"DiNozzo, wait."

Tony sighed heavily and dropped back into his chair. He waited while Kate and McGee left, gave Kate a fake smile when she glanced over her shoulder with a concerned look on her face. When she turned again to enter the elevator, Tony looked down at his hands in his lap and shuddered at the imagined blood he saw there. In reality, all he should have seen was skin rubbed red and raw from his furious scrubbing. He took a deep breath and looked up, starting slightly at Gibbs' sudden presence on the edge of his desk.

Tony fought with everything he had left after a wholly draining experience not to get up and run, to get away from Gibbs' soul-piercing gaze.

"I can see that," he'd said after Tony admitted that he had liked Jeffrey.

At that moment, Tony had already felt like he had Jeffrey's knife planted firmly in his chest. He didn't need Gibbs' twisting of the handle.

"I was pissed, DiNozzo."

Gibbs' words had Tony's gaze jerking up from his raspberry-soap-scented, tingling, non-bloody hands to those icy blue eyes.

"Can I go home now?" Tony asked, hating the strand of pathetic pleading threading through his tone.

Tony thought he saw Gibbs wince. But he chalked it up to a tic from too much caffeine.

"It's been a long day," Tony continued, wanting Gibbs out of his personal space immediately, if not a second sooner. "Days? Whatever. I just need a hot shower and some sleep, and then I'll be good to go tomorrow. I'll be back in the office early, not a minute late, I promise."

It was funny, Tony thought as he sat there, trying to not fidget—glad the bone-deep exhaustion prevented it—under Gibbs' unreadable glare. He wondered what would happen if he hadn't censored himself, just this once, and what Gibbs would say if he had said what he was thinking.

He imagined it would have gone something like this:

"It's been a long and bloody day. Days? How can I not know how long it's been? Is that strange? Whatever. I just need a hot shower so I can get the rest of the imaginary blood off my skin and some sleep, you know, real sleep, not I'm-only-going-to-close-my-eyes-for-a-second-so-I-can-make-sure-no-one-kills-me-while-I'm-supposedly-resting sleep, and then I'll be good to go tomorrow because I'm always good to go, no matter how many people I kill. Even if it's someone who I bonded with because of our pathetic excuses for fathers, among other things. I mean, he would have given me an ear-to-ear throat grin if I hadn't shot him first so I guess it's justified. I'll be back in the office early, not a minute late, I promise, because even though I'm dead tired (pun brutally intended), I'm also so strung out that sleep will be as impossible as you getting that boat out of your basement in one piece."

"Oh, and by the way, I cover my pain with humor. It's frighteningly, heartbreakingly effective."

"And yeah, postpone that psych eval, would ya? 'Cause the way I feel, I'd be a big ol' Failasaurus if I had to do it right now."

Gibbs watched his agent struggle, saw the fatigue on his face and almost sent him on his oh-so unmerry way. But he was a bastard after all, so he simply waited for DiNozzo to speak again.

"Wait, what did you say?" Tony asked, a look of confusion on his face.

Gibbs noted with every ounce of the concern he was having such trouble expressing that DiNozzo had scrubbed his hands raw upon returning to the office but had somehow missed the droplets of blood on his face.

"I said I was pissed, DiNozzo," Gibbs repeated. He made his voice as soft as he could while still picturing Tony motionless in that bloody car. "Are you okay?"

Tony laughed softly at that and Gibbs winced again.

"You should really lay off the coffee," Tony said cryptically.

"What's that have to—never mind," Gibbs said, shaking his head. "What I'm trying to say is that you scared the shit out of me, DiNozzo."

"Sorry, Boss," Tony said, his eyes dropping back to his lap. He scooted his chair forward so his pseudo-bloody hands disappeared under the desk. "And sorry for saying sorry. But Jeffrey said he thought I was a cop so that's why he dragged me through the stream. I didn't mean to be out of contact."

Gibbs made a rude sound in his throat, and this time, Tony flinched. Gibbs took a slow breath and cursed that his concern always came out as anger, or frustration, or disappointment. He didn't mean for it to happen like that, but somehow it always did.

Especially with DiNozzo.

If Gibbs was honest with himself, he knew the reason. He was protecting himself because he knew that the more time went on, the closer he felt himself getting to his young agent. And he just couldn't allow himself that closeness again—not after losing Shannon and Kelly. So he found himself saying hurtful things to keep Tony at bay, holding back the praise—even when it was due, overdue even—that he knew DiNozzo craved, needed like oxygen. Gibbs knew the reasons, all right. But he also knew it still made him a bastard.

Gibbs finally spoke, wishing Tony would look at him. "That's not what I meant."

Tony's eyes came up at that and Gibbs wished he'd stop looking at him. The absolute—resolute?—blankness in those green orbs nearly took his breath.

"You should have gotten out of the damned car, DiNozzo," Gibbs said, his voice angry even as he battled his rising ire. He knew it was misplaced. He was pissed at himself for allowing the agent to take the stupid assignment, for letting him get lost—and mostly for worming his charming way into a heart he'd thought had closed up shop years ago. "I knew White's MO was slitting throats, and when I came up to that car, when I saw all of that blood, and dammit, when I saw you slumped forward like that, not moving, not knowing whether you were still breathing or busy choking on your own blood…"

Gibbs couldn't finish, his words thoroughly roadblocked by the lump in his throat. Tony's tired gaze stayed locked on his, though, and Gibbs knew he'd gotten through.

He still needed to say it.

"I was afraid I'd lost you, Tony, and I'm sorry that my fear came out as mean sarcasm," Gibbs said, looking at his own hands. "I guess I'm no good at expressing my emotions." He paused, looking back at Tony, his lips quirking up in a tiny smile. "Like I need to tell you that."

There was a shocking depth of understanding in Tony's eyes when he responded, "I know, Boss. I know."

Tony pushed his chair back and stood, wincing as he stretched too-long-tensed muscles. He stood there for a moment, regaining his equilibrium.

Gibbs watched him and fought the urge to touch him, to ground him back in a world where no one was trying to kill him. But he didn't, knowing that even a gentle show of concern would probably be too much for his wholly wrung-out agent.

Gibbs went back to his own desk as Tony moved toward the elevator. The younger agent stopped and looked back, his eyes dark and unreadable. "I really did like him."

Gibbs smiled this time, not the slightest bit surprised that his agent, even in his fragile emotional state, was giving him the opportunity to do it right this time.

"I know, Tony. I know."