He opened the door to his basement and stopped short at the figure slumped on the third stair from the bottom. His visitor didn't move, didn't speak. Gibbs finished his descent, stepping around his silent guest. He caught a whiff of alcohol and wondered how drunk his agent was—probably quite, considering the normally gregarious man's quiet stillness.
"Sorry, Boss. I didn't mean to wake you," Tony said softly. Gibbs detected no slur in the words and wondered how long the man had been sitting there.
"Wasn't sleeping," Gibbs answered, even though it was nearly 2 a.m. "Wasn't even here."
Tony looked up at that. "But your car is in the— Oh." He paused, embarrassment blooming brightly on his cheeks. "Oh hell. Please tell me I didn't ruin your hot date."
"Fornell's not what I'd call hot."
"Oh," Tony said again, confused.
Gibbs watched his agent think and wondered if he was plastered after all. "He caught a rough case and needed a friend," Gibbs said gruffly. "One drink turned into a dozen so I took him home."
Tony didn't respond, and Gibbs wondered if he'd even heard. A few minutes of silence passed, during which Gibbs studied his agent's unguarded expression. He saw a sadness there he hadn't seen in a long time.
"Looks like you could use one, too," Gibbs said softly.
Tony shook his head. "Already kinda drunk, Boss."
"I meant a friend, Tony," Gibbs said, watching the younger man's reaction closely. He was half-expecting the flinch. "This about that girl you've been seeing?"
Tony simultaneously gave himself a mental headslap for not anticipating Gibbs' perception while fighting the drunken urge to spill the entire undercover op. He simply nodded.
"I'm an interesting choice to come to for relationship advice," Gibbs said.
Ya think? Tony thought, wondering how his mentor—who missed nothing—didn't realize that he wasn't here for relationship advice but for mission support. Either I'm really good at this or the thought of me having a steady girlfriend is that distracting. I'm not sure which is more disturbing.
He thought back to when Gibbs overheard his conversation about moving in with Jeanne and a sudden blade of panic threatened to gut him where he sat.
"I know. Believe me, I know," Gibbs had said. What if he knows about Jeanne? Really knows about what I'm doing? Why wouldn't he say anything? Why is he letting me drown? He doesn't know. He can't know. He wouldn't let me lose myself like this. Would he?
Gibbs watched Tony go pale and desperately wanted to know what was going on behind those green eyes. He knew better than to ask outright, though, knowing it would send the gates crashing down and Tony would probably up and leave.
"Have a fight?" Gibbs guessed, hoping it would loosen his friend's tongue as the alcohol obviously had not.
Tony smiled the saddest smile Gibbs had ever seen. "Nope. Everything's perfect."
"And that's the problem?"
Tony frowned. "Well, everything's fantastic for now, I should say."
"And you're afraid it's going too well?"
Tony thought for a moment, wanting desperately to ask for a drink but unable to make his mouth form the words. He knew he was already too drunk to be having this conversation. It was too dangerous. Funny how he was never afraid while out with his arms-dealer's-daughter girlfriend but being drunk in his boss's basement was terrifying enough to make his heart race like a poorly tuned V8.
"I'm afraid I'm getting too close to her," Tony said truthfully, his pain-filled eyes locked on Gibbs'.
Gibbs blinked hard at the raw emotion displayed by his usually guarded agent. "You're already thinking about losing her," he said, realization making his voice go quiet. "Tony, I know you've never been big on commitment, but maybe there was a reason?"
Tony laughed bitterly, the harsh sound making Gibbs blink again. "I was waiting for the right person? And now I've found her? That's just … perfect."
Gibbs wasn't sure what to make of that—or the bitterness. "You sure you didn't have a fight?"
"I told her I love her," Tony said softly, almost to himself. "Why did I do that?"
"It's okay to be scared," Gibbs said, smiling when Tony looked up at him in shock. "I know, not something you'd expect me to say. But love is … well, love can be terrifying."
Tony didn't trust himself to speak.
Gibbs said, "Especially for someone with as little experience with it as you."
Tony flinched. He closed his eyes and rested his head in his suddenly shaking hands. He heard Gibbs rummaging and looked up to see a glass in front of him.
"No thanks, Boss. I should go."
Gibbs frowned. "I didn't mean to make you feel worse. Take this as a peace offering," he said, pausing. "And stay a while."
Tony was already shaking his head. "I can't talk about this anymore. I just … can't."
"Then talk about something else," Gibbs said. He realized he sounded a tiny bit desperate and added, "I can't let you leave half in the bag and upset. They'd yank my clearance faster than they could clear your guts from the pavement."
Tony just looked at him and Gibbs wondered if he'd been too harsh.
"Has anyone ever told you that you have a strange way of showing you care?"
Gibbs smacked him lightly on the back of the head.
They talked for an hour about nothing.
Tony talked, that is. He talked about movies, places he'd been with Jeanne, old cases. Gibbs mostly sanded. The rough rasping of paper smoothing wood was rhythmic and soothing. The smells of sawdust and expensive alcohol blended with the soft sounds and created a cocoon of comfort.
After finishing his review of the latest action flick, a still semi-drunk Tony suddenly asked, "If you weren't an NCIS agent, what do you think you'd be doing?"
Gibbs stopped sanding and turned to face his agent. He wondered where the question had come from while marveling at Tony's sudden change in demeanor—the younger man had gone from chatty to contemplative in the blink of an eye.
"Boat builder?" Gibbs said, watching Tony's face carefully. "In Mexico?"
Tony smiled softly in the dim light—a bit sadly, Gibbs noticed. He winced. Way to bring up another sore subject. Backpedalling, Gibbs asked, "What about you?"
The ploy worked, Gibbs noted as Tony frowned in concentration. "I've never really thought about it before. Once the knee took out pro sports as an option, law enforcement was what made sense. I doubt I'd be good at anything else." I'm not even sure I'm good at this, he added silently.
Gibbs studied him for a moment. "I doubt that."
He saw a flash of pleasure flick through green eyes at that but it was quickly gone. "I wouldn't last five minutes in a board meeting. Not smart enough to be a doctor or a lawyer. Not patient enough to work with kids."
Gibbs frowned as he watched Tony study his hands. "You thinking about a career change, DiNozzo?"
Tony's eyes snapped up at that and a blush crept unbidden across his face. "Of course not."
"This have something to do with me leaving?" Gibbs asked quietly. "Or me coming back?"
Tony shook his head. "I'm glad you're back, Boss. Never wanted you to leave in the first place."
Gibbs saw the old hurt in his eyes, but before he could speak, Tony said, "I understand why you did though. This isn't about that. I'm sorry for my crappy mood—I guess I'm drunk."
"Your girl not like your profession?" Gibbs asked.
Tony blanched, cursing his stupidity. I should never have come here. Not tonight, not after drinking.
"Not everyone can handle being with someone who has a dangerous job," Gibbs said, figuring he'd nailed the cause of Tony and his girlfriend's fight. "Wish I could tell you different."
Tony scrubbed his hands over his face, suddenly feeling a thousand years old. The urge to spill everything to his mentor and let him help shoulder the load was almost unbearable. Needing to do something, he pulled his cell out of his pocket and laughed out loud when he realized it was his undercover phone.
He quickly stifled the laugh when he saw Gibbs' eyes boring into his. "I'm gonna call a cab. Thanks for trying to sort out this fucked-up head of mine. Didn't mean to send you on your very own Mission: Impossible."
"DiNozzo—" Gibbs started.
"Not staying," Tony cut him off. He shook his head so hard it made him a little dizzy. "Can't stay."
Gibbs gave him a long-suffering look. He said softly, "I was going to tell you to call her."
Tony didn't speak. He just nodded slowly and turned, retreating up the stairs before Gibbs could say a word. The older man watched him go, heard the slight slam of his front door.
It would be months before the whole night, the whole conversation would make sense to him. It would not be until he was sitting at a table in the director's office with the scent of scorched flesh and the image of a body curled in a burned-out Mustang. It would not be until then that the uncertainty, the hurt, the betrayal he'd glimpsed in those green eyes that night would make sense to him.
Sitting there in that office that day, seeing, hearing, feeling Tony's raw pain, it would all finally make sense.
And with understanding would come guilt.
He should have known.