Poking my head up over the massive stack of research to post this. It's set in the same universe as Coming Back To Life, so largely AU to season 8. You don't have to have read CBTL, but it will add a heck of a lot of context if you have!
Disclaimer: Out of this story, all I own is the plot. The rest is borrowed from Bellisario et al with no offence intended and no (well, very little!) harm done.
No beta readers were harmed in the production of this story - but thanks to V for the help and advice
A Reward Well Earned
Medical leave sucked, in Tony's estimation. The days all tended to drop into an extremely dull routine. Wake up; take the morning meds; veg on the couch; muster up something that might constitute lunch; afternoon meds; more vegging; evening meal; evening meds; more vegging, then bed. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. For a little variety, there were occasional doctor's checkups, but other than that, it was a pure and grinding tedium that had always - without fail - forced him back to work far sooner than any doctor was ever happy about.
Admittedly, this particular batch of medical leave was different in one direction. Where, in the past, he'd always been left to recuperate on his own, this time he had a guardian angel checking up on him from time to time, in the shape of Ziva. Depending on case load, she showed up at six, cooked dinner for them both and spent the evening either "keeping him in the hoop" over work, or sharing a classic film, or sometimes, even just simply talking. It was...nice - and definitely something that Tony thought he could get used to. The only sticking point was the fact that while she came, she also went, dispatching him to bed at ten, at the latest, and then seeing herself out.
"You could stay," he'd said on more than one occasion.
"I could," she had agreed. "But it is better if I do not. Then neither of us feels tempted."
And much as he'd wanted to argue - that surely they were both adults and could manage to sleep in the same apartment without having a meltdown - he knew she was probably right. Their physical relationship had tangoed with the line a few too many times that now the mental brakes were off, fireworks were almost bound to follow sooner rather than later. Better, then, to avoid temptation until he was in a condition to enjoy them.
That didn't mean he liked the part where he heard her slip away after making sure he was safely in bed.
Even with that change, however, the rest of the medical leave was still as boring and as tedious as every other batch had ever been. Which was how he knew that things were going to be vastly different today.
At no other time, during any of his bouts of recuperation, had two armed federal agents calmly walked in as if they owned the place. Admittedly, one of them did have a key and even without that, she was certainly not above picking the lock, but that didn't explain her presence at a little after nine in the morning.
For a moment, Tony wondered if this was a drug-induced hallucination. Painkillers did tend to make him loopier than Abby's thought processes when she was hopped up on caffeine - and while Brad had managed to find a combination of analgesics that both worked and didn't send him totally to la-la land, he had been taking them for nearly two weeks. Who knew what the side effects of that might be. (Another aspect of having someone regularly checking up on him; Ziva was long-since wise to his medication-avoidance routines.) Then, as McGee cleared his throat, Tony judged that whatever this was, it wasn't a figment of his imagination - for one thing, he was pretty certain his imagination would have come up with a much better outfit for Ziva and would have omitted McGee altogether.
"Uh, hey," he offered.
"Get dressed," said Ziva in a business-like tone, completely avoiding any pleasantries that might normally have been expected between two people at the beginning of a romantic relationship. Then again, it was Ziva in work-mode - so probably not.
Reflexively, Tony glanced down at himself - aware, even as he did so, that McGee was now smirking with amusement. No; he hadn't hallucinated the ratty jeans and Buckeyes sweatshirt he'd struggled into. That presumably meant what Ziva had said wasn't quite what she meant, but apparently ten days away from the office and still on those painpills meant that his hardcore Ziva-to-English translator was on the fritz. "Pretty sure I'm already dressed - what's going on?"
McGee took pity on him. "She means suit and tie." To Ziva he added, "Get dressed up."
"Is that not what I said?" she asked innocently.
That was when Tony knew she'd made the slip on purpose. "Not exactly. Why do I need to put a suit on? Last time I checked, formal wear wasn't a requirement for a day of couch surfing and Brad hasn't cleared me for anything else."
"He has made an exception for this," said Ziva.
"Exception for what?" Aggravation was fast replacing confusion. "Why are you here? Not that I'm complaining - I mean, it does get kinda boring being stuck here, on my own, so the company's nice, but I doubt Gibbs has let you two out of the office for the sole purpose of making my day a little more entertaining. So what gives?"
"You will see. Get changed."
"Tony," said McGee with an eyeroll. "For once in your life, would it kill you to just do something without arguing?"
"I hate surprises, McGoo."
"Well the director has given us strict orders, so this is one surprise you'll have to live with."
Tony grimaced at the mention of Vance. He hadn't seen the director since the mission to Mexico which suggested to Tony that the director was probably pissed over his failure to follow orders. "Thanks, but I'll pass. Whatever the Toothpick wants won't be good."
"The director thought you might say that," said Ziva with a smirk. "He said to tell you that all three of us are under direct orders. Us to bring you in - dressed appropriately, of course - and you to behave."
"I'm betting Vance didn't say anything like that."
"No," McGee agreed. "But she's got the basic points."
Tony sighed. "Would it help my case at all if I point out how difficult it is to put a suit on when you're not supposed to be taking your sling off or moving your arm in any way?"
It was McGee's turn to smirk. "Why do you think Vance sent me along?"
Tony closed his eyes and groaned. Vance had, apparently, thought of everything. Opening his eyes again, he said, "Fine. Sure. Gotta look my best for the execution. Right?"
"No one is being executed," said Ziva, looking faintly puzzled.
"You sure? C'mon, McWardrobe Assistant."
Twenty minutes later, and dressed in one of his more expensive suits - a selection that had earned raised eyebrows from both his escorts - Tony found himself in the backseat of an agency charger, being driven towards the Navy Yard.
"You are nervous," Ziva observed.
"I've been press-ganged," said Tony dryly. "Can't imagine why that might make me nervous."
"Do not be so melodramatic."
"Fine. What would you call it?"
"He does have a point," said McGee who, mercifully, was the designated driver on this little excursion.
"Although," he added, "I never took you for a pessimist, Tony. Always thought you were a glass-half-full type."
Tony snorted. "Yeah, well. Sudden and unexpected meetings with Director Vance don't lead to good things in my experience."
That comment drew a collective wince from both escorts, presumably as they both considered previous unexpected meetings with the director.
"What if we tell you it's nothing like that?" asked McGee finally.
"You'll sound like you're desperately trying to convince yourself," Tony answered.
"It is true," Ziva put in. "It is nothing like that."
"Still not helping."
When they finally arrived at the Navy Yard, to Tony's surprise, Ziva and McGee escorted him not to the Director's office, but to the largest of the conference rooms where - to his astonishment - all the other field agents stationed in the DC area were already assembled.
And then he spotted a face that was out of place. "Brad, what are you doing here?"
The doctor offered a wink and a grin. "Me? I wouldn't miss this for the world."
Tony narrowed his eyes. "Miss what?"
"DiNozzo, quit it," barked Gibbs, materialising out of the crowd and coming to stand next to the still-grinning doctor.
Tony opened his mouth to object, but as Vance chose that moment to enter the room, he had to swallow his comments.
"Glad you all could join us," Vance began.
As Ziva slid into the space beside him, taking up a position that suggested she was preventing him from bolting, it finally dawned on Tony that the reason for the gathering had to be the agency's annual awards ceremony. The realisation brought with it a surge of irritation and the desire to turn around and leave. Except that was now impossible, given Ziva's presence at his left elbow, Brad's position at his right and Gibbs and McGee both to his rear.
He gritted his teeth and resigned himself to silently fuming instead.
Why the hell had Brad - and, by extension, Gibbs - granted an exception to the fiat "no DiNozzo at the Navy Yard until further notice"? It wasn't like this little shindig was high on the list of priorities and Vance probably wouldn't even have noticed if he hadn't been here.
Except that was wrong, because hadn't Vance also had a hand in his being here?
None of this was making any sense.
And then a new and even more puzzling thought struck Tony as he offered up awkward applause for the award Vance had just announced (though by this point he'd totally lost track of what it was he was applauding for): in ten years of working for NCIS, he had never known Gibbs to voluntarily attend one of these events. Ever. The only one, prior to this one, Tony had even seen him at had involved Tom Morrow and a threat of suspension of coffee privileges or some such - and that had been in Tony's first six weeks of employment. After that, Gibbs always found somewhere else to be. Without fail.
Just what the hell had Vance threatened to get Gibbs' attendance this time?
Vance's voice suddenly cut through the confusion of tangled thoughts in Tony's head, snapping him back to the present: "And now for the final award, the Meritorious Civilian Award. This year, it goes to an agent who has worked tirelessly for this agency, putting himself in harm's way time and again and seeking no reward for his efforts. Over his tenure with this agency, he has saved countless lives. Some of whom are in this room today; many more are out in the wider world. Some aware of his efforts, some who may never even know of this agency - much less his contribution to their safety. And even in the last week, the official citation for this award needed to be amended to take into account his actions against the Reynosa Cartel and the role he played in the downfall of one of the most powerful drug operations in North America."
Vance paused, and Tony waited for the inevitable name of Leroy Jethro Gibbs to be spoken. Consequently, it took his brain several seconds to catch up when what Vance actually said was: "This year's recipient of the Meritorious Civilian Award is Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo."
And even once his brain had caught up to it, he still remained, hemmed in by partners, boss and long-suffering doctor. Because he couldn't believe it. Because this surely had to be some kind of joke.
It was only when an all too amused Brad and Ziva both prodded him forwards that he finally began to move, but it was almost like moving through quicksand - or water. Everything was blurry and distorted. He saw Ducky, smiling. Abby and Palmer both grinning - though Abby also looked as if she might have been crying. Gibbs looked proud. Ziva looked a mix of proud and pleased. McGee's grin wasn't as big as Palmer's (though, to be fair to the probie, few people could match one of Palmer's grins), but he paired it with a mouthed "Well done". Even Vance looked happy.
And everyone was applauding and there might even have been some cheers from the rest of the assembled crowd.
And it still wasn't making any sense as he finally reached Vance.
"Apparently there is a way to keep you quiet that doesn't involve a gag," said the director, quietly enough that his words weren't generally audible over the applause. "I'll bear that in mind."
Tony could only blink in surprise. Because things like this didn't happen to him. He was the screw up, not the pin-up. And surely any minute now he was going to wake up. Except that now Vance was holding out the medal box and citation; offering a handshake. And it did feel oddly real. A two-inch square piece of reality in a sea of complete sureality.
"Sit down before you fall down."
Brad's dispassionate statement finally dragged Tony back to the here and now, even as his legs complied with Brad's wishes rather faster than was necessarily graceful - or advisable for someone with still-healing rib fractures. The pain of jarring them with the sudden advent of being seated did at least make him certain that yes, he was awake, and no, he wasn't hallucinating.
Apparently, he'd been far enough away with the fairies that the conference room had emptied, without his noticing. That didn't say a great deal for someone who was supposed to be aware of his surroundings. The only people remaining were the extended Team Gibbs family, with the addition of Brad - who might as well have been a member of the family, given the frequency with which Tony generally saw him - and Vance, who wasn't, but who did tend to regard Team Gibbs as his personal team.
"-the longest I've ever known him silent," Palmer was saying.
"I think he's in shock," said Abby.
"Don't see why," said McGee. "He had to know-"
"You back with us now?" Gibbs was suddenly blocking the view of the room and Tony could only wonder what it was McGee thought he ought to have known.
"I think so," Tony answered, though he wasn't altogether convinced.
"You were starting to scare me," said Ziva, crouching beside his seat. And while her tone was still striving for business-like, her expression betrayed the more personal side of their relationship.
"I did try to warn you and Probie that I don't like surprises." Tony tried for a joking tone, but from the expression on both Gibbs and Ziva's faces, he guessed he missed by miles. "I just- I don't even- Didn't even-"
"Read the citation, DiNozzo," said Vance. "That should tell you everything you need to know."
"Uh, thank you."
"Don't thank me," said Vance. "I just hand 'em out."
Tony would almost swear, though, that there was a twinkle in Vance's eye as he turned and finally took his leave.
"Well, I should say this is about as much excitement as the convalescent can take for one day," Ducky contributed. "Who's playing chauffeur?"
"I will, Dr Mallard," Brad volunteered. "It's on my way and it will save someone a hospital appointment tomorrow if I do the check up today."
"Aw," said Abby. "Tony's leaving again? But he only just got here! We should at least go out to celebrate."
The thought crossed Tony's mind that there wasn't anything to celebrate, but before he could voice it, Ziva was already interjecting: "Since tomorrow is a Friday and we are not on rotation this weekend, perhaps a team dinner?"
"My house, eight o'clock," said Gibbs with decision.
"What is wrong with my apartment?" Ziva demanded.
"Not enough chairs."
And now Tony wondered how it was Gibbs knew that. Had the man done a furniture survey sometime between taking custody of Paloma and conducting the Mexico debrief? Again, however, before he could speak, someone else had jumped in. This time it was McGee with: "Brad do you need a hand?"
"No - think I can manage him just fine." Brad grinned. "Not the first time I've had to undress DiNozzo. Sure it won't be the last time, either."
"Hey!" Brad's comment finally roused enough of Tony's wits to get an 'in' to the conversation. "Could you rephrase that?"
That just earned amused sniggers from the gathering.
"C'mon," Brad continued. "Dr Mallard-"
"Bradley, how many times do I have to tell you? It's Ducky," interjected that gentleman.
"As many as it'll take me to convince you not to call me Bradley," Brad suggested.
"Time DiNozzo was back on his couch - just in case this is a time this DiNozzo wants to pass out," said Gibbs.
Tony opened his mouth to object, then realised there was very little point. This was just not a conversation he was going to win.
"You gonna actually read that thing or are you just gonna keep strangling it?" Brad enquired as he led Tony up the stairs to his apartment.
"I don't know. Still kinda don't believe this morning's happened."
"Then read the damn citation. Because, trust me, this morning's been real. Keys?"
"Oh, uh-" Tony fumbled the medal and citation into the folds of his sling and then rummaged through his pockets awkwardly until he located his apartment key and handed it to Brad.
"You do realise a sling isn't for carrying crap around?" the doctor enquired as he opened the apartment door.
Tony hitched his good shoulder up and down in a shrug. "Nowhere else to put it."
Brad just rolled his eyes.
The next twenty minutes passed in a haze of a comprehensive checkup to judge the progress being made by the various injuries and getting changed back into the ratty jeans and OSU sweatshirt - the latter earning a predictable snort from the Michigan grad.
"Well, the good news is, Monday morning should see the stitches coming out," Brad pronounced as he made one final adjustment to the sling, "and assuming you don't maim yourself between now and then, I'm going to clear you for desk duty once the stitches are out."
"And the bad news?"
"You'll be keeping the sling for a week longer and I'm going to be referring you to the physio department."
"Oh great. You're handing me over to the sadists."
Brad smirked. "I don't anticipate they'll have you for long, but that really is their department. As for your ribs, you know the drill. More importantly, Ziva, Gibbs and Ducky know the drill too - so I'm reasonably confident you're not going to damage yourself by pretending you don't."
Tony rolled his eyes and said nothing.
"One last thing - then I really do have to go; got a staff meeting at fourteen hundred."
"Sounds like fun."
"You don't know the half of it." Brad shuddered. "Anyway. All I would say is follow Director Vance's advice and read the citation. And I'll see you, bright and early, at zero-seven hundred, on Monday to deal with those stitches."
With that, Brad departed, leaving Tony perched on his couch, still thoroughly shell-shocked by the morning's events.
The citation and medal box were both sitting on the coffee table in front of him.
He supposed Brad - and Vance - were probably right. Reading the citation would at least give him some clue as to how and why he'd slipped into some bizarro parallel universe.
He picked the page up and began to read:
This medal is awarded to Anthony DiNozzo for acts of courage, skill and tenacity above and beyond the call of duty.
Beneath that was a list of various cases he'd worked on. Heading the list was the Reynosa take down. Rounding it out was something referred to, euphemistically, as anti-terrorist operations, on secondment to the Bahrain office. He suspected that was how the mission to Somalia had been officially known. That list was much as he'd expected. Then he flipped the page over and found a second list.
The following people submitted supporting testimony for this award.
The first name on the list was Gibbs' - no surprise there. Ziva's came next - also not a surprise. Nor, for all their antagonism and teasing, was McGee's name. Ducky's name came next, which was a little more surprising - he didn't think Ducky normally became involved in these sorts of things. Then Abby - not a surprise. Then Palmer - surprising that anyone had even thought to ask him; not surprising that he'd contributed. Then came a real surprise: Vance's name was on the list, too. And the surprises didn't stop there. The next name on the list belonged to Maddie Tylor. Below her name was Josh Cooper's. There were other names, too. Not all of them quite as instantly recognisable as Maddie or Josh, but names he could put faces to fairly readily all the same.
And it still made no sense.
He was still staring at the list of names when Ziva arrived that evening.
"You are troubled," she observed.
"Ziva, what've they given me this for?"
She took a moment to gracefully fold herself down onto the edge of the coffee table so that she was within his direct line of sight. Then she plucked the citation from his hands and glanced at it. "It is some long overdue recognition of the work you have done."
"I'm the screw up. The guy Vance can barely stand-"
"The guy who rescued two people from a sinking car. The guy who spurred one of the biggest - and most successful - anti-terrorist operations this agency has run. The guy who took out a rapist before he could claim another victim."
Tony frowned. "Who?"
"Alejandro - now that he is dead, several girls have come forward with stories of abuse. The Mexican authorities are grateful to us twice over. Not only is a drug cartel dismantled-"
"Another one'll spring up," said Tony. "That's the way it works."
"-but a predator has been eliminated. And perhaps you are right, but it will take time for that to happen - time in which the Mexican authorities can gain a better foothold in that region."
Tony said nothing.
"You still don't believe you deserve this," Ziva judged.
"Do you trust me?"
"Then trust me: this is not only something you deserve, but something that you should have received years ago."
"But I was just doing my job."
Ziva slowly shook her head, amusement lighting her expression. "Speaking as one of the beneficiaries of you 'just' doing your job, you have more earned this reward. Enjoy it."
And when she put it like that, Tony supposed she was right. And maybe, once it had actually sunk in, he'd actually start believing it.