It probably wasn't that Gibbs was a sociopath.
That really probably wasn't it. It was a feelings thing and Tony was generally very accepting of the fact that Gibbs had trouble expressing his feelings to people he was still in charge of who weren't named Abby. Now former agents, Gibbs was all P-D-A up the A-S-S. If you caught the drift. If you were buying what was selling. If you were picking up what was being put down. If-
Okay, he was tired of that now.
But it almost definitely wasn't that Gibbs was a sociopath. That was what needed to be firmly established. Surely there was some complex, lonely hero, ex-marine, amnesia-sufferer, done-got-blowed-up-twice kind of explanation. Well, not that last one, because this wasn't really a new thing and Gibbs had only been blown up once when he started his apparently long-term project to fuck with Tony's head.
Actually, maybe it was worth backing up. Was Gibbs a sociopath?
Eventually there did come a point where it had to be an open question, particularly since at any given moment of his day, Tony might have seriously wavered on the answer. In the old days he would almost certainly have been more optimistic, would have cheerfully said that Gibbs was at least a well-meaning sociopath. If he was indeed, etc.
Now he was feeling less glib about it. Now, on especially bad days, he was starting to really fucking mean it. Sometimes he tried to tell himself the old man was just real mixed up, that he had genuinely forgotten some of the nuances of his old relationships, forgotten some of the insights to which he had been privy, and that he genuinely didn't realise how shitty he was being. Other times Gibbs didn't allow him the luxury of that illusion, he was far too on the damn nose to be stumbling around unintentionally.
Tony knew when he was being knocked down a peg. It was a feeling with which he was thoroughly familiar.
What he didn't get- well, one of the many things he didn't get- was why, exactly. Sure, he'd gotten used to being in charge, he could hardly have been a half-decent leader if he didn't, but he couldn't see how it would be fair to say he'd got a swelled head. Gibbs knew that was one problem he didn't actually have (though he tried to convince everyone he did, he acknowledged that his skills as a con-artist did not usually extend that far for very long), Gibbs had seen too many anxious looks, Gibbs knew too much about Baltimore, about Peoria, about military school. This was why he only stayed places for two years (this and extenuating circumstances), because people eventually picked up the pattern and some of them even realised when he was telling the truth. Then there were problems. Like that Tony had told Gibbs some things that surprised even him, and he used to think Gibbs had a better handle on the whole mess that was his life than he did. Not that that was a particularly high bar.
Then again, there had been moments from the very beginning that belied his cosy assumptions about Gibbs' understanding. That belied assumptions of even casual, first-degree friendship. In fact, that shit belied basic human decency at times. Like, Tony wasn't under any illusions about what a lot of people thought of him, he cultivated those impressions deliberately (he was a method actor), but Gibbs was supposed to be something different, Gibbs was supposed to get him. His captains had always got him, back in the good gone days on the force. His co-workers hated his guts, because making detective when he did amounted to a slap in the face to everyone who wasn't him and they were unfamiliar with the fact that he was actually good at something (one thing), but captains knew good no matter how dysfunctional it was.
Good enough to flout the unwritten rules (and some of the written ones) that said detectives had to do long, hard time as grunts, earning their stripes, getting their personalities whittled into standard gallows-humouriffic alcoholic curmudgeon shape. The guys who retired patrolmen hated detectives who were forty-five for being upstarts, the way they felt about one who was twenty-eight, words could not describe. The fact that he took out half the Baltimore mob on a long-shot and nearly single-handed was not even part of the equation. They figured, with his name and his family, he had an in on that brand of scum-bag. He didn't, but who ever let reality interfere with shitting on a man's reputation?
What the hell was he thinking about again?
Oh, yeah. Like he was ever thinking about anything else these days.
But Gibbs had seen him in Baltimore, he'd seen the situation. That was his point. The whole reason he was now a federal agent was that Gibbs had understood who he was, what he was: he'd thought. If that wasn't it, he really couldn't explain the fact that he had a job. He wouldn't hire him, not if he didn't know at least two of the other hims, if you knew what he meant. It was one thing to play an occasionally hyper-competent but mostly useless dick on TV, it was something else to actually be one. It was something else to hire an ageing child without looking behind the curtain. Something else entirely to put real power in the hands of a shallow braggart with no smarts- and there were definitely times when it seemed like that's what Gibbs thought he had done.
And Tony wasn't taking responsibility for that, because a man who knew when Special Ops-trained, combat hardened marines were lying to him should be able to pick up on the wiles of a sleazy street cop promoted over a decade before his time.
He was wondering about it, if maybe the fact that fast-tracking had ruined some of his other lives was more of a factor in his decision to stay this time than he had previously accounted for. It was the combination of his unnecessarily high education and his fucked-up childhood that gave him the leg-up on this job to fast-track in the first place, so the list of things involved that he didn't want anyone to think about too hard was kinda long. Gibbs knew something about both of those things, but he didn't seem to make the connections the way you'd expect for the Corps' answer to Sherlock Holmes. The explanation for that would have to be that Gibbs didn't notice unimportant things, and what else was Tony so long as he was holding his end up on the job?
He really was worried about the old man though, in spite of everything, in spite of Gibbs' obvious confidence that there was no cause for concern- a confidence which lately had extended to a swift kick in the figurative balls every time Tony tried to cover his ass for him. And Gibbs' ass had needed a lot of covering. He was still a nineties Gibbs, a Gibbs that was nicer and more human, more vulnerable and more willing to actually listen and talk to people instead of just waiting them out and asking if they were done. As interesting as that was, as almost irresistible as that was for someone who was borderline pathologically nosy, it was also causing the second B to be more of a goddamned fucking B in compensation and that shit was getting old. Tony could take an awful lot of crap, but he used to believe that there was a reason for most of it; now he wasn't so sure.
See, one of the unfortunate side-effects of being team leader for a real length of time- long enough for them all to stop believing it was an interim thing, no matter how much they were denying that to themselves now- was that it had humanised the boss. And with humanity came flaws. Tony wasn't so quick to look for mythical, awe-ful explanations for the machinations of the Great and Powerful Gibbs, because he'd been in those boots for real now and he saw the tricks, the tragedy, the crushing pressure. He'd seen the necessity of the uplifting support of a team with real faith in you. Because before the Mexican pirate's appearance, that was what they had. They'd been a team and they had thrived. Now he wondered what he'd done to crash and burn so badly in his last week as boss that they were ecstatic to give up what they'd built for themselves.
Had he been that bad or was Gibbs really that much better? He didn't actually believe in the faultless savant he found himself lauding to other people. He remembered now that he had once seen the man's failings, had once been pretending to live in unquestioning fear of some awesome criminal investigative god descended from Valhalla both to tweak the boss and instil fear in the gullible. When did he stop pretending? Stop teasing and testing? It wasn't like he ever thought Gibbs was omnipotent, he was a semi-functional adult and there may well be baggage, but there was not full-blown psychosis. They wouldn't let him carry a weapon if there were.
But a time had come- when Kate died?- that they all stopped questioning. She used to tell him he followed blindly, that he never questioned, but it wasn't true. He didn't question in front of her. In front of her, before McGee came around, he and Gibbs were unified and without crack. She'd been odd man out and it was important that she was because Kate always had to try to be the best and brightest, she was so afraid of being seen to come up short- they had to knock her down so she could learn. It was when she started coming into her own that Gibbs had drifted up onto Mount Olympus and become untouchable, that Tony now recalled himself beginning to believe his own press. There'd been a time when he knew very, very well that Gibbs subscribed to something of a black and grey morality. It was hard to determine when and why he started getting so many stars in his eyes.
Of course the subsequent rude awakening could be nailed to the very second, and he wasn't the only one left burdened by fresh clarity of vision. Poor Abs, poor Ziva. McGee was all right. McGee, who so doubted his capacity for strength, was the only one who could just as easily stand alone as with their support. He'd never be a solo operative, but he was self-reliant where it counted. Sometimes Anthony fiercely envied him that.
There was no time for envy, though. He'd had precious few hours to pull his shit together before he had to be the hardest rock he knew how to be, to get them all back in the game and beat them up and patch them up and shore them up- to never let them down. With only Ducky not so blind sided by the abandonment, not so busy mourning that he couldn't be angry, and with only Ducky who did not unconditionally forgive when the prodigal leader returned.
And it wasn't like he didn't understand: he was happy Gibbs was back, too. He missed the old prick keenly when he wasn't around and cranial trauma or not, there was still a lot to be learned from him. Tony still looked up to him. He did regret acting on the impulse that he needed extraneous help to get Ziva out of her Code Crazy frame-up situation, because holy shit it pissed him off when Gibbs considered it Tony's personal failure that Ziva felt the need to call Gibbs in to be the cavalry and he couldn't, in good conscience, make a smart-ass remark about it. He regretted even more being such a simpering wimp, letting fugitives and beach bums take the reins of his wagon train. Sure, it was his responsibility that Ziva was in trouble because she was his and everything that touched her was his problem- he bought that Gibbs-logic, because that was how he rolled too- but suddenly Mr. Do I Look Like Your Boss? is running missions and Good-Jobbing Abby and generally sure as hell acting like his boss.
Displaced again and no comedy stylings to fall back on. Could he fault himself for getting confused?
Absolutely. He should have long since dealt with the bullshit that let Gibbs pull his strings like that. He should have at least remembered that he was in charge.
Tony talked himself in circles about the job he did those four months. He'd been so close to honest as team leader, closer than he'd ever been with any of them. He really didn't think there was any other way to do it, not that would work. These people were good, they needed sincerity so they could lean on him without suspicion that he'd take advantage. At the same time, they were so thoroughly indoctrinated on the mask they never stopped seeing it even when he stopped wearing it. Agent Lee probably thought they were all insane, and he really wouldn't blame her if she did. Speaking of which, that was another thing that pissed him off: she earned her shot at field training and even if she probably wasn't cut out for it, she deserved to finish her term. You never knew when the meek would inherit the badass.
But here they all were, dumped, bumped, demoted, and he, at least, was listening to some really choice shit talking about the whole thing. Especially from the people he'd threatened with bodily harm and crime scene clean-up duty after the office beat downs on McGee got started. Even someone as well-liked as the geekozoid was going to get stick for moving from being a probie at the top of the washout deadpool to the senior special agent on the MCRT. Tony knew the deadpoolers were out of luck anyway- Timmy wouldn't be quitting field work for years to come- but Tony was also a pragmatist and they were right that his future ultimately wasn't in it. McGee would never be a team leader. One day he'd have to explain to the kid why there wasn't anything wrong with that. Preferably a day when McGee wasn't telling him the same thing.
Talk about on the nose. He seemed to be taking knock-outs from all comers.
The doorbell rang. Tony stared at it from his position at the breakfast bar which separated his tiny kitchen from the slightly larger living room. He'd had a real good rambling brood on, so his best guess was it was about zero four hundred and either this was McGee with a Batsignal or a wandering drunk. Or he was thinking too loud and he'd woken his neighbour to the left who could hear a pin drop in the parking lot from the roof. Kind of a princess and the pea thing.
Drunks could be good company for this sort of mood. Familiar, comforting. He got up to open the door.
When it was Gibbs and his moustache on the other side, he felt so damn tired he seriously considered just closing it again. There was a lot of total disregard for consequences going around, why shouldn't he jump on the bandwagon? Maybe he'd get fired and he could get a nice cushy job defusing pipe bombs for the NSA. De-stress a bit.
But who was he kidding. How often did he actually let his temper out? Never. That's how often.
"Hey," he said blandly, stepping out of the way and letting the door swing further into the apartment. He dropped his eyes, muttering, "There's beer in the fridge," as he walked away and slumped onto the couch, giving no shit if Gibbs followed him inside or not.
Trying to protect the man (and the man's man, Mike the fucker Franks: that old lush wasn't holding evidence, he was holding a PhD in bullshit- Tony felt like a rookie idiot for not picking that up a hell of a lot sooner) had left him apathetic and exhausted. He'd over done it with the slapstick on the case, he'd been sloppy, but the team hadn't noticed that Gibbs was not Gibbs and they hadn't noticed that there was a touch of bitter bad acting about Tony's carelessness so he counted it as a win. As long as the screw ups weren't real, it was a win. Getting pistol-whipped by his partner's mentor, that was a loss too profound to soberly contemplate, but it was his loss and his losses didn't count.
"You falling apart, DiNozzo?" Gibbs was taking up that tone again, as if he'd caught the naughty puppy sulking over being disciplined. Maybe he actually thought they hadn't figured it out and that Tony felt guilty the crusty old drunk had been 'kidnapped'.
"Not one bit, boss. I have never been better, boss."
"Yeah?" Gibbs sat on the coffee table in front of him, keeping the high ground, "Last time you said that you were lying."
"I will be sure to let you know if I ever get the black plague again, boss."
Gibbs grunted with disapproval. "You think I'm going to forget who I am if you don't keep reminding me?"
Tony grinned darkly, "The thought has crossed my mind. You got a little confused on the Paulsen case- for a second there you thought I was you."
That had stuck in his craw so bad, that You're the boss, because no, no he wasn't. Not with Gibbs wandering in and telling everyone he wasn't back at the same time that he started acting exactly like he was and that You're the boss, that was the whole clusterfuck in a nutshell, wasn't it? The sarcasm, the condescension, the sheer balls of it- how dare he make a suggestion? Hadn't he learned by now not to think independently? The part that was the worst about it? It was true, he had rank or jurisdiction over everyone in the room and somehow he was still the patsy. Whose fault was that?
There was a heavy sigh, Gibbs voice was worn and low, "Some things... clearer than others."
Now he just felt like a jerk. Here he was baiting a man with six kinds of concussion who'd recently relived the worst thing in his life with a room full of strangers harassing him about old times he didn't remember and terrorists he couldn't recognise. Of course, that slack Tony was cutting him was still running out, because he remembered enough- more than enough.
"Jen says you did good." Gibbs was clearly fishing.
"Kept your seat warm for you." The King isn't dead! Death to the Regent!
Gibbs sat across from him in silence, those chilling eyes of his on the floor. He worried his lip with his first two fingers and he looked like he wished he'd bothered to get that beer before starting up this inevitably excruciating conversation.
"Did my best," Tony said. He hated himself for adding that, for still wanting validation, absolution.
"Don't know what you needed me for."
Was that a crack in the unshakeable, unbreakable, invincible confidence of Leroy Jethro Gibbs? Was that Gibbs really, honestly doubting he was the very best thing ever to happen to law enforcement? It couldn't be. "You had your moments. Every few years."
Gibbs stared for a long time, troubled but reticent as almost always. Finally he propped a hand under his chin and said, "Why'd you stay, Tony?"
"You don't know? I was hoping one of us did."
"I don't really need a smartass right now."
"Well, I sure am sorry, boss, but I haven't got much else left to give to this waste of time fucking pretend intervention conversation. You got Oprah in the wings, or something? This isn't you. You don't even have the first idea what you did wrong, do you? You're trying to pay your dues so I'll just bounce back and everything will be like it was. Well shit, Jethro, it's not like it was. You left. I was going to let it all go, the bullshit and the betrayal, the abdication itself; in the interest of this team I was going to let it go. Maybe I let some bitter slide through, my bad, I'm not perfect like you. I'm not some stoic automaton who can turn it on and turn it off at-"
Gibbs scoffed out loud, shaking his head, "You listening to yourself, DiNozzo? You can't turn it on and off? That's what you do! That's what you're about, you're a walking headgame! The whole reason you even have this job is you're a blank goddamn slate. You don't exist, nothing touches you. You are the definition of a stoic automaton. The fact that nobody knows it is the best proof going, the fact that Kate- a professional profiler for God's sake- had no idea what she was dealing with or the things you're capable of... Well, I rest my damn case. How the hell do you expect anyone to know you, there's nothing to know! You're a job description and a bunch of baggage. You got me beat in the bitter and alone Olympics, kid. Beat by miles."
Tony took a swing. Obviously a terrible idea as Gibbs could almost definitely snap him like a twig, but it wasn't exactly his day for rational thought before action and the bald, unadulterated, long-feared truth of that speech hurt him so badly it was a choice between the swing or the really damn unmanly option of bursting into tears.
Gibbs moved with the arc of the punch, kicked the coffee table out of the way, and used Tony's own momentum to turn him flush against him- back to chest- his arms locked around Tony's, his hands on his shoulders. He squeezed once, showing the force of the hold, and waited while Tony's breathing slowed down.
There was crushing silence for a full minute. Tony stared at the carpet, not struggling. He wouldn't win anyway, Gibbs wasn't as strong as he used to be, but he also didn't fight fair. Tony had been taught Queensbury rules and boxing and fencing, but he hadn't been a marine and in the marines, they apparently emphasized dirty-but-effective over elegant and honourable. Also, there was the fact that he felt like a juvenile delinquent from some fifties movie, lashing out at the father-brother-authority figure and he didn't feel good about it. In fact, he was damned ashamed he'd come down to this level. He'd so wanted to maintain the moral high ground.
But. It seemed Gibbs had taken his fall from grace as a cue. A cue to what?
"What did you say?" he barely recognised his own voice.
Gibbs leaned even closer to his ear, his grip still tight, "I said I'm sorry, Tony. I'm sorry."
He went limp and slid out of the hold to face the son of a bitch. "You're sorry."
Gibbs' pale blue eyes were wide and haunted, that stupid moustache distractingly ugly over his rigidly set mouth, "I am."
"Man enough to show your weaknesses, now?" he flexed his arm where he'd been grabbed, "That's handy. What are you sorry for, exactly? I'd like to know."
That was a ready stance if he ever saw one, like Gibbs was expecting further violence at any moment. Well, he wasn't the judge of character he thought he was, if so, because Tony took years to work up enough simmering rage for the one punch he'd already thrown. The quality of his anger tended more towards a seething, icy contempt; that he got calm under duress was one of the few traits he saw in himself worthy of commendation.
"I'm not sorry I quit."
Tony laughed ferociously, "Calling a spade a spade, now, are we?"
The glare he received could have stripped paint and the curled fists were none too friendly, but Gibbs just maintained eye contact, still as a statue, "Maybe I shouldn't have done it like that, maybe I made it a lot harder on you than it had to be."
"Did Abby put you up to this?"
"Shut up before I shut you up."
He bit back a challenge, seeing real struggle on the old man's face. Usually when Gibbs' eyes got that round and his tone got this heavy, weighted with honesty and reluctance, they were both drunk or one of them was on a morphine drip.
"I'm sorry I came back like that. Putting you out of place. I know you-"
Okay, okay, okay. Okay. He was thinking maybe it was that Gibbs was a sociopath.
"Don't come to me playing up the wounded and vulnerable crap and remind me how much you know about my damage when you've just spent five years and three cases taking every kind of advantage of it you ever could. I am not an idiot, Gibbs, I-"
"Never said you were."
"You didn't have to!" Tony came into the other man's space the way Gibbs was always doing to him, feeling immense satisfaction in turning the tables and, especially, in his almost two inch height advantage. Usually he tried not to be taller than Gibbs- it felt wrong somehow- but right now, it was sweet as pie. "Why do you slap me down? I'm not talking about on the back of the head."
He sighed, "You remind me of me."
Tony felt weirdly empty about that, but he also thought he saw now what Ducky had been trying to tell him when he went to the doctor for succour all those weeks ago. "Yeah, there are some crucial differences."
"I know that, Tony."
Except for when he didn't.
Gibbs must have seen the disbelief in his eyes, "I do now."
Oh, honesty. The doubled-edged sword. And there was Gibbs admitting folly and weakness, to being wrong, and Tony recognised in that a more sincere attempt at restitution than anything else the other man could possibly have done. They were showing their hands, now.
"You ever forget to switch off, stop manipulating?" Tony asked. It was an offering, an olive branch, this thing that they did have in common.
"I never switch off."
Well, wouldn't no one be surprised by that. Tony nodded, but he couldn't hide the pained extraction of his next words, "I did. When I was team leader, I did." And I need you to see what that meant for me.
Gibbs' smile was sad and there was emotion in the man Tony did not recognise but which was not dissimilar to regret, "You'll be a better boss than me."
"I still want to learn from you, Gibbs. Jethro. Boss."
"And you will, as my partner. Anthony."
"Gonna pretend to respect me a bit in front of the team?"
"I always respected you."
"Right." Tony went to get them a couple beers, "As far as you're concerned, I'm irreplaceable."