A/N: This is it, the final chapter! Maybe a little angsty, but all's well that ends well, right? Hope y'all enjoyed reading this story as much as I enjoyed writing it. And thank you, as always, for all of the reviews and alerts. They mean a lot to me! -abby
Two days later, Tony's doctor decided that he was sufficiently recovered to be released from the hospital. A CAT scan had confirmed that his head injury was healing nicely, and a nurse had come in that morning to finally free Tony of the hated IV. Only his left wrist remained bandaged, the white gauze protecting his badly damaged skin as it continued to heal. The sutures had already been removed from the wound above his left ear, and besides being several pounds lighter and a few shades paler, Tony looked almost back to normal.
DiNozzo moved slowly, getting himself dressed as Gibbs stood out in the hallway talking with Dr. Gray. The senior field agent didn't know what they were discussing, but had a pretty good idea. Some sort of conditions for my release, no doubt. There's always a catch, Tony mused as he tied his shoelaces. Doesn't matter, he decided. I'll do whatever it takes to get out of this place. He had always despised being in the hospital, especially once he started to feel better. It was such a depressing place, and gave him too much quiet time to think. Tony was looking forward to getting back to his comfortable apartment, with its distracting big-screen TV and extensive movie collection. And no one to hassle me about eating enough, or make me answer a million questions a day to try and "improve my cognitive functions". Tony thought with annoyance. He had rapidly lost patience with the speech therapy that Dr. Gray had recommended.
Sure enough, a moment later Gibbs re-entered the room with Tony's marching orders. "Let's go, DiNozzo. You're coming back to my place."
Tony stared at his boss. That hadn't been what he was expecting to hear. "Why?" he asked, suspicious.
Gibbs sighed, as though the answer was obvious. "Because," he replied flatly. "I don't trust you to take care of yourself."
"Boss, I'm hurt," Tony feigned offense.
"Too bad. Don't think I haven't noticed how you won't eat unless someone is standing over you, and anyway, you need to be around people until your speech is back up to par. I may not be the world's greatest conversationalist, but I'm better than that gigantic idiot box at your place," Gibbs said. He didn't bother to mention the fact that he was reluctant to leave Tony alone with his thoughts for too long. They had not again discussed Tony's father since the conversation with the rest of the team a few days before, and Gibbs suspected that it was only a matter of time.
Hey, leave my TV out of this, Tony thought, but he knew that his boss may have a point. Even though he was loathe to admit it, Tony was still speaking haltingly and occasionally having difficulty forming coherent sentences. That irritating speech therapist said I just need to keep talking and it will get easier. Whatever. And truth be told, he didn't really feel like being alone. He rolled his eyes and huffed, "Fine. Your place."
Gibbs smiled. "That's right. Let's go, I already signed you out." He grabbed Tony's bag as a nurse came in with a wheelchair.
Predictably, Tony opened his mouth to protest but his boss forestalled the argument with a look. Obviously annoyed, the senior field agent grudgingly acquiesced and sat in the chair. Much to Gibbs' amusement, Tony sulked the entire way down the hospital corridor, during the ride in the elevator, and until they were both buckled into the car. The lead agent shook his head and chuckled.
"You ready?" he asked.
At Tony's nod, Gibbs started the car and headed toward his house. Mindful of his still-recovering charge, he drove far more cautiously than usual and even kept his speed within five miles of the limit. DiNozzo was quiet for the duration of the trip, staring absently out the window.
Fifteen minutes later, Gibbs pulled up in front of his house. He herded Tony inside, pointing the younger man in the direction of the kitchen. "It's lunchtime. Go sit down, I'll fix us something to eat." DiNozzo silently complied. Gibbs put Tony's bag in the spare bedroom, then headed for the kitchen himself.
Tony was sitting at the table, just as he had been instructed. He looked up as his boss entered and managed a wan smile. "Want help?" Tony asked.
Gibbs shook his head as he began pulling food out of the refrigerator and dishes out of the cabinets. "Nope, I got it." He was worried about the sudden tension in Tony's posture and needed to get the younger man talking. "Something on your mind?" The lead agent kept his tone light. He did not want Tony to feel pressured into discussing anything he wasn't ready for.
DiNozzo shrugged. "Wondering about work."
"What about it?" Gibbs asked, as he prepared sandwiches and put some soup on the stove.
"Shouldn't you be there, not...babysitting? Been several days." Tony said.
Gibbs shook his head. "Nah. Would you believe that I have several months' worth of leave saved up? Decided I may as well use some of it. Besides, McGee and David did so well while you and I were missing, I figured they might enjoy running the show for a while longer."
That got a quiet laugh out of the senior field agent. "Hope Probie doesn't let the power go to his head."
"Ziva'll keep him in line, I'm sure," Gibbs chuckled. He knew that Tony was avoiding the real issue, but Gibbs was more than willing to keep up the small talk. Either way, the younger man was sounding more comfortable with each word that he spoke. Before agreeing to discharge his patient, Dr. Gray had emphasized the importance of conversation as a part of Tony's recovery. The damage the severe concussion had caused was not irreparable, but would require some effort to get Tony back to full capacity. And as Ducky had carefully warned Gibbs, talking was going to be a large part of his emotional recovery as well. 'You must get him to talk about it, Jethro,' the elderly ME had said. 'This entire awful affair has forced Anthony to face some long-buried truths. As you know, he is a master at hiding his feelings, and if we let this go unchecked he won't ever deal with them. They will slowly tear him apart.' Gibbs had promised his old friend that he would do his best to get DiNozzo to open up.
The faint smile had dropped off Tony's face, and he looked pensive as Gibbs placed their meal on the table and sat down across from his agent. "Eat," Gibbs instructed.
They ate in companionable silence for a few moments, although it did not escape the older man's notice that Tony was playing with his food more than actually consuming it. "DiNozzo." At the no-nonsense tone in his boss' voice, Tony looked up. "I'm not totally blind. You aren't fooling me by moving your food around. I can see that you aren't eating."
Tony sighed. "Not really hungry, Boss."
Gibbs softened his tone. "I know you aren't, but you've already lost several pounds in the last few days. You know as well as I do that Ducky isn't going to like it if you get any thinner, he'll never let either of us hear the end of it. I brought you here so I could make sure you're taken care of. Now eat."
After another heavy sigh, Tony took a bite of his sandwich, followed by a tiny amount of the soup. "It's good, Boss, I just..." he trailed off, seemingly at a loss for words. Gibbs waited patiently as the younger man gathered his thoughts. When Tony spoke again the words were slow, though it was hard for Gibbs to tell if that was a result of stress or the head injury. "This thing...at the bank, because of a stupid bet...Tim could have been killed...then you, and the ransom. Because of me, you know? Feels a lot like the whole thing...totally my fault." Tony closed his eyes and rubbed his temples, immensely frustrated with the entire situation. Getting myself into trouble is one thing, but now apparently I'm dragging other people down with me. Probie, Boss, they both could have been killed and none of it would have ever happened if it weren't for me. Tony was not usually inclined to feel sorry for himself, but in the last several days he had been forced to think more about his pathetic family relationships more than he had in years. Revisiting the long-repressed feelings of abandonment and worthlessness had taken a toll.
And there it is, Gibbs thought. His whole childhood, the poor kid was taught to take the blame for everything. It's a lesson he learned better than any other. The lead agent mentally cursed Tony's father for the thousandth time as he said, "DiNozzo. We've been through this."
The younger man looked puzzled. "We have?"
He doesn't remember, Gibbs realized. That conversation had taken place while they were being held hostage, and Tony's memory of their captivity was still filled with considerable gaps. That's okay, the lead agent decided. Certainly doesn't hurt to go over it again.
"Yeah, but don't worry about it. The bank was not your fault, Tony. It was just bad timing." Gibbs repeated his firm declaration from the warehouse. "You won a bet and wanted your money. Fair enough. As for the ransom, that was not your fault either, just a bizarre fluke. What are the chances that you would be taken hostage by someone that knew about your family? Slim to none. It was all just random chance, a huge case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"Bad luck, huh?" Tony was clearly not buying the argument.
"Yep. Is that so hard to believe?"
"Don't know, Boss. Sounds an awful lot like a-" Tony paused, searching for the correct word, "-coincidence to me." The familiar glint of mischief in his eyes was unmistakable, and a welcome sight to the older man.
Gibbs snorted as he tried to cover a chuckle. "Yeah, I guess it kind of does. Hell, DiNozzo. Call it whatever you want, I'm just trying to say that none of this was your fault." His voice became serious once again as he emphasized, "None of it. Do you hear me? You got a raw deal in terms of family. I don't know what happened between you and your father, but I do know that any man who doesn't care about his own child is not worthy of the title."
Tony was unwilling - as always - to let go of the blame that easily. "You could have been killed."
"Yeah? So could you. You almost were." Gibbs responded.
The younger man shrugged dismissively. "Who cares?"
The simple statement infuriated the lead agent, and he couldn't mask the frustration in his voice as he exploded, "Dammit, DiNozzo! I do. I thought I had made at least that much clear. Why can't you just believe that there are actually people who care what happens to you?"
Tony sighed. "I'm sorry. I know. It's just...my father...always said I was worthless and a burden." The senior field agent faltered as the surfacing emotions, combined with the head trauma, caused him to lose the words. "You...care. Great, what if...you...angry? Stop caring? Dammit!" God, you sound like a blithering idiot, DiNozzo! Just shut up! Tony's frustration overwhelmed him and he abruptly rose to his feet, knocking his chair to the ground. Gibbs watched him stalk across the room and run shaky hands through his hair before turning and sliding down the wall to sit on the floor, knees drawn up to his chest.
The lead agent got up and crossed the kitchen, easing himself down onto the floor beside DiNozzo. His still-aching knee protested as he got settled. Gibbs spoke quietly, as if to a frightened child. "Take it easy. Is that what you're afraid of? That you'll somehow make me so angry that I'll stop caring what happens to you?" Tony shrugged as he kept his head buried on his knees. Gibbs sighed and gently squeezed the back of the younger man's neck. "Tony. Please listen to me. That's not going to happen. There is nothing you could ever do that would make me stop caring about you. You are that important. Hey, look at me."
DiNozzo slowly lifted his head to reveal red-rimmed eyes. Gibbs continued, "I am not your father. But that doesn't mean that we aren't family. Me, Ducky, McGee, Abby, Ziva - hell, even Palmer in his own weird-ass way - we all care about you. McGee has been calling to check on you practically every hour, and Abby was a basket case before you woke up."
Tony seemed to be considering his boss' words. "Really?" he asked with a voice full of hope.
"Really. Have I ever lied to you?" Gibbs locked his agent in an intense stare.
DiNozzo relaxed and allowed a small smile to creep onto his face. "Never."
"Damn straight. And I don't intend to start." Gibbs' voice was firm, but kind. "Now help me up." Tony stood and pulled his boss to his feet, a genuine smile finally blossoming across his pale features.
The two agents sat back down at the table. Gibbs pointed at Tony's plate. "Eat. All of it."
The senior field agent looked thoughtful as he ate. He had suddenly remembered a small bit of a conversation with Gibbs in the warehouse. Tony put his sandwich down and took a deep breath, gathering himself. This is important, gotta make sure I say it right, he thought. He opened his mouth and carefully said, "You know, you really are...the first person to truly care. My whole life. Thank you for...everything."
Gibbs finally voiced his private thoughts from several days before. "It always has been - and always will be - my pleasure, Tony."
They lapsed into comfortable silence once more, finishing their lunch as each man contemplated the other's sincere words.
Suddenly, something occurred to Gibbs and he grinned. "Hey, DiNozzo. You never told me, what was that bet about, anyway?"