DISCLAIMER:- I do not own NCIS or its characters and no copyright infringement is intended.
A/N Just a little reminder that this story takes place after the S6 episode Cloak and before the S6 episode Bounce - where Gibbs gave Tony wonderful support.
Thank you all for your overwhelming support of this story. From those of you who took the time to review, critique and encourage after each chapter, to those of you who read quietly along in the background, L
"How is he?" Gibbs asked as he poured a cup of coffee for the ME and a fresh cup for himself.
Ducky shook his head in exasperation and clicked his tongue loudly on the back of his teeth.
"Extraordinarily stubborn and pig-headed!" Ducky replied.
"Sounds about right."
"He simply refuses to return to the hospital despite the fact that he is in pain and running a low grade post-operative fever," Ducky lamented.
"Say the word and I'll have an ambulance here in minutes."
"No…don't bother…I gave him a sedative, he's sleeping now and there's no sign of infection in his wound. At least he had sense enough to have his antibiotics and pain med prescriptions filled at the hospital pharmacy before he left," Ducky said, sighing heavily. "As long as he gets plenty of rest and takes his meds he should be fine here. I'll look in on him daily to change his dressings until he's on his feet but I would feel better if someone were to stay with him."
"I'll stay tonight, Duck, but DiNozzo would probably prefer you to find someone else to stay from tomorrow onwards."
"Yes," Ducky said looking puzzled. "I felt the tension in the air when I mentioned you were still here. I got the distinct impression that our Anthony is quite cross with you."
Gibbs huffed out a laugh. "He by-passed cross, Duck, and went straight to pissed."
"Oh dear," Ducky said walking from the kitchen to the living room and taking a seat on the couch. "Anthony has had a difficult few days, perhaps he'll calm down after he's had some rest. Although…I'm not sure I understand how he can blame you for the Khalil assignment."
"It's not the Khalil assignment - he's still pissed at me about the Agent Lee/Domino operation."
"Do you, Duck?" Gibbs said raking a hand through his hair in frustration and taking a seat across from the older man. "Then maybe you can explain it to me 'cause I haven't got a clue why he's so worked up about something that was over months ago."
"Over for you, Jethro, but obviously not for Anthony," the elderly medic replied.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Gibbs asked feeling his exasperation levels rising with every minute.
"Oh really, Jethro," Ducky scolded. "For someone with exceptional observation skills sometimes you can't see what's right in front of you!"
"Dammit Ducky, will you stop channelling my ex-wives and tell me what the hell you're talking about!"
"I'm talking about you, my dear friend. Single-minded focus is an admirable trait in an investigator but it can do irreparable damage to marriages and friendships."
"You really are channelling my ex-wives," Gibbs quipped. "Come on, Duck, it's late and I'm tired and in no mood for guessing games."
Ducky sighed audibly. "Do you remember when Anthony first came to us at NCIS? So bright and full of promise. Yet, behind that bravado and bluster was a young lad who had never stayed in one place longer than two years," Ducky smiled sadly at the recollection. "In fact, if I remember correctly, the other agents ran a pool on how long he'd last on your team. The smart money was less than a month, yet here we are eight years later."
"You cured him of his flight instinct, Jethro. Over time, you came to believe in him and in his abilities unconditionally. He'd never had that before. You became someone he could trust with his life and, more importantly to Anthony; he was someone you trusted with your life."
"That hasn't changed," Gibbs said.
"It changed for Anthony," Ducky said solemnly. "It changed the minute you excluded him from your plans in the Domino operation and knowingly placed him in a highly dangerous situation. Don't you see, Jethro? By not allowing Anthony into your confidence, you undermined the very foundation of your working relationship. Then, when he questioned you about it and asked you for an explanation, you brushed it under the carpet and told him to handle it. Is it really any wonder that he's second guessing your motives?"
The room was thick with a heavy silence as both men contemplated the seriousness of the situation.
"What about you, Duck?" Gibbs asked. "As I recall, you were pretty pissed with me as well."
"And with just cause, Jethro! You misappropriated poor Petty Officer Dent from my care to partake in your clandestine plan," Ducky rebuked then softened his tone and added a shrug. "But we resolved the matter and put it behind us."
"Why is it that you could put it behind you and DiNozzo couldn't?" Gibbs asked him.
"I wasn't the one facing half a dozen angry Marines with live ammunition. I wasn't the one rendered unconscious when struck in the face by a rifle butt. I wasn't the one who could have been killed because the full details of the situation were purposely withheld from me."
A full minute passed before Gibbs nodded his head, conceding Ducky's point.
"Has Tony talked to you about this?" Gibbs asked.
Ducky rose to his feet and returned his empty cup to the kitchen. Walking back into the living room, he collected his coat, hat and medical bag and made his way to the door before turning to meet Gibbs' gaze.
"I'm not the one he needs to talk to," he said, before nodding goodnight and closing the door behind him.
Gibbs sat deep in thought on the luxurious leather couch in Tony's apartment. He reflected on the angry, hurt-filled words and the look of betrayal he'd seen in Tony's eyes a few hours ago. He raised the coffee mug to his lips and attempted to take another sip before realizing it was empty.
His bad knee protested as he climbed to his feet and walked to the kitchen to prepare another pot. He changed the filter in the coffee machine and reached into the back of the refrigerator for the "stash" of his favourite blend that DiNozzo always kept on hand. The whirring and gurgling of the appliance was loud in the silence of the apartment, causing Gibbs to walk to Tony's bedroom door to ensure he hadn't disturbed him.
Gently pushing the door open a few inches, Gibbs saw the prostrate form of his Senior Field Agent, sleeping sprawled on the bed, slack-jawed and with his left arm strapped snugly across his chest to protect his injured shoulder.
'DiNozzo and pain killers,' he thought with a shake of his head and a wry grin. He was certain that, at the moment, Tony would sleep through a sonic boom. He pulled the door closed again and returned to the kitchen to wait for the coffee to percolate.
A few moments later with a freshly brewed coffee in hand, Gibbs gently flexed the tense muscles in his back as he walked around the stylishly furnished apartment. He'd been in this position too many times before - walking the floor of Tony's home after a concussion, injury or illness had laid him low. He knew this apartment almost as well as he knew his own home.
Opting for something to read, he glanced at the titles of the hard covers in the bookcase, quirking an eyebrow as he removed a copy of 'Deep Six.' He remembered how Tony had whined and pestered McGee for days to sign his copy. McGee had refused, certain that Tony was ridiculing him. Gibbs was sure that ridicule and a laugh at the younger man's expense were strong motives, but he also believed a small part of DiNozzo was pleased for McGee's success – not that Tony would ever admit to that. Eventually, Gibbs had ordered McGee to sign the book so they could all get some work done. Opening the cover, he huffed a laugh at the inscription, noting that McGee had not used his pen name of Thom E Gemcity or his real name but had signed his so-called 'much-hated' nickname – Probie.
A photo frame on top of the bookcase caught his attention and he looked fondly at the photo of the smiling faces. The photo was a gift from Abby – she had given him an identical one – and it had been taken at a barbeque held at Ducky's home. He placed his now forgotten coffee on the end table, sat heavily in the recliner and looked at the photo. His grin faded when his eyes focused on Jenny's radiant smile and he gently traced her features with one finger.
Besides his job, they were the only constants in his life since he'd lost Shannon and Kelly. With the exception of Ziva, he'd handpicked them, trained them, pushed them beyond their own expectations and protected them unconditionally. He dragged them onwards when they were too exhausted to continue and when they were overwhelmed or troubled. Although there were times they thought him an unfeeling, ruthless bastard they knew, without question, that he'd risk his life for each of them.
Tony's mega-watt smile mocked him from the photograph. During the last eight years they had become a highly proficient partnership as the senior agents of a team with an exceptional closure rate. He knew the team's success was due in no small part to the younger man's remarkable investigative skills, despite Tony's insouciant façade and clowning.
Oh, he knew there were many who thought Tony retained his position on the team by being a "yes man," jumping through hoops to please the Lead Agent. He'd lost count of the times Tony had shown up in his basement with a pizza and a six-pack to privately discuss, clarify, challenge or argue over one of Gibbs' decisions concerning an investigation or to offer alternative suggestions. To his credit, Tony's respect for him and the chain of command had prevented him from doing this publicly or in front of the junior agents.
He knew very well that Anthony DiNozzo was his own man and although they were not flesh and blood, the intuitive ties that bound them, connected them, were forged by the unconditional trust that comes from watching someone's back and having them watch yours. Of course, they didn't always agree and they'd had some world-class arguments but he knew that whenever the younger man was troubled or in trouble – he was the one Tony sought out…until recently.
"I didn't call you because I didn't know if I could trust you!"
His stomach clenched painfully as Tony's anguished words replayed in his brain. Raising an unsteady hand, he scraped his fingers along his unshaven jaw and shook his head in silent denial.
When had he let this happen?
Tony's hesitation in contacting him had nearly resulted in both his and McGee's deaths. That hesitation was a direct result of the mistrust and doubt that Tony felt… because of him.
They had lost their connection and it had nearly proven fatal.
He looked at the photograph again – the smiling, relaxed faces - and he scrubbed his hands over his tired eyes. Casting his mind back to the day of Jenny's funeral, he knew instantly that that was when his relationship with his team members had started to unravel.
They had all been rocked by Jenny's death and hadn't even had time to adjust or to grieve before his team had been torn apart and his agents sent to different parts of the world – and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.
Within 48 hours, he had a new team – handpicked, but not by him. Tony was on board the Ronald Reagan, Ziva was in Israel and McGee was working in the Cyber Crimes Unit. His team, his "constant" had been torn away from him.
That was it.
That was the moment that he started to detach.
He still had his other constant – his job – but he refused to allow himself to form the attachments and working relationships he had with Ziva, McGee and Tony. Though he would never admit it – it hurt too damned much to lose them.
When Langer was murdered on his watch, he started to wonder whether his "distant" attitude had in any way contributed and, for the first time in his working life, he began to doubt himself.
What had he missed? Could he have saved Langer?
He began to work tirelessly to get his agents back and went one on one with Vance who appeared dead against recalling Tony. However, even after his team was reformed he still couldn't, wouldn't reconnect with any one of them, in case they were lost to him again.
Work-wise, they'd picked up where they had left off, as if they had never been parted and at their usual high standard. But the dynamic was off and Gibbs knew that each of them was affected by it.
McGee went from being "Boss" of Cyber Crimes, back to "Probie" and he was surly and arrogant at times. Ziva had returned from Israel distracted and sarcastic, her playful banter a distant memory.
And Tony? Hell, he was so thrown by the off-kilter team and by the absence of "attaboys" and head slaps that he reverted to his default position of team flake and class clown, which only served to further infuriate his teammates.
Gibbs took a deep breath and expelled it slowly as he reluctantly faced the truth. Oh he had his agents back all right…but his team was still missing and he'd been too distracted to notice.
Ducky was right.
He had to fix this. He needed to clear the air with Tony and work at regaining his friendship and trust and he knew that in doing so…once Tony was back on an even keel…. the others would fall into line as well.
The pounding in his head kept pace with the throbbing pain in his shoulder and dragged Tony reluctantly from his sleep. He groaned softly when a glance at his bedside clock told him it was just after 0100.
He spent several moments trying to ignore the pain before he gingerly forced his protesting body upright and, using only one arm, carefully stepped into a pair of well-loved thread bare sweats. He stood gently swaying until the room stopped its nauseating spinning and allowed him to slowly walk to the connecting bathroom. He searched the medicine cabinet for Tylenol before remembering he had last seen it in one of his kitchen cabinets.
Another soft moan left his lips of its own volition and he brought his right hand to his left shoulder to support his very tender wound, feeling the thick wad of dressing beneath his t-shirt.
Opening his bedroom door he used the wall for support and tentatively shuffled his way towards the kitchen in the dim light. Sighing in relief, he made it to the kitchen and leaned on the counter to regain his breath before carefully reaching up to extract the Tylenol from the cabinet.
"Need some help?" came the unexpected voice from his living room.
Momentarily forgetting his injury, Tony spun toward the voice and choked back a moan as the sudden movement pulled painfully at his sutures.
"God dammit, Gibbs!" he hissed through tightly clenched teeth. "You scared the crap outta me. What the hell are you doing here?"
"Ducky's orders – somebody stays with you or we haul your ass back to Bethesda."
"You draw the short straw?" he asked tersely.
"Something like that," Gibbs replied, as he rose from the couch and walked into the kitchen to open the cabinet Tony had been attempting to reach. Spotting the Tylenol, he passed the box to Tony and removed the top from a bottle of water and handed it to him. He placed a new the filter in the coffee machine and started a new pot.
Tony fumbled, one handed and with trembling fingers, to remove the lid from his bottle of pain meds. Finally accomplishing the task, he swallowed his tablets and Tylenol and chugged half a bottle of water. Gibbs picked up the bottle of pain meds, held them at an arm's length and squinted to read the label.
"Says you should take these with food," he said matter of factly.
"I'm not hungry," Tony replied sharply. "I'm going back to bed."
"Sit," Gibbs directed pointing to the dining table.
He saw the mutinous look in the younger man's eyes as Tony bit back the temptation to tell Gibbs to go to hell and lowered his body carefully into a chair. Tony watched in bemusement at Gibbs' familiarity with his kitchen as he opened the freezer and removed two slices of frozen bread and placed them into the toaster. Moments later, they were lightly spread with butter and jam and placed in front of him.
"Eat what you can," Gibbs said quietly, as he helped himself to the freshly brewed coffee.
The younger man repeatedly swallowed the nausea burning the back of his throat and after only a few small bites of toast, he pushed the plate away and tried to rub the pain from his temples. The two men sat at the table in silence as the harsh words, spoken just hours ago, cast long shadows over them.
Gibbs watched in silence as Tony stood and left the kitchen, slowly easing himself onto the couch. He opened his mouth several times to speak but aborted the attempts without uttering a word.
"Just say it, DiNozzo," Gibbs coaxed taking a seat on the lounge chair opposite and taking a long draught of his coffee.
"I don't get it," he said in a voice frosted in anger. "I know I'm not the perfect agent but I do my job and I'm damn good at it. Why does this keep happening?"
"Maybe it keeps happening because you're good at your job," Gibbs replied. "That's why Jenny picked you for the La Grenouille assignment. But I think you're forgetting something, it wasn't meant to be you this time. Vance didn't pick you for this assignment he picked Ziva - you accidentally crashed the party. That make you feel any better?"
"No!" Tony said angrily. He tilted his head in thought and added, "Maybe a little."
Gibbs dropped his eyes to the coffee table and fingered the GSM magazine that was serving as a coaster for his coffee mug. He drew a deep breath and looked back at the younger man.
"To tell you the truth, I'm glad it was you out there."
Tony's exhausted eyes fixed on the lead agent. "What?"
"Ziva's a fine agent but she was trained as an assassin - get in, take out your target and get out. She doesn't have your background in undercover or your experience in the field," Gibbs told him. "And nobody has your God given talent to irritate and distract people."
Tony knew the last comment was said in good humour and he would normally have worn the acknowledgement as a badge of honour. Tonight, he was far from ready to let Gibbs off the hook and his uncompromising glare told the older man exactly that.
"Not only did you complete the assignment but you captured a dangerous terrorist, exposed a terrorist cell and helped end the career of some highly-placed politicians who abused their government positions. Most importantly, you had the skill to get yourself and McGee out alive. That's a damn good job, Tony."
"And Vance?" Tony asked without acknowledging the rare praise.
"Was ordered and manipulated just like you were," Gibbs said.
"You believe that?"
"Yes, I do. By the time he realised he'd been duped, it was too late to stop it and he couldn't contact you," Gibbs said, "but he worked as hard as anyone to find you. I know how you feel about him, Vance and I have our own issues, but he wasn't the bad guy in this."
They sat quietly and Gibbs could almost see the cogs turning in Tony's head as the younger man tried to process the information through a haze of pain meds and fatigue. The water bottle, from which Tony had been drinking, was nearly empty and he had turned his attention to nervously peeling the damp label.
Tony understood that Gibbs spending the night on his couch and making sure he ate and took his meds, said more about their relationship than any words they could articulate and usually that was enough. However, a trust that Tony had thought to be impenetrable had been compromised by doubts and secrets and he needed to know whether it could ever be repaired or whether it was time to move on.
Gibbs watched silently, knowing that he should be the one to address the subject they'd both been avoiding but he felt uncomfortable and awkward as he mentally rehearsed his words. He reminded himself of his own rule, 'Apologies are a sign of weakness – except between friends,' and he took a deep bracing breath.
"Tony…I should have given you the full details of the Domino operation before I sent you into the facility," he said. "It was never my intention for you or Ziva to be injured."
Tony nodded his head without conviction and was clearly not convinced.
"I used to tell myself that we were a good team, Gibbs, that we were always on the same page - but since I got back from the the Sea Hawk, we haven't even been in the same book!" Tony said, his green eyes intent and unflinching. "I have done my best to be a damn good Senior Field Agent to you! I watched your back and I gave you my trust and my loyalty!"
"Why'd ya think I fought so damn hard to get ya back?"
"When did you decide that you couldn't include me in your plans? When did you stop trusting me?" Tony shouted as his anger and hurt boiled over again.
His sudden movement caused a sharp pain from his wound to steal his breath and he closed his eyes and breathed deeply for a few moments until the pain subsided.
Gibbs waited for Tony to recover and used the opportunity to gather his thoughts leaving an uncomfortable and disconcerting silence hanging between them.
"This was never about my trusting you. I thought I may have missed something that could have prevented Langer's death. I was so intent on finding his killer and exposing Lee that I didn't stop to think about who else might be affected."
Still wincing from the incessant throbbing of his shoulder, Tony carefully sought a more comfortable position on the couch.
"I can handle the single-mindedness and I've had eight years first hand experience of the second 'b' in Gibbs," Tony replied solemnly. "But we're partners! We've been partners for eight freakin years - before Blackadder, before Kate and before McGee and Ziva, there was just us - you and me! I deserved better than to be treated like that!"
"You're right," Gibbs replied honestly. "But you need to know that I had no knowledge of the Khalil operation. I would never have sanctioned that."
"I know, Vance told me," Tony said quietly.
"Tony…Langer's death…the death of any agent… any team mate…is devastating. But to have almost lost you and McGee - because you didn't think you could trust me – is so much worse."
The sentence was punctuated with pauses and deep breaths that reflected Gibbs' struggle to put voice to the words. Tony and Gibbs were partners doing a tough job - men of action rather than words - who shared an unspoken bond. Other than the occasional "attaboy" or "on it Boss" they didn't require verbal endorsement - but when it was offered it was spoken and accepted with genuine sincerity and affection.
The feelings of anger, betrayal and mistrust would not disappear overnight but the determined look in the eyes of both men signified their intent and resolve to do everything in their power to repair the damage to their friendship and their partnership – the loss of which was a cost neither one could contemplate.
Tony tried and failed to stifle a yawn as the pain meds made their presence known. Gibbs leant forward, helping him to his feet and feeling a slight tremor and the heat of fever through Tony's t-shirt. He teetered a little before shuffling toward his DVD cabinet and selecting a small parcel wrapped in Christmas paper. He tossed the parcel to Gibbs.
"Bit early for Christmas, DiNozzo."
"I picked this up for you a few years ago but there never seemed to be a good time to give it to you," Tony said wearily. "Maybe this will help with your single-minded focus."
Gibbs raised a questioning eyebrow and began to tear the wrapping. He huffed out a laugh as he read the title of the movie 'Moby Dick.'
"I keep telling you, Boss," Tony said with a tired grin. "You and Captain Ahab have a lot in common."
A small reluctant grin teased at the corner of Gibbs' mouth and he looked up into the smiling green eyes of his senior field agent.
"Go to bed, DiNozzo," Gibbs said as he watched Tony shuffle back toward his bedroom. "I've got your six."
A/N:- Realistically, a breach of trust like this is not likely to heal overnight, therefore, the ending was purposely left a little open to slot back into the series before the episode Bounce and, later, Aliyah when the Tony/Gibbs relationship appeared to be getting back on track.
I hope you enjoyed reading this story as much as I enjoyed writing it!
With every good wish, L