A/N: This is it, the last chapter! Please let me know what you think of the end, I always seem to have a hard time wrapping things up to my own satisfaction. It's pretty fluffy, but I figured the team's had a rough go and they deserve a break! As usual, I'm not a medical or legal expert, and I don't own NCIS. I really hope you enjoyed this story, and thank you as always for the kind, thoughtful reviews! Y'all are the best! -abby
The disturbingly familiar noise played around the edge of Gibbs' consciousness. Although his subconscious could not quite place the sound, it was enough to rouse him and slowly he clawed his way back to wakefulness. Before even opening his eyes, Gibbs' groggy mind suddenly recognized what he was hearing. Coughing. Harsh continuous coughing, raspy and frightening, and there was only one person who he'd ever heard cough like that.
Gibbs sat up with a start. "Tony!" he exclaimed, not quite sure of his surroundings, momentarily panicked that they were all still trapped in Johnston's house.
As he came to his senses, Gibbs was taken aback by the weak-sounding "Hey, Boss" that came from the other side of his hospital room.
His senior field agent was lying in the bed next to him, a bed that had previously been occupied by McGee. Gibbs' puzzlement was obvious. "DiNozzo? Where's McGee?" Before Tony had the chance to answer, confusion was replaced by concern. "Why aren't you in ICU?"
Tony smiled faintly. "Nice to see you too, Boss. They sprung McGee, and Ducky convinced them to move me in here." Tony's voice was reed-thin, and Gibbs had to strain to hear the words that were punctuated by yet another round of coughing.
Gibbs frowned. "When did they take you off the vent?"
"Right after you fell asleep. You've been out of it for awhile, Boss. In fact, we should probably let your doctor know that you're finally awake." Tony relaxed into the pillows that were helping to keep him upright. Though a nasal cannula was still feeding Tony supplemental oxygen, he felt as if he was suffocating if he lay flat for too long.
The older man waved his hand dismissively. "It'll keep. How long was I out?"
Tony coughed again, lighter than before, as he replied. "Almost two days."
The senior field agent couldn't suppress a chuckle at the look of thinly veiled horror on his superior's face.
"I was out for two days?" Gibbs sounded incredulous. He'd had many concussions over the years, but none had ever incapacitated him for that long. Jesus. I really am getting old.
Tony nodded and took a careful breath. "Vance recalled Abby, Ducky and Ziva to D.C. this morning. Abby wanted to look after Tim so he went too." The short speech left Tony winded and he struggled to catch his breath.
Gibbs regarded his senior agent solemnly. Tony had slightly more color than the last time Gibbs had seen him, but he looked very thin and fragile, with parched lips and dark circles under sunken eyes. An IV still dripped saline and antibiotics into the arm that wasn't covered by white bandages.
"Tell me the truth, DiNozzo. How are you? And I want the doctor's assessment, not yours." Gibbs wished that Ducky hadn't left town before giving him a full update on Tony's condition. The ME was the only one Gibbs could count on to give him the straight story in terms he could understand. I'll call him in a little while.
To Tony's credit, he did not appear to be sugar-coating the situation when he quietly replied, "My lungs are taking longer to clear out than the doc had hoped, but he says all the coughing is a good thing." Tony paused to take a few deep breaths. "Fever's almost gone, blood pressure's still high but better." Another pause, another round of careful breathing.
Gibbs waited patiently for the rest, and knew that his senior field agent was giving him the whole truth when he admitted "Chest still hurts like hell, and they say I'm not eating enough." Irritation was apparent on the younger man's face, even over the exhaustion and pain.
In spite of the report, a ghost of a smile crossed Gibbs' face as he asked, "Abby got to you, didn't she?"
Tony smiled in return. "Threatened me within an inch of my life if I didn't tell you the truth. I need to call her. She was really pissed at Vance for making them leave before you woke up."
"I bet." Gibbs chuckled. The forensic scientist was one of the friendliest, most cheerful people he knew, but she was a force to be reckoned with whenever she worried.
The smile dropped off Gibbs' face as he realized that he knew nothing of the case against Johnston and his aunt. Save for a brief discussion with Special Agent Sims, Gibbs was totally out of the loop, a position he did not appreciate. He scowled.
As if reading his superior's mind, Tony gathered his breath to say "Sims got a full confession. Johnston killed Lange to lure us to the house. Probably won't even go to trial, between the confession and our testimonies it's a slam dunk."
As much as Gibbs hated to see his friend struggle for breath, he was sure that DiNozzo didn't mind giving a report. The younger man hated being out of commission almost as much as Gibbs himself, and it would do him good to feel useful. Gibbs asked, "What about the aunt?"
Knowing his boss wouldn't be pleased with the answer, Tony replied cautiously, "Johnston claims she wasn't involved with the house, so the only charge is assault of a federal agent." He coughed and continued, "She'll plead temporary insanity. Just a lonely old lady."
Predictably, Gibbs narrowed his eyes. "She could have killed you, Tony."
The younger man shrugged. "She didn't. Johnston was all the family she had left. I guess when she heard he'd been arrested, she snapped. No big deal." He fumbled for the control and lowered the head of his bed slightly.
Gibbs sighed. He didn't really feel up to discussing Tony's myriad of issues surrounding his feelings of self-worth, and suspected it wouldn't get him very far anyway. He watched silently as Tony settled himself more comfortably, then commented softly, "I thought it was over. I was sure we were both going to drown in that room."
"Me too." Tony smiled faintly. "But I think we may have gotten the better deal…Probie said there were rats." He shuddered at the thought.
"Rats, huh? Maybe we did then." Gibbs chuckled. He knew about Tony's phobia.
Rather abruptly, Tony croaked, "Thanks for taking care of me back there. You saved my life." He was tired and his voice was nearly gone, but he knew Gibbs needed to hear what he planned to say. "About …what you said before, up in ICU. This-" he gestured at the oxygen line running into his nose and the IV line hooked up to his arm- "wasn't your fault. Johnston was a vengeful bastard. He did this. Not you."
Gibbs wasn't having it. He said flatly, "It's my job to protect you. All of you, and I failed miserably."
"Come on, Boss. We're a team. We're all supposed to watch each other's six." Tony was interrupted by a violent coughing fit. Concerned, Gibbs moved to get out of bed but stopped when Tony held up a hand. After a few more moments in which Gibbs' finger hovered on the nurse call button, Tony finally got his breathing under control.
"That's enough talking," Gibbs tried to sound stern, but his own tiredness was evident. "Get some rest."
Tony shook his head stubbornly and took a sip of water from a nearby glass. I've been waiting two days to say this, dammit. "Like I told Ziva and Tim, if we blame ourselves then Johnston wins the game, you know? Not your fault. He laid a damn good trap."
Gibbs sighed and shook his head. He wasn't willing to completely absolve himself of blame even if Tony clearly was, but grudgingly admitted, "Yeah. He did."
"You were the one that shot him," Tony pointed out. Ziva had filled her partners in on the events that occurred in the basement maze after they both lost consciousness. "Glad you woke up when you did, Boss." Tony coughed a few more times before concluding "Otherwise we'd all be dead."
Gibbs said nothing, but the look of weary resignation on his face spoke volumes.
Tony persevered, hoping to fully assuage his boss' guilt before his weakening voice failed completely. "You saved our lives, Boss. That's gotta count for something."
The only response was a narrowing of ice blue eyes.
"Jesus, Boss, work with me here." Tony coughed weakly. "You shouldn't feel guilty about any of this. We're all alive, so let's just move on, okay?"
After a long pause Gibbs said bemusedly, "You're very persistent, DiNozzo. Anyone ever tell you that?" He sighed. "Fine, you win. No more self-recrimination." He eyed his senior field agent suspiciously. "But while we're on the subject, why is it so important to you? Why are you always so worried about other people? You should worry more about yourself. You almost died." Gibbs made sure to emphasize the last word.
Tony looked thoughtful as he softly replied, "Ziva asked me the same thing."
"And?" Gibbs prompted, his tone gentler than usual. Tony wasn't predisposed to talking about his inner feelings, and it usually took a great deal of subtle coaxing – and alcohol – to make him open up.
There was quiet chuckle, followed by, "Was on the vent. Couldn't talk."
Gibbs shook his head. Sounds about right. He'll no doubt manage to avoid answering me too.
But to his surprise Tony did answer. Gibbs would never really know whether it was the painkillers or sheer exhaustion that allowed Tony's guard to drop so easily, but the senior field agent simply said, "Because we're family."
A nurse came in before the older man had a chance to reply, and once she noticed that Gibbs was finally awake she spent several minutes evaluating his condition. By the time she finished peppering him with questions and left the room, Tony had fallen asleep.
Gibbs watched the rhythmic rise and fall of his agent's chest for a long time. He was pleased to see that Tony's rest seemed mostly peaceful, broken only occasionally by weak coughing.
I guess we really are a family. It was a sentiment that Abby had vocalized many times before and although Gibbs himself was often gruff, he was confident that his team understood just how much he cared about each of them. Tony especially. He's always meant a lot to me...Abby says that's because we're so much alike, Gibbs chuckled inwardly. He knew that Tony did not have a relationship with his biological relatives and his teammates truly were his only family. Kind of like me, maybe that's why I've always had a soft spot where DiNozzo is concerned. Either way, he's right. We all survived and that's the important thing. Gibbs knew that he would never fully forgive himself for the situation his team had landed in – no matter what he told his senior field agent – but Tony had reminded him of what really mattered.
And lying there in the hospital, with a busted knee and weeks of therapy ahead, with a team that was physically battered and emotionally exhausted, Gibbs came to a conclusion. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger, and we all survived this round. For the moment at least, that simple knowledge was enough for him.