Coming home

The ride back to the office was quiet. The telephone call to Abby had been necessary, but Kate was still trying to get back on an even keel after calming Abby down. The lab tech had been almost frantic at the thought that something might have happened to Tony, especially in light of what they had learned about Jeffrey White's fascination with sharp knives and the damage they could do. After ending the call, Kate had tried to get a few digs in about Tony naming his imaginary dog after her, but the lack of response had soon put paid to her efforts. Frankly, Tony's near-total silence was starting to bother her. He looked exhausted, and she supposed that lack of sleep could be the problem, but her profiling sense was telling her that there was more to this than met the eye.

Since they were all in the same car, she couldn't even air her concerns to Gibbs. She wasn't even sure what good that would do. Gibbs wasn't exactly well known for being the best person to deal with any sort of emotional crisis. If you couldn't take some sort of action to deal with a problem, their illustrious leader would rather pretend it didn't exist, or simply shut the problem away in a corner of his mind to deal with in some never-to-be-reached future.

Shifting in her seat so that she could get a quick glimpse of Tony in the back seat of the car, she caught Gibbs watching her in the mirror. Flushing at being caught out, Kate's eyes dropped to her hands. Noting with clinical detachment how tightly her fingers were locked together, she glanced back at Tony again. Seeing that Tony's gaze was fixed on something in the distance, she tilted her head in his direction, raising one eyebrow in a silent query.

Gibbs' gaze flicked to the mirror again, and settled on Tony for a few seconds. The younger man remained oblivious to the attention, and shifted so that he could rest his head against the side of the car. As Gibbs watched, Tony's eyes began to drift closed, only to pop open as he forced himself awake again. Tearing his eyes from the rear-view mirror, Gibbs cast a considering glance at Kate. He'd seen the tension she couldn't quite hide. He was glad to know he wasn't the only one worried about Tony. Undercover work was the hardest part of any law enforcement job, and Tony was one of the best undercover people he'd ever worked with. Reactions varied when a case went wrong as this one had, but the one thing he was sure of, was that this wasn't something that could be resolved by a quick chat in a car. A minute shake of his head told Kate not to start something they couldn't finish in one sitting.

Tony sighed quietly and shifted slightly in his seat. He was so tired, he wasn't sure he could sleep if he tried. But he knew he'd have to try, or Gibbs would send him to Ducky for medical help. Sleeping pills always left him feeling groggy, and he couldn't be below par and work for Gibbs. He'd spent too long proving that he could do his job well, in any circumstances. And now that a case hadn't worked out the way he'd hoped, he couldn't afford to show a weakness. It was bad enough that he'd blown his own cover to Jeffrey at the end, and Gibbs would have to know. Tony wasn't looking forward to the comments that section of his report was going to get.

But the worst thing about all of this was finding out that Jeffrey had never believed him; not from the very beginning. And if he was losing his touch at undercover work, then he was losing his usefulness to Gibbs. Kate was the profiler and could get inside the mindset of some of the strangest individuals he'd ever met, and she did it with such ease that he felt completely incompetent about his own people skills. Sure, he could charm people and make the process of getting information easier, and he'd thought he was good at creating false personas for undercover work, but he'd never be able to figure out what motivated people like Jeffrey. And after Jeffrey, he wasn't so sure about his own skills any more.

McGee was the computer geek, and Tony honestly believed that there was nothing the man couldn't do with a computer. As more and more information was kept in digital storage and on computer mainframes, McGee would become one of the most important people to have around. Tony's own computer skills were adequate to get the job done, but his strength wasn't in the cyber arena. He really was just an old-fashioned policeman, who'd managed to keep his head above water at NCIS for longer than he'd imagined would be possible. But now, Gibbs would know that Tony was losing his edge. Gibbs' team had the best solve rate in NCIS, and Tony respected the man too much to damage his reputation. Perhaps now would be a good time to update his resume and think about moving on.

It dawned on Tony that Gibbs was actually driving like a sane person, a fact which would have worried him if he'd had the energy to think about it. Kate had finally got off the telephone to Abby, after reassuring the young Goth at least five times that Tony was fine and would be back at the office soon. The concern was sweet, and typical of Abby. She was almost like the sister he'd never had and always wanted. Too bad he'd never be able to take her home to meet his folks. He really didn't think they'd be able to handle her. Her dress sense was unorthodox, to say the least, but her intelligence would shock them rigid. His father thought all women should be demure and well-behaved and his mother thought women should know their place and not speak out of turn. Abby would be way too much for either of them to deal with, although it would have been fun to see them try.

Tony felt his eyelids slipping closed and jerked himself awake. He needed to get his report finished up and submitted to Gibbs before he could cut himself any slack. One mistake was enough on this assignment. Straightening in the seat again, he brushed one hand against the irritating tickling sensation on his neck. A sudden prick of pain made him look at his hand, only to find blood on his fingers. Fingering the side of his neck, he realised that he'd caught the newly scabbed over nick on his throat; the only physical remnant of Jeffrey's knife. Pressing his fingers over the small cut, he waited for the blood to stop running.

Kate glanced back, her attention attracted by Tony's movement. The sight of fresh blood on Tony's fingers was jarring. She flashed back to her first view of the car he'd been in when they found him, and couldn't stop herself from thinking about what she would have felt if Jeffrey had been quicker with the knife. Before she'd even thought about it, she'd fished a tissue out of her pocket and turned in her seat to face him. "Tony, here." At his blank look, she waved the tissue in front of him. "Use this. It's got to be cleaner than your fingers." Giving her a small smile of thanks, Tony took the proffered tissue and held it to his neck.

Gibbs' grip tightened on the wheel, but a massive effort at self-control kept the speed within normal limits. He'd been terrified that he'd lose Tony on this case. He'd told Kate that he'd never lost an agent, but he'd come close before. His time in Russia came to mind immediately, but previous experience didn't make the possibility any easier to deal with this time around. Sometimes, he hated his own reputation as a tough-as-nails ex-Marine. It kept him in control when things didn't go as planned, but it also stopped him from showing those who mattered to him how important they were. The only one who always seemed to know exactly how he felt was Abby, but then again, it was hard to hide the truth from someone who knew sign language. She could read the truth of his feelings in his body language and his eyes, and nothing he could do was any defence against her.

Pulling into a parking space in the lot at the NCIS office, Gibbs snatched another quick glance at Tony in the rear-view mirror. "DiNozzo, go see Ducky. Kate, get started on the reports." Kate nodded and set off towards the elevator to the office, leaving Tony alone to argue with Gibbs. "I'm fine, boss, I'll go see Ducky after I get my report typed up." Gibbs' glare slid to the blood on Tony's throat. "Honest, boss, it's just a nick. I've cut myself worse shaving." "Really, DiNozzo?" Gibbs voice was deceptively soft. "Why is it still bleeding then?" Tony reached up to feel the blood trickling slowly down his skin. As his eyes met Gibbs', Tony's arguments died away. Gibbs actually looked concerned and that was startling enough that he let himself be guided towards the elevator. Once inside, Gibbs hit the button for Ducky's floor, not giving Tony the chance to back out of seeing the physician.

As they left the elevator, Tony found himself on the receiving end of one of Abby's hugs. Letting himself relax for the first time in days, he soaked up the warmth of her care and concern. Finally letting go, Abby immediately smacked him on the arm. "Don't ever do that to me again, Tony. It's not nice, making your friends worry about you." The odd combination of her mothering tone and her outfit, all black with silver stud accessories, struck Tony as immensely funny and he laughingly nodded. "Yes ma'am. Message received, loud and clear!" That earned him another smack, this one less gentle. "Don't mock me, Tony. We were really worried about you." Seeing the truth in her anxious eyes, Tony hugged her again. "I know, Abs, it's just … the outfit and the tone just don't go together. I would never mock you, you know that. Kate, maybe, but not you." Abby's smile was proof of her forgiveness, but it disappeared as she noticed the wet trickle on Tony's neck. "You're bleeding." She turned on Gibbs at once, "Gibbs, why didn't you say something?"

Tony sighed, "I've already been through this, Abs. It's nothing, honest." Abby's scorn for his judgement was apparent in the way she addressed her next words to Gibbs. "How can you just stand there? Do something." And then her fingers started flying, telling Gibbs that he should have taken better care of Tony once he'd found him. And telling him that he needed to tell Tony the truth about his place in all their lives. Catching hold of the rapidly moving fingers, Gibbs silenced the tirade, "I know." "And …" "And, I'll deal with it. Later." Abby's mutinous look showed a lack of belief. She shook her head in disgust. She'd been trying to get Gibbs to be more open with Tony for over a year, but he'd yet to do anything about it. Gibbs dropped his eyes from hers and sighed. "Come on, Tony, let's get Ducky to have a look at you." As he led the younger man away, Gibbs turned and signed two quick phrases to his favourite lab tech, 'I'll tell him. I promise.'

Tony shivered as he walked through the glass doors into Autopsy. He always found the place too cold to be comfortable. He knew that his reaction was partly caused by the work Ducky did in the large room. The bodies that Ducky worked on were real people, and Tony's imagination was quick to supply him with details of how they had suffered before they died. That was one of the reasons why Tony was so dedicated to his job. He'd seen first-hand the results of human greed and anger, and decided that he had to do whatever he could to help those who needed protection or justice. Then again, he'd thought that Jeffrey needed his help and protection, and he'd been so very wrong. Perhaps he'd based his entire life on a lie.

Ducky strolled out of his office when he heard the automatic doors slide open. "Tony, dear boy. It's good to see you back safely." The gentle smile put Tony at ease immediately. Ducky would never lie to him, and the simple truth in the coroner's words eased some of Tony's concerns about his place on Gibbs' team. "Jeffrey's body hasn't arrived yet, Jethro. Why don't you and Tony come back in about an hour to identify it for me?"

"We're not here for that, Duck. I need you to take a look at Tony." Gibbs' neutral tone got the older man's attention immediately. Ducky's searching gaze swept over Tony, lingering on his neck and face. "Right, my boy, let's get you on this table so I can have a proper look, shall we?" As Tony grudgingly moved to comply, Ducky made a shooing motion at Gibbs. "Off you go, Jethro, we'll be fine. I'll send Tony up when I'm done with him." Gibbs nodded, but headed towards Ducky's office first. "Just want to make a quick call, Duck, then I'll leave you to it."

Ducky's exam was quick but thorough, noting both Tony's exhaustion and the cut on his neck. Under Ducky's gentle hands, Tony let his mind drift, gathering enough energy to get back to his desk and finish up his day with a decent report for Gibbs. Thinking that it might be best to get to work while the details were still fresh in his mind, Tony took one last shot at getting back to work. Ducky might be more amenable to the idea than Gibbs. "I'm fine, Ducky. I keep telling everyone, but they're just not listening to me." Even to himself, Tony had to admit that he sounded like a tired five-year old. Ducky just carried on searching for something in his medical bag, looking up in success when he finally managed to locate the butterfly strips he'd been looking for. "They were worried about you, Tony. At the moment, they're too relieved to have you back, to hear you when you say that there's nothing wrong. Just give them a little time to settle down, and then everything will be back to normal. Besides which, this cut did need to be butterflied shut." Ducky's gentle hands had the small strips positioned and sealed to Tony's skin as the older man kept up his quiet monologue. "I remember one time, years ago, when this young agent insisted that everything was fine. He didn't listen to his boss either, and then he ended up in the hospital after he passed out at his desk. Major concussion, if I recall." Ducky's faraway tone faded into silence as he wandered through the memory.

"Ducky … do you think …" Tony's voice was hesitant. In answer to the questioning glance, Tony shifted on the table and looked away. "Never mind. It's nothing." "Now, Tony, you know you can tell me anything. Consider it part of doctor-patient confidentiality, if you will." Ducky could understand Tony's reluctance to talk. He'd trusted people before, in other police departments and other towns, and nothing good had ever come of it. Gibbs wasn't the only person who'd seen Tony's personnel file. It amazed Ducky that Tony trusted the few people on the team as much as he did. But still, he couldn't fault Tony for being afraid to open up to someone who was in a position to use his weaknesses against him. Some things were hard to forget.

"It's silly, Ducky." Tony looked as though he'd been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "No, it's not. If it's bothering you this much, Tony, then it's obviously a real concern. You know I won't say a word to anyone, if that's what you want." Ducky's offer, unnecessary but welcome, helped Tony make his decision.

"I think I'm losing my edge, Ducky. I put everything I had into getting this operation right, and today I find out he had me pegged from the beginning." Ducky's confusion made Tony start again. "Jeffrey White. He knew what I was from the beginning of this. He played me so well, I even offered to help him. And I didn't sense anything wrong, Ducky, not once. I'm obviously no good at undercover work any more; I've lost whatever it was that made me good at it. And what am I going to do when I leave NCIS? I can't stay here if there's nothing I can contribute to the team, but I really don't want to go. This place, these people … they're the closest thing to a real home I've ever had. What am I going to do now?" Tony's plaintive question rang through the room.

"First, you need a good night's sleep." Ducky's advice was practical, as always. "I think you'll find that things will look very different in the morning light." Tony managed a smile at that.

"Second, I think you need to stop and think about things rationally, dear boy. You're exhausted and you've been through a very trying experience. Nothing is ever as bad as it seems at first glance. Trust me, everything will come right tomorrow." Ducky hesitated, unsure of how much to say next. "Jethro needs you on his team, Tony. Don't let anything convince you otherwise. If you weren't needed, you'd know it. And he cares about you, too. He'll never admit it, of course. Much too stubborn. As a matter of fact, in some ways, you remind me a lot of him when he was about your age." Ducky's words carried the authority of his long tenure at NCIS and his personal knowledge of Jethro Gibbs.

Tony dared a quick look at the coroner's kindly face. Seeing only honest compassion, he managed to blurt out his biggest concern, "But Ducky, if I lose my edge, I could get somebody hurt. I couldn't stand being the cause of something like that."

"Trust me on this, Tony, that isn't going to happen. This is just one particularly bad experience, and it doesn't affect your entire career here. You're very good at your job. And I'm sure you know it, too. You just need to let what happened today fade into the background a bit, and get some perspective on the whole matter. And now, I think it's time you went home and got some proper sleep." Ducky's gentle pat on his arm got Tony moving off the table, only to freeze in shock when he realised that Gibbs was standing in the doorway to Ducky's office, watching them. "Ah, Jethro, I didn't know you were still here. Seeing as how you are, though, I recommend that you send Tony home and sort out everything else tomorrow."

Gibbs nodded and extended a hand in Tony's direction. "Come on, DiNozzo, let's get moving, shall we?" Too startled to argue, Tony let himself be herded towards the elevator leading to the parking garage. Finally managing to string a few words together, Tony objected, "Boss, I've got to get my report done. You always say we have to finish the job properly." He tried to put up some resistance, but found himself on the way to the garage before Gibbs bothered to answer him. "Ducky's recommendations are more important. If he says you need to go home, then you go home. No arguments." Gibbs tone conveyed the fact that this was his final word on the matter.

Once settled in the car, Tony's mind re-ran the conversation with Ducky. "Um, boss, how much of that did you hear?" "All of it, Tony." Tony cringed at what Gibbs must think of him now. "And you really should listen to Ducky and trust his judgement; he knows what he's talking about." Mentally reviewing what the older man had said, Tony came to the conclusion that Gibbs shared Ducky's views on his abilities and his place on the team. Feeling better, he let himself relax into the seat.

Just as he was about to doze off, he heard Gibbs clear his throat and speak quietly, "Tony. Are you still awake?" Gibbs sounded like he hoped the younger man was asleep, so Tony stayed still in the seat. "Damn, Abby is going to kill me. I should have known better than to promise her something like that." Glancing over at the still form of the man beside him, he let the ex-Marine façade slip. No witnesses meant no proof. "Ducky was right, you know, but he didn't go far enough. You're one of our family, Tony, and we don't want to lose you." Tony shifted in the seat and turned his head to look at Gibbs. "I know that, boss. Sometimes I just need to hear it, that's all." Gibbs fixed his gaze on the windscreen. "Why didn't you let on you were awake, DiNozzo?" "Just wanted to see if I was really losing my edge, boss." Gibbs muffled what sounded suspiciously like a laugh. "By the way, what did Abby make you promise?" Tony's eternal curiosity was aroused.

Gibbs sighed and gave in to the inevitable. "That I would talk to you, before this all had a chance to make you doubt yourself. That I would tell you how good a job you did today. And that I would tell you the truth about …" Tony waved a hand to cut off the flow of words. "It's okay, boss, you don't have to say anything else. Ducky was right. I think I just needed to hear you confirm it. You can honestly tell Abby that you told me everything she wanted you to say."

A bright smile lit up Tony's face as he contemplated an unexpectedly good end to a really bad day. "Maybe it's not quite the way she would have wanted this to happen, but it's enough. I think I've finally found myself a real home." Gibbs allowed himself a quick, genuine smile at the peace he heard in Tony's voice.