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Box Out

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Disclaimer: Nope, not mine. Thanks for letting me play with them.

"Damn it, DiNozzo, I told you to box out!"

Coach was pissed and Tony kept his head down, sweat dripping down his nose to plop in wide, round drops onto the floor of the military academy gym. His skin was flushed, but not just from running the length of the court for nearly the entire game. He'd left his guard position to try to draw the foul and his man had gotten around him to get the ball and go in for two. Now they were down by one, seconds left on the clock. His fault. He could feel the team's anger, smell it in their sweat, hear it in the barely muttered curses. He'd feel it in their pushes and elbows later in the locker room, harder, rougher punches in the shower if they lost the semi-final because of him.

"If we lose, DiNozzo, you'll be running suicides until you puke."

Shouldn't take long, he thought, nodding in agreement without raising his eyes. He knew better – blocking with his body under the net, position unmovable, holding off any encroachment into his team's zone to the inside - that was his job. Defense. Never let them in.

But sometimes he'd see a gap, see an opportunity and break for it, and he'd leave an opening for the enemy to score.

Like now.

The memory of his basketball coach's voice faded into the background, but Tony still seemed to smell the hot, heavy air of the gym, hear the slamming feet in the bleachers, the shouting crowd, and the churning in his gut as the clock ticked over to zero. He couldn't help but finger the ribs low on his left side that had been cracked by a few well placed kicks half an hour later.

Tony replayed the last few minutes in the midnight-darkened bullpen. The bullet graze had started to burn again, pain gradually leaking through the local anesthetic the ER doc had used when he'd cleaned and stitched it. He'd been teasing the probie, allowing the adrenaline rush of the gun fight, the day spent trapped within the cargo container, and the final showdown before Gibbs rode to the rescue to leach away in the familiar banter of the squad room and the habitual disgust of a McGee feeling provoked by Tony's whining. Ziva had promised to make him dinner as an apology for not inviting him to her intimate soiree with McGee and Palmer – that should be fun, continuing some of the dialogue they'd started in the shipping container. A moment ago he'd smiled at the thought – the challenge of joking it out of her. Getting around her guard - getting inside.

His mistake.

"I talked to Ziva – you cut it on a wooden box."

Why would she say that? She knew what happened: the ricochet had buzzed between them like an angry hornet, and it took a few seconds before either realized it had ripped through Tony's coat, his shirt, and left a jagged tear in his right arm. She'd helped him down from the truck, later, acting all the solicitous partner, offering to drive him home.

He gathered his waning energy and surged to his feet, all swagger and over-the-top drama on the outside while he processed on the inside. Abby's body slammed into him hard and he choked a grunt into a whining screech when she jogged his elbow. Tony let the Goth scientist's innate protectiveness ground him and moved back towards his desk, holding his arm tight against him with the other hand. Who knew he'd be thanking his father for training him so well.

"Anthony – I won't tell you again."

His father's voice held that low, controlled anger, a kind of warning sign that his patience wouldn't last forever. Tony tried to school his adolescent features into a bland mask, like the one his father showed to the world, but his jaw hurt from clenching his teeth so hard and his eyes stung as a few last tears escaped. His mother was dead, but he was still a DiNozzo. 'Emotional scenes' were all right for women and children, but not for men. Not even now.

"It's not a lack of emotion, Tony, it's a firm control," his father explained in the limo on the way to the cemetery when his son had flown into a rage over the man's cold, uncaring attitude. "In our business, enemies are everywhere, always looking for a way in, for any weakness. In public, you must be immovable." His large hands had adjusted Tony's tie, had brushed unnoticeable flecks from the shoulders of his dark suit. "Closed off." One finger tapping against his cheek brought Tony's flooded eyes to his father's pale face. "Don't let them see the pain. Don't let them in."

Words to live by. Tony felt his shoulders straighten, regardless of the low throb in his arm. He'd gotten sloppy – lazy - again.

Ziva's dark eyes held something darker, almost triumphant. He was startled by the fleeting image of Kate Todd smirking at him, returning jibe for jibe and tease for tease. Still, beneath their sibling barks and nips, Kate had carried a deep wealth of caring, a heart for her team. He blinked the images clear. Ziva wasn't Kate.

The words and phrases, glimpses into Ziva's personal life that was still very murky, had been dropped almost purposefully, deliberately, during the past few months, but Ziva was still opaque to him. Hidden. Secret. Her arrival on the heels of her psycho-killer brother, her instant – worrying – connection with Gibbs, the little ways she jabbed at Tony's discoveries, his leadership, and his role as second on Gibbs' team. Something snapped into place with a gut-wrenching twist within him. Well, shit.

Just minutes before his grand-standing play – his mistake on the court - Tony had watched the ball into the hoop. His shot put his team up by one and he felt the thrill through his nerves as the crowd roared, vibrating the air in the huge gym. His legs had been shaking with strain, the muscles so tired just a moment ago. Now he was recharged, victory for his team within reach. The team had been plagued by injuries this season, giving the freshman a chance to play, to show what he could do. He'd turned to race back along the boards, shadowing his man.

"C'mon, get down there!"

The coach's voice was the only one Tony heard. He'd flung the sweat from his hair and focused – bumping his body into his man, his slim back to the bigger boy's chest. The other player dribbled frantically, looking around – nobody open. Tony saw it in his eyes when he decided to take the ball in himself.

"DiNozzo! Box out, DiNozzo!"

Time slowed around the desks in the bullpen. He watched Abby's hand on Ziva's arm; he remembered the forensic tech's initial loathing of the Mossad agent contrasted with her instant bonding with Kate. Ziva had pulled out all the stops to break through the block, to convince Abby she could be a friend, that she was trustworthy. McGee – she'd wooed McGee with a few seemingly innocent appeals for help – fastest way to work, good restaurants, dry cleaners. And she'd given him a sometimes partner against Tony's boisterous version of team camaraderie. Two against one.

She'd tried with Tony – for a while. The smutty talks about GSM and honey dust, dinner after he'd broken up with his married girlfriend, never mind what had seemed to be real concern for him when he'd taken the brunt of the beating during their undercover assignment. Ziva had sucked up to him in private as she undercut him with everyone else. He had to admit it – she was good.

Tony's gaze darted to Gibbs, just coming out of the elevator with his usual cup of coffee. That bitter tang in the back of his throat still stung, still surprised him with a sweep of regret at the oddest moments. Whatever friendship – partnership - they'd once shared – whatever Tony had imagined they'd once shared – it had long since eroded into cold disdain and indifference. He dropped his eyes to his desk. It still hurt.

Back in Baltimore – back when a tube sock wearing detective had rassled a tall federal agent to the ground – from that moment there'd been a connection. A fledgling friendship. It had built slowly into a firm, trusted bond as they worked side by side, learning each other's strengths – and weaknesses. But it hadn't survived. Hadn't survived a smart-mouthed ex-Secret Service agent joining the team. Had thinned out further when McGee came along. And, finally, it seemed, it had been buried along with Kate.

Maybe Tony'd just been handy, the only game in town after Gibbs' last partner left to go afloat. Maybe Tony had imagined the warmth, the mentorship that had grown into a mutual respect. A trust he came to base his life on. But it hadn't been lasting – not for Gibbs, anyway. Tony remembered the first time Gibbs had turned biting words into a joke at Tony's expense, to put him down – put him in his place in the eyes of Kate and McGee. A place that used to be right by Gibbs' side. He remembered the flush of anger – of hurt. How he'd told himself it was funny, a game played out only when others were around to see. That later, over beers, or the rough edges of a boat in a basement, Gibbs would smile and ruffle Tony's 'perfect' hairstyle, and firm up their bond.

Until he didn't.

A sniper's bullet had killed more than a beautiful, courageous, treasured partner. It had snuffed out Gibbs' respect once and for all. Cold and distant, blue eyes never quite meeting Tony's across the bullpen, now, their connection was gone, and Tony had given up trying to restore it, to earn his way back behind Gibbs' walls. His gaze swung back towards Ziva. Apparently, Gibbs had found a brighter student. A daughter. Of course. How could Tony possibly compare?

"Let's run that drill again – here, Lesher, come stand here, by the key." The coach had positioned the gangly twelve-year-old facing the net. "Ramirez, come on, you'll be the shooter." Another boy stood poised nearby, dribbling the ball casually. "Now, DiNozzo," he'd grabbed Tony by the wrist and pulled him into position, his back to Lesher's chest, then pushed down on his shoulders. "Bend your knees, that's right, a little wider. Arms out, elbows bent. Good, good." He'd turned to the other boys. "Now, when Ramirez heads in for the shot, you guys have got to remember to box out, just like Tony is here – you've got to keep position, hold your man off the ball. Basketball games are won through smart defense, boys, not fancy plays and jumps."

His first coach, his first year playing. The man who'd turned an awkward, abandoned, grief-stricken twelve year old into an athlete. Tony had worshipped the man, believed the sun rose and set with his approval. He'd never worked so hard in his life.

Until he'd met Gibbs.

He didn't know how Ziva had burrowed under Gibbs' usually miles-thick armor, but he had his theories – and Tony was neither stupid nor oblivious, no matter what other people might choose to believe. But Gibbs bought her act – hook, line, and sinker. Had from day one, no matter how much he shellacked that hard-ass glaze over his amused little smiles and fond gazes. It used to be – they used to be for – Tony clenched his teeth, refusing to finish the thought. Nausea twisted his gut as he looked into her brown eyes, all crinkled at the corners with amusement.

"Her cooking rocks, Tony. What was the name of that dish you made last night at the party?"

Tony blinked. Abby was there. At Ziva's. Abby, McGee, Palmer…

Gibbs breezed past. "Chunt. Slow cooked beef with potatoes and beans. It wasn't bad."

Gibbs.

After the semi-final, freshman year, the blows had fallen heavily against Tony's back, knocking Tony face-first against the brick wall behind the gym. The rough surface scraped his cheek open, the sudden pain shocking a gasp from his lips. It was okay. It was the last noise he'd made. He'd deserved every punch, every kick. He'd let them down. Let his coach down.

Nuh. He felt the blow low, in his belly. Turning, Tony caught the flagrant sneer on McGee's face before his stare flashed back towards Ziva's vicious little smile. Well, props to her, then. It looked like she'd succeeded. McGee, Abby, Palmer, Ziva, and even Gibbs – he swallowed bile – the perfect team. Anger burned and he felt the flush slowly creep up along the length of his neck towards his chin. Ziva – winning? Like hell. Suddenly, Tony didn't feel the pain in his arm any more.

Abby's sweet, pale face showed no hint of teasing or mockery. "Too bad you couldn't make it, Tony. Ziva told us you turned her down."

"Well," Tony felt his lips curl back, exposing his teeth. "If Ziva said it, it must be true." He turned in his chair. "Right, Probie?"

He caught the flicker of uncertainty in McGee's eyes. "Uh, right."

Tony had welcomed his teammates' blows, laid there, let them hit him, curse him. His silent acceptance seemed to drain their need for violence.

No. It was clear that McGee had been in on the joke. The game. Ziva's plan to deliberately isolate Tony – leave him out of an obviously team-centered evening. And as for the rest of them …

"What do you mean, Tony?"

Poor Abby. She'd never have stood for it. What you see was what you'd get with Abby. Now, the question was, could Tony expose Ziva's scheme without tearing up Team Gibbs for good, or would he just have to swallow it? He'd done it before – military school wasn't the first or the last time he'd taken the blows. He watched Gibbs' gaze brush over him as if he didn't exist. This time, though, it just might kill him.

Getting back to the barracks had been tough, but he'd made it. Fell into bed. Got himself to the infirmary the next day with a tale of falling down concrete steps in the dark. Never missed a class.

The Mossad agent continued to eye him warily. Ziva knew that he knew, that he was on to her. That might have to be enough. Although, now, he'd never trust her again, and with the wounds left – oh so deliberately, it seemed, by McGee - tearing up Team Gibbs might be pretty damn unavoidable.

Tony blew a heavy breath out into the air. "Nothing, Abbs." He smiled gently and lowered his head, waiting until she'd pulled McGee out from behind his desk and headed off. He could sense Ziva's presence, still there, waiting, on the other side of the desk, but he carefully ignored her. Reaching behind his neck with his left hand, Tony unlatched the sling the ER doctor had told him to wear for at least a week, to remind him to keep his arm still and protect the stitches from pulling, mostly. The wound was ragged and prone to infection since the bullet had seared pieces of his coat and shirt into the wound. He couldn't stifle a hiss as he straightened his arm and turned on his computer.

"Tony – I thought I was taking you home?"

He'd never told a soul. They were his team – no matter what. He wouldn't let a little pain drive him away. He'd been back with the team the following season. A little older. A lot wiser. And he made sure to learn defense.

He barely raised his eyes. "Gonna have to take a rain check on that one, Zee-va. I've got a report to finish." He opened the report program and began inputting information.

A flutter of movement caught his eye and suddenly Gibbs was there. Side by side with Ziva. Frowning. Yeah, nothing new there. Tony kept typing.

"DiNozzo, you can finish that up tomorrow. You're at your desk until the shooting board signs off on the guy you took out at the dock, anyway."

Tony shook his head. "Nah, I'll finish it while it's fresh, Boss. Won't take long. 'We got locked in a shipping container, burned some phony money, bounced around, moved some furniture, yadda yadda yadda …' You know, the usual."

Ziva's throaty chuckle sent a blade of ice down his spine. "Oh, look, Gibbs, now he is sulking. How … cute."

A cold silence filled the air and Tony focused his anger on the plastic keys under his fingers, his eyes searing gouges into his screen. Biting back at her would rebound – painfully - as long as her silver-haired champion backed her up. A long moment later, Gibbs' hand crept into Tony's line of sight as he reached over and pushed the button on the monitor. The screen went dark and Tony closed his eyes, his rage muffled by the exhaustion that suddenly turned his muscles to water.

"Go home …"

Tony waited for it. Another dismissal from Gibbs, with just the right mixture of disappointment and disgust.

"… Ziva."

His eyes popped open in time to see the narrowing of the Mossad agent's lips. She recovered quickly.

"Yes, Tony, come on," she wheedled slyly, "you don't want to pass out on the floor from hunger."

"Boss- "

"I don't think DiNozzo needs a babysitter, Ziva." Gibbs voice was low and even, not growling, but damn close. The blue eyes were sharp, icy, focused exclusively on Tony.

Ziva finally got the message and sighed. "Very well. Good night," she added stiffly, the victorious glint in her eyes transforming into veiled frustration.

Tony couldn't resist a wide, insincere smile. "Thanks for everything," he called after her, standing and grabbing his jacket from the back of his chair, absently fingering the bloody slit in the sleeve. He carefully pulled it on over his injured arm, keeping his back to Gibbs' unwanted scrutiny. He opened his drawer to reach for his gun and found… nothing.

Right. Abby had it locked away in evidence. And it would stay there until the shooting board released it. He slammed the drawer shut and grabbed his bag.

It wasn't until he reached the elevator that he realized Gibbs was at his side.

The doors slid open and the NCIS medical examiner took one look at Tony and exploded.

"Anthony!"

Tony jerked backwards and a curse flew out between his lips before he could catch himself, the pain throbbing from his shoulder to his fingertips.

The medical examiner was livid. "What do you think you're doing?" He pushed Gibbs roughly out of the way and latched onto Tony's good arm, stepping right into his personal space.

"Ducky?" Tony's eyes opened wide, voice carefully controlled, denying his body's automatic response to the pain.

The older man thrust the thick folder he'd been carrying into Gibbs' hands. "I just received your medical report from Doctor Anderson at the hospital – he faxed the treatment information for your wound and I see that he specifically ordered you to wear a sling for one week!"

"… enemies are everywhere, always looking for a way in, for any weakness. Don't let them in."

"Box out, DiNozzo!"

He'd never let a little pain drive him away.

Tony mentally bent his knees. Steady. Immovable. No one was going to get inside again.

He turned on the charm. "You know how doctors love to exaggerate, Ducky. It would take more than a little scratch to –"

"Shut up, DiNozzo." Gibbs pressed one hand into Tony's lower back and moved him into the elevator, Ducky following along.

Tony felt the warmth of Gibbs' hand and he nearly stumbled, only the pressure of Ducky's hold keeping him upright. He shifted away from the touch of either man, his back to the wall, slowing his breaths to take charge of his pounding heart and spiking blood pressure.

Once the doors had closed, Gibbs pressed the button to take the three of them to the basement. He shoved the folder back into Ducky's hands without bothering to open it.

"In English, Duck."

Tony seethed quietly, leaning back against the cold wall, gaze fixed on the lighted numbers as if the descent of the small car could sink his emotions down below his usual amiable mask. It wasn't working. He needed to go – now – get away, lock down his roiling thoughts. He barely listened to Ducky's nattering – it sounded just like what the ER doc had said, anyway, just longer-winded.

"I'll want to see what damage he's managed to do to it before he goes home, Jethro," the medical examiner stated when they reached the basement. "And where did you put the sling, Anthony?"

Well, someone was finally talking to him - Tony supposed that was progress. He loosened his jaw enough to answer. "It's behind my desk."

Gibbs' held one hand against the open elevator door. "I'll get it – you check him out, Ducky."

One down, one to go, Tony thought to himself. Gibbs was apparently done with the whole 'caring and controlling' portion of this evening's entertainment. Now he just had to make all the right responses to Ducky's genuine concern and he could get out of here.

"Very well, Jethro. Come along," he ushered Tony out ahead of him.

Cool green eyes locked onto the slender figure of Jimmy Palmer as soon as the doors swished open to the autopsy suite. Another of Ziva's conquests, Tony thought.

"That will be all for today, Mister Palmer," Ducky called, pointing Tony to the nearest metal table.

"That's okay, I'd rather stand," Tony snapped, working his coat off as he watched Palmer until he'd scuttled silently out the door. Damn it, he muttered under his breath – putting the coat on once was bad enough, at this rate he might as well leave the thing off and risk pneumonia by driving home in his shirt sleeves.

"Uh-huh, I thought so." Ducky clucked his tongue at the blood that had seeped through the layers of gauze wrapped around his arm. "When will you learn to take care of yourself, my boy?"

That's exactly what I'm trying to do, Tony seethed, remaining silent and still beneath the doctor's firm hands. The sooner he let Ducky manhandle him, the sooner that Tony could escape and start rebuilding his defenses. Batter his body – his soul - back into shape. He glanced down at the ugly wound. He'd take the foul, swallow the smirking rejection, absorb the blows. He hadn't forgotten how. What was another scar?