Team Gibbs drew Thanksgiving duty and spent half the day doing paperwork.
Or in Tony's case, inciting paperball wars.
But it was a holiday and the mood was light, so Gibbs allowed it. He even joined in when the team gathered scrap sheets destined for the shredder and headed up to the parapet to launch a paper plane contest. Tony, Tim and Ziva each had a sheaf tucked under an arm.
Gibbs carried a single sheet.
His agents eyed him skeptically as he turned and made careful folds against the bright orange wall, his back to them. Ziva produced two planes, each radically different—one with wide wings and one sleek as an arrow. Tim produced three entries, all seemingly identical—but there were minute tweaks to key aerodynamic features of the craft. Tony was apparently going for quantity over quality—or hoping to get lucky with one of his dozen zany designs.
They lined up, all talking trash.
Who won easily, responding to the mystified stares of his team with a half-shrug and a not-quite-half-smile.
Tony grinned and ventured, "Winner cleans up?"
Gibbs' mouth turned up even more. "Not a chance, DiNozzo." He paused, flicked a glance at Ziva. "That's what probies are for."
Ziva grumbled good-naturedly, thanking McGee sincerely when he joined in.
Tim lifted a shoulder. "It's Pavlovian. I hear 'probie' and just automatically respond."
Tony patted him on the head as he walked back to his desk. "Good Probie."
Tim chucked a plane at the back of Tony's head.
"Easier to smack him," Gibbs advised, settling behind his desk.
Tim nodded, tossing a glance at the clock. "I hate to say it—"
"Then don't," Gibbs and Tony said in unison, drawing a huge grin from Tony.
"—but I have a feeling we might actually get out of here at five."
Tim and Ziva had already discussed their plans, family and neighbors, respectively. Ducky was in Hawaii, eschewing the normal turkey and stuffing for sand and sun. Abby was volunteering, and Palmer was braving the in-laws for his first Thanksgiving as a married man. Neither Tony nor Gibbs had offered information, and no one asked, more out of kindness than disinterest.
The phone on Gibbs' desk rang.
Tony looked at it distastefully, then turned to McGee, wagging a finger. "Bad Probie."
Both Tim and Ziva leaned forward slightly, listening to Gibbs listening to the caller.
Gibbs grunted something in the affirmative and hung up the phone. He gave his team something close to an apologetic look. "Sounds like a missing person."
Tony picked up on that immediately, his hand freezing on the holstered gun on his desk. "Sounds like?"
Gibbs nodded. "Dispatch said caller was pretty distraught."
"I thought there was a waiting period for missing persons," Ziva said, gearing up anyway.
When Gibbs didn't answer right away, Tony froze again, this time with the gun halfway to his belt. His green eyes went unreadable as he looked to his boss. His voice gave away nothing. "Caller was a kid."
It wasn't a question. Tony knew there was only one kind of case that made Gibbs look like that.
Gibbs shook himself mentally and nodded. "Girl." The barest of pauses. "Reported a missing family member. No other details."
"Dispatch traced the call?" McGee guessed.
A nod. "Mother's a lieutenant. Corps."
"Deployed?" Tony asked. He didn't really need the information immediately. But he did need Gibbs to stop looking like that.
The one-word answer didn't dislodge the look from Gibbs' eyes. "Father?" Tony asked as they finished gearing up and headed to the elevator.
McGee and Ziva trudged into the elevator first. Tony stepped in front of Gibbs and turned, tossing over his shoulder to his teammates, "Meet you downstairs."
The doors slid closed and Gibbs raised a silver eyebrow.
"They both have plans," Tony said meaningfully.
Gibbs didn't respond.
"We didn't always have a whole team, you know," Tony said. "It could be like old times. Before."
They both winced a little at that word. Before.
Before Kate joined them.
Before Kate left them.
Before Jenny was their director.
Before Jenny was a ghost that haunted them both, for the same and different reasons.
Before Ziva joined them. And left them (or did they leave her?). And returned with them.
Before Tony knew why Gibbs had this look.
But he knew now, knew why he was fighting an uphill battle. But he just calmly said, "I can trace credit cards. And you can tackle the bad guy. And Tim and Ziva can eat too much and watch football."
Gibbs' mouth twitched.
"We're not even sure what's up," Tony said. "We could do the interview, get them back after, if we end up needing the whole team."
Gibbs met Tony's eyes. Nodded once.
Gibbs drove while Tony chattered about the latest James Bond movie. He stopped mid-analysis of the Bond girl's features.
They had arrived.
The house was in a subdivision full of cookie-cutter homes, and Tony breathed deeply as he got out of the car, pulling in the scent of deep-fried turkey. He looked up and down the street, seeing no fire trucks and commending the cook on not blowing up his garage. He almost wished McGee were here to explain how exactly people ended up blowing things up and/or starting fires while deep-frying fowl.
He pictured exploding turkeys as they made their way to the front door. It was better than thinking about the look that deepened on Gibbs' face.
A small face peered out from behind a white lace curtain. Tony could see tears on apple-red cheeks, and he wasn't surprised when the door flew open before he could raise a hand to knock. The child stood sobbing, framed by the doorway, and did not speak. Could not.
The look had reached Gibbs' eyes.
"My name is Tony." He reached slowly into a pocket and produced his badge, holding it lower than usual and putting it away once he realized it didn't matter.
The girl was crying too hard.
"Are your parents here?" Tony asked, his voice gentle as he stepped closer, slouching even more than usual and moving slowly.
The girl sniffled, a look of pure misery contorting her small, streaked features. Tony actually jumped when she put her head back and shrieked "MOMMMMMYYYYYYY!" at the top of her little lungs.
"Sammie?" came a half-panicked cry from inside the house. There was a pounding of footsteps, and then a petite redhead skidded to a stop behind the girl, her small hands immediately landing protectively on her daughter's shaking shoulders.
"Samantha?" She looked up, wariness in her eyes as she snapped, "Who are you?"
Tony waited a beat, realized Gibbs wasn't going to answer, and said, "NCIS, ma'am. Agents DiNozzo and Gibbs. We had a report of a missing person."
The woman's eyes froze on him for a long moment. Tony returned the gaze steadily, even though he could feel his pulse picking up and a shiver running down his spine despite the unseasonably warm afternoon.
"Missing," the woman said blankly.
Tony started worrying about shock. He did not look at Gibbs.
And then the unexpected happened.
The woman threw her head back and laughed. The laugh bubbled up her pale throat and erupted, shaking the red waves of her soft hair like lava flows.
"I'm sorry," she managed after a moment. She looked down at her child, who had also tilted her head back—to glare upward. "I'm sorry, baby," she apologized downward before turning back to Tony. "There's been a misunderstanding. Would you like to come in?"
"Sure," Tony said, watching Gibbs unfreeze beside him as they walked into the bright, warm home. Tony's stomach grumbled at the smell of the holiday dinner being assembled in the kitchen. Curious eyes glanced up from slicing and mixing as they passed.
"Sit, please," the woman said. "Can I get you anything?"
Tony paused, expecting Gibbs to answer in the negative for both of them. He blinked in surprise when his boss stayed silent, his eyes on the mother and daughter perched on the sofa in front of them. Tony winced as the woman flicked a strand of red hair over her ear. He pulled a small notebook from his pocket, doubting he'd need it.
"No thank you," Tony said. "So no one's missing?"
The girl curled into her mother and started wailing again. Tony opened his mouth to apologize, but a large woman in a flour-dusted apron swooped into the room, making shushing noises.
Tony knew she meant the child, but still he obeyed.
"Hush, now, Sammie," the woman said, taking the girl up in her soft, wrinkled arms. "You'll wake your cousin. And he's a spoiled little brat who needs that nap," she murmured with a smile, winking at Tony as she left the room as quickly as she came.
"My mother," the woman said, scooting forward on the couch and offering her hand to Tony first. "I'm Allison Hatcher."
She shook hands with Gibbs, either not noticing—or more likely not commenting—when the agent jerked his hand back as if burned. Tony had thought the look would have disappeared when the danger did, but obviously he was wrong. He had seen photos of Shannon. He had noticed the resemblance.
It seemed Gibbs had been wounded by it.
"I'm sorry you came out here today," Allison said, shaking her head as she gazed up toward the ceiling.
Tony hadn't heard the grandmother take the girl upstairs, but he wondered if mothers had some sort of radar that allowed them to find their children in times of distress.
"Someone is missing," she said, pulling out a cell phone and showing them a picture, "but it's not a person. We brought home a rescue dog last month for Sammie's seventh birthday. An ugly little mutt that stole all of our hearts with just a twitch of her stumpy tail. We were bringing in groceries this morning when Snowflake got through the door and took off. We searched and searched—my husband is still out looking—but there's been no sign of her."
From the corner of his eyes, Tony saw Gibbs relax slightly and his own shoulders loosened a bit, too.
Allison continued, a blush darkening her cheeks as a smile brightened her eyes. "I'm really sorry. But I'm also kind of glad, too, you know? I guess Sammie was listening when I told her she could always call NCIS if she was in trouble."
Tony laughed. "Yes, ma'am," he said, standing. He was about to put the notebook away when Gibbs spoke.
"Dog have a collar?" he asked.
Allison's smile went a little crooked as she considered the question. "Yeah," she said, nodding. The smile was slowly returning. "Hot pink with little rhinestones. You want to help us look?"
She said it jokingly, and Tony smiled politely.
"Did you see which way she went when she bolted?" Gibbs asked, his eyes on Allison's.
Tony smiled, but his tone was confused. "Boss?"
That seemed to snap Gibbs from his state. The look was gone.
"Rather do paperwork all afternoon, DiNozzo?"
Tony's grin was genuine, and infectious, as Allison matched it brightly.
"Really?" she said, her eyes drifting up again.
"Yes, ma'am," Tony said, giving a shallow bow. "We at NCIS are happy to serve."
She laughed, her eyes dancing as Tony uncapped a pen. "Can you text me that photo?" he asked, rattling off his cell number once she'd pulled hers out. He waited for it to download, then frowned at the picture of the scraggly black dog.
"And she named her Snowflake?" Tony asked, skeptically, trying to remember the last snowfall. It had been March.
Gibbs gave him a look—the normal, slightly exasperated one. "She's seven," he said, as if that explained it all.
And it did.
And even Tony—with his inexperience with children, both having them and being one—could understand that. He looked down at his notebook and wrote, in the scratchy script that apparently only he and Gibbs could read, "Snowflake."
"She's about twenty pounds," Allison said, grinning as Tony took down the information. "She knows her name but doesn't always come when she's called. A little rebel, that dog. I can't tell you how much I appreciate this. Sammie's just devastated."
"We'll do our best," Gibbs said, tearing his eyes from her pretty face. "Let's go, DiNozzo. Losing daylight."
They walked in silence to the spot where Snowflake had last been seen. Tony had ditched his suit jacket in the car before they set off, and he tilted his head back, enjoying the warmth of the midday sun on his skin.
"I need a vacation," he said, closing his eyes. "Somewhere tropical."
"Gonna be a permanent one," Gibbs said, "if you don't get to work."
Tony turned his head and cracked an eyelid. "You'd never fire me, Boss," he said bravely. "You'd miss me too much."
"Yeah, that's why," Gibbs said, sarcasm and a hint of a smile in his voice.
They were both standing on the sidewalk, in the north corner of the intersection, each staring down a different road.
Tony spoke first. "Gotta admit," he said, "I have no idea how to conduct a missing puppy investigation."
He meant it as a joke, but suddenly, the look was back.
And gone again.
Before Tony could really process that, Gibbs shrugged.
"Like finding a dirtbag," he said. "Find out what she wants. Look for evidence."
Tony considered that. "Garbage cans down that way," he said, looking back to Gibbs. "Maybe she was hungry?"
The question, his uncertainty, the sudden fear of rejection or ridicule from his mentor, had Tony suddenly feeling like he did back in those old days, during his first investigation as an NCIS agent with Gibbs. It hadn't been a missing person—well, someone went missing, but he was never coming back.
"Back of his head's gone," Gibbs observed. The agent looked to his new partner, wondering if his probie was a puker.
But DiNozzo held himself upright, his expression neutral as he stepped around the corpse to get a better look. "Yep," he agreed, his eyes scanning the intersection and then moving up to take in the darkened buildings surrounding the crime scene. "Not a lot of lights on. I doubt anyone saw anything. Doubt anyone would tell us if they did."
Gibbs grunted. "Not in Baltimore anymore, DiNozzo."
Tony considered that. He raised an eyebrow. "You think people are more helpful in the District?"
"Didn't say that."
The former detective thought furiously, wondering what that could possibly mean. Are there more cameras here? he wondered. More cops? More security? Less—
"Just sayin'," Gibbs interrupted his thoughts, letting him off the hook, "best not to assume. Always double-check. No matter what city you're in."
Gibbs didn't respond to Tony's words, he just started walking toward the garbage cans. They were moving into a more densely populated area now that they had left the safety of the Hatchers' subdivision. Buildings gained floors as they walked, the fall sunshine finding more and more windows to bounce off of. Gibbs watched Tony roll his sleeves and wished he'd left his sport coat behind, too. It wasn't hot, but the bright sun was pleasantly warming.
"We should just skip winter," Tony commented, his face still tilted slightly upward as they walked. "No snow, no rain, no slushie cold or wet socks. Just skip all that winter crap and go right back to summer."
Gibbs glanced sideways. "You forgetting something?"
Tony frowned. "Those pesky laws of nature? Or is it physics?"
"Dunno," Gibbs said. "I meant spring."
Tony smiled. "I don't mind spring."
"Yeah? You haven't put in for your usual spring break leave time."
Gibbs looked him over. "Finally outgrew jello shots and bikinis?" he asked mildly.
"I was never young enough to rock a bikini," Tony said, cocking his head. "Or female enough."
The smile was fleeting, and Gibbs didn't allow the deflection. He was an interrogator, after all. "You really not going this year?"
Tony shrugged again.
"If I set foot in Florida again," Tony finally said, "they'll start sending me on tours of retirement homes."
Gibbs didn't really understand Tony's preoccupation with age, but then, when Gibbs had been approaching forty, he'd been married with a daughter, looking forward to walking Kelly down the aisle and rocking away his golden years on a front porch with Shannon. And once he'd lost them, he'd stopped counting. He hated to admit that back then, when the loss was so fresh that breathing felt more impossibility than necessity, he hadn't wanted to make it to his next birthday without them.
But he knew Tony now dreaded the birthdays he once dropped hints about and thoroughly celebrated with drinks and women and who knows what else, so Gibbs joked, "If they send you on tours, I'd probably get sentenced to a lifetime of shuffleboard."
Tony smiled. "You'd probably be good at it. Pick up some hot grandmas with your mad skills."
Tony flinched at his words.
Gibbs wanted to tell him it was okay. But that would involve admitting that he did feel slighted by the universe that he was his age and not a grandpa, that he was infuriated with the universe that Kelly had never had a chance to feel about her child the way he had felt about her.
Gibbs didn't want to talk to Tony about feelings, even if he did want to thank him for picking up the slack earlier when Sammie's cries and Allison's face had stripped him of his ability to speak. Gibbs knew Tony had noticed his grief-stricken stupor, but his agent had covered for him, an action that said more about Tony than his many words ever revealed.
They had reached the alley, the green garbage cans lined neatly at its mouth.
Tony slid a glance sideways at Gibbs, who didn't really understand the slightly sheepish look until Tony clapped his hands and shouted, "Here, Snowflake! Come here, Snowflake! Here, puppy, puppy, puppy!"
Gibbs smiled, then snickered out loud when a man tried to hide his smirk as he hurried by, a pumpkin pie shaking slightly in his hands as he lost the battle and laughed out loud at Tony's knee-slapping and enthusiastic calls.
"Wait," Gibbs said, his tone stopping the man in his tracks.
The guy actually looked nervous.
"You see a dog around here? Pink collar. Small, black, ugly?"
The guy smiled again at Gibbs' sparse but effective description. "Sorry, no. Did you lose her at the dog park?"
"Dog park?" Gibbs asked. "Where?"
The man jerked his chin toward Tony, who was eyeing a dark stain on the wall in the alley. "Through there, take a left. It's a few blocks down."
Gibbs nodded his thanks, feeling a rumble in his stomach as he caught a whiff of the pie when the man turned to hurry home. Gibbs couldn't help wondering if the guy was headed to a family, a party, or maybe a lonely apartment.
Gibbs walked through the alley, giving Tony a light jab to the kidney to stop his comical bellowing.
"You trying to find the dog or wake the dead?"
"Oh, hey Boss." Tony pointed to the dark spot on the wall and grinned. "Think Abby would kill us if we called her in to test if that's canine urine?"
Gibbs shrugged and started walking to the other end of the alley. "Not us, DiNozzo."
"Mmm," Tony agreed, falling into step beside him. "And she'd drop me without even leaving a trace."
"Come one step closer and I will drop you like a boy-band CD."
Tony sauntered two steps farther into Abby's lab. "Have you heard the new Backstreet Boys single? It's to die for."
Abby laughed darkly. "I'm sure listening to that garbage could be fatal," she said, her voice managing to be smoke and butter at the same time.
The new NCIS agent paused, still getting a feel for the scientist on only his second case here. He shrugged. And belted out, " 'Everybodyyyyyyyyy. Yeaaaa-ah.' "
"Uck," Abby groaned out a sound of pure disgust, looking like she might actually vomit. She turned to the computer, her back to him. "Makes me so glad not to be everybody."
Tony cocked his head. "Yeah, I definitely get that vibe from you. You like being not normal."
She smoothed her hands over her short black skirt, rattling the chains on it. "Maybe I am normal," she said, tossing him a pointed look over her shoulder, "and you're the freak."
Tony laughed. "Yeah, maybe," he said, venturing several steps closer, and then several more when she didn't threaten violence at his continued advance. "To each his own."
"Or her own," she said, still not looking at him.
He got the sense she wasn't hardcore femi-nazi. Just being contrary. He stepped forward again, so he was about a foot to her right, though she still hadn't looked up from her screen, the numbers flying across it at speeds enough to make him dizzy.
" 'Cause I want it that wayyyyyyyyyyy,' " he sang loudly, watching her spine go stiff and her lip curl in reluctant surprised appreciation at his smooth pitch. "See, those Backstreet Boys know how it is. Won't you give 'em a chance?"
Her mouth relaxed and her tone was bored when she said, "I'm pretty sure that's 98 Degrees."
The interrogator in him sensed she was lying, or testing him, but he just shrugged and opened his mouth again to sing more of the song he'd heard once on the radio and couldn't get out of his head.
"One disgusting note and I'll stab you with that," she warned, jerking her chin at the knife in its plastic evidence tube in his hands. She did it without looking at him. He was impressed.
"No you won't," he countered, simply, mildly.
She finally turned to face him, full on. He grinned at her shirt, black with red and green lettering that read "I heart Satan Claws." He wasn't sure what amused him more, that the shirt was so woefully out of season or the Santa hat poised on one hump of the big pink heart that stood in for the word.
"Why?" she fumed, letting her casual indifference melt into boiling anger. "Because we're going to be bestest friends? Because you're the friendly jock who wants to break stereotypes and befriend the goth chick? Because you're good-looking and no one can resist you? Because you're actually going to be here more than a few months? Well, guess what, pretty boy, no one stays with Gibbs that long. Probies stream through these doors like shoppers on black Friday, thinking they're getting exactly what they want at exactly the right price. But most of 'em bolt when they see what that price really is. They see one murder too gruesome, one victim too young, and then they run for the safety of the parking lot. That is, if they don't bolt under one of Gibbs' glares first, which clears out most of them. Because they're all too dumb to realize that Gibbs doesn't suffer fools and won't hold their hands as he teaches them. Gibbs isn't the price, he's the reward, but they don't understand that. But it takes them time, you know? Because they think Gibbs just needs to warm up to them, not realizing his thermostat is always set to glacial and they're the ones who need to warm up to his style. But you just stand there, smiling, and keep thinking you have a chance here."
Her skirt rattled as she whipped back to her monitor, tears glistening in her eyes that he knew she didn't want him to see. But damned if she'd blink too fast to clear them.
He finally understood why she had been cold to him from the moment she met him. It wasn't really him—it was that there had been too many of him. He also suddenly understood why she and Dr. Mallard—or Ducky, as he insisted Tony call him—seemed so over the moon about Agent Burley. It wasn't that he was the best interrogator, a crack shot, a brilliant investigator, an all-around good guy—and maybe he was—but they both liked the man because he stayed.
"And yes," she said, seemingly reading his mind, "Stan was the anomaly in the data, but he left, too. It just took him longer to leave."
"He was a good agent," Tony said, fishing.
She rolled her eyes, as if he were as transparent as the evidence tube in his hands. "Yes, and I assume he still is, wherever he ran off to. But that's not the point. Gibbs is better when he has someone he can count on, someone who can watch his back almost as well as he watches theirs. Whether you call it 'caring' or not, Gibbs feels responsible for his people, and he doesn't do well when he can't trust them to watch their own hide, or watch each others' in the rare case he has a whole team. And while he'll never admit it, I know that sometimes he needs someone to watch his back—the job requires it. Gibbs is damned good—he deserves respect and he also easily commands it, but he hates when people bow to him because they're afraid of him. Or worse, afraid of screwing up. But he also can't stand the cocky ones who come in here thinking they're better than everyone—better than him. Gibbs wants someone who can be good at this job—and be themselves. So if that's not you, Di-WhateverYourNameIs, just leave now, will you?" She took a breath, calming herself from the height of her frustration. "Because it's hard on me—hard on all of us—to have to keep starting over."
Tony had never been good with shows of strong emotion. He thought back over her words, all of them, and while he was actually memorizing them—because they had worth and he needed them because he knew he could learn probably everything he needed to know from Gibbs—he chose the wrong ones to repeat back to her in trying to make a joke.
"So you're saying you think I'm good-looking?"
She breathed in, clenching her teeth as though afraid she might take a snap at him.
He held up his hands. "Sorry, bad joke," he admitted. "I do that a lot. You'll learn that about me, once you get to know me."
That thawed her a bit, but experience had taught her to be wary. Everyone thought they would stay.
He cocked his head at her in the silence, his studying making her somehow more comfortable instead of less. She sensed he was a man who knew how to leer, but also how to see. And then she became uneasy, wondering exactly what he was seeing.
"Do you really consider yourself a goth?" he asked, genuinely interested rather than casually curious.
She felt the traitorous beginnings of a smile. Don't you dare start to like him, she warned herself.
"Not really," she admitted. "I prefer not to label myself so easily."
He nodded, looking as though he was filing that information away. She looked him over, actually looking at him instead of ignoring him out of habit and fear of getting attached. He was good-looking, and his body was hard, athletic, and she did not allow herself to start getting attracted. She wasn't sure if Gibbs' Rule 12 applied to her, too, but she had never tested the theory anyway.
"Sorry I labeled you a jock," she said, wondering at the origin of the faint scar under his chin. "But you did play sports."
"Football and basketball," he confirmed. He smiled. "I was good."
She took the words as statement of fact rather than bragging. Her gut said he wasn't lying.
"You'll have to tell me some stories sometime," she said. "But some other day. We have work to do."
He lifted the evidence tube, the knife inside wobbling on the end of its handle. "Do you want me to tell you why?" he asked.
She reached for the tube, but he held it high over his head, well out of even her reach as she teetered on platforms.
"Why you won't stab me with this," he answered, calling up the beginning of their conversation.
He still held the tube out of her reach and she stepped forward, so close she could smell the warm, clean scent of him. He grinned, jiggling the tube as she stared up at it.
Suddenly she understood, and for first time looked him directly in the eyes. They spoke in unison.
"Can't contaminate evidence."
They found the dog park easily, the friendly yaps and deeper warning barks beckoning them from a block away. As they approached the simple fenced park, the shimmering sun glimmered off shiny coats of all different colors, and the varying breeds ranged from lap-dog small to mastiff tall. There was no divider, but the dogs were all agreeable, and the agents watched the giant mastiff gently lower his head to nudge a small black dog, obviously trying to get it to play.
"That our perp?" Tony asked, smiling.
Gibbs rolled his eyes, squinting into the distance at the dog. He waited for a joke about his eyesight, but it never came and he realized it had been a while since Tony had teased him about his glasses or pestered him to give up his age.
They closed the distance, both noting that no dogs roamed free outside the fence.
"Nah," Gibbs said finally. "Red collar. Tail's too long."
"Damn," Tony said, feigning disappointment. "I really wanted to bring her in for a lineup."
"You're enjoying this way too much."
Tony's smile faded. "Yeah," he said, suddenly eyeing the fence with a sick look on his face. A medium-size dog with a blue football jersey that read "Wide Retriever" had loped up to the enclosure, possibly seeking treats or a scratch behind the ears. Tony shivered lightly in the glaring sun. "But it could be so much worse."
Gibbs watched his agent's eyes go unfocused, and he knew Tony wasn't seeing the view in front of him.
"Let's go," he said, reaching out and smacking Tony on the elbow.
Tony flinched, but Gibbs saw him shake himself and his eyes were focused again when he turned.
"Wait," Tony said, nodding to the fence. "We need to interview the possible witnesses."
They walked purposefully up to the enclosure, and the lack of leashes in their hands drew one woman's attention. She glanced backward at a tiny Chihuahua that was sniffing at the back paw of the mastiff, but moved to meet the agents without another look.
"Aren't you worried about him?" Tony asked when she joined them.
"Who, Pinky? He's the gentlest dog in here," she said, grinning. "Hell, he even looks behind his rear before he sits down so he doesn't squish the little ones. Like my Taco. Hey, Taco! If he pees on you, it's not his fault, ya hear?"
She turned back to the agents. "Probably not the most politically correct name, I know. And neither is saying that little dog is loco, but it's absolutely true."
Tony smiled, and then asked her about Snowflake, giving her a description without using the word "ugly" so as not to offend the obvious dog-lover.
"Nah, I haven't seen her, but I haven't been here but ten minutes or so. Hang on a sec. Sandy!" she yelled, rolling her eyes when a yellow lab lifted its head toward her. "Not you, Sandy-dog. Sandy-lady!"
Sandy-lady looked up from kissing a tiny dog in a way that made Tony a little uneasy. Or jealous. He wasn't sure.
The woman beside them kept smiling and waving, but informed them, between her teeth, that Sandy-lady was in fact a bit of a bitch. Tony forced his smile at that into a polite greeting as the woman sauntered over, the dog tucked under her arm like a sack of potatoes. He couldn't help thinking she could use a lesson from a running back on how to handle a carry.
"Margaret, my dear," the woman said, her smile as fake as a plastic turkey. "Whatever is all the fuss?"
"It's Maggie, you know that. No need to be all formal here at the ol' dog park."
Sandy's smile tightened into something uncomfortable looking. "That must be why you never call me Sandra."
Tony wanted to tell Gibbs to take a step back because he was dangerously close to cat fight country. At the ol' dog park. But the man had been married four times. Surely he knew?
"These gentlemen are looking for a dog," Maggie said, launching into the description Tony gave, only in a whiskey-smooth southern drawl.
Tony flashed the photo Allison had sent him.
Sandra looked at it but her eyes started roaming Tony's face, then lower—and then even lower than was considered polite. She was extremely attractive, probably mid-thirties with soft brown eyes and lustrous hair that begged to be touched. But Tony found himself uninterested in her flashy rings, and the smell of the perfume he recognized as an expensive Dior actually turned his empty stomach.
But that also could have been the fence, churning up acidic memories in his brain.
"I do recall that dog, Margaret," Sandra said. Tony inched backward. "It went streaking across the grass over there, headed toward the houses over that way, but I didn't think much of it because a man walked by a minute later. I figured he'd get it."
She looked at Tony as if waiting for a reward—a very specific, or maybe explicit, reward.
Tony swallowed nausea.
He told himself it was the perfume.
And then he wondered when his values had changed.
"Seems like a waste of your valuable time to send an officer of the law after a silly little dog," she said, obviously fishing for a rank. Detective, maybe, if she was into romance novels.
"I'm sure the little girl who lost her puppy doesn't think so," Tony said coldly, his words having the same effect as throwing icy water in Sandra's pretty face.
She left, stomping off through the grass in her expensive heels and muttering, "Good luck with the mutt."
"Golly, I hope she didn't mean me," Maggie said, feigning outraged horror and giggling like a schoolgirl. "I'd ask if it was good for you, but I guess that answers that."
Tony realized she was looking at him, but he was distracted by the ghostly visions beyond the fence. "Good for me?" he repeated, confused—and unnerved by the knowing way Gibbs was looking at him.
Maggie clapped him on the arm. "The way she was eye-sexin' you, hun. Little miss Sandra wanted to jump your bones—until you put the kibosh on that. Slapped her down good."
"I didn't mean—" Tony started.
"Oh, don't you worry about her," Maggie said, patting his hand. He hadn't realized he was gripping the fence like it might attack. "If anyone deserved—and needed—a wakeup call, it's her. Girl has a thousand-dollar dog and wouldn't cough up five bucks when we was collecting money for the new shelter. Damned shame."
They thanked her—and both handed over ten-dollar bills for the shelter when she politely inquired—and were on their way.
Tony turned to Gibbs after they were out of earshot. "Boss, I—"
Gibbs smiled a little at the pause. "Think she was lying to get in your pants?" he finished. "Maybe. But it's all we have to go on right now."
Tony nodded, actually looking embarrassed. "Guess I am getting old," he grumbled. "She was hot, but annoying."
Gibbs chuckled. "Older and wiser go hand in hand, DiNozzo. Quit worrying."
"Yeah," Tony said, still sounding off.
"Tony," Gibbs said, stopping and facing his friend, "you're gonna make me say it?"
"Say what?" There was confusion in his tone.
Gibbs gave him an exasperated look and started walking again. "You can still make a woman turn to mush just by smiling at her. I don't know why you're suddenly feeling like you're over the hill, but knock it off. You keep acting like you're dead and buried, and one day you will be. Hell, Sandra back there probably lied to the police during an investigation just to get on your good side. You want me to go back there and arrest her for obstructing?"
Tony considered the rare amount of words from his boss so he didn't have to think about their meaning, because he knew Gibbs was right. He had been hiding far too much lately. Still, he said, "You'd arrest her?"
Gibbs shrugged. "Probably not."
Tony smiled. "Thanks, Boss."
They walked in silence for a while, entering a neighborhood that looked similar to the Hatchers' and having to squint into the slowly sinking sun. The question Gibbs asked was not the one Tony was expecting.
"You gonna tell me what was with the fence?"
Surprised green eyes shot sideways before closing tightly. His arm bumped Gibbs' and he focused his gaze down and away. He didn't want to say it, didn't want to give that sick fuck this power over him. Tony felt like just saying the name into the crisp clean fall air would dirty it, that letting it out would be like letting him out, freeing the monster to prey once again.
Gibbs waited, not mentioning the small collisions when Tony's eyes clamped shut, again, and again.
Finally, Tony took a deep breath, gulping in as much clean air as possible. "Philly," he said, eyes squeezing tightly in pain—his, but more so theirs. "Alex MacArthur."
"Mmm," Gibbs murmured in acknowledgment. He reached out and squeezed Tony's arm, just above the elbow, not surprised when he flinched away from the touch. He let go, not sure if he was sorry for the attempt at offering comfort.
"Eyes open, DiNozzo," Gibbs commanded, gently. "He's the one in the cage now."
Tony had been with NCIS about a year—long enough to go clubbing with Abby and be able to make fake passes at her and know she'd laugh instead of calling HR, and long enough to be able to order takeout for Gibbs without double-checking his preferences.
And while he had heard a hundred of Ducky's stories—and actually now called him Ducky every time, with ease—he still didn't feel connected with the doctor. It was his own fault, he knew, because Ducky had been nothing but welcoming to him. Perhaps his subconscious had seen the psychology texts on the desk downstairs and because he knew of the doctor's interest in the subject, his mind refused to open up to what could be prying eyes. He didn't think he was consciously avoiding deep conversations, but if he was thinking about it, didn't that mean—
"Anthony, are you all right?"
The doctor's habit of asking that question also put him on edge. Did the man want to know the truth or was he simply being polite? Could he tell the doctor the truth, without being psychoanalyzed?
"If the smell is bothering you today, I have some Vicks in the drawer," he said, ignoring that Tony hadn't answered the question. He rarely did. With any truth, anyway.
"I'm fine, thanks," Tony said, stepping closer to the opened body on the table as if to prove his words. "Just spaced out for a minute."
Ducky nodded, knowingly.
"Quite all right," Ducky said, poking at a lung. "I shouldn't be going on anyway as I'm sure Jethro will want to hear this pronto."
"He should be here soon," Tony said, yawning at the early hour. "Said last night he'd be about an hour late this morning. Didn't say why."
"Ahh, Anthony. You're fishing at the proper time of day, my boy," Ducky said, wagging a scalpel at him, "but with the wrong type of bait."
Tony grinned. "How do you put scotch on a hook?"
Ducky laughed heartily, having to put down the blade. "I am so glad you've stuck around," he said simply.
A tight feeling crept across Tony's chest, but he ignored it. "I don't think you'd spill Gibbs' secrets even if I got you ten sheets to the wind."
"Such a smart young lad you are," Ducky said in agreement. He went back to the body, turning the left hand of the corpse palm-down on the shiny metal. "The origin of that phrase is quite—"
"Oh," Tony gasped, staring at the pink mark on the pale, bluish skin. His hand went immediately to his instantly sick stomach and he stood there, head spinning as his brain called up image after image better left buried. The images had nothing to do with this case, but Tony was suddenly transported back in time.
"Isn't it an odd shape?" Ducky asked, having not noticed Tony's reaction because he was staring at the strange burn on the back of the dead hand. The skin was gnarled pink in an almost perfect rectangle, save for two long, thin pale lines left unblemished down the middle, almost splitting it into thirds, but not quite. "It is obviously a burn, but I haven't the faintest idea was caused it."
"I do," Tony said, his choked words finally drawing the doctor's attention.
Tony turned and sprinted for the metal basins lining the wall, reaching the nearest one just in time to empty his stomach into it, hands gripping the sides so hard his knuckles popped loudly. He felt a hand against his back and it only made him gag harder, bringing up the rest of a breakfast burrito that had seemed like a good idea at the time.
"It's all right," Ducky murmured, his other hand at Tony's elbow, as if he might collapse at any moment. Hell, maybe the doctor knew more than he did. His knees did feel like jello. "You're okay, Tony. It's going to be all right."
Not for Candace and Melanie Singer, he thought, heaving again as the images battered his mind and reached down, unsatisfied, to clench his stomach in a sickening, furious grip. Pain—his and theirs—wrapped skinny fingers around his throat, choking until he was gasping for every breath.
"Tony," Ducky said, concern rising.
The hand moved from his elbow to his belly, the muscles igniting as if the kind old doctor had touched him with fire. The burning intensified with every futile heave, and Tony cursed his body for not realizing that there was nothing left to expel. And just when he thought it couldn't get any worse, just when his eyes had watered nearly enough to send the moisture running down his cheeks like cheap tears, he heard the pressurized doors slide open and knew who would be standing there if he could look up.
"Jethro," Ducky said, confirming his mortified thoughts, "some water, please. Now."
The urgency in that last command made Tony focus on his breathing, shoving away all thoughts—mortified and horrifying—until he was concentrating solely on breathing. This was embarrassment enough; he didn't need to actually pass out on the floor of autopsy to complete his humiliation.
Tony heard wheels swiveling across the floor and then a hand pressed him firmly into Ducky's office chair. He sank gratefully and the movement loosened his midsection enough that he could breathe slightly more normally. And the heaving had stopped, mercifully. He kept his eyes shut until he was as certain as he could be that nothing would spill over, but he jumped slightly upon seeing Ducky's worried face so near his. He was surprised to find he had his head tilted back—opening his choked throat, trying to breathe, he realized—and Ducky was leaning over him, soft fingers pressed to his wild pulse.
Eyes closing again, a shudder rocked him from head to toe, the spasm squeezing a soft sound from his bile-burned throat.
"Hell's the matter, DiNozzo?"
"Jethro!" Ducky admonished.
"Sorry," Tony murmured.
"Don't be," Ducky said, and Tony could tell he was still looking—or likely glaring—at Gibbs. "It's nothing to worry about. Just tell me what happened."
Tony wondered if that last part was for Gibbs' benefit.
"Take your time," Ducky said.
That definitely was not for Gibbs, he thought.
Tony pried his eyes open, shuddering again when the images projected themselves onto the floor instead of the backs of his eyelids. They were no less vivid on the pristine tile.
"I'm fine," he said blankly, not looking up. He didn't need the visual clues to know they didn't buy it.
"Whatever you saw then, you're obviously still seeing," Ducky pointed out gently. "Talking about it won't make it go away, but it certainly can't hurt to get it out of your head."
Tony considered that. He wanted to tell them, and he realized part of it was to get it out and part was a sickly selfish desire to prove that his weak, pathetic reaction had a reason, a cause. But he also felt like telling the story wasn't fair to the young girls who had lived it, like he was somehow putting them through that torture all over again.
"I was a uniform in Philly," he said, his voice dull as he kept his eyes on the floor even though the horror movie still played out across the tiles. He didn't think he could move without throwing up again. "Someone called about the smell. There was nothing in the apartment. Except dishes in the sink and two small squares in the kitchen. They were covered with ratty blankets. They were dog kennels. The smell told us the dogs were dead."
Gibbs shifted his weight slightly and Tony knew he knew. Still he did not look up.
"They weren't dogs." He drew a deep breath, willing Ducky not to touch him even though he was shaking so hard he imagined hearing his ribs rattle. "We called it in. Didn't touch anything. Except the blankets we had moved. I kept backing up. Like I could get away in that tiny kitchen. Slid down the wall. Kept staring at those cages. The kids had been starved. Skinniest wrists I'd ever seen. Hurt to look at them. I sat there. Staring. Until the ME came. Until cop after cop flooded that tiny apartment. Someone tried to get me to move. They led my partner out. Think he hit someone. He was yelling but they weren't words. There were no words. Kept wondering one thing. Not how they died. Or who put them in there. Or why. Or why no one heard them scream. Just one thing. ME pulled them out. Tiny bodies. Two little girls in two little cages. Burns on the backs of their hands. Squares with long slits in the middle. Matched the spatula sticking up out of the dirty sink. That's when I figured it out. He put them in those cages. He put the spatula on the hot stove. He burned them every time."
Tony looked up, agony in his eyes as he met Ducky's kind ones.
"That's why they never reached those skinny little hands through the cages to let themselves out."
"Eyes open, DiNozzo," Gibbs ordered, not unkindly. "You keep poking at it, it'll keep bleeding."
Tony nodded. He knew that. But for some reason he was reluctant to let go of the memory of that day—not that day, but the day he relived it, for them. Because they knew he needed to.
Gibbs must have sensed it. "You caught the bastard. Alex MacArthur is rotting in jail because you ate, slept and breathed that case in Philly for a month until you brought him down for what he did to those girls, to his own daughters. It's your name he's gonna curse every night of the rest of his miserable life."
Those were odd words to find comforting, Tony supposed, but he did take solace in them. His mind, despite his mental warnings, skipped back to that day in autopsy.
Gibbs had gone to get more water, or to give them privacy. Tony would never know which.
He panicked for a moment when he realized he couldn't keep it in. The pain was far too real, far too much, and far too buried for far too long.
He felt the rumbling in his aching chest of the dam reaching its absolute limit. There was nothing he could do but watch it crumble and then ride it out.
Ducky sensed it. He put a comforting hand on Tony's cheek, nodding at him as if giving consent before saying the actual words.
"Let it go, Anthony. Just let go."
And he did. He let the dam burst. He felt his carefully constructed wall fall in a heap of dirt and pain. The well of energy needed to keep it up was simply exhausted.
He looked up at the doctor and admitted, "Ducky, I can't breathe."
Tony cut off the memory there. There was no need to remember the rest.
The agents walked through the neighborhood, asking anyone out on this fading Thanksgiving day about the dog. Tony was ready to give up, but he wouldn't. Gibbs wouldn't.
A glance at his boss made Tony frown. The look was back.
Tony figured it had something to do with the setting sun and the little girl who would cry upon their return. He pulled out his phone, checking to make sure he hadn't missed a call from Allison. He fought a sigh, knowing it could never be that easy. The dog wasn't going to just show up at home, and Tony didn't know if Sammie's father was still out looking.
Gibbs seemed to be sharing his thoughts. He grumbled something that Tony couldn't quite make out.
"There has to be something we can do," Tony said, frowning at the lengthening shadows.
"Then do it," Gibbs snapped, his mood blackening as quickly as the encroaching darkness.
Tony stared at the phone still in hand, hoping inspiration would strike. He fired off a quick text to Allison, wincing as he pictured her soft red hair.
Gibbs noticed the phone, possibly the wince.
"Asking if Snowflake has a microchip," Tony explained before Gibbs could ask, or get too frustrated wondering.
A raised eyebrow made Tony go on.
"It's a little ID tag they implant into the dog. It can be read with a scanner and the owner's info pops up so the pet can be returned."
Gibbs stopped walking. "Work like GPS?" he asked.
It took Tony a minute to identify the emotion in Gibbs' tone as hope.
"That's what I'm asking," Tony said, looking down at the phone. He willed it to vibrate and then it did. He should have willed it to say yes, he realized. He sighed. "Nope."
Gibbs' mouth tightened into a slash across his face, and Tony realized again that this wasn't just about finding a lost dog. But that was the only thing he could do to help, so he started jogging when he saw a man about to enter a house down the street.
"Excuse me, sir?" he called, watching the man eye him warily. Tony flashed a smile as he slowed. "I'm not selling anything, I promise. Just looking for a dog. Have you seen her?"
Tony showed him the photo.
"Sorry, man. Haven't seen her."
Tony was about to say thanks when the door opened and a rush of warmth buffeted him, making him realize he was getting chilled in the cooling fall air. The smell of the holiday meal floated out on the warm air, and Tony realized lunch had been sacrificed to the "case"—again—and that he was starving.
"Hey, Mom," the man wrapped the woman at the door in a bear hug and planted a kiss on her cheek. Her face was slightly red and Tony could picture her standing guard over the oven all day, putting more effort into one meal than he did all month. "Did you miss me?"
"Terribly," she said, rolling her eyes. "You were gone all of ten whole minutes. I don't know how I survived the distance between us."
She looked curiously at Tony, and the man said, "Oh, there's a lost dog. I haven't seen it but maybe Krista and Paul or Matty did while they were running around out here?"
"Maybe," she agreed, smiling warmly at Tony. She turned into the bright home and shouted the names, drawing three overly sugared kids skidding squealing to the door. "This nice man is looking for a dog. Did you see him—or her—earlier?"
"Her," Tony said, showing the phone to the kids. "Her name is Snowflake."
The man raised an eyebrow, but the woman just grinned. "Kids," she said knowingly.
Tony realized she probably thought the dog belonged to a child—his child. He felt sadness sink sharp claws into his chest. The anguish didn't make sense, considering he had never really thought he even wanted kids. But still it hurt. And no amount of reasoning or rationalizing eased the knot behind his ribs.
The children sang a chorus of "no" and raced off, on to more interesting activities. There was a shattering of glass, and Tony thanked them quickly and said good night, turning back down the walk with the heel of his hand pressed firmly against his sternum, trying to force the pain back to wherever it had so unexpectedly sprung from.
Gibbs met him on the other side of the road, where he had been talking to two older men raking leaves in the twilight, making use of the last light and probably also burning off some calories.
"Tony?" Gibbs' eyes were on the hand on his chest, his tone concerned.
He dropped the hand to a sleeve and started rolling them down again. "Cold," he said, not lying and not telling the truth, either.
Gibbs eyed him skeptically but thankfully didn't press it. Judging from the look, which had returned, Tony figured Gibbs knew, and understood, and felt it, too.
"Got a lead on the dog," Gibbs said, the faint smile that evicted the look for only a second making Tony smile, too. That they were chasing down a dog like a suspect both amused them and annoyed them—not because they had anywhere better to be on this holiday evening, but because it was unlikely the dog was carrying a cell phone or would use a credit card anytime soon. "Guys saw it about ten minutes ago. Got a hand on her, but she bolted. That way."
Tony followed Gibbs' finger and started walking, feeling the chill deepening with every step they took toward the edge of darkness slowly creeping up the street like silent floodwaters. He also felt Gibbs' eyes on him, probably checking him for signs of a heart attack or something. He could tell by the glances that he had slipped up and let some—if not all—of his pain show on his face earlier, but he wasn't about to tell his boss it was the ache of loss, of longing for something he had never even had, that had hurt so badly it felt like physical agony.
Especially not when the look still hovered over Gibbs' face, ready to settle in should the momentary hope of the dog sighting be crushed.
Tony swept his gaze back and forth across the street, listening intently for sounds of a dog snuffling in the leaves. He focused on the task even though his mind wandered guiltily. He wished he didn't feel different about his boss now that he knew about his lost wife and daughter. He told himself it shouldn't matter, that Gibbs was still the same person as when they'd met and Tony didn't know. But he sometimes found himself thinking about what Gibbs had been like before, or he sometimes forgot about Shannon and Kelly altogether, but only for a moment—but that moment was long enough to bring the guilt.
There were times—like today—when the look would take over Gibbs' face and rearrange him into a sad man, a man who had lost his bright future and been dropped into darkness. Tony imagined it was like losing your sun, tragedy not just casting a pall over everything but actually taking away the source of light, and warmth, and happiness.
And Tony felt like a twisted voyeur every time he saw the look and knew what Gibbs was thinking.
So he continued to walk, shivering lightly as the darkness approached, swallowing everything in its path as it slowly, slowly, slowly dragged itself up the street to meet them.
Gibbs had been back from his Mexican hiatus just a few months when they got the call.
No one, as far as Tony knew, had said anything to Gibbs about his lost family, but he knew their boss knew they knew. How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, Tony thought grimly, but he knew there was nothing funny about this. He had spent several long nights sitting on his balcony, staring out at the city and wondering if he should call Gibbs and offer condolences. Or maybe he should drop by. Tony had spilled his guts on more than one occasion in the basement, so maybe Gibbs would, too, if offered the chance. But that was silly, Tony knew. Gibbs wouldn't share—and certainly not with him. Not with this.
So when the call came in that the missing dependents in their murder case had likely been found, their car crashed in a gully in Shenandoah, Tony waited for the look. It was a look he had always recognized before he knew, but now it had a source, and suddenly Gibbs made just a bit more sense.
And of course, goddamn Mulvaney in dispatch had for some unknown reason called Tony again with the news.
Tony hung up the phone and looked at Gibbs, not allowing himself to take the coward's way out and look away. He relayed the message calmly, his voice never wavering from the police business tone he had spent years honing into detached perfection.
They geared up and made the hours-long drive down to the mountains in near silence. Tony cracked a few expected jokes just to keep up appearances, but McGee in his nervousness laughed a little too loud and the sound was grating, even to Tony. He tried to make small talk with Ziva, but found her surprisingly inept at keeping it light.
Hell, have they never had to fake it with anyone? he thought, allowing himself the last of exactly three sneaked glances at Gibbs as his boss drove without saying a single word. He must be feeling this, because he hasn't told me once to shut up.
They reached the scene in record time and piled out, stretching legs and gathering gear. One local PD officer lounged against the hood of his car, and he was happy to cede the crime scene and get back to whatever exciting detail awaited him down the mountain in the tiny town nestled there.
The car was at the bottom of the gully, on its wheels, but obviously it had turned over a few times to get that way again. The going was a little steep, and Tony felt his surgically repaired knee protesting the jarring descent. He cursed the safety who had broken his leg with enough force to shred his knee in the process, but then he shrugged. Such is the danger of leaping up over the middle to bring down the big gains. All that running room means speed, which means big hits.
Tony's breath was coming in short puffs by the time he reached the car—first among his team, he noted with grim satisfaction—but he stopped breathing altogether when he peered into a spider-webbed window.
Mother and child sat side by side in the backseat with matching bullet holes in their foreheads.
He glanced up the slope at Gibbs, who was the last to start the slide down. Tony knew the details of Shannon's and Kelly's deaths—the crash had killed them, not the shooting—but still he looked in and saw the woman and girl who roughly matched the Gibbses' ages. He saw their violent deaths reflected in this mother and daughter, and he made a decision.
He summoned his authoritative boss voice from those months when that had been his role, and he instructed Ziva and McGee to process the scene. Neither balked at his orders, but both looked at him as if he'd lost his mind.
Gibbs heard him and raised an eyebrow as he continued his descent. Tony pushed himself faster up the slope, ignoring the strain in his scarred knee while simply acknowledging that he would have some impressive swelling in the morning. He met Gibbs higher than the halfway point and didn't hesitate.
"I don't think you want to see that," Tony said, his tone as firm as the hand he wrapped around Gibbs' arm.
For a moment, Gibbs just stared in surprised silence at the hand.
"Shut up and get to work, DiNozzo," he snapped, shaking out of his shock but not Tony's grip.
"Boss, let us handle the scene," Tony said reasonably.
Gibbs gave another shake of his arm, pulling Tony two steps up the hill with the force of it. "DiNozzo," he warned, blue eyes ablaze as he stared his agent down.
"You'll get reports from Abby and Ducky," Tony said, clamping his hand so tight around Gibbs' arm that he could feel the man's rising pulse.
"I'll have your fucking badge, DiNozzo," Gibbs growled, leaning into the grip.
Tony almost thought Gibbs was going to head-butt him to escape, but he stood his ground, trying to figure out just how far he should go in stopping him. Gibbs could threaten him all he wanted, and he could pound him into the dirt, but Tony wasn't sure how hard he could make himself push back. His goal was to save Gibbs from pain, after all. But Tony knew as well as anyone that a split lip and a soul-rending loss were two very different things.
"You pissed that I came back and you got kicked back down the ladder?" Gibbs snarled in his face.
The words had his mouth dropping open slightly before Tony could do anything to stop it, and Gibbs took advantage of his momentary lapse to jerk his arm free. Nice distraction, Boss. Tony recovered quickly, putting both hands on Gibbs' chest and forcing him three steps back up the slope.
Gibbs raised an eyebrow at the manhandling, but he dug in his heels as Tony shoved again. Neither budged. "Is this the kind of leader you were?" Gibbs asked, looking at him with disappointment. "If they didn't obey, you just started shoving them around?"
Tony ignored him. He had seen the tremors in Gibbs' hands when they stood at the top of the gully, seeing the car crumpled at the bottom. Gibbs was lashing out in pain, not anger. And Tony could handle it. He looked down for a second, letting Gibbs think he'd landed a blow with that. Gibbs twisted sideways, trying to push by on Tony's right, but he saw it coming and blocked him easily, confirming that Gibbs was off his game. First, he would never have bought Tony's feint, and second, if he were thinking straight and really wanted to get by, he would have taken advantage of Tony's weaker left knee and used that knowledge as a weapon. Tony grabbed Gibbs' jacket and hauled him up the last few steps of the hill.
Gibbs gaped at finding himself back on the road beside their agency sedan. "You really think I can't handle this?" he asked. He smiled a sneer of a smile. "How many wrecks have we worked? I wasn't the one puking like a probie when that E6 lost his head just south of Quantico. That was you heaving in the bushes."
"Boss, this isn't just some crash—"
Gibbs didn't let him finish. "You know how many kids I've seen? That was you crying on the bathroom floor when you couldn't get that Forsythe kid's blood off your hands. Not me."
Tony felt his face flush red at that, and he had trouble reconciling this Gibbs with the one who had found him there, clamping a hand on his shoulder and letting him work it out without a word. Just silent support.
"Listen to me, Gibbs, this isn't—"
"Since when do you even care about anyone but yourself?" Gibbs spat. He was either so enraged that he didn't realize or was subconsciously letting Tony push him across the road. Gibbs' back was almost to the sheer rock face that followed the curve of the road and shot straight up a hundred feet above them. "Since when do you want to protect anyone? You sure as shit didn't protect Kate. You didn't even raise your weapon when her blood smacked you in the face. Ari coulda dropped you, too, you know that?"
Tony didn't respond. They were almost to the rocks.
And that's when he realized his mistake.
Gibbs wasn't unaware of their surroundings. He was letting Tony push him.
So he could grab his agent by the arms and swing him into those rocks.
Tony's back hit the face of the cliff, forcing the air from his lungs just before his head cracked against the rocks. Black stars twirled through his vision and for a moment, he couldn't hear what Gibbs was saying, snarling at him as his fists pinned Tony to the wall.
"—makes sense, really. No one protected you so now you think you can make it all better?"
Tony tried to answer, but Gibbs' hand snaked up so fast he couldn't even draw a breath before it clamped around his throat, cutting off his air. He raised a hand and grabbed Gibbs' arm but it was no use. He raised both hands and yanked downward, trying desperately to ease the pressure on his windpipe.
His previous thoughts about how far to let this go mocked him from the back of his mind. You started shoving a Marine, you idiot, one who's grieving all over again and won't admit it. How did you think this was going to go?
Tony gasped in a breath when Gibbs dropped his hand. He tried to speak but found he couldn't, and he felt his eyes go wide when Gibbs drew that arm back to punch him.
But Gibbs just laughed harshly, his own eyes wild. "He didn't just hit you," he said casually. "He beat you. And when he couldn't be bothered to clean your blood off his hands anymore, he sent you away to boarding school. Explains a lot."
Gibbs let him go, and Tony dropped weakly to his knees in the dirt, his head spinning as he tried to call out. Nothing came out but a dry cough, but Gibbs turned anyway.
"Speak up," he said, turning away again with a look of disgust when Tony couldn't answer.
Tony choked in a dusty breath and heaved himself to his feet, catching Gibbs at the other side of the road. He barely got a hand on him—to stop him, again to try—before Gibbs was on him, shoving him facedown in the dirt and planting a knee in the small of his back. He grabbed Tony's wrist and slammed it against the ground, pinning him.
Tony stopped fighting. There was no point and he really didn't want to make Gibbs do something he would regret. He just turned his head, rolling his eyes up to the brilliant blue sky to try to look his boss in the eye. He coughed out dirt and said the only words he could think of.
"You're hurting me," he whispered, finally allowing his eyes to close in pain.
The pressure was gone then, from his throbbing wrist and his back, and for a moment, Tony could do nothing but lie there. He heard Gibbs growling unintelligible orders at McGee and Ziva, who either hadn't heard the fight or did nothing to stop it. Tony was glad, either way.
He pulled himself upright just as the pair reached the top of the gully. Ziva blinked in shock and McGee just stared. He didn't give them time to speak.
"Whatever you hear, stay up here," he barked, ignoring McGee's wince at the roughness in his voice.
He didn't wait for them to respond and he started sliding down the hill, not feeling the pain in his knee this time because his eyes were locked on the figure standing at the open rear door of the wrecked car. Gibbs' back was to him, but Tony could see that he was still as death. The terrain evened out and Tony approached slowly.
He spoke Gibbs' name twice, closing the distance by half each time. But Gibbs never turned. He stared into the vehicle, his eyes slowly moving from one dead body to the other. When Tony was close enough to touch, he realized Gibbs had spoken, but it was so low Tony had to lean in to hear.
He repeated, once, in a stunned tone, "He shot them."
Tony took a breath and reached out, taking Gibbs by the shoulders and gently pulling him away from the car. After a few shuffling steps, Gibbs whipped around and Tony braced to get hit.
But Gibbs just stopped, standing stock still again. "He shot my girls," he said. "They're gone."
Tony didn't correct him and he didn't know what it meant that Gibbs had said that, but he knew he was reliving the loss—even worse this time because he had never seen the bodies in the car, had never stood beside mother and child and smelled the stink of gunfire mingled with congealing blood.
Gibbs stumbled forward, as if he suddenly needed to get away from the car, and Tony reached out and took his arm, just as he had before, but gentler now.
"Come with me," he said, his voice still raspy.
Gibbs looked at him oddly, as if he didn't remember applying that bruising force to his agent's throat. Tony figured it was entirely possible that he didn't. He led him away, along the flat of the gully and around a bend so the crushed car and its dead passengers were out of sight, and they sat side by side on a fallen log near a trickling stream. It was a peaceful place.
Gibbs' expression was not.
Tony waited for the tears to come. Or more anger. He could and would deal with either. Or both. He was glad for the stream even though he realized after a moment that even its gentle flow made his aching head hurt worse. But he welcomed the break in the deathly silence. He knew his hands were shaking and saw that Gibbs' were, too. Adrenalin.
"Was overseas when they…" Gibbs finally said, quietly.
"I know," Tony said, not sure if he should volunteer the rest of what he knew. "I'm so sorry, Gibbs."
"Shoulda been here," Gibbs said, not acknowledging the condolences.
Tony didn't mind. He knew the look of someone when they were too far inside their own head.
"Did they fly you back to D.C.? Or Pendleton?" Tony asked, trying to draw him out.
Gibbs finally met his eyes, and Tony was glad Gibbs hadn't hit him. Bruising would have been a distraction and blood would have been worse.
"They… I… I don't…"
"It's okay," Tony said, though the way Gibbs was looking at him—so utterly confused—had him seriously unnerved. He reached out slowly, surprised to find his hand was throbbing in time with his pulse, and covered Gibbs' shaking one. He waited. Moved his hand so it only rested beside Gibbs'.
Gibbs didn't register the touch—or the lack of it. He seemed to be searching his memory for something elusive.
"White dresses or green," he murmured, looking back toward the wrecked car with a furrowed brow. "I have to pick dresses for the funeral. I don't know what I picked."
Tony gave a gentle smile. "I'm sure you picked nice dresses. Did you wear a suit or your dress blues?"
Tony hated asking such an inane question, but he knew Gibbs was struggling to remember where he was and when it was, and he needed to him to remember that the funerals were over. Those weren't his girls in that car around the bend. He used Gibbs' breaks in eye contact to search for a way back up without passing the car again. If there wasn't one, he'd sit here until the car was towed. He'd wait all night if he had to.
"I don't know," Gibbs said, looking toward the car again. "But it rained. Then it was clear."
A quiet sigh of relief escaped Tony's parched lips. He tasted dirt. Ignored it.
"I buried my girls and then I had to walk away," Gibbs said, looking at Tony with more clarity but also more anguish. "I didn't know how to do that."
"You found a way."
"Yeah," Gibbs agreed, surprising Tony. Then he continued. "I killed the bastard who killed my girls."
Tony blinked. He had speculated about that, wondered it, but hearing it from Gibbs was different. There was no judgment, and he just nodded.
"Drove down to Mexico with my sniper rifle," Gibbs said, suddenly looking intently at Tony. "Shot him right in the head. Just as he was driving along. Shot him dead."
Tony realized he was looking for a reaction. "I would have done the same, Boss."
Gibbs didn't smile, but his expression lightened for a moment. He shook his head. "Didn't bring them back. Knew it wouldn't. Still had to do it."
"I know," Tony said simply. "I understand why you did it."
Gibbs nodded, stood and went to the stream, standing silently and watching the water dip and roll across the rocks. Tony stood after a moment, unsettled but unsurprised by the dizziness he had to fight to stand without swaying. He moved slowly because even small movements of his head incited riotous nausea deep within his belly. But it didn't matter. This wasn't about him. It never had been.
Gibbs turned back, a flicker of emotion lighting and dying in his eyes before Tony could identify it. "We should go now."
For once, it was Tony who couldn't cover his reaction. His fear must have shown in his eyes.
"I know it's not them in the car, Tony," Gibbs said steadily. He started to say something else but looked away.
Tony nodded, watching Gibbs' eyes trail back toward his face. They stopped on his injured wrist and Tony cursed himself for not rolling the sleeve down when he'd had a chance. Gibbs raised his gaze slowly to Tony's face, his eyes wide and once again confused. He cocked his head just the slightest, and Tony could see him noticing the pallor and then the dirt practically covering him.
His own name, spoken softly in question, made him flinch, telling Gibbs everything he wanted to know.
"I did that to you."
It wasn't a question so Tony didn't answer. He watched the events replay on Gibbs' face and he didn't know how to stop it. Every time he took a step forward or opened his mouth, Gibbs shook his head at him. So he watched the guilt building and realized Gibbs was probably going to remember all of it.
Finally, he spoke. "Goddamn," he said, no emotion in the word.
Tony didn't like the sudden blankness and he said, "Gibbs. I'm okay. It's okay."
He took a few steps forward, which unfortunately drew Gibbs' eyes straight to his arm.
"Tell me I didn't break that."
Tony kept the swollen hand at his side. "It's okay."
Gibbs closed his eyes and wiped a hand across his face. He took a deep breath and opened them, meeting Tony's eyes. "That's not an answer. Did I break it?"
"Don't worry about—"
"Goddammit, DiNozzo," Gibbs shouted. He stopped himself, going completely still and silent, something Tony had never seen him do after yelling his name like that. He took another deep breath. "I'm asking if I broke your wrist, Tony. Will you just answer me?"
"I honestly don't know."
Gibbs closed his eyes again. Opened them. Took a step forward. Tony could see him shaking. Gibbs moved back to the bench of fallen log and sat heavily, staring blankly at the mossy floor. Tony joined him, sitting to his left with his knee barely touching Gibbs'.
Gibbs' eyes were full of moisture, and Tony was shocked by that.
Gibbs had not shed a single tear reliving the loss of his family, but he was looking like this over having possibly broken Tony's wrist? Tony shook his head as he inched his leg closer to Gibbs', his hands unmoving even though he wanted to reach out to him. Tony had no idea exactly what the stubbornly unshed tears were for, but he hoped it wasn't him. It wasn't Gibbs who had hurt him. It was just pain with no outlet suddenly finding one being readily offered.
The moment was over quickly, and Gibbs blinked a few times to clear his eyes. He didn't look embarrassed in the least. Only guilty.
"What else?" he asked.
Tony didn't feign misunderstanding. But he did attempt a joke. "Knocked my head against those rocks hard enough that you should probably lay off the headslaps for about a week."
Gibbs winced, but he got the message.
"Don't worry about it," Tony said, shrugging. "I'll be fine, Gibbs."
He didn't mention the choking. He didn't know if Gibbs was aware of his plague-induced fear of being unable to breathe, but he didn't want to talk about it. He knew Gibbs was hearing the occasional lingering rasp in his voice, but he hoped he'd let it lie. And he did.
Gibbs looked him in the eye. "I'm sorry, Tony. You didn't deserve this."
"Thank you" was all Tony said. All he needed to say.
Gibbs motioned for his arm, and Tony offered his swollen wrist.
"Can I touch you?" Gibbs asked, his fingers hovering over the bruises he had so recently left there.
"Yes," Tony said, frowning. "As long as you promise never to ask me that again."
"DiNozzo," Gibbs said, a look conveying the rest.
Tony nodded again and Gibbs made quick work of his field examination. Tony barely had time to fidget.
"There's no way that's not broken," Gibbs said, letting Tony take his arm back to cradle against his chest. Gibbs nodded his approval of the position. "Keep it there. We're going to get that looked at."
Tony shrugged and they made their way back to the path, past the car without giving it a second look. Gibbs kept his eyes carefully averted, and Tony kept his on Gibbs. They reached the road just as Ducky was arriving, and they arranged to have McGee and Ziva ride back with the ME. No explanations were offered. Tony and Gibbs just got in the sedan—Gibbs giving a glare when Tony offered to drive—and they started winding down the mountain.
Their partnership had been ripped at violently, but they would come to find that it had healed stronger.
"Stop." Tony could barely see three feet in front of him, but he heard the sound of leaves rustling in the darkness beyond the road. He whistled. "Snowflake!"
Gibbs squinted through the darkness, wishing they'd thought to bring the flashlights from the car. It was warm for late November, but the sun didn't stay up longer just because it was a holiday. He felt buoyed by the sudden hope of finding the dog after he had just realized they'd spent about an hour off the clock searching.
"There," Gibbs said, smiling in the dark as he caught a flash of rhinestone-studded pink collar. Tony saw that the look was gone. "Snowflake!"
Their shouts drew a light in the back yard of the house, and Gibbs wondered briefly how to explain to the director if one of them got shot for trespassing. "Hello?" called a wary voice.
Gibbs was about to identify himself as NCIS when Tony took the easier route. "Hi, there. Sorry to bother you but we're after that dog."
"This dog?" the woman asked, smiling. "The one who has been chasing my cats all afternoon?"
"Uh, sorry about that," Tony said. "Some help catching the little devil?"
The woman whistled and Snowflake immediately launched herself into her arms.
Tony stared, mystified.
She handed the dog over, tut-tutting. "If she had a tag on her collar, you could have had her hours ago."
Gibbs nodded. "We'll be sure to tell her owners."
The woman paused, suddenly uneasy. "She's not your dog?"
Gibbs flashed his badge. "We're with the Navy. The dog is a matter of national security."
Tony snorted, blowing the joke and earning a glare from Gibbs, which he ignored to show the woman his cell. "I have a picture of the dog. Her owner, a devastated seven-year-old named Sammie, will be very happy to have her back. Can we go now, please? Without you calling Metro police on us? Because I'm starving and your kitchen smells amazing and I'd hate to commit larceny over turkey."
"Pretty sure that'd be petty theft," Gibbs offered.
"Wait right here," the woman said, trying to eye Gibbs through the shadows.
Tony looked from the dog in his arms to his boss. "We could bolt."
"You wanna spend Thanksgiving in jail with the drunks?"
"Wouldn't be the first time. I'll tell you on the way back. It was a misunderstanding, but a good story."
Gibbs nodded. "Might have another one if she really calls the cops."
Tony smiled, shifting the small dog into the crook of his arm. "Maybe I should get a dog."
"Get a girlfriend first," Gibbs advised. "Need someone to take care of it while you're working nights and holidays."
Tony felt the pain return to his chest, but with the dog nestled against him, it suddenly didn't seem so bad. He thought back to Sandra at the park, and while he didn't want her, it was nice to know she still wanted him. He decided to stop being a hermit and get back in the game. A part of him knew it wasn't as easy as making up his mind, but it was a start.
The door swung open, throwing a rectangle of light onto the leaves. Tony's nose perked up a few seconds after Snowflake's.
"Can't send a pair of potential dognappers away hungry," the woman said, passing them each a giant turkey sandwich.
They thanked her—profusely in Tony's case—and started walking. Again.
Tony ate, inadvertently sharing more of his sandwich with the dog than he'd planned.
Gibbs looked over just as Snowflake stole a whole slice of turkey and he laughed out loud. "The Hatchers are going to hate you, DiNozzo."
"What?" Tony looked offended. "Why? We're the heroes of this dog caper film."
"You ever smelled turkey farts from a dog?"
Tony, again, looked mystified.
"Smells like shit."
"Shouldn't all dog farts, technically, smell like shit?"
It was a genuine question.
Gibbs realized that Tony hadn't been lying when he said his only pets had been sea monkeys.
"Yeah," he said, patiently, "but there's something unique about 'em. Just wait."
Tony nodded, cramming the rest of his sandwich in his mouth and eyeing the dog warily. Snowflake licked his nose. He was just about to ask if they were lost when the Hatchers' home appeared. Gibbs might not have the best eyesight, but the man's sense of direction was still Marine-sharp. The dog wriggled in Tony's arms and he almost dropped her, instead bending down to minimize the fall even as he struggled to hold on to the writhing mass of panting fur.
"Snowflake," he gasped as she broke free and went running.
"Relax, DiNozzo," Gibbs said, pointing.
Sammie was on the front lawn, hitting her knees just as the dog slid into her waiting arms. There were kisses and hugs and slobber all around, and Tony felt the knot return as he watched the Hatcher family gather on the porch to watch the reunion. They walked toward the house, but Tony eyed the car longingly and flicked an uneasy glance at Gibbs, watching for the look as Allison walked down the front steps to meet them.
The look was still gone, even as the redhead stepped straight into Gibbs' arms and hugged him tightly. She stepped back and covered her mouth, laughing and going red in the cheeks as she realized she was wearing an apron covered in flour. She brushed at Gibbs' jacket, making Tony realize he'd forgotten the cold as soon as they found the dog. Funny.
Gibbs told her not to worry about it, and then grunted when Sammie—dog tight in her arms—slammed into his knees. He knelt down and let her hug him—Snowflake and all—and accepted her thanks with a warm smile and a ruffle of strawberry blonde hair. There was pain in his eyes when he stood up, and it had nothing to do with his bad knees. He closed his eyes for a moment, feeling moisture and leaving them closed for a moment.
Allison settled for shaking Tony's hand, leaving a dusting of flour on his fingers, and Sammie latched on to his leg for a moment before running off to take Snowflake into the house. The girl slid to a stop halfway across the grass and turned back to the agents.
"Mommy was right about you!" she called, hugging her dog close. "You're better than Santa!"
"We should put that in the recruiting brochure," Tony joked.
Allison laughed and then invited them both to stay for dinner. Tony looked to Gibbs, who looked at him. No words were exchanged, but Gibbs answered for them both when he politely declined. She tried once again and then gave up and thanked them both again before loping off to join her husband on the porch. He waved to them and then wrapped his arm around her before heading into the brightly lit home.
They got back in the car, and Tony leaned his head back against the seat as Gibbs started the engine and cranked up the heat.
"Thanks," Tony said, sighing tiredly. He turned to Gibbs. "How exactly do we write up a case file on this one?"
"Easy," Gibbs said. "We don't."
"Works for me."
They moved in silence through streets deserted thanks to the holiday, neither speaking until both spoke at once.
"Can I ask—"
Tony's smile faded quickly. "It wasn't just about Snowflake tonight, was it?"
It was the type of question that years ago would never have been asked, because Tony wouldn't have known to ask it. Even fewer years ago, he wouldn't have wanted to, knowing the scabs were too fresh even on the old wounds. But recently, Gibbs had started talking about them more, and Tony found himself able to ask questions. He knew it wasn't just with him that Gibbs had been opening up, but still he felt honored. The team was like a little family in itself, full of ups and downs and hurt and hope.
"Kelly wanted a dog so bad she asked just about every day," Gibbs said, staring straight ahead at the road. "We wanted to wait, until she was just a little older, a little more mature, because we wanted her to take care of it herself. Learn responsibility."
Tony waited, feeling Gibbs' regret like it was his own. He had been thinking a lot lately about how putting things off wasn't always a good idea. He had always thought in terms of "when the time is right" but he was slowly realizing the time might never be perfect and sometimes now is all we have.
"Ten," Gibbs said, shaking his head. "We somehow picked ten as the perfect age for getting her a dog. Shouldn't have waited."
Tony sensed that was all he was going to say, and he realized there was really nothing more to say about it. He knew Gibbs would have gotten ten dogs and probably a pony if he had known. But that's life. You never know.
Gibbs drove silently, waiting for Tony to start talking. Sometimes he did. Gibbs wanted to ask about his father, to ask the question he'd wanted to ever since the old man started coming back every now and then and turning his friend's life upside down. He hated that the man seemed to choose holidays to show up, as if those were the only days when family mattered, when Tony mattered.
He found himself thinking back to that day in Shenandoah and he barely stopped guilty eyes from sliding to Tony's healed wrist. He shivered in revulsion at the damage he'd done that day, and no amount of excuses could stop the claws of regret from digging deeply into him, making him ready to beg for just one chance to go back and have those moments over. Tony hadn't confirmed or denied—then or since—if his father had ever laid hands on him. The neglect that he spoke of—usually in joking terms or rarely more seriously, only after large enough quantities of alcohol had dissolved his walls—amounted to abuse in Gibbs' book, but still he wondered.
"Where's your head at, DiNozzo?" he finally asked, remembering that hand Tony had pressed to his chest during the hunt for Snowflake.
"Not sure I want to talk about it."
The reply was quiet, and Gibbs knew that when Tony didn't flat out refuse, there was usually some crack in the wall he could dig his fingers into. He didn't always do it because sometimes it felt wrong, and he knew the masks were an essential part of Tony's makeup, for better or worse.
They drove the rest of the way to the Navy Yard in silence, and when they reached their desks, Tony ran a hand over tired eyes.
"Long day," Gibbs said, and it was an invitation to make it longer. He knew Tony knew that and he waited up until nearly three in the morning before calling it a night.
They worked side by side for the next week and half, neither mentioning the past. Tony cracked jokes about the search for Snowflake, his favorite part being Gibbs' demand for the dog as a matter of national security. Gibbs swore for a week that it never happened, then owned up to it over Chinese in the middle of their latest case, a woman's brutal murder.
The night they solved that one, Gibbs heard footsteps in his kitchen over his head. Tony slumped down the stairs, smelling like he'd already gone a few rounds with the bottle. And lost.
"You puke on my floor, DiNozzo, you clean it."
Tony grunted an agreement to the terms and slid down onto the bottom landing, his head drooping as he watched Gibbs work for the better part of an hour. Gibbs was sure he was going to fall asleep, but that's when he started talking.
"He kicked the shit out of me all the time."
Gibbs felt the pain of that admission all the way to his toes, but he didn't turn away from his sanding. He was sure Tony would bolt if he did. They had come so close to this moment so many times, but never had he said the words. Gibbs was glad he'd taken it easy with the bottle tonight. He didn't want to hear what was to come, but he did—because it needed to be said and someone needed to be sober enough to listen.
"You're really patient, Boss, you know?" Tony slurred. "You've known this for years without really, actually knowing. That would drive me crazy."
Gibbs patted the boat he was building by hand—he had worked on several projects down here lately, but it was his first boat in years. It felt good to get back to it. "Takes patience," he said of the boat. "I've got all night."
"Not gonna tell you all about it," Tony said, shaking his head. He stopped, put a hand over his mouth. Continued. "It doesn't matter what he broke or what he said. It doesn't matter that he sent me away before she was barely cold in the ground. Hell, I was happy about leaving. It was my big escape. You know what really hurts?"
Gibbs froze, his guilt from years ago finding its way to the surface, like a corpse from a shallow grave.
"All the pretending," Tony answered himself. "It was decades ago, and I'm older now and away from him—mostly, but that's my fault for not calling him out on his bullshit and tossing him out of my life that first time he showed up here—and I should be over it. And sometimes I am. But it's always there, lurking under the surface. Some days it's at the bottom of the ocean and I don't even think about it. Maybe even most days it's like that. But some days it's right there, like a fish about hop up on land and sprout legs."
Gibbs could hear the slight smile in the slurred words, but he knew it was more the image Tony had created than anything. He was silent so long Gibbs checked to see if he was asleep.
"And I just don't know what to do on those days. I can't just scream on the outside like the screaming inside my head. I can drink a whole lot, or fuck a stranger, or hit something, but that doesn't make it go away. It just makes it go deeper and hibernate and then it comes back stronger. I want it out."
Gibbs flinched at the raw pain.
"And I should be over it. I want to be. People talk about letting shit go all the time, but how do they do it? No one has a step by step program for that. No diet helps you shed pounds of baggage. There's no fucking magical infomercial to cure this kind of fucked up."
"You are not fucked up."
Gibbs intervened only rarely when Tony decided to really open up and talk. He had learned the hard way when it was better to risk stopping the flow of words than to allow certain words or actions.
Tony smacked the back of his hand hard against the wooden railing. Gibbs knew he would be bruised and hiding it in the morning. Guilty.
But Gibbs didn't stop him. It was minor enough that he let it go. For now.
"But I kind of am fucked up, Gibbs. I know what's wrong and I can't fix it. Who does that? Imagine feeling like this and not knowing why. There are people like that, you know. The ones who repress it and they just feel bad all the time and don't know why. I know why it hurts to breathe sometimes, but it never makes it any easier to suck in air."
Gibbs was aching for him but had no idea what to say. This was all new territory for them.
"I think learned how to pretend back then and I never learned how not to. I can never just be."
There were things Gibbs wanted to say to that, but everything sounded like cheap platitudes, even in his head. He did something he never did during these rare, real conversations—he put down the sanding block and pulled a dusty chair up to within arm's length of the stairs. He sat backwards on the chair, arms on the seatback, eyes on level with Tony's even though he didn't look up. He waited.
Finally, when Tony looked up, confusion in his bleary eyes, Gibbs said, "And?"
Tony looked hurt for a moment before he realized what Gibbs wanted. He shook his head, drawing a pained breath. "Talking doesn't help," he said, his fist finding his chest again, just like that night spent chasing Snowflake. He cheeks went slightly red. "I got a shrink, you know. Tried a couple of 'em, actually."
Gibbs was surprised by that—both the fact and the admission of it—but he didn't let it show. He looked Tony in the eye and said, "Nothing wrong with admitting you need some help."
Gibbs was not surprised when Tony laughed bitterly. "Yeah," he said, not agreeing. "Except it didn't help. I went, I tried—I really did—but here I am. Still fucked up. I'm starting to think that's just how it's going to be, the only way it can be. Like I wouldn't be me if I weren't damaged goods. The funny thing? Sometimes I think I like being fucked up. Beats being boring, I guess. And all that shit I lived through? I made it through. I survived, didn't I? It had to have made me stronger. Right? Except that feeling like this—hell, sitting here talking to you like this, whining like this—it makes me feel weak."
"Not a weak bone in your body, Tony," Gibbs said, meaning it. He hand up a hand when Tony tried to protest. "Takes a hell of a lot of strength to survive."
"But there should be more," Tony said, pressing his fist harder against himself. Gibbs could only imagine the pain he was in, and he wanted to shoulder it for Tony, if only for a little while, to let him remember what it felt like to not hurt. Gibbs shuddered lightly when he realized Tony might not even know what that feeling was like.
"Right?" Tony asked, his tone more confused than pleading. "There has to be more to life than making it through the days. Right?"
"What more do you want?" Gibbs asked, without heat, or sarcasm. He wanted to know. He searched Tony's eyes, the bleakness there ripping at him.
Tony didn't respond right away. He looked at his hands, the floor, the beginnings of the boat, and finally back to Gibbs' eyes.
"I just want to be."
They let that hang between them for a long moment because it didn't need explanation. But Gibbs didn't have advice—like Tony had said, there was no marked path to healing.
"You know why I don't like kids?" Tony asked.
Gibbs grunted. "You like 'em," he said, "they just scare the hell out of you."
"Yeah," Tony said, unoffended by the bluntness. He was well used to it by now. "But I can't have them."
Gibbs raised an eyebrow, feeling an odd rush of fear.
But Tony shook his head. "I mean, physically I'm sure I could. But it would be a terrible idea. I don't trust myself not to fuck them up like my parents fucked me up."
The word "parents"—plural—had Gibbs wondering at another of Tony's many mysteries, but he ignored that, along with swallowing another protest that Tony wasn't fucked up. Hell, maybe he was. But it was understandable.
"You really believe that?" Gibbs asked instead.
Tony shrugged. "Not that it matters. I'd have to find someone to procreate with first, before I could worry about fucking up my progeny."
"Yeah," Gibbs agreed. "And you'd have to actually stay with someone to do that."
Tony flinched but he didn't protest.
"Didn't say that to hurt you," Gibbs said, apologizing without backpedaling from the statement.
"I know," Tony said. "And I know you're right. Hell, sometimes I wonder if I fell so deep with Jeanne because I knew it could never work."
Gibbs fought flashes of a stranger's body in Tony's burned-out Mustang, the greasy smell of charred flesh there long enough to turn his stomach before vanishing back into memory.
"Do you even know why you left Wendy?"
Tony's head came up at the direct question. "She left me," he said quietly.
Gibbs just looked at him.
"But yeah," he admitted, "I made it easy for her to go."
"I don't regret coming here," Tony said firmly. "Even if she chose not to come with me. Or couldn't, after I started pushing her away. I don't know if it could have worked. Maybe I'm just not meant to have a family."
The words were strained, and Gibbs wanted to do something—touch him, tell him not to give up, maybe. But Tony continued with barely a pause.
"That night we spent looking for Snowflake, that house with the family," Tony said, eyes averted, voice low. "It hurt. I wanted that—the big, warm holiday with the packed house and food everywhere and football on the TV and kids running around—I wanted that so bad it actually hurt."
"Still got time," Gibbs said, frowning at the raw pain and the fist mashed into Tony's chest.
"But there are times when I'm not sure that's even what I want," Tony went on, seemingly unaware of his anguished posture. "I like what we do. And I know it doesn't always leave time for family—I mean, I don't even want to know how many hours we worked this week. But I do know I felt good, for the first time in a long time, when we slapped those cuffs on that bastard and I knew he was going to pay for what he did. Because of us. I know our lives aren't normal, but a lot of times, I like it that way. And maybe I do want a wife and kids and a fence and a dog, but I know I don't want to be some divorced, part-time father, hoping cases don't interrupt my weekend with the kid."
Gibbs took a moment to absorb that. "Think you're supposed to wait until you're married to start worrying about divorce," he said lightly.
Tony shrugged. "Part of my fucked-up-ness. I always skip to the slaloming icebergs and clubbing baby seals part."
The look on Gibbs' face almost made Tony laugh. Almost. He explained the movie reference. "Matt Damon's character in 'Good Will Hunting' gets offered a dream job and turns it down because he can only see what could go wrong."
Gibbs nodded at the blunt assessment of Tony's own character. He was right: Just because you knew what was wrong didn't mean you could fix it. Not easily, anyway.
"I was standing in the doorway, smelling the turkey and hearing those kids," Tony said, all lightness gone, replaced by confusion and pain, "and it was like my chest was going to cave in. How could it hurt so bad when I'm not even sure that's what I want?"
There was no simple answer to the anguished question, and for a long moment, Gibbs had no idea what to say, or do. It was unnerving for several reasons.
"Seems like you need to figure out what it is you do want, Tony," he said finally, keeping his tone gentle. He held up a hand. "I'd tell you how to do that if I knew."
The corner of Tony's mouth quirked up. "Guess I'm fucked then, huh?"
Gibbs lifted a shoulder. "So are a lot of other people. Not everyone knows what they want. And not everyone wants the white picket fence." He paused. "Gotta find your own path."
Tony nodded, pulling in a long breath. He suddenly looked a little more sober, and Gibbs hoped he wasn't regretting his earlier words about his father. Tony might not think talking about it did any good, but Gibbs knew it couldn't hurt, either.
"Time is it?" Tony asked, patting his pocket for his phone.
Gibbs checked his watch and Tony's searching hand went still. "Near 4," he said, feeling a yawn brewing. "Call it a night?"
Tony nodded. He knew he didn't need to ask if he could crash while he sobered up, and that realization warmed him more than the half-bottle of scotch he'd downed earlier that night. He was lucky, he knew, that he had someone like Gibbs in his life, and he found himself having trouble remembering the crushing pain of the longing he'd felt outside that warm Thanksgiving home.
Not that he didn't think he still might want that.
But not all families were bound by blood.
"Abby's coming in the morning," Gibbs said as they made their way up the stairs. "Said her building won't let her put Christmas lights outside so she's bringing 'em here."
Gibbs didn't need to add the "You should stay" for Tony to hear it. He nodded. Gibbs was headed down the hall, but Tony's soft words stopped him.
"Can I take the couch? I'm not sure I'll be able to sleep," he admitted quietly.
"Go to bed, DiNozzo," Gibbs ordered, jerking his chin at the stairs. "And don't forget, Alex MacArthur is probably cursing your name right now."
Tony smiled, then followed the order.
He was asleep in minutes.