Despite Gibbs's ringing endorsement about how very productive everyone had been while Tony had been on sick leave, Tony remained unconvinced that they had done that well without him—for one thing, when he slunk into the bullpen, the first view he had of Kate and McGee was of them staring fixedly at the phone on his desk. Tony, who had spent the first week of his sick leave so heavily medicated that the striped wallpaper in his bedroom was the most interesting thing he'd ever seen, could certainly understand, but he'd at least had a legitimate excuse for his fascination with inanimate objects. Kate and McGee—nice, never-did-inhale McGee—must have gotten the really good drugs.
Then McGee sighed and said, "You miss him as much as I do?"
"More," Kate said. "It's part of his charm. Like an X-rated Peter Pan."
"First door to the right, and straight on till morning," Tony said. "You can be my Wendy."
It was good to see them, really—he had hoped that they would miss him and had known that he had missed them, but he hadn't realized before now how much he'd missed them. He had been lonely. They had offered to visit but he had always tastefully declined—he had never wanted them to be there when coughing fits woke him at three in the morning, had never wanted them to see him be weak—and he had hoped that they had understood, and hadn't held it against him. They both lit up like it was Christmas, so he supposed they hadn't.
Tony sincerely hoped that he didn't look as stupidly happy as he felt.
Or as stupidly happy as they looked, really—they both gaped at him like goldfish. Tony began to feel like the plastic castle that the damned things swam by every minute and still stopped to investigate He grinned at them and snapped his fingers twice, once in McGee's face, and once in Kate's.
"Did you miss me?"
He almost got two hugs at once, but they both sort of elbowed each other as they went in and after a solid ten seconds of fumbling and attempting to get out of each other's way, the spontaneity diminished to the point of awkwardness—McGee settled for enthusiastically patting him on the shoulder and Kate went with a very sincere hold on his arm. She ran her thumb across his bicep twice. Had Tony really felt a hundred percent, he would have tried to spin that into a dinner invitation.
"You're not supposed to be back for another week," McGee said. Tony didn't doubt that McGee actually knew the exact day and time of his scheduled return, or that McGee had already planned to make some kind of small but significant gesture, like putting Tony's coffee on his desk before he could actually arrive and tell McGee to make it.
He wondered if they would have ordered him a cake. Absence did make the heart grow fonder.
"I could just come back next Tuesday, if you want," he said. Cake would be nice.
"Of course not," Kate said. "It's just that . . . are you sure you're feeling okay?"
So she had noticed his failure to try to snag that dinner invitation. Time for a quick recovery. "Fine. Never felt better." Lies, he thought, should always be consistent.
Kate turned to McGee. "He says he's fine, Tim." Tony was surprised her syllables didn't buckle under the weight of that kind of sarcasm.
"So we were wrong then," McGee said. "Because we thought he had the plague."
"I got better?"
Kate sighed. "Tony, you once made McGee do all of your paperwork because you had a hangnail. We never hear the end of it if you stub your toe. But you get pneumonic plague and you're back at work a week early, looking like that—" She waved her hands around his face, apparently too frustrated by the prospect of verbalizing how awful he looked. "No. We know you too well by now."
"Abby said that from you, 'mortally wounded' means paper-cut, and 'fine' means that we should have the ambulance on standby," McGee said. He frowned and moved in close to Tony's face, then turned to Kate. "His pupils don't look so good."
"But my irises are fine," Tony said. "I've been told that they allow you to see into the limitless depths of my soul. And unless you're going to med school at night, Probie . . ." He looked to Gibbs, who had the phone glued to his ear. "Boss, help me out on this one. Make them stop."
Gibbs shifted the mouthpiece into his hand. "Not a chance, DiNozzo. I had my hands full for two weeks trying to keep them from breaking down your door with chicken soup and hot water bottles, they're your problem now."
McGee looked sheepish. "The hot water bottle was my idea."
"I feel loved but also disturbed," Tony said. He reconsidered. "Mostly disturbed."
Gibbs wrote something down on his notepad and hung up the phone. "How about feeling busy? Two dead sailors in Fredericksburg." He took the keys from his desk and lobbed them into the air. "Gas the truck."
Tony made a grab and caught the keychain loop with his fingertip. Good to know that knocking on death's door hadn't slowed his reflexes. His self-satisfaction, though, died an abrupt death as McGee tried to tug the keys out of his hand. "I'll do it, Tony. You can sit down or something. You've been standing up since you came in."
"I came in five minutes ago," Tony said. He yanked the keys back.
Then Kate snatched them. "You're still sick, Tony. You don't need to be running around."
He pointed first at her. "You sound like my mother. Okay, maybe not my mother. You sound like my housekeeper." He spun around to redirect his words to McGee and tell him exactly how he sounded and also to say something sagely and definitive about how he wasn't made of glass and how, unlike them, he had the ability to get knocked down and actually get up again, but he might have breathed in a little too quickly in his attempt to summon the perfect comeback, because he broke out in a coughing fit.
"Told you so," Kate said. She swished her hair over her shoulder and went to gas the truck. McGee patted Tony ineffectively on the back, and continued to do so for a good thirty seconds after he had stopped coughing.
"You okay, DiNozzo?" It was Gibbs's I-might-care-about-this-but-probably-not-and-you-don't-want-to-risk-asking voice.
"Peachy, boss. I did that on purpose. It builds the muscles in the chest. Probie, you might want to consider it."
"I think I'll stick to non-plague-related exercise, Tony," McGee said. He didn't sound as disgusted as Tony would have liked, but he at least stopped thumping his back. Tony could handle incremental adjustments. He considered it his responsibility to get them all back to normal as quickly as possible. Also, if they were going to watch him like hawks all week, he knew he'd end up getting sent home for that last week of sick leave, and he honestly couldn't handle another seven days of mind-numbing boredom. He had already watched his complete John Wayne boxed set, after all.
He actively tried to be annoying on the ride to Fredericksburg—he had always found that if he made it frustrating enough to care about him, people would eventually stop trying—but they remained undaunted. Kate had lifted a thermometer off Ducky—Tony agreed to try it out, and it thankfully pronounced him an even 98.6 degrees, but Kate remained unsatisfied and kept making furtive attempts to check his temperature with the back of her hand, too. Tony saw an opportunity there.
"I think someone's biological clock is ticking," he said in a sing-song voice.
"Shut up, Tony," Kate said, unruffled. "You feel warm."
Tony put his head in his hands.
"He's kind of pale, too," McGee observed. "And tired."
Maybe he had died. He'd died and this was hell. Hell was being pampered by two NCIS Special Agents who wanted to stop at a pharmacy on the way to a crime scene so they could buy some Vick's salve in case Tony started coughing again.
"You do look tired, Tony," Gibbs said.
No. Not Gibbs, too. If Gibbs decided to stop ignoring that he wasn't technically well enough to be back to work, Tony would be home for another month. He had gruesome visions of them coming to check on him and finding that he had finally lost it, torn up all his carpet, and started chewing through the floorboards in an attempt to escape his cabin fever. Thank God, though, Gibbs continued with:
"Maybe you should just rest until we get to Fredericksburg. Kate and McGee will be quiet."
Tony mouthed, "Thank you," hoping that Gibbs could see him in the rearview mirror. Gibbs gave him a brief nod.
He kept his eyes closed until they hit Route 17. Kate and McGee had a whispered discussion about whether or not they should split the cost of buying him a heating pad. Tony inadvertently whimpered at the thought, and so of course, they spent the next ten minutes puzzling out the psychological ramifications of having the plague and wondering whether or not he had nightmares. It had been a very bad idea to ever get the plague in the first place, Tony decided. His sick leave had given Kate and McGee time to bond and form an alliance of freakishly protective instincts.
Kate touched his shoulder when the van stopped. "Tony, wake up," she said, as if he could have slept through the Great Heating Pad Debate. She sounded really gentle. "Come on. We're at the scene. Oh, maybe we should just let him sleep, Gibbs. He looks awful."
"I'm awake and I'm fine," he said. "Do you have any idea how much sleep I've gotten in the last two weeks?"
"Not quite as much as Brad said you should?"
Ouch. Accurate, but still.
Tony was all set to deliver a dazzling comeback that would mortify Kate's sensibilities, scorch McGee's virgin ears, and earn a blue-ribbon head slap from Gibbs, but then he closed his mouth. They had missed him and now they were worried about him. He didn't want to be a complete ass. Besides, he owed them for missing him because he supposed that it must have been a very difficult thing to do—it would have been easier for them to forget him, or at least resent him for not having them over. Missing took effort. Stamina, even.
"I'm all right, Kate," he said. "Really. Just a little groggy. I'm good to go."
"Okay," she said, still looking doubtful, "but if you need any help . . ."
"I'm having some trouble falling asleep at night," Tony said, very seriously. He undid his seatbelt and turned around to face her. She listened attentively. He decided that he could be enough of an ass for this without giving himself a guilt complex. "I don't know what it is. I just lie there staring at the ceiling. Can't count sheep, can't watch a movie. The bed—it's just so cold, so empty, Katie—if you wanted to come over—"
She elbowed him. Hard. "Maybe I'll let McGee bring you over that hot water bottle."
"But I thought you missed me lots and lots," Tony said. He stumbled as he came out of the van, but McGee caught his elbow and straightened him before Kate could see. Tony would have to thank him later.
"Maybe if you'd been gone another week," Kate said. "But now we'll never know."
"I think I can live with the suspense," McGee said.
Satisfied that he had irritated them just enough for them not to hang over his shoulder while he interviewed the local LEO, he waved Kate a cheerful goodbye as she trooped down the hillside to check out the bodies. Dead sailors aside, he had the feeling that it was going to be a pretty good day—they had worried about him, they had been happy to see him, and he had managed to talk them out of any serious pampering. Even the LEO was cooperative, and Tony had done interviews before that were more like pulling teeth than having a conversation.
He was in such a good mood that he actually thanked the LEO for all of his help and added, "If you're into orchids or anything, I just got over the plague, so I have like a dozen bouquets back at my apartment. Anniversary coming up or anything?"
The officer put his sunglasses back on. "I heard you guys were crazy."
"That we are," Tony said brightly. "Be careful opening your mail."
He started down the slope to meet up with Kate and Gibbs, but McGee caught his arm first. Tony offered him his best impression of the Gibbs-glare in response. McGee winced, but did not loosen his grip. "You tripped coming out of the van. This hill's kind of steep." The second attempt with the glare took; McGee let go. "Tony, I'm not saying I'm going to hold your hand the whole way down or anything. Just don't do anything stupid."
"Does that sound like me?"
McGee hesitated for way too long before saying, "No?"
"Probie, please remind me why I missed you."
"You never said you did, actually," McGee said. He tilted his head slightly to one side but then shook it, as if waking himself up. "Anyway. Just . . . take your time going down." He didn't say anything after that, but he stayed close to Tony as they inched down the slope, and the same guilt from earlier began to bother Tony. It felt suspiciously like Kate's elbow connecting with his ribs. His conscience wasn't very delicate.
"I did miss you," he said. "And even Gibbs."
Tony said, "Please don't try to hug me again."
"I did not try to hug you, I—I just—"
McGee sputtered at him; Tony clapped him on the back and gave him a megawatt grin. "I really did miss you, Probie. No lie."
"Leave him alone, DiNozzo," Gibbs said. The corner of his mouth was twitching. He tossed Tony the car keys; McGee did not intercept them this time. "Process the car—I want everything. If our killer took the hands for security access, we could be looking at the beginning of a terrorist op."
That finished off the good mood quickly enough and actually brought McGee and Kate both another step closer to Tony, as if they needed to shield him from further consequences of someone else's fury. He had heard the story behind the envelope, of course—but he had gotten it in bits and pieces, sputters of information and implications that they had never meant to give away. Beneath the cool blue lights in Bethesda, Tony had been able to convince himself that he had at least been dying for a reason. He could understand terrorism. They dealt with that faceless hatred day in and day out, they had seen lives lost that way before. But he had breathed in death not because of rage or because of differences but because of an endless chain of lies and mistakes. Near death by happenstance. No wonder they had done their best not to let him know.
Maybe there was no reason to have cut off the hands. Maybe they were being optimistic in assuming that there was purpose behind any of this.
Tony said, "Could have been a professional hit, boss. Might have taken the hands to confirm the kill," because yeah, that was senseless enough, that was today's equivalent of a frightened young woman and a mother with a brain tumor and biomedical resources.
"Maybe," Gibbs said. "Better than the alternative." He looked them over and he looked at Tony the longest, as if he'd understood what Tony had meant and not just what Tony had said. Then, like McGee, he shook his head, dismissing whatever he had been thinking. "Fine-tooth comb on this one. I'm going to see what's keeping Ducky."
He vanished over the cusp of the hill and Tony saw no point in trying to stop himself from disappearing, too. He knew that they would find him sooner or later, anyway. He brushed the cobwebs of criminal entropy to the corners of his mind and made himself smile, because they had missed him and so they deserved to see the best of what they had missed and not the worst. He could suck it up and give that to them.
"Think Palmer took a wrong turn at Albuquerque?"
"He's gotten lost going for coffee before," McGee said. "Good chance."
Kate glared at both of them. "He got lost going for coffee because Tony made up the name of the coffee shop and Palmer spent two hours trying to find a place that didn't exist."
"That's not really my point," Tony said. "Or maybe it is, I'm not sure what point I was trying to make. That near-fatal illness may have clouded my judgment."
Kate rolled her eyes and then said, "Snake."
"That's a little over the line. It's not like I didn't—"
Kate said, "There's a snake on my foot," in a very high-pitched voice. She was resolutely looking up at the sky and not at her feet, as if the snake wouldn't be there if she couldn't see it. "Tell me it isn't poisonous."
"Relax," Tony said. He scooped down and picked it up, ignoring the way it promptly curled around his wrist. "Corn snake. Harmless. The worst this baby could do is talk you into eating the wrong apple, but we're a few too many miles away from Eden for that to really worry me. Also, speaking personally, I loved my first bite of that apple." He licked his lips.
"You're disgusting," Kate said.
"Snakes are our friends, Kate. Probie, you want to deal with this? I've got things to do." He made it sound casual, but he remembered Shenandoah Park and the way McGee had looked enviously at the corn snake Tony had worn like a scarf throughout the investigation. If he could make holding the snake sound like a chore, even this new mother-hen McGee would take it off his hands.
Sure enough, McGee immediately said, "Oh, um, sure, if you're busy." He looked hopefully at the corn snake.
Tony draped it over his shoulders. "Looks better on you than that tie, that's for sure."
He swore that he could hear Kate thinking about mentioning how men must just sense a kindred spirit in snakes and then biting it back because they all knew McGee had never done anything serpentine in his life and they all knew that Tony—had just had the plague. Tony considered checking with her just to verify that she had been thinking about it, but he didn't want to spoil a perfect near miss by running right into her insult.
He adjusted the corn snake slightly and tucked it under McGee's jacket collar so that it did cover up that awful tie. "There. Perfect." He dangled the car keys. "Think I can handle the difficult task of investigating our bloody rental car?"
They looked him over. Oh God, they had actually taken him seriously.
"McGee and I can get the carpet samples and work the front," Kate said. That meant taking all the bending-over work, most of the carpet samples, all the pain of smelling the blood baking in the heat. "You just handle the back."
There could be perks to this sympathy thing after all. He didn't turn down her offer. After handing the corn snake off to McGee and ignoring Kate's unspoken insult, he felt that he had earned the special treatment. Like missing him, treating him with kid gloves was their way of finding him when he insisted on going too far away. It was all the same. He began to feel better, more alive, more present. He could take them all out for drinks when this was over—to celebrate, and to toast the unexpected whims of the universe. To Hannah Lowell. To missing hands. To corn snakes and hot water bottles and good friends.
The lock on the trunk glimmered in the sunlight. Tony began to turn the key.