Tony fell asleep almost from the moment the plane took off from Washington, largely thanks to the medication he was still on, and slept deeply throughout the entire seventy-five minute flight. It was something that Gibbs was particularly grateful for. The young agent still had a lot of healing to do, and Gibbs aimed to make sure Tony got all the necessary rest that he needed, whether he liked it or not. Apart from the obvious reasons, Gibbs wasn't looking forward to facing an incensed Ducky should the younger man suffer a relapse during this unexpected trip of his, not to mention the combined wrath of Kate and Abby.
Arriving at the Port Columbus International Airport as scheduled, Gibbs collected their luggage and adeptly maneuvered a half-awake, and an uncharacteristically grumpy Tony out of the plane, the airport and into a rented car. By the time they'd left the airport grounds and were heading towards the city, however, the young man was almost fully alert and he looked about with deep-seated interest as familiar landscape whizzed past.
"DiNozzo?" Gibbs didn't miss the pensive look that had flashed upon Tony's face when they turned onto the interstate highway that led towards the heart of the city.
"Nothing, Boss, just some … old memories," Tony said quietly, dropping his gaze and looking away.
Opting to let matters rest for now, Gibbs didn't push any further, saying instead, "Care to share with me where we're heading? Or would you like me to drive around until we find something interesting to do?"
"What?" Tony turned back towards his team leader, a sheepish smile gracing his handsome features when he realised what Gibbs was asking. "Sorry, Boss. Err… Take the 315 North exit when you come to it…"
Giving an indistinct grunt at the rest of the directions, Gibbs watched through his peripheral vision as Tony pulled out his sunglasses and settled back into his seat. Even with the rest that he had on the flight here, DiNozzo still looked tired and wan, and although he tried hard to stay awake, it wasn't long before he fell into a light doze. Glancing periodically over towards the passenger's side, Gibbs could tell that this sleep was not a restful one, unlike the one he had on the plane.
Tony's brow was furrowed and his hands were clenched into fists, knuckles white. Alarmed by the low moan of distress that emerged from the sleeping man's mouth, Gibbs was just reaching over with his free hand to shake him awake when Tony suddenly jerked upright with a soft cry. Pulling off his sunglasses, the obviously shaken man scrubbed at his face with trembling hands, his breaths coming out in short puffs.
Tony hesitated for a moment and then nodded at Gibbs' quiet question, his expression closed. "Yeah." Clearing his throat, he peered through the window for a moment with red-rimmed eyes and then slipped on his sunglasses again, hiding effectively behind the mirrored lenses. "Where are we, Boss?"
Accepting the change of topic without batting an eyelid, Gibbs answered, "Somewhere on North High Street."
"Oh." Tony blinked, surprised at the sudden detour. "Why?"
"'Cause I need coffee…" Gibbs glanced over at the younger agent, taking in his unhealthy pallor with a grim look. "And you need some food."
O o O o O o O
"C'mon, c'mon… pick up…" Abby coached, glaring at the telephone.
"Patience, Abigail," Ducky said mildly. "It has only just rung twice."
"Yeah, but Gibbs was supposed to call us when they arrive after five and it's closed to six already," Abby argued. "Then again–"
"Hey, Gibbs!" Flashing Ducky, Kate and McGee a delighted grin, the lab specialist leaned over the phone with both elbows on the desk and continued, "So, how's the Gateway State treating you two so far?"
"Fine," the answer came clearly through the speakerphone. "Anything that I should know? McGee?"
"Sir?" the young man asked automatically, nervously eyeing the phone as if he was expecting their team leader to pop out of the receiver at any moment and glare at him. "I–I m-mean… Y-Yes, Boss…?"
Kate grinned at the telltale pause. She could almost hear Gibbs roll his eyes on the other side of the line. "Everything's fine, Gibbs," she spoke up before the inevitable reprimand could materialise. "The Corporal Vance case? You were right about the second woman."
"Sang like a bird," Kate confirmed, her satisfaction at closing the murder case evident in her voice. Unconsciously, she leaned closer to the phone for her next question. "So how's Tony?"
"The usual… stubborn, pigheaded… Exhausted…" The answer was clipped, but Ducky frowned when he caught the slight tinge of concern running through it.
"He'll be fine, Ducky. Quit worrying. That goes for all of you. We'll be back in a couple of days."
"But Gibbs–" Abby started but sighed when the call was terminate before she could get her question out. She glanced up at her friends, a wry expression on her face and gave them a shrug.
"Don't worry, Abby," Kate said, giving the younger woman a consoling pat on one shoulder. "I'm sure you'll get a chance to ask Gibbs to get you a souvenir from the haunted mansion the next time you talk to him."
O o O o O o O
"Who was that? Kate?" Tony asked when he joined the older man at the table, looking totally worn out. Maneuvering around the tables and chairs on his way to and from the men's room with a cane in hand was a lot harder than he'd anticipated.
By right, rule one should read avoid strange, psychotic women with insanely jealous boyfriends just waiting to take out their anger on you, Tony thought acerbically, giving his aching limb a light rub. And if there was one thing he was absolutely sure of right now, it was that he'd no desire to get stabbed in the leg, or anywhere else, ever again. Not that it was of any importance, but whomever it was who said that getting stabbed hurt a lot less that being shot was obviously drugged out his mind when he made that particular statement because Tony certainly hadn't found the pain any different, or less excruciating, for that matter.
"Everyone," Gibbs answered glibly, taking another sip from his huge, steaming cup of coffee. He nudged the plate closer towards the other man. "Here."
"What's this?" Tony asked, looking at the unappetizing meal suspiciously.
"Dinner." Gibbs dug into his own plate. "Eat, DiNozzo."
Picking up the fork with some reluctance, Tony poked unenthusiastically at the serving of pasta in front of him. Maybe he should ask if he could pass on food for now – he'd apparently left his appetite back in DC.
"Say, Boss, do you think we could do this later–" he said, looking up in time to catch Gibbs' ominous expression. Swallowing the rest of his protest, Tony hurriedly turned his attention back towards his dinner with a grimace, muttering into it, "Okay then, maybe not…"
O o O o O o O
They were driving past a cemetery on their way to the hotel when Tony suddenly spoke up, "Boss? Could you turn in here please?"
Already half expecting the request by the time Tony voiced it out, Gibbs followed the directions given without a word. After their meal, or what could be called a meal – seeing that all Tony did was to rearrange the food around his plate while pretending to eat – the younger man had stopped at a flower vendor as they made their way to the car and bought a bunch of roses, mumbling something about already being somewhere in the vicinity and getting things over with.
By the time Gibbs stopped the car, Tony was almost lightheaded with a mixture of apprehension, grief and regret. He couldn't exactly remember the last time he was here – perhaps it was during the funeral – though he had a hazy recollection of him stumbling around drunk late one night not long after, yelling incoherently at the silent headstones, demanding answers that he never got. Getting awkwardly out of the car, Tony slowly made his way towards a plot on the far side of the cemetery grounds, gripping the flowers tightly with one hand and his walking cane with the other, vaguely aware that Gibbs was just right behind him.
Tony wasn't sure just how long he stood there, staring blindly down at the headstone, before things blurred and he realised that he was blinking back tears. A slight rustling sound to his right reminded him that he wasn't alone and he swallowed hard, swiping furiously at his eyes, suddenly embarrassed by his emotional display, especially in front of his team leader. He stole a quick peek at the other man, but Gibbs seemed content to just stand there beside him, a coffee cup in hand, seemingly lost in his own thoughts.
Turning back to the headstone, Tony once more allowed his eyes to run over the words engraved on the cold, hard stone:
In Eternal Loving Memory of
William Garrick Kincaid
May 15, 1972 – August 21, 1995
Son, Brother and Friend
Dearly Missed Each and Every Day by Those of Us You Left Behind
"Feel like talking 'bout it?"
Tony looked up at the question, his expression closed. "It's a long story."
Taking another sip of coffee from his cup, Gibbs lifted his shoulders noncommittally. "I'm on vacation."
The young agent stared at his boss for a moment, and then looked away without saying anything. Thinking that Tony had decided not to take him up on his offer, Gibbs turned back to his own ruminations, and was lost in a dark contemplation of the inequality of life when Tony started to speak, in a voice so low that he thought he was imagining it at first.
"I sometimes wondered if there existed a more unlikely pair with such a strong bond of friendship than the two of us," Tony murmured almost distractedly. He wasn't really sure why he was doing this – he hadn't spoken to anyone about what took place that fateful day, apart from the police psychologist that he had to see after the incident so many years ago – not even with his old partner – but somehow, talking to Gibbs seemed right.
Perhaps it was because, of all the people he knew, his gut told him that Gibbs would probably be the one to understand what took place best, or perhaps it was time that he shared the pain that he'd been carrying around for so long with someone before it eventually consumed him completely. Whatever the reason, Tony didn't want to examine it any deeper – he was simply glad for the older man's formidable yet steadying presence.
He took a shuddering breath and continued, his voice strengthening with each new word, "Will was working towards his PHD in Molecular Genetics at Ohio State while I was a rookie with the police department here, fresh eight months out of the academy – but somehow, despite all our apparent differences, we ended up great friends."
Watching as Tony bent down and replaced the dead flowers with the fresh bunch that he bought, Gibbs said nothing, willing to wait as long as it took for the other man to gather his thoughts as he shifted through his memories.
After another minute of contemplation, Tony continued softly, a small smile playing at his lips, "If anyone had told me when I was going to Ohio State that William Kincaid would one day be my best friend, I would've thought he'd lost his mind. We never hung out in the same circles and I don't think I knew that he existed until I met him one Saturday afternoon outside the … uh … library." The last word was almost lost in Tony's hurried speech but the other man caught it.
Gibbs almost choked on his next sip of coffee. "Library?" he asked incredulously between coughs, eyes wide.
Tony flushed and shot the older man an affronted look. "Hey! I do visit the library, you know. Sometimes… every… now and then…" he muttered under his breath.
The raised brow said it all and Tony turned even redder. "Yeah, well, okay… so I was trying to impress this really gorgeous girl, who just happened to help out in the library during the weekends."
Chuckling in response to the young agent's unrepentant grin, Gibbs shook his head in fond exasperation. Now that was the Tony he knew…
"I was waiting for her to show up at the library steps when I ended helping this tall, skinny guy pick up what seemed like a whole library of books, after some jerk who was walking by with his group of friends 'accidentally' tripped him," Tony went on, his expression all at once fierce, and it told Gibbs all he wanted to know about the younger man's sentiments towards bullies.
"I'm Will Kincaid," the younger man introduced himself, shaking the proffered hand warmly. "Thanks for the help."
"Hey, no problem," Tony returned the smile as he reached over and picked up another book, adding it to the fast growing pile that he was already carrying. His brows furrowed slightly. "What are you planning to do with so many books anyway? Start your own library?"
Kincaid laughed. "Yeah, something like that."
Clearing his throat, Tony glanced briefly at Gibbs before looking back at the headstone. "Anyway, to cut a long story short, we soon became close and started hanging out a lot together during whatever free time that we had. You know, for a geek," Tony grinned, his warm tone clearly indicating that being one wasn't exactly a bad thing to be if one just happened to be William Kincaid. "Will was, for lack of a better word, and at the risk of sounding like McGee… pretty darn cool."
A small smile tugged at Gibbs' mouth at the light in Tony's eyes. When the younger man became increasingly somber, he prompted softly, "Tony?" For a moment, Gibbs thought that he wasn't about to answer, watching as the other man's eyes grew distant, lost once more in his memories.
"One day, my partner and I answered a 10-8 – a breaking and entering in progress – and I caught the suspect just as he was sneaking out the back door." Tony shook his head and gave a hollow laugh. "The guy pleaded with us to set him free and when that didn't happen, he immediately swore payback. It seemed by arresting him, we had just wrecked his one chance of becoming part of a gang he was hoping to hook up with. It went without saying that we– I… never took any of his threats seriously…"
Gibbs felt a tinge of unease at the apparent despair in Tony's voice. As if the weight of the memory was too heavy for him to bear, Tony suddenly let go of the cane and sank to the ground with a weary sigh. Drawing his uninjured left knee up towards him and wrapping his arms around it, he stared silently at his injured thigh, lost in thought, glancing up only when Gibbs joined him on the ground. Swallowing hard, he gave Gibbs a wan smile and then turned to gaze broodingly at the headstone.
"I should have, but I didn't…" Tony reiterated, almost to himself, his tone low and harsh. Taking another deep breath, he continued after a few seconds, his voice a dull monotone. "After all, Patrick Delgado was just a kid… a damned sixteen-year-old kid…"
"This isn't over, you hear me?" Delgado snarled angrily as he was handcuffed and hauled away. "This isn't over…!"
"Well, I'll say one thing for you, DiNozzo," Jason Cartwright shook his head with a wry grin. "You sure know how to make friends…"
"Look who's talking," Tony shot back, grinning at his partner. "I'm not the one who got an earful from the Captain 'cause strippers kept showing up outside the precinct for an entire week a couple of months ago."
"Hey!" Jason protested with a laugh. "Can I help it if the girls wanted to show their appreciation for saving them from being robbed blind? 'Sides, I didn't hear you or any of the other guys complaining during the whole fiasco…"
"Have we ever turned down a good thing before?" Tony smirked, opening the car door and sliding into the driver's seat. "Though I don't think I've ever seen you, or the Cap, turn that shade of purple before, especially when one of the girls started to…"
"Sure, Jase, anything you say," Tony chuckled, eyes twinkling with glee. He turned an innocent look towards Cartwright, who stared back warily. "So, heard from any of the girls lately?"
"DiNozzo! Just drive already!"
Tony shook his head, the slight smile that he'd been wearing at the memory quickly fading away. "What we hadn't counted on was Delgado's desire for vengeance. I don't exactly know how he did it, but when he got out, he managed to take both Jason and Will as hostages… and then demanded to speak to me, alone. When…" Tony paused and closed his eyes, a soft, humourless chuckle escaping his lips as he shook his head. "Man, I can't believe that it can still hurt this bad after all these years."
"Some things never do really go away, not completely," Gibbs offered somberly, understanding shading his voice. "Even with time."
"Yeah, I guess," Tony agreed with a sigh, his fingers idly exploring at the area around his healing wound. He looked up but his eyes were slightly unfocused, lost once more in his memories. "When I got into the room, Delgado was holding a gun in his hand, and the two men were on their knees in front of him, both bound and gagged."
"So, Officer Smartmouth," Patrick Delgado spat out with pure hatred. "Which one of your friends here would you like me to kill first?"
"Please put the gun down, Patrick," Tony coached softly, his hands held out in front of him in a placating manner. "You don't want to do this…"
"Oh, but I do," the tall, wiry youth retorted coldly. "You, and your friggin' partner here…" he emphasised his point by tapping the butt of the weapon hard against the back of Jason's head, eliciting a pained grunt from the bound man, "…took away my one chance of joining the Red Jackets so I'm here to return the favour by taking one … or two of your friends away from you."
Tony took a calming breath, keeping his gaze fixed on the boy's face and his demeanour deliberately unthreatening. The last thing he needed to do was to set the guy off, not while he still had the gun clutched so tightly in his hand. Despite his relatively young age, Patrick Delgado was not new to being on the wrong side of the law – after the arrest, Tony had learnt that youth had been in and out of juvie since he was thirteen, and only his young age had kept him from doing some serious time.
"Listen, Patrick," he tried again, taking another step closer. "Let them go, and you can take me instead…"
"NO, fool!" the younger man yelled, waving the gun wildly around. "You listen! I'm going to count to three and if you don't make the choice by then, I'm gonna make it for you!"
"You didn't choose."
"No, I didn't," Tony confirmed bleakly, in a way glad that Gibbs knew him so well. It helped lessen the need for unnecessary explanations or questions that would've surfaced had it been anyone else. "I couldn't – there wasn't any way that I could've possibly made a choice between my best friend and my partner. So I continued to reason with Delgado, at the same time trying to maneuver him into a position so that one of the sharpshooters would have a clean shot. They eventually took him down but not before he fired once…"
The silence that fell after Tony had trailed off was almost deafening in contrast, and a few seconds went by before Gibbs spoke up, "Kill shot?"
Staring into space, the younger man shook his head and said quietly, "No, through the shoulder. Because of his age, Delgado escaped the death penalty. He's now serving twenty-five to life, without the possibility of parole." His mouth twisted into a bitter smile. "Lethal injection, life imprisonment…didn't make much of a difference to me. Will was still gone and nothing was ever gonna bring him back."
Gibbs gave a brusque nod, empathy flooding him at the unmistakable anguish in Tony's green eyes. He could definitely relate – he'd lost more friends than he cared to count, or remember – recalling all too well the sense of hopeless despair and heartache that had accompanied each time. It wasn't an experience he'd wish on anyone, let alone a friend.
"The trial didn't last too long but by the time it ended I was too numbed to care anymore." Tony took a deep breath and then hissed it out unevenly. "And once everything was all over, I guess kinda pushed the whole incident to the back of my mind and buried it away as deeply as I could…"
"But Gatley's attack brought it all up," Gibbs finished with uncanny insight, easily putting all the clues together. "Why?"
Tony shrugged, still steadfastly avoiding the piercing blue gaze. "If I had to guess, I'd say that it was because of what Gatley said that night – that it just doesn't pay to be my friend. It was Delgado's exact words before he casually blew Will's brains out, right in front of me. The guy didn't even blink. He just kept on smiling as he pulled the trigger… like it was some sort of sick game to him… " he finished almost inaudibly, closing his eyes and swallowing hard.
A single tear made its way jerkily down one cheek and Tony swiped it away with barely concealed anger and misery. When he opened his eyes again, however, the green depths were once again dull, clouded with a combination of grief and pain, both old and new.
Reaching out, Gibbs gave Tony a brief reassuring squeeze at the back of his neck but looked away, giving the younger man the much-needed moment to gather himself back together. The unexpected show of comfort and support almost undid Tony's already fragile hold over his emotions and he drew a shaky breath, fighting desperately for some measure of control.
"Thanks, Boss," he finally croaked out, keeping his head down. Embarrassment had tinted his pale cheeks with some colour and Tony cleared his throat self-consciously. "You know, all this time… I thought I'd gotten over Will's death…"
"You'd need to forgive yourself first to do that."
Tony glanced up at that, startled. "I–" He stopped, suddenly unsure of how to respond, a slight frown creasing his forehead. "That's weird… I always thought that I did…" he managed after a long moment, his expression pensive. Lost in thought, he wasn't prepared for the thwack in head by the older man and yelped in surprise.
"Ow!" Tony rubbed his head, turning huge green eyes back towards Gibbs in mystified confusion, his grief momentarily forgotten. "What was that for?!"
"Don't get me started, DiNozzo. But I'll settle for stupidity and misguided intentions for now," the senior agent grounded out. "Is that the reason why you've been avoiding the rest of the team? So that we won't get hurt?"
For the second time since they'd arrived at the cemetery, Tony flushed red. "It was a risk I wasn't willing to take." He grimaced. "I couldn't, not anymore, and especially not with any of you guys."
Gibbs shook his head. "It's not your call to make."
"But nothing, DiNozzo," Gibbs interrupted with a glower, the finality of his tone telling Tony that it was futile to argue any further. "It's not your burden to bear and you damn well know it."
"I guess it was just an automatic response," the younger man offered in the end, looking downward, fingers nervously plucking at the short grass of the cemetery grounds.
"Is that what the nightmares were about?"
Going still, Tony stared at Gibbs for a moment, eyes wide and haunted, and then promptly broke eye contact. Since the incident, he'd tried his hardest to avoid ever getting close to anyone like he did with Will – never again would a friend pay the price for his mistakes. But that was before he joined NCIS. Somehow or other, somewhere along the way, he must have let his guard down because these people had slipped in and were now deeply ensconced in his life. It terrified him to no end, the way they'd each come to matter so much, and Tony genuinely wondered what he would actually do if any of them ever got hurt because of him.
"Hmm?" Blinking at the soft call, Tony quickly buried his fears and turned his attention back to the conversation once more. "Yeah," he nodded slowly. "People die in front of me, just like Will, and I can't do a damned thing about it. They're not always clear… half the time I don't even know who those people were…"
Sliding Gibbs a quick sideways glance to gauge his reaction, Tony was both surprised and touched by the quiet understanding he saw in the other man's eyes. He immediately looked away, somehow feeling unworthy of it, his own eyes coming to rest once more on the headstone.
"But knowing the victims was a heck of lot worse, because then it would be Jack, or Abby, or Ducky… Most of the time though, it was either Kate…" the young agent paused, his eyes closing for a moment as he continued almost inaudibly, "…or you, Boss."
"How serious are they?" Gibbs asked, calling to mind the younger man's brief moment of distress in the car only a couple of hours ago.
Tony ran long fingers through his hair and shook his head, knowing precisely what Gibbs was referring to. "Used to feel like each time I closed my eyes, I'd wake up screaming not long after, but they're not as frequent now. The one in the car? That was the first in about a week, actually. With Gatley and his men off the streets and behind bars…" he shrugged, trailing off without finishing the rest of the sentence. He rubbed a tired hand over his face and sighed. "When the dreams… nightmares… first started, I thought that they were caused by the attack. But then, Will appeared that one time and suddenly, I knew."
Gibbs' mouth was a thin, grim line by the time Tony fell silent. The brutality of the senseless crime had shocked even him, and he couldn't begin to imagine how the whole incident must have affected Tony, who had just been a young rookie cop at the time. It certainly explained the cause behind Tony's several transfers till he joined NCIS – he never stayed longer than two years with a department before moving on. Knowing the whole story also helped to make clear the reasons behind Tony's withdrawal from the team and while Gibbs could relate as to why the young agent did it, approving of the decision was another thing altogether.
"We all know the risks when we took on this line of duty," the senior agent finally said, catching Tony's gaze and holding it. "What happened to Will Kincaid was tragic but you're not responsible – none of it was ever your fault. What you're trying to do…" Gibbs shook his head. "Pulling away is no guarantee that the people you care for won't be hurt in some other way."
Tony's mouth twisted into a smile, but it lacked its normal cheer or optimism, and looked largely out of place on his strained features. He was so naturally self-assured and buoyant that, on the rarest of occasions, Gibbs still found himself a little surprised and greatly disturbed by the younger man's moments of doubt and solemnity. Thankfully, these occasions were few and far between – for if it was one thing Gibbs hated, it was being caught off guard.
"I know, Boss. Or at least my head does." Tony bit into his bottom lip and frowned, eyes downcast. "I think I just need to convince the rest of me…"
"You could always let us help," Gibbs said lightly, returning the younger man's astounded look with a steady one of his own. He didn't need Ducky to tell him that support was one of, if not the most, essential part of the healing process, especially when it came to traumatic experiences."Isn't that what a team – what friends – are for?"
"Thanks, man," Tony panted, taking huge gulps of air, trying to slow his racing heart. Almost plunging to his death was definitely not on his To Do list of things when the both of them had decided to do some climbing together last week. He shifted his body a little to the right and took a cautious peek over the edge of the cliff, a section of the broken rope still gripped tightly in one hand. That had been too close for comfort. If they hadn't been almost at the top when the rope gave way…
If Will hadn't reached down and grasped his hand when he did…
As if on command, his friend's tousled sandy blond head popped up next to his, and Will's hazel eyes widened slightly at the view. "Whoa… now that's a long way down." Kincaid turned towards his still shaken friend and gave him a brief, hard pat on the shoulder. "Hey, don't mention it, pard… isn't that what friends are for?"
Turning on his back, Tony couldn't help but to return the wide, infectious grin. "Well, what about not telling anyone about just now?"
Will laughed, the sound of it echoing loudly in the relatively silence of the canyon. "Now where would be the fun in that? 'Sides, if this doesn't make a great tale with the ladies, I don't what will." Lying on his back as well, the younger man spread his arms wide against the clear blue sky, emphasising his next set of words. "I can just see it now – dashing hero saves faithful sidekick from a horrifying death."
Faithful sidekick? Rolling his eyes, Tony snorted in mock disgust. "Dashing hero? You're so full of it, Kincaid."
"Now that's one thing you can't blame me for…" Will grinned cheekily. "I hang out with you, remember?"
Now, as the ghost of the past laughter mingled intermittently with the present echoes of Gibbs' words, Tony felt the pressure that had been pressing upon his chest decreased somewhat and for the first time in more than a month, hope flared, strong and deep, within him. Funny, it had been so hard to open up about the whole thing in the first place but once he got past that seemingly impossible hurdle, it'd turned out to be a lot easier than he'd expected. As a matter of fact, he'd been quite surprised at how easy it was to share the past, painful though it was, with a friend.
Coming back to say a long overdue final goodbye to Will had been at once difficult, yet surprisingly cleansing at the same time. More importantly, it was a start towards healing an old wound and Tony was glad that he finally took the first step after so many years.
His initial anger at being unduly 'chaperoned', by his boss no less, might have been well justified at the very beginning, but Tony was also profoundly grateful for the older man's support throughout the entire trip. And the knowledge that there was a group of people who cared back in DC only served to lift his spirits even further. Perhaps, with a little help from his friends, he'd get through this after all.
"Yeah," the young agent finally answered, meeting Gibbs' even gaze with a weak smile. "I guess you're right, Boss."
One greying eyebrow arched upwards. "I'm always right."
Tony opened his mouth to argue but thought better of it when the eyebrow rose even higher and a glint of challenge appeared in those astute blue eyes. Just then, his stomach growled, abruptly reminding him that pretending to eat back at the pizza parlour just now wasn't such a good idea, though it may have seemed so at the time. Stealing a peek at Gibbs told him that the older man had heard it too and his face grew hot.
With some effort, Gibbs managed to squelch the grin that was just dying to come out at Tony's deeply chagrined look. "C'mon, DiNozzo," he said dryly as he stood up and brushed off the bits of the grass and ground that still clung to him. Reaching down, he pulled the healing agent to his feet and handed Tony his cane. "Let's get you something to eat before you pass out – think what that'll do to your reputation."
"Haha… That's very funny, Boss… Just downright hilarious…" Tony responded as he plucked a leaf off him and dropped it to the ground, his appalled expression illustrating all too clearly his opinion on that scenario.
"Yeah, I thought so too," the older agent deadpanned, reaching out with one hand and giving Tony a fond clasp on the shoulder. He indicated a nearby tree a few feet away. "Whenever you're ready…"
Tony nodded. "Thanks, Gibbs." Left alone, Tony turned back and gave the silent grave a last look. "Hey, Will," he began in a whisper. "Sorry it took me so long to do this. You know, if only you were here to meet the people I work with now…"
Standing at a discreet distance away, Gibbs drank the rest of his coffee while he enjoyed the beginning of what promised to be a spectacular sunset, glancing every so often at where his team member was finishing his goodbyes. It didn't take him very long, and when Tony finally limped over to rejoin him ten minutes later, Gibbs was pleased to see something else on the young agent's face other than grief or anguish.
Tony nodded, feeling remarkably unburdened for the first time in weeks. "Yeah."
They were walking in companionable silence towards the car when Tony suddenly turned towards him, and in spite of the fading light, Gibbs caught the faintest glint of mischief in the young man's green eyes. It was a welcome sight – that integral part of Tony that had been missing for some time now, and Gibbs knew then that though it might take some time, Tony was going to be just fine. Eventually. The knowledge brought him a substantial measure of peace and relief even as he awaited the quip that he knew was coming.
"So, Boss… about that food…"
"What about it?" He didn't bother hiding the wary, suspicious tone in his voice although he suspected that it wouldn't have made much of a difference otherwise. The grin that he got in return was of pure innocence and told him all that he needed to know.
His response was immediate. "Don't push your luck, DiNozzo…"
"Right, Boss," Tony sent his team leader a look of mock hurt and then carried on as if he'd never spoken. "But, you see…"
Easily containing his own smile as the younger agent launched into yet another one of his spur-of-the-moment, but often exasperatingly mind-numbing comments, Gibbs savoured the moment with a lightened heart.
Yep, it certainly felt good to have his team whole again.
A/N: Right, for starters, I guess in a way, it's a good thing that we're done, because the way the site Bermuda Triangled five reviews that were sent in for Chapter 9 totally sucked all the joy outta posting. If I didn't have copies sitting there in my mailbox, I would've thought that I'd imagined it all. How depressing is that? Anyway, to nebbyJ, SKRoberts, WBH21C, Malaskor and the-Bookworm-Princess, many thanks for your feedback. Sorry they disappeared though.
Also, to all who've read and reviewed, especially the regulars: Thank you so very much for your company and for making this an utterly incredible and unforgettable writing experience. Hopefully, my muse will lead me this way again. Finally, to sHoT: You do know that you're the best, right? :D XOXO!