Tony's visit helped Gibbs a bit. He thought that Tony probably didn't realise that he might have seen the letters let alone read them and he decided that he should probably try to forget about them. Tony hadn't actually resigned so he guessed that he had come to terms with the situations. It would do no good to rake over the past but Gibbs resolved to make sure that no new letters got written.
The situation between Gibbs and Tony improved over the days that followed. Gibbs began to relax a bit and not to second guess everything he did or said to DiNozzo. Then the team caught one case after another and were so busy that there was no time for Gibbs to think, he was completely driven by the need to 'get the dirtbags' and so reverted to unreasonable demands, impossibly long hours and short rations. For some reason, which the other NCIS teams couldn't quite understand, the MCRT seemed to lap it up and DiNozzo, in particular, went round with a happy smile on his face.
When it was all over, however, and Gibbs and his team were able to re-acquaint themselves with their homes, Gibbs felt all his doubts return. Had he been too hard on Tony, too unreasonable, had he made jokes which turned out not to be jokes? He couldn't remember seeing any stricken looks on Tony's face. In fact as far as he could remember, DiNozzo seemed to have been unreasonably happy all the time. Did that mean that he was covering something up? Was he hiding something, putting his happy shiny face on because that was what was expected of him? Gibbs didn't sleep that night although he was exhausted.
Tony bounced into the squad room the next morning with a cheerful smile on his face and a Frank Sinatra tune on his lips. He was sure that, after the last few days of head slaps and criticism, the Boss was back to normal. Perhaps, he thought, there had been some anniversary connected with Shannon and Kelly that had tormented Gibbs; he decided to make a note of the dates in his organiser so he could be ready with sympathy and beer next year. All that hopefulness faded when he looked across to a haggard Gibbs who was sitting at his desk and staring intently at him.
"What you looking so happy for, DiNozzo?" barked Gibbs. Part of Gibbs really wanted to know if Tony was happy or hiding behind one of his masks. Tony wasn't to know that it was almost a genuine question and so he did what Gibbs hated and deflected,
"Nothing at all, Gibbs. Nothing to be happy about here," and he sat down at his desk and began to work intently. Gibbs sighed, somehow he had mis-stepped again.
A morning spent in paperwork did not improve anyone's mood so a call to a possible break in at a navy depot was a welcome relief. Gibbs drove and Tony opted to sit in the back of the truck, not wanting to be anywhere near the team leader at the moment. Ziva and McGee wisely decided not to comment although neither could ever remember Tony taking the hated back seat. Being at a crime scene seemed to settle Gibbs' gut and he swung smoothly into action when he had screeched the truck to a halt.
"Er, Boss," said McGee, "Tony got me to do a look up of false alarms from this depot. There have been three in the last month."
"OK," said Gibbs, "chances are this is another false alarm ..."
"... but someone might be deliberately setting off the alarm to lull us into a false sense of security," supplied Ziva, "like the boy who cried possum too often."
Gibbs nodded, "OK, we'll take it seriously. DiNozzo, have you got anything you want to contribute?"
"Not really, Boss. Although I would like to point out to Agent David that it's wolf, not possum. I think it's an Italian story. Taking the fire-escape, Boss." He grinned one of his deceptive shiny grins and was gone.
Ziva went round the back while Gibbs and McGee went to the front. They all had the security codes to the doors and quickly entered the building. Ziva, Gibbs and McGee met up in the huge storage space.
"Nothing seems amiss," said Ziva.
"Guess it was another false alarm," said McGee, "Base Security really need to look into their wiring."
"DiNozzo, report," said Gibbs into his earwig.
"Nothing here, Boss. Not even any rats. On my way down," came Tony's voice.
They heard him running down the steps towards them. He paused at one of the landings and leaned over,
"Why has the Navy got an empty warehouse anyway? Especially one that's falling to pieces." He pushed himself off the railing and his words proved to be prophetic. The railing fell apart and Tony fell with it. His team mates rushed to the spot where he lay with his eyes closed.
"Call an ambulance, McGee," ordered Gibbs.
"Ow," moaned Tony, "this ground is hard. I'm all right, Boss, no need for 911," and he tried to lever himself up.
"Tony, your head is bleeding," said Ziva, "you might have a concussion. You should stay where you are".
"I only fell a few feet," argued Tony, "I'll be fine." He looked at Gibbs and almost groaned when he saw something which, on anyone else's face, would have been a look of guilt. He had never seen Gibbs look guilty so he wasn't sure if his eyes were deceiving him or not. Perhaps he did have a concussion after all.
"DiNozzo, do what you're told," ordered Gibbs, "you're getting checked out".
The ambulance arrived shortly afterwards and whisked Tony off to hospital. The rest of the team stayed behind to secure the building and make sure they hadn't missed anything.
"You two go back to the Navy Yard. Drop me off at Walter Reed on the way. I'll check up on DiNozzo. You can go home afterwards".
By the time Gibbs got to the hospital, Ducky was already there.
"Ah, Jethro. I know you weren't expecting me but once Abigail found out about Anthony's mishap she insisted one of us come to be with him. I assumed you might prefer to have my calming presence rather than hers ...?"
"Might need you to translate, Duck," nodded Gibbs ruefully.
"Indeed," chuckled Ducky, "but in this case I don't think that will be necessary. Our boy had a lucky escape. Bruises, yes; a cut to the forehead, yes but no concussion and no broken bones. He might be a bit stiff tomorrow but he'll bounce back before you know it."
"He has to do a lot of that," muttered Gibbs.
"Why, yes, I suppose he does," said Ducky in a rather puzzled tone. "Anyway, we should be able to go and see him. I think they've finished patching him up."
"Hey, Boss, Duckman," cried Tony, his face lighting up when he saw them come into his cubicle, "that parachute training came in handy. I rolled as I landed ... or is it I landed as I rolled? Rollily, landily, topsily turvily ..."
"They had, of course, given him some pain killers before I arrived," said Ducky apologetically, "but they should be wearing off soon."
"How you feeling, Tony?" asked Gibbs.
"My phone broke," said Tony sadly.
"Well, they tend to when 200 pounds of weight fall on them," said Gibbs practically and then winced when Tony's face crumpled.
"I don't weigh 200 pounds. Do I weigh 200 pounds, Ducky? Is Boss calling me bubble-butt again? 'Cos, that's mean."
"Of course not, Anthony," said Ducky soothingly, "why don't you lie back and try to get some sleep?" As Tony grumpily complied, Ducky turned to Gibbs and said in a low voice, "Really, Jethro, you know what Anthony's like when he's had painkillers. You really should know better. Why, Jethro, what's the matter?"
Gibbs didn't quite know what his face looked like to have caused Ducky such alarm but he hoped it didn't reflect too much of his anguish. He hated seeing any of his team hurt and now, when Tony was already in pain, he had made it worse by bringing back bad memories for him.
"Sorry, Duck. I'll go and grab some coffee. Let me know when DiNozzo's ready to go" , and he backed out of the cubicle leaving Ducky to sit vigil with Tony.
A couple of hours later, Tony had shaken off the effects of the drugs and was ready to be released. Ducky, the only one with a car, was going to drive everyone home.
"You sure you're going to be all right on your own, DiNozzo?" asked Gibbs.
"I'll be fine, Boss. No concussion, no breaks. I'm looking forward to lying on my couch watching Kate swim by."
"I'm sorry, Tony," said Gibbs.
Tony and Ducky stared at him in disbelief. Tony wondered whether the painkillers hadn't worn off after all.
"Boss, did you just say 'sorry'?" he asked.
"That you got hurt," replied Gibbs.
"Well, that's nice of you, Boss but I don't think you need to say 'sorry' for it," said Tony
"I let you go up the fire-escape," said Gibbs.
"I always do the fire-escape. My knees don't mind the stairs and I don't mind the heights."
"Still," said Gibbs, somehow trying to take the blame for something.
"Boss, did you saw through that railing?"
"Did you know I was going to lean on it?"
"Then leave it. It's not your fault".
"But," tried Gibbs again.
"Can we go home," said Tony plaintively, "I don't mean to be rude, but you're freaking me out here, Boss."
Tony was back at work the next day, moving a bit stiffly but enjoying telling anyone who would listen about his death defying fall. He also seemed to have completely forgotten about Gibbs's strange behaviour at the hospital. Gibbs wasn't usually grateful for Tony's odd reactions to painkillers but as they seemed to have given him amnesia this time, he was ready to make an exception. He also hoped that Tony hadn't written another undelivered resignation letter. Ducky, of course, had not taken any painkillers so had not forgotten but Gibbs dealt with that by simply not going down to Autopsy for a while.
Tony was on desk duty for a few days while he fully recovered and Gibbs found himself grateful for that too. He realised that he was anxious about working with Tony in the field as he wasn't sure whether he'd be tempted to molly coddle him or, in reaction, be too severe with him. No, it would be good for Tony to be safe in the office for a while and, hopefully, by then Gibbs would be back on an even keel. So, when the call came in that afternoon about a robbery at a admiral's house, Gibbs went out almost cheerfully.
At home in his basement that night, Gibbs really thought everything might be coming together. Ziva and McGee had worked well together and Tony had done some useful work on the case back at the office. They had some good leads and would resume the investigation the next day. Gibbs felt settled enough to go back to the bench he was making and see if the alcohol stain could be sanded out. He poured himself a bourbon, picked up his sanding paper and even began to whistle as he worked. Then he heard the door upstairs bang and slightly halting steps make their way down to the basement.
It was Tony, but he wasn't carrying any beer or pizza and he didn't look apologetic this time.
"Hey," said Gibbs.
"When were you going to tell me, Boss? Or is it another of your secrets?"
Gibbs froze, it sounded as if Tony had realised what he had done but before he could say anything, Tony swept on.
"I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. I mean, it's none of our business really, is it? Or were you going to spring it on us one day as if we already knew?"
Gibbs was now baffled. This didn't sound like Tony finding out that Gibbs had read the letters. He began to bristle at Tony's tone.
"What you talking about, DiNozzo?" he growled.
"I was sitting at my desk this afternoon, doing my background search on Petty Officer Flynn when Delores Bromstead dropped by and congratulated me".
"On what? Not breaking your neck?" asked Gibbs.
"That does seem the most likely option, doesn't it, Gibbs? After all, I couldn't be congratulated on doing something well, could I? Not me, the class clown, the village idiot?"
"What you going on about, DiNozzo?" asked Gibbs irritably.
"The results of the external audit. Which Director Vance shared with team leaders a few weeks ago, which he suggested would be good to share with team members, which you clearly haven't."
"So what?" said Gibbs, honestly mystified. The audit had been of crime scene procedures, sketches, evidence recording, reports, interviews and so on. His team, as he had expected, had done well and he hadn't seen any reason to tell them so.
"You didn't think it was worth McGee knowing that while his computer skills were off the scale, his crime scene photos only rated 80% and his sketches 75%?"
"I was going to deal with that," protested Gibbs.
"Or that Ziva's evidence handling was not up to the required standard 10% of the time?"
"I'm going to talk to her about that as well. What does it matter to you?"
"I'm your Senior Field Agent, Gibbs! When you're not around, I give out the assignments. Don't you think it would be helpful for me to know where team members aren't performing strongly so I can take that into account? That I might be able to offer them some advice?" He stopped, looking incredulously at Gibbs' blank expression. "No, it didn't occur to you, did it? Because you forget that I'm senior to them, that other supervisors actually work with their Senior Field Agents to run the team".
"You do what I tell you to do, Tony!" said Gibbs hotly, hating to be told how to run his team.
"Yes, I do, Gibbs. And I do it well, very well. I guess you weren't going to tell me either that I scored the highest marks in the audit? That's why Delores congratulated me – she called me the best agent in NCIS."
"You know that I rely on you, DiNozzo," said Gibbs a bit stiffly, "wouldn't keep you around if I didn't."
"It's hard to tell sometimes, Boss," said Tony wearily, "would it kill you to say that in front of the others sometimes?"
"Would it help, Tony?" asked Gibbs.
"Well, I don't think it would hurt for Ziva and McGee to know that I outscored them on everything. Well, except for computer thingies and, as I don't want to go to prison, I'm happy for McGee to be top in that one".
"It's my job to manage the team, DiNozzo. I don't need fancy auditors to tell me what my team can do."
"So the fact that some of your scores weren't as high as mine has nothing to do with it?" asked Tony bitterly.
"No, it's not my job now do all that work now," said Gibbs defensively, "I need to know how to do it, I don't have to do it."
"And you didn't even think, consider, telling me about the results? I can see you might have thought I'd be unbearable about it, but Gibbs, don't you think it might have helped me to know McGee and Ziva's results. I understand you not telling me yours, but Gibbs ..." he trailed off, despondently.
Gibbs swallowed down his anger and tried to see things from Tony's point of view. He dumped some nails out of a jelly jar and held the bottle of bourbon over it.
"Still on painkillers, or can you have this?" he asked.
"Stopped taking them. Had some really weird dreams after the last lot."
Gibbs poured him a drink and handed it to him.
"Tony, you're a good agent. One of the best I've worked with. Perhaps I should make that clearer to the others; recognise that you've got a part to play with training them." He clinked his glass against Tony's.
Tony relaxed. He seemed to know that was as close to an apology as he would get.
"You know, Boss, sometimes you can carry the functional mute thing too far".
Gibbs chuckled and smiled at Tony for what seemed the first time in weeks.
"Just don't go home and write out another resignation letter, Tony!"
Tony froze and Gibbs realised he'd let the secret out. The colour drained from Tony's face and then flooded back, he tried to laugh it off,
"Me ... resign? Why ..." and then he paused and Gibbs saw his epiphany moment, "so that's what this has all been about. You read my letters!"
"I didn't mean to," said Gibbs.
"So, they just sort of jumped up and dangled in front of your face and shouted, 'read me, read me?" said Tony sarcastically.
"No," said Gibbs impatiently.
"So what happened then? Explain."
"Hey, they were addressed to me," retorted Gibbs.
"Oh, of course, so that makes it all right that you rummaged through my desk? Did you find anything else you found interesting, Special Agent Gibbs?"
"Don't flatter yourself, DiNozzo!" said Gibbs hotly. Then he remembered that perhaps he wasn't completely in the right about this. He tried to calm down and said more quietly, "I went to your apartment and saw that the desk had been under the leak. I pulled the drawers out to see if the water had got through. One of them had stuck, as I pulled it, it came free and dumped the contents on the floor. Some of them fell with my name facing upwards and ... I picked one up and started to read it before I realised what I was doing."
"So you just read one letter?" asked Tony.
"So you sort of accidentally read three letters?"
"You read three letters before you realised what you were doing?" Tony continued.
"Yes, I'm not proud of it, Tony. But if you didn't want me to read them why did you leave them lying around?"
"They weren't lying around. They were in a drawer in my desk in my locked apartment!" shouted Tony, "where they should have been safe!"
"Hey, you gave me the key," said Gibbs defensively.
"Oh, of course, that makes it all right then, doesn't it? It's my fault, I didn't realise I'd put a label on the key fob to say, 'please come in and have a good look round, feel free to have a good rummage ..."
"Tony ...," Gibbs tried to interrupt but Tony rushed on. He stood up and made his way to the stairs,
"Gibbs, your door is always open. I'm just going to run upstairs and have a look through all your drawers. I'm sure you won't mind, after all, YOUR LIFE IS AN OPEN BOOK, ISN'T IT? You haven't got any secrets."
Gibbs didn't think he had ever seen Tony so angry. He raised his hands palm outwards in a pacifying gesture,
"Tony, calm down. Look, I'm not proud of what I did. You're right, I shouldn't have read the letters, I'm sorry."
To Gibbs' relief, Tony did seem to calm down a bit, he moved away from the stairs and sat down once again. He said with a shaky laugh,
"I suppose I can't blame you. I'm the nosiest person I know. I bet Kate's laughing now, she'd call this karma". He took a sip of his bourbon, "Sorry, Boss. I shouldn't have shouted at you."
"Let's call it quits, Tony," said Gibbs. They sat in silence for a few moments.
"Is that why you've been so off with me the last few weeks?" asked Tony eventually, "I'm guessing the letters weren't very ... er ... polite. I haven't looked at them for a while."
"How many are there?" asked Gibbs, and then as he saw Tony about to answer, he changed his mind, "no, don't tell me. I don't think I want to know."
"I don't understand why they threw you so much," said Tony, " were you mad at me for what I said?"
"No," said Gibbs, "I was mad at myself."
"Not sure why. Mad that I'd done those things which made you angry enough to quit. Sad that you seemed so downhearted when you wrote them. Embarrassed."
"Embarrassed?" said Tony.
"I'd always prided myself in knowing what was going on in that head of yours. I thought I could work out what you were thinking and I thought you always knew what I was thinking; that you'd know how much I depend on you, what a high opinion I've got of you. I thought we understood one another and then I read those letters and realised that you hadn't said anything about the problems. I didn't know what to do or say around you."
"Which letters did you read?" asked Tony in a gentler tone of voice.
"When I called you 'bubble-butt'", said Gibbs.
"Well, sometimes your jokes do miss the mark a bit, Gibbs. You should really steer clear of trying to be funny. I'm not sure why that got to me so much, it didn't help that McSlim was disappearing before my eyes. And sometimes, Gibbs you get at me a bit relentlessly. I guess I might have said something to you but you had your Dad with you. I could tell you had other things on your mind so I just left it. It was one of those times when just writing the letter helped get it out of my system. What were the other ones?"
"When I came back from Mexico and after you pulled Maddie and me out of the drink."
Tony winced, "you're not known for your people skills, Gibbs. I came really close to giving in both of those letters. I knew they weren't things I could talk to you about; you've always kept your family close to your vest. You would have thought I was intruding. Can you honestly imagine us having had a heart to heart about either of those episodes?"
Gibbs shook his head. He remembered the turmoil he had still been in when he got back from Mexico; the wounds of his loss fresh once more and surrounded by people who felt a bit like cardboard cut outs to him, insubstantial and faint. It was only as time went by that his memories of his co-workers had returned and begun to ease the pain of his tragic loss. A discussion with DiNozzo would not have gone well at that time. And then, Maddie's reappearance in his life had brought back precious memories, talking with Tony about his rescue would have meant sharing those memories and he knew he would have backed away from doing so. He began to suspect that Tony knew him far better than he had realised and he was surprised to find that a comforting thought. At one time he would have felt defensive about someone knowing him so well but now he thought it might be a good thing.
"So why didn't you quit those times?" he asked.
"The first time because I was glad you were back from Mexico: I'd missed the surly bastard persona. And the second time because I was so relieved you were still alive. I had nightmares for weeks that I hadn't got to you in time. It was all simple in the end, Boss, I was really mad at you but I cared, so I stayed."
"Thank you," said Gibbs and hoped that Tony realised that he was saying it for so many times he had failed to say it in the past.
They continued in silence for a little while then Tony rose to go,
"Boss, are we good now? Will you still be weird with me?"
"I don't know," said Gibbs honestly, "I can't promise I won't make the same mistakes again."
"I know that," said Tony, "but can you get past the letters and just go back to running on your gut again, stop overthinking everything?"
"I'll try," said Gibbs, "it might take a while".
"'Cos, really, Boss, I can't cope with you apologising because a railing collapsed under me."
"I didn't think you remembered that," said Gibbs with a grimace.
"I'd thought it was an hallucination until you mentioned 'bubble-butt' a few minutes ago, I'd tried to forget it."
"Go home, get some rest," said Gibbs, clapping him on the shoulder, "tomorrow's another day. Let me know if that bureau of yours needs fixing."
"If you don't mind," said Tony, "I don't think we'll mention that desk again. Night, Boss."
Gibbs took a fortifying gulp of bourbon and got back to the bench. He felt happy for the first time in weeks. He knew there might be some bumps in the road ahead but he thought they would weather them. A few hours later he went upstairs and slept soundly on his couch.
The next morning he got up and found a letter had been put through his door.
I think this may be the resignation letter you're meant to see!
I'm not sure you will be able to forget about the letters; about all the ways we seem to have managed to hurt each other. I don't think I can risk that happening. 'It' worked in the past because we seemed to understand one another – I'm not sure we'll feel that way in the future. If it was just the two of us then perhaps we could work it out but it's not fair on Ziva and Tim to be caught up in our machinery. The job's too dangerous, and too important, to risk misunderstandings.
So, Jethro. I'm letting you off the hook. Be honest. If you think we can get back to how it was, I'll stay but if you don't, then file this as my resignation.
Gibbs stood, holding the letter in his hands and wondered what to do.
AN: thank you to everyone who read and reviewed this story. And yes, this is the end!