"You knew?" Gibbs repeated incredulously. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. "You knew all along?"
"Well, yeah, Boss, I –"
"You've known all this time? You've known and never said a word? DiNozzo, have you ever heard of the term self-righteous? No secrets! Isn't that what you said?" From being in the younger man's face, he turned sharply, and took a few steps away, seething. "All this time you've let me go on twisting up over wondering what you'd think, and you –"
There was a soft thump behind him, and he stopped. He turned to see Tony sitting on the floor, pale as a ghost, knees drawn up, his back against the wall that he'd slid down. The SFA saw Gibbs turning back and tried desperately to get back to his feet, but the Boss's words had been a sucker-punch on the end of a tense, restless and distracted night, and he just didn't have it in him. Gibbs registered the exhaustion for the first time, and crouched beside him, knees popping. He put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back.
"Stay down," he said sharply.
Tony looked at him wearily. "Boss… If I'd realised… Why would you think that I didn't know? And how would I know it was a secret? When have we talked ?"
The look of reproach and pain on his face made Gibbs' anger subside rapidly. The fear that had been in the back of his mind for so long now settled hard in his stomach. Had his awful temper just managed to actually do the very thing he'd feared, and completely alienate one of the few people he loved – certainly the most stable influence in his life?
(Another time he might have laughed at himself for describing Tony as stable – now sure as hell wasn't the time.)
He sat on the floor, facing the younger man, looking at his hands for a moment. "Yep – spoke before I thought," he said quietly. "Don't do it with anyone else, don't know why the hell I do it with you. Cuz you take it and smile, I guess. The thing is, I know you would have said something if you'd known what was on my mind – you wouldn't have left me chewing myself up…" He frowned. He would get the word out if it killed him.
"I'm sorry." He waited for Tony to collapse from shock, or make some snarky comment, and at least the tired eyes went wide with surprise, so he knew it had sunk in. "How did you find out?"
Tony shrugged. "Mike Franks. Hell, as soon as I heard that word 'sniper', I knew. Abby wouldn't talk about the case, which confirmed it, so I just talked to Franks as if I already knew everything. He told me how he gave you the opportunity to do it." He was suddenly earnest and reassuring. "He wouldn't be that careless with anyone outside the team, Boss."
Gibbs nodded wryly. "Nice to see you can put one over the likes of Mike," he said, and realised it was the first good word he'd given Tony in weeks. Shit. "Do McGee and Ziva know?"
"I couldn't say. We've not talked much about the case, except to say that if Alejandro ever gets out of prison, you've got another enemy there, Boss. I didn't think you wanted it talked about, so I never encouraged it. But I reckon Ducky added things up a long time ago. You know," he added seriously, "you should tell the others, too."
Gibbs couldn't keep the flicker of expression off his face that said, "Hell, no way," and he knew that Tony had registered it.
"You feared what I'd think. Now you fear what they'd think."
Gibbs said rather diffidently, "You… haven't actually told me what you think yet… you disapproved of Mike taking the law into his own hands that way."
Tony put his forehead on his arms for a moment. This wasn't over… He lifted his head, sat back against the wall, and said measuredly, "OK. You haven't answered my question either, but I'll assume… that if my good opinion is important to you, then you don't actually want me to go."
He raised his eyebrows in question, and Gibbs said, "You assume right…"
The SFA nodded. "So… you have to put up with a Senior Field Agent with double standards, then. The Russians hadn't done to him what Hernandez did to you, and anyway, he isn't you. I didn't like him swanning in this time and involving you, but I have absolutely no problem with what you did then, and I'm glad he helped you. If it had been me, I'd have done the same thing, except that I'm no sniper. OK?" Gibbs nodded slowly. "If you were to ask Ducky, I reckon he'd say the same thing. What I don't get, is why you supposed I'd think any other way…"
"Abby. There are no shades of grey in her world. Her Gibbs committed murder."
"Ah." Like when was his thought process anything like Abby's? When was anyone's thought process anything like Abby's? But he understood, and wouldn't ever say, that Gibbs' objectivity always went sideways when anything to do with Shannon and Kelly was involved. "Well, in the real world, grey's the most common colour, Boss."
He looked at his knees again, and took a deep breath. 'Crunch,' he thought, and so, although he didn't realise it, did Gibbs. "We should have talked," he said heavily. "You should have told me, or I should have asked. No matter how bad we thought it might be. We were both afraid of what we might hear, and look where it got us. No more secrets."
"So, you'll tell Ziva and Tim. And Ducky."
The hesitation was so marked it could have had a cosmic arrow pointing at it.
Tony bumped his head back against the wall and screwed his face up. "Boss, listen to me. I'm not perfect. I'm not wonderful. I'm not even Very Special… and I've never had a problem with rule 51. I've been wrong plenty. But I'm not wrong now. If you can't tell them… It's not even this particular secret that I'm worried about. It's the fact that you say 'no more secrets', but you can't let go of the secretiveness. And if you can't, it'll happen again. If it does…"
His face twisted again, and Gibbs spoke for him. "I've put you through the blender these last weeks, Tony. I understand. You can't do it again."
Deeply unhappy green eyes locked with his, as Tony said quietly and absolutely firmly, "Not can't, Boss. Won't."
Gibbs' stomach heaved. "Go on…"
"Because you don't have to do that to me. Keep secrets, cut me off. There's no reason… I can go on watching your six for ever, Boss; as long as I know what I'm dealing with. There's nothing wrong with my courage, or my heart..." (Except for Drake's Drum beating in it again…) "I can take all the grumpy-bear temper you care to throw my way, and the others' share too… Of course I can take it and smile… as long as…" he swallowed and went for it, "As long as I can feel 'son' in there somewhere. I'd endure anything on earth that I had to, anything necessary, for you, and the team, and the job. You guys are all I have – I mean, who'd have thought I'd end up thinking of McGeek as a brother – but he's the best… and you're at the centre of it all. I never had a secret from you before Jeanne, and I've never had one since. Never will."
"I know that." Gibbs struggled to keep his voice steady. It hurt to listen to Tony laying himself bare like this, but he owed it to him.
"'No secrets' is easy to say. You have to promise me the same and mean it, because I can't live with waiting for this to happen again."
"No… you don't deserve that. And if I can't give you that promise, you'll go."
Tony's voice was barely audible. "I reckon… What else can I do, Boss?"
Gibbs sighed. "If there's one thing I've learned about you over the years, Tony, it's that you'll do what you believe to be the right thing to do, no matter what the cost to yourself."
"You think so?"
Gibbs got to his feet as neatly as he could, and stretched a hand down to his SFA. Tony wobbled slightly as he stood up, and Gibbs put one hand on his back and one on his chest to steady him; he was alarmed when he felt how agitated the younger man's heart was. "Ya OK?"
They were both well aware that Gibbs had neither promised, nor refused to promise, and it was what the Boss might say when he'd stalled long enough to think about it that was making Tony's heart pound again. Dum – dum – dum – dah-da…They walked back into the bullpen, to find the other three hovering by the elevator door, conversing in low voices. Three pairs of eyes looked at them with a mixture of anxiety and accusation; Abby never said a word.
Tony said cheerfully, "What we need is breakfast. My treat. I'll be right back."
"You going to be OK, DiNozzo?" (D'you need company?)
"I'll be fine, Boss." (Uh-oh… you stay right there.)
There was no queue at that time of morning, and a short while later, as he walked back in the grey dawn, arms full of coffee and burritos, he wondered if Gibbs would be pleased or peeved that he'd manipulated him into some time without him and with the others… there was no chance, of course, that he didn't realise. The Boss could think it over better without him there; and tell them or not… it was easiest for him that way. 'Yeah… sure as hell isn't easiest for me…' The drum he'd brought all the way back from Rota was beating on his chest and gut, pounding him like physical blows; it was an effort to walk. He was seriously terrified of what he'd find when he got back. And then, out of the blue, he came to a surprising conclusion – and Drake's Drum fell silent.
"Gibbs…" Abby began tentatively, "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, Abs… I'm fine." He knew that the tone was anything but.
He wanted to make the promise… he simply wasn't sure if he could. It was like asking the bear not to growl – the trait was so deeply imbedded in his nature now that he didn't know if he could uproot it; but much as he'd like to, he couldn't blame Tony for wanting him to. If he went back to that way of thinking they'd be back to square one even faster than the SFA had foreseen.
Well, if he couldn't say it, and mean it, he was going to lose Tony – fact. 'As long as I can feel 'son' in there somewhere.' It may have been oblique, and slotted in as if it were no more significant than the rest of the conversation, but the younger man couldn't have made it clearer where he stood.
Abby decided to try again. "Are you sure? We thought you were going to kill each other."
Tim put his hand on her shoulder. "No, we didn't, Abby. I told you they wouldn't." He paused, and then said quietly, "Boss, is Tony leaving?"
"It's on his mind, yeah." Abby squealed, Ziva drew her breath in sharply and bit her bottom lip. Tim frowned and nodded, sad and unsurprised. "Has he said something to you about it?"
"No, no… I just can't see him accepting things as they are."
Gibbs looked at him closely, alarm bells ringing at something in his tone. He backed very carefully away from being confrontational. "Seems he's not the only one with something on his mind, McGee."
"We don't know he's going, Boss, no point in jumping the gun."
Gibbs still didn't raise his voice. "Tim, I've just been finding out the hard way what happens when we don't say what we're thinking. Don't go there."
Tim nodded, and took a sideways approach that Tony would have been proud of, even if he'd been stunned by the words. "I've been his SFA. I wasn't really ready to be an SFA at all, but I didn't have a problem with being Tony's. I could do it again, happily. Better this time. But I don't think I could be yours, Boss."
The blue eyes were, for once, completely shocked. "You don't?"
Tim's voice was full of regret. "I couldn't do what Tony does. I see the way he handles the job –"
Gibbs' tone was wry. "You mean the way he handles me."
"Yes, Boss. He draws what Abby calls 'the Bear' to him, lets you let it all out, and then lets it all slide off him. And he always knows when to take it seriously, and do something about it. I couldn't do that, Boss. It's something only he knows."
"So if he left… you'd go with him?"
The answer was dragged out of the young agent. "If I could. I couldn't –"
"Handle the way I've been lately. I understand."
"I'm sorry, Boss."
"No need to be."
Gibbs sat down on the corner of his desk, fingers curled over the edges. Well, he'd asked. There was a long hiatus, while the girls digested the conversation they'd just heard, and the Boss came to the conclusion that had been hovering since he'd picked Tony up off the floor. (Hurrying along by the river, the SFA was also having his light-bulb moment.) He lifted his head, and to Tim's amazement, he smiled ruefully.
"Campfire," he said. "Need to tell you something."
Nobody was surprised. Abby knew anyway, Tim thought it was putting a sniper's training to the best possible use, and Ziva was matter-of-Mossad-fact. Hernandez hadn't deserved the quick, clean kill he'd been dealt.
Gibbs took on the chin the fact that neither of his agents could understand why he'd been so anxious about it, and he didn't blame Abby for having planted the seed in his mind. He knew he'd spend a lot of nights shaping wood in his basement and thinking about the ramifications of this day, but his mind was clear. He heard the hiss of the elevator cables, and got up to meet it. He wanted to tell Tony something plainly, without an audience.
The door slid open, and the overloaded SFA stepped out.
They stopped dead and stood looking at each other.
"I won't let you leave, Tony –"
"Gibbs, I can't quit on you –"
They spoke at the same time, then stopped, regarding each other with astonishment. They laughed and tried again.
"No more secrets –"
"You don't have to tell –"
"Wait a minute," Tony said, "Half an hour ago we're ready to rip the whole thing up, and now we're both backing down?"
"Oh… well, I figured it wasn't right to expect you never to have a secret, Boss."
"And I realised it wasn't right to have secrets that hurt people you care about." He took the bags and tray from the SFA's arms and set them on the floor, and again, they stood looking at each other, warily, wondering if they actually should… They actually did, with a whoop of laughter, and it was the Boss who moved first, grabbing Tony into a brief, hard hug.
"Neither of us really wanted to be where we'd got to," Gibbs said, and Tony thought that was pretty well it.
"You still don't have to tell anyone."
"DiNozzo, I just did."
"And I still would have done if you'd got back and said that five minutes ago."
Tim marvelled at how much it felt as if the last few weeks had never been.
Abby had begun it all by twining herself round Tony and apologising in her unique way. "I'm sorry I thought you were beating Tim up, because of course you'd never do that, and I'm sorry I didn't believe you and I didn't listen and I never noticed and I'm really, really sorry that I said you weren't Gibbs!"
"Well, I'm not, Abs!"
She sighed, and became serious. "But it took me such a long time to realise that was a bad thing to say! I used to say it all the time! I'm glad you're not Gibbs… you're Tony!"
He hugged her. "Yes, Abs… I believe I am."
Ziva had told him not to consider leaving, when he'd hugged her too, and thanked her for her support in Rota, and her early morning appearance to help. "You would have to confiscate all my paperclips before you went, Tony." He'd told her that her paperclips were quite safe.
Tony took a swig of coffee, and grinned at Tim. "You really told Gibbs you'd leave with me?"
They were leaning on the iron balustrade, watching the Anacostia, and Tony was still feeling stunned.
McGee growled, "Gibbs told you?"
"Oh yeah… seemed quite proud of you."
"Yeah, he was. Said it made him think about some important things."
"Yeah! Jeez, McParrot, what's got into you? Hey, I was proud too."
"Oh. He still shouldn't have told you."
"No secrets, McGee."
"OK," Tim agreed. "No secrets."
There was a screech of brakes and a piercing whistle from behind them. Gibbs leaned out of the window of the agency sedan.
"Hey! You two finished putting the world to rights? We got a case."
Tim shouted, "On it, Boss," and as they ran across the grass, Tony heard in their footsteps one last flourish from El Draco's great drum.
AN: I hope the about face at the end isn't too unbelievable! And thanks again to Snoop Mary Mar for her great idea about Tim.