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Surface Burns

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Ziva twirled a pencil in her hands as she watched her partner from across the bullpen. Tony was typing, one of those times when he couldn't be bothered to pretend he didn't know how to.

"You're worked up."

Tony was clearly still pissed after his little accident earlier that morning in which they lost their lead and he ended up with a chest-full of scalding hot beverage.

"It's just this case, murdering mole in our midst and all," he replied dismissively.

Ziva didn't buy it. They'd had tougher cases, more personal cases, but she'd never seen Tony this agitated. He kept fidgeting more than usual. And he refused to meet her eyes, which was really unusual.

"Are you not talking to me?" She asked, abrupt and to-the-point as always.

Tony paused mid-keystroke and frowned at her. "Do I have reason not to?"

"You know, after what happened day before with the war game. Me going coastal for no reason," she mumbled, still a little embarrassed.

"Postal," Tony corrected and went back to his report. "And no, you're not getting off that easy, Zee-vah. I'm still talking, I'll always be talking, I will not ever stop talking. And that is, in fact, your punishment - me talking. See how nicely it works out?"

Ziva stood up and ambled over to Tony's desk, squinting hard when he still wouldn't look up at her. "That is the problem, Tony. You are not talking my ears off, for a change."

Tony huffed. "I'm trying to work? For a change? Boss has me re-doing last week's report, now of all times for crying out loud."

It was one of Gibbs' time-out tasks that he assigned when he thought one of his agents was getting too close to a case. And Gibbs was right: first being kept in the dark about Domino, and now getting repeatedly played by Agent Lee… Tony was evidently running out of patience.

Ziva bit her lip and wondered if there might be a third thing, something she could actually try and fix. "Something's not right."

Tony started to roll his eyes and open his mouth with a biting comeback that might have started with a "Duh!" and ended with a "Mrs. Obvious", when Ziva twisted his chair around to face her and away from his monitor.

"What the-?" He hadn't yet come to terms with the chair-pulling when Ziva grabbed his shirt, pulled the ends out of his pants and lifted the fabric up to bare his stomach and chest.

"Jeezuz! Ziva!"

Ziva ignored him and knelt before him, wincing sympathetically at the dark red soreness on Tony's torso. "That must sting, Tony," she whispered, touching the skin delicately.

"Ow! Yeah, if you poke at it." Tony tried to get up but Ziva wouldn't let him, holding him down with just one hand strategically planted on top of his thigh.

"You should let Ducky look at it."

Tony squirmed under her gentle ministrations until Abby trotted in on her four-inch platforms. "Let Ducky look at wha- oh wow! Someone forgot to use sunscreen…"

"Lee threw steaming hot coffee at him," Ziva explained.

"That bitch!" And before Tony could react, she was crouching down next to Ziva and examining his belly too.

"Seriously?" He tried to pull his shirt down only to be stopped by Abby smacking his hand away.

"Come on, ladies, this is really unnecessary…" Tony glared away passers-by gawking at the trio and their strange antics, even as he struggled to hold still and pretend it really didn't hurt.

"I have moisturizer down in the lab, let's take him there."

"Okay, but shouldn't we wash him with some cold water first?"

"I am right here!" Tony mewled and threw his head back, only to spot McGee entering the squad area. "Probie! Get these wenches off my stomach, will ya?"

McGee sized up the scene immediately and smirked at Tony's predicament. "I would think you'd enjoy all this special attention, Tony."

"Not this time, McGee," Abby looked up at Tim and explained matter-of-factly. "He only exaggerates his injuries when they don't hurt."

"So it does hurt, then?" For once Ziva asked him a direct question. The genuine concern in her voice seemed to make Tony acutely uncomfortable. He managed to kick hard enough to get his chair out of her grip and stood up, pulling the shirt back in place to make himself decent again.

"Thank God Lee didn't dump her coffee on my butt or you two would be bending me over my desk just to satisfy your curio–"

"Who's bending you over your desk, DiNozzo?"

Gibbs! The girls stopped giggling and McGee stopped smirking. Tony sighed, relieved that now that the boss-man was here, at least the fussing would end. Together they watched Gibbs stride up to his own desk without bothering to glance at either of them.

Then instinctively, as if on cue, three people spoke up at once.

"Tony's hiding an injury!"

Tony scowled at Tim, hard. "Et tu, Brutus?"

Gibbs paused, and slowly turned towards them, one eyebrow raised.

Tony shook his head. "It's just a surface burn, boss."

"Then why are you all standing here discussing it and WASTING. MY. TIME?"

Gibbs' voice got progressively louder and angrier with every word. By the time he got to the end, McGee and Ziva were back at their desks, and Tony was in his seat typing away furiously. Abby just stood there, biting a smile back, studying Gibbs. He fixed her with his special Abby-glare.

"Abby, you got something for me?"

"No, but Ducky does."

"Okay." He grabbed his coffee mug and stood up. "With me, DiNozzo."

"On your six, boss!" Tony stood up promptly and went after Gibbs towards the elevator. He started tucking his shirt back into his pants as he ran.

"Don't bother," Gibbs called without turning back. Tony looked up, his question dying on his parted lips when the answer occurred to him a half-second later. He sighed and turned to glower at Abby and at Ziva who was standing next to her forensic scientist friend once again. Together they coyly waved him good-bye.

"Nicely done, Abs." Ziva whispered.

Abby smiled back.

 

XxXxX

 

Once the elevator began its descent, Tony bit his lip and tried to cross his arms petulantly, only to pull them away from his chest because it hurt.

"So, Lee ID the kid on the NSA footage?"

"Mm-hm. Looks like you'll have to put up with her a little longer."

"Even if it's really her daughter, we can't trust her."

"Ya think, DiNozzo?"

Tony's face twisted into a snarl. "Yeah, I think, Boss! She's got us running around in circles giving her accomplices time to disappear."

Gibbs swigged his coffee casually. "I ain't running in circles; standing right where I need to be."

Tony didn't reply, but the muted grunt was loaded enough to make Gibbs pause. He turned just in time to catch a strange look on his senior field agent's face. Tony rarely took offence to Gibbs' offhandedness, at least not anymore.

"How bad is it?" He asked, trying to draw Tony into a different conversation.

Tony shrugged like he couldn't care less. "Just a surface burn."

"Yeah? So it won't hurt if I did this –?" Gibbs swung his free hand back and squarely into Tony's chest. Tony flinched and backed away instinctively, only to thump hard against the elevator wall behind him. Gibbs' hand never made contact, it was never intended to.

"Ha ha," Tony muttered unhappily for having been punked, again. Gibbs just smirked.

 

XxXxX

 

Down in Autopsy, Ducky asked Tony to take his shirt off and lie down on a steel table.

"Hop on up here, dear boy. Come on now, you've done this before. Many, many, times before. Yes, looks like the socked eye is healing nicely…"

Tony huffed and puffed but eventually did as he was told.

"You don't have to stay, boss."

Gibbs scoffed and didn't even bother to honor that with his usual response, a head-slap. With him standing right there, there wasn't much protest Tony could lodge. So he just lay there sulkily, letting Ducky examine him even as he launched into re-telling the story of a British model whose abusive ex-boyfriend hired someone to throw sulfuric acid in her face.

"The doctors had to remove all the skin from her face, before re-building it completely with a skin substitute!"

Tony winced. "Boy, am I glad they don't serve freshly brewed H2SO4 down at the café."

Ducky didn't much appreciate his smart-assedness. "If you prefer, I can tell you instead about how many children die from hot beverage and hot bath water scalding each year. You'll never guess how alarmingly high the number is, especially in ages one to five."

"Yeah, let's stick to the model, Ducky." Tony begged and Gibbs smiled, even as he winced inwards himself.

The senior agent kept a close watch as Ducky rinsed Tony's stomach and chest with cold water. After lightly patting him dry, he applied a generous layer of an aloe vera-based ointment to soothe the area. Finally he handed Tony a couple of painkillers and made him swallow in front of everyone, no sleight of hand allowed.

Tony was visibly relieved to be allowed to rise just as Ducky reached the end of his story with a flourish. "The last fight this horrible man got into during his sentence was in the prison's press room. He got half his face ripped right off by a hot steam iron. And that's what I call poetic justice!"

The doors slid open and Jimmy Palmer walked in.

"Oh!" He exclaimed as he spotted the shirtless agent sitting on a table flanked by two over-protective older men on either side. "I'm sorry, I'll… come later…"

"It's okay, Palmer," Tony stopped him. "Wouldn't be fair if you were the only one that didn't get to see me half-naked today," he quipped with as much sarcasm as he could muster.

Jimmy much rather preferred to leave, really, being in the same room as Gibbs tended to make him do stupid, embarrassing things. But then something extraordinary and rare (as in never happened before) unfolded right before his eyes, stopped him dead in his tracks.

He watched with widening eyes as Gibbs picked up a white shirt lying nearby, and started to help Tony into it. The younger agent looked sheepish, as if he'd been there before but wasn't quite used to this… this unnatural side of Gibbs yet. Only Ducky carried on as if the world hadn't just been turned on its head. Gibbs even pried Tony's fingers away gently when they tried to button up, wordlessly ordering him to keep it open and away from his treated skin for a little while longer.

"Wh-What happened?" Jimmy finally dared to ask.

"Your ex-girlfriend happened," Tony retorted, his face red and his tone clipped, most likely from embarrassment. He looked down at himself, wondering if he could get away with closing at least the top two buttons and completely missed the bitterness that came over Jimmy's face.

"You too, huh?"

Everyone looked at Jimmy then, Tony included, suddenly realizing what the boy might be going through.

"Don't take it personally, Jimmy," Tony spoke with genuine empathy. "A lot of people got used and hurt because of her this past year."

Ducky nodded subtly towards Gibbs, Tell me you know what's going on with him.

To which Gibbs responded with one of his own, I do now.

"Thanks, Duck," Gibbs drawled and started to walk out. "DiNozzo! Back to work!"

Ducky hurriedly rattled out a few instructions for Tony to care for his wound which the younger man barely heard, as he flew out the doors and into the closing elevator after his boss.

 

XxXxX

 

Gibbs hit the kill-switch soon enough. The elevator came to a sudden lurch somewhere between sub-basement levels three and two.

"Do I need to give you more reports to re-write, Tony?"

Tony's jaw hardened. "I wanna work this case…"

"Not if you keep flying off the handle every time you see Lee."

"She's a traitor and a murderer, and she should be behind bars as we speak, not up in MTAC sweet-talking her way into a plea bargain."

"She's our best lead."

"More like a mislead, boss; no pun intended."

"You're not thinking straight."

And that made Tony fly off the handle right away. "Why, because I don't want us to waste any more time listening to her lies? Agent Langer is dead because of her!"

Gibbs wasn't too far behind. "I KNOW THAT!"

Tony clamped up, regretting ever saying anything at all. While he stared up at the ceiling trying to get his rage under control, Gibbs studied him and sighed.

"I also know that Vance told you why he broke up the team. Lee's the reason you got sent away from the only family you've ever known, the only place you've ever called home."

Tony blinked and backed up, struggling to achieve some kind of plausible deniability. "I-I… that's not why… it doesn't matter."

"Yes, it does," Gibbs whispered, not unkindly.

Not having Tony around for four months had been hard on him too, even if he'd never admit it out loud. It had shaken loose a strong fatherly instinct that he didn't even know he still had. Filing away his own frustrations for later, Gibbs stepped closer to the younger man. Then without waiting for permission (rule 18), he gathered the open ends of the agent's shirt and started to button him up.

"Can't go out like this," he grumbled awkwardly, by way of explanation.

He could feel Tony tremble in his hands, taken aback once again by the simple yet tender, very out-of-character, gesture. Gibbs found himself shushing the kid quietly, willing him to relax.

"This isn't just about a spilled cup of Joe, Tony, I understand that."

No, it wasn't. It was about losing control of one's own life, feeling helpless, punished, discarded… Tony swallowed hard, looking anywhere and everywhere but at Gibbs.

"But what I need right now is for my best agent to trust me, and get his head screwed back on right. Because I can't fix this without him, I can't get justice for Langer without him."

Tony met the clear blue gaze at last, and this time he held it.

The Marine's uncanny ability to get him really shouldn't surprise him anymore. And yet, here he was, once again stunned into silence by a supposed functional mute.

 

XxXxX

 

The elevator dinged open few seconds later. Gibbs pushed the last shirt button through its hoop, then abruptly walked out and into the squad room. Abby was still there, perched on Tim's desk and deep in conversation with her other two 'Gibblets'.

A minute later when Tony walked in, she tried to look guilty enough to appease the frown lines on his face, misreading them to be there because they'd tricked him into seeing Ducky.

"Ziva made me do it!"

"Hey!" Ziva threw her hands up and pretended to be affronted, while McGee insisted he was Switzerland in all of this. Tony just chuckled and went to his own desk.

"Relax, you guys. I'm not mad."

Gibbs peripherally observed his team banter back and forth to slowly pull Tony back into normalcy. And later when he caught his senior field agent's eyes from across the room, he found exactly what he needed to see.

The shit-eating grin was back. "Just be glad I'm out of superglue!"

The huddle disbanded and everyone went back to work, including Abby who headed back to her lab. Only Ziva lingered, compelled for some odd reason to make sure her partner was really, really okay.

"You seem better." She fished about for the right word before going with the best one she could come up with. "Much more, settled, yes?"

Tony nodded up at her gratefully, his eyes briefly flickering towards the boss before meeting hers again.

"Just a surface burn, Ziva. Gone before you know it."

Ziva nodded, seemingly satisfied, and turned away. Making a brief detour she reached Gibbs' desk where she leaned in to say something, but Gibbs cut her off.

"I know: Nicely done, Gibbs."

Ziva smiled back.

 

** END **

 

A/N: Feedback would be truly appreciated!