"Anthony has a cold."
Forgive me for not considering that an important warning. In the first place, I was in the middle of something and this guy everyone calls Ducky was interrupting. I don't think I like being interrupted, then or now. And I don't know how a cold rates as something I need to be concerned about. I briefly searched my Swiss cheese memory, and unsurprisingly came up blank. "So what? Am I supposed to hold a hanky so he can blow?"
Dr. Mallard's mouth tightened in disapproval. He glanced around; apparently to make sure we still had the area to ourselves, leaned in closer. "Jethro, listen to me. Anthony's lungs were compromised a few years ago. A cold can become something very serious for him. You must make sure he takes care of himself – it's better for him to be at home. He needs rest, fluids, and to avoid anything strenuous. Above all, you must make sure he takes this seriously. You cannot allow Ziva to belittle him into being cavalier about it. He is neither a wimp as she will say nor a superman as he will pretend. Please heed my warning and take charge of this." He searched my face, looking for reassurance.
I shrugged and flapped a hand towards him, shooing him away. "Sure. On it."
Mallard's frown deepened. "Jethro, you're not listening. Since you've returned, it's obvious that young Anthony feels as though he must prove himself to you all over again. He shouldn't have to. He's been your right hand man through thick and thin, even when you weren't here. He would do anything to win your approval. I've watched you take advantage of that, many times, but I won't stand by and allow him to endanger his health for it."
I leaned back in my chair and stared up at him. My voice sounded flat, unforgiving, even to me. "Complacency gets people killed. There's no reason he shouldn't have to keep proving himself to stay on the team. Is there something being left out of his fitness reports I should know about?"
Anger flashed in his eyes and he turned and stalked away without another word. I thought about it for as long as he remained in sight.
Later, though, as Tony began laughing at something he'd said to McGee, he had to catch his breath, coughing hard as he did. McGee frowned. "Tony, have you been to your doctor?"
Ziva's tinkling laugh was laced clearly with derision. "For a cold you have to see the doctor? Some tough guy you are."
"Knock it off, Ziva," McGee snapped, tone contrasting with his nice kid looks, "you don't know what you're talking about."
"Whoa, there," interjected Tony when he stopped coughing, "look, you two. Number one, I am a tough guy. I think the record speaks for itself. Secondly, no, I do not run to my doctor every time I have a cold. Thanks for looking out for me, Probie, but I got it under control. I'm fine."
A spirited discussion ensued, but I tuned it out because my phone had rung. I hung it up and stood, catching the team's attention as I did. "We have a job to do, people. DiNozzo, are you sure you're up to it or do you need to stay here and take a nap?"
He flushed red as Ziva laughed again. "No, boss," he replied, "I'm just fine." His jaw set, muscles standing out sharply. Oh, he was mad all right. Which would make him sharp, determined not to miss anything. Which was just how I wanted him.
We put in a hard twelve hours before I felt like we were at a point where we could leave the scene. Considering he had already put in a solid eight hour day before we got the call, DiNozzo looked like shit. He disappeared into the head as soon as we got back and when he joined us long time later he was literally weaving on his feet, face flushed. "Sit down before you fall down," I growled, "pizza's on the way."
He tossed a fake smile that fooled no one and put a thumb up and sat. I pretended not to notice how he slumped when he did. I also ignored McGee and David's sidelong glances at him as I barked, "Can I get those numbers some time today, DiNozzo, or do I have to look them up myself?"
He straightened and swiveled towards his computer screen without a word. His fingers were shaking as he typed, from anger or weakness I neither knew nor cared. He didn't eat when the pizza got there and when I told everyone to take a break he kept at his task. McGee ate quickly, then went over to help him out. DiNozzo waved him off, clearly irritated, which in turn pissed me off even more. You take help when someone offers; you don't grandstand in my space. How in the hell had this guy lasted five minutes with me, anyway?
"McGee," I said sharply, "take over. DiNozzo, take five." DiNozzo raised his hands in defeat and slid his chair back, ceding the computer to McGee. It took him all of five minutes to fall asleep, his head cradled in his arms on a stack of files on the desk.
Ziva glided over, keeping a careful eye on Tony. "Is he alright?" she asked McGee, "He looks really sick."
"He really is sick," McGee said, hitting the keys harder now, "I told you. He has to be careful. The plague really messed up his lungs."
I still didn't get it. The plague was an old disease. All those old diseases were things people had died from because there were no antibiotics around. People died from tooth aches and cat bites and all kinds of minor crap that a little penicillin could kill in five minutes. How could this be a big deal in our day and age?
Next day we split to check two suspects' alibis. I went with DiNozzo. The minute our guy saw us, he panicked and ran. Tony was out the door after him like a greyhound on a rabbit. After a couple hundred yards, though, he was flagging a little bit, stumbling as he jumped over a spilled can of trash. But he still caught the guy and took him down strong. I caught up to them with the car as they hit the ground. DiNozzo stayed down as I dragged the suspect to his feet. "Are you hurt?" I asked him as I cuffed our man, but got no reply. He was gasping for breath, coughing, looking haggard.
I stuck the suspect in the car and went back to DiNozzo. A tingle of concern was irritating the hell out of me now. I still didn't understand this but I had to start wondering if Dr. Mallard and McGee were right. Not to mention Abby; she'd been gliding around like a damned ghost, eyes augmenting her silently accusing body language. She seemed even more protective of Tony than rest, I had seen and heard her haranguing Tony and McGee, had been sticking all sorts of pills and drinks and shit all around Tony's workspace. When he'd dozed off the night before she'd stuck her hand up his shirt with a gob of vapor gel. He'd about shot through the roof at the contact but remained still after she stuck a very sharp fingernail very gently against his jugular and told him to behave. The place was still reeking from it.
I grabbed the back of his jacket and hoisted him to his feet. He wavered for a second, then his knees buckled and he dropped to his hands and feet hard, and heaved, bringing up nothing but sure making an effort. I backed away hurriedly and turned to keep an eye on the car. Eventually I felt his presence at my shoulder and I looked sideways at him, then gripped his bicep to help keep him upright. He was pale and sweating, but swallowed convulsively and tried to smile. "Boss, I think I'm gonna have to give up and go see my doc."
I shrugged, genuinely pissed. Was I mad for not realizing that myself sooner, at him for taking my shit for so long, at him for being sick, what the hell was it that I was so mad about anyway? Trying to decide, I absently replied, "Suit yourself."
I immediately realized that was the wrong answer, that I should have given it more thought, when his smile faded. He straightened up all the way and shook off my hand. "After the interview is over and I finish my report, I mean."
I shrugged again, trying to apologize without actually saying the words. "Maybe you should go get some antibiotics or something, first. You don't look so good."
He coughed with each inhaled breath all the way back; nasty wet things that left him breathless. Once in the building I pushed two different elevator buttons. He raised an inquiring eyebrow. "Go see Dr. Mallard before you make us all sick," I said gruffly.
He opened his mouth to argue, then closed it. He leaned against the back wall, arms folded, radiating fury and embarrassment. I felt his eyes on me as I exited with our suspect. The doors slid shut.
I forgot about him, I needed to concentrate on breaking this guy. It took some doing, he was determined and smart. I stalled until Abby made a positive match on the fingerprints, then he broke like an egg. A couple hours later I finally made it to the surface again.
McGee was glaring, tightlipped, at his computer. Ziva was silent. Obviously, something was very wrong. "Did Dr. Mallard send DiNozzo home?" I asked.
McGee didn't look up. "No," he replied, "he took him to the hospital."
Ziva piped up. "It looks like pneumonia, he said. He was extremely upset at us."
Abby burst into the room. "Gibbs, Ducky called me. They had to admit him. Can I go to the hospital? Tony hates it there. He needs somebody to distract him."
I gave her the flat stare. "Aren't you in the middle of running about eighteen tests?"
She gave me an incredulous look. "I'm totally finished with all but three that won't be back until tomorrow sometime. I can do whatever I need to do on a laptop at the hospital. Unless you're going to go stay with him? Somebody really has to."
"Sure," I said, "go on all ready."
When I got there myself he looked like hell. Darkness circled and filled dull, flat eyes. An oxygen cannula trailed into his nose, and he was limp, unmoving even though he was clearly awake. The reason became clear in a moment when he saw me and shifted a bit, changing his position slightly. That tiny move actually made him start gasping for breath, and then he started coughing. He surged onto his side, head and one arm hanging limply off the bed and hacked away for a disturbingly long time. Every so often he would suck in a big whooping breath, and then start coughing harder. Crap dribbled out of his mouth and the nurse wiped it away.
Eventually he subsided, and he stayed there hanging off the bed, gasping, fever slick limbs trembling from exertion. I stepped up before the nurse could and lifted him back up onto the pillows. He looked at me and whispered in the purest misery I surely have ever heard, "I don't think I can do this again, boss."
I felt Abby's presence project her quiet concern to me but didn't dare look away from Tony's desperate eyes. I reached for the most nonchalant tone I could manage. "Sure you can, DiNozzo. You can't quit with Ziva only half Americanized. And besides. McGee's trying to convince her that your doctor really is Brad Pitt the actor, that he practices medicine between films."
His teeth gleamed in appreciation of the joke. "You're right," he whispered again, "I have too much to live for."
I left Abby with him. By then she was curled up, practically on the bed with him, cooing nonsense at him and stroking his head between coughing jags.
Dr. Mallard was lying in wait for me when I went back to work the next morning. He was so angry he was vibrating, but unexpectedly he didn't say a single word beyond a curt request, "Come with me, please, Jethro." I figured I might as well get the spanking over with quickly instead of dragging things out, so I did.
He stopped in front of the x-ray illuminators and flipped on the lights. I stared blankly, not sure why he'd called me down here. "Okay," I said, "who drowned?" I could see that these were chest shots, I could see, for lack of a better explanation, what looked like trees growing in a pair of lungs. They were so full of water or something that was branching, winding their way through each passageway, there was no doubt this was an autopsy film. Maybe an unsolved murder, the date in the corner of the film was within the past few years, though what that had to do with Tony I didn't - and I saw the name at the moment Mallard spoke it aloud.
"Anthony DiNozzo did, very nearly," he replied, and walked away, leaving me staring in disbelief at the images in front of me. And then the memories of those terrible days came back to me; I remembered, and I paced the floor and came back to the films and I remembered more. I finally understood. When I finally shook myself free of the spell I left the room with fresh purpose and determination. He wasn't going to die this time, either, by God.
I stopped short when I got to his room; there was somebody else in his bed. I went to the nurse's station. He'd been moved to ICU where they could monitor him more closely, give him more support if he got even worse. Fever was up, oxygen saturation was down. Déjà vu all over again. Sweat stood out on his skin and he looked past me, through me, worry in every line on his face. "Where's Kate?" he asked. I felt an eyebrow shoot up in concern.
I paused for a long moment, then decided a lie would probably come back to bite me. "She's dead," I replied, as gently as I could.
"No," he answered, "no." He shook his head from side to side. "I made her sick. Just like she said. My fault." And terrible grief wrenched his face.
"No you didn't," I said, gripping his arm hard, "listen to me. She didn't get sick. Ari shot her."
His brow furrowed in thought, and he shook his head, looking hopelessly lost, "I thought – I thought he shot you. And –" coughing took the rest of his answer.
What juxtaposition. I could remember now, and his memory was the one scrambled.
When he stopped coughing, he asked, "God, boss, I'm so hot. Why can't they turn on the AC?" And then he started to shiver.
I settled in beside him. I wasn't moving again until I was sure he was out of danger, just like last time. I stayed there as he drifted into a fitful sleep. Fortunately when he woke several hours later, he was back in the here and now. Judging from the fever sheen still on his face, I didn't know how long that would last, but I had work to do and I needed to start, and this time around I was going to do more than keep him here with a mere smack on the head. If I had to remind him every time he woke up, with every breath, even, how important he was to me and the rest of his colleagues, I would. Starting now.
"I'm sorry for the way I've treated you recently, Tony."
"Now I know I'm dying," he whispered. "Apologizing?"
I ignored that. "You're an exceptional agent. You did a great job leading the team while I was gone. I need to thank you for that, and to let you know I'm not stupid in addition to being a bastard. I know if you didn't want to still be here, you wouldn't. God knows I've done enough to drive you away, and sure my memory problems haven't helped, but I should at least remember who my friends are, or at least given you the benefit of the doubt. Not remembering didn't give me license to treat you the way I have these past few weeks. I want to apologize for that. I should at least given you some credit, some merit just because you're on my team. But I do remember now. I remember that you're the one person I will always trust one hundred percent to have my six. I'm honored to have that degree of faith from you. That means a lot to me. You mean a lot to me."
I could swear that I could see him gaining strength with every word. "Thanks, boss," was all he said by way of reply, but the slow flush that had risen in his face hadn't been from fever and the gleam of appreciation in his eyes spoke volumes. I wondered if we'd ever talked like this before. I would bet my boat we hadn't.
"You're welcome," I replied, resolving to hear those words from him a hell of a lot more often in the future. "So," I started, stretching my legs out straight and leaning back, "did I tell you the fingerprints matched? You should have seen his face when I told him…"