It was stupid. But in a cinematic gesture worthy of Bert Lahr, I did it anyway. I pressed my fingers against my chest, drew them up to eye level and looked. They should have been bloody. But they were clean.
The one person in my life whose respect really mattered, deeper and longer than any person I would ever encounter again in my life was Gibbs. And I had betrayed that respect.
I wanted to be his go-to guy. It's what I was born for. I knew it. I reveled in it, I excelled at it. I did it for the soul-deep satisfaction it brought me.
So I craved approval. Big deal. It was just like playing ball, the coach told you to do it and you did. If you were really good, and I was, you had to be able to put aside the self-doubt, the fear of pain, and do what they demanded. It was heaven for me, finding male authority figures who were pleased by what I could do. I was very young. If my weight coach told me I could lift it, I believed them. If they told me I could make the play, I made the play.
Then I became a cop, and then things got harder. I started to mature a bit, (believe it or not) and once the rookie glaze left my eyes, the guys I worked for became all too human. They made mistakes, they had biases, and they didn't always do the right thing. I can't work for someone I don't respect or who doesn't respect me, so I started moving from city to city, department to department, always trying to recapture that youthful feeling of unconditional trust.
I didn't lose all of my love for the badge, but it was certainly getting tarnished and the moves got harder, more desperate. If Gibbs hadn't come along when he had…well. There's no telling what I would be doing now. In my darkest moments my fear is that I would have gone home and thrown myself at my father's feet and pretended I thought he was right and begged my way back into the family. Surely I would have had more pride than that, but sometimes I wonder a bit, who wouldn't? I miss having money.
Working for a federal agency was pretty high on my awesomeness scale. So things were great, for a few years, except for losing Kate. That still hurts so bad at times, it takes my breath.
But other than that, it was the best. I never wanted it to change. But then one day, Gibbs was gone. Without a backward glance or a single regret, apparently. Without the expected chat with me about what I was supposed to do next, about how I was all grown up now and ready to be a leader, but that all I had to ever do was whistle, kid, and he'd be there for me. There was no standing invitation to come down and bounce ideas off of him, to debrief after a tough case. There was no promise of any further contact at all, ever. I was lost. I didn't want to be in charge of the team. I am a superb number one right hand man, Robin to his Batman. What's wrong with that? I wanted to be counted on to do the legwork, take care of business, watch his back, take the bullet, and keep his medals for him. I don't want to be in charge.
But he left. I felt like some kid who'd been waiting to get the football star's autograph, two hours after the game was over, holding out my pen and program, only to have my hero glance through me and walk right on by.
I felt sucker punched, then naive. Why should he have cared? This whole relationship was a fabrication, as real as my make believe world of movies. I had invented a role and a cast of characters whose expected responses existed only in my mind. I had read too much into what I thought I'd felt from him, it was no more than he would give any other member of the team.
So I decided that until I determined my next move in life, I would play another role. No one would see I was hurting; I needed to take care of Abby and everyone else and keep the team going. I shoved my junk down so far it would never get out and started pretending I could be the team leader. And doing that kept me busy, from having to think about anything but the job. And I did what I had to do to keep everybody else going, too. If I needed to treat someone gently to help them, I did. If they needed to be angry at me rather than Jethro, fine.
But then something unexpected happened. Director Shepherd called me into her office, said I was her go-to guy, that she knew she could count on me. She said things to me that Gibbs never had. And it worked. Gibbs wasn't coming back; I had always loved working at NCIS… The junk I felt from his departure became easier to forget. She gave me responsibility, praised my successes, and it happened. I started liking working for her. I didn't want to let her down, and I didn't. And it felt great. I started moving on. She trusted me with secrets and I felt important, appreciated. My insecurity started to diminish.
Then, God damn him and bless him, he came back. Moved my stuff off his desk like it was crap left by an unwanted squatter, never mind what that degree of careless disregard did to my self-esteem and how devalued I felt in front of McGee and Ziva, no matter how I felt about things otherwise. I was firmly harnessed behind the lead dog again.
I think that moment may have sparked my decision to withhold my secrets from him. I felt marginalized. I wanted to have this quiet validation that someone thought I was valuable. And, yeah, when the job was done I wanted to rip the mask off my face so everybody could see it was me that did it, without their help or knowledge. I wanted to show all of them, I guess, not just Gibbs.
Sure, Jenny offered me my own team. And that did give me some measure of pride. But as much as I wanted to want it, I didn't. I saw it as her attempt to salvage a bad situation, offering me a way to save face instead of a well-deserved promotion for excellent service. The abrupt, public demotion that was sanctioned by Shepherd by her silence seemed to prove I really was merely a pretender those months while Gibbs was gone. And I did not disagree with that sentiment. I had suppressed the feeling that I was the backup quarterback, always asking myself first what Gibbs would do, only then making the decision. So I didn't want my own team, didn't feel I deserved it.
This meant that when Gibbs came back I felt justified in the demotion even as it pissed me off. So even as the pulse of the team began to beat once again, I held back from telling him of my secrets, an act of childish rebellion that I could easily justify if I wanted to by saying I'd been ordered not to tell him about it.
But then it began to eat at my conscience. I waited for the director to tell him. She didn't. I waited for her to tell me I could tell him. She didn't. The days turned into weeks, and the burden got heavier, until every word of praise started to sting. I thought surely he would catch me, figure it out. I didn't try to cover it when I got called away or into Jenny's office. But to my absolute dismay, he never seemed even slightly curious.
Gibbs never missed a damned thing in his life, but he missed this? Inconceivable. I told myself I didn't care, and I believed it. Right up to the moment when I was standing there in the bathroom with my dick in my hand, stumbling through an apology, desperate to see if we were going to be okay. There had to be some sort of profoundly awful statement embedded in that moment of abject vulnerability.
He said the right things in response, but he didn't mean a word of it and we both knew it. I'll never know whether it was his frustration about that or true anger at me that made him throw those paper towels so hard, but when they hit the wall with that decisive bang, that's then the pain in my chest struck.
I thought I'd been hit with an axe, I swear. It was so bad and so deep I couldn't believe I wasn't bleeding.
Whether it had or hadn't been a power contest between Gibbs and the director, I knew the loser was me. Everything I had built up for years with him felt like it was completely gone. I knew how he felt about betrayal, and I never imagined I would be guilty of it. And I had no idea what I would do next. I wasn't going to start over, at the bottom of the team. I wasn't going to wait forever for forgiveness. And I wasn't going to let him be angry about this for long; this sick feeling of guilt in my gut wasn't something I could endure very long, any more than I could the pain in my chest.
I looked at my clean fingers, and I closed my eyes.
A few days later, we caught a new case. As I drew myself to my feet in that alley, John's blood still warm on my hands, I locked eyes with Gibbs and froze. Suddenly, it was all right there. He told me, without a word, what it would have done to him had it been me dead on the ground instead of John. I didn't ever need to doubt my place in his life, not ever again. I had to swallow hard to keep from getting too sappy. I bet McGeek would have lost it right there.
It was inevitable that I would end up at his house that night. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't watch TV, there was no anything for me until I got everything out in the open.
The door was unlocked as usual; I took it as an invitation as usual. The rhythmic rasping from the basement led me down there. He took no notice of me. I sat on the stairs and watched. When he stopped for a moment and moved to the other side of the boat, I spoke up before he could start the scraping again.
"La Grenouille wasn't the only undercover assignment I've been working, boss."
He paused, mid move, before deliberately continuing. Scrape. "Did the Director give you permission to tell me about it?" Scrape. I didn't answer. Scrape. "I really don't need to know about it, then, DiNozzo." Scrape. But his breath quickened and he started scraping harder.
"I need your help, boss," I said, softly.
He threw me a quick, angry glare. "That's why we work in teams, DiNozzo. A fact which you seem to have forgotten." Scrape, scrape.
"That's not fair, Jethro," I said, deliberately emphasizing his first name. Scrape. "I'm here now. I'm in way over my head with nobody to talk to. I'm here because I'm losing my objectivity and I need help."
He paused, scraper extended over the wooden rib, body leaning with it, and looked at me again, a flicker of concern breaking the plane in his hard eyes. In the next instant, he resumed his work. Scrape. "I can't believe you let her talk you into two secret undercover assignments at once. That's beyond stupid, Tony, and straight into reckless. What were you trying to prove?"
"That I could do the job, boss. I needed the reminder." He dropped the scraper then and stood up straight, squinting at me in disbelief. "Besides. It wasn't unsupported – I had backup. But the director instructed me not to tell anyone other than the people she had working on it."
He shook his head. "Wasn't that a red flag to you? She tells you something like that, then you tell her no, DiNozzo. All this time we've been together and you haven't even absorbed that your team backs you up no matter what? That we don't hire out to do solo performances? You should have said no. Little word, two letters, embedded right in the middle of your last name in case you hadn't noticed. 'No'." His voice got louder, angrier as he spoke. "You knew better than that. But you did it anyway. I think you need to think about why."
"Don't you think I have?" I heard myself shouting and didn't believe it, but I didn't stop, either. "Don't you think I've been analyzing and second-guessing myself and beating myself the fuck up over this since the day you got back? Damn it, Gibbs, I don't need this right now. I just don't." And goddamn it if my voice didn't nearly break. I felt my face go red, so I quickly dropped my head and stared at the floor. Despite the pain that was suddenly back in my chest, more intense than before, I managed to lurch to my feet and turned to go back up the stairs.
His voice stopped me. "Please tell me this isn't about Jeanne, Tony."
I froze. The sudden shift in topic stopped me mid-step. I wasn't even surprised he knew her name. Once again I let my silence answer his question. I heard him curse, softly but with warm sincerity, moving, rustling something around, then metal scraping on glass. He walked over to where I stood shock still. He peeled my hand off of the stair rail, pressed something cool and hard into it. My fingers automatically wrapped around the bottle and I lifted it to my mouth and drank. "Ah, damn it Tony," he sighed, "that's one hell of a thing to go through."
I nodded blindly and my rigid body loosened in gratitude and relief at his compassion. His hands turned me, guided me back down to sit on the stairs again. He didn't say another word, but sat down on the stair beside me and nudged me for the bottle. I handed it to him and started talking, voice rough from the whiskey. Right.