Author's Note: I apologize for the delayed posting of this final chapter. My only excuse is that I'm exclusively using a small tablet for internet access/writing these days, and using it is rather annoying.
Tony lost track of how many times he'd unwillingly fallen asleep throughout the day.
He woke up one time with a stranger in his face - a nurse with a well-intentioned message. He took a weak swipe at him, but his wrist was caught easily. "Hey, you're okay," the man spoke down at him, appearing from some sort of ether cloud. "You're coming out of a seizure. Calm down, okay?"
So maybe he hadn't exactly been sleeping that time. He could do nothing for himself but breathe heavily and try to keep the drool to a minimum. There was confusion, too. He couldn't tell if it was an hour or a minute that had passed.
After a doctor had yet again come and gone from his room, this time with a useful bit of news, he caved and fumbled with his cell phone someone had kindly left within reach. They'd been nudging him. Call someone. Do you have somebody? Call them.
He hadn't yet.
Gibbs was speed dial number two.
They'd gradually fallen out of touch over the past two months. It wasn't an intentional thing, just something that happened, organic and unapologetic. Yet despite that, their conversation now felt more familiar than it had ever felt before. It was strange how their unlikely friendship had mellowed now that they stood on more equal footing. Gibbs didn't seem to mind that it was nearly two in the morning.
Tony's slurred speech was improving, but Gibbs had picked up on it immediately.
"Look, boss," - Apparently, old habits died hard. - "They say I had a stroke. I don't know. Some people found me keeled over by my car. I'm kinda just cooling my heels at the hospital right now. I'm okay; the doc says I'm lucky, but they also mentioned something about seizure activity and they wanna do an MRI, but-"
"Jesus, Tony," Gibbs broke in. "Slow down. You had a what?"
"A stroke," Tony repeated. "God, boss, I don't get it. It's not like I'm- And fuck, it sounds like I'm talking with a mouthful of marbles. I'm fucking pissed right now."
"And what about a seizure?" Gibbs was attempting to keep things straight.
"I don't know what they're talking about. They shot me up with enough diazepam to bring down a large gorilla. I can barely function right now, boss. Pretty sure I'm pissing into a bag. I'm so confused," he admitted. "I almost decked a nurse in the face."
"You got someone there with you?"
Tony hesitated, strangely embarrassed. "No. You're the first person I've thought to call. I was alone when it happened." Vaguely, he remembered the feeling of his hands submerged in cold, gritty slush. He felt a new stab of panic; he'd lost a huge chunk of time. Anything could have happened. I'm alone here, he wanted to add, but he didn't.
"Relax." Gibbs' voice seemed to reach out to him in tangible form from the phone.
And Tony relaxed; the two of them had an old and weathered understanding of each other. Tony hadn't realized how much he missed that easy closeness. "Gibbs-"
"Hey, you're still breathing. That's always a start."
Tony thought he was dreaming at first. He had to be dreaming.
Why else would Tim McGee be slouched on one of the nearby chairs? But sure enough, there he was. Or at least a really convincing look-alike. His winter coat was all bunched up and wrinkled on his lap. His shoes were off and his socked feet rested on a lumpy duffel bag. He looked a bit rumpled, a bit worn down from something, eyes a bit bloodshot. But those green eyes were looking straight at Tony, who'd been decidedly insensate for who knows how long.
"But I called Gibbs?" Tony mumbled, confused. It was the first thing that had come to mind, but it was only a whole minute afterwards that he realized what a rude and ungrateful cuss he sounded like.
"And Gibbs called me," Tim responded, voice quiet. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. "So I packed a bag and teleported here."
"Tele-what?" Tony stared. His eyes fought through the darkness and the distance between them. He needed to see Tim's face. If he and Gibbs had fallen out of touch over the months, he and Tim had become as distant as strangers. Or so they assumed. "Oh, that was a joke."
"Yeah, Tones, it was."
There would always be something between them. Something thinly buried under the soil of their opposing circumstances. Maybe all it needed was a drop of water in order to germinate into something new and fresh.
Tony had to be hallucinating. That was it. Just some post-medical crisis wishful thinking. "You came," he said around the gathering lump in his throat.
"Yeah." But then Tim smiled in faint amusement, just a tiny quirk of his lips. "Are you crying?"
"No," Tony denied.
Tim scooted the chair closer. The legs scraped noisily against the floor. "I think I see something."
"It's this fucking diazepam. I'm all out of whack, Tim. They got me all fucked up. God, I'm sorry, I-"
"You didn't have to come-"
"No I didn't."
"You must have paid an arm and a leg to-"
"I wanted to," Tim interrupted him yet again.
"You coulda just called or something. Sent me a card." Tony looked away from him, gazing up instead at the ceiling. "You look good, Tim."
"No I don't," Tim scoffed, rubbing his red eyes. "And I wouldn't send you a damn card, Tony. This is serious, isn't it?"
Tony kept quiet, until finally he admitted, "It's a relief to see you." He turned his eyes back to Tim. "Never thought I'd say that out loud. Looks like I just did. I miss you. It's stupid, I know-"
"We're gonna have to talk, okay?" Tim reached out and nudged his shoulder. "Things are different."
The key's jagged edges bit into his palm as he jogged up the two flights of stairs. He turned the corner and headed down a long hallway of numbered doors, all of them shut tight against the outside world.
It was a modest sort of complex, not nearly as flashy as the place Tony had kept for over a decade in DC. That building had been rent-controlled, though, and the likelihood of any of them being able to hold onto a rental like that nowadays seemed like a pipedream. But this area seemed generically affordable. It was one of those places you'd flip to in any rental booklet in any town. Convenient, reasonably quiet, well-lit, some green space. Maybe there had been a move-in special, or maybe Tony hadn't been given the chance to be too picky. The suburban, single-family feel of the surrounding neighborhood was a surprise, but then again this northwestern Chicago burb did provide equal access to both Great Lakes - where the office was - and Chicago proper - where the fun stuff happened. There was an airport nearby, and the dull roar of engines occasionally cut through the walls.
Tim had been given an important duty. Kate the goldfish had gone without a meal for nearly three days. Tony had been slightly hysterical when he remembered that fact.
He unlocked the door to number 347 and pushed into the dark space. The apartment smelled a bit stale, probably from old garbage, or dirty laundry, or dishes left too long in the sink. Tim felt the wall for a light switch. After a moment of blind groping, he found three and flipped them all on.
The first thing he noticed were the cardboard boxes, some unopened and stacked hastily in the corner of the living room area. Others had been cut open, but only partially unpacked. Stacks of books, CDs, and DVDs leaned in Dr Suessian towers on the coffee table and entertainment center. None of them were organized. None of them were set in any semblance of order on the shelves. A bowl of popcorn kernels congealed in butter sat next to the madness. The TV remotes were on the floor, next to a throw pillow and a rumpled afghan. There were more than a couple beer bottles left abandoned on various surfaces.
Tim didn't wish to be a voyeur, but this was an odd and uncensored look into Tony's new life. Tony clearly wasn't a fan of unpacking. Or straightening up.
He found Kate's bowl perched on its own table. He opened the drawer underneath and pulled out a cylinder of goldfish flakes. There was also a six pack of weekend feeders; one had already been hastily ripped out. Kate swam in lazy circles, waiting. For a common goldfish, she appeared surprisingly pissed off at the injustice of her recent neglect.
"He's got you trained, doesn't he," Tim murmured as he popped out one of the weekend feeders. He dropped it in with a plop, and watched as it sank like a rock to the decorative marbles below. Kate regarded it skeptically. The goldfish was perhaps a bit too much like her namesake. Tim added a pinch of flakes as an afterthought before moving into the bedroom to gather some clothes that Tony had requested.
The bed was unmade, the sheets twisted and wrinkled. Clothes spread out over the floor, despite the laundry basket that sat empty in the corner. There were boxes in here, too. Unopened, or only opened for one or two items. The walls were barren. The closet door gaped open. Tim dug around doggedly for some fresh clothes.
He passed the nightstand but paused, turning back around to stare at the photograph of Jethro propped up in a frame. Tim and Jethro. Tucked in the corner of the frame was another photo, Tony and his mom - it had to be. He found himself smiling softly at the empty room.
There were papers folded up nearby. With guilty curiosity, Tim reached out and grabbed them. He smoothed them out and let his eyes skim the typed words mixed with Tony's sloppy handwriting.
Resignation papers. Originals, not a copy. Signed. Just waiting for a decision.
Seizure disorder. That's what they were talking about. Tony almost tuned out the doc's verbal love letter of a soliloquy dedicated to the subject. He kept a hand over his face, thinking it might be enough to hide the most acute reaction to the news thus far. Why why why, he wanted to ask. But Tony wasn't interested in the complexities of the brain or in strange twists of fate right now.
He just wanted to know why. Why the fuck now? Why ever?
Tim caught the tail-end of the exchange. He nodded politely at the doctor as they passed each other in the doorway, a plastic grocery bag filled with a change of clothes in his hand. But the doctor - a woman this time - stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. Silently, she ushered him further into the hallway.
"You might want to give him some time," she suggested quietly. "Look, I'm only telling you this because you're partners and he said it was okay if I told you-"
"Wait," Tim spoke up quickly.
"What is it?"
Tim opened his mouth to correct her facts, but then he paused and shook his head. "Never mind. Go ahead."
"The stroke he suffered was minor, and the lasting physical effects seem to be minimal, which is incredible. But I'm most concerned about the seizures. Stroke affects the brain. Cells die, the damage is longlasting. Damage to the brain causes seizures." She stopped.
"I'm following," he said.
"We did an MRI of the brain. The stroke is really inconsequential, probably an indication of what was already there-"
"Did I do it?" Tim blurted. "Maybe two months ago... I pushed him, he hit his head. He was okay, but..."
The doctor eyed him strangely, but answered, "No. We're talking about more than one instance of massive trauma followed by a period of unconsciousness, not a bump on the head."
"The seizures could be an isolated after effect of the stroke. But if he has another within the next two weeks, it might be epilepsy. Additional seizures over the next month definitely mean epilepsy."
"He's lucky. He'll walk away from that stroke. That doesn't happen often. He might not have another seizure. And even if he does, they can be managed."
Tim nodded and gazed towards the door. "I know him. He's a mess, but he never knows how to express it."
"Tony, you okay?"
That was Tim. He had a frown on his face, small and sincere. They were alone.
"You need a bit?"
"For what?" Tony asked, deadpan.
"I got all the time in the world now," he snapped. "My career is over."
"C'mon," Tim scoffed, but then he thought of those papers on the nightstand. "Don't be so hasty."
"Nobody wants a seizing-Sammy weilding a gun, McGee. You heard the woman. She said it could take months just to figure out what dose of damn meds I'll need."
"If you need them. She also said you might never have another seizure again."
"Or I'll have one tomorrow. Or a week from now. A month. This is awesome."
"She said the stroke you had was minor," Tim argued. "Look, you can walk and talk just fine. That's a miracle. My uncle had a stroke at fifty, and he had to completely relearn how to talk, how to get dressed, how to... Everything. So can we both back up and count our blessings here?"
Tony waved his hand dismissively as he changed the subject. "Is Kate okay?"
Tim rolled his eyes. "Yeah. She's fine. I gave her a weekend feeder."
"Good." Tony put his head back on the pillow and closed his eyes. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Tim reached out a hand and touched Tony's wrist. "I saw all of your boxes."
"Yeah, the place is a mess. Been busy."
"Kinda looks like you don't plan to unpack them."
Tony opened his eyes. He looked at Tim's hand loosely wrapped around his wrist. "And what makes you think that?" His voice was a bit more harsh than was necessary.
Tim withdrew his hand. This was Tony being Tony. An impenetrable wall surrounded by false illusions. He felt oddly disappointed, as if he expected something different this time.
"Only good news is that I can roll out of this hell hole tomorrow morning, so says the pretty lady doctor," Tony looked out of the window. He had a great view of a brick wall split into halves by a rusty fire escape. "Where are you staying?"
"The Marriott down the road," Tim shrugged. It felt like a clod of clay had settled somewhere in his gut. "I had some points saved up. It's nice. Free WiFi."
"I'm sure Gibbs wants you to get back. I'll be fine. You didn't need to come."
"Gibbs said I could take as long as I needed, as long as you needed. Within reason, of course, and then only until something drastic happens..."
"Our Gibbs said that?" Tony was skeptical.
"He did. So I'm staying."
"You don't need to."
"I think I need to. Who's going to keep an eye on you?"
Tony bristled. "I don't need anybody to keep an eye on me. I'm just fine."
"And what if you have another seizure?"
Tony didn't have an answer for that because he knew Tim was right.
"You don't need to do this alone," Tim said.
"You don't need-" Tony efforts were feeble now, but he was a stubborn man.
"Maybe I don't need to, but I want to."
"I don't know if I can let you do that."
They fought, verbally.
The words drew blood.
This was what Tony was good at. He was an expert at turning a phrase. Tim always struggled to keep up.
Having heard enough, Tim stood abruptly from the chair and paced from wall to wall once or twice before turning towards Tony. His brows were knit in a worried line above his eyes. "I made a huge mistake."
"What are you talking about?" Tony asked, wary of where Tim was going with this.
"The both of us. I'm so stupid. We're both so stupid. I told myself... Don't do it, Tim. Don't fall for it."
"If you're trying to convince me to regret what we had back home, it won't work." Tony wasn't always as clueless as he looked.
Tim's face softened and he slumped back into the chair. "What was it then? What did we have?"
Tony didn't answer that question directly, but he did say, "I should have stayed. I shouldn't have taken this job."
"No, Tony," Tim shook his head firmly. "That's not what I'm trying to tell you."
"Then what is it? I can't read your mind, Tim."
Tim pressed his palms into his forehead and stared at his feet. He stayed like that for a while. Just sitting there, breathing, and no doubt trying to figure out the thoughts and sudden emotion getting tangled up in his brain. "That's just it, isn't it? You can't read my mind." He paused, settled his hands on his knees. "I can't read yours either. You don't tell me things. You can't or won't. I've given you plenty of space."
Tim was a logical person. He wasn't one to get caught up in the thrill of emotion. He was sensitive, maybe even romantic, but this was real life.
Girlfriends - or even boyfriends - come and go. Love doesn't conquer all. Nobody dies of heartache. Time and circumstance matter more than sentiment.
But logic had long been left crumpled and bleeding. He wanted to reach out and grab Tony's shoulders. He wanted to shake him roughly and say, 'Look what you've done to me!' This relationship had left him blindsided and confused. And when Tony had finally left him, he had nothing to show for it but a wide swath of destruction. Rebuilding seemed nearly impossible. Where was he supposed to go?
Tim had to admit it: "I was falling in love with you."
Tony stared at him. No smile.
"But I had to stop."
"No, let me finish." He looked Tony in the eye. "Please. It won't take long."
"I've never done this before."
Panting and sweating and rough movements driving the both of them into the couch. And laughing, lots of laughing. Smiling into each other's mouths.
"Mmm. Really. I don't believe you, Mc- Oh. Do that again."
It's enthralling, this notion that Tony prefers not to lead in this endeavor. Somehow that makes things all the more wild.
"Being with you was always fun. Always. Frustrating - yeah, sure - but I've never had so much fun with anybody else. I got carried away with it, maybe. I got caught up in you, the idea of you. You're like that; you're fucking magnetic.
"Listen, Tony- I've only now realized that when you asked me to follow you here, that was you trying to tell me something. Wasn't it? And when I asked if you loved me that night, you couldn't say if you did or not. We were done with each other. Weren't we?"
"I don't get you, Tony. You're hot, cold, lukewarm. Everything at once. I can't keep up. Just please, for once, be straight with me."
Arguing, fighting. Loudly, softly. Over small stuff, big stuff.
"C'mon, Timmy. Let's forget about all this crap."
Because that's what Tony wanted, their friendship plus a little more.
"Listen, Tony- I know you've been hurt. I know you're cautious. I know, I know. You're dragging around a lot of baggage. I get it, okay? You've been through Hell and back again. But Tony, you gotta tell me how you feel. I've been so patient. You gotta let me know where we stand with each other. You can't expect me to guess.
"I have agonized over the choices you've made when I should have been agonizing over my own. And I can't- I can't control what you do. I can't control what you share with me and what you don't. I can't control who you fuck and who you don't, even though that bugs the hell out of me. But you know, and I know, that this was never really about sex, which I gotta say is something new for you. Admit it, Tony. Does that scare you? This is deeper than that.
"All I can do is let you know that I fell hard for you, and when I tried to stop, I couldn't. I can't let you go. And if you don't feel the same, I'm sorry."
"What's that look for?" It's Tim's self-conscious doubt. Always the feeling that he's somehow on the outside of another joke.
Sitting across from each other at work is hard, but easy, too. Sometimes. Natural. Pouring over paperwork, small details, tiny clues. It's these moments that they both live for. Evading suspicion. Mostly.
"Just thinking." Looking at the paperwork again, it's as if Tony hadn't been staring at him for nearly three whole minutes. They're alone. The moment is beautiful yet incredibly imperfect.
"Where we should have lunch. Because you're paying."
"Stop," Tony cut in. "Don't say anything else."
Tim looked beyond exhausted, slumped on the chair, soul exposed.
Tony seemed to pause in thought before he went on to offer, "Forget about the Marriott. Stay with me. I'll tell you everything."
"No," Tim balked. "Tell me everything now. Why wait? I know you have the words, Tones, somewhere."
"Not sure about that."
Tim bit back a half-amused half-exasperated laugh. "Jesus, I'm not asking for you to declare your undying and eternal love for me. I'm just looking for a little common ground. Can we handle that?"
"No, no. You're right. I got this."
Tim waited, brows lifted in patient anticipation.
"One- I love when you call me that."
"Call you what?"
"Tones. The fact that you can make a nickname out of a nickname amazes me."
Tim looked skeptical.
"Two- I love when you're cutting onions with a big knife and you've got tears in your eyes. Or when you're WD40'ing some squeaky hinge - and no that's not some sort of euphemism - 'cause you just don't seem like a WD40 kind of guy. Or when you've got that look of concentration on your face, like you don't understand but you're getting close." Tony smiled. "Yeah, that's it. The face you have right now."
"Tony," Tim warned as he tried to wrestle his expression into something a bit more neutral. But that was hard to do.
"Three- I love how earnest you are. Your folks shoulda named you that."
"Yeah. Ernest McGee. I think I like it."
Tim frowned at him. "Tony." Second warning.
"You never do anything halfway. It's all or nothing with you. I fucking love that, Tim. You're the best boyfriend I've ever had. Sure, maybe the only boyfriend, but I think that makes this all the more special. Right? You're my best friend. I suck at this, but here goes.
"I've treated you like shit. I've kept secrets. Kept you in the dark. Strung you along. All because I didn't know what to do with you. I wanted you, but on my terms only. And that's pretty fucked up, Tim. I realize that's how I am. I hate it. I want to change. For you, I want to change. You amaze me. You came all this way for some asshole like me. Shit. I think I love you."
"Wow. You don't have to say that, Tony. I don't want to force you into it."
"No, this is the truth. I think it's love, and god you have to believe me; I hardly know what it is anymore."
"I think you do." Tim squeezed Tony's forearm, the one free of any needles.
Tony just breathed and studied the familiar lines on Tim's face. There was a smile there now. No look of confusion. "You know, if I wasn't tied to this bed right now with a very thick needle sticking out of my arm, I think the both of us might catch a charge for public indecency."
"Hmm." Tim appeared thoughtful as he and Tony linked their fingers together. "I could probably settle for McErnest."
"McLover." Tony laughed quietly.
"I hate that word."
"I know you do."
"Let's give us a shot, okay?" Tim suggested. "Another one. Let's be patient with each other."
"Let's do it."
"Or try at least."
They kissed, slow and dry, their hands still clasped - Tim leaning over awkwardly - and when they had their fill, they laughed into each other's mouths.