As soon the elevator doors had opened to reveal a living, breathing, DiNozzo, Gibbs' first reaction was a wash of relief almost overwhelming relief. Ducky's pronouncement that the body in the morgue had no scarring on its lungs and therefore could not be DiNozzo was all very well but as long as his senior field Agent was still missing Gibbs hadn't been prepared to relax. There was no way Tony would have left him hanging long enough to process his murder scene if it had been possible for him to come in.
"Hey, my car blew up this morning, did you do that?"
Even as DiNozzo taunted Kort, Gibbs was swiftly cataloguing the fine lines of fatigue around the Italian's eyes, the dark bruise blossoming on his neck, not to mention that the fact that usually former homicide detective was still wearing the same, now creased and decidedly rumpled, clothes as he had worn to the office the previous day. He was putting on a brave face, but Gibbs had known him long enough to see through the facade to the hurt below.
"Where did you go with La Grenouille?"
When Kort threw DiNozzo up against the elevator wall and the young man winced in spite of himself as the impact jarred his existing injuries Gibbs' responded on instinct. They'd lost Tony once already today because of Jenny's covert operation. There was no way in hell this slime ball was going to lay a finger on his Agent on his watch. He drew his weapon without a second thought and hadn't needed to so much as glance at the rest of his team to know they had followed his lead.
The way Tony's eyes swivelled in his direction at the sound of three safeties clicking off warmed Gibbs' heart. This whole operation might have gone to hell in a hand basket but at least DiNozzo still trusted him to have his six. Still, the way DiNozzo had taunted Kort didn't fool him for a second, nor did the overly bright grin, or the unrelenting banter. It wasn't just the injuries, or lack of sleep, when Tony was trying that hard something was always seriously wrong.
"Happy Frog Hunting!"
Gibbs held his peace as Kort disappeared into the elevator and DiNozzo finally turned to face his teammate. The smile was too wide and didn't reach his eyes, but the quip was pure DiNozzo.
"What, no balloons?"
McGee was the first of them to respond, as he holstered his weapon and stepped forwards with a warm smile, to clasp DiNozzo's shoulder in a firm grip, and squeeze fondly.
"It's good to see you man," He swallowed hard, not ashamed of the tears that glistened in his eyes. "You had us worried there for a while."
"Yeah," Tony looked genuinely contrite. "Sorry about that."
"Sorry?" Ziva protested sharply, as she stepped forward and poked him hard in the chest. "This is all you have to say? You could not call? You did not text. It was not possible to send us an e-mail? McGee here took photos of your dead body!"
"What do you want me to say Ziva?" A little of Tony's stress leaked out as his own voice rose. "It was complicated."
"Complicated because of your undercover operation for the Director which you did not tell us about?" Ziva raised a brow. "Or because of your latest girlfriend, who just happens to be the daughter of an International arms dealer?"
"That's enough, Officer David," Jenny's cut in from her position at the top of the stairs. "Agent DiNozzo, my office. Now."
"We'll be there in a minute." Gibbs intervened before Tony could reply.
"Last time I looked I was still Director of this Agency," Jenny responded stiffly.
"He needs a Doctor, Jen."
Gibbs' quiet words were softly spoken. But the rebuke in them was all the more powerful for that. Shepherd looked like she still wanted to protest, but the guilt she was still feeling over that morning's fiasco, brought her up short. She had never really appreciated how strongly Gibbs felt about DiNozzo. Until, she saw the way he looked at her when he thought her negligence had caused his death. Now her face coloured slightly as she took in the cool gazes of Ziva and McGee. Maybe, it was unprofessional to put her need for information over the welfare of her operative.
"Perhaps Ducky should take a look at him," She allowed, trying to salvage some authority, knowing full that was what Gibbs would do what he wanted, whatever she said. "I'll be in my office when you're ready."
Gibbs waited until she had turned away before he strode past DiNozzo and entered the elevator. He waited for the younger man to take his place beside him and for the doors to close, before he flipped the emergency switch and brought the car to a shuddering halt.
"Thought, I told you already, I didn't have another explosion in me." Gibbs rebuked without heat.
"Sorry, Boss," Tony ran a hand over his face. "Wasn't exactly on my 'to do' list this morning either."
Reaching out a hand, Gibbs tiled DiNozzo's head sideways, checking out the sizeable goose egg on the back of his head, and running his fingers lightly across the deep purple bruising. Tony stood quietly under his ministrations, and Gibbs didn't underestimate the trust inherent in his compliance. There weren't people DiNozzo would allow to check him over when he was really hurting. And right now his physical injuries were the least of the ex-marine's worries.
"You OK?" Gibbs asked, meaning it.
"Well, last night I was held hostage by crazed drug dealers, plus the undercover operation I've been working on for the last six months just blew up in my face. My girlfriend thinks I'm a world class liar. Her father probably wants to castrate me. God knows, what her mother will say when she finds out. My team mates gave me up for dead and my Boss is mad as hell about the way things have turned out." Tony admitted frankly.
"You let me handle, the Director."
"Actually," Tony turned to look at him. "I meant you."
"Tony, I'm not mad at you," Gibbs sighed, then frowned. "Crazed drug dealers?"
"Not really important right now," Tony allowed. "Unless, you could the fact that I reached for a side arm that wasn't there and then tried to take out the bad guys with a skill that would do James Bond proud but kind of cast doubt on my role as a mild mannered film studies Professor."
"Now, she really is mad at me. And, as much as I like make up sex, I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon," Tony looked bleak. "If ever."
"Aw hell, DiNozzo," Gibbs was sympathetic, in the way that only a man who had come home from deployment to find one wife in bed with someone else could be. Not to mention a man whose passion for his job had goaded another to take a seven iron to him. "You sure know how to pick 'em."
"I should never have let down my guard," Tony berated himself. "She was a mission, nothing else. But the more time I spent with her the more I released. This was how it was supposed to be. This was what other people have and for once in my life I fooled myself I might get to have it too."
"Still might." Gibbs suggested.
"Doubt it," Tony shook his head. "She's not going to want to know me after all of this. You see, she has this thing about liars, really, really, doesn't like 'em and I haven't been exactly honest with her, what with the whole undercover op thing and being a totally different person thing."
"Not that different," Gibbs corrected. "She might have thought she was dating Tony DiNardo, but it was Anthony DiNozzo who won her over. You might be able to salvage something. If not at least now you have a better idea what you are looking for than all those different girls you used to date."
"Coming from a man who has been through three divorces trying to re-capture what he once had that's not as comforting as it might be," Tony's tone was hollow and slightly bitter as he wallowed in his grief. Then he flushed, a deep crimson red, as he realised how totally crass and in-appropriate what he had just said really was. "Boss .. I .."
He trailed off. There were no words that could make any of this better. He had most likely lost Jeanne for good. He had screwed up the Director's precious undercover operation, which hardly boded well for his future career. He had let his own teammates think he was dead and worst of all he had lied to, betrayed and now insulted the one man whose good opinion meant the world to him.
"I should go," He managed woodenly. "The Director is waiting."
As he reached to flip the switch and start the elevator moving again, Tony was surprised when Gibbs stayed his hand, his fingers curling around his wrist in a gentle grip.
"You don't go until I say you go. You don't anywhere I don't tell you to go. I almost lost you this morning because I've too busy trying to respect your abilities as an Agent to watch your six. I'm not going to make that mistake again."
"You think any of this was your fault?" Tony was incredulous.
"I knew you were in over your head. I knew that you had fallen hard for the girl. I hoped that it might work out for you. Better than it did for me," Gibbs made an oblique reference to his failed relationship with Jenny, knowing that DiNozzo would understand. "But I buried my head in the sand and refused to see how bad things were getting. I didn't want to think any Agent I trained would be so obsessed with any case as to put their own through the grinder like this."
"I'm sorry. I never meant you all to think I was dead," Tony apologised abjectly. "I'll speak to the others."
"Anthony," Gibbs turned to ensure that he had his senior field agent's full attention, reaching out to cup his face in his warm, work calloused, hands. "I didn't mean you. I meant Jenny and the way she's lost sight of what's the right thing to do."
"Oh," Tony realised, blinked suddenly at the sting of tears burned as the full implication of Gibbs words sank in. "I see."
"No, you don't," Gibbs gave him a fondly exasperated look. "Not yet. But you're getting there."
"Boss, about what I said before," Tony looked mortified. "I was way out of line."
"No. You were right," Gibbs assured him. "Once you've known what it's supposed to be like it's not easy to settle for second best. But I wouldn't count you out just yet. You still have a chance to find what you are looking for."
"You think Jeanne will come around?" Tony hazarded.
"Maybe," Gibbs wasn't going to make any promises about that. "But I was thinking more about not closing yourself off to the possibilities. Love has the dammest way of finding you when you least expect it."
"Like you and Hollis?" Tony ventured.
"More like me and Abby. If I had let the loss of Shannon and Kelly consume me I would never have let her into my life," Gibbs gave him a meaningful look. "Or you come to that."
"Right," Tony nodded sagely. "Does this mean we're going to hug now?"
"We can skip it," Gibbs hid his smile. "If that's what you want."
Tony gave him a sour look, causing Gibbs to break into a bright grin and reach out to tousle his hair, before slipping his hand behind his neck and pulling him in for a quick, hard, hug. Payback for the one Tony had given him when he thought he had been caught up in that explosion on his return from Mexico.
"Alright," Tony straightened up. "I'm ready to face the music. Let's go see the Director."
"Aren't you forgetting something?" Gibbs raised a brow. "Ducky first."
"No, I hadn't forgotten but I was hoping you had," Tony admitted. "My butt always gets numb sitting on those metal tables."
"Better than lying on one on them," Gibbs reminded him. "Besides, it wasn't a request."
"Of course, it wasn't," Tony smiled. "Love you too, Boss."
"DiNozzo," Gibbs spoke dryly, then he shook his head, the memory of that blackened and twisted body in the burnt out shell of his senior field Agent's beloved car still burnt across his retinas. "You behave and I'll buy you one of those balloons like they have in the Thanksgiving Parade."
"A 38 foot Mighty Mouse?" Tony blinked at him. "That's a whole lot of balloon, Boss."
"Yeah well," Gibbs allowed. "I've got a lot to be thankful for."