Thanks so much to everyone for the reviews! I really love the Abby/Tony friendship, and I miss seeing more of it on the show. Guess that's what fic is for, right?

On we go! (The site was being flaky, so if you got the notification for this chapter twice, I apologize!)

The sun was blinding when they stepped out of the Las Vegas airport. Tony slipped on his sunglasses, then tipped his head back, letting the heat wash over him. It felt good; he'd been oddly chilled ever since leaving his apartment that morning, but wrote it (as well as his pounding head) off to lack of sleep and a bit too much tequila. He hoisted his bag onto his shoulder, then reached for Abby's suitcase. "Let me get that for you, ma'am," he drawled.

Abby giggled. "Thank y'kindly," she said, her own Southern twang quite a bit more authentic than Tony's. Growing up in Louisiana would do that to you, he supposed. "I think we pick the car up over here," she said, angling across the parking lot with Tony at her heels. "This is going to be awesome!"

Her enthusiasm was contagious, especially when he saw the car she'd reserved. "A Mustang, Abs? Seriously?"

She nodded, fairly bouncing with glee. "I called last night and they had one! I thought you might like to...y'know." She shrugged, trailing off as if she was afraid she'd screwed up somehow. "Is it too soon? I mean, you almost got blown don't have some kind post-traumatic association with Mustangs now, right? I can get something else if you want..."

"Nope. It's perfect." He gave her his warmest smile, and she wrapped her arms around his waist. He stood there for a moment and rested his chin on her head, reveling in the feel of a hug with no strings, with no lies. She was the only person in his life he ever hugged that way, Tony realized. Forcing himself to pull away, he made a show of inspecting the car. "God this is beautiful." He looked up. "I get to drive, right?"

She tossed the keys to him. "Of course! That's the whole point."

Grabbing the keys easily from the air, he unlocked the trunk and dumped their bags inside, then slid behind the wheel to where Abby was already waiting. "You have the map, right?" she asked.

"Map?" he replied with a grin. "Where we're going, we don't need maps."

She socked him in the shoulder. "Trust me, Doc Brown - out here, you need maps. Or a map, at least. Tina lives in the middle of nowhere, and this thing doesn't come with a GPS."

"Of course it doesn't," Tony said. "Ruin these beautiful lines?" He ran his hand lovingly over the dashboard. "Sacrilege, my dear Ms. Scuito." He started the car, pointedly ignoring the map Abby was shoving in his direction, and angled out of the parking space.

"You're not going to be all 'I don't need directions - I'm a guy and we're born with a built-in compass,' are you?" Tony just grinned at her, then came to a stop at the parking lot exit.

"Uh...which way?"

Since Gibbs was not there, Abby handled the headslap on his behalf.

After nearly four hours on the road, including two wrong turns, one "where the HELL is a gas station because I am NOT pushing this car through the desert" scare, and half-dozen bottles of water, they finally arrived at Tina's ranch. "Ranch" was actually a bit generous; it wasn't much more than a ramshackle house at the top of a low hill, surrounded by acres of fenced-in arid land and a small barn, presumably for the alpacas. The barn actually looked quite a bit newer than the house, which Tony decided later should have been his first clue that he was in for a very long weekend. Canyon Ranch this ain't.

Tina was already bustling out to greet them as they pulled up the drive; Tony barely managed to stop the Mustang before Abby launched herself out the door. "It is SO good to see you!" they said in near unison, and immediately started chattering away as if they'd both suddenly discovered they possessed working vocal cords and couldn't wait to share. Tony climbed slowly out of the car, the heat that had felt so good outside the airport now threatening to stifle him.

It was a few minutes before Abby came up for air and spotted Tony standing awkwardly beside the car. "Oh my God, Tony, I'm so sorry!" She ran over and grabbed his hand to lead him back to Tina. "Tony, this is Tina. Tina, this is my friend Tony. He really, really needed a vacation, and since I was coming out here anyway I figured this would be an awesome chance for him to get away for a little while. I knew you wouldn't mind."

"Of course I don't!" Tony barely kept himself from jumping backwards as Tina pulled him in for a hug. Before he could steady himself, she let him go and held him at arm's length. "Tony, huh?" She winked at Abby. "Pretty cute, Abby. Might have to keep this one."

Tony gulped, then forced a grin. "OK, but we're not going to have to get married are we?" Tina looked confused. "Tony and Tina's Wedding? Kind of a satire...oh, never mind."

Luckily, Tina seemed willing to let that go. "Well, let's get you both inside. We've got a bit yet before dinner but once you're settled in I'll give you the grand tour." She led them into the house and up a rickety staircase, which let them out into a narrow hallway. "Guest room's right over here," Tina said. "Only have the one - Abby, you can bunk with me if you want, let Tony here have the room?"

"I can sleep on the couch or something," Tony said quickly. "I don't want to put you out -"

"Don't be silly," Tina replied as Abby nodded in agreement. "It's no trouble at all." She threw open the door to a tiny guest room. "Make yourself at home, Tony. Abby, we're right down this way."

The two women headed off, still chatting, and Tony was left alone to survey his home for the weekend. It wasn't too bad, he decided as he tossed his bag on the floor beside the bed. A little warm, but he was in the middle of the freaking desert. The window opened, but the blast of hot air that came in when he tried it made him decide that he was better off leaving it shut. Instead, he flipped on the ceiling fan and the stale air came to life.

Taking Tina at her word, Tony kicked off his shoes and stretched out on the twin bed. It was surprisingly comfortable, draped with a homemade quilt and two puffy down pillows at the top. Oh, yeah. Not too bad at all.

He yawned, briefly considering the possibility that lying down might not be the best idea. But his head was still pounding, and he felt like he hadn't slept in days. Which wasn't entirely untrue; sleep was elusive of late unless it was helped along by a few drinks.

It was one of many things he tried not to think about too much.

Thankfully, Abby and Tina found their way back down the hall before his mind could wander too far off its pre-approved track. They were still talking; Tony rubbed his temples and considered asking Abby if she had any aspirin, but to be quite honest he didn't want to draw attention to himself. Abby was so excited to see her friend that she'd quit watching him out of the corner of her eye, and he felt for the first time since they left DC that he was finally no longer under scrutiny. If he didn't know better, he'd have thought Gibbs asked her to keep an eye on him.

But Gibbs didn't have to ask, he reminded himself as he followed the two women down the stairs for the grand tour, bearing yet another forced smile. Abby did it all on her own.

As far as Tony was concerned, their trip had thus far been a highly educational experience. In only three days at Tina's ranch, he learned several very important things:

He hated the desert. He hated the heat, unless it was accompanied by ocean, girls in bikinis, and drinks with little umbrellas. He hated sand and dust, especially the kind that that stirred with each rare breath of wind and found its way into his hair, his eyes, and his lungs.

And he really, really, hated alpacas.

"Cranky little bastards," he muttered, looking down at the toes of his once-immaculate Gucci shoes. Yeah, OK, maybe he shouldn't have worn them to an actual working ranch, but how was he supposed to know the damn things could spit a good ten feet? Apparently he had managed to annoy the creatures from quite a distance, because one had spit on his shoes, and the other...

Tony barely managed to suppress a gag at the memory of the putrid, stinking green slime oozing its way down his cheek. After that encounter, the closest he got to their pen was the porch swing he was currently perched on, waiting for Abby and Tina to say their goodbyes.

And waiting. And waiting.

And waiting.

He was doing his best not to get impatient. After all, he wasthe third wheel on this trip. Abby was being nice just to invite him, and both women had done their best to make him feel included and welcome. And despite his ever-ruminating mind's best efforts, he really hadenjoyed himself in the end. Tina made a mean chili, which paired nicely with couple of evenings on the porch, Abby curled at his side. McGee wasn't the only one who could tell a story - Tony regaled the women with his favorite tales of the NCIS MCRT (staring one Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo, of course), and Abby and Tina themselves had more than a few stories to tell. Tina had worked forensics for the LAPD before retiring to civilian life, and some of her cases made even Tony's eyes widen and his stomach flip.

Now, though, as he stretched his long legs out in front of him and settled back into the swing, the familiar waves of unease began to wash over him again. They brought with them the sense of weariness that he hadn't been able to shake, despite some surprisingly restful nights in Tina's guest bedroom. He had a sneaking suspicion there was more to it than being tired; the past several months still weighed on him, and the more he thought about going back to DC, under everyone's watchful eye yet again, the worse he felt. He didn't want to go back, he realized. Not yet.

Tony refused to let his mind take the next logical step.

Not ever.

Save it, DiNozzo.

To his relief, Abby and Tina chose that moment to swarm back towards the porch, saving him from a mental game of DiNozzo-on-DiNozzo movie trivia to distract himself. He hauled himself to his feet and descended the steps, quickly putting on his sunglasses as the bright sun hit his eyes and set his head pounding again. He managed to smile his way through Tina's goodbye hugs and assured her that he had indeed had a wonderful time, and of course he would love to come back, and yes the alpacas were great, and no he really couldn't marry her and move here full time to become a ranch hand. Abby said something about his butt and a pair of chaps that Tony was glad he didn't fully hear.

Finally, after yet another round of hugs and exhortations from Tina to be careful, they pulled out of the the dusty driveway. "Vegas, baby!" Tony hollered as they turned onto the dirt road. Abby laughed, turned around for one more wave to Tina, then settled in beside him. She linked an arm through his and wiggled over to put her head on his shoulder in an Abby-version of a half hug.

"Ready?" she said, looking up at him. And at that moment, Tony knew that Abby hadn't been fooled by his bright grin and chattering stories. Not for a second.

"Born ready," he replied. She nodded, then nestled her head into his shoulder. Tony forced back a sigh of relief. They would talk about it before the weekend was over - her look made that quite clear - but at least he had gained another reprieve.

Two hours into the drive, it was becoming quite clear that Tony's headache was not going away anytime soon; in fact, it had been joined by a cough that he managed to hide behind his hand and a churning stomach. Great. Of all the times to get...allergies. Yeah. That was it.

"You wanna drive for a little bit?" he said, trying to sound casual.

"Are you OK?" Abby said immediately

"Are you kidding? I'm great - I'm on vacation, driving through the desert in a Mustang, and I'm on my way to Vegas. What's not to love?" He grinned at her. "Just thought you should get a chance to handle this baby for awhile."

Abby shrugged. "Sure, why not? We can stop at that gas station up there - I was kinda starting to get hungry. Think they'll have a Caf-Pow machine?"

Tony eyed it warily. The little service station looked like a set piece from The Stand - rural didn't begin to cover it. "Dunno. Does this count as civilization yet?"

To Abby's delight, they had a perfectly serviceable Caf-Pow machine. To Tony's relief, the gas station's selection of Advil and Tylenol was fully stocked. He managed to purchase a couple of packets without being spotted, and dry-swallowed three pills on their way back out to the car. There - that should take care of his headache, at least for now. They'd be at the hotel in a couple more hours, and a night in Vegas never failed to perk him up, no matter what his mood. He couldn't help grinning as he remembered Jason's bachelor party, when they managed to hook up with some Brazilian models (or at least, they said they were Brazilian models, which was close enough) and found themselves...out gambling very late. Right. That was the story they'd told Jason's fiancee, and Tony was sticking to it.

He climbed into the passenger side of the car as Abby slid behind the wheel. "What do you want to listen to?" she asked.

"Driver's choice," he said, trying to stifle a yawn.

"Cereal Killer?"

He winced inwardly at the thought of the heavy baseline pounding in time with his head. Still, the last thing he wanted to do was get Abby worried. A worried Abby was an Abby on high alert, and such an Abby could be dangerous to a Tony DiNozzo who was trying to ignore a possible...OK, maybe not allergies, he decided, rolling his aching shoulders. A cold. Right. A cold.

"Sure. Massacre those Cheerios."

Somehow, even with the sounds of dying grains flowing through the speakers, he managed to settle into the comfortable bucket seat and relax, letting the sun warm his face. His eyes slid shut behind his sunglasses, and within ten minutes, he had dozed off.

He woke disoriented, not entirely sure where he was or how he'd gotten there. He only knew that he was hot as hell, and being in a moving car was quickly becoming a very bad idea. "Abby?" he muttered.

"Good morning, sleepyhead," she said, glancing over at him. "Good timing - we're just getting to some really pretty scenery, although you missed this HUGE cactus a few miles back that I swear looked like it had a human face. I named it Bob."

Desert. Nevada. He swallowed, his mouth dry, and felt for the bottle of water beside him. "Where are we?"

"The middle of nowhere. Technically we're about three hours from Vegas, but personally I was just excited when we finally hit a paved road."

Tony took a sip of water, then closed his eyes as his stomach immediately rolled in protest. This was definitely not good. He glanced over at Abby. "Think we could stop and grab some more water?" he said.

"I think there's some in the back," she said. "We're still like, an hour from anywhere to stop. I feel like I should be on a horse or a wagon train or something."

Tony forced a chuckle, even as he frantically looked around, hoping a gas station with a bathroom would suddenly materialize from nowhere, like a mirage. No such luck; everywhere he looked, there was nothing but sand, cacti, and tumbleweeds that looked to be straight out of a Warner Bros cartoon. Shit. He felt the color drain from his face as the faint queasiness quickly escalated into full-blown nausea. No way he was going to be able to hide this one.

"Abby, can you pull over real quick?"

She frowned. "Tony, what's wrong?"

"Abs, please..." She eased the car to the side of the road; it had barely stopped moving before Tony had his seatbelt off and was out the door. He managed to make it to the gravel shoulder before his stomach rebelled completely. By the time it calmed, Abby was hovering worriedly at his side.

"Tony, are you OK? Well, wait, of course you're not OK - dumb question, Abby." She glared at him. "Why didn't you tell me you were sick?"

"Carsick," he rasped. He gratefully took the bottle of water she handed him, rinsed his mouth, then spat into the dust. "I'm just carsick, it's not a big deal." His smile was less forced than before as he realized that he was starting to feel better. "Hell, if Gibbs were driving I would have puked about fifty miles back."

Abby giggled, though she still looked skeptical. "Gibbs can even make ME carsick." Still, before he could stop her she had darted a hand up to feel his forehead. "You feel warm."

"That would be because it's about three million degrees out here."

"True." She frowned as they walked back to the car. "You sure you're OK?"

"Never better," he said, only half-lying. "C'mon, let's get moving. I want to see these cacti I've been missing. Bob, huh?"

"Yup," she said, climbing in behind the wheel. "He looked a little like Bob Saget - remember, the guy from...uh-oh."

"Uh-oh?" Tony looked at her. "What kind of uh-oh?"

She turned the key in the ignition again, but the car produced nothing but a faint clicking noise.

"The kind where the car won't start."