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Box Steps 1: Opening the Box

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Gibbs sighed softly, rubbing one temple. Everything was back to 'normal' on his team. Hell, it was better than normal. He had no idea exactly what had transpired between Tony, Abby, McGee and Ziva but something clearly had.

There was no more subtle tension or aberrant behavior from Tony at the office. Gibbs laughed quietly to himself. It was a mark of just how different his team was when 'aberrant behavior' meant focused on the job, not trading insults and or teasing coworkers. As long as it worked, Gibbs didn't care. He never thought he'd be glad to hear another stupid movie or pop culture reference, or be grateful for a chance to smack Tony, or have the opportunity to eavesdrop on his team as they discussed the strangest things.

What bothered him was that he still had no clear idea of where Tony went the week he'd been off. And he didn't know why Tony had requested the week off in the first place. Or what the others had done to fix whatever the hell was wrong.

This lack of knowledge nagged at him. He hated not knowing what happened. Or why.

Tony had needed the week off. Needed it. Not just wanted it or he'd have never done an end run around Gibbs. Gibbs hadn't realized until Tony was back just how much stress he'd been under. It was unforgivable to have overlooked the younger man's health and well being, to have risked him so carelessly. He'd seen other agents and soldiers burn out, had seen the results of those breakdowns. It was never pretty.

Why had he assumed Tony wouldn't fall prey to that, wouldn't crack under the strain? What was most important to Gibbs was that he still didn't know what had been the final straw. What was it that made Tony actually do something he'd never done before, ask for sick leave?

Not only had Tony taken the week, he'd gone to ground. He had a place to go and friends he'd never mentioned. Tony didn't keep secrets. Or rather Gibbs assumed he didn't. It was disconcerting to find out he'd been wrong about that. It made him wonder just what else he was wrong about.

Since Tony had re-qualified for field duty things were good. Gibbs was leery of asking too many questions, unwilling to risk upsetting the delicate balance that was once more back in place. But if he didn't know for sure what had made Tony leave, how could he be sure it wouldn't happen again? How the hell was he supposed to help if he never knew what to look for? If he didn't know where he went, how was he supposed to be able to bring him back?

Those questions were why Gibbs found himself sitting in his car, once more in front of Tony's apartment. At least he wasn't staking it out this time...he hadn't been sitting there long enough to qualify for that. He knew Tony was home; his car was in its usual spot, the lights were on in his apartment. Gibbs even had dinner in the car to bribe his way inside. It gave him a good reason to be there, or at least a reasonable cover if nothing else.

Gibbs took a deep breath. He grabbed the bag of Chinese takeout and headed up to Tony's apartment. He wasn't as clear on Tony's preferences when it came to Chinese as he was with pizza. Tony rarely refused anything when offered, and had expressed a fondness for nearly everything on the menu.

He knocked, rapping his knuckles sharply against the door. Why the hell Tony didn't have a doorbell was another mystery. The man had every other sort of electronic gadget or gizmo.

Tony opened the door, holding his cell phone. He was obviously in the middle of a conversation. "Mike that's just the dumbest idea you've had yet for getting rid of the damn thing." Tony chuckled, his attention was clearly more on the person he was speaking to than who was at his door. He frowned when green eyes met blue. "Mike, can I call you back later?...Oh yeah, definitely...Later, man."

"What's up, Boss?" Tony snapped the phone shut, returning it to his belt clip. "We got a case?"

"No." Gibbs held up the white bag. "I brought dinner."

Tony arched an eyebrow, and moved back, holding the door open by way of an invitation. Gibbs heard him mutter, "I should have told people I preferred fine jewelry and nice shoes." He wasn't sure what to make of that comment, but Tony sounded more amused than anything else.

"You want a beer?" Tony asked.

"Sure."

Gibbs headed for the living room. The TV was on with the sound muted; an old black and white movie Gibbs couldn't place was playing. His eyebrows rose when he noticed an open copy of Leatherneck lying on the coffee table. Under it was the newest issue of MIT, Military Information Technology. He knew Tony stayed abreast of the latest weapons, jargon and acronyms, but had never given much thought to how.

Tony handed him a bottle, before gathering up the magazines and dropping them casually in a small wooden rack near the easy chair. From where he stood, Gibbs could see Maxim and Playboy were in there as well, just as he expected. It was oddly reassuring to know he wasn't completely clueless where Tony was concerned.

He glanced at the beer in his hand. "Not your usual stuff."

Tony shrugged. "McGee brought it."

Gibbs frowned at the bottle. "You hate this brand."

"He doesn't know that." Tony laughed softly as he sat in the overstuffed recliner, placing his own bottle on the small end table.

"And you didn't tell him becauseâ€""Gibbs made a 'go on' motion, taking a seat on the couch.

"He was making the effort." Tony shrugged. "No reason to let him know he missed the mark when it didn't really matter." Tony smiled. "Besides, it's free."

Gibbs found himself smiling in return. Practicality wasn't a trait he typically associated with Tony, but the younger man was no fool either. He made note of the fact that McGee had been by...with beer...and Tony's earlier cryptic comment suddenly made more sense.

"So what did Abby give you?"

Tony snickered. "You mean other than the black roses?"

"Yeah, other than those." Gibbs still wasn't sure that bouquet hadn't been dead when Abby gave them to Tony.

Tony cocked his head to one side, his gaze shifting to something only he could see. "Abby gave me a view from outside the box."

Gibbs wasn't sure how to ask him to explain that, or if he even wanted to know. "And Ziva?" The question was a shot in the dark, but Gibbs was curious to see if he was right.

Tony shrugged one shoulder. "A chance to pay it forward."

Gibbs frowned. That cryptic comment he couldn't let go. "What the hell does that mean?"

"Some times you don't get the chance to return a favor." Tony sighed softly. His gaze moved to rest on a framed photograph of an older man that sat on top of the bookshelf loaded with neatly racked DVD's. Gibbs didn't recognize the man, but there was a faint family resemblance. Tony smiled gently. "Once in awhile, though, you get the chance to pass the favor on."

Tony cleared his throat, and pointed to the bag Gibbs had placed on the coffee table. "I smell General Tso chicken." He took a deep breath. "And if I'm not mistaken, Mongolian beef with broccoli."

Gibbs nodded. He knew better than to try and steer the conversation in a direction Tony clearly wasn't willing to go. He stifled the urge to push. It was frustrating not to know any more than he had when he walked in, with the possible exception that McGee didn't have a clue about what brand of beer Tony liked.

Gibbs opened his mediocre beer, and took a swallow instead of saying anything. Tony reached into the bag, grabbed one of the little cartons and a plastic fork. He offered it to Gibbs before taking another for himself.

"So, you want to tell me why you stopped by bearing gifts or you want me to guess?" Tony grinned, shaking his head. "Damn, déjà vu all over again."

"What?"

"I asked McGee pretty much the same question just the other day." Tony chuckled. "Not that I mind having people bring me dinner, but for future reference, you don't need a bribe." Tony's eyes sparkled with amusement.

Gibbs hoped he didn't look as embarrassed as he felt. He wasn't exactly famous for being subtle. But it was disconcerting to be called on the carpet for being so blatantly obvious.

"I've got half a dozen places that deliver on speed dial. I can order in any time you want to just show up." Tony took a small bite of chicken. "I don't mind having company for dinner."

Tony speared another piece of chicken with his fork. "You going to say anything or are you waiting for me to figure out how to read your mind?" The younger man gave him a rueful glance. "Got to tell you, Boss, we're going to be here forever if you're waiting on the second option."

Gibbs stifled a smile. "Forever, hunh?"

"Well, as close as we can come, I guess." Tony shrugged, giving Gibbs a quick grin.

Gibbs sipped his beer. He sighed silently. "Last time I was here, you told me it didn't matter why you took the week off--"

"But you still want to know." Tony sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees, one hand still loosely holding the small takeout box.

"Yeah." Gibbs didn't just want to know, he needed to know.

"Why?" Tony arched an eyebrow.

"It's been a rough year." Gibbs made eye contact and held it.

"Bit of an understatement there, Boss."

Gibbs nodded. "Agents have burned out over less."

"I'm not going to eat my gun." Tony shook his head. "Was never even close to that."

Gibbs could feel something inside him loosen at Tony's honest declaration. He never really thought Tony would do something so dramatic or stupid, but he felt better hearing it just the same. Having Tony out for a week had been hell; he wasn't sure he could handle never seeing him again.

"You know," Tony's lips curled into a half smile, "knowing what the final straw was this time won't help you the next time."

"What?"

"That's the reason you want to know why I took the week, right? So you can make sure it doesn't happen again?"

Gibbs stared at him. He hadn't expected Tony to be quick at getting to the point, or hit the mark so easily. Tony put his box of takeout on the coffee table. He loosely wove his fingers together, gaze on the floor.

"Final straw is always different, Boss." Tony sighed, looking up, a small, pensive frown between his brows. "Kind of the reason why no one ever sees it coming, no matter how freaking obvious it should be. It's only after everything has gone to shit that you find out just how much was too much."

"If that was supposed to be reassuring," Gibbs grimaced, "you missed it by a mile."

"Just honest." Tony shrugged one shoulder. Green eyes met blue. "Hasn't exactly been an easy year for you either. But I'm not sure I'd know what to look for to see if you were starting to crack. Hell, I wouldn't know what to look for in McGee either, and I know you a hell of a lot better than I know him."

"I'm building a boat in my basement, DiNozzo," Gibbs stated dryly. "And McGee has an online persona that's an elf lord. Some people would say we've already cracked."

"Some people are idiots." Tony laughed softly. "We all find a way to cope, Boss. Nothing wrong with that."

"Junk food, right?" Gibbs smiled.

"Most of the time." Tony sighed, reaching for his beer. "But that's not always enough. Any more than the boat is always enough for you."

Gibbs managed to cover his surprise. He hadn't realized Tony knew the boat wasn't always enough. But then no one ever quite got him the way Tony did. He wondered if the younger man knew what he did when working on the boat didn't help, but he didn't ask. He wasn't really ready to find out exactly how well Tony knew him.

"I'm thinking candy bars and pizza aren't always enough for you." Gibbs said slowly, trying not to appear as hesitant as he felt. He choked back the real question, why hadn't Tony asked him for help or said something before just taking off, and asked instead, "Where did you go?"

Tony sipped his beer. Gibbs could almost see him weighing his choices. He waited silently, letting Tony make his own decision.

"I have a place in Virginia. Just outside the little town of Grottos." Tony finally offered quietly after a long moment of silence. "It's not much, but it's quiet and far enough away from the day to day stuff that I can take time to get my head screwed on straight."

Gibbs frowned. "Why didn't you just tell me that when I asked before?"

"Couple of reasons." Tony sighed, and took another sip from his beer. "One that makes the most sense is I didn't exactly get my head on straight this last time. Was a little cross threaded I guess."

Tony smiled sheepishly. "Found out I needed the time off more than I thought I did. First two days all I did was eat and sleep." The younger man sighed softly, looking vaguely embarrassed. "Went there expecting to deal with one thing, and found myself thinking about a lot of others."

Gibbs nodded, remembering his mental list of things that had happened in the last year. He still wasn't sure what had made Tony leave, but if taking a week off had given him a chance to come to terms with even one thing on that list, to take some time and recoup, it had been worth it.

Tony rubbed a hand over his face. "Thing I went there to work out...well, that had to be dealt with here, not there. And I hadn't done that yet when you stopped by the last time. So I was still...tetchy."

Tetchy? Gibbs mentally translated that into pissed. It definitely explained the cool reception he'd gotten the last time he stopped by. It was probably warranted. He was always doing stuff that pissed people off; it was just so unusual for Tony to be one of those people.

"And this thing?" Gibbs studied Tony. "It's been taken care of?"

"Better than I thought. And not at all the way I expected." Tony laughed. It was a free and easy sound.

More enigmatic comments. But it was an honest answer. Gibbs had seen that much for himself. Tony was back to normal, thank god. No more ice. No more uncharacteristic silence. No more anger.

Gibbs considered asking the others before dismissing the idea. It would be a violation of trust. Besides, he wasn't sure McGee could give him a clear explanation without stuttering. Abby would, in all likelihood, tell him with so much extra detail he would still have no idea what the hell happened. And Ziva, he was fairly certain wouldn't be forthcoming about any culpability on her part much or willing to reveal any one else's secrets.

On thing still nagged at him. "Was I part of it?'

Tony blinked, and reached for his food again. "Part of what?"

"The final straw, DiNozzo." Gibbs wished Tony was close enough for him to smack the back of his head. "Was I part of that?"

"You were." Tony made a meaningless hand gesture. "But like I said, it's been taken care of so don't worry about it."

Don't worry. Gibbs nearly snarled. He had no idea what he'd done or how it had been fixed. Christ. This was like when he was married. No, this was worse. At least then, he hadn't really cared that he'd messed up.

"What did I give you?"

"Besides dinner you mean?"

Gibbs rolled his eyes. "Yes, besides dinner."

Tony smiled warmly. "I got a job I love. And I get to work with some of the best." He pointed at Gibbs with his fork. "It's a pretty good deal."

"Even with all the shit that comes with?" Two of his ex-wives hadn't been able to handle the shit that came with him and the job. The third hadn't even made Tony's usual two years.

"Every job comes with shit." Tony chuckled. "And I've had enough of them to know." Tony's expression sobered. "But there's enough here to balance it. More than enough. I wouldn't have made it this long if there wasn't."

Gibbs nodded, accepting the answer, reassured by that candid declaration. "Next time...you'll come to me." It wasn't quite an order and not exactly a request.

"Count on it."

"Good." He hadn't gotten all the answers he'd come for, but it was enough.

Gibbs pointed to the TV. "What were you watching?"

"Notorious." Tony grinned. "1946. Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains."

"Any good?"

"It's Hitchcock." Tony said that like it explained everything. He reached for the remote. "I can restart it if you want."

"Sure." Gibbs smiled. He sat back and got more comfortable. This would be better than spending the night working on his boat. Definitely.

"We're okay, right?" Tony asked, as he cued the DVD and started the movie again.

"Yeah." Gibbs nodded. "We're good." They were better than good, but he wasn't sure quite how to express that. From the smile Tony gave him, Gibbs realized he didn't have to. Perfect.

"We do this again," Gibbs said, already certain there would be a next time, preferably more than one, "I'll bring you better beer."

Tony laughed. "Deal."

 

The End