Tony rested his head against the smooth coolness of the window pane as Gibbs drove below the speed limit for once. The gesture made him smile slightly, knowing that for all his Boss' gruff warnings about not messing up his car's upholstery, he was simply looking out for him. He must have dozed off because the next thing he knew, the car had come to a stop in Gibbs' driveway and his Boss was opening the passenger door.
"C'mon, DiNozzo, let's get you inside."
"I got it, Boss," Tony slurred slightly, as he steeled himself to climb out of the car, holding the door frame tightly as he levered himself carefully upright, before taking an unsteady step. "Whoa, all tilty."
Gibbs' warm breath ghosted across his ear, as the man steadied him with careful hands. Tony sagged gratefully against his Boss, as they made their way inside. He leant heavily on Gibbs as they moved inside and he toed off his shoes, relishing the chance to enjoy the kind of physical closeness he had so rarely received from his own father growing up. But as Gibbs settled him on the edge of his spare bed and began to undress him, he belatedly remembered he was supposed to be a competent Federal Agent and tried to straighten up and do things himself, only to have Gibbs bat his hand gently away.
"Let me do it."
The calm authority in Gibbs' voice was enough to quickly settle him back down. Even as his head buzzed, his mouth felt like sandpaper, and the room spun slightly, he surrendered to the deft hands undoing his tie and setting it aside before starting on the buttons of his shirt, trusting this man implicitly to take care of his needs. He tried to remember a single time his own father had taken time out of his day to do anything as simple and caring for him as help put him to bed and realised he couldn't.
"You're a good, Boss, Boss. You always take real good care of me and I know you don't say a whole lot, but you listen. You're a really good listener because you're actually listening. I don't think my Dad has ever taken the time to listen to what I have to say. We don't really talk all that much."
Gibbs kept his own tone even as he focused on the task in hand. Part of him was furious that DiNozzo Snr has so obviously taken the privilege of having such a bright, eager, kid for granted. No wonder DiNozzo was always so desperate for his attention and approval. The other part of him felt like uncomfortably like a voyeur as the totally wasted and exhausted younger man bared his soul with a frankness he would never choose to share when he was sober and in control.
"Is this your sweatshirt, Boss? It smells like it's yours, it smells like coffee and sawdust and safety. I like wearing your stuff it makes me feel like you're with me even when you're actually not. My Dad never liked me touching his stuff. One time I tried sneaking one of his cashmere sweaters into my suitcase to remind me of him when I was at boarding school. I didn't care about the spanking, but the way he didn't want to listen to why I took it. That hurt."
Gibbs helped the younger man to lie down with the same gentle hands and patient tone he might use with a young child. For all that DiNozzo might act like a spoilt rich kid sometimes the former Marine had always recognised that the core of steel inside his agent as he taunted danger, both as an agent and undercover, reflected a damaged soul not unlike his own. He had made it his own personal mission to try and head slap DiNozzo into shape. Just as Tony had made it his own mission to make his dour Boss crack a smile every now and then, Gibbs figured they both got what they needed most of the time.
"Whoa getting a little personal there with the belt buckle, aren't you Boss? Don't you worry though I'll still respect you in the morning, because you know I respect you more than anyone else I've ever met? You do know that, right? You're a good man, Boss. My Dad likes to look like he's doing the right thing. He paid for all the right schools and stuff but only so as he didn't actually have to spend any time with me."
As Gibbs swapped the dress pants, smeared with mud and soaked with dirty water from where DiNozzo had been down on his hands and knees puking in the parking lot for soft, clean, sweats he reflected he had probably spent more time with DiNozzo in the last two years than anyone else. Their working days were long and they were both the type to work the holidays and let vacation time take a back seat to solving a hot case. Still, some of Gibbs best memories in recent times came from sharing a cold pizza or a carton or Chinese food at DiNozzo's desk as they chewed the fat over nothing at all.
"Not sure that moving around too much is such a great idea, Boss. Still feeling a little queasy here, maybe I should just lie here for a bit? Or I could just let you bring my feet around like you're already doing. OK so the room's not spinning all that much. But I think I must be hallucinating or something because it looks like you're tucking me in here. Are you going to read me a story too? Or make me some more of the warm milk? I liked that but I think that really might make me throw up again, Boss."
Gibbs firm hand came to rest on his forehead. The gentle pressure was cool and oddly comforting. Looking blearily up into his Boss' steady gaze Tony realised he was still completely wasted. He didn't get generally get drunk all that often, being wary of the loss of control, but even so he wasn't used to being such a lightweight. He guessed fighting off a disease from the dark ages was bound to take it out of a guy. Even so, he was a little disappointed than all this was going to be nothing but a blurry haze.
"M'not going to remember any of this in the morning, am I?" He grumbled.
"Probably not." Gibbs smiled at him.
"Pity," Tony screwed up his face in a bid to make the room stop spinning. "S'nice."
"Only you could think puking your guts up was a fun evening, DiNozzo." Gibbs said ruefully.
"No, I mean having you here, looking after me," Tony surprised him. "Always thought it was a bad thing, letting myself trust anyone that much. Just gives 'em a chance to let you down. But you're not that guy, Boss. You take good care of me, Boss, always have. Never really had that before."
By the time Gibbs could get past the lump that grew in his throat DiNozzo was already dead to the world and snoring softly. Looking down at the young man who had always made him proud as an agent, the former marine's heart swelled with love for the courage his boy had shown fighting this damned disease. DiNozzo might not remember any of the things he had said tonight, but Gibbs knew that he would take each and every one of those highly personal, poignant, and downright painful revelations to the grave. Taking a moment to think about it, Gibbs took out his cell and called the man who had made his and Shannon's wedding rings, knowing that if anyone could help him right now, Morris would be able to take care of it.
The next morning, the first thing Tony was aware of was the pounding in his head, rapidly followed by the feeling of fur in his mouth and a fierce, raging thirst. Reaching out gratefully for the glass of water sitting on the night stand, he gulped that down thirstily before staggering towards the bathroom, taking a few moments to use the head and fill the basin with water before dunking his head in it, and then scrubbing his mouth clean with his toothbrush.
Looking at his reflection in the mirror Tony grimaced. His expression was still ghostly pale, with dark circles standing out in his gaunt features. The only thing that looked remotely normal about him was his hair. He spent a minute or two tweaking at the damp curls before realising that Gibbs wasn't going to give a damn about his hair. If he wanted to convince his Boss that he was ready to come back to work he really needed to raise his game.
Which meant it would be really helpful if he could remember what had actually happened last night.
Still as he made his way into the kitchen reluctant to give up Gibbs sweatshirt and sweat pants (even if they were the wrong colour for him and a little short in the leg) he figured things couldn't be all that bad if his Boss was taking time out to cook his favourite breakfast of banana pancakes and maple syrup. Settling into a seat at the Formica table he accepted a warm plate piled high with the delicious food with a grateful look.
"It's what I always wanted after I'd tied one on the night before," Gibbs admitted, at the younger man's look, as he sat down opposite him, sipping at his black coffee. "Figured you wouldn't be much different."
"You, really?" Tony paused. "I mean, I know you like your bourbon, but I can't see you loosing control by getting wasted like that."
"Age does bring some wisdom." Gibbs allowed, with a smile.
"So you're saying I'll grow out of being a total jackass?" Tony gave a self depreciating smile.
"You're not a jackass, Tony," Gibbs counselled fondly. "You've just had a hard time of things lately."
"I know I'm a trouble magnet, Boss." Tony sighed.
"Yeah, you can be," Gibbs allowed. He hadn't been much different when he was DiNozzo's age. "But then the best things in life are never easy."
"Boss, if I'm the best thing in your life then I feel pretty sorry for you." Tony laughed hollowly.
The head slap was not entirely unexpected, but the sheer force of it, served with a side of pissed off Boss was a surprise. Rubbing his head ruefully, DiNozzo shot a wounded look at the other man, not at all sure how he had screwed up enough to deserve that level of response.
"I don't ever want to hear you putting yourself down like that ever again, you hear me?" Gibbs demanded gruffly. "You've been one of the best things in my life since we worked that op in Baltimore and you know I don't tolerate anything less than the best. You're a good agent and a better man, DiNozzo and if your father can't see that it's entirely his problem, are we clear?"
Tony stilled, his face going completely expressionless.
"What exactly did I say last night?"
"Nothing that you need to worry about affecting my good opinion of you," Gibbs assured him. "Hell, DiNozzo, not all battle scars are earned in a war zone wearing camouflage and Kevlar, doesn't make the fight any less noble."
DiNozzo looked at his Boss, his eyes shining brightly, both at the unequivocal message of support and the underlying affection in his words. Gibbs was a demanding team lead, not everyone could cope with his desire for answers, but Tony had always recognised that the man was always far harder on himself than anyone else and he had never hesitated to put himself on the line to protect his own.
"Don't think Morrow is going to exactly give me a medal for this," Tony said ruefully. Ignoring protocols to let a hazardous substance lose in a Federal Agency was bound to incur some kind of penalty. "More like a formal reprimand."
"You'll survive," Gibbs spoke with total confidence. "It's just a note in your file, doesn't mean anything in the scheme of things."
"Unless, I suddenly find myself looking for another job," Tony said morosely.
"You planning on that?" Gibbs arched a brow.
"C'mon Boss, we both know two years is about my limit anywhere. If Morrow decides to fire my ass over this it'll be no more than I deserve."
"You took one for the team, DiNozzo. You think for one second I was gonna over look that?"
"We both know I screwed up, Boss."
"Really? Because from where I'm standing, McGee isn't fit enough with his asthma and all to fight something like this, and Kate is too slightly built to battle this on top of he cold and much as it pains me to say it I'm too old to overcome it the way you did. Maybe it wasn't a bullet, but you still saved all of us all the same. Not gonna let you go to the wire for that. Although, you ever scare me like that again, I will kick your ass."
"Duly noted, Boss."
Tony smiled, the cocky grin on his face fading into uncertainly as Gibbs pulled a small leather tooled box out of his breast pocket and placed it on the table. Taking a moment to bless the fact that Morris was prepared to deliver and that DiNozzo had slept on so late, the former Marine pushed the box with his forefinger further towards his senior field agent.
"Its less than you deserve. But its a medal of sorts." Gibbs allowed.
Curious now, Tony reached out and cracked open the small box, sucking in a breath as he took in the solid gold medallion and chain, designed to be affixed to a bunch of keys, nestling in the red velvet.
"St Jude, Boss?"
In spite of himself Tony felt his lips quirk in a smile. As memory served St Jude was the patron saint of lost causes and cases despaired of. When all other avenues were closed St Jude was supposed to be the dude to call upon. Somehow it seemed a fitting talisman both for him and the man sitting beside him.
"Neither of us are the type to do things the easy way." Gibbs shrugged.
"Amen to that." Tony agreed.
He had no doubt that the gift hadn't come cheap. The solid gold and careful craftsmanship spoke of real quality. Even so, he would bet his pension that his usually thrifty Boss hadn't so much as blinked at the extravagance, caring far more about saying all those things he couldn't find the words for. He knew without needing to voice it that Gibbs intended the gift to be a means to carry a piece of his Boss' love and affection to with him always. Feeling his face soften into an understanding smile he risked a little bit of his own soul in return.
"Guess I won't have to worry about wearing your stuff anymore."
"Never been a problem for me." Gibbs assured him with a quick, fond, grin, that made Tony's stomach flip with love.
"So," Tony knew he was pushing it, but pushing it was what he had always loved about this job. Because Gibbs was the first Boss he had ever had who let him run with his instincts, gave him the leeway to explore his ideas and trusted his gut enough to let him off the leash. "Can I come back to work?"
"Depends," Gibbs gave him a level look. "You gonna do exactly as I tell you?"
Gibbs wasn't an idiot. He knew that Tony had been on the brink in that Hospital. Seeing the former athlete gasping for breath under those blue lights was an image he would carry to his grave. He'd thought that in tracking down the perpetrator he would find a cure for the disease. He had been wrong about that and by the time he had arrested Hannah Lovell and made it to the Hospital he'd feared he was far too late. DiNozzo had sure as hell looked like he was on his way out.
Some might have thought it would be a kindness to offer a word or two of comfort and affection and let the failing young man slip away. That had never even been an option for Gibbs. He and DiNozzo needed each other. The two of them were connected on a level that few outsiders could understand. His young agent reflected everything that was good and bad about his life and Gibbs was determined to raise this young man to appreciate the good in life.
"Don't I always?" Tony grinned cheekily.
"Not every time," Gibbs reflected. "But when it counts, you always come through."