As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Tony regretted his own weaknesses. He shouldn't be burdening the ME with his problems. He didn't blame the other man for making his excuses and leaving as soon as possible. Left alone in the lengthening shadows of the day, he sank back into the pillows, feeling uncharacteristically despondent. He had never seen Gibbs look so stricken as he before on the dock. Tony was honestly wondering if the ex-marine would ever be able to forgive him for saving his life.
Rota was looking pretty damned good about now.
He sighed, only realising his mistake, when the breath rattled in his chest and a feeling of irritation began to build in the back of his throat. Desperately, he tried to breathe through his nose in an attempt to stave off the inevitable, but the irritation only increased. He tried huffing out small breaths through his mouth, but he already knew it was futile. This was going to be really, bad. As the cough rose and built, its hacking pain engulfed his whole body, he fumbled uselessly for the call button, desperately trying to see past the dark spots that swam across his vision. The sound of someone hurrying towards his bedside was a blessed relief.
Tony prayed to any Gods that might be listening that whoever it was knew what the hell they were doing. There was a knack to loosening the gunk gathering in his lungs and he really didn't feel up to be pointlessly pummelled by someone who hadn't been through plague 101. His fears proved unfounded as firm hand seized his shoulder easing him forward as knuckles ghosted expertly down his spine, coming to a halt in just the right spot, before lifting off to deliver a series of sharp blows with the heel of the hand, helping Tony to expel the congestion in his lungs into the bowl which had magically materialised in front of him.
Oh yeah, that was the way to do it.
Even so, it was a full minute before he could speak again.
"Could hear you hacking clear down the hallway," Gibbs retorted, his tone almost accusatory. "Dr Pitt told me you hadn't done any real damage."
"You saw him? He spoke to you about me?" Tony blinked.
Gibbs only response to that was one of his more eloquent looks, the one that said quite clearly, you're an idiot, DiNozzo. Tony considered that. Sure, Gibbs was still his next of kin and Brad knew all too well from past experience how the ex-marine liked to be kept in the loop. Tony even had the sneaking suspicion that his friend had made more than the occasional call about his health to his Boss behind his back. He didn't really mind. It was nice to know they had his six.
"Are you OK?" Tony needed to know.
"Doc's given me a clean bill of health," Gibbs nodded, exactly as if he wasn't standing there in Hospital issue pyjamas and dressing gown. "They are going to let me out tomorrow."
"Boss," This time Tony remembered not to sigh. "I'm sorry."
"What the hell are you sorry for, DiNozzo?" Gibbs demanded. "None of this mess was your fault."
"Back there on the dock," Tony tried to explain. "I didn't think you were going to make it. I thought that maybe. you din't want ..."
His words were cut off as his rising emotions caused his breathing to hitch. Casting a desperate look at his Boss, he failed to still the rising cough, until he battle between a need to deal with the infection building in his lungs and the absolutely necessity of sucking in enough oxygen consumed his whole body. He could feel his chest burn as his body fought to heal itself, Gibbs deft touch nursing him through the worst of it, until he fell limply back against the pillows, sore and utterly spent, covered with a sheen of sweat.
"Aw hell DiNozzo," He heard Gibbs murmur, even as he reached for the ever present napkins and the bowl of cool water, wringing it out, before wiping the blood from his lips. It felt nice. Like a father tending to a child. Summoning the energy to meet Gibbs's gaze his was silenced with a look. "Not a word."
"I saved Maddie first because I knew you would never forgive me if I let your daughter's best die," For once, Tony ignored him, his voice little more than a whisper in his weakened state. "But I fought you for because I needed you to live. And then I saw the look in your eyes and realised how selfish that was. Hell, you don't owe this world anything. You've paid your dues time and over again."
"So you just let me go?" Gibbs asked
"You miss them." Tony said simply.
"Every damned day," Gibbs agreed. "But I'm also a stubborn bastard, and I'm not about walk away from something I started before it's good and finished, figured you would have learnt that about me by now."
"But you caught the guys who were after Maddie." Tony's brow furrowed in confusion.
"We caught 'em," Gibbs corrected. "But that wasn't what I meant."
Tony looked at his expectant expression and tried to anticipate what his Boss wanted him to say. Maybe, it was the meds, or just plain exhaustion muddling his thinking but he couldn't think of anything.
"You have some cold case from way back I don't know about Boss?" He hazarded.
"Try again." Gibbs nudged, with unusual patience, even though his expression gave nothing away. This was obviously something he wanted he senior field Agent to figure out for himself.
"Um," Tony thought hard. "Did you start another boat?"
"You tell me, DiNozzo," The corner of Gibbs mouth quirked slightly upwards. "I reckoned you knew all about this particular project. It's always been pretty 'hands on'."
Gibbs looked at him as if his words should jog something free. Tony racked his brain, but he had no idea what the ex-marine was talking about. He suspected his Boss took his grimace of frustration for a wince of pain because his eyes narrowed with concern and a cool hand claimed his forehead, one thumb caressing his temple.
"You're pretty sick, huh?" Gibbs looked at him fondly.
Realisation hit Tony like a shower of warmth and he went pink with pleasure as he finally understood he was the project Gibbs had been talking about. He knew he should tell Gibbs he didn't need to stick around for his sake. But he remembered exactly how he had felt on that dock with his Boss' life in his hands and he couldn't bring himself to do it. Instead, he gave a sheepish smile.
"I haven't always got it right with you," Gibbs admitted gruffly. "I know that."
"But you've always tried," Tony absolved him. "And I don't make it easy."
"The problem with you DiNozzo is you are too busy looking out for other people to take proper care of yourself."
"Hey, you were the one who went off without backup to save the day." Tony pointed out.
"Yeah and look where it got me," Gibbs reminded him. "I almost got us both killed and Maddie too."
He was furious at himself. He knew he could never have forgiven himself if he had caused Maddie's death. Not to mention the fact that DiNozzo could easily have died today, shot by one of those goons. Still could, if this damned disease took a tighter hold on him.
"My Boss always says almost only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades," Tony reminded him. "And I understand why you did what you did. I know how much you still love Kelly."
Gibbs smiled at his use of the present tense. Of the few people who knew about his daughter most talked about how much he must have loved her. It was rare for them to comprehend that never changed. He loved her today as fiercely as he ever had when she was alive. But then DiNozzo had always had a way of understanding him.
"Good parents love all their kids." Gibbs pointed out.
Looking down at the younger man he noticed the lines of pain and exhaustion had deepened around his eyes, even as the words brought a smile to his lips. That dammed cough might have abated some but DiNozzo was still too weak to have any real stamina. So when Tony opened his mouth to reply to that, Gibbs quietened him with a look, before reaching out to lower the head of the bed slightly.
"Get some rest, Tony. We'll finish this when you're feeling stronger."
"Boss, it's OK," Tony assured him. "You don't need to say any more. I know how you feel."
"Sometimes these things bear saying," Gibbs reminded him.
Turning on his heel to return to his own bed he decided that there was one thing that needed saying which couldn't wait. God willing he would get many more chances to say it, but the ex-marine knew enough about the cruel twists of fate not to be willing to take that risk ever again. He wouldn't apologise for getting DiNozzo mixed up in all of this that was too much of an insult to the man's loyalty and sense of justice. But there was something else.
"Hey DiNozzo," He waited until the younger man looked at him, wanting to convey by both tone and expression the depth of his sincerity. "Thank you."
Tony slept soundly after that. His body taking the rest it so badly needed to recuperate, so much so that he dozed right through Ziva and McGee's visit and even Abby's presence wasn't enough to rouse him. When he finally blinked awake several hours later it was broad daylight and his room was filled with cards and presents. Looking around at the balloons, DVDs, Magazines and candy Tony's eyes were drawn to a small, oblong, box on his night stand.
He recognised that box.
It and several others like it had lived in the bottom draw of his desk for as long as he had worked for Gibbs. Wanting to be sure he reached over and picked up the box. The weight felt about right. His heart in his mouth he opened the box to see the meritorious service award nestled inside, Gibbs' meritorious service award to be exact. Tony was awed by the gesture. They both new that the cover up required to disguise the fact that Gibbs' had gone off grid would mean that his actions today could never be formally recognised. But to Tony's mind this gesture had far greater value. With a smile, Tony closed the box and hunkered back down to get some more rest, his hand curved protectively around the box as he clutched it to his chest.
"Thanks, Boss," He murmured. "For everything."
AN- Well, that it folks, its been an amazing journey - thank you to all who have read and reviewed - but as I've explained in my profile I won't be writing any more stories.