Disclaimer. This is a piece of fan fiction; written as an homage to those who create and bring these wonderful characters to life, in the hope that nobody minds.
This is an Episode tag for the season 3 episode Boxed In. It contains Spoilers for that episode and briefly mentions Under Covers
Author's Note: I have to blame Sarah for this, although she says its not her fault, but she showed me the episode and my muse practically exploded, So, sorry if you're still waiting for the other story, but at least I've kept this down to a one-shot. Please let me know what you think- J
Anyone else feel Tony was a little hard done to at the end of this episode?
Tony allowed the shock to register on his features for only a moment before he covered it, just a moment of shock and pain as he realised the whole team had been invited to dinner at Ziva's, his whole team, without him.
He schooled his features back to neutrality, trying hard to ensure that the pain didn't show. He wasn't sure how the rest of the conversation continued around him, sounds faded into the background as his mind processed, correction, tried to process the implications.
Did Ziva really like him so little? He thought they had connected, when they were undercover together, thought they were making progress. It had been so hard to start again, after Kate. . . Kate. For a split second he almost let his mind wander down that path, but he wasn't ready, wasn't sure he'd ever be ready, so he did what he always did, what he did best, he suppressed it, jumping his mind neatly back to his previous train of thought. He had been making progress with Ziva, hadn't he? She seemed to. . . .
Abruptly he was pulled back into the room. Ziva was staring at him expectantly, clearly she'd asked him a question. He glanced round, Gibbs, Abby, McGee, they were all staring at him, watching him. He could feel his face beginning to burn at the attention. He turned back to Ziva as she patiently repeated her question.
"I asked if you were ready to get going? If I'm going to cook for you, dinner will take a little while and it's getting late."
He looked down at his desk floundering a little, trying to focus his mind enough to form an answer. "Yes, I'm. . ." He looked back up at her again; all of the team were still staring at him. The room felt oppressive, the attention stifling as he realised they were all watching his reactions. Did they know how he felt? Had they seen through the façade?
"Tony are you alright?" Abby asked.
The concern sounded genuine enough; of course it was genuine; this was Abby. What was he doing? Why was he. . ? He gave himself a mental shake. He couldn't afford to do this, not here, not with so much scrutiny. He couldn't let them see. . Couldn't let them know just how much it hurt. He had to cover it. He had to.
He pushed himself to his feet, too quickly given the recent bloodloss, the world shifted uncomfortably and he was forced to take a step back to cover the lack of balance. "I'm fine," he stated, looking at Abby, forcing an easy smile. Easy because he had so much practice at faking them. He turned back to Ziva. "I'm ready to go when you are," his tone was confident, sure; he flashed her another smile. "If your cooking is as good as everyone says then the sooner we get home the sooner you can get started." He leaned across his desk so that he was closer to her. "This was your plan all along wasn't it?"
"And what plan would that be?" Ziva asked, practiced puzzlement knotting her brow as she leaned in slightly herself.
"Inviting everyone else to dinner without me, so you'd have an excuse to have dinner with me alone."
If only he really believed that. If only. . . He suppressed the flash of pain again, the knife twisting in his gut. He couldn't analyse it here and now. He had to get out of here, had to find some space for at least a few minutes. To get his head around what he was feeling. He forced his best smile for her; damn he deserved an Oscar sometimes. His expression challenged her, dared her to dispute his reading of the situation.
She leaned in a little more, deliberately teasing. "Damn, you have seen through my subterfuge. That's exactly it." Abruptly she pulled away. "Have you ever thought of becoming a spy Tony? You'd be good at it."
"Thought about it once," Tony replied easily slipping into the banter, a temporary refuge from the emotion. "But I decided NCIS would miss me too much."
"Oh I don't know Dinozzo," Gibbs piped up, "We'd certainly get a lot more work done if you didn't keep getting lost so that we had to go looking for you."
Everybody smiled at that and turned to look at him again.
"You really should let me put that subcutaneous tracker on you Tony" Abby stated with a slight bounce. "It'd make finding you a lot easier, when these things happen."
Ziva looked intrigued, she turned to him. "This happens to you a lot?"
"Hey, it's not my fault," Tony began to defend himself. "If you're undercover and. . ."
"Exactly," Abby interrupted, "so if you let me fit a tracker. . . "
"Actually, technically that would only have helped in two of the four instances when we've lost Tony." McGee interjected. "Today, for example, the signal would have been obscured by the metal container just like the signals from the cell phones."
Abby turned to face McGee, eyes shining with anticipation as she sensed a really juicy discussion. "But if I placed it under a fingernail then Tony could have. . . "
That was where Tony lost track of the conversation for the second time.
What about the rest of the team? Not one of them had said anything to him. They must have known that he hadn't been invited, must have been asked not to mention it in front of him. He couldn't believe that not one of them would have talked about it whilst he was there unless they didn't want him to know, or was he being paranoid? Was he. . .?
"How about a false nail Tony?" Abby asked.
He blinked at her.
"We wouldn't have to do anything invasive but I'm sure I could. . . "
"No," Tony stated, as his mind raced to catch up. Damn, he had to get out of here before they really noticed his distraction. "Thanks Abby but I think I'll pass."
Abby looked disappointed, "But I could make it very cool, very James Bond."
It was the perfect opportunity for Tony to slip into his Sean Connery impersonation, normally he would have in a heartbeat, frequently did with less ideal openings, but his only thought was that he needed to get out of the room, needed a little time to process. "Thanks Abby but no, but I'm sure you could try it out on McGee." He had moved round his desk as he was speaking. He looked across at McGee focusing on his hands. "Looks like your nails could use a little work probie."
Despite himself McGee was forced almost by reflex to look down at his hands. "There's nothing wrong with. . ."
"You ready to go Tony?" Ziva interrupted, a little impatiently, moving to stand.
"Yeah, I just need to use the head," he looked across at her, "I mean the bathroom."
"I know what the head is," Ziva protested the assumption of ignorance, sinking back down into her seat.
"Yeah, ok, well back in five," he said, and turned to move away.
They all watched him go; he knew that. He could feel their eyes penetrating into his back. He felt the moment they turned away from him, just as he reached the corridor that led to the bathrooms. He heard the faint laughter that drifted over the partitions towards him, turned and saw them laughing. Gibbs and Ziva and Abby and McGee. His team, dammit they were his team, his friends. He had no doubt that Ducky had been there last night too. Even the autopsy Gremlin Jimmy Palmer had been there, but not him, not Anthony Dinozzo. Only he had been excluded. He knew that his reaction to it was stupid, that there was probably no malice behind the reason he wasn't invited. So why the Hell did it feel like he'd been betrayed.
Why did it matter to him so much? Why did it hurt so much? He turned, intent on making it to the bathroom, on throwing some cold water on his face, on spending a few minutes working out this stupid childish jealousy. He wasn't in fifth grade anymore, wasn't the only person that Ellie Peterson didn't invite to her birthday party because he dressed funny. He was an adult now, and adults dealt with far more serious things. Like being trapped in boxes waiting to die, freezing and waiting to die, facing a gun pointed at your head and not a damn thing you can do about it, and waiting to die, and if that bullet had been just a few inches to the left. . .
Suddenly he knew the bathroom wasn't the place he could work through this. He needed wide open spaces and sky and fresh air, just a short walk should do it, should clear his head. He turned and headed for the exit to the building.
Gibbs returned from his coffee run and was surprised to find Ziva still sitting at her desk. "Tony not back from the bathroom yet?" he asked, checking his watch, it had been at least a half hour since he'd left them.
Ziva shook her head but it was Abby who replied. "No, and I'm beginning to get kinda worried about him."
Gibbs turned to face her; she was sitting in Tony's chair, resting her chin on her hands.
"I stuck around to say goodbye and to make sure he really was OK after. . ." She didn't quite know how to finish the sentence, how to explain the remnants of fear that still tugged at her, echoes of concern that still resonated in her system from the tense day's events. ". . . After today," she finally completed.
Gibbs had made it to his desk but he didn't sit down. "Where's McGee?" he asked.
Ziva sat a little straighter in her chair. "He went to the bathrooms to check on Tony," she checked her own watch, "that was about 10 minutes ago. We haven't heard. . ."
McGee turned the corner at that point, whilst not exactly running he was covering the ground quickly and was slightly out of breath when he spoke. "Ok, so he's not in the bathrooms or the locker rooms."
Everyone exchanged slightly worried glances. "He wouldn't have tried to drive himself home would he?" Abby asked.
Gibbs shook his head, but moved over anyway to check the pockets of the jacket that hung on the back of the chair. He felt both sides before pulling out Tony's car keys and his wallet. "Didn't try to drive, or take a cab," he stated.
"Then he must still be in the building," McGee said. "He's probably down in the evidence lock up, trying to impress that new assistant with his sling and tales of injury in the line of duty."
"Well, if he is," Ziva said, her tone dangerous, "Then I'm sure that I can help him to look in suitable amounts of pain for her."
"Check it out" Gibbs suggested nodding at Ziva. "Abby you give Ducky a call and McGee. . ."
McGee already had his phone in his hand. "I'll check the garage."
Gibbs moved back to his desk, by the time he was at his seat everyone had reported back with a negative response apart from McGee who was on to his second call.
"OK, thank you," McGee said into the receiver. Hanging up he looked across at Gibbs. "I just spoke to security, Dinozzo signed out of the building at 8.32 p.m."
"That can't have been more than a couple of minutes after he left us." Abby said, confusion furrowing her brow. "Why would he. . .?"
"I don't know, Abby" Gibbs interrupted the half-formed question. "But if he left the building, I'm thinking we'd better find him."
"Tony's a big boy, boss," McGee stated. "If he wants to be alone don't you think we should just leave him be?"
Gibbs was still standing. He lowered his gaze, the downward angle making it that much more intimidating. "Well gee McGee, lets think about that one for a minute. He's outside in sub zero temperatures with no jacket, no means of transportation and a fresh bullet wound in his arm, and none of us have any idea why he left."
McGee swallowed, "Ziva said the bullet wound was only a scratch." He looked across at her as he used her name and then back at Gibbs swallowing again.
Gibbs eyes narrowed. "You ever been shot McGee?"
"Er, no boss." McGee replied, hesitantly.
"Well, even a scratch hurts like hell and can make you weak, dizzy, nauseous. Tony, however, has more than just a scratch, that's what he told Ziva at the scene. Even told her that it wasn't even a bullet wound, just a splinter from one of the crates." He gave one of his dangerous smiles. "But, funny thing, ER report doesn't allow for bravado. Wound was a through and through, took out a chunk of muscle from his upper arm with the accompanying blood loss. The only reason the doctor didn't keep him in was because he wouldn't stay, and because I assured said doctor that someone would take him home and keep an eye on him." He tilted his head slightly. "Still think we should leave him to, how did you put it 'be alone' McGee?"
"Er. . No, I er. . I guess we should check that he's all right."
"Good answer, OK people for the second time today lets find him. McGee see if you can trace his cell he might. . ."
Abby picked up the cell phone from his desk. "No, he left that here too. You know, maybe one day when he's sleeping here on a case I could sneak in and place a transmitter in the back of his neck. . "
Ziva had come round from her desk to face Gibbs. "Maybe we should concentrate on why he left, that might give us an insight into where he would go."
Gibbs sat back onto his desk and folded his arms. "I'm listening."
"Just after he left we were all laughing at the joke we played on him." Ziva continued, "the dinner party which he was not invited to."
It was true, at that point everything had seemed fine, Tony had looked upset for just a moment, enough to incite the amusement once he had gone, but not enough to ring any alarm bells. Typically for Tony he had bounced back, his accusation that Ziva had set it up to get him alone had brought more laughter and comments of 'typical Dinozzo.'
The initial idea had been McGee's; to get Tony back for just some of the many practical jokes Tony had played on him in the last year. Ziva would drop lots of comments about the dinner they had had together, thus making Tony jealous. They had already tried it with driving and directions, dinner seemed like the next logical step. Ziva expanded on it, it seemed like fun and Tony had the ego to stand it, so she had extended the joke to include the entire team, but now, although the others had encouraged her, she wasn't sure that it had been such a good idea.
"Go on," Gibbs prompted.
"I don't think Tony took it as well as he pretended to. You didn't see him earlier today when I spoke of it, and then he thought that only McGee and Palmer had been invited." Ziva paused for a moment as she analysed it. It could be taken as arrogance, Tony played it as though he thought he deserved an invite more than McGee or Palmer, but through the day she had realised it was more than that. He needed it more, needed the affirmation of friendship. "I think that, with this joke, we may have gone a little over the hill."
"Over the top," Abby helpfully corrected, "The phrase you're looking for is over the top."
Ziva turned to look at her. "Thank you," she said, slightly missing the fact that it wasn't Tony making the correction, which surprised her since she normally resented his corrections. She turned back to Gibbs. "We both thought we were going to die today. More than once, and Tony was shot. I haven't known him long enough to know how he reacts to such stresses but most people feel the need to reconnect, with family, with friends, with the people you work with, rely on to watch your back. . . "
"And for Tony we're all three," Gibbs stated quietly.
"And the last thing we did was make him feel completely excluded." Abby finished the train of thought, guilt plastered across her face.
Gibbs was up and moving. "OK, Abby, check the CCTV footage for all of the external cameras, see if you can pick him up. McGee, Ziva, take separate cars. He's on foot and he's got less than an hour's start on us. Person who finds him radios it in. Check in every half hour regardless." He was past the end of the last partition before his last words and moving swiftly through the dimly lit building.
This was no longer the life or death situation of earlier in the day but there was no question that Tony needed him, needed to be found. Even if it was just so he could slap him for leaving the building without a coat. For Tony sadly that was often enough, just the fact that someone cared enough to slap him for doing something stupid, that someone cared that much. Gibbs sighed again, and, not for the first time, wished he could have ten minutes alone in a room with Tony's father.
Tony was walking slowly now, the steps slightly faltering as his body shivered with the cold. His good arm cradled the sling across the front of his body, but the attempt at retention of warmth was merely reflex. His mind was locked elsewhere.
Tony was reminded in some way every day of how seriously screwed his childhood had left his psyche. Most days he greeted the revelation with a shrug and a quick grin. He was who he was, a product of an upbringing which should have left him at the very least in long term therapy, just to get through the days. Instead he coped. He knew that his coping strategies weren't necessarily the healthiest, but they got him through, most days.
And then there were days like today. Days when the reminders were too strong to ignore. Days when the need for acceptance, for belonging were at their strongest. Days when he actively sought some confirmation that he belonged.
He tried to tell himself that he didn't need it, every so often, he tried. Tried to tell himself that Anthony Dinozzo didn't need anyone, he could survive alone, but he knew that it wasn't true. Knew that one of the most screwed things about his psyche was the big hole where his self worth should have been. The one he hid, the one he thinly covered with fake smiles and comments about his own skill, charm, good looks. Comments that had no foundation, no basis unless he could get others to agree with them. It was only the external affirmation that stopped him imploding, from falling into that hole and never coming out again.
Insecurity thinly covered by arrogance, not that it was hard to see. You only had to watch him for a little while to spot the cracks, to see the constant need for affirmation.
It could be good or bad, didn't really matter. Although good always felt a little better, but as long as someone noticed him, confirmed that he existed that was what was important. He'd had to try hard, from a very early age, just to get that much. Mom's dress up doll and dad's little servant. . . . Oh he could fill notepad after notepad for a psychiatrist with those little gems from his childhood, just the sort of thing they ate up, but he didn't need that, he was fine.
He was more than fine; he was good looking, and successful, and an important part of Gibbs team, and Gibbs was one of the best NCIS investigators, and his team liked him, and worried about him, and dammit why hadn't she invited him? He slapped his hand down hard on the metal rail in front of him. Pain resonated up his arm, and it felt good.
He stepped back leaning his weight forward onto his hand, shifting his balance to compensate for the hand he couldn't use, as he looked down at the grass in front of him. What had he done wrong? How had he screwed it up this time? He rocked backwards and forwards shifting his weight to his toes and back again. Why hadn't the others told him? Was he just fooling himself about them like he did everything else? Did they really not like him? Why not? He tried so hard, so damned hard. . . .
He tried again to convince himself that it was nothing, that it didn't matter, that he didn't really care about a stupid dinner party, and he didn't, not really. What he really cared about was the reason. Why everyone else and not him? Why would they go along with it? Ziva was new, but they were his family, his friends. So why . . .? The pain stabbed again as the loneliness and exclusion of his childhood found a resonance in the present.
Gibbs pulled up the car and watched the shivering figure for a moment. Shivering was good it meant that hypothermia hadn't set in yet. He picked up his radio. "Found him," was all he said. He didn't give a location, Abby could do that, instead he grabbed the NCIS jacket from the seat next to him and climbed from the car, striding across to join the younger man on the edge of the football field.
He hadn't been surprised to find him here; somehow he'd known it would be where he'd come. As far as he could tell football was what had saved Dinozzo's sanity, as much as it had been saved. It was where the young Anthony Dinozzo had found something he was good at, something he belonged at. That, and a slightly gruff coach whom the young boy had idolised, had been enough to pull him through, most of it. Not that his father hadn't tried to stop even that. Tony had been given an ultimatum at the tender age of twelve; give up his allowance, his privileges or his football. Tony had made his choice and an angry father had virtually cut off all contact, sending him away to school and finally disowning him completely when he got into Ohio State on a football scholarship. So it wasn't surprising that this would be the place he'd come to try to reconnect.
Tony was standing now, leaning on the rail as he stared out across the open field. He didn't move apart from the involuntary shivering, didn't even seem to notice Gibbs was there.
Gibbs pulled the coat from his arm and draped it around Tony's shoulders; the shivering was definitely slowing down. Not a good sign. "You forgot your coat Dinozzo," he said gruffly, moving back to stand next to him.
Tony answered automatically "Sorry boss, thanks."
He turned to glance at Gibbs who was also staring across the field. He turned his own head back as his mind tried desperately to process what had just happened. Gibbs was here, why would. . .? Then it hit him, how far away from the NCIS offices he'd walked, how long he must have been gone. Ziva waiting to drive him home. . . Another screw up, and now Gibbs was here and he'd obviously come looking for him, and he must be pissed because he should have been at home by now, and why would he come anyway when. . .
"Beautiful isn't it," Gibbs stated, still staring out across the field; the stars clearly visible above, despite the ambient light.
Tony took in a deep shuddering breath and looked again at the field. "Yes," his voice shook a little and for the first time he realised just how cold he was. "Yes, it is," he confirmed.
There were a few moments of silence; Tony knew he had to come up with something to explain his behaviour. Why he'd left so abruptly, what he was doing out here, Why his boss had had to give up his time to come looking for him, but he honestly couldn't come up with anything that didn't sound just a little, no, a lot crazy. Still he had to try. "Boss I. . ."
"You about ready to go Dinozzo?" Gibbs asked.
Tony blinked at him. The question was delivered deadpan, as though they'd arranged to meet here, as though there was nothing wrong. As though he hadn't just had to track down an errant subordinate who'd gone missing from the NCIS offices with no jacket in the middle of Winter because of his seriously screwed up psyche.
Tony drew in a deep breath and studied Gibbs for a moment. Gibbs expression remained neutral. There was no judgement there. No expectation of any explanation; he just needed a straight answer to a straight question, and, because Gibbs was there, Tony felt that he had the strength to give him one.
"Yeah, boss, I'm ready," he said.
"Good, because I'm getting hungry and so I suspect are they." Gibbs turned and Tony followed his gaze to the two cars parked in front and behind of Gibbs' own. Ziva stood by one, McGee by the other, watching and waiting. "Ziva's agreed to cook for all of us, Abby and Ducky will meet us at her place." Gibbs stated. None of it had been arranged but Gibbs was in no doubt that it would happen.
Tony looked at Gibbs, for a moment slight confusion furrowed his brow as all of the insecurities he'd been feeling slowly evaporated; his team was out here because they were concerned for him. His team was here, his team. He felt the shift as his whole world righted itself.
Suddenly it hit him how cold and weak and tired he was, just why Gibbs had taken the time to come looking for him. Stupid to be out here, his arm was aching abominably. "OK boss," Tony said and tried to take a step forward, but he was unprepared for the residual weakness, for the toll the cold had exacted on his body, and his knee gave as he made the move. Strong hands grabbed and steadied him and he saw both Ziva and McGee start forward. Only stopping when they realised Gibbs had him. He straightened his legs and took a couple of deep breaths.
"You Ok Tony?" Gibbs asked, observing him critically.
Tony had regained his balance. "Yeah," he confirmed, and he was ok, and even when he wasn't he knew Gibbs and the rest of the team would be there to catch him. " I just moved a little too quickly. I'm good." He turned his head looking down meaningfully at the grip Gibbs still had on his arm. "I'm fine," he stated.
Gibbs took him at his word and let go, watching as Tony moved forward more cautiously. He gave a slight smile as his own concerns evaporated. Tony was a little cold, a little shaky, but he would be all right.
"Tony," Gibbs stopped him before he got more than a few feet.
"You ever pull a stunt like this again," Gibbs paused momentarily for effect. "And when I find you I will shoot you."
Tony suppressed the smile, just the sense of belonging he needed. "Yes boss."