Chapter 2: Healing
Three weeks later...
"Can...you...hear...me...Probie?" Tony said loudly. "I said it over and over again, and McGee just kept asking who was there and why no one was saying anything. I was trying to get him to be quiet, but Probie never could keep his mouth shut..." Tony went on to elaborate at great length all of Tim's statements during his brief period of deafness due to perforated eardrums from the force of the explosion. Abby was laughing delightedly and Ziva was pretending not to listen as she examined the display on Abby's computer, but she smiled every so often at a particularly well-done impersonation. Tim gritted his teeth and reminded himself that Tony had been there for him when it mattered. That was important.
After a couple of minutes of trying to be noble, however, Tim couldn't stand it anymore and left the lab. He hadn't admitted it to anyone besides Gibbs yet, but the tinnitus was still bad enough at times that his doctor was considering surgery. The only reason he had told Gibbs was because he'd need some more time off. He also still had trouble detecting sounds at the edges of his hearing. Tim swallowed as the elevator rose to the bullpen. He was painfully conscious of the vulnerability of his hearing at this point. He didn't dare fly or even blow his nose. He had been obsessive when it came to keeping his ears clean and protected. He was so afraid of losing it again. He had felt so helpless in the darkness, running through the tunnels, trying to get away from someone he couldn't hear.
He still had nightmares about what had happened down in that underground maze. Completely silent nightmares, somehow worse than any horror movie soundtrack. He felt the danger getting closer and closer to him. He broke out in a cold sweat and kept turning around to see behind him, straining his eyes to make up for his lack of hearing. He had run away from where he had stashed Tony, trying to draw them from his hurt friend and had come face to face with one of them. He had fired on instinct. He had seen the gun in his hand, caught the look of anticipation on the man's face and he had fired, point blank into the chest. He hadn't heard the gun go off, but he had felt it. He hadn't dared stay and check to see if he was dead. There was still someone else to run from. And run he had...for a few seconds before being cornered. He had been so tired...he felt as though his life was over, but he had tried desperately to communicate, dreading the idea that he wouldn't even be able to hear the gunshot that killed him.
Tim just couldn't joke about that.
As he sat at his desk, his cell phone rang. When his doctor's name came up on the display, he went a little pale. He was supposed to find out today whether or not surgery was necessary.
"Timothy McGee," he said when he answered. He listened intently, trying to ignoring the ringing that had surged in the last few minutes. "Yes, I understand. Yes, my boss knows already. I'll tell him. Tomorrow? So soon? Of course. Yes, that should be fine. Okay, I'll see you tomorrow."
Tim hung up and look at his hands, which were shaking. He shouldn't be so frightened. Tympanoplasty was an incredibly safe and effective surgery with only rare occasions when problems occurred. Yet, that meant so little at this moment, while he was feeling abandoned and nervous. Maybe it was because he knew that he wasn't going to tell anyone besides Gibbs about the surgery and no one would know if it went wrong. While Tony had been quite supportive during the time that Tim's hearing had been slowly returning, Tim's return to work had signaled the return to their normal interactions: conversations heavily-laden with teasing and jokes at his expense. When Tony was this way, he couldn't tell him important things, out of a possibly-unjustified fear that Tony would just poke fun at him. Ziva was...well, she was singularly intimidating, despite the mellowing that had gone on over the last couple of years...besides, she laughed at him, too, and a surgery that was as minor as this one would not impress her, nor would his overblown anxiety. Abby would freak out and not really help him stay calm. No, he would have to fly solo this time.
"Well, McGee?" Gibbs asked.
Tim jumped and looked over at Gibbs who was sitting at his desk. "What, Boss?"
"What's the word?"
Tim shrugged in feigned unconcern. "I need tomorrow off. My doctor decided that surgery is the best option to fix my hearing."
"It's not getting better?"
"It is...just not as quickly as it should be. There was a minor infection last week that bothered him. So, will that be a problem?"
"How many days?"
"Well, that depends on how the surgery goes," Tim said, trying not to let his nervousness show. "Tympanoplasty has a success rate of over 90, but I'm not supposed to come back to work for five days after the surgery. I won't be out in the field for a couple more weeks at least." He flinched a little, expecting punishment for not healing quickly enough.
Instead, Gibbs gave him an almost pitying look. "That's fine, McGee. You're not back in the field yet anyway. Let me know how long."
"I will." Tim didn't add if I survive, but he was thinking it even as he derided it as overly-dramatic. He turned back to his work on his computer as the ringing took precedence over real noise once more. He shook his head briefly, trying to get rid of the noise. A shadow fell across his desk, and he looked up.
Gibbs' mouth moved. The tinnitus covered up Gibbs' words and Tim had to ask, "What did you say, Boss?"
"Are you all right?" he repeated, slowly and a little more loudly.
Tim stared at him for a long moment. "Of...of course. It's not a big deal. It'll be over before I know it. It's not even a surgery that requires a hospital stay. I'll go in tomorrow; they'll put me out, do the surgery, and I'll be home before dinnertime. There's nothing to worry about. Not a thing. Really. ...it's...nothing...Boss..." Tim trailed off as Gibbs raised his eyebrows but didn't say a word. The ringing faded away, leaving Tim listening to nothing but silence. He looked down, flushing with embarrassment, and muttered, "I should be fine. I'm not."
"You don't have to be fine."
Tim shrugged again, determined to deal with it. "So, it won't be a problem, me missing work for a few days?"
Gibbs smiled knowingly. "No, McGee. It won't be a problem."
"Where's McGee?" Tony asked the next morning.
"I do not know," Ziva answered. "He has not come in yet."
"Boy, he's going to be in trouble if he's late."
"He's not late," Gibbs said as he walked off the elevator. "He took a few days off."
Gibbs looked from Tony to Ziva and realized that Tim hadn't told anyone about his surgery. He debated whether or not he should tell the secret Tim had kept. Abby didn't know either. It looked as though Tim had only told Gibbs...and probably only because he'd had to.
"He's having surgery this morning."
Tony and Ziva both stood up in amazement and stared.
"What?" Gibbs asked. "You didn't know?"
They stared, first at Gibbs and then at each other. Why wouldn't Tim have told them?
"You ready, Agent McGee?"
Tim was sitting on the gurney, clad in a hospital gown. He nodded mutely.
The doctor put a kind hand on his shoulder. "I understand why you're nervous, but this is as safe as a surgery can be."
"I know, and I'll be really happy to be able to get all my hearing back..."
"...but this is a little frightening, isn't it?"
"We could still do a local anesthetic instead of a general if you'd prefer that."
Tim shook his head. "No. I don't think I'd like laying on the table and knowing that you are cutting into my ears," he said and laughed a little.
"Okay, then. Lay down and the anesthesiologist will be right in."
Tim did as instructed and grimaced as the ringing in his ears surged to the forefront of his hearing again. It wasn't that he really thought it was going to be fatal...not really...it was just that he depended on his hearing for so much. He didn't think he'd ever figure out how deaf people really managed. He knew they did...and he knew that they didn't even think of it as a disability...but he did. He didn't want to go through adjusting to never hearing again. He liked the sense too much to want to lose it. He swallowed and closed his eyes, trying not to cry.
"Agent McGee? Are you ready?"
Tim opened his eyes and fastened them on the anesthesiologist who had just entered. He simply nodded. After she did her work, she asked him to count backwards...like always.
"Count backwards from 100."
Tim was already almost out, but he suddenly remembered a Bill Cosby sketch about getting his tonsils out. He smiled and began to count. "One hundred...ninety-nine...nine.."
"McGee? Are you awake?"
Tim was confused. He could have sworn he was hearing Ziva's voice.
"His eyes are closed, Ziva. He's still sedated."
"Shh! You're going to wake him up!"
"That is the point, Abby."
Ziva again. How did they all know? He forced open his very droopy eyes and then closed them again as the room began to spin.
He winced at Abby's voice.
"Hey, Abby," he said quietly, trying to stop his head from spinning around on his shoulders...or maybe it was the room.
"How are you feeling?"
Tim opened his eyes again. Abby, Ziva and Tony were all leaning over his bed and then the room began to spin again. His eyes closed.
"Dizzy. Like I just had surgery on my ears."
"Wonder why in the world that would be, Probie?"
Tim couldn't roll his eyes because they were closed, but he thought it.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Gibbs told us about your surgery. Why didn't you?"
Gibbs...well, Tim had never specified that he wanted to keep it a secret. "I didn't want to."
Tim found himself wondering why he had wanted to get his hearing back. This was not the melodious sound he'd been hoping for.
"What would you have said, Tony? What joke would you have made?" Tim opened his eyes once more and was happy to find that the room was remaining stationary. He looked at Ziva and Abby. "Would you have laughed at whatever he said?"
They didn't answer.
"I didn't want that. I didn't know whether you would joke or not, but I couldn't stand the possibility...not this time. That's why."
The door opened and Tim's doctor walked in. "Ah, good. You're awake. The surgery went well. I foresee no problems, but I'll want you in here next week for a check of the grafts. We'll monitor them for the next few weeks and barring any complications, you should be fully functional within a month."
"Great," Tim said, but he didn't look at his teammates. "When will I be released?"
"Give it about an hour for the anesthesia to wear off, and then you'll be free to leave. You're friends of Agent McGee's?" the doctor asked brightly.
The three shuffled their feet for a moment in embarrassment. Tim looked at them and then sighed.
"Yes, they are...unfortunately," he answered, smiling a little.
The doctor felt the awkward tension and excused himself.
"Thanks for coming by, guys. I'm fine. I'll see you later," Tim said.
The dismissal was obvious and they awkwardly excused themselves. After they left, Tim let his eyes close again. He felt kind of bad about how he'd acted, but maybe it was about time they realized that not every joke was funny. Still...they had come...they had been there, but the fact remained that they only seemed to care when Tim was in danger. That wasn't enough, not by a long shot.
One week later...
Tim came back to a muted bullpen. Tony and Ziva seemed to be walking on eggshells around him. Gibbs had obviously noted the change, but he never said anything. Tim wasn't sure why this had happened. He didn't get why this time they had changed when every other time, his complaint had fallen on...he shuddered to use the expression...deaf ears. Abby was much the same. Tim tolerated the tension for a full day before he lost it.
"For heaven's sake, knock it off!" he said the next afternoon.
"What do you mean, McGee?" Abby asked.
Tim rolled his eyes. "You're acting like...like you actually listened to me...only you took it wrong."
"Actually listened?" Ziva repeated.
"Yeah, Ziva. What I said in the hospital is nothing I haven't said before. Why was that time any different? I didn't expect you to suddenly feel as though you couldn't even speak in my presence. If I offended you, I'm sorry...but stop acting so...staid."
"Staid? What does that even mean?" Ziva asked.
"Solemn, sedate, decorous...none of which describe any of you," Tim said.
"Tim, you had surgery...one that you had to have known about for a while before it happened...and you never said anything," Abby said. "Were we that bad?"
"No worse than you usually are," Tim said.
"Then, what made this different, McGee?" Ziva asked.
"Sometimes, it's just not funny, Ziva."
"You could have mentioned it."
Tim looked at them all. He didn't like confrontations and this was turning into a confrontation.
"I didn't want you to laugh. It's not as though I can't take the teasing usually. I'm used to it, but this wasn't funny," he said softly.
"Why not, McGee?" Tony asked, breaking his self-imposed silence.
"I still dream about...being down there...and not being able to hear," Tim confessed. He'd never told anyone about his dreams. "I couldn't see very well. I was hurt; you were unconscious, Tony...and I couldn't hear, but I knew they were after me. I just couldn't hear them getting closer...but I could feel them. I can't laugh about that."
There was another long drawn-out silence.
"I'm sorry, McGee," Tony said finally.
Tim shrugged. "I wasn't expecting an apology. I wasn't expecting anything to change. I just...wanted you to know...to know that there's a reason why I don't think it's funny."
Tony looked serious. "Then, I'm really sorry, McGee. I'm sorry that you didn't think I'd care...I mean, I'm not going to be Florence Nightingale, but I could have stopped, you know."
Tim smiled. "Well, you're the wrong gender for Florence Nightingale, Tony...but I'll remember that the next time a bomb explodes in an alleyway while I'm there."
Somehow, that was enough. The jokes started up again, but they weren't about Tim's temporary deafness...at least not for a few weeks. The ribbing continued, but the air between them all was clearer than it had been.
Maybe something good had come out of all that after all.