It wasn't the smartest thing I'd ever done. I knew that as soon as I did it, but it was instinct. The perp was getting away. I chased him, and brought him down with a tackle. As we hit the ground I felt a quick, sharp prick of pain in the base of my thumb. I didn't think about it; I just cuffed him, and stuck my hand in my mouth to suck away a bead of blood.

DiNozzo was right behind me, and hauled the guy to his feet.

He was still mouthing off when we handed him over the local LEOs. It was one of them who found the needle in the guy's pocket.

"You'd better be fucking careful," the dirtbag shouted gleefully, "I've got AIDS." He then tried to spit at the cop, so they stuck a strip of tape over his mouth and threw him in the wagon.

We got busy recording the scene and exchanging paperwork with the local boys. It wasn't until I got back in the car and put my hands on the wheel that I felt another pinprick of pain in my thumb. That's when I realised what I'd done.

I didn't say anything on the drive back to base. I was trying to think, but DiNozzo's incessant chatter didn't make it easy. Fortunately Ziva had snared the front seat and she kept pretty quiet. I just stared at the road. No-one commented on how quiet I was; it wasn't like I was much of a talker anyway.

Back at NCIS I went straight to the men's washroom. I could see the pinprick in the base of my thumb and I squeezed it, trying to make it bleed again. Then I soaped up my hand and ran it under the tap for long minutes. I knew it probably wouldn't do any good, but I did it anyway. While I was still in the washroom I phoned my "other" doctor, Caroline Powell. I must have already known what I was going to do, because I rang her instead of Ducky. Fortunately Caroline could see me straight away and I left base without explaining where I was going.

Caroline told me I had done the right things in squeezing and washing the cut. But then she asked me a lot of questions that I couldn't answer. Did I know if the perp was telling the truth about having AIDS? Had the needle been used? She kept reassuring me that the risk of transmission was very low, about 1%, but she put me on medication anyway. She called it a Post Exposure Prophylactic, a PEP. Christ.

Hep B and Tetanus immunisations were mandatory at NCIS, so I didn't need them. She gave me a shot of some immuno-globulin thingy and drew blood for "baseline testing" for HIV. If the perp was positive I had to come back in 3 months to be re-tested. That's when I would know.

I didn't go back to the office. I went home and rang the LEOs and they confirmed that he was HIV positive, so I rang Caroline back and made the appointment. I looked at the calendar and put a big ring around the day 3 months away when I would go in for the second blood test. The day after that I would go back for the result. As I flipped through the pages on the calendar it seemed a long way away.

To this day, I can't tell you how I convinced myself to do it, but I decided not to tell anyone. Not Ducky, not the Director, not the team. I just wanted to keep working. I knew that if I told them I'd be put on leave – 3 months of sitting around waiting to find out if I had been infected. I couldn't face that. I rationalised it by saying that I'd be careful; I'd make sure I didn't expose anyone else. If I got hurt or there was a risk of it, I'd tell them then. It was an appalling, irresponsible, selfish, stupid thing to do. But I did it.

So the next day I was back at work and straight into it. No-one seemed to notice anything different; no-one was looking that closely. I found I could lose myself in work. There were hours when I didn't think about it at all, and they were good hours.

I wasn't looking forward to the first weekend. We weren't rostered on and I had to wait for some timber to be delivered before I could do any more work on the boat. Fortunately, I had a half built deck that needed finishing, so I could work on that to keep myself occupied on Sunday.

On Saturday I did the usual chores – cleaning, shopping, laundry. I cooked a curry for the week ahead because I always like to have a meal in the icebox in case I come home hungry and don't feel like cooking. Saturday afternoon I went into the office and spent a few hours tidying up some paperwork.

And I followed my usual routine on Sunday too. I slept in a bit later than usual, pottered around the house for a bit, and then I decided to go for a run before I getting to work on the deck. I ran the same, easy route I always follow on Sunday, only 3ks, and no hills.

I was rounding the sports ground when I saw a familiar figure in the batting cages, smacking balls back at the automated pitching machine.

"What are you doing here?"

"Good morning to you too, Boss," DiNozzo responded cheekily, still swinging. I scowled, so he explained. "The pitching machine near my place is out of action. I'd heard you say that there was one here so I thought I'd try it out."

I watched his hands as he took a swing.

"Your hands are too crowded Tony," I pointed out.

He looked at them, and shuffled them slightly further apart. Sighing in exasperation, I walked around into the cage and moved his hands into the correct position. Then I stood back as he tried a few more swings. It was certainly better, but there was still something off. He was dropping a shoulder.

I explained, but he didn't get it, so I showed him.

It was a nice day, bright, cool and clear, and swinging the bat felt good. My enjoyment must have been obvious, because when I went to hand the bat back he shook his head and grabbed another bat out of the bin.

"Why not?" I thought. I set my stance again, and started swinging.

We took turns, and after about an hour we were both smiling and sweating. I felt better than I had felt all week, and some (rare) (stupid) generous impulse made me invite DiNozzo back for lunch.

To this day I don't know how he did it, but just after we had eaten DiNozzo managed to up-end an open a tin of paint across the boards of my half completed deck. I couldn't believe it. That was weeks of work, ruined. Now I was going to have to pull up the timbers, strip them again, and re-lay them.

"I'm so sorry Boss, really," DiNozzo stammered, his face flushing with embarrassment. "I'm really sorry. I'll fix it. You don't have to, I'll do it."

"You don't know how to do it, DiNozzo!" I shouted.

"You show me how, and I'll do all of it," he offered. His face wore that "I'm in so much trouble and I know it" look I saw every time I dragged him into the lift at work to chew him out.

"Damn straight you will, Tony," I snarled. "And you can start now."

I went down to the basement and brought up some tools, and for the rest of the day he and I pulled up the perfectly laid decking. I got myself a beer and I could see he wanted one, but he took one look at my face, closed his mouth and got back to work. He didn't complain, but by the end of the day I could tell that this was more manual labour than he had done in his whole life. Well, too bad.

I sent him home about 6pm and I had a long, hot shower. It relaxed my muscles, and calmed my temper. I was pissed about having to start again on those timbers. There was no doubt about it; DiNozzo was an accident waiting to happen.

We caught a case the next day and it reminded me that I had to be careful. For once I was relieved when it turned out to be more desk work than field work, tracking a supply chain for automotive parts that seemed to be coming up a few items short by the time they reached the naval base.

I had some tense moments that first week – once I took a bite out of McGee's sandwich, and then I made up some stupid excuse so that he would throw the rest away, even though the rational part of my brain knew that I couldn't infect him by sharing a sandwich. At least the others got a laugh out of it – I saw DiNozzo and David smirking when McGee had to go hungry for once.

On Thursday night I was about to head home when I saw DiNozzo grab a gym bag from his locker.

"Training, Tony?" I couldn't help myself. I knew he hated sparring with me, but he really needed the practice.

He opened and closed his mouth a few times before saying, "Aaahhh, I .. umm...."

"Good," I said, grabbing my own bag. "Me too." I'm sure I heard him whimper.

I knew I had to be careful and I was. We practiced holds, throws, and disarming moves, but nothing dangerous. He was getting better, obviously not in the same class as Ziva, but improving. As for McGee, well, the less said there the better. But at least two of my agents could hold their own in a fight.

"Wanna grab a pizza Boss?" Tony asked when we had finished. I knew that the curry I had made on the weekend was already eaten, and I thought 'what the hell, we've earned it' and I went.

Friday night, as we were leaving, I reminded him about his deck stripping duties. Now it was McGee's turn to smirk. Tony tried to tell me about a picnic he was taking some girl on, but I was already in the lift.

And so Sunday morning he turned up suitably dressed in old jeans, workshirt and boots. We spent most of the day stripping the timbers; hard, dirty work, and no fun at all.

The weeks started to pass more quickly. We caught a nice, fairly smooth run of cases. Ziva was on top form, really developing as an investigator, and it pleased me to see it. Her understanding of human nature could be a little off at times, maybe not surprising given her background, but she was observant, and very, very thorough.

I caught Tony and McGee heading to the gym one night. I was pleased that they both seemed to know they needed to improve, so I joined in and we made it a weekly appointment, usually followed up with pizza. McGee came along most nights; Tony, pizza slut that he is, came along every time.

About 3 weeks later, with no warning, we were notified that they had brought forward our shooting evaluations. We focussed on that for a few days, training in the mornings and after work. When the day came, McGee and I did okay, and DiNozzo got his best score ever. Ziva's score was a little down, and I could see she was embarrassed - she even claimed there was something wrong with her gunsite, shooting suspicious glances at DiNozzo and McGee, who maintained wide-eyed "who me?" looks. I wasn't happy, so we arranged to meet at the range before work a few times and then she would re-sit the test. We did, and she aced the eval the second time.

And Abby, well, she was Abby. Sometimes I'd make up an excuse to go down to the lab to hand over a CaffPow and get a beautiful smile and fluttering eyelashes in return, just 'cause I felt like it. One day she gave me a present. She'd burned a cd for me of some music she thought I'd like, and she presented it to me with a flourish. I knew she'd done one for Tony a few weeks before, so she must've been working her way through the team. I was surprised when I listened to it. It wasn't at all like the music she usually played in her lab. It was much mellower. I liked it.

Ducky never suspected, and I caught a break there; my next physical was not due until a few months after "The Appointment". D Day, I was starting to call it. Didn't like to think about what the D could stand for.

And every Sunday, DiNozzo and I worked on the deck. I caught a break there too, actually. Once we had all the timbers off, I saw that there was a defect in one of the joists, so we took that off too and replaced it. DiNozzo would never make a carpenter, and as a labourer he was a little slow at times, but as company he wasn't too bad. On the third Sunday when I got a beer I got one for him too.

I was glad I'd kept working. I didn't let myself think about that decision too much, probably because I knew it was wrong, but it just felt so damn good to be doing something, and I knew that the alternative would've been hell for me.

So all it went pretty smoothly, until about a week before D Day, when a case took us to the docks. What happened there wasn't a big deal, and under normal circumstances I wouldn't have thought twice about it. But these were not normal circumstances, and the stupidity of what I had done became sickeningly clear.

We had a tip that some of the missing automotive parts were in a warehouse at the dock. When we got there, we didn't only find the parts - we found the perps. Or they found us. We engaged, and DiNozzo and I were pinned down behind some wooden crates returning fire, waiting for McGee and Ziva to come around behind them. A bullet tore through some timber and a piece shot off and hit me in the arm. It wasn't big piece, but it really tore through the skin. It was my right arm, my shooting arm. Fortunately, McGee and Ziva moved fast, and they took the shooters down moments later.

I was trying to tie a handkerchief around my arm to stop the bleeding, but it was damned hard with one hand. Before I could say anything DiNozzo, who was crouched beside me on the floor, reached out and grabbed the handkerchief. He tied it tightly over the wound, stopping the blood flow.

"Make sure you wash that cut when we get back to base," he told me, unnecessarily. I looked at the blood on my sleeve and suddenly it hit me, what had happened. With my good hand I grabbed DiNozzo's wrist. I examined his hand, and then his other hand, but saw no blood on them, and no cuts which blood could get into.

"You wash your hands now!" I ordered. I pointed to a tap and a dirty old sink in one corner of the warehouse. "Now DiNozzo! And do it thoroughly!" I was almost yelling. His eyebrows shot up and he rocked back on his heels. "Now!" I bellowed, and he took off at a run.

We took the perps back to base to be processed. I touched no-one and let no-one touch me. As I had done nearly 3 months before, I went into the men's room and washed the cut. I made sure that there was no wood in it. And then I wiped the sink free off every trace of liquid.

All the way back to base DiNozzo had been glancing at me, but I hadn't explained. How could I? How could I explain that I had kept working when I knew the risk? That I might have infected him? If he caught it from me, how would I live with that? I went into one of the stalls and rested my forehead against the cool surface of the wall while I tried to regain my composure.

"I'm going home," I announced to the team when I emerged. I saw them exchange looks – I never just "went home" in the middle of the afternoon. "I'm taking a few days leave. I'll be back next Thursday. DiNozzo, you're in charge till then."

I hardly heard his faint "Right, Boss" as I headed for the stairs.

That night I drank too much. I sat in my basement with a bottle of bourbon. Just as I reached the desired level of numbness I heard footsteps on the floor above me. I fumbled for my gun, and DiNozzo was lucky I didn't blow his head off as he came down the stairs.

"Jeez, Boss," he protested, flattening himself against the wall. "Put it down."

"What do you want, DiNozzo?" I grumbled. "I'm on leave."

"Not till you sign this form you're not." He waved a bit of paper in my face. I snatched it from him, scrawled my name with the pen he offered me and thrust it back at him without looking at it.

"There," I snarled. "Now I'm on leave."

"Are you drunk Boss?" he asked stupidly. I glared at him. "I'll take that as a yes." He paused and looked at me. "Why don't you come upstairs? I'll order us some takeaway". His eyes lit up. "The Magnificent Seven is on tv tonight, Boss. You'd really like it."

I tried to keep glaring at him, but it didn't work so well when I couldn't focus.

"You have to come upstairs, Boss", he said apologetically, "you're out of bourbon".

Shit. He was right.

I'm a bit fuzzy on the details, but I know that I ended up eating Szechuan chicken and watching Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson fight off an army of Banditos. Tony was right. I did like it.

When I woke up the next morning I felt like a cat had crawled into my mouth and died. I was in my own bed (which was good), alone (also good) and in my underwear (not so good but could be worse). After spending some quality time over the toilet, I turned on the shower, and that's when I realised that the bandage on my arm had been changed for a clean one. The wave of nausea that hit me then was quite different than the one before.

I nursed myself through that day, and the next. Saturday came around, and I fell back into my usual routine. But part of me kept wondering what I would be doing next Saturday. Would I have a job? If the test was positive I could never be a field agent again. But Jesus, what did the job matter if I had infected Tony?

A truly terrifying thought struck me. It was Saturday. DiNozzo always had a date Saturday night. I had a vague memory from the other night during The Magnificent Seven of him telling me something about a woman he had met at a bar, and how he was planning to go back and turn on the "DiNozzo charm". I didn't much about his "charm", but I couldn't let him risk infecting someone else. So I rang and invited him over for dinner. I couldn't think of a better excuse, so I just said that I owed him for taking care of me the night before. He sounded surprised, but he was too scared of me to say no.

Now I had a date ... with DiNozzo. I dragged myself to the shop, and did some cooking in the afternoon. When he arrived he was carrying dvds of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Bad Day at Black Rock. Smart arse had even brought a dvd player with him, assuming (rightly) that I didn't have one.

Dinner wasn't too bad, and the dvds were good. We drank quite a bit, so DiNozzo didn't argue when I told him that he couldn't drive home and had to crash in the spare room for the night.

We spent most of the next day working on the deck, and when we realised we might get it finished we decided to keep going. It was dark when we finally packed up, and we were both pretty rugged out, so I hit the sack as soon as DiNozzo left.

Monday passed slowly. The timber arrived for the boat and I moved it into the basement, but my mind kept going over the two days ahead. Test on Tuesday, results on Wednesday. If I could have gone to work it would have taken my mind off it, but after that episode on the docks I knew I couldn't.

I had the blood test first thing Tuesday morning. When I got home I sat there, staring at the bandaid in the crease of my arm, looking at the tiny drop of red I could see staining through it. Blood. My blood. His blood. That's all it came down to now. One drop of blood.

I don't know what time it was when the phone rang.

"Boss?" It was McGee.

"What's happened?" I asked, fearing the worst.

It wasn't a big deal. The team caught a case and DiNozzo had run into some problems with the Fibbies. He phoned Fornell and managed to completely piss him off.

"Does DiNozzo know you're calling me?" I asked McGee.

There was silence.

"McGee?"

"No, Boss," he confessed. "In fact he said that under no circumstances was I to call you. But Boss...."

Damn it, hadn't DiNozzo worked it out yet? The one way to guarantee that McGee did something was for DiNozzo to absolutely forbid him to do it.

I rang Fornell and he was really pissed. When he told me what DiNozzo had said I wasn't surprised, but I managed to calm him down and between us we sorted it out.

Tony rang a few minutes later. He claimed to be calling to ask me a few questions, but I could tell he was suspicious. I didn't give McGee away – and I just hoped Fornell wouldn't give me away. We talked for a while about some leads they had, and where to take the investigation and I told him pretty clearly what I expected. I might be on leave, but it was still my team. At least until tomorrow.

Doing that, interacting with them, being useful, made me feel better, so I hauled my butt off the couch and down to the basement to get working on that load of timber.

My appointment the next day was at 10.00am. I didn't let myself think about what I might be doing at 11.00am, but in my mind I kept seeing the bullpen, my desk, my team. Don't hope, I thought. Hope will kill you.

I kept telling myself that as I sat in the waiting room, and when Caroline called my name I was ready. Ready to hear whatever she had to tell me. As ready as I would ever be.

******

As soon as I stepped into the car park I saw him, leaning against the hood of my car.

"Hell, DiNozzo!" I shouted automatically, walking forwards to give him the full force of the glare. "Are you stalking me or something?"

He straightened up and looked me in the eye, and one corner of his mouth quirked in a little smile. Then the smile disappeared and he just looked at me.

And that's when I knew.

He knew.

He had known all along.

DiNozzo in the batting cage at the park – a phys ed major who didn't know how to hold a bat; DiNozzo ruining my deck and coming over every Sunday to work on it; DiNozzo heading to the gym; DiNozzo telling me that they had brought forward our shooting evals; DiNozzo with the leave form, The Magnificent Seven, Szechuan chicken, Bad Day at Black Rock and the O.K. Corral.

And he played the others too - Abby's cd; Ziva's gunsite; McGee's phone call; Fornell's tantrum. He had the good sense not to try to fool Ducky.

But he'd known all along.

He'd known when he bound up the cut on my arm that day at the docks.

And now, on what could be the second worst day of my life, he was here again. On my six. At my side.

I wished to god he could have been with me that other day, too.

I felt a ridiculous lump in my throat and tears in my eyes and I looked away. When I turned back he was staring at me, his brow furrowed and lips tightly closed. He had misunderstood my actions.

"It's okay Tony," I said quietly. "I'm negative."

He exhaled in a rush, and dropped his head. When he looked up, he gave me the biggest, most shit-eating, 1000 watt, beaming DiNozzo grin I have ever seen.

"Well, I could have told them that Boss," he quipped. "You've always been a glass half empty kinda guy. You're never positive."

Given that he had had 3 months to think of it, it was a pretty weak joke, but I tipped my head back and laughed. Then I did something I hadn't done in 8 years of working with him. I put one arm around his shoulders, and one arm around his waist and I hugged him. I hugged him, and he hugged me back.

When I stepped back I think he was a bit embarrassed, but I didn't care. I reached into my pocket and tossed the keys at him.

"You're driving," I instructed. "Let's get back to base."

"On it Boss." He just about sang it back at me.

On it Boss, I thought. On it. And I laughed again.