Disclaimer: NCIS and it's characters are the sole property of people other than myself and I derive no profit from this story.

North By Northeast

By Mamapranayama

*****************

Tony willed his limbs to work and carry him out of the elevator. He was sore. Everything was sore. His butt was sore, his legs were sore, even his hair was sore. It had been a week since the trip to Arizona, yet Tony still felt as though he had just finished their marathon horse riding escapade in the desert yesterday. And now to top it all off he could feel a headache coming on and it was only 0700.

To say that things the last few weeks had been going bad for him was an understatement. First came the news that his uncle had died, which he truly had been saddened to hear. His uncle Clive had been a pretty cool guy and even though he hadn't seen him in twenty years, he always looked back with fond memories to that summer he spent at his estate near London.

Then, just after his uncle died and he returned from the funeral in London, his past decided to come back and haunt him when Renny Grant made a reappearance. Because of his carelessness three years ago, Renny had been put away for three years. At least Tony felt that he had redeemed himself a bit when he looked the other way and allowed Renny to leave the country. But the whole incident had shaken Tony's faith in his abilities as an investigator and certainly in his competence in being a team leader. For a long time he thought he had done a good job during Gibbs' hiatus to Mexico, but now he wasn't so sure and he also questioned whether he even ever wanted that kind of responsibility again.

Then came the trip to Arizona. He had promised himself years ago he would never end up in that God-forsaken state ever again, but when Gibbs says to pack up and go somewhere, you go there, whether it's to Arizona or to hell and back.

As if riding a horse for a day and a half in the desert with a sheriff that has to make gruff remarks about you being a city slicker every five minutes isn't enough, then returning home to find his snotty cousin Crispian had inherited his uncle's entire fortune had to take the cake.

Just to put the cherry on top of his shit sundae, his cousin then had the nerve to demand he repay a $10,000 IOU he got from Uncle Clive to help pay for some of his college expenses back in 1989. He and Crispian had never gotten along very well and Tony knew this was just his way of rubbing Tony's nose in the fact that Uncle Clive liked him better. At least Tony had the savings to cover it, but it was the principle of it all that aggravated him the most. Damn Crispian.

Feeling pathetically exhausted from his trip from the elevator to his desk, Tony flopped down in his chair, but not before wincing from the protest his muscles screamed out as he brought himself down into a sitting position. He may never walk right again, he thought. Damn smelly horses. If he ever saw another one of those creatures again it would be too soon.

He sighed heavily and raked a hand through his hair, finding it sweaty. That was it....he really needed to start working out more, he told himself. He shouldn't be this tired from just walking into work. As he powered up his computer, he glanced across the bullpen to Ziva who was appraising him with an inquisitive eye.

"What?" He asked her.

"You look like crap. Are you okay, Tony?"

"I have a headache." He groaned as his head's pounding intensified from the effort it took to speak.

"Ah, that explains your crankiness. Sake-bombing again?"

"No, it's just a headache, sometimes they just happen to us mere mortals from time to time, but you wouldn't know anything about that, now would you, super-chick?"

"Perhaps you should see Ducky."

"I'm not going to see Ducky because of a headache, Ziva." Tony rolled his eyes, but regretted it as the action brought on a new wave of pain.

"Suit yourself, Tony" Ziva replied then turned back to her computer to continue working.

McGee rounded the corner from the elevator a moment later and gave a quick 'morning' to Tony and Ziva before he flopped his backpack next to his desk and flicked on his computer. Sitting in his seat he looked over at Tony, taking note of his appearance.

"Sake-bombing again, Tony?"

He wanted to say something biting, witty and sarcastic, but his head hurt too much to come up with any thing other than "Shut-up, McGoo. It's just a headache."

"Sorry, but you look like crap." Tony could only turn his head and narrow his eyes irritably at the smug-faced younger agent in response.

Three hours later and Tony's headache hadn't improved even after downing four aspirin and now he was beginning to feel chills race across his body and besides the already constant saddle-soreness, an ache began to creep into his joints. Great, he thought. Just what he needed was to get the flu on top of everything else.

Tony never noticed the glances his boss shot his way from time to time all morning long. After the years they had worked together, Gibbs' gut knew when something wasn't right with his senior field agent and judging by the way Tony was quietly working at his desk and not goading his fellow agents into wanting to smack him every five minutes or relating something they had been investigating to some completely obscure movie scenario then he knew that there was definitely something wrong.

But Gibbs remained silent. Tony was a grown man after all and could take care of himself, even if he acted like a five year old on his best days. Whatever it was, he decided he would keep a close eye on him for the time-being, but as he mused to himself regarding Tony, the phone rang at his desk and shook him out of his thoughts.

"Gear up! We got a dead Marine." He called out to his team as he hung up the phone after the brief conversation. He gathered his badge and weapon and looked up to see Ziva and McGee spring into action while Tony took considerably longer to get his act together. Tony was usually the first one on his feet when they got called to a scene, especially after a morning spent doing paperwork, but this time was different.

As McGee and Ziva headed for the elevator, Gibbs came up alongside Tony as he finished grabbing his stuff.

"You good to go, DiNozzo?" He asked.

"Just peachy, Boss." He replied. Given the dark circles and pale complexion Tony was sporting at the moment, Gibbs didn't believe a word of it.

"You look like crap."

"It's just a headache and what's with everyone comparing me to poo?"

"You need to stay behind?"

"I'm fine, Boss. Really." Gibbs eyed him for a few moments wrestling with whether he should take Tony along or send him to Ducky, but seeing the eagerness return to Tony's eyes for the first time that morning, he decided to trust Tony's judgment, even if it went against his own.

"Fine. Go gas the truck." Gibbs tossed the keys to Tony, but he missed the catch and they fell to the floor. Tony grinned sheepishly while Gibbs shook his head and made his way to the elevator.

Tony sighed and looked at the keys on the floor, knowing that every muscle in his body would never forgive him for stooping to pick them up. With a grunt, Tony bent down to grab the keys and came back up again, but he must have risen too fast and dark splotches formed around the sides of his vision. He grabbed the corner of his desk to steady himself, his headache not helping the dizziness that threatened to knock him to the floor. But after several moments, Tony's vision cleared and he felt well enough to continue on again and headed for the elevator.

He might be sick and he may feel like one of those gigantic plops of excrement those horses dropped all over the place in Arizona, but there was no way he was going to stay behind. He wouldn't want Gibbs to think he was weak. He wasn't going to let his Boss down; not again.

OOOOOO

An hour into processing the crime scene, which was looking more and more like a suicide every minute, Tony's brain felt like it was going to explode out of his skull, much like the marine he was photographing that had shot himself in the head.

Besides the headache, the chills and body aches were worse as well and now there was a pressure in his chest that felt awfully familiar. It started with just tickle which caused a couple of coughs that pretty soon exploded into full-on uncontrollable coughing jags.

"You okay, Tony?" McGee asked, worry marking his face. He had been there for Tony's bout with the plague, so seeing and hearing Tony grow increasingly sick, had him worried.

"I'm fine, Probie." Was all Tony could respond as another round of rough-sounding barking took hold..

Of Course, McGee wasn't the only one to notice Tony's deterioration. Gibbs had been keeping an eye on Tony since they arrived at the scene and was becoming increasingly concerned, but inwardly breathed a sigh of relief as Ducky walked into the scene with Palmer in tow. As soon as they got all of this over with, he would make Tony see the diminutive doctor for an exam whether he wanted to or not.

"Well, what do we have here, Jethro?"

"Possible suicide, Duck." Gibbs replied as he walked towards his oldest friend.

"Ah, yes." Ducky sighed as he snapped on a pair of gloves and knelt down towards the body. "Appears to be a single gunshot wound through the mouth and out the back of the back of the skull. Of course, I can't rule out homicide until I've completed the autopsy when we get back."

"Something else I want you to do when we get back." Gibbs started and as if on cue, Tony began another round of chest rattling hacking. The grey-haired marine only had to tilt his head towards the younger agent in order to communicate his concern to Ducky.

"Oh my, Jethro. How long has that been going on?"

"Started this morning."

"Send him down to me as soon as you get back. I do not like the sound of that cough and given Anthony's prior pulmonary issues-"

"Will do, Duck." Gibbs cut him off as he got up and headed for his agents, who had gathered by the truck and were loading the evidence and equipment into the back.

"Ziva, McGee. Take the truck back." Gibbs ordered, stopping for just a moment as he grabbed his senior agent by the upper arm, catching Tony by surprise as he nearly dragged him to the Charger. "DiNozzo, you're with me."

"Boss?" Tony asked as Gibbs opened the driver-side door.

"Just get in, DiNozzo." His boss demanded with an unreadable face.

"Okay." Tony folded himself into the passenger seat, his aching body relieved to be sitting, but his mind working in overtime as to why Gibbs was giving him a harsh glare. What had he done wrong this time? He wondered.

"Ducky's gonna look at you when we get back." Gibbs stated in a way that allowed for little argument. Tony groaned, so that was what this was about.

"Boss, I don't need Ducky to examine me every time I catch a cold."

"Really? I don't remember when you picked up that medical license, DiNozzo. This is more than a cold and you know it. You're seeing Ducky, end of story."

"Got it, Boss." Tony sighed in defeat.

Gibbs drove them back in silence. Tony offering little in the way of conversation, which Gibbs took as a sign that he must be feeling pretty rotten. In all truthfulness, Tony had to admit that his head and coughing were getting even worse and by the time they made it back to Headquarters, he didn't mind being led down to the morgue to await the arrival of their medical examiner.

"Take seat, DiNozzo." Gibbs pulled out the chair from under Ducky's desk and bade Tony to sit. Feeling like a child that needed taking care of, Tony just shook his head.

"Nah, I'm fine, Boss." He said with a raspy voice just as another cough escaped his lips. Gibbs sighed, Tony could be frustratingly stubborn at the wrong times.

"It wasn't a suggestion, now sit down before you fall down."

Grudgingly, Tony did as he was told without further argument and sat in the seat, drawing his arms around his chest as another chill sliced through his body. At least Tony didn't have to endure Gibbs' silent glares and appraisals for long before Ducky showed up with Palmer, wheeling in the gurney with the bagged up body of the Marine.

"Go ahead and put our guest into the drawer, Mr. Palmer." Ducky instructed his young assistant as they entered. "I do believe I have a living patient to deal with first." He explained, catching sight of Tony's pale face and Gibbs' stern one from across the room

"Right away, Dr. Mallard." Jimmy replied pushing the body towards the other end of the morgue.

Ducky crossed the expanse of Autopsy to his desk where Tony sat and tsked at the young man's appearance. From the shivering, he could tell that Tony at the very least had a fever, but what worried him the most was the wheezy and raspy coughs that attacked at an increasingly more frequent rate.

"Hop on up here, Anthony." Ducky patted on his exam table.

"Did I ever tell you how disturbing it is to be examined on the same table you perform autopsies on?" Tony joked as he climbed up to the table, hanging his feet over the edge.

"Far to many times, I'm afraid." Ducky replied.

"Oh yeah," Tony tried to grin sheepishly before another breath was stolen by a fit of coughing.

"Ahh, that does not sound good, my boy. I suppose there is no point in me asking how you are feeling considering how you sound and the fact that you look like something one of mother's Corgi's likes to leave on my kitchen floor. " Ducky pointed out cheekily as he reached into a desk drawer and pulled out his blood pressure cuff, stethoscope and thermometer.

"Again with the crap comparisons, you all are going to give me a complex." Tony complained, but the look Gibbs gave him kept him from continuing and Ducky sealed the deal by popping the thermometer into Tony's mouth and wrapping the blood pressure cuff around his arm and listening with his stethoscope.

"You're blood pressure is a little high." Ducky announced as he released the cuff from Tony's arm then pulled the thermometer out and read it. "Hmmm. 101.8. That's a nice little fever you're got running here as well, Anthony." Ducky placed the stethoscope against his chest and bade him to breathe deep, causing Tony to cough some more.

To Gibbs it seemed that Ducky took a little more time listening to Tony's chest than he normally would have if it was just the flu, sending red flags up in Gibbs' gut. Tony picked up on that too and if it wasn't for the fact that his chest was beginning to get the feeling that an elephant was sitting on it, he wouldn't have been worried, but memories of lying in a hospital bed surrounded by eerie blue lights and believing that he was going to die, weren't far from his thoughts.

Ducky sighed when he finally finished, looking Tony in the eye and conveying his concern with one glance over his glasses.

"I don't like what I am hearing, young man."

"What is it, Duck?" Gibbs asked for Tony as he was busy hacking his lungs out once again.

"Well, I can't be certain until I take a chest X-ray, but it sounds an awful lot like a nasty case of bronchitis, but I can't rule out the possibility of pneumonia."

OOOOOOOO

After taking blood and x-rays, Gibbs ordered Tony to Abby's lab to take a rest on her futon.

"Tony! I was just thinking about you. I was going to tell you about last night, Sister Rosita twisted her ankle on the way to mass so we had to get a sub-" Abby squealed and began to babble excitedly as he entered the lab, the music blasting on her stereo sending his already throbbing head into blinding pain.

"What's wrong?" Abby asked immediately worried about her best friend, putting her arm around his waist.. "You look like shit."

"Ahhh- et tu, Abby?"

"Huh?" Abby asked

"Nevermind. You're right, I feel like shit." Tony wheezed, holding a hand to his head to keep as if to keep it from exploding. "Think you could turn down the music some?"

"Sure." Abby flicked off the music and Tony sighed in relief. "Sorry."

"Can I?" Tony pointed tiredly at her futon.

"Yeah." She watched with growing anxiousness as Tony coughed and rubbed his chest and she helped him to lay down on her fold-out bed with a groan. He closed his eyes and Abby thought at first that he had gone right to sleep, but he opened his eyes again and reached into his pocket and produced a vial, raising it up to the Goth scientist.

"Oh yeah, this is for you."

"What's this?" She asked grabbing the tube.

"You would think a trained forensic specialist would recognize blood when she saw it." He joked and was rewarded with another round of coughing.

"I know it's blood Tony, but is this from the scene? There's no chain of evidence form."

"It's my blood, Abbs. Ducky wants you to run whatever tests you need to run to see what's wrong with me."

"He doesn't think that you have....you know....the 'p' word does he?" She began, biting her lip in worry. Tony patted her hand to reassure her and maybe himself a little too.

"I'm sure it's not, Abbs. Just need you to rule it out. Okay?"

"Alright, but you get some rest, Mister and feel better right away, okay." She ordered

"Sure, Abby." Tony yawned, his eyes closing against his will as sleep tugged at him."No Problem."

OOOOOOOOOO

"Here are those X-Rays you wanted me to develop, Doctor." Jimmy walked into the morgue again and approached Gibbs and Ducky, interrupting the conversation they had been engaged in regarding their ill agent. Neither one of them wanted to go the plague route, but both men were well aware of the possibility that Tony could have a relapse.

"Ah, Thank-you, Mr. Palmer." Ducky nodded appreciatively and took the manila envelope with the x-rays inside and removed the transparency, sliding it up and onto the x-ray backlight., turning it on.

"What is it, Duck?" Gibbs asked when sighed as he examined the picture, wondering how anyone could make out anything from the black and white image.

"See this, here?" Ducky pointed to a spot and then another "and here?"

"Yeah." Gibbs replied, but he wasn't sure what he was looking at.

Jimmy sidled up next to Ducky, curious as to what was on the x-ray as well. Ducky turned to him and grabbed hold of the opportunity to provide the young med student with a new learning opportunity.

"What do you make of these. Mr. Palmer?" Ducky asked him still pointing to the spots.

"They look like nodules, Doctor."

"Very good, Jimmy. Now just what do you think might be causing these?"

"Uh...Could be a number of things like an abscess, TB, histoplasmosis, or-." Jimmy stopped not really wanting to say out loud what his last idea might be.

"Or what, Palmer?" Gibbs asked, turning to Jimmy with a hard glare.

"Or...lung cancer."

"Duck?" Gibbs asked with raised eyebrows, removing his glare from Jimmy to the older medical examiner. For a moment, Gibbs felt his resolve slip. Tony with lung cancer?

"I'm quite certain we can rule out lung cancer for now, Mr. Palmer." Ducky gave Gibbs a reassuring look and that fleeting second of panic vaished into relief.

"Then what is it?" Gibbs asked.

"Well, it could be a number a things, Jethro, we'll just have to wait for Ab-" Just then the phone rang, interrupting Ducky and he went to answer it.

"Autopsy." He answered. "Yes, Abigail we were just discussing you. What do you have?" Ducky listened and nodded thoughtfully as he listened to the forensic specialist on the other end of the line "Indeed. That is very interesting, I wouldn't have thought it possible.... Yes, I am relieved as well...How is he?....Good. Let him sleep for now, I'll be up there in a few moments to check on him. I have a few things I need to ask him.....Alright, Alright, my dear. Yes, Yes, Gibbs will be coming too." Ducky hung up the phone.

"Well?" Gibbs asked.

"Well, it is definitely not the plague."

"Then what is it?"

"Coccidiodomycosis, Jethro and our Anthony has some explaining to do." Ducky explained as he headed for Abby lab. Confused, but concerned, Gibbs followed.

OOOOOOOOOO

"How is he Abs?" Gibbs asked as he and Ducky strolled into the lab, but Abby couldn't hear him with her back turned to them and her headphones blasting music into her ears. Gibbs tapped her on the shoulder and she jumped with a yelp, clutching her chest in surprise and fright.

"God Gibbs!" She exclaimed "Don't you think you're scary enough without having to sneak up on people?" She pulled off her headphones in frustration, but all was forgiven when Gibbs produced and extra-large cup of Caf-Pow that he picked up before going to her lab.

"Ooooh, Gimme, Gimme." She grabbed the cup and started slurping.

"So, how is our Anthony, Abigail?" Ducky asked her again for Gibbs.

"Oh, he's been asleep, but not very well, he keeps coughing, but not like plague coughing, but more like really bad flu coughing or something like that. And he's been scratching his legs in his sleep, I checked and he had a rash. He got a little mad that I was looking up his pants while he was trying to sleep though. But anyway, I ran the blood sample you gave me, thankfully, there's no Y-pestis in his system, but there is a fungus among us."

"Abby?" Gibbs asked.

"It's called Coccidioides immitis." She explained. "It grows in the arid parts of the American southwest, especially Arizona." She stated, eying Gibbs accusingly, knowing that it had been Gibbs' call to take Tony out into the desert. "Its spores are carried in the winds and when they are inhaled, they can cause..."

"Valley Fever." Gibbs finished for her.

"Yes." Abby and Ducky said together, looking at each other, surprised that Gibbs knew. "How'd you know?"

"Tony has an interesting story about it, Abby. I had to fly out there with him for three hours, remember?"

"What story?" She asked, a little put out from being out of the loop. "He never told me this story."

"Yes, Tony told me that he had been to Arizona before and mentioned that Valley Fever was the reason he never wanted to go back." Ducky started. "However, what confounds me is that much like chicken pox, once a person gets over the initial infection, a lifetime immunity is usually aquired. Now, Anthony's lungs may have been weakened from his bout with the plague, but his immune system is not suppressed, so I am hard pressed to understand how he could have picked this up again." Ducky wondered out loud.

"Unless..." Gibbs continued for him.

"Unless what, Jethro?" Ducky questioned.

"Unless, he never had it in the first place." Gibbs stated as he began walking across the lab to the back where Abby kept her futon and where Tony lay, fitfully asleep. "You must not have heard the whole story."

"That's true, he did not go into detail, merely said it was a long story."

"And it is. Trust me on that one, Duck."

"Wha's a long story?" The figure from the bed mumbled sleepily before coughing and rolling up into a miserable seated position.

"Your first trip to Arizona, DiNozzo." Gibbs began.

"Oh, yeah. That is a long story."

"You told me that you had Valley Fever before, Anthony." Ducky pointed out.

"I did?" Tony looked perplexed.

"Yes, just a couple of weeks ago during the autopsy of Lt. Justin Grady. He had the disease before he was killed and it cleared Renny Grant of his murder. I would think you would remember that."

"Yeah, I do, but I don't remember telling you I had Valley Fever. I think what I said was that it was the reason I would never go back to Arizona. It was my partner Ray from Philadelphia that caught it. We were running a narcotics operation, tracking cocaine smugglers from Phoenix back up to Philly. He had it. It was gross. I'll never forget that nasty rash.... He was out of work for weeks and I had to do all of his paperwork-" He complained.

"Well, it looks like it's your turn, DiNozzo." Gibbs stated.

"Wha? I have Valley Fever?- Crap. Is that why you were trying to look up my pants, Abby?"

"I just wanted to see why you were scratching. I can't help it if I got a good view of things other than your legs at the same time." Abby shrugged with a sheepish grin and a wink.

"So what do we do now, Duck?" Gibbs asked

"Well, what Anthony needs most is rest and fluids. I'll prescribe an anti-fungal to help clear this up. We'll also keep a close watch on this should it develop into pneumonia, but I'm cautiously optimistic that this will be nothing more than something like a very bad case of the flu." Ducky turned to Tony who was half-listening, his head still beating out a rhythm of pain. "However, should you ever have a sudden pain in your chest or find it hard to breathe I want you to head straight for the emergency room, Understood?"

Tony just nodded weakly. Ducky pulled on Gibbs' arm and led him out of the back and out of earshot of his patient.

"He's going to need someone to take him home, Jethro. He doesn't seem completely like himself at the moment."

"Ya think, Duck?"

"He's also going to need someone to keep an eye out for him at least for the next couple of days until he starts to get better."

"Tony doesn't need a babysitter, Ducky. He's a grown man."

"Indeed. I'm not saying he needs round the clock care, Jethro, but just someone who can drop by once or twice a day to make sure he's still alright. As you know, Anthony is more than apt to ignore the warning signs should this disease disseminate."

"Disseminate?"

"Yes, it is possible for C. Immitis to spread to other parts of the body such as the liver or other vital organs it can even infect the brain and in some cases, cause meningitis. He'll need to be monitored for high fever and should this develop into pneumonia.... I fear we may have to put him in the hospital given his already scarred lungs and knowing Agent DiNozzo, that may be worse than the disease itself."

"I got it, Duck. I'll keep an eye on him." Nodding his agreement, Gibbs looked back at Tony who was currently being fussed over by Abby.

"Very good, Jethro. Now, I have another patient waiting for me back in autopsy. Thankfully, that one should prove to be a little more on the cooperative side."

Gibbs just smiled and patted Ducky on the shoulder as the older man left Abby's lab. He walked back to Tony and Abby and held out a hand for his senior agent, pulling him up to his feet.

"Let's go, Tony."

"Where to, boss?" Tony asked.

"The only place you're going is to bed for the rest of the week, DiNozzo."

OOOOOOOOOO

It was quiet in the car as Gibbs drove down the expressway, Tony had fallen asleep despite the high speeds and hair-pin turns that normally set the younger man on edge when Gibbs drove, a sure sign of just how miserable his senior field agent was doing.

Halfway there and a coughing fit woke Tony up from his snooze and had him looking out the window in confusion.

"Where are we going, Gibbs?" Tony asked. "My apartment is south, not north."

"We're going to my place."

"Boss?"

"How else am I to keep an eye on you and work on my boat, DiNozzo?"

"You don't need to keep an eye on me. I'll be fine. I can take care of myself" Tony rasped just before he started another round of dry, chest rattling hacking.

"Sure, you can."

Tony was too tired to argue. He didn't even remember getting in the car, but finding himself on the way to his Gibbs' house was a bit of a head trip. Gibbs was being....caring...and it was disturbing, like the twilight zone or maybe this was Bizzaro world where everything was backwards and he was actually the alternate non-scary version of his boss: 'Bizzaro Gibbs'.

Before long, Tony found himself at Gibbs' home and being led back to his guest bedroom. Without a word, he flopped onto the bed fully clothed and was asleep in minutes.

He was surprised to find that when he woke up it was dark, his shoes had been removed and he was covered in blankets. Sticky with sweat, he figured his fever must have broken, but his head still pounded. A glass of water and his prescriptions sat on the table next to the bed. He grabbed a couple of motrin and downed them with the water then tossed off the blankets and groaned. He felt better marginally, but that was only a step up from the complete piece of shit he felt like before.

Sitting up, he remembered where he was. He was at Gibbs' house. He still didn't fully comprehend why he brought him here. Truly, he wasn't worth the trouble that Gibbs was going through. Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, he took his time pushing himself up to stand and headed for the bedroom door. He peeked around the corner, but Gibbs wasn't anywhere in sight. He was chilled again and guessed that his fever hadn't come down completely, so he went back to the bed and grabbed the top coverlet, wrapping it around himself before he left the room. The house was silent and dark as he passed through the living room and into the kitchen. The only sign of life was a light shining through a crack in the door to the basement.

As if he was a moth drawn to a bug-zapper, Tony couldn't help but follow the light and open the door. He descended the steps carefully, trying not to trip on the long blanket as he went down.

The smell of Gibbs' basement was as unique as he was, Tony thought. Sawdust combined with glue, mixed with a splash of bourbon and drying paint. It was a totally 'Gibbs' smell. Usually it was a smell that was a comfort to Tony, but lately it was it was a smell that brought up his own insecurities. Why would anyone, much less a hard-ass like Gibbs think he was worth the trouble of keeping around.

Tony took a seat on the bottom stair, tired by his excursion out of bed and wrapped the blanket around himself tighter.

"What are you doing down here, DiNozzo?" A voice called out from nowhere. Tony looked all around the basement, but didn't see Gibbs. The only thing down there was the cabin of the boat Gibbs was still working on. "And quit dragging that blanket around, it's gonna get dirty."

"Boss, you down here?" Tony asked, his voice dry, raspy and resembling something more like the Sheriff from Arizona's.

"I'm right here." Gibbs' head popped out of the top of the boat. "Right where you shouldn't be. You should be back in bed."

"Not feeling much like sleeping, boss."

Gibbs climbed up out of the boat and made his way over to his bench.

"Something on your mind, DiNozzo?"

He did have a lot on his mind. He had for a long time, at least since Jenny died.

Normally, Tony would just blow this off with a joke, and side step the issues, not wanting to open up to his mentor in such a way. And on some level he knew that Gibbs was just fine with that as he wasn't much of a talker himself.

Maybe it was the fact that he was still fevered that allowed for his inhibitions to crumble and the exterior he worked so hard to maintain, begin to crack at the foundations.

"I don't get it, Gibbs."

"What don't you get, Tony?"

"Why I'm here."

"Because, you're sick and-"

"No. no. no. That's not what I mean. I mean....why am I still on your team? Renny Grant proved that I'm not much of a team leader, I don't have mad computer skills like McGee or Mossad ninja moves like Ziva and neither one of them has come down with any disease from the dark ages and to top it all off, I'm not much of a horse rider."

"Never knew horse-riding skills was a qualification for the job, DiNozzo." Gibbs replied.

"You know what I mean. I know I'm not the only one that thinks this, Gibbs. I see it in Vance's eyes every time he chews that toothpick of his and looks at me. I don't measure up and don't think that I don't know that you had to fight to get me back from being agent afloat. I just don't get why you did- Especially after...." He gulped not wanting to even mention Jenny's name. "after the mistakes I made in LA. You could have had your pick of any agent, yet you wanted me back.. I've been a lot more trouble than not and anyone else who had screwed up as much as I have would been fired years ago, yet here I am....why?"

"Because breaking in someone new is a lot of work." Gibbs deadpanned.

The older agent sighed, taking in the sight of the rather pathetic looking figure wrapped up shivering in a blanket at the bottom of his basement stairs, now staring off into space. He looked beyond just physically ill, he looked lost. Grabbing his bottle of Jim Beam from the shelf, he poured himself a couple of fingers worth into his coffee mug and took a swallow. This was the conversation they should have had almost a year ago and he mentally chastised himself for allowing so much time to go by without it. He just always assumed that Tony knew why he was important to him and to the team.

Leaning against his workbench, he looked at his boat as he began to speak, crossing his arms with his drink in one hand. Gibbs wasn't the best at opening up. Hell, he had three divorces to show for that one character trait.

But he had to try at the very least. Tony was sliding down a slippery slope of self-doubt, one that he had been down before and had had to crawl out of. It was that same abyss that he had fallen into three years ago and saw him jetting off to Mexico when all he wanted to do was leave the world behind.

Tony had been there to help him out then. Now it was time to reciprocate.

"You want to know why I keep you around, Tony? Well, it sure as hell isn't for the comic relief."

Tony's chuckle turned into another cough, but before it could explode into a full blown fit, Gibbs was there in the next instant offering him a bottled water, which tony downed thankfully.

"And here I was all this time thinking you liked my jokes, boss." Tony added when he finally caught his breath.

"Not even a little, Tony." Gibbs retorted with a half-grin.

"Wow, you sure know how to crush a guy."

"Why do you think I had you come with me to Arizona, Tony?" Gibbs asked seriously.

"Because McGee's even worse around horses than I am and with that Clint Eastwood doppleganger Sheriff out there, if you have brought Ziva along, it would have been too much bad-assery in one location for the universe to handle."

"Bad-assery?"

"Yeah, I'm still not thinking straight yet."

"Yet?" Gibbs asked sarcastically. "Or ever?"

Tony grinned.

Gibbs continued. "I took you with me to Arizona because I can't think of anyone I'd rather have on my six, DiNozzo."

Tony gave him a look that read 'Oh really?'

"Yeah, Tony." Gibbs pointed to him. "You."

"I still don't get why."

"The only people who don't get why I keep you on my team are those that have never actually worked with you, DiNozzo. I know what you did when I came back from Mexico. I know Jenny offered you your own team, but you gave it up, to stay on with me. You were ready then to move up and you probably should have, but you didn't and maybe it was a little selfish of me, but I was glad that you stayed."

Gibbs moved closer to Tony and joined him on the bottom step, holding onto and looking into his drink as he spoke. "And I can't think of too many people, even those that I would consider a friend, that would dive head long into freezing water to save a bastard of a boss, like me. But, that's just the stupid kind of things you do that make me respect the hell out of you. Now, you may joke and carry on like a frat boy, but when the shit goes down, I know I can trust you to do what it takes to get the job done, to keep your teammates in line and everyone else safe. It's the sort of thing you can't teach. One either has it or they don't- and you got it, Tony....In abundance.....And I don't want to lose you."

Tony was silent, as was Gibbs for several moments, neither man looking at the other. Gibbs had gone out on a limb and exposed himself and Tony wasn't sure what to say. Perhaps he didn't have to say anything at all. He finally turned his head towards his boss and gave him a grin.

"Thanks."

"Don't mention it, DiNozzo. It's all true, just don't expect me to say it again."

"I can live with that."

"Good. Now...." Gibbs stood and held a hand out to Tony, helping him back up to his unsteady feet, herding him up the the stairs. "Back to bed. If Ducky finds out I let you down here with all of this dust and fumes, I'll never hear the end of it."

Tony choked back a chuckle at the mental image of Ducky ripping Gibbs a new one.

"Are you sure you're not 'Bizzaro Gibbs'?"

The headslap that came after that told Tony all he needed to know- that he was going to be okay and that things could only get better from here on out.

The End

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