author's note. This is based on a dream I had the morning after my 29th birthday. I'd been thinking about the unusually high number of head injuries Tony's received over the course of the show, and how the writers should totally use that sometime. Apparently my subconscious took that thought and ran with it, because it produced this. Blame my brain for the maddeningly incomplete nature of the story - I really did wake up right at the emotional climax of the tale (and when that happens, don't bother trying to fall back asleep to see how it ends, because it doesn't work).

The story continued to haunt me, for weeks afterwards, and after discussions of the topic with Meg on Special Ops, I decided to share it with the world. It's an interesting possibility, if nothing else.

Ziva was the first one to worry. Replaying the failed Domino raid in her head, she couldn't help but notice that although she'd been taken down fighting by two or three burly Marines, Tony had been easily waylaid by a rifle butt to the face. Too easily, and in her admittedly limited experience, that didn't bode well. Eventually she admitted her concern to Gibbs, almost lapsing into Hebrew because the whole conversation upset her so much. "He'll be fine," Gibbs assured her, "he's been hit in the head before."

But if that was supposed to make her feel better, it didn't really work.

Gradually, each member of the team drew the same conclusion, independently of each other. It was chillingly obvious once you knew what to look for. How he seemed more forgetful, less on the ball. He wasn't able to predict Gibbs' every move any more, and when the boss came around the corner and caught him mid-sentence, Tony didn't seem to care. He didn't quote movies less, he quoted them more. Or once, in the car with McGee, he looked at the address on the GPS and said, "I don't know how to get there," and Tim had to remind him that the directions were to the place they had already been.

The drug raid really cemented the idea that something was wrong. DEA already had agents in place, the team had been briefed, they'd all memorized the names and faces of the undercover guys in order to avoid the possibility of friendly fire. And he didn't actually fire - Tony was shakily grateful for that, when the adrenaline rush of his near-miss had passed - but Tony was stunned to be informed, and Gibbs was disturbed to have to inform him, that he'd pulled his gun on the wrong guy.

When he went down to Autopsy they were both there, waiting for him, like a little intervention. He knew they hadn't called him down to discuss the case, because when did they ever do that - usually it was just Ducky, Gibbs, and the dead guy - and anyway, he could tell. He could feel it, the electric charge of anticipation in the cold, faintly-solvent-scented air.

Gibbs being Gibbs, he cut right to the chase. "What happened today, DiNozzo?"

"I... I don't know. I can't explain it. That's never happened before." Although he had expected a lecture, he fumbled with the words. "It won't happen again, Boss."

But Gibbs was surprisingly gentle. "Tony, I think you need to see someone. Ducky has a name for you."

"A Doctor Steven Porter," Ducky said, writing the name on a Post-It note. "Yes, we go back quite a ways. Spent quite an interesting Thanksgiving weekend together back in 1987 when his..." A glance from Gibbs cut the reminiscence short. "He's a professional acquaince of mine. A neurologist."

Neurologist. Tony felt the cold fear in his stomach contract like a fist and he knew it. He'd been telling himself he was just tired, he was just having an off day, he just needed to concentrate. Hoping against hope that the series of coincidences didn't add up to a larger pattern. But he could see now that it wasn't just anything - that it was really something. He knew Ducky didn't kid around, not with stuff like this.

"I can't compel you to go, of course," Ducky was saying. "You're not scheduled for your physical for another four months. It has to be your decision; I'm merely sharing my opinion as a professional."

"As a professional, Duck?"

Although it was Gibbs who had spoken, Ducky looked directly at Tony. "As a friend."

"...And you know, it's funny, but I hadn't realized until just now how many times it was friendly fire. Not funny ha-ha, more like funny weird. The thing in Florida, say, she was supposed to be the innocent victim. Or the time in Gibbs' backyard, I'm 99% certain it was Mike Franks, but Gibbs won't admit it. I mean, how do you say to a guy, hey, was it your trusted boss and mentor who popped me in the head with his gun and possibly jeopardized my career? How do you say that to a guy like Gibbs?"

Tony was talking too much, and talking way too fast. Even though Dr. Porter was both likeable and quite professional, it didn't take a neurologist to ascertain that Tony was nervous. His hands spread out over the assortment of post-it notes, receipts, and old carry-out menus where he'd jotted down every incident he could remember. He was sure he'd forgotten a few.

Which, of course, was the problem.

"So, probably an average of one head injury per year," Tony concluded, feeling somewhat deflated.

"For how long?"

"Since I started playing sports," Tony surmised. "I'm not especially risk-averse."

"That's it, then?" Dr. Porter was writing. "You have to agree, that is an unusually large number of head injuries, even for someone in law enforcement."

Tony grinned ruefully. "I think I'm a magnet for trouble." Without realizing it, he was rubbing the exact spot on the back of his head where Gibbs always smacked him.

"Is there anything else you can think of? Anything in your medical history could be a contributing factor as well."

Tony was surprised. "You didn't get my records from Dr. Pitt?"

"Well, no," Porter said. "As I've mentioned, this visit is more of an unofficial professional courtesy. If we decide to follow up I'll investigate further. But anything that happens today is off the record."

"Yeah, I had the plague." Dr. Porter's pen froze in mid-air. Tony did so relish people's reactions to that little bit of trivia. "There was a bio-terror attack on the agency, and I got pneumonic plague. I was the only one infected, which is why you didn't hear about it on the news. Well, that and no one's heard of NCIS anyway."

Dr. Porter was still staring. "You can ask Brad Pitt about it if you don't believe me," Tony added. Oh, that was his favorite part.

The doctor shook his head. "No, I believe you. It's just that... plague. You aren't joking about being a magnet for trouble."

"Plague doesn't have anything to do with... this, does it?"

"Maybe," the doctor guessed. "There aren't exactly a whole lot of plague survivors available for epidemiological studies."

"Because they all died in the Middle Ages," Tony agreed with a grin.

"Listen," Dr. Porter summarized, "I've got a pretty good idea what's going on here. I'd like to schedule some additional tests. If you're free the rest of the day, I'll send you for a CAT scan."

"Sure, I've got time." Tony's hand went to his waist. "Do I need to leave my weapon at the front desk, or..."

"Tony," the doctor informed him as kindly as possible, "you left your gun at home."

Gibbs was digging.

It wasn't his job - part-time gardener - and he could have easily sent a team member or one of the techs or simply told her to get over it. But Gibbs had promised the Captain's widow that the petunia bed her husband had planted would be restored to its former glory, once they'd recovered the evidence buried therein. Had promised personally, and so here he was, troweling the fragrant earth on what was, after all, a beautiful day.

Tony parked down the street, knowing he'd find his boss here. He pulled his Mustang behind the agency sedan, but Gibbs didn't notice him, not yet.

He never figured it was going to be his brain and not his lungs or some random bad guy that did him in. His brain. Oh, Kate would have had a field day with that one.

Dr. Porter had explained why he was still able to get his gun so quickly - because it was a different part of the brain that governed his instincts, and he'd been a cop-turned-federal-agent for so long that his instincts were foolproof. Dr. Porter had actually told him, "Your reflexes are very good," and that had made Tony oddly proud, but he didn't have the heart to joke about being cat-like. Especially when he wasn't so sure he'd landed on his feet this time.

He turned the key to kill the engine (how long were they going to let him keep driving, anyway?) and sat. He had half a mind to turn the key again, start the car, and drive away. Doctor-patient confidentiality meant that the only way Gibbs would know was if he told him. And he was pretty sure Gibbs would be willing to keep it a secret from Vance. But he couldn't do that, tell a lie by the sin of omission. He knew darn well that the team was only as strong as its weakest link, and he sure wasn't going to let that link be him. He wasn't going to risk the lives of people he cared about, not when they faced bad guys and big guns every day. Almost more so than the loss of his faculties (and he was going to forget his mother eventually, and that sucked), the idea of one of his friends getting hurt because of him scared the crap out of him.

And it wasn't like he didn't have an easy way out. He still carried a weapon; it would be the simplest thing in the world. But he couldn't do that either - couldn't let the team down in a way that was less dangerous, for them, but more final. No, he'd face this like a man the way he had faced down the plague ("So tell me, Doc, what've I got?"). That had ended well. Maybe his luck would hold.

Man up. That was the way to go. Decisively, Tony snapped the key from the ignition, rose from the seat and slammed the door shut in one smooth motion. The sound of the door alerted Gibbs that he had a watcher. He leaned back on his heels and squinted at the figure approaching in the sunlight. "Morning."

Tony sat right on the dirt next to him, elbows draped on lanky knees. He squinted into the sunlight and swallowed hard. Gibbs didn't need his gut to tell him it was bad news - the look on Tony's face said all that he needed to know.

the end.