To all of you who have taken the time to read this, thank you. And to all of you who went that step further and sent me reviews, please accept my grateful thanks. I've had an amazing time writing this story, and it's made the experience all the more special for getting to know so many of you.
T.L.C. Gibbs' Style
Part 6 (Final chapter)
"Look at me, DiNozzo."
Getting only a glimmer of eye contact before hazel eyes skittishly veered away, Gibbs snorted and grabbed his senior field agent's chin in a firm hold, not letting go.
Eyes wide with apprehension, Tony could only wait for the proverbial axe to fall.
"Have I got your full and undivided attention now?" the team leader demanded dryly.
A faint nod allowed him to drop his hand, though he remained close enough to cause damage if necessary.
Ducky had that morning given Tony the all clear to move to the living room, after four days of being confined to bed, and that's where he was watching an old western movie of Jimmie Stewarts when Gibbs had come in and autocratically switched off the set. Then sweeping Tony's feet off the coffee table he sat himself on it, facing his now wary agent.
"Ducky tells me you'll be cleared for light duties after the weekend."
"That's right, Boss. Up and at 'em. Ziva and McGee have been left to their own devices for too long. I need to get back to keep an eye on them. Who knows what they get up to when you're not around and I'm not there too!"
He tried to inject some of his famous jocularity into his voice, but it was a weak attempt knowing that Gibbs looked to be on a mission. And if Tony wasn't mistaken, he knew what that mission was.
The cold coil of nervous tension tightened its hold in the pit of his stomach. Ice blue eyes seemed to pierce his defences, and Tony waited, dreading what was to come.
"I want to know something, DiNozzo, are you capable of acting like an adult when it comes to your welfare, because I have to tell you, everything I've seen points to the contrary?"
Taken aback by the unexpected angle of this long-awaited conversation, the younger man sat nervously on the sofa, his confusion apparent.
Gibbs head jerked up, eyes flashing fire, instantly quelling anything further his agent was about to say.
"You know, a good leader always knows when to delegate."
And instantly any cocky bluster that lurked just under the surface ready to make an appearance evaporated and Gibbs saw Tony blink as he struggled to conceal the brimming hurt that sparked for an instant, before the shutters came crashing down.
Here was the opening he'd been offered. Here he was being given the opportunity to explain his own failure to inform Agent Denny of the glaring omission made to guard the exit.
But the only reaction to the offer was that his mouth set in a mutinous line.
At the same time, his defences kicked in and Tony hunched his shoulder, as his eyes again swerved away from his superiors', unable to maintain any further eye contact as the enormity of Gibbs' words shattered his equilibrium. Gibbs was his mentor, damn it, his hero if truth be known and now the man was basically telling him that he couldn't hack it as a team leader!
The hem of his t-shirt suddenly became intensely fascinating and his fingers worked the material, pulling it backwards and forwards, praying that the blood he could feel rushing to his face wasn't as glaringly obvious as it felt. He concentrated on keeping his face averted.
Gibbs' voice carried a soft, but unmistakeable warning and wincing, Tony's chin angled upwards. He met Gibbs' glance with a painful show of...nothing.
Gibbs eyes narrowed severely.
"Are you ready to tell me what really happened?"
Tony swallowed his dismay and shrugged.
"I've told you already, Boss."
He sounded defeated.
Gibbs face was devoid of all expression as he said with dangerous calm, "I'm not permitted to have you scrubbing the toilets with a toothbrush, much as I'd like to, DiNozzo, but I can reduce you to Probie."
Appalled green eyes clashed with blue, the sharp intake of breath revealing the younger man's shock as the blood drained from his face making his eyes burn with a feverish brightness that had nothing to do with his illness.
"But Boss, I didn't intend getting sick," he protested, "it was just bad--."
"Shut up, DiNozzo!"
Tony's eyes settled on a spot at his feet while his lips again set in a thin line of stubborn resolve.
The head slap, when it came was as unexpected as it was shocking and Tony's yelp was in no way exaggerated as he rubbed at the tender spot on the side of his head.
"That's for failing to take your health seriously and putting your own life at risk."
He tried ducking the second swat and failed miserably, but happily the blow was nowhere near as heavy.
"And I don't know whether that's for trying to cover for someone's else's screw-up or for failing to accept that you are... second to none. Understand, DiNozzo. You. Are. Second.To. None."
Gibbs watched in growing exasperation as his agent's confusion seemed to grow rather than diminish. Tony was usually much quicker at following his boss's erratic changes in mental direction.
The older man reached to deliver another head slap, but stilled his hand as the younger man's eyes suddenly took on a light that shed the sick worry that hung like a wet blanket over him.
He shifted restlessly on the sofa, hardly daring to meet Gibbs' intense gaze. Then like a chameleon he cocked his head, a wry smile touching his lips.
"Are you trying to tell me that I'm as good as you?"
Ice blue eyes narrowed ominously and Tony held his breath.
"Don't push it, DiNozzo."
A long, painful week had passed since last Tony had been in the bullpen, so it was with a swagger to his step and a whistle on his lips that he exited the elevator and turned towards his desk.
He stopped, confused, falling silent. And for a long moment he stared at his desk, a desk which was now occupied by Agent Lee, who was looking highly uncomfortable.
Bristling with annoyance, he ground out her name ready to let rip his own reprimand that she get her butt out of his chair and get his stuff back where it should be, unless she wanted...
"DiNozzo, you're with me."
Tony wanted nothing more than to ignore this unwelcome interruption.
Gibbs stepped into Tony's personal space blocking his view of Lee.
"I told Agent Lee to set up her place there."
Tony looked around, checking to see if by some miracle, room had been found and an empty desk awaited him nearby. He paled when it was clear no such thing had happened. He looked to McGee and Ziva, but both had their heads down, their noses practically touching their screens. It seemed that they knew what was looming on the horizon and it obviously wasn't pretty.
Surely Gibbs wasn't going to do what he'd threatened, reduce him to the status of probationer, not after what he'd said. It couldn't be!
And reading him like a book, Gibbs stated coldly. "There's a position on McCormack's team that's suddenly come up."
Tony closed his eyes to hide his anguish, stilling the trembling of emotion. When he met Gibbs' eyes again they were blocks of flint stone.
Waiting for a moment before continuing, Gibbs stated flatly, "It seems Agent Denny has been given an unexpected posting to some distant location."
Tony's eyes instantly shot back to Gibbs only now daring to believe that...
"Are you deaf, DiNozzo? I said you're with me!"
Scurrying to follow his team leader, Tony found himself in the elevator, descending lower than normal.
"Er...Boss, where are we going?"
The hand shot out, the elevator halting. Tony waited expectantly totally unprepared for what was coming.
Stabbing the air with his finger, Gibbs demanded icily, "Did you honestly think you'd get off Scot Free?"
Tony froze at the grim twist on his boss's lips.
"Your desk is already set up and waiting for you...in Archives."
"Archives?" Tony couldn't have sounded more dismayed.
"That's right, DiNozzo. Archives. You are going to be living, sleeping, breathing and dreaming of this place for the next month."
"Month!" he yelped, his eyes growing wilder as his revulsion increased.
"Argue with me and I can make it longer, unless of course you'd prefer to change this assignment completely and move to McCormack's team."
Shaking his head in disbelief, Tony contemplated his future and shuddered.
Like most archive facilities, the room was like a gloomy tomb, situated in the lowest levels of the facilities, with row upon row of shelves housing case reports that went back years and years.
He stared at the vast array of shelves and their contents.
"Am I on cold cases then?" he asked despondently.
Tony frowned, even more confused. "Er...what then?"
He really didn't like the predatory gleam in Gibbs' eyes as they settled on him.
"Your job is to start transferring information onto discs. Paper doesn't last for ever; we need this stuff shifted to meet with the times."
"But Boss, you know I can't type."
"Oh, I know that very well, DiNozzo." The statement was sickeningly smug.
Collapsing onto his chair, Tony stared morosely at the files already placed on the desk awaiting his attention.
"Any lack of enthusiasm for this assignment is going to be met with zero tolerance, DiNozzo. You should know that the Director herself is keenly interested in this, so she'll be keeping an eye on the speed with which you carry out your duties."
The groan Tony tried to stifle could still be heard as Gibbs leaned in ever closer to his deflated agent.
"DiNozzo, I want to make one thing clear. You try to cover up another agent's screwups or do anything like this ever again and you'll be wishing I was reaching for that slipper, because that will be nothing compared to what I'll do to you. Are we clear on that?"
The 'Yes, Boss' was both immediate and contrite.
It was later in the day, having returned from a search of one of the shelves for information missing from the file he was trying to put into some semblance of order, that he found the brown paper bag on his desk. He looked around, but no one was about. Upon opening it, he smiled to see his favourite blend of coffee and the chocolate chip hazelnut cookie.
Grateful for this show of affection, Tony thumbed his cell.
"You always know when to come through, Abby, thanks."
As he listened to Abby speaking on the end of the phone, a frown marred his forehead.
"You didn't?...Yea, Caramel mocha chino and my favourite cookie."
"You sure about that - you're not kidding? Then how..."
He spotted the figure in the shadows and continued, "...gotta go, Abbs."
He snapped his phone shut and waited patiently for the shadow to step into the light.
As Gibbs approached his desk Tony grinned cheekily, only to have it erased when the older man reached over and smacked him.
"Ow! What was that for?" he demanded aggrieved. There was a definite whinge to his voice.
"I noticed you missed lunch." Gibbs stared at him intently. "Did you forget what I said would happen if you decided to ignore your health, DiNozzo?"
"I had to!" His hands flapped in the air to indicate the mess surrounding him, his alarm evident. "I'll be here for the next six months if I don't..." He suddenly noted he was close to yet another head slap - this was already a record for the number of swats he'd received in a week - "...and it won't happen again - I'll eat a highly nutritious lunch which will combine all the essential food groups to ensure--Ouch!...Thank you, Boss."
As Gibbs turned to go, Tony had a silly smile plastered to his face.
"Oh, Boss? Where did you get the cookie from?" He asked innocently. Too innocently.
"The usual," was the deadpan reply.
"Really?" Tony's eyes were dancing with high spirits. "Funny you should say that 'cos Abby went to the deli round the corner and they were out."
"Maybe they baked some more."
Tony watched him carefully before stating softly, seriously, "Or maybe you drove all the way across town to the partner store, just so you could get me my favourite."
Keeping his features inscrutable, Gibbs stated softly, "I wouldn't do that for my best friend, DiNozzo, so why would you think I'd do it for you?"
The two men stared each other down, neither willing to look away.
Tony smiled confidently and at last Gibbs knew that everything was going to be alright with his senior field agent, even before the young agent stated audaciously," Because I'm second to none."
And there it was; the answering smile that had smitten three wives and more women than Tony could ever count. It was a rare event, but when captured - it was pure magic.
Returning to stand in front of Tony's desk, the older man reached over, mussing the hair of the seated agent in a rare show of affection causing Tony to groan loudly, except his own answering grin told a different story.
Far more was conveyed in those two words than simple gratitude for a snack, and it seemed the grey-haired team leader understood well the silent message as he gave a relaxed wave of the hand while walking away.
"You're welcome, DiNozzo."