Two hours after the shooting Tony was giving his statement to another team as required by NCIS regulations. And Gibbs was sitting beside Paulo's bedside trying piece together the story from hesitant whispers he coaxed from the boy.
He could hardly believe that it was only 24 hours since former Navy Lieutenant Franco Raffaele had escaped from custody and a mere six hours since Paulo had been reported missing.
Franco himself was laid out on a table in autopsy with a bullet from Tony's gun through his forehead. Paulie was in a bed in Mercy Hospital.
No one knew how Franco had found out where the boy was living, and now no-one would know why he had stopped to abduct Paulo rather than just fleeing the country. But what Franco did not know was that there were GPS chips not just in the boy's phone, but also in his shoes and in his school bag.
In the tense stand-off that ensued the agents saw just what sort of man Franco Raffaele was.
Holed up and with no hope of escape, Franco had held Paulo's semi-conscious body in front of him like a shield, a gun pressed to his child's head.
Gibbs heard Franco's and Tony's voices overlapping as he moved towards them. "Put him down! Put down the gun! I'll kill him! I'll do it! Step back! Put down the gun!"
As Gibbs came into the room, Franco's eyes flicked towards him and by reflex the hand holding the gun moved in the lead agent's direction. In that second Tony fired. Franco's body dropped, his arm still clutched around his son.
Although there was no doubt that Franco was dead, Gibbs kept his weapon trained on him as Tony moved in to gently lift the child from the floor.
As he recorded the last details of Paulie's statement' Gibbs thought he had all he needed. He sat back in his chair and looked closely at the child.
Paulie's eyes had been fixed on the bed clothes throughout the interview. But finally he raised them and met Gibb's gaze. "He's dead, isn't he?" he asked softly.
Holding the eye contact, Gibbs nodded. To his surprise Paulie's eyes filled with tears.
Tony appeared in the doorway and stood for a moment, one hand resting on the jamb. Then he drew a breath and entered the room. Moving slowly, he sat on the side of the bed. He looked, Gibbs thought, exhausted.
"Paulie," Tony began.
"You killed him, didn't you?" the child interrupted, his voice choked.
Tony hesitated for a second before meeting Paulie's eyes and giving a small nod. "Yes," he answered simply.
Paulie exploded up from the pillow.
"No!" he sobbed, tears now coursing freely down his cheeks. He pounded both small fists against Tony's chest, momentarily rocking the agent back. Paulie kept flailing, but instead of pushing him away Tony wrapped his arms around the child and pulled him close, effectively smothering his movements.
Gibbs rose anxiously from the chair, but Tony gave a quick shake of his head. Gibbs could still hear the child's muffled voice sobbing "I hate you! I hate you!" He hesitated, but Tony shook his head again and Gibbs slowly sat back down. Tony closed his eyes and turned his face away from Gibbs.
Finally Paulie stopped struggling and his small body slumped limply against Tony's chest. Tony held him in his arms for a few moments, and then gently lay him back on the pillows. Paulie immediately rolled onto his side away from the agents and curled into a tight ball, burying his face into his pillow, still crying quietly.
Tony simply sat there, making no move to touch the child. Then he rose slowly and walked to the door. He turned to look at Gibbs. Gibbs glanced at the child but again Tony shook his head. Gibbs' mind turned back to the events of a year before, and he deferred to what he accepted as Tony's better understanding. Rising, he followed his senior agent from the room.
Tony pulled the sliding glass door partially closed and he and Gibbs stepped away into the corridor.
Gibbs looked at him but Tony was looking at his shoes, his hands jammed in his trouser pockets, neck and shoulders rigid and still. Gibbs didn't speak, giving his senior agent time to compose himself. After a few moments Tony looked up. His eyes were dry, but there was a deep sorrow there that cut through Gibbs like a knife. Tony's eyes were old. Gibbs rested a hand on Tony's shoulder, gave a gentle squeeze and stayed silent.
After a few seconds, the corner of Tony's mouth quirked a little. It was nowhere near a smile, not even a try for one, but it was something. Gibbs knew what was coming. "I'm fine, Boss," Tony reassured him, "I am, really."
Gibbs shook his head at the predictability of his senior agent and slowly removed his hand. Together they looked back through the door. Paulie was no longer crying and seemed to have fallen into an exhausted sleep.
Gibbs frowned. "I don't understand," he murmured, as much to himself as to Tony. "I don't understand why he behaved like that."
Gibbs started and stared at the younger man. "Can you tell me?" It was an inquiry, not an order.
Tony paused, bit his lower lip and furrowed his brow. His silence didn't bother Gibbs. While Tony obviously had a unique insight into Paulie's mind, that was not the same as articulating it to his boss.
Finally he spoke. "His father was a bastard," Tony began quietly, "but there was always a chance that he wouldn't be. There was a chance that one day he would say he was sorry, that he didn't mean it. Maybe one day he would change. Maybe one day he'd ..." he struggled, "he'd be a real father. Maybe one day he would put his arm around your shoulder and say...." His voice dwindled.
Gibbs was not sure he understood, but he did notice the change in the pronoun that Tony used. He waited. Tony looked at him, his eyebrows raised in inquiry. Wordlessly, Gibbs shook his head.
Tony drew a slow breath, frowned and then continued. "Until today Paulie had hope - hope that his father would be something other than a bastard. The hope hadn't been beaten out of him yet." He turned to look at Gibbs. "That hope was something to hang on to, something to look forward to. That maybe one day he'd have a father like everyone else did." Tony shrugged, almost apologetic. "It's a powerful thing, hope, even if it isn't real."
He turned to look back at the now sleeping child. "And I took that away from him," he said softly. "His father was a bastard, and now, thanks to me, he'll always be a bastard. I killed his father. And his hope."
There was silence. Tony turned and slowly walked away. As if suddenly overcome by exhaustion, he folded into a chair in the waiting area and dropped his head into his hands.
Whether because Tony needed him, or because he needed to be close to Tony, Gibbs moved silently to sit beside his senior agent.
Gibbs had no idea what to say about Paulie's feelings, but there was one thing he did know. "You did the right thing, Tony, you know that don't you? The shooting. It was absolutely the right thing to do. You saved his life."
Tony raised his head and looked at him, his eyes clear and steady.
"I know Boss. And I'd do it again, in a heartbeat. But it still hurts."
Gibbs was reassured. At least Tony had the comfort of not second guessing his actions. But there was more he needed to say.
Gently he again rested his hand on Tony's shoulder, ensuring that he had the younger man's undivided attention.
"The easy part of being a parent," he began slowly, "the fun part, is doing the things that make your child happy. Make them smile." His mouth crooked up momentarily at the recollection. "But the most important part, and the hardest part, is doing the things that make your child unhappy but that you know are necessary." He drew a slow breath. "There are things you have to do to teach a child and to keep them safe. Seeing your child sad or angry, seeing them cry and knowing that it's because of something you did, it breaks your heart, but you do it. Because that's what a good parent does, Tony. That's what you did today. You did what you had to do."
Tony was silent, pondering the words then cleared his throat. Gibbs could almost see him trying to decide. Ask, Tony, he thought. Ask.
"Do you mean like spanking them, if they're naughty?"
"No," Gibbs responded immediately, "I mean like giving them medicine that they don't want." His mind flashed back to an image of Kelly at five years old, big blue eyes filled with tears begging him not to let the doctor give her a shot. How he'd made himself hold her down he still didn't know.
He shook his head a little to clear it, and continued. "If they are naughty, you correct them, deny them something they want, ground them. But hitting them?" He shook his head.
Tony looked at him, frowning. "So if..." he hesitated, "no matter how naughty..." he hesitated, "... Kelly was, you never spanked her?" Tony's shoulder was tight under Gibbs' hand, his eyes watchful.
Gibbs gave the shoulder a reassuring squeeze, to convey that the question was allowed. Then he shook his head again. "Never."
Tony raised his eyebrows.
"I don't mean she was never naughty," Gibbs clarified with a slight smile. "But I never hit her."
"Never?" Tony asked in disbelief.
"Never. Tony, I'd never hit a child. No adult should. You're an adult for god's sake. If you can't find a better way to communicate with a child than by causing them physical pain, then you've got no business raising a child. And it doesn't work anyway. All you do is make them angry and resentful. And you show them that if someone hurts them or defies them, it's okay to use violence. I wanted my child to learn that doing physical harm to another person is only acceptable when it's in self defence or to defend another person, but not just to get what you want."
"Or if they need a head-slap?" Tony asked glancing sideways at Gibbs, a corner of his mouth twitching.
Gibbs gave a snort. "You're not a child, DiNozzo" he retorted. "And I never actually hurt you. " He hesitated. "Do I?"
Tony shook his head. "No Boss. I know it's just your way of showing your strangely misplaced affection for us."
Gibbs shook his head, then conceded the point with a small smile and a shrug. But Tony was frowning again, and Gibbs raised his eyebrows in inquiry.
"What if the child does something," Tony began, "something really bad? What about then?"
Gibbs paused. He wondered what Tony was thinking of, what he had done as a child that he thought justified the way he had been treated. Gibbs tried to imagine the man as a boy. He knew that for all his jokes and teasing Tony was not a cruel person, nor was he destructive or violent. He would have been high spirited, but to Gibbs' way of thinking that's what children should be. No matter what Tony had been told, Gibbs was sure that by his standards there was nothing Tony would have done as a child that was "really bad". And he needed to make Tony understand that no matter what he had done, it made no difference.
"No Tony," he said firmly. "Nothing justifies it. I made a decision when Kelly was born that I would never hit her. God knows, sometimes I was angry enough, but something always stopped me."
Tony's eyes asked the question.
"That," he said softly, gesturing with his hand towards the door to Paulie's room.
"But you weren't like his father. You would never have...." Tony responded immediately, denial strong in his voice.
"I know that. I would never treat my child, or any child, the way Paulie has been treated." Or the way you were, Gibbs thought, but did not speak it aloud, trusting instead that it was understood.
Gibbs could see Tony needed more. "If it's okay to hit a child when they do something "really bad"," he explained, "then it's up the parent to decide what is "bad enough". And it's up to the parent to decide when and how hard to hit." He could see a crease re-form on Tony's forehead as he struggled to absorb Gibbs' words. "Every time a child misbehaves, the parent has to decide how to react, how to discipline the child. Most parents will decide wisely. But some are going to make wrong decisions; terrible, awful decisions. Decisions made out of anger or frustration or exhaustion." Now he spoke more slowly. "If a parent decides it's okay to hit a child once, then they can decide to keep hitting, because they think they have the right to do it. That puts every child at risk." He paused and looked over at the door to the room. "And if even one child ends up like Paulie, that's too high a price."
Gibbs wasn't given to speeches but he wanted Tony to understand. He wanted him to see that his father, and Paulie's, had fallen so far below the standard of care that a loving parent should provide. He needed Tony to understand that in Gibbs' eyes nothing he or Paulie had done could ever have justified even one day of the treatment they received. He needed Tony to know that he deserved better.
Slowly Tony nodded, and Gibbs squeezed his shoulder again.
"What you did," Gibbs finished softly, "showed me one thing. It showed me that you'll be a good father one day."
Tony gave a quiet snort and looked away. But his eyes came back, searching out Gibbs' gaze. He was wary, as if looking for the retraction, the joke, the punchline. Gibbs did not look away.
"You will Tony," he insisted. "Today, you did what you had to do. You kept him safe. And then you sat there and let him yell at you, let him say he hated you. You sat there through his anger and his tears and you didn't hit back. That's what a good father does."
Tony closed his eyes and dropped his head. After a few moments a slight, almost shy smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
"I can hardly imagine it, Boss," he murmured.
Gibbs smiled. "I can," he affirmed softly. "I can."
I never intended continuing this story, because people seemed to like it and I did not want to ruin it! But this idea popped into my head and wouldn't go away.
I also never intended including an anti-spanking message in a story, but it fit this story so well. And it is consistent with my vision of Gibbs as a father. I am really uncomfortable with stories in which physically violent punishment is meted out to children in the name of discipline. Despite my views, I don't post reviews criticizing those stories, because people are entitled to write what they want. I am hopeful of receiving the same courtesy in return.
Otherwise, please feel free to review.