AN: Well done ytteb, who was the only one to spot something about Jezebel...

I like to break things up with a bit of 'meanwhile, back at the ranch', but I decided to just get on with it. Apologies if the ending's a bit rushed... it's 4 am.

Spoilers for Faking It.

Weekends With Doris

Chapter 8

Muttering encouragement, Gibbs struggled to steer his collapsing Senior Agent back to the tree-root. The grass was still wet, and he wasn't keen on lying Tony down, soaking him and being responsible for giving him pneumonia. The younger man's legs were like rubber, but he still tried to help, and his Boss finally got him slumped with his back to the oak tree.

Tony panted frantically, only capable of small breaths, and needing more air than he could get; the bandage that had been just fine when he wasn't exerting himself, now felt like a straight-jacket around his ribs. Spots danced in front of his eyes and he felt dizzy and nauseous; he couldn't draw enough breath to tell Gibbs what was wrong.

The Boss was pretty sure anyway; he struggled to get Tony's sling off, and his shirt unfastened quickly without ruining the careful, loving patches that Sally had worked. As soon as he had done, he drew his knife, and Tony squinted curiously through vision that reminded him of static on a TV screen. Should Gibbs coming at him with a Hunter worry him? Somewhere in his fragmented awareness he chuckled. How long had it been since he did that? The tip of the silvery blade slipped under the bottom of the dressing, and sliced it neatly all the way to the top. Part of it adhered to the SFA's left side; the rest of it fell away from his chest, and the semi-conscious man sucked in a series of great, shuddering breaths.

"Thanks, Boss," he wheezed faintly. He began to fall sideways, so Gibbs eased alongside him, intending to prop him up just until he could sit on his own. However, his natural nosiness, coupled with the fact that Tony was in no state to protest and would avoid telling if asked, got the better of him. He sat at DiNozzo's right side with his arm slid around his back, and it was easy for him to reach across and push the left side of the patched shirt away, and ease the bandaging from the wounds where he could.

He frowned. Not deep, not serious, but weeping a bit. Messy. Very messy.

"Like what you see, Boss?" The teasing voice was about a quarter its usual volume.

"Can't say I do," he answered severely. "How many stitches you got under there?"

Tony sat up, with a bit of help from Gibbs. "Boss, I have no idea. How d'you know I had stitches?"

Ack, he'd forgotten how sharp Tony was, even on depleted oxygen."Frame told McGee. McGee told me." He made another attempt to move the dressing, but it was stuck to the younger man's side, so he left it, pulling the edges together, and then the shirt. He'd find some way to hold it in place when it became necessary. "Need a drink?"

"Yeah..."

Gibbs went to his saddlebag, where he knew he'd find water; Jezebel skittered away from him, like the awkward female she was, until Doris made one of those noises that proclaimed she was the boss, and the copper chestnut calmed down, but for a bit of head tossing. Tony's wry laugh drifted across to him. "She's a redhead, Boss." He was glad his face was turned away from the younger man, as he couldn't keep the wrung-out expression off it.

He remembered... DiNozzo's jokes weren't the empty-headedness he'd assumed; they were a skilful way of reducing tension... and in this case... forgiving? Building bridges? The Marine almost leaned his forehead against his saddle, but there was nothing wrong with Tony's long-sight – and in any case he didn't trust the 'red-head' mare not to move suddenly. Doris, on the other hand, was keeping half an eye on her human, as he realised she had been every time he'd ever looked at her. He was being given a lesson in loyalty by a damn horse!

There were times in life where causing pain, or having pain caused for you was unavoidable... but in his attempts to deal with his own agony, he'd deliberately hurt, and hurt again one of the most decent human beings he knew, who'd never done a thing to hurt him. Not a good feeling, Jethro.

He rearranged his expression and brought the canteen across, and took a gulp himself after DiNozzo had taken what he needed. Silence fell for a while, only softened by the purposeful munching of the horses. After a while, it was Gibbs who broke the silence. "Ya feel better now?"

"Yeah..." Tony tugged at the edge of the dressing under his open shirt. "I didn't realise how tight this was, until it was too late." He paused, then raised downcast eyes to his boss's. "Helluva revelation there, Boss," he said softly. He didn't say he didn't believe it; Gibbs had already said it wasn't true, and he wasn't going to have him think he wasn't to be taken at his word. "Cost a lot to say it."

"I promised. You... should be mad at me, Tony!"

"I was never angry, Boss!" the SFA protested. "I may have vented a bit, but only to Doris." Neither man was surprised when the mare looked up at the sound of her name. Everything was fine; back to lunch. "I was never mad," Tony repeated seriously, "just hurt. OK... no, I was mad – I called you a quitter when you were gone – but that was because I wanted you back."

"Ya did?"

"Oh, yeah," Tony said, and met Gibbs' eyes, his voice so casual the pit of the other man's stomach turned to ice. "Just, not the way it happened." His listener couldn't think of a thing to say, and just sat, bracing himself.

"It was never my team to try to take from you, Boss. They didn't regard themselves as my team, and anyway, I had a feeling you'd be back; I was ready."

"Ya said I didn't come back."

"You know it. The old Gibbs wouldn't have piled my stuff back on my desk without saying something... or made fun of me in front of the others, and they had a field day when you did. OK, that hurt, but I did let the guy take the car, and I didn't realise my recorder was bugged, so what did I expect... But hell, it wasn't when things were at their worst that I'd missed you the most, so I was used to getting by with the bad stuff."

"Jenny told me you'd done good... I wasn't taking her seriously enough to listen."

Tony shrugged. "It figures... if you thought I was a threat, you wouldn't have wanted to hear I'd done well."

"Tony..." Gibbs shook his head.

"Not trying to make you feel bad, Boss... honesty's no fun, is it? I can't say I ever imagined me feeling better by making you feel worse..." He leaned forwards earnestly. "You weren't yourself. Don't see how you could have gone through what you did and come out the other end with your head on straight... remember me after Wendy?"

The Senior Agent nodded. "Well yeah, but -"

Tony leaned back again, wincing slightly. "Look," he said heavily, "I said I didn't feel worst when times were worst... I missed you most when I'd done good."

Gibbs blinked, seriously surprised for the second time in five minutes. "Ya did?" he asked again.

"Sure." He stretched his long legs out in front of him and tried to look laid-back. "Not wanting to sound needy or anything here, Boss... You've never been one to say much but when I did really well on something, it'd be a look, or a grunt, or an 'attaboy'... the reassurance that you still thought I was the 'good' you brought back in your luggage from Baltimore. That was all I needed. I missed that."

Gibbs ran his hands through his hair. "You've always been 'the good', Tony." He paused as the worst realisation of the day struck him. "Last night... you needed an attaboy... sheesh... no wonder you didn't want to be within a hundred miles of me."

"How – oh, McGee. He sure must have told you off! Yeah, I was mad last night..." The green eyes flashed – with humour? "But I'm all right now."

"Because I got careless and you knew I was here?" Gibbs was incredulous.

"Because you came."

There was a long silence, and just as last time, Gibbs was the one to break it. "So... anything else you want to say?"

Tony grinned impishly, and pulled at the edge of the dressing. "Yeah... how'm I going to fix this?"

"Tony..." this time Gibbs' tone was reproachful. The SFA tried to climb to his feet without pushing with his left arm, so his Boss grabbed his elbow to help him. As they stood face to face, Tony went serious.

"Hey... I'm not saying everything's wonderful... that you're going to instantly feel great, and things are suddenly going to be better overnight. But it's more than a start. We can talk... or I can talk and you can grunt –" the head-slap was almost feather-light, and the SFA's grin was dazzling – "not that you don't grunt perfectly politely of course... it will get better from here on in, Boss." He paused, then said quietly, "Er... anything else you want to say?"

"Sure. Lift your arm a bit." Gibbs had pulled the drawstring from the bottom of his jacket, and began to thread it around Tony's torso, under his shirt, to hold the sliced up dressing in place. "OK... can you still breathe?" Tony just nodded, watching the proceedings dubiously. "It'll hold for now, DiNozzo. Till I can get you to Ducky. Ya need help with the shirt?"

"No, Boss, I'm fine, Boss..." he fumbled his way through fastening the buttons.

"Good. Now put your sling back on." Tony looked at the offending object with distaste as Gibbs held it out to him, but took it anyway. The Marine helped him to get it comfortable, looking like he'd done it many times before. "There." After a moment, he added, "Yeah, there's something I want to say." He put his hand on the younger man's good shoulder. "Thanks, Tony."

The SFA smiled, and nodded thoughtfully, and for once was silent himself.

Without conscious communication, they moved towards the horses. It was time to go. Gibbs took Jezebel's reins, and untied the lariat from her nose-band. Tony coiled the rope, using the hand that stuck out of the sling to help, and hung it back on the saddle horn. He tried not to laugh as Jez gave the Boss a very hard time, turning in small circles around him as he tried to get his foot in the stirrup to climb aboard.

In the end Gibbs roared, "Will you quit that!" and amazingly, the 'redhead' horse did. Once in the saddle, he threw Tony a look that said, 'right, now let's see how you do it.'

"You want to go for a paddle, girl?" Tony had it figured; he couldn't use his left arm to haul himself up, but with Doris standing in the stream, pushing happily at the water with her nose, and him on the bank, a good two feet higher, he could practically step into his saddle. He threw the Boss a smirk, and they set off down the mountain, in a silence that, although thoughtful, this time truly was companionable.

NCISNCISNCIS

The trip to look over an old crime scene was only marginally helpful, but it got the two back in DC out of the Navy Yard for an hour; the place was becoming oppressive. As they returned, Tim's phone buzzed, and Ziva went on ahead. When he got back to his desk, she was already looking at the cold case file again; at least, her eyes were on it, but her mind wasn't.

"That was Simon Townley," he told her. "He's seen Gibbs and Tony."

"Gibbs and Tony... together?"

"So he said."

"They have not killed each other?"

"No," Tim said. "They've been trail riding together. They offered to take Simon and Adam next free weekend they have. Adam's finally reassured that his hero's safe and well. His dad called to say thanks for our part in the rescue."

"Well... that is...good." Ziva was silent for a moment, then said, "I may have misjudged Tony."

"You didn't think he was capable of being heroic?"

"No, that is not what I meant. He inspires liking and trust in people... what is it I have not seen?"

"I'm still puzzled," Tim said. "Are you saying you don't like him or trust him?"

"No, McGee! You are putting words onto my tongue. I... I do not know what I mean," she ended lamely. Tim decided the best thing to do was wait. He knew he'd set her thinking earlier on, but had no idea where her thoughts were taking her.

"You said that Tony could have done with some of his own humour. We did not make it easy for him. He held us together. But I did not see anyone holding him. I only thought of how infuriating he is, not of how much he does." (She was not going to tell Tim, or anyone, about her gratitude that she was not at risk of having to return to her father; that would involve explaining why she did not want to.) "Or what he feels."

"Nobody's perfect," Tim said. "None of us. Not me, not you, not Tony -"

"You have not mentioned Gibbs."

"And certainly not Gibbs. One thing I know though... you'll hear no recriminations from Tony over this."

"We left him – he must feel... negligible..."

"Neglected. I told you what he said... that it wasn't our fault... anyway, he and Gibbs are on their way back."

"We are still a team, then?"

"It looks like it, Ziva. We're still a team."

NCISNCISNCIS

The day's party of riders had returned, and the Frames were seeing to their mounts, when Gibbs and Tony came down the trail. As they'd come down into the stable yard, Amos had watched them, and decided he didn't have to go for the Purdey. The boy looked better than he'd seen him in weeks, for all that he'd been out far longer than he should have been in his condition. While he didn't feel that he and Sally, and Doris, were completely finished with their joint role as a coping mechanism, he had a feeling they'd be able to spend more time just as friends now.

After exchanging a few – a very few – polite words, and offering to take care of his horse, which Amos said he'd do, Gibbs patted the temperamental chestnut, and went off to fetch the car. Only right that Tony should have the chance to say whatever he wanted to Amos and Sal without him hovering...

"It's OK, Amos..."

"That the truth, son?"

"Yeah, it is. Doesn't mean I'm not going to be around any more, though."

"I should hope not, DiNozzo," Amos growled. Sally just hugged him.

Amos lifted Doris's saddle down, and took it into the tack room as Tony led the mare into her box. She nudged him affectionately, and he suddenly, and without warning, found his eyes filling. "You're a good ol' gal, Doris," he told her softly, and she huffed gently. Same to you.

It was inevitable that when they stopped, both ravenously hungry, at Tony's favourite diner, they should run into Simon and Adam Townley. In the chaos of the previous night they'd left a lot of stuff at the camp and had to go back for it.

"Hey," Liz said cheerfully, "the place is full of my favourite fellas." She threw in a free plate of pancakes with the order, taking a motherly pleasure at the change in the tow-headed little boy. The older guy was a puzzle, she thought. Was he Tony's dad? There was certainly a strong bond there, but the man's eyes were sad. As they all went their separate ways, she hoped it wasn't the last she saw of them.

NCISNCISNCIS

Life went on; tentatively, they were a team again. There was a new equilibrium. The DiNozzo brashness re-emerged; attempts at banter by all three younger team members were cautious at first, but became bolder. Tony only put up with desk duty for two days, before hounding Ducky into giving way on the matter of his stitches.

Which was how it was that he was back in the field when a dead petty officer in a car and some very unsavoury Russian mafiosi brought the return of Mike Franks into their lives – to Tony's great unease and disquiet. He'd nothing against the guy, but he hadn't liked the results the last time he was around, and now being cold-cocked by the said Russian mafia when he was supposed to be on protection duty... he wondered what the Boss would say when he found out.

Gibbs was kindness itself, dashing over to his house, where his second in command had been left on his face in the back yard, to check on him, but then he'd disappeared again. By the time Tony arrived at that scruffy little cantina, it was all over...

The figure walking away in the distance was Franks... the dead as hell guys were the Russian thug Korbach and presumably a goon. Tony was familiar with the sounds of different guns... and the sequence of shots... and as he put two and two together, suddenly boom went the new equilibrium, and the back of his head began to hurt like blazes. He rubbed it, and glared at Gibbs. No wonder he'd come running...

"It was Franks, wasn't it, Boss. You just let him get away with murder, right?" And he read on Gibbs' face that he was right. Angry? Not much. "What were you thinking of? I thought we... Don't you at least trust me enough to have me along?"

"To be an accessory to murder? No."

That was logical enough to take the wind out of his sails, but he was still stung. "And..." he went on, bristling with righteous indignation, "you knew it was him! You let him get away with braining me!"

Gibbs touched his cheek in that way he had. "Well, DiNozzo," he said comfortingly, "if it had been anyone else, I'd have shot them."

There was really no answer to that.

The End

AN: I don't really feel secure about this from when they got back to the stables... maybe I rushed a bit.