He had the gun in his hand again.

It rested flat on his outstretched palm, and he silently weighed it there, feeling the reassuring heft of its solidity, the cold hardness of the metal against his skin.

He smiled a wry little smile at the irony of using this gun that he had fired so recently to save a life to end his own.

Tony and Gibbs burst into the warehouse in hot pursuit of their fleet, fleeing quarry. Both agents had their guns in hand, and their eyes met a brief moment before Gibbs nodded and peeled off to the left while Tony went right. They moved low and slow around a perimeter of stacked crates that surrounded a manmade clearing at the center.

The smile felt unnatural and he let it die on his face. He knew if he looked in a mirror that his expression would be pained.

It wasn't surprising, though, since everything hurt these days. These days that seemed so tiring and empty.

And long.

So long.

When had he gotten so old?

The gun in Tony's hand felt heavy. It was nearly midnight, and he was tired. They had spent a long day following up on the leads that had led them to this moment, and now they silently stalked their prey through the cavernous building.

Well, at least Gibbs is silent, Tony thought, grimacing as he tripped over a discarded box full of plastic hangers, sending it clattering across the floor.

Tony stepped out into the opening, knowing he had given away his position. His heart bounded with the enthusiasm of a child into a throat constricted by the sight that greeted him.

Their killer stood with a gun pressed hard against Gibbs' head.

Simply thinking, breathing, being was just so damned hard, such an effort that took energy he no longer had because his constant companion pain had choked the life from his body, his mind.

It really shouldn't be this hard, he thought.

Not that he was a stranger to life's difficulties. He knew he had been through a lot for one lifetime—and he wasn't really that old, either. But his experiences had aged him in a way that simple, slowly ticking time never could.

He released a bone-weary sigh, his eyes still on the gun as if drawn by some strange magnetism that made soft flesh desperately seek unyielding metal.

Tony brought his gun up immediately, and they simply stared, Tony feeling the both the killer's cold, dead eyes and Gibbs' icy blue ones boring holes through him like a premonition of bullets yet to be fired.

He could feel his fear like a living thing writhing inside his gut as he watched Gibbs simply stand there, waiting. Tony could have seen a lot of things right then: the wildness in the killer's unsteady gaze as it flicked rapidly around the open space among the crates; the bloodless whiteness at Gibbs' temple where the gun met his skin as if trying to spot-weld itself there; the jagged scar on the finger hovering over the trigger that would launch a bullet through Gibbs' head.

But all he saw was the patience in Gibbs' gaze as his boss stared back at him, seemingly looking down the barrel of Tony's gun.

"Don't do anything stupid," Tony said, swallowing his terror so efficiently he doubted his own mother would have heard it in his voice.

He had made his fair share of bad decisions over the years, but now was not the time to dwell on that. He knew all about weakness because it had been drilled into his head not to show it. Speaking of irony, wouldn't it just be a bitch if he gave in to the pain and committed the ultimate weakness by putting a bullet through his head?

He knew there were people who would be shocked—but there were also people who would understand. There was only so much pain a person could take, and he thought of something someone had said to him once, a long time ago: Suicide is what happens when the pain outweighs the desire to live.

He wondered—running a finger along the barrel, cold as death itself—who would miss him. He wondered if anyone's life, besides his own, would be easier if he simply no longer existed.

Criminals aside, he thought with a bitter laugh.


"I could say the same to you," the killer said, his voice high-pitched and brittle. It sounded just like the plasticky squall of those hangers earlier, and Tony wondered for a panicky moment if he had drawn the killer's attention and gotten Gibbs into this mess.

"Just put the gun down and we'll talk," Tony said, hoping he had covered his fear as expertly as he hid most of his real feelings.

The killer laughed. "I'm walking out of here," he said with the conviction of a fanatic strapping on a suicide bomb. "And I'm taking him with me. Don't try anything, either, or I'll put a bullet through his head."

His eyes grew as hard as the tempered steel in his hand as he thought about the people who would probably be glad he was dead. There were a shocking number of them, and then there were also the people who had threatened his life over the years, both professionally and otherwise.

A woman's pretty face flashed through his head, but he didn't see any beauty in the pain and hate twisting her features. He didn't block the image—or the wrenching pain it brought—because he knew he deserved her fury after what he had done, what he had taken from her.

"You are not taking him anywhere," Tony said, his voice as steady as the blue eyes watching him. "Put the gun down before someone gets hurt."

The killer was silent, his beady black eyes twin mirrors of the dark exit of the gun barrel trained on him. Tony had another moment of sheer terror as he realized he had no idea what this man was thinking. He found Gibbs' patience suddenly unnerving and wondered if he knew something Tony didn't. It wouldn't be the first time this man he cared for like a father had been one step ahead of him.

The woman's face changed in a flash and suddenly became his father's. He wondered what the old man would think of him sitting here like this, broken beyond repair and ready to give up. He wondered how the man would feel in the moment he got a phone call that his only son was dead by his own hand.

Disappointment? Anger? Pain?

He selfishly, cruelly hoped it would hurt—would make the man suffer as he had been made to suffer.

But then he discarded the thought guiltily as he imagined their last conversation. He had enough pain to deal with without inviting more, especially when his father was obviously willing to try to make things right, or at least better.

"Let us go," Gibbs said, making Tony's jaw drop in shock before he quickly recovered. "Let him take me. No use in both of us dying."

He wondered how the team would react when they got the news of his death. He felt a tiny bit of relief from the guilt that had sunk its fiendish claws into his gut over what he was thinking of doing—because he knew they were agents and they knew their lives could be ended in the blink of an eye, any day of the week.

He was suddenly reminded of his team, standing tightly in a circle as a killer defused a bomb mere feet away. They had stuck together that day, and they would get through his death the same way: together.

There was no use in worrying about it anyway. Because there was nothing he could do about it. He had weighed the pain, measured the desire to live, and then he made his decision.

He was going to die tonight.

"No one is dying tonight," Tony said firmly. He locked eyes with the killer. "You don't have to do this."

"I've already killed," the man said, sounding weary. "What's one more murder charge if I have a chance to get out of here alive?"

What did it matter anyway? He knew he was living on borrowed time, had known that since a day on a rooftop years ago. He closed his eyes, feeling pain stab mercilessly through him as he saw her body falling to the ground again, the life blinking out of her pretty young eyes as she laughed with her last breath. He knew the bullet that slammed through her skull could easily have ended his own life.

He wished it had.

The crushing sorrow of losing her brought back everything from those dark days, and he reduced each memory to a single word so he wouldn't drown in the lapping waves of remembered pain: plague, explosions, Ari, Ziva, funeral.

His chest tightened as memories of Kate's funeral were replaced by visions of his own. He added some rain for dramatic effect—Abby would like that. He imagined each team members' face, instinctively assigning the proper level of devastation to each. He knew who would be crushed, who would let it show, and how it would be expressed.

Tony felt his emotions bubble over at the killer's weary, inflectionless words before he quickly made his face blank again. Something had to give; they couldn't just stand here forever.

And there was no way in hell he was letting Gibbs just walk out of here.

He knew the reactions because he had seen them before, during what he referred to as the Mexico disaster. Memories of that time—the leaving, returning, promotions, demotions, pain, anger, the weight of responsibility, the sheer sense of loss—assaulted him until he felt as overwhelmed by it all as he had back then.

He shoved those memories roughly away. He had enough to deal with now, right here in the present. But he found he didn't want to think anymore about everything that had happened to bring him to this point.

He was here.

It was time.

Tony knew they were out of time. He had to make a decision, and he could only hope the one he was making would be the right one, the one that would save his boss's life.

He met Gibbs' eyes again and thought he saw a little glimmer of approval there.

It gave him the courage to pull the trigger.

He gathered his courage and put the gun to his temple, mimicking the scene that had played out earlier that night.

He didn't hear the footfalls behind him because he was lost in his own pain, his own inner turmoil that he never let rise to the surface, never shared, never showed. He knew he wasn't afraid of dying and realized he hadn't been for a long time. Suddenly, that knowledge brought crushing pain and tears to his eyes as he stripped away all of his excuses and faced what had brought him to this moment.

There was no denying it. What had happened was a part of him, a vestigial appendage that served no purpose but was still a part of his being. It was like an appendix, its only purpose pain until it swelled enough to burst and kill.

He didn't hear his visitor, but he did hear the softly spoken words that fell from stunned lips.

"Don't. Please."

Tony's bullet hit the killer right between the eyes, dropping him stone-dead to the dirty warehouse floor. His momentum took Gibbs with him, and for a horrifying second, Tony was sure that his boss was dead.

Time seemed to stop, but then Gibbs moved, picking up the killer's gun and locking eyes with Tony as they stared at each other in the vacuum of violence.

Tony heard movement behind him and started to turn, wondering what had taken his team so long.

He ignored the soft words and whispered his own.

"I'm so sorry, Shannon… Kelly… I love you both so much."

Gibbs lifted the gun and fired, killing the man about to put a bullet of his own through the back of Tony's head. Tony dropped to the floor at the sound of the gunshot, and for a terrifying moment, Gibbs was sure his agent was dead.

But then a smile spread across Tony's face, and Gibbs felt overwhelming relief that he wasn't hurt even as the sick feel of cold knowledge curled in his belly. Gibbs realized he hadn't been afraid to die while the killer had his gun pressed to his temple. He hadn't once been fearful that the man would pull the trigger.

He had welcomed it.

Gibbs moved his finger from the guard to place it on the trigger just as Tony stepped forward and wrenched the gun from Gibbs' grasp. Gibbs was on his feet in a second, whirling to glare at his pale-faced agent.

"Give me the gun, DiNozzo," Gibbs growled, his eyes flashing they locked onto Tony's shocked green ones.

"No," Tony said firmly, ignoring the tremor in his voice.

"Hand it over, DiNozzo," Gibbs said again, stepping closer and dropping his tone dangerously. "That's an order."

Tony almost laughed—and he probably would have if he weren't shaking inside at the image of his boss on his knees, a gun to his head beside his daughter's battered lunchbox. Tony glanced at it, resting on a coffee table, and saw a wedding ring sitting on the closed lid, and he fought the urge to go throw up.

"No," Tony repeated, taking a step back.

Tony's refusal pulled Gibbs out of his despair and tossed him headlong into rage. His eyes glittered with his fury as he took a threatening step toward his agent. "Hand it over before I make you hand it over," he said, moving ever closer. He saw no fear in Tony's eyes—only genuine concern—and it ratcheted his anger up several notches. "The gun, DiNozzo. Now."

"And if I give it to you?" Tony asked, knowing he was only inches from the wall behind him.

Gibbs snorted and snarled a smile at him. "I think you know."

Tony nodded and tucked the gun at the small of his back just as Gibbs reached for it. Gibbs' hands hit Tony flat on the chest as he brought him up hard against the wall.

"I don't want to hurt you, Tony," Gibbs said, his tone almost imperceptibly softer.

But Tony heard it. "Then don't," he said simply.

"But I will," Gibbs continued as if he hadn't spoken, and Tony felt the first tinge of fear at the anger in his tone, the tension in the body leaning into his as the Marine stared him down.

Tony took a deep breath and then lifted his hands, palms outward. "Then hit me, Gibbs," he said softly, not wavering from Gibbs' glare. "Pound the crap out of me, but I'm not giving you the gun. You're going to have to take it."

Gibbs watched him with unreadable eyes long enough to make Tony want to squirm, but he just stood there, standing steadily, patiently. He was quaking on the inside—more out of fear for his boss than fear of him—but he didn't let it show. He had never been so glad for his ability to hide his emotions than at this moment.

Gibbs finally broke eye contact and turned away with a disgusted grunt. "You never were very good at following orders."

The barb barely registered as Tony felt relief course swiftly through him. He barely had time to wonder what to do next when Gibbs was on him, expertly sweeping his feet from under him and dropping him onto his back on the hardwood floor. Tony lay there, stunned beyond words, feeling the heavy weight of his boss sitting on his chest, his hands pinned above his head. Tony gasped as Gibbs dug his thumb into a pressure point in his wrist and reached a suddenly free hand down to take the gun.

Tony felt the cold hardness of the weapon digging into his back and thought about trying to keep it there.

"Don't fight me," Gibbs said, his voice a gentle contradiction to the pain he was inflicting on his agent with his bruising grip.

And Tony gave in—not because Gibbs was hurting him, but because he knew this was Gibbs' decision to make. He let his boss wrench the gun from its place at his back and tried not to sigh in relief as Gibbs released him and got up. He stood there for a moment, looking down and reading the shock and pain and fear—and concern—in the green eyes staring back up at him. Tony read a flicker of guilt in Gibbs' eyes before he turned and moved to sit on the edge of the coffee table.

Tony read the position as defensive, and as he sat up slowly, he said, "I'm not going to try to take it."

Gibbs laughed harshly. "Wouldn't make a difference if you tried. I've always been able to take you, DiNozzo."

Tony just nodded, fighting the urge to rub his aching wrist. "I know," he said, watching Gibbs closely and seeing how tired the man looked, how raw. "It's your decision, Gibbs. I'm not going to try to stop you if you really want to kill yourself. I just want you to know that I don't want you to do this."

Gibbs eyed him, realizing how good Tony was at his job, no matter how hard he tried to hide it. "Get out."

Tony stood slowly but with no intention of following that order, either. He backed away slightly, letting Gibbs know he wasn't a threat, and then he stopped. "You do whatever you want. But I'm not going anywhere, Boss," he said, his voice low and soothing.

Gibbs bristled at the tone. "I'm not some lunatic you got called out of bed at three in the morning to talk down, DiNozzo. Can the crap."

"I know," Tony said, infuriatingly calm. "We don't have to talk if you don't want to."

Gibbs' frustration hit the roof. He brought the gun up to his head and watched the blood drain from Tony's face. "You wanna watch, Tony? Is that it?"

Tony looked sick but he kept his eyes locked onto Gibbs' blazing ones. He didn't speak, didn't think he could with the lump in his throat.

"I knew you were cold," Gibbs said, shaking his head. "But I didn't think you'd want to watch. I figured you'd turn tail and run, just like you always do when things get tough. All those police departments before you got here, all those women you go through like water. People say I'm a bastard, but I was married four times. At least I tried to let people in. Not like you, keeping everyone at a distance because you're too scared of letting them get to know you. The real you, not that pathetic fake you give the world so you can hide away, safe and sound. You afraid they won't like the real Tony? You're probably right."

"That's a lot of words for you, Boss," Tony said, his face impassive against the onslaught. "But I know what you're doing. Trying to get me to focus on my emotions so I won't see yours. It's not working. You're hurting, Gibbs. I can see that—and I'm pissed as hell that it's taken me this long to see it. I'm sorry."

Gibbs ignored him, too proud to admit to his pain. It was easier to focus on his fury. "Here we go with you and your apologies again. It's pathetic, DiNozzo. Do you even realize how much you apologize to me? Or are you too busy running around trying to gain my approval? You follow me around like a puppy, letting me kick you around because you're that desperate for attention. No wonder your father didn't want you around—it's damned annoying tripping over you all the time. But you always just take it, just like you took it from him, letting him walk all over you when he came here. Just like you took it from the team when I left. You let them treat you like dirt, and then you turned down a promotion and stayed despite that. Why? Poor orphan Tony couldn't stand to leave his fake family? Your own family doesn't want you so you bounce around until you find a replacement? You're a coward, Tony."

Tony shoved aside his pain and anger at Gibbs' harsh diatribe—because this wasn't about his pain, or his anger. He simply said softly, "Yeah. Maybe. But I'm not the one with a gun to my head."

And with that, all of the fight drained from Gibbs' tired body. He let the hand holding the gun drop to his lap, and he stared blankly down at it for a long moment. He was vaguely aware of Tony moving closer to him, slowly and cautiously. He felt Tony's hand on his, taking the gun from his limp grasp. He sat there, his head swirling with too many thoughts to process at once as he realized what he had almost done, what he still wasn't sure he didn't want to do. He looked up finally, seeing that Tony was crouched in front of him, watching him with empathetic green eyes.

The lack of pain in those eyes after all the hurt Gibbs had hurled at him made his throat go tight. He didn't want Tony covering his pain for him, didn't want him to feel the need to protect him like that. It was backwards. He closed his own eyes and whispered, "I'm so sorry, Tony."

Tony heard the catch in Gibbs' voice and debated for a half-second before pulling his boss into his arms and hugging him tightly. He expected a fight so he was shocked when Gibbs squeezed back briefly before standing and moving to stand at the window. Tony could see the red flush of embarrassment, and for once in his life, he had no idea what to say.

He thought back to Gibbs' railing at him about family and suddenly it clicked. "Seeing Shannon's mother again has brought it all back, hasn't it?" he asked softly, and he saw Gibbs flinch.

"They died today," Gibbs said softly, offering that bit of explanation not as an excuse but to try to cover the guilt he felt at his hateful, stinging words.

Tony thought hard about how to respond to that and decided to go with the truth. This was Gibbs, after all. "No, Boss," he said quietly but firmly. "They might have died on this day, but they died years ago. You have to let them go. You didn't die that day, and it's an insult to their memories to act like you did."

Gibbs shuddered at the emotion in Tony's voice. He wasn't even attempting to hide anything now, and Gibbs felt that like a blow to the chest. He let his anger return because he couldn't deal with anything else. "Listen to you," he spat, turning from the window to glare at his agent across the room. "What the hell do you know about loss?"

Tony just stared back steadily. "I can't even begin to imagine what you must have felt when you lost them. But I know how much it hurt when you left for Mexico. I can imagine how much it would hurt to lose you again. Especially if you choose to kill yourself." He paused, weighing his words carefully. "It's not just about you, Gibbs. You have people who care about you, who would be devastated by your death. We need you."

"I don't need to be reminded of my obligations," Gibbs said tightly as he turned away again.

"So that's what we all are to you?" Tony asked, no trace of judgment in his voice. "Just obligations? Because you treat us pretty well for simple obligations."

Gibbs scoffed. "I treat you all like dirt. And you worst of all," he admitted softly.

"And you think I don't know why?" Tony asked, just as softly. "You just went on a rant about how I hide from the world, but you could have been talking about yourself. We just choose different masks. I go with juvenile and you go gruff, but we're both playing the same game."

"I am gruff," Gibbs said stiffly. "What you see is what you get."

Tony shook his head. "And I've also seen you with Abby, with kids during cases. You can't bullshit a bullshitter, Gibbs."

Gibbs didn't speak. He just turned back to the window with a heavy sigh. Neither spoke for a long moment.

"What happens now?" Tony asked softly when it was clear that Gibbs wasn't going to speak to him.

Gibbs didn't answer him so Tony said, "I'm not leaving, Gibbs. I should be dragging you, cuffed, kicking and screaming, to a hospital right now, but I won't. Even though I really should—even though I really want to. I'll settle for staying here with you tonight, and don't give me any crap about it, either. If you want me out then you're going to have to physically throw me out."

"I could, you know," Gibbs said, but there was no threat in the words. Tony noticed that he mostly just sounded exhausted.

"I know," Tony said simply. "You should go get some sleep, Boss. It's been a long day."

Gibbs turned to face him with a raised eyebrow. "You're gonna let me out of your sight?"

Tony studied his tired face for a moment before lifting a shoulder. "I can't watch you forever. I know that." His green eyes locked onto Gibbs' blue ones. "And I know you won't shoot yourself while I sit on your couch. You wouldn't do that to me."

Gibbs' eyes dropped to the bruise forming on Tony's wrist, and he felt his stomach turn with guilt that he had put that mark there. "I just dropped you and tried to break your wrist, Tony. I don't think you should really trust me right now."

The corner of Tony's mouth quirked upward in a sad little half-smile. "If you'd tried, it would be broken."

Gibbs didn't see the humor, and he felt sick that Tony could joke about someone hurting him.

"Besides," Tony said, his tone serious again. "I'll always trust you, Gibbs."

Gibbs laughed a harsh little bark. "You don't trust anyone, DiNozzo. And now you're deciding to trust me, of all people? Maybe you're the crazy one here."

Tony's eyes were dark but soft in the dimly lit room. "You're not crazy, Boss. In pain, yeah, but you lost your family. Anniversaries of that kind of thing are always tough. I may not have lost what you did, but I do know that much."

Gibbs swallowed hard, thinking about Tony's mother, about Kate, and Paula.

"Don't," Tony said, seemingly reading his mind. "Don't beat yourself up. You're hurting enough already."

Gibbs simply stared, unable to force words from his constricted throat.

"Go to bed," Tony said, making the order a gentle one. "I'll still be here in the morning. We can talk some more then. Or not, if you don't want to. I won't be sleeping so come get me if you need anything, okay?"

Gibbs nodded, wondering if he had ever heard this gentle tone from his agent. It surprised him that he didn't bristle at it as he had before. It actually felt good to know that someone was there for him—not that he would admit it. He moved to head down the hallway but stopped at Tony's soft plea.

"Promise me, Gibbs? You'll come if you need me? Even if it's just to sit with me and watch whatever horrible movie I find on your basic cable at two in the morning?"

Gibbs cracked a smile, marveling at how he immediately felt just the tiniest bit better. "I will, Tony," he said, hesitating on the threshold before turning and leaving.

Tony nodded, watching his boss's back until he had disappeared down the hall. Only when the man was out of sight did Tony drop his head into his hands and let his breathing go ragged. He had honestly never been so terrified in his life. He got up and moved into Gibbs' kitchen to make coffee. He focused on the task because he didn't want to dwell on the image of Gibbs on his knees with that gun to his head or the words his boss had said to him. None of that mattered anymore.

All that mattered was keeping his exhausted body up for the rest of the night so that he could keep his promise to Gibbs. He was tired, but he was also determined to be there if Gibbs needed him. And while he doubted Gibbs would come to him, he wasn't about to take any chances.

He went back to the couch after finding a coffee cup and cleaning Gibbs out of sugar, and spent the remaining few hours of the night alternately flipping channels and trying to crawl out of his own head. The lack of sleep was making his thoughts fuzzy and jumbled, and he found himself suddenly afraid to face his boss in the morning. He had no idea what to say, how to act, what to do.

The sun began streaming through the windows and brought with it serious unease for Tony. He wasn't surprised when he jumped about a mile when Gibbs appeared in the doorway at about 6 a.m., looking disheveled and tentative and more vulnerable than Tony had ever seen him. He might have actually winced.

"Didn't mean to scare you," Gibbs said, still hovering half in the hall.

"Too much caffeine," Tony said, yawning and waving at his empty cup.

Gibbs eyed him—and the darkness under his eyes. "You didn't have to stay up."

Tony lifted a shoulder. "Said I would."

The awkwardness hung thickly between them and Tony yawned again, wondering what the hell he was supposed to do now. He thought about calling for reinforcements but quickly abandoned the idea: There was no way he was going to betray Gibbs' confidence by explaining exactly why he needed backup.

"Besides," Tony said. "I found a spaghetti-western marathon. I was well-entertained with mindless plot and cheesy action."

"You should get some sleep, Tony," Gibbs said softly. "I'll be fine. Think I'll head down and work on the boat."

Tony immediately thought about the guns in Gibbs' basement and his fear must have shown on his face.

"I promise I'll be fine," Gibbs said, pausing and looking decidedly pained. "And I'll come get you if I'm not."

Tony realized what a huge step that simple promise was, and he nodded and kicked off his shoes. He stretched out his long frame on the couch and was asleep before Gibbs returned with a soft blanket.

Gibbs shook it out and settled it over his sleeping agent, smiling when Tony's hand curled in the hem as he tucked the fist under his chin. Gibbs felt guilty when he immediately thought about the gun, but he dismissed both the thought and the guilt quickly. He wouldn't do that to Tony. Not with him in the house.

And not ever, he realized.

Gibbs watched his even breathing for a moment and suddenly knew he didn't want to die. Tony was right: He had people who cared about him, people who needed him. And instead of feeling the crushing weight of obligation, Gibbs felt stronger just knowing he had a purpose. Tony would be dead today if Gibbs hadn't reacted so quickly when he saw the second assailant pop up behind the agent in that warehouse.

He turned and made his way down to the basement, losing himself in the woodworking, and realizing it had been a long time since he had been down here, sanding away the hours so soothingly. He worked until he felt his stomach growl, and a glance at his watch showed it was nearly noon.

He made his way back up the stairs to find the blanket folded neatly on the couch and Tony gone. He wondered how he had lost himself so thoroughly—and knew he needed to do that more often—as he read the note Tony had left on the coffee table next to Gibbs' gun.


I've got some errands to run today, but I'll have my phone on me. Call if you need anything. I mean that, and you promised, okay?

I'll be back later tonight. No arguing. You'll be doing me a favor because I found my aunt's super-secret lasagna recipe and I've been wanting to try it out on someone who will be honest with me if I butcher it. Somehow, I think you'll be able to handle that.

And since I'm not there for you to headslap me, let me just add: I'm always just a phone call away. Any hour, anything you want to talk about, I'll listen. I might end up doing more talking than listening, but I can't really help it. And who knows? Maybe it'll be good for both of us.


PS—You're out of sugar.

Gibbs laughed out loud and found himself actually looking forward to Tony's dinner, even if he was slightly terrified of the man's cooking considering Tony practically lived on takeout. He realized it was the first time in a long time that he had felt any anticipation other than dread.

He made his way to the kitchen for some much-needed coffee and stopped short at the photo stuck to his refrigerator door. He recognized the creased, dog-eared, faded picture as the one of the team—including Kate—that Tony kept in his wallet. His heart constricted as he reached out a finger and touched the photo. The sadness at seeing Kate's smiling face was replaced with a smile as he thought briefly about inviting the team to dinner.

He wondered if Tony would mind and suddenly thought about his note. Gibbs picked up the phone and stared at it for a long while, debating actually calling, actually inviting the others over. Then he remembered that he had promised to call if he needed anything.

Tony picked up on the first ring, and Gibbs silently gave him credit for not sounding panicked even though he knew his agent was probably unnerved by the name on the display.

"I'm bringing you more sugar, I promise," Tony said in lieu of a greeting.

Gibbs chuckled and rolled his eyes. "Think we could invite the rest of the team for your big debut tonight?" he asked without preamble.

He could practically hear Tony's grin. "Sure thing, Boss. I actually am at the store right now, and I'll grab more bread. This is going to be fun."

Gibbs nodded and almost hung up in his customary goodbye-less manner, but he stopped. "Tony?"

"Yeah, Boss?"

"Why did you come here last night?"

There was only a slight hesitation on the line, and Gibbs chalked it up to Tony's tiredness until he heard his response. "To thank you for saving my life," he said softly.

There was a long pause.

"Me, too," Gibbs said before hanging up the phone.

Tony stood in the aisle of the supermarket, looking down at the phone in his hand. A slow smile crept across his face as he plucked a bag of sugar off a shelf. He knew how high a compliment he had just been paid, and he didn't need the actual words to know how grateful Gibbs was to him.

He happily finished his shopping, looking forward to the night's festivities and knowing just how lucky he was to have such good friends. He knew it would take time and hard work and that there would be setbacks, but he also knew that someday, Gibbs would make it out of his dark pit of despair and back into the land of the living—of the truly alive.

He knew because he had been there himself. He had sat on a couch in Baltimore late one night, his gun in his hand, unknowingly thinking many of the same thoughts that had gone through Gibbs' head.

But a knock at his door had saved his life.

One cranky NCIS agent—one Leroy Jethro Gibbs—had saved his life.

He figured he was just returning the favor.