This was to have been the conclusion, but I find it won't end as swiftly as I had intended. Therefore, this has to be broken into two sections. Many, many apologies. I will try very hard to get the second section posted asap.

Part 7

Under he went before flailing back to the surface. He floundered in black confusion, blinded by the water and rain, spluttering as he tried to keep his head above water and not take in copious amounts of the stuff. And for a wild, panic-stricken moment he was completely without point of direction, treading water whilst turning, thrashing three hundred and sixty degrees once, twice, three times until suddenly, his blinking eyes made out a darker shadow in all the blackness and he stilled his wild movements. He now knew which way was the bank.

Too far from the cabin to have benefited from any light that may have been cast towards the inky water, he had to make do with the night light which was made up of different shades of black. But now more convinced of his directions, he steadied his frantic breathing as he kicked out, though well aware his limbs were slowing down from the frosty pull of the water on his sodden clothes and the incessant fall of the rain.

Ignoring the pain of his still tender wound, he reached out for the bank, scrambling for a muddy purchase. Twice he fell back, swallowing his curses as he trod water, his exhausted limbs screaming from this enforced strain. Gasping loudly now from the exertion, he began to wonder if he would ever be able to get out of the lake alive for it was as if it was holding him back, pulling him in when he fought tooth and nail to get a firm grasp of the sodden soil, which infuriatingly crumbled under the pressure.

Logic dictated he needed to swim back towards the direction of the cabin and find an easier place to climb out, but the effort was fast proving too much. He wasn't in any way fit for doing something as active as swimming in icy lake water, but as he gasped and wheezed, ready to make one last effort, he heard his name called above the driving rain.

He yelled hoarsely, frustratingly aware that his weak voice barely carried over the sounds of the elements, but summoning his depleted energy, he cried out again. And suddenly, with heart-stopping relief, he felt the reassuring grasp on his shoulders as he was hauled inch by painful inch from the clutches of the jealous lake.

Sobbing for breath, he didn't need to see Gibbs to know that it was him as a steady litany of comforting words reached his freezing ears, accompanying his rescue from the water.

Catching at breath that was proving difficult to take in, on making it to solid ground, Tony longed to be put down and allowed to rest for just one brief, breath-catching moment, to lie in the enveloping mud and give his heaving lungs some respite, but such pleasure was to be denied him.

His teeth were chattering violently as he felt one arm grasped and pulled up and though he tried to speak, still his brain seemed incapable of forming any coherent words. Worse still, it appeared his legs were also unable to do the simple task of walking. Thus after a particularly blistering series of curses made it to warm his ears, failing miserably in their intent to encourage movement, he felt himself upended, thrown like a sack of potatoes over the former marine's shoulder where he hung, a limp frozen mass of misery.

He tried demanding to be put down, to squirm away, until one of the hands steadying him, landed flat and solid on his wet backside accompanied by a sharp, furious "Hey, quit that!"

He stilled, stifling his miserable protests.

The next moments simply coalesced into a barrage of movement which though carried out on him, were without any of his input as Ducky and Gibbs worked in perfect dual unison. It was as if he had been denied any form of self-determination as he was carried back to the cabin, stripped of his sodden, mud-covered clothes and put in a warm bath. And even when he attempted to insist that he could take care of things from now on, he might as well have been invisible for all the notice the two older men took of him. And with little regard for his dignity he was ushered out of the bath, wrapped in towels and dried before being placed back in his bed to be cocooned beneath extra comforters.

Once everything had slowed, Tony was able to lift his tired gaze and look into two pairs of blue eyes, both of which were looking distinctly unhappy though the fear in them, Tony could see, had definitely gone.

Yet before he could even attempt to explain himself, the M.E. had murmured solicitously, "Get some sleep, my boy; that's what you need right now."

And even though he didn't want to comply, wanted to try and explain what had happened, wanted to make that look - which promised him something he'd rather not dwell on - disappear from Gibbs' eyes, his body had its own demands and the pull of healing sleep would not be denied.

Sometime later, he became vaguely aware of his temperature and blood pressure being taken while he was half asleep; he complained at the disturbance and slept again. Later still, as he coughed enough to half rouse him from sleep, he'd felt himself supported as his lungs were listened to with great care. Some sort of medicine had been coaxed down his sore throat, but yet again he'd slipped back into slumber which was the only thing his aching body demanded now.

As Ducky stepped back, he gave a satisfied nod to his friend sitting on the opposite side of the bed.

"He's not exactly out of the woods yet, but he's getting there." And observing the weariness in the other man's face, he suggested gently, "Why don't you go and get some rest and let me sit with young Anthony."

Not taking his eyes of the sleeping form, Gibbs gave a negligible shake of his head and knowing it would be futile to even attempt coercion, Ducky drew a chair up, feeling the need to keep this friend of his company.

There was no doubt in the M.E.'s mind that Gibbs would have preferred simply to sit in peace and quiet, but there was still an issue he felt needed touching on and now seemed as good as any to raise it.

"There's something about our injured Anthony, when he's sleeping, that encourages one to watch over him, don't you think? Possibly it is that contrast between his brash superficial image, which he has the predisposition to promote, and the simple innocence here that belies that portrayal." Ducky didn't need to look at Gibbs to know he was listening; listening carefully. "When he came to NCIS, no matter that he was already an excellent investigator, there was a wildness in him that bordered on the reckless. The fact that he had been in the habit of constantly moving jobs also added to his impulsive nature. But you wrought a change in him, not through force of will, but simply by awakening in him an overriding desire to please you. You're the supportive father-figure he never had and in you he has been given the steady discipline that may have been lacking for much of his formative years."

Snorting softly, Gibbs raised pained eyes and murmured sardonically, "Yea, and look where that's got him."

Shaking his head to show his disagreement, Ducky continued, "Oh come now, Jethro, like most of humanity, perfection cannot always be maintained; there is a falling by the wayside and our young man is finding this particular fall from grace a difficult thing to bear. He believes he has done something so deplorable that he has lost your steadfast support as revealed by his foolish action in going to the lake."

"Just what the hell did he think he could achieve going out in the middle of a storm, for God's sake, Ducky?"

"We may never find that out, but what we may attain is the return of a lost sheep to the fold if we shepherd with care."

When he finally awoke to be able to stay awake, it was still dark and all he was capable of was turning to find a more comfortable position before...his eyes shot open. In the dark he could sense the presence of someone, but as he moved his head from side to side on the pillow no one was there. He screwed his eyes semi-closed to peer into the darker shadows, holding his breath.

He didn't think he was afraid of the dark, not now anyway, but...

"Ducky?"

For a moment he actually thought he was beginning to imagine things. Had he hit his head when he fell in the lake? It took effort, but he brought up a hand to feel his skull, but no sharp pain made its presence felt so that was out. And just when he was beginning to believe that his imagination had been playing tricks on him, the faint scraping of a body against a chair was heard again.

Tony froze, holding his breath, until an irritating tickle began to play at the back of his throat. Swallowing only went so far and then he was sitting up, coughing fit to bring up a lung, tears squeezing through tightly closed eyelids as he struggled to ride through the spasm. He was vaguely aware of a glass being brought to his lips and then a firm hand he knew all too well pulled him forward onto an equally hard shoulder, as a soothing hand massaged circles over his back, anchoring his thoughts as he was encouraged to breath slowly and deeply. And little by painstaking little, the tension in his airways eased and he was able to take in much needed oxygen to fight off the black dots that had been threatening the edges of his vision.

More aware now, he heard the door to his room being opened and another figure approached. Pale light from the hallway allowed Tony to watch Ducky, dressed incongruously in striped pyjamas, approach. Suddenly, embarrassingly conscious of his proximity to Gibbs, he drew away from the solid support and allowed the M.E. to carry out his usual predictable checks. Meanwhile it seemed Gibbs had retreated back to his seat in the shadows.

"How am I doing, Ducky?" he croaked softly, swiping at the trail of tears on his cheeks and hoping that they hadn't been spotted by the man in the corner.

The M.E. gave him a long, appraising look, shaking his head as if about to deliver some unwanted news.

"Well, to say you've been dunked in a freezing cold lake on top of all your other injuries, surprisingly well, my boy. There's a little congestion, which is only to be expected, but nothing to worry about as long," and now Tony could feel the hardening of the Scot's gaze, "as you follow my instructions to the letter."

A soft snort could be heard from the shadows, and Tony tried hard to conceal his wince.

"You have something you wish to add on this subject, Jethro?"

Rising from his seat, the grey-haired team leader came into the subdued light and looked down on Tony. The fact that he was wearing sweats didn't detract from his 'kick ass' persona one little bit.

"Oh yea, but I think what I have to say, DiNozzo here would prefer to hear in private."

Tony's eyes widened as the flush of hot colour rose to his cheeks.

"Gibbs, I..."

The classic glare silenced him and his gaze slid away.

Slowly, with infinite care, Ducky began to put his equipment away allowing a certain calmness to be restored though he was fully aware of his patient's trepidation.

"I think your little talk could wait, don't you, Jethro? After all, it is still the early hours of the morning."

"I can't say I agree with you on that one, Ducky. Who knows where DiNozzo will be come the morning."

Tony's squirming just seemed to increase with every acerbic word Gibbs spoke.

"I don't think you need worry about the poor boy leaving his bed," the M.E. remonstrated amicably.

"We're talking DiNozzo here, but no, you're right, Ducky, not if I cuff him, he won't."

As Tony shuffled in his bed ready to obviously protest, Ducky held up an appeasing hand.

"That won't be necessary, will it, Anthony? You will give your word that you won't leave that bed until I tell you?"

Ignoring the question, Tony's eyes grew even wider as he struggled to find his voice, "I know I messed up big time and I know I've got plenty coming to me for it all, but I'm done with the cuffs."

Leaning forward, Gibbs' flat voice snapped, "You're done when I say so."

It was the M.E.s turn to object to Gibbs' perception of the situation.

"Now look here, Jethro, no one is-."

"It's okay, Ducky. I've got it covered. I think DiNozzo is awake enough to listen to what I've got to say. Go on back to your bed; I'll call you if he needs you."

If he'd got the faintest hint that Tony didn't want him to leave, he would have put up more resistance to his friend's request, but as it was, his patient was sitting, arms folded in the classic 'I'm a big boy and I can take whatever it is you've got to throw at me' pose.

Shaking his head at the naivety of the young, he took his bag, giving Gibbs a look that conveyed more than the ex-gunny was willing to acknowledge. And sighing loudly, he left the room, leaving the door slightly ajar as much for his own peace of mind as for the light it allowed the others.

"Gibbs, I-."

"I don't recall asking for your input, DiNozzo." The words were softly spoken yet a wealth of menace hung in the air.

Tony clamped his mouth shut and waited.

Rubbing a hand furiously through his iron-grey hair, Gibbs pinned his agent with a look that would have had the most seasoned marine wriggling in discomfort. Tony was no exception.

"So tell me, DiNozzo, just what do you think I should do?"

Having dropped his eyes, Tony's head shot up to meet the cool, brittle gaze. Couldn't the guy make up his mind? One second he wasn't allowed to speak, the next...

Knowing Gibbs, this had to be a trap that was being set for him, but right now he was too exhausted to care. He just wanted this period of limbo to be over and done with. If he was to face an ignominious exit from the Agency then he'd prefer it to happen sooner rather than later. He'd never been one for procrastination. Be it his father's wrath or a principal's punishment - if he had to face it, he'd got on with it. He wasn't going to do an about face now.

Plastering a false grin on his face, he strove for perfect DiNozzo flippancy, just like old times.

"Oh, I don't know Gibbs. I suppose a swift kick up the backside, enough to get me out of the Agency, might just do it. No doubt that's what the Director's got planned for me. I doubt she has any other choice?"

Refusing to reveal anything in his dark blue eyes, Gibbs' kept his face completely impassive as he faced Tony off, as confused as ever by his desire to hand out some short, sharp punishment while another side of him wanted nothing more than to pull him into a bear hug.

"Oh, I reckon she has something particularly inventive waiting for your return, DiNozzo, but right now she's the least of your worries."

"I figured as much." The younger man swallowed convulsively, the mask lowered for an instant to reveal his features drawn and pale.

And in that instant of quiet acceptance, the former marine loomed over him and stabbed a finger in his chest growling, "You ever do something as insanely stupid as this ever again, DiNozzo and injured or not, I will personally kick your sorry ass round every floor and every department in the Agency. Your name will be synonymous with all that is hare-brained and dim-witted. Not only that, I'll make sure that no other law enforcement agency in the entire country will touch you with a barge pole. Do I make myself clear?"

Struggling to take in all that was being said and more importantly what was not being said, Tony kept his gaze fixed on Gibbs, hardly daring to breathe. He could feel the heavy, hammer-like thud of his heart against his breastbone and wondered if the other man could hear it too.

"Did some of that water get in your ears and affect your hearing?"

Shaking his head, because a lump had suddenly made its way into Tony's throat making speech all but impossible, he swallowed hard until he was able to find his voice.

"I appreciate what you're saying, Gibbs," he murmured, throwing the older man a sheepish look before his eyes slid away, "but I think this time the situation has been taken out of everyone's hands, even yours. No way can the Director be seen to put up with a rogue agent. It goes against the whole ethos of the Agency; she can't be seen to condone any kind of action that comes even close to what I did. So even if she was willing to be swayed by you...well, she just can't. Not that I think you can't do it, it's just that well...I don't want you to do it. There's no need for you to get tarred by the same feathers and anyway, I'm not afraid to take my punishment."

Tony felt the inevitability of the situation hit him hard and his shoulders slumped disconsolately. Hanging his head he missed the evil light shining in Gibbs' eyes, but not the sharp swat to his head.

"Ouch!"

"Are you giving up on me, DiNozzo?"

Rubbing his head to help rid the stinging pain, Tony's reluctance was all too obvious. But when he saw another determined swat heading his way, he flinched away, crying out, "No, no, I'm not giving up! I'm just trying to be realistic."

A firm finger poked him in the shoulder. "Leave the realism to me. You got that?"

The determination in the blue eyes told Tony all he needed to know and nodding his head, he stated with a little more resolve, "Yea, I've got it, Boss."

And for just an instant, Tony saw Gibbs freeze. And suddenly, totally without warning, the man reached towards him, pulling him into an unexpectedly brief bear hug which was over before it had begun and yet it left the younger man quivering with unspent emotion, blinking back the sting of unshed tears.

Gibbs was almost out of the door before he flung back over his shoulder, "Oh and DiNozzo, I catch you out of that bed before I say so and you'll be wishing Jenny was kicking you out."

That Gibbs was willing to go the whole mile with him meant more than Tony could ever express and yet, why should he be surprised? Hadn't Gibbs always been there for him? It was a taken fact, like the sun rising in the east and chocolate melting on your tongue, but it still didn't mean that Tony was going to let him walk that mile.

(Later that day)

"Ever done any fishing, DiNozzo?"

Intent on savouring the last few mouthfuls of his own weak coffee - the first allowed since his injury - Tony's guard was lowered as he automatically answered, "Nah. My father used to take his clients deep sea fishing, but I was never allowed to go. He'd be doing some big wheeler dealing and thought I'd get in the way of business...What about you?"

"My father introduced me to the finer points of the sport. He'd sometimes take me off for a weekend; we'd camp out and do the whole survival thing."

His attention fixed on the man who so rarely revealed anything about his past personal life, Tony's eyes crinkled with pleasure.

"You must have had a good time, huh - father/son bonding?"

And realising that the contrast in fathers was more than likely to raise painful memories, Gibbs swiftly stood, saying, "Go get dressed. Ducky showed me some of his tackle before he left. We're going to do our own fishing."

"You mean it? I can get up?" And in the next breath, "But I don't know how to...," The penetrating glare he received silenced his last comment, replaced by a smooth, familiar,"...on it Boss."

By the time Tony had thrown on some clothes, Gibbs had set up two fold- up chairs by the water's edge, with the necessary equipment and rods ready for use.

Wide eyed, Tony stared at the scene and grinned.

"Wow, this reminds me of the movie with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon-."

"Do you want to learn how to fish?"

"Sure!"

"Then sit down, shut up and take hold of the damned rod. And I'm only going to tell you this once. Stay out of the lake!"

"On it, Boss."

Hours later, completely relaxed, the euphoria of a fish caught and then returned to the lake, Tony was on a high, already exaggerating the size of his catch. Turning his eyes on the tranquil water, he suddenly stilled and murmured, "I never meant to lie to you."

Driven by the need to make things as right as they would ever be, he made the confession in a hushed voice, determined to try and fix that which he thought had been broken.

Keeping his eyes on his brightly coloured float bobbing gently up and down, Gibbs waited, hoping there would be more. He wasn't disappointed.

"I...I wanted to tell you, Boss. I knew it was crazy to go in there without you, but...in the end, I couldn't leave Jimmy to go it alone. And no matter what you say, I know you wouldn't have either if you'd been in my shoes. And don't get me wrong, don't think I don't appreciate what you intend doing for me in going to the Director, but...I don't want you to do it. I don't want you to go begging, to be beholden to her. I can look after myself. Always have, always will."

Gibbs hands holding his rod, tightened visibly, the knuckles turning white with the tension, but that was the only clue visible in revealing his feelings.

"Well, that's where you're wrong, DiNozzo."

And turning, Gibbs fixed Tony with a flat stare that literally had the man squirming in discomfort as he continued, "I'm not asking for your permission to go and put your case forward. Suck it up, and get a taste of what it's like when I decide to go off and do my own thing."

Stiffening, Tony growled, "This is my business, Gibbs."

As Gibbs carefully put down his rod, the older agent fixed steel blue eyes on the man beside him.

"That's where you're wrong again, DiNozzo."

And in the end Tony had grudgingly accepted that he could do nothing to dissuade Gibbs from doing what he wanted. It was up to Tony, therefore, to do what needed to be done before Gibbs put his own head on the block.

Second part of the conclusion to follow.