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Earning the Title

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Banner by jilly james



Chapter 1

The cloudburst turned the landscape into smears of color beyond the car windows. Tony kept his head turned to the side, his eyes half-closed to avoid focusing. Tim had turned the wipers up as high as they would go with the defogger bouncing cold air off the glass into their faces, trying to find a small patch of clarity through the drumming rain. "This won't last," Tim murmured again, "these downpours never last," as if his words could make it so.

The car swerved and Tony rocked back and forth against the side window. Tim was pulling up under an overpass on the narrow edge of the road, parking so tight against the stone wall that Tony couldn't open his door if he tried. The sudden silence stole Tony's breath. He bent forward, coughing, a dry, hacking bark ripping through his swollen throat.

"Sorry, but I'm sure it will only be a few minutes. Boy, the bomb squad isn't going to be too happy mopping up the scene in this. Glad the boss didn't insist we stay and help out. Of course, he probably knew this storm was coming and wanted to get you back to your place before your throat problem got any worse."

Tony smirked. Gibbs, concerned about him? That taking precedence over case-work? Tony tried to raise one eyebrow in a Spockian-type query, but Tim was busy rooting around in his pockets and then in the cup holder between them, searching for something. His phone? His wallet? His mind? A knife to stab Tony in the back with – again? Tony settled back against the door, watching his teammate, his partner, his friend, and tried to fit the pieces of this weird-ass situation together.

It was like a dream. One of those dreams where you're going through your regular daily activities but they're all just a little vague, a little twisted, where each scene doesn't quite match up with the one before it. It had been a strange few weeks. First Vance puts Tony forward for that stupid NCIS recruitment campaign and then pulls the rug out from under him. He blinked – hard – trying to erase the image of that cardboard cut-out of his boss. Seriously. Gibbs? After the Reynosa cartel fiasco, with Gibbs' MOAS opening up wide and spewing dirt on Abby and Jackson and everyone else, Vance thought a lone-wolf, ex-Marine, 'second-B' with more redacted lines in his resume than Jason Bourne made for a good poster-boy for the agency? It couldn't be true. It made Tony's head spin.

Maybe it was the proximity of the CIA a week ago. Things never ended well when the team was bumping elbows with the CIA, the case of the Royal Navy ship being a particularly strange case in point. If all those rumors of drug experiments in the 60's and 70's were true, maybe the CIA's habitual black suits were still leaking the residue and anyone brushing up against them got an unintentional high. Tony huffed a painful laugh. Yeah, that would explain a lot.

And now, this case. A murdered radio shock-jock and Navy lieutenant. White bread upper middles buying bombs. Haskell, a man grieving his wife and still reeling from the crime that stole her away, is savvy enough to find terrorist bank accounts to finance his revenge. Hell, Tony figured, it wouldn't be long before the CIA and their black suits came sniffing, stealing Haskell from his holding cell so he could show them how it was done. That man would never see a trial or jail cell. More than likely, this would just be a tiny bump on his road to a very wealthy retirement.

Tim was still rooting around like a pig for truffles. Tony watched, eyes half-closed. There was another enigma. Tim McGee. Smart, snarky, loyal McGee. He had abilities Tony couldn't possibly approach but still carried a chip on his shoulder. Not a smooth operator, their McGeek. But, up until yesterday, until Tony slid into the backseat of the agency sedan with his teammates, until they dropped their little bombshell and sent shrapnel gouging deep trenches in Tony's worldview, he'd called McGee a faithful friend.

That had to be more evidence that it was all a dream. A hallucination. Tony's head was foggy, the headache biting around his temples like a freakishly large rubber band had been snapped there. Maybe the congestion was affecting his hearing. Yeah, that made sense. At the softball field he'd been kinda out of it, the possible danger barely registering until Ziva's shout. Ziva. Another enigma.

God, he was tired of enigmas.

Tony opened his mouth but the shards of glass that seemed embedded in his throat stopped him from talking. He grabbed the notebook from his pocket and threw it at his partner, smacking Tim on the side of the head.

"What??" Tim spluttered, staring at Tony from under crumpled brows.

Tony raised his to a 'what the hell, Probie?' height and threw out his arms.

"What?" Tim repeated, confused.

Rolling his eyes, Tony sighed. He gestured towards Tim, pantomiming his anxious efforts to search each and every pocket and compartment within reach.

"Oh! I thought I had some Hall's Mentholyptus Cough drops. I usually keep some in my pocket." Head down, Tim resumed searching while he talked. "It's getting wet out, and leaf mold is high. Actually, the rain should settle some of the particulates in the air, so that's a good thing – aha!"

Tim smiled, raising a victorious hand holding a tiny paper-wrapped lozenge by one end. A dirty, dusty paper-wrapped lozenge.

Tony made a face.

"Hey, the mess is on the outside, I'm sure the cough drop is fine." Tim untwisted one end and peered inside.

Tony leaned in to take a look. His grimace turned into gagging and he leaned quickly away, pointing at the sticky, spotty thing and shaking his head in a determined negative.

"Okay, maybe not." Tim sighed and plunked the nasty little thing into the handy trash bag hanging beside Tony's left knee. "Sorry."

Tony cocked his head and examined the other man. What a strange combo Timmy presented. Leave Tony hanging while he searched for a murderer – alone - but do his damnedest to produce a freaking cough drop. Tony thought they'd been doing better. Getting along. Growing pains and wacky cases and no-Ziva team and avenge-Ziva team and new-Ziva team had changed them all, but he and Tim had been solid. Teasing, sure, but they stood together more than they faced off these days. Or so he'd thought.

Hell, Tony'd been wrong before. Wrong about how partners and teammates and even a fiancé thought about him. He didn't need a rule to remind him about how wrong he could be in the relationship department.

He closed his eyes, rubbing both hands across his face. The pain in his throat and the drummer up in his head had joined forces. He was tired. Confused. Memories kept coming out of nowhere to blindside him. He wanted to go home.

"You okay?"

Tony raised his head from his hands and mouthed one word to his partner. "Home."

"I know. I promise. As soon as the rain lets up."

Tony gestured, a little angry and a lot frustrated. At Tim. At the rain. At the car. At his weapon.

Tim's expression flattened. "I've never been very good at charades, Tony. It looks like you're saying that if I don't get this car moving, rain or no rain, you're going to shoot me. Are you channeling Gibbs again?"

Tony tried a glare, but his hadn't worked on Tim for a couple of years now. Maybe familiarity did breed contempt after all. Fed up, he took out his phone and began texting.
"U R Fed Agt. With GUN. A ltl RAIN going 2 stop U?"

Tim's phone beeped and he checked the screen. "Well I don't think shooting the rain will do much, but I'll try if you want."

Dropping his phone into his lap, Tony let his head fall back against the headrest, trying to stifle another cough. Enough. He was finished. He closed his eyes and tried to keep his thoughts from streaking across his mind like the colors on the windshield. He didn't want to think about it – about Tim, Ziva, Gibbs and Ducky. About his team or his co-workers, or whatever the hell he should call them. Not now. He flicked through his memories to try to pull up one of his favorite movies and set it running on the screen behind his eyes. Settled on 'All About Eve.' Bette Davis. Anne Baxter. Little lamb Eve Harrington taken under the wing of the larger-than-life Margo Channing. Except the lamb wasn't quite so little, and more like a fox, with pointy teeth and dark eyes that took in everything and then slotted it away to use against her mentor. What a role. Eve knew just how to worm her way into Margo's house and into her life, digging in deep before she ever showed her claws. Tore up Margo's career, her 'family.' Tony raised an imaginary glass to his subconscious. Interesting choice of films.

To his left, Tim was talking in fits and starts. Trying to start a conversation or talking to himself. Tony didn't care. He was kind of done with him. With all of them. No mas, por favor. Not now.

"Hey, Tony, we're here."

He coughed, blinking open crusty eyes. Huh. He must have fallen asleep during the second act. Sometime between the underpass and his apartment building the sky had cleared into cloudless black velvet night. Tony grunted, trying to pull his fuzzy mind from the contrails his dreams had left behind. Finagling, nasty Eve Harrington didn't have long dark wavy hair and a penchant for knives as far as he remembered the movie. And Margo Channing hadn't been a six foot grey-haired Marine with relationship issues.

Tony shook his head and reached for the door handle. Tim's hand on his elbow surprised him and he turned.

"Are you okay?"

Wow. Tim actually sounded concerned. Tony frowned. Of course he was concerned. Tim was a good guy. Most of the time. He shook his head and then smiled, giving his partner a thumbs up.

"Well, text me if you need anything."

'Sure,' Tony mouthed, the promise as easy to make as it was to ignore. He struggled to get his feet arranged on the pavement and sucked in a breath of the moist, cool air, holding back the coughs by sheer force of will. He closed the car door behind him and headed towards home.

)( )( )(

The credits rolled on Margo and Eve, on Bette and Anne, two of Hollywood's most gilded in its Golden Age. Eve, the sneaky ingénue tied by iron bonds of deceit to the man she didn't want, and Margo, the mature, married woman intent on putting all the nastiness behind her and starting a new life.

"You're one classy broad, Margo," Tony whispered at the screen. He winced and tried another sip of tea, but barely managed to get it past the abraded tissues of his throat. It was cold anyway. He shivered, pulling the blanket tighter around his shoulders. Sighing, he fumbled with his phone. It was time. Time and past time. No matter what his co-workers thought of him, Tony wasn't an idiot. He knew he had to be in top physical condition to do his job. He sent a quick text, girding his loins for the conversation he didn't want to have.

When his phone rang, Tony rolled his eyes and swiped 'decline.' He texted again.

'Voice gone. Stop calling.'

'Fever?' The response came quickly.

Jimmy asked the typical doctory questions and Tony answered as best he could, including Ducky's painfully-poked diagnosis. After a few minutes of back and forth, Tony knew what was coming.

'I'll be there in half an hour. Try to drink some fluids.'

Poor Palmer. Always texting in complete sentences. Something about his medical school education or just sheer pig-headedness? Grammar-Nazi, Tony thought to himself.

'OK, mom,' he texted back.

Tony left the phone on the couch cushion and went in search of a warmer cup of tea. Maybe more honey would let it slide through the eight millimeter opening in his throat. He paused at the fish tank sitting on its stand beside the counter and dropped a few flakes into the water, watching Kate swim up after the food. Kate the fish gave him a big-eyed stare. "Should have named you Margo," Tony croaked.

)( )( )(

Jimmy sat on the coffee table, his elbows on his knees, stethoscope curled up in one hand. Behind his glasses, his eyes were bright and intense, focusing so completely on Tony that it made the agent squirm.

"Tell me again what Ducky said. No!" he held up one hand. "Write it down. Word for word if you remember it."

Tony pulled the legal pad back onto his lap, underlining the words he'd already printed in large letters. 'Inflammation. Allergic reaction. No talking.' Jimmy didn't need to know that Ducky had seemed just a little too happy with the diagnosis, a tiny bit flippant, and a lot condescending.

"And he didn't even listen to your lungs?"

Tony opened his eyes cartoon wide and shook the notepad at the young man.

"Okay, okay, I get it. It's just that-" Jimmy shrugged.

Tony understood. Ducky was Jimmy's mentor. The person he looked up to. And, generally, Ducky was a great guy, really great. But he was also human. He had his blind spots. One of them was Tony.

Dr. Mallard never had much patience with Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo. He'd done his best to treat him when necessary - Ducky had a doctor's heart. But he'd also said and done some pretty nasty things to Tony over the years. Calling him a narcissist was one. Comparing him to a serial killer. While others got tea and sympathy, it seemed that Tony's brushes with injury always brought out the worst in Ducky.

Tony's ride in the back of an FBI van in a body bag after the Air Force One incident had resulted in a lot of bruises, two cracked ribs, and a mild concussion. He remembered Ducky chastising Gibbs for that stunt, but the gleam in the ME's eye had revealed his hidden amusement. Tony narrowed his eyes. He was used to pain, he'd been a college athlete for God's sake. But the doctor's laissez faire attitude had rankled. Not long after, Tony'd been pushed out of a plane with little to no training. Gibbs and Ducky had quite a few chuckles over that one, too.

The plague. Blue lights, Nurse Emma, and a stubborn Kate leaning over him. Ah Katie, Tony thought to himself with a smile. You are missed. Ducky's professionalism rose to the occasion that time. And he'd been firm with Tony, repeating Brad Pitt's instructions once Tony was released from the hell that was his hospital bed. When Tony had nearly gotten blown to hell his first day back on the job Ducky's same old exasperation had resurfaced. Then there had been the beating he'd taken after his and Ziva's first undercover mission and Ducky's prescription for Scotch. Pretty sure that wasn't usual bedside advice.

Something about Tony irritated Ducky - that was certain.


Tony let his dark thoughts drift away to focus on Jimmy, raising his eyebrows in question.

"I'm not doubting you, Tony." The young man adjusted his glasses. "I've seen it myself. Doctor Mallard, well, he is much better with the dead than the living," he smiled. Then his smile faltered. "But, for some reason, he treats you differently. I always thought there must be something that happened between you, some hard feelings. Still, it isn't right."
Tony mimicked Jimmy's shrug. He had no idea. None whatsoever. Whatever Ducky had against Tony was a mystery. But, then again, this last case had reminded him that he, apparently, wasn't well liked by most of the people he called his family.

"Well, that doesn't matter." Jimmy slapped his hands on his knees and then stood. He offered a hand to Tony and hauled him to his feet. "Since I don't graduate until June, I can't write prescriptions, so we're going to have to take a trip to the local Urgent Care. Unless you want to call Doctor Pitt?"

Pulling his head back like a frightened turtle, Tony grimaced an obvious 'no'.

"Okay, c'mon. I'll drive you. We need some antibiotics and maybe steroids for your lungs. I don't like what I'm hearing on the right side. That's where most of your scarring is if I remember your x-rays correctly."

)( )( )(

Of course any trip to the ER, or Urgent Care, or any doctor except Brad or Ducky always turned into a circus act. Trying to explain his medical history – again – even using Palmer as his voice, was the main reason Tony usually sucked it up and went to Ducky in the first place. When he'd finally gotten away from the well-meaning but curious medical clutches it was four hours later and all Tony wanted was his bed.

He had enough foresight to send a couple of emails before he headed for dreamland. He didn't want an irate Gibbs sending Ziva and Tim to break down his door when he didn't show up for work in the morning. Or Vance firing him for not reporting. Attaching a couple of phone pics of the doctor's orders, Tony sent emails to Gibbs and the director, requesting the next three days sick leave. That plus the long weekend ought to see him through the worst of this – and help him sort through the weirdness that seemed to be plaguing his interactions with his team.

Falling face-first into his bed, Tony let it all go.