Well this is it, at long last. Profuse apologies for the delay. It's been a great journey and I've particularly enjoyed making the acquaintance of so many of you faithful reviewers. What absolute stars you are!
Conclusion, Section II
The remaining days at the cabin were passed amicably as long as Tony continued to remain silent about Gibbs' intentions. And under the older man's watchful gaze he began to lose the gaunt, harrowing look that had plagued him since going to Philly. Good food combined with plenty of rest saw Tony begin to put on a little of the lost weight and he started to feel a little stronger day by day.
By the end of the week, as he stepped off the deck one final time to get in Gibbs' car, he looked back at the log cabin with a certain amount of wistfulness and wondered whether he would ever again feel the contentment and security he had experienced these past days.
"Touch that one more time, DiNozzo and I won't be responsible for my actions."
The hand that had been reaching out to try another radio station froze midway.
"Aw, cmon, Boss, there's got to be something better than...what is this anyway?" he whined. But getting the look, he chewed on his bottom lip and lowered his hand to start fiddling with his seat's upright position. "I don't seem to be able to get this..."
The silent glower he received spoke volumes.
"Leaving it all as it was, Boss."
And folding his hands theatrically, he chose to look out of the passenger's side window and make himself as inconspicuous as possible. Two of those looks in as many minutes didn't bode well for his future. Maybe by sitting quietly, he reasoned, he might just live to see the end of this journey.
"Where are we going?"
Sounding definitely agitated, Tony twisted his head round to look back the way they had come, his eyes clouded with dismay.
"Er...I think you might have missed my exit, Boss, 'cos we just passed it. I mean, I don't think you forgot because you don't forget anything and I'd never suggest that your age might have something to do with-
A put upon sigh accompanied the words, "We're going to my place."
"You got a problem with that, DiNozzo?"
"No, no, nothing like that...It's just that...well, it's kind of been a long time since I was home and-."
"It won't matter if it's a bit longer, then, will it?"
Tony knew enough about rhetorical questions to understand this was definitely one of them. Gibbs was not asking for his input on this decision. It had been made. It was unilateral. Which was going to make it very difficult for Tony to get to the Director before Gibbs got there first.
"I...er...I don't want to appear ungrateful, Gibbs-."
"I really need to spend some time in my own place."
"It's my...my...," he cast his mind around frantically for any idea that might be half way acceptable to the shrewd agent. "...my cable TV; I've really missed it, Boss and I don't think I could cope with missing another night without it."
By the time he arrived at Gibbs' place he was sulking. He couldn't help it.
But it was water off a duck's back as far as the ex-gunny was concerned. He all but ignored his sullen agent as he ushered him inside and installed him on the sofa, handing him the remote and switching on his TV.
Glowering at the 'box' - because it was wasted effort glowering at Gibbs, not to mention detrimental to his health - Tony watched an old movie with Cary Grant, which he would normally have been fully engrossed in, but which now was only a backdrop for his own frenetic brain activity.
That he hadn't been taken back to his own apartment had thrown a gigantic spanner into his plans and now, feeling yet again a prisoner denied his own freewill, his frustration at his strategy being thrown into disarray had made him short and irritable.
And so when Gibbs had appeared with a tray holding his lunch of soup and roll together with a glass of milk, he had petulantly put it to the side and adopted the pose of being totally absorbed in what he was watching.
Studying him, Gibbs couldn't fail to see the man was simmering and decided that ignoring it might prove ill advised.
"I took the trouble to make it; you can at least make the effort to eat it."
He watched Tony close his eyes as if giving up a silent prayer.
"Care to say out loud what you're thinking, DiNozzo?"
Turning his head, the convalescent was tempted, so very sorely tempted to speak his mind, but knowing it was pointless, he said flatly, "I'm just not all that hungry."
"In that case, you can go take a nap." He decided he'd better ignore the appalled look as he continued, "I'm going to call in to headquarters; there are a couple of things I need to do and-."
It was as if a magic key had been turned and a different person appeared. Tony sat up, eyes sparkling, all moodiness vanishing as he interrupted, "I'm coming too!"
Trying hard to mask his smile, Gibbs countered with, "If you don't eat then Ducky's not going to be all that-."
"I'm eating, I'm eating!" And with much blatant enthusiasm, Tony began to consume the food with gusto, smacking his lips together to add to his stellar performance until every drop had gone. "It's delicious, Boss. The best canned chicken soup I've ever tasted. Really. See?"
"Why is that?"
"We-ell, it must be the number of seconds you took to heat it up. Or maybe it's the way you stirred the stuff after heating it. There again, it could simply be that you are an expert at choosing canned chicken soup."
Gibbs rolled his eyes, feeling his fingers itching to make contact with one smart-ass agent.
"Why do you want to come with me?"
"I...er...I want to see the guys and put their minds at rest that I survived."
"What, you mean that you survived a week with me?"
Grinning manically, Tony was about to start some long-winded explanation, but Gibbs chose to halt it with a raised hand.
Narrowing his eyes, the former marine watched the younger man silently. It probably wasn't such a bad idea; it would mean Ducky could give him a check-up and maybe it would do him good to see the rest of his team, to understand that life was in many ways back to normal. It might just be the incentive needed to get him back on track. It would, he acknowledged self-interestedly, allow him more time to get his own stuff done, because no matter that he could keep Ziva and McGee's enquiries about Tony to a minimum, there'd be no stopping Abby interrogating him for hours if he went in without his senior field agent. Smiling at the thought of the greeting Tony had in store, he nodded his head.
"Save it. We're leaving now."
As he made to open the passenger door, Gibbs' hand reached over, pulling the door closed.
Frowning, Tony turned to Gibbs, clearly nervous.
"Have you got something you want to say, DiNozzo?"
Tony was no fool and understood Gibbs had picked up on his apprehension, but shrugging casually, he played the game as he'd planned it.
"It's been a long time, Boss. I figure there are going to be some pretty awkward questions thrown at me."
"Not today there aren't."
His expression softening, Tony murmured, "You've always got my six, haven't you Boss?"
"Always try to, other than when you go running off on some wild escapade." And bringing the conversation back to the present, Gibbs stated gruffly, "You've got half an hour. No more. And I'd advise you not to wait too long before you go see Abby, that is if you want to live to see another day."
When the opportunity presented itself and Gibbs was called away from his desk, Tony excused himself to his colleagues explaining that he ought to just pop his head round the Director's door. Surprised, but neither willing to state their reservations, McGee and Ziva had simply watched as Tony ascended the steps. Feeling their eyes on him, he had given them a mock salute, winking to relay his ease. They weren't fooled and neither, it seemed, was Gibbs. Returning to his desk, he was just in time to look up and catch Tony approaching the Director's office.
He would have had to have been deaf to have failed to hear that harsh cry.
It was almost as if Gibbs could see the workings of Tony's brain - to stop or not to stop - and just as he felt sure the man was going to ignore him, Tony faltered and came to a standstill.
Meeting Gibbs' blistering glare, Tony simply shrugged apologetically and, as if aware of Gibbs' intentions to take the steps two at a time, moved purposely forward, having calculated the time it would take him to get to the director's door almost to the second.
Bestowing a dazzling smile on the director's personal assistant, Tony walked smoothly past her desk and entered the office before Cynthia had the wits to realise he didn't have an appointment. And without pausing in his entrance, Tony turned and flicked on the lock before turning back to face the somewhat surprised director who was sitting at her desk studying some papers.
"Er...sorry about that Director, but it's kind of necessary."
And true to his word, the next second the door received a violent rattle that had Jenny Sheppard raising one eyebrow questioningly. But before addressing her visitor, she reached over, depressed the intercom button and said calmly, "Everything's fine, Cynthia." Then turning back to Tony, she added, "It's good to see you up and about, Agent DiNozzo. You're certainly looking a lot better than when I last saw you." And taking off her reading spectacles, she made a careful show of observing him from head to toe.
Tony frowned, having no recollection of the director visiting him in hospital. Still, he couldn't dwell on the discomforting thought of her seeing him in such a vulnerable position; he had a far more important objective.
And acting as if it was the most normal occurrence for him to come barging into her office and then locking the door, she continued in a slightly firmer tone of voice, "To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?"
A further harsh rattling of the door handle caused Tony to look behind him nervously. He was pretty sure it was a solid piece of timber. Still...
Deciding he needed a little encouragement to state his case, Jenny again depressed the intercom button.
"Cynthia," she said sweetly, "would you be kind enough to inform Agent Gibbs that I will not hesitate to have him removed if he should continue to make a nuisance of himself."
Aware that her voice would have carried quite clearly to its intended recipient, she was neither surprised nor disturbed when a final solid kick was delivered to her door. The same could not be said for her visitor who paled considerably. However, there was no further distraction, affording Tony the opportunity to speak.
Clearing his throat, and lifting his chin high, he stated, "I think you know why I'm here."
"I'm not a mind reader, Agent DiNozzo." And spreading her hands wide, Jenny indicated that he should continue.
"I know what I've done; I'm not expecting any favours and I don't need Gibbs to come begging to you for my job."
Yet again Jenny's left eyebrow went up, only higher.
"Tell me this, Agent DiNozzo, have you ever known Gibbs to beg?"
Not expecting the retort, Tony was slightly thrown. "No, but-."
"And you can take it from me, he never will!" And now her eyes bore into Tony uncomfortably as she stated crisply, "You must have a very high opinion of yourself if you think-."
Appalled at her line of thinking, Tony shook his head, interrupting, "No, I...I just want you to know I don't need-."
"Oh, I have an idea that Special Agent Gibbs knows exactly what you need, Agent DiNozzo."
Stiffening at her mocking tone, Tony willed his colour to return to normal as he prepared to ask that which he dreaded. But before he could say anything else, the director put her hands on a file, extracted two papers and held them out to him.
As he instinctively accepted them and began to read their contents, Jenny watched as the warm colour faded to leave his face pale and unhealthy.
Without thinking, he finished reading and practically threw them back, his green eyes in turmoil as he attempted to settle on anything other than meet her calm gaze.
Turning, he began to pace in front of the large oak desk which Jenny sat behind, unable to comprehend just what he had read.
Looking at his distraught face, Jenny decided that it would be kinder to put him out of his misery. After all, he still had Gibbs to deal with. And talking of the devil... she walked over to her door, unlocked and opened it.
"Agent Gibbs," she smiled sweetly as if he hadn't been trying to kick her door in a few moments earlier, "I was just going to call for you. How convenient that you are here," she declared facetiously. And ushering him in, she said, "I thought I might save myself repeating the news I have been asked to convey to you and Agent DiNozzo by SecNav."
She waited for Gibbs to stand beside his senior field agent and didn't miss the dark scowl thrown his way, one that promised plenty, though the younger agent did his best to stare grimly ahead, determined to conduct himself in an exemplary manner.
"Apparently gentlemen, SecNav has been apprised of a joint Agency/police action which brought down a major drug dealer. He's delighted that the customary show of one-upmanship between the two organisations was absent from these proceedings and asked me to convey his congratulations for a job well done."
Stunned was the nearest Jenny could come to describing Tony's expression, but now was not the time to show any form of softness. Her eyes narrowed dangerously.
"Agent DiNozzo, you know; Agent Gibbs knows and I sure as hell know that your sorry hide should be fried so crisp even the crows would turn their beaks up at it! But your guardian angel must have been working overtime because, far from having me throw the book at you, I've been given the authority to reward you in any way that I see fit."
"Director, permission to-."
Two voices snapped in unison, "Denied!"
Smiling in a most unpleasant way, Jenny came toe to toe with Tony, invading his personal space. There were to be no half measures.
"So you are going to learn what your 'reward' is, Agent DiNozzo. You will be required to reread every Standing Order set down by this Agency from the moment of its conception. Having done that, you will sit every exam up to your current position as senior field agent. That will include firearms and agent safety training once you have been declared fit for duty. Should you fail any of these exams your ranking will reflect that, as will your pay. Simultaneously, you will also be required to shadow the clerical and janitorial staff in their duties over a period of time I have yet to decide on and take an overall inventory of all the supplies likely to be required by said departments over a three month period. You are prohibited from all field duty operations even after being given a certificate of fitness until I have reviewed your progress in the areas mentioned."
Then turning to her former team leader, she stated, "I will also expect you, Agent Gibbs, as Agent DiNozzo's immediate superior, to come up with some suitable form of 'reward' as well. Do I make myself clear, Agent Gibbs?"
"Loud and clear, Director."
"Very well then, you may go Agent DiNozzo. Agent Gibbs, a word, please."
It had to be said that two pairs of satisfied eyes watched as Tony slunk from the director's room, closing the door behind him.
As Jenny retook her seat she picked up the two letters Tony had flung back on her desk.
"You do know he was trying to protect you when he came to me?"
Gibbs just met her gaze, his features inscrutable.
"Interesting that SecNav should get these."
As she'd expected, Gibbs remained characteristically close mouthed.
"I don't suppose you would happen to know why Philly's Chief of Police and the widow of Officer Adams would write letters of outstanding recommendation for Agent DiNozzo, would you?"
"Haven't a clue, Jen."
She watched him hawk-like, the hint of a secret smile playing on her lips.
"No, I don't suppose you would." And suddenly getting back down to business, she demanded, "Can I rely on you to ensure this wayward action will not be repeated."
"You have my word."
She watched him over the top of her glasses and almost allowed herself to indulge in memories that, for the most part, she tried hard to keep tucked away for more private moments.
"You know, a discerning man once told me that fear and love are the most potent combination there can ever be. When the first is assuaged what's left is a terrible anger."
"He must have been a pretty sharp guy, I reckon."
Eyes warm with affection, Jenny smiled, a silent message passing between them.
"But maybe, just maybe, over time, that terrible anger morphs into something else; something more protective, more caring."
The wry smile Gibbs gave her had her shaking her head, not sure whether it was from admiration or exasperation.
"And you're sure you haven't had any contact with the two people who wrote those commendations?"
"Are you getting hard of hearing now, Jen?"
She knew he wouldn't lie to her, but still, she'd learned from the best that there just wasn't such a thing as a coincidence.
"It came close, Jethro, too close."
Gibbs had known where he'd go to lick his wounds and he followed him to Abby's the moment he left the director's office.
"You. Ducky. Now!"
"Aw cmon Gibbs, he's only just got here!" Abby whined, clinging on to Tony's arm as if for dear life. "Don't be a grouchy papa bear; after all, you've had him for days and days."
Ignoring his favourite scientist for the moment, Gibbs eyeballed his agent and snapped, "Is there anything in those orders you failed to understand, DiNozzo?"
Tony knew better than to answer, but before he could slope off, Abby couldn't resist giving him one extra big hug to send him on his way.
"Ah, Jethro told me you'd be paying me a visit." Then noticing how downcast Tony was, the M.E. paused to consider the man more carefully as he approached his desk. "Er...let's have you straight on the table, dear boy. Might as well get the necessities out of the way."
Resignedly, Tony hitched himself on to the nearest table, undoing his shirt to allow Ducky easy access with his stethoscope.
Having listened to his back and chest, the medical doctor occupied himself with checking his blood pressure and pulse before taking a look at his bullet wound.
Finally, he stepped back, sighing with a certain amount of satisfaction.
"Well, your sojourn by the lake has certainly done you a world of good though you're looking a little peaky at this very moment...Is everything alright?"
Face impassive, Tony strove to maintain the mask that hid a wealth of emotion as he felt Ducky's keen medical eye scrutinising his features.
"Nothing that a firing squad won't cure."
"Oh come now, Anthony, surely it can't be that bad."
"Wanna bet, Ducky?"
The telltale flinch told the M.E. all he needed to know and as Gibbs came to stand next to him, it was obvious that the younger man was doing everything in his power to evade facing his mentor's stony gaze.
"Oh dear, I was under the impression that you two had reached some understanding while you were away."
"That was before DiNozzo went on yet another solo assignment." And seeing his friend was looking perplexed, Gibbs explained further. "He's decided that he can do things better his way, his way alone. Doesn't need my input."
Gritting his teeth to prevent himself from blurting out his disagreement, Tony stayed silent, looking like a whipped puppy.
"And you're happy with that, Jethro?"
"Hell no, and DiNozzo's going to be just as unhappy until he learns the error of his ways."
It was Ducky's turn to wince as he muttered, "That doesn't sound very pleasant."
"Well that depends on just how DiNozzo is going to take it, Ducky...Is he all done here?"
The M.E. nodded, the curiosity clear in his pale eyes.
"Everything's fine?...Good. Let's go, DiNozzo."
Raising eyes filled with misery, Tony mumbled, "Where to?"
"Home." And seeing the glint of hope, he extinguished it without compunction. "My place. But first you need to collect those Standing Orders the director mentioned."
"Standing Orders?" Ducky was growing ever more confused, especially when he saw the look of utter dejection on Tony's face.
"Long story; I'll fill you in later...Let's go, DiNozzo, and let's get one thing straight, you're grounded into my care until you're cleared for duty. And you even think of taking off and I'll cuff you before you can blink."
And preceding Gibbs out of the morgue, all Tony could think was, 'I'm so totally screwed.'
They'd been in the basement lightly sanding down the hull of the boat; the quiet rhythmical work was just the thing needed to work out the angst Gibbs knew was seething within his agent.
Quite early on in their working relationship, Gibbs had come to understand there was no compartment in which to put his senior field agent; likewise there was no set plan or theory that could explain the makeup of the man. Eager and impulsive were characteristics that could define part of him, but these qualities had, through time and effort, been tempered and his risk-taking was limited - until this last mess - to what was considered necessary in the job. That he was passionate in his work and in life could not be denied though for reason the older man could only speculate on, he chose to hide it well beneath a glossy veneer that most people who didn't work closely with him accepted at face value. He was a brave fighter, which was indisputable in Gibbs' mind, but he was also a victim of his own upbringing; it had laid scarred foundations which Gibbs was powerless to eradicate. But having thought long and hard, the ex-gunny had come to realise that he could still build on that which had gone before and add solidity.
The tenseness that had been with Gibbs since receiving that phone call, which now seemed so long ago telling him of Tony's injury, seemed to have settled and he was able to view his senior field agent's actions with his emotions firmly corralled.
Years before the ex-gunny had lost something so precious that he had thought he would never again experience that aching emotion, but the shock of seeing Tony so still and helpless in the ICU had stirred those long dormant feelings and though reluctant to accept it for what it was, Gibbs had to acknowledge that his feelings for Tony were far more than mere mentor and co-worker; something on a parr with father and son was still too painful for him to accept, but if he were truthful, what he felt was closer to the latter than the former.
"Just what the hell did you think you were doing? When are you going to get it into your head that some battles can't be won alone? And so help me, if you go all deep and silent on me, DiNozzo..."
Barely pausing in his work, Tony simply hung his head lower, unwilling to be drawn into any form of conversation with the hurt he was still feeling.
Exhaling in frustration, Gibbs threw down his sander and reached over for the bottle of bourbon that was on hand. Checking the mug was relatively clean, he seemed satisfied so poured an amount in before capping the bottle. On raising the mug to his lips, he suddenly found bleak, green eyes had locked on to his own and he stilled. Lowering his drink, he narrowed his eyes trying to come to a decision.
"If Ducky finds out...hell!" And having made up his mind, he poured a second, smaller shot into the other mug, handing it over with a stern warning to sip it.
The two drank in silence and, as if knowing that Tony was prepared to speak, Gibbs waited.
"I didn't deserve those two letters of recommendation."
"Didn't say you did, but obviously the people that sent them thought you did."
Glowering at the older man, unwilling to accept any platitude, Tony took a swallow of the alcohol, feeling it warm his insides.
As he stared into the depths of the amber liquid, he murmured, "I know you're pissed at me, but I'm not sorry for going to the director, even if in the end it wasn't necessary." Then raising his head and meeting Gibbs' gaze full on, he stated firmly, "But I am ready to admit that going to Philly alone wasn't my brightest hour. So I'll take my punishment and I won't complain." And seeing Gibbs' scepticism, he shrugged, "Well, not too much."
"You did hear everything the director threw at you, right, DiNozzo?"
The younger man couldn't quite hide his grimace. "I'm still waiting for what's coming from you."
Gibbs' eyes crinkled reading Tony's body language better than any words could convey.
"Your punishment is my disappointment."
The colour leeching from his face before he looked away was enough for Gibbs and reaching over, he took a firm grip of Tony's shoulder giving him a slight shake.
"Hey, enough! There's no changing the past, but what we can do is make sure the future is different. Are you going to work on that, DiNozzo, 'cos I know it isn't one quick, easy fix? Oh yea, you should know, I'll break your legs if you try something like that ever again."
And trying hard not to groan out loud, Tony muttered, "That's one hell of an incentive, Boss. Still, between you and the director I don't know if I can get through it all."
And raising his glass, Gibbs stated confidently, "You will, DiNozzo. Don't forget, I've got your six."