A sound at the top of the stairs had Gibbs on his feet, reaching for the gun that was never far away. Unannounced pre-dawn visitors weren't usually there for cookies and tea.
Straining his eyes to see who owned the legs now coming into view on the stairs, he recognised the pants.
"DiNozzo!" He lowered the gun. "You're lucky you still have your kneecaps. What the hell are you doing here, shouldn't you be asleep or something?"
Gibbs put the gun down and walked to the bottom of the stairs.
"Ah … and good morning to you, Boss", Tony said as he stopped halfway down. He held out a steaming container of coffee. "Thought maybe you could use this". His other hand held a second cup.
Gibbs reached up and took the coffee without comment. He looked Tony over. Apart from the shadows under his eyes, he looked outwardly the same as always, except for a slight tremor in his hands. On edge, Gibbs guessed, driven to come but unsure of his reception.
"Couldn't sleep?" Gibbs asked.
The nightmares, for sure. He'd have to speak to Ducky about that.
"You should be resting anyway", he growled.
"Too wired". Tony swore softly as the lid came off his coffee and hot liquid splashed over his hand.
"Sit down". Gibbs gestured to the stairs and Tony sat down where he was. Gibbs sat a few steps below him. They sipped their coffee.
"Gibbs, I …"
"Tony, there's …"
They both spoke at the same time. Each acknowledged it with a reluctant half-laugh.
"You first, Boss".
"After you, DiNozzo". An awkward silence ensued before Tony bit the bullet.
"I was following orders, Gibbs", he said, "I know you know that".
"Of course I understand that, DiNozzo!" Gibbs snapped. A short silence ensued.
"I screwed up, though", Tony said finally, "I should have told you once I could".
"Ya think, DiNozzo?" Gibbs squinted up at him and then let fly. "Team members don't hold out on each other. They don't let their personal feelings get in the way of the job. If you don't know that by now, you don't belong on my team".
"You don't want me on your team? Is that what you're saying, Gibbs?" Tony said incredulously.
Gibbs just looked at him over the rim of his coffee container.
Tony flared into anger. "That's over the top, Boss, and you know it. OK, I didn't do the right thing, and you're within your rights to ream me out about it. But fire me? I'm a damn good agent, and you know it".
He paused to think. "There's got to be more to it than that, there just has to be. I've seen you mad before, but never like this. It's as if", he cast about for words, "it's as if you've cut me off somehow in your mind. But why, Gibbs? If I'm going to be fired, I want to know the real reason, and don't goddam tell me there isn't one". He banged his almost empty coffee down on the step beside him.
Gibbs put down his own coffee and looked up at Tony. "You done, DiNozzo?" he asked. "Relax, you're not fired, not this time anyway. Consider yourself on desk work for the next month, though, and …"
Tony finished it for him, "I know, Boss. I won't let it happen again".
"I was going to say", Gibbs said, "I'll be watching you. But that's for sure, DiNozzo, it better not happen again".
Tony nodded, though his face flamed momentarily. Kate and McGee would be bound to notice the disciplinary action, Gibbs thought. They'd see him doing the boring jobs none of them wanted to do, and they'd tease him mercilessly about it, and Tony wouldn't tell them the real reason. But maybe they'd think he was taking it easy while his injuries healed.
Yeah, Gibbs thought wryly, that's what they'll think, all right.
"Do you miss Pete Fielding, Tony?' he asked quietly.
Tony looked at him, surprised. "He was a good man. A good agent. Sally's taking it hard".
"That's not what I asked".
Tony looked across at the boat. "Yeah, Boss. Yeah, I miss him a lot. He was a good friend, you know?"
"I do now", Gibbs said, so softly that Tony almost missed it.
Tony came back to what was worrying him. "So … that's the only reason you've been mad at me, Boss?"
"Aaah, hell, I don't know". Gibbs said. "It's not just you, it's …" He stopped, stuck for words.
Don't fudge it, Jethro, he seemed to hear Ducky say. You'll never have a better chance.
He looked at the man on the stairs above him. DiNozzo could be a wild card, but he was, as he said, an excellent agent. A hardworking, smart, damn good agent. Gibbs was happy with his work most of the time. More than that, if he were honest with himself, he liked him, pure and simple. But surely, no matter what Ducky said, that didn't mean he had to spill his guts …
Aah, the hell with it.
Gibbs took a big gulp of coffee, fixed his eyes firmly on the boat and told Tony the story of his own op gone bad.
There was silence in the basement for some time after he finished. When it grew oppressive, Gibbs looked up. Tony was examining his fingernails with care.
"And that's why you're so pissed off at me? Because it brought back that op?"
Gibbs nodded. "I was out of line that night after Fielding's funeral". Not an apology, but close. The words didn't choke him nearly as much as he'd thought they would.
"It's not just me you're mad at, then, is it? Not really", Tony said quietly.
It had been a mistake, Gibbs thought. DiNozzo would take advantage, dig too deep, he never should have told him. He raised his head to snap an answer, half-expecting to see the trademark silly grin, but found only compassion in the tired eyes looking back at him.
A screwdriver balanced precariously on the edge of the bench clattered to the floor, making them both jump. Tony crumpled his empty coffee cup, rose and stretched, hands above his head and mouth open in an expansive yawn. He looked relaxed and graceful, apparently unaffected by sitting cramped up on the stairs or by his only recently mended ribs.
How the hell does he do it, Gibbs thought irritably, unobtrusively massaging his own aching joints.
"Thanks, Boss", was all Tony said. "I understand now, but you couldn't have saved Pete". He moved down the stairs past Gibbs to the boat. "You really think you'll ever finish this thing?" he asked casually, but his eyes weren't casual at all. They looked at Gibbs with new respect.
Dammit, did Ducky always have to be right?
"Not if you keep interrupting, DiNozzo", Gibbs retorted. "If you're not going to show some sense and get some sleep, come here and make yourself useful". He handed Tony a plane and showed him where to start. Tony took it from him with a mock scowl but set to willingly enough, his hands, Gibbs noticed, now steady as a rock.
Tony paused for a moment mid-plane. He didn't look at Gibbs as he said, "So … are we good then, Boss?"
"Yeah, DiNozzo, we're good", Gibbs growled. Then he grinned at Tony and threw him a piece of sandpaper.
Sometimes a boat is just a boat. Other times, it can be a lifeline. They worked on till the Farm Report signalled the start of a new day. Then Tony put down his plane, stretched and looked around for his coat.
"Time to head home and get rid of this sawdust. Assuming you want some work out of me today, that is?" He headed for the stairs.
"Depend on it, DiNozzo!" Gibbs growled, putting aside his own plane and picking up an old towel to wipe his hands. "Just one thing, though?"
Tony paused and looked back, waiting.
"Where the hell did you learn to play the piano like that?"