The story takes place directly after the end of the episode "deliverance" and contains spoilers and general references to season 6.

BEFORE A FALL

Tony's P.O.V.

Tony has been glaring at the red tie that Mike Franks had left behind, and which was now sitting innocently on his desk. It looked like Gibbs had lent his supposedly former boss a tie so that he could… could do what exactly? Provide backup, conduct interrogations and shoot suspects? Wasn't that supposed to be his.. err.. their job? It's true that he had been obsessing about the relation between Gibbs and Tomas, but something else had been eating at him, and he had a real suspicion that, this time, he won't be able to hold his tongue.

- "You're not still wondering about Gibbs, are you?"

Ziva sounded more amused than irritated, and Tony took his eyes away from the offending piece of clothing, which had become a symbol of things that are better left unsaid, and answered without a trace of humor, "Oh yeah, Ziva .. you can say that."

Before Ziva got a chance to reply, Tony saw Gibbs walking back to the squad room, and it only took a few seconds for him to make up his mind. Any one who knew him would easily confirm that he didn't subscribe to the school of "some things are better left unsaid". He grabbed the tie, and hurried up to intercept Gibbs. The smile on his face was as faked as they come, but he didn't make more of an effort, it would be wasted on Gibbs anyway. The man had been sort of terminally preoccupied these past few weeks, and their exchanges have been short, and mostly marked with impatient, resigned sighs and disapproving looks from Gibbs, while Tony had resorted to babbling more than usual, while trying ineffectively to be both entertaining and competent. He had a split second to think that may be he shouldn't do this, but he found himself already handing over the tie and quietly saying, "Hey Boss, Franks said Thanks .. I assume he left back to Mexico?"

Gibbs didn't really look at him as he took the tie; he just nodded, apparently not interested in answering, and started to walk away.

"Boss.."

"What else, DiNozzo?"

There was that sigh again, Tony noticed. It didn't bode well for him, but he continued undeterred, "Why did you involve Franks in the case, Boss?"

Gibbs just stared at him in a way that made it clear that Tony would better drop the question and make a hasty retreat, or suffer the consequences. Tony was really tempted to do just that, but he felt that the question was legitimate. He found himself wondering if Vance had asked the same thing, and if he got that same daunting glare in response.

"Do you have something against Mike, DiNozzo?"

Tony thought of that incident a couple of years ago, when Gibbs' mentor almost gave him a concussion, but he wisely refrained from voicing that thought.

'It's not that, Boss. You left us a bit in the dark, and you left us behind, there wasn't really much that Ziva and I could do in MTAC while you.."

Gibbs interrupted him with a sarcastic smile, "So, you're angry because I didn't satisfy your curiosity, or because I didn't give you the attention you think you deserve?"

"Ouch!" Tony said in a light tone that didn't betray how much the words hurt. He took a couple of steps back, and raised his hands in surrender, "Okay boss, I will be a good little agent, go back to my little corner over there, and mind my own business."

He thought he had made his escape, not really unscathed, but maintaining a brave front when Gibbs called him back, "Hey DiNozzo, after you go back to that little corner, why don't you do some work.. for a change?" He put a slight emphasis on the last couple of words, and Tony got the message loud and clear. After all, he had been getting that message from Gibbs in subtle and sometimes not so subtle hints lately.

"Gibbs doesn't sound too pleased." McGee was frowning, as he watched Gibbs' retreating back, then he turned to look at Tony and the frown turned into a smirk, "what did you do this time?"

He didn't have the heart or the confidence to banter, so he ignored the question, though he had to give it to McGee, he had summed up the situation perfectly- Gibbs was not pleased with him, and he hadn't been for a long while now. He actually couldn't remember when was the last time Gibbs had sounded something other than irritated or dismissive when he talked to him or about him; however he didn't want to examine this too closely, because he suspected that he would end up with a conclusion that he wasn't ready to face yet.

Gibbs P.O.V.

Gibbs wasn't in the mood to be questioned, not by DiNozzo, not by Vance, and not by anyone. Why was he then heading to see Ducky instead of going back to finish his report? He reasoned that he was probably trying to avoid alienating one more person today. He would just reassure Ducky that everything was fine, and be back at his desk in a few minutes .. yeah ..right!

He stepped into autopsy with the air of a person who was urgently needed somewhere else, and can only spare a few minutes, not that this would effectively discourage Ducky from engaging him in a long conversation, but one could always hope.

-"Hey, Duck!"

"Jethro, I was about to call you, so is everything settled with that young marine? I heard that.."

"Heard what, and from whom?!" Gibbs was aware that he sounded defensive, but didn't make an effort to rein himself.

Ducky simply raised his eyebrows and answered calmly, "heard from your team, they kept me informed.. well as much as they were informed themselves.."

"Have you been talking to DiNozzo, Duck?"

The question was more of a growl, and Ducky stopped what he was doing to look at him pointedly, "No, it was actually Ziva; why, what did Anthony have to say?"

"Nothing of interest." He turned to leave, but Ducky stopped him with a hand on his shoulder, "You didn't tell me if everything is all right with you."

He forced himself to answer the question, after all, that's why he came down here, "I'm fine, Ducky."

His friend released him but continued, "I'm not sure what you thought Anthony would say, but they were worried, it is not easy for them to watch you go into a dangerous situation while sitting there idly.."

"I had backup, and there was no need for more." He turned once more to go, but Ducky persisted, "You may not be accountable to them, but what did Vance say about this?"

Gibbs gave his friend a look that clearly said what he thought of Vance, and of the issue of accountability in general, and then answered with a faint smirk, "same as DiNozzo, nothing of interest!"

He was out of the doors before he heard Ducky calling sharply, "Jethro!" He turned impatiently, and Ducky continued in a calm and slightly sad voice, "pride comes before a fall, my friend.."

He had nothing to say to that, so he nodded and headed toward the lift, feeling tired and a bit disheartened. His day wasn't about to get any better, though, since the doors opened to reveal Vance, and the man looked grim and showed no intention of getting out. They had already had a talk in his office, but apparently something was still bugging Vance. He stepped inside silently, and hoped against hope that the other man would stay silent as well. A few seconds later, Vance stopped the elevator and turned to face him, he barely suppressed a "Now, what?!" growl while vowing to avoid the elevator for the rest of that interminable day.

"I don't appreciate being deliberately kept in the dark, Gibbs," Vance started in a clipped tone, "I don't think your team appreciates it either. I'm starting to wonder why you insisted so much on having them back if you do not trust them enough to do their job.."

He protested angrily "that's not true.." but Vance cut him off sharply, "if you prefer to have a retired agent as your backup, then I have other and better uses for them, and don't think that I wouldn't do it."

Gibbs opted to stay silent as Vance flipped off the emergency switch. As he exited the elevator, he nodded at him and calmly said, "duly noted… Leon."

The subtle threat weighted him down as he headed towards his desk; DiNozzo, Ziva and McGee were still working on their reports, and his memory supplied him with a clear picture of the short time when three others occupied those same desks. He had lost two out of those three, and while he held himself indirectly responsible for one loss, he was officially responsible for the second.

He forced himself to start working on his report, but Vance's threat, Ducky's warning, and the barely hidden distress in DiNozzo's eyes kept playing in his mind. If Mike were here, he would probably tell him that he is tying himself in knots over nothing, that he did what he had to do, the way he thought it should be done, and that pride should be celebrated not shunned. He wondered if that was why he usually opted to seek his former boss' help.

He wondered how long it would take him, if Vance carried out his threat, to join Mike on that desolate beach.

The End.

Author's Note: I wanted to address Gibbs' choice to leave his team behind, again, and for no apparent reason this time. Please let me know what you think, your reviews and comments are greatly appreciated.