AN: A little piece set after the end of Season 6. I always thought Tony deserved an explanation, and these are the words I wanted Gibbs to say. Unbetaed, so I'm not sure if the characterisation is quite on, but highly edited. Comments and advice very welcome.

The hour was late and bullpen dark, save for two small desk lights, both well used to casting their soft glow for long hours in a darkened room.

Tony's dark head was bent studiously over his desk, strands of ungelled hair falling across his forehead making him look years younger, and that was how Jethro knew something was wrong. That was, if he hadn't been around for this past week, it would have been a dead giveaway.

Tony was never bent studiously over anything. His carefree, 'hakuna matata' mask would never allow it. Jethro thought, with a pang, of another female agent he had lost, and of her beautiful sketch of Tony. He knew the younger agent had it framed in his bedroom in a frame Jethro had lovingly made.

From her vantage point, Tony had been reclining in his chair and leaning well back, feet on the desk, phone to his ear, sunglasses on, looking for all the world like a frat-boy planning tonight's drinking binge with his 'brothers,' arguing over who was to bring the beer, who the jello shots, and who the girls.

Actually, Jethro happened to know what case they were working when Kate had produced that little masterpiece. It had been the first time she'd seen DiNozzo do that, and while he was used to it, it had appalled, shocked, and then a little awed her. Definitely an eye-opening moment.

Actually, DiNozzo had had the sunglasses on to mask his eyes that Jethro knew were moist and deadly, as he had gotten the details on their latest break in a child-abuse case. The uglier things got, the more immature and juvenile DiNozzo got, and it took him not being there for Kate and McGee, and even Jethro himself, to suddenly realise just how much they'd all come to rely on his attitude and how it lightened the mood in such dark moments.

So tonight, when he saw Tony bent studiously over his desk, Jethro decided not to go home. Not yet. He knew the younger man would eventually end up on his basement steps, just like always, but this time Jethro didn't want him to go through the process of drinking and self-loathing it usually took for him to get there. It had been a long, inordinately difficult week, and something had to give, soon.

It made then, for quite a surprise, when Tony suddenly lifted his head, staring at his boss.

"Why'd you let her stay?" It had been weighing on him since Jethro had signalled the plane to depart, her slender figure still on the tarmac.

Neither of them needed any greater clarification.

Jethro lifted a shoulder, not wanting to go there. "She would have stayed with or without my approval" he pointed out.

"You could have convinced her" Tony pushed, knowing that was true, but not satisfied with the answer. Not yet ready to accept that, despite it all, she had been willing to abandon them.

"She needed to stay" Jethro tried now. It was true, but it wasn't the complete truth, and they'd been working with each other for far too long, partners far too long, for that to fly with Tony.

"Bullshit" Tony supplied. His eyes had large, black rings beneath them, only enhanced by the shadowy lighting, making them look larger and more vulnerable than Jethro could ever remember them being.

"She needed space, and she'd end up hating us all if I made her come back" Jethro told the younger man, realising that Tony was going to push until he got a completely honest answer. Why was it so hard for him to give that?

"She's been there before. Never stopped her" Tony said, referring to her needing space. "And she's already halfway there" he added of her hating them. She certainly hated him, and had made no secret of it. The tone behind his words was dark, laced with pain he was struggling to conceal.

"You don't want her all the way there" Jethro warned.

"What, you think she's not already there? You think I haven't been facing her wrath since she opened that apartment door?" Tony snarled, thinking of the white-hot fury that was Ziva David, all of her hatred focussed solely on him. "She needs time. That's all. Instead you let her go." His voice was accusing, as though by blaming his boss, he could change the outcome.

And Jethro realised that, despite everything, Tony still cared very deeply for his Israeli partner. Maybe more than just longtime partners and close friends? He suspected, if they had ever allowed themselves, then maybe, but not for some time yet. And now, maybe not ever. Ziva had yet to realise the painful, gaping wounds she had inflicted on his Senior Field Agent.

"Yeah, I did. Because being here, seeing you every day, was not the kind of time she needed" Jethro told him. It would have driven anyone within a hundred kilometres insane, and Ziva would probably have ended up killing somebody, most likely Tony.

Tony snorted. "There are people, agents, who work here that I never see. We're her friends, more family to her than her corrupt, conniving father who uses her as merely another pawn in his bid to get what he wants. She's better off here."

"Yup" Jethro agreed. "But right now it would do more harm than good, and you're more than smart enough to see that." Ziva was blinded by her grief and emotions, and until she dealt with them, she couldn't see the world objectively.

"She's a trained assassin" he shrugged off the implication, as though it meant she had no feelings, despite what he'd witnessed to the contrary. "She should be here, with us" Tony insisted stubbornly. "Why'd you let her stay, Boss? Why'd you let her go?" He could hear the plaintiveness in his words, his tone, and he wondered why it mattered this much to him, after what she had done. Why he cared so much for her still, even after all that had happened between them. "Something could have been worked out between us. We're both professionals, and she belongs here, on our team. Why'd you let her go, Boss?"

There was a note of pleading to his voice, a weakness that had grown as the pain in his arm and back intensified from the hunched-over posture he'd assumed, and no longer be hidden behind the mask Ziva had so expertly shattered.

"You really want to keep pushing this, DiNozzo?" Jethro asked, his tone warning his agent off.

"Yeah" Tony said firmly. "You're lying to me, and I'm getting really sick of that. I've had enough people I trust lie to me, or not tell me the truth, and you're amongst them!" The events of the last week, the long hours, the pain and lack of sleep, the overpowering guilt, it had been simmering on a back burner as Tony had firmly kept his emotions in check and struggled to get through the ordeal, but now it was broiling, and about to spill over, and he had nothing left with which to stop it.

That barb was meant to sting, and it did. Jethro swallowed hard. "Don't you compare me with Jenny or Leon" he said, his voice dangerously low, overflowing with undercurrents that he knew Tony would easily pick up on.

Didn't mean he had to heed them. "If the shoe fits" Tony said, glaring hotly. "That was one she got right, by the way." The second time. The first time she'd said 'sock.' She'd tried to slap him when he corrected her, but he'd been too fast. He'd learnt at a very early age to duck.

"You're treading a dangerous line, DiNozzo" Jethro warned, ice in his voice.

"Why'd you let her go?" Tony repeated, the proverbial dog with his old bone. Moby Dick was not just an apt analogy for his boss. This had been eating at him since he'd watched her figure grow smaller and smaller on the tarmac behind them. "Why'd you just let her stay?" The volume was growing. "I saw your exchange! You didn't even try! You just gave up without even a fight!"

"Damn right I did!" Jethro bellowed back, matching Tony for volume, but not for fury. He had to diffuse this before things got too out of control, and he took a deep breath, knowing he had to calm himself down.

"Why!" Tony roared, suddenly on his feet, good hand banging on his desk as his chair smashed back against the filing cabinet. He knew he wasn't actually this furious at his boss, but he couldn't scream at Ziva and he couldn't go for a run and he couldn't pound the hell out of a hapless punching bag, and so this was what he settled for.

"Because she made me choose between you and her!"

A ringing silence followed that admission, as Tony stared shell-shocked at his boss, not daring to believe the words he'd uttered. "What?" he whispered softly, disbelief rife in his voice. He couldn't have heard correctly.

For once, Jethro decided to give it to him. Tony needed all the help he could get if he was going to come through this in any shape resembling okay. "Because she made me choose between you and her" he repeated, his voice soft. He rubbed a weary hand over his eyes.

Tony shook his head, bewildered, not yet getting it. "You chose me?" he asked, even more disbelieving than before. It didn't make sense. No one had ever chosen him. Not his friends, not his teachers . . . not his mother. Not his father.

"You see her anywhere around?" Jethro snapped, irritated at the fact that Tony still couldn't seem to wrap his head around the fact that he was important, that Tony still hadn't grasped just how much he mattered to him.

Tony's bewildered eyes searched Jethro's. "Why, Boss?" he asked, the question genuine.

And Jethro knew, somehow, just knew, that if he didn't answer this question properly, he'd have lost both of them.

"Because you're my Senior Field Agent" he said simply, hoping it would be enough. Their relationship had never needed the words neither would dare to utter for the unsaid emotions to be perfectly understood.

But this time it wasn't enough. "That's just because neither McGee nor . . . Kate . . . were experienced enough back then." It still hurt to say her name. Five women now, whose names he could not speak. He wondered how many more were going to be added to this growing list.

"I don't promote someone because they're the only one around" Gibbs said. It was true. He'd worked for two years with Tony alone, no one else on the team, and no Senior Field Agent, just one damn good Field Agent who did all the work of one without the title.

Tony still wasn't getting it though. Ziva . . . she had crazy ninja skills, she could break anyone in interrogation, her exotic good looks and languages ensured she could pass as almost anything she wanted, she was a crack shot with any weapon, and her investigative skills had grown under their tutelage and were excellent.

There was no way he'd ever be able to measure up to her. He was a college jock who'd been a cop. He had no fancy degrees, most people believing a phys-ed degree meant he'd done nothing more than play sports all day, and only two foreign languages. He couldn't do forensics or hack computers or take down anyone he tried. He was just another guy.

Jethro sighed, and suddenly he was in front of Tony, who was sitting again. He bent over the desk so their noses were centimetres apart, and made Tony look him in the eye. "You listen to me, Anthony" he said, his voice deadly serious, "and you listen good."

He swallowed, and he could see the pain and vulnerability in Tony's eyes as they rose to meet his.

"I chose you, because you're my Senior Field Agent. You're the best damn agent I've ever worked with, and you sell yourself short every time you compare yourself to Ziva, Abby or McGee. But more than that, you're my friend, Tony. You've always got my six, and you're a brave, loyal, and honourable man who deserves better than he got. And any time I'm heading into something, be it professional or personal, it's you I want on my six, no one else. You got that?" he asked.

Tony stared and nodded slowly, his eyes wide with disbelief, and swimming with unshed tears of emotion. He couldn't remember the last time he'd heard the older man say this many words, and to have Jethro's yearly quota used up on him, in such a fashion . . . he blinked furiously.

"Good. Because I'm always going to choose you, son."

Tony gulped and swallowed audibly, knowing he was about to lose it, as Jethro returned to his desk, giving the other man a moment of privacy.

And then he knew Tony was going to pull through this, as the younger man suddenly lifted his head, eyes still misty, but the cheeky grin on his face reflected in them. "From now on I'm keeping a tape recorder in my desk."