Notes: No copyright infringement intended, since I couldn't afford to pay off a lawsuit in any case. Set after Kate's funeral and the team's return to D.C., Gibbs and Tony have a rather unplanned evening together.
Kudos to those around long enough – or a fan of older music – who can figure out the title reference. Thank you to SecretChild and IceCube for the constant push to finish this. And to Ice Cube: I made my deadline on this, hah!!
Leroy Jethro Gibbs was tired. A caffeine addiction and chronic insomnia not withstanding, he lived by short naps and a few hours of rest at night – and his large cup of Starbucks (black, shot of espresso) in the morning. It normally worked pretty well, and when it didn't … well, everyone at NCIS at least knew to stay the hell out of his way.
But after the last week – hell, after the last three weeks – he just wanted to sleep. The SecNav's jet had landed just short of midnight local time, and he'd sent his team home. McGee had scuttled away like a spider threatened with a really big stick , or Gibbs' temper, whichever had occurred in the mind of his probationary field officer. Jenny had offered to share a taxi and a late-night drink, but he'd declined. Gibbs was still trying to figure out what to make of her – was she ex-partner (ex-lover, his mind insisted), NCIS agent, friend (ex-lover, his mind pushed again) or boss?
He didn't have the answer right now, and after the past few weeks, he wasn't eager to explore the issue. He'd shrugged off the invitation, saw that DiNozzo had gotten in a taxi – and then grabbed one of his own and went home, intent on crashing in his bed and sleeping for at least 12 hours. Jen – the director, he amended – had given them the rest of the week off, saying that everyone was on an enforced mandatory leave until they could meet with the department shrinks.
Which means sleeping late and avoiding it until DiNozzo and McGee do it first. Gibbs hated shrinks as much as he hated politics. Neither did anything for him, and pragmatic as always, he figured when he discovered he did need them, he'd retire. That, or shoot himself in the head and be done with it.
But the first part of the equation, getting home and getting to bed, proved to be an annoyance of staggering levels. The cabbie hit every possible stoplight, then got routed around a traffic accident – motorcycle versus semi truck. What should have been a half-hour ride from Reagan turned into an hour-plus, and by the time he threw open his front door – noting that the investigators he'd left in his basement cleaning up Ari's blood had left it unlocked – he felt like the old joke about having one nerve left. The world was getting on it rapidly, too.
The world, it appeared, according to DiNozzo. As he stepped in the door, he tripped over a travel bag, the black one he'd seen his senior field agent drag out of the airport with him. Looking a little further down the hall, he saw light leaking out from under the basement door. Gibbs let out a light curse, but truth be told, he shouldn't have been surprised. DiNozzo had been a frequent visitor in his guest room over the years. He had spent the week there after getting out of Bethesda hacking his way through the days and nights, an old quilt thrown haphazardly over his shoulders. Dr. Pitt had wanted someone keeping an eye on him during the night, and Gibbs had all but ordered Tony home – home, as in Gibbs' guest room, with a boss willing to make a meal or two and make sure he took his medication.
Neither of them had made it to the house since Tony had come back to work, though. First it had been the search for Ari, the terrorist cell and the threat on his life – then Kate's death and the frantic, soul-burning chase to kill the bastard and restore some semblance of order to their lives. If Gibbs closed his eyes and concentrated, he could still see the blood spatter on Tony's face – the force of the full-metal jacket having spread it evenly, then smearing it ever so slightly. He didn't want to, but he could – all too clearly and in vivid, bright colors.
Which, of course, probably explained his late-night visitor. Should've just thrown him in the cab, taken him with me and thrown him in bed. The musing reminded Gibbs of the conversation he'd walked in on just five days ago in autopsy – Tony ribbing Kate and the junior agent looking thoroughly flustered. Dammit, the memories were too many and too close together, and Gibbs knew they'd all be battling them for a while to come.
Still didn't solve the problem of his vistor, though – or the fact that said visitor had probably made a sizable dent in Gibbs' bourbon supply. Dropping his own bag with a sigh, Gibbs picked his way quietly through the dim hallway to the basement door – and threw it open with no warning.
"What the hell do you think you're doing, DiNozzo?"
What Gibbs expected to see, he really didn't know. What he saw, though, almost made him laugh in spite of himself. Tony sat on the landing – which wasn't all that usual, except normally the person sitting there aimed into the basement, feet stretched on the cement floor. Of course, we're talking about DiNozzo here. His senior field agent had his legs stretched out, all right, but back UP the stairs, leaning back against the cold cement brick wall.
He looked up at Gibbs, half a grin on his face and the bottle of bourbon – Gibbs' bourbon, dammit – in his hand.
"Gettin' drunk, Boss." His words were only slightly slurred, but Gibbs heard the note of recklessness that alcohol always brought out in Tony. "Kinda thought that was, ya know, obvious."
Gibbs supposed it was, given that he'd pretty much predicted it when he'd seen the travel bag on the floor. That didn't make him any happier about the situation; the first thing he'd have to do is find another bottle of bourbon, since the bottle he'd left about a quarter full seemed to have only about three or four shots left in it. Then he'd have to pry DiNozzo out of the basement – if he decided it was worth the effort. All things being equal, it might just be better just to share the bourbon and the basement landing. Easier, in fact, even if it meant lugging a drunk DiNozzo up the stairs later.
But it wasn't that simple, and dammitall, Tony was just sitting there with his back against the cold cement blocks with nothing but a thin, short-sleeved black polo shirt to keep him warm. And suddenly, not even the clear, harsh light from the bare bulb was enough to chase away the memories of three weeks ago – blue lights, painful choking, endless coughing…
15 percent. Who cared about the odds? DiNozzo had beat them, and he'd done it with his usual tenacity – only to come back a week early and get thrown into yet another mess not of his own making. When he should've been home in bed, he'd kept McGee and Kate from an early grave, helped stop Ari – and then watched as the hollow-point bullet had made a neat mess and a quick death out of his teammate.
The guilt pooled yet again in Gibbs' stomach, swimming around with irritation at DiNozzo that was already making waves. The two mixed together – and fueled a spark of annoyance that quickly flared into anger.
"Dammitall, DiNozzo. Get your ass off that floor and upstairs. It's freezing down here." Actually, it wasn't so much cold as musty and damp. He didn't know if it was the weather – May in D.C. meant misty nights that somehow worked their way indoors – or the fact that the heat wasn't running in his house. In fact, the silence surrounding the two of them practically gnawed on his last remaining nerve and pushed Gibbs that much closer to really losing his temper.
Funny, though, Tony didn't seem to notice.
"Huh." DiNozzo looked up at him, defiance fighting with confusion fighting with – some emotion Gibbs couldn't quite put his finger on. "Don't wanna, Boss. Comfy here." DiNozzo then raised the bottle toward him. "C'm and join me."
Drunk, definitely drunk. If DiNozzo's mind had even been functioning at a quarter capacity, he never would've offered Gibbs his own bourbon bottle. And he'd know better than to screw around right now. Gibbs could feel his muscles spasm, the growl building in the back of his throat – hell, he knew the expression on his face left no room for argument. And of course, Tony's arguing. Are we really surprised?
"Wasn't a suggestion, DiNozzo." Gibbs' anger was quickly progressing from a slow burn to a rather inspired full flame, fueled as much by his exhaustion and grief as any true irritation with DiNozzo. He made a point to move deliberately down the steps, locking his eyes with his senior field agent's every step of the way. He came to a stop two steps up from the landing, and slowly lowered himself into a crouch – inwardly wincing at the popping noise coming from his knees.
Tony squinted at the noise.
"That don't sound good, Boss." Tony peered blearily at him, and Gibbs saw the stubbornness there. "How about you sit down and join me?"
This time, Gibbs let the low growl sound in his voice.
"How about you give me the bottle, DiNozzo, before I smack you upside the head and kick you the hell out of my basement?" Gibbs reached out and snatched the bourbon bottle before Tony could react, and got some grim satisfaction when his senior field agent's fingers closed on thin air in an attempt to snatch it back.
Tony blinked owlishly at him.
"Not fair, Boss." Then Tony sighed, leaned his head against the concrete block and closed his eyes. "Doesn't matter. Naptime."
Gibbs heaved a sigh of his own, fighting the urge to go drill sergeant on his recalcitrant guest. It wouldn't help, and the mood Tony was in, he'd become even more obstinate. It was like fighting with a four-year-old: they were right, you were wrong and the only way to solve it was to negotiate.
So Gibbs put the bottle down on the steps, then reached out and gently slapped the back of DiNozzo's head. The senior field agent's eyes flew open, but Tony didn't say anything. Then he pushed DiNozzo's feet off the steps, essentially tipping him over sideways.
"You can nap upstairs on the couch." Surprisingly, Tony took the proffered hand, and let Gibbs pull him to his feet. Unsurprisingly, once he was there, Tony lost his footing and crashed into Gibbs. Swearing softly, Gibbs struggled to keep his balance, shoving DiNozzo into the wall to keep both of them from crashing to the floor.
A sheepish look crossed Tony's face.
"Sorry, Boss. Two left feet." Tony's face screwed up with concentration, and Gibbs knew his brain was off on another rabbit trail. "How come it's always two LEFT feet? Why not right? Is there some sort of—"
This time, the head slap wasn't as gentle.
"Upstairs, DiNozzo. Before I put both feet up your ass."
Getting Tony on his feet and aimed in a general direction was one thing. Maneuvering an exhausted, intoxicated DiNozzo up a flight of stairs, through a door and then about 10 more steps to the couch was another entirely. Tony cooperated, as much as his inebriated brain – and his obvious exhaustion – would let him, but Gibbs couldn't keep him moving UP, versus sideways or back down to the floor. Under normal circumstances, Gibbs would've just dropped his senior field agent on his ass and let him sleep off the bender in his basement.
But Gibbs had a grip on Tony, and he could feel every last rib on DiNozzo's chest through the younger man's shirt. And just when have you given him any time to eat or sleep, Jethro? Gibbs wasn't sure if the voice in his head was himself or Ducky, but it really didn't matter. The voice was right. So rather than giving his senior field agent hell, Gibbs hauled DiNozzo up the stairs and deposited him gently on the couch.
Tony slid down into a half-slump on the old polyester fabric, almost tipping over sideways, and Gibbs wondered just how close to passing out – and DiNozzo's didn't pass out, remember? – the lanky agent really was. Reaching down, he tapped DiNozzo lightly, somewhat less heavily than a normal wake-up call.
He was rewarded with DiNozzo's sketchy attempt to sit up and act somewhat sober.
"'M here, Boss."
Gibbs gave him his second-B stare.
"Good. Make sure you stay there. I'll be right back."
Gibbs trotted into the kitchen, glad to be free of the extra weight. DiNozzo wasn't the only one who was exhausted. Working off the mental notes of past experiences, Gibbs started pulling various items out of the cupboard. First goal was food – and coffee.
About five minutes later, he walked back into the living room, carefully balancing two cups and a pair of plates, trying to figure out how waitresses did this for a living.
"Here." Gibbs handed Tony the small plate of toast and a cup of coffee. It was a sign of just how drunk DiNozzo had managed to get – and in, what, an hour? – that all he did was blink at the plate and the cup.
"Not hungry, Boss."
"Wasn't a request, DiNozzo." Gibbs glared, making sure he locked eyes with his senior field agent. He could deal with Drunk DiNozzo. Hungover DiNozzo was a little beyond his patience level at the moment, and he had already figured his senior field agent would likely end up spending the night. "Eat."
Tony looked at him for another long moment before finally taking the proffered cup and plate. He looked at the coffee, scowled, then put the mug down on the table. But when he lifted the plate to his nose, a goofy smile crossed his agent's face before he picked up a piece of the toast and took a huge bite.
"Mmm...symmmmum 'oast, Boss." When Gibbs just lifted an eyebrow, Tony pushed the toast into one side of his mouth. "Uhh, cinnamon toast. Thanks, Boss."
Gibbs settled back onto the couch, putting his own sandwich down on the table. He wasn't about to waste thin-sliced roast beef and provolone cheese on his agent, not when said agent would likely be puking it back up in a matter of hours. Besides, he knew from previous experience that the sugary mix appealed to DiNozzo's sweet tooth.
As Tony relaxed and started bolting down the food, Gibbs realized two things – one, his agent was drunk, but not to the point of passing out, and two, by the way he was eating, starved. Gibbs quickly estimated downward the amount of bourbon his agent had probably consumed, though, when it came to DiNozzo, he'd never underestimate. Gibbs had once watched him and Abby match tequila shots at a Georgetown bar – and then watched DiNozzo stand up and walk in a straight line to the door and hail a taxi. How much of DiNozzo's current state was drunkenness and how much was exhaustion, Gibbs didn't know – they'd all pushed themselves past limits they didn't know existed in the past week.
All in pursuit of someone who should've been neutralized a year ago. Just so a half-sister could put a bullet through his forehead. Gibbs sipped his coffee, his stomach clenching not just at the hot liquid and the acid, but the memory as well, pride warring with guilt fighting with grief and not just a little vengeance. On the flight home, Jenny had spoken to him first about the mandatory leave, and Gibbs understood that she could have – and maybe would have – cleared them to at least return to the office if he'd asked. Taking them off rotation and putting them all on desk duty, though, would've given them all too much time to think, and Jenny knew that.
So, of course, we all go home and think, except DiNozzo, who shows up in my basement and gets drunk. Gibbs sighed. He didn't want to talk, and he doubted DiNozzo did, either. It was just … dammitall, there were too many demons in the dark corners of 2 a.m. Gibbs could stand it – he had for the past 15 years, with a basement, a liberal supply of bourbon and multiple boats. Solitude suited him just fine.
DiNozzo and his demons, though … that was another story. When Tony ended up in his basement on the odd night, there wasn't much talk – at least, none of the serious kind. He'd let DiNozzo babble, and when he couldn't take the noise – or the inane conversation – he'd head smack DiNozzo and hand him a piece of sandpaper. Usually by the time they reached that point, though, his senior field agent had sorted out whatever was cluttering his brain and settled down to work in peaceable silence.
All things being equal, at least Tony had chosen his basement to get drunk in. It saved him an early-morning phone call to drag his agent out of a bar, which he'd done on the few occasions DiNozzo had gone the "alcohol-drowning-of-the-sorrows route" after a tough case. Neither of them had enjoyed it – during the fact or after.
Gibbs watched his senior field agent start sipping at the coffee, and tried another swig of his own. It took all of a split second for him to realize he could use a little liquid comfort, and not just of the caffeine kind. With a sigh, he put the mug down on the table, forced himself to his feet – with his knees protesting all the way, the twin cracks snapping into the silence – and retrieved the small bottle of Basil Hayden that he kept hidden on the liquor shelf. Returning to his seat, he poured a generous dollop into his coffee mug, and swallowed a mouthful before capping the bottle. The warm rush in his stomach instantly released some of the tension in his shoulders, and he relaxed back in his chair.
A moment later, DiNozzo's plate clattered onto the table.
"'fs all the same to you, gonna skip the coffee, Boss." He saw DiNozzo eye the bottle on the table, then shrug. "Course, if you wanna share the bourbon..."
"First you drink the rotgut, and then you expect the good stuff? Not a chance in hell, DiNozzo. Go get a bottle of water from the fridge."
DiNozzo blinked at him for a minute, then slumped back down into the cushions.
"Not getting' up. Tired." DiNozzo seemed to curl into himself, trying to find some way to sleep both sitting up and slumped. After a few tries, Gibbs had had enough.
"Lie down, DiNozzo." Gibbs didn't phrase it like a suggestion, and fortunately, DiNozzo didn't take it as one. With a groan, a few flailing limbs and a sideways motion that made Gibbs wonder if he'd end up on the floor, DiNozzo managed to maneuver himself into a stretched position. He collapsed gracelessly in a seamless move, though, pulling one of the throw pillows under his head as he went.
Shaking his head, Gibbs grabbed the crocheted blanket – Shannon's handiwork, with the tassles done inexpertly by Kelly – unfolded it, then slowly leaned forward and tossed it over his senior field agent. DiNozzo didn't even open his eyes, just burrowed in under the weight of the blanket and settled. A muffled "thanks, Boss" came from the depths of the pillow.
Gibbs regarded him for a moment, shaking his head and wondering silently why dealing with a drunk DiNozzo had him feeling almost at peace. Maybe it was the familiarity of the routine – making the toast and coffee, getting his agent settled on the sofa, preparing to nap in his battered armchair until the point he was needed, if he was needed. It'd depend, most likely, on how exhausted DiNozzo was and whether his nightmares were kept at bay by the bourbon.
Chances were 50-50, maybe, that DiNozzo would sleep through the night. If I'm lucky, Gibbs decided. Best thing to do was to make sure there was a clear path to the half-bath on the first floor. He pulled the coffee table out and away from the sofa, then leaned back in his chair with a sigh. The inanity of the situation struck him– the sheer silly comfort of dealing with a senior field agent who, by rights, probably still should have been in the hospital and instead was dozing on his couch; who gotten – hell, been given – a disease from the dark ages, dealt a shitty hand and survived; who had ended up on a sunny roof two weeks removed from the hospital, joking with his teammates one second and then had stood there, stunned silent, when her blood sprayed across his face and brought all their lives to a jarring halt.
What had this done to all of them? For what purpose? He'd survived, DiNozzo and McGee had survived – in theory, at least, they were all still kicking and screaming to stay in this world. Gibbs didn't worry about McGee all that much – he knew the probie had family and friends, a support system most could only dream of. But DiNozzo and he … they shared this same, stubborn, self-imposed isolation. Holding people at arm's length, practicing the careful craft of simple masks to show the world. It kept others from getting too close – until someone like Kate barged in and pushed past all their defenses and then disappeared. It killed their resistance, and it made them vulnerable.
Gibbs felt the tears spring to his eyes, and he reached out for his coffee mug, swigging two quick, hard swallows of the coffee and liquor to fight back the emotion. They couldn't escape this, not tonight, maybe not ever. DiNozzo had tried with the bourbon, and God knew, Gibbs had tried the same tactic more than a few times himself.
Dammitall, it hurt. It hurt everyone. Some more than others.
Gibbs didn't know how long he sat there, his eyes screwed shut against the burning tears, nor did he care. What drew him back to reality was a low, hoarse voice across from him.
"Sucks, Boss." Gibbs opened his eyes to see Tony staring at him blearily, drunk and sober at the same time. Gibbs regarded him for a long second, then nodded.
"Yeah. Yeah, it does."
Tony grunted his assent, then dropped his head back on the pillow and shut his eyes again. Before he did, though, Gibbs could see the glint of tears there, and a shame that Gibbs knew they all felt. He could no more absolve that guilt than he could bring Kate back to life, than he could erase the last three weeks.
Some philosopher – or the unit psych counselor, he thought bitterly – would say everything happened for a reason, and what was important were the lessons they had all learned. Gibbs had called bullshit to that a long time ago, though. There weren't any lessons here, and there never would be. The only thing to be found in this senseless mess could be grief and pain – and eventually, some bizarre kind of acceptance.
Tony had said it best. It sucked – and would for a long time.
Feeling the need to give some closure, though, Gibbs thought for a moment, then reached over and and slapped Tony lightly upside the head. A gentle headslap, just enough to get the younger man's attention.
DiNozzo started under the touch, then lifted his head, blinking his eyes furiously.
"Wahwuz that for, Boss?" Gibbs made sure their eyes were locked before he answered, then gave DiNozzo the one truth he knew in all of this – the one truth that had kept him sane.
"Not your fault. Not mine, not Kate's, not yours. It just … IS."
Tony looked at him for a moment, then nodded before dropping his head back to the pillow. His answer, when it came, seemed equal parts DiNozzo and comic mask.
"Very existential." Gibbs didn't say anything, just waited to see if his senior field agent would offer something else. Eventually, he did, though without opening his eyes or raising his head again.
"Gotcha, Boss." There was no hint of a slur in DiNozzo's voice now. "Ditto."
Then there was silence. Gibbs listened to Tony's ragged breathing even out slowly, then put his mug back on the table and relaxed into his chair. The rage, the horror, the sheer weight of adrenaline he'd ridden for the past week, seemed to sag, then disappear, leaving nothing but a simple exhaustion.
Gibbs closed his eyes, and leaned back in his chair, content to let the night bring what it would.
A/N: I end with this snatch of lyrics by Simon and Garfunkel, the inspiration for the story: "And he carries the reminders, of every glove that laid him out or cut him till he cried out, in his anger and his shame, 'I am leaving, I am leaving … but the fighter still remains.'"