Kindling

by Juli

July 2005


The abandoned warehouse was large, but even its cavernous space couldn’t completely swallow the distinctive sound of fists meeting flesh.

THUNK

“Tell us where Haswari is, you bastard!”

THUNK

“You’re taking the beating *he* deserves. Do you think Ari’s going to lose any sleep over that, Scumbag?”

THUNK

The NCIS agent who was watching the proceedings winced. That last punch had to have hurt. Not just the man on the receiving end, but the agent throwing the punch too. Punching. There had been a lot of that going on lately. Too much, in his opinion.

THUNK

THUNK

THUNK

The questions stopped, which meant that the ‘interrogation’ had degenerated into a straight beating. That was usually his sign to intervene.

“DiNozzo, that’s enough.”

Tony was using one hand to hold the perp up by the collar and the other one was drawn back for another blow. Tony’s face was covered in blood spatter and for a minute, Jethro’s mind went back to that rooftop. The expression Tony wore was totally, different, though. Then, Tony had been in shock and his face had been a blank of devastation. Now, the look in DiNozzo’s eyes was borderline vicious. None of the younger man’s normal flippant charm was evident. Hadn’t been, really, since a certain fatal shot had been fired.

Sometimes, Jethro wondered if two people had died that day.

“Boss….” Tony growled at him.

Gibbs was used to being the one doing the growling, though, so DiNozzo’s attitude didn’t faze him one bit. “He can’t answer questions if he’s unconscious, DiNozzo. Cuff him and we’re bringing him in.”

Tony locked eyes with him, but Gibbs didn’t blink. Director Morrow could only pretend to believe them so many times, about perps being brought in bloody because they’d ‘resisted arrest.’ Truthfully, despite his own rage over what had happened to Kate, there was only so much of that behavior Gibbs could tolerate too.

Tony finally dropped his eyes. “Fine,” he snarled. He wasn’t exactly gentle as he handcuffed the prisoner, but neither did he continue to beat the man.

Jethro was worried about DiNozzo. The younger man’s grief over Kate Todd’s death seemed to be burning him up from the inside. Gibbs was usually the one who was a suspect’s worst nightmare, but overnight, Tony had become the ultimate ‘bad cop.’ Every time they found someone who might have information they needed, that person ended up bloody, thanks to Tony. DiNozzo worked 24/7, was impatient with other NCIS staff, and lived on vending machine crap and coffee. If he slept, Gibbs didn’t know when.

So far, Jethro had let the situation go on, knowing that Tony would have to come to terms with his colleague’s death in his own way. As the weeks wore on and Tony continued to be overly aggressive with suspects and neglected his own well-being, Gibbs began to rethink his position. He knew how Tony felt, Jethro had his own rage and guilt that he was wrestling with. When it came to coping, though, Gibbs had something to help him that Tony didn’t.

Experience.

Kate Todd was hardly the first person under his command that Gibbs had lost. She wasn’t even the only one that had died in front of him. In fact, in the Gulf War, Cameron bled out in his arms after saving Jethro’s life. As a soldier, when someone killed one of your brothers-in-arms, it was perfectly acceptable to pick up a gun and try your best to kill the other side right back. As an agent, however, it was important to work within the law. Despite his grief, Gibbs knew the difference. Tony, on the other hand, was having a hard time learning that lesson and that worried Jethro, worried him a lot. Kate’s death had just about killed Gibbs; Tony’s would destroy him.

Gibbs’ cell phone rang as they walked to the car, interrupting his thinking. He held back a bit as he dug it out of his pocket. Gibbs wanted to remain close enough to keep an eye on Tony, but be far enough away that DiNozzo’s prisoner didn’t hear too much of the conversation.

Jethro frowned as he looked at the phone display; an unidentified number was never a good sign.

With a feeling of foreboding, he lifted the phone to his ear. “Gibbs.”

“Rein your boy in, Gibbs.” An ominous pause. “Or we will.”

It was a promise as much as it was a threat and the unemotional tone it was said in left Jethro feeling cold. Before he could react, the connection was severed.

Gibbs had one immediate thought and that was of Paraguay. He remembered a shadowed figure and another threat, this one coming from his own lips. He remembered a man walking away from his agents and a sudden shot to the forehead. He remembered a rooftop at twilight and another shot to the forehead.

Monster or beloved friend, it didn’t matter. Both of them had died instantly.

It was all he could do not to run to Tony and throw him to the ground, covering the young man protectively with his own body. Gibbs gritted his teeth. His concern over Tony’s behavior had been for DiNozzo’s sake, afraid that Tony might cross a line so definitively that he could never come back. It hadn’t occurred to him that anyone outside of NCIS might notice DiNozzo’s behavior or that it could have any repercussions other than the young man being booted out of the agency.

Gibbs didn’t like being threatened. He liked even less giving in to a threat. This time, however, he didn’t have a choice. He’d already observed that Tony’s behavior had gone on long enough. It galled him that some anonymous phoned-in threat backed up that decision. Like his grief, though, his irritation would have to be put aside. It was time to make a few changes.

For Tony’s sake.


Tony could not figure Gibbs out.

The young man was cooling his heels in the morgue, waiting for Ducky to get back. While the suspect was being processed, Tony had come to the medical examiner for a little patching up. While he was waiting, though, it occurred to him that he was in the place where it all started; where the NCIS team had their original encounter with Ari Haswari.

The first time they’d gone up against Ari, Gerald and Gibbs had been shot and Haswari had gotten clean away. Of course, at the time, they hadn’t known his name and Gibbs had obsessed on it for months. The second time they’d encountered him, they not only found out Ari’s name, but also that he was supposedly one of the good guys. That time, Haswari had ended up with a gunshot wound. Tony had liked the symmetry of that. It was the only thing about the mess that he *had* liked. Gibbs had been unbearable to work with, culminating in a conversation about paddles and Moby Dick that still gave DiNozzo bad dreams.

In the end, though, everything had turned out all right. Gibbs had gotten his man, in his own bullheaded way, just like he always did. Just like Tony always knew he would. All the months of Gibbs getting more and more snarly because they hadn’t nailed their hostage taker, of seeing that damn face recognition program running constantly in the background, of being shouted at because the man Gibbs really wanted to yell at had managed to elude them; all of it was worth it when his belief in Gibbs had been sustained.

Now, though, Kate was dead and Tony was having a hard time believing in just about anything.

Ari had shot Gerald and Gibbs in the shoulder and Gibbs had retaliated by shooting Ari in the shoulder. Classic tit for tat. Kate was dead and Tony could only hope that Gibbs would extract a similar eye-for-an-eye type of justice. Gibbs, however, was being oddly restrained. Take this afternoon, for instance, when they’d finally caught up to a scumbag they’d spent two weeks tracking. When they chased him down, it had been necessary to use force to bring him into custody and Gibbs had actually called Tony off the guy. What the hell was that? The man who’d held a gun on an innocent scientist to get information about a virus Tony had been exposed to had the gall to protest when DiNozzo had hit the perp a time or two. Where was Gibbs’ obsession with Kate’s murderer? Where was his rage?

“Ah, Anthony, what did you do to yourself now?”

Tony turned at the sound of Ducky’s voice. “We had a guy resisting arrest,” Tony explained, holding up his hands. They were bruised and a little torn from his encounter with the perp. “I was hoping you had some iodine and bandages I could borrow.”

Donald Mallard had lost weight in the last few weeks. The spry old man was starting to look his age and his skin had a gray hue to it that hadn’t been there before. Grief had a tendency to do that. Tony had known that Ducky was fond of Kate, but he hadn’t realized the older man had deeper feelings than that. Tony had been with Gibbs when the other agent had told Ducky the news and had been relieved when Mallard had broken down and wept. Tony had been thankful for that. Someone needed to cry for Kate and it couldn’t be him. His tears had been burned away.

“This is beginning to be a habit for you,” Ducky chided gently. “Is the man you brought in likely to have any information on that Haswari bastard?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Tony responded.

“Good for you, then,” the medical examiner said firmly. “I hope you popped him a good one.”

“Thanks, Duck.”

The rest of the dressing of his hand passed in companionable silence. Grief seemed to have robbed both men of the need to make small talk. Truth was, the anger was building in Tony again. The only time it quieted was when he was able to express it physically, preferably on one of the suspects involved with Kate’s death.

“There you are, young sir,” Ducky said, finally finished. “Try not to hit anything for a few days.”

Tony’s grin was feral. “I won’t make any promises, especially if we find Haswari.”

Ducky’s grin matched his. “If that were the case, Anthony, I’d be sorely disappointed if you used your fists. Your gun would be far more appropriate.”

DiNozzo felt his grin fade. “Gibbs wouldn’t let me.”

“Jethro Gibbs is an honorable man,” Ducky explained. “He would want to bring the man in alive, to lawfully stand trial.”

“I don’t get it, Ducky,” Tony said plaintively. “Ari shot Gerald, not to mention Gibbs himself, and Gibbs went ballistic. Lived, breathed, ate with the guy’s picture until we tracked him down and then shot him even when he thought he was one of our own guys. Now Kate’s dead and he’s acting totally by the book.”

“Not totally by the book,” Ducky pointed out, “or you likely wouldn’t still be on the job, given your behavior of late. As for his sticking to the regulations more than you’d like, has it occurred to you that it could be out of respect for Caitlin? She was a stickler for the rules herself and would not want a vendetta started on her behalf, especially not if it got you into trouble or endangered you.”

Tony wasn’t convinced, but let it drop. “Thanks, Ducky. I gotta get going, Gibbs should be ready to start the interrogation by now.”

“Anytime, my boy.”

DiNozzo hopped off the morgue table he’d been sitting on to get his hands looked at, but was stopped from leaving by a grip on his arm.

“Tony, I know you and Kate were close,” Ducky offered, face kind. “If you ever need to talk to anyone…”

“I’m fine, Ducky, thanks.” Tony blew off the offer and, in a hurry, briskly walked out of the room.

Ducky’s was hardly the first offer he’d had. Abby; McGee, hell, even Palmer had offered to be his shoulder to cry on. Everyone but Gibbs. Tony ignored them all, just as he’d ignored the ‘suggestion’ from the top brass that he speak with the staff shrink. He would have talked to Kate, had she still been alive, but she wasn’t and that was the problem. McGee thought Tony had been love with her, but that wasn’t the truth. He’d loved her, but not been in love with her. An only child, Tony had always wondered what it would be like to have a sibling. With Kate, he’d finally found out and it had been wonderful. They’d bickered and bantered, but when the chips were down, Tony had known Kate had his back.

Just like he should have had hers.

Stomach churning, Tony strode to the interrogation room. Gibbs should be there any minute. Maybe his boss didn’t approve of Tony’s treatment of the suspects when they were under arrest, but Gibbs didn’t spare them during questioning, ripping them to shreds verbally.

Tony wanted to make sure he had a front row seat.


“Special Agent Gibbs, a moment of your time, please.”

Jethro wasn’t surprised at Morrow’s summons and didn’t even break his stride as he changed directions. Instead of going to his own desk, he walked into his superior’s office and closed the door.

“I couldn’t help but notice that the suspect you and DiNozzo brought in today was a little bruised,” the Director said in a deceptively mild voice. “And that’s hardly the first time. My neck’s getting sore from turning my head the other way, Jethro.”

“I know, Sir,” Gibbs responded.

“Kate Todd was a fine woman and an exceptional agent,” Morrow continued. “I understand that emotions are running high until her murderer is brought in, but as much as I sympathize, I will not allow the integrity of this agency to be compromised.”

“I understand, Sir,” Jethro agreed without hesitation.

“You’re officers of the law; not common thugs,” the Director reprimanded. “The next time DiNozzo roughs up a suspect, I won’t have any choice but to suspend him.”

“Understood, Sir.”

Morrow looked closely at Jethro. “You’re taking this awfully well.”

“That’s because you’re not the first one to tell me to rein DiNozzo in,” Gibbs explained. “I got a phone call a little while ago, threatening to do it for me if I didn’t get him under control.”

The Director lifted one eyebrow. “I don’t suppose the call was traceable?”

Gibbs snorted. “I’ll take my phone down to Abby, but I’m not gonna hold my breath.”

“I’ll see what I can find out through my channels.” Morrow wiped his hand across his face, looking a good ten years older than he actually was. “I don’t suppose you’ve found out anything useful from Fornell?”

“Tobias has been usually silent.” Jethro grimaced. “I don’t know if it’s that he doesn’t know anything, has been ordered to keep his mouth shut, or if he’s just too embarrassed to admit that the Fucking Bureau of Idiots was broadsided by Ass-wari being a double agent for the other side.”

“Be kind, Jethro,” the Director chided him sarcastically. “The FBI’s had a rough year.”

“Tell that to Kate,” Gibbs barked back.

Morrow nodded. “Touché.” He looked at Jethro appraisingly. “Give me your phone and I’ll see to it that it gets to Sciuto. As of this moment, you and DiNozzo are on administrative leave. You’ll be paid, but I don’t want either of you near this office for a week.”

“With all due respect, Sir, are you sure that’s necessary?” Gibbs asked. “If whoever made the threat really wanted Tony dead, they wouldn’t have been stupid enough to warn us. This isn’t one of Ari’s games; his enjoyment would have come from making sure I knew it was him. This feels more like one of our own agencies wanting DiNozzo to back off.”

“Agreed,” the Director said easily, “But humor me, Jethro. I don’t enjoy burying my agents so much that I want to do it twice in less than six weeks.” He lifted his hand to forestall the other man’s next objection. “As for the investigation into Agent Todd’s murder, can you honestly tell me you’ve had a good lead in the last week?”

“There’s the scumbag we brought in today.”

“Whom I will interrogate personally,” Morrow promised. “And if anything truly important shakes loose, I’ll call you back to the office. You have my word on that.”

It would have to be enough. It helped that Jethro knew his boss to be an excellent interrogator. It went against Gibbs’ gut to walk away from a case, especially one as personal as Kate’s, but maybe because it was so personal, Morrow was right. Gibbs and Tony were too close to this one. A week away from it would give them a fresh perspective when they got back.

With more good grace than he would have thought, given the circumstances, Jethro took his leave of his boss and went to find Tony. He found the man waiting impatiently in the interrogation observation room. The suspect they’d brought in was seen through the mirror and was sitting calmly in a chair. Tony, on the other hand was pacing. McGee was there too and jumped up sharply as Jethro walked in.

“Boss, why are you in here?” Tony questioned him. He jerked his chin towards the suspect. “I thought you’d be in there, ripping him apart.” DiNozzo’s eyes lit up. “Unless I get to question this one?”

“No, you do not get to question him,” Gibbs answered. “In fact, he’s going to cool his heels for a while until Director Morrow is ready for his interrogation.”

“Director M-morrow?” McGee asked. Since Kate’s death, the former probie’s nervous stutter had come back full force. “I didn’t know he questioned suspects.”

“He doesn’t.” Tony answered before Gibbs could. “At least not anymore. What’s going on, Boss?”

Gibbs met Tony’s eyes squarely, noting as he did that the other man’s were red-rimmed with exhaustion. “Director Morrow is temporarily taking charge of this phase of the investigation.”

Tony slammed his hand against the glass. The suspect in the conjoined room obviously heard the sound, because he flinched. Gibbs smiled at the prisoner’s instant nervousness. He normally wasn’t in favor of one of his agents lashing out, but anything that made a scumbag jumpy was all right in his book.

“Boss, that isn’t fair!” Tony protested. “We tracked this guy down; we need to follow this lead through.”

“Life’s not fair, DiNozzo,” Jethro calmly retorted. “Deal with it. We’re going to be doing some work outside the office.”

Tony’s expression went from being filled with anger to being alight with interest. “Undercover?”

“Something like that,” Gibbs answered. “I assume you still know where my house is?” At Tony’s nod, he continued. “Be there in two hours.”

“What about me, Boss?” McGee asked.

Gibbs looked at Tim closely. McGee was stretched every bit as thin as the rest of them and, frankly, Jethro would have liked to mandate some time off for him too. Thankfully, McGee and Abby had been acting as each other’s main source of comfort and Gibbs didn’t have to worry as much about his younger agent’s state of mind.

“You’ll stay here and coordinate with Morrow,” Jethro instructed, knowing that the Director would keep an eye on McGee. “Don’t worry if I’m out of touch for a week or so. Director Morrow will know how to get in touch with me if there are any emergencies.”

Gibbs turned and glared at Tony. “What are you still doing here? Get a move on, DiNozzo.”

Jethro watched as Tony gave one last lingering look at the suspect he’d beaten and had been looking forward to seeing Gibbs interrogate. He almost thought the younger man would balk again, but instead, DiNozzo turned and left the room. Despite his initial interest in what he thought was an undercover stage of their investigation, Tony was clearly angry at being pulled off this part of it.

From what Gibbs could tell, Tony had been angry at the world since Kate died. Well, in about two hours and five minutes, once DiNozzo figured out what was really going on, he’d be angry at Gibbs.

Jethro could live with that, especially if getting Tony out of harm’s way meant that DiNozzo could live with it too.


Even with all that had happened, Gibbs still didn’t lock his door. Tony’s lips twisted into a semblance of a smile as he turned the knob and walked right in. He didn’t know if his supervisor’s laxness was a good thing or not. On one hand, it was nice to know that, even when the universe tilted on its axis, Gibbs stayed the same. On the other hand, Gibbs was an idiot if he assumed the danger from Ari was gone. The thought of Gibbs playing loose with his own life brought DiNozzo’s anger to the fore. Tony was barely surviving Kate’s death; he didn’t know what he would do if anything happened to Gibbs.

“Are you insane?” Tony asked even as entered the other man’s home. “Ari’s still out there, you know.”

Gibbs was waiting for him and, perhaps not unexpectedly, didn’t react well to DiNozzo’s comments. He didn’t say anything, but his face spoke volumes. There was a time when Tony would have reacted by making a joke or a popular culture reference, anything to deflect his boss’ disapproval. Now, however, he just glared right back.

“When you’re through lecturing me, we can get to work,” Gibbs said gruffly. “Lecture or work. So what’s it going to be?”

The thought of Gibbs’ mysterious project distracted Tony from his pique. “Work,” he responded sullenly.

“Good answer,” the senior agent complimented him. Gibbs handed Tony a pile of clothes. “Now, get into these.”

Tony looked at the bundle askance. Changing clothes implied undercover work, which was good, but Gibbs usually pick out his own attire for that, as a way to establish his character. Not only that, but it was a little weird that Gibbs had obtained clothing for him.

He gave the older man a questioning look. “You want me to change clothes?”

Gibbs jerked his thumb towards the rear of the house. “Bathroom’s back there.”

DiNozzo shook his head, but obediently walked down the hallway to the bathroom. He couldn’t help but look around as he closed the door. How better to get a personal portrait of Gibbs than to check out the most intimate room in the house? It was a good plan, but unfortunately for Tony, Gibbs’ cleanliness habits foiled him. The only personal habit Tony discovered was what toothpaste the man used and even that wasn’t a revelation. Gibbs used a brand older than DiNozzo and, surprise, it was the most basic type of toothpaste on the market. No tartar control or whitening formulas for Gibbs.

Disappointed, Tony turned his attention to the clothes. They were pretty basic; much like what Gibbs himself had been wearing when Tony came in. Jeans, heavy long-sleeved twill woven shirt and work boots.

“Huh,” Tony muttered under his breath. “Must be going undercover as longshoremen or something.”

It was quick work to change clothes. Tony hadn’t bothered with wearing anything dressy of late. Suits and the like took more work than he had time for. He wasn’t about to fuss with what he wore when Kate’s killer was still out there.

Kate was dead.

Tony flinched at the thought. Movement in the mirror caught his eye and he looked at his reflection. A haunted man was staring back at him. Prominent cheekbones in a face that was too thin. Dark circles under eyes that looked far too weary. In short, he looked like crap and, for once in his life, that didn’t bother him at all.

“We’ll find him, Kate,” he promised quietly. Then he exited the bathroom in search of his host.

“You ready?” Gibbs asked as Tony entered the kitchen.

“Ready to rumble, Boss,” DiNozzo replied. “What’s the plan?”

Gibbs’ eyes narrowed at Tony’s choice of words, but he didn’t comment on it. Instead, he simply instructed, “Follow me.”

DiNozzo obeyed, but to his confusion, Gibbs simply led him to the door to his basement and then down the stairs. When they got to the lower level, Tony could see that Gibbs had done some rearranging since he’d been there last. The skeleton of the boat was still there and it was much more complete that Tony had remembered. Everything else, though, had been put away. There were no tools lying around and the esoteric pieces of boat building equipment that had intrigued DiNozzo on a previous visit were gone.

He turned to question the older agent, but Gibbs just casually handed him a pair of safety goggles and a pair of heavy leather gloves.

“Put them on, DiNozzo.”

Tony did, as did Gibbs, but this time his obedience wasn’t unquestioning. “What are we doing down here, Boss?” He looked around the relatively bare basement, an idea suddenly occurring to him. “I get it. It’s clean down here. Did you sweep the basement for bugs or something?”

“Nope,” Gibbs responded. He next handed Tony a sledgehammer.

Tony took the tool, but looked at it like he’d never seen one before. “What the hell is this, Gibbs?”

Gibbs had another one in his hands and looked down at it briefly before answering. “It’s a sledgehammer, DiNozzo.”

“I know that, Gibbs,” Tony responded tersely. “But how is a sledgehammer going to help us track down Haswari?”

“It’s not,” Gibbs shrugged. “But it’ll come in handy for dismantling the boat.”

DiNozzo wasn’t sure he’d heard that right. “The boat? What the hell does your boat have to do with anything? You said we were going to work undercover.”

“No I didn’t,” Gibbs disagreed. “I said we were going to work outside of the office.”

“But…” Tony sputtered. He thought it through and realized he’d been tricked by a Gibbs classic; lying by omission. “You bastard. Ari Haswari is out there, free as a bird, and you want me to help you work on your boat? What the hell’s wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with me?” Gibbs shot right back. Apparently Tony had finally been able to nick that military-trained control of his; Gibbs’ anger was sudden and intense. “I’m not the one using a handcuffed suspect as a personal punching bag.”

“I’m trying to get the job done,” Tony retorted. “Playing nice was getting us exactly squat.”

“And playing hard nose is going to get you killed,” the older agent told him, plenty angry himself. “You won’t help find Kate’s killer if you’re dead.”

That brought DiNozzo up short. “Dead? Nobody’s even gotten close during our investigations.”

Gibbs deflated. “I don’t think it’s the bad guys you have to worry about. Your behavior is pissing off the wrong good guys.”

“What the hell are you talking about, Gibbs?”

The older man sighed. “I have one word for you, Tony. Paraguay.”

Tony blinked. He shivered when he remembered the utter ruthlessness used to take child molester out. Not that the bastard didn’t deserve it, but the thought of someone in the US government having that kind of power and using it was almost more than Tony could fathom.

It only cowed him for a moment.

“How can you just stand there?” Tony accused. “Somebody killed Kate and you’re so calm. You act like it’s just like any other case.”

“Calm?” Gibbs repeated. “You think I’m calm, DiNozzo? One of my agents was cut down right before my eyes.” He hefted his sledge hammer and walked closer to the boat. “Another agent was just threatened.” He reached a particular spot and pointed to the floor. “T.C. Fucking Fornell stood right there and assured me that Haswari was on our side; convinced me not to kill the son of a bitch.”

With a fluid motion, Gibbs swung the sledgehammer up and back, bringing it down forcefully on the wood frame of the uncompleted boat. The wood splintered and broke like it was so much kindling.

Gibbs looked at the damage he’d just made and nodded once in satisfaction. Meeting Tony’s eyes, he said quietly, “I am far from calm, Agent DiNozzo.”

Tony frowned, not quite understanding what he’d just seen. “Why take it out on your boat, Boss? It never hurt anybody.”

The older man shook his head. “Because it’s an inanimate object, Tony. It’s better to take your frustration out on things instead of people.”

“This is about how you think I’m roughing up suspects, isn’t it?” Tony asked defensively. “They were resisting arrest.”

“This isn’t just about the suspects, Tony,” Gibbs explained, walking across the basement until he was close to DiNozzo again. “It’s also about treating your coworkers like they’re dirt. It’s about the fact that it’s been a couple of months since you had the plague and you still look like crap.” He sighed and for the first time DiNozzo saw his boss’ bone-deep exhaustion. “It’s about the fact that you’re burning up from the inside with all this anger and if you don’t do something about it, all that’ll be left is ash.”

“I just want to catch the bastard who killed Kate,” Tony explained, his voice forlorn. “Is that so hard to understand?”

“It’s not enough to catch him,” Gibbs retorted. “If you sink down to Ari’s level during the hunt, Tony, then he’ll have won. He’ll have succeeding in corrupting your standards, your sense of right and wrong. You’d become just like Haswari. Is that what you want; what Kate would want?”

Tony looked away. “No.”

“Good boy,” Gibbs responded warmly.

DiNozzo’s shoulders slumped. “What do I do now?” He asked plaintively. “I have all this anger inside and I don’t know what to do with it. Do you think I need to go to the department shrink?”

“Hell, no,” the older agent said, a slight smile playing about his lips. “That’s what tonight’s all about. Anger management, Gibbs’ style.”

Tony looked from the hole in Gibbs’ boat, down to the sledgehammer that he held. “Are you sure?” He asked, knowing the hours upon hours that the other man had put into the project.

Gibbs nodded. “Absolutely. Fornell tainted her with his lies. The wood can’t be used on another boat, that wouldn’t be right. Either way, she’s doomed. We might as well get some usefulness out of dismantling her.”

“All right,” Tony said, voice still doubtful.

He made sure his safety glasses were on and tugged at his gloves. Satisfied, he lifted his sledgehammer, glancing over at Gibbs one last time to make sure he had permission. When the other agent nodded encouragement, Tony brought the sledgehammer down on the hapless boat.

Wood splintered with a satisfying crack. Easily, DiNozzo could imagine the sound was of human bones breaking, instead of a boat’s ribs. He imagined it was Haswari under his hammer and the blows fell with a fierce pleasure. Vaguely, Tony was aware that Gibbs was mimicking his actions on the other side of the boat and somewhere far off, he could hear someone yelling. It wasn’t important. What mattered was the sledgehammer and the damage he was inflicting with it.

Tony wasn’t sure how long it lasted. It could have been minutes; it could have been hours. Eventually, though, there was no more boat left to smash. Breathing hard, he looked around the basement, having to squint to see through the sawdust and wood particulates floating in the air. DiNozzo coughed, realizing for the first time that his throat was sore. The person yelling had apparently been him.

With a dull thud, Tony let his sledgehammer drop to the ground. He staggered over to a nearby wall and leaned against it. His knees gave out and, with a groan, he slid down the wall until he was seated on the floor. He watched listlessly as Gibbs crossed the basement and did the same. In companionable silence, the two men watched the dust settle.

“God, that felt good,” Tony eventually said. He belatedly realized he’d been talking about the destruction of a project that the other man had been working on diligently for months, if not years. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be, it was my idea” Gibbs replied with a shrug. “Feel better?”

To DiNozzo’s surprise, he did. “Yeah.”

“Good,” Gibbs took off his goggles.

Realizing enough dust had settled to make it safe, Tony did the same. He ran a hand through his sweaty hair. “Thanks, Boss.”

Gibbs nodded. “Losing someone is always rough. Losing them like we did Kate is even worse.” He looked at DiNozzo and carefully observed, “You haven’t lost someone before. In the line of duty, that is.”

“No,” Tony shook his head. “I mean there was Pacchi and a couple of other guys when I was in the PD, but nothing like Kate. No one that close to me, I mean.”

“McGee thinks you were in love with Kate.”

Tony laughed softly. “Yeah, well, he was wrong. Besides, even if I had been, she was too smart to hook up with a guy like me.”

Gibbs frowned. “What the hell do you mean by that?”

DiNozzo leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes, suddenly exhausted. “If you haven’t noticed, Boss, I’m not the kind of guy you keep. I’m the type you sleep with and brag to your buddies about later. I’m a notch on the bedpost, not relationship material. Kate was smart enough to know that.”

Silence met his comment. It went on long enough that Tony opened his eyes, curious to see if Gibbs was still awake. The other man was and he was staring at Tony intently.

“What?” DiNozzo asked, again on the defensive.

“You really believe that crap?”

Tony frowned. “What crap? That I’m not a keeper? Sure. Had enough partners tell me that.”

“That’s your problem,” Gibbs pointed out. “You have sex partners, not lovers.”

DiNozzo was having a hard time keeping up with the conversation. When had they started talking about his love life? “I’d rather have sex partners than ex-wives.”

Gibbs grinned at the gibe. “You’re right about one thing, though, DiNozzo.”

“What’s that, Boss?” Given the expression the other man was wearing, however, Tony wasn’t sure that he really wanted to know.

“Kate was a smart woman. Not sure I agree with you about how that translates into not wanting to have an intimate relationship with you, but she was smart.” Gibbs smiled slightly. “I, however, am one of the dumbest sons of a bitches on the face of the planet.”

Tony had barely begun to process Gibbs’ words when suddenly the older man was right there in front of him, kissing him with a gentleness that Tony didn’t know Gibbs possessed.

But it was a gentleness that Tony needed, desperately.

DiNozzo made a small whimper and kissed Gibbs back. He leaned forward into the other man’s embrace, craving the warmth of Gibbs’ physical presence. He’d been drawn to Gibbs’ strength since first meeting him, not to mention that divine ass and glorious blue eyes. That attraction had been the real reason he’d downplayed with McGee any possibility of a relationship with Kate. There was only one NCIS agent that Tony wanted and that was Gibbs. Which was why what Tony had to do next was going to be so difficult.

When the kiss ended, Tony leaned back, the tip of his tongue darting out to taste Gibbs on his lips. He didn’t look at the other man, though.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, Boss, but I can’t do this right now.”

Gibbs didn’t seem surprised. “Because Ari’s still out there.”

“I can’t be happy, Gibbs,” Tony clarified. “Not until Kate’s killer is behind bars.”

“Behind bars?” Gibbs repeated. “Not dead?”

Tony sighed. “No, you’re right. Kate wouldn’t want that.” He smiled sadly. “Besides, nothing I can do to the bastard is bad enough to punish him for what he did. The best I can hope for is to put him away so he can’t hurt anyone else.”

“No more perpetrator punching bags?” Gibbs asked.

Tony snorted. “Not unless they really are resisting arrest.”

“Good,” Gibbs stated firmly. “That’s what I wanted to hear.”

He stood and offered a hand to DiNozzo. Tony took it and when Gibbs pulled him to his feet, he didn’t stop there. He drew Tony into his arms and held him tight. “Don’t think this is over, DiNozzo, not by a long shot.” He kissed Tony softly. “When we’ve dealt with Haswari, we’re going to revisit this conversation.”

“Sounds like a plan, Boss.” To his surprise, Tony actually felt himself start to blush. Casting around for a way to change the subject, his eyes laid on the ruins of the boat. “What are we going to do with this mess?”

“Clean it up,” Gibbs stated the obvious, laughing a little when Tony rolled his eyes. “I’ve got a wood-burning stove. The pieces with any adhesive will have to go for scrap, they’re too dangerous to burn because of the fumes, but we’ll use the rest for kindling.”

Tony nodded. “It’s going to take forever to pick it all up.”

“That’s okay, we’ve got a week to do it,” Gibbs responded, finally informing Tony of their enforced break. “Having a chore to do will keep us out of trouble.”

“Famous last words, Boss,” Tony cautioned, but said it with a smile.

The two men began working companionably, picking up the remnants of the smashed boat. There’d been no declarations of undying love; no consummation of physical need. But they’d started something, kindled a romance that would have to wait until a more proper time to fan into a full flame. For the moment, for them, that was enough. They had an obligation to a friend to fulfill first, to make sure her killer was brought to justice. For other men, that might be a stumbling block to a relationship.

For Gibbs and Tony, it was inspiration.

~ the end ~

 

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