Title: Experience Teaches Slowly
Disclaimer: Christmas is coming soon (hint, hint).
Spoilers: Escaped and Shalom. Vague reference to my story 'Cracked Spunglass.'
Summary: "It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend." William Blake
A/N: I know I should be working on 'Hell in a Handbasket,' but my muse is being temperamental...and I watched Escaped and Shalom today and it gave me ideas...because you know Tony wouldn't've let Gibbs come and go so abruptly without some reaction. ^^ The title comes from a quote by James A. Froude (Experience teaches slowly and at the cost of mistakes); I thought it fit.
The sound was satisfying, the action comforting. He savored the feeling for a second before everything else rushed back in. The emotions took his breath away, the burning in his chest a raging wildfire he wasn't sure he could control.
Tony glared across his apartment at the crater in the opposite wall. His pocket knife lay on the ground beneath it, plaster dust covering it and the floor around it. Sneering angrily at it, he looked down into his glass, then took another swallow, the burn of the alcohol playing counterpart to the burn in his chest. He wanted to throw something else, almost needed that outlet for his anger, but one hole in the wall was enough. Emptying his glass, he hauled himself to his feet and headed to the kitchen.
His badge and gun were on the table where he'd left them and the sight of them set something almost animal loose in his chest. He threw the glass he held into the sink, but the action did nothing for the furious knot in his chest, despite the mild explosion as the glass shattered. He growled his anger as he snatched up the badge and weapon, ripped his jacket off the peg on the wall, and dug his car keys out of his pocket. He slammed his door shut behind him, ignoring the porch lights that flickered to life behind him. He didn't care what the neighbors thought right now.
He knew he should be worried that he didn't remember ending up here, but the thought never occurred to him. All he knew was the burning emotion in his chest and the words running through his head. Everything else was a blur of color and sounds that held no meaning. He only heard and saw the past.
He pounded his fists into the bag in front of him, vaguely hearing the smack! of flesh against leather through the roar in his ears. His knuckles ached but he kept going, a furious steady pace that matched the tempo of his thoughts.
In the half-light of the NCIS gym, he unleashed his emotions, let them roar through him as he abused the bag. His world shrank to the feel of leather under his hands and the swirl of memories in his head.
He didn't even notice the person watching from the shadows behind him.
He'd been wondering when Tony would finally break. He'd been tense and terse for the past couple of days, hardly speaking to anyone. He might not remember some things, but he knew that a quiet DiNozzo was never a good thing. The scene before him was definite proof of that theory.
Gibbs had stayed late in an attempt to catch up on four months' worth of paperwork, though he'd sent the rest of the team home. As he flipped through the piles on his desk, signing the pages that needed it and reading the case reports someone had left, he also cycled through his memories. Even after four months of recuperation, his grasp of the past remained slightly Swiss-cheesed and the few gaps left over bothered him. He'd had one of DiNozzo's earlier case files open on his desk and was trying to read between the lines when none other than the ex-cop himself had stalked through the squad room, a black look on his face and a focused determination in his step. Something had gone slightly sour in his gut at his agent's appearance, propelling him out of his chair and after the man.
He hadn't even noticed he was being followed.
That alone was enough to concern Gibbs, but when DiNozzo laid into the punching bag, he knew things had gone south faster than he'd expected. Gauging his actions by the expression on the younger man's face, Gibbs let him abuse the equipment for a while, till the black look faded some and his eyes weren't as wild. Leaning down, he undid his shoes, letting them drop to the floor. DiNozzo's tempo never faltered, proof-positive that whatever was bothering him wasn't any more distant than before. Resigned to the inevitable, Gibbs stepped out of the shadows and moved toward his agent.
Even when he stood where he knew DiNozzo should see him, there was no recognition of his presence. Frowning vaguely at the still coldly angry glint in the man's green eyes, Gibbs called his name, expecting the sound of his voice to bring him out of whatever held him. Surprisingly, the only response was a tightening around Tony's mouth and a slight increase in the speed of his punches; recognition didn't flicker in his eyes even then.
"Hey, DiNozzo." Deciding he'd had enough of watching him abuse his hands, Gibbs reached out and put a hand on Tony's shoulder. The reaction his touch garnered wasn't one of any expected.
The slight tensing in the younger agent's frame was the only warning Gibbs had before Tony's fist connected with his jaw. Surprised, Gibbs retaliated, landing a punch to Tony's gut that should have floored the man. It was a testament to the state he was in that the ex-cop not only wasn't laid out, but brushed off the blow, tackling Gibbs with enough force to drive him back a few feet. One glance at the almost blank expression in the younger man's eyes was enough to convince Gibbs that this needed to end before one or the other ended up more seriously injured. Moving swiftly, he wrapped one hand around DiNozzo's bicep and caught one leg behind both of the younger agent's, dropping him flat on his back on the mats.
"DiNozzo," Gibbs barked, trying desperately for patience in the face of his new aches. Mutinous green eyes stared unseeingly up at him as he struggled, but Gibbs held tight. Then, of a sudden, all of the fight drained out of the younger man. A few beats of silence passed as Gibbs stared down at his agent, who stolidly refused to meet his gaze. "Hey, you with me?"
The young man was silent for a moment more. "Let go, Boss," he said, his tone rife with exhaustion. He still refused to meet Gibbs' eyes, opting to stare at the boxing ring instead.
Gibbs sank back on his heels, one hand unconsciously curling around his waist in an attempt to quell the ache in his stomach. Vaguely, he realized that the ache was due to more than DiNozzo's angry tackle earlier; for Tony to give in so completely and so suddenly was never a sign of anything good. Recognizing the familiar flavor tinting the situation, Gibbs waited, knowing an explanation would come eventually.
"You could've at least called," the younger man mumbled and something sank within Gibbs. The wealth of emotion in that quiet phrase was more telling than the flurry of violence earlier. He waited quietly, as light was shed on a situation gone far darker than necessary.
Exhaustion pulled him down, made it almost hard to speak, to think, to be. He was only vaguely aware of what he said as he floated on the waves of fatigue, knew he should be more concerned with what he said, but couldn't gather enough energy to really care. Not that it would matter much anyway; nothing he did recently ever really seemed to make an impression on Gibbs, good or bad.
"You could've at least called." The word hung in the air, an accusation without any real heat, a simple statement summing up every ounce of emotion he'd felt in the past months. Silence followed it and Tony wasn't surprised that Gibbs made no response; he never explained his actions to anyone.
"You left without any warning, without any clue of where you'd be or for how long. And I had to pick up the pieces. Do you know how close to broken Abby was when you left? How long it took for her to smile again? God, you almost broke her and we still didn't hear from you." He couldn't even summon the right amount of anger for Abby at this point; there'd been too much for too long and he didn't have the strength for it anymore. "Everyone – everyone – expected me to pick up the slack and they were so disappointed when it turned out that, no matter what went down or what I did, I still wasn't you.
"And then you came back."
The silence was almost ominous as he laid there staring at the ceiling. Were it not for the old, familiar smell of coffee and sawdust, he would've thought he was alone. He didn't expect any response, but he hoped for one, a 'good job, Tony,' or 'you did good, DiNozzo.' Some acknowledgement of his actions would be nice. But the silence was unbroken, so he filled it.
"You came back and you took over again, even though you made it perfectly clear that you 'weren't back.' You took over my team, because they didn't trust me to get the job done. And then you left, but you still weren't gone, not really. 'Cause you came back again and took over again. And then we find out that you weren't really retired! You were just on leave!"
The emotion washed in again, filled the empty, aching spaces inside him, bolstered his flagging energy. He stood abruptly, needing an outlet once more, and started pacing. After several circuits, he wheeled to face Gibbs.
"I did the best I could with what you gave me. Our closure rate stayed up! All while you were gone! All without your help! I'm a good agent, dammit! And I was a good leader! I got the job done, even when everyone thought I'd fail! All without a single word from you except 'you'll do!'" He was shouting now, the words ripping out of him. "I did it all without you!"
With the words, he collapsed, four months of sleepless nights, less than exemplary eating habits, and worries for his team and his future catching up. As his knees hit the mats, he felt hands on his shoulders, catching him as he fell.
The blank, dark, desperate look in DiNozzo's eyes almost scared him. He knew Tony was more than the casual playboy he portrayed for the world, but this sort of darkness and venom was not what he'd ever expected of the young man. He listened in silence while DiNozzo prowled, throwing accusations like daggers as he paced. It wasn't the words so much as the bitter anger that concerned Gibbs – he'd seen Tony angry before. He'd forgotten a lot after the explosion, but he still remembered how much Tony needed his approval.
And he realized all he'd done wrong.
As Tony's tirade reached its peak, Gibbs knew what he had to do, but all plans of action flew out the window with the younger agent's last words and subsequent reaction.
"I did it all without you." Gibbs flinched inwardly at the desperate pain behind those words, pain born of Gibbs' sudden departure. He heard the thoughts behind the words as clear as if Tony had shouted them, too: you left me just like everyone else. As the knowledge slammed through Gibbs, he saw Tony crumple, saw his strength fail completely. Moving faster than he thought his knees would allow, he shot forward and caught the younger man before he hit the ground.
Heart pounding, he laid Tony out on the mats, careful not to jostle him anymore than necessary. With swift, practiced movements, Gibbs checked him over and, to his relief, found no injuries. Finishing his assessment, he frowned as he noticed the dark circles under his agent's eyes and the prominence of his ribs under his t-shirt. Obviously he'd let his health fall by the wayside recently and was, no doubt, paying for it now. As Tony finally stirred, Gibbs exhaled a sigh of relief, inwardly glad that nothing serious ailed his agent.
"Hey, you with me?" he asked for the second time that evening.
"Yeah, what happened?" He sounded groggy, his voice muzzy with fatigue.
"You passed out."
"DiNozzos don't pass out." Gibbs let a small grin show at the conviction in his agent's tone, despite all obvious evidence otherwise.
"This one did."
"Aw, boss," Tony whined as he let Gibbs help him off the floor.
"DiNozzo, when was the last time you ate?"
"Um..." As far as Gibbs was concerned, too much time passed as DiNozzo thought about the answer.
"Get your butt off the floor and let's go." He didn't wait to see how Tony responded to his command, opting instead to shove his feet back into his shoes. He headed to the doorway, turning only when he realized that not only was Tony not behind him, he hadn't moved at all. Shadowed green eyes met his across the gym and, as Gibbs watched, some vague hint of the dark anger flickered through them, its meaning clear: they weren't done yet.
"Unless the next words out of your mouth are 'on your six, Boss,' I don't wanna hear it, DiNozzo. Let's go." He headed through the doorway and to the elevator, holding the doors only long enough for Tony to slide in beside him.
They rode in silence for a little bit, though Gibbs could feel Tony fidgeting slightly next to him. His hand itched to still the younger agent, but he refrained, knowing that their relationship was still too strained for that to work. Instead, he reached over and flipped the emergency stop button.
"I chose you because you could get the job done. And, you did. Jenny was the one who never filed my retirement packet; my plan was to retire. There wasn't supposed to be any coming back."
"You'd've gotten bored, Boss."
Gibbs leveled a pointed look at his agent, then grinned and nodded. "He did threaten to shoot me."
A small grin quirked the corner of DiNozzo's mouth, but it didn't reach his eyes, didn't banish the shadows. Serious once more, he turned and faced his senior field agent, making sure he had the younger man's attention.
"You were the best person for the job, Tony. That's why I gave it to you. You were the only one who could hold them together and get the job done." He watched the emotions swirl within the green eyes, saw the shadows finally start to leave. "I probably should have called." They both knew that was the closest he'd get to an apology.
Tony nodded and smiled slightly, accepting Gibbs' words for what they were. "Thanks, Boss."
Gibbs watched his agent for a second more, then turned and released the elevator's emergency brake. The last few minutes in the elevator were silent, though not as tense as before. Just before they reached their floor, Gibbs broke the silence.
"I'm proud of you, Tony. Always have been."
The grin that lit DiNozzo's face was completely natural, but every bit as bright as his usual 1000 mega-watt expression. And that alone was worth the bruise Gibbs felt blooming across his jaw. More than worth it.
He breezed into the bullpen, his customary cup of coffee in his hand and a folder under his arm. At his appearance, his team instantly snapped to attention, ready for anything he might throw at them. He grinned inwardly at the familiarity of the entire thing; he was more than glad to be back.
"We got an abandoned truck belonging to a Marine colonel found at Quantico. McGee, pull his file. Ziva, call the local LEOs, let 'em know we're on our way. DiNozzo, with me." He fired off his orders without missing a step, heading to the elevators at a rapid clip. His grin wasn't hidden this time as he heard the activity behind him.
"On your six, Boss," his senior field agent called, sprinting after him into the elevator. He chuckled silently to himself as he took a sip of his coffee.
Yep, it was good to be back.
A/N: Seriously, I think this is the longest fanfic I've ever written...well, at least the longest one-shot. Now, if only Mo would cooperate with me on 'Hell in a Handbasket'...