The eerie blue glow got on Gibbs' nerves. Nothing he could do about it, though. Isolation units had their rules. Blue lights were good for the patient, and not even the blackest of glares was about to change that. Gibbs sighed, and settled deeper into the chair beside DiNozzo's bed.
It had been a hell of a day. If he'd known what lay ahead when he rolled out of bed this morning, he thought wryly, he might have considered a career change. First the SWAK attack itself, then the race to find out why. Or, more precisely, who.
Gibbs' mouth took on a sour set as he thought of the woman who'd done this. He'd met some vicious people in his time, all of them stone cold convinced they were right in what they were doing. This one was one of the worst. For all that her doctor blamed it on the tumour eating away her brain, Gibbs had his own views on the matter. But it hadn't done her any good in the end. His team had done what they were trained to do. They'd come up trumps on all counts. Except for Tony … and that was a big "except".
Fifteen percent. The survival rate in the past. But he's young and fit …
Dr Pandy's words echoed in Gibbs' mind as he rubbed his tired eyes. The clutching fear in his gut had eased a little once he'd found out about the suicide gene in the Y-Pestis. But fifteen percent …
He'd already been here once tonight. Once Lowell was under arrest and he'd extracted what information he could from a stunned Dr Pandy, Gibbs had headed to Bethesda, DiNozzo's new phone in the pocket of a shirt that had seen better days. A Sears special, Tony would have called it. Gibbs had taken the phone over the protests of a bewildered Jimmy Palmer. DiNozzo lived for and on his phone; if anything could get through to him, he'd reasoned, a new phone might.
Gibbs had passed on the news of the suicide gene to Dr Pitt as he pushed his way into the isolation unit where Tony lay. For all his no-nonsense exterior, the sight of his senior field agent had shocked him. The last time Gibbs had seen Tony, he'd been his usual self, teasing Kate about their upcoming sleeping arrangements. Now he struggled desperately for air, his lips and nose blue, his body racked by fever and shudders.
Fifteen percent. Gibbs had swallowed hard and done what came instinctively to an ex-MP. He'd leaned down to the bed and ordered DiNozzo not to die. It was the only way he knew to make sure Tony got the message. However much the other agent fooled around in the field, in the bullpen, a direct order from Gibbs would usually pull him up short. Once Gibbs was satisfied Tony had heard him, and had made him acknowledge it, he'd curled the cell phone into Tony's fist and made sure he knew what it was before he left the unit. Dr Pitt had looked at him oddly as he left so soon after he'd got there, but Gibbs, running on adrenaline and caffeine, was stretched too tight to notice.
Now, with Hanna Lowell in hospital under secure guard, he'd come back to the unit, drawn by the urge to check that DiNozzo was following orders. In the heat of the day's events, outside of Ducky's brief phoned updates from Bethesda, Gibbs hadn't let himself think too much about how Tony was doing. He'd focused on the main game. But now, the main game was Tony.
DiNozzo seldom questioned him. Gibbs knew Kate teased him about his unwavering belief in his boss's abilities. He Who Cannot Be Wrong? she'd queried sarcastically. But Gibbs counted on that belief of Tony's in the field. Just occasionally, though, DiNozzo could be a wildcard. No amount of head slaps could deter him when he went off on one of his infrequent tangents, convinced he was right. Gibbs was determined this wouldn't be one of those times.
On the whole, he was hopeful - Tony was an ex-jock and kept himself fit. But the plague had killed hundreds of thousands like him before.
He'd arrived back at the unit around 2a.m., to find Dr Pitt and the duty nurse Emma supporting Tony through a wrenching and seemingly endless spasm of coughing. Waiting outside, Gibbs could hear the harsh gasps for air and see the effort each gulping inhalation took. When it was over and Tony, able to breathe again for a while at least, had sunk into an exhausted and fitful doze, Dr Pitt had come out of the unit.
"His boss, right?"
"Brad Pitt. Don't say it, I already know". The two men shook hands. In answer to Gibbs' look, Brad said, "He's strong, he's fit and he's relatively young. And he's not infectious now". He ran a hand through his hair. "If we can get him through the next twenty-four hours …"
Fifteen percent. And the damage will have been done. Dammit, Gibbs said to Pandy's voice in his head, shut up.
"… we'll have a better chance of assessing the extent of the damage", Brad finished.
Gibbs looked through the glass walls at the dimly seen figure of Emma, still working around the bed, making Tony as comfortable as she could. She took a cloth and sponged the sweat off his face, then swapped the pillows for fresh ones. Gibbs sighed and lowered his voice. "What's your best guess, Doc? Will he pull through?" Not just pull through, he thought; pull through and be strong again. He'd lost good men before; he wouldn't lose this one. If force of will could carry DiNozzo through, Gibbs was there to supply it.
Dr Pitt followed Gibbs' gaze. "I'd be lying if I said I knew. He's a fighter, though, I know that. Did he tell you …? No, of course not". Gibbs hadn't been there earlier, when Brad and Tony had rediscovered their basketball-days connections. He filled Gibbs in.
"You broke his leg?" Gibbs asked incredulously. "Sure must have been a rush meeting up with you in here, then".
"It was just one of those things, no hard feelings". The doctor laughed. "After this little episode, though, I doubt he'll ever want to see me again". If there was an "after" to be had.
"Well, you're right about one thing", Gibbs said reflectively, moving closer to the no longer needed airlock. "He's a fighter. Never stops". He leaned his head on the glass for a moment, then straightened.
Dr Pitt ran a professional eye over him. "You should go home, get some rest". Gibbs shook his head, and the doctor nodded. "One of your men, right? Semper fi, I should have known".
"Haircut give it away, Doc? What can I tell you, he's one of the good guys". Gibbs smothered a yawn. "I don't want to get in your way, but … OK to sit with him a while?"
"He's lucky to have you here", Brad said quietly. Then, briskly, "Of course. Agent Todd – Kate - was asleep here for a bit, but I sent her home with Dr. Mallard when things got rough again". She hadn't gone willingly, but he'd persuaded her it was in Tony's best interests. "I'll have a chair brought in. Make yourself comfortable. Emma", he murmured to the nurse, who'd come out to her station, "you know where to find me". He moved off out into the corridor.
That had been an hour ago. DiNozzo lay unmoving on his back. Gibbs sat listening to the ragged breathing. Despite himself, he found himself relaxing a little for the first time since he'd seen the white powder leave the envelope.
Tony stirred suddenly, flinging out an arm and rolling on to his side facing Gibbs, trailing a drip line with him. He muttered something unintelligible and frowned in his sleep. Gibbs picked up the hand that was hanging off the bed and tucked it back under the covers, but Tony flung them off and settled back into position, mouth open and breathing noisily. Fever heat radiated from him.
"Tony", Gibbs said softly. No response. He tried again. Same result. Giving up, he turned to the cabinet beside the bed, where Emma had left ready a bowl of water covered by a clean cloth. Next to the basin sat the cell phone, turned off. Gibbs stood up and wrung out the cloth in the water. He sat back down again and reached across to cool Tony's face.
Tony started a little at his touch, then settled with a sigh. Gibbs ran the cloth gently over the sweat-spiked hair. He reached over to the basin and dropped the cloth into it, careful not to splash the phone. When he turned back to the bed, Tony was looking up at him.
"Hey, Boss, that you?" Tony squinted at Gibbs. Someone had been sponging his face. It had felt so comforting that involuntary tears had pricked his eyelids. Couldn't have been Gibbs, though. He smiled woozily to himself at the idea of Gibbs playing nurse. Brad must have jacked up the meds. Yet he could have sworn he'd seen …
He moved experimentally on to his back and immediately wished he hadn't. His chest hurt from coughing, his throat felt raw, someone was swinging a sledgehammer in his head, and his whole body ached and burned. He ran a furred tongue over cracked lips.
"You want some water, DiNozzo?" Gibbs bent towards him, a glass in his hand. He held Tony's head up a little while a few drops of the blessedly cool liquid flowed into his mouth. Tony choked and Gibbs at once took the glass away and laid his head back down.
Emma came in, nodded to Gibbs and moved to the side of the bed. Smiling down at Tony with a murmured hello, she began to check the readings on the machines. Once she was satisfied, she turned to his comfort.
"Wh … where's Kate?" Tony asked groggily, his mind still half on Gibbs and the washcloth. Nightmare or not, he couldn't decide. Or care less.
"Sleeping, I hope", Emma answered. She smoothed the ruffled covers. "You'll have to make do with me for a while".
The corners of Tony's mouth quirked in the ghost of a smile. "Always a pleasure, Nurse Emma". He looked past her at the next bed, where rumpled sheets bore witness to Kate's recent occupation.
"You don't remember?" Emma took a fresh top pillow from one of the other beds. "Brad sent her off a while back now". Noting his sudden frown, she hastened to add, "Don't worry, she's fine. You were keeping her up with your coughing, that's all".
"Huh!" Tony slurred. "I won't hear the end of that for a while".
Gibbs intervened. "Relax, DiNozzo, I'll protect you".
Emma laughed at Tony's indignant scowl. Taking a clean blue pyjama jacket out of the locker, she laid it on the bed and began to unbutton the sweat-soaked one he was wearing. Gently, she eased him out of it and into the fresh one. By the time she'd finished, Tony was wrung out with the effort of sitting up. He collapsed back gratefully into the comfort of the pillows.
"I'll leave you now", Emma said, reaching down to stroke his hair, "but I'm just outside if you need me. Try to get some rest". It wouldn't be long before the next attack made that impossible. She looked at Gibbs. "Can I get you anything?"
Gibbs shook his head. "No, thanks. I'll just sit here a while longer. If that's OK with you?" He quirked an eyebrow. Emma nodded and went outside. Tony, Gibbs didn't ask.
The two men settled back into a silence broken only by the hum of the airconditioning and occasional quiet beeps from the machines beside the bed. Tony's eyes were closed and he seemed to be following Emma's advice. But then he spoke.
"I'm sorry, Boss". It was so quiet Gibbs nearly missed it.
"Sorry for what, DiNozzo?" Gibbs leaned forward.
"I screwed up bigtime, grabbing that letter. And", Tony coughed slightly, "all of you suffered for it". His eyes were open now in the dim blueness, but he wasn't looking at Gibbs.
"Aaah, for Pete's sake …" Gibbs' hand moved to slap the top of Tony's head but he caught himself in time. "Tony …"
"No, Boss", Tony was beginning to struggle for breath now. "Let me say this". Gibbs eyed him clinically and let him go on. "If I'd followed procedure, if I hadn't grabbed that letter from McGee, none of this would have happened. It's my fault, and I'm sorry". Sweat broke out on his forehead. He stared up at the ceiling. "Thank God I'm the only one infected. I couldn't have lived with myself if …" He broke off, gasping.
"DiNozzo!" Gibbs kept it quiet. Emma's dark head was bent over her desk outside. She'd be in there in a second if she thought he was monstering her patient. "You're getting maudlin. The only one at fault here is the screwball who sent the letter. Not you. Not any of us".
"You got him, Boss?" Tony turned his head to face Gibbs.
"Her, DiNozzo, her". Gibbs grinned. "A woman did this to you".
"A woman", Tony groaned. "Does Kate have to know?" A glance of pure understanding passed between them.
"Sorry". Gibbs shrugged, and Tony's heart sank. Kate would make a meal out of this. Most likely a ten-course banquet.
Gibbs began to fill him in on the details, but they weren't getting through. All that Tony could think of was that Gibbs had taken someone down, and that that someone was female. His face darkened. "It works every time, doesn't it, Boss. The flick of a skirt and I'm …"
Gibbs glanced through the glass at Emma. He put his lips close to Tony's ear and said again, "Tony, you listen to me. This. Is. Not. Your. Fault". Tony closed his eyes, but he was listening. The gathering panic he felt at the signs of an oncoming spasm settled a bit. "Sure, you didn't follow protocol, and don't think I won't kick your butt for that later. But for now, just remember, the only one whose fault this is, is under wraps". He punctuated his message with gentle taps to Tony's shoulder. "Got that?"
"O … OK, Boss". Tony tried to say something more, but a sudden fit of coughing chased everything else from his mind. Emma picked up her phone, spoke into it briefly, and then ran in through the doors, followed not long after by Dr Pitt. Gibbs could only go outside and watch in helpless frustration as Tony's desperate battle to breathe began again.
Some time later, Gibbs was still there, watching, a cup of coffee – or whatever it was the hospital machine sold as coffee - cooling in his hand. The spasm had been a bad one, but DiNozzo was resting again now. Emma stood quietly beside the bed, checking his blood pressure.
Dr Pitt came out and leaned on the wall beside Gibbs. He rubbed a hand over his face. "Not a pretty sight, is it". Gibbs shook his head. Watching Tony fight for air hadn't been the high point of his night. "This one was five minutes shorter than the last one, though", the doctor continued, "and he's getting more air through than before".
Gibbs looked through at Tony. "Can I see him again? Just for a minute?" He felt compelled to leave Tony with something that would snag his interest, like the cell phone, and convince him he had a future.
Brad hesitated. "He's pretty whacked. I'm not sure he's got the strength right now …"
"He won't need it", Gibbs promised. He turned to look full into Dr Pitt's face. "Just for a minute, probably less".
The doctor seemed to weigh up what he'd seen of the relationship between Tony and his boss. Evidently the benefits outweighed the drawbacks, because he nodded reluctantly. "Just one minute then, no more".
"Thanks, Doc". Gibbs clapped him on the arm, set down his coffee cup and was through the airlock doors in a few strides. He leaned over the bed and jogged Tony's arm.
Tony opened his eyes. "Hey, Boss". The grin was weak but definitely there. "You still around?" He seemed surprised.
"Still here, DiNozzo". Gibbs returned the smile. "But the doc says I have to let you rest now".
"No arguments from me on that one". Tony's voice was ragged with exhaustion. His eyes kept trying to close, and only his ingrained good manners kept them open.
"There's just one thing I keep wondering, Tony". Gibbs leaned forward. "Those expensive clothes they burned today?" Yesterday, actually, but who cared? "Why the hell were you wearing them to work? When you get out of here, I want to know. Hot date on the cards?"
"Long story, Boss", Tony slurred as his eyelids drifted shut despite himself. "I'll tell you later …"
"Yeah, DiNozzo". Gibbs said matter of factly. "You do that. I'll be hanging out to hear". He watched as Tony fell deeply asleep, then turned to leave the unit. "Direct order, DiNozzo", he said to himself. "Disobey and you'll answer to me".
Outside, the horizon grew bright with the new day as he walked to his car.