UNTIL INNOCENT

CHAPTER 18

The official reception area at NCIS was crowded with agents, officials and other staff. Medal presentations were regarded highly and everyone available was expected to attend. A week had passed since the capture of Sharlon. For once, the official wheels had not been slow to recognize bravery beyond the call of duty. Director Jenny Sheperd approached Gibbs the moment she arrived. The ex-marine was dressed in what was probably his best and only suit.

'Very smart, Jethro,' she told him. 'I'm impressed.'

'How long is this going to go for?' he asked her gruffly. 'There's still work to be done you know.'

'If you'd turned up to collect your own medals for bravery, you'd know exactly how long these things go on for,' she admonished him. 'You should be pleased. It was a good result.'

'Not really,' disagreed Gibbs. 'One dead FBI agent. One missing FBI agent, presumed dead. One injured NCIS agent. Three traumatized members of the public. Breaches of security at FBI headquarters and at a federal prison.'

'Two NCIS agents survived. The FBI are alert to possible impostors and are tightening up their protocols. At least one guard has been stood down at Quantico. Sharlon's never getting out,' said Jenny. 'We have a lot to be thankful for. It could have been a lot worse.'

'Matter of opinion,' grumbled Gibbs.

'You need to stop being a glass half empty person,' Jenny told him. 'Lighten up. Look at how excited Abby is.'

The pair looked across to where Abby stood with McGee and Ziva. There was no disguising the delight in Abby's eyes. She was even wearing her favourite boots. In her hands she held a large, wrapped gift.

'This is SO cool!' Abby said to McGee, tugging on his sleeve. 'Isn't it great, McGee?!'

'I guess,' said McGee. 'I know he deserves it, and if they weren't going to give it to him, I would have put in a personal request that they did. It's just that he's going to be even more insufferable than usual. It's bad enough when he's here to collect Gibbs' medals. His acceptance speech is gonna go on for an eternity.'

'Don't be mean!' Abby scolded him and gave him a jab to his ribs for good measure. 'He saved your butt! Remember?'

'Abby is right,' Ziva told him. 'I remember how shredded up you were when you spoke about how he injured himself saving you.'

'Cut up,' McGee corrected her. 'You're both right. I guess I can put up with the gloating and carrying on. I wonder where he is. I thought for sure he'd be here lapping up the attention by now.'

The three of them scanned the growing crowd but could not see Tony anywhere. By the time the ceremony began, there was still no sign of him.

When the master of ceremonies began the official proceedings, Gibbs stepped forward to accept the medal for bravery and going beyond the call of duty on Anthony Dinozzo's behalf.

'It's a pleasure to accept this for Agent Dinozzo,' Gibbs told the gathering. 'He's a fine agent. His whole team is very proud.' And then he left the lectern to the sound of polite applause.

'You knew he wasn't coming!' accused Jenny as he approached her. 'Why didn't you say he wasn't planning to attend?'

'Because then you would have made a big fuss about it,' Gibbs told her as he pocketed the medal. 'And that's exactly why I never announce I'm not coming.'

'You two are so like each other it's scary,' stated Jenny. 'Well, at least this way we finally got you to make an appearance at one of these ceremonies. I guess we'll just have to be grateful for that.'

Jenny paused to sip her drink before continuing.

'How is Tony? He's got four more weeks before his cast comes off, hasn't he?'

'Yep,' replied Gibbs. 'He's finally gone back to his own apartment as of yesterday. I've got my own couch back at last.'

'That's good to hear,' said Jenny, amused. Gibbs didn't fool her for a second, but if he wanted her to think he was glad to see the back of Tony, then she'd go along with the charade.

'Gibbs!' exclaimed an annoyed Abby as she approached them. 'You SO have some explaining to do!'

…………………………………………

As he had expected to, Gibbs discovered Tony at a table outside his favourite pizza café. Tony could easily walk there from his apartment. He still wasn't allowed to drive but was managing to walk short distances without his crutches. Gibbs watched and waited until Tony had finished flirting harmlessly with the waitress. It was good to see further proof that the old Dinozzo was back.

'Boss?' said Tony, a little surprised as Gibbs pulled out the chair and sat opposite him. 'Nice suit.'

'Well, they tell me that you always dress up to collect awards on my behalf,' said Gibbs. 'I didn't want people making comparisons.'

'Oh, there's no comparison,' said Tony. 'Armani versus Seers? Come on!'

Gibbs smiled and reached into his pocket. He placed the square, velvet box on the table and slid it towards Tony. The younger man remained still for a few moments before opening the lid and looking at the shiny medal. His name was engraved on it as well as the current year. He gave a nod before closing the lid and sliding the box back towards Gibbs.

'It's funny,' Tony said. 'I never understood why you were happy for me to collect your awards. For a while there, all I wanted was to be nominated for one.'

'And now?' asked Gibbs. Tony shrugged.

'I was just doing my job,' said Tony. 'And if I'd done it better, no-one would be dead.'

'You saved McGee's life, Tony,' Gibbs reminded him. 'You most likely saved that Nurse's life as well. Thanks to you, Sharlon is locked up in maximum security – probably for the rest of his life. You deserve that award.'

'Yeah, well the medal's kinda nice, but it's not like there's anyone I feel like showing it off to,' confessed Tony.

Gibbs sat back and reflected upon what Jenny had said about him and Dinozzo being alike. She'd made such comparisons before, but Gibbs had always brushed them off. Now, Tony was sitting there articulating, better than Gibbs could, the reasons why neither of them needed or wanted the medals. Shannon would have been thrilled by any official recognition of Gibbs' work. She would have displayed them proudly. But there was no proud partner any more. And who did Tony have to be proud of him? Certainly not his father. The bastard didn't even show up when his son was at death's door.

'Want me to keep it in a safe place for you?' asked Gibbs. Tony beamed at Gibbs as though his boss had just given him the ultimate of compliments.

'Yeah,' he said softly. 'I'd like that.'

The two sat in companionable silence until Tony spoke again.

'Thanks, Boss,' he said. 'You know. For sticking by me through all of what happened.'

'It's my job,' said Gibbs. 'You're part of my team.'

'Not your job to sit at the hospital and put up with all my crap,' insisted Tony. 'Not your job to let me stay at your house and do personal stuff for me. You didn't have to do that. But I'm really grateful that you did. Means a lot, you know? I don't know how to repay you.'

Gibbs said nothing for a while before leaning slightly towards Tony and fixing him with his intense eyes.

'The only thing I want from you, Tony,' he said, 'is for you to never doubt yourself again. The whole time Fornell was wanting your head on the chopping block, there was not a single member of your team who thought you might be a traitor – except you. I need my senior field agent – my friend – to have complete faith in himself. Understood?'

Tony reddened slightly as he recalled the moments in the elevator and in the hospital. He looked down at the table for a few moments before looking up to see that Gibbs was still waiting for an answer.

'Understood,' he whispered.

Gibbs nodded and settled back in his chair again. He still hadn't addressed with Tony the issue of why he thought so cheaply of himself that he continually put himself in danger to save others, but that was something that would have to wait for another day. For now, it was enough that Tony had agreed to trust himself more.

'Hello Tony. Hello Agent Gibbs,' said Patricia in a bright, cheery voice.

'Patricia,' said Tony, immediately switching on the charm he was famous for. 'Glad you could make it. Let me get you a chair.'

'No, no,' protested Gibbs as he stood up. 'I was just going. Take this one. I didn't realize you were expecting someone, Dinozzo.'

'Well, I kinda owed Patricia at least a decent cup of coffee,' explained Tony as she sat down. 'The last one she had to make herself because you'd banned me from your kitchen. And then it was …well… interrupted!'

'Are you sure you won't join us?' Patricia asked Gibbs. Her manner was open, intelligent and friendly. Gibbs decided that he liked the idea of this woman spending time with Tony. If it went beyond the first few dates, it could end up being the perfect relationship, particularly given the number of times Dinozzo ended up needing medical attention!

'No, thank you,' said Gibbs, ignoring the way Tony's eyebrows shot up in reaction to his Boss using manners he wasn't known for. 'I've got work to do.'

On an impulse, Tony stood up, using the table for leverage, and extended his hand towards Gibbs. Gibbs took Tony's hand and shook it warmly.

'Thanks for stopping by,' said Tony. 'I meant what I said.'

'So did I,' Gibbs told him. 'Every word.'

Tony nodded, released his grip and sat back down at the table.

'See you back at the office,' he told Gibbs.

'Not before you've got medical clearance,' Gibbs told him brusquely. 'If you turn up without the right paperwork signed, you'll be looking at cold cases for the next three years.'

'Got it Boss,' said Tony as he gave a mock salute.

'See that he stays out of trouble, will you,' Gibbs implored Patricia. 'God knows he can't seem to stay out of it himself.'

With that, Gibbs returned to his car and sped off in characteristic fashion. Patricia sat and gazed at Tony, fascinated by the exchange between the two and the way Tony was still gazing in the direction of Gibbs' car.

'Are you sure you're not related?' she asked as she reached forward to lightly squeeze Tony's hand.

'Definitely,' replied Tony, smiling. 'And I wouldn't have it any other way.'

The End.

Thank you, again, for all your lovely reviews of this story. I hope it didn't drag on too long, but there was a definite point I wanted it to reach. Thank you in particular to fellow Aussie Laine. It's great to have another writer sharing the same time zone and similar sense of humour!