Gibbs quietly heaved a sigh of relief as he came down the stairs to find Tony standing frozen in the middle of the living room, staring at the two photographs on the mantle.
He’d placed the picture of Tony there while breakfast had been warming. The idea had come to him while he was in the shower. He knew that Tony didn’t trust words very much; too many broken promises littered his past to put stock in what was essentially nothing but air and smoke. Action was what counted, what showed a person’s true face, and Gibbs could appreciate that. He had struggled to think of a way to show Tony he was serious, and then he had remembered the photo.
It had been a gift from Abby, an 8x10 framed shot of Tony smiling - a real smile, not his fake grin that he used to keep people at arm’s length. She’d given it to him while Tony was on the Seahawk, both a subtle hint to work harder to bring him back and an acknowledgement that she understood that Gibbs was missing the younger man, too.
Gibbs had been strangely touched by the gesture, and he’d given Abby a kiss on the cheek before turning back to his boat and bourbon, unwilling to speak out loud the emotions that had rushed in upon seeing that smiling face in the photo. She’d understood what he hadn’t said and quietly made her way up the stairs, sure that she’d made her point.
He had placed the picture in the drawer with those of Shannon and Kelly, still too stubborn to look any deeper at the significance of that decision. He hadn’t forgotten about it, but he also didn’t pull it out again. It wasn’t long after that night that Tony had come home and life had returned to some semblance of normal.
Gibbs had made his way down to the basement and pulled the photo out, dusting off the wooden frame and glass cover before making his way up the stairs to place it next to his girls on the mantle. It had felt right, putting them side by side like that. Gibbs had returned to the kitchen with a refreshed determination to sit down with Tony and have a serious conversation.
When Tony had gone flying off the bed and run down the stairs, Gibbs’ heart had dropped and his stomach clenched in fear. He knew that if Tony got out the door and away he might never get him back. Tony was a runner, always had been, and it was a testimony to the strength of their relationship that his Senior Field Agent had made it past the two-year mark, let alone lasted over nine years with him.
Now he stood next to Tony and looked at the photographs, letting the younger man process the scene before him.
He glanced over at Tony, turning his head slightly and looking from the corner of his eye. He saw the tears welling in the younger man’s eyes, though he could tell that he was fighting hard to keep them from falling.
Tell him, Marine. Tell him how much he means to you. He needs to hear it again. He’ll need to hear it over and over, every day for the rest of your life if that’s what it takes. Show him, tell him, teach him until he understands and believes you.
“I’ve never lied to you, Tony, and I’m not about to start now. You’re family. Your photo belongs on my mantle next to my girls. I know that Shannon would have loved you, and Kelly, too. You belong here. You don’t get to run away from this.”
Gibbs felt the shudder run through Tony’s body and into his where their shoulders touched. He turned slightly to see the other man shaking his head, eyes wet with tears that still refused to fall.
“Don’t, Boss. I can’t… I can’t do this. Not with you. You can’t… I don’t belong with them. They’re your girls. I can’t… I don’t… I’m not…”
Gibbs turned more fully to face the younger man and flashed back to that moment at the stream when he’d finally told Tony what he really thought of him, when he’d called him a good agent, a friend, a son - all three and so much more. Tony had been shocked, unsure, scared out of his mind, and so vulnerable in that moment that Gibbs had almost screamed with rage at the thought of all those who had hurt the younger man so deeply that he couldn't comprehend how he could be worth so much to anybody.
That same rage rose up again, but Gibbs grabbed it tightly and twisted it into submission, channeling it away from Tony who would certainly interpret it incorrectly and draw the wrong conclusions. The energy that came with the rage, the passion and intensity - that he could and would use.
The swift sense of deja vu washed over him as he pivoted and grabbed the younger man, arm and neck, pulling him in close until their noses almost touched. Gibbs wasn’t sure how much Tony remembered of their conversation by the stream - the trauma of being shot may have washed out the memory - but the older man was determined to reinforce what he’d said then and since.
“You can’t what , Tony?” Gibbs asked, his voice low and focused. “I don’t say things I don’t mean, and I don’t keep people on my team who don’t deserve to be there. Rule Five, Tony! You’re not just good; you’re the best, both professionally and personally. So tell me, you don’t what ? You’re not what, exactly?”
“I’m not good enough! I’ll never be good enough, Boss!”
The words seemed to explode out of Tony, and he shoved hard at Gibbs, pushing him towards the mantle as he took two big steps back before turning away and pacing wildly around the room, running his hands through this hair as he ranted.
“You think I don’t know my place, Boss? It’s been made abundantly clear, over and over, exactly who I am. I’m the son whose mother killed herself, whose father used to beat him bloody, who got disowned and sent away. I’m the kid who was bullied and worse in school and nobody cared! I was useful for what I could do - I could play sports - but the minute I blew my knee out I was no good to anybody anymore!
“I tried, Boss! I tried so hard to be good, to be worthy, but it’s never enough! Whatever’s wrong with me has to run pretty deep because I’ve never been able to figure it out and fix it, and I’ve tried, over and over! If it was once or twice I’d say that the other person was the one with the problem, but the only common denominator is me! I know it’s me; everybody knows it! I’m a screwup, a failure, a waste!...”
It went on and on, and Gibbs wasn’t sure what to do. Tony was like a wild animal, throwing his hands around as he talked, anger and frustration radiating off of him in waves. Gibbs was worried that, if he tried to interfere, the younger man would take a swing at him.
He had been startled at the revelation that Tony’s mother had committed suicide. There was nothing in the younger man’s files about it, but that wasn’t surprising. Senior had enough wealth and means to have that little nugget buried deep, and Tony had been content to leave it that way for reasons yet unknown.
He had learned more about his Senior Field Agent in the last two weeks than he had in the entire nine years previously, and Gibbs was beginning to wonder just how many secrets were wrapped around the core of the younger man.
Well, the masks are definitely gone. This is pure, unfiltered Tony. You’re finally seeing who he really is.
“...couldn’t save Kate, couldn’t save Paula, couldn’t save Jenny…”
Oh, Tony. Those weren’t your fault. If anything, they were mine.
“...got sent away on that damned ship. I deserved it, Vance was right…”
No, Vance was an idiot. It wasn’t about you, Tony; it was about Vance showing me who’s boss.
“...Got kidnapped and chained to a sewer like a probie. Almost got my throat slit by a serial killer because I screwed up and liked him. Got the plague because I was an idiot. Got in too deep with Jeanne, screwed that up, too…”
Those weren’t your mistakes, Tony. They were mine, they were Jenny’s, they were the work of crazy people doing crazy things.
“...It’s all my fault, Boss. I’m the problem. I shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as Shannon and Kelly. You don’t love me. You can’t love me! I don’t deserve it!”
Tony finally wound down, stopping a few steps in front of Gibbs, still shaking with the intensity of his tangled emotions. Gibbs felt his heart squeeze at the sight as everything in him cried out at the injustice of it all.
“They were wrong,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs noted the way the younger man jerked a bit as he lifted his head to meet his eyes for the first time since he had started ranting.
“They were wrong, Tony, all of them - your mother, your father, your classmates, your coaches, your teammates, your coworkers, Jeanne, Jenny, Vance - all of them were wrong. You aregood enough. You are worthy. I know you don’t believe me yet, but you will. I’ll keep saying it until you do.”
Gibbs watched as Tony seemed to deflate, all the anger and frustration leaching out of him as his words sunk in. The tears that the younger man had tried so hard to suppress finally forced their way out to run down his cheeks, and only then did Gibbs finally move, wrapping the younger man in his arms.
Tony was tense, so tense that Gibbs wondered if the other man was going to shove him away again, but slowly the younger man began to relax, bit by bit, as Gibbs simply held him steady, rubbing his hand in soothing circles on Tony’s back like he used to do for Kelly when she was upset.
“I’m so proud of you, Tony. You’re good. You’re worthy. You deserve the best...”
Gibbs spoke quietly into the younger man’s ear, words of encouragement and praise that he had held back for far too long. Each word seemed to soak into the younger man like fresh rain in a long drought, but he still held himself too stiffly, unwilling to sink fully into the comfort that Gibbs was offering.
Say it, Marine. Man up and say the words he needs to hear the most.
“I love you, Tony.”
And there it was, the breaking point. Gibbs felt the moment the younger man let go, felt his knees go out and carefully slowed the younger man’s descent to the floor to keep it from being a fall that could do even more damage to an already ravaged body. Soon the two men were kneeling, leaning into each other, Tony shaking hard with sobs that wracked and wrecked him.
That sense of deja vu swiftly rushed over Gibbs again as he held Tony, riding out the storm of emotion while the younger man wept. The whole time, Gibbs kept up his whispered litany, for once unable to stop the flow of words as they poured out of him.
“I’ve got you, Tony. It’s okay. I’ve got you. Love you, son. Love you. I’ve got you…”