Title: Should Have Been
Author: Cosmic

Email: bananacosmicgirl at hotmail . com
Website: www . cosmicuniverse . net
LiveJournal: bananacosmic . livejournal . com

Parts: 1
Words: 3 300
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Episode tag, angst
Characters: Tony DiNozzo, Timothy McGee, others
Pairings: None

Warnings: Character death
Spoilers: Up to 2x22 "SWAK"

Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations from the TV-show "NCIS", created and owned by David P. Bellisarius and CBS. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.

Summary: What if Tony never grabbed the letter from McGee?

Author's notes: This fic was written after I finished 'Conversations', and I'd gotten the idea of giving someone else the plague. As Kate has always bored me, and Gibbs didn't feel right, I decided to generously bestow the plague on Tim. As I started writing, an idea popped into my head, which means this fic can, sort of, be read as a prequel to 'Staying' and 'Conversations'.

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Should Have Been

By Cosmic

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It should have been him.

Tony could think of little else as he sat in the isolation room, hearing the wheezy, gasping breaths of his partner.

McGee lay shaking on the bed, his forehead wet with sweat from the high fever that wouldn't budge. His lips were blue and purple, his hair damp, and his entire body convulsed each time phlegm lodged in his throat.

Tony's hand became fists, pressing the nails into the skin nearly hard enough to break. There was a thick lump in his throat, an ache that wouldn't give, and it had been there ever since Gibbs had told him that McGee had been infected with Y. Pestis.

He felt like a failure. He was the Senior Field Agent – he was supposed to protect the younger agents, and most especially the still-green probie. It was his job – and he had failed.

Gibbs had been there, had told Tony of the bug's suicide chain, that McGee was no longer infectious. It wasn't as though it mattered – the plague had grabbed hold of McGee and was not letting go. Despite the bug itself being dead, McGee's health continued to deteriorate, the antibiotics having little effect, if any at all.

Tony rested his forehead in his hands, unable to look at McGee. Closing his eyes didn't stop the sounds, though – every rattling breath echoed through Tony's head, and he wished they could trade places. McGee didn't have Tony's physique; Tony's body would have better been able to handle the plague. His lungs were strong from years of running and playing sports, whereas McGee probably always had spent a good deal more time by his computer, rather than exercising.

The doors opened behind him. Kate came in, her eyes red and puffy from crying. She had been forced to stay at the hospital too, because of her cold, and she had listened to McGee as he began coughing, seen him start sweating in fever. After she had been cleared, she had stayed at Bethesda, although the doctors had made her leave isolation.

They would have moved him out of isolation now, had he been stable enough, but he wasn't. Tony knew the doctors were just waiting for the time to come when they'd need to intubate McGee, when he was no longer able to breathe on his own.

"Tony," Kate said thickly, fresh tears falling down her cheeks.

He stood, and she surprised him by flinging herself at him, hugging him tight. He couldn't remember hugging her ever before, but right now, he didn't care. He needed to know that she, at least, was safe. He hadn't failed her too.

They held onto each other, Kate grabbing Tony's shirt so hard her knuckles turned white. She too was shaking.

"Get—a—room."

Each word was hissed out between gasps for breath, voice barely above a whisper.

Tony and Kate jumped apart at the sound, and looked at McGee. He was watching them through heavy-lidded eyes.

"Tim," Kate said. "How are you feeling?"

It was a stupid question, because anyone catching so much of a glimpse of McGee could see how not good he was feeling. Tony couldn't come up with a better question though, or anything else to say for that matter, and he stayed quiet. He couldn't shake the feeling that looking down at McGee, in the hospital gown and with the cannula of oxygen running under his nose, and an IV in his arm, felt like an invasion of his privacy.

"Great," McGee said, in response to Kate's question.

"You should rest," she said, hand placed on his shoulder, squeezing slightly.

"Already—resting," McGee gasped.

"Shh," Kate mumbled. "Don't talk. Save your strength."

Tony found his voice, but it sounded thick and odd to his own ears. "She's right, Probie."

"Tony—" McGee said, but whatever else he was planning on saying was lost as he started coughing once more.

Tony and the nurse, who was constantly staying in the room, grabbed hold of McGee and helped him sit up as he hacked and gasped for breath. The nurse, Emma, wiped blood and mucus from McGee's lips, and Tony looked away, again feeling like it wasn't something McGee would want him to see.

They helped him back down again, McGee limp in their arms.

Dr. Pitt, the doctor who'd been in charge since McGee and Kate were brought to Bethesda, came into the room. He had yet to go home, even though Tony knew his shift must have ended a few hours ago, at least.

Dr. Pitt spoke quietly to nurse Emma, checking McGee's vitals and listening to his heart and lungs. Tony could tell how concerned they were; Dr. Pitt's face was set in a frown as he spoke.

"Doctor?" Kate asked. "Is he—"

She didn't get any further, because McGee began coughing again, phlegm lodged in his lungs and throat, and the machines around him suddenly began beeping loudly. Tony stared wide-eyed as McGee stopped coughing, his body going limp in the nurses arms, and his head lolled lifelessly to the side. Then Tony was unceremoniously pushed aside as more nurses rushed in, surrounding McGee.

"I'm sorry, you're going to have to leave," a nurse said, gently leading Tony and Kate out of the room. Tony wanted to protest, but couldn't find the words. Being taller than most of the nurses, he could see some of what they were doing – pushing a tube into McGee's mouth.

He swallowed hard, taking deep breaths to steady himself.

Bullets, explosions, knifes – he could deal with those things. He could do stuff, he could stop the bad guys, he could shoot back. But this? There was absolutely nothing he could do to stop the virus from wrecking havoc on McGee's system.

They sank into chairs in the waiting room outside of isolation. Neither spoke; there were no words that could possibly cover this. Tony felt cold, the kind of cold that reached the bone.

He had no idea how long he'd been sitting there when Gibbs came, holding out a cup of coffee just below his nose. Tony wrapped his hands around the warm cup, but couldn't bring himself to drink. Still, it felt nice to his icy hands.

"Thanks," he said hoarsely.

Gibbs simply nodded, and then left, probably to talk to the doctors. Tony couldn't bring himself to ask, although he was pretty sure they'd tell him and Kate if McGee was already dead.

Fuck.

McGee wasn't supposed to die.

He squeezed his eyes shut, hard. Images of McGee, the silly probie who'd grown up in front of their eyes in the last year and a half, flashed past his eyes – teasing and pranks pulled, all-nighters in the office, early mornings and late nights digging for clues on cases that made no sense.

"DiNozzo."

Tony looked up, finding Gibbs in front of him again. Kate was already standing, her face pale and drawn, and Tony stands too.

"He's developed pneumonia," Gibbs said. "They've intubated him, but they think he might go into respiratory failure and chock."

Shock.

Respiratory failure.

The words echoed through Tony's head, until failure was the only word left. He had failed, and McGee's lungs were failing, and everything was wrong. It should've been him, he could have dealt with it. It was never supposed to be the probie, never supposed to be McGee. Tony should've taken the letter from him – but McGee had taken it and opened it—

He wanted to go back in time, to change things. He didn't want to have the plague, but he'd much rather it be him than McGee.

Beside him, Kate and Gibbs talked, but Tony couldn't hear a word. Blood rushed in his ears, and when his legs buckled, he was glad the chair stood right behind him, or he'd have fallen on the floor.

He walked back into isolation, not caring if he was allowed or not. He grabbed a mask and placed it over his nose and mouth, for McGee's protection, not his own. He couldn't care less about himself right now; feeling disgusted with his own failure to keep safe the team he viewed as his own. They were his family, no matter how dysfunctional and odd.

McGee's eyes were closed in unconsciousness. His chest heaved up and down with each mechanical breath, no longer steered by his own body. His fingertips were blue, just like his mouth, his nose, and the circles around his eyes. The lights did nothing to help the image; McGee looked like he was dying.

Tony realized he was dying.

"Damn it, probie," Tony said harshly, and the sudden urge to hit something, someone, pulsed through him. There was nothing in isolation he could break, though, and he fought down the urge.

He realized he was crying when he felt wetness on his hands, as the tears dripped from his cheeks. He couldn't remember the last time he'd cried.

Time passed. Nurses came and went, doctors looking at the monitors and the chart, blood taken from McGee by nurses in masks. Tony sat catatonic, unable to move. His body felt as though it was made of lead. After a while, the tears stopped; it felt like there were no more tears to cry. He watched McGee, heard the nurses talk about his still rising fever, heard them whisper about shock.

When it finally happened, when the monitors started beeping again with horrid finality, Tony still couldn't move. The nurses and doctors worked, and one of them pushed Tony aside, tried to say something to him, but he couldn't take his eyes off McGee. He had no idea what they were doing, but he knew, simply knew, that it wasn't going to work.

And when they stopped, Dr. Pitt called time of death. Thirty-seven hours after being infected, Timothy McGee was dead.

"I'm sorry," Dr. Pitt said, perhaps to Tony, although he thought it would be better directed to McGee.

Tony stood, looking with wide, red eyes at the body. He'd seen so many before, many more than most ever would, and yet he'd never seen anything like this. For the first time, he saw that something was missing from the body; it was no longer McGee. It was simply a shell – a badly beaten, blue and purple shell, with a tube still down its throat – and nothing more; McGee was gone. The essence, the soul – it had left.

He tried to find his voice, tried to apologize to McGee, tried to tell him that it wasn't supposed to be this way.

I'm sorry, it shouldn't be you, I should've protected you and I failed and I'm sorry.

The words never made it past his lips; his mouth and his body wouldn't work with him. His gaze was glued to the still form, and he could see nothing else.

It should've been me.

Someone led him to a chair, away from the body, away from it all. Still, every time he blinked, every time he closed his eyes, he saw it. He didn't think he'd ever forget.

He heard Kate cry, heard Gibbs slam his fist into the wall so hard there had to be broken bones and splintered wall. He heard soft words from Ducky, although he couldn't tell what the man had said, and he felt Abby's arms around him as she buried her head in his shoulder and cried. He didn't hold her; couldn't find the strength in his own arms to move them.

Someone drove him home, but Tony couldn't remember who it was. There were mumblings about funeral arrangements, about contacting McGee's parents, and the sister he apparently had—but Tony couldn't make his brain put the words together into sentences he understood.

In the end, he was alone at home, in his dark and empty apartment. The door closed behind him, and he stood there, unsure of what to do next.

McGee was dead.

The three words ran through his head over and over again, but despite having been there when he died, despite having seen the body, he couldn't grasp the concept. The probie had been a part of his life for the last year and a half, and although Tony had been far from thrilled when he was first hired, he'd soon become part of the team.

He'd failed, at the one thing that was important – he'd failed to keep the team safe.

"I'm sorry," he said, voice suddenly finding itself. "I'm so sorry."

It was broken and alone, words leaving his lips and turning into empty silence.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd apologized and actually meant it. Of course, no one was there to hear it now, least of all the person it was directed to, so maybe it didn't count anyway.

He sank to the floor, right there in the hallway, and leaned against the door. He wondered briefly when he'd last eaten – it must be hours and hours ago. But he wasn't hungry. His mind filled with anger and guilt instead, as memories continued to flash before his eyes.

"It should've been me," he said to the empty apartment, and gave a harsh, bitter laugh. A SWAK'ed envelope? It would have been so easy to just take it from McGee. To say that it was for him – he might even have believed it.

"Would you change things?"

Tony's head snapped up at the unfamiliar voice. "Who's there?"

He fumbled for his gun, but his cold fingers couldn't find it. A light began growing, right in front of him – and suddenly, a woman appeared. Hair fell down her shoulders in gentle waves, strands looking soft to the touch. Behind her, white feathery wings spread, impossibly large in the small hallway, but somehow not looking the least bit crammed.

"Now I'm hallucinating too," Tony said. "Must've fallen asleep."

The woman – a beautiful one, but then, would his mind supply him with anything but? – smiled. "I'm no hallucination, Anthony."

There was something familiar about her, and as he looked into her face, he realized that he knew her. He knew her eyes, those kind eyes that had looked upon him many years ago when he was a child. He hadn't thought of her in years.

"Nana?" he asked.

"Yes, Anthony," she said.

He swallowed. It made sense that he'd think of the other dead person he'd cared about so much, on the day that McGee died.

He looked away, remembering that she had been dead for nearly thirty years.

"This isn't real," he mumbled. Fresh pain welled through him – the thought of McGee, and his grandmother, and it made new tears fall down his cheeks. He rubbed his face, squeezing his eyes shut at the onslaught of emotions.

There was a sudden warmth. "Easy, my child."

He opened his eyes to find her hand on his chest. Her face glowed, he realized; all of her seemed to be lit from the inside. Her eyes shone, blue and clear, with love and a promise of safety. Her wings came around them protectively.

"You're younger than I remember," he said hoarsely. If he was dreaming of her, he might as well talk to her. He'd so often wished for just a little more time with her, back when he was a lonely child in the hands of parents who didn't quite want him.

"I can age if you want to," she said.

He shook his head 'no'. He'd know her eyes anywhere, no matter what age she was.

"Anthony," she said, "Did you mean it? Would you change things if you could?"

"You're just a dream," Tony said, swallowing hard. He refused to allow himself to believe – the fall would only be so much harder once he woke up and realized nothing had changed. McGee was dead, and death was one of those things no one could do anything about.

"Humans can't," she said, apparently able to read his mind. "We can."

He didn't ask what 'we' was – the wings made that obvious. He spoke softly instead, asking, "Then why did they let you die?"

"It was my time," she said, hand cupping his face gently. Her hand was warm in a way no regular person was; it was warmth that went straight to his heart, calming him and healing him.

"And it wasn't McGee's?"

She smiled softly. "Timothy's story depends on you."

"You can go back in time and change things?" Tony asked. He still didn't believe her, but he had to ask.

"You can go back in time," she said. "To the time when it all started, and you can make sure you're the one who gets it, instead of him. And if you do change things, this existence will be erased and you'll live in the universe where you get the plague."

It sounded like a business offer, but she delivered it gently. He barely understood what she was saying, his brain tired after too many hours of emotions and little rest.

"Will I survive?"

There was something, with the warmth of her hands and the safety of the wings around them, that made him really believe that it wasn't a dream, that this was—real. If it was, if he could change things—could he do it?

She gazed at him. "I can't tell you that. I can tell you that a balance will be needed – a life for a life – but you'll have to decide if it's worth risking your own for it."

He stared at her. His mind ran through the scenario of him in McGee's place; blue lips, fever, every breath a struggle for survival. He didn't want that, he didn't want to subject himself to such torture.

And yet he knew that it wasn't McGee who was supposed to suffer through it. Tony had made a wrong turn in the bullpen when he hadn't grabbed the letter and opened it – it should have been him all along. He didn't know how he knew, but it was wrong. He was supposed to protect them, he was supposed to take care of his team. McGee wasn't supposed to die on his watch.

He had risked his own life before. This time, it was different because it wasn't a bullet; it was an illness. But the outcome was the same; he had to risk it, to keep his team safe.

His words were soft, but fast, spoken before he could change his mind. "Do it."

He wondered how he would feel come morning, upon realizing that this was all a dream.

"Are you certain, Anthony?" she asked. "I cannot guarantee that you'll survive."

Tony gazed at her, drinking in the beauty and kindness of her face; the kindness her son hadn't inherited. He spoke softly. "I know. But if I stay here, it's guaranteed that McGee doesn't."

She smiled lovingly at him. "I'm proud of you, Anthony."

He nodded, throat thick. Miracles didn't happen, angels didn't exist; none of this was real. Come morning, or late night, whenever he'd wake up, he'd find himself sitting in his empty apartment. McGee would still be dead, and Tony would still have failed, and everything would still be wrong, and there would be nothing he could do about it.

And yet he couldn't help but hope.

"Close your eyes, my child," she said. "Tomorrow, you get to change the world."

She placed a hand over his eyes, and within seconds, a warm darkness spread through his mind. He welcomed it, and the lack of feelings it held. It was empty, as though he was taken out of his own body, his mind removed from him. The despair he'd felt throughout the day left him as he floated away.

His last thought was of McGee. The man smiled at him, lips forming words Tony couldn't quite hear – but he thought it was 'thank you'.

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Author's notes: Hope you liked. Like I said, this didn't turn out as I'd planned, but I really like it. Kind of a prequel to Staying and Conversations.