Author's note: this is the final chapter. Thanks for all your interest and reviews; I hope you've enjoyed the ride.
"Well, how is he, Jethro?" Twenty-four hours later, Ducky grabbed at his cell phone as it slipped from his grasp and restored it to his ear. "Does he need a home visit? I'm leaving now, I could call in". He pushed the elevator button with his other hand as he spoke.
"Oh, he's fine, Duck", Gibbs said. "Don't think he's slept much, though, I found him trying to sleep standing up with his head against the wall. Didn't work for all that long". No more than a few long seconds. Gibbs had caught him as he fell, to be rewarded with a shout of pain as DiNozzo's sunburned skin rebelled against the touch.
"No sleep means no nightmares, at least", Ducky said, stepping into the elevator. "His skin will heal, it's his mind I'm concerned about".
"DiNozzo's tough, Ducky. And resilient. You know as well as I do, he bounces back in the end". Gibbs kept an ear out for the sound of DiNozzo's shower stopping.
"In the end, yes, but how many times can he do it? Nearly drowned last year, staked out and then buried alive now … it's got to take a toll".
"He'll be fine, Duck, just give it time. He's an ex-cop and a highly trained special agent. He can handle it".
"Yes, well, I hope you're right". Ducky didn't sound at all convinced. "Is he talking about it?"
"He's not talking about anything much at all. Pretty quiet, actually".
"That's not good at all", Ducky fretted. "Does he seem depressed?"
"How the hell would I know, Duck? He's quiet, that's all". Not much of the usual banter. Gibbs had been almost bored.
"Try to get him to open up to you, Jethro. It's important that he talks about it, and you know Anthony, he won't seek help unless he's ordered to". Gibbs heard the elevator ping again on the other end of the phone as Ducky stepped out and headed for the carpark.
""What makes you think he'd talk to me, Duck? Come to that, what makes you think I'd want him to?"
The silence on the other end of the phone spoke volumes.
"C'mon. Duck, you know I don't do that personal stuff. Never have, don't see any reason to start now".
"Ah, but you did once before, didn't you", Ducky reminded him, "and it didn't hurt your working relationship at all, now did it?"
"No", Gibbs had to admit, thinking back, "no, it didn't". Hell, if anything it made it stronger. DiNozzo had never taken advantage either of the personal information Gibbs had shared with him after the first Baker operation had gone so wrong or of the fact that Gibbs had shared it with him. Ducky had been right about that at the time.
"Well, then", Ducky said, "do you think you're any less trustworthy than Anthony? Be direct, Jethro, just ask him straight out".
In the bathroom, the shower stopped. Gibbs heard the glass door slide open.
"I'll see what happens, Duck. That's all I can do".
Gibbs slid his cell phone shut without saying goodbye and turned to find DiNozzo coming out of the bathroom, towel around his waist. He'd given up going naked when Gibbs moved in. He went into his bedroom and shut the door.
All through dinner Gibbs turned over in his mind what Ducky had said. DiNozzo seemed fine, making easy conversation for once as he walked about eating his meal, but his voice had an edge to it that made it sound a little forced. Or am I imagining things Gibbs wondered.
Later that night, he woke and went to check on the patient. Nowhere. Not in his bedroom, not in the kitchen. Eventually Gibbs spotted him out on the balcony, one foot up on the middle railing, arms resting carefully on the top one.
"Hey, Boss". DiNozzo turned his head as Gibbs came up beside him. They stood side by side, looking out over the neighbourhood. Heat lightning flickered in the distance, presaging storms.
Eventually, Gibbs broke the silence, his tone carefully neutral. "Can't sleep?"
DiNozzo shook his head. "Some day, when the burn wears off". It had better be soon, by the look of him.
"Want a spray?"
DiNozzo shot him a grin and shook his head. "Thanks, but no thanks". He hated the indignity of being sprayed naked, but he had to admit it beat twisting to do it himself.
Hell, Ducky, what do I do now? Gibbs felt a prickle of irritation. God knows, he wasn't good at this stuff. Why couldn't his old friend leave well enough alone?
He bit the bullet. "Scared of nightmares?" Even to his own ears, it sounded insulting. DiNozzo wasn't a kid. Gibbs waited for his protest.
But DiNozzo surprised him. Turning to face Gibbs, he shook his head. "Not this time, boss, I don't know why. Being buried alive – even just for a few minutes - ought to do that to a guy, don't you think?"
Gibbs nodded. "You'd think".
DiNozzo turned back to the railing. Gibbs had the feeling he wanted to say something but didn't know how to start.
He waited. Then, when the silence lengthened, he said, "Just spit it out, DiNozzo". That direct enough for you, Duck?
DiNozzo looked at him and for a moment Gibbs thought he'd laugh it off. But eventually, he said, "I think it's because I know he's dead this time. He's not still out there somewhere, waiting. I owe you bigtime for that, boss." His hands, clasped together on the railing, tightened.
Their eyes met. Gibbs shrugged, and the corners of his mouth quirked in what might have been the beginnings of a smile. That makes us even then, DiNozzo.
"Before the trial, I was scared, you know? Shit scared that he'd come back somehow and try it again, even though I knew he was in jail". He'd never shown it at work. Only the dark circles around his eyes had told how bad the nights could be.
DiNozzo wasn't a man to show fear, no matter how tightly his gut was clenched. He prided himself on his macho image, though he never said so. It was one of the things Gibbs respected about him. He complained a lot when he was mildly hurt, ramping it up sometimes until Gibbs itched to whack him, but under pressure he stayed cool. Gibbs always knew he could count on DiNozzo there beside him, watching his six.
Yet after Spurling DiNozzo hadn't been able to ignore the fear.
Sensing the other man's conflict, Gibbs said quietly, "There's no shame in fear, DiNozzo, no shame at all. D'you think I don't understand that? We all feel it. Wouldn't be doing our job right if we didn't".
DiNozzo changed feet on the railing. "Yeah, I know that, boss, but I … kind of let it take me over. It was always there at the back of my mind, no matter what I was doing, and then at night … you know this job, Jethro, I can't let it get to me". He'd never called Gibbs Jethro before, and it spoke to the depths of his feeling.
Gibbs felt himself respond. "You're not on the job now, Tony, you're right here, safe … with me. And you haven't felt anything I haven't felt myself. When you're thinking with the brain in your head instead of the one in your pants, you're a good agent, one of the best I've worked with. Admitting to fear doesn't change that".
DiNozzo let the comment about his brain pass unchallenged. He gave Gibbs a long look, an unusually open and honest look, then turned his attention to the lightning again. After a while he sighed and said quietly, "Thanks, Boss".
They stood against the railing a few minutes more, watching the approaching storm. Then Gibbs asked, "You going to stand here all night, DiNozzo?'
"Not much choice, Boss".
"Oh, I don't know", Gibbs said. He stepped inside and came back with a spray can.
"Oh, for …! You know, Gibbs", DiNozzo said tiredly, "Kate's right. You can be a real bastard sometimes".
"Well, hell, DiNozzo", Gibbs grinned, "You only just finding that out now?"