“Tony, I’d like you to meet my girls, Shannon and Kelly.”
Gibbs looked down at the smiling faces of his beloved girls in the photograph and felt his heart clench tight as the realization of what he was about to do hit him.
It was one thing to think about sharing Shannon and Kelly with somebody, but it was another thing entirely to actually do so. He had made a certain level of peace with them last night in the basement, and he knew that he could handle the pain that came with their memory, knew that a sweetness would come with it. That wasn't the problem.
The problem was finding the words.
That had always been Gibbs' curse; he never was good with words. Words were important, but he was more show than tell. He valued actions over words, always had, but even he had to acknowledge and respect the fact that there were times when words were necessary. This was one of those times, and Gibbs found himself uncomfortably out of his element.
The photos would help, but they required explanation to bring them to life. His girls were too important for him to mess this up.
Spectral tendrils of fear were weaving themselves over and around his heart, trying to keep his memories locked up and his lips silent, but Gibbs had come too far to back down now. He'd find the words if it was the last thing he ever did.
They deserve to be remembered.
The thought that ghosted through his mind didn’t destroy the fear that reached up to strangle him, but it did loosen its terrible grip on his throat and unfetter his stilted tongue.
If asked about it later, Gibbs wouldn’t be able to recall much of what he had said, the words that had spilled straight from his heart barely a fraction of the rich waters he still drew from the deep well of his love for his girls. He knew that he told stories to go with the pictures, that he had flipped through the memories and selected certain ones to share, but the specifics would mostly elude him.
What he would always remember was the emotion that colored every word, each inflection and phrase a tiny piece of the puzzle that was his broken heart. He would remember the way Tony simply listened, eyes riveted on the photos before them, for once quiet and completely focused. Gibbs knew that he heard every word, could probably recall with great detail every story Gibbs told, and that was the best gift anybody had given him in many years.
Gibbs knew that Tony had questions, but the younger man didn't push for more than Gibbs could give. As much as Gibbs wanted to help Tony heal, he had never once expected to find that, just maybe, Tony would be the one helping him. That was something that Gibbs could never forget.
“Kelly loved horses; she was always asking if we could get one. She thought she could keep it in her room. She even offered to get rid of her bed and sleep on the floor so it would fit. She didn’t seem to understand that horses weren’t supposed to live in houses.
“One time we went camping near the beach, and we spent the day riding horses on the shore before building a fire just above the tide line and roasting marshmallows. She loved every second of it, didn’t stop talking about it for weeks afterwards.”
Gibbs went silent after that, the emotions crashing down over him like the waves that had lapped the shore as they rode on that long-ago day. He felt Tony press just a little closer beside him, his silent support like a third person in the room. Gibbs’ thumb brushed over the photo beneath his hand, a beautiful shot of him and Kelly sitting on the beach; Shannon had been the one behind the camera that day.
“I went back to that spot after they died. I wanted to remember, but I wanted to forget, too. Had a bottle of bourbon and my service pistol with me. Don’t remember how long I sat there drinking and watching the waves, wishing I could be with my girls one more time.”
Gibbs paused again, remembering that dark moment when he had almost ended his life. He could still see down the bore of his pistol as he pointed it at himself, finger twitching to pull the trigger. Somehow he had managed to turn it back around and drop it into the sand before he buried his face in his hands and wept.
“It was stupid, taking my pistol with me, but I think I knew the moment I got into the truck what I was going to do.”
He felt Tony tense beside him, heard him take in a deep breath to cover a whispered curse.
“Almost ate my gun. Don’t know what stopped me. Took a long time to be glad that something had, that I survived.”
Gibbs turned a bit to look at Tony, wondering what the younger man was thinking. He had never told anybody that story, preferring to keep it buried deep in the darkest recesses of his memories. There had been other moments in his life, afterwards, when he had thought back to that day and cursed himself for his failure to follow through, but he had never again stared down the barrel of his own gun. Once was enough.
He knew, if there had ever been a next time, that he wouldn’t have stopped.
Tony was staring at him, his eyes heavy with a dark look that Gibbs recognized. He had seen it staring back at him from the mirror often enough. It was the look of a man who knew what it meant to reach the end of himself, who had found the place where the pain outweighed the desire to live and yet somehow managed to keep breathing.
That one word asked a question that Gibbs couldn’t find the words to formulate, but he knew the younger man understood. Gibbs waited, knowing that Tony would either answer or he wouldn’t. He didn’t press further, letting the weight of that one word do the work and unsure whether or not he actually wanted an answer.
Gibbs didn’t know how long they stared at each other, the silence stretching between them heavy with the secrets both men had been carrying for decades. Eventually, though, Tony broke through, his voice quiet but edged.
“I was fifteen. It was one of the few school breaks where I hadn't found anywhere to go, so I had to go home. I had to spend a whole summer in the house I hated with a man who despised me.
“I swore that I wouldn’t let him lay a hand on me, but the very first night back he tore into me like all the time between the last beating and that moment had been bottled up and he was pouring it all out in one go. I didn’t do a thing to stop him. I just stood there and took it.
“When I could finally scrape enough of myself together to get out of the study and back to my room, I knew that I couldn’t handle a whole summer of that. I had to get out, no matter what it took.
“You know, it’s funny, but as angry as I was at my mother for killing herself and leaving me, you’d think I would have balked at the direction of my thoughts, but it was the first time I truly understood her decision.
“I remember the weight of the knife in my hand, the pressure of it against my wrist. It was sharp, and the first few streams of blood that rolled down my palms to drip off my fingers fascinated me in a very macabre sort of way. I knew that if I just pressed a little harder, all my problems would disappear.
“But I didn’t, because if I did, he’d win, and I’d rather suffer a hundred beatings than let that happen. It’s what kept me going; no matter what, I wouldn’t let him win.”
Gibbs let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding as Tony fell silent. He wasn’t sure what exactly he had been expecting, but it hadn’t been that. He felt his blood run cold and his breathing hitch as he thought of how close they’d come to never meeting. One twitch of a finger, a bit more pressure on a knife, and everything would be different.
How many lives would have changed with one choice? How many people we’ve saved would have died with us in that moment? How many cases would have gone cold, how many families left wondering what happened, never getting closure? Gibbs’ mind spun with the horrible possibilities he’d never before considered.
Gibbs put his arm around Tony’s shoulders and squeezed, his voice gruff with emotion.
“Glad you didn’t, Tony. Glad you didn’t.”
Glad I didn't, either.
And, for perhaps the first time ever, Gibbs truly meant it.
The day was half gone by the time they finished flipping through the photo album, and both men were feeling emotionally wrung out. Where there could have been awkwardness, however, there was instead a sense of companionable understanding. They sat together on the couch, staring at the last photo in the album - the last photo that Gibbs owned of his girls before they died - each lost in his own thoughts.
It was the rumbling of Tony’s stomach that finally roused Gibbs, and he slid the album to rest fully on Tony’s lap before making his way to the kitchen to prepare lunch for them both. He puttered around the kitchen, taking his time throwing food together so he could think about what to do next.
Every time I think I get a handle on Tony, he throws me another curve ball .
Gibbs swallowed hard at the thought of what Tony had revealed. Fifteen years old and so desperate to get away that he thought death was his only way out. How does that happen? How can nobody notice that something is wrong?
Gibbs felt the rage twist in his gut, the embers of his never-quite-quenched anger leaping into high flame as he imagined a teenaged Tony pressing a knife to his wrist, drops of bright red blood blossoming under the blade. He scowled at the soup simmering on the stove as if it had personally offended him as images of Tony bleeding out flashed through his mind.
Gibbs thought about Kelly, about what she might have been like had she lived to see fifteen. Would she ever have found herself in such a dark place? Would I have noticed? Would I have seen the shadows in her eyes, seen the spark fade? Would I have been able to save her?
Gibbs abruptly shoved those thoughts away, well aware that playing the game of what-if would only make him spiral out of control, and he couldn’t afford that.
He really, really wanted to break something, preferrably Senior’s face with his fists.
Gibbs sighed as he portioned out the soup and sliced some hearty bread to go with it. He pushed the anger down deep; he would let it out later, when Tony wasn’t around to see it.Perhaps I’ll go to the range, shoot targets ‘til my arms ache.
He got everything ready and moved lunch to the table. Tony was already there, his fingers tracing invisible patterns on the tabletop as he stared into space as if he could find all the secrets of the universe hidden somewhere in Gibbs’ house. Gibbs set the food on the table, startling Tony out of whatever headspace he’d lost himself in.
They ate in silence, neither sure of what to say, but they weren’t uncomfortable. They spent the rest of the day that way, each to his own thoughts. When they finally made their weary way to bed, neither one had broached the subject of what they had discussed or what to do next.
He was standing in a room, the details of which wouldn’t quite clarify no matter how hard he tried to focus. Tony stood across the room, turned in profile. There was something in his hand, something Gibbs couldn’t quite see. It glittered and flashed in the dim, ethereal lighting, catching his eye every time he tried to look away.
He tried to move closer, but no matter how many steps he took he couldn’t seem to close the gap between them. The room around them shifted and twisted until the walls fell away and they were standing in the forest. The sunlight caught on the object in Tony’s hand, and suddenly Gibbs could make out what his friend-brother-agent-son was holding.
It was a knife, sharp and deadly. Gibbs started running, the dread in his stomach twisting and bile rising. He knew that he had to stop the younger man. He reached his hand out, straining to grab the knife before Tony did something irrevocable.
But he couldn’t quite make it. Tony was just out of reach.
Tony turned sad, haunted eyes to him, and Gibbs opened his mouth to speak, but no words would come out. He was yelling inside, but the air itself seemed to press against his lips and swallow whole whatever he was trying to say.
He could do nothing but watch as Tony slowly, so slowly, pressed the knife to his wrist and dragged it down, down, down his arm. Blood gushed out, splattering the leaves beneath his feet. Tony stood there, looking from his arm to Gibbs and back, that broken expression never leaving his face until his eyes turned away for the last time and he slowly sank to his knees before falling onto his side.
The knife landed at Gibbs’ feet, covered in Tony’s blood.
Gibbs watched the life fade from Tony’s eyes, the vivacious spark in them finally extinguished. The last few pulses of Tony’s heart pushed even more blood out to pool around his wrist before it, too, faded to silent, terrible stillness.
Suddenly, Chip emerged from behind a tree and walked over to Tony, laughing. He kicked at his still warm body a few times before smirking at Gibbs and walking away to join another figure standing to the side, hidden amongst the trees. Gibbs couldn’t make the other man out, but he knew who it was. Senior shook his head in disgust before turning and walking away, not even bothering to look back.
Whatever strange pressure had clamped against Gibbs’ mouth was suddenly gone, as was the invisible force holding him back. He rushed to Tony’s side, knowing that he was too late but unable to stop himself from trying. He put his fingers to Tony’s neck, checking for a pulse and finding nothing. He rolled the man over onto his back, not caring that he was kneeling in the younger man’s blood.
Tony’s dead, lifeless eyes stared back at him.
Gibbs started screaming.
“Boss, Boss, wake up! Wake up, Gibbs!”
Gibbs jerked awake, the nightmare still swirling behind his eyes as he looked up into Tony’s worried face. He could feel his sweat-soaked shirt sticking to him, blankets kicked off at some point to land on the floor somewhere. He could feel his heart racing in his chest as he took deep, gasping breaths, the echoes of his own screams still ringing in his ears.
Gibbs didn’t think, didn’t heistate. He reached out and grabbed Tony, pulling the younger man to him as he pressed his face into Tony’s chest. He could feel the shaking start in his core and radiate out to his limbs and tightened his grip, tears already starting to stream down his face.
Tony was half-fallen on him, unprepared to be suddenly hauled onto the bed. Gibbs didn’t care. He didn’t care that he was a crying, shaking mess, that he was falling apart in Tony’s arms. He didn’t care about his Second-B reputation, his position and authority as team leader, or what others would think if they ever found out.
He didn’t care because Tony was here, Tony was alive . Gibbs heard the younger man’s heartbeat, felt his arms coming around him to support him, heard his voice soothing him, felt his chest expanding and contracting with his breaths. Tony was firm and solid and real. Not dead. Not dead . Not dead .
Gibbs shuddered and shook and cried his heart out into Tony’s shirt, his grip never loosening as he clung tight and sought comfort and shelter in the darkness of his room.
Don’t let go. Won’t let you go. Don’t let go.
Please, please, don’t ever let go, Tony.