A couple of hours later, Squad Room
Tony looked suspiciously at the various chocolate bars on this desk, and then up to a patiently waiting McGee, "What is that, McGoo? Did you raid a candy store?"
"Not exactly, Tony. I just came from seeing Gibbs and he said something about keeping you away from vending machines, so.."
"So, is this like a "Gibbs made me do it" thing, Probie?
"Well, it wasn't entirely my idea, but I thought it would be a fitting way to declare a truce!"
Ziva had been following the exchange with a dangerous look in her eyes, but when it didn't seem like another round of barely disguised insults, she got up to join them. "Don't people usually wave a white flag in that case, McGee?"
Before McGee could answer, Tony added, "We were having a war, then? Or is that a civil war?"
"More like a friendly fire, Tony.. and I still owe you that coffee, but I think it is better if we just have it at the coffee shop."
"Good idea, McGee," Ziva added sweetly, "that way, I don't have to kill one of you if you don't settle your friendly differences."
Tony looked at McGee thoughtfully, then nodded, "All right, McGee .. but I have to warn you, I'm not really good company right now."
McGee was silent for a moment, and then smiled as if he just made an surprising discovery, "it may sound strange, but I think I can better relate to you that way, Tony." Before Tony got the chance to answer, his cell phone rang, and he excused himself to take the call. A few seconds later, he grabbed his jacket quickly, and looked apologetically at McGee, "I'm sorry, Probie. I will have to take a rain check for that coffee, the hospital called and I will need to go See Gibbs."
"Is there a problem?" Ziva asked with some concern.
"I was there a while ago, nothing was out of the ordinary." McGee said with a frown.
"I am sure everything is fine, Ziva.. I will see you later." Tony said as he hurried towards the elevator.
Later in Bethesda,
"Is everything ok, Boss?"
Gibbs could hear a trace of worry in DiNozzo's voice. His Senior Field Agent was obviously submitting him to a quick visual examination, and apparently satisfied that his boss was still more or less in the land of the living, he relaxed.
"I got a call from the nurse ..I thought .."
Gibbs interrupted him, "didn't mean to worry you, DiNozzo, but I can't use a cell phone here, and she offered to call." Gibbs could see the transformation in DiNozzo's face, even as he was talking. The worry was gone, and in its place was now something he couldn't identify, until DiNozzo spoke again, "No problem, after all, if there was something serious why would they call me? Or is Ducky unavailable?"
It didn't take a genius now to read what was clearly written in DiNozzo's face, and he wasn't trying to hide it; his eyes and his words radiated bitter sarcasm, and Gibbs got the message loud and clear. He realized now that he had been overly optimistic to think that he could rely, once more, on DiNozzo's ability and willingness to understand him. He looked at him evenly and pretended that the jibe hadn't registered, "I needed to talk to you, DiNozzo, not to Ducky. The other day, you left before I was done.."
It was DiNozzo's turn to interrupt a bit sharply, "From where I was standing, it had seemed like we were pretty much done!"
DiNozzo was clearly pissed at him, more so than the last time, and he wasn't making any effort to hold back. Gibbs wasn't sure how to handle that, without either losing his temper, or making things worse, but he was always one for the frontal attack, so he pressed forward, "I have reasons for what I said, even though I said it really badly. As I told you when you were grilling me a few weeks ago, I'm not particularly good at explaining myself, but I am willing to try."
Gibbs left it at that, and waited for DiNozzo's reaction, if his agent wasn't even willing to listen, trying to overrule him won't be a good idea. DiNozzo looked tired and mutinous, and Gibbs suspected that another faux-pas would probably make one or both of them say or do something that won't be easily fixed.
Tony wanted to be anywhere but here, and doing anything but having that talk. However, the sight of Gibbs lying in that hospital bed was a sobering reminder that people in their line of work were not granted endless chances at repairing things, physically or emotionally. He took a deep breath and tried to calm himself down, "All right."
Gibbs met his eyes and calmly said, "You can call it vanity, or you can call it pride, but I'm not keen on being around any of you while I'm trying to get back on my feet."
You have to give it to Gibbs, Tony thought with some admiration, the man just didn't beat around the bush.
Gibbs continued calmly, "I also think you wouldn't really want to be around me, either."
Tony protested, "I wouldn't have suggested it, otherwise. Besides, I'm sure you know that I can handle it when you're angry, or frustrated, and you have never bothered to check yourself in the past, so why now?"
"That's different, DiNozzo .. anger or frustration that are job-related are one thing, and this," and Gibbs pointed vaguely to himself, "is another."
Before Tony could answer, he fixed him with a pointed stare, and added, "Besides, you used to be able to handle it, shrug it, or you simply didn't take it personally.. but, not anymore. You haven't been exactly happy with me, lately, have you?"
Tony didn't want to go there right now, so he brought the conversation back to the original topic, "So, is that the whole issue, that you will be grumpier than usual?"
"No. But this one was easier to explain." Gibbs answered with a sigh. They both fell silent for a moment, then Gibbs continued, "The lines are already blurred between professional and personal, DiNozzo.. and I need to maintain some …" Gibbs stopped, apparently trying to find the appropriate word, and failing. He started again, while Tony listened attentively, "The three of you – you're not just my team, and my subordinates, you are important to me personally. If there are no boundaries left, I won't be able to do the job as I should. It will affect my ability to make certain demands, certain decisions. It will affect you too, we will lose the balance we have .."
"What do you think we will do?" Tony interrupted with indignation, "We will not follow your orders as blindly as we do now? We will expect you suddenly to become a jolly nice man?"
"Tony, you were not able to handle it when I was being a nice but shaken man after Ari killed kate!"
The words were so true, and so unexpected that Tony opened his mouth, apparently couldn't find a suitable response, and had to close it again.
"I am not trying to cast doubts on how professional you are," Gibbs continued in a weary tone, "I'm saying that you have a set of expectations from me, and so do the others, and I have things that I expect from myself as well as from you. It is like using blocks to build something, if you introduce a new element or take something out of place, the whole thing may topple off. It comes to me to maintain those lines, and they are too blurred already.. You mentioned that I stayed with Mike, and I told you it was different. Mike didn't have any expectations from me, he wasn't affected by anything I said or did, and though he cared, he really is more involved in his own life than in anything else."
"Gibbs," Tony started slowly, trying to get his head around what Gibbs was trying to say without saying it plainly, "Ok. That makes sense about Franks, but.. does that mean that you can only consider us friends after one of us leaves or after you retire?"
Gibbs gave him a long-suffering look, "Didn't I just say that the lines are already too blurred, DiNozzo?"
Tony crossed him arms and shot back, "Yeah, and you also said that Ducky is a friend, unlike the idiot not-friend who had suggested you stay over at his place!"
Gibbs really wished he was able to leave his bed and pace around; it was probably divine justice, he thought, that they were having this conversation while he was unable to just up and leave like he did whenever Ducky brought on a particularly touchy subject. No, DiNozzo was not like Ducky, but not because one of them was a friend and the other was not! At least this was one thing he could say for certain, "When I said it was different, I was talking about Ducky's age, our shared experiences, and the fact that he had patched me up before .. it makes it easier for me.."
Gibbs trailed off, watching DiNozzo carefully. He didn't look exactly convinced, and he didn't blame him. There was one thing that he had admitted to himself, but could not and would not admit out loud. While Ducky and DiNozzo both cared for him and respected him sincerely, Ducky had never "hero worshipped" him the way DiNozzo did, and still do. There was a very particular blend of loyalty, awe, understanding and faith that made his relation with DiNozzo unique. He didn't want to lose that. He didn't want a more balanced relationship. It was selfish, needy and immature, but there was no way to deny it, he had needed that, and it had done him good, outside of the job and on the job. He hadn't realized how much, until Vance had disbanded his team. Lately, things were gradually changing, and he hadn't wanted that part to change.
DiNozzo's face was carefully guarded, and Gibbs knew that he needed to get through to him, though he had no intention of revealing that part of himself. "Tony, I can't explain much more.. you will need to fill in the spaces, and I know you're good at that. I know how my words had sounded. I will answer you like I did one time, years ago, after you went missing, and we found you – Kate and I – as you were getting yourself and the missing marine out of the sewers. I told you that as far as I'm concerned you're irreplaceable.."
Tony interrupted with visible agitation, "That was a joke, Gibbs! I turned around and found McGee on my desk and you told him that he will have to move because I was not dead yet!"
"That part was the joke, even if it was a poor one. But I meant what I said then."
DiNozzo was looking at him suspiciously, "That was like 5 years ago. A lot has changed, Boss."
"Perhaps, but not as far as I am concerned, Tony."
Gibbs watched the emotions play clearly across Tony's face, and felt a measure of relief that he was able to read him, and that the closed and resentful expression was gone. He let himself sag against the bed. This has been more exhausting than the physical therapy session that had left him in a lot of pain earlier.
Tony hadn't missed the signs of pain on Gibbs' face, and he frowned in return. He hated to see the man in pain, and to be honest it was a new experience, because he rarely ever saw him in pain. A part of his mind was still busy trying to fill in the spaces in Gibbs' intricate explanations, but he had felt the sincerity of the words, and they made sense to him. Some of Gibbs' "issues" were very familiar to him. It seemed that as Ducky had once suggested, they had a few things in common. Gibbs grimaced again, and Tony pulled himself out of his thoughts, and asked him softly, "Boss, did they stop your pain medication?"
"Not completely", Gibbs answered, and added wryly, "but I didn't want to fall asleep in the middle of our tête-à-tête. Besides, I will be discharged soon, so it is better that way. So.."
Tony saw an awkward expression appear on Gibbs' face, and he raised his eyebrows in question. The awkwardness increased a notch, but Gibbs continued, "So, does your offer still stand?"
"My offer?!!" Tony exclaimed, while Gibbs winced at the volume, "Boss, you have just spent," he looked at his watch, "half an hour explaining the many reasons why you wouldn't.." Gibbs interrupted him softly, "I never said they were good reasons, DiNozzo."
Tony muttered under his breath, "you're just making sure that I will never figure you out!"
Gibbs just shrugged, as much as one can with only one functional shoulder.
"Yes, my offer stands," Tony said slowly, "when did you say they are going to discharge you?"
Gibbs answered placidly, "Tomorrow." He watched as a look of panic crossed Tony's face, "Tomorrow! I need to make some arrangements, oh man.. the maid .. I don't even have food up there, I spent a couple of nights in the office.. and what about your physical therapy.."
Gibbs interrupted the flow of words decisively, "DiNozzo, you won't make a fuss, or turn into a mother hen, right?"
Tony laughed incredulously, "Mother hen? Me? I have never mothered – or fathered – anything in my life!"
Gibbs returned calmly, "It doesn't mean you don't have it in you."
Tony looked at him mischievously, "well, if we squint really hard, may be you have it in you too, Boss.. to be mothered, I mean."
He laughed at the glare he received, and then injected a note of seriousness in his voice, "Relax, Boss. I promise that there will be no fuss, and that once you're back in the office, you will go back to being our favourite slave driver, and I will be suitably cowed!"
Gibbs smiled faintly at him, "You better."
Tony launched himself to his feet, his mind already busy on the details, and was talking to himself more than to Gibbs as he turned to leave, "I got to talk to Abby and Ziva…"
It was Gibbs' turn to appear a bit panicked, "No fuss, DiNozzo.."
"None at all, Boss. Ducky can advice us about the wheelchair, as for.."
Tony just chuckled as he closed the door and left. It seemed he had been on some sort of a roller coaster lately, and he may just find himself looking at the bottom once more in the near future; but for now, his heart felt lighter, and the doubts and questions did not seem as overpowering as they did hours ago. He appreciated McGee's appetizing, if strange, idea of a truce, as well as Gibbs' valiant effort at explaining himself even if the explanation was not very explanatory. He appreciated the efforts. He was the first one to admit to his own impairment when it came to certain relationships, and he was willing to walk an extra mile for his surrogate family.
For now, however, all he had to worry about was to make sure that Gibbs will not kill him – or vice-versa – during the next coming weeks!
Author's Note: One step back, two steps forward is probably a realistic expectation when it comes to changing old patterns and default settings. I hope that the story had managed to capture just a glimpse of the challenges, ups and downs, and rewards of close relationships. Many Thanks for the reviews, comments and discussions. I really enjoyed all of them, and would love to know what you think of this one.
The reference to the "irreplaceable" comment is from the episode "missing" in season 1.