“So, can we get this over with?”
“Right now, I'm more concerned about us just getting started.”
“Well then, start. I've got a lot of work I have to get back to.”
“Tony, this is all about you. You can start wherever you'd like.”
“Already did my psych eval.”
“I know that.”
“And I really don't think I need another one.”
“I think there was some concern that your last evaluation was missing a few details.”
“Like the evaluation.” The psychiatrist gave Tony a sharp look, and that was about the time he figured out she was going to be harder to con. She was an older woman with dark hair turning gray at the temples and an air of authority even though she couldn’t weigh more than a hundred and twenty pounds soaking wet. Sighing, Tony leaned back in the chair.
“I did talk to the doctor.”
She nodded. “Tony, you're an expert in undercover work. I suspect that you could talk to anyone and figure out the right things to say. But that doesn't mean you're getting a chance to talk about what you need to talk about.”
“I don't need to talk about anything.” That wasn't true, but that was the lie Tony was sticking to.
“Then let's talk about the case you're on.”
Tony narrowed his eyes. “The case? Do you really have so little work that you can afford to spend a lot of time talking to me about my case?”
“I get paid the same no matter what we talk about. So what's the case?”
“Drug dealing.” If Tony had hoped that the terse tone would warn her off, he was wrong. She leaned forward, and he realized he was going to have to talk to her about something, and the case was probably the safest topic. “The Ike is coming into port, and we have reports that someone on the ship has been dealing some drugs. A lot of drugs. So I have a list of thirteen potential suspects and exactly one of me to track them all down and figure out who is dirty.”
“You have your teammates,” the therapist said quietly.
Tony didn't answer. These days, that just didn't feel like a whole lot of comfort.
~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ .
Gibbs snapped the phone shut and bit back angry words. He might snap and snarl at Tony, but the man could bite back. McGee might have improved over the years, but he still wasn’t up to Tony in that department. Gibbs was starting to think that McGee couldn’t equal Tony in more than one department.
“Clearly Officer Howard Shelley is not our killer,” Gibbs said with as much calm as he could muster. McGee had been so sure that the man had murdered the three bullies who had tortured him in high school that the entire investigation had been pulled off-track. Gibbs wanted to blame McGee, but the fact was that Gibbs’ gut was remarkably silent on this one. He felt off balance. His team was off balance. Hell, even his circadian rhythms were off balance. He looked over to Ziva, but she was typing away, searching for any leads from the auction house. “Anything?” he demanded. With Shelley dead—officially their fourth victim—the case was nowhere.
“Nothing,” she confirmed.
“If Tony—” McGee started to say, but Ziva’s head whipped up and caught him in a nasty glare. When Ziva had come home with them after visiting Israel, Gibbs had hoped that she would let go of this anger for Tony, but so far, she was as good at holding a grudge as his second wife had been.
“I’m going to go track down…” McGee fell silent as he struggled for something to search for. He wanted out of the office badly. Given the way Ziva was glaring, Gibbs couldn’t blame him.
“Find out who else at that high school would have known about how those three hazed Shelley. The person who framed him had to have known about that,” Gibbs gestured toward the old photograph that showed Office Shelley back in high school. The bullies had shaved his head and shoved it in a toilet, just like their killer had done to the three bullies turned victims.
“On it, boss,” McGee agreed before he practically dashed out of the room.
“He does not need to bring Tony into every conversation,” Ziva said, clearly still aggravated.
“Tony trained him,” Gibbs pointed out.
“Most unfortunately for him.”
“Ziva!” Gibbs snapped. He’d tried giving her time to heal, but maybe it was time to lance this boil because her hate wasn’t fading, and Gibbs wasn’t going to wait forever for her to get over her loss.
“I am sorry,” she said in a tone that made it clear she was sorry for aggravating him, not for the insult to Tony.
“He defended himself. Would you have rather come home to find Tony dead?”
She stiffened. “I would rather have a partner who trusted me enough to not think I would be involved in terrorism.”
“The laptop found at the scene traced back to your house.”
“And he could have called or waited for the morning—”
“Since when do we let leads go cold around here?” Gibbs interrupted, bringing the flat of his hand down on her desk. He noticed other people scrambling to clear the room. Ziva, however, gazed up at him without any apology in her eyes.
“I would rather have come home and not found my lover dying on my floor because my partner could not trust me enough to ask me for an explanation.”
“He was coming to your house to do exactly that,” Gibbs pointed out. He understood grief. He understood how it made you irrational. He’d done his time mourning and he’d struck out in anger. He was glad Tony wasn’t here as Ziva spewed this hate, but she had to move on. Michael was dead and her father had set her up, and sooner or later, she had to mourn those two things and move on.
Ziva’s jaw was tight, and Gibbs backed away a step. “McGee is right. If Tony were here, we’d have something to go on. We have four dead bodies and nothing to trace.”
“I’ll find something,” Ziva said firmly. Gibbs knew that she hoped that Tony would stay gone if she could just figure out how to solve cases as well as he could. The problem was that she wasn’t half the investigator Tony was. She could shoot better, run better, and speak more languages, but she couldn’t solve a case half as well. If Gibbs wanted this one solved, he was going to have to crack it himself. He needed to start from the beginning, back where Staff Sergeant Jeff Ross vanished.
Gibbs headed for the elevator, gritting his teeth as Vance appeared in front of him. Gibbs almost detoured to the stairs, but he was not going to back down now. After asking Vance for a favor, he would have to play nice, especially until he got Tony back again.
Vance waited until the doors opened and then followed Gibbs inside. “How’s the case going?” he asked.
“It isn’t,” Gibbs snapped. Vance already knew that, and Gibbs didn’t have the patience to play games. Vance nodded amiably.
“She requested permanent status.”
Gibbs hit the emergency stop. “She what?”
“She didn’t tell you?” Vance got a thoughtful expression on his face, and Gibbs had a two second fantasy about punching the man hard enough to take it off.
“She wants to sever all ties with Mossad and Israel. She’s contacted an immigration lawyer about American citizenship, and she’s requesting status as a full NCIS agent.”
Gibbs rarely felt blindsided. He liked to think he knew his people well enough to understand what they might do, but he didn’t expect this. He thought Ziva was so lost to her own grief that she couldn’t move forward, but obviously he’d thought wrong.
“Where does this leave DiNozzo? Stuck in Peru?” Vance finally asked, and Gibbs glared at the man before turning off the emergency stop. The elevator jerked into motion.
“I want him back.”
“And if Ziva won’t work with him?”
“She’ll get over this,” Gibbs said firmly. She would. He wanted his team back together, so she had a very limited amount of time to come to terms with the fact that Tony hadn’t done anything wrong. Vance didn’t say anything, but he gave Gibbs that condescending look that made Gibbs indulge in one more fantasy of punching the man in the nose.
~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ .
“So, your partner ran after the suspect, and you got shot, is that it?”
Tony shifted in the chair. His hip still stung. Even if the bullet really hadn’t hit anything but skin and muscle, it still hurt like hell. At least Ferrera had ripped the idiot a new asshole. You didn’t leave your partner. You really didn’t leave your partner when you didn’t know if there were one or more perps on scene.
“I’m tempted to ask a clichéd question.”
“How do I feel about it?” Tony guessed.
“That’s the one.”
Tony hesitated. This was an NCIS shrink, not some private practice doctor. “How much privacy can I expect here?”
Dr. Verde leaned back and considered him for a second. “I report my findings to Director Vance. If I concluded you were paranoid and delusional, he would see that finding, but he would not have access to any of our conversations that led to the conclusion. So I wouldn’t tell him if you said he was a trumped up little martinet with delusions of competence.” She had a twinkle in her eye as she said that, and Tony laughed. He liked her, despite the fact that he had really tried to hate her on principle. He didn’t like people digging around in his insecurities. “Anyway, your specific conversations and opinions are one hundred percent confidential unless you make a credible threat against an individual, and I have to inform them in order to prevent a crime.”
“I’m not planning to commit any crimes, and I hope I’m not delusional, so I guess I’m safe.”
“Good. As talented as you are at hiding things, you’d be hard as hell to catch if you did decide to turn master criminal.”
“I would, wouldn’t I?” Tony asked with a bright smile. “My partner would never catch me. I thought my probie back home was hopeless, but Durfee is a hundred times worse. He gets his emotions going, and he’s like an overgrown puppy running around peeing on the carpet.”
“And this time?”
“He should have known better. I can’t trust him on my six, and I know Ferrera will keep him away from me in the short term, but eventually I’m going to have to go in the field with him again. I’d rather be alone than I would trust Durfee at my back. At least when I’m alone I’m prepared.”
“Prepared for what?”
“For the knife in the back or the gunshot in the ass, whichever comes first.”
Tony shifted again, and looked up when Dr. Verde was silent for too long. She was watching him with that calm, neutral expression that meant she wasn’t calm or particularly neutral. He liked her because, as far as psychologists went, she tended to have some pretty strong opinions of her own instead of always expecting him to open up and spill his emotional vomit.
“What?” he asked.
“A knife in the back is a loaded statement, Tony.”
“Suspects carry knives.”
“This one didn’t.”
Tony paused. He’d set himself up for this. “You think I feel betrayed. I don’t. I think Durfee is an overly excitable idiot, but I knew that even before we went out to the docks. I don’t feel betrayed. I feel like he needs a good swift kick in the ass, but that’s Ferrera’s job as team lead.”
“Did Ferrera betray you then by sending you out with an untrained agent?”
“If he knew the suspects were there, yeah. However, we were picking up paperwork. Sometimes the bad guys don’t follow our schedules.”
“But you’re thinking about someone that betrayed you.”
“Not betrayed,” Tony said slowly.
“Let you down? Disappointed you?” she guessed.
Tony sighed. He’d have to get into this eventually. If he didn’t, he was going to have weekly appointments with the shrink for the next twenty years. “He isn’t the first partner to put me in the firing line. My last partner shot me.”
“Really?” She looked surprised at that.
“It was an accident,” Tony said quickly before she could get the wrong idea. “We were trapped, and Ziva fired her weapon. Like this wound, it really only hit skin and muscle, so as gunshot wounds go, it didn’t even really register.”
“Didn’t register?” She leaned forward.
“It wasn’t a big deal. I mean, I was at work the next day.”
“After your partner shot you?”
“And your team leader expected you at work?”
“For Gibbs, if the injury isn’t serious enough to need hospitalization, you can damn well get your ass to work.”
Dr. Verde let out a long breath. “He was a hard man to work for, then.”
“Very. But he was the best. I learned a lot from him, both about being an agent and life.” Tony smiled. “He has all these rules, like number nine, never leave home without a knife… or two. That has saved my life more than once. A gun is good, but a knife has more uses. It’s a tool and a weapon and silent.” Tony thought back on all the times a good knife kept him alive. There were a lot.
“So you admired his work?”
“He’s amazing. He’s like this great white shark that you do not want to cross, but once he smells one drop of blood, once he gets one clue, he will never stop until he hunts down his prey.”
Dr. Verde leaned back in her chair. “He sounds intense.”
“No words could communicate how intense,” Tony agreed.
“How long did you work for him?”
Tony sighed. “A long time.”
“No.” Tony sat up straight and then hissed in pain when he accidentally pressed his injury into the seat of the chair. “Ow.”
“Are you okay?”
“Good, so answer the question honestly. Did you work for him too long?” She turned the question back on him so fast that Tony didn’t have time to think.
“I said no.”
“But from your expression, you didn’t mean it. Tony, you brought him up when we were talking about betrayal, you described him as a great white shark. You can see why this concerns me, yes?”
Tony glared at her as he rearranged himself in his chair. His whole leg throbbed now. He could feel his heartbeat in every thump of blood through his ass.
“I might have some hidden hostility there.”
“If that’s hidden hostility, I don’t want to see how you react with open hostility,” she countered, throwing him by not reacting the way therapists were supposed to. He had a set of expectations for therapists, and he knew how to deal with them if they followed those expectations. He had trouble keeping Dr. Verde off his trail, though.
“I can be a real pain in the ass,” he agreed.
A snort of laughter slipped out of Tony. “God, no. Gibbs would head-slap me into the next century if I was hostile with him.”
“But you wanted to be,” Dr. Verde said with more certainty than she had a right to use. “What did he do?”
“Nothing,” Tony insisted. She continued to watch him, and Tony looked over at the clock. Forty minutes. No way could he outlast her. He was pretty sure Dr. Verde was actually Gibbs’ long-lost sister or something. He held out for three more minutes before caving. “He asked me to leave the team. I’d been with him for nearly seven years, and he wants me off the team.”
“He didn’t like your work?”
Tony closed his eyes and tilted his head back. He didn’t have the energy for this. “Do you know about the Rivkin shooting?” he asked. If she said ‘no,’ he was heading for the hills and coming back after she got the details. He really couldn’t relive that moment again.
“You were forced to shoot your partner’s lover after he was implicated in a terrorist plot.”
“Director David wasn’t thrilled. Ziva was even less thrilled than her father.” Tony dragged out Ziva’s name.
“And where did Gibbs land?”
Tony took a deep breath. “At first, I thought he was behind me. Then in Israel he let the director pass me over to Mossad.”
“Mossad?” Her voice went up. Most therapists didn’t show much emotion, but Dr. Verde violated that rule on a fairly regular basis.
Tony nodded. “I thought I was going to end up buried under some mountain after a few months of torture.” He could feel the fear clawing at him even now.
“You must have been terrified. What did you do?”
“I went along.” Another rough laugh slipped out. “I verbally poked at Director David until he admitted that he had set up his own daughter, and then I sat there expecting them to drag me off to a very small jail cell.” Tony could feel Director David’s hand pressing into his injured shoulder.
“Tony?” Dr. Verde’s voice pulled him out of the memory.
“What did Gibbs do?”
“Nothing. I ended up having to go to the hospital again after Ziva took me down, knocked me flat on my back on concrete, injured shoulder and all, and then shoved a gun in my face, and Gibbs showed up to sign the papers without asking how I ended up there.” Tony thought about that. “He probably knew. What could he do?”
“Is that why you left the team?”
Tony wanted to say yes. He wanted to admit to anything rather than keep having this conversation. His mouth, however, kept telling the story even when Tony didn’t want to. “We were on the plane, and I could see this look in Ziva’s eye. She wanted me off the plane. She wanted me in her father’s jail cell. She almost asked Gibbs or Director Vance to make it happen. She would have asked Jenny.”
“Jenny Shepard?” Dr. Verde prompted when Tony went silent. He nodded. After the Jeanne incident, Jenny probably would have loved a chance to get rid of him without getting her hands dirty.
“She got on the plane.” Tony nearly whispered as he remembered the looks. Vance kept glaring at him and then at Gibbs and then back at him. Ziva shot his these hateful looks, and then Gibbs had that calculating expression in his eyes as he glanced from Ziva to Tony. The silence on that plane was enough to choke him.
“Did anything happen on the plane?”
Tony shook his head. “When we landed, she took off. Gibbs told me that she needed time to heal. She needed space.”
“He asked you to leave?”
Tony shook his head. “He didn’t have to. With Gibbs, he hints, and you rush to make sure you follow the order he never gave.”
“So you asked for a transfer.”
“Which Vance was all too happy to give,” Tony agreed. “So now Ziva has space to recover.” He spat the words out, hating that he was so bitter about this. He should be a bigger man. He should respect that his partner was hurting. He didn’t.
“And you, who had been shot, assaulted, threatened, and terrorized was left to find another team,” Dr. Verde said, and Tony hated the sympathy in her voice. He vaulted to his feet and hissed in pain when his ass burned hotly.
“I’m fine,” he snapped.
“You’re more than fine, Tony,” she agreed, and once again, Tony was off-balance. “You’re rightfully angry and you feel betrayed—again, with cause. However, you’re also dealing with your emotions and you’ve shown great success as an investigator here in Peru. You aren’t showing any irrational emotions or signs of unhealthy reactions.”
“So, I should be this pissed with Gibbs? With Ziva?” Tony clenched his fists and struggled with the emotions that raged through him.
“Yes.” Her simply word made something shift, and Tony clenched his teeth to prevent himself from screaming the curses he could feel bubbling. “You followed orders and defended yourself, and Gibbs took her emotional state more seriously than yours. Do you think this could be a gender issue? Could Gibbs be more attuned to a woman in distress? Do you think this is because your relationship with him had already weakened? I don’t know him, Tony, explain why you think this happened.”
“I don’t know,” Tony practically screamed. “God, how I wish she had made her ultimatum right there on the tarmac. Gibbs would have sent her packing before he let himself get manipulated. But all she had to do was play her cards right, and he puts me out. He insisted that this was temporary, that Ziva just needed some time before we could work on being a team again.” Tony thought back to that day in the airport and Gibbs’ softly spoken words. Tony had clung to the tacit promise that Gibbs would come back for him, but he hadn’t yet. It’d been three months, and Tony was still in exile. Again.
“Is he going to take you back on his team?”
“I don’t know,” Tony admitted, and those words tore at his heart, at his faith in Gibbs.
“If he doesn’t, what will you do?”
Tony leaned against the credenza where she had all her framed awards and diplomas displayed. “I don’t know,” he admitted. He was the king of landing on his feet, but he couldn’t seem to find his feet anymore. “I should try climbing the ladder, try to get in as a team lead or land a position back in the States,” he said wearily. He should, but he didn’t know if he had the energy to do that.
“Is that what you want?” Dr. Verde asked.
Tony didn’t have an answer.
~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ .
“So, where is that lead investigator of yours?” Franks asked. Gibbs glared at him and returned to making coffee. Franks was lying about the attack in Mexico. Gibbs knew it, Franks knew it, Franks even knew that Gibbs knew it. But they were all going to keep lying. Times like this, Gibbs remembered how much he’d hated Franks some days.
“Did you finally drive him off?”
“No.” Gibbs watched the coffee drip into the pot. “He transferred.”
“Really? Well, damn. I didn’t see that coming. I thought he was going to follow you until the day you turned him out on his ear.”
Gibbs focused on the smell of coffee just starting to fill the air. Something was wrong with the ballistics from the men Franks shot. Something kept nagging at him, and bringing up Tony wasn’t improving his mood.
“I mean, you and me… we got on each other’s nerves, Probie. But DiNozzo worshipped the ground you walked on. He’d have to in order to stick around after you showed back up and took his job.”
“You heard about that?” Surprise forced the words out of Gibbs even though he planned to ignore Franks sudden interest in Tony.
“I have my sources,” Franks agreed. “I hear he got some real shit about getting demoted.”
“You hear wrong,” Gibbs said.
“So why’d he transfer, then? I know he didn’t wake up and decide he was tired of looking at your sorry face. That man is either gay or the gayest straight man on the face of the planet. He looks at you like you’re chocolate cake and he’s hungry.” Franks gave a crude laugh, but Gibbs ignored the gibe. Franks was trying to get Gibbs off-balance about this case. And that meant he was covering something. “He get into it with Vance? Is that it?”
“They certainly don’t like each other,” Gibbs agreed. Gibbs wondered how much of that was because Vance hated him. True, Vance overcame his hatred of Gibbs in the case of McGee, but from the first day they met, Vance had hated Tony, and Tony was his lead investigator. Or he had been.
“So, what’s eating you, Probie?” Franks pulled out a chair and sat down. Sometimes Gibbs wished he could go back to being the probie and letting Franks make the big decisions.
“Tony transferred out to give Ziva some time to heal.”
“Heal? From what?”
“Tony shot her lover in self-defense.”
“Well, shit.” The words were full of shock. “That explains why you don’t want him on the team.”
Gibbs whirled around. “I do want him.”
“Then why isn’t he here?”
Gibbs grabbed a cup and pulled the coffeepot out so that the coffee dripped right into his cup as he awkwardly tried to pour from the pot. A few drops slashed onto the burner, and the smell of burnt coffee filled the air. “Ziva needs time.”
“To what? Plan out his murder? A woman isn’t going to just forget or forgive, not without something forcing her.”
Gibbs slid the pot back onto the burner and retreated with his cup of coffee. Franks was bringing up every uncomfortable thought Gibbs had suffered in the last couple of months, and he couldn’t face them without some caffeine. He’d prefer bourbon, but as long as Franks was lying about the hit men trying to take him out, Gibbs wasn’t planning to drink. He might trust Franks, but that trust had a limit.
“Shit, Probie. Did you even think this one out?”
“I thought she needed some time, and Tony agreed.”
“Are you sure about that?” Franks asked in that tone he used to use when Gibbs had fucked up some crime scene.
“We talked before he asked for the transfer. I told him this was temporary.”
“So you told him what you wanted?”
“Ziva needed time to grieve without Tony being there all the time. They would have killed each other.” Gibbs paused. “Ziva would have killed Tony.”
“She might have,” Franks agreed, and Gibbs could feel the knot in his stomach loosen. It had been the only decision.
“Let me tell you something about this probie I once had,” Franks started, settling back into the chair as he started to tell his story. “It seems like he could express an opinion as long as I hadn’t gotten my big feet in there first. He had a sharp eye for things, too. He was good. But he’d come up through the military, and he had this strange attitude. You see, if I expressed any sort of opinion, he took that like an order. If I commented that it looked like rain, he’d be carrying an umbrella, even if the sky was blue.”
“I wasn’t that bad,” Gibbs complained.
“Oh, Probie, you really were. If I asked for your opinion, you’d give it. But if I gave you my opinion first, I’d just about have to order you to disagree with me. And if I made a suggestion, you made sure that happened, no different than if I had given you an order. Most days I wanted to find the sergeant who had drilled that into you and buy him a beer. Every once in a while, it drove me nuts. But I learned to make sure I never told my probie anything unless I wanted him to take it as Gospel. If you suggested to your boy that he might need to take some time away from home, he would have taken that as an order.”
“Tony wasn’t military,” Gibbs pointed out, his stomach knotting so badly that he could almost feel the ulcers start.
“I know. That’s why I can’t figure out where he got that same habit.” Franks shrugged and got up to get himself a cup of coffee.
“So, we’ve made it through almost an entire session without talking about Gibbs. Is that progress or are you avoiding something?”
“Avoid? Me?” Tony asked with exaggerated offense.
“Yes, you. We’ve talked about Durfee’s taste in women, Ferrera’s wife, and the fact you think Penza is a lesbian. We’ve talked about a random girl at the cantina you keep making eyes at. We don’t seem to be talking about anything important today.”
“After six months, I’m bound to run out of juicy material.”
“I doubt that.”
“Are you suggesting I’m a goldmine of insecurities and neuroses?”
“I think you’ve been breeding them for the last dozen years or so.”
“Gee, thanks, doc.”
“You’re welcome. If it makes you feel better, you’re better at wrangling neuroses than anyone I’ve ever met.”
“You’ve never met Gibbs.”
“You think he has neuroses?”
“I think he professionally breeds them. His first wife and daughter were killed when he was overseas, and he spent twenty years not mentioning their names. Tell me that’s healthy.”
“Exactly,” Tony said. “He has three more ex-wives that hate him, including one that tried to use his head as a golf ball. He had this weird relationship with Jenny Shepard, and I’m almost sure that they slept together at some point. Then he went and met the perfect woman in Colonel Mann. I mean, she would scare the shit out of me, but she was perfect for him, and he drove her away.”
“You can’t know what their relationship was like in private.”
“I worked with Gibbs for seven years. I knew when he was happy, and when he was miserable. I knew when to ask him for a performance raise and when to make sure Probie stayed clear of his bad mood. I know that Mann made him happier than I’ve ever seen him, and when she left he was miserable, but he wouldn’t go get her back. Trust me, he has neuroses.”
“Do you think that impacted his decision to ask you to step aside for Ziva?”
Tony’s smile slipped. He hadn’t ever thought of it that way. He tended to think of Gibbs as being more infallible than that. “Yeah, maybe,” he admitted.
“It must be hard to know that he made a bad choice and you have to pay for it.”
Tony studied Dr. Verde. “You want me to be angry with Gibbs?”
“I think you have been for a long time. I’m wondering what changed.”
“So you’re still mad?”
Tony couldn’t say that. Sure, he still had some resentment, but six months let a lot of resentment fade. Mostly he felt… sad. “I miss him.”
“Were you two good friends?”
“Not that you’d notice,” Tony admitted. He’d tried to get closer to Gibbs on a couple of occasions, but it was a little like trying to shake hands with a cactus.
“Tell me one thing you’ve missed.”
Tony had to think for a second. “His smile. He acts like this hardass, but then I’ll do something, and right when I start to turn my head, I’ll see this smile slip out.” Tony smiled. It always made him feel good when he could amuse Gibbs.
“Did it happen often?”
Tony really took a second to think back on seven years of working together. “The first three or four years, yeah. It was best when Kate was there. We’d get going, and we could both make him smile even when we were torturing each other. One time I found this picture of Kate in a wet t-shirt contest and she got Abby to doctor up a photo making it look like I was in some sort of gay porn, and we both emailed the photos to Gibbs.” Tony laughed as he remembered the twin chimes from Gibbs’ computer. “He always ignored emails, so when it turned out that he had the email up when we sent the pictures, we took one look at each other and ran for it. But when I got to the stairs, I looked back, and Gibbs was grinning from ear to ear.” Tony loved that memory. Any other boss would have written them up for the stunt, but Gibbs never mentioned it. Things like that had made the office feel like a family.
“That sounds… well, it sounds a little like sexual harassment, but fun sexual harassment.”
“Exactly!” Tony exclaimed.
“And after the first three or four years?”
Tony’s smile faded. “Things got strange.”
Tony through back to when the tone had started to really shift on the team. It had never been the same after Kate died, but they’d found their balance… for a while, anyway. “Ziva fell in love with a dying man, and that….” Tony stopped. It had sucked the joy out of all of them, but it wasn’t her fault for falling in love—not that time anyway. “Paula and her team were killed when they were covering one of our weekends, and it seemed like no one could smile for a while, not even me.”
“But you tried to make them smile.”
“Am I that obvious?”
“Yes,” she said. “You try to make people happy, Tony, and you’re frighteningly good at reading them.”
“Not good enough,” Tony admitted softly. “The La Grenouille op started and Gibbs got blown up right before abandoning us. Things weren’t the same, and I tried to make people smile, but it was hard, and I….” Tony pressed his lips together.
“What did you do?”
“I got totally out of hand,” Tony admitted. “I took the jokes too far, and when I was put in charge of the team, I couldn’t get anyone’s respect. I worked my ass off, and they still constantly wanted Gibbs. They didn’t trust my judgment.”
“How did you feel?”
“Like shit. I knew I brought it on myself, so I couldn’t even rip them for acting that way. And I wanted Gibbs, too.”
For a second, Tony stared at Dr. Verde like she’d lost her mind. “Because things are easier with Gibbs.”
“So, you had trouble solving cases?”
“No,” Tony said slowly.
“The others respected you more when Gibbs was there?”
Tony snorted. “No.”
“What was easier, Tony?”
No one had ever asked that. Hell, Tony hadn’t even asked himself that question. “Life was easier. I was happier,” he said eventually.
Tony glared at Dr. Verde.
“Tony,” she said softly, “Gibbs offered you something that made you happier. If you can figure that out, you might be able to find it again.”
“Head-slaps?” Tony said, only half joking. The head slaps were Gibbs way of showing that he was paying attention to Tony.
“What were we talking about before we got off onto Gibbs?” she asked.
“Penza being a lesbian,” Tony said with a salacious eyebrow wiggle. He’d never do that in front of his partner because Karen Penza was a terrifying woman, but the thought of her and her long legs in bed with another woman was a very fine thought. “And you brought up Gibbs; I didn’t.”
“Because you were specifically avoiding talking about him. Do you not want to talk about Gibbs in the same sentence with Penza’s sexuality?”
“Gibbs doesn’t even know her. How can he have an opinion?” Tony demanded. It wasn’t often, but sometimes Dr. Verde annoyed him enough to make him believe she was a real therapist.
“Gibbs doesn’t know any of your new teammates, and yet you tell me that he would be patient with Durfee, respect Ferrera and sympathize with Ferrera over his marital problems, and give Penza an ultimatum if she didn’t stop leaving her cell phone in the car so you three couldn’t interrupt her. I know what he would think of most of your cases, and after six months, I’m fairly sure I know most of his rules.”
Tony frowned. He didn’t realize he’d said that much about Gibbs.
“I also know that, consciously or unconsciously, you’ve been avoiding bringing him into this conversation.”
“I hate it when you accuse me of unconsciously doing something,” Tony complained. “How can I defend myself from a charge I did something unconsciously?”
“You don’t have to defend yourself, Tony. I’m observing, not accusing. So, are you afraid Gibbs wouldn’t approve of Penza being gay?”
“He wouldn’t care,” Tony quickly defended Gibbs. The man was a bastard, but he’d never discriminated against anyone. He fell silent, and for some time, the office clock ticked through the quiet.
“Can I make a few connections?”
“If I say no?”
“Then I’ll assume you aren’t ready to hear them and drop it.”
Tony looked at her. She looked like such a nice lady with dark hair going gray at the temples and a little pixie face. Looks could be deceiving, though. If he told her to drop this, she would. Then she’d find some way to bring it up a hundred more times. She really did have some Gibbs’ genes in there somewhere. At the very least they were cousins. “Fine,” he said, not even trying to be nice about it.
She nodded. “We’re discussing relationships and you avoid Gibbs. Your feelings about Gibbs seem to shift from anger to sadness while thinking of relationships, and you miss his smile more than any work-related detail. I think you’re concerned about your relationship with Gibbs.”
“I don’t have one. It’s hard to be concerned about keeping a relationship when the relationship has turned into weekly emails saying ‘everyone’s alive.’” Tony didn’t point out that the emails were more than he’d gotten when he’d been assigned to agent afloat.
“But are you reconsidering the relationship you used to have with him?”
Tony burst up out of his chair. “You say ‘relationship’ like we were dating.” He could feel his blood pressure go up.
“NO!” Tony stopped as the word slipped out as a near-scream. He had to intentionally bring his voice back down. “I’m not gay. He’s not gay. There was no relationship. How could you think we were together?”
“I didn’t, Tony.” She looked at him so calmly that Tony blinked, not sure where he’d lost the thread of the conversation.
“I said I was interested in your relationship. There are many relationships. A father-son relationship between a mentor and an employee could come with a lot of emotions attached. A mentor relationship without the paternal overtones could still be full of emotion. There are brotherly relationships, work relationships, friendships, lovers, dating partners, fuck buddies,” she said the last with an eyeroll. “Humans are about relationships, some healthy some not. However, when I bring up Gibbs and relationships, you jump straight to dating.”
“We weren’t dating,” Tony said, his teeth still clenched.
“Fair enough. So there’s some other relationship there that you’re struggling with.”
“I think I need to call this quits for the day,” Tony said as he stood up and headed for the door. It’d been months since he cut off a session early, but he needed some space.
Behind him, Dr. Verde called out, “I’ll see you next week, Tony.”
“So,” Fornell said as he settled into the passenger side of the car, “do I sense a certain unhappiness on the team lately?”
“Articulate as ever,” Fornell teased.
“Don’t start. I will turn you out on the side of the road.”
“Promises promises. Oh wait, that was a threat. Actually, considering that McGee and David would pick me up, that’s actually a pretty good threat. What's going on in the land of Gibbs?”
For several miles, Gibbs just clenched his teeth. It felt like things just get going from bad to worse, and he couldn't stop this slide downhill. “Ziva’s under investigation again.”
“What’d she do this time?”
“Killed a suspect on a plane.”
“A prisoner?” Fornell looked horrified.
“A hitter trying to take out a witness.”
Fornell looked confused. “Bad shoot?” he asked.
“Just one too many shootings.” Gibbs sighed. “I don't know whether she's still angry over Michael or whether McGee can't rein her in when she goes to use lethal force, but either way, she’s getting to be a liability in the field.”
“You need DiNutzo.”
“I know,” Gibbs snapped.
“Well, someone’s on edge, and I don’t think it’s these guys you’re worried about.” Fornell gestured toward the truck where Corporal Werth and an FBI agent were working undercover. The assignment actually would have been perfect for either Tony or maybe even Ziva if Gibbs could trust her to arrest the bad guys instead of shooting them. Instead, he had to rely on one of Fornell’s guys, and that was not improving his mood.
“What are you going to do about your problem?”
“I just have to keep Ziva close enough to keep an eye on her. I shouldn’t have sent her to Paris with McGee.”
Gibbs tightened his hands around the steering wheel without answering.
“I haven’t seen you this worked up since your second wife took off.”
“If I can’t point out a few truths to you, who can?”
Gibbs thought back to Franks’ pointed comments. Looking back, Gibbs could see that he’d pushed Tony into accepting the transfer, but he couldn’t change the past. He was trying hard to not make the same mistakes, though. He emailed Tony every week, even when doing it made his stomach churn so badly that he drank Pepto right out of the bottle. He might not believe in apologies, but the longer this dragged on, the more he figured he owed Tony one. At this point, he wasn’t sure Tony would even take it. He knew that Tony shouldn’t take it.
“Are you writing him off? ‘llI send him a job offer tomorrow if that’s the case.”
“No you won’t,” Gibbs said.
“How do you know? He’s a good investigator and he can put up with you. That's worth something.”
“Yeah, but you don't want to give him the chance to tell you to shove your job offer up your ass. Considering the number of times you've accused of murder, he would.”
“He probably would,” Fornell agreed. “It’s the FBI’s loss.”
For miles they followed the truck without conversation, and for that, Gibbs was grateful. He and Fornell had been friends for nearly 20 years, but Gibbs couldn’t get things straight in his own head, and he'd never been one to talk things out. Other people might praise the power of talking and therapy, but he found that it worked better to just get in there and fix your mess. He'd screwed this up with Tony. He knew that. Now he just had to figure out how to fix it.
“So, any new redheads in your life?” Fornell asked as they followed a semi-truck full of live chickens that was shedding a trail of white feathers.
“Anyone since that colonel of yours?”
Gibbs looked over. “Anyone since Diane?”
“Touché. You’re in a mood.”
“Me?” Gibbs demanded. “You’re the one bringing up my love life.”
“I’m just pointing out that you’re acting like a man who has recently been dumped. You haven’t taken up with Diane again, have you?” Fornell asked with a sly look.
“I figured out she was trouble the first time around. As I remember, I even told you to steer clear.”
“Yes, but that woman is very persuasive when she wants to be.”
Gibbs thought back to his early years with Diane and sighed. “Yeah, she can be,” he agreed. They had really clicked, in part because she fought him every step of the way. If he said blue, she said black. It was exciting dating her. It was also a little dangerous. He’d ducked a lot of dishes.
“I miss the excitement some days. She knew how to hold her own in a fight.”
“She did,” Gibbs agreed. “It still wasn’t worth getting the bank account cleaned out.”
Fornell sighed. “I need to find someone with that strong personality… someone who can tell me to go fuck myself when I get out of line, but someone loyal enough to not abuse the joint checking account.”
“Let me know if you find her, and I’ll ask her sister out,” Gibbs joked.
“Someone who I can trust on my six. Someone smart, someone I can talk to about cases so I don’t feel like I have to divide the two parts of my life.”
Gibbs glanced over. Tobias was being more strange than usual today.
Tobias shook his head. “For someone who’s generally pretty damn sharp, you have one pretty big blind-spot, Jethro.”
Ignoring him, Gibbs hit the accelerator and darted ahead of the chicken truck. He knew full well what Fornell was talking about, but he wouldn’t go there. He couldn’t. Rule twelve was in place for a reason. He remembered Paris with Jenny. He had suspected that she couldn’t follow an executive order. Killing someone wasn’t easy, but she was his lover. He couldn’t question her ability. And when he’d tried to offer help, she’d turned him down flat. He knew he wasn’t good with handling lovers; three ex-wives would testify to that. And the truth was that he hadn’t lived with Shannon all that long, and when he did live with her, she had a way of running the house, and he let her.
Dating someone at work… especially dating someone that he had a responsibility to protect… no, that wasn’t possible. Even if DiNozzo were gay, and after both Franks and Fornell had thrown in their two cents, Gibbs was starting to think Tony might be, but even if that were true, Gibbs couldn’t date him. It would be Jenny all over again. If Tony screwed something up, Gibbs was there to crack the whip or give him a good head-slap. But if they were dating, he couldn’t do that. He’d be left wondering if he should have stepped in or worse, watching the Jenny incident repeat itself.
He should have followed Jenny. He should have confirmed her kill, but because he’d gotten his dick involved, he’d lost perspective. It might have taken fifteen years, but that mistake caught up to her and killed her. His failure had killed her. He wouldn’t see that happen to Tony. So, he just had to find a way to get Ziva back on track or dump her onto another team leader so he could reclaim his senior investigator.
The word was that Hetty Lange was looking for agents. LA was turning into a center for arms importing, terrorism and human smuggling. And Hetty was strong enough to handle Ziva. She’d been an assassin herself, switching over to espionage during the Iranian revolution. Gibbs suspected that Hetty and Ziva were fairly well matched in terms of skills, even if Hetty looked like someone’s diminutive grandmother.
“Hey, are you paying attention?” Fornell demanded as they blew past the semi-truck they were following.
“Just keeping them on their toes,” Gibbs said as he pulled back into the lane and tried to figure out how to let the semi pass them without looking suspicious.
“Right.” Fornell said, dragging the word out to make it perfectly clear he didn’t believe a word Gibbs said.
“I hear you had an exciting week.”
“Only if by exciting you mean that I was nearly blown up.”
“That does sound exciting. Not particularly a good sort of exciting, but exciting. How are you doing?”
“Honestly? I'm not sure. What does that say about me that I don't even know how I feel right now?”
“It says that you're healthy. You're probably the healthiest you've been since you started showing up.”
“And yet, I have no answers. Just more questions.”
“That's normal too, Tony. So what questions do you have? Maybe we can work on them.”
“Do you want to start from biggest to smallest or smallest of biggest?”
“It sounds like you've been doing some thinking.”
“Nearly getting killed does that to you. Actually, I think this is about the seventh or eighth time I nearly got killed. I'm getting pretty close to running out of my nine lives.”
“So you're a cat?”
“Sometimes I feel like it.”
“Fair enough. So, throw out a question. Let's talk about it.”
“Should I stay at NCIS?”
Dr. Verde leaned back in her chair steepled her fingers in front of her. “Big question. What reasons do you have for leaving?”
“The constant threat of death. The lack of any respect from other law enforcement agencies. The fact that my director has for the third time turn down my request for transfer back to the States or a promotion. The fact that I'm generally tired and suffocating. Stern never should've gotten so close to me, but I've been so bored with the theft cases and dunk and disorderlies and petty crimes that I'm letting myself slip. That's dangerous.”
“Good reasons. What are the reasons for staying?”
“You're assuming I have any.”
“If you didn't, you already would've quit.”
“True.” Tony dropped down into a chair and stared at Dr. Verde’s office. He liked this place. If he quit, he was going to have to give up his therapy with Dr. Verde, and right now, she was his longest standing relationship. “Okay, I have years invested into NCIS. I have a pension to think about, and if I did quit I don't know that anyone else would hire me. When I was in my 20s or early 30s, I knew I could get another job. I'm not that young anymore.”
“But you're more experienced.”
“And older. With a bad knee. And lungs scarred from the plague. And enough psychological baggage to make passing a psych eval something of a touch and go proposition.”
“Tony, I promise you that you would pass a psych evaluation.”
“Maybe you're just a really bad therapists. Maybe you don't know how messed up in the head I am.”
She laughed. “Maybe. Maybe you happen to be a fairly well-adjusted person who only gets angry when you really do have cause to be angry.”
“So, should I quit?”
“Is fear the only reason you're staying?”
Tony had to think about that. “I don't know.”
“Then I think you have some more thinking to do. So, you said you had several questions rattling around in your brain this week.”
“I was hoping we could stick with the one.”
“Because the second one….” Tony stopped.
“I see.” She leaned forward. “Tony, you know I'm here for you. If there's something that you’re afraid of….”
“Terrified actually,” Tony admitted. “Am I gay?” he blurted before he could chicken out.
“Yeah, oh. I’m too old to be having an ‘oh’ moment. I should have figured this out when I was sixteen. I can’t handle having an adolescent crisis and a midlife crisis at the same time.” Tony narrowed his eyes. “And if you're smiling, I'm leaving.”
She held her hands up in surrender. “No, no smiling. I’m just admiring you for your willingness to face things, even when they're uncomfortable. However, I think there is one simple answer here.”
“I'd love to hear it.”
“You're not gay.”
Tony frowned. First, therapists weren't supposed to make simple statements like that, and second, she had no idea what was going on in his head. “I can't stop thinking about my ‘relationship’ with Gibbs, as you called it. I used to try and get him to head slap me so that he would touch me. I'm pretty sure I had a crush on him. And I know that I never admitted it, even to myself. What's wrong with me? Worse what's wrong with Gibbs? There's no way in hell Gibbs could've missed something like that!” Tony was up and pacing. “How could I ignore that? How could I not even see that? And how can you say that I'm not gay when I very clearly having some pretty gay feelings for a man that I've known for nearly a decade? I think I need more therapy.”
“I think you’re finally reaching a point where you can see yourself without therapy,” she countered. “And you are clearly sexually interested in women. I think we can discuss your bisexuality, but you aren’t gay.”
With a huff, Tony threw himself down into the chair again. “Bisexual, gay, same thing.”
“Most people would say it's not. They are no more the same things than bisexual and straight are the same things.”
“Can we just talk about me quitting NCIS?”
“Is that the question you want to talk about?”
Tony closed his eyes and for one second he tried to pretend away all the questions and doubts that had crawled under his skin in the last few months. “No,” he admitted.
“Then let’s talk about Gibbs,” Dr. Verde suggested.
Tony didn’t answer, and for a time, her old clock ticked away the seconds.
Tony was cleaning out his desk when Penza came over. “So, it’s true. Were you going to tell me?” She put her hands on her hips.
“I don’t know. Were you planning on turning your cell phone on in the next century?” he asked.
She rolled her eyes and reached out both arms toward her. Leaving his desk, Tony took her in a hug. “I’ll miss you,” she said. “You’ve taught me a lot about investigating.”
“And about getting shot at,” Tony said.
“Ferrera does seem to think you’re cursed. Either that or you’re blessed because you always manage to survive,” she teased.
“It’s the Italian in me. I get all the good luck and all the bad luck. Honestly. You should see my father’s finances, and you’d understand.” Tony backed away and really looked at his partner.
“Oh?” she frowned at him, and Tony realized that he was honestly going to miss her. This was his team, not some place he got stuck while waiting for Gibbs. Both ships he’d served on had been waiting rooms, miserable holes he’d been stuck in until Gibbs rescued him. Waiting for someone else to come to the rescue wasn’t how Tony planned to spend his life.
“I’ll explain over drinks some time when you’re in the States,” Tony offered.
“Deal,” Penza said firmly. “However, right now someone wants to see you in the big office.”
“What? Did someone lose my paperwork again?”
“Right,” Penza said in a teasing voice. “You’re never late with paperwork. Everyone else just loses it.”
Tony gave her a wink and headed for the stairs. He’d miss this place. He’d miss the food and the people and he’d miss his new probie, even if Durfee was going to get Tony killed if he stayed much longer. The man was better off with Penza and Ferrera, both of whom were quicker to rip people new assholes. Tony tended to do things through teasing and jokes, and most of the time, Durfee didn’t listen unless you yelled at him. Tony predicted he would wash out inside a year.
The door to the big office was closed, and Tony rapped on the wood.
“Come in,” a voice called, but it wasn’t Sheridan. Tony pushed the door open and just about fainted when he saw a familiar face behind Sheridan’s desk.
“Why Director Vance, I didn't think you cared. Then again, this is my grand exit. Maybe you've come to gloat.” Tony walked into the room and stopped near one of the visitor chairs facing the desk.
“Not gloating DiNozzo. I just want to make sure that you know that this time if you resign, the resignation is going to stick.”
Tony frowned, not quite understanding the politics in the room. “I never assumed anything else, director. I think you're confusing me with Gibbs.”
Vance took toothpick out of his mouth. “I might be. There are days it's hard to tell the two of you apart.”
“Gibbs is the one still in DC. I'm the one stuck in Peru.”
“You requested the transfer.”
“Yep, I did.” Tony nodded. Gibbs dropped one little hint, and Tony was performing some act of self-immolation, or career-immolation, anyway. “You're absolutely right. And now I'm quitting. So it all works out for the best.”
“I really hope it will be for the best, DiNozzo. You’re a good investigator. To be honest, I'm pissed as hell that Gibbs and his games have cost my agency a damn fine agent.”
For a second, Tony was too shocked to answer. It sounded like Vance had just complimented him, but that wasn’t possible. On top of that, Vance was dead wrong. “Gibbs didn't cost NCIS anything. You're the one who turned down my request for my own team. How long do I have to work at NCIS before you think I'm ready to lead my own team?”
Vance stuck that stupid toothpick back in his mouth and sucked on it for a moment. Eventually, he shrugged. “DiNozzo, three years ago you were ready for your own team. I've read your reports. I've read the evaluations. Morrow should've put you on your own team before he retired. Maybe he thought you needed a little more time, but Shepherd shouldn’t have left you working under Gibbs for as long as she did. She sure as hell shouldn’t have put Gibbs back in charge when he bothered showing up from Mexico.”
Tony frowned. “But… Okay, let's say I believe you. If I'm so ready for my own team, why don't I have one?”
“You were ready three years ago, DiNozzo. Now? Now you aren't.” Vance gave a casual shrug that made Tony want to choke the man. “Three years ago you knew to follow the law. But by the time Gibbs and Shepherd were done with you, you'd forgotten that. You're so hung up on trying to be Gibbs, trying to follow your gut, that you forgot that a cop is supposed to be a cop first. You follow the law. You don't follow your gut.” Vance’s picked up steam, his words coming faster and fiercer now. “You don't follow your team leader. You don't even follow your director if what your director’s ordering you to do is sleep with a woman who's done absolutely nothing wrong except have the bad luck to fall in love with you.”
Tony flinched from the painful memory of Jeanne and focused on the part he could talk about without getting drunk. “So this is about Jenny Shepard?”
“This is about Shepherd and Gibbs and the fact that they took a good investigator and got his head so far up his ass that he can't get himself untangled.”
“Well I guess that's not a problem now,” Tony said as he gestured toward the letter of resignation lying on Sheridan’s desk.
“I hope it isn't, DiNozzo. I came down to look you in the eye and tell you that you need to find a way to get Gibbs out of your head. He did a real number on you.”
“Gee, thanks. I never knew you cared.”
“I always did. I thought you were an idiot, but that didn't make it okay that Gibbs was implicating you in his shit.”
Shaking his head, Tony took an aggressive step forward. “Don't even try that. Gibbs never implicated me in anything.”
“Intentionally? No,” Vance admitted. “No, Gibbs has his own set of rules. The rules don't always match up with the law, but he follows them, doesn't he? He would never intentionally drag a team member into the mud. However, he's not as smart as he thinks he is. His file is full of commendations, but it's also full of reports that implicate him in any number of crimes. Could he have gone down to Mexico and murdered a man? Maybe. Could he have faked DNA testing? Maybe. Could he have covered for his ex-mother-in-law or for Marine buddy who were implicated in crimes? Again, maybe. There a lot of maybes in his file, and you are right there with him in the majority of them.” Vance poked his finger at Tony. “Gibbs will never get a promotion. Gibbs will never be able to work in any other office, because his file is red flagged as requiring more supervision. But you worship the man so completely, that you can’t even see how much damage he's doing to your career. So I do care. I care, and I'm glad that you're getting the hell out of NCIS and away from Gibbs before you completely tank any chance you have at finding success.”
Tony felt like he had the air knocked out of him. Reality was shifting, but he refused to believe the new shapes. “This is one more head game you're playing with me. This is like when we went to Israel, and you handed me over to Mossad,” Tony said fiercely. He had to hang on to reality here.
“Don't get dramatic. I never handed you over.”
“You left me in a car with them wondering if I was going to disappear on the way to headquarters. You left me in interrogation room with Director David. Yes, yes you did hand me over.”
“Your precious Gibbs and I were in the car right behind you.”
Anger bubbled right under Tony’s skin, threatening to erupt at any time. “Really. And if they had decided to take off, could you stop them?”
“Yes.” Vance said the word so easily that Tony could see Vance believed it.
“Maybe you're the one who has his head up his ass, Director.” Tony turned around and retreated to a chair against the far wall before he gave in to the temptation to take a swing at the man. “In the back seat of that car, the two agents grabbed my arms while the third one explained how Americans weren’t allowed to carry weapons and then disarmed me before frisking me so thoroughly that I'm pretty sure we were engaged by the time he was done.” Tony shivered at the memory of hands running over his body, fingers squeezing his cock, supposedly in search of more weapons. “They were playing power games, and if they had chosen to take the games farther, you couldn't have done anything about it.”
“Yes, I could have. Maybe Shepherd wasted all her credibility and time chasing ghosts, but I’m a little more concerned about power here in the real world. I could protect you.” Vance looked at him. “I did protect you. As much as I appreciate what you did getting that intelligence out of Director David, it was a dangerous move. He wanted you in a very small cell buried deep underground because, in that moment, he knew you cost him his daughter. I still got you out.”
“And then you sent me away.”
“And then you requested a transfer.”
“And if you want to transfer back to DC right now, I’ll call you all kinds of a fool, but I’ll do it.”
Tony froze, shock pinning him in place for long, awkward moments. “You will?”
“Gibbs finally figured out he’s in danger of losing you for good. He wants you back.”
“But not as much as he wants Ziva.” That hurt.
Vance sighed and took a seat behind the desk. “He’s a relic of a dying age. He looks at her and he can’t help but see a woman where you and I see a trained killer.”
“She is,” Vance cut him off. “But you’re so busy following Gibbs and your gut that you don’t stop to think things through like a cop should. If you were training a rookie cop back in Peoria and that rookie found evidence implicating another cop in a terrorist plot, would you tell that rookie to go over to that person’s house alone and confront them?”
Tony refused to answer. Yes, in hindsight it had been a stupid move. However, she had been his partner.
“Your trust in your gut nearly got you killed.” Vance spat the words. “Even if your gut was right, and I admit that it was, by going over there alone, you put yourself in a bad situation.”
“So, we’re back to Michael’s death being my fault,” Tony said.
“You nearly dying was your fault,” Vance snapped. “I don’t care that you shot Rivkin. Personally, I think you should have been standing at that door with a SWAT unit at your back. I think they should have shot him because he tried to kill another American. I think you had no business being there alone. You aren’t a trained killer, DiNozzo. You’re an investigator and you faced off against what could have been two assassin-trained terrorists. The fact that it turned out to be one rogue agent doesn’t improve anything. You forgot to follow the law and procedure.”
“Because she was my partner!”
“So? Do you think a partner can’t go bad? Do you think a supervisor can’t betray you? Don’t be an idiot, DiNozzo. My first mission, my supervisor tried to get me killed because it was part of a political game he was playing. But you… you run around like you honestly believe that anyone who has a badge must be in the right, like Gibbs is always right.” Vance threw up his hands and swiveled his chair around so that he turned his back on Tony. Listening to the fact laid out like that, Tony could feel the heat rise to his face. Okay, he’d been a little stupid. But she was his partner.
“I didn’t want to think Ziva could be involved, and she wasn’t,” Tony defended himself, even though he wasn’t as sure now that he’d done the right thing.
“Yes, she was,” Vance said firmly. “She had been compromised by her sexual relationship with someone from a foreign agency.” Vance gave a strangled laugh. “Actually, she was compromised by someone from her home agency because we’re the foreigners to her.” Vance turned back around. “If you or Gibbs had brought this to my attention instead of following these rules that Gibbs has, we might have headed this off earlier. But it’s water under the bridge.”
The water under the bridge was still threatening to rip the legs out from under Tony, but he kept silent as he watched Vance.
“If you want to transfer back, I’ll call you an idiot, but I’ll sign the transfer. If I don’t, Gibbs is going to try and convince half the office I sacrificed you on the altar of my hatred for him. If you play this smart and resign, I will give you a good recommendation.” Vance leaned forward on the desk. “I’ll even tell people that I think Gibbs cost my agency one of the finest investigative minds we had, because I think that’s the real truth here. But we are not going to play games. You make a decision, and you stick with it.”
Tony could feel the air pressing against him as though gravity had suddenly increased. He stared at Vance with that toothpick hanging out the side of his mouth the way some men would dangle a cigarette. Tony blinked. Vance used the toothpick to stop smoking… that was obvious now, so why hadn’t he seen that? Because Gibbs made some comment about Vance’s stupid toothpick, and that seemed like the final word on the matter. Was Vance right? Was he that caught up in his need to make Gibbs happy?
“I quit,” Tony said firmly.
Slowly, Vance smiled. “Good for you,” he said and his voice sounded oddly proud. “I’ll process your paperwork and get you a letter of recommendation. If you need any leads on a job—”
“I’ll be fine,” Tony said firmly. He knew how to land on his feet himself. He hadn’t used that skill for a while, but hopefully it was like riding a bike: it’d come back to him.
Vance nodded. “I’m sure you will be,” he offered.
~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~
Tony stood up and wiped his hands on his jeans. When he’d gone to Peru, he’d pretty much shoved everything into storage. Now he was having to sort it all. Mice had found his old couch, so that was out. His CD and DVD collection was in good shape, one box of clothes had a corner chewed out by mice, and everything smelled like the inside of an exterminator’s shop, but for the most part, it had survived in tact. All his suits needed cleaning, but after eight months in storage, he’d have to spring for that cost even if the storage facility hadn’t called in the exterminator.
Tony spun around at the voice, his hand going to his waistband where he didn’t have a weapon. Gibbs’ eyebrows went up.
Tony’s heart started slowing as he realized it was only his… well, he wasn’t sure what Gibbs was anymore. “Gibbs.”
“Tony,” Gibbs returned in the same tone of voice. Tony recognized this mood. This was Gibbs feeling uncomfortable about something. Maybe he’d heard about Vance’s little rant down in Peru. Tony didn’t believe everything Vance said… didn’t believe half of it, even… but he did believe that Vance was describing the world as he saw it. It was a dark and pessimistic place where Gibbs was a bigger bastard than ever, but that was Vance’s reality.
“How’d you know I was here?” Tony asked, going for the easy question instead of the big one. He wasn’t ready to deal with any “whys.”
“Fornell told me.”
“Fornell?” Tony frowned. “How’d he know?”
Gibbs shrugged. The silence dragged on. “Ziva transferred to LA.”
“I got the e-mail,” Tony said. That had come through the day before Tony had decided he needed to quit. Maybe that’s why he did quit; he knew that either Gibbs would ask for him back and he’d have to come back into the same dysfunctional relationship, or Gibbs wouldn’t ask for him. Tony wasn’t sure how he would deal with it if Gibbs had a chance to get him back and he didn’t.
“Vance shouldn’t have accepted your resignation. He knew I was fixing things,” Gibbs said. Most people would say that he looked calm and in control, but Tony could see the anger under the surface.
“Vance told me you’d requested me back before giving me one last chance to withdraw the resignation.”
“He did?” Gibbs took a step into the storage locker. “But then, why?”
And the “whys” were the territory Tony had hoped to avoid. However, he’d gotten over any fantasy that life would give him what he wanted.
“Things were too complicated. I should have moved on earlier,” Tony said.
“Because of Ziva?”
Part of Tony wanted to agree with that. The lie would let the last threads of friendship remain between him and Gibbs. Or maybe it wasn’t friendship but just simple respect. Either way, Tony knew the lie would maintain a balance between them. He also knew that the lies were costing him too much.
“I stopped listening to my own instincts because I was trying too hard to make you happy,” Tony admitted. “I needed to be away from you.”
Gibbs’ mouth almost fell open, and guilt welled up in Tony’s soul.
“You’re a great investigator and I learned a lot. I will always respect you, Gibbs. I just can’t work for you anymore. I have my own style and my own talents, and I’ve been trying to make myself fit into your world when I’m ready to be in my own.”
“I never told you to stop being yourself,” Gibbs said.
“I wouldn’t want you to do that.”
“I know that, too,” Tony agreed.
“Then… why can’t you come back?”
“Do you mean other than the fact that Vance wouldn’t rehire me?” Tony leaned against his dresser and looked at Gibbs.
“He’ll rehire you,” Gibbs said darkly. Tony actually believed that. He’d once told Dr. Verde that Gibbs was a shark, and he still thought that. Gibbs wasn’t infallible, and he needed therapy as much as Tony, but he was the great white shark circling the ocean prey. Tony figured that at least some of Vance’s hatred had to come from the fact that he knew he couldn’t compete with Gibbs. The rest probably did come out of the fact that Gibbs played games with the law too many times. Hell, McGeek actually got used to hacking the CIA.
“Maybe he shouldn’t,” Tony said gently. He didn’t need Gibbs going on some crusade in his name. “I have an interview at Hadak Security. Tom says I have the job if I want it, but I need to see what kind of resources they’re offering.”
“Doing what? Playing body guard?” Gibbs demanded. Tony remembered a day not too long ago when that tone of voice would have shredded his confidence. These days, it took more to shred him. Gibbs’ voice left a little ding in the armor, but Tony could survive that.
“No, investigating internal security breaches. When the police and the feds can’t figure out who ‘done it,’ it’ll be my job to step in. Hadak has a lot of corporate clients, and they rack up a lot of corporate crimes. They even have a few unsolved assaults, a couple of rapes, and one high-profile murder of a CFO outstanding.”
“So, you’re really leaving NCIS.”
“I already left.”
“And you’re letting the resignation stand?” Gibbs looked genuinely surprised by that.
“It’s for the best, Gibbs.”
“I never meant for Peru to be permanent. I was trying to give Ziva time to recover.”
Tony took a deep breath and really studied Gibbs. Dr. Verde thought that Gibbs had cared more about a woman’s pain than a man’s, and that was possible, but Tony suddenly saw another possibility. “Gibbs,” he said slowly, “did you know that the Israelis physically restrained me when I was in the car ahead of you?”
“They what?” Gibbs’ backbone went ramrod straight.
“They restrained me and then spent at least half the drive groping me just to remind me that I couldn’t do anything about it.”
“Shit. Tony, I would have broken their arms, and I don’t care what Vance would have said.” From the tone of voice, Gibbs wasn’t exaggerating. “Is that why you’re leaving NCIS? We can go down and file a formal complaint right now. We can demand that the State Department file a demarche.”
“For me?” Tony laughed. “I doubt they’d go that far. But my point is that I had started expecting you to know everything, Gibbs. I didn’t use good judgment.”
“So, you’re leaving because I didn’t protect you from that?” Gibbs didn’t normally look so confused.
“I’m leaving because I had reached a point where I had unrealistic expectations about what you could and couldn’t do. Ziva laid me flat on my back and put me back in an Israeli hospital, and I found myself resentful that you didn’t stop her. You weren’t even there, Gibbs. How the hell could you stop her when you weren’t there? I lost all perspective because I got used to you fixing things.”
“So, I’m the reason you’re leaving,” Gibbs summarized, his voice flat.
“I’m leaving because I fell in love with you and I couldn’t get my head around the fact that you were just one more boss,” Tony said softly. He didn’t know what to expect. Maybe Gibbs would turn and walk away. Maybe he’d demand Tony repeat what he’d said, and there was no way Tony was repeating that. He’d been practicing that sentence on the plane all the way from Peru on the off-chance he might get to use it, but that was a one-time only sort of statement. He couldn’t say it again. For a long time, Gibbs just blinked at him.
“Gibbs,” Tony said wearily, “I have a lot of sorting to do. Maybe we can talk later.” Tony took a step forward to urge Gibbs to leave, but Gibbs didn’t move. Instead he reached up and let his fingertips rest against the line of Tony’s jaw.
“I sent you away because I wanted to break rule number twelve. I couldn’t, Tony. I broke that rule for Jenny, and she died for it. The woman who tracked her down… I should have confirmed the kill fifteen years ago, but I couldn’t bring myself to question my lover. I couldn’t be your boss and let myself care too much about you. I couldn’t get you killed.” Gibbs stopped, and Tony could hear the sharp edge of emotion in his words.
“It wasn’t because Ziva was a woman? Because you worried more about her pain than mine?”
“No, Tony,” Gibbs said firmly. “No. She can take care of herself, but I had to get the two of you away from each other, and I… rule number six.”
“Never apologize,” Tony said.
“Then listen closely because I’m not repeating this,” Gibbs said. “I’m sorry I ever sent you away. I should have told you why I did it. I should have told you that I was worried that Ziva would find a way to hurt you back. All I can do is tell you now what I should have told you then. I can’t do anything else to fix this.” Gibbs’ hand shifted until his palm rested against Tony’s cheek.
Tony reached up to lay his own hand on top of Gibbs’. “That’s good enough for me,” Tony said, leaning closer. “And rule twelve doesn’t apply. I don’t work for you anymore, Jethro.”
Gibbs took him up on his hint, leaning in to meet him with a kiss. It was a short kiss, little more than a soft promise between two souls. Then Tony leaned back and Gibbs let his hand fall to his side before he looked around the storage unit.
“So, if I help shift all this crap, do you think you’d have time for a late lunch before that interview of yours?”
Tony smiled. “That sounds perfect.”
Gibbs smiled back, and Tony’s heart thumped faster at the expression. God he’d missed Gibbs’ smiles. “Just tell me which box to move first, and let’s get this done,” Gibbs said.
“You grab the DVD’s and I’ll get the dishes,” Tony said grabbing one box while Gibbs grabbed another. Watching Gibbs carry the box out to the waiting moving van Tony had rented, Tony figured this was a good start. If they were both really lucky, it might even be a great one.