First, none of these characters belongs to me. (More's the pity)

Secondly, we've only seen seasons one and two of NCIS down south where I live, so please forgive me if anything I've come up with clashes with anything in the later seasons. This is my first NCIS fic, and I hope you like it. Please feel free to let me know what you think.

Unburdened

Tony DiNozzo shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He had to get this report finished while he could still hold things together. Then he could go home, take a long, hot shower and hope that the memories would wash away with the dirt.

Being stuck in the sewers with Atlas had brought back one of the worst memories of his childhood. He could still remember the loathing on his father's face when he yelled "You're going to end up in the gutter." That had been right before his father cut off his allowance, shipped him off to boarding school, and drove him away from his own family. And all because Tony had wanted more than a career that followed in his father's business footsteps. A career where making money was the only thing that mattered, not the people you could help along the way. Tony prided himself on the fact that he'd managed to build a life of his own and a career to be proud of. One where he could help people, and make society a little better and safer. And yet, one bad experience had him back in his childhood, thinking that perhaps his father had been right after all. Because, in the end, Tony had finished up in the gutter. The irony was bitter and hard to swallow.

Gibbs watched covertly from across the room. He knew that being locked away in the sewers with Atlas had caused the tension and restlessness he could sense in Tony. The younger man played the fool most of the time, rarely sitting still long enough to finish one job at any given time. In spite of that, he was still one of the best investigators Gibbs had ever had the pleasure of working with. He was smart, observant and quick to make intuitive leaps in logic. And nearly every leap, however illogical it seemed at the time, paid off by bringing them closer to arresting another criminal. And that was why Gibbs let him play around. He knew that Tony would deliver when the chips were down. But right now, Tony was sitting as still as a statue, only his hands moving as he typed his report.

The stillness was unnerving, as Gibbs had never seen Tony quite like this before. There was always a certain amount of restless energy at the end of a life-threatening experience, but it was a natural side effect of running on adrenalin. It would usually fade away in an hour or two, to be replaced by exhaustion. But this tension was building up rather than fading away and that worried Gibbs. He knew everyone would be surprised to know that he was worried about Tony. He did his best to pretend that he was only interested in work, and in closing the case. But when he'd heard Tony's voice on the telephone, fading away as the younger man succumbed to the drugs he'd ingested, Gibbs had been hard pressed to keep his composure. What he'd wanted to do was run out and search frantically for Tony. What he'd forced himself to do, instead, was to sit back and take the time to ferret out all the facts. The facts that had led to them finding Tony in the sewer and bringing him back to the office.

Gibbs' relief at finding Tony alive and well had been so overwhelming that he'd let slip how much Tony meant to him. He told the taller man he was 'irreplaceable'. The look on Tony's face had been a sight worth seeing; a combination of shock and a desperate desire to believe what he was hearing. Gibbs wasn't sure where the desperation came from, but he intended to find out. Something that bothered his senior agent that much needed to be dealt with before it caused other problems. And even though it would ruin his reputation as a hardnosed, take-no-prisoners Marine, Tony's well being was too important to him to let this incident pass without trying to help.

Gibbs' computer pinged softly as two new emails arrived. Reports from Kate and McGee. Nodding an acknowledgement to both of them, he stood up to get more coffee. "Kate, McGee, go home. We'll finish up the paperwork in the morning." Dual looks of shock met this pronouncement, until one stern glare had them both gathering up their bags and heading towards the door. Kate lingered until Gibbs passed her, heading for the break room and the coffee machine.

"Gibbs … " Now that she'd started, Kate found herself at a loss for words. She was worried about Tony, but she didn't want to imply that she thought he wasn't capable of doing his job. She also didn't want to let him go home alone when he was so obviously still off-kilter from the whole experience. "I … do you think someone should stay … " Gibbs questioning look made her run out of words. Bracing herself to make another attempt, she was granted mercy by a sharp blue gaze. "I know, Kate. Don't worry. I'll deal with it. Go home."

Kate was in the elevator, heading for the parking lot and her drive home, before she realised how well-conditioned they had all become. Not to mention how much she had come to trust Gibbs since joining NCIS. Gibbs hadn't said anything specific, and yet she knew that he was aware of her concerns and would make sure that Tony was okay. She snorted delicately as she realised one more thing. Gibbs had managed to get everyone out of the building so that he could talk to Tony without an audience. No-one would believe her if she said that there was a soft heart under that iron exterior and now she knew how Gibbs kept his reputation intact. And she was supposed to be trained profiler! The man was better at understanding people than she would ever be.

Heading back to his desk with a fresh cup of coffee, Gibbs was deep in thought when he noticed that Tony's desk was empty. Fighting back a momentary surge of panic, he reminded himself that they were in a secure building, and that Tony couldn't simply disappear into thin air. The younger man had to be somewhere nearby, possibly even in the lab with Abby. He doubted he'd find Tony with Ducky, as Tony had seemed too tense to want the silence and solitude of Ducky's domain. Still, you could never be sure with Tony.

Heading downstairs, Gibbs started with Abby's lab, only to find her in the middle of an animated discussion with Ducky about the drugs that had been given to Tony. Even the snippet of conversation he heard there was enough to send him in the other direction. Abby was one of the most compassionate people he knew, and she looked on Tony as a big brother and best friend all rolled into one. But you'd never have guessed it from how she and Ducky were discussing ways in which the drugs could have been made more potent and more deadly. Sometimes, you could love your job too much. Gibbs' wry grin acknowledged that fact, and he made a mental note to pay more attention to the world outside his job. There was more to life than catching criminals and building a boat in your basement. And right now, part of that was finding Tony.

About to ease open the door to the autopsy room, Gibbs was surprised to find most of the lights switched off. Ducky usually left the lights on, as the automatic systems in the building would switch them off later in the evening. Standing just outside the glass door, he waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. As details became clearer, Gibbs realised that Tony was sitting on the floor under the edge of the autopsy table. Judging by the way his shoulders were shaking, and the hitch Gibbs could hear in his breathing, the younger man was crying. He was torn between a desire to demand an explanation from Tony, and the need to slip away and give Tony the privacy he so obviously wanted.

Deciding that he could do both, Gibbs eased his way back from the door. Taking a sip of his coffee to give himself a moment to think, he stepped up to the door and let the sensors register his presence. At the sound of the door hissing open, Gibbs could see Tony wipe a hand across his eyes and struggle to his feet. The movements were stiff and slow, so lacking in Tony's usual grace that Gibbs first thought was to call for Ducky. But taking one look at Tony's face, he decided that the medical check-up could wait. Whatever had made Tony cry obviously needed to be dealt with before anything else.

When in doubt, do what comes naturally. "DiNozzo, why are you sitting here in the dark instead of finishing your report?" Although the question was sharp, the tone was gentle enough to get Tony's attention. "Sorry, Boss. I'll get on it right now." As Tony moved to leave the room, Gibbs caught his arm. "Tony … " the gentle tone was enough to make Tony fight for his control.

Tony swallowed hard before looking at Gibbs. He was not going to embarrass himself by crying in front of his boss. He was reasonably sure that he was good at his job, but losing control in front of Gibbs would only make him look weak and helpless. Being good at his job was all he had, and the people here were the closest thing he had to a family. Losing that wasn't an option. Taking a deep breath, he looked at Gibbs and managed a small, brittle smile. "Just needed a little peace and quiet to clear my head, Boss. You'll have the report in thirty minutes."

"Tony, talk to me. Please." That word alone was enough to make Tony think that Gibbs must be serious. The older man never said please. He was demanding and often abrasive and it worked during an investigation. Tony was used to brusque statements and demands. Kindness, on the other hand, was almost impossible to defend against. Feeling the tears rise again, Tony tried to pull his arm away from Gibbs, but the sudden jerk made him hiss with pain. Gibbs immediately let go. "I'm sorry, Tony. Did I hurt you?"

"Never apologise, Gibbs. It's a sign of weakness." Tony's rejoinder was quick and slightly amused. "And no, you didn't hurt me. I must have pulled a few muscles lugging Atlas around."

"Well, I think we should have Ducky take a look at you anyway." Gibbs concern was so evident that Tony was speechless. "I think I'll go call him. He and Abby are plotting new ways to cause mayhem and destruction." The smile accompanying the words showed that Gibbs found the idea highly amusing. Tony doubted terrorists would find it anywhere near as pleasant a thought.

"Boss … please wait. I can't do this just now. Just let me get my head together and I'll be there in a minute." Tony's plea reinforced Gibbs original feeling that something was very wrong here. "Tony, please just talk to me. Whatever's bothering you … we can deal with it. Together." Pleading wasn't something Gibbs had ever done much of, as it hadn't worked on his first two wives and the third hadn't stayed around long enough for him to try the tactic on her. But if that's what it would take to get Tony to tell him what was wrong, then that's what he would do. Some things are worth the price they carry, and he was sure that Tony was one of those things.

Trusting other people wasn't something Tony did. Too often, it left you vulnerable to unexpected betrayal. He trusted Gibbs to watch his back and keep him safe at work. He would do the same for the older man. But trusting him with his feelings was a different story. Too often, those in authority would use your weaknesses against you. Any one of his previous jobs in various police departments could have taught him that simple fact of life, but it had still taken at least three moves before he'd caught on. He definitely wasn't the brightest bulb in the box, sometimes. He wanted to trust Gibbs with everything, but experience had been a hard teacher. And 'everything' was a lot to expect one person to handle. Though, to be fair, he'd yet to come across anything Gibbs couldn't handle.

Watching the expressions and emotions play across Tony's face, Gibbs could only wait and hope that Tony would talk to him. He'd read the personnel files from Tony's previous positions, and he thought he understood some of Tony's trust issues. The things that had happened to Tony in his previous jobs would never have been tolerated at NCIS, and Gibbs knew that Tony was aware of that. But understanding something intellectually and feeling the truth of it in your heart weren't always the same thing. Tony needed to make this decision for himself.

Tony sagged back against the autopsy table, and sighed deeply. "My father didn't want me to go into law enforcement. He wanted an heir to the family business and fortune. You know, someone to be just like him, only younger?" At Gibbs' nod, Tony continued slowly. "I couldn't be what he wanted. And trying only made things worse, because I never managed to do anything right. We fought about it all the time." Gibbs gentle hand on the back of his neck gave Tony the courage to keep talking. "The only thing I was ever good at was sports, and he didn't approve of that. Mainly because I didn't play just to win. Don't get me wrong, winning was important, but it wasn't my only consideration. I enjoyed having friends, people to share a joke with. People who cared what I did and how I was. They were interested in me, just Tony, not my dad's money or anything like that."

Stopping to get himself under control, Tony took another deep breath. "Then, my father made me choose between him and sports. I could have money and status as long as I gave up what he called childish games, and followed him into the family business. I refused, and he cut me off without a second thought. He told me I would never amount to anything. He said I'd end up in the gutter." The tears were rising to the surface again, and Tony gulped them back. He risked a quick look at Gibbs' face and was surprised to see the rage reflected there. "And then, today, where do I find myself but in the gutter? Getting back here was like coming home, and then I see McGee sitting at my desk. I couldn't help but think that my father was right, after all. I had ended up in the gutter, and no-one seemed to care. No-one wanted me."

Gibbs winced at this. He knew Tony was talking about his father, and yet some of what Tony had said struck very close to home. His own attitude and behaviour hadn't made Tony feel wanted earlier, and finding McGee at his desk must have hit the younger man hard. Also, the time it had taken to find Tony must have felt like an eternity to the younger man. Gibbs knew he would have to do something to put this right. Tony was important to him, personally as well as at work, and he needed the younger man to know the truth. In some ways, Tony was almost like the son he'd never had.

Leaning on the table next to Tony, Gibbs slipped an arm around the young man's shoulders. At least this way, he wouldn't have to look directly at Tony as he spoke from the heart. "Tony, I've never lied to you. So you know what I'm saying is true, okay?" When Tony nodded, Gibbs carried on speaking, his voice low and soothing. "I never meant to make you feel unwanted. We needed to find you as soon as possible, and the only available place for McGee to work was your desk. I couldn't risk taking the time to get him a desk somewhere else. It might have made me too late to find you, and that just wasn't an option. I couldn't fail you. You remember what I said at the elevator when we got back?" Another slight nod. At least Tony was still listening. "I don't usually repeat myself, but just this once, I will. You're irreplaceable, Tony. To me, and on the team. Got that?" The nod this time was more vigorous.

Straightening up, Gibbs turned to face Tony. "One more thing, Tony. This team, we're your family. We care what happens to you, just because you're you. We won't abandon you, and we'll never make you choose between us and something else you love. Family doesn't do that to one of its own." Gibbs knew that it would take more than this one conversation to banish all of Tony's insecurities, but it was a good start. Already the younger man looked more settled, and the expressive green eyes were calmer than they'd been since Gibbs had first seen him in the sewers.

With a gentle grip on Tony's arm, Gibbs led the way towards Abby's lab. He wanted to get DiNozzo checked out by a doctor he trusted, which meant finding Ducky. And after that, he'd take Tony home himself. "When Ducky's done, I'm taking you home. The paperwork can wait until tomorrow." Knowing what Tony was thinking, Gibbs grinned, "I am human, DiNozzo." The snicker that met that comment almost made Gibbs laugh out loud. "I hope your couch is comfortable, Tony. I think I'll spend the night."

"I don't need a babysitter, Boss. I've been looking after myself all my life." Tony's objection was expected. Gibbs just shook his head in fond exasperation. "I know that, Tony, but sometimes you don't have to. Sometimes, family do things just because they care."