Permission Granted

Living life on the edge. At times, just a stone's throw away from injury or death. Anyone in law enforcement understood better than the average person what that was all about. It was just a part of the reason why those who chose such a career were labeled adrenaline junkies by many. A rather elite class of 'junkies' was currently assembled. The task force couldn't truly be considered multi-agency, but it was also clear that none of the agents in the black baseball caps were happy with the three additional men whose agency affiliation was obviously proclaimed on the backs of their otherwise nondescript black jackets. The agent in charge had growled and nearly snapped when the newcomers had arrived.

Grudgingly resigned to their presence after unsuccessful communications with the office, he had blatantly ignored their presence after a gruff order to make sure they didn't get any of his people killed. With that he glanced over towards his senior field agent to confirm that all was set. A brief, curt nod was the only reply he received before the two began moving, leading the others. The adrenaline that had previously churned thick enough to feel in the surrounding atmosphere now flowed quickly and endlessly through the agents.

After the waiting and the buildup, the actual operation was entirely too anti-climatic. The loudness and strength of the gunfire made it known that there would be injuries if not casualties on both sides. Gradually the noise dissipated and the haze began to clear as a voice was heard inside everyone's comlink devices calling for an ambulance.

Lights flashing, the vehicle screeched to a stop in front of the emergency entrance to Bethesda Medical Center. The doors were thrown open and a gurney was quickly unloaded by the paramedics who then pushed it towards the already opening doors and the staff awaiting their arrival. A man in civilian clothing, obviously an agent, jumped down, bringing up the rear of the small procession listening to the hurried report.

"Male, multiple GSW's, one to the upper chest. No exit wounds located at the scene."

"Get a portable up here stat! I want a complete series."

"Draw blood – type and cross. Two units to start."

"We're headed into this one, people. Let's move!"

As the door closed virtually in his face, the agent heard the count being made as they prepared to transfer the injured man off the stretcher.

"Respirations are eight; pulse is 135 and thready. He's throwing occasional pvc's…"

The conversation became more muffled until it gradually faded away.

The doctor purposefully removed the stained latex gloves before untying the surgical mask and throwing both towards the trash.. "Anybody know who he's with?"

"NCIS, Doctor. They're in the waiting area."

With a brief nod, the man turned, heading out of the room.

The ding of the elevator and the whoosh of the door as it opened sounded unnaturally loud in the dark quiet of NCIS headquarters. Footsteps shuffled out of the car and moved towards the bullpen, the figure focused on the small light that burned at the center desk. Instinctively knowing that he was the target, the man seated at the desk hurriedly picked up the phone, dialing a number. A dark shadow fell across the desk as its occupant spoke into the mouthpiece, requesting information on a current case. The case that was now consuming the agent like never before. He pointedly ignored the shadow until a finger came down on the hook of his phone, disconnecting the call. "Dr. Mallard, I was waiting on important information." The man rose from his seat to stare at the object of his ire.

The older man, hat in hand, stared back at him with an infinitely sorrowful expression on his face. "Go to the hospital, Jethro."

The anger instantly disappeared behind a cold, hard mask. "Later. Someone has to keep this investigation going."

"Later might be too late, Gibbs. He's waiting for you. We – Ziva, McGee, Abby, me – we've been in there already. Only one left is you."

Gibbs gestured down at his desk & then stretched out his hand, encompassing the other desks in his unit. "Look at this! All of this work we've got! And you want me to just drop it all to go to the hospital." He reached down – clasping his ever-present coffee cup.

"What's more important, Jethro? The work? Or your agent?"

Gibbs froze, facial muscles clenching. Suddenly the coffee cup went flying through the air, landing just the other side of the desk next to his. Glancing over as the liquid splattered the rug, he gasped quickly before inhaling even more sharply.

"You can't avoid this." The whispered statement seemed close to his skin as Ducky leaned over the front of the desk.

Backing away from the desk, Ducky raised his arm in silence and waited. Reluctantly Gibbs shut down his computer and then turned off his desk lamp before moving around and next to the older man. Heavily dropping his hand on the taller man's back, he led them both to the elevator, knowing this was a trip neither he nor the senior agent really wanted to make.

Arriving at the hospital, Gibbs again hesitated, not wanting to exit the vehicle. Ducky waited patiently, knowing what this even had already cost them all. They walked together into the building and past the welcome desk. The older volunteer did not stop them but simply nodded her head at Ducky. Inside the elevator, Gibbs uncharacteristically made no move towards the buttons, allowing the coroner to control them. The car was just gliding to a halt when he took a small step back.

"This is crazy, Duck! I don't need to be here! It's not like I'm going to make a difference somehow."

"He's waiting for you, Jethro. Waiting for your permission."

The doors slid soundlessly open and the two men walked out. Ducky led Gibbs down the hall. The silver-haired agent looked around. "They moved him?"

"The staff thought it would be easier on everyone – him and us – if we were somewhere more secluded."

Gibbs glanced up, finally taking in his surroundings. The first thing he noticed was a group of very familiar people near a door. Ziva stood with her back to a wall, eyes fixated on an unknown point in the ceiling. He knew she saw him but they both studiously avoided acknowledging each other. The Israeli agent's eyes appeared overly bright and, if Gibbs was able, he might have wondered about her thoughts at the moment, considering the brief amount of time she had spent with his team. Hunched against the wall was Tim McGee. His young face was ashen. Grief already plainly visible. Sanding ramrod straight and away from the wall, Abby looked up at the sound of their footsteps. Even took a few of her own towards them as she mouthed the word 'Bossman'.

Only a quick shake of Ducky's head stopped her movement. Her black eye makeup was streaked on her cheeks. Combined with her ever-present pigtails, it gave her an almost child-like quality. Ducky led Gibbs past them all, not even acknowledging the presence of the man in the tan overcoat on the other side of the door. Tobias Fornell stood apart from the NCIS team. For what – no one seemed to know or care. Gibbs stopped just short of the door to the room. He turned to stare at his old friend, shaking his head slightly.

"I can't, Duck." He whispered.

Knowing he needed to play tough love didn't make his role any easier on the old doctor, Ducky stepped forward and pushed open the closed door, bustling into the room behind Gibbs. His own motion propelling the taller man into the room. Quickly he closed the door and leaned against it like a sentinel. Gibbs stood as still as a statue between Ducky and the hospital bed, looking anywhere but the patient.

"Back again, Abs?" The question so normal; the voice anything but and Gibbs closed his eyes, sure he could not handle the weakness when there was usually bravado.

"It is I, Anthony."

"Ah, Ducky, always so formal." The voice paused then hissed in pain before sighing quietly. "Going to give me an escort down to your office, Duck?"

Gibbs shook his head fiercely. Turning in the direction of the door, he eyeballed the coroner, silently demanding that he move away from Gibbs' intended escape route.

"Impertinent as always, young man. But, Anthony, this time I did not come alone."

"Not Abby, Ducky. She's hurtin enough over this." There was a rustle of covers from the bed and then another gasp, breath loudly catching in the patient's throat. Gibbs glared at Mallard, silently demanding that he move out of the way. Ducky simply waggled his fingers, urging him to turn around. It was an action that would prove unnecessary. "Boss? Are you really here?"

The silver-haired man froze at the question, closing his eyes tightly as if trying to avoid reality. Noises behind him indicated that the man in the bed moved or was trying to move again. Frustrated with Gibbs' inability to act, Ducky brushed by him and over next to the bed. "Anthony, let me help you before you hurt yourself even more."

"Sounding like a mother hen," Tony hissed through pain clenched teeth as the older man helped him to move into a more comfortable position, sighing in relief as he settled back against the pillows.

Unknown to either of them, Gibbs had turned around and moved near the foot of the bed. Once he was settled in his original position, the younger man looked over. "Boss, that really is you."

Silently nodding his head in reply, Gibbs stared at his agent carefully. Strange – he didn't see anything different. But then he hadn't been sure what he'd expected to see. He'd seen agents die before. Saw Kate with a bullet hole in her forehead. Had seen men shot and killed in Desert Storm. Tony looked… normal.

His mind briefly showed him another scene. He watched again as the medics had rushed the stretcher from the ambulance in to the trauma unit. He remembered the anxiety building as his presence had been ignored, the medical personnel jumping into action around his agent. How, after too little time in the trauma room, Tony had been rushed to surgery and Gibbs was left to deal with the seemingly endless paperwork. Then he was alone in the waiting room until the rest of the team filtered in from the scene and the office. Abby had been too talkative when she hurried in, rambling non-stop the way she tended to do whenever she was upset or worried. Gibbs had gently taken her arms to force her to listen to his assurances.

"Never assure what isn't a guarantee, Jethro. You don't…"

Gibbs cut him off, not wanting to hear the warning. Ducky had been on scene with them. Had seen the gunman that DiNozzo had shot down. Had seen Tony right after he'd fallen. No, he wasn't going to listen to the words or remember the sight he'd shoved into a deep compartment of his brain. Everything was going to be fine. He'd already lost one agent to a bullet. He wasn't going to lose another – and certainly not DiNozzo. He heard the mumble of voices, saw a flash of green near the doorway. Ducky's voice. Then McGee's. The doctor questioning whether or not he could talk to them about the patient's condition without blood family being present. Annoyed, Gibbs put an end to the debate. He held DiNozzo's power of attorney in medical conditions and was listed as next-of-kin. If he'd looked, he would have seen the shocked look that crossed Ziva's dark face. But he didn't care and couldn't be bothered. Not when the doctor was about to confirm that everything would be fine. Except those weren't the words coming out of his mouth…

"We've stopped the bleeding from the first bullet. But the second wound. The bullet is too close to the heart. He's too weak to survive an operation at this point. We can keep him comfortable, relatively pain free considering. But it's just a matter of time at this point. I'm sorry."

NO! That wasn't what he was supposed to come tell them! He was supposed to tell them that everything was fine. That DiNozzo would be in the hospital for a while and then recuperate at home. Then he'd be back at the office, annoying Ziva, teasing McGee and generally driving Gibbs insane with it all. Not that it was…Gibbs couldn't even think the words, much less respond to the man who'd spoken them. He heard crying close behind him but couldn't identify who it was. He felt closed in, trapped by the words that continued to bounce around his brain – echoing and re-echoing their horrible news. His feet moved, carrying him past the doctor and through the doorway. He needed out. To distance himself. He nearly collided with a tan trench coat. Heard a voice that sounded familiar. Called him by name. He ignored it. Focused on only one thing. Escape.

I'm sorry. I'm sorry…I'm sorry. The words reverberated in his ears.

"I'm sorry, Boss. Messed up again."

The apology was like being doused with a glass of ice cold water. "No." Voice thick, the word was unnatural sounding more like a croak than anything understandable.

"Messed this one up good, I know."

"No! Stop it, DiNozzo."

Gibbs moved faster and rougher than intended as he moved closer to the patient and grasped his agent's face in his hands. A pained gasp from the head in his grasp caused Gibbs to realize just how tight his hold was. Ducky reached over as if to intervene but then quickly drew back, moving to stand against the far wall as Gibbs loosened his grasp until his hands barely touched Tony's cheeks.

"You did good, Tony. You've always done good."

The man in the bed stared at him for several seconds, taken aback by the words he'd just heard. A small grin formed on his lips.

"Is hell freezing over? The world coming to an end? Just got not one but two compliments out of the boss."

If he'd been able, Gibbs knew he would have reverted to habit and smacked the back of the younger man's head. As it was, his fingers seemed to itch with the instinctive reaction. Instead he straightened, moving his hands back down to his sides. He shook his head in mock exasperation. "Tony – "

"What can I say, Boss? Too late for me to change now."

None of the three men said anything more as an awkward silence took hold of the room. Ducky, for once, did not see the need to fill the silence with one of his long stories; Gibbs looked everywhere but at either Ducky or Tony yet also did not back away from standing next to bed. Tony slowly let his eyes close, thinking that even pretending to sleep was better than reading the expressions on their faces. Slowly the silence grew more comfortable. Gibbs' eyes returned to the man in the bed as he watched for any indication of a change. Familiarity told him that the younger man was only pretending to sleep but he didn't see the need to end the ruse. Unsure of what he should say much less what he wanted or needed to say and do, watching his senior field agent was enough for now. Later – if there was a later – when he was more comfortable with what was happening, he'd talk to him.

The door was quietly nudged open; a small voice could be heard from the opening. "Ducky, is it ok?"

The M.E. glanced in the direction of bed before nodding his head. The door moved a bit more and then Abby entered the room. Her eyes moved quickly, taking in any detail that might have changed since her last visit. Gibbs turned from where he still stood at the side of the bed and looked at the young woman as if he clearly saw everything she was feeling.

"Oh Abby…"

"Hi, Gibbs."

The older agent moved away from the bed and, as he walked past Abby, he reached out a hand and squeezed her arm, attempting to give support that he wasn't sure he had to offer. Then Gibbs moved over to the other side of the room, leaning against the windowsill.

Abby glanced over at the man in the bed and inhaled sharply, suddenly unable to pull her eyes away from him. The faint hint of a tongue flashed over dry lips which then moved a couple of times before his words could be heard.

"Hey, Abby-girl…"

"Tony – "

Her voice caught and failed but she didn't cry. Instead she quickly moved closer to the bed, lowering the rail. Eyes lowered, she appeared to stare at the bed, judging what the others in the room did not know. Ducky watched from his previous position near the wall by the foot of the bed, wondering what the Goth lab tech was thinking, planning. She gave a little nod of her head and then lay down on her side next to DiNozzo, somehow fitting her body on that tiny space next to him. Her forehead touched the side of head and her nose came just behind his ear as she seemed to nestle closer into both the bed and the person.

"Abs…" Tony paused, moving slowly but finally raising arm until it rested on his stomach. Abby's left hand moved up Tony's side until it met his right hand and their fingers intertwined.

When Gibbs finally looked up at the two, he momentarily felt a flash of envy that Abby was so at ease to be able to lie down next to DiNozzo the way she had. He knew how upset she was over what had happened – that was written all over her expressive face. Yet how she felt didn't stop her (or maybe helped her) in giving Tony something that they obviously both needed. Another worry flashed inside him as he wondered if having Abby jostle the bed as she did hadn't harmed Tony more than need be. He glanced over at Ducky, but the ME's expression was placidly unconcerned by the goings-on so Gibbs sighed silently, knowing that he needed to trust that nothing was currently happening that would cause DiNozzo any more pain.

He allowed his eyes to drift back to the pair on the bed as his mind gradually slipped back to the memory of the last time he had seen the two of them almost the way they currently were. It seemed as if no time had passed since those awful weeks when he'd been horrified to learn that the man he now stared at would die because of a powerful executive who let a thirst for unnecessary revenge consume her. He remembered the rage he'd felt over the entire situation and the sick sense of dread at hearing the odds that sounded so like a death sentence. Tony had beaten them then - fought, rallied and won the battle.

Allowing his mind to drift further, Gibbs remembered how he'd felt when he saw DiNozzo return only a week after being sent home from the hospital. He'd worried at first that the man was pushing too hard and too fast. Had nearly been proven right and experienced the stomach dropping fear again at their case site immediately following the explosion. He hadn't really expected Tony to rest when he'd told him to and wasn't surprised to find him reviewing what they knew with Abby. His senior field agent had joined him when Gibbs had announced that someone was trying to kill them again. At his side, supporting him, following his orders – the way he'd always been. It was nearly impossible for Gibbs to comprehend that soon he wouldn't be there, that there would be someone else in the role of his senior field agent.

He glanced over again at Abby and Tony, saw the Goth lab expert lay her head carefully on his shoulder and place a small kiss against his jaw. For a few minutes, Gibbs couldn't help but wish that expressing emotions came easier to him. At least emotions other than anger, frustration or displeasure. He never had any issues expressing them. Although he knew he'd never take emotions to the extremes that Abby did, he definitely wished he had the ability to tell Tony how much the younger man had come to mean to him over the years. As quirky as it sounded, DiNozzo balanced him on the job and was one of the few who could get past his at times manic obsessions to see things clearly. If only he could tell his agent…

Gibbs paced the room restlessly, completely ignoring the cup of coffee that was rapidly growing cold on the bedside table. Fornell, of all people, had quietly dropped it off when he'd paid a brief visit not too long ago. Gibbs still wasn't certain what had surprised him the most – the coffee or the very fact that Fornell was even at the hospital. Had circumstances been different, he would have cornered the FBI agent and questioned him. It wasn't like he and Tony were friends. There was a professional respect there to be sure. But there was no way that either man would allow that to be visible underneath the prodding and somewhat childish name-calling the two typically indulged in.

He paused, thinking back to the brief comments he'd exchanged with Fornell when he'd entered the room. Tony's eyes had been closed and Tobias had insisted on not disturbing him, even though Gibbs had been sure that he wasn't asleep. Not once during the conversation had the man referred to Tony by the mispronunciation that he most often used. Now that Gibbs had a moment to think about it, he realized how unsettling it was to have heard Fornell not call his agent 'DiNutso' like he'd grown accustomed to hearing. Sighing quietly, Gibbs resumed his pacing. Looking up towards the window, he noted that the darkness seemed to have further settled over the area. Briefly he wondered how late it had grown but knew he didn't really care enough to find out.

Time itself had ceased to exist. If pushed, Gibbs wouldn't have been able to even guess at how long he had been in the room. He hadn't wanted to be there at all but now that he was, he couldn't leave. He'd watched as they'd all slowly drifted in and out of the door – nurses, a doctor or two, his team. Abby had been in there the most. Trying her best to act like there was nothing unusual about each visit. The young Goth girl had just been in the room again just a few minutes ago. She hadn't been alone on this last visit and hadn't stayed nearly as long as she previously had. McGee had been with her this time, holding her shoulders from behind. She'd stared quietly at man in the bed before turning around to bury her face in his jacket. McGee had held her almost awkwardly as he'd reached a hand down, barely touching the uncovered arm. It had taken several attempts for DiNozzo to be able to speak and even then it was a whisper.


Hearing the once-hated nickname again had been enough for McGee but getting Abby out of the room had taken both the young agent and Dr. Mallard. Watching her obvious reluctance had unsettled the three of them. The previously suppressed emotion that now seemed to flow out of the young woman screamed a warning to the men. No one could acknowledge it verbally but the thought was there for both McGee and Ducky as they left the room that the ordeal they'd spent a good part of the day watching was about to be completed.

Ducky 's exit had surprised Gibbs. In fact, he kept glancing at the door, expecting the medical examiner to return to continue his vigil. The older man had been in the room since he'd returned to the hospital with the reluctant Gibbs in tow and had all but pushed him into the hospital room. The senior agent figured that the doctor was making sure he didn't bolt from the room to return to his office.

Funny how he'd fought coming back here. How he'd thought that the only place for him was at his desk. Now that he was here inside a room that he never had wanted to be in, he knew he wasn't going to leave willingly. Not until…

Sitting on the barely cushioned chair, Gibbs couldn't help but shake his head, a typically small smile quickly crossing his lips. "Yeah, I remember. Still can't believe you were that scared from an iguana - of all things."

"Uh-huh…you try waking up next to one then." Tony stopped talking, his mouth pressing into a thin line, eyes slowly blinking closed several times before they remained shut.

Gibbs moved forward, nearly to the edge of his seat. Reaching out, his fingers brushed the edge of the sheet as he studied the younger agent. "DiNozzo –" The word was more of a breathy whisper than Gibbs would ever admit to being able to do.

A light brush of fingertips against his drew his attention from the man's face. Unconsciously he wrapped his own fingers around them, squeezing them lightly as he heard the whispered "Still here, Boss."

"You alright, DiNozzo?"

"Never better, Boss."

The question had been asked almost automatically and, despite the fact that Gibbs wanted to slap himself as soon as it was out, the standard response he got from the younger man warmed and steadied him in a way that nothing else could have. Gibbs had moved to the chair a short time ago finally growing tired of pacing. Besides being closer to his agent, sitting in the chair had lowered his guard somewhat and the two men had been able to talk quietly, even reminiscing a bit over past cases.

Gibbs studied the younger man's face, noting how he seemed to be worrying his lower lip with the edge of his teeth a bit and that his eyelids did not seem as relaxed as they did mere moments ago. Examining the furrowed expression, he reflexively tightened his grip on the fingers he still held. It wasn't much and felt decidedly inadequate to Gibbs, but it was all he could think of. "Ahhh, Tony," he whispered more to himself than the other man.

He barely caught a fleeting grin cross the other face. "See, always knew you cared, Boss," Tony whispered.

Gibbs' eyes closed automatically as he tried to swallow the sudden knot in his throat. No reply came to him; not that he would have been able to say it anyway. Before either man could speak again, the door was pushed open and a nurse entered the room.

"Sorry to disturb you, Agent DiNozzo, but it's change of shift and we just need to check you over real quick. If you'll excuse us for a few minutes, Sir."

The fingers clasped his tighter and Gibbs glanced over at the now-open, green eyes. "Want me to stay, Tony?"

The only answer was a brief nod of the head but it was enough for Gibbs. "Ok, I won't leave but I'm going to move so that the nurse can get her stuff done. I'll be over there by the wall."

In truth, the senior agent was glad the nurse had come in when she did. After the too-normal conversation and then hearing DiNozzo's last comment, Gibbs desperately needed a few minutes to compose himself. The longer he stayed in the room, the closer to the edge of a breakdown he teetered. He hadn't been this bad when Kate was murdered. But then the circumstances surrounding that had been so vastly different from what they had faced and were still facing. Gibbs continued to hang back, almost molding into the wall as he watched the nurse remove the oxygen tubing and efficiently replace it with a full mask that covered his agent's nose and mouth. She reached above the bed to adjust the dials and then glanced back down at her patient.

"This will help you breathe easier and give you more oxygen than with just the tubing. It will feel less like you're suffocating. You can have another pain shot soon so I'll bring that in shortly."

She paused and glanced down at the fingers that were reaching for her arm. Her voice dropped automatically to a more soothing tone. "What is it, Agent DiNozzo?"

The response was quieter because of the oxygen mask but could still be heard. "No more drugs."

She carefully studied the expression on her patient's face before giving a brief nod. "Very well then." As she turned to leave the room, she paused mid-step and looked at the older man who hadn't left the room since before the start of her shift. She gave him a minute shake of her head as the only means of communication before stepping from the room.

Gibbs waited until the door had completely closed before peeling himself off the wall and stepping almost to the foot of the bed. DiNozzo's eyes were closed and for the first time, Gibbs noted the shadows that lurked under them. Dropping his head and lowering his eyes to stare at the floor tiles, he wished he could come up with something to say. Would it even matter? Was the younger man even awake?

The door was pushed open again and a younger man in a long white lab coat entered quickly followed by the same nurse who had just left. Not glancing at the patient, the doctor put a clipboard on the nearby tray and wheeled it closer to the bed.

"Mr. DiNozzo, we have a form that we need your signature on."

Gibbs watched as his agent's eyes opened and his head moved as he tried to focus on the speaker. The doctor went on to explain that the form was known as a DNR and that it basically absolved the medical personnel from attempting to resuscitate the patient when either his breathing or heart finally stopped.

"We need either your signature or your next-of-kin's along with a witness." The doctor glanced up, possibly noticing the older man's presence for the first time. "Since you have a visitor, perhaps he could witness the form for you."

Gibbs' temper bubbled inside as he moved from the foot to the side of the bed. He couldn't believe what he was seeing or hearing. "DiNozzo –"

Green eyes moved to look over in his direction. "S'okay…"

The word was barely understandable coming from underneath the mask but it succeeded in stopping Gibbs from saying anything else. He watched silently as the nurse stepped up, putting the pen in the patient's hand and indicating where he was to sign. The hand trembled minutely and the IV line pulled at the skin, affecting the normally bold signature. Task completed, the head fell back deeper into the hospital-standard pillow.

"Either one of us can witness this for you unless…"

DiNozzo's head turned again. His eyes this time seeking out a different face. Reading the silent question, Gibbs felt the horror settle in his throat. He wanted to shout, argue with his agent, but he could barely breathe. His only response was a small shake of his head. There was no way.

Slowly DiNozzo extended his arm, pen in hand, eyes never leaving the other man's face. His other hand moved equally slowly upwards towards his face and he struggled to remove, or at least to move, the oxygen mask. He took a deeper breath and winced, then succeeded in moving it away from his mouth. "Boss…please…"

The senior agent knew he had no choice. Tearing his gaze away, he reached for the clipboard from the nurse and then the pen from DiNozzo's fingers. Not able or wanting to read the words, he hurried scribbled his signature on the indicated line before thrusting both offending objects back at the medical personnel. The doctor took them and, task completed, quickly exited the room while the nurse remained for several moments, fussing with the IV line and replacing the oxygen mask on the patient's face before she, too, left the room.

Hands fisted on the rail, Gibbs stared in the direction of the patient but didn't really see him. "Should never have signed that paper, DiNozzo. Signing that paper is like giving up and no one on my team is a quitter! Certainly not you. – you're going to be…"

"Ignorance is not always bliss, Jethro."

Gibbs stopped mid-sentence. The voice he'd heard had been Ducky's but the only two people in the room were himself and DiNozzo. It had been in his mind. Logically he knew that. But the words had been so clearly spoken. Gibbs remained motionless and silent for several minutes. Although he still appeared calm and somewhat detached from his surroundings, in actuality he was anything but. Emotion had tightened his chest to where he felt as if he couldn't breathe. It had also given him a sick feeling inside – an ugly knot in the pit of his stomach. His mind's eye replayed the shoot-out – a scene that would likely haunt him for some time. He heard Ducky's words at the scene, then later on as they waited for news. Saw the surgeon's face as he first walked into the waiting room and watched the lips move soundlessly. Darkness seemed to envelope him the way it had done when he'd returned to the office. He jumped, startled. It had felt as if someone had slapped him across the back of his head.

He looked down and clearly saw the younger face – perhaps for the first time since his return to the hospital. In minute detail – the investigator's skill but a curse to him now – he noted the light sheen that glistened the face that was creased, lines that spoke of an effort to hide…pain, Gibbs knew in an instant that exertion he saw was an effort to keep signs of pain from being visible. He silently swore at himself, using language from his days in uniform.

Gibbs knew it was late – probably after midnight. Yet he made no effort to either confirm the time or refill the coffee cup that he'd emptied hours before. Doing either meant that he'd have to move. Moving meant he'd need to raise his head from the wall where it had been resting. Raising his head meant that he'd once again have to look at the man in the hospital bed. Doing that would mean he'd once again need to acknowledge what was happening, what everyone was waiting for. Waiting for anything was something he had never been good at and, since earlier in the day he had no plans on acknowledging what was going to happen. He wanted to bang his head against the wall or do anything that would jar him from the nightmare that his life was currently.

Gibbs heard a too loud inhale of breath that was quickly followed by an exhale that sounded more like a groan than anything else. He reacted more out of instinct than anything as he turned away from the wall. Seeing Tony's hand closed into a tight fist, he shoved himself away from the wall, going to the bedside. Lowering his hand, he attempted to wedge his fingers inside the fist, but the arm jerked away from him.

"It's me, DiNozzo," he whispered.

He needed to bend down a little to get into Tony's line of sight. On the nurse's last trip in to check on the younger man, she'd inclined the head of the bed more, ostensibly trying to make it easier for her patient to breathe. Nonetheless Gibbs had seen the pained crease to Tony's expression as his body was moved. He hadn't said anything or even acted like he'd noticed since it seemed like Tony didn't want him to know. But now it no longer mattered to him. He'd managed to get a finger inside Tony's fist and was now running his thumb over the clenched knuckles.

"Easy, Tony. Just breathe through it. Take slow breaths." The absurdity of what he was saying hit him suddenly. If the situation hadn't been as serious as it was, Gibbs might have chuckled. Even to his own ears, it sounded as if he was coaching someone through labor. God, he wanted to bang his head against something hard. But he couldn't pull away. Tony's fist had wrapped itself around Gibbs' finger and it felt as if the younger man's very life depended on his being able to hold on.

Studying the face that lay on the pillow, Gibbs watched as the lips moved soundlessly under the oxygen mask. Feeling compelled to do something, he slowly sat down on the edge of the bed and let his hand reach out, brushing his fingers against the side of the too pale face. He tried to quiet the younger man down but soon realized that there was something Tony was trying to say. He reached over and carefully dislodged the mask then watched as his eyelids fluttered as they attempted to open. Finally barely open, but tired, green eyes stared at Gibbs, nearly hypnotizing the older man. Gibbs wanted to speak. Thought that there was something he should say. But all he could do was stare.

"B…boss" Tony's voice was weak – actually not much more than a whisper.

"Sshhhhh. Rest, DiNozzo. You need to save your strength."

There was a slight huff of a breath and Gibbs was sure that if he could his younger agent would have snorted, smirked or made some other gesture like he usually did. Instead he watched as the dark head nestled back into the pillow and the barest hint of a grin graced the mouth but never reached the eyes.

"Gotta…Please… le' mego…"

The voice slurred a bit. Anyone who did not know the patient well would probably not have understood what he was trying to say. Gibbs understood – the words chilled him and then infuriated him. He pulled the hand that was clasped around his fingers up to rest on his leg in an effort to keep the other man's attention.

"NOT going to happen! Got it?"

Gibbs stared at DiNozzo as if the sheer intensity of his look could energize the younger man. Tony's eyes stared back at the senior agent, the pupils large enough where they dominated the irises, blocking the color.

"We're not going to lose you, too. It's just…not going to happen, DiNozzo."

Tony sighed quietly. He'd been almost relieved when Gibbs had come in with Ducky. But this wasn't the way he wanted all of this to go down. Yet he just didn't have the strength left to fight the inevitable pull his body felt. No matter what his boss wanted from him. He had nothing left to fight the pain that had been a part of him since the shootout or the encroaching darkness. He could only trust the boss would understand and accept it at some point. To hope to eventually be forgiven for disobeying one of Gibbs' orders.

"Gibbs…" he breathed as his eyes slowly slid closed.

The hand that had been fisted around Gibbs' fingers relaxed slowly until his fingers simply rested against the lax palm. Gibbs' eyes glanced down at the hand before flying back to the face that suddenly was no longer lined or tensed in pain he'd been trying to hide from the man sitting next to him and anyone else who happened to enter the room.

"Tony…" Gibbs' breath hitched on the small, four-letter word as he blinked furiously. No tears would be allowed to fall. He was a Marine and crying or expressing grief hadn't been permissible (by his own rules) for years. He would never permit himself a public display of such weakness. Yet he could feel his eyes filling. He sharply bit the inside of his bottom lip to ward them off. He still needed to give his agent the last thing that he'd asked of him.

"Permission granted, Tony."