Well guys, guess who's back? Sorry for abandoning you for so long. I let one nasty person kill my confidence. So if anybody's still interested, here's chapter two. Gibbs and Tony don't interact at all this chapter, but I needed to set things up, and poor Tony needed a hug, which I doubt he'd have gotten from Gibbs (or would he? ;) ) And I promise updates will be more frequent from now on- say, no more than a week between chapters. Let me know if you're still interested!
Lieutenant Frank Madley has known Jethro Gibbs since they were in high school, so he knows that "Call me as soon as you've got him settled," means exactly that, so, not wanting his old friend to worry more than necessary, he makes the call as soon as Charlie's taillights disappear from the parking lot.
"Gibbs," his friend answers, sounding even more gruff than usual.
"Jethro, it's me," Frank says immediately, as he makes his way to his car.
"Sit rep," Gibbs barks, his tone oddly muffled.
Madley laughs. "The boys are on their way to Mrs. Snyder's now. Just left."
There's movement before Gibbs speaks again. "Okay, now tell me how he's doing."
"You sound like you're in a tin can," Frank says.
"Elevator," Gibbs corrects. "Now, Tony?"
"Is about as fine as he can be, under the circumstances. The kid's a mess, Jeth," Madley tells him bluntly.
"He's my mess," Gibbs says defensively.
"And well worth the effort, I'd guess," Madley soothes. "That's not what I meant. But Jeez, can't a guy catch a break? Dead ex partner, dead ex girlfriend..."
"He told you about Danny?" Gibbs sounds surprised.
"I kind of... upset him," Frank admits. "Got annoyed when he went all self pitying over whether the Snyders even wanted to see him after so many years, told him they cared about him, you cared about him, and how many other people in his life had he walked away from? He said I was right, and if he hadn't walked away the partner might still be alive."
"The guy signed his own death warrant accepting bribes," Gibbs says angrily. He tried to be supportive for Tony's sake, when they found out originally and when Danny was killed, but he's never forgiven the man for doing what he did, for compromising his partner's trust in him and hurting Tony.
"Figured it was something like that. But that kid... He's carrying around a lot of guilt. Somebody sure did a number on him. The only reason he could work out for you sending him home was that you suspected him of murder." Frank's only just met Tony, but he's already furious with whoever hurt the kid so badly. The insecurity radiated off of him when they discussed Mrs. Snyder, but his desperate worry over what Gibbs thought of him was even more painful to watch. Madley knows his old friend well enough to know that, while Gibbs may ride his team hard, there's no way he's said anything to the kid that would cause the raging self doubt he witnessed today.
Frank can feel Gibbs' glare through the phone. "Of course it never occurred to him I was concerned, and trying to help. He always thinks it's something he's done. Damn it, Mad, am I really that much of a hardass?"
"You're tough, Jethro, but when it matters you're always there for the people you care about. You may not always say it, but how you feel is usually pretty clear. Now, Tony... I'm not going to guess about what happened to the kid, but whatever it was, way back when, back before even Charlie knew him, it messed with his head. Got him thinking he wasn't worth anything, that nobody'd ever really want him around."
"Aw, hell, I know that," Gibbs says, sounding guilty. "And I shouldn't be surprised he's jumping to conclusions with how many times he's been accused of murder."
"What?" Frank asks, shocked.
"Framed. Some lab tech with a grudge, an ex girl friend with a grudge..." Gibbs says despairingly.
"The kid has a way with people," Frank laughs.
"Ya think?" Gibbs takes a deep breath. "How bad is it, Frank, really?"
"He's working himself up into more and more of a mess by the hour. Thinks you've betrayed him and runs off, only to run into his old partner and decide he's betrayed Charlie himself, the whole time not letting himself grieve the dead girl or the dead partner." Frank pulls into his driveway as he finishes the explanation, and he almost misses Gibbs' muffled curse as he gets out of the car.
"Sounds like Tony." Gibbs is torn between the pointless anger he always feels when Tony gets like this, wishing he could kill whoever hurt his boy, and his own guilt, because he should have known better than to let Tony out of his sight right now.
"To be fair, Charlie had nearly the same freakout when we got the bulletin. Said he hadn't called Tony in years, that he'd let the kid down just like everybody else. Still, with the way things blew up in Philly, I can see why those two cut and ran as far and as fast as they could," Frank muses, voice filled with old rage as he remembers Charlie's broken, drunken retelling one night long ago.
"Philly? What happened in Philly?" Gibbs asks immediately. He knows Tony worked there, and that Charlie was his partner, but as far as he knows nothing particularly memorable happened.
"He hasn't told you?" Frank asks, shocked.
"He hasn't told me anything about Philly, except that he worked there and that he got bored and left," Gibbs says.
"He didn't get bored," Frank tells him. "He got out for the same reason my Charlie did." In the silence that follows, Frank can practically feel his old friend glaring. "Oh, no you don't, Jethro. There's no way I'm getting into this now."
"Well, whatever it is, it's making this mess even worse, isn't it?" Gibbs asks.
"Probably. Seeing Charlie must be bringing back all sorts of memories," Frank admits.
"I'll be there in a couple of hours," Gibbs says, hanging up before Madley can argue.
The Lieutenant knows there's no point in calling his old friend back and trying to change his mind. It was probably stupid to expect Gibbs to wait till morning to come up. Frank himself wouldn't be able to sit around at home if Charlie were miles away and this upset, so he decides to just accept the situation and makes up the guest bedroom. Then he gets out a bottle of good bourbon, leaving it and two glasses on the coffee table.
When Gibbs arrives, he'll explain about Philly and do his best to keep Gibbs from rushing over to the Snyder's before dawn. Morning will be soon enough for the NCIS agents to reunite.
As prepared as he's likely to get for Gibbs' arrival, Frank lies down on his couch to take a nap. He doubts he's going to get much sleep once his old friend arrives.
They stop to check Tony out of his hotel room on the way to the Snyder family home, and yet again the special agent does his best to convince his friend to just let him stay in his hotel room. Annoyed, Charlie decides he's going to have to go ahead and talk to Tony. He was hoping his partner would calm down on his own, but apparently a bit of tough love is in order.
Gesturing for Tony to sit down on the end of the hotel bed, Charlie perches against the desk. "You're being a real shit, you know that?" he begins. "First, off, lay off Frank. He's just trying to help. Whining and arguing about everything he tells you to do isn't going to change anything, and sooner or later he's going to get fed up and you're going to wish you'd kept your mouth shut.
"And when we get to my house, you are going to drop this 'I don't want to be a burden,' bullshit. Mom's ecstatic. She can't wait to see you. You aren't going to ruin that for her, because the next time you see her may very well be her funeral. She's tough, but even Mom isn't invincible, and this cancer is serious. She came out of remission again a few months ago," Charlie fights to keep control of his emotions as he speaks. It's not going to help if he gets worked up too.
Tony looks miserable when he interjects. "God, Charlie, I'm sorry. I had no clue. I'd have been here in a heartbeat if I'd known."
"Well, now you do. So just spend some time with her. She worried about you when we left the precinct and you vanished off the face of the earth," Charlie says, trying to reassure Tony that he'll be welcomed with open arms.
But Tony just looks even more chastened. "I've really fucked everything up. Just how mad are you?" he asks, harking back to an old conversation they used to have when Tony screwed up, or just thought he had. He'd never had anybody worry so long as he got results before, much less care when he didn't, and Charlie's furious lectures when he took stupid risks and concern when things went wrong caught him completely off guard. It took Charlie months to get through to the kid, but it was worth it and he's pleased to see Tony is at least still willing to acknowledge their bond.
"Six," Charlie says easily. He's clearly given it some thought. Six out of ten is pretty serious though, and Tony winces. "Tone, you basically ran away from home today, and you're an emotional wreck. You need someone you can trust right now. I gave you your space when you wouldn't answer my calls after how things went down in Philly, but I can not believe you took off this upset, wound up in my home town and didn't call me or mom. Enough of this lone ranger shit, Tony, it's going to get you killed!" The older man shouts the last bit, furious about the way his friend always pushes others away to lick his wounds in private.
"I'm sorry, Chuck. I wasn't thinking clearly. I thought you were still in Florida. I didn't even know I could call you. I was wandering around on autopilot when you guys found me. And it's great to see you, but now you're mad at me because I keep doing stupid shit, and your mom will be too and I just can't deal with any more people being mad at me right now," Tony says desperately.
"Then stop doing stupid shit," Charlie says reasonably.
Tony laughs hollowly. "You have no idea. But none of this is going to matter in the morning. Gibbs is going to kick my ass, then he's going to fire me. I'm going to have to go work for Fornell, and working for an agency that once charged me with murder is going to suck."
"Wait, they charged you with your ex's murder? Who? And who's Fornell?" Charlie asks, confused.
"No, they charged me with the murder of a woman who wasn't actually murdered. My best friend's assistant framed me- but don't worry, she got him. It's a long story. 'They' is the FBI. And Fornell is another of Gibbs' friends, who works there. He's who arrested me the first time I was accused of murder."
"Jesus, Tony, what the hell has happened to you in the last decade?" Charlie asks, shocked.
"Well, after the plague it was all pretty boring," Tony jokes, and Charlie freezes.
"You're kidding. Tell me you're kidding. You're not kidding, are you? You had the plague? The honest to God Middle Ages plague?" Charlie asks in shock.
"I got better," Tony tries for a British accent, mimicking Monty Python, but Charlie's too upset to be entertained.
"God, Tone," Charlie says, standing up from the desk and moving to hug his old partner. Tony stands as he approaches, but nervously, as if he doesn't realize concern and affection have replaced Charlie's anger. He still rises to meet his old partner, and is shocked to be pulled into a bone crunching hug.
"Charlie?" Tony asks, surprised and concerned about his friend's sudden upset.
"You could have died, Tony, probably way more than once," Tony snorts amusedly at that, and Charlie tries not to think about how many times his friend has probably cheated death, "and I never would have known. Mom'd find a way to get in touch with you if something happened to me, but no one would have known to call me for you."
"I'm sorry, Chuck. I'm really sorry. I was running and I didn't even stop to think about what besides the PD I was leaving behind. You hate me?" It would never occur to most people that the person currently hugging them to death might hate them, but Charlie knows Tony is genuinely worried.
He lets go, facing Tony and holding his old partner's shoulders to remind his friend to make eye contact. Tony still hates looking people in the eye when he thinks they're mad at him. "I could never hate you, Tony. You're like a little brother to me. But you've got to stop this. You can't keep running away every time you're upset, trying to get away from the people who care about you. This Gibbs guy has the right idea- he's not giving you any choice about coming home, is he? He cares about you, Tone. Let him."
Charlie's deathly serious. He can see Tony working himself up, knows his friend is convincing himself that Gibbs will never forgive him for running off, that his Boss hates him now and it would be better for everyone if he just disappeared. That's Tony's usual solution to just about everything, to just run off before he has to deal with the fallout of any emotional situation.
"He's just pissed because I broke rule three," Tony says miserably. At Charlie's confused look, he explains, "'Never be unreachable.' He's going to kick my ass on principle, even though I wasn't active when I left."
"If he's pissed, it's only because he's been so worried about you. I was there when Frank called him. He was really scared something was going to happen to you," Charlie explains, trying desperately to make Tony understand.
But the NCIS agent just snorts. "Gibbs doesn't worry. Well, about anybody but Abs. She's like a daughter to him."
Charlie just shakes his head in frustration, but he finally releases his grip on Tony. "You'll see. Just trust me on this one, Tone. Now, let's get out of here. Mom's waiting."
Tony follows obediently, but he's subdued in the car, and when they pull up to the Snyder family home, Charlie can see him mentally putting on a happy, carefree face. "Stop it, Tony," he says quietly, but his friend just smiles at him.
"Stop what? I'm just excited to see your mom," Tony lies easily.
"No, you're terrified, and you're trying to hide it. Mom will see right through you, she always does," Charlie scolds.
"It's been a lot of years, Charlie. And she can't think much of me anymore, after the way I ran off." The mask has dropped, at least, and Charlie knows there's no point in arguing with Tony when he gets like this. Better to let him see for himself.
"Just come on in," he insists, pulling his friend's duffle out of the backseat and leading the way into the house. His mom is waiting eagerly in the living room, the way he knew she would be, and she stands immediately when she sees her son.
"Where is he?" she asks, her voice just a little unsteady.
Tony, meanwhile, follows Charlie in, but seems to be trying to hide behind his old partner. "Right here, ma'am," he says quietly, stepping slightly to the side so she can see him.
Charlie steps quickly out of the way as his mom crosses the room to hug Tony. "Oh, sweetie, it's so good to see you!" she says, her voice wavering. "How have you been, dear? It's been so long." She pulls back slightly to see Tony, and she clearly has tears in her eyes.
"It's good to see you too, ma'am," Tony says, clearly flustered, and Charlie hides his smirk by taking Tony's bag into the office/ guest room. There's no way his mom is going to put up with her favorite lost boy calling her 'ma'am'.
"That's Mamma S to you, as you well know," Mrs. Snyder reprimands, smiling hugely but still looking like she might cry. "Oh, honey, I've missed you," she says, pulling him close for another hug.
"I'm sorry. I should have called," Tony says guiltily.
"After everything that happened... I can understand wanting a fresh start," she says, shaking her head as she remembers the disaster that drove the boys out of their old precinct. "But you've a place in this family, Tony, and please don't ever forget that. I promise I won't nag, but-"
Tony cuts her off, "I'll be better about calling, I promise. I mean, anything would be better, but I'll keep in touch this time."
"Thank you, dear," Mrs. Snyder says gently, then loops her arm in his. "Now, I've been baking while I waited for you boys to get in, so there are fresh chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen."
Charlie is waiting for them in the kitchen, sipping coffee. "Mom, your tea's almost finished steeping," he says, passing her a mug as the Keurig beside him comes to life. "And Tony, that's your cocoa."
Mrs. Snyder throws away her teabag and gestures to the cookies. "Help yourselves, boys."
Tony and Charlie each take several fresh cookies, and they spend a pleasant half hour just catching up in the kitchen. Tony just lets it all wash over him, enjoying hearing about what they've been up to and offering a highly edited account of his own life. It's been a long and stressful day, though, so it's not long before he's stifling yawns.
"Tony, why don't you go ahead and go to bed?" Mrs. Snyder says, gently taking his now empty mug. When he hesitates, she tells him, "Charlie will help me clean up here. Go on and get settled."
Tony obediently heads for the spare room, remembering the way after so many nights spent here when he came home with Charlie. The sense of nostalgia he feels and the comfort of it surprises him as he returns to the familiar room and unpacks his pajamas and toothbrush.
He goes through his nightly routine by rote before settling down in bed, although he's stressed enough he's not sure he'll be able to sleep. He's about to turn off the lamp on the bedside table when there's a soft knock on the door.
"Come in," he says, sitting up when Mrs. Snyder opens the door.
"No, no, you don't need to get up, I just wanted to come check on you," she says, coming to sit beside him on the edge of the bed. She runs a gentle hand through his hair, cupping his cheek to look at him, clearly worried. "You look so upset. Charlie didn't want to tell me what's going on, he said it was your business, but if you need to talk, I'm here."
"I've screwed everything up," Tony says before he can stop himself. "I missed you guys, but I was worried you blamed me for Charlie getting hurt-"
"Stop that right now," Mrs. Snyder interrupts. "You were not to blame for what happened. If it hadn't been for you, Charlie might not have made it out at all. Don't look so surprised, he told me everything back then, including how you saved him. Don't ever think we blamed you, or stopped loving you."
Tony just gapes at her, and she wraps an arm around his shoulders, pulling him close. He leans uncertainly into the embrace as she speaks. "Charlie always wanted a little brother, growing up. He loved Amy, but he had his sights set on a brother. And the first time he brought you home, I realized he'd finally found one. You became family to all of us." She reaches up to stroke his hair again, and this time Tony relaxes into the touch.
"I- I love you guys too. All of you. You and Charlie were the first people to ever make me feel... connected. Ever since I lost my mom. And then Charlie almost died, and it was like losing my family all over again, and my dad used to blame me, how could you not?" Tony asks desperately.
The woman holding him seems small, delicate even, but there's fire in her eyes when she answers, and he knows she's fiercely protective of those she loves. "Because we know you, Tony. Even if there'd been a question that you could have prevented it, we'd have known better. We knew you'd never hurt Charlie. He'll never tell you this, but he blamed himself for how everything went wrong. He'd always had doubts about that sergeant, and he felt like he should have spoken up, or at least warned you. He thought maybe you disappeared without a word because you felt like he'd let you down."
"Never," Tony says desperately.
"But both of you blamed yourselves, you see? Because the truth is neither of you could have done anything better in that situation, but we always feel responsible when something happens to someone we love. When I lost Carl, I used to worry that it was my fault. That he drove through the storm because he knew I wanted him home with me and the kids, and it was my fault he was out there to get hit," Mrs. Snyder confesses. "But it wasn't. Terrible things happen. Bad people hurt those we love. It isn't our fault we can't see them coming, and hiding from love doesn't help."
"What if there's no bad guy? What if you're just stupid, and you make the person you care about into the bad guy in your head and run, for no reason?" Tony asks sadly, remembering his fury at Gibbs and his stupid choice to leave DC.
"Frank's friend?" she asks gently.
"He's my boss, but he's always been there for me, protected me, believed in me. Even when I screw up. He kicks my ass when I need it, but he never gives up on me. And this is how I repay him? What am I gonna do, Momma S?" It's the first time he's used the old nickname all night, and she feels her heart swell with affection even as it's breaking for the poor, hurting boy in her arms.
"All you can do is say you're sorry, and try to explain why you got scared," Tony looks up at her sharply, surprised. "Yes, scared. Something happened that reminded you of being hurt, and your instincts took over and you ran. Just like you did from us. But we understood, because we love you. And this man will too, or he doesn't deserve the trust you've put in him."
It's Tony's turn to surprise her now, as he turns to wrap both arms around her, hugging tightly and burying his face in her neck. She returns the embrace immediately, but begins to worry when he doesn't speak. "Tony, are you okay?"
He loosens his grip enough to look at her. "Yeah, actually, I think I am," he says, sounding surprised at his own words. "I just- I mean, I'd never have seen you again, if Charlie hadn't seen that fax and come looking for me. And you're right here, and you still-" he falters, unable to say the word, "And I'm so lucky to get a second chance. I promise I'll stay in touch better. I'm so, so sorry for ever doubting you, and Charlie."
Momma S leans forward and places a gentle kiss on his forehead. "Forgiven," she tells him, knowing he needs to hear the word. There's a difference in 'We still love you.' and 'You're forgiven.' and Tony's smart enough to notice it. She's unsurprised when he practically falls back into her arms, and she hugs him tightly. This moment is an answered prayer for her, and she's unbelievably grateful to have this troublesome young man back in her arms.
She runs her fingers through the spiky brown hair buried under her chin again before she speaks, feeling Tony lean into the caress. "Listen carefully though, young man, if you ever try to disappear on us again, I'll send Charlie after you, and you'll be a very sorry little boy when he brings you home. I know your work is unpredictable and you won't always be able to call regularly, but I love you, and I won't- I can't lose you again."
The gentle, scolding warning is the last bit needed to relax Tony completely, as she knew it would be. Tough love always works better on the boy than simple affection, and she knows he needs the security of knowing they won't let him get away again, because he's never had much faith in his own ability to make the right choices.
"I also expect you up here for a proper visit as soon as you get the chance. It doesn't sound like you're going to have time to see Amy tomorrow, and we all need to catch up properly and just spend time together. You haven't even met Gabe, or Mikey."
Tony sits back up. "Who are Gabe and Mikey?" he asks warily.
"Gabe is Amy's husband. They've been married six years. And Mikey is my three year old grandson, their little boy." She's surprised when the dark cloud of guilt returns to his eyes.
"Amy's married and a mother, you're sick, and I wasn't here for any of it. I don't know how you can love me, or forgive me. You've been there for me, over and over, and I've been selfishly hiding out just a few hours away, the whole time," Tony says, clearly furious with himself.
"You're back now, though. Yes, it was pure chance and luck that we found you again, but that's as much our fault as yours. Charlie could have typed your name into a database at any time and found you. He didn't, and I didn't make him. Amy asked him to before the wedding, and he wouldn't, because he was scared you wouldn't want to see him. Fear, insecurity and guilt have kept you away from us long enough. It's time both of you boys let it all go. Charlie will be getting the same lecture soon enough."
Tony looks a little stunned by the vehemence of her reply. "I'll try, Momma S," he says bravely.
"That's all I ask," she tells him, finding his hand and giving it a quick squeeze. "Now, your boss is going to be here bright and early for breakfast, so you'd better get some sleep." She stands up and helps him settle the sheets and blanket back around him. He looks a bit embarrassed that she's basically tucking him in, but she just kisses his forehead and says, "Sweet dreams," before shutting off the light and leaving him to get some rest.
Tony expects to lie awake most of the night worrying, but his conversation with Momma S has reassured him, and the emotional upheaval of the day has been exhausting, so he drops off to sleep quickly, knowing morning- and Gibbs- will arrive soon enough.