Tony slept most of the way to Priscilla's and for once Gibbs drove with a degree of consideration, only jerking him awake with a wry smile as they pulled up in front of the house.
"Yeah, Boss. Thanks for asking."
Rubbing at his eyes Tony looked around. The neat wooden house with carefully tended flowerbeds and a large vegetable garden was set on the shores of a small bay. But what really caught Tony's attention was the small red barn on the left hand side, next to a large paddock.
There was a hint of old longing in Tony's voice that made Gibbs smile. By choice or necessity the younger man had thrown off most of the trappings of his privileged childhood. He'd bet his pension that most of the cops DiNozzo had worked with had never seen a horse outside of a racetrack.
"Jethro!" Priscilla's musical voice greeted him. "It's about time you got here. How are you?"
Getting out of the car he went over and embraced her, feeling DiNozzo hanging back with uncharacteristic shyness as he watched the two friends re-unite. Gibbs purposefully ignored him as he tipped his head on one side.
"How's that roof of your holding up?"
"Lost a couple of tiles in the last storm," Priscilla smiled. "But it can wait until you've washed up and had something to eat. Supper will be ready in about half an hour."
"Tools in the usual place?" Gibbs was already walking away in the direction of a small shack, pausing only to toss over his shoulder. "DiNozzo, you behave."
Left alone, Tony felt suddenly bereft, like a child on his first day at Kindergarten. Priscilla was nothing like he had expected. She must have been at least sixty, her steely white hair tucked neatly into a bun, contrasting with her apple red cheeks and weather beaten skin, wearing a checked cotton work shirt tucked into blue jeans with the most intense green eyes he had ever seen.
"Do you make a habit of not behaving?" She smiled.
"Not a habit," He smiling with the easy charm that meant nothing. "More of an occupational hazard."
"Jethro's not the easiest person to work with, if you can get on his good side, you must be doing something right."
"Gibbs has a good side? Why didn't anyone mention this before?"
She figured that smile might not be his best and the light tone was possibility a little too forced to those who knew him well. But if she hadn't known better she would never have guessed the horrors he was hiding. She hated it when Gibbs was right.
"He won't make it easy for you." The ex-marine had warned, when he had called from the Hospital. "He's too used to hiding what he really feels."
"Sounds like a certain ex-gunny, I know."
Gibbs snorted. "You think I was bad? At least I recognised a good thing when I saw it, DiNozzo won't. He's going to go out of his way to make this difficult for you."
"He's agreed to come, that's a start, surely?"
"He wants his life back," Gibbs acknowledged. "And he trusts me. But you sit him down on a couch and he'll tell you everything under the sun, except the things you need to hear."
"So, what do you suggest? You can't just order him to trust me."
"Why not?" Gibbs allowed himself a tight grin. "I ordered him to live once and look how well that turned out."
"You still have that auction down the road twice a week?"
"Yes? Why? You ready to trade that boat of yours in for a horse?"
"Nope. But I do want you to buy something for me."
Bringing herself back to the present she wondered if Tony had any idea of the lengths, not to mention time and expense, that Gibbs had gone to, to ensure that he got well.
"You must know how must he cares about you," She fished. "He would never have brought you here if he didn't.
"I know," Tony looked over in the direction Gibbs had taken the man was already pulling out tools and a ladder as he set to on his self-appointed task. "Do you think you could help him? He's been blaming himself because Petrovich took me on his watch."
She smiled, she was beginning to see why Jethro liked this one so much, he could probably see a lot of himself in the younger man. "All Jethro needs is for you to get well, Tony," She paused, reflecting. "That and a good kick in the pants now and again."
"So you have worked with him before." Tony felt an appreciative answering grin spread across his face. Maybe, just maybe, this wouldn't be so bad after all.
"I was just about to give the horses their evening feed. Would you like to walk over with me?" Priscilla asked.
"I could give you a hand, if you like?"
"Nice try," Priscilla shook her head. "Jethro warned me about your arm. You pull those stitches and he'll kill both of us."
"Just the one hand," Tony promised, waggling his good arm. "Scout's honour."
"Somehow Tony, I don't see you as a scout."
They worked with easy accord, filing water buckets and topping up feed bins. As he moved around the horses, rubbing a nose here and easing a flank aside there, he felt a sense of peace and homecoming. Sometimes, as a child, he had slept in the stables. The horses had always made him feel like he wasn't alone. When he got to the last stall he paused in shock. The bay gave an arrogant flick of its head, rearing back as it bared its teeth. The display of bravado doing nothing to disguise the ribs sticking out of its thin sides or the numerous scars and sores across its body.
"I bought her at the auction yesterday," Priscilla's voice was soft beside him. "So, far all I've managed to do is get her to drink a little water and take a few mouthfuls of food. She can't bear to be touched. When the vet wanted to trim her hooves and treat that sore on her back we had to knock her right out."
"That's a shame," Tony's tone and expression were tight as he took in the graceful neck and elegant lines. "She's a genuine thoroughbred. Some people shouldn't be allowed to raise horses."
When he simply turned and walked away she felt a spark of disappointment. He put the bucket carefully back in its place and waited for her to join him. Supper wasn't much better. Tony talked a great deal, while saying nothing at all, making quite sure there were no awkward pauses where she might try to insert a more personal question. As they cleared the dishes, she noticed the dark shadows under his eyes and the way his hands trembled as he fought to keep of the pretence of being just fine.
"Hit the rack, DiNozzo," she wasn't surprised to hear Gibs' gruff order. "We'll finish up here."
"Boss," Tony hesitated, looking from one to another. Clearly he wasn't thrilled with the idea of leaving them alone to talk about him. "I'm fine."
"Tony, I told you to go to bed." Gibbs insisted, a little impatient now.
"I'm not five, Gibbs." Tony snapped.
"No, you're a Federal Agent and if you want to return to operational fitness you will do exactly as I say, when I say it, without question," Gibbs barked. "Is that clear, Special Agent DiNozzo?"
Tony's expression darkened and there was suppressed anger as he straightened slightly and ground out a terse. "Crystal."
"It'd better be," Gibbs wasn't giving any ground. "Now say goodnight and get you ass upstairs."
"Good night, Ms Walters, thank you for dinner. The pie was delicious." Somehow DiNozzo managed to sound both polite and sincere from between gritted teeth, before he turned the full force of his glare on his Boss. "Gibbs."
"Sleep well, Tony." Priscilla smiled.
"G'night, Honey Buns," Gibbs called after him, biting back a tight grin as DiNozzo flipped him off.
"I hope you know what you're doing Jethro Gibbs," Priscilla's tone was disapproving, as she loaded the dishes into the sink. "You said yourself he's had a hard time of things."
"All the more reason to treat him as normally as possible," To her surprise Gibbs voice was totally devoid of anger. Only a faint sadness coloured his tone as he continued. "Trust me, Priscilla, Tony needs to know where he stands, he needs to know I won't back down and he needs to know I don't think of him as some delicate flower."
"So, you have thought about this. I'm impressed. Its just a shame your plan with the horse didn't work out."
"Who says it hasn't?"
"Jethro, he just took one look at the poor creature and walked away. Maybe, reminding him of what its like to be tortured and abused isn't the best idea."
"You think?" Gibbs looked smug. "Tony does best when he has something else to look out for. It stops him focusing too much on himself. Want to take one guess where he is, right now?"
"He went to his room?" Priscilla furrowed her brow as the ex-marine shook his head. "He's gone to the stables?"
"Crossed the yard two minutes ago," Gibbs made a face. "I'd bawl him out for being sloppy. He knows how to move position without being noticed but, you're right, he has had a hard time of things of late."
"You goaded him deliberately," Priscilla realised. "You really are a bastard, Gibbs."
"Whatever works." He tilted his head.
Six months later, Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo looked around the small gathering of NCIS Agents with a sense of unreality. It had been a long road to get back to operational fitness. McGee, Ziva and Abby had all taken time out to visit with him. Both Ducky and Abrahams had come for the occasional weekend. And, as the time passed he had recognised that Priscilla was exactly what he needed.
It had taken a lot longer than Tony wanted. But Gibbs had never let him lose heart. Providing a comforting presence or a kick up the rear as required. He'd been back on active duty for three months now and out in the field for two, it was almost as if the whole nightmare had never even happened.
"Wow. Gibbs is here." Abby's voice drew him back to the present.
The awareness rippled through the room, heads turning and some staring opening as the silver haired ex-Marine settled himself against the back wall, his arms crossed and his gaze implacable.
"I thought you said Gibbs never came to these award ceremonies." Ziva questioned.
"He doesn't." McGee frowned.
"Well, apparently now he does." Ziva pointed out.
"Gibbs has been winning these things for years," Tony narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. "He's never shown up to accept one before. Something's going on."
"Why don't you ask him?" Ziva challenged.
"I would," Tony smiled, as realisation dawned. "But I already know the answer."
Leaving the rest of his team, he made his way towards his Boss, carefully threading his way through the small crowd of Agents until he reached Gibbs' side. Leaning against the wall next to him, he kept his eyes on the small dais as he spoke sotto voice.
"DiNozzo." Gibbs acknowledged in kind, without looking at him.
With a grin, Tony reached over and carefully unfastened the silver identity bracelet he had been wearing all these weeks. Holding it up, he dropped it gently into Gibbs hand.
"I think you can have this back now."
"Pretty sure of yourself, aren't you?" Gibbs' tone was amused.
"No," Tony grinned tightly. "Of you. Thanks for coming, Boss."
Tony knew there was no way Gibbs would have turned up to one of these award ceremonies his own behalf. There was only one possible explanation for his presence here tonight.
"Don't get too grateful," Gibbs retorted with an easy grin. "You're buying dinner."
On the small dais the Director paused for a moment, after her speech about duty and sacrifice, to achieve the appropriate dramatic effect.
"This year the award for Agent of the Year goes to ... Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo."
AN - Thanks to everyone who read and reviewed. Hope you enjoyed. New story, "Not a Death Story." based on Gibbs' comments in the S1 episode "Marine Down" where Tony was mistakenly assumed to have been killed in a car crash up as soon as I can get FF. net to upload it!