"Take a seat, Agent DiNozzo."
"Tony." Tony gave a broad grin. "Call me Tony. Makes things less formal – I'd prefer to be on first name terms with someone who's gonna be rummaging around in my head for the next hour."
"Tony – if that makes you feel more comfortable." Dr. Farley gave him a pleasant smile.
"It does. Hey, I'd shake your hand but…" Tony gestured with his head to the sling encasing his right arm. He used the movement to take a good look at Farley. He judged him to be in his mid-forties; he had thinning dark hair and a round, almost cherubic face. He was fat and looked like he dressed more for comfort than for style. He was wearing a chunky cardigan in a particularly unpleasant shade of green, buttoned up over a plain beige shirt. His only really interesting feature was a pair of perceptive and unusually dark brown eyes.
Tony glanced around the room, taking in the neutral coloured walls, comfortable chairs, and state of the art computer system. "Nice place you've got here. You sure you work for the Navy? You've got cooler tech than we have. McGee would be so jealous."
"Please sit down, Tony."
Tony did as he was told. "Wow – these are comfy. Is it all part of the deal? Make it so comfy we forget we're in a shrink's office and feel like we're at home, relaxing on the couch in front of the TV? That how it works, Dr. Farley? Is that what I should call you, by the way? Or maybe you want me to call you by your first name – part of the whole making-things-cosy deal?"
"What makes you most comfortable?" Dr. Farley gazed at him from bland brown eyes.
"Well, most people are more comfortable with first names – creates an illusion of intimacy even if it doesn't really exist." Tony shrugged. "Ooh – see what I did there? That was a deflection. But you know that already – see, I figure being a shrink is like doing an interrogation, and I've seen Gibbs do enough interrogations to know all the tricks." He leaned forward and spoke in a low, cold tone. "So you'd better be good to get past me, Dr. Farley."
The other man gazed at him impassively. Tony grinned. "Hey, lighten up. I'm just kidding. What is your first name anyway?"
"Simon. You can call me that if you want."
Tony laughed. "No. I just wanted to know what it is. When you get to know me, you'll realise how nosy I am. I'd prefer to call you Dr. Farley."
Dr. Farley didn't react, which was kind of annoying. Tony liked people to react.
"Which is interesting," Tony continued. "Because it implies I've cast us in certain roles, doesn't it? You as the "Doctor", the authority figure – me as "Tony" - maybe I'm more comfortable in a deferential, even subservient role. Or maybe I just want you to view me as unthreatening - and kinda cuddly."
"Is that how you view yourself?"
Tony laughed. "Sure – I'm very cuddly." Dr. Farley didn't smile. Tony could see this one would be a hard nut to crack. "You don't believe me?" he asked.
"No – I think *you* don't believe you," Dr. Farley replied. "I think you think you're the complete opposite of unthreatening and cuddly. You think that you're very dangerous indeed."
Tony's smile broadened, and he sank back into his chair. "Oh, I knew this was gonna be fun," he said. "If my arm wasn't in this damn sling I'd be rubbing my hands together in glee right now."
Dr. Farley gazed at him thoughtfully. "So, tell me about your injury, Tony."
"What do you want to know?" Tony shrugged and then winced slightly as the movement hurt his shoulder. "It's all in the report - they gave you a report on me, right? I mean, it's why I'm here. I got shot and it's in the regs that before I can return to duty I have to see a shrink for a psych evaluation."
"I've read the report. I'd like to hear about the incident from you."
"I'm not traumatised by it, if that's what you're wondering. I've been knocked out, beaten up and shot at more times than I can remember. Oh, and someone once deliberately infected me with the pneumonic plague. I didn't have to see a shrink before they let me go back to my job then. Although I guess the people who write the regs probably didn't think to include a clause on the plague. It's so medieval, dontcha think?"
"I think it sounds terrifying. I note that you nearly died on that occasion." Dr. Farley glanced down at his notes.
"Nah." Tony waved his free hand. "Gibbs wouldn't let me die. Apparently there was an 85% chance I wouldn't make it, but Gibbs told me I had to live. So I did."
"Do you always do what Agent Gibbs tells you?"
"He's my boss."
Dr. Farley raised an eyebrow.
"Does the raised eyebrow mean something in particular? Just, when Gibbs raises an eyebrow it usually means 'shut the fuck up, DiNozzo'. I talk a lot. You might have noticed."
"Any reason you didn't want to answer my question about doing whatever Agent Gibbs tells you to do?"
"I did answer it."
"No, you deflected – but, as you pointed out, you're a veteran of many interrogations, Tony. You know that." Dr. Farley sat back in his chair and clasped his hands together over his substantial belly.
"Gibbs is my boss. I obey his orders." Tony shrugged. "If you'd met Gibbs, you'd understand why."
"I have met Agent Gibbs," Dr. Farley informed him blandly.
"Ah yes. Ari." Tony remembered the shot to the shoulder Gibbs had taken six years ago. Presumably Gibbs had taken a psych evaluation back then too. "Man, I don't envy you having to get inside Gibbs's head. Bet that was scary."
"I can't discuss another patient with you, Tony."
"But you can discuss me with him, can't you?" Tony said, in a harder tone than he'd intended. "You're a Navy shrink, Doc, and this psych eval is a regulatory requirement. Any report you write will go to my boss. And yes, I did call you 'doc' just then to belittle you, bring you down a peg or two, make it clear you don't intimidate me. Hey, maybe I don't like being in a subservient role as much as we both thought, huh?"
Dr. Farley smiled. "We could talk about it. I note from your file that you once turned down an opportunity to have your own team."
Tony flicked a piece of lint from his jeans. "There were reasons. It was complicated."
"You haven't had a promotion in eight years. Does that bother you?"
Tony glanced up sharply. "I'm happy in my job. I like it where I am."
"Okay." Dr. Farley nodded.
"Let's talk about how I got shot," Tony said firmly.
Tony lay flat on his belly under the broad beams. They cast shadows over the upper level of the barn, acting as camouflage, concealing him. Clutching his gun in his hand, he slid a few inches closer to the edge and peered down into the main area of the barn beneath.
Gibbs, McGee and Ziva were sitting there, just a few feet away from him – and they weren't alone. Their suspect, Lieutenant Mark Collins, had them sitting on ammunition boxes with their hands tied behind their backs. Tony watched as Collins came into view, directly beneath him. He was carrying a massive machine gun – no surprises there, as the man had a fascination with weaponry going back to kindergarten from all the info Tony had dug up on him.
"You've seen too many action movies, Collins," Tony muttered to himself. "Think of yourself as quite the Rambo, dontcha?"
He was surprised that his hunch about the barn had paid off. He hadn't expected Collins – or his illegal weapons cache - to actually be here. Neither had anyone else on the team, judging by the sighs and rolled eyes that had been their reaction to his suggestion that they check it out. They'd only come here in the end because they had no other leads. After an hour and a half in the back of the car with Gibbs driving, half of it cross-country without a road in sight, Tony had jumped out of the car the minute they arrived and immediately thrown up.
They'd left him there to recover while they went to check out the barn. Had they been sloppy? That wasn't like Gibbs, but they'd clearly walked straight into Collins's lair. Tony wondered who'd been more surprised – his team or Collins?
Tony had sat beside the car, still feeling green around the gills, for about twenty minutes. When they hadn't returned after that time he'd become worried. He'd crept up a flight of rickety old wooden stairs on the outside of the barn and entered it on the upper level – to find that his entire team had been taken hostage by the psychopath they'd been hunting.
"Were you scared?" Dr. Farley asked.
"Of course I was damn well scared!" Tony rolled his eyes. "But you have to understand what it's like when you're out there, Doc. The adrenaline kicks in, and you don't feel the fear."
"Were you annoyed that nobody listened to your suggestion about the location of Collins's hideout?"
Tony shook his head. "No – it was just a hunch."
"That wasn't what you said earlier. You said you'd done some digging into Collins's background. It sounds more like a solid piece of detective work than a hunch. Yet your team reacted with irritation when you voiced it – why is that?"
"It's my manner. I like to wind them up. They like to shoot me down."
"Interesting choice of words." Dr. Farley nodded at his injured arm.
"Metaphorically – they like to metaphorically shoot me down," Tony growled. "I'm annoying – I annoy them. On purpose."
Tony frowned. "I don't know. It's just who I am. I like to jerk a few chains. It amuses me. Can we get back to the shooting now?"
Dr. Farley shrugged. "If you want, Tony."
Collins was a killer. No doubt about it. Ducky had two of his victims in his refrigerator back at Autopsy, so shot up they were almost in pieces. Collins really did like his machine guns.
Tony risked peering over the edge again. Collins was talking to Gibbs – or maybe ranting was a better word for it. Gibbs replied in a calm voice, trying to talk Collins down, but Tony could see that Collins was becoming increasingly agitated. He hadn't expected to be found like this. He'd been caught out and was thinking on his feet - and the conclusions he was reaching were all too obvious. The entire team knew what Collins would do – they'd spent enough time in this guy's head over the past few days.
Tony looked down and judged the distance between himself and Collins. He should be able to make a shot like this; Gibbs was always making them practise in the firing range, and Tony always turned in damn good scores. Okay, so he wasn't in Gibbs's league where accuracy was concerned, but the guy had been a sniper for a living so who was?
At that precise moment Gibbs looked up, over Collins's shoulder, and caught sight of him. Nothing in his expression gave Tony away, but he looked straight into Tony's eyes and made a tiny motion with his head, giving Tony the order to shoot.
Collins was standing almost directly beneath him, within clear range of fire; this was Tony's chance…
"Did you shoot?" Dr. Farley asked.
"Not then, no." Tony shook his head.
"I thought you said you had a clear shot?"
"And Agent Gibbs gave you an implicit order to shoot."
"And you always obey Agent Gibbs's orders. You said so yourself."
"So why didn't you take the shot?"
Tony gazed at him helplessly. "I don't know."
Gibbs was engaging Collins in conversation, trying to keep him still, in one place, giving Tony a clear and easy shot at him. Gibbs trusted him to get it right. He trusted Tony to make the shot and take out the bad guy. Hadn't they done this kind of thing countless times before?
Collins moved suddenly, unexpectedly. He brandished the machine gun, pointing it at his captives. Tony wiped away the sweat trickling into his eyes. He had to focus. His hand was shaking – and he could see Gibbs looking up at him, clearly wondering why the hell he was hesitating.
"You've killed people before," Dr. Farley said, glancing down at his file.
"Yes." Tony nodded. "Plenty of times."
"How did you feel about it?"
"It's an occupational hazard." Tony grinned. Dr. Farley looked straight through him. "Look, I don't like it, nobody does – well, maybe Ziva does, but most *normal* people don't. But you do it because they're scumbags and usually it's either them or you. I don't like it, but I can handle it."
"Were you worried you would fire and miss? It sounds as if you were putting a lot of pressure on yourself. You compared your shooting skills with those of Agent Gibbs and found yourself wanting."
"Hey – I'm not in Gibbs's league but *nobody* is. Gibbs's superhero skill is being able to hit any target, anywhere, from any distance. He once shot someone in a moving helicopter from the ground for God's sake! He's a fucking legend."
"What's your superhero skill, Tony?" Dr. Farley asked, with a little smile.
"Pissing people off?" Tony answered, with a smile of his own.
"You think so? I think it's keeping them out," Dr. Farley replied. "Pissing them off is just one of the ways you do it."
Tony sat back in his chair and crossed one leg nonchalantly over the other. "Well, as you have all the answers, why don't you tell me why I found it so hard to pull the trigger?"
"I don't know." Dr. Farley shrugged. "Only you know that. I'm just here to help you find out. What happened next?"
Tony gripped his gun hard and took aim. If he waited just a few more seconds then Collins would blast his team to smithereens. Then they'd just be three more corpses for Ducky's steel tables, their bodies torn into bloody strips of ribbon like Collins's other victims.
Tony could feel Gibbs's gaze on him, boring into him, telling him to shoot – ordering him to shoot. Tony gripped his gun even harder, willing his hand to stop shaking. He'd delayed too long. His team didn't have much time left. He had to do this *now*.
He lifted his hand quickly and fired.
All hell broke loose. Collins turned and fired off a hail of bullets in his direction. Tony threw himself down behind a pile of hard, wooden boxes, hearing them splinter and shatter as a round of machine gun fire ripped through them. He landed on his side with a thud and rolled over to see Gibbs moving in the barn below. Gibbs's hands were free, and Tony saw a glint of silver before Gibbs embedded the blade of his knife in Collins's back.
"Rule number nine strikes again!" Tony giggled to himself. Gibbs had clearly cut through the rope binding his wrists with his concealed knife while he'd been keeping Collins talking.
Everything slowed down – it was almost comical to see the surprised look on Collins's face as the knife went in. Collins gurgled something and blood streamed out of his mouth and down his face. He took a step forward, then another, and then he fell onto his knees. Tony was fascinated to see that he was already dead even as he fell, slowly and gracefully, onto his face.
"Why did you laugh?" Dr. Farley asked.
"It was funny." Tony shrugged.
"Why was it funny?"
"I don't know. It just was. You know, me missing an easy shot at relatively close range, and Gibbs being the one to save the day, despite having his hands tied behind his back. Gibbs has more than one superhero skill, Doc! That's probably why some of us missed out on our share when they were handing out the superhero skills."
"You hero-worship Agent Gibbs," Dr. Farley commented.
"Yes." Tony nodded. There no point in denying that; everyone knew.
"That must make it hard for you to admit that you also resent him."
Tony blinked. "Why would I resent Gibbs?" he asked blankly.
"You had a chance at leading your own team, but you passed it up. Says in your file that you were concerned about Agent Gibbs's brain injury on his return from Mexico – you thought he had some gaps in his memory. You were worried about him – and your team. You ran that team for four months during Gibbs's absence and according to Director Shepard's notes you did an excellent job. Then Gibbs returned and shunted you back down into the second in command position – and in a rather unceremonious way, judging by these notes."
"That's just Gibbs." Tony shrugged. "He's never been great at social niceties. I didn't take offence. Hell, I was happy to have him back. I missed him. We all did."
"Do you think he values the job you do?" Dr. Farley asked, gazing at him intently. "Do you feel valued on the team, Tony? The team that you once led, even if only for a few months?"
"Sure. I mean, we bicker all the time, but that doesn't mean shit. Abby always says we're like a family." He gave a wry grin. "A really dysfunctional family! And no matter how much we tease each other, we always have each other's six out in the field."
"And you really believe that?" Dr. Farley's brown eyes were curious.
Tony rolled his eyes. This idiot had clearly never been out in the field – hell, he'd probably been a desk jockey his entire life. "No offence, Doc, but you have no idea what it's like out there – you have to trust the people on your team to have your six, or you're dead. "
Time speeded up again. Tony was dimly aware of Gibbs inspecting Collins to make sure he was dead and then using his knife to free Ziva and McGee. Tony closed his eyes. They didn't need him for this bit. It wasn't as if he'd been much use so far anyway. Gibbs had saved the day despite his own incompetence.
"DiNozzo? DiNozzo!" Gibbs's voice. In his ear. He struggled to open his eyes. "Christ, DiNozzo – okay, hold on. Tony – hold on."
He forced his eyes open by a great act of will. Gibbs was crouching beside him, his hands covered in blood. He was pressing down hard on Tony's shoulder.
"Hurts, Boss," Tony muttered.
"Yeah. He got you. Shoulder wound."
Tony closed his eyes again. He wasn't sure how much time passed. He could hear Gibbs barking orders, and Ziva yelling into her cell phone for paramedics.
"Should send a 'copter," Tony muttered, eyelids fluttering open again. "Wouldn't wish that journey on anyone on wheels," he explained, with a little grin.
Gibbs was gazing at him searchingly from puzzled blue eyes. Tony didn't want to see the question in them. Or maybe he didn't want Gibbs to see the answer in his own. He closed his eyes again, and this time he kept them closed until he was safely in the hands of the paramedics, on his way to the hospital.
"Did any of your team accompany you to the hospital?" Dr. Farley asked.
"Nope." Tony shook his head. "Oh wait – don't read too much into that! My injury wasn't life-threatening, and they had a crime scene to process. There was a dead body and enough military hardware in that barn to run a small war. I didn't need any of them to come with me in any case. I'm a big boy, Dr. Farley - I don't need anyone to hold my hand."
Farley nodded. There was a little pause. Farley looked down at his notes and then up at Tony again. "You likened your team to a 'dysfunctional family'. What do you feel your place is in that family, Tony?"
"Oh that's easy!" Tony grinned. "I'm the annoying big brother. You know, the one with the fast car who goes out and gets all the hot babes and pisses off the other kids. I cause trouble, and Dad has to slap me back down for that every so often, but everyone knows I'll always look out for them, even if I do wind them up."
Dr. Farley looked gently amused by Tony's description. "Dad?" he queried.
Tony laughed. "No prizes for guessing that's Gibbs. He's the stern father figure – he doesn't say a lot, but he hands out the discipline and the tough love whenever we need it. He's damn good at his job, and he demands that we are too. He gets the best out of us that way. We all want to please him – not least because he's a total bastard when he's pissed off."
"And Ziva David? What's her place?"
Tony gave a twisted little smile. "She's the scary step-sister. The kind who pulls the wings off insects in the back yard. She's hot, but she's dangerous. Good to have on your side in a fight - bad to have staring down at you from the barrel of a gun."
"Hmm. And Timothy McGee?"
"Geeky little bro. He knows some stuff that comes in useful every now and then, and boy does he go on about it. It's all 'MIT' this and 'Johns Hopkins' that. I have to teach him how to toughen up, so he'll survive out there in the big bad world. He can kill whole armies online, but he's not so tough with real life bad guys. He's getting there though. In fact…he's grown up a lot lately. He probably doesn't need me kicking his ass any more."
"And Abigail Sciuto?"
Tony smiled softly. "She's our baby sister. Everyone loves Abby. She's got a heart of solid gold, and she's always the smartest person in the room – but you'd never know it. She's kind of a child under all the leather and chains and the Goth make-up. "
"What about Dr. Mallard?"
"Ducky? Maybe he's grandpa?" Tony hazarded. "Or Mom? Don't tell him I said that though! He fusses over us – but don't be fooled by that polite, rambling and occasionally befuddled exterior – he'll kick your ass if you go too far. He's the only one who can kick Gibbs's ass."
He chuckled to himself. This was fun – at least he'd gotten Farley distracted and off topic.
"So, some psycho is holding your team hostage," Dr. Farley said. "And they're not just your team, they're your *family*; your dad, your little brother, and your step-sister. This bastard's got a machine gun, and you know he's a killer because he's murdered two people already. He's standing right there, just beneath you, and you have a clear shot - but you hesitate. Why is that, Tony?"
Tony let himself into his apartment. "Hey, honey, I'm home!" he called.
Jeff emerged from the bedroom, his forehead creased up in an anxious frown. "Where were you? I was worried when you didn't come back last night." He saw the sling on Tony's arm and ran over to him. "Oh shit, Tony - what the hell happened to you?" He traced a finger over the sling. "Are you okay? Are you hurt?"
Tony gave him a tired smile and threw himself down on the couch. "It's okay, Jeff. Don't get your panties in a wad. I got shot. I was in the hospital all night and most of today while they patched me up and checked me out, but it's fine. I'm fine."
"You got shot, and you think that's fine?" Jeff sat down opposite him, looking anxious again. "Tony, I don't know what I'd do if anything happened to you…"
"Nothing happened to me." Tony shrugged and then gave a pained grimace. "Man it hurts." He reached into his pocket for the bottle of painkillers they'd given him at the hospital. "This is the good stuff," he told Jeff with a big grin. "Better than anything you can buy over the counter. And I think I know just the right thing to wash them down with."
He went over to his wet bar, retrieved a bottle of vodka, and brought it back over to the coffee table.
"Oh, Tony, I don't know. Are you supposed to drink alcohol if you're taking painkillers?" Jeff asked.
Tony laughed. "C'mon, Jeff – when the hell do you and I ever do what we're *supposed* to do, huh?" He went back to the wet bar, got two glasses, and then returned to thump himself back down on the couch. He was so damn tired. "Join me?" He held up the bottle of vodka. Jeff gave him a sly grin, and Tony laughed again. "Knew you would. Hey – wanna watch a movie?"
"A Tony Curtis movie?" Jeff asked eagerly.
Tony sighed. "Okay, if we must. Which one?"
The Vikings!" Jeff said excitedly. "I love the bit where Kirk Douglas gets his eye ripped out by Tony Curtis's falcon."
"Yeah. You would," Tony grunted. "Here." He poured two glasses of vodka and then swallowed his painkillers down with a gulp, draining his glass. "Damn that's good. It's been one hell of a couple of days."
He put the movie into the DVD player and sat back on the couch to watch. Jeff made happy little noises every time someone got hurt or killed.
"Bloodthirsty bastard," Tony said, with a roll of his eyes.
"Yeah – but you know that about me, Tony." Jeff grinned at him. Then he went very still and his face creased up into that anxious frown again. "Hey – the guy who shot you - did you kill him, Tony?"
"No, Jeff, I didn't kill him." Tony sighed.
"You sure?" Jeff asked suspiciously.
"Absolutely. I did shoot at him, but I missed."
"Really?" Jeff looked surprised. "But you're such a good shot, Tony."
Tony shrugged. "Maybe I was having an off day. Gibbs had to knife him in the back."
Jeff's eyes gleamed in the dark room. "Gibbs used a knife?"
"Don't go there, Jeff," Tony warned.
"I'm just asking."
"No – you're fishing for the gory details, as usual. Now shut up and watch the movie."
He leaned back, sipping on his drink. The painkillers and alcohol were combining to make him feel nice and woozy. At that moment there was a knock on the door, and Jeff jumped up, startled.
"Who is that? Were you expecting anyone, Tony? Should I go?"
Tony nodded his head in the direction of the bedroom. "Just lie low, Jeff. I'll see who it is."
"Who's Jeff?" Dr. Farley asked, frowning as he examined Tony's file again.
Tony hesitated. "Jeff's my roomie," he said eventually.
"I didn't know you had a room-mate."
"Yeah. I sub-let my apartment when I was an agent afloat. Jeff's a great guy – known him a few years. He moved in while I was gone – then I came back kinda sudden, and I didn't have the heart to evict him."
"So Jeff's just a friend," Dr. Farley commented neutrally.
Tony let out a delighted laugh and clicked his fingers in the air. "Ah – I know what you're thinking! You're thinking you shouldn't ask, so I won't have to tell!"
"Tony, you may investigate military crimes, but you're not in the military; you're a civilian. If Jeff is your boyfriend, it's perfectly okay for you to admit that to me," Dr. Farley told him.
Tony shook his head, still chuckling to himself. "Jeff isn't my boyfriend, Doc. He's a friend – a really good friend. Best friend I ever had. Kinda friend you can be yourself with, y'know? Kind of friend who likes you for what you are - doesn't judge you."
"Okay." Dr. Farley nodded slowly. "Where's this going, Tony? I thought you were going to tell me why you hesitated before shooting at Collins."
"Patience, Doc! I'm getting there."
Tony got up with some difficulty, staggered towards the door and opened it. Gibbs was standing there.
"Oh – hey, Boss. They let me out of the hospital," Tony said stupidly.
"I know. Just came from there. Was gonna drive you home, but they said you'd checked yourself out early."
"Yeah – can't stand those places. Got a cab." Tony stood there, leaning heavily on the door.
"Sure that's it, DiNozzo?" Gibbs glared at him. "Thought maybe you were trying to avoid me."
"Why would I do that, Boss?" Tony gazed at him blankly.
"In case I asked you a question you didn't wanna answer." Gibbs looked over his shoulder. "You going to let me in, or do we have to have this conversation in the hallway?" he demanded.
Tony sighed and opened the door wide for Gibbs to enter. Gibbs took one look at the half empty bottle of vodka on the table and his jaw tightened. Tony was momentarily fascinated by the vein pulsing angrily in Gibbs's neck.
"You drink all that tonight, DiNozzo?"
"Me? Nope." Tony shook his head. "Had company." He nodded at the two glasses on the table.
"You seem pretty damn drunk to me." Gibbs leaned over and sniffed at him suspiciously.
"I am. Shoulder hurts. Liquor dulls the pain," Tony said, staggering over to the couch and falling down on it.
Gibbs sighed and sat down opposite him, on the armchair Jeff had recently vacated.
"Don't think I haven't noticed, Tony," Gibbs said quietly.
"Noticed what, Boss?" Tony asked innocently.
"Your damn drinking, Tony! Turned a blind eye to it last year – figured you were havin' trouble getting over Jenny's death. Thought you'd pull yourself around, get a handle on it."
Tony gazed at him solemnly.
"But this year it's gotten even worse. Ever since we pulled Ziva out of Africa you've been a mess. Do you think I'm an idiot, DiNozzo? Do you think I don't know that when you're acting like an idiot, and missing things at crime scenes, it's because you're half cut? Your
judgmentis shot to pieces these days, and you're pissing everyone off."
"I always did piss everyone off, Boss."
"Yeah, but you used to be damn good at your job too – that's why I kept you on the team. Nowadays you're barely fit to walk around the squad room unsupervised, let alone carry a gun! I can't keep cutting you all this slack, Tony."
"You've been cutting me slack?" Tony blinked. "Sorry – must have missed you doing that, Boss."
"Tony – I should have hauled you into the elevator months ago and told you to get your act together. Never thought it'd go this far."
"What do you mean?" Tony felt himself going very still.
"I'm going to ask you an honest question, and I want an honest answer," Gibbs told him grimly.
"Sure. Yeah. Okay." Tony reached for the glass of vodka on the table; Jeff's glass was still half full. "Ow!" he complained, as his wrist was grabbed and held in a vice-like grip.
"You've had enough," Gibbs growled.
Tony made a face and allowed Gibbs to take the glass of vodka from his hand and replace it on the coffee table. "You're right. I've drunk too much tonight," he slurred. Then he blinked. "Did you say you're gonna ask me a question?"
"Yes." Gibbs's blue eyes were suddenly very close. They swam in and out of focus in front of him. "Were you drunk in that barn yesterday, Tony? Was that why you threw up when we got there? Is that why you hesitated before shooting Collins? Because you couldn't get a good fix on him 'cause you were too drunk to see straight?"
"You'd smell it on me if I was drunk on duty, Boss," Tony said solemnly.
"You've been wearing a really stinky eau de cologne lately, Tony."
"Oh. Yeah. Right." Tony made a face.
"Did you screw up the shot because you were drunk, Tony?" Gibbs asked quietly. "Is that what happened?"
Tony gazed at him for a long time. "Yes," he said at last. "I was drunk. Hand was shaking. Thought I might miss – did miss. Sorry, Boss." He dropped his head and gazed at the coffee table.
Gibbs got up. He removed the vodka bottle and glasses, and Tony heard him going into the kitchen. Gibbs returned with a trash bag. He went over to Tony's wet bar and cleared it out.
"Get help, DiNozzo," he ordered. "You're not coming back onto my team until I know I can trust you 100% in the field. You're a danger to yourself and to the team while you're like this. You got yourself shot yesterday because you weren't fit for duty – and we all could have died because of you."
Tony looked up at him. "I know." He nodded slowly. "I know, Boss. I know."
"You've got a problem. Deal with it." Gibbs gave him one last glare, and then he turned and left, taking the contents of Tony's wet bar with him.
Dr. Farley was looking at him thoughtfully. "Are you an alcoholic, Tony? Is that what you're telling me?"
"Hey – it's not my fault!" Tony protested. "It's genetic. My dad's an alcoholic, and so was my grand-daddy. It runs in the family, same as green eyes and a way with the ladies." He winked at the psychiatrist. "I always knew it'd get me too, one day. Too many strikes against me – do you know the percentage of cops with a drinking problem? It's high."
"Why didn't you want Gibbs knowing about Jeff?" Farley asked.
Tony sighed. "It's a one bedroom apartment – Jeff sleeps on the couch, but I figured Gibbs would jump to the same conclusion about Jeff that you just did. Last thing I need is Gibbs thinking I'm gay. He already thinks I'm a total screw up – I do not need my butch, Marine boss thinking I play for the other team."
"It matters a lot to you what Gibbs thinks, doesn't it?" Farley mused.
"Well, like I told you, he's dad." Tony shrugged.
"No, he isn't."
Tony looked up, surprised. One of Farley's eyebrows was raised again.
"We're running out of time now, but tomorrow I think we should talk about your father, Tony: Your *actual* father."
"Hey, Tony – how did it go?" Jeff asked him when he got home.
"Terrible." Tony made a face. He headed straight for the fridge and pulled out a beer. "Why are you sitting in the kitchen?"
"I like it in here." Jeff grinned at him. "Your knives need sharpening." He nodded his head at the kitchen drawer.
"Trust you to notice."
"Why was it so terrible?"
"Hmm?" Tony took a deep gulp of beer. Damn he was glad that Gibbs hadn't cleared out his fridge as well as his wet bar when he'd made off with his liquor.
"The session with the shrink? What happened?" Jeff asked.
Tony shrugged. "He's sharp. He figured out all kinds of stuff that I didn't think I'd told him."
"No." Tony shook his head.
"Good." Jeff nodded approvingly. "I've seen lots of shrinks, Tony. They're not very nice people. You can't trust them."
"In your case, I can imagine they had enough material for an entire symposium." Tony grinned at him.
Jeff made a face. "Be nice, Tony. When are you going back to see this guy again?"
"Tomorrow." Tony gave a theatrical shudder. "He wants me to talk about my father." He could have kicked himself when he saw the blood drain from Jeff's face. "Hey – it's okay," Tony said hurriedly. "It's fine. It's not like it was for you. My family was screwed up in a whole other way!"
"I know. You told me. I just…I don't like to think of you going through that, Tony. It sucks."
"I'll be fine, but thanks for caring." Tony tousled Jeff's hair affectionately.
"Oh! Someone called for you." Jeff pointed at the answering machine.
Tony felt himself brightening. "Really? Who?"
"I don't know. I wasn't listening." Jeff shrugged.
Tony slapped the back of his head, and Jeff grinned at him. Tony went over to the answering machine and pressed the play button.
"Hey, Buddy! It's Ryan. Look, it's been ages since I heard from you, and I was wondering if you had any plans to head up this way? Give me a call."
"Who was that, Tony?"
"What? Oh, old frat brother." Tony stared at the answering machine glumly.
"Problem?" Jeff asked.
Tony plastered on a bright smile and shook his head. "Nah."
"Hello! This is me you're talking to, Tony," Jeff told him, rolling his eyes.
"Oh. Right. Yeah." Tony took a gulp of his beer. "Just thought someone from work might have called, that's all. Tim maybe. I haven't been in the office all week. Just…you know. But they're probably busy. Expect Gibbs is working them into the ground, as usual."
"Or maybe they just don't care," Jeff said. Tony looked up at him sharply. "Just saying." Jeff shrugged. "Why Tim in particular?"
"Just…when he was in trouble this one time, when he shot a cop and was on the verge of throwing his career away…I went to his place. Tried to talk him out of it. Told him about the first time I shot someone – how I peed my pants."
"You never told me that story." Jeff pouted.
"Well you don't like hearing the stories where I've shot someone," Tony pointed out.
"That's true." Jeff sighed. "So, what happened when you went around to Tim's place that time?"
"Nothing much. I wanted to take him out clubbing, get him out of his funk, but he wasn't up for it, so I spent half the night there, just talking. And eating his ice-cream." Tony grinned.
"And you thought he might do the same for you, now that you're in trouble?" Jeff asked.
"Yeah." Tony took another swig of his beer. "Doesn't matter."
"Gibbs probably didn't tell them about…" Jeff gestured with his head at the beer bottle. "You know, the alcohol thing."
"You're right. He probably didn't." Tony shrugged. "But they definitely all know I damn well got shot!"
"Well, I'm here," Jeff said softly.
"Yeah." Tony sighed. "You're the best damn friend I ever had, Jeff!" Jeff's face broke into a pathetically happy smile. Tony slapped the back of his head again. "C'mon, let's go watch Tony Curtis in 'Some Like it Hot'."
Tony was relieved to get a good night's sleep. He needed it – he had to be on top of his game when he met with Farley today. That guy was sharp – sharper than he'd expected. Tony had worn jeans yesterday, but today he put on a suit. It was too fiddly for him to knot a tie with his wounded shoulder, but he felt better wearing a suit – more alert and businesslike.
Jeff was drowsing on the couch as he walked through the living room on his way to the front door. Jeff half sat up, his hair sticking up messily.
"Good luck! Don't let the bastard get inside your head, Tony!"
Tony grinned. "Hey – you're talking to the great Tony DiNozzo here. Nobody gets inside my head, Jeff."
"Not even me?" Jeff reached for his glasses and shoved them sleepily onto his nose.
"Well, you're different." Tony shrugged. "See you later, Jeff. Be good while I'm gone. Oh – and don't touch the kitchen knives!"
"Aw. Spoilsport." Jeff made a face, and Tony laughed out loud as he reached for his keys and left the apartment.
Dr. Farley looked as serene and self-contained as he had the previous day. He was wearing an old grey cardigan buttoned up over his substantial girth.
"Anyone ever tell you that you have really lousy taste in clothes, Doc?" Tony asked, as he took his seat opposite the psychiatrist.
Dr. Farley smiled and gazed pointedly at Tony's suit. "I see you've really dressed up today, Tony."
"Yeah – you should let me take you out shopping sometime. Buy you some designer clothes. You look like you haven't bought anything new in years. I know all the best places to go. Okay, we might have to shop around – you're not a very standard shape. In fact, you're not exactly in shape at all." He gazed just as pointedly at Farley's fat belly. "Might be hard to find clothes that will fit you, but if you dressed better that gut wouldn't look so huge."
"I feel comfortable in these clothes, Tony," Farley replied. "And in my own skin." He patted his large belly happily. "I'm fat." He gave a little laugh. "I don't need to dress it up as something it isn't. I'm at peace with who I am. Are you?"
Tony leaned back in his armchair. "Totally."
"Good." Farley gave a little nod. "That's good, Tony. So, yesterday we were talking about family, and I suggested you might want to tell me about your father."
"Sure." Tony shrugged. "Let's skip straight to the juicy stuff, as I bet that's the stuff you want to hear. Dad and me have never been close. He and my mom both drank like fishes. Like I said yesterday, Dad was an alcoholic. I had to fix him a drink and give him a report of my day every evening when he got home from work. That was the only time we used to talk when he was actually sober. After that he and my mom would drink the night away."
"Did you have any siblings?" Farley asked.
"No – but you know that. You have my file."
"Your parents were wealthy?"
"Yeah – my dad's dad started a trucking business years ago. By the time my dad and his brother inherited it, the company was huge. We had money coming out of our ears. "
"Were you close to your mom?"
"Not really." Tony shrugged again. "She was kind of a socialite. A lady who lunches. She liked going out, showing off, being charming. People always say I'm a lot like her." He gave a self-deprecating grin.
"I see from your file that she died when you were twelve. That must have been tough." Farley's brown eyes were sympathetic.
"It was sad, yeah, but we weren't close. I was at boarding school by then anyway – hadn't seen her for awhile so it didn't really…I know this sounds bad, because she was my mom, but she wasn't part of my day to day life so it didn't really affect me much."
"So you weren't close to your dad or your mom? And you're an only child," Farley mused. "Sounds very lonely, Tony."
Tony gazed at him stonily. "It was fine. I watched a lot of TV, and we had nice staff. The housekeeper, the gardener – I hung out with them a lot."
"Did they have any kids? Anyone for you to play with?"
"No. Why the hell is that important?"
Dr. Farley looked surprised by his tone. "Well, all children need playmates. Some only children invent them if there aren't any around."
Tony laughed out loud. "You're asking me if I ever had any imaginary friends, Doc?"
Tony's jaw tightened. "No. Look, what the hell has this got to do with me being shot?"
Farley gazed at him impassively from those deep brown eyes of his, as if he knew some great big secret that Tony didn't. It bugged the hell out of him.
"You were a lonely child, Tony, without a strong family dynamic. It makes sense that you would seek to find family structures in your working life, to give yourself that feeling of security and unconditional love that you didn't get in your childhood. It's understandable that you would cast your team in the role of family – even assign them individual roles within that family."
"Uh…okay." Tony made a face. "See, it's stuff like this that gives shrinks a bad name. Next you'll be telling me I want to kill my father and marry my mother."
"Hmm." Farley gave a little chuckle, as if at some private in-joke.
"What?" Tony asked, exasperated.
"Well, I was just thinking you've cast Agent Gibbs as the father in this little family dynamic you're created, and you do have a lot of unexpressed anger towards him. And the other day your inaction in that barn did almost lead to him being killed, so…"
"That's ridiculous!" Tony protested. "I'm not angry with Gibbs. Why the hell would you think I'm angry with Gibbs?"
"I don't know. Why don't you tell me?" Farley asked infuriatingly.
"Look, I don't really view Gibbs as a father. He's only twelve years older than me so unless he was a very precocious kid, he definitely isn't old enough to be my dad. I just threw that whole stupid family thing at you to distract you from what I didn't want to talk about yesterday."
"You know, being an alcoholic." Tony made a face. "That's not an easy thing to admit, Doc."
"But you'd already admitted it to Gibbs. Why was it so hard to admit it to me?"
"Because you're a shrink! It isn't easy. None of this is easy!" Tony protested. "Also, when I admitted it to Gibbs I was drunk. Now I'm not."
"You weren't drunk that day in the barn when you couldn't shoot Collins, either," Farley said quietly.
"What?" Tony jerked his head up.
"When you went to the hospital, they took your blood – standard medical procedure. I looked at your medical file – there was no alcohol in your blood that day. You weren't drunk on duty, Tony. That was a lie. You lied to Gibbs, and you lied to me. The question is – why?"
Tony gazed at him, stunned. Then he laughed out loud. "I underestimated you, Dr. Farley."
"I imagine that it's usually the other way around, and people underestimate you, Tony," Farley replied, with a tight little smile.
"I do my best to make them think I'm an idiot, yes," Tony admitted. "It works. I've caught plenty of bad guys that way. I like being under-estimated. Don't usually make the mistake of doing it with other people. My bad. But you're good, Doc. Really good. I'm impressed."
"Mmmm. We're drifting away from the point here, Tony."
"Which is?" Tony raised an eyebrow, feeling his stomach clench.
"Why would you prefer your boss and your psychiatrist to think you're an alcoholic when you're not? What must the truth be, if that's the lie you've chosen to hide it behind, Tony?"
"What happened?" Jeff asked, the minute he walked through the door. "Something happened. Something bad."
"Not bad. Just…" Tony sat down on the couch wearily. Jeff sat down next to him, looking scared. "He finds things in what I've said that I didn't think were there. I thought he'd buy the whole alcoholic thing y'know – I thought shrinks loved that kind of stuff, but he didn't."
"Did he ask you about your father?" Jeff asked anxiously.
"Yeah – but he wasn't all that interested in that, either. I thought we'd be on safe ground there." Tony gave a twisted little grin. "I thought he'd go on and on about my alcoholic dad, and my dead mom, but he seems more interested in the here and now."
He got up and went into the kitchen to get a beer. Jeff was still sitting on the couch when he returned to the living room. Tony ignored him and turned on the TV.
"Don't shut me out, Tony," Jeff said softly.
"I'm not. I just…Farley really made me think."
"You promised me you wouldn't let him get inside your head," Jeff chided.
"I know…but, maybe he has a point." Tony flicked through the TV channels aimlessly, looking for something to watch. "Maybe…maybe I should stop trying to play him, Jeff. Maybe he actually has some answers."
"You don't want answers," Jeff pointed out. "Isn't that what you've been saying to me over and over again for the past year?"
Tony paused and gazed into mid-air for a long while, thinking about it.
"I didn't want answers, Jeff, but a few days ago I couldn't pull the trigger on my gun, and people could have been killed because of that. Hell, I nearly got myself killed." He could feel the dull, throbbing ache in his shoulder. He'd deliberately not taken any painkillers before going to see Farley – he'd wanted to keep all his wits about him. Even so, the shrink still seemed to be able to run rings around him. Tony turned to Jeff. "That changed everything, Jeff," he said quietly. "For as long as I keep on avoiding those answers, then I'm dangerous. I'm a danger to myself and everyone around me. Damn it," he swore softly under his breath.
Tony gave an amused little grunt. "Just something Farley said to me the first time I met him. I didn't realise what the hell he meant then – but I do now. He said it within a couple of minutes of meeting me – damn it, he's good. "
"Lucky guess," Jeff said dismissively.
"No." Tony shook his head. "See, when he said it, I just thought it was the usual blah blah psychobabble you could expect from a shrink – but he was right. I do think I'm dangerous. I *am* dangerous."
"I've always known that," Jeff said tightly.
Tony grinned at him. "Yeah – sorry about that, buddy."
"Don't go back there, Tony," Jeff said, in an imploring tone. "Please, Tony, don't go back to see Dr. Farley. I have this really bad feeling about what will happen if you do."
Tony shook his head. "Sorry, Jeff. I think this is something I have to do. I'm not gonna play this guy any more – I think he really might be able to help me."
Tony reached up a hand to absently stroke his throbbing shoulder. It was time to face the truth.
The next day, Tony got dressed in grey sweatpants, his old red Ohio State sweatshirt, and a pair of well worn sneakers. Jeff was feigning sleep as Tony walked through the living room on his way to the front door.
"I know you're awake," Tony told him, reaching for his keys.
"Go away," Jeff huffed into his blanket.
"Okay. See you later, buddy," Tony replied with a shrug.
Farley was wearing the nasty green cardigan again.
"Y'know, that's really not a great shade on you," Tony told him.
"I know, but I like it. My grandmother knitted it for me."
"Really? Does she hate you?"
Farley gave a little snort of laughter. "I don't think so. She just liked this particular shade of green for some reason. I'd ask her, but she's been dead for years now."
"So family's important to you too, huh?" Tony asked softly.
"Family's important to most people, on some level, Tony." He looked at Tony keenly. "You've had a change of heart I think, Tony?"
"Yes." Tony took his seat with a weary sigh. "Jeff didn't want me to come," he said.
"No. I can imagine he didn't." Dr. Farley rested his hands on his ample belly.
"You know who he is, don't you?"
"I've got a good idea. Do you want to talk about him?"
"Not really. He's not important. Shit, he'd hate it if he heard me say that. Look, I can handle Jeff. He's not the problem."
"Okay." Dr. Farley nodded patiently. "What is the problem, Tony? What's eating away at you? Something is."
"When I first came to NCIS, I thought I'd finally found a place where I belonged," Tony said quietly. "I'd been looking for that place my entire life. Never found it. Had a good time at various boarding schools, had a good time at college and in various police departments, but it was never what I was looking for, y'know? So I just kept moving on, still looking. And then I found Gibbs."
"Agent Gibbs is a very striking and forceful personality," Farley commented. "I can imagine a lot of people find him hard to work for, but I expect you were drawn to his strength of character and certainty, Tony."
"Yeah. Then there was the whole Marine thing – the 'semper fi', the sense of loyalty. I knew that however much he kicked my ass he'd never leave me behind. He'd go to the wall for me. I trusted him."
"He was the kind of strong, masculine role model your father was not."
"Yes." Tony nodded. "And I hero-worshipped him. I never viewed him as my actual dad, Doc – he was better than that."
"And when Abby spoke of you all being a family, something fell into place for you – you'd finally found somewhere you belonged. You even carved out a role for yourself. What was it? Annoying big brother?"
"Yeah." Tony grinned. "If the shoe fits…"
"But this new family of yours were also your co-workers - and working with family can be particularly tough," Farley pointed out.
Tony snorted. "Tell me about it! My father and his brother fought for years over the family business. Got to the point where they only communicated through me and my cousin Petey."
"So you know all about the jealousies and sibling rivalries that can surface when you work with family."
Tony grinned. "Well, I figured that's why we always bickered so much." His grin faded. "For the first few years it was good. I loved my job. I loved the people I worked with. I had my whole life ahead of me, and it was fun. Then it seemed…the more I found myself, the more I lost myself."
Farley frowned. "Can you explain that, Tony?"
"Kate died. Looking back, I think that's when it first started to go wrong."
"Well, losing a family member is always traumatic."
"Gibbs shut down. Ziva arrived. She was Ari's half-sister. He was the guy who shot Kate, and Ziva was there to protect Ari in the beginning. Maybe I always resented her a little for that. But, you know, she was hot, so…" Tony shrugged and grinned. "It was Jenny - Director Shepard - who put her on our team, but it was Gibbs who made her family. Gibbs trusted her, so I trusted her. Gibbs has these famous gut instincts."
"And Gibbs wouldn't bring anyone into the family that you couldn't trust, would he?" Farley asked.
Tony felt his jaw tighten. "No," he said quietly. "Gibbs wouldn't do that. Then we lost Paula, and Jenny, and Lee…and it felt like we kept losing people. And I fell in love with my undercover mark – which was so fucked up of me - and of course I lost her too."
"Did you lose her? Or did you let her go?" Farley asked.
Tony gazed into the distance for a moment. "I chose my family over her," he said eventually. "I chose the fucked up, pseudo-family I'd invented in my head over a real life, flesh and blood woman who actually wanted me. But...see, thing is, she wanted Tony DiNardo, my undercover identity, and not me. "
"So the pseudo-family was still a better option than the pseudo-relationship?"
"I guess so. Yes." Tony gazed at the psychiatrist bleakly. "But it didn't feel the same anymore."
"You kept on hanging in there, playing the annoying big brother role to the hilt, trying to keep everything the same, even when it felt like everything kept changing," Farley said softly.
"Yes. Thing is – role felt off. I kept trying to play it, but it got harder and harder. I could still play the role – could play it in my sleep - but I wasn't feeling it anymore, y'know?"
"It felt more and more like a character you were playing, and less and less like you?"
"Yeah. So I ramped it up; annoyed them even more and made more of an idiot of myself than usual." Tony winced. "I guess that must have been kind of painful to watch. No wonder Gibbs thought I was an alcoholic. I wasn't even particularly good at my job any more – only in flashes. Then one day I realised that it was all slipping away from me. Everybody was changing; McGee was a big boy now – he didn't need me to toughen him up anymore. Gibbs didn't trust us enough to keep us in the loop about the Domino mission; and Ziva preferred her Mossad family to us. I didn't even get to see as much of Abby and Ducky as I once did. We just didn't feel like a team anymore."
"When did you realise that?"
Tony took a deep breath. "We thought Ziva was dead - and that was at least partly my fault. I'd killed her boyfriend – okay so I was just doing my job, and he had killed a federal agent, and he did attack me, but even so." Tony shrugged. "She hated me for it. She knocked me to the ground – I had a broken arm at the time and man that hurt." He made a face. "She pulled a gun on me and…"
"This isn't in your file," Farley interrupted him, frowning.
"I never told anyone." Tony shrugged. "Wasn't important."
"It sounds very important. Do you think it's okay that she did that?" Farley asked gently.
"She was upset. See, thing is, Doc, I don't have much experience of families. I figured – maybe this is what families do?"
"Only abusive families, Tony," Farley commented wryly. "And I think you didn't tell anyone because you know that, deep inside."
Tony bit on his lip. "Maybe. Anyway, she left as a direct result of that, and then later we thought she'd died. I kind of fell apart. Another one lost. I wasn't doing a very good job of protecting my family, Doc. And I couldn't forget the look of hatred in her eyes when she pulled that gun on me. Whatever I've done wrong, and however much I've annoyed them, I've always tried my best to keep them all safe."
"I can see several instances of bravery in your file – it seems that where your team family is concerned, you always put their safety and wellbeing above your own," Farley commented, flicking through the file. "Saving Todd and McGee from a car bomb, rescuing Gibbs when he was trapped underwater in a car, retrieving Ziva from Africa…"
"Semper fi," Tony muttered. "Thought I couldn't live without them, Doc. Needed them. Needed them to need me."
"Well, they were this little idealised family you'd created in your head. They were the place you belonged. Where would you belong if they died? What would you be? WHO would you be?" Farley asked.
Tony swallowed hard.
"What happened in the barn, Tony?" Farley asked unexpectedly.
Tony was irritable. He'd done all the digging on Collins; hours and hours of old-fashioned police work. He was still good for that at least, even if he was a screw-up most of the rest of the time. Now he had a hunch as to the possible location of the guy's hideout, and Ziva was rolling her eyes, and McGee was pointing out that it was a long way to go on just a *hunch*.
"It's not as if you're Gibbs, Tony. Why should we listen to *your* gut?"
"Talking of Tony's gut – have you been over-feeding it these days, Tony?" Ziva poked a sly finger into the roll of flesh around his midriff.
"Hey!" Tony complained, pushing her away.
"Too many donuts I think." Ziva winked at him.
Tony had a sudden, weary sense of déjà vu. Another day, another squabble in the squad room. Every day, day in day out, always the same.
At that moment, Gibbs swept into the room.
"Tony has had lunch," Ziva told him. Gibbs raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Oh, I am sorry – I mean a *hunch*. Tony has had a hunch." Ziva grinned, glancing pointedly at Tony's belly all the same. Tony squeezed it surreptitiously. He didn't think he'd put on *that* much weight recently.
Gibbs listened to his hunch without speaking. "We got any other leads?" he grunted when Tony was done. The team shook their heads. "Then I guess we'll have to follow DiNozzo's hunch if that's the best you've come up with."
So they had. Ziva had claimed the passenger seat, next to Gibbs, much to Tony's annoyance. Ever since they'd rescued her from Africa, she and Gibbs seemed to have some special thing going. He had no idea what it was. Tony sat in the back, getting more and more car sick as the journey progressed. Beside him, McGee was snarking about something, and Ziva was snarking back, and Gibbs was saying nothing as usual, and Tony wanted to scream at them all to shut the fuck up, which was strange because usually it was him who talked too much.
McGee's comment about Gibbs's gut was bothering him, and he wasn't sure why. It just kept going round and round in his head. By the time they reached the location of Collins's hideout, his head hurt almost as much as his stomach. He rolled out of the car and was immediately sick on the grass.
Gibbs stood over him, looking faintly pissed off, in the way only Gibbs could. There was something in his eyes, something disappointed and…disgusted? Tony glanced up at him in surprise. Gibbs didn't think he was drunk, did he? He was never drunk on duty.
"We'll go check out the barn, DiNozzo," Gibbs said, in a tight voice, as if he already thought it was a complete waste of time. Tony couldn't blame him for that. His job performance hadn't exactly been stellar of late, and Gibbs was right – it probably *was* a giant waste of time.
"Like I said – too many donuts," Ziva commented, looking down on the mess he'd spewed on the ground.
"You should take a leaf out of my book, Tony," McGee said smugly, patting his trim, washboard stomach. "I gave up all that junk months ago. Never felt better."
Tony was about to make a snarky retort when he felt another wave of nausea and threw up again. When he next looked up, they'd gone.
He sat beside the car for awhile and then opened it and found a bottle of water in the glove compartment. He swilled it around his mouth and spat it out to get rid of the taste of vomit and then drank it all down. He started to feel better and wondered where his team was. They'd been gone longer than he'd expected. He realised that he had as little faith in his "hunch" as they did. He'd expected them to go into the barn, take a cursory look around, and come back out again empty-handed.
He saw a rickety wooden staircase on the outside of the barn and decided to go take a look. If his team were in trouble then they'd need him…and he always looked out for his team.
He climbed to the upper level of the barn, opened an old wooden door, and slipped silently into the interior. He could hear raised voices – that didn't sound good. He got down on his belly and slid towards the edge of the wooden gallery platform he was on.
His breath caught in his throat. Beneath him, his team was being held captive by the psycho bastard they'd been tracking.
Tony raised his gun. Gibbs was talking to the guy, trying to calm him down, but Collins was freaking out all over the place – and he was brandishing a giant machine gun. Gibbs glanced over Collins's shoulder and saw Tony. He gave him a tiny nod, implicitly ordering him to fire.
Tony gripped his gun tightly, aware that if he got this wrong his entire team could be killed.
Tony paused, staring into space.
"How did that make you feel, Tony?" Farley asked. "Your entire team could be killed if you got this wrong. You said before that you pictured them as bodies on Ducky's autopsy table. How did that make you feel?"
Tony clenched his fists.
"Relieved," Tony said softly. He looked at Farley defiantly. "There, I've damn well said it. I felt relieved, Doc! I felt like some great weight had been lifted from me. If they weren't there anymore I'd be free. I wouldn't have to go into work every day and play a role any more."
He got up and paced around the room.
"You asked me who I'd be if I wasn't defined by them – and the truth is, I don't know, but at least I'd be free to find out. I'm so tired of it, Doc - I'm so tired of them. I'm sick to death of being their whipping boy. I always thought they *knew* that I only played at being an idiot – for fun, for attention, to keep people out as you said – all those things, but at some point they started to believe that the idiot was me. And I was too tired and pissed off by then to care. You knew, Doc. You saw through me the minute I walked through that door, but my team, my *family* - they long ago stopped seeing who I really am."
He paused and gazed out of the window. "It hurt, I guess. It hurt, and I kept on covering up that hurt like it didn't matter. I thought they knew that what I do is more important that what I say, and I thought they remembered how often I'd taken one for the team…but the truth is, I don't think they do."
He turned back to Farley. "And I can't say I blame them." He gave a little shrug. "I can be over the top and inappropriate…I'm not blameless in this, Doc. I played my part in it for far too long. And as I was lying there in that barn, gun raised, I realised what a low fucking opinion they all have of me. Ziva thinks I'm an annoying bug – she doesn't respect me and never has; McGee knows he's ten times smarter than me and can't wait for the day he's promoted over my head; and Gibbs…well, at best Gibbs thinks I'm a total screw-up and at worst he thinks I'm a fucking alcoholic. And all I could think about was how free I would feel if they weren't around anymore."
"You didn't really want them to die though."
"Of course not!" Tony gazed at the psychiatrist moodily. "I didn't want them dead – I was just stunned by my reaction to the thought of it. It took me by surprise. That's why I hesitated, and that's why my hand was shaking and the sweat was pouring into my eyes. I was shocked that I felt that way. I had no idea. And I was ashamed of myself for it. No wonder I fucking missed when I did eventually shoot."
"Maybe that wasn't a mistake," Farley said. Tony raised an eyebrow. "You knew that if you missed, Collins would turn and fire on you. In your mind, you'd just betrayed your family, Tony. Maybe you felt that you deserved to die."
Tony went back over to his chair and sat down again.
"Maybe. I don't know. I was too fucked up by that point to know anything. All I could think about was that feeling of overwhelming relief when I thought they wouldn't be in my life anymore. I wouldn't have to protect them anymore, I wouldn't have to care about them anymore, and I wouldn't have to see them ever again." Tony bowed his head. "Am I allowed to feel that way about family, Doc?"
Farley sighed. "Families can be wonderful things – they can give love, protection and nurturing, and they can help us to fulfil our potential. But they can also be stifling, Tony, and the roles they impose upon us can be restrictive. We can, quite simply, outgrow them. Most of us learn this when we're young adults, but you had absent, neglectful parents and were sent to a series of boarding schools. You never had a chance to learn how to safely separate out from your family and find your own identity. You never even knew it was an option. You mentioned the Oedipus myth yesterday, Tony."
Tony looked up questioningly.
"In psychological terms, that myth can be read on many different levels – killing one's father, marrying one's mother. On one level, it can simply be a boy's natural urge to become his own person as he grows up – to defy his father, form his own opinions, move outside the remit of his father's control, take his own choice of sexual partner and so on."
"It was just one tiny, shocking moment. I honestly didn't want them dead," Tony said softly. "I don't want Gibbs dead."
"No. But you're angry with him all the same, aren't you, Tony? You gave up a promotion out of loyalty to him, and your career has gone nowhere since. You led that team once, but he doesn't let you into his confidence. He doesn't treat you like a peer – so you don't behave like one. He hasn't let you grow, Tony, and you feel like you're being stuffed into a box that isn't big enough for you any more. You want to be let out, but you don't know how to ask because he's Gibbs, the man you've hero-worshipped for so long. You feel disloyal even thinking about it."
Tony felt as if someone had broken him in two. "Yes," he said at last, so quietly he barely heard himself.
"You mentioned being irritated by McGee's comment about Gibbs's gut," Farley reminded him. "Why was that?"
Tony pushed away the denial that was ready to spring to his lips; he'd come this far. "I don't believe in Gibbs's gut any more, Doc," he said quietly. "Christ, feels like sacrilege to even say it. But I don't. He…I think he's made mistakes. More than one - and one very big one. Mistakes that could have cost us our lives."
"Maybe he did. We all eventually have to learn that our fathers aren't infallible, Tony. They're only human. It might seem like they have superhero powers." Farley gave a little grin. "But they don't. They make mistakes, just like the rest of us."
"But…" Tony shook his head. "If I don't believe in Gibbs, then what do I believe in?"
"Yourself?" Farley suggested.
They were quiet for a long time.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Farley asked eventually.
Tony sighed. "Yes, but not with you. I know what I have to do now." Farley raised an eyebrow. "You said something about growing up, separating out from your family – moving on?" Tony shrugged. "I think it's time for big brother to leave home, don't you?"
Farley smiled. "I think it's past time, Tony."
Tony got up, feeling apprehensive but strangely euphoric all the same. He held out his good hand to the psychiatrist.
"Well, thanks. Simon." He gave a little grin.
Farley took his hand and gave it a firm shake. "You're welcome, Special Agent DiNozzo."
Tony was surprised he didn't feel nervous when he went into the office the next day. He stopped in front of Gibbs's desk.
"Can I speak to you, Boss? In private?" he requested politely.
Gibbs gave him a searching look and then nodded curtly. Tony led the way to the conference room without saying a word. He shut the door behind them and sat down at the table opposite Gibbs.
"How are you doing, Tony? How's the shoulder?" Gibbs asked.
"It's fine. Getting there." Tony reached into his jacket and pulled out an envelope. He pushed it across the table. "Before you open it, I want to say I'm sorry. Oh – not about what's in the envelope. I'm sorry because I lied to you. And yes, I know how you feel about apologies, but this one is important."
Gibbs frowned at him. "You lied to me?"
"Yes. I wasn't drunk that day in the barn. For the record, I've never been drunk on duty. All those times I behaved like an idiot, I did it stone cold sober." Tony made a face. "I don't blame you for jumping to the wrong conclusion there, Boss."
Gibbs didn't touch the envelope. He sat back in his chair and gazed at Tony speculatively.
"Oh, I'm not just saying that to get myself off the hook," Tony said hurriedly. "I'm not in denial about being an alcoholic. Sure, I like a drink, and sometimes I drink too much, like that night you came around after I discharged myself from the hospital. But you like a drink too, Boss. You like your bourbon, and you can't tell me you haven't sometimes drunk yourself into oblivion under that boat of yours. In our job it kind of goes with the territory, doesn't it?"
Gibbs grunted an acknowledgement. "But if you weren't drunk…?"
"I know, what's with the funky cologne?" Tony laughed. "What can I say? It's the new Calvin Klein, and I'm a sucker for designer labels, Boss."
Gibbs glared at him. "That wasn't what I was going to ask."
"I know. You were going to ask why I hesitated before taking that shot in the barn. I'm not going to answer that question, Boss, but if you doubt me about the drinking, just check my medical records. There was no alcohol in my blood the day I got shot."
Gibbs nodded. "Okay. I believe you." He reached across the table for the envelope, but Tony put out a hand and stopped him.
"Not yet. Wait 'til I'm done." Gibbs gazed at him questioningly. "I need you to understand why first."
"Okay." A flash of something passed through Gibbs's eyes. Tony wondered if he knew where this was going.
"You made a mistake not trusting me over the Domino mission, Boss." Gibbs opened his mouth to say something, but Tony interrupted him. "Feels like the whole of the last year has been about distrust, Gibbs: Moles, spies, lies – trust, distrust - thought you knew you could always trust me though, Boss."
"I do, Tony. I always have."
"Well, it sure as hell didn't feel like it after the Domino mission."
"I made a judgment call on that occasion. Thought it was for the best," Gibbs said with an impatient shake of his head.
"Yeah, well, I know it's not easy being the leader," Tony continued. "That whole fiasco with Renny last year showed me that. I know you can't keep everyone happy, and I know you're sometimes going to make mistakes. I don't blame you for that. That's not why I'm doing this. I need you to know that, Boss."
"Okay." Gibbs nodded slowly. He sat back in his chair. "Haven't seen you like this in a long time, Tony – not since the early days."
"I know – and that's my fault. I forgot who I was, Gibbs, and then you forgot too, and I was too stupid and too fucked up to remind you."
"You're reminding me now, Tony."
"No, I'm explaining now, Gibbs. See, when we went out to Africa, I thought Ziva was dead. I thought we'd be bringing back her body at best. Then we found her, and she was still alive, and I was so damn happy and relieved about that, because I felt responsible for her leaving in the first place. Felt like her death was at least partly my fault."
"Wasn't your fault she went back to Mossad, Tony. I told you that. She gave me an ultimatum…"
"Me or her. Yeah – I remember." Tony made a face. "So we went to Africa, and we brought her home. That was the right thing to do, and I'll always be glad we did it."
"But?" Gibbs raised an eyebrow.
"But then you made another mistake, Boss."
Gibbs's eyes flashed. "Is that so, DiNozzo?"
"Yeah – it is, Boss. She lied to us. She betrayed us. I can forgive that, and I know you can too. She's family after all. But then you let her back on the team."
"We need her, Tony, and, like you said, she's family."
"Yeah - and you were the one who brought her into this family in the first place, and I always trusted your gut on that. Always did trust that gut of yours, Boss."
"But not anymore?" Gibbs raised an eyebrow.
"No, Boss. Not anymore."
Gibbs grunted. "Wanna tell me where you think I screwed up, DiNozzo?"
"You trusted her in the first place because she killed her half-brother for you. Not your fault – she played you. Then you found out that was a lie – she'd been ordered to kill him to gain your trust."
"She explained that to me," Gibbs growled. "And I believe her."
"That's fine for you." Tony shrugged. "But it's my life on the line out there in the field too, Boss. And McGee's. And I'm not sure I want to be out there with her next time she forgets who she can trust. It hurt too much the first time around – next time it could be fatal."
"Won't happen again," Gibbs told him firmly.
"Maybe. And I don't mind you taking that gamble with your own life, but I don't want you taking it with mine. Sure, welcome the prodigal daughter back into the family – that's fine – but it's not like you're just inviting her to join us around the table for Sunday lunch. We're federal agents doing a pretty damn dangerous job. We have access to sensitive information that other countries would like to get their hands on. Help her, take care of her – sure - but don't compromise the safety of the rest of us, and the country, by bringing her back onto the team."
"She isn't a danger to the team or the damn country!" Gibbs growled.
"Your gut tell you that?"
Gibbs glared at him.
"The other night, when you came to my apartment, you told me you wouldn't let me back on the team until I sobered up. You said I was a danger to myself and everyone else – and if I *had* been drinking on duty then you'd have been right. It got me to thinking - why was I more dangerous than her? Why was my place on the team in jeopardy and hers wasn't? Had I ever betrayed the team like she did? Hadn't I proved my loyalty to you, over and over again?"
"What is this? Are you jealous, DiNozzo?"
"Closer to sibling rivalry." Tony grinned. "Daddy can't afford to have favourites, Boss. I know you always have though. I know it was first Abby and now it's Ziva. I know you're a sucker for those daughter figures – especially the ones in trouble. So first she was back on the team, even though she was still holding out on you about what happened on the Damocles. And then you were endorsing her application to become an agent, and it seemed like you'd forgiven her pretty damn fast – and that's not like you, Boss."
"My team, DiNozzo. My decision." Gibbs crossed his arms over his chest defensively.
"My guess is that she said something to you that made you feel protective towards her. Maybe she played the daddy card on you – hate to say it, Boss, but you're pretty predictable there. I know why – and I'm sorry for what you lost - but Ziva isn't Kelly. And the fact you let her play you makes me wonder if I even know who you are anymore."
"So this is about Ziva?" Gibbs nodded his head in the direction of the envelope on the table.
"No." Tony grinned again. "Surprisingly, it isn't. I thought it was, because it's been bugging me, but it isn't about Ziva at all. It's about me. Did you know that Jenny offered me my own team after you got back from Mexico, Gibbs?"
Gibbs looked genuinely surprised. "No, Tony. I didn't know that."
"I figured you didn't. I turned her down. I was worried about you, and about the team, and, if I'm honest, I didn't want to leave any of you. You see, in my head you were my family. Now I realise I was being naive. You're not my family, Gibbs - you're my colleagues."
Tony put his hand up, stopping Gibbs before he had a chance to say anything more. "Thanksgiving is a case in point. We didn't have plans to spend it together. We never spend Thanksgiving together. Only happened this year because we worked a case so long that all our other plans were screwed. That's not being a family, Gibbs – that's being thrown together by circumstances."
"Tony, when you work in life and death situations like we do, it brings you close. All those Marines I fought with felt like brothers to me," Gibbs told him firmly. "In a way, we *are* a family."
"And I've been trying to win daddy's love and approval for far too long," Tony told him softly. "It's unhealthy, Gibbs, and it has to stop. I have to make it stop."
Gibbs stared at him for a long time, and then, finally, a look of grudging respect crept into his eyes, and he nodded.
"You can open the envelope now." Tony pushed it the rest of the way across the table towards him. Gibbs tore his finger through it and fished out the letter inside. He read it silently and then looked up.
"Vance offer you your own team?" he asked.
"No." Tony shook his head. "It'll be a cold day in hell when that ever happens. No - I'm leaving NCIS for good."
Gibbs's jaw tightened. "You gonna be a cop again?"
"No. I have other plans."
"Team needs you, Tony."
"I know." Tony nodded. "And not so long ago, you saying that would have been enough to make me stay. But see, thing is, Gibbs - I'm done taking one for the team."
Gibbs stood up. "*I* need you, Tony."
Tony hesitated. "If you'd treated me more like your senior field agent…" he began.
"If you'd behaved more like my senior field agent…" Gibbs interrupted him.
Tony grinned. "Chicken or egg, Gibbs? Which came first? I'm not laying blame – I figure we both screwed it up."
"When did it start going wrong for you, Tony?" Gibbs looked as if he genuinely wanted to know the answer.
"I'm not sure. When Kate died? When you came back from Mexico? Or maybe when you left in the first place. 'You'll do' is hardly a ringing endorsement."
Gibbs grunted. "Is there anything I can say to make you stay?"
"Honestly? No." Tony shook his head. "This isn't a cry for attention, Gibbs, although I can see why, with my history, you'd think it was." He gave a self-deprecating smile.
Gibbs ran a hand over his chin. "Gonna miss you, Tony. Team won't be the same without you."
"Yeah." Tony sighed. "I guess I'm not the only one with a weakness for creating surrogate families, huh, Jethro?"
Gibbs went over to Tony and held out his hand. "Good luck, Tony," he said softly.
Tony swallowed down the lump in his throat and pushed the hand aside. He pulled Gibbs into a hug with his good arm instead. "I won't be coming back," he whispered into Gibbs's ear.
"I know that," Gibbs replied, in a tight, muffled tone. He pulled back, and his blue eyes were glassy. "But you're doing the right thing. Take care, Anthony."
He'd only been home for half an hour when there was a knock at the door. He opened it and was immediately shoved aside as Ziva stormed into the room.
"You cannot leave," she told him imperiously.
"Actually I can." He shut the door and turned to find her standing right in front of him. He took a step back and placed a protective hand on his injured arm.
"Are you afraid of me?" She looked astonished.
"Last time I had my arm in a sling and you were mad at me, I ended up on my back on the floor with a gun pressed to my chest," he said wryly. "Afraid of you? No. Cautious around you? Yes."
"I apologised for that!" she exclaimed. "Is that why you are leaving, Tony? Is it because of me?"
He laughed out loud. "Not everything is about you, Ziva, even if it does seem that way these days. No, I'm not leaving because of you."
"I do not want you to leave. I cannot let you leave." She stepped forward and took hold of his face between her hands. "Do not leave us, Tony. Please." She leaned in and kissed him gently on the mouth.
He stood there, stiff and unresponsive. She pulled back.
"See, thing is, I can't tell if you mean it," he told her softly. "Because you already played Gibbs, Ziva."
"How did I 'play' Gibbs?" she asked, in a confused tone.
"I don't know for certain, but I'm fairly sure you pressed his daddy button. Maybe you told him he's the closest thing you have to a father now, after rejecting your own father."
"That is the truth," she whispered, looking stunned.
"Maybe it is." Tony shrugged. "The problem is that because I can't trust Gibbs's gut anymore, I have to go with my own instincts – and those veer more towards self-preservation these days. Let's just say I'm less trusting than I used to be. Lies, false accusations, betrayal – they'll do that to a guy."
She brushed a hand over her eyes and her fingers came away wet. "I made mistakes, Tony, and I have paid for those mistakes, believe me."
"I want to. But, see, there's a little voice in my head that says I'm Tony DiNozzo and everyone knows I think with my dick. If there was any way of getting to me it'd be with sex – or the promise of it. Pretty girls throwing themselves at me and kissing me – well, that's how *I* would play me."
"I am not playing you, Tony. I…I have feelings for you," she told him.
"And I have feelings for you," he replied. "Fucked up ones, like the feelings I have for all the team. And I may be an idiot, but I've always had a healthy sense of self-preservation. I'd never get involved with you, Ziva. Not in the past, present or future. That was never gonna happen."
She looked like she'd been slapped.
"Sorry." He leaned forward and kissed her cheek.
She stood there, as stony and unresponsive as he had been earlier. Then she gathered herself together and went towards the door.
"Goodbye, Tony," she said quietly, as she opened it.
"Goodbye, Ziva," he said quietly, as he closed it.
"So you're really going through with this?" Jeff asked as he threw a suitcase onto the bed and opened it up.
"Yes, Jeff, I'm really going through with this." Tony opened his closet and surveyed his extensive collection of clothes. "Damn, it's gonna be tough choosing what to take."
"Won't be enough room in the car!"
Jeff lay down on the bed and watched him pack. "You haven't told me where we're going yet. Is it somewhere hot? Hmmm…hard to tell by what you're packing." He peered into the case.
Tony threw a few sweaters into the case.
"More casual stuff than formal," Jeff observed. "What kind of job will you be doing? No, wait, don't tell me! I want to guess. This is so exciting." He giggled like a child. "It'll be like going on the run again. Bring back memories, Tony?"
"We're not going on the run again, Jeff." Tony rolled his eyes.
There was another knock on the door. Jeff sighed. "I'll go hide in the bathroom."
"If you want…but there's no need. Not anymore," Tony told him.
McGee was standing outside the door.
"Hey, come in, Tim. Hope you don't mind if I keep on packing while we chat? I'm gonna make an early start tomorrow and want to be packed up ready."
Tony returned to the bedroom. Jeff was nowhere to be seen - that was probably for the best.
"So you're really going then?" McGee asked, following Tony into the bedroom. "You're really leaving?" His eyes widened in surprise as he saw the suitcase on the bed. "I just assumed it was all some kind of giant Tony prank. Tell me it's all some kind of giant Tony prank, Tony!"
"It's not some kind of giant Tony prank." Tony grinned. "I really am leaving. I'm on medical leave for the next couple of weeks anyway and that, on top of my unused vacation time, means I don't have to work out my notice. "
"But why?" McGee looked genuinely upset. "Does it have something to do with getting shot?"
"Kind of." Tony nodded. "But not really."
"You're being annoyingly cryptic, Tony."
Tony threw a few more garments into the case and then opened up a drawer in his closet. "It's private," he said.
"Come on, Tony. Don't be like this," McGee pleaded.
Tony gazed at him thoughtfully. "Where were you, Tim?" he asked quietly. "I've been off work all week with a gunshot wound, and you didn't visit once."
McGee looked taken aback. "We went to Africa together, Tony. I was there, by your side, all the way. I've always had your six. Don't tell me you're leaving because nobody came to visit you this week!"
"No, that's not why I'm leaving," Tony replied. "Honestly – I'm not that petty, Tim. I was just…kind of disappointed I guess. Would it have killed you to drop by and take me out for a few beers?"
"Gibbs kind of hinted that you were dealing with something - something heavy," McGee muttered.
"All the more reason for you to drop by," Tony pointed out.
"I figured you wanted some time alone."
"You could have called and found out."
They stared at each other for a moment.
"Why are you being like this, Tony? It's like you're not even you," McGee said.
"You're wrong. I'm more me right now than I have been in a long time."
He saw the puzzled, upset expression in McGee's eyes and sighed. He went over to him, put his good hand on McGee's shoulder, and looked straight into his eyes.
"I'm sorry, Tim," he said sincerely.
"For what? You're freaking me out now!" McGee protested, shrugging his hand off his shoulder. "This IS some kind of prank, isn't it? I knew it!"
"No." Tony shook his head. "Look, I've been an ass. I've teased you half to death these past few years – frankly I'm surprised you didn't take a swing at me."
"I was tempted," McGee retorted.
Tony grinned and patted his cheek. "You were very restrained. Did I ever tell you why I left Baltimore PD?"
"What? No…I don't think so," McGee said, looking confused.
"I was assigned this rookie kid. He was green, but he thought he knew everything – you know, the way kids do. I liked him. I treated him like a friend, let him have his head, and he got it blown off because nobody ever rubbed the rough edges off him and kicked him around enough to know he wasn't the great I am. I wasn't gonna make that mistake twice."
"What are you telling me, Tony?"
"That I sometimes lack judgment. That I went too far with the pranks and the putdowns. That you long ago stopped being a probie, but I didn't let up on you 'cause I was having too much fun. That you're a damn fine agent, but you should watch your tendency to turn into an arrogant little shit every so often."
McGee gazed at him, speechless. Tony turned back to his packing.
"Where are you going? Do you have a job lined up? What are you going to do?" McGee asked at last.
"A friend of mine, Ryan, runs a small local radio station in…well, it doesn't matter where. I called him yesterday, and he offered me a job as sports commentator." Tony straightened up with a grin. "Well, he figures I know sports, and I sure as hell know how to talk. Won't pay much, but it'll be enough to start with. I've still got some of the money my mom left me when she died. I do have some expensive tastes…" He picked up his favourite pair of shoes and cradled them affectionately before putting them in the case. "But I've always spent her money pretty wisely, despite everyone's expectations to the contrary."
"Sports commentator?" McGee was opening and closing his mouth like a fish.
"Yeah. I enrolled in a postgraduate degree class in film at the local university too." Tony grinned at him.
"Are you trying to be Tony DiNardo?" McGee asked suspiciously. "Wasn't that your undercover identity? Professor of film?"
"Yes it was, and no, I'm not trying to be Tony DiNardo. For the first time in a long time I'm actually trying to be Tony DiNozzo."
"Seriously. Look, Tim, I don't know how the future will pan out. I don't know if I'll end up staying on the radio, or becoming a real life professor, or going back to being a cop, or what." Tony shrugged. "And that's kind of exciting. It's a fresh start. A blank slate."
"Same soul, different skies," McGee quoted. Tony raised an eyebrow. "Old saying – you can run away all you like, but you'll still be you, Tony."
"Not running away, Timmy. Not this time. Just moving on."
"You think you can? You think you won't miss us? You think you won't miss all the excitement and the adrenaline rush of being a field agent? You think you won't miss Gibbs?" McGee asked incredulously.
"I think I'll miss all of that and all of you," Tony said firmly. "But that's no reason to stay. Now, this has been nice, Tim, but I need you to leave now."
He ushered McGee to the front door. They paused when they got there. Then McGee wrapped an arm around his neck and gave him an awkward hug. Tony patted his shoulder just as awkwardly and then released him.
"Do not track the GPS transmitter in my cell phone to find out where I am," Tony ordered.
"I won't." McGee grinned.
"Or trace my credit cards," Tony said, with narrowed eyes.
"Scout's honour." McGee held up his hand in the Boy Scout salute.
"Never actually believed you *were* a scout," Tony muttered. "Only boy scout I ever met who doesn't know what poison ivy looks like."
McGee grinned. "Don't annoy Ryan too much, Tony."
"I'll do my best." Tony grinned back at him. "Oh…here, take this." He took out an envelope from his jeans pocket. "Give it to Abby for me."
"She refuses to believe you're leaving," McGee told him. "She's shut herself in her lab and says she won't come out until we persuade you to stay."
"I figured." Tony nodded. "That's why I wrote her the letter – slide it under the door. She'll come out when she's read it."
"I'll do that. Well…bye, Tony."
Tony smiled. "Bye, Probie."
Tony returned to his bedroom to finish packing.
"He gone?" Jeff poked his head around the door.
"I don't like him." Jeff came into the room and threw himself down on a chair in the corner, looking sulky.
"You're just jealous."
"He didn't call you or come visit remember?" Jeff said darkly. "I've always been here for you, Tony."
"I know, buddy. But then, if he and I had been as close as I wanted, I wouldn't have needed you, would I?"
"Why weren't you close?" Jeff asked curiously. "'Cause of that kid in Baltimore?"
"Nah. I guess the probie just found me too annoying. We never had much in common, and I never got the feeling he really valued what I brought to the team. Then again, I teased the shit out of him, so I guess I can't really blame him."
"He looks down on you."
"He knows he's smarter than me."
"You've got street-smarts, Tony - like me. Counts for just as much as book learning."
"Well, maybe McGee will figure that out now I'm not there anymore." Tony grinned. "'Cause I figure it'll take them a hell of a lot longer to solve cases without my flashes of brilliance and amazing investigative talents."
"They'll miss your ego too," Jeff snorted. "And your nosiness."
Tony laughed out loud – and then became suddenly serious. "Well, I hope they miss something about me," he said softly.
"They will." Jeff got up out of the chair and poked around in the suitcase again. "Did you say we're leaving tomorrow morning, Tony?"
Tony opened a drawer in his closet and sighed. He guessed it was time. Of all the goodbyes, he'd been dreading this one the most.
"Jeff, you're not coming with me," Tony said gently.
"What? But…but we're buddies!" Jeff protested. "Nobody ever treated me like you treat me, Tony. Nobody was ever nice to me before."
"I know, Jeff. And nobody ever liked me as much as you do," Tony replied. "That's why I kept you around. Well, that and the fact that nobody else wanted you."
"That's not nice!" Jeff protested.
"No, but it's true." Tony picked up the urn in his closet drawer. "You were at the crematorium for months and nobody claimed you, Jeff." He ran his thumb over the inscription on the urn: "Jeffrey White."
"You're sentimental, Tony," Jeff chided. "That always surprises me about you."
"Well, like I said to Gibbs at the time, I really liked you, Jeff."
"And I really liked you, Tony. Even though you killed me."
"Well, you *were* going to slit my throat," Tony chuckled. "And you had killed a few other people along the way. You weren't actually a very nice guy, Jeff."
"Then why did you bring me home and keep me around all this time?" Jeff looked at the urn over Tony's shoulder.
"I dunno. Lonely I guess. I lied to Dr. Farley about not having imaginary friends as a kid; I had dozens. It's a hard habit to break." He grinned at Jeff over his shoulder. "Wanted to connect with someone, Jeff, the way I never seemed to be able to do with the people at work. You didn't find me annoying or disappointing – you seemed to actually like me for me."
"You ever ask yourself why you find it easier to get close to your undercover marks than the actual people in your life, Tony?" Jeff asked curiously. "I mean, first there was me and then there was Jeanne."
"Because I had it backwards, Jeff," Tony said tiredly. "I was more myself with you and Jeanne than I ever was at work. I played a role at work, but when I was undercover, somehow I felt free to be who I really am."
"You're so fucked up, Tony. I like that about you!" Jeff broke into a little fit of giggles. Tony glared at him, and Jeff pouted. "I knew you should never have gone to see that shrink. I knew something like this would happen. I told you, Tony!"
"Yeah, you told me. Had to do it anyway; needed to do it, Jeff."
"What are you going to do with me?" Jeff asked, gesturing to the urn of ashes in Tony's hand. "Don't leave me here all alone, Tony!"
"I wouldn't do that to you, Jeff. How about I scatter you somewhere nice, huh?" Tony suggested.
"How about a lake or a river?"
"You know I'm afraid of water, Tony," Jeff said reproachfully.
"Oh yeah. Forgot. Sorry." Tony grimaced. "Okay – well how about somewhere you can soar and float and be free? Maybe up in the hills?"
"My dad used to take me to a cabin in the hills and beat the crap out of me, Tony," Jeff reminded him.
"Ouch. Sorry – forgot about that too. Okay…I know where."
"Where?" Jeff asked eagerly.
"You'll see." Tony smiled at him in an infuriating way. "It's a bit of a trek, but it'll be worth it."
"A road trip?" Jeff looked excited. "We can be criminals on the run again?"
"Yeah, Jeff," Tony sighed. "We can be criminals on the run again – one last time, huh? Only without the handcuffs this time, because that really sucked."
Tony set off at dawn the next day. He'd packed up the car the night before; all that was left was his travelling bag containing various things for the journey – and Jeff's ashes.
He locked his apartment and left without looking back. He'd be staying with Ryan for a few weeks while he found somewhere to live locally. Then he'd come back and clear out the rest of his stuff.
It was the first day without his sling, but his arm was feeling a lot better, and he was easily able to drive. He set out on the open road with Jeff, both of them singing along to the radio. Tony felt as if the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders. He was free! He was free of all the lies, deception and intrigue; free of the obligations and expectations; free of a role he'd long since outgrown. It felt good to be moving happily towards an unknown future rather than remaining stuck in an all too familiar and stifling present.
The journey wasn't anywhere near as bad this time as it had been the last – maybe because he was the one in the driving seat this time. He pulled up outside the barn and looked out of the window.
"This is it?" Jeff asked dubiously.
"Yeah. This is it, Jeff. You'll like it here. It's quiet and there are some sharp farm implements lying about; scythes and pitchforks – that kind of thing." Tony grinned at him.
"I can't actually use them, Tony," Jeff pointed out. "I'm dead."
"I know. I was there." Tony winked at him and got out of the car. He grabbed the urn containing Jeff's ashes from his bag. "Coming?" He gestured with his head at the barn.
Jeff gave a tragic sigh and followed him into the barn. It looked different now; it was lighter, less threatening – although the absence of bad guys, machine guns and hostage situations probably accounted for that.
Tony climbed up to the upper level and walked along to where he'd been shot. He crouched down and picked up a handful of straw - there was still some of his blood splattered on it.
"Why here?" Jeff asked, looking around.
"Part of me died here, Jeff. Seems like a good place to scatter some ashes."
"Will you miss me?" Jeff asked.
"Sure." Tony grinned. "Best friend I ever had, Jeff, even if you are a complete psycho. But it's time for me to move on, find some new friends – real friends - maybe even make a family for myself – a real family. Anything's possible."
"Bye, Tony." Jeff gave him a sad little smile.
Tony got up and opened the urn. He looked down onto the barn below and saw Gibbs, McGee and Ziva sitting there, hands tied behind their backs, frozen in time. Then he saw himself, lying here, gun drawn, hesitating.
He didn't hesitate now. He raised his hand and threw the contents of the urn into the air. The ashes flew up and then floated down into the barn below, covering the ghosts of the past. When the little grey cloud had dispersed, Jeff was gone.
Tony put the urn down next to the blood-stained straw and then turned and left the barn – alone. He opened the car door and then glanced back at the barn, one last time.
"Goodbye, Very Special Agent DiNozzo," he said softly.
He was smiling as he got into the car and drove away.
If you enjoy my stories then you might like to buy my original character BDSM slash novel, Ricochet! Find out more here: www-xanthewalter-com (change the dashes to dots!) or search for Xanthe Walter on Amazon.