The ding of the elevator caused Anthony DiNozzo to look up from his phone call. He spotted McGee and Bishop as they walked towards him, both chuckling about some shared joke at the tail end of their lunch break.
McGee smiled at him as he took his place at his own desk across from his new boss, and Tony nodded his head in acknowledgement as he continued listening to his caller.
“Mmm-hmmm. Okay. Really? The ex-wife? It’s always the wife!” was the only part of his conversation the other two could hear, and when he put down the phone he saw two expectant and eager faces looking at him.
He paused for a moment, to build suspense. Then, “We have… a new case,” he announced with a sudden grim smile and a flourish of his hands.
Tony loved his new position. He loved being the frontline man. He loved the added responsibility. He loved running his own team and building their skills. And he loved being able to add a bit of a dramatic flair to things without being on the receiving end of the inevitable Gibbs headslap.
And Gibbs was on his mind right now. Not that Gibbs was ever not on his mind, but the phone call had stirred some feelings right up to the surface and it still hurt to look around the bullpen and not see Gibbs with coffee in hand… and of course there was the fact that he was sitting in Gibbs’ chair, which still felt off, and he wondered how long it would take for that to change.
The ‘call that changed it all’ had come in about two months ago on an innocuous sunny morning in mid-July. The team had been combing through cold cases, and Gibbs had answered the phone and his face had turned ashen in the space of one second. “Okay” was the only word he had spoken into the receiver before hanging up, grabbing his jacket, and bounding up the stairs to the Director’s office. Tony could still recall the feeling of dread that had washed over him as he and the rest of the team had sat there, not sure what of was going on or what to do.
It had been almost 5pm before they were all called up to Vance’s office, and when they arrived there was no Gibbs in sight. It was just the Director, looking even more serious than usual, and he had asked them all to sit and had offered them a drink. On company time. They had all declined, of course, and Tony felt no shame that he had basically begged Vance to just come out with whatever it was that was going on with Gibbs, because at that point they all knew it was going to be a doozy.
Vance told of how Gibbs had received a call from the Bloomsburg Hospital that morning, the closest one to Stillwater, where his dad had been taken by ambulance after suffering a severe heart attack. Gibbs had told Vance and then rushed off to make the too-long drive to the middle of Pennsylvania. Vance explained that he had waited to hear from Gibbs before talking to the team. Gibbs had called him just an hour before to say that he had made it to the hospital in time to see his dad, but that Jackson had passed away during the ensuing emergency surgery. Vance had assigned Tony as the temporary team lead, and he told them all to go home for the night.
Of course they had done no such thing, instead gathering up Ducky, Palmer and Abby and going to the bar to talk about the whole awful situation for Gibbs. Tony had left several voicemails on Gibbs’ cell phone that evening, too, letting him know that Tony would do what he could to support him. Gibbs hadn’t called back, but had sent a one-word answer via text… a text Tony still had on his phone. “Thanks.”
Things had slowly but surely unravelled in the following weeks. Gibbs had taken his bereavement leave, and had then used up several weeks of banked vacation time, and by the time he worked through that and Vance had offered him a leave of absence, Gibbs had made the decision to take early retirement – for real this time. The team had been functioning okay until then albeit with the keen sense that they were not a whole, and when Vance had told Tony of Gibbs’ decision and had promoted him to permanent lead on the MCRT all in the same breath, the warring feelings in his chest had almost done him in.
And as much as he loved his new position, two months after that fateful day, the cost attached to it was something he wished nobody – especially Gibbs – would have had to pay.
“So what info do you have?” McGee asked, taking a pen in hand and poising it above his notepad.
“There’s a dead Marine near Quantico, and a suspicious-sounding ex-wife in Pennsylvania who happened to pay him a visit last weekend. From some place called…” Tony paused, looking down at his own notes, “Orangeville.”
“Orangeville?” McGee asked, as he narrowed his eyes. “I think that’s near Stillwater. I’m pretty sure we passed through there when Ziva and I went with Gibbs….” He trailed off, sadness clearly written all over his face, and Tony gave him what he hoped was a reassuring look.
“Thanks, McGoogle Maps,” he joked, trying to lighten the mood, but it fell flat. After sighing louder than he had intended, he regrouped. “Okay, let’s head down to Quantico now and I’ll drive up to Orangeville tomorrow and interview the ex.”
“You know,” McGee began, his eyebrows narrowed in thought once again, “You could call up Gibbs. Stop by and see how he’s doing while you’re up there, make sure he’s not building a boat in rural Pennsylvania or something like that.”
“Yeah.” Tony thought back to the handful of phone calls that he and Gibbs had shared over the past two months. When his former boss had decided not to come back to work, he signed a year’s lease on a place in Stillwater and asked Tony to check in on his other house every week or so. In a moment of raw emotion, he had choked up telling Tony how he needed to take care of his dad’s affairs and also just needed to get away from it all for a while. Tony ached for his friend, and missed him something fierce.
“Why don’t you guys head down to the car, and I’ll catch up after I give him a call.”
He watched as McGee and Bishop grabbed their Go Bags and got back on the elevator, then he picked up his cell phone. His index finger hovered over the numbers as a feeling of uncertainty overcame him. Calling up Gibbs like this felt like an invasion of privacy somehow, but they were all also really curious about how the man was doing. Tony reckoned there were few people who genuinely cared about Gibbs as much as he did, though, and what better reason to visit and make sure he was okay than a nearby case?
He lowered his fingers and dialled Gibbs’ new home number, etched into his memory from all the times he’d called and almost called before. It was several rings before the call was picked up.
“Hey, Tony.” Gibbs’ voice sounded rough but warm, and Tony felt his hesitancy melt away instantly.
“Hey, Boss!” Tony greeted him, a smile spreading wide across his face. “How did you know it was me?”
He could almost feel Gibbs smirking on the other side of the line. “Well, you’re one of a handful of people who calls me. And the phone company hooked me up with Call Display.”
“Aah!” Tony couldn’t hide the chuckle that escaped him. “Next you’re going to tell me that you bought yourself a computer,” Tony teased.
“Actually, I did. Living out here is making me, ah, re-assess a few things.”
“I’ll bet. Gotta order your boat kits online now, right? No Boat Depot down the road and all….”
The unexpected guffaw from Gibbs lit up Tony’s face once more, and it was a good ten seconds until Gibbs spoke again.
“Thanks, Tony. I needed a laugh.” A pause, then, “So what’s up?”
Tony felt butterflies swarm his stomach as he considered what to say and what to ask of Gibbs. In the end, he decided for the direct approach. “We, uh, have a dead Marine down here with an ex-wife who lives up in Orangeville. I’m driving up tomorrow, and thought maybe we could grab dinner or something while I’m there? You know, catch up.”
“You’re staying overnight?” Gibbs asked, his voice curious.
“Well, it’s a long drive and I might need to check out a few more leads on Friday.”
“No, that’s not….” Gibbs paused, clearly struggling with his words. Then, “Stay at my place. I’ve got a spare bedroom, beer. Why don’t you make a weekend of it if you’re not on call?”
“Wow. I, uh, didn’t want to impose but that sounds great. Are you sure?” Tony could hardly believe how well the conversation had turned out, and his pulse was doing some sort of foxtrot in excitement at the prospect of hanging out with Gibbs again.
“Wouldn’t have offered if I wasn’t, Tony. It’s been too long.”
“I miss you too, Boss,” Tony’s voice softened as he reflected back Gibbs’ unspoken sentiment. “See you tomorrow, late afternoon?”
“Sounds good. Oh, and Tony? I’m not your boss anymore.” He could hear the smile in Gibbs’ voice. “‘Gibbs’ is good, but ‘Jethro’ is fine too if you want.”
“Sorry - old habits die hard, Jethro,” he said, testing the name out on his tongue. “Just wait until Tim hears me calling you that. He’s going to….”
“Shutting up. I’ll see you tomorrow.”