AN: Just a one-shot that came to me, very angsty and a little beating up on Tony.
Disclaimer: NCIS is not mine. Not the characters, not the idea, not the stories ... sigh.
A Question Unasked
He always claimed he'd never given it much thought. Though he was sure he'd asked himself the question hundreds of times over the years. Why are you here? Why tonight? Why not last night? Why are you here?
It was a question he always wanted to ask when he heard those tell-tale footsteps make their way from his front door to the basement steps. Tony always stopped at the third step from the bottom. Always. What Tony did next always depended on Gibbs reaction to Tony being there. And Gibbs never asked him, Why are you here?
Gibbs thought back, trying to remember when the late night visits had started. It was after the team found out about the boats, and he was pretty sure it was before Kate. He was fairly certain Tony had shown up a couple of times after the Y. Pestis episode, but clearly remembered him sitting on the step the night Kate had been taken from them. That had been the first of many silent nights.
There were nights where neither of them spoke. Tony would wait on the third step, waiting for an acknowledgment of his presence. When none came, Tony would sit on that third step and watch as Gibbs shaped his boat. Gibbs would keep his head down, his focus was the boat. But the sounds that surrounded him kept him grounded as his mind wandered. Sometimes he had the old radio on, and could hear the baseball game. Some nights he was working in silence as Tony descended the stairs. Those nights he was glad he didn't turn on the radio; those nights he could hear Tony's breathing and usually tried to match his breaths. Tony could always tell when Gibbs was ready to wrap for the night, and was already halfway to the front door when Gibbs raised his head from the boat.
There were nights where the conversation was free flowing, as if they were old friends catching up on their lives. Tony would usually hear a grunt sounding like "DiNozzo" as he descended the stairs. Some of those nights included a beer, or a jarful of bourbon, or some pizza. Some of those nights Tony ended up staying on the couch. Gibbs was an early riser, but Tony was always gone before he came downstairs.
But, the nights when Tony would not sit, would ask only one question, and would leave after a few minutes of silent contemplation once he received an answer – those were the nights that Gibbs didn't know what to do with. They were usually very difficult questions; questions that Gibbs hardly knew the answers to. But he did his best to answer. Even the ones that were over the line. After a few of these, Gibbs learned to be straightforward and include all necessary information because Tony would not ask for any clarification. There were never any follow up questions.
After Jeanne, Tony had slowly come down the stairs, lingering on three. Gibbs had raised his head from the boat and nodded at Tony. He'd raised his hand in front of him, pausing Gibbs' comment, whatever it may have been.
"Your marriages, were you looking for a replacement?"
Gibbs froze. Well that was personal. He straightened, and began twisting the sandpaper in his hands, formulating his response. "Yes," Gibbs began, "and no." Gibbs raised one shoulder in a shrug, maintaining eye contact with his second. "I was… no-one was here and…" Gibbs started a few times, trying not to say the word lonely. "Isolated. I felt isolated. And guilty. Like I should have been able to protect them." Tony knew which them he was referring to, even without their names stated.
Gibbs continued, his voice a little stronger, "In the rest," he waved his hand, as if indicating people who weren't in the room, "I found something that reminded me of them. One had a quirky sense of humor, one was incredibly smart and one was unafraid of living life. There were other things, of course, but I think I was trying to get back what I'd lost. Not necessarily a replacement, but more like a feeling."
Gibbs sighed and dropped his head, "Took me a long time to realize I'd already surrounded myself with the people… I already had it."
He raised his eyes to his partner, his friend, and waited for the response. It was one head shake or another, depending on if he understood and accepted the response, or believed something different.
Tony nodded. Affirmative. Gibbs nodded back. And Tony left.
After Jenny, there was no sadness or hesitancy. It was all burning anger. Tony had thundered down the stairs, not giving Gibbs any chance to acknowledge him before firing off another question.
"Logically, I know it's not my fault, and you and everyone else can tell me it's not, but I still think it. When will I stop thinking it's my fault?"
Tony looked haggard. His hair was going every which direction, his eyes haunted. His hands were clenching into fists at his sides, then flattening against his thigh, then clenching again. It looked like he wanted to hit something.
Gibbs sighed as he straightened away from the boat. A couple of long steps took him to his workbench, where a glass of bourbon awaited. One sip, and he slowly sat on a stool.
"It lessens in time. You never fully get over it. But your logic is sound, DiNozzo. It's NOT your fault." Tony snorted at that.
Gibbs pressed on, ignoring the small outburst. "Just remember the facts of the situation. She ordered you off her protection detail. She DID need help, she just chose not to involve you or Ziva. She took out five men in a defensive position before succumbing herself. She knew what she was getting into. She ordered you OFF the detail."
"It's the survivor's guilt that will set in next. You wonder why you weren't there; perhaps you'll think you deserved to die too. But you weren't there and you didn't deserve to die. We're not ready for you to go anywhere. You need to remember that you're…" He trailed off. He wasn't ready to have this conversation. He was still hurting after Jenny's funeral.
He heard, rather than saw, Tony's negative reaction. It was a frustrated sigh, and had Gibbs been anyone else, he might have winced at the sounds of Tony retreating angrily up the stairs, slamming both the basement door and the front door on his way out.
"Are you happy?" This one came out of no where. This was supposed to be a silent night.
This time, Tony remained sitting on the steps, reverting back to the comfortable silence; the only sounds to be heard was the rhythmic scraping of sandpaper against hardwood and the occasional clink of a beer bottle.
One night, one silent night, Gibbs had reached some kind of breaking point. Had a bad day. Had a senior agent haunting his stairs. Had too many questions of his own. Tony knew something was amiss. The scraping of the wood went from smooth and deliberate to short and angry.
Gibbs whirled around, throwing the sandpaper block to the cement floor and asked the question. The question he never wanted to ask.
"Why are you here?"
Tony blinked in surprise, movements frozen with his bottle of water halfway to his mouth.
"It's Friday night! I heard you tell Ziva you had a hot date! Did it not go well? Strike out, DiNozzo?" Gibbs was lashing out and he knew it. He just didn't know why.
Tony slowly lowered the bottle of water, screwing the cap on as he stood. Sitting put him at a disadvantage during an attack. And yes, this was an attack. He was shaking with emotion, but was able to slide a well known mask right in place and replied, "Ah, you know how it goes, Boss. Things come up. People cancel." He shrugged one shoulder in a dismissive gesture, plastering a half-smile on his face.
Gibbs snorted, an unbelieving glare aimed at Tony.
"For someone so good at reading people, Gibbs," Tony practically spat his boss's name, "you can't even see what's going on right in front of you, can you?" Tony's mask was slipping, and he was letting his emotions show. This one happened to be anger.
"Right in front of me?!? What I see, DiNozzo," Gibbs used the same tone of voice, "is a frat boy posing as an agent who announces his intended conquests and doesn't take anything seriously." Gibbs knew this not to be true, but needed to know why his senior field agent felt the need to put on this show, day in and day out.
Tony snorted derisively, showing his distaste at the turn of the conversation. He dropped his eyes to the floor, and shook his head. "Of course that's what you'd see," Tony said quietly. "Wouldn't want you to see below the surface, now would I?"
Gibbs stood stock still. He wasn't sure Tony was talking to him right now.
Tony's focus went from the stairs to Gibbs' face, as he climbed up one step backward. "Ever stop to think, perhaps, just maybe, that's who they need me to be? The person to draw their attention to the trivial? Away from the nastiness that is our job? I know McGee doesn't need to dwell on the dirty part of our job, he's too innocent. Ever think, Boss, that I'm there to distract the sometimes bastard that is my boss? Get him to focus the anger on me, instead of Vance or someone who won't be as able to take the anger or smack upside the head?"
Tony took a deep breath, and stepped up another two steps, still keeping his eyes locked with Gibbs'.
"Maybe the frat boy is easy for witnesses to talk to, maybe the romeo is there to get a suspect to feel comfortable, maybe the not taking things seriously is a distraction to keep things lighthearted?" Another step backward up the stairs. "Maybe a lot of what I say about my personal life is highly exaggerated?"
"Ever stop to think that maybe I'm what everyone wants to see, instead of what I really am? Because it's necessary. Because that's what people need? Because it helps in one way or another?"
Gibbs blinked at the honesty in the statements. Tony had practically just admitted to acting like someone else, because it was necessary to help his team.
"But why are you here?" Gibbs pressed, "Is it because it's what you need?"
And Tony was now at the top of the stairs, his voice so low that Gibbs had to strain to hear him.
"Ever stop to think, Boss, that the real Tony is so off-kilter and damaged, no one would like him? I'm here, Gibbs, because it's what you need."
And with that, Tony was gone, leaving an extremely shocked and bewildered Gibbs to piece it all together.**
Monday morning, and Gibbs was up early. He hadn't had a very restful weekend. Sleep had eluded him ever since the conversation with DiNozzo on Friday. Sighing, he dropped heavily into his desk chair, and busied himself with work.
0700 saw Ziva and McGee wander in. Tony wasn't too far behind them, and as Gibbs glanced up, he heard Ziva's question. "Good weekend, Tony? How was the hot date on Friday?"
Tony grinned deviously, raising his eyebrows at Ziva. "Well, all I'm going to say is that my Friday night was certainly heated!" Gibbs noticed, for the first time, Tony had told the truth, but he had answered a different question. Gibbs wondered how often Tony's bragging was true, but not in the way in which it was portrayed.
Ziva laughed, as if she was privy to some private joke, and McGee had a small smirk on his face. McGee sighed dramatically, "Oh, Anthony," McGee said, in his best impersonation of Ducky, "When are we going to see you settle down with a good girl?"
Tony grinned at McGee, "Dunno, Duck. Have a daughter?"
Tony's eyes flicked over to Gibbs, who'd been watching the interaction with unconcealed interest. Gibbs was able to see the animation in Tony's face and body language, but his eyes were shuttered. He'd walled himself off again, mask firmly in place. Gibbs wondered how he'd missed it all before. And how in God's name was he going to get Tony to open back up to him.