AN: This almost never got posted – I just chucked a full mug of coffee all over my desk. Fortunately none of it fell on my base unit – and whee, my keyboard's still working. The whole room pongs of coffee, though.

Another one in my Princetonverse… can't leave it alone!

A Walk in the Blue Ridge Mountains

by scousemuz1k

Tony had a regular technique for working at his computer while coping with an injury. His keyboard was pushed as far towards the back of his desk as it would go without falling off, and his entire forearms were resting on the surface in front of it. To a point it worked; but there was still a problem. He was deskbound, and would be until Ducky was happy with his twice-broken ribs.

"They were not even healed before you damaged them again, Anthony. I'm afraid I shall have to insist that you err on the side of caution this time. I won't hear of you going into the field until I'm completely happy with the x-rays."

Which meant, of course, not only continually having to fight the feeling of being cramped and hemmed in, but also the dreaded cold cases.

No matter, he'd still rather be here than moping at home, but this gave rise to the problem; trying to conceal from Gibbs how much the arm hurt, without taking the painkillers. Every so often, he'd pretend to drop something on the floor, or need something from the bottom drawer on the left of his desk, and he'd bend right down, hoping that Gibbs couldn't see the hand going into the sling to furtively rub and massage the healing bullet wound. But even the least disorientating of painkillers interfered with the clarity of his thought processes, and he needed that clarity, because he was good at making random connections, and that was his best weapon in cold case work.

But you'd still rather be here… He stole a covert glance at McGee, also nose deep in cold cases, as they waited for something to happen. He appeared to have recovered from the emotional roller-coaster they'd both found themselves riding not so long ago, and Tony was glad. Mari had shown him her new ring, six small, delicate brilliant cut diamonds arranged in a flower shape around a sapphire the colour of an alpine gentian, and she'd smiled as she said, "There's no way I'd have let him sell the Porsche." Tony smiled a little as he remembered. With a girl like that beside him, a man could heal from just about anything.

He stared unseeing at the file in front of him, sinking deeper into introspection without even noticing. He didn't blame Tim; he hadn't then and he didn't now. Like he'd said, he himself could have put things a bit less bluntly. But McGee now knew how it felt to be a little crazy, and he wouldn't react that way again. Like an agent… both he and Abby had told Tony about that, and with Mari spending four days a week in New York City, and no immediate plans for a wedding, the SFA knew that Tim was adjusting slowly and wisely to his new status. The wedding would come soon enough, he thought with another brief grin.

No, he didn't blame McGee, so why was it still on his mind? He didn't blame Gill Cooper, either, although what she had said at the time had cut him so much deeper than Tim's impulsive anger; her tearful, fraught apologies had made him the more anxious to comfort her, and he hadn't given a moment's though to his own feelings at the time. So again, why was he so awash with self-pity about it now?

Maybe it was just physical… he felt bad emotionally because he'd sustained one lot of damage then another… he wasn't as young as he used to be… don't go there… Perhaps it was the double whammy – injured, and having two people he cared about mad at him at the same time? Was he really trying to say he'd never had two people mad at him at the same time, before?

No, not friends, not when he felt physically below par – and then getting hurt again; who else did he know who could do that? He'd tried to look out for McGee; he'd tried to look out for Gill… nobody had looked out for him… and the reason for that was… go on… there was only one person he hoped would do that, and she hadn't, so everyone else's efforts had been met with the DiNozzo grin, and the 'I'm fine' that they'd probably predicted. So if he was going to be like that, he was simply getting what he deserved. He wasn't aware that he'd groaned aloud, until he found Gibbs sitting on the corner of his desk. He couldn't remember him arriving.

"You taken any painkillers, DiNozzo?" The question was mild enough.

"No, Boss… you know I won't unless I've got to… they fog up my thinking. You know that too."

Gibbs was still worryingly reasonable. "Well, yeah… but is there any reason you've got to be thinking right now?"

"I gotta – " he indicated the files and his voice trailed off ruefully as he knew what the Boss would say.

"They're cold, DiNozzo. They were cold yesterday and they'll be cold tomorrow." Tony kept his mouth shut. Gibbs was trying to look out for him, and he'd just been lamenting the consequences of not allowing him to. The Boss looked at him thoughtfully. "OK, you're better off here where I can keep an eye on you, I'll grant you that," he said. Tony still sat with that rueful look on his face. "But since you're here, try listening to me."

He leaned into Tony's personal space. "Take the damn painkillers, and go and sleep for an hour. Then go for a walk, no, not on a treadmill – you stay out of the gym or Ducky'll kill me, let alone you. You're not to even jog and jar those ribs. Get some fresh air – what?" A lightbulb had lit over Tony's head so clearly it made Gibbs blink.

"You've reminded me of something, Boss. I promised myself a day walking in the Blue Ridge Mountains."

"I thought Ducky told you, you weren't to drive."

"Well, yeah…"

"I will drive you, Tony." Ziva's clear voice told them that she'd been listening. Well, nobody had exactly told her not to. "Do you not remember? The last time you spoke of it, you asked me if I had ever been there. I said I would go with you"

"You'll come with me? This weekend?"

"I would like to."

"That's settled, then," Gibbs said. "Now take the pills."

When he got down to the lab, the futon was already laid out for him, and Abby greeted him in a whisper. He smiled inside… Abby would look out for him whether he liked it or not. Then he felt guilty. She only could if he came down to see her, and he'd not done much of that.

"Tony! I've missed you…"

"Oh, don't, Abbs… I feel guilty enough already."

"Well, you should come down and see me more often…"

"I know… I just sit down at my desk and then don't have the will to move."

She looked at him penetratingly. "Then you need to sleep more often. Down!"

"Woof!" he said obligingly, and felt the black plush throwover covering him before his head had even touched the pillow. He felt Bert tucked in with him, and squeezed a vulgar thank you from him. He heard the door to the office being closed, and Abby's music starting up again, but very quietly.

Tony burrowed his face down into the pillow, and tried to clear his mind. This was always the problem… his mind simply wouldn't clear, and now he'd taken the painkillers, it wouldn't be clear either, but it wouldn't stop. So… think about the walk…

A few years ago, anyone hearing that he was going walking with a beautiful girl would have said, 'Walking, hmm? That's a new word for it.' These days the old DiNozzo felt a million miles away. He still teased, he still kept up the sexually charged banter, but it was expected of him, and heaven forbid that Anthony DiNozzo didn't live up to expectations. Besides, if he told her the truth – well hell, he had told her the truth in that room in Somalia, but it hadn't seemed to register; probably just as well – if he told her the truth it wouldn't get him anywhere, it'd leave him vulnerable and he was getting too old for that sort of thing. He'd had enough rejection – enough of the self-pity, DiNozzo!

Think about the walk. If he set himself the unchangeable limit that he could not talk about him and her – them – it could be a lovely day. A healing day…

They could breathe fresh air, talk about all sorts of interesting things, find out more about each other in a general, friendly sort of way, walk in companionable silence, look at stunning scenery, he could tell her about the history of the area and why the mountains were blue, maybe picnic by a lake, just spend quality time as friends, the stream of consciousness was up and running now, and DiNozzo are you sure this is a good idea?

Well, he had to make it one, or not go at all, and he'd spent six years being a friend and partner, and how was now any different? Maybe it was his own fault. Maybe she'd cared for him once and given up waiting for him to open up about it. He could remember times… He didn't want to think about it, why wouldn't his mind stop?

The dull ache in his ribs and the stronger one in his damaged arm began to fade as the painkillers did what they were supposed to do – why did they always do the brain-addling bit first? He squeezed Bert, who trumped obligingly, and counted deep breaths, and after a while he was glad to feel the fuzziness round the edges of his mind that meant sleep was coming; if it was dreamless he'd be fine…

It was less than an hour before Gibbs came down to the lab. "How's he been, Abbs?"

"He hasn't moved. I think he needed the sleep." She paused suspiciously. "You've not come down to wake him have you?"

"Well, yeah, Abbs. H won't thank me for not waking him. We've got a case. Female marine lieutenant, seems to have taken a knife to her best friend. I need him on the case even if he can't be in the field. Send him up when you've got him on his feet, huh?"

"Gibbs - !!!" He was already disappearing.

Less than two minutes later, a tousled but alert DiNozzo hurried into the bull pen, to be filled in by the other members of the team on what they knew so far, as they geared up to go. As Ziva finished giving her information, she said brightly, "Oh, by the way, Tony, Gill Cooper rang."

"Oh, right. I'll call her back as soon as I can."

"No, she rang me… she wanted to know the name of the shop that I went to with Marieke van Hoorn –"

"Oh, yeah… to buy that amazing dress… the one that made her look like an angel."

"That is right. Anne-Marie wondered if they have wedding dresses –" a snort from Gibbs told her to get a move on. "Whatever – I told her about our trip to the mountains, and she said it sounded lovely. She was wondering where to go with her new friend at the weekend, so I said why did they not come along. I am very interested to know about this friend, I am sure you are?" She went off towards the elevator smiling broadly; Tony stood looking after her, thunderstruck.

Gibbs looked back at him over the top of her head, hesitated, then walked back a few paces towards him. "Why don't you work downstairs with Abby?" he suggested quietly. Tony nodded his thanks, it was all he could do. He sat down at his desk and automatically began pulling together what the other three team members had told him, to decide what to do next.

It was a perfectly reasonable thing for Ziva to do, he told himself. Since he'd never told her what he was thinking, how would she know? Why would she even consider that spending time with her was the important thing? And knowing how nosy he was, she'd assume he'd be beside himself to find out about this friend. She thinks she's done the right thing, he told himself. But it made one thing clear; the pleasure of spending time alone with him hadn't entered Ziva's head. No reason why it should. He sucked it up and got on with the case.

McGee let Ziva call shotgun without putting up any argument. He sat in the back and thought. When he'd heard Ziva making her original offer, he'd thought none of my business, but good idea. Those two have so many issues… a bit of quality time together can't do anything but good. When he'd heard her talking to Gill and scuppering her own arrangement, and then seen the look on Tony's face, he'd thought Bad Idea. He could only imagine the debilitating effect of not being over one injury before collecting another; he remembered how bad he'd felt during the time he'd been at loggerheads with Tony, and recalled too the words of that cold little note he'd deleted from his friend's mail-box. He didn't think Tony needed much company for the coming weekend; he needed head-space, and Ziva.

Well, it was clear that he wasn't going to get either, and Tim wondered if he'd need support instead? Or was introducing more people into the mix even worse? O-kay… he decided. He wondered if Mari had ever been to the Blue Ridge Mountains… he'd find out where Tony and the others were going, and turn up. If he wasn't needed, there were plenty of places they could go. Mari, he had no doubt, would understand. She would tell him that it would be better than not turning up and spending the whole weekend wondering if he should have done.

AN: Mean, I know: if you haven't read the previous two you won't make a lot of sense of this. Author's ego, see… how to make people read your stuff…