Disclaimer: I do not own or profit from NCIS.

Author's Note: Well, here it is, the last chapter. I hope I summed it up nicely. Again, there's an archaic 80's television reference, but I think Tony and I have the same taste in shows, so I had to throw it in. Look it up or ask me if you're too young to remember! Some people have wondered if I'm working on anything else. Not yet, but I'll try to put information on my profile when I start a new story and give some idea when it might be finished. It would be a few months at the earliest.

I've loved all your comments and will miss hearing from you. Let me know what you think about our last chapter. Thank you for your continued kind wishes and support!

TLH

"Has the light been bothering you?" Dr. Shea asked when he entered Tony's room. The shades were drawn and the lights were turned off. Tony was lying on his side with his hand under the pillow; he glanced up at the psychiatrist without raising his head.

Before the agent could reply a nurse entered. "Dinnertime," she said airily, waving a bag in the air. She efficiently attached the tube coming from Tony's nose to the bag and hung it on the IV pole. She checked his pulse and blood pressure before making a few notes on her chart. "Do you want me to open the blinds?" she asked.

"No," Tony answered softly.

"Alright, Tony. Whatever you want." She smiled at the doctor before quietly leaving.

Dr. Shea pulled a chair close to the bed and sat down. "I see Abby's been to visit." He picked up a hat from the small pile that had accumulated on the nightstand; this one was bright orange with a black spider on the front.

Tony looked at the soft knitted hat; it made him feel good and bad at the same time. He loved that Abby cared so much about him that nearly every time she came to visit she brought a new one; he had nine or ten now caps now, each one uglier than the last. She didn't seem to mind that he hadn't worn any of them yet. It depressed him to know that he wouldn't get to see her anymore after he was no longer a federal agent.

Of course, even after he was fired Abby would continue to try and find ways to spend time with him; they all would. But the truth of it was that without the connection of work, slowly his relationship with the Goth and the other members of the team would fade away. He wouldn't have a Probie anymore, Ziva would run out of excuses to see him, Palmer would continue with his medical studies, Ducky would call every now and then out of obligation, and Gibbs would find a new senior field agent to headslap. Everything would change and he'd have to start over again, just like he had so many times before.

"Tony," Dr. Shea said, breaking through the stillness. "Why don't you tell me what's bothering you."

"There isn't anything to talk about," he replied, barely raising his voice. That was the problem with shrinks; they thought somehow talking could fix everything. Talking about this problem wasn't going to make it go away, so he didn't see the point.

The psychiatrist tilted his head and leaned forward. "Your attitude has changed over the last few days, Tony. Dr. Reed is extremely concerned about the way your recovery has stagnated. He says you should be eating more and moving around on your own, but that isn't happening. I'm worried about how you've stopped communicating with your friends and have withdrawn into yourself. I thought you and I had gotten to a point where you might tell me why you don't seem interested in getting better."

Tony pushed himself farther into the bed, refusing to look at the man. "I don't have an appetite; I can't help that. And I'm too tired to do anything. You make it sound like I feel this way on purpose."

The doctor shook his head and placed his hand on Tony's arm. "No one gets depressed on purpose, Tony, but you can't hide here forever. What are you afraid of?"

Tony closed his eyes. "I'm not afraid and I'm not depressed; I just don't want to talk tonight. I'm getting sick of everyone trying to make me do things I don't want to. I'm still capable of making some decisions for myself."

"No one said you can't. The problem is that your current decisions are impacting your health. If you don't start eating on your own Dr. Reed is going to recommend inserting a tube into your stomach; it's the only way he can make sure you get the nutrition you need. Is that what you want?"

Tony didn't say anything for a few minutes. "I want you to go away and let me go to sleep."

"Listen, Tony…."

Tony turned away from him again. "No, I'm not listening. I'm not interested in your psychoanalysis tonight. So please, go away and leave me alone."

"You have a lot of people who care about you Tony. You don't have to do this by yourself. All you have to do is tell us what's wrong so we can help you. It's not that hard."

The agent rolled onto his back. "That's what you don't understand. I am alone; I've always been alone. After my mother died I never had a real family; just me and my dad and whatever wealthy bimbo he was married to at the time. I'm used to it."

"What about Agent Gibbs? From what I can tell he's more like a father to you than a boss. He's not going to abandon you."

Tony bit his lip. "Maybe he won't have a choice."

Dr. Shea shook his head. "I don't think you're right about that, Tony. I don't think anything would make Gibbs turn his back on you. Just because your father didn't live up to his obligations doesn't mean Gibbs will disappoint you, too."

Tony wanted to believe the doctor; he wanted to believe that if he wasn't an NCIS agent anymore he would still be part of their family and that Gibbs would still be there for him. He just couldn't convince himself that was true. Gibbs was the job, just like him. The older man wouldn't be able to take time away from the work that was his life to play daddy to him once he was off the team. No matter how much Gibbs cared about him, it couldn't last in the long run. He had proven that by going back to the office before Tony had even been released from the hospital.

"I know Gibbs isn't like my father; he's ten times the man my dad ever thought about being. It doesn't mean I shouldn't be realistic," Tony finally said. "Sometimes things turn out a certain way and there isn't anything you can do about it."

The physician squeezed his arm reassuringly. "If you gave Gibbs and your other friends a chance you might find out they care about Anthony DiNozzo the person, not Anthony DiNozzo the senior field agent. No strings attached," the doctor countered.

"There are always strings," Tony muttered, unable to hide his sullen and weary tone. "We just don't always realize it until one of them gets cut." He felt like all the strings that connected him to his life had been severed, and he was floating around on the wind looking for a solid place to land when the only thing beneath him was a wide, unending ocean.

Tony took a deep breath against the storm of emotions he was feeling. The unpleasant conversation was making him queasy; on top of everything else his stomach wasn't enjoying the gooey meal that was sliding down into it in a continuous stream. His not quite recovered digestive system had decided to rebel against both the food and the discussion.

The psychiatrist noticed his green tinted and clammy skin. Tony swallowed around a lump building in his throat. "Are you ok?" the doctor asked with concern.

"Could you get a nurse?" Tony said suddenly. "I think I'm going to be sick."

By the time Dr. Shea called the nurse into the room, Tony was gritting his teeth in an effort to keep the small amount of food from forcing its way back up his throat. Recognizing his symptoms, she immediately stopped the feeding and picked up a basin. "Alright, Tony, let's sit you up some." She raised the bed and took up position beside her pale and sweaty patient. "Dr. Shea, you might need to go now," she said, deciding the young man didn't need someone watching him.

Reluctantly, the doctor agreed and moved toward the door. "We'll talk some more tomorrow, Tony."

He wasn't surprised when Tony didn't make an effort to reply. He left the room feeling like he had completely failed at getting through to the patient who very much needed to deal with his future, whatever that future might hold.

NCISNCISNCIS

Leroy Jethro Gibbs stalked down the hospital corridor with long strides and clear purpose; others traveling in the opposite direction hugged the wall in an effort to let him pass. The set of his jaw and crease between his eyes made it clear that he was not in a mood to be trifled with. He shoved the double doors of the neurology wing open and stomped over to Ducky, who was waiting for him in a corner near a potted plant and as far away from anyone else as he could get.

"Well? What self-destructive thing has he done now?" the lead agent demanded.

"Calm down, Jethro. He hasn't done anything yet, that's why I called you. He is however, threatening to sign himself out AMA."

"What brought this on? He can't even walk to the bathroom and back by himself."

"I don't know why he decided to make this grand bid for freedom. Yesterday, he was barely talking to anyone and seemed content to stay curled up in bed feeling sorry for himself. Today, he woke up demanding to get out of here as fast as he can."

"What does Dr. Shea have to say about it?"

"Based on some of Tony's comments, the doctor believes our young man is worried about what happens to him next. To some extent, he's been sabotaging his own recovery in order to prevent having to deal with the consequences of what Professor Childers made him do, which explains why he's been refusing to eat and participate in physical therapy. As long as he's still sick he doesn't have to face the fact that he might very well no longer hold the job he has so dearly loved."

Gibbs crossed his arms. "He hasn't been fired yet. And even if he was, it wouldn't make a difference to me."

The ME sighed. "Do you think Tony believes that, Jethro? It's hard enough to convince the boy he's cared about when we see him every single day." Ducky crossed his arms. "If he were no longer a federal agent, no longer a member of this team, he would not only lose his identity, but in his mind the direct link to us would be lost. He would be losing his family as well. Childers will have taken everything away from him that he ever cared about."

The silver-haired agent walked to the other side of the small waiting room before turning back toward Ducky. "Does he actually think we, I,would just desert him if he couldn't be an agent anymore? I know how hard that would be for him to accept and I'm not so much of a bastard that I'd just kick him to the curb after something like that."

Dr. Mallard shrugged. "I honestly don't know what he's thinking right now; his behavior is rather erratic. They removed the nasogastric tube last night at his insistence, which Dr. Reed agreed to since it has been making his stomach upset and he had a rather unpleasant vomiting episode. But as far as I know he still hasn't eaten anything which has everyone very concerned. His medical team has recommended at least another week in hospital, and then his release will need to be closely supervised. It is absolutely imperative that we make him stay."

"Alright, Duck, I'll take care of it."

"You sound like a poker player with a card up his sleeve," his old friend guessed.

Gibbs gave him his infamous half-smile. "Maybe even two or three."

When the two men entered the hospital room, Tony was sitting on the edge of the bed, his skinny legs sticking out of his hospital gown and his arms folded across his chest. He had removed the bandage covering the incision leaving his head bare except for a tiny layer of brown fuzz that now covered his skull. All the wires and monitors were tossed around on the sheets, and a slight smear of blood on his arm indicated where he had pulled the IV out. Two doctors, a nurse and an orderly were standing several feet away appearing very unhappy with the patient.

His eyes widened slightly when Gibbs appeared in the doorway with Ducky; his shocked expression was quickly replaced with a look of grim defiance. "I guess it was time to bring the big guns out, huh? You aren't going to change my mind, boss. I'm tired of being here and I want to go home."

Tony knew he sounded petulant and whiny, but he didn't care. It had been weeks since he'd seen the inside of his apartment, and he missed his stereo, his television, his couch. When he'd seen the blue sky out the window this morning all he could think about was getting out of this place. For some reason the need to be by himself overwhelmed him; he wanted nothing more than to be away from all these people watching him twenty-four hours a day.

"We've tried to explain to Tony that he is no condition to go home now. Even though we removed the feeding tube yesterday like he asked, he's continued to refuse to eat anything. Not only does he need to stay here, but if his nutritional issues aren't resolved soon we're going to have to insert a gastric tube," Dr. Reed explained tersely. "There is no way he should leave."

Tony shook his head and placed his hands on the bed to hold himself up. "You won't do anything without my permission. I'm done with all this and I'm going home. You can't stop me if that's what I want to do." Tony glared insolently.

Dr. Shea spoke up. "Tony, you've been doing really well; the nightmares are gone and you've made a lot of progress, both mentally and physically. I can't understand why you need to leave all of the sudden. Another week isn't going to make that much difference."

It didn't make sense to anyone, let alone him. All he knew was that the walls were closing in and he had to get the hell away from everyone. It didn't help that all he could think about was how this entire saga had destroyed his life and his career, and soon he'd be left with nothing. There wasn't one thing that could be done to change it. He shrugged, seeing no point in explaining the obvious. "I need to go home," was all he said.

Gibbs stepped forward, his ice blue eyes meeting Tony's. "Let him go."

Doctor Reed snapped his head around in surprise. "Are you sure you heard me, Agent Gibbs? It's medically inadvisable. He'll end up right back here in the hospital worse off than he is now."

"Tony knows what he can do and what he can't. If he wants to go, let him go." The lead agent turned and rummaged through a drawer, pulling out some clothes. He tossed them at Tony, who managed to catch the pair of sweats and NCIS t-shirt. "He's a big boy."

DiNozzo clenched the clothes in his hands and contained his shock at the older man's unconcerned response. He could play Gibbs' game. "Right. Thanks."

Holding his clothes in one hand, he placed the other on the bed and gently eased his feet to the floor. He flicked his eyes over at the group of people watching him find his balance. It was infuriating that even being upright made him dizzy and disoriented, but he refused to give them the satisfaction of seeing him sway.

Setting out across the cold tile, he eventually teetered to the side; Dr. Shea moved to reach out a hand and steady him. Gibbs touched the concerned psychiatrist's arm and shook his head slightly, making it clear that if Tony wanted to do this he was on his own. Tough love was just that; tough.

Slowly, DiNozzo made it to the bathroom. Several long minutes later he emerged, dressed in clothes that were two sizes too big and made him look even worse than he had in the hospital gown. A light sheen of sweat covered his skin, but he seemed more determined than ever to follow through with leaving. Standing in the door to the bathroom, he licked his lips before continuing on, shuffling to the nightstand where he stopped momentarily, looking for a moment like he might fall. Several members of his audience glanced at Gibbs, who stoically stood his ground, and none of them moved to intervene.

Tony pointed a finger at them and smiled. "I am fine," he said, "and I will see all of you later."

It would have been much more effective if he could've strutted out of the room, and he knew his tight movements were less than impressive. Outside the door, he leaned against the wall and closed his eyes, letting his guard down so he could catch his breath before slowly starting out again.

Ducky leveled a displeased gaze at Gibbs. "If I had known this is how you intended to handle the situation, I wouldn't have been so eager to bring you along. Are you seriously going to just stand here and let this happen? He can barely walk."

"Do you actually think telling him to stay was going to work? When he's in this kind of mood, he has to learn the hard way."

Dr. Mallard sighed. "You're probably right, but I do hate to see the boy struggle so."

"Me, too, Duck. How far do you think he'll get?"

"Not far. You saw how weak and shaky he was. He'll be lucky to make it out the front doors before collapsing," the ME commented.

Gibbs thinned his lips and rolled his eyes before addressing the medical personnel in the room. "Wait here. I'll go after him."

NCISNCISNCIS

Tony lay his head against the cool elevator wall and blew out a breath. Going home had seemed like a good idea at the time, but he hadn't considered how difficult it would be on his own. Having to leave the hospital without any help hadn't occurred to him, which showed just how off his game he was. But that was fine. He knew Gibbs was setting him up; he'd seen the older man do it to suspects a hundred times before. He could do this. He'd call a cab, go back to his apartment, put on a movie and curl up on his sofa. Lying around there wouldn't be any different than lying around in the hospital.

The elevator opened and he stepped out, glancing left and right to get his bearings before heading down the hall. It was a few minutes before he realized he was on the wrong floor; he wasn't anywhere near the exit. All the halls looked exactly the same and he couldn't figure out which direction would get him back to the elevator. He was sweating harder now, and his breathing was heavier; he wiped his forehead with his hand as the corridor in front of him stretched out for miles. His ribs and his stomach ached in unison.

"Are you ok?" an orderly asked, concerned at the man's grey pallor.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm good."

He picked a direction and walked, his feet suddenly feeling like numb, disconnected stumps. Blackness ate at the edges of his vision as the lightheaded sensation swept a cold chill through him. He vaguely wondered how long it had been since he pulled out that IV drip. Maybe there was something in it he needed after all.

Stumbling into the wall, his knees buckled and he landed on his ass. A female voice asked if he needed help, but he couldn't get his brain to work enough to answer. The feminine voice was replaced by a gruffer tone; then someone patted his cheek. He ran a rubbery hand along his scalp. "Go away," he mumbled resentfully.

"Come on, DiNozzo. You're too heavy to carry back so I brought a wheelchair."

The next thing he knew he was being hauled off the floor into the waiting chair. He was so out of it at that point he couldn't argue with the silver-haired abductor who whisked him quickly down the hallway and into the elevator without another word.

Back in the room he lost all control of his destiny; he was stripped, the gown was tied back on, and he was assisted into bed where all the various leads and monitors were reattached. He heard someone talking about his glucose bottoming out or something like that, but he couldn't focus on anything and found himself drifting around in a foggy haze. Eventually he couldn't fight the need to sleep, and a tiny part of his brain suspected he'd been sedated as further punishment for his brief attempt at escaping.

By the time his mind decided to rejoin him, the soft light of evening was sifting through the window. Another day was gone; the realization depressed him and did nothing to lift his already black mood. He stared out at the sky streaked with dark pink and purple clouds and sighed, wondering if he would ever have a normal life again. Maybe one more week wasn't a big deal to all of them, but they got to go home and sleep in their own beds, drive their cars, and do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. He hadn't had those simple luxuries in so long he could barely remember them.

Movement in the corner of the room caught his attention.

"What are you still doing here?" Tony asked the lead agent who was sitting in a chair with his legs crossed.

"Somebody had to make sure you didn't try to run again."

"If I could run, believe me I would be out of here." Tony didn't try to hide his irritation.

Gibbs stood and crossed the floor to a tray at the side of the bed and pushed it over in front of Tony. He picked up a remote and raised the bed so Dinozzo was in a sitting position behind the tray. The younger man eyeballed the small bowl of chocolate brown pudding-like substance placed in front of him. Gibbs sat down on the edge of the bed and picked up a spoon, scooped up a helping of jiggly mocha, and held it out toward Tony.

"You've got to be kidding," Tony said, clamping his lips shut.

"Somebody has to make you eat. You don't seem to be doing a very good job of it yourself."

DiNozzo just stared at him.

"If you don't eat it I'll hold your nose and stuff it down your throat. Your choice."

Tony looked around, trying to determine if there was a way to get out of letting the ex-marine force-feed him. "You really would do it, wouldn't you?"

Gibbs blue eyes never blinked. "Yep."

Grudgingly, DiNozzo opened his mouth and let Gibbs stick the spoon inside. "Gag," he said around the mouthful of pudding. "I want you to know that tastes awful."

Gibbs shrugged and fished around in the bowl with the spoon. "So why the starvation act? I thought you wanted to get out of here; they aren't going to let you go when you're barely eating enough to keep a hamster alive."

"I'm not hungry. It's hard to make yourself eat when you have no appetite. Then there's always the issue of the cuisine."

Gibbs poked another wobbly spoonful at his mouth, which Tony accepted reluctantly.

They sat in stony silence for a while, Tony morosely picking at the blanket. Gibbs could tell he wanted to say something, and decided to wait him out.

Eventually, Tony peered up at him, his expression a mixture of fear and anguish. "I figured you hadn't been around much the last few days because you didn't want to be the one to tell me I'm fired." His voice was soft and defeated.

The lead agent leaned back and sat the spoon down. "Is that what you thought? That you were done as a federal agent and I didn't have the guts to tell you?"

Tony backpedaled. "Not that you didn't have the guts, of course you have the guts. Maybe you just….didn't want to be the one to destroy my career, watch my life crumble around me, that kind of thing. I mean, what would you want with a washed up ex-agent anyway?" Tony wouldn't meet his eyes.

"Oh, well, in that case." Gibbs shook his head and softened his gaze as well as his tone. "You really think I'd let them fire you? And then I'd walk away and leave you alone?"

DiNozzo leaned his head back against the pillow in frustration. "Do I need to give you a recap of the last few weeks? How I broke in the Director's house and tried to shoot him? Assaulted a police officer? Disappeared and had my brain scrambled by a crazy psycho scientist? That's not exactly the type of things the government is looking for on a resume. I mean come on; if you aren't going to sack me, I'm sure Vance will take care of it."

"Yeah, Vance should come see you soon, but not to tell you you're out of a job." Gibbs scooped up another spoon of pudding and shoved it between DiNozzo's lips. He swallowed slowly, trying to follow what Gibbs was talking about.

"I don't understand. You have to fire me after all this. That's all I've been thinking about for a week and there's no way around it. Vance might not want to do it, but he doesn't have an alternative." Tony's brow furrowed in confusion.

Gibbs surprised him with a Cheshire cat smile that revealed he knew something Tony didn't. "Just because I haven't been here much the last couple of days doesn't mean I've been sitting on my ass doing nothing. Good senior field agents don't grow on trees, so I had to make sure I could hang on to mine."

"What did you do?" Another bite of pudding slipped into his mouth, but Tony wasn't paying any attention.

"Ah, nothing much; just visiting a few people with Vance. It seems that no one wants to take responsibility for letting Childers off his leash so they'd rather keep the whole fiasco quiet. Your little escapade has been officially listed as an undercover assignment for NCIS in conjunction with the CIA and Homeland Security; the details of the op are classified, but I think if the Director makes a few more calls you might even be up for a commendation."

The blue eyes twinkled as he held another bite of pudding out which Tony ate on autopilot. The younger man was so surprised that he might actually still have a career that he didn't know how to react.

"I'm not being fired? I still have a job? Are you serious?"

"Have you ever known me not to be serious?" Gibbs deadpanned.

Tony tilted his head. "Good point." His eyes turned watery even as his lips tilted up at the corners in a small smile. "I thought it was over; that everything I've worked for was gone. You understand boss; no wife, no kids; no prospects," he grinned self-consciously. "For the wife and kids at least. I might get a little goofy sometimes, but all I have is the job. When I thought that was over; I guess it's been making me act kind of crazy."

"You still have the job, DiNozzo; that is as long as you get yourself released from the hospital and back at work. The docs say you could be on desk duty in three or four weeks if you start eating and putting your all into physical therapy. Think you can do that?"

Tony ate the next bite of pudding without complaint. "I can do that," he agreed readily, unable to hide his excitement at the prospect of eventually going back to work.

Gibbs scraped the bowl for the last morsel. "It wouldn't matter, you know."

"What wouldn't matter?" Sometimes having a conversation with Gibbs gave him whiplash; there were too many twists and turns.

"If you weren't an agent anymore." Gibbs held out the spoon; Tony slowly ate the last of the pudding. It dawned on him that he'd just let the lead agent feed him his dinner like a toddler. He felt the heat rise up on his cheeks as he flushed with embarrassment.

"I'd still be here, Tony. I'd still be your friend and I wouldn't let you go through it by yourself. I'll always have your six, job or not. And as long as I'm around you will always have a home to go back to. Why is it so hard for you to understand that?"

Tony let his eyes drop. "I don't know, boss. It's just…..I guess if we didn't have work to go to every day, I mean, why…why would you have any reason to keep me around? It's not like….." he bit the inside of his cheek before continuing. "It's not like I'm your real son or anything." His words were so soft Gibbs could barely hear them.

The lead agent took a deep breath and let it out. "Blood isn't all that ties people together, Tony. It's who you are inside that would make me want to keep you around; not just the fact you work with me. You've become much more to me than just an agent. You're a part of my family and families stick together no matter what. Do you get that?"

"I get it, boss. Sometimes I just need to be reminded," Tony said quietly, realizing that what Gibbs felt for him really might be unconditional. Maybe Gibbs didn't expect anything more from Tony than for him to be…..well, Tony. He might never see a fairy or a unicorn, or find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but this….this treasure was just as good.

For the first time in a long time, he really, truly smiled.

NCISNCISNCIS

"Here you go." Gibbs held out a small duffel bag of clothes.

"I can't believe I get to wear pants again. I'll be right back." Tony grabbed the bag and headed for the bathroom, holding the back of the gown closed with his free hand. His gait was slow, but steady and straight.

Gibbs sat down on the bed and waited. "Uh, boss, I think you made a mistake. These aren't my clothes." DiNozzo poked his head around the door. "Where'd you get this stuff?"

The lead agent couldn't hide his grin. "Quit complaining and get out here."

Tony emerged from the bathroom wearing a pair of athletic pants and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology t-shirt. "MIT? Did you borrow this from McGee?"

"Your own clothes are too big; Tim's the only one close to your size right now. So, yeah, he loaned you a few things. They fit pretty good." To be honest, even McGee's clothes were a bit loose on him, but Gibbs didn't think that needed to be pointed out.

"I didn't know I was that skinny. No wonder you people have been so worried about me. As soon as we get back to your place I'm eating some lasagna and a loaf of bread. And maybe a milkshake."

Dr. Mallard and Dr. Shea entered the room. "No, I think not, Anthony. That very statement is the reason you'll be staying with Gibbs for the time being. You must maintain your very strict diet for the next four to six weeks; lots of protein and supplements, but nothing too difficult for you to digest. The meal you just mentioned would make you terribly ill. Instead of lasagna why don't you consider a nice bowl of chicken broth?" Dr. Mallard suggested.

"We wouldn't want me to chew or anything," Tony muttered.

Dr. Shea pointed to the wheelchair he was pushing. "Hop in, Buckeye. It's time to roll on out of here."

"You know, I don't think that's necessary. I mean, I'm doing just fine on the treadmill during physical therapy and my muscles are nice and loose thanks to Nurse Jenny's massages, so I can definitely walk out of here on my own, right? Right?" Tony prompted.

All three of the older man stared at him without answering. "I'll be sitting down in the wheelchair now," he conceded.

"Good choice, DiNozzo," Gibbs stated with a grin. He started to push then stopped. "Oh, I almost forgot something." The lead agent fished around in his jacket pocket and pulled out the black knit skull and crossbones cap. "I found this in the trash; Abby said someone must have accidentally thrown it away since it was a gift from her. And I know you wouldn't throw away a gift from Abby, would you?" Gibbs tugged the hat over Tony's head while DiNozzo sat in mute horror. "It'll keep your head warm and you won't lose it again." Gibbs patted the top of his head when he was done.

"Thanks for watching out for me, boss," Tony groaned sarcastically.

"Always, DiNozzo. All-ways."

NCISNCISNCIS

"Give it some pepper, Tony! You can do it!" Abby cheered from her seat atop a workout bench in the NCIS weight room.

Ziva held the punching bag while Tony gave it as forceful a hit as he could muster. Ziva and the bag barely moved. "In Israel we have little girls who can hit harder than you," the Israeli taunted.

Tony punched at the bag again, his sweaty face showing the amount of exertion it was taking to continue his somewhat feeble boxing session. "Maybe if I aimed for something else instead." He pretended to throw a punch at his pretty partner, who ducked and laughed.

"You could not fight me when you were in the best condition; I certainly think it would not be a good idea now," Ziva pointed out.

Tony shuffled his feet like Muhammad Ali. "Soon I'll be floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, David. You just wait."

"Yeah, Ziva, give him a break. The poor guy's still having to borrow clothes from McGee. I mean, Tony without his wardrobe is like…."

"The Greatest American Hero without his red tights and cape?" Tony finished for her.

Abby grinned. "I loved that show! The eighties was the cheesiest decade ever!" She burst into the theme song of the old television program. Tony threw his arm around her shoulders and joined in with the chorus.

Believe it or not, I'm walking on air, I never thought I could feel so free! Flying away, on a wing and a prayer, who could it be? Believe it or not, it's just me!

They both broke into laughter as Ziva watched with mild bemusement and raised eyebrows.

"Now all you need are some blonde curls." Abby reached up and rubbed the soft covering of brown hair that had sprouted on Tony's head. For some reason she was compelled to touch it as many times a day as possible.

"Abby, do you have to keep doing that?" Tony asked. "It makes me feel weird."

"I'm sorry, Tony, but you're kind of like a living, breathing Chia pet. I always wanted one when I was a kid and my parents wouldn't get it for me. But now I have you!" She reached out to touch his hair again but he pulled away from her hand.

McGee walked into the workout room. "Quitting already? Maybe next time I can spar with you, Tony."

DiNozzo gave the younger man an incredulous gaze. "Me spar with you? The only reason you're suggesting that is because you might have a weight advantage on me right now. You never want to spar with me."

"I'm just trying to help you get cleared for field duty, Tony. It's not a big deal."

"It is for me, McToothpick! You might want to rock the ultra-skinny emo look, but I need some meat on my bones. I look better when I'm not too thin."

"Who told you that, Tony?" Ziva asked mockingly.

"Lots of women, Ziva. I don't know what you're interested in, but most girls like to think their date can protect them, not get blown over by a gust of wind. Well, your dates probably don't know you could kill them with a butter knife so I guess it's not much of a concern for you. Anyway," he turned his attention back to McGee. "We aren't quite finished, why?"

"Oh, I almost forgot. The director sent me to find you. Said the two of you need to finish a conversation?" McGee looked at him questioningly, obviously curious about what the Director wanted with Tony.

Vance paced into the room. "How long did you plan on keeping me waiting, McGee?"

"Sorry, Director."

"I'm sure you are. Now give me and DiNozzo some time alone." With openly interested gazes the other team members filed from the room.

Vance walked over to the punching bag. "Come on, show me what you got."

Tony ambled after him. "Don't expect much," he apologized before taking several stabs at the bag.

"You at least got the form right; keep at it and your strength will return," Vance commented.

"So they tell me."

"Have you thought any more about my offer? The lead agent in Rota is retiring and I need an answer."

Tony stopped hitting the bag. "You still want me to take Rota? Why? I considered myself lucky to have a job; I can't believe you'd want to give me my own team."

Vance stepped around the bag. "I know what it was like to be in the field, Tony. I have a few horror stories of my own. Most men wouldn't have come through this like you have. It's not difficult to admire your fortitude." He paused. "But I don't expect you to hold a gun on me again."

"No, of course not, Director. I'm really, really sorry for that." He looked down at his feet and turned a little pink around the ears.

"Put it in the past. What I need to know now is what you plan to do about Rota. The assignment is perfect for you."

Tony picked at the gloves he was wearing. Vance reached out and helped to unlace them.

"I might be right for Rota, but is Rota right for me?" Tony shook his head. "I'm staying here, Director. You'll have to find someone else for the position."

Vance handed the gloves to Tony. "I can't tell you I'm surprised."

"A guy like you, who always knew he wanted to be in charge, probably doesn't get a guy like me who's willing to give that up. I want you to understand my decision. It's not that I don't think I'm ready, or that I don't want my own team. It's just that…..right now, this is where I belong."

"Gibbs won't be around forever, Tony. What will you do then?"

Tony smiled. "I guess I'll figure it out. Maybe I'll apply to be Director."

Vance laughed. "You really are one of a kind, DiNozzo."

"Like I haven't been hearing that all of my life."

The older man walked with him to the door. "You really do need to eat something; if Jackie saw you this skinny she'd be cooking you dinner every night. And no matter how tolerable I currently find you that's the last thing I want."

Tony chuckled. "Trust me, with Gibbs on nutrition patrol, I spend half my day eating. I'll be back to my sleek physique before you know it."

"I'm sure all the ladies in evidence will be thrilled."

"You know it."

NCISNCISNCIS

Tony was flipping omelets when Gibbs came downstairs, dropping a couple of bags on the floor. DiNozzo glanced over his shoulder as he slid the fluffy eggs out of the pan and onto two plates.

"You didn't slip any cheese in those, did you?" Gibbs asked.

"No, boss, no cheese. Just plain, boring eggs and a few physician approved veggies."

Gibbs picked up a fork and stuffed some in his mouth. "Good. We've got plans this weekend, so you don't need to make yourself sick."

"Plans? What kind of plans?"

The lead agent buttered a piece of toast. "Oh, I was thinking since you're going back to work next week it might be the right time to take a little vacation for the weekend."

"Vacation? You know I've made a solemn vow to never take a vacation again. And I've never known you to take a vacation in your life."

Gibbs crunched his way through the toast. "Well, since your last one was such a bust, I thought you needed a chance to relax before you rejoined the workforce. Trust me; you'll have a good time."

NCISNCISNCIS

Tony was lugging enough supplies to go fishing for a week; Gibbs had loaded him down with bait, a six pack of beer in a cooler, chairs, and a backpack of snacks. He was juggling it all as they walked down a trail toward a lake that Gibbs promised held the best trout in the state.

"Are you sure this is a good time, boss? I'm not convinced we're having fun yet, and why am I carrying all the stuff? I thought I was the sick one."

Gibbs kept walking. He was carrying the fishing poles and a small bucket. "If you're ready to go back to work you'll need to carry the gear. Consider it practice."

"Aw, come on, boss. How much farther? I'm getting tired."

"You're worse than a six-year old, DiNozzo. It's right up ahead. Now quit complaining and keep up."

Tony stopped for a minute to catch his breath. He was feeling better, but he still wore out easily, so he thought he deserved a break. He wasn't getting much rest and relaxation yet, but going fishing with Gibbs, no matter what, would be a hell of a lot more fun than his last vacation.

He watched the older man continue steadily down the path. The sun was bright, the sky was blue, and the birds chirped in the trees. It wasn't Rota, but it was enough, and it was exactly where he wanted to be.

"DiNozzo, you coming?" the stern voice called back to him.

Tony stood quietly a few more minutes, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon and waiting for what he knew was coming next. Gibbs didn't disappoint; the voice was louder and tinged with aggravation.

"DiNozzo!"

Tony grinned, picking up the equipment and jogging down the trail. "On your six, boss!"

For this day at least, all was right with the world.