"I've got you."
At first he thought he was dead and if he was dead then surely he must be in heaven.
Soon he began to rethink that.
Heaven wouldn't hurt this much.
Heaven wouldn't be cold.
Heaven wouldn't be terrifying.
Tony opened his eyes, the effort was almost too much and it made him realize just how weak he was. His hands were still pressed into the hole in his side, just as they had been when he'd lost consciousness who knew how long ago. Sticky and cold, he kept them where they were, not sure if moving them would mean even more blood loss.
He was lying at the base of a tree, just as he remembered. Though his staggering steps may have seemed accidental, Tony had been aiming for the spot all along. He'd been wandering through the dense woods for a long while when his keen eyes had seen a break in the trees. Knowing how much harder it would be for a search party to find him under cover, he had made for the edge of the woods. Not wanting to lay out in the open either, he'd opted for the best solution, lying at the base of a tree at the end of an open field.
It was the best he could do and he only hoped that it would give him enough time to be found. The sun was setting soon and there'd be no point in continuing a search at night. If he wasn't found soon he'd be spending a cold night alone in the forest.
Tony fought hard against the weariness that pulled against his eyes. Afraid that if he passed out again he might not wake up again, might not hear the calls of his rescuers, for surely they were coming, Gibbs was coming. He had to be.
Any other man might have let the darkness take him right away but Tony managed to hold on for almost another hour. Hope getting less and less as the sun made its slow descent in the sky. When the last sliver disappeared Tony's head dropped, the little strength he'd been holding on to along with the hope, finally leaving him.
He finally allowed the darkness to take him then, his head falling to his chest as his eyes closed slowly.
"Dammit!" Gibbs punched his fist into the hood of the car, making McGee jump as he tapped away on the laptop he'd set up on the car.
"I'm sorry sir, we were able to get a closer bearing on his location but I've only narrowed it down to a five mile radius. His camera battery must have died, those things were never intended to last this long, it's a miracle it made it this far." McGee said sadly, looking at the blinking red ring on his screen. That ring had been growing smaller by the minute as they'd gotten closer to Tony's location, Gibbs' reasoning that the other Agent was nearby having given them the proximity they needed to narrow down the search.
Before it had died, the camera had caught movement and the whole team had shouted in happiness. They had seen Tony lift his head and look out on the horizon, obviously looking to see where the sun was. Even as they watched and celebrated, their cries of joy were silenced as the camera gave out, leaving nothing but static.
"Well, we're just going to have to search that entire area then, grab your gear," Gibbs said.
As Ziva pulled her bag out of the car, she looked at the sun warily.
"Gibbs, there is very little chance that we will find him before dark," she said sadly, knowing as well as he what that would mean.
"Then we'll keep searching!"
She nodded and followed behind as Gibbs and McGee reported the information they'd gotten from the camera to the rest of the team in the search party. Uniformed agents had been out on foot since Gibbs had given the order to search the entire woods. Choppers were in the air too but the dense foliage meant they didn't have much of a chance of seeing Tony. Zeroing in on his location from the camera had been there best hope.
"Sir," a uniformed man approached Gibbs. "You understand that once the sun sets, my men and I will be done for the night. There is very little chance of finding your man in a location that large in the dark. We'll start up in the morning of course but…"
"Do what you want, my team and I will continue the search with or without you," Gibbs replied.
"Sir, all you're likely to do is exhaust your team, expose them to the elements and make it more likely that you'll miss something in the morning when there's light again."
Gibbs didn't answer, he just kept walking. If anyone thought they were going to talk him out of looking for Tony, they were sorely mistaken.
Gibbs, McGee and Ziva quickly checked their gear, making sure they each had enough provisions and water to sustain themselves for a while as well as extra batteries for their radios. Bundling up in large coats, they each also carried thermal blankets in their packs, ready to wrap up Tony once they found him.
They split up, each heading in different directions to cover the most ground, ready to radio back the moment they found anything.
Gibbs tromped into the woods alone, searching high and low for his fallen agent, calling Tony's name every 10 to 15 seconds, loud enough to be heard but not so loud that he couldn't keep it up for hours.
At first he could hear the other members of the large search party, calling out into the forest on either side of him. Slowly as the sun began to fade so did the voices and soon he was alone.
"Ziva, McGee, report," he said into his radio after awhile.
"Nothing, sir," Gibbs voice came in first.
"Negative," Ziva chimed in second.
"Copy that," Gibbs replied. Hefting his bag to a more comfortable position, he continued looking.
Hours later Gibbs finally allowed worry to enter into his mind. Actually "allow" wasn't right. Worry seeped into his bones, passed all the barricades he normally kept up for just such a reason. He wasn't a man who worried. He planned. He negotiated. He educated himself on the facts, knew every scenario before they happened. A man who did that had no reason to worry.
Now he had a reason.
Gibbs' mind went over the facts. He tried to stop it but it was inevitable. Ducky had said that with the amount of blood loss he'd seen on the tape that Tony must have received a serious wound. He'd given him just a few hours before shock and the loss of blood would cause him to lose consciousness. After that his body would slowly begin to shut down. That would be bad enough if not also for the cold. Even if Tony were perfectly healthy he'd be at risk being out in the elements all night. Being out there with a bullet in his gut wasn't doing anything for his chances. Gibb's mind continued going over the scenarios, unbidden. Every minute that passed made it that much less likely that they'd find Tony alive.
Turning his flashlight back and forth in the darkness, Gibbs continued to call Tony's name, though he knew that it was likely the man was out cold and wouldn't even hear him. Still he kept it up. As long as he had a voice he would keep it up.
More thoughts of failure entered his mind and Gibbs stopped suddenly, punching a tree in frustration.
"Stop it!" he screamed at himself, burying his head into the trunk underneath his arms. "You get a hold of yourself, you weakass. Just knock of the crap and find your man!" Staying like that for a good minute or two he waited until the tremors in his gut stopped.
Giving himself a final shake, Gibbs straightened his gear, picked up his light from where it had fallen at his feet and pointed it out into the dark, ready to go on all night if he needed.
That's when he saw it.
Tony's tentative hold on consciousness was getting thinner by the second. He'd woken up a few minutes before, almost as if he'd heard something out in the trees. Too weak to do anything more than listen hard, he wondered if he'd imagined it.
Then he heard it again, a crunch of a branch, far out into the night. He tried to holler, tried to make any sound whatsoever. Dehydration and weakness though had taken his voice. He searched for a branch to bang against the tree he leaned on but nothing was within reach.
"Dammit," Tony whispered to himself, listening as the sounds continued in the woods.
Unfortunately they were getting farther away by the second.
Then he heard something else - a voice. Someone was yelling into the night. Not his name as they had been a minute earlier - something else.
Gibbs, Tony thought. He was sure it was his boss - as sure as he'd ever been of anything in his life.
Please Gibbs, Tony thought, willing the man to come back his way, look in his direction, anything. He wasn't that far away but without the ability to move or make a sound the two of them may as well have been 100 miles apart.
Tony listened for a few more seconds and thought he heard Gibbs talking to someone, no longer yelling. His head wobbled as he felt himself going under again. He strained to keep his head up and his eyes open for a few more seconds, silently urging Gibbs to turn his way.
That's when he saw it – a beam of light shooting out from the woods where Gibbs voice had just been. It lit his legs and he looked down at it, squinting as his eyes adjusted to the brightness.
"Tony!" Gibbs yelled. He couldn't believe it when his light had shown a pair of legs sticking out from under a tree no more than 20 feet from where he'd had his momentary breakdown.
He ran to the man, getting there just as Tony's head fell onto his chest. Diving to his knees, Gibbs grabbed Tony by the shoulders, giving them a gentle shake.
"Hey," he said, putting a hand under Tony's chin and lifting his face to look him in the eye. "Tony, I'm here. You hear me?"
Tony's eyes blinked sleepily at him and his lips moved.
Gibbs leaned in closer. "What? I can't hear you, Tony."
"Knew it would be you, Gibbs," Tony said before allowing consciousness to leave him again, secure in Gibbs' presence and with no fear this time.
Gibbs gently guided Tony's body to the ground. Then he simultaneously pulled out the thermal blanket and his radio. As he wrapped the blanket around Tony, he called in their location. Taking off his coat, he put that on Tony as well, sitting down next to the injured man to offer what warmth he could from his own body heat.
Gently lifting Tony's head he rested it on his knees, waiting for the rescue crew to find them. Leaning down, he whispered to his friend reassuringly.
"I've got you."