Leroy Jethro Gibbs had seen his senior field agent in all kinds of pain.
Tony DiNozzo had been blown up and shot and tortured. He'd watched Kate die right before his eyes, stood helplessly on the other side of the bomb that claimed Paula's life. Gibbs had been there for the heartbreak after Jeanne, watched as Tony pulled away, became a version of himself filled with doubt, a version that second-guessed.
Then there was Jenny. That was a whole different kind of pain. That was guilt, exposed and raw and pulsating, the kind that turned into a simmering anger. It was the closest Gibbs ever felt to losing the Tony he knew for good. There was more after that, of course. When they lost Ziva the first time, and then the second time. After that, Tony didn't sleep. He spent every night tracing his steps back, trying to find a different way out.
Eventually, though, he got through that heartbreak, too. That's what DiNozzo did. He persevered, he pressed on. He cracked a joke and faked a smile until he could tuck the pain away somewhere it couldn't find him.
Gibbs had helped DiNozzo through a lot over the years, when the younger man would find his way to the basement in the middle of the night to lick his wounds with a jar filled with bourbon and muted conversation. He always ended up there, even after Jenny's death, when he could barely look Gibbs in the eye for fear that he blamed him. He arrived just hours before he was set to leave for his assignment as Agent Afloat. Gibbs had offered him a flask, a firm grip on his shoulder, and a long stare -- a promise that he would get him home again. Gibbs always held his breath a little after a particularly tough day, for fear DiNozzo wouldn't show. He preferred Tony deal with his pain somewhere Gibbs could keep an eye on him. As hypocritical as it was, the younger man walked too closely to the line of self-destruction for Gibbs' comfort.
Gibbs knew Tony carried a lot. More than he should. There was a ton of weight on those shoulders, guilt for things he couldn't change, regret for mistakes that weren't his fault. Gibbs had done his best to get rid of that complex, but it was rooted too deep, was too embedded in DiNozzo's very nature to change it now. His childhood probably had a lot to do with that. Just one more thing to curse Senior for.
Gibbs always feared that one day Tony wouldn't be able to claw his way back.
Everyone had a breaking point.
That's what Gibbs was thinking about now as he watched the scene on the Captain Jack Michael's patio unfold. He was about 20 feet way, with two members of his team and a group of local officers, as DiNozzo tried to talk down an hysterical 16-year-old who held a gun to his temple with a shaking hand. The teenager's name was Adam, a blonde kid with a baby face who had battled depression since he was a boy. He'd been doing so well recently, his mother had informed them through choked sobs. He was a gifted athlete, popular in school. Since his father went overseas, he'd seemed fully invested in caring for his 4-year-old sister.
But then the family received word that Captain John Michaels was dead.
That, as it turned out, was Adam's breaking point.
Nobody had been able to get close to him before NCIS arrived. Gibbs was certain it would be him in DiNozzo's position, but Adam didn't respond. Gibbs just seemed to be making it worse. McGee and Bishop stayed back. McGee's knew his own expertise, and this wasn't it. Bishop wasn't ready. It was DiNozzo who finally got through. DiNozzo who stripped himself of his firearm and bullet proof vest without a word, DiNozzo who casually strolled onto the patio, his arms held out to his sides, and struck up a conversation about basketball. Gibbs didn't even have time to protest Tony walking into a potentially deadly situation without protection before Adam was yelling, demanding through tears that everyone else step the hell back.
Gibbs shouldn't have been surprised. DiNozzo had never been good with young kids, but teenagers were a different story. Gibbs first noticed it when Tony talked a broken boy who had just lost his father out of not going to Princeton and joining the service instead. There had been a few others over the years, confused kids that seemed to see a kindred spirit in his agent. Maybe it was Tony's juvenile sense of humor, his affable nature and boyish grin. But Gibbs suspected it was something else: One heartbreak recognized another.
It had been four hours since Tony first stepped onto the patio. It was cold, rainy and windy, and Gibbs could hardly make out his agent's voice from this distance. It was making him restless. He could tell, though, that DiNozzo had talked himself hoarse, that he was dead on his feet. Still, he was doing something right. Adam had lowered the gun, but was still holding it in a white-knuckled grip at his side. Bishop and McGee had their guns trained on Adam, just in case, but Gibbs was sure he wasn't a threat. Adam was a boy in pain. He just wanted it to end. He had no interest in taking someone else with him. That's what DiNozzo had realized within minutes.
Gibbs narrowed his eyes as DiNozzo took a cautious step forward, holding out his hand. He didn't move more than that. Just one step. A small smile, words slipping from his lips that Gibbs couldn't make out. A soft reassurance, maybe. Or, knowing Tony, a joke. Adam took a few hesitant steps forward, lifted the gun handle first toward DiNozzo. Gibbs could feel this ending. They were just minutes away from returning this boy to his family, from getting him the help he needed.
He noticed the motion out of the corner of his eye too late.
One of the rookie cops on the scene started forward. The movement caught Adam's attention, DiNozzo's, too. The agent looked Gibbs' way for the first time since he walked over to Adam hours earlier. He held up his hands, desperation in his eyes. Gibbs lunged, grabbing the cop by the elbow to pull him to a stop. But it was too late. The temporary calm Tony had managed to weave over Adam was gone. The kid stared hard at the spot where the cop now stood, with Gibbs' hand still laced around his elbow. It was like he snapped out of a daze.
Gibbs was sure he'd never forget what happened next. How Adam raised the gun back to his head, how DiNozzo cried out and reached for him in a last, desperate attempt to stop the inevitable. He would never forget the sound of that shot echoing over the quiet neighborhood, or Erica Michael's scream for a son that was already gone.
Gibbs would never forget any of it.
The worst part was, he knew Tony wouldn't, either.
DiNozzo blinked once, his face, now spattered with blood, going completely blank. Gibbs couldn't help but think of the last time his agent's face was covered in the blood of another person. Tony had reacted differently then. After a moment of shock, he had thrown himself silently and completely into work. Not this time. Gibbs watched as his agent's knees buckled and he staggered back, sliding down against the back wall of the patio. And then he sat there, motionless, with blood pooling around his shoes and the body laid out before him.
Everything was frozen for a moment. Gibbs released the elbow of the cop, not so much as sparing him a second glance, and looked over at the rest of his team. McGee had dropped his arm listlessly to his side. He turned to catch Gibbs' eye, like he wanted his boss to make sense of it all. Bishop hadn't looked away, her hand was clamped over her mouth. Gibbs was sure he saw tears in her eyes. There might have been some in Gibbs' eyes, too.
Mentally shaking himself, he walked over.
"McGee, photos," he instructed, keeping his voice steady. His team needed him to be steady. "Bishop, call Ducky and an ambulance. Not much of a crime scene here. Let's wrap this up quickly, leave the family to grieve."
Bishop paused, shaking her head a bit to bring herself back to the present, "An ambulance?"
"The mom might need it," Gibbs took a breath, removing his hat to rub a hand over his hair. "DiNozzo, too."
With that, Gibbs turned his attention toward the remaining member of his team. Gibbs mostly ignored the movement around him as he made his way to Tony. He noticed a cop with his hands on Erica's shoulders, trying to keep her away from her son's body. Someone was on the phone with the social worker who was with Adam's sister, telling her what happened. Gibbs couldn't concentrate on any of that, though. Not right now. Not with his agent sitting exactly where he'd dropped, arms draped over his knees, glassy green eyes staring at the growing blood stain on the pavement.
Yes, Gibbs had seen his senior field agent in all kinds of pain.
None of it looked quite like this.
Finally reaching him, Gibbs crouched down and moved his hand to the back of DiNozzo's neck, giving it a squeeze, "Tony?"
DiNozzo didn't move, eyes glazed over and unfocused, seemingly looking right through Gibbs to the boy who was alive just moments ago.
"Hey, DiNozzo," Gibbs leaned a little further forward, bending down to try and force his agent to make eye contact. Tony didn't even flinch, and Gibbs felt some nerves rising.
He studied his agent's face for a moment. The blood stood out in stark contrast to his pale skin and his face was covered in moisture, either rain or sweat or both. Gibbs reached out, pressing two fingers to Tony's neck and finding a shallow, rapid pulse beneath his fingertips. He glanced over his shoulder, checking for the ambulance, suddenly concerned DiNozzo was going into shock. When he didn't see or hear one approaching just yet, he turned his attention back to his agent. He decided to try a harsher approach. Sometimes that was the only way.
"Hey," Gibbs snapped, slapping Tony's cheek just hard enough to make an impact. "Snap. Out. Of. It."
That seemed to catch Tony's attention. He slowly raised his eyes, and the look on his face was devastating. It was one Gibbs hardly ever saw on DiNozzo, so it took a moment to place it. Defeat. Gibbs let his hand linger on the side of DiNozzo's face. A softer gesture. A balance.
"You back with me?" he asked, bending down slightly to catch Tony's eye.
"That depends," DiNozzo replied, his voice monotone, "Did that just happen where you are? Because I'd rather not be there," Gibbs just held his gaze and DiNozzo sighed, dropping his chin to his chest. "Yeah, that's what I thought."
Gibbs remained silent for a moment, waiting for some color to come back to DiNozzo's face. He'd told Tony's father a long time ago that while DiNozzo liked to hide behind the face of a clown, he was the best young agent Gibbs had ever worked with. Years had passed since then, but the heart of the statement still stood. Thing was, DiNozzo wasn't so young anymore. He'd seen a lot. Maybe too much. And as Gibbs watched his senior field agent take a shuddering breath, he found himself wondering for the first time if Tony had a limit.
Gibbs rocked back on his heels, "Ready to get up?"
"Ready as I'll ever be."
Gibbs stood, reaching out to help Tony to his feet. The younger man swayed a little and Gibbs kept a hand on his elbow until he was sure he was steady. He caught the eye of one of the EMTs who had arrived on scene, who raised her eyebrows in a silent question. Gibbs shook his head, knowing that DiNozzo would fight medical attention every step of the way. He also knew that soon Tony's nearly cationic state would give way to phase two: Anger. DiNozzo was burning, it was just a matter of time until he exploded. He wanted to be far away from the scene before that happened.
Tony walked away from him without a word, stalking off in the direction of the car. Gibbs didn't like his agent's body language. Even when Tony was off duty, he carried himself like a seasoned federal agent. Gibbs would've pegged him for one even if he didn't know him. Shoulders back, head high. Always watching, always on his toes. The man walking away from him now looked nothing like the man he knew. DiNozzo's shoulders were slumped, his head down. He didn't even notice McGee watching him with concern as he passed by.
Gibbs let out a long breath as he headed toward McGee to see how much longer he needed. He was worried in spite of himself. He might be the leader of the team, but Tony was the soul. Right now, he didn't know how long it would be until that came back.
But Ziva wasn't here now, and McGee and Bishop kept glancing over a Tony, waiting for him to pull himself back together, to crack a joke, to say something, anything, so it felt like they had permission to go back to normal. Gibbs found himself looking toward DiNozzo's desk more than a few times himself.
Tony didn't say a word the entire ride back, instead leaning his head against the passenger's side window and closing his eyes. Gibbs didn't know if he was actually sleeping or just avoiding any type of conversation, but the method was effective either way. When they stopped, Gibbs told him to go home, but Tony ignored him. He washed off his face in the bathroom and returned to his desk. He'd been silently working on his report ever since.
Abby had made a brief appearance in squad room, but Tony had shrugged her off. He didn't return the hug, bristled at her attempts at sympathy. Everyone's head shot up when he snapped at her, ordering her back to the lab. Abby had looked like she was going to burst into tears, but Gibbs cut off her protest with a simple clearing of his throat and a small gesture of his chin. She'd hesitated, but dropped her head and shuffled back to the elevator. Gibbs would talk to her later. McGee had stared at Tony for a long time after that, and Gibbs knew DiNozzo felt eyes on him. But he just kept staring at his computer screen, not so much as glancing in Tim's direction.
It was a rough day for everyone. But Tony had been so close, close enough to feel the cold metal of the gun on his palm. Just seconds away from giving that boy another chance. It was no wonder that DiNozzo looked so haunted, so un-DiNozzo like. But for someone who knew Tony so well, Gibbs was unsettled. He wasn't sure how the rest of this was going to play out.
Gibbs was so distracted that he didn't even notice Leon Vance walking into the bullpen until he was standing in front of his desk. He noticed Tony's eye flick up first, briefly, before Gibbs turned his attention to the Director.
"Problem?" Gibbs asked, standing up.
Vance sighed, and dropped a file on Gibbs desk. "I just received word from Captain Michaels' unit. There was a mix-up. Captain Michaels was reported missing in action, not dead. He's been rescued."
There was a beat, just a moment of absolute silence, before Tony was on his feet. He leaned forward, slamming both hands on his desk. The sound echoed across the room. Gibbs could see his muscles straining as he fought to remain under control, the muscle in his jaw clenched tight.
"You're kidding me, right?" Tony said slowly, each word enunciated just a little too carefully.
"Agent DiNozzo, I'm sorry but--"
The eruption was something Gibbs had been expecting for hours. Tony swiped his hand across his desk, sending files and pens and an empty coffee cup scattering across the bullpen floor. Heads popped up from around the squad room, but DiNozzo didn't notice.
He pounded a hand down on his desk, "No. This has to be some kind of really unfunny joke," he bit out. "Because you see, I just spent four hours trying to talk down a devastated kid who only wanted his father and now you're standing here, Director Vance, telling me this has all just been one big administrative fuck-up?"
Gibbs took a step forward, "DiNozzo--"
"No," Tony interrupted, charging out from behind his desk to stand face-to-face with Vance. "This isn't a mistake, Director. This isn't an accident that can be fixed. Adam is gone. His blood is all over his family's patio. And now someone is just going to say, 'Oops, my bad?' It doesn't work that way."
Vance took a step forward, "I suggest you take a walk, Agent DiNozzo."
Tony didn't budge, didn't so much as break eye contact. Vance leveled his gaze and took another small step forward, leaning so close to DiNozzo that Gibbs just barely heard his words.
"Take a walk before I have to do something I really don't want to do."
Tony stared Vance down for a second longer before he turned back to his desk, slung his bag over his shoulder and took off toward the elevator, not so much as glancing over his shoulder. Gibbs watched him until he stepped inside and then turned back to Leon, knowing he'd have some damage control to take care of.
"Gibbs," McGee asked, his voice quiet. "Should someone follow--"
"Let him be, Tim."
"Let him be," Gibbs rubbed a hand over his forehead. "You and Bishop go home. I'll see you here tomorrow."
Bishop stood, collecting her things before hesitating, "Gibbs, is he okay?"
"No," Gibbs said. "He's not," he let the words linger for a moment before continuing. "Go get some sleep. Been a long day."
Gibbs focused on Vance, who didn't look as angry as the agent expected.
"Today's been rough on him, Leon," Gibbs by way for explanation as he picked up the folder on his desk and flipping through it.
"I don't blame him," Vance said, leaning back on Gibbs' desk. "I wanted to react the same way and I didn't talk to the kid," he paused, looking in the direction of the elevator. "He going to be okay?"
Gibbs didn't answer right away as his eyes followed Vance's stare. Usually, his answer when it came to DiNozzo was always yes. DiNozzo would find the lead. DiNozzo would figure it out. DiNozzo would bounce back. Resiliency was one of the traits that made Gibbs want to hire Tony in the first place. But his mind couldn't help but wander back to his thoughts earlier that day, and breaking points. He'd hit his awhile ago, when he took the time in Mexico. Eventually, he'd found his way back, but he'd still hit bottom before he got there.
Gibbs used to think he'd seen Tony's limit, after Jenny, after Jeanne, after Michael, after Ziva. But he just kept wrapping up the wounds and coming back for more, a little harder, maybe, harsher. Older. Not as quick to laugh off everything that stood in his way. But still undeniably Tony, even after everything. And yet, the look in his eye Gibbs saw today was different. It was the look of a person standing on the edge, and not knowing how to get down. It was the look Gibbs saw on Frank's face before he quit. It was probably on his the day he walked out of NCIS and headed to Mexico. Tony had likely seen it himself, when he said goodbye to Ziva.
It was a look of a person who was done.
"I don't know."