in his assessment of his former teammates’ reactions to the situation or the past months, but he knew at least a couple of things he’d mentioned were all too true. Time would tell if the rest would prove to be true as well.
Gibbs then asked him a question that he’d been expecting all day. “You given any thought yet to coming back to NCIS?”
That wasn’t quite the question Tony had been expecting, but it was close enough. Maybe his former team leader knew it would be pushing it too much to ask if he was going to come back to the team.
“Gibbs,” he began and then faltered. He shifted his good leg in an attempt to get more comfortable on the top stair step. Tony wanted to be annoyed but forced himself to remain calm. “Gibbs, I… I just… It’s all…all too…close to the surface, too much for me to think about right now. You and I have barely started talking again, there’s no way I can answer that question yet. I need time.”
Tony leaned his upper body against the wall of the staircase, feeling like fatigue was beginning to crash down on him; he had heard the exhaustion creeping into his voice just now. He watched as the older man absorbed his response knowing he didn’t give an answer remotely near what Gibbs had wanted to hear. Disappointment was evident on the senior agent’s face before it morphed into acceptance. He knew his mentor could be infinitely patient with him when he chose to be, and Tony felt that the man next to him would stay the course in their attempt at reconciliation and not push for an answer for the time being.
After a few moments, Gibbs nodded slightly and raised a hand towards his shoulder as if he were going to grab it, but with a narrowing of the eyes, he suddenly aborted the gesture instead lightly thumping the back of his hand against the injured man’s upper arm. “I don’t know about you, DiNozzo, but if I stay here much longer my ass is going to become one with these stairs.”
Gibbs finally realized just how much today and their emotion-laden discussion had taken out of his friend. Whereas before, Tony had been sitting up alert and raring to go; now he was slumped against the wall, his voice betraying the exhaustion he must be feeling.
Pushing himself up off the top stair, he stretched and took a deep breath before carefully heading down the staircase to retrieve DiNozzo’s crutches, dreading the onset of nausea he usually felt. This time though it wasn’t as bad as it had been during his previous attempts months before. The rolling of his stomach and the climbing of the acid to the back of his throat had held off until he bent down to pick up the second crutch which rested closest to the landing.
Quickly grabbing the crutch, he straightened and swallowed thickly, forcing himself to breathe as he made his way back up the stairs, noticing Tony was shifting off the wall and getting ready to be helped up off the ground. He wasn’t sure if the younger man had witnessed the moment, but he wouldn’t be surprised if Tony had and was granting him his privacy.
As he reached Tony, he jerked his head towards the basement doorway and said, “Come on. Let’s go.”
A bunch of conflicting emotions flickered over his agent’s face as he said, “But Gibbs, I wanted to… I need to—.” Tony paused and turned his head to look down into the basement.
“I know you did, but you’re exhausted and I’m not that far behind you.” The Marine laid the crutches down and grasped the banister as he crouched down in front of DiNozzo. He placed his other hand on his friend’s forearm and promised, “We’ve made it this far. It’s a good start. We’ll make it all the way eventually.”
Sensing the extra layer of meaning in Gibbs’ words, Tony nodded and confirmed, “Someday.”
After nearly getting themselves a couple of broken necks as a result of Gibbs helping him up and out of the basement, they finally made it back into the living room. He’d made a decision during that time and knew it would hurt and disappoint the Marine, but it couldn’t be helped.
As he settled back on the couch with his leg stretched out before him, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and looked up at Gibbs. “I’m calling Fornell to have him come pick me up.”
“But, I—” the older man started, but Tony interrupted him to avoid the two of them saying things that would set them back in their new relationship.
He held up a hand and said, “Gibbs. No. Just…just see it from my point of view for a second.”
The team leader said, “Alright,” and sat down in the chair nearly mirroring their positions from earlier in the day.
“We can’t… We shouldn’t just allow ourselves to fall back into old, familiar patterns. I know that sounds a tad hypocritical considering the pizza we shared earlier, but that’s partially why I moved to eat at the dinner table instead of at the couch like always. Having dinner with you, eating my favorite pizza, felt just like old times, and right now it shouldn’t be like that.”
He nervously shifted his injured leg which he hadn’t bothered to put back up on the couch. “We’ve made so much progress today – more than I ever thought we could or should, to be honest. I don’t want to ruin that by giving in to the temptation to stay the night. We can’t be like how we used to be just yet; and maybe not ever again.”
Seeing a devastated look settle onto Gibbs’ face, DiNozzo mentally played back what he had just said, and wanted to kick himself for not thinking through his words more carefully.
“Crap! Gibbs, that’s not what I meant!” At that exclamation, Gibbs’ expression became wary. “I didn’t mean that…argh! What I meant was that maybe we need to find a new way of how to relate to each other, deal with things. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”
He was becoming frustrated with himself for not being able to express what he really wanted to say. The fact that his mentor knowing him so well suddenly came in handy when the older man said, “I get it. You don’t want to rush things and have things go wrong before they really ever started being right again.”
“Exactly,” he replied letting out a relieved breath. “I want to try to rebuild things between us. See where we can go from here. You’ve been such a huge part of my life for more than ten years now, and the thought of you not being in it at all in the future… Well, let’s just say that I don’t want to break Rule 5.”
Gibbs smiled broadly – the first genuine one Tony had seen in a long time – then he got up and moved toward the kitchen saying something about needing a drink.
He chuckled and hit the speed dial for Toby’s cell number.
By the time he got back to the living room from making tea in the kitchen, Gibbs found Tony had slouched further down into the couch, phone in hand and eyes closed. From the sound of his breathing, the senior agent could tell that DiNozzo was well and truly out for the count. Setting the second mug of tea down gently and quietly on the table, he sat down and sipped at his own letting his thoughts roam.
Briefly he felt guilty for pushing the ex-cop today given the man’s injuries, but quickly got over it. They had needed today – had needed it badly. For so long now, he’d felt completely off-balance, but in finally getting things out in the open between them, he was starting to sense that balance returning. He imagined that Tony must have been feeling something similar all these months, and thought today had been good for his friend as well.
In what seemed to only be minutes later, but was probably longer, Fornell had arrived at his house. Not bothering to knock, the FBI agent came in and headed straight into the living room. Seeing Tony on the couch, he nodded a greeting towards Gibbs and said, “He alright?”
“Exhausted. Been a long day,” the Marine said keeping his voice low. He leaned forward to set his mug next to Tony’s on the coffee table.
“And?” Fornell inquired obviously exasperated by the lack of information.
“That’s between us, Tobias.” Gibbs said, unable to keep the annoyance out of his voice, but managing to keep his voice quiet. “If he wants you to know, he can tell you himself.”
His friend held up his hands in surrender as he stepped closer to Tony, “Fine. No need to get excited. I just wanted to know what I’d be dealing with.”
Gibbs relented and said, “It was a good. Got things out in the open.”
“It’s a start,” Fornell stated as he leaned over and shook the younger man awake.
He and Tobias managed to wake DiNozzo enough to get his half-asleep ass into Fornell’s car. Gibbs realized as he watched the car go off into the night that it hurt to see Tony leaving. He had wanted his friend to stay, wanted things to be like they were, but understood why they couldn’t just yet – if ever.
It would take time, but he was absolutely certain they would find a way to go forward from here. Their partnership and friendship had been tested in a trial by fire. They’d been like raw minerals tossed into a vat of molten metal, and this ordeal had forced the dross, the impurities, to come to the surface. They were now in the process of removing those impurities and what was left would be forged into something stronger than even before.
Chapter 18: Veritas Vos Liberabit (The Truth Shall Set You Free) – Part One
Some unresolved issues.
Chapter Eighteen: Veritas Vos Liberabit (The Truth Shall Set You Free) – Part One
Two weeks later…
Tony grimaced while keeping a white-knuckled grip on the banister as he carefully took another step down the basement stairs. Although his injured leg was healed enough to forgo the use of crutches, he found himself wishing for the cane he had decided to leave in his car. Two more steps down, including one that chose to ruthlessly remind him that this particular bright idea was overtaxing his still healing leg, and he was finally standing upon the landing. He would go no further without Gibbs; the last three steps had to be taken together or not at all.
It was time that they faced the demon that was preventing them from fully moving on with their lives and send it back to the hell from which it came. This whole thing may have begun in Vance’s office, but their old friendship had ended just a couple of yards from where he was now standing. To move forward, they needed to overcome this last hurdle and dispel the memory of the last time they’d been together down here. Gibbs’ avoidance of his own basement had gone on long enough; the man’s self-punishment needed to end so that he could reclaim his basement.
He leaned back against the wall so he could take the weight off of his still healing leg. For some odd reason he could more easily manage going up stairs, but going down them still caused him some amount of pain and discomfort. Looking at his watch, he realized that his eagerness to take this next important step forward would now turn into an exercise in patience. It was only 1830 hours; if Gibbs caught a case or was finishing up a case, then it could be anywhere from two to five hours at minimum before his former team leader showed up – if he even came home that night. Regular paperwork would likely ensure that Gibbs didn’t show up for at least two to three more hours. Tony didn’t fancy having to gimp his way up and down the stairs too many times so, since he figured that he just might be there for a while, he decided to sit and wait instead of standing. The only problem with that idea was the lack of places to comfortably sit.
Balancing himself on his good leg and leaning against the wall behind him, he carefully lowered himself down to the floor of the staircase’s landing. As he sat, he made sure to use his bad leg as little as possible – he in no way wanted to cause a set-back. Once down, he adjusted his body’s position so that he had both his legs stretched out and crossed comfortably before him facing the stairs leading to the basement’s door. Tony wanted to be able to see Gibbs’ reaction when his mentor finally found him.
Once he’d been settled for few minutes, his mind began wandering, and he realized that the Marine wasn’t the only one who needed to reclaim the basement. The room before him had always been a place for Gibbs to retreat to – it was his friend’s sanctuary and always had been as far as Tony knew. These months without that outlet must have been extreme torture for the older man, which was probably the point. What he’d just realized was that this place had become over the years a sort of sanctuary to him as well.
How many times had he come here to talk things out with Gibbs or find some answers? How many times had he come here simply to get his mentor’s gruff version of reassurance when the crap had runneth over in his life? How many times had he just sat and watched Gibbs skillfully craft everything from toys to sailboats and let the sound of sandpaper against wood wash over him, making him feel at peace with the world like precious few things in his life could? The basement was too important to the both of them, and he was determined to take those last steps tonight.
He shifted his upper body to more comfortably lean against the wall and yawned. Rubbing a hand over his face, pausing to dig his fingers into the lids of his closed eyes, he wished Gibbs would call it a night early for once.
Gibbs signed off on Ziva’s report of their most recently closed case and sighed before tossing it into his ‘out’ box. Not, in any way, to diminish his team’s investigative skills, but he felt this case could’ve been solved much sooner if DiNozzo had still been on the team. It had been just the sort of case that his ex-senior field agent would’ve thrived on, and he’d never admit it – even under torture or the threat of death – but he missed the movie references. This case had been loaded with movie clichés that he knew DiNozzo would not have been able to resist mentioning, and which would also have resulted in several head slaps for the former cop.
Smiling slightly, he took a folder from the top of the pile, opened it and began to read. After several minutes, he decided to take a break and go get another cup of caffeine. He glanced at the time on his computer monitor and stayed the hand reaching for the drawer where his service weapon was secured. He’d intended to stay until all his paperwork was finished, but now that he’d seen it was getting close to 1900 hours, he felt the need to go home.
Deciding that he could finish up the last few items in his ‘in’ box the next morning, he quickly put everything back in its proper place and grabbed his gear. He thought again of DiNozzo as he passed what used to be the younger man’s desk, but was now the Probie of the Day’s desk. He remembered when Tony had been a newly-minted NCIS agent. Laughing to himself, he recalled the first time the ex-Baltimore cop had stood his ground against him – albeit in a subtle way.
Gibbs had pushed for DiNozzo to be assigned to his team and Director Morrow had eventually granted his ‘request’. The Marine thought Tom had done it more out of curiosity than anything else. It wasn’t every day that he not only practically hired someone on the spot, let alone requested a particular person for his team. Usually he only just barely tolerated most of the agents that he worked with until they opted for a transfer, and only one, Stan Burley, had ever hung in for longer than two years as a member of Gibbs’ team.
He and DiNozzo had been working together for only about a week when the divorce from his fourth wife, Stephanie, had come through and he’d signed the papers. The whole thing had left him in a worse mood than usual, and he’d been taking it out on everyone, especially his newest agent. Tony though didn’t seem to notice and still did his work to the best of his ability. However, after a few days, he must have decided that he’d had enough and waged a quiet campaign to get his team leader back on track – though, at the time, Gibbs would’ve sworn the junior agent wasn’t doing any of it on purpose.
“Grab your gear, Probie. Dead Navy Lieutenant in Anacostia.”
“Yes, Sir,” DiNozzo said as he stood, grabbed his things, and followed him to the elevator.
He’d noticed the ‘Sir,’ but didn’t call the younger man on it, figuring it was a slip of the tongue when he’d seen the ‘oh crap!’ expression on his agent’s face.
From then on however, Tony started to use ‘Sir’ some random amount of time after Gibbs had called his agent ‘Probie.’ He was certain that DiNozzo knew that he hated being called ‘Sir,’ knowing that the ex-cop had been around a couple of times when he’d told someone not to address him like that. Every time it happened though it seemed as if he hadn’t planned it and that it had been a mistake.
In order to make him completely question if the younger man’s use of ‘Sir’ was intentional or not, DiNozzo didn’t say it every time. For the most part, Tony addressed him as ‘Gibbs’ only pulling out the ‘Sir’ for certain situations, primarily in response to his use of ‘Probie’ – as he’d later discovered was the pattern.
Gibbs honestly didn’t see anything wrong with being called ‘Probie’ though perhaps he’d just become used to it while working with Franks. Even now, years later, regardless of the fact that the older man hadn’t been his team leader for a long time, Mike still called him ‘Probie.’ Therefore, it seemed natural that he address DiNozzo by the same name – it was after all what the junior agent was for his first year as a federal agent.
Even after all this time, he still didn’t quite know for sure what Tony’s real goal had been. Had it been for him to drop the ‘Probie’ or had it been a carefully planned out distraction from Gibbs’ own personal crap thus saving himself and many co-workers from the senior agent’s wrath? Quite possibly it had been both, but he found he preferred not to ever know for sure. Oddly enough he found that trying to determine whether or not the ‘Sir’ was purposeful or not had indeed distracted him enough that he had unknowingly toned down the bastard-like attitude back to normal levels.
Then one day, DiNozzo unknowingly miscalculated as to the appropriate time to wind your supervisor up when Gibbs had ordered Probie to do something during a case involving a Marine’s murdered daughter. The younger man’s response had included a ‘Sir,’ and coming on the heels of a couple of inane, bordering on crass, comments, it had been the wrong thing to say given the circumstances. He’d snapped and given his young agent his second ever head slap which had been given with such force that DiNozzo actually stumbled and had to keep himself from falling. It only occurred to him later that there was no way for Tony to know just how badly he’d blundered in that instance.
“Don’t call me ‘Sir’,” he’d said in an eerily calm voice, which would’ve had any sane person running for the hills, but the kid had stood his ground as he’d continued, “I work for a living.”
Tony’s expression briefly showed his pain and humiliation, but it was immediately wiped away as he reached up to rub the spot where he’d made contact. The kid narrowed his eyes for a moment seemingly considering something, and then his face broke out into a wide grin that was plainly forced.
“Then don’t call me ‘Probie’,” he said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “I realize that I’m in my probationary year in terms of federal agent status, but you and I both know I’m way beyond that level.”
They stood there for an unknown amount of time, both just looking each other in the eye, neither of them backing down. Then Gibbs decided to do something that he rarely ever did, and only because the kid had been right – he gave in.
He nodded and said, “Fair enough, DiNozzo. No more ‘Probie.’
Tony had grinned again, and this time it was a genuine one, the most genuine and open expression Gibbs had seen since the day he’d given DiNozzo his first head slap.
“Thanks, Boss,” Tony had replied.
That had been the first time Tony had ever called him by that name, and the ex-cop used it just as much, if not more, than ‘Gibbs’ as an identifier. Because of DiNozzo’s use of ‘Boss,’ McGee had picked it up as well. He’d always thought it was pretty ironic that Tony called Tim ‘Probie’ even after the computer enthusiast had been with the team for several years. It was even more ironic after he’d defended DiNozzo’s use of the name just after he’d come back from Mexico. It was likely a tad hypocritical of him to do that, but he’d sensed that his boys had a partnership that partly paralleled what he and Franks had back in the day, which made the use of ‘Probie’ all that much more appropriate between the two of them.
The last time Tony had called him ‘Boss’ had been the day he had, in front of everyone present, denied and humiliated his recently fired agent, and he realized that he really missed it. McGee still referred to him as ‘Boss,’ even after he’d confessed his part of the undercover operation, but when DiNozzo said it, it was just…different. The way it was said gave him insight into the man who’d uttered it. More often than not, the way ‘Boss’ was said indicated the current state of DiNozzo’s mind, or his feelings about an order, or even how Tony thought a case was progressing.
Sometimes he even got the impression that, to Tony, ‘Boss’ was practically a term of endearment akin to calling someone ‘friend’ or perhaps even ‘brother.’ McGee’s use of the name was straightforward, but with DiNozzo there was a whole host of nuances to wade through, and he’d realized he had missed deciphering them all this time. He missed Tony calling him ‘Boss,’ but since they’d essentially started over and begun repairing their relationship, he’d noticed something. He hadn’t realized it at first, but the younger man had been adding in some of those same nuances when calling him Gibbs. He wasn’t quite as fluent yet, but he was getting there. Their time apart had changed their dynamic and had added a lot of new subtext between them, but he was getting better and better at decoding the new ‘language’ every day.
The honking of a nearby car’s horn forced him back to the present task, and he realized he was only a few minutes from his house. He was concerned that he didn’t remember the majority of the drive, but thankful he hadn’t caused an accident with his inattentive driving.
As he pulled up to his house, he smiled when he saw DiNozzo’s car parked out front on the street. Because of the team’s most recent case, it had been several days since he’d last seen the younger man. It was then that he realized the significance of Tony’s car out in front of his house – the doctor must have given his friend the all clear to drive again.
After their talk on the top step of the basement stairs two weeks ago, Gibbs came to the realization that his relationship with Tony, both professional and personal, was unequal in many ways. Granted, he was the team leader and DiNozzo his senior field agent, but after more than a decade together, that distinction shouldn’t matter so much anymore. If DiNozzo came back to the team, he promised himself that he would try to treat Tony as more of an equal – more of a true partner – as much as was possible given their line of work.
The first time Tony had visited NCIS headquarters, he had introduced the soon-to-be ex-detective to his rules with Rule 5. You don’t waste good. DiNozzo had stayed with him and the team despite all the crap they’d been through and despite being offered other positions and promotions. Once upon a time, Tony must have thought they were good; it was about time he honored that.
On the personal side of the equation, he was finding ways to incorporate some balance there as well. In the past, Tony usually came to him and he had never really visited or spent any amount of time at the younger man’s apartment. Granted, his friend tended to be the one more likely to reach out when troubled or he needed a sounding board, but Gibbs had finally come to the conclusion that his tendency to keep his troubles to himself had more than once led to upheaval for his team. He had recognized it was something else in his life that needed to evolve and change.
As much as it was easier to keep his private life private, and in his mind easier to protect the people he considered family, he knew he needed to let someone in on a more regular basis. Hence Gibbs’ decision to start visiting Tony’s place more often and to let the kid in on what was going on inside his head and to help him with his burdens. He couldn’t think of a better person for him to let in and see glimpses of those aspects of himself that he usually kept hidden from the world. It was the way in which they were most like kindred spirits. Gibbs had never shared that fact with DiNozzo, though he suspected it wasn’t much of a secret to his friend.
DiNozzo’s surprise upon seeing him with a six-pack of beer in his hands that first night Tony had been back in his own apartment, and officially off his medications, had been comical and he’d had to fight hard not to laugh out loud. Gibbs grinned at the memory as he got out of his car and walked up the path to his front door.
Upon entering his house, his gut lurched at the sight of his empty living room and only the light beside the couch illuminating the immediate area. Hand on his weapon, he forced himself to calm his rapid heartbeat and listen. When no sounds of life came to him from within the house, he softly called out for Tony but there was no response; seeing that the kitchen was dark, he moved towards the guest bathroom. Observing and hearing no one or anything out of the ordinary in that direction either, he thought about checking upstairs when it occurred to him exactly where his friend was – the basement.
While briefly wondering why Tony hadn’t yet announced his presence, he took the time to take off his coat and secure his weapon for the night, knowing that he was only slightly delaying the inevitable. He knew why DiNozzo was downstairs and what outcome was hoped for, but he just didn’t know if he was ready yet; he wasn’t sure he was ready to end his self-imposed punishment for one of the worst mistakes of his life. Eventually he felt he couldn’t delay going through his basement door any longer; Tony was waiting for him.
The sight that greeted him at the top of the basement stairs made him flash back to the night he’d found DiNozzo wounded behind the wheel of that truck when he’d been shot by one of the terrorists. His stomach dropped to his feet at the mere thought of seeing his friend injured or perhaps dead before they could get even somewhat back on track.
“Tony!” he exclaimed as he ran down the steps two at a time disregarding the pain the action was bringing to his bad knee. In the next second, DiNozzo startled and looked around him confused for a split second until their eyes met.
As the still healing man pushed himself up to sit up straighter against the wall, he said, “Hey Gibbs.” An odd expression quickly passed over the younger man’s face before he added, “And how was your day?”
One more regular chapter to go before the TWO epilogues which will be posted on the same day.
Chapter 19: Veritas Vos Liberabit (The Truth Shall Set You Free) – Part Two
Tony makes decisions regarding his immediate future.
Chapter Nineteen: Veritas Vos Liberabit (The Truth Shall Set You Free) – Part Two
He’d closed his eyes for a minute and began thinking of his recent visit with McGee…
Tony had been meeting with his former teammates one at a time to gauge their reactions to the undercover op and whether or not they’d be able to work together again as a team. Knowing they’d be the easiest to talk to and the most understanding, he’d chosen to meet with Abby, Ducky, and Palmer first before McGee and Ziva.
He’d definitely made the right doing it that way. Abby, Ducky, and Palmer had been so understanding it was almost disturbing, and they had practically bent over backwards to apologize to him for believing he could be a thief and for not digging deeper to find out the truth. They were also unanimous in expressing their anger towards Gibbs for his part in what had happened to Tony.
He reminded them that Gibbs had been essentially coerced into playing his part in all this mess, thus finding out that the team leader had not revealed that particular piece of information when he’d debriefed the team. Tony figured the omission of that pivotal piece of information was Gibbs’ guilt at his actions manifesting. The ‘conversation’ they had later that night about that omission had been their first disagreement since they’d started down the path towards reconciliation.
It was during his meeting with Ziva that he was reminded that, if he came back to the team, then both she and McGee would be demoted once again. How could he do that to them? He remembered what it had felt like to come into the office that one day several years ago to find that his stuff had been unceremoniously dumped back onto his old desk. Without any warning whatsoever, he had been demoted from team leader back to being Gibbs’ senior field agent, and his teammates had been met with similar fates. When the team had been broken up after the death of Director Shepard, both Ziva and McGee had given up seemingly better positions to be reassigned, essentially demoted for a second time.
As much as Gibbs still wanted him to be a part of the team, he wasn’t sure he really had a place there or that he was even needed on it anymore. McGee and Ziva were more than capable, and as long as Gibbs could find a probie he could stand, the team could easily (and with far less disruption) continue on without him.
Ziva had admitted that it had been rough at first, but that the team was finally working to the best of their abilities again despite the ever-revolving door of probies. She thought the best thing to come out of all of this was the fact that she was not the lowest ranking member on the team anymore and able to order someone around. The most awkward part of their lunch together had been when she had not been shy in voicing her displeasure at the lies and manipulation from both he and Gibbs which had disrupted the team’s dynamic yet again. He had predicted to the team leader that Ziva and McGee would partly blame him for the mess, even though he had never been in control of that aspect, and he had been right. Despite the negative aspects of their conversation, he got the sense that, over time, it would be possible to work with her again without too much conflict between them.
On the other hand, his dinner with Tim had been as awkward as hell. When Tony had asked how the job was going, McGee had instantly become a ‘fun’ combination of McGrouchy and McWhiny, accusing him of sabotaging his career. When asked to explain, McGee had, in detail, listed all the additional work he had to do as senior field agent in addition to his usual duties. Tim had never realized just how much a senior field agent, especially Gibbs’ senior field agent had to do. Why hadn’t he had as much to do as Tony’s second-in-command? Eventually Tim had revealed that he wasn’t sure he could remain Gibbs’ second because he wasn’t cut out to deal with being a full-time buffer between the Marine and everyone else.
Why hadn’t Very Special Agent DiNozzo ever said anything about all the duties that weren’t formerly listed in the job description for a senior field agent? Why hadn’t Tony better prepared or better trained him to be a senior field agent? Hadn’t that been part of his job description? He’d had to hold back a sigh at the fact that he’d been two-for-two in the blame-game.
DiNozzo had tried to explain that being Gibbs’ second-in-command wasn’t like being a senior field agent for anyone else; it would take time for the two of them to find a good working rhythm like he’d had with the team leader. The amount of extra paperwork stemmed from all the way back to when he and Gibbs had been a two-man team for the six months or so before Kate had joined. It hadn’t been intentional, but he (and most likely Gibbs as well) had basically just forgotten that the line between senior field agent and team leader had blurred a lot in that regard so that they could keep up on their work. When Tony had been team leader, he’d kept doing much of the work simply because he was used to doing it; hindering his teammate’s career had never been his intention.
McGee had conceded to those facts and asked point blank if DiNozzo was coming back to the team. Tony answered that he honestly didn’t know yet and was simply seeking feedback. He asked the younger man his thoughts about it, and Tim had admitted that he would like the team back together, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to be demoted yet again, placed back under Tony’s shadow. The thing he was most worried about in the long run was his career. The computer geek did confess that he’d probably be actively seeking opportunities for career advancement should Tony rejoin the team; he felt he was ready for the challenge. Unlike DiNozzo, he couldn’t be content to be Gibbs’ senior field agent forever; he wanted to continue up the ranks.
Their discussion only served to further undermine his confidence and confuse the issue even more. Could he work with the team again? Would the cost be too high? Could he deal with his teammates’ probable resentment for disrupting the team dynamic yet again?
Maybe he should just follow up on that request for transfer that he’d asked Fornell to pass along right after he’d found out about his new mission. Maybe he should just move on because he didn’t want to take opportunities away from his former teammates. He didn’t want—
He’d closed his eyes for a minute and began thinking of his recent visit with McGee…
…and in the next minute he was startled awake by Gibbs near-frantically calling his name as the man stormed down the stairs towards him two at a time.
Confused for a second at the abrupt interruption of his thoughts – though he probably actually had been asleep – it took another moment before their eyes managed to connect. He pushed himself up straighter, feeling the stiffness in his body and especially his leg that had settled in while he’d been ‘thinking.’
“Hey, Gibbs.” Suddenly it occurred to him how he had been sitting might have appeared to the older man, and worked to suppress a cringe even as an idea popped into his head. “And how was your day?”
He’d been wondering if the Marine would ever get passed another one of their hurdles, and he thought he just might truly deserve it this time given the thunderous look on Gibbs’ face. Tony never believed he would ever admit it out loud, but he sort of missed the head slaps. They had primarily been their thing; a way for him to gauge the older man’s moods and were a means to help keep him focused. Would the lead agent would ever again think it was something he could do to Tony without also thinking it would damage the progress they’d made in the last couple of weeks?
To test the waters, he’d provoked the other man a couple of times before this night, but he had yet to feel the sting of the man’s palm on the back of his head. Would tonight be the night he broke passed that particular barrier between them? He didn’t have long to wait for an answer, when he felt that practically beloved sting along with an exasperated sounding, “What the hell, Tony? You nearly— Why are you sitting on my landing?”
DiNozzo felt momentarily guilty for accidentally making his friend think something horrible had happened to him, but he pushed that aside and thrust a hand out to Gibbs who obliged him by helping him stand without either accidentally killing them both or reinjuring his leg. It wasn’t difficult to see that the older man was uncomfortable being this close to where things had gone so wrong between them.
He looked his former team leader in the eye again, and as he inclined his head towards the room before them, he simply said, “It’s time.”
Tony reached out for the banister and used it to carefully make his way down the last few steps with Gibbs by his side, who had positioned himself there to keep him from landing on his ass more than anything else, and it felt right having him there. His friend stopped moving forward though as soon as they hit the ground, but the former agent kept going for a few more steps until he reached the workbench on the far side of the room.
He spread his hands out to encompass the whole of the space. “You see, Gibbs. It’s just a room. I may have once thought that my life as I’d known it had ended here, but it didn’t. It’s just a room where something horrible happened, but also where so many more good things have happened. So many other memories both good and bad. Don’t let just one of them take this away from you. Stop punishing yourself. Let that night go and take back your basement.”
Several hard to identify emotions flitted over Gibbs’ face before the man’s head tilted, his eyes narrowed, and he actually smirked. Then he stepped forward and continued on until they were face to face.
“Thank you,” his mentor said before he felt a hand gently pat him on the cheek.
Tony nodded once in return, then lifted a hand to squeeze the older man’s shoulder before replying, “You’re welcome.”
They’d gone upstairs just long enough for Gibbs to go change clothes, and for him to reheat some leftovers that he’d found in the refrigerator. As they ate at the longer workbench, Tony could see that the Marine had something on his mind, and thought he might know what was bothering his dinner companion. Tired of the lack of communication, he decided to dive right in instead of waiting for Gibbs to remember how to talk.
Slowly and deliberately he laid his fork down on his plate, wiped his mouth with his napkin, and said, “I met with Director Vance yesterday.”
In response Gibbs did something Tony had rarely seen him do – the man beside him actually took the time to finish chewing his mouth full of food before speaking. As delaying tactics went, this one wasn’t the man’s best, but it was still pretty effective.
“And?” the senior agent asked after he’d swallowed.
Tony blinked. He had expected more of a reaction, but could understand why Gibbs was keeping things close to the vest for now.
“And we discussed my future with NCIS.” He’d kept his answer vague on purpose unsure of how to proceed.
In a tone that suggested that Gibbs’ patience was wearing thin, his friend asked, “What did Leon say?”
He sighed and began summarizing his meeting with Vance. “He reminded me that he still wants me to be a part of the agency; that I’m a valuable member of, not only your team, but NCIS as a whole.” A small chuckle escaped before he could stop it. “I had to pinch myself hard on the leg to keep from laughing at that cock and bull line he was feeding me.”
“Hey!” Gibbs interjected at that point. “You are very valuable to me and NCIS. It’s about time Vance sees what I’ve always seen.”
“Seriously!?” Tony exclaimed with a healthy mix of sarcasm and disbelief. “I get that our job is dangerous and that I put my life on the line every day to help people find justice; but if I’m so very valuable, then why do the directors of NCIS and their superiors keep putting me in what are seemingly no-win situations? By the grace of God, I somehow survive whatever mission they give me and foolishly think it won’t happen again, but then it always does happen again!” Realizing his voice was raised a little too high, he took a breath and forced himself to calm a bit before continuing. “I don’t care how good they think I am, if things don’t change, my gut tells me I won’t make it to my fiftieth birthday.”
While pushing his almost empty plate forward, Gibbs quietly inquired, “Does that mean you’re leaving NCIS?”
Not hungry anymore, Tony also pushed his plate forward out of the way. Setting his right elbow on the workbench, he grabbed his beer with his left hand, and took a sip. “No. No, this means that things need to change if I come back. I still haven’t decided one way or the other.” He paused for another sip of his beer and started playing with the label. “I get that it was a matter of national security, but they did not have my consent to do what they did to me – that should never happen to anyone again. Ever.”
The Marine interrupted, “I think that there are enough people out there right now who would help you to make sure it didn’t.”
“Really?” Tony asked, surprised at that statement.
The older man didn’t bother to answer, but instead gave him one of those looks that bordered on being considered glaring.
Tony held up his hands in surrender and said, “Right. Fine. I get it.”
In concert the two of them drained the remainder of their beers. Gibbs grabbed a bottle opener and opened the other two bottles they’d brought back downstairs with them.
“There’s more,” Gibbs stated rather than asked.
“Yeah, uh,” Tony paused and carefully stood up from the stool he’d been sitting on. He began to pace back and forth a couple of times the best he could with a still gimpy leg before he stopped and continued, “I told the director that I wasn’t sure I’d be comfortable coming back if three conditions weren’t met.”
With curiosity in his voice, his friend inquired, “What conditions?”
DiNozzo took the freshly opened beer his mentor was holding out to him. “First, if I came back it would be only as your senior field agent. Vance was actually surprised by that request; he said he had no intention of assigning me anywhere else.” Tony lifted a hand to briefly rub the back of his neck.
“I never dared to believe that it could be that easy, but it led to my second condition. If I came back to the job, it would essentially be a demotion for McGee and Ziva, and I definitely don’t want that or to hinder their careers in any way.” He shook his head in a mix of disbelief and wonder. “Vance surprised me yet again by informing me there would be a notation that the promotions were part of a classified operation and listed as TAD in each of their files. They would get to keep whatever higher pay they made during that time and part of their performance reviews would reflect on how well they did while I was assigned elsewhere.”
“So, in the end, this will probably benefit them?” Gibbs interjected.
“Yep,” he said, and let out a sigh of relief. “When I met up with Ziva, I was reminded of the other times we’d previously changed positions. I know that, even if they won’t say it, they are a little disappointed that they won’t have retained their promotions even though they know it was all part of the our mission.”
“Will it be a problem?”
“I’m not sure yet. Uh…Gibbs?” Tony limped over to the workbench and sat back down on his stool. “You should probably know that McGee – and perhaps even Ziva, down the line – will be looking to advance off the team if he can. He’s had another taste of what it’s like to have a higher rank, be in charge, and…” He buried his face in his hands for a moment before removing them, his expression full of guilt and dread. “The team has been broken up enough so I understand if you don’t want me back as your senior field agent. I’ve had my shot; I’m sure I can figure out something else—.”
As he was speaking, he had closed his eyes not wanting to see what his mentor was thinking, but suddenly a hand grabbed his wrist, interrupting his rambling.
“Hey! Stop that,” Gibbs ordered, giving his arm a shake before letting go of his wrist. “What about you, Tony?”
“What do you mean?” he replied, confused at the seeming out of nowhere question.
“What about you, Tony?” the Marine repeated. “If you come back, are you looking to eventually get your own team?”
He couldn’t believe the older man would even, after all they’d been through, ask that. With more than a hint of sarcasm, DiNozzo countered with, “Based on what you know about me and from prior experience, what do you think?” Then the real reason he was asked that question dawned on him and he chuckled. “Did I mention you’re a devious man, Gibbs?”
At first, the only response he got was the man’s smirk, which broadened into a genuine smile. Then finally, his mentor admitted, “I always knew they would eventually move on, but not you.” Gibbs shrugged and amended, “Well, before this mess anyway. Whatever you decide…”
“Thanks,” Tony cut him off with a shy smile on his face.
They were silent for a time, before Tony decided to reveal the final condition he’d given Director Vance. “The one non-negotiable condition was that I not be sent undercover anymore. Unless it’s a short one-off to get information for a current case, I’m out of that game for good. No more long-term undercover assignments. I don’t care what the circumstances are or who orders it; I would rather quit, be fired, or even thrown in jail than to ever go deep undercover again.”
Gibbs nodded in approval as he asked, “What did our esteemed Director say to that?”
Tony took a deep breath and hung his head dejectedly for a moment before lifting it and replying, “He said that he couldn’t guarantee anything, but that he’d do everything in his power to prevent my getting assigned to a long-term op in the future.”
It was easy for him to see that Gibbs was infuriated at Vance’s response, but the other man tried to hide it behind the action of pouring them each a generous shot of bourbon.
Sitting and handing him one of the glasses, Gibbs asks, “Deal-breaker?”
He sighed, even now unsure of how he felt about that response. “I honestly don’t know, and I said as much. Vance has put me on extended medical leave to give my leg time to finish healing, and for me to decide what I want to do.”
He took a large sip of the dark amber liquid and focused on the burn of the alcohol for as long as it remained. It also allowed him to avoid, for a short time, the conversation to come.
“How long do ya got?” Gibbs asked, preventing further avoidance on his part.
“Two months,” Tony replied staring down into the remains of the alcohol in his glass. “It’s probably longer than I need, but I haven’t had a vacation for longer than five days in…Wow!” He shook his head, surprised it had been that long. “It’s been over twelve years now. Between Philly and Baltimore, I was lucky enough to have a week and a half after I moved and before my new job started.”
His friend finished off the bourbon in his glass. The expression on his face was hard to read. “What’s your plan?”
Tony smiled and proceeded to tell his friend his idea.
Several days later…
Gibbs stepped out into the early morning light with a backpack and two large duffel bags stuffed full. As he headed towards the open trunk of Tony’s car, he watched as his friend placed a cooler on the passenger seat before shutting the car door.
DiNozzo’s limp was barely noticeable now, and could only be seen if you knew what to look for. He knew the younger man wouldn’t lie to him about being cleared to take this trip, but that didn’t mean he still didn’t worry that that much driving might set Tony back a little.
His friend was heading out this morning for a long road trip by himself so he could think and consider his options without feeling pressured by his usual environment. The Marine was not thrilled with the idea for multiple reasons, but he definitely understood the motivations behind the trip. His time in Mexico, away from everything he was supposed to remember, but couldn’t completely, had helped him to heal in more ways than one.
However, what he hated the most about this plan was the fact that their ongoing reconciliation was going to be completely stalled while Tony was away. In his mind, nothing was more important to him right now than the progress they had been making towards forging a new and better friendship – and hopefully, in the future, an unbeatable partnership.
As always, the kid had anticipated his objection and during the previous night had come up with a compromise: Tony would check in once a day, and in a few weeks they’d meet up in California for a long weekend.
It would have to do.
DiNozzo grabbed one of the duffels from him and tossed it in the trunk before grabbing the backpack. Gibbs heaved the other duffel into the trunk, and sarcastically asked, “You sure you got enough stuff?”
Tony grinned and pointing to the two large bags enthusiastically replied, “Yep! Two weeks’ worth of clothes.” He then pointed to the backpack. “Plus my laptop, some movies, books, and other essentials.”
They both stepped back as Tony slammed the car’s trunk closed. His friend then turned to face him and looking a little uncomfortable, he hesitantly spoke up. “So…I should, uh…get going.”
Gibbs shoved his hands in his coat pockets and agreed, “Probably should, before the traffic gets bad.”
That said; neither of them made a move and just kept standing there looking at each other.
He knew Tony needed this trip, but… “I wish you would wait another week, your leg—”
DiNozzo waved the concern aside as he interrupted, “Is fine. I promise I’ll be careful and take plenty of breaks. It’s not like I’m on any kind of schedule.”
Gibbs smiled as he remembered some of the sights the younger man had planned to visit while on the road. Why anyone needed to see the ‘World’s Largest’ anything was beyond him.
“You better be careful out there. I don’t want to lose you again.”
“You won’t,” Tony promised, and suddenly the spell had been broken; they both finally began moving towards the front of the car. His friend started to grasp the door handle, but stopped and turned back. “Even if I quit NCIS, I’m still planning on being around one way or another. You won’t be able to get rid of me that easily.”
Gibbs nodded and declared, “Good.” He stepped back to allow room for the driver’s side door to open, then reminded, “Don’t forget to check in once a day so that I know that you’re okay.”
“Yes, Sir!” came the cheeky reply as the younger man started to get into his car which gave him a perfect line of sight for his target.
Tony just barely managed to not hit his head on the door frame when the head slap connected.
“Hey! Ow!” Tony exclaimed, as he rubbed the back of his head, and glared at the perpetrator for a moment before breaking into a grin.
The Marine pointed a finger at his favorite instigator of trouble and said, with a tone laced with the warning of many horrible consequences if he didn’t comply, “Tony.”
“Gibbs,” Tony replied with an innocent tone of voice and expression to match before he winked.
He glared back, but couldn’t hold the expression for very long before he broke and grinned. “Just call.”
“I will,” DiNozzo replied with a tone in his voice that said his word would be kept.
Tony started his car and they listened as the engine roared to life. As he secured his seat belt, he looked up at Gibbs. “I’ll uh…I’ll see you in a few weeks in Cali?”
“You bet,” he confirmed as he shut the car door. Leaning both arms on the open window’s ledge, he added, “Callen said he’d take us out for surf and turf one night.”
Callen hadn’t exactly said that; it had been more like Gibbs had extrapolated that bit from the conversation that they’d had. He had called the Los Angeles-based agent and friend to ask him to watch out for DiNozzo once he got close enough. Places to go to dinner had been mentioned, and he’d taken that as proof of an invite. He was pretty sure Callen had figured that out too.
“Sounds good,” Tony said with a smirk.
The team leader matched the grin with one of his own – there was no point in trying to hide how over-protective he could be sometimes. Besides, DiNozzo knew him too well; it would never work anyway.
Tony turned in his seat a little so that he could extend his hand, and looking him straight in the eye, he said, “See you soon…Boss.”
Gibbs grabbed the extended hand firmly between both of his own. It had been much too long since he’d heard Tony call him ‘Boss,’ and he’d almost missed out on it. Yet he still heard it and all the nuances the word had been imbued with.
In that one word, he heard the first tentative attempt in a long time of the use of the meaning that had always meant ‘family’ to him. Also clear, was the message: I’ll miss you.
The most loud and clear though was a promise – a promise that they would get there eventually.
He smiled and leaving his right hand grasped in Tony’s, he shifted his left hand to firmly grasp the juncture between the younger man’s shoulder and neck. “Take care of yourself.”
“Always,” DiNozzo replied with a shy smile as they both withdrew their hands.
Tony shifted his car into gear and started driving off down the street. Gibbs lifted his hand in goodbye, and his friend must have seen it, because a hand came out the open car window to return the gesture with a grin that could just barely be seen in the rearview mirror.
Their journey had begun with an order that had torn the team and their lives apart. Tony had almost lost his life, and they’d almost lost a significant friendship. Now it felt like they had made incredible progress on the long and winding path towards a renewal of that friendship which was so essential to both of their lives. They were getting there slowly but surely, and he knew they would make it to the finish line in the end. Nothing would ever truly tear them apart again; their friendship would be unbreakable.
This goodbye wasn’t forever. They’d see each other again soon.
Well, the end except for the epilogues (aka chapters 20 and 21).
Chapter 20: Moment of Truth – Epilogue, Version One
Please read… The two epilogues that I’ve written are AUs of each other and contain two different possible endings to the story; their order in no way reflects my preference for how the story should/would end. :D
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Chapter Twenty: Moment of Truth – Epilogue, Version One
Gibbs sighed in frustration at the sheer amount of paperwork that a government agency could produce, and idly wondered just how many trees had been sacrificed in the dual names of Justice and Accountability. Ever since Tony had been forced out of NCIS, he’d been forced to go into the office earlier than was normal for him at least once a week in order to attack the forest growing on his desk. For some reason Tuesdays seemed to be his busiest day of the week, so his early day tended to be on Thursdays.
He grabbed another document from the pile and saw that it was only 0618 hours when he caught a glance of his watch. He shook his head in disbelief at the fact that he’d only been at the office for just over forty-five minutes. If he’d not known better, he would’ve sworn that he’d been there a lot longer than that. Still, with the relative peace and quiet of the bullpen, he should be able to make a huge dent in the pile before the rest of his team arrived for the day.
Today, for some reason, Gibbs found himself really missing Tony. He had no idea why especially since he’d last been in contact with the younger man only three days prior. They’d both resolutely avoided the topic, but they both knew that DiNozzo’s two month leave was quickly running out, and a final decision would have to be made very soon. Maybe it was because even though they had regular contact over the phone, he still hadn’t laid eyes on his friend in three weeks.
Their long weekend in California had been good for them. Away from the pressures of work and the physical reminders surrounding their fall-out, they could finally spend time getting to know one another again. They shared things with each other that they’d never spoken about before and worked through residual concerns and problems related to the job, both past and present. Not normally so verbose, he made the effort, not only to help rebuild the trust between them, but simply because Tony was worth it.
Just when they’d needed a break from the sometimes very intense atmosphere between them, meeting up with Callen on a couple of the nights had been a nice distraction. Gibbs thought it was good to see the two younger men getting along so well despite their vast differences. Even better had been the next night when he and Tony had expanded the invitation to Callen’s team, including Hetty. It had been a long time since he’d laughed so much in one night, and he’d felt that DiNozzo had made at the very least some good connections, if not friends, amongst the team. Time would tell on that regard.
All too soon, Gibbs had to return home. This time though, Tony decided to not be so accommodating and informed him that he would only check in every few days. He understood that the kid needed to have time to himself to figure out what he wanted to do next with his life without the pressure of having to constantly keep in touch with people who reminded him of how everything had gone wrong. He understood it completely; it didn’t mean he had to like it. Instead of forcing the issue, he let it go because he wanted to show DiNozzo that he trusted the younger man to keep his word.
The ringing of his cell phone brought him out of his reverie. Annoyed at the interruption of not only his thoughts but of his paperwork, Gibbs didn’t bother to check the caller ID.
“Gibbs,” he answered in a tone that hinted that the caller better have a good reason for disrupting his day.
“I’m just curious, Gibbs. How many probies have you scared away while I’ve been gone?”
The team leader, thrown for a moment by the non sequitur, didn’t immediately register who he was talking to.
“Tony?” he asked after a moment, confused not only by the early morning call but by the lack of greeting.
“The one and only,” DiNozzo replied and Gibbs could practically hear his friend’s cheeky grin.
Not able to resist, Gibbs countered, “Whatever you say, Tony DiNozzo…Junior.”
Interrupting the open and genuine laugh on the other end of the line, he asked, “Where are you?”
“Answer the question. How many probies—?” Tony pressed.
His gut gave a little flutter of excitement as he provided the answer without really thinking about it, “Twenty-two.”
The elevator dinged and Gibbs was surprised to hear the echo of the distinctive sound in his ear through the phone. He stood in time to see the elevator doors open and Tony stepping out onto the floor. His friend looked healthy and relaxed; the faded pair of jeans and a green button down shirt making him seem much more tan than the last time he’d seen the ex-cop.
Tony locked eyes with him and smiled, holding his ground in front of the elevator. As they continued to stare at each other, the elevator doors closed as neither man made a move to hang up the cell phones that seemed to have been momentarily forgotten.
“Boss,” the younger man greeted, speaking into his phone.
“DiNozzo,” Gibbs countered with a nod towards his friend before hanging up his phone and tossing it onto his desk.
Tony hung up his phone and stuffed it into his jeans pocket as he walked towards the bullpen.
The Marine moved out from behind his desk and they met in front of what used to be Tony’s desk.
His friend inclined his head towards the desk as he inquired, “How would you like to not have to worry about number twenty-three?”
The team leader smiled slightly and replied, “Does that mean I get my senior field agent back where he belongs?”
“That depends. Does my boss need one?” his agent asked with a grin.
“Nope,” Gibbs deadpanned before quickly amending himself when he saw Tony’s shocked face. “I need you as my senior field agent.”
Tony rolled his eyes and grinned. “Well, I’ve caught up on all my reading and seen enough of the ‘World’s Largests’ to be able to write my own travel guide, so if Vance allows it—Monday?”
Heart bursting with joy, Gibbs wanted to give his prodigal agent a crushing hug, but since he had a reputation to maintain, he instead smiled and answered, “Monday sounds perfect.”
The end – version one.
Many thanks to all those who stuck around and read this story to the end!
Chapter 21: Moment of Truth – Epilogue, Version Two
Please read… The two epilogues that I’ve written are AUs of each other and contain two different possible endings to the story; their order in no way reflects my preference for how the story should/would end. :D
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Chapter Twenty-One: Moment of Truth – Epilogue, Version Two
Gibbs let himself into his house, and immediately he could feel how empty it was. Though it was a relief to know that his home was secure, it also punctuated the fact that, for the last day or so, he had really been missing DiNozzo. As he set the bag of Chinese food he’d picked up on the way home down on his dinner table, he quickly reminded himself that he’d just spoken to the kid only three days ago, but that detail did not help one iota. They’d resolutely avoided the topic, but they both knew that DiNozzo’s two month leave was quickly running out, and a final decision would have to be made very soon. Even though they had regular contact over the phone, he still hadn’t laid eyes on his friend in three weeks.
Their long weekend in California had been good for them. Away from the pressures of work and the physical reminders surrounding their fall-out, they could finally spend time getting to know one another again. They shared things with each other that they’d never spoken about before, and worked through other conflicts related to the job that had arisen between them, both past and present. Not normally so verbose, he made the effort not only to help rebuild the trust between them, but simply because Tony was worth it.
Meeting up with Callen had been a nice distraction from the intense atmosphere that sometimes seemed to heavily weigh upon them. Gibbs had been happy to observe the two younger men getting along rather well – something he wouldn’t have expected given their vast differences in experience and upbringing. They made arrangements to get together again the following night provided G’s team wasn’t working a case. He and Tony had expanded the invitation to Callen’s whole team, including Hetty, and luckily their case load hadn’t prevented them from getting together. It had been a long time since he’d laughed so much in one night, and he’d felt that DiNozzo had made at the very least some good connections, if not friends, amongst the team. Time would tell on that regard.
He headed upstairs to change his clothes, but his thoughts remained on the recent past. The days had gone by quickly and Gibbs finally had to return home. On the way to the airport, Tony informed him that he would only check in every few days as he was planning on staying in California for a while longer. He understood that the younger man needed to have time to himself to figure out what he wanted to do next with his life. DiNozzo didn’t need the pressure of having to constantly keep in touch with those who reminded him of how everything had gone wrong. This was the most time off Tony had taken in years, and he should be able to enjoy it without having to feel like a teenager checking in with his parents. He understood, but it didn’t mean that he had to like it. Instead of arguing, renegotiating, or forcing the issue, he decided to let it go because he wanted to show DiNozzo that he trusted the younger man to keep his word.
He finished changing clothes and headed back downstairs thinking that the time since Tony’s last call had seemed much longer than the three days that had passed on the calendar. If things went according to schedule, then Tony would be calling in on this night. He had just reached in to grab a beer from the refrigerator to go with his dinner when his cell phone started to ring.
Closing the refrigerator, he used his free hand to grab his cell. Without looking at the caller ID, he answered, “Yeah, Gibbs.”
“Hey, Boss,” the caller replied.
“Tony. It’s been a few days,” he answered, relieved to hear Tony’s voice even though it sounded a little off somehow.
He hoped his tone didn’t sound accusatory, because he’d had the feeling that Tony had been testing the new boundaries of their friendship; testing to see if he could trust Gibbs not check up on him in between calls. Usually his friend called every other day, but when the time between calls had stretched out to the maximum time previously agreed upon, it had been difficult – sometimes very difficult – not to worry or to wonder. The last time they’d spoken, Tony’s voice had this tone to it that had set his gut on edge, but he’d respected the man’s privacy and ‘patiently’ waited for the next call.
It seemed like forever until there was an answer, but in reality he supposed it was only a moment or two – thirty seconds at the most. When the answer came though, it made his gut flip.
“I know,” Tony acknowledged, but then trailed off and he didn’t continue speaking.
Gibbs felt it was important that he remain silent right now and let his friend set the pace of this conversation. With that thought though, an unsettling feeling came over him. He pulled out a chair from his dinner table and sat down. The silence stretched out to encompass another minute, and though he wanted to break it, he didn’t.
Finally, Gibbs heard over the line a car door open and shut, and Tony said, “I’ve made my decision.”
“You have?” he stated and it took all he had within him to keep his voice neutral even though he was howling on the inside. He stood and paced back and forth a couple of times. “And what have you decided?” he added even though he was certain he already knew.
In the background, he could hear Tony’s footsteps as his friend answered, “I’m sorry, Boss, but I can’t do this anymore. I can’t be part of a federal agency that uses its agents as pawns in their little games to acquire more power; that doesn’t care what happens to its agents or that their lives are ruined or ended. It’s happened too many times now. I might not survive the next time, and I don’t want to tempt fate.”
Gibbs had stopped his pacing the moment he’d heard the words ‘I’m sorry’ and had walked to his living room window and stared out into the night. He didn’t know what to say. He always knew that this outcome could happen; knew it was highly likely, but he had hoped their partnership wouldn’t have to end this way. He didn’t want to lose Tony as his teammate, senior field agent, and partner, but he completely understood the reasons behind the decision; he had thought about making the same decision himself numerous times in the last year.
He was still debating what to say when a neighbor’s car passed by his window.
A small smile erupted on his face, “Tony, why don’t you come inside and have some dinner with me?”
“How did you—?” Tony started to ask before pausing. “The car, right?”
From the sound of the car going passed his house being echoed in the phone’s receiver, Gibbs had surmised that his friend had been outside the entire time. Once he realized that, the thought that Tony was staying out of sight in case his decision to leave NCIS would cause Gibbs to reject him again followed milliseconds later. Even though the team leader had never truly rejected Tony in his heart, his friend must understandably still be a little leery of Gibbs’ reaction.
“Yep. Now get your butt in here. As far as I’m concerned, no matter what, you will always be welcome in this house. You got me?”
His front door opened as Tony said, “Yeah, I got you,” and hung up his cell.
Gibbs flipped his phone shut and tossed it onto the couch while moving to meet his friend at the door. He stretched out a hand towards Tony, who tentatively grabbed it, and they shook hands. Lifting a hand up to pat Tony’s shoulder, he noticed his friend cringed a little as if he expected to be head slapped. Completing his original motion, he gripped the shoulder and squeezed it.
“Hey. It’s your decision, but no matter how much I will miss working with you, I respect it.” Letting his hand slip off his friend’s shoulder he turned to lead them further into the living room. He made the quick decision to share something he’d only previously discussed with Ducky. “Heck, I totally understand it, and sometimes wonder why I still work for those bastards after all they’ve done to us.”
“Boss?” Tony questioned as they moved towards the dinner table where Gibbs had left the cartons of Chinese food. He left the younger man at the table, and continued on into the kitchen to get the beer that he’d been going for when his phone had rung.
Beers for them both along with utensils for Tony in hand, Gibbs explained, “Forced retirement from fieldwork is coming up. I thought I’d retire from NCIS when they try to put me out to pasture behind a desk.”
The look of shock on DiNozzo’s face as he set the utensils on the table and handed Tony one of the beers was almost comical.
“Retire? You?” Tony huffed a laugh as if he didn’t believe what he’d just heard. Then, as if he were testing out the taste of a new dish, he said, “Leroy Jethro Gibbs, retired team leader of the MCRT.” He face adopted a far-away look for a moment; then he smiled and shook his head. “Wow. I never thought… What would you do?”
Gibbs shrugged his shoulders, “Don’t know. I’m not retired yet. How about you? You decided yet what you’re going to do?”
Tony looked down then lifted his beer and took a healthy swallow. “I was thinking I’d move to the West Coast and start over. Too much has happened out here and I think it’s time for me to move on. Besides, I kind of like it out there in California.”
As his friend had finished speaking, they’d locked eyes, and Gibbs could see that the decision to move away to the other side of the country had been a difficult one. He understood and had accepted why DiNozzo didn’t want to keep working for NCIS and perhaps any government agency, but he wasn’t ready to give up or let go of the friendship they’d been slowly rebuilding.
Gibbs grabbed a box of food from the bag plus a set of chopsticks and headed towards his couch; Tony followed his lead, but instead of the couch, his now former agent headed towards ‘his’ chair. Normally they sat side-by-side to eat, but he figured DiNozzo wasn’t quite certain what to make of his former team leader’s reaction or revelation. Either that, or Tony had missed sitting in the more comfortable chair. He found he was okay with either reason. He opened his carton and took a large bite of food. As he chewed, an idea came to him.
“I was thinking of starting to build another boat.”
At first, Tony was confused by the seeming non sequitur, but then realization dawned in his eyes and a smile took over.
“I’ve always wanted to learn how to sail.”
The end – version two.
Many thanks to all those who stuck around and read this story to the end!