It was weeks, rather than days, before the two men were both declared fit enough to return to duty. If anyone was surprised that a broken thumb, the kind of injury that would normally have Gibbs back at his desk the following day and out in the field as soon as he could qualify on the firing range, kept him so long on sick leave, they didn't mention it. In the meantime, Ziva and McGee lent their experience to other teams, dropping by to visit their teammates bearing a home cooked meal or a selection of books and DVDs on a regular basis. Mallard divided his time between his normal responsibilities and overseeing his friends' recuperation and Abby kept them up to date with the office scuttlebutt.
Nobody was surprised that when they did return they came in together.
"I feel like we haven't been here for ages," Tony commented, as they crossed the basement parking lot. "It's like it's familiar but strange at the same time, kind of like coming back to boarding school after the summer, you know?"
"Never went to boarding school." Gibbs said unnecessarily.
He knew DiNozzo knew that. He also knew and understood that the younger man was only talking because he was keyed up about what they were about to do. As they waited for the elevator he took the chance to study his senior field agent. Tony was still a little pale and his suit hung a little loose where he'd lost some muscle. But his eyes were bright and his expression was eager rather than wary. Gibbs knew that he had passed his psych evaluation with flying colours.
He also knew exactly how much Andrews has affected his agent. A light touch on the rudder wouldn't be out of place.
"Was a good couple of weeks." He allowed, letting his expression soften into a fond smile.
That got him a quick, surprised, look. Gibbs knew he wasn't exactly known for his enjoyment of down time. But the enforced vacation had done them both good. The way that DiNozzo had allowed him to take care of his injuries and had trusted him enough to confide his feelings of fear and helplessness at Andrews' hands had gone a long way to heal his own wounds. None of which had anything to do with his physical injuries.
"Yeah," Tony agreed, even as he felt those memories ground him. "It really was."
Neither of them would say the words, but they both knew the time together had further cemented their relationship. Tony was pretty sure Gibbs had pulled a few strings in order to stay home with him until he was cleared for duty. And it had been nice just to hang out together. Away from the pressures of work, they could just enjoy each others company and give full reign to those teasing exchanges and meaningful looks that underpinned their relationship.
Gibbs waited until they were in the privacy of the elevator car before he spoke again.
"You sure you want to do it this way?"
"Oh yeah," This time DiNozzo's reply left no room for doubt. "I'm sure."
"Still don't see why you need to have me in there when you break the news," Gibbs groused. He had been trying to get a straight answer out of DiNozzo about that for the last few days. His senior field had just fixed him with an unreadable look and changed the subject. "Vance just wants your sit-rep to tie up his paperwork and rubber stamp my return."
Tony snorted lightly at that.
"You mean he wants to work out how the hell I convinced you to change your mind, when he hasn't been able to steer you in any direction you didn't already want to go."
Gibbs only response to that was a look of such disdain that Tony's heart swelled. He knew the former marine didn't think Vance was such a bad guy. Indeed, they both felt that once the new Director had started to get over the need to mark his territory, he had begun to grow into a pretty decent Agency lead. But that look said clearly that Vance was still a long way from earning the level of trust and kind of leeway from the Senior Special Agent that DiNozzo could take for granted.
"You're right I don't need you there to tell Vance that I accomplished my mission to get you to stay," Tony acknowledged. "But I want you there to hear what I have to say."
Gibbs tried to look pissed. But the glare lacked its usual intensity. He couldn't help but feel his chest swell with warmth that DiNozzo, whilst well prepared to stand on his own two feet and forge his own path, still held their relationship in sufficient esteem that he would want him on his six. He wondered if this was what it would have been like to know Kelly as a competent and successful adult. He certainly hoped so.
"You need to hear it, Boss."
True to form, DiNozzo had seen right through his bluster to the core of his soul. Despite his partners assurances part of him still harboured the doubt that if he had been younger, faster, stronger, things would have turned out better. Neither of them spoke again as they rode up to the Director's office and were nodded through by his secretary.
"Gentlemen," Vance greeted them. "Good to see you both looking so well. Please take a seat."
If Vance was surprised to see them both come in together, when he had only summoned DiNozzo to this meeting he didn't let it show on his face. But he try to reassert his authority over the situation by ignoring the chain of command an addressing his first point to the senior field agent instead of the team lead.
"Agent DiNozzo, I have the paperwork here which will confirm your promotion to Supervisory Special Agent on the Major Crimes Response Team here in DC. All you have to do is sign on the dotted line."
"With respect, Director," Tony didn't even glance at Gibbs. "I can't do that. That position is no longer available."
"Oh?" Vance raised a brow.
He was somewhat surprised to see that Gibbs was obviously perfectly happy to let DiNozzo carry the conversation. The former Marine was simply sitting in his seat, his gaze unfocused as he picked a stray hair off his sleeve. If Vance didn't know better he might think the team lead wasn't paying attention at all.
"Special Agent Gibbs has decided that he does want to resume his responsibilities as team lead," Tony allowed. "And since his physical, firearms and pysch evaluations have all confirmed that he not only meets but exceeds all of the requirements for an active field agent then I am happy to endorse his decision."
"Is that so?" Vance looked between the two men. "Correct me if I'm wrong Agent DiNozzo but apart from your brief spell as Agent Afloat you have worked under Agent Gibbs for more than nine years. During that time you have been offered two separate promotions to team lead. Most Senior Field Agents would jump at those chances. What makes you so different?"
"I'm not the one that's different," Tony shook his head. "There isn't a person in this Agency that wouldn't give their right arm to benefit from working with an experienced investigator like Agent Gibbs. He is the root of all this. Maybe he doesn't suffer fools gladly and he perhaps he won't sugar coat what needs to be said or kiss ass to advance his career. But he has the best solve rate in this Agency. He has trained more successful agents than anyone else I know. He inspires loyalty in his people because he always has their best interests at heart. He's a good man doing a damned good job and there is nobody else on this earth I would rather be partnered with or have watching my six."
"That's quite a speech." Vance regarded him with a quizzical expression. "Are you quite sure than Agent's Gibbs decision to return isn't more for your sake than because he really wants to come back?"
"Agent Gibbs never wanted to leave." DiNozzo spoke with utter certainly.
"Paperwork on my desk says differently." Vance pointed out.
At those words, the two men sitting in front of him exchanged an unreadable look. Vance was surprised by the slight fond quirk of Gibbs lips and the resulting raised eyebrows from DiNozzo. The Director had the feeling that a thousand things he didn't understand had just been exchanged in that single glance. He wanted to see who would respond first. And for the first time it was Gibbs who answered, his gaze never leaving his senior field agent.
"That was the pain and blood loss talking. Being shot can do that to you so I'm told. Taking the mandatory sick leave helped me get more than a few things in perspective. I'm ready to return to duty."
"I see," Vance said, even though he didn't. It was all too easy not to let his satisfaction hat he had achieved the outcome that he had wanted show on his face. Not least because he didn't have the first clue how DiNozzo had talked his intransient Boss around. And that frustrated the investigator in him. Because the more he tried to understand the dynamic between these two the more he felt like an outsider. "Agent Gibbs, I trust you understand that sick leave or not, this is a one time deal? If your retirement paperwork crosses my desk a second time, I will process it."
"Yeah," Even though Gibbs didn't so much as glance as his senior field agent Vance had the feeling that subject had already been fully discussed. "I hear that."
"Alright then," Vance didn't see any way to take this further. "You are both free to return to your duties. I will have Agents McGee and David reassigned to the MCRT as soon as the cases they are presently assisting on wrap up. You're dismissed, gentlemen."
The two men rose as one, despite the mis-matched outfits, Gibbs store bought sports jacket and pants contrasting sharply with DiNozzo's expertly tailored suit, their synchronised movements reflected their co-ordination in the field. As they made their way out of his office Vance leant back in his chair and wished he could be a fly on the wall to hear the two men's comments as they made their way back to the bullpen.
"Perspective, huh?" DiNozzo didn't even try to hide his amusement as they by-passed the elevator and made their way down the stairs. "That what all the stubborn, pig-headed, marines are calling it these days?"
"You miss the part of that conversation that said I'm still your Boss, DiNozzo?" Gibbs demanded. "That means I can take you down to the gym and kick your ass."
"I never doubted that for a second, Boss," Tony agree, a lightening fast grin illuminating his whole face. "You can move pretty fast for an old guy."
"You callin' me old, DiNozzo?" Gibbs asked dangerously quietly.
"Older," Tony amended. "Mature, experienced, distinguished, any of those working for you?"
Gibbs had to try really hard to smother his grin and assume a stern expression. One of the things he liked most about DiNozzo was his ability to get in his face and give him as good as he gave. Very few people were able to look past the former marine's gruff facade and realise that he actually liked people with the cojones to stand up to him.
"I can live with distinguished." He decided, as he moved towards his desk, pulling out his chair and powering up his computer. Looking up he was slightly surprised to see DiNozzo was still right on his six, hovering in front of his desk, instead of heading off towards his own. He raised a brow in mild question. "Something on your mind?"
"I mean what I said," Tony regarded him seriously. "You're better at this job than most guys half your age. We both know the time will come when you have to retire and when that day actually arrives I will be proud to step up and take on this team. Until then, I expect you to step up to the plate and do your job. If you ever let ego get in the way of that again.."
He left the threat hanging, knowing that his Boss would understand he meant business. Contrary to what his teammates might think it didn't matter to him that there was nobody around to see him being the one making the stand. All he really cared about what the well being of his team and that included whatever was in Gibbs' own best interest. And he knew the former marine understood that.
"You about done?" Gibbs challenged.
"For now." Tony decided.
The two men stared at each other for a long moment, before they each broke into broad grins, which spoke far more any words about the depth of their understanding of each other. Heading back towards his own desk Tony was aware of his Boss' eyes following him and knew without seeing that that half smirk smile that he reserved for those times he was especially proud of his senior field agent was hovering on his lips.
"Hey, DiNozzo," Gibbs waited until his senior field agent turned around, his eyes questioning. "That was a good job."
"You too, Boss," Tony met his gaze. They had both survived to fight another day. In his book that was always a victory. "You too."