Gibbs threw the file down on the desk and stood with his hands on his hips.
"Goddamit!" he shouted.
The rest of the team jumped. Ducky, who had been standing talking quietly to Tony, turned and raised an eyebrow.
"No luck, Jethro?" he queried softly.
Gibbs head spun around, but his glare faded a little when he saw the doctor's sympathetic smile.
"I don't need luck, Ducky," Gibbs retorted, sitting back on the edge of the desk, shoulders slumped. "I need this kid to talk to me. Without him, we don't have a case."
"And with him?" Ducky asked quietly.
"We have a good chance of putting his bastard of a father away for life. I am sure this kid has information. I know he does. I just can't get him to talk to me."
"Can the Child Protection Officer....?"
Gibbs snorted, and Ducky knew better than to ask him to elaborate.
"We are running out of time, Ducky!"
The doctor moved over and stood in front of him. "Why don't you let someone else try to interview the boy? Maybe ...Tony?"
Gibbs snorted again, and Tony's head shot up. The two men locked eyes for a moment, and then Tony stood and stepped out from behind his desk.
"Tony?" McGee asked nervously.
"I'm going to the head, McSnoopy. Do I need a hall pass now?" He walked off without waiting for McGee's response.
Ducky glared at Gibbs, mouth set closed and eyebrows down. Gibbs looked a little abashed and gave an apologetic shrug. "He's no good with kids, Duck, you know that." Gibbs kept his voice low, but he needn't have bothered. Ziva and McGee both knew why Gibbs had responded as he did.
"You may be right, in some cases," Ducky replied, just as quietly. "But not in every case, Jethro."
Gibbs looked at him sharply.
"Let Tony try," the doctor insisted.
"Gibbs," Ziva protested. "Is there really any point?"
"I dunno Ziva, why don't you ask Ducky?" Gibbs shot back.
"There is a point." Ducky spoke loudly, his words clipped and harsh.
"But Ducky, if Gibbs could not get him to talk....." The Israeli was not backing down.
"Gibbs is good with some children, Ziva, but maybe not all." Ducky turned and took a few steps towards her. "The children he has been good with, the little boy whose father was kidnapped, what was his name?"
Gibbs was tired and angry, and being talked about as if he was not there was not helping his mood. "Zac," he barked. "Zac Tanner."
"Yes, and that lovely little deaf girl, and the other one, the Boy Scout..."
"Their names were Sandy and Carson," Gibbs interrupted angrily. "What of it, Ducky?"
Ducky turned back to face him.
"Jethro, they were all strong, confident children. They had loving parents, they were cared for. Of course you connected with them. But that boy you have in there," he gestured to the conference room, and walked back until he stood face to face with Gibbs. "He has had none of that. He has been abused and neglected by his father. He has spent his whole childhood isolated and afraid. How could you, of all people, possibly know what to say to him?"
There was silence. Ducky dropped his eyes and rubbed his hand across his forehead. Gibbs had the impression that the doctor had said more than he intended.
Tony returned to his desk but before he could sit down Gibbs barked out an order.
"Yeah Boss," Tony's voice was unusually subdued.
"See if you can get anywhere with the kid."
Tony glanced at Ducky, who gave him an encouraging nod. After a moment, and without taking anything from his desk, Tony walked over to the conference room.
"McGee," Gibbs ordered. "Turn on the surveillance camera in the conference room."
"Is that a good idea?" the junior agent asked quickly.
"They'll see the light come on. If they want us to turn it off, they'll let us know."
The agents and Ducky all turned to look at the plasma.
DiNozzo was sitting opposite the boy, both silent. An older black woman in a pale blue cardigan sat motionless at the end of the table. As the screen came to life, she and Tony both looked quickly up at the camera and then at each other. The woman nodded, and after a moment's pause, he did too.
Gibbs looked at Ducky, who conceded with a nod of his own.
Sitting slumped in a chair at the conference table, Paulo Raffaele looked even smaller than his eleven years. On the table in front of him was a pile of matchbox cars, kept in a cupboard in the conference room, and extracted on the rare occasions when small children needed to be kept occupied. For some reason someone had thought they would be appropriate for an eleven year old. Without speaking or looking at either the agent opposite him or the woman in the corner, Paulo was arranging the cars one by one into a neat row.
Tony sat opposite him, leaning back in his chair, watching the boy.
"I see you're organising them by year of manufacture," Tony commented quietly.
There was silence, and then the boy nodded.
"I used to do it in speed order – fastest to slowest. What's your favourite?"
The boy paused, his hand hovering in mid air over the cars. Then he rested his finger on one, and slid it out of the line towards Tony.
"Aaah," Tony sighed in appreciation, "the Ford GT. A classic. Good choice." He reached over and slid another car from the row. "I always liked this one – the Mercedes Benz 220SE. It had the most parts that opened and closed. And steerable wheels. Very cool." He slid it carefully back into place.
Paulo did not look up.
Tony waited a moment, and then folded his hands on the table and leant forward.
"Paulo, we have to talk."
The boy blinked at the sound of his name.
"Don't like Paulo?" Tony asked. "What, then?"
"How about Paulie?" Tony suggested.
The child did not respond.
"Okay, Paulie. " Tony drew a deep breath. "I know my boss was in here talking to you. He's been telling you that you should talk to us, because we'll look after you, we can guarantee to keep you safe." Tony paused, but the boy continued lining up the cars.
"But you've heard that before, and you and I both know it's a crock of shit."
In the bullpen, Gibbs' head jerked back. What the hell was DiNozzo thinking? He heard Ziva give a small hiss of disapproval.
"Who else have you heard it from, Paulie?" Tony asked. "A teacher, a doctor? I heard it once from a priest."
He chose a car from the unsorted pile, and rolled it slowly around the table, his eyes fixed on its path.
"They say they can stop it," he continued quietly, "they say "I'll do something about this," but they don't, because they can't."
Now Paulie was still, one fingertip resting on the top of a car.
"And they can't, because when you walk out of the classroom, or the church, or the examination room, there's your father, standing there. And you know something is going to happen to that teacher or priest or doctor. Maybe they'll get lucky and a big fat cheque will come their way. Or if not, they'll get transferred. Or it will turn out that their boss is buddies with your father...." Tony's voice dwindled and he kept staring at the car
"And so when he tells them how clumsy you are, and how you fell off your skateboard, or fell down the stairs, and he says "That's right, isn't it Paulo?" you just say "yes." Because there's no point saying anything else."
Tony's voice was flat, devoid of emotion, as if he was simply recounting a simple fact. He was looking only at the car in front of him, as he weaved it into figure eights.
Gibbs closed his eyes. He couldn't bring himself to look at Ducky. Behind him, Ziva and McGee were silent.
"And while NCIS has got the best chance of protecting you, being a bunch of heavily armed Federal Agents instead of some pissant local cops," Tony continued, "you know that there'll be a judge or a jury down the line somewhere, and maybe your father can get his way with them too."
"So," Tony continued, in the same low, calm voice, "there's not much point me saying that we can guarantee to keep you safe, is there?"
Paulie looked at him. "Nope," he said softly. It was the first word he had spoken all day.
"But I don't think that's the reason you're not talking to us, is it?" Now Tony was carefully driving the car around in circles on the table. "You don't believe Gibbs, but you have a better reason for not talking, don't you?"
Tony paused, and drew a slow breath. The car had stopped moving.
"You think," Tony looked directly at the boy, "that if you don't talk to us, then you and your father are going to walk out of here, and your father will know that you didn't talk. And he'll be happy, and maybe he'll be proud of you. Maybe he'll wrap an arm around your shoulders and say "Well done, son"."
Tony paused for a second, allowing the vision of the grateful father to float in the air above the table between him and the child. Then with a flick of his finger he sent the car back into the pile. He looked up.
"Paulie, we both know that's not going to happen."
The camera allowed them a clear view of Tony's face, but the child was low in his chair and his expression was not as visible. But there was no mistaking the way his head dropped, and his shoulders slumped even lower at Tony's final words. Then he raised his head and glared at the agent opposite him.
"He might," he whispered.
"He won't," Tony replied, "I'm sorry Paulie, I really am." His voice was firm, but there was no mistaking the genuine grief and sympathy in it. "But he just won't."
Paulie dropped his head again, and Tony let him sit quietly for a few moments.
"Paulie," Tony's voice was almost pleading as he leant forwards towards the child, "I could sit here for hours telling you that your father is a bastard, and that's the reason he hits you. I could tell you over and over that there is nothing wrong with you, there's nothing you did or didn't do that has made him treat you like this. I could say that it's not your fault until I pass out. " Tony's hands were resting on the table and as he spoke he turned them, so they rested palm up. "But it's going to take a lot longer than that for you to believe it."
He drew another deep breath. "I need you to understand something right now. And that is that not speaking to us is not going to help you. If you don't speak, we have no choice but to let your father go. We'll tell him that you didn't speak to us, but he might not believe it. Or he will believe it, but he'll want to make damned sure you don't talk next time. Either way, it's going to be bad. I'm sorry Paulie, but that's how it is. And you know it." His gaze was fixed on the boy, unblinking.
Paulie turned his face away from Tony as he spoke, as if shrinking from the words. Finally, he turned back, and wiped a hand across his eyes. Sitting up straighter, he looked at the agent. Even on the plasma, Gibbs could see the pain in his eyes.
"So that's it, is it? I'm screwed then?" His voice was quiet, his tone bitter, his voice too old for his years.
"No," Tony said quietly. "If you go home with your father, you're screwed. If you talk to us, we will have a reason to put you into care, into witness protection, and then you have a chance. We will do everything we can to keep you safe. I can't promise that we will succeed, no-one can promise that, but we will do everything we can." He paused. "Paulie, you know it's the truth. If you want to get away from your father, we are your last, best chance."
He sat still, awaiting a response. Paulie was silently, staring at a car held in his hands.
Without looking up, he spoke. "I'm scared," he said softly. "I'm scared of not knowing what's going to happen. I think maybe I'd rather just stick with what I know."
Gibbs felt his stomach drop. They were so close, C'mon DiNozzo, he thought, you're so close.
Tony shot a glance at the woman in the corner.
Finally, she spoke. "Paulie," her voice was low and well modulated, soothing, but not soft. "While you're helping NCIS, you'll stay in a hotel, with some agents to look after you. After that, we'll try to place you with a permanent foster family. If we do that, it will be a long way away from here, in another part of the country."
"And if no-one wants me? If you can't place me?" He stressed the second to last word.
"One alternative is that you become a boarder at a school, a nice school," she hastened to add, "and you stay with temporary foster families during the holidays. As soon as you are old enough, we set you up in an apartment of your own."
The boy frowned and dropped his head.
"School's not that bad," DiNozzo offered quietly. "I got sent to military school when I was a kid. It was okay. Other kids hated it, but I thought it was okay."
Paulie tilted his head sideways and looked up at him. "Why?"
"Because they only hit you if you broke the rules. And the rules didn't change. Don't break the rules, and you don't get hit."
Christ almighty, Gibbs thought. That's hardly a Disney childhood.
Tony continued. "I liked some of the classes and I played a lot of sport. I made a few friends and I used to go and stay with their families during the holidays. I told them my parents had gone to Europe and didn't want me to come along. It was okay."
Paulie raised his head slightly, his eyes distant, as if considering the possibility.
"Then I got to college," Tony enthused. "And there were no rules. That was awesome." He leaned back in his chair, and smiled a wide warm smile.
Paulie's mouth twitched. "That doesn't sound too bad," he conceded.
Tony leaned forwards again. "I'm not going to lie to you kid, there are going to be tough bits. Times when you're lonely, times when you want to go home, no matter how bad home was, but you'll get through."
Paulie sat, his head bowed.
Tony pressed on. "I don't know what your father has told you, but I can guess, and I'm telling you he was wrong."
The boy looked away.
"He's wrong about you, Paulie. You're a tough kid. You're strong. Hell, none of the kids at your school have survived what you have. How many of them do you think could last eleven years with your father? Most of them couldn't last ten minutes."
He paused and reached his hands closer to the boy, but he did not touch him.
"If you stay tough," Tony said slowly, "if you stay strong, you'll get through this. You'll come out the other side with your own life. This is the only way out Paulie. And you can do it."
Paulie remained silent. Tony shot a quick glance at the Child Protection Officer, and seemed to be considering his next words carefully.
"I can't promise it will be easy, but I can promise one thing." His voice was deadly serious now. "You will never be alone, Paulie, not unless you want to be. You will always have people to talk to, people looking out for you, making sure you're okay."
"You?" Paulie shot back.
"Yeah, me, her over there in the corner, your foster parents, Gibbs. There'll be a counsellor for you to talk to, and if the counsellor is a dick, 'cause they sometime are, we will get you one who isn't. You won't be doing this alone."
No-one spoke. In the bullpen, they could hear the sounds of the boy's breathing.
"Can I think about it for a minute? Alone?"
"Sure kid, you can think about it." DiNozzo stood, and gestured to woman in the corner. "We'll be right outside."
Tony and the woman disappeared from the plasma screen and Gibbs heard the door of the conference room open. He turned to see them step out and shut the door behind them. As soon as the door was closed, the woman rested her hand on Tony's arm and spoke quietly to him. She smiled at him and Tony smiled back. They turned to walk towards them and Gibbs's eyes flicked back to the screen, where he saw Paulie sitting quietly, turning the car over in his hands.
He looked back and caught Tony's eyes. There was something like defiance in them, a tension and watchfulness, as if he was expecting a rebuke and had already decided that he was not going to tolerate it. His body was tight and stiff, bracing for a blow. He was in fight mode.
Gibbs ignored it and addressed the woman standing at his side. "I seem to have forgotten your name."
"Marion," she said with a smile. "Marion la Salle."
They shook hands and he introduced her to the rest of the team. Then he turned his gaze back to his senior agent. If Tony was wound any tighter he'd explode, Gibbs thought anxiously. He needed to fix this. Or at least, he needed to say something that wouldn't make it any worse.
"Good job Tony," he settled for, inadequately, he thought.
Some of the fire went out of Tony's eyes and some of the stiffness out of his posture. His lips twitched into a fleeting smile.
"Thanks Boss," he responded softly. Then he looked down and shifted from foot to foot.
"My dear boy," Ducky said gently. "You did very well." The doctor turned and glanced over his shoulder at the other agents. "Ziva, why don't you get Anthony one of those chocolate bars that he likes from the vending machine?"
"Of course, Ducky," Ziva agreed, giving Tony a quick smile.
Sugar, Gibbs thought, good idea, that's what he needs. But Tony's eyes flicked back to his, still angry, still armed. No, that's not what he need, Gibbs corrected. So what the hell does he need?
He became conscious of a pair of cool eyes appraising him, and glanced at Marion as if she might give him a clue. All she did was to tilt her head slightly in Tony's direction. He looked at the younger man and shook his head slightly, at a loss as to he was meant to do.
Ziva returned from the vending machine with a bounce and handed Tony an enormous Hershey bar. He took it with a smile and a murmur of thanks, but then fumbled and dropped it.
Gibbs bent over quickly and picked it up. As he reached out one hand to return it, he stepped in a little closer and rested his other hand on Tony's back. At that contact, in that instant, something in Tony seemed to release. He exhaled heavily, dropped his head and swayed a little. Gibbs instinctively rested his other hand on Tony's chest, supporting him. Tony closed his eyes for a second and swallowed.
"You okay?" Gibbs asked quietly.
Tony lifted his head and looked at Gibbs. The tension, the defensiveness, was gone from his eyes. He looked a little tired and a little sad, but he looked like Tony again. Whatever battle he had been expecting to fight, or indeed had fought, was over. He took the bar from Gibbs's hand where it rested on his chest, but Gibbs kept both hands on him, waiting until he felt Tony stand straight and still.
Tony gave him a small smile.
"I'm fine Boss, thanks."
Gibbs dropped his hands. As easy as that, he thought. It wasn't much to need. Ducky's lips twitched in a quiet smile.
Tony ripped open the bar and took a huge bite. Then he looked around at the assembled team.
"Anyone want some?" he mumbled through the chocolate.
They all turned. Paulie stood in the door to the conference room, pale, but calm.
"I'll talk to you now." That was all he said, before turning and going back into the room.
Gibbs spoke to Tony, who quickly swallowed his mouthful of chocolate and wiped a hand across his mouth.
"I want you with me," he said firmly. "And with him. But not all the time. McGee and David will take shifts as well, and I'll get some other agents to help. Marion," he turned to the woman beside him, "you need to do the same at your end."
"No problems," she said calmly. "I have some good people. I'll make sure someone is with him at all times."
She walked back towards the conference room at Gibbs's side, Tony falling into step behind them. "Don't worry Agent Gibbs," she said quietly. "We'll look after your boy."