Author's Note: My bad, guys. Sorry.
Determination was a powerful weapon. Tony had seen more than a few battles where the weaker side had won simply because they were more determined to win.
But determination had its limits, and as determined as Tony was to march into that smoky hotel and track down Colin Dougherty without breaking stride...Well. It was still a ten story hotel with dozens of rooms.
All possible witnesses were conveniently waiting outside, and Dougherty hadn't been kind enough to leave a trail of bread crumbs to follow.
There were Feebs moving through the lobby, firemen pushing back and forth though the doors to the stairwell and down the first floor corridor. Everyone was serious but no one was grim – hell, to them it was nothing but a false alarm. No real fire, no real danger, no one had gotten trampled in the evac; it was practically a win.
Tony heard someone direct a question towards him, but Gibbs had his badge out and flashing without a pause, so Tony didn't pay any attention.
He had more important things to focus on.
Dougherty wouldn't have gone through the lobby. Too many cops and cameras, too many people. That ruled out the first floor rooms, since to get to that corridor meant walking through the back corner of the lobby.
He had taken Tim from the stairwell, which meant they had to be near the second floor: Tony'd still had Tim in sight before he turned that corner. So if he was still in the hotel, the second floor was Tony's guess.
But suddenly Tony wasn't as sure of that particular 'if' as he had been two minutes ago. Because now with the smoke clearing and no panicked civilians around him, he noticed something right inside the stairwell that he hadn't seen when he first went down.
There was an emergency exit, right around the corner from the bottom landing. Looked like it lead to an alley around back, which would lead to cars and streets and escape.
"Boss." Tony stared at the door for a moment, his heart kicking at his ribs a few solid times.
Gibbs didn't so much as hesitate. He grabbed Jethro's leash from Tony, knowing that if Colin and Tim had left that way the dog was the only one who would be able to detect it. He tugged Jethro past Tony, and when he pushed open that emergency exit, fear or anger or God only knew what made the gesture sharper and louder than Gibbs would normally be.
Tony watched him go and exchanged grim looks with Ziva. Gibbs would see if Jethro picked up a scent, and then he'd stay back and cover the rear exit. That left the entire hotel for Tony and Ziva.
"Second floor," Tony said, nodding up the stairs.
Ziva's brow furrowed just the slightest bit, but she was too good an agent to slow them down by asking Tony how he knew. They moved side by side up the stairs, training and years of experience keeping their steps all but silent. They listened as they went, as they left the hum and murmurs and disturbances of the lobby behind.
Tony pushed open the door from the stairwell into the second floor corridor. Ziva slipped past him, and he shut the door again with a near-silent click.
Tony listened. Hard. Dougherty was a cocky, egotistical asshole. He'd be a talker. He'd want to brag about his brilliance before he made any move to kill.
He drew in a breath and started down the corridor, alert for any sounds. 201, 202. The alarm still blazed overhead, and under it was silence.
206, 208. More silence. Not a damned sound.
Except Tony couldn't silence his thoughts: what if Dougherty was done? What if he'd used his head instead of his ego - did what he set out to do, and got out of there before anyone caught on to where he was?
What if they had already passed Tim, silent and bleeding out on the floor of one of these rooms?
"Come on," he murmured faintly. "Come on, come on. Where the hell are you?"
He looked over at Ziva, not ready to apologize for talking to the empty air.
But she wasn't even looking at him. She was standing straight, focusing. "Tony..."
"What?" He stood, he focused. He heard the blaring of the same shrill alarm that was starting to make his head throb. Lost under the alarm, almost the same frequency, someone was screaming.
Any scream that shrill, that high, could only be from a child. A little blonde, curly-haired child.
Tony looked around, hardly able to hear it much less tell where it was coming from. But Ziva, whose hunter instincts were better than his, suddenly took off back down the hall towards the door.
He followed, slamming through the door into the stairwell right at her heels.
The little girl was standing at the top of the landing at the third floor entrance. Standing in her pajamas, clenching her fists and screaming at the top of her lungs.
They took the stairs two at a time, reaching her in a flash.
Ziva looked a little too glad to still be holding her gun, so Tony dropped down and grabbed the kid by the shoulders.
The girl stopped screaming. Her cheeks were red, tracked with tears, but she didn't seem hurt.
"Where did you come from? The guy who was carrying you, where is he?"
She sniffled a loud, wet sniffle and wiped her nose on her arm. "The man told me to run away. He told me to run away and scream until someone found me."
"Where is he?" Jesus, the kid had inherited her mother's gift for not answering his fucking questions.
"In a room. Back there. The number was 13, I saw it when he--"
"Ziva, get her out of here."
Tony was off his feet and through the door before Ziva could tell him where to shove those instructions.
Nothing moved in that hallway. Overhead the alarm kept shrieking – and didn't they have some kind of people-get-the-fucking-point-already cut off switch for that thing? Tony slipped down the hall, staying close to the wall. His hand was so tight around his gun he could feel his pulse in his knuckles.
Tim told the little girl to run away. Tim probably let her loose, and probably pissed Dougherty off doing it. Just one more thing to add to the list.
Bastard. Stupid psychotic bastard thought he could threaten an NCIS agent and get away with it? Thought he could just stroll off with Tony DiNozzo's fucking Probie?
He heard, under the alarm, muffled by thin hotel walls, the sound of a voice.
Good, he thought with some satisfaction, seeing the 313 glued to the wall on a door coming up. Asshole was still talking. That meant he wasn't done yet.
That meant Tim was alive.
He moved in, trying to make out words under that fucking alarm.
"--get away without paying for it. Is that it?"
His mouth stretched into a teeth-baring grin. God, he knew it was unhealthy for a cop but he just could not wait for the moment his bullet drove into that shithead's brain.
But as he stopped beside the door, bracing himself for the charge, something about the voice, even muffled and hidden under alarms, pinged at him.
"--really thought things were going to happen that way?"
He frowned, leaning his head back against the wall.
"I mean, come on. I realize you guys never wasted much time thinking ahead, but you had to know this was going to happen."
That wasn't Dougherty's voice. That was Tim's.
"I knew you weren't rational, I didn't think you were an idiot."
"Shut the fuck up, dead man."
That was Dougherty.
"Why should I? You're gonna kill me if I don't? I thought you were going to kill me anyway, if you ever shut up long enough to do it."
"You want to die, hero? That it?"
"As opposed to what? Listening to you ramble all day? Sure. Bring it on."
Tony grinned, suddenly fiercely proud though the cop in him knew that Tim was walking a really dangerously thin line with this guy. Tim had been scared of Colin. No one in their right mind wouldn't be. But obviously Tim was done being scared now. He wasn't going to go down scared.
Tony turned to face the door, balancing his weight.
"--met a cop I didn't kill, hero."
Tim's answer was amused, even under the alarm. "What a coincidence. NCIS hasn't met a Dougherty they haven't killed."
"You haven't killed me."
"I could say the same."
Tony grinned to himself. He drew in a breath and stepped in, foot plowing through the wooden door by the knob. Flimsy hotel doors made for impressive entrances: the thing splintered around the lock, flew inward and slammed hard against the back wall with a crack like a gunshot.
Dougherty – and it was a pretty bad dye job, Tony saw – wheeled to face him, gun out, cheeks red and angry.
"Remember me?" Tony asked, his sharp grin still in place.
Dougherty was quick, stumbling back and trying to turn his gun on Tim.
But Tim was quicker, rolling off the hotel bed and onto the floor out of Dougherty's sight.
"Fuck!" Dougherty twisted back around, gun jerking up towards Tony.
Tony regarded him, not losing the grin. His aim was unwavering. "Looks like you're outnumbered, irish. Drop the gun."
"You're gonna have to come back with something better than that, Colin." Tim got to his feet slowly behind the bed. His grin must have echoed Tony's, sharp and adrenaline-fueled. But his eyes were careful, going back and forth between the two men and their aimed weapons. "Tony's a smart ass. You stick with lines like 'fuck you' and a smart ass is always going to out-argue you."
"Fuck you." Colin's gun shifted but then jerked back, as if he wanted to aim at Tim again but wasn't willing to turn from Tony. "You're dead, hero. You're both fucking dead."
"That would be an impressive trick," Tony answered, fingers clenching around the barrel of his gun. "Come on, Tim, you're good at math. What are his odds?"
"Hmm." Tim edged to the foot of the bed, and there he hesitated. "Against two NCIS agents, one holding a weapon...and no doubt there are two more either just outside the door or coming up fast. A building full of FBI agents and cops. Oh, and the dog that already took a bite out of him has to be roaming around somewhere nearby."
Tony's eyes flashed over to Tim even as he pitched his voice towards Dougherty. "You remember Jethro, don't you, Colin?"
Tim met his gaze for a quick second. Just long enough that they were both on the same wavelength. They could and would grin their way through this, but with that one look Tony knew they were both fully aware of how quickly this could go bad.
Dougherty glared over at Tim, but his gun didn't shift from Tony.
Tony flashed his eyes back to Dougherty. "So, Tim? What's your giant mathy MIT brain give him for odds?"
"You both need to shut the fuck up." Dougherty's voice was going cool, flat.
Bad sign. Tony's spine straightened, finger laying ready over the trigger.
Tim backed up a step. "In my expert, scientifically-stated, MIT-educated opinion? His odds are shit."
"Watch the technical terms, Tim. We're not all geniuses."
"You killed my brother."
Tony's cop brain sounded an alarm.
Colin wasn't listening to them anymore. He wasn't red-faced, wasn't furious. In his face was a cold, still kind of anger. The kind that would shoot a weapon.
That meant Tony had one goal, now that his goal of Finding Tim had been accomplished. He had to keep that anger aimed at himself.
Tim wasn't getting hurt by this shit again. Not now, not ever. Tony didn't know a hell of a lot, but he knew that. He knew it, even if it meant toying with a psychopath who could very possibly shoot him before he could fire himself.
All he had to do was protect Tim. All he ever fucking had to do was protect him.
He grinned at Colin, cocky and insufferable like only he could be. "Which one of us are you talking to here, irish? Didn't both of us kill a brother of yours?"
Dougherty's eyes came around, landed on Tony. The anger that had him spitting curses was ice cold now.
Tony swallowed. "Actually, now that I think about it, I'm wrong. Tim's the only person in this room who hasn't killed one of your brothers."
"Tony." Tim knew what he was doing. Tony heard it in his voice, in that one word. The sharp, grim fall of Tony's name from his mouth.
But Tony wasn't about to stop. "Yeah, no, that's right, isn't it? Because when Clancy died wasn't it you who pulled the trigger, Dougherty?"
The gun in Colin's hand trembled.
Tony grinned, feeling on edge. Feeling dangerous, knowing that one of them was about to fire, and Tim wasn't going to be caught in the middle. "Yeah, it was. But when Conor died..." His smile went crooked. His finger twitched on the trigger. "That was all me."
Dougherty's eyes seemed to snap, somehow. To focus, so sudden and sharp it was like the lens of a camera clicking.
Tony barely caught the motion from the corner of his vision when Tim dove. Not fast enough, not soon enough, Tony could sense that and it made him strangely calm.
He watched like a slow-motion scene in a movie as Dougherty's mouth moved, as his hand shifted and his arm suddenly jumped. Like a twitch up his arm.
The shot was loud and distant all at the same time, and Tony had a moment to wonder how Dougherty managed to punch him in the shoulder without even moving.
Then Dougherty was down, tackled in a whirl of jeans and MIT and furious Probie.
Tony stepped backwards, and stepped again, until his back hit the wall and he slumped. He blinked fuzzy eyes down at the pair of bodies on the floor, at the movement of an arm rising and falling, the blur of flesh colors suddenly mingling with red.
And then he opened his mouth and sucked in a breath, deep and cold, and some of the fuzz cleared. "Tim?"
One more rise and fall of a blurry arm, but then Tony's vision focused on clear green eyes looking back at him.
"--get into these messes? Jesus, Tony--"
He blinked once and he was sitting on the ground somehow, Tim crouched beside him. He blinked again and Tim had a thin pillow pressed up against his chest.
Tony laughed, almost amused by the surreality. Tim was talking, words filtering in and out, but Tony just heard the steady wah-waahh of any given adult in any given Charlie Brown cartoon.
A weird pressure was making his side numb. Pressure that Tim and his stupid pillow weren't helping.
"--more minutes. Come on. Look at this, it's practically a graze. Just a flesh wound." Tim's face was too pale, his voice was too fast. "Don't tell me a movie freak like you can't quote some Monty Python at me. Tell me it's just a flesh wound, Tony."
"Tim." Tony's voice came out pretty clear, and maybe to bolster that affect his vision seemed to focus in on Tim's face. "I got shot."
"I know, I was there." Tim's eyes searched his face. One hand pressed that pillow against Tony's chest, the other one clutched at Tony's arm. Hand. Wrist.
Feeling for his pulse?
"'m not dead. Jesus." Tony grinned, but that made some of the pressure twist into pain. "Getting shot hurts."
Tim's scanning eyes locked on Tony's.
Tony smiled, vague and inane.
Tim slumped a moment later, relief bringing color back to his pasty cheeks. "I scraped my knuckles, you know. That hurts too, Mr. Self-Absorbed."
"He's..." Tim shrugged, more red sweeping over his face.
Tony laughed and groaned and batted at Tim's hand and that stupid painful pillow. "You scraped your knuckles on his face?"
"Shut up and be shot, Tony." Tim's hand tightened around Tony's wrist, thumb brushing over the pulse point gently. "You're gonna be okay."
"Yeah." Tony brought his free hand up and lay his fingers on Tim's arm, the one pushing that cheap, thin pillow up against his wound to slow the bleeding. "'m gonna forget, you know," he mumbled, dropping his head back against the wall and letting his eyes shut for a moment.
"What are you going to forget? Tony? Tony!"
He only opened his eyes because he had really come to hate the sound of panic in Tim's voice. "Gonna forget that you like Sam Spade."
Tim blinked, relief and worry and a hint of annoyance all blazing clear across his face. "What?"
Tony grinned. "Gonna make myself forget. So I can be surprised, when we watch. Maltese Falcon." He shut his eyes again but kept on grinning. "Can't picture it anymore, what it'll be like."
"Yeah?" Tim's fingers slipped from Tony's wrist to his hand, to hook their fingers together, warm. "I can't either. It's like we're fading to black and the next scene's about to start without us ever hearing the plan."
Tony laughed, glad Tim at least remembered that conversation so his blathering wasn't completely insane.
"So are we even now?" Tim squeezed Tony's hand, voice light and eyes terrified. "You faced him down to keep me safe, that makes us even."
Tony mumbled something, lips feeling heavy and numb. Even he didn't understand what the hell he was trying to say.
But just as things started getting really nicely hazy and distant, a cold thought made Tony's fading brain focus. Dougherty. The guy behind all of this, the guy who'd been threatening and hurting and keeping Tim in danger.
"'e dead?" he got out, clutching at Tim's arm hard.
The voice that answered wasn't Tim's.
Tony's eyes tried to push open, but he caught a slit of blurred light and then everything was dark again. In his mind he shouted at himself, yelled to focus, to man up, to last a few more moments.
Tim's hand dropped from him, and the pillow being pushed into his chest fell.
And from a distance came a roar, sudden and loud and then gone. Gunshot. Dougherty.
Tony pushed himself, trying to do physically what he couldn't do mentally. Had to stop Dougherty. Had to keep Tim safe.
Instead he sank back, his chest splitting, and everything went black.
Tony could remember younger, more innocent days when he could wake up in a hospital and feel confused. When he didn't instantly know where he was and what must have happened.
That was years ago, though. Years and bullets and fires and punches and broken bones in the past.
Now he only had to stumble into some kind of consciousness to realize exactly where he was. He knew the smells, knew the way hospital beds felt. Knew the weird loud privacy of a hospital room.
He knew what the distant pain and heavy numbness in his arm meant. Gunshot.
Therapy and pain and annoyance, and his arm in a sling and his ass at a desk.
He groaned, the full weight of the situation hitting him before he could even open his eyes.
"Tony! Hey, he's awake!" Abby, right on cue. Bright and cheerful and anxious underneath, her hands appearing as warm, solid weight on his good arm. "Morning, hero. Open your eyes."
"Abby. Give him a minute."
Hands vanishing from his arm, check.
"Give him two minutes. You know how much he loves this sort of attention."
Tony grinned to himself.
Any second. Tim. brushing a hand over his shoulder lightly, maybe, saying something with a relieved smile, like 'maybe he's earned the attention this time,' or something like that.
When Tim didn't speak on cue, Tony's eyes pushed open.
Abby beamed down at him, her hair loose and messy and her eyes looking way too large and bright without her normal loads of dark make-up on. She must have gotten a late-night call about all this.
Gibbs was behind her, a hand on her shoulder to reel her back if necessary.
On his other side, Ziva. Studying him with relief in her eyes, but smirking at him to cover any worry.
Tony looked around, his heart beating hard in his chest. "Where's..." Fuck, he hated waking up after drugs. They must've had to keep him under. Surgery, maybe. Bullet didn't go through, most likely. "Where?"
"He's dead," Ziva reported promptly, her eyes glittering darkly.
He had a flash of about a thousand different images all at once – Tim in his boxers, his MIT shirt, blushing and grinning and shy. Or strong and driven and sensual. Tim laughing, Tim wiping away tears, Tim's fingers mingling with his even before they knew what was happening between them. Golden Girls and cheesecake and Tim on his knees bound up, blood down his chin. Defiant even through his humiliation.
Tony shook his head. "No."
"Ziva!" Abby sounded horrified. "Tony, no! He's right over there." She stepped away a bit, pointing to the side.
Tony looked over, forgetting how to breathe, and something cracked in his chest when he saw Tim hunched on a narrow cot, snoring softly.
His world narrowed, focused. Looked at the bandages around Tim's hand – scraped knuckles: Dougherty's face, he remembered that – and watched his shirt rise and fall with deep, regular breaths.
Hadn't lost him. Hadn't come so close to the end and then blown it. Thank God.
The sound of a slap was the only thing that drew his focus away from Tim, and in his relief it was easy to grin at Abby glaring at Ziva, whose hand was on her arm in surprise.
"Abby!" Ziva turned to Tony, though, apologetic. "I just assumed you meant Dougherty."
"Well, he didn't! You've got no sense of romance, woman."
Tony gaped at Abby, amusement fading as his eyes shot instantly back to Gibbs.
Gibbs just rolled his eyes as if irritated with the entire group. "Doc says you need to rest, DiNozzo. Let's go, ladies."
Abby humphed an annoyed breath. "What about sleeping beauty?"
Gibbs glanced at Tony, amusement shining in his eyes though his expression didn't change. "Duck had to slip some sedatives in his coffee to get him to sleep. Mind a temporary roommate?"
Tony grinned over at Tim. "I'll manage somehow."
Gibbs escorted Ziva and Abby out, but pushed the door closed behind them and stood there for a long moment.
"Boss?" Tony watched him, automatically apprehensive. He remembered a lot, but not everything.
Gibbs regarded him, and then regarded the cot beside him. His eyes were solemn. "Had a long talk with McGee last night," he said, almost idle, as if making aimless conversation.
Which Gibbs never did, so Tony thought about it.
Then his eyes widened as he remembered what it was he pressed Tim so hard to talk to Gibbs about. He glanced over at the cot, surprised and proud all over again. "Yeah? How'd that go?"
"Good." Gibbs studied the figure on the cot. "I have yet to regret killing anyone who was a threat to my people, but sometimes I have even less regret than others."
Tony blinked. "You...?"
"According to the report I filed, he was armed and I had no choice." Gibbs' eyes flashed, but softened on Tim's sleeping face. "That's really all you want to know about it."
Tony hesitated, watching the normally-shielded emotions stirring in Gibbs' eyes. Tony wanted Dougherty dead, whether he was a threat or not. In fact, he was pretty sure that if the confrontation in that hotel room had gone differently, if Dougherty had thrown down his gun and raised his hands in surrender...he'd still be dead now.
It wouldn't have been right, it wouldn't even have been justice, really. But it would have happened. And Tony would have slept well at night.
If someone was going to see that plan through, Tony was damned glad it was Gibbs.
Gibbs looked over at Tony when he didn't answer. He relaxed a little when his eyes met Tony's, when he saw whatever it was on Tony's face that he didn't bother trying to conceal.
Gibbs approached the bed and nodded at Tony's arm. "This kind of wound needs a lot of work, Tony. Just because it seems like it's better doesn't mean you can act like it was never there."
Tony raised his eyebrows, but glanced at Tim and understood that the words weren't just about the bullet wound in his shoulder.
"I know, boss. I've got no intention of being careless with it." He spoke carefully, searching Gibbs' face, wondering if this was really what it felt like. Acceptance, or approval, or permission, or any combination of the three.
Gibbs nodded, patting his arm and heading for the door. "You know," he threw out as he left, "I'm not carrying a knife on me."
Tony blinked. "Glad to hear it?"
"I'm just saying." Gibbs looked back, smirking faintly. "Sometimes my rules are situational. Some of them aren't sacred. Though you can keep that little fact to yourself."
Tony held his breath, kept his grin with some effort. "Don't worry, boss, it'll never leave this room." He glanced at Tim, who was noticeably still In This Room.
Gibbs rolled his eyes, but left without arguing the point.
Tony beamed, pushing himself carefully with one arm to sit up.
Dougherty was dead, Tim was safe, and Gibbs had all but ordered him to break Rule 12. Tony wasn't the type to overthink things, really. Not big on introspection, or retrospection, or any other kind of spections. He didn't want to go all thoughtful about exactly how he'd gotten to this spot, or whether chasing the Dougherties had been more of a blessing in the end or a curse.
In fact, all he really wanted to do was call Tim's name until his sedated ass woke up and they could get down to the serious business of starting the whole rest of their lives together.
Tony wasn't in the habit of denying himself these kinda of things, so...that's just what he did.