A/N: Thank you to everyone who offered to send me this full chapter. It's now all here, all in one piece.
At the end of an investigation, when the questions were answered and the dirtbag dealt with, Gibbs' gut usually settled.
Not always for long—he'd once had dispatch call with another body within five minutes of collecting his team's reports.
But there was always a lull, however short.
But not now.
Gibbs looked around, scanning the faces of his team and noting that they all looked tired. No surprise there, considering their days had hardly been quick 9-to-5s lately. But something was off—besides sleep schedules.
He found his gaze lingering on DiNozzo because of his senior field agent's recent mysterious disappearances, but he covered his smile with his hand at finding his senior agent chewing on the end of his tie as he poked at buttons on his cellphone while grinning like a maniac. Gibbs wasn't exactly happy about Tony sneaking around doing side work for the director, but he of all people knew the powers of Jenny's persuasion.
Deciding DiNozzo wasn't the cause of this lingering unease, Gibbs turned his gaze to Ziva, his smile lingering too when he saw her staring off into space with a frown, no doubt searching her third—or fourth, or fifth—language for the exact word she needed for her report.
McGee was having no trouble with that, his fingers flying across the keyboard with a speed that made Gibbs wonder just how long he would be here reading the probie's no doubt lengthy report.
Gibbs glanced at the calendar to reassure himself that none of his dreaded anniversaries was coming up, and then he did his best to ignore his gut. He thought about the past few days of takeout meals and decided to call it indigestion.
He waited a few more minutes to give Ziva time to find that perfect word and McGee to get down all the facts his big brain could remember, and then Gibbs said, "McGee! Go write novels on your own time. I want all of your reports in two minutes."
There was a flash of panic in the probie's eyes before his fingers somehow started moving faster, and Ziva simply nodded.
Tony ignored him.
But Gibbs didn't mind, considering his senior field agent's report was already sitting on the corner of his desk, next to an empty pizza box and the extremely expensive pair of shoes propped there.
Gibbs had noticed that the entire team's reports had gotten shorter after his hiatus, likely a result of DiNozzo having been in charge for those few months. Gibbs wasn't dumb enough to think it was laziness on Tony's part—the shorter reports were simply more efficient. McGee still had some work to do, but Gibbs also noticed that the probie still made progress each week even though Gibbs never said a word about it.
"Time's up," Gibbs said, even though he hadn't actually been keeping track of those two minutes.
McGee stabbed a finger at the print button with the satisfied, relieved smile of a student who had just aced his SATs, but Ziva's expression was as close to panic as Gibbs had ever seen on the Mossad officer's face. Gibbs was just trying to figure out whether to give her an extension or bark at her when Tony spoke up.
"No fair, Boss," he said, smiling as he slid his feet off his desk and picked up his report. "That was only a minute thirty-nine. You know what this reminds me of?"
No one answered as DiNozzo sauntered across the room, retrieving McGee's report from the printer and dropping it on the probie's desk before delivering his own to Gibbs, talking all the while as Ziva typed madly, no longer pausing for perfection in terminology.
"The movie 'S.W.A.T.' from 2003, with Colin Farrell, Samuel L. Jackson, LL Cool J. The movie was great but there's that annoying song in there where the guy is just repeating 'Time is running OUT!' over and over again. I mean, what is that? And who was that? It was hardly a song because the guy was hardly doing any actual singing."
Tony shot a pointed look at McGee, who started typing as the senior field agent moved to look over his shoulder.
"That was Apollo 440's 'Time Is Running Out'," McGee said, drawing a theatrical sigh from Tony, who moved back to the middle of the squad room.
"Well that's not a very creative title," Tony said, but then he grinned and moved to his own desk, half-lying over it and feigning holding a sniper rifle. "But Boss, you'd love the scene where the whole SWAT team is lying on their bellies in the desert, shooting playing cards tacked to a board a million meters away."
"Sniper poker," Gibbs said.
Tony went dead still. "You've played?"
Gibbs lifted a shoulder.
Tony grinned. "Of course you have." He flicked a glance at Ziva, who was heaving a giant sigh of relief as the printer spit out her report. "Great movie. Great theme song, too. Bah na na—"
"DiNozzo," Gibbs said, cutting him off but trying not to smile. "Go home."
"On it, Boss," Tony said, heading back to his desk and tipping his head at Ziva's mouthed "thank you."
"All of you, get out of here," Gibbs said, shooing his team toward the elevator. "See you Monday."
Gibbs just happened to be looking at Tony when he said that, and he couldn't help noticing how extremely relieved his agent looked. The twisting in his gut returned, but Gibbs dismissed the expression as Tony still being in full-on drama mode—or anxious to get started on his weekend with his girlfriend. He heard Ziva ribbing Tony about that relationship as the trio of agents headed out, but DiNozzo simply brushed off the questions and deftly changed the subject.
The somewhat odd behavior from the man who usually couldn't keep his mouth shut about his various dates had Gibbs wondering if perhaps DiNozzo's weekend plans involved his work for Jenny instead of lazy days with his girlfriend. With Tony's ruse of buying time for his partner to finish her report fresh in his mind, Gibbs found himself wondering if DiNozzo had adequate backup for these side missions.
But then he shook his head. Jenny's a pro, he thought. No op is so important that she would risk an agent's life for intel. Especially not one of my agents.
Gibbs pushed the thoughts out of his head and concentrated on reading the reports, noting that McGee's was again improved. It wasn't completely free of computer jargon, but Gibbs could at least understand the main points.
About an hour later, after reading the reports and finishing up his own paperwork, Gibbs switched off his desk lamp and gathered his things. He was heading out when he noticed Tony's monitor was still on, and he stopped, his finger hovering over the power button. But instead of turning it off, Gibbs wiggled the mouse, telling himself he was simply making sure DiNozzo had logged off before leaving.
Gibbs had neither the skill—nor the desire, he realized—to search the computer for evidence of his agent's secret missions. Gibbs trusted Tony, completely, and he realized that if he wanted answers, he could simply ask.
Finding the computer logged off, Gibbs hit the power switch and left, ignoring his lingering doubts that Tony would give him the truth if asked directly.
Gibbs made his way down to the parking lot, noting with surprise that Tony's car was still there. The agent's head was bowed, and Gibbs wondered if Tony was on the phone with someone—perhaps his girlfriend. But it was too dark to tell, and that, combined with the lingering unease in his gut, had Gibbs moving toward the car, wondering again if something was wrong as Tony sat unmoving behind the wheel.
Tony's migraines were the first thing to come to mind, but Gibbs dismissed that idea. He knew Tony too well—knew his symptoms and his subtle tells even when he tried to hide the pain.
There was no way Tony could hide something as major as a crippling migraine from him.
And Gibbs doubted he would try, anyway. While Tony was far from comfortable with sharing his pain with his boss, Gibbs knew his agent took his condition seriously in light of their dangerous job and would never put his teammates in jeopardy. But that didn't mean, Gibbs realized as he approached the darkened vehicle, that Tony wouldn't try to hide the symptoms at the beginning of an off-duty weekend.
Gibbs got close enough to Tony's beloved Mustang to see the glow of a cellphone on the dash, and suddenly he froze. Tony still hadn't moved, but Gibbs was now near enough to see the tension in the hunched shoulders, the way the man was pressing his forehead to hands clenched on the steering wheel.
The posture screamed pain, but Gibbs had no idea if it was physical or otherwise—and the thought of intruding on a freshly heartbroken DiNozzo was unpleasant, to say the least. Gibbs could handle the migraines—and the pain, misery and occasional puking that came with them—but he had very little experience with an emotionally suffering Tony.
It wasn't that Gibbs didn't care about his agent's feelings. It was more that Gibbs didn't know how to express that kind of concern without embarrassing them both. Injecting a gasping Tony caught in a vice of skull-crushing agony and keeping a hand on him until the shuddering subsided was one thing; having a lucid conversation about his imploded relationship with the mysterious new love of his life was another entirely.
So Gibbs stood frozen for a moment, trying to remember if Tony had ever mentioned the girl's name—or an occupation, hair color, or hell, even a cup size.
And then he kicked himself, knowing that whatever kind of pain Tony was in, Gibbs couldn't just walk away and let him suffer alone. They were partners, and partners always had each other's backs—whether it was an op or a dinner order, they looked out for each other.
Gibbs reached up and tapped on the driver's side window, not entirely surprised when Tony flinched away from the sound. But he was unable to tell if that reaction had been pain or simply being startled.
The window rolled down an inch, but Tony did not look up.
Gibbs swallowed the sudden, irrational fear that it was to hide tears and he decided to ask an honest question, rather than guess any longer.
"You okay, Tony?"
The slight negative shake of Tony's head and the sharp intake of breath that came with it answered most of his questions, and Gibbs felt a rush of shame at feeling momentarily relieved it was a migraine afflicting his agent and not heartache.
He reached down and tried to open the door, but he was surprised to find it locked. The unsettled feeling that had been lurking in his gut all day sprang up again, and he wondered why Tony would lock himself in, especially in the midst of a raging migraine.
A trembling hand groped at the manual lock on the classic car, and Gibbs noted that Tony didn't even bother to raise his head as he unlocked the door.
Gibbs pulled the door open and leaned inside, speaking softly into Tony's ear. "Inject yourself yet?"
Tony nodded with a sharp gasp of pain, but Gibbs didn't see any syringes. "When?"
Tony flinched at the whisper-quiet question, and Gibbs winced with him and put a gentle hand on his agent's knee as he crouched beside the car. Tony flinched away from the touch, too, and Gibbs frowned hard, wondering again why his gut felt so twisted.
"Not long," Tony answered, his voice so ragged that Gibbs almost missed the emotion underlying the pain.
But he didn't miss it.
It was fear.
Gibbs had seen Tony react in a lot of ways to the migraines—pain, frustration, embarrassment. But never with fear. He wondered how intense the agony had to be to scare him, and then he shuddered at the thought.
Gibbs shoved down his own fearful reaction to that and put his hand on Tony's arm, forcing his tone into a steadiness he didn't feel. "Hospital?"
There was no response, but Gibbs knew Tony well enough to know that the lack of an immediate protest was as close to a yes as he would ever get.
"Slide over," Gibbs said, barely breathing the gentle order as he pushed lightly against Tony's arm to get him to move into the passenger seat.
Gibbs heard Tony's breathing turn to gasps as he started to move, but he sensed from his agent's squeezed-shut eyes and turned head that he might prefer to make the painful slide without an audience. So Gibbs walked back to his own car and grabbed his overnight bag, reasoning that it would be nice to have more comfortable clothes if he was going to be at the hospital all night—or longer, depending on what was going on inside Tony's head.
He shut the trunk gently despite the distance between the cars. He knew the migraines made Tony miserable as he suffered through "normal" ones, and he didn't even want to think about how brutal the pain had to be for Tony to agree to an ER visit.
He felt another flash of unease as he walked back through the deserted lot, thinking again that they had been dealing with the condition long enough that Tony only rarely hesitated to speak up when he needed to, but Gibbs got little satisfaction from that. He knew Tony would likely continue to hide the pain if their jobs didn't demand full and immediate disclosure and that Tony hid the symptoms only when he was damned sure he wasn't going to put anyone in danger doing it.
Maybe he thought he could make it home? Gibbs wondered, sliding into Tony's car and flicking a glance at his silent agent. Why wouldn't you just say something? You don't have to hide from me.
Preparing to squash a possible protest to the hospital trip, Gibbs gathered the patience he needed during these episodes and simply said, "Yeah?"
Tony's tense body slumped against the door and he waved his hand a little before raising it to his temple, apparently deciding against whatever he was going to say. Or perhaps he was just unable to get the words out.
Gibbs ignored the increased twisting in his gut, and he started the car, stifling the questions he wanted to ask because he knew the doctors would be repeating them soon enough. The way Tony was shaking, Gibbs didn't want to do anything but get him to a hospital where those doctors could ease his suffering.
Tony shifted suddenly, his eyes going to the window before he dropped his head back into his hands, his shaking finding a way to get even worse. "Where…?" he asked, a hiss of pain cutting off the question.
"University," Gibbs answered, flicking a concerned glance at his passenger. "Closest," he said, employing his usual economy of words. It was an especially useful trait now, considering the way Tony flinched at each word, no matter how soft.
"No," Tony said, still not looking up. He was obviously trying to put some force behind the protest but it came out more like a gasp.
And Gibbs realized he had been right when he told Ziva there was more than one reason for Tony to be calling the hospital and wearing that bracelet.
"Your girl work there?" he asked quietly.
Tony was silent a moment, but Gibbs couldn't tell if he was avoiding an answer or simply trying to breathe through the pain.
Finally, he whispered, "I don't want her to see…"
"Okay," Gibbs said, not bothering to state the obvious fact that the girl would find out sooner or later if Tony planned on being with her long-term. His agent needed his support right now, and Gibbs was honored that his guarded, stubborn friend was willing to accept it.
He glanced to the right to see if Tony had a preference of Bethesda or Washington Hospital Center, but Gibbs saw that he had one hand pressed to his stomach and the other to his mouth.
"Need me to pull over?" he asked, growing more concerned by the second. He had seen Tony puke more times than he liked to think about, but he had never seen the man quite this pale. His face was absolutely bloodless, the hand over his mouth visibly shaking.
Tony groaned something that might have been a yes, and Gibbs pulled the car to the side of the road, wincing at the sound of retching that immediately followed the opening of the door. Not liking the gasps that punctuated the heaving, Gibbs got out and rounded the car, crouching on creaking knees to get a better look at Tony's face.
He put a comforting hand on Tony's neck, not bothering to be surreptitious about taking his pulse while doing it. He counted the rapid beats and kept his focus on Tony's clamped-shut eyes, his heart aching for his friend's suffering.
The puking stopped and Gibbs scooted closer, putting a calloused hand on Tony's cheek. "Can you open your eyes?" he asked, not entirely sure why he felt like he needed to. He just did. "Just for a second?"
There was a flash of green, but Tony clamped his eyes shut again before he even had time to focus on anything. "Not dying," he whispered.
Gibbs wasn't convinced—because Tony hadn't sounded all that convincing.
Gibbs stood, anxious to get his patient to the hospital—WHC, he decided, simply because it was much closer than Bethesda. He got back into the driver's seat of Tony's Mustang, wishing he could enjoy driving the muscle car instead of worrying about whatever was going on in its owner's head. He fished a handkerchief out of his pocket and offered it, wishing too that he had water to hand over. He held it out, realizing after a moment that Tony wasn't looking at him.
"Here," he said softly, watching Tony flinch and reach out blindly, his eyes still shut against the semi-darkness in the car. Gibbs took Tony gently by the wrist and pressed the cloth against his fingers. He frowned again when Tony jumped slightly at the touch—it had been a long time since Tony had flinched away from contact this much, and it made Gibbs remember the uneasy feeling he'd been having all night.
It also made him think briefly about heading straight to University. Maybe Tony's girl's touch would soothe him in a way Gibbs' definitely wasn't, for once.
But he couldn't do that to Tony. Not to mention Tony would probably bolt as soon as he pulled up to the ER.
So Gibbs just grabbed his ever-present coffee from the console and offered it, this time speaking before touching.
Tony grimaced and turned his face back to the window. "I think my regurgitated dinner still tastes better than your coffee, Boss. But thanks."
The words were strained and halting, but Gibbs was glad for them, glad for the humor that eased his uncharacteristic nervousness. Not that he blamed himself for being worried about Tony—his agent sounded just as nervous as Gibbs felt.
The Friday evening traffic was knotted as usual, and made worse by an accident on the road ahead. Gibbs sighed at the flashing lights, knowing every minute's delay was torture for his suffering friend.
"Boss?" Tony said, questions in his tone.
"Traffic," Gibbs responded, noting that Tony had once again buried his face in his hands.
Tony gave a one-sided shrug, not bothering to open his eyes to survey the tangled mess. "It's DC," he said softly.
Gibbs nodded even though Tony couldn't see it, and he just drove, trying to be patient as he navigated the tightly packed cars because leaning on the horn was out of the question. In an effort to distract himself from his passenger's huddled, miserable form, he found himself thinking again about DiNozzo's side missions. It wasn't that he was particularly angry with Tony for the secretiveness; he was just really surprised that his agent hadn't filled him in.
Gibbs didn't need details. He wanted them, of course, out of both curiosity and a strong feeling that his agents were his—his responsibility, his to protect. And Gibbs could understand the dilemma if Jenny had ordered Tony to keep his mouth shut. Just because he disobeyed his former partner—and lover—didn't mean DiNozzo could so easily go against the wishes of the director.
Gibbs didn't expect Tony to tell him everything—though the talkative agent usually spilled every last detail anyway—but he had to admit he was disappointed that Tony hadn't given him at least a discreet, or vague, indication of just what the hell he was sneaking around doing. Whatever it was had to be rather time consuming, considering the way Tony had been disappearing lately—and dragging himself into work looking so thoroughly exhausted.
But, Gibbs realized with a slight smile, the new girlfriend might account for at least some of those sleepless nights.
Gibbs spotted the hospital and noted that the greasy fingers of unease were back, poking at him with a renewed vigor. He pulled up to the emergency entrance, wondering again how close Tony was to this new girl. He found himself wishing she was close enough that Tony could drop his guard with her and let her help him through this—whatever this was. If it was bad enough to scare him into a hospital visit, Gibbs figured it might be good to have someone that Tony was comfortable with nearby. Not that Gibbs and Tony didn't manage, but Gibbs knew Tony accepted his help more out of necessity than anything and that he was often embarrassed by his condition.
Realizing he had been just sitting there thinking, Gibbs glanced at Tony, who hadn't moved. He turned off the car with a frown, getting out and opening the passenger-side door.
Tony swung his legs onto the pavement and promptly buried his face in his hands with a low groan. He pulled in several slow, shaky breaths before looking up, his fear written plainly on his face.
Gibbs held out a hand, schooling his expression into a neutral one but wondering if he should just admit that he was worried as hell.
Tony didn't react to the offered hand, but he didn't try to stand on his own, either. He just sat there, eyes focused somewhere behind Gibbs.
"Take my hand," Gibbs said, giving the order gently as he stepped closer, his gut inexplicably roiling again.
Tony frowned and raised a shaking hand.
And Gibbs suddenly knew exactly why Tony looked so terrified.
He had reached out about a foot too far to the right.
"You can't see anything at all, can you?" Gibbs asked softly, waving his hand slowly in front of unblinking green eyes.
Tony flinched, his breath catching in his throat as his eyes moved in the general direction of Gibbs' voice.
Because he was expecting a protest, Gibbs felt something twist hard inside him when Tony whispered, "It's all just black."
Gibbs drew a deep, steadying breath before he moved closer, slowly, and put out a tentative hand, letting Tony sense him before he touched him.
"Come on," he said, sliding his hand under Tony's arm. "Let's get you inside."
Tony stood shakily, his left hand batting at the cool night air as he tried to find the door to close it.
"I got it," Gibbs said, catching the flailing wrist and pulling him away from the car.
Unfortunately, he forgot to warn Tony about the curb and ended up with an armful of DiNozzo as he stumbled forward.
"Hell," Tony said, pausing for a moment with his face buried against Gibbs' shoulder before pulling back. "Are people staring?"
Gibbs could read the embarrassment on Tony's face as his eyes flicked around in futility, so he joked, "Nah. But the security guards inside probably think you're drunk."
Gibbs wasn't really surprised by the nervous bubble of laughter followed by soft words.
"I'm pretty sure you can't actually drink yourself blind."
Catching Tony's wince at that last word, Gibbs moved to his side and took him by the elbow. "Doors are about twenty feet straight ahead. No more steps," he said quietly, trying to ignore the tension in the quivering muscles in his agent's arm. He knew Tony was scared—hell, Gibbs was scared for him—but he also knew they would get through this, somehow.
Tony started forward, his steps slow and uncertain.
Gibbs noted that he held his left hand slightly out in front of him, and he said, "I'd never let you walk off a cliff, DiNozzo."
Tony flinched hard, his sightless eyes going pained. "I trust you, Gibbs," he said quietly. He turned his head away and whispered, "I'd be crazy not to."
Gibbs wasn't sure what to make of that—the words or the oddly guilty expression—but they had reached the counter so he just focused on the nurse, flashing his badge out of habit.
"I'm Special Agent—"
"Oh hells no, federali!"
Gibbs turned to see a scared young Hispanic man pointing a gun in his face.
Perfect, he thought, flicking a glance at Tony, who was standing completely still, his entire body tense even though there was no way he could see the weapon. But DiNozzo had a cop's instincts, and Gibbs had no doubt he had read the desperation in the kid's voice.
"Put the gun down," Gibbs said calmly, shaking his head slightly at the security guards who approached from near the entrance. Everyone else in the ER had frozen at the sight of the gun, but still Gibbs said, "Nobody move. No one's going to get hurt here."
"How did you know I was here?" the man asked, the revolver shaking almost as hard as his voice.
Gibbs raised his hands slowly. "I didn't. I'm not here for you."
The kid's eyes went wide and he took a step away from the counter, swinging the gun toward Tony. "Then what are you doing here?"
"I get migraines," Tony said slowly.
"For reals, ese? You come to a hospital for a headache?" the kid asked, his tone both mocking and disbelieving.
Gibbs wanted to hit him.
For several reasons.
But Tony just said, "Yeah. When that headache came with a side of blindness."
The young man squinted, searching Tony's eyes, which were focused about a foot above the shorter man's head—and also above the revolver still pointed at him.
"So you can't see nothin'?" he asked, warily.
"Not a thing," Tony confirmed, wincing a little at the pain of simply speaking.
His hands were shaking, too, but Gibbs doubted it was fear. He wasn't sure if DiNozzo knew the gun was still aimed at him, but he trusted his agent's instincts enough to believe that Tony knew they were all in danger. Gibbs watched the kid's eyes flick back and forth between the two agents, and Gibbs took a step forward, hoping he would point that gun at him instead of Tony.
But the weapon stayed leveled at Tony's head as the young man yelled, "Don't move, federali. I'll shoot him. I will."
Gibbs believed him.
He held his hands up, his body going tense as he realized the kid meant sooner rather than later. Gibbs watched in horror as the kid's thumb jerked the hammer back and he realized he was too far away to do anything about it. He leapt forward in futility, his heart hammering so hard he could feel his pulse pounding in his neck. Pain ripped through him as he realized he was about to watch another of his agents die right in front of him.
Gibbs wanted to look away, to spare himself the sight of that round going through Tony's head, his bright-red blood spilling from the wound just as Kate's had on that rooftop. But he was glad he didn't.
The kid's finger started to squeeze the trigger—just as Tony's hands shot out, grabbing the gun and forcing the barrel toward the ceiling just as it went off with a massive report that drew shrieks throughout the ER. The round hit the ceiling just as Gibbs hit the kid and Tony collapsed against the counter and sank to the floor.
Gibbs could see Tony's unfocused eyes darting around, his hands groping outward in an attempt to grab either the gun or the dirtbag.
Gibbs easily disarmed the kid and called "Clear!" to let his agent know the scene was secure and safe.
"Oh. Good," Tony breathed. And then he slumped back against the counter, sliding down until he was curled on his side on the tile floor, his face buried in his sleeves.
Gibbs handed over the now silent, subdued kid to hospital security, waiting until the burly guards had snapped on the cuffs to move to Tony's side. Gibbs was glad Tony had been able to hear him after having a gun go off so close to his head; he knew serious hearing loss could have occurred and he was extremely grateful that didn't seem to be the case.
Gibbs looked up to see the kid had come alive again, struggling against the guards but unable to escape. Still, he shouted, "I thought you said you couldn't see?"
Tony raised his head in the direction of the voice and he shrugged. "I can't. But I could still hear you cock that big-ass gun, dirtbag."
Gibbs' smile was short-lived as Tony slumped back down, his low groan pure misery. Gibbs took his hands, examining the minor powder burns on his left palm from where he had grabbed the revolver.
"You okay?" Gibbs asked, gently prodding the wounds.
"Yeah," Tony said. "Feels like sunburn."
Gibbs nodded, remembering an experience like that of his own. "And the rest of you?"
"No worse than when we got here," he answered, his eyes still clamped shut. "Ears are ringing a little, but my hearing's fine."
Gibbs gave his agent's shoulder a quick squeeze, shoving away images of the gun pointed at Tony's face.
A doctor appeared then, and together he and Gibbs helped Tony to his feet.
"I'm Dr. Phillips. So what brings you in tonight?" the doctor said, glancing with a nervous smile at the young man being escorted from the ER. "I gather it wasn't to get shot at?"
"Migraine," Gibbs answered, feeling Tony sagging against his side, what little strength he had left suddenly fading. "Blindness in both eyes."
The doctor nodded and held his questions until Tony was seated on a gurney in an exam room. After a quick physical examination, Phillips produced a gown and placed it in Tony's hand, making sure to speak his intentions before touching him.
Tony frowned as his fingers slid over the flimsy material. "Is, uh, this necessary?"
"I'm going to send you for an MRI," Phillips answered.
"But I've, um, had retinal migraines with, uh, temporary blindness before," Tony protested, suddenly eyeing the door even though Gibbs was certain he couldn't see it.
"That temporary blindness with retinal migraines is always monocular," the doctor explained patiently. "Always just in one eye, right?"
Tony nodded, wincing and putting a hand out to steady himself even though he was still sitting.
"Vertigo?" Phillips asked.
"Yeah," Tony said quietly. "Started even before the lights, um, went out."
Gibbs raised an eyebrow at Tony's odd stammering, and he wasn't surprised by Phillips' next question.
"Are you having trouble speaking, Agent DiNozzo?"
"It's, uh, Tony," he said, frowning hard and looking toward the floor in embarrassment. "And yeah. Um, the words… I can't, uh…"
"It's called dysarthria," Phillips said calmly. "A clumsiness with words or language. Are you having any other symptoms?"
"My face. It, uh, feels … tingly."
"On both sides," Phillips asked.
"But you don't have any weakness? No loss of motor function?"
Tony shook his head, swallowing hard at either the pain or nausea the movement brought.
"Obviously," Phillips agreed with a slight smile. "Considering how you shoved that gun out of your face."
Tony shrugged, brushing off an action that both Gibbs and the doctor knew had taken more than good motor function.
"It sounds like it could be Bickerstaff syndrome—"
"Wait," Gibbs interrupted, feeling his pulse suddenly pounding. "This isn't related to his migraines?"
The same fear was obvious on Tony's face, but he didn't say a word.
"Oh, it almost certainly is," Phillips reassured. "Bickerstaff is also known as a basilar-type migraine, or BTM, which is basically a migraine with an aura where the aura is localized in the brainstem. I just want to get the MRI to rule out things like bleeding or lesions in the brain and stroke. I'd also like to get an EEG to rule out seizure disorders."
"I've never, uh, had seizures, um, before," Tony said, the words coming haltingly.
"That's good," Phillips said. "Put the gown on, Tony, and we'll run some tests. If everything checks out and the blindness resolves itself, we'll have you out of here in no time."
Gibbs was surprised when Tony didn't question the "if" part of that statement, but Phillips' pointed look stopped him from asking about it. The doctor also nodded to the hallway.
"I'll be right outside while you put that on," Gibbs said, knowing Tony would rather struggle than be helped out of his clothes and into the gown. A part of him wanted to stay, or to offer the help anyway, but he just squeezed Tony's shoulder and followed the doctor out of the exam room.
"If this is Bickerstaff—and the diagnosis can't be confirmed without two attacks—then keeping him calm and relaxed is very important," Phillips said. "High stress means elevated blood pressure and that will just make the symptoms worse for him."
Gibbs nodded, wondering how he was supposed to keep Tony calm when he was still seriously unnerved by the doctor's casual mention of problems in the brainstem. Gibbs wasn't Ducky—but he knew damn well how vital the brainstem was.
"You have questions?" Phillips asked, making Gibbs grateful this doctor was the one helping DiNozzo.
Gibbs paused, trying to phrase those questions and suddenly understanding Tony's frustration at not being able to find the words. "You said brainstem. So this is serious?"
Phillips thought for a moment. "BTM are generally terrifying because of the blindness, but to be quite honest, the symptoms, while scary, aren't often harmful. The brainstem involvement is why he's having the neurological symptoms—the vertigo, trouble speaking and the tingling in the face. Those are just three of several possible symptoms, including hearing problems, double vision, decreased level of consciousness. He's had retinal migraines—this is just a different kind of migraine. He seems to be tolerating the pain quite well."
Gibbs nodded, realizing how true that last statement was. "He does seem to be doing better than with some of his other migraines."
"That's because he was able to self-inject," Phillips said. "The medication is helping with the pain, but it can be very tricky to treat the other symptoms of BTM. Often they simply resolve themselves with time and rest."
"So the blindness really is temporary?" Gibbs asked, finding himself holding his breath for the answer.
"Oh, yes. But it can last up to 72 hours in severe cases, which is part of the reason why Bickerstaff, or BTM, can be so scary, especially during a first attack."
Gibbs nodded, suddenly eyeing the doctor. "Is this common? I've read some about migraines but I've never heard of this."
Phillips smiled. "I just got back from a migraine seminar. If you'd come in two days ago, I wouldn't have known any of this either. It's not common, but really, we'll run some tests to be sure, but I'm confident that your friend is going to be fine."
Gibbs tried to smile, feeling somewhat reassured by the doctor's words—and even more so by the fact that Tony wasn't writhing in agony during all this.
"May I come in?" Phillips asked, knocking lightly on the door.
"Yeah," came Tony's voice.
Gibbs entered to find Tony sitting on the gurney in the gown, his clothes folded relatively neatly beside him. He saw the hand Tony had pressed to his belly at the same time the doctor did.
"Do you want something for the nausea?"
Tony nodded slowly, his eyes focused downward again.
"I'll give orders to a nurse on my way to get you in for that MRI," Phillips said, heading for the door. "Try to relax."
Another nod was followed by Tony's soft voice. "Gibbs?"
Gibbs realized his agent couldn't tell where he was—or if he was even in the room—so he said, "I'm over here, Tony." He watched Tony's eyes flicking around in his general direction, and Gibbs moved closer, again speaking before touching. "I'm right here."
Tony didn't flinch this time at the gentle hand on his shoulder, but his eyes dropped back down to his lap. "You don't, uh, have to stay."
Gibbs refrained from the headslap and just said affectionately, "Shut up, DiNozzo."
After the painless and relatively quick EEG, Tony lay inside the tube of the MRI machine, grateful for both the earplugs that dulled the clicks and bangs of the scanner and for the anti-emetic the nurse had given him before the first test. It was bad enough that he had to rely on someone to keep him from walking into walls; he didn't even want to think about the embarrassment of throwing up all over himself.
His thoughts, unsurprisingly, were on Jeanne, her pretty face taking center stage in his head. He welcomed the images that invaded the terrifying, ever-more-oppressive blackness even though they reminded him of the truth he barely dared to admit to himself: He was in far too deep.
The feelings of nervousness and paranoia he had felt at first when he was with his mark had faded—much too quickly, he knew—as he had gotten to know Jeanne. But that unease had returned, with a vengeance, it seemed, considering how he often felt like someone was watching him when he was with her. Some days lately he was so paranoid he could practically hear the shutters of a camera documenting their every kiss.
And the worst part was that while those shutters likely weren't real, those kisses absolutely were.
He was head-over-heels in love.
It was almost as terrifying as the blindness.
It was also unsettling to realize he had good reason to be paranoid. Jeanne was beautiful, funny, kind, smart … but also the daughter of an international arms dealer. Gibbs would headslap him straight into concussion-ville for the number of times he had forgotten that lately.
Tony put the brakes on the guilt that threatened to choke him at the thought of his multiple lies to his boss. He just couldn't think about it—especially with the man waiting down the hall, no doubt worried sick about him. Tony was unaccustomed to people actually giving a shit about him. But the concern in Gibbs' voice when he'd questioned the doctor earlier was unmistakable.
It was almost as terrifying as the blindness.
So Tony turned his thoughts from Gibbs' kindness during this difficult experience, from his fears about Gibbs finding out his lies, and he tried to picture Jeanne again.
He almost wanted her here.
But as much as he craved the comfort of her calming touch, he was terrified of slipping up because he was too weak to keep his cover intact—to keep his lies straight.
"Can you hold still please?" came a voice over the intercom. "I know you're in a lot of pain, but you need to lie still."
Tony's eyes snapped open reflexively at the sound, but he saw nothing but the god-awful blackness. He murmured an apology and clamped his eyes shut again. At least with them closed, he could pretend nothing was wrong with his vision, that this was some nightmare he would wake up from and laugh at.
The panic that this might be permanent crept up again and he swallowed hard, a shudder rattling through his chilled body beneath the thin hospital gown.
So if this is permanent, what the hell do I do? he wondered, forcing himself to lie still when all he wanted was to bury his face in his hands. I'm a federal agent. It's not what I do—it's who I am.
Tony couldn't imagine himself doing anything else. Sure, he loved the gun and the badge—and the power and authority that came with—but he was not just the shallow goofball his co-workers thought he was. In the end, he just wanted his life to matter. On his darker days, he would think about dying in the line of duty—and not care, as long as he went down fighting for something that mattered.
He realized with a start that his thoughts lately had been more smiling brides and sandy-haired kids than the flowers on his early grave. The bride's face was always Jeanne's. But the dress was always the flowing white one Wendy had been wearing on the day she had shattered his heart. He figured it was his subconscious's way of reminding him that a future with Jeanne was never going to happen.
But still he pictured it.
It was like imagining driving a car you knew you'd never be able to afford.
Except that it wasn't like that at all. You could take a car out on a test drive with no intentions of buying it without hurting anyone. Jeanne was a living, breathing human with thoughts and feelings, and hopes and dreams for the future.
A future that included Tony DiNardo.
Tony DiNozzo suddenly forgot where he was as the guilt-induced nausea punched him in the gut. He sat up, smacking his head on the hard plastic of the inside of the MRI tube, and panic flooded through him as he tried to bring his hands up, his movements constricted by the confined space. The narrow table shifted under him as the tech obviously saw his distress, and that was all it took to push him from queasy to puking.
He managed to turn slightly sideways but still ended up vomiting on the gown covering his shaking body. He could feel the warm wetness on the fabric as it stuck to his skin, and it only made him want to throw up more.
But the urgent need to move, to get out of the claustrophobic space, had him swallowing the last of the vomit and struggling to sit up again.
"Hold still," a male voice said firmly, just before hands clamped around his upper arms and pinned him to the cold table.
Tony's first instinct was to fight the grip the man had on him, but he remembered from another experience with another MRI just how narrow the table he was lying on was. The man was simply trying to keep him from falling off.
"I'm sorry," Tony whispered, feeling the heat rising in his cheeks as he realized what he must look like, panicked and puked-covered and fighting someone who was just trying to help. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right," the female tech said kindly, her voice coming closer as Tony stopped struggling. He was almost glad he couldn't see her face as she touched his shoulder gently before wiping at the puke on his gown. "We'll get you a new gown and a stronger anti-emetic. There's nothing to be sorry for. It's not your fault you've got a wicked migraine."
No, but it is my fault that I'm going to ruin an innocent woman's life, Tony thought. But he kept his mouth shut. There were times when he almost hoped Jeanne knew every last detail about her father's crimes, but he couldn't really believe it—not knowing the woman as well as he did. So why are you still putting on this charade? his guilty mind demanded.
Because Jenny ordered me to, he answered himself, realizing that doing so should probably be cause for worry. Because she strongly believes Jeanne is the key to her father—for some reason that I don't know. She certainly hadn't been in the mood to share after I told her the op was stalling out. And then I agreed to keep after it because the way she was staring at me like she was disappointed had me thinking about Gibbs—for some reason that I don't want to know.
"Is it all right if I remove your gown?" the tech asked after she had finished cleaning up most of the mess.
"Uh," Tony said, feeling embarrassing heat flood his cheeks. The woman's voice sounded very young, but without being able to see her, he had no idea how old she was. Or how she was looking at him.
"I'll be outside," the male voice said, giving Tony a pat on the arm.
But the agent was so focused on his embarrassment over not knowing whether he would normally be flirting with this woman—or if she was old enough to be his grandmother—that the touch startled him and an equally mortifying gasp slipped out before he could stop it.
"I'm sorry," the man quickly apologized. "I didn't hurt you when I grabbed you, did I?"
"No," Tony answered, eyes downcast. "You just, uh, surprised me," he finished quietly, wondering if it really was possible to die of embarrassment.
"I'll be outside," the man said, his voice already drifting toward the door. There was a soft squeak of a shoe on the tile floor, and then he said, "I hope you feel better soon."
"Thank you," Tony said, squeezing the words through the tightness in his throat brought on by this stranger's kindness and sincerity.
He didn't deserve it.
He turned back to where he thought the tech was and tried to smile, but he knew he wasn't quite pulling it off.
"Here," she said, taking his wrist gently and putting a fresh gown in his hand.
"I…" He stopped, realizing there was no way to drape it across his lap without knowing if he was dipping it in puke.
"You don't have anything I haven't seen before," she said, a smile in her voice.
Tony was suddenly reminded of the first time he had gotten naked with Jeanne—and his uncharacteristic shyness that night, too. He still wasn't sure why he had felt so exposed, in so many senses of the word, but it had helped when she had teasingly reminded him she was a doctor and had seen it all before.
With the memory of that night in mind, Tony bravely slid his arms out of the wet gown and handed it over, quickly covering himself with the new one. The whole process was quick and easy, but he had felt the chilled air brush over his most private places and he knew he was blushing like mad.
The tech didn't say anything and just helped him stand, her sure hands tugging the gown into place and tying it securely around him.
"There you go," she said brightly, easing him back onto the table. "Think you'll be okay for another five minutes in there? We're almost done."
"I'll be okay," Tony said, sliding back down onto the cold table.
"How's your head?" she asked.
"It was, um, better before I tried to sit up inside the rabbit hole."
"Ouch," the tech agreed. "Try to lie still and we'll be done in no time."
Tony nodded, frowning when he realized the pain was slowly getting bad again. He forced himself to stay still, though, wanting the MRI over and done with so he could go somewhere private and scream in peace.
And it wasn't the pain.
Oddly, even though the blindness and trouble with words were scaring the hell out of him, he knew this wasn't his worst migraine, pain-wise. His head definitely hurt and it was bad enough that he would do pretty much anything to make it stop, but he wasn't screaming in agony and he felt much better when he was lying flat and still.
Well, his head felt better that way.
His heart was still throbbing with guilt and indecision.
He wondered why he didn't just go to Jenny, tell her again that Jeanne was completely innocent and uninvolved, and demand an end to the mission—this part of it, anyway. There had to be better ways to get the Frog. He didn't spend much time wondering why this arms dealer in particular was such a huge blip on the director's radar because he had already spent several wasted nights tossing and turning over that question. Jenny's words and actions smacked of a personal obsession—he was quite reminded of Gibbs when his boss had been after Ari—but Tony couldn't imagine her risking her career over some baseless vendetta.
And when he had asked her about the agency's beef with the Frog, Jenny had simply said it was "need to know"—and he didn't. Tony kept hoping with every negative report on Jeanne that the director would finally give up and end the assignment herself. But she never did. She simply told him to stick with it, to try to dig deeper. He felt horrible going through Jeanne's things while she slept, or showered, or ran out for coffee. And he felt worse knowing that he'd started going through her emails only after her crazy ex kept popping up so suddenly and so often.
Oh yeah, he was in way too deep.
The tech's voice was suddenly just outside the MRI machine, and Tony realized he hadn't even noticed when the clicks and bangs of the test had ceased.
Way, way too deep.
But he just waited while the table slid back, and tried again to give the tech a smile. "That was quick."
"Yep," she said, her voice right beside him as he sat up. "Shall we?"
Tony nodded and reached out a hand, grateful that she didn't just touch him without asking or warning him. Most people would think Tony craved physical contact, and while that was sometimes true, the blindness was making him wary, uncomfortable at even the slightest unexpected touch.
She took his hand and helped him up, and he could feel her closeness even though she wasn't touching anything but his hand. His arm brushed the scrubs she was wearing, and he couldn't help smiling a little as it reminded him of Jeanne.
He didn't even protest the wheelchair ride back to the exam room, glad he could be free to think about Jeanne's pretty face and quick wit without having to worry about tripping over unseen obstacles on the way back.
So if this is permanent, maybe I could be with her? he mused as the tech pushed him from the cold room. I'll tell her mobsters are after me. We'll change our names and run away. Leave DiNozzo and DiNardo behind—and try to be the best of both of them.
Tony smiled, realizing he already had a new profession—kinda. He certainly had the knowledge to be a film professor. And maybe he could stop worrying all the time that Jeanne would insist on seeing where he worked or meeting some of his colleagues. It was easy enough saying he lived outside the Beltway and it was just more convenient for them to hang out—and now sleep—at her apartment, which was so close to both the hospital and the university where he supposedly worked. But sooner or later, she would insist on seeing his place, on meeting his friends, on doing all those normal things people did when they started to get serious.
But when Tony had suggested to Jenny that they set up a fake apartment and perhaps send Ziva and McGee with him on one of his "dates," the director had shot him down immediately. The fewer people who knew about an undercover assignment, the better, she had reasoned, but Tony had a feeling she simply didn't trust his teammates to not spill to Gibbs. It made him wonder both why he wasn't spilling to Gibbs and why Jenny trusted him not to. He was pretty sure the answer was the same to both questions: Gibbs left. And even though the boss was back now and all the pieces had fallen back into place so effortlessly, Tony felt the change. He trusted Gibbs—with his life, as he had for a long time now—but something was different. Something was off.
Could you really just walk away?
The question interrupted his thoughts as surely as if someone else had spoken it aloud.
But he had no answer for himself.
Walking away—well, it would be more like running, because he didn't think he could face the questions and the goodbyes—would mean leaving. And it would not be just a job and an office and a desk, but people, too.
Hell, he would even miss Ziva and Tim, even though they had treated him mostly like dirt while Gibbs had been … away.
But still he would miss them.
But he had walked away before. Several times. Run away, even, after that debacle in Philly.
And while those escapes had been both relieving and painful, he had survived.
And he had never had someone to run away with.
"Here we are," the tech said, presumably wheeling him back into his room. "Your doctor will be in with your results as soon as possible, and I'll send a nurse in with something stronger for the nausea."
"Thank you," Tony said, looking around the room in futility.
He wondered if Gibbs was still there.
And if it was a good idea to want Gibbs here during this.
He certainly didn't want to be alone, but he realized he should be just as worried about being this vulnerable around Gibbs as he was about being with Jeanne when the pain and fear were making him feel so weak.
What if he slipped?
What if Gibbs found out what was really going on with Jeanne?
What if he spilled the whole damned mission—his worries about Jenny's motives included—to his boss?
What if he voiced his fears about his lack of backup on these missions—and the fact that he often paraded around the District in his painfully obvious NCIS hat and jacket?
And why did spilling his guts suddenly seem like such a not-so-bad idea?
Gibbs watched Tony's eyes dart around the exam room as he was wheeled back in, and he stood when they failed to even pause on his face. He knew Tony had not regained his sight—not yet, he mentally amended—so he made sure to set aside the newspaper he hadn't been able to focus on with a distinct rustle.
Relief flooded through the unseeing eyes, and Gibbs was proud when Tony joked, "Guess I do have a brain in my head—and now I have the MRI to prove it."
"Never doubted you had one, DiNozzo," Gibbs said, keeping his tone casual as the tech helped his agent back into bed. "Just don't wanna know what's in it."
"I'd guess movie quotes," the tech said, recalling their conversation as she'd wheeled him out of the room earlier. Her pretty face scrunched up a little as she asked Tony, "But just why, exactly, do you know so many lines from 'Beaches'?"
Tony's head snapped toward the sound of the woman's voice, and Gibbs could have sworn his agent looked almost guilty.
But then Tony just turned away and mumbled something about a girlfriend.
"Lucky girl," the tech said, unfazed by her patient's momentary odd behavior as she hooked up a heart monitor and slipped a pulse-ox clip onto his finger, warning him before each touch. She flashed a smile when finished and headed for the door. "I'll go find your doctor now."
Once she was gone, Gibbs looked over at Tony, noting that his face was paler than before. "You get her number?"
Tony flinched, but Gibbs had the odd feeling that it wasn't because of the pain. Realization dawned and it made him rethink much of what he knew about DiNozzo.
"Never mind," he said casually, feeling a little guilty for studying Tony's reaction. "I keep forgetting you're spoken for."
Tony flinched again, but his hands came up so quickly and his murmured "shit" was so laced with pain that Gibbs felt doubly guilty for trying to use his condition to get more info about his new girl. He didn't have time to wonder if DiNozzo in a serious relationship was just that strange because Tony was moaning then, his face a mask of torture as he writhed as if trying to buck off the agony.
Tony suddenly turned over, rolling onto his belly and leaning over the side of the bed, gagging and spitting a thin stream of bile onto the floor. He coughed once and then dropped his head to the hard mattress on the gurney, collapsing in exhaustion.
"Easy. Just breathe," Gibbs whispered, nearly giving a gasp of his own as Tony's hand clamped around his. He ignored the discomfort in his fingers and laid a gentle hand on Tony's ribs, feeling for the respirations he couldn't see because his agent was curled almost on his belly, face buried in the crook of his arm. He felt no movement in the flesh and bone beneath his own quivering hand. "Take a breath, Tony."
DiNozzo sucked in a pained gasp and let it out with halting, panicked words. "Gibbs, I … It … I … I can't …"
"Yes you can," Gibbs urged softly while keeping his voice firm. "Stop thinking and let your lungs do the work," he ordered.
The movement under Gibbs' hand was jerky at first, but then it slowed and evened out a little as Gibbs just sat there, letting Tony get his breath back.
His breathing was still labored, but Tony seemed to be struggling less and less as the minutes ticked on. Gibbs' hand left his side for only a second—to smack the call button for the nurse—and then it was back on his ribs, measuring breaths. And providing some sort of comfort, Gibbs hoped.
He was concentrating so hard on those respirations that the voice beside almost made him jump, but Gibbs just slid immediately out of the way.
Tony gave a weak gasp at the loss of contact and he reached out blindly, groping empty air as distressed little noises escaped his throat. The sounds were so low Gibbs doubted the nurse even noticed them, but Gibbs could hear every ounce of pain and fear and uncertainty in each and every muted gasp.
"I'm right here," he murmured, capturing the flailing hand and gripping it tightly.
Tony practically went limp with relief, his long fingers squeezing back. Gibbs frowned hard at the unnerving lack of strength in Tony's grip, and his eyes flashed to the heart monitor, the galloping beat slowing slightly with every electronic bleep.
"It's okay," the young nurse murmured, seeing Gibbs' tense expression. "It means the medication's working and he's in less pain."
Tony immediately tightened his weak grip on Gibbs' hand, making him marvel at his agent's perception. He knew Tony was reacting to the soothing tone the nurse had used in response to Gibbs' own worried expression.
" 'M okay," Tony whispered, confirming Gibbs' read on the situation.
Gibbs had to smile a little, but one look at Tony's face, linen white and contorted with pain, killed the expression. He squeezed Tony's hand tighter, as if to compensate for the unnerving weakness he felt in the shaking limb. "Gotta be honest, DiNozzo. You don't look so good."
Tony grunted. "Way to kick me when I'm—oh hell," he gasped, leaning over the mattress again and gagging, but nothing came out.
Seeing the red flush on Tony's cheeks, Gibbs realized he was wearing a different gown than the one he'd left in.
The nurse grabbed a basin and held it out. "Just get it out," she said, her tone soothing again. "You'll feel better that way."
But Tony shook his head, slowly, carefully. "Don't think there's, uh, anything else to get out," he said miserably.
"Okay," the nurse said cheerfully, setting aside the basin and making quick work of cleaning up the earlier mess. "I'll be right back with that anti-emetic. And your doctor."
"Thanks," Tony said quietly, rolling by minute increments onto his back.
Gibbs moved out of the way, releasing Tony's hand and hoping his friend knew he wasn't going anywhere.
It took a lot more than puke to make Gibbs run away.
Gibbs studied Tony's face, wondering if he could feel the probing stare—wondering what it felt like to be lying there in the dark, unable to see the world, and the people, around you. Tony's face was pale, and lined with fear and pain. Gibbs wondered if Tony was aware of those emotions showing so plainly.
"I really hate this," Tony said, his hand fluttering at his side before coming to rest on the rail of the bed.
Gibbs covered it with his own, not liking the shuddery breath Tony took at the contact—or the string of slow, deep breaths that followed. "I know," he said, remembering that he needed to use actual words now. "You okay?" he asked, wishing that nurse would hurry back with something, or anything, that would make Tony more comfortable.
"Hurts," Tony admitted. He hesitated, then said quietly, "And it's weird not knowing what's going on around me." He paused, his face twisted in pain as he took another deep breath. "I'm trained to be observant. To pay attention to even the littlest things. But now…"
Gibbs nodded in sympathy, wanting to tell him that he still was picking up on things, like the nurse's soothing tone in response to Gibbs' worry, and that Tony had practically just read his mind. Normally, he could have given that reassurance with just a look, but that just wasn't an option now. "I understand," he said, the words sounding odd and stiff. "I got your six, DiNozzo," he added.
That got a small smile out of Tony. "I know. But it's not just my six that I can't see," he said, the smile giving way to choked words at the end of the sentence. His breathing picked up despite his obvious attempts to slow it, and suddenly Gibbs was feeling just as panicked.
"It's gonna be okay," Gibbs said, trying to sound reassuring.
He had very little experience trying to calm Tony down, he realized. DiNozzo could be rambunctious and high-spirited, but he rarely panicked. Not even when he had been lying in a hospital, very likely dying from the plague. Not even when his face had been splattered with his partner's blood. Not even after Paula Cassidy had saved a roomful of lives, giving her own as the payment. Tony tended to go silent and still when he was truly distressed, and it made Gibbs cringe at the thought of just how scared he had to be now to voice those concerns.
Tony hadn't responded so Gibbs tried again. "Doc said it's only temporary. I know it's … hard. But you have to just hang in there."
"I know." Tony gave a slight nod, but his expression was troubled when he turned his head away from Gibbs' voice. It took Gibbs a moment to realize the emotion there was shame.
Hell, he thought, kicking himself and wondering if he should call Ducky, or Abby, or someone. I'm not trying to upset you, Tony. I know you don't like it when I'm nice, or say too many words, but I can't just let you lie there, hurting and scared, thinking I don't care.
"Knock, knock," Dr. Phillips said as he returned to the exam room with the young nurse in tow. "Jenn has some pills for you for the nausea. That's been pretty bad, right?"
Gibbs didn't miss that Tony went perfectly still at the doctor's words, but he had no idea what that tensing was in reaction to. That the nurse shared their director's name had caught Gibbs' attention, too, but he doubted that was it. It was more likely that Tony didn't like admitting any kind of discomfort.
"I hate puking," Tony said, frowning. He shrugged. "Not that anyone likes it."
The doctor chuckled. "That's for sure."
"Here you go," Nurse Jenn said, waiting for Tony to put his hand out before taking him by the wrist and placing the pills in his palm. She repeated the movements to hand him a cup of water, and Gibbs watched her movements closely, in case he should need to help Tony in the same way. She waited while Tony swallowed the medication and then waited for him to hold the cup out to her before taking it. "Thanks. I'm going to go help Annie out with that squealing baby. Feel better, okay?"
Tony nodded and murmured his thanks, his eyes moving back to where Phillips had been standing. The doctor had moved closer, though, and Gibbs didn't miss Tony's slight jump when the man spoke from right beside him.
"You seem to be having less trouble with your words. How's the tingling?"
Gibbs was again grateful that this doctor was the one treating Tony. The agent had noticed the lack of stammering and had been about to ask about it.
"That's better, too," Tony answered. "Still a little dizzy, though. And a lot blind," he added with a hard frown.
"That should resolve itself, too," Phillips reassured. "How's the pain?"
Tony hesitated for a second, making Gibbs wonder if he should have left for these questions. But he didn't really think he should leave Tony alone, either. The indecision was annoying. It wasn't something Gibbs was used to.
"It's been getting kinda worse," he finally said.
"When did it start getting bad again?"
Tony frowned again. "Since the MRI."
"And how bad it is now?" Phillips asked, looking like he already knew the answer.
"Bad," was all Tony said, turning away from the doctor's voice.
Gibbs wanted to headslap him—or himself. He should have known when Tony had admitted he was hurting that he was probably in agony.
But Phillips just nodded and pulled a syringe from his pocket, making Gibbs like the man even more for having obviously checked Tony's chart so he could come prepared. "I'm going to give you another injection, okay?"
Tony nodded, grimacing at the pain of the movement.
"I'm going to move your gown," the doctor said, waiting a few seconds before actually touching his patient. He let the back of his hand brush Tony's side as he pulled the blanket downward.
"Just don't flash my boss," Tony joked.
Gibbs smiled, glad Tony was trying for humor despite his condition, but he didn't miss that the words were slightly strained or that Tony clamped his eyes shut, his left hand gathering a fistful of blanket. Gibbs couldn't tell if Tony was actually embarrassed or if he was uncomfortable with a stranger touching him. He almost offered to give Tony the injection but decided it would be over soon and it wasn't worth calling attention to his distress.
Still, it was hard for Gibbs to watch Tony—who often shared details that would make porn stars blush—trying not to cringe away as the doctor pulled the gown from under the blanket, which he made sure stayed draped over Tony's hip. Tony swallowed hard as an alcohol wipe brushed across his stomach, and Gibbs could see him biting his lower lip.
Gibbs wasn't sure he had ever seen Tony this uncomfortable—not even when the entire team had overheard him discussing moving in with his girlfriend.
"Little pinch," Phillips said, giving Tony a warning before injecting him.
Tony didn't flinch at the needle jabbing into his belly, but he didn't take a normal breath until both the gown and the blanket were back in place.
"Let's give that some time to work," Phillips said, disposing of the syringe and moving toward the door, "and then we'll discuss—"
"No," Tony said sharply, looking genuinely frightened. "Just tell me."
Gibbs agreed—even though he wasn't sure he wanted to know the results of the tests if there was something to discuss about them. But he doubted Tony would be able to rest or relax without knowing, and Gibbs remembered what Phillips had said about keeping Tony calm during this. It made him want to headslap the doctor.
"Relax," Phillips said. "Your tests were negative."
Gibbs felt about as relieved as Tony looked. But he realized, at about the same time Tony did, it seemed, that it didn't mean this was going to be easy, or that it was over. Tony was still blind, and still in pain.
"I just meant we could discuss what you want to do next," Phillips clarified.
Tony's face twisted a little and Gibbs knew why. But he let Tony ask the question.
"Do about what?"
Phillips glanced at the heart monitor and then back at the clipboard in his hand. "Your vitals are strong. We're working on getting the pain under control. Some of your neurological symptoms are subsiding." He paused, watching his patient's face carefully. "We could keep you here, put an IV in to keep you hydrated. Or you could just promise to drink plenty of fluids when you get home—"
"You'd release him?"
"I want to go home."
Gibbs and Tony spoke at the same time, obviously to Phillips' amusement.
Gibbs gave the man credit for addressing his patient first.
"We can give you a prescription for the anti-emetic, make sure you have enough of your regular migraine meds, and let you go home to rest. You'll probably be more comfortable there," Phillips said, having noted Tony's major discomfort earlier. "Or I can have you admitted and we'll keep an eye on you here. It's your decision."
Gibbs didn't miss the look Phillips shot at him at that, but he didn't mind—the doctor obviously wanted to do what was best for his patient.
"I want to go home," Tony repeated, not hesitating at all.
"All right then. I'll go get the paperwork started," Phillips said, nodding. He paused then, shooting another glance at Gibbs. "The only stipulation is that you aren't alone until the blindness and dizziness resolve themselves."
"Oh, I …" Tony shook his head, looking almost panicked again. "I—"
"I'm staying with him," Gibbs said firmly, wishing Tony could see his glare. And wishing Tony would stop questioning his place in his life. But that really wasn't his fault, Gibbs acknowledged, knowing that both his "retirement" and his handling of the situation had subtly changed their relationship. Gibbs had to admit that his own actions were likely a big part of why Tony might not trust him with the details of his side missions for Jenny.
"Good," Phillips said, heading for the door. "I'll be right back."
As soon as he was gone, Gibbs moved back to Tony's side, kicking the chair lightly before leaning against the bed and asking, "What was that all about?"
Tony flushed slightly. "I'm sure you have better things to do on a weekend off than keeping me from walking into walls, Gibbs."
"So I should just let you handle this on your own?" he asked, sounding incredulous. Maybe that trust was more damaged than he had thought.
"It's my problem," Tony said, shrugging.
"And you're my agent," Gibbs countered, his voice a little too loud. He toned it down a bit and said, "My team. My responsibility."
Tony didn't say anything, and Gibbs wished he could add what he was really thinking: My friend. But Tony already looked uncomfortable with the emotion in his boss's voice so Gibbs tried another angle.
"My team is my team, Tony," he said, lowering his voice even more. "I'll always have your back. On the clock or not." He paused, feeling awkward and watching Tony start to squirm, too. "It's why I don't like you running around doing whatever the hell it is that Jenny has you doing. I can't watch your six if I have no idea where you are or what you're doing."
Tony looked sick again, but Gibbs knew it was more his words than the migraine. And he hated himself for that. So much for keeping him calm, he thought, watching Tony struggle for words and knowing that wasn't a symptom either.
"I know, Tony," Gibbs said softly. "I worked with Jenny a long time. I know her thing with secrets. You'd tell me if you could," he added, realizing that it came out more a question than he'd intended.
"I would," Tony said immediately. He frowned, looking as pained as when he'd been gagging over the side of the bed. "I want to. To tell you. To answer Ziva when she—"
Tony stopped cold, looking suddenly guilty and horrified on top of his pain and pallor.
Phillips walked back in then, and Gibbs forced himself to listen instead of trying to determine where those emotions had come from. He knew Ziva and McGee had been needling Tony about his side missions for the director. He remembered them standing around after Jenny was almost gunned down at four in the morning with her "source" and asking Tony if he was on another mission for the director—and if he would tell them if he were. But that didn't explain why Tony suddenly looked like he'd let a tiger out of the bag.
"—drink plenty of fluids, rest, and come back immediately if you have sudden, intense pain or a worsening of your neurological symptoms, especially if the dizziness becomes more pronounced or you start vomiting again despite the medication," Phillips was saying. He smiled. "And don't try to go wandering around by yourself until the blindness resolves. I don't want to see you back here with a broken neck, okay?"
Tony nodded, looking hesitant.
"Do you have any questions?" Phillips asked, seeing the look.
"I just… How long will it take?" Tony asked, biting his lip again.
Phillips didn't have to ask what he meant. "The blindness from BTM can last up to 72 hours from the onset. Give me a call on Monday either way, and we'll make plans from there." He paused, giving his patient a sympathetic look and speaking with compassion and gentleness, "You need to give yourself some time, Tony. Rest, relax. Listen to some music, or turn on a ballgame and picture the plays. You'll get through this."
Tony pulled in a deep breath and nodded. "Thank you," he said, trying for a small smile and getting it mostly right.
"Oh," Phillips said, his eyes on Tony's left hand, the skin overly pink from the powder burns from his run-in with the dirtbag in the lobby. "And watch that hand for any increased redness or swelling."
The doctor winced a little, probably realizing Tony wouldn't be able to watch for anything until his sight returned.
But Gibbs just nodded. "I'll do that."
Phillips shot him a grateful look, and Gibbs tipped his head, thinking that he'd finally met a doctor he didn't despise—Ducky excepted, of course.
"Take it easy, Tony," Phillips said, "and I'll talk to you on Monday. Jenn will be back with all of your written instructions and prescriptions. Nice to meet you, Agent Gibbs," he added, shaking hands before leaving the room.
The mention of nurse Jenn had Gibbs thinking back to Tony's horrified look when they had been talking about the director earlier, and his gut started churning again. He knew Tony didn't like lying to him—his agent's remorse had been almost painful when they'd talked in the men's room after Tony was forced to reveal he had recognized Trent Kort and then lied about it.
Gibbs suddenly wished he had answered Tony's question that day—yes, he would have lied to Mike Franks, if Director Morrow had ordered him to… maybe—instead of chucking that paper towel into the trash with such a loud clang and stalking out without a word. Even if he hadn't given Tony that quasi-answer, he should have at least told his agent he was proud of him for having the balls to apologize.
But that look had been so out of the blue, so filled with emotion. What had Tony said about Ziva? The Israeli had seemed more interested lately in Tony's girlfriend, but—
"Hey there," the nurse said, still bright and bubbly despite the fact that it was the dead of night. "I hear you're escaping. Take me with you?" she teased, moving to the heart monitor and poking buttons.
"Wish I could," Tony said apologetically.
It was strange, Gibbs thought, knowing that in any other situation Tony would be flirting like mad with the attractive woman. Well, before this new girlfriend he might be moving in with, Gibbs thought, trying not to think about how shocked he had been to hear Tony was even considering that big a step. But then, he has been seeing her a while. It's been…? He couldn't really put a number on it, mostly because Tony had been so tight-lipped about her in the beginning, which was also an oddity. This girl of his must really be something different…
"If you sit up, I'll untie this gown and get these leads off you," Jenn said, calling Gibbs' attention back to his agent, who again looked uncomfortable as the nurse helped him upright and slid the gown down his chest to remove the electrodes from his skin.
The hell, DiNozzo? Gibbs wondered, remembering that time when Tony and Ziva had gone undercover in the hotel room, playing married assassins with a bit more gusto than was probably necessary. You hiding hickies or something? Do people even say "hickies" anymore?
Gibbs realized then that he needed coffee. Badly.
"I'll take this, too," Jenn said, resting her hand gently on the back of Tony's for a second before pulling the clip from his finger. She took him by the wrist and set his hand on the pile of his clothes she had set beside him. "You want me to help you with those or your friend here?"
Tony looked like a deer in headlights for a moment, but then he just said, "I can manage."
Jenn frowned, the expression somehow cute on her pretty face. "Okay," she said, eyeing Tony carefully. "But just yell if you get dizzy. Or end up with your underwear on your head," she added with a grin.
That got a genuine smile out of Tony, and Gibbs was glad for it. He realized he needed to pull himself out of his head and stop thinking about the director, and Tony's girlfriend, and all of those mysterious missions, and just concentrate on helping Tony get through this.
Gibbs followed the nurse to the door, pausing and saying, "I'll be right outside."
He turned back, surprised by the hesitation on Tony's face. If he had changed his mind, Gibbs wouldn't mind helping Tony into his clothes—he just wasn't expecting Tony to ask for the help.
And he didn't.
"Thank you," Tony said sincerely, frowning in the direction of the shirt in his hands before looking up.
His gaze was slightly to the right of his boss, but Gibbs didn't mention it. He just said, "Don't worry about it, Tony. Get dressed and I'll take you home."
The frown deepened, though, and Tony said, "About that… I, um—"
"I don't mind staying at your place, DiNozzo," Gibbs said, slightly amused.
"Actually, I was hoping I could stay at yours."
Gibbs felt immediately guilty for being glad Tony couldn't see the shock he knew must be showing on his face at that. His earlier thoughts about Tony's side missions popped up again, setting his gut roiling with an almost painful intensity. There is no way Jenny would risk an agent's life—my agent's life—by putting him in danger situations that could follow him home with zero backup. She wouldn't. Jenny's a pro. There's no way. And there's no way she'd order Tony to keep silent about it—there's no way Tony would keep silent about it.
"I mean, I know my place better," Tony said, looking a little worried, probably by Gibbs' silence as he ruminated and fumed over things he couldn't prove—or even really believe. "But I just… I don't want Jeanne coming by, and then I'd have to explain, and…"
Gibbs blinked at that.
And oh, that's her name. I guess I have heard it before…
"She doesn't know about your migraines at all?" he asked, trying to get his thoughts in order and make the leap from side missions to new relationships that weren't all that new.
"No," was all Tony said.
Gibbs realized his glare wasn't speaking the volumes it usually did. "Don't you think that's a little … dangerous, Tony?" he asked, trying not to sound disapproving.
Tony laughed, but it sounded strained. Gibbs realized an interrogation probably wasn't a good idea right now, with Tony still in pain.
"A migraine won't kill me, Boss," he said, an odd little smile on his face that died away quickly. "Sometimes it feels like it might…"
"So why not just tell her? So she could help, if need be? Really, if you've been with this girl this long—and if you plan to be with her long-term—you should just tell her. It's not some dirty little secret you need to hide from her, Tony. It's a medical condition."
DiNozzo didn't say a word.
But the sudden pallor on his face was rather telling.
Too bad Gibbs had no idea what it was telling.
"DiNozzo?" Gibbs tried, going back to last names and hoping it would snap them out of whatever too-personal hell he had accidentally thrown them into.
Tony's breathing was suddenly all wrong, and Gibbs realized it might not have been his words—admittedly a lot of words, for him, though—that had his agent looking so sick. Gibbs was starting to doubt the effectiveness of those anti-emetic pills they kept giving Tony.
"I… I'm fine," Tony said, his voice as ragged as his breathing.
His hand was pressed to his belly, but he didn't throw up. He just sat there, breathing through… whatever this was.
Gibbs had to believe it was the pain. Sure, it was no secret that Tony was afraid of commitment, but Gibbs doubted the thought of being with a woman long-term could frighten him into physical illness.
Abandoning the useless thoughts, Gibbs moved beside him and put a hand on his shoulder. He forgot his lessons about talking before touching, though, and Tony about jumped through his skin at the gentle squeeze. "Deep breath, Tony," he urged, feeling Tony following the order. Gibbs stayed at his side until Tony was breathing evenly and had some of his color back. "Maybe we should stay here," he said, not liking the quivering in the muscles under his hand.
"Gibbs, please," Tony said, his voice still strained. He took another slow breath and put some force behind his words. "I'd really like to get the hell out of here."
Gibbs was surprised by the strong statement, but he simply agreed, not wanting to upset Tony any further. The doctor's words about stress and elevated blood pressure aggravating symptoms were fresh in his mind, and Gibbs just said, "Soon as that nurse gets back, we'll go."
He paused, squeezing Tony's shoulder again and realizing he was speaking almost to himself, too.
"Everything's going to be fine."
Tony didn't fight the wheelchair this time, either, when the nurse—Jenn, the name a little too close to Jeanne while he was smelling hospital—came to collect him. He spent part of the ride marveling that he was actually leaving—and that both the doctor and Gibbs were allowing it. He spent the rest trying not to think about his freakout at Gibbs' words in the exam room.
I wish it were just the migraines I was hiding from Jeanne. And I wish I didn't have to keep lying to Gibbs. I told him I was worried Jeanne might drop by and find out about my condition, but she doesn't even know where I live. I can't tell her. I can't let her come over… and find my badge, or my gun, or the ID proclaiming me to be a federal agent, or my mail with Anthony DiNozzo written all over it.
But I couldn't exactly tell Gibbs that I'm worried about the Frog's people possibly finding those trackers I put on their bags. If they figure out the when, then maybe they'll figure out the who—and then show up on my doorstep to beat the shit out of me…
And I can't exactly defend myself right now. Hell, I can't even be sure I put my shirt on correctly right now.
Tony dropped his aching head into his hand, the migraine flaring with the strain of too many thoughts, too much tension, too much strain.
"Are you all right?" the nurse asked kindly, slowing a bit.
Tony's cheeks got hot. He hadn't meant to let his inner turmoil show with such an obvious gesture. What? Did you think if you can't see them, they can't see you? Idiot.
"I'm okay," he lied. Nothing could be further from the truth. He wasn't okay. He wasn't even an okay person. He was a lying sack of shit who was going to ruin a young woman's life. An innocent woman. A kind, big-hearted woman who had never hurt anyone in her life. She was a doctor. She saved lives.
And he shattered them.
"Oops. Sorry, Andy," Jenn said, stopping … somewhere.
Tony couldn't tell.
"Minor delay," she said, leaning forward a little so Tony knew she was speaking to him. "Can you believe someone fired a shot through the ceiling earlier?"
Tony slid his right hand over his burned left, but apparently the nurse saw it.
"Ohhhh," she said, a hint of nervousness in her voice. "That was you, huh? Uh, I mean, not you as in you who fired the shot but you who, um…"
She trailed off, and Tony didn't need his sight to recognize her embarrassment.
"Yeah," he said, faking a smile and then wondering why he was trying so hard. It wasn't like Nurse Jenn was his mark, a woman he had been ordered to charm, shifting himself into a whole new shape to please her no matter how much of himself he lost in the process, because pissing off one's girlfriend was one thing, but losing an asset in a major investigation was another entirely. He wondered how much of Tony DiNardo would stay with him after the mission was over. And then he stopped thinking—because the end of the mission was something he did allow himself to dwell on. It was unhealthy, and stupid, and deep down he knew there was only one way it could end: badly.
But he kept the smile plastered on his face. "That was me," he said, twisting slightly up at the pretty nurse. "Think they'll add ceiling repairs to my hospital bill?"
"I doubt it," she said, laughing softly at the joke.
Tony let the smile drop and tried to push Jeanne out of his head, only to realize with renewed panic that he had been about to call her when the migraine had sunk its vicious teeth into his brain and refused to let go. He had been just sitting in his car, having an internal debate about whether to lie to her and break off their plans or just tell her about the migraines. As much as he hated the thought of being vulnerable with her—and possibly letting something slip during the throes of agony that would blow his cover—he also knew he couldn't keep the migraines from her forever.
Are you really going to go through with moving in with her? some rational part of his aching brain screamed at him. She has to be out of her place by the end of the month. Which is when YOU are supposedly moving into that new apartment you two picked out. What happens when she asks to come over to your place and help you pack? Do you hide everything first? Tell her no? What—
Tony put the mental brakes on the thoughts.
He couldn't handle it—not right now. He would call her once he got to Gibbs' and tell her he had the flu. He knew that while she would want to take care of him, she would just apologize and stay away, too worried about picking up the illness and passing it on to her patients. It was something she had warned him about when she started her oncology rotation, and he had been saving the excuse for a rainy day when he absolutely needed time away.
Thoughts of that call made him wonder what had happened to his cellphone, the one he'd left on the dashboard, he realized, panicking again as he pictured Gibbs with that phone in his pocket. One call from Jeanne—answered by Gibbs—could prove disastrous.
In so many ways.
Tony fought to keep his breathing normal as the nurse wheeled him through the seemingly endless corridors. He was just about to ask her if she was taking him to Siberia when he heard automatic doors whoosh aside and Gibbs' voice, followed by the opening of a car door.
"You look like crap, DiNozzo."
Only years of experience let Tony pick up on the concern in the gruff words. He shut his useless eyes in both pain and frustration as Gibbs helped him into the car and thanked the nurse, who wished him good luck in his recovery. Tony was too tired to do more than give a halfhearted wave, feeling only slightly guilty about his wordless treatment of the bubbly nurse.
"I feel like it, too," he mumbled as Gibbs slid into the driver's seat.
He gave up completely on insisting he was fine.
There was nothing fine about any of this.
"Come on, let's get the hell out of here," Gibbs said, shocking Tony with the slightly remorseful tone.
But he didn't have much time to think about that.
The familiar ringtone from his undercover cell suddenly coming from what Tony guessed was Gibbs' pocket about stopped his heart. It was his worst nightmare, coming true right then and there. He cursed his earlier thoughts, as if somehow thinking about the disastrous call had made it happen.
Tony was about to lunge sideways for the sound—not caring how crazy he looked doing so—when it abruptly cut off. He closed his eyes again, waiting for Gibbs to answer the phone and take the call that would ruin everything: the carefully crafted lies, the mission, Gibbs' trust in him, Jenny's confidence in him.
But all Gibbs said was: "Probably your girl again. Think she left a voicemail earlier."
Tony swallowed hard, hoping it would force his heart out of his throat, and nodded. "I'll call her later. We were supposed to meet."
There was the tiniest moment of hesitation before Gibbs asked, "You sure you don't want her to know about this?"
There was no judgment in the question, but Tony felt a knife of guilt twisting in his stomach. "I'm sure," he said quietly, keeping his tone carefully flat. "I'll call later. Tell her… something."
"All right," Gibbs said, starting the car. Tony picked up on the slight smile when his boss added, "Guess you'll be putting those undercover skills of yours to good use."
Tony fought the panic brought on by the simple mention of Jeanne and undercover skills in the same conversation, and he just nodded, wondering if his answering smile looked as bitter as it tasted.
And if his fear was showing on his face, despite his efforts to make his expression a mask of pure nothingness.
And then he tried to stop wondering, and worrying, and he simply rested his head against the glass, gathering his strength for what was to come.
He wished it were only the thoughts of spending a weekend with Gibbs helping him through his bout with the blindness. As if that wasn't bad enough.
But there was also that call he had to make to Jeanne. He wasn't sure why piling one more lie on top of the mountain he had already created bothered him so much, and it frightened him to realize he didn't know when he had stopped thinking of those lies as doing his job and started thinking of them as little seeds of betrayal. He couldn't pinpoint the moment Jeanne had ceased to be a mark and turned into the woman he was deeply in love with.
He was shocked to realize he wanted her here with him through this—and it wasn't because she was a doctor. He wanted to lie in her arms, let her gentle hands soothe away his pain. He imagined feeling her soft lips against his, banishing the clawing monster from his head. He imagined taking a cool shower with her, the flowing water washing away the sweat from his skin, from their skin. He imagined lying down with her to sleep, all pain forgotten.
And then he imagined what was much more likely to happen.
He imagined himself lying on the floor, screaming in pain and not realizing that the howled words coming out of his mouth did not belong to Tony DiNardo.
For a split second, Tony could see into the future: Jeanne's pretty blue eyes wide with shock, her brow then furrowing in confusion, and finally, her eyes going dark with fury and recrimination.
He did not usually allow himself to picture this, but the blindness had plunged him into a darkness from which he could not hide. There were no distractions here in the blackness. Nowhere to run from the premonitions he knew were destined to become reality.
He just barely stopped himself from moaning in sheer agony—a pain that came straight from his heart, not his head—but he must not have hidden his reaction from Gibbs, who put a hand on Tony's knee, silently offering undeserved comfort and making Tony realize another dark truth.
He was not safe with Gibbs, either.
Tony hated the migraines for a lot of reasons, but one of the most infuriating things about them was their ability to strip his masks right off his face. He knew this. There was nothing he could do about it. The pain was so consuming that he used everything he had to fight it, and there was no energy left over to keep up his careful guard.
Gibbs usually saw everything anyway, but Tony often felt fairly safe in the knowledge that his years of hiding had left him with the skills to protect his most vital secrets from those piercing blue eyes.
Except during the migraines.
If Gibbs chose to press him about Jeanne, about the side missions for the director he had mentioned earlier in the exam room, there was no way Tony could withstand the interrogation.
How the hell was he going to get through the weekend?
Gibbs tried to keep his sideways glances at his silent passenger to a minimum on the ride through the darkness back to his house. He knew it was probably just the migraine that was keeping Tony from being his usual chatterbox self, but the churning in his gut had yet to settle completely and he couldn't help feeling like he was missing something.
He felt just like he did during a case when he knew he was lacking a key piece of information but had no idea what it was—or even where to start looking.
But that made no sense.
This wasn't a case, and Gibbs knew what the problem was. No, he wasn't exactly sure what was going on inside Tony's head, and no, he wasn't exactly sure of the best way to help him through the blindness, but at least he knew what they were up against.
And yet he still couldn't shake the feeling that he was missing something.
Gibbs snuck another glance at Tony, his gut fluttering again at how easily he read the worry on his face.
He's blind, dammit, Gibbs mentally berated himself. Of course he looks worried. And this is Tony, a guy so fiercely independent he'd rather suffer alone than admit he has a medical condition and might need a little help.
Tony shifted a little in his seat, and Gibbs forced his eyes back to the road, about deserted since it was close to three in the morning, wondering if his agent had felt his lingering gaze. But Tony was still the subject of his thoughts as Gibbs drove, wondering too why being with his boss during this was preferable to being with his girlfriend—who was a doctor.
How is it that he's more comfortable with me than with her? Gibbs wondered as he made the turn onto his street. Or is he? Maybe he just really doesn't want to tell her. I already know about the migraines. Maybe he just doesn't want to explain everything to her and deal with the blindness, too. But he's gonna have to tell her eventually. I've seen his face when he's on the phone with her. He's madly in love. And apparently moving in with the girl, which is a huge step for someone like Tony. A huge step for anyone… I wonder if Hollis wants to move in with me… It would save me from having to fix all those old pipes…
Tony's questioning voice made the agent realize he had been just sitting in his driveway. Gibbs gave himself a mental shake and an order to focus.
"We're here," he said, cutting the engine. "My place," he clarified, suddenly feeling a bit overwhelmed by the myriad ways he was going to have to do things differently this weekend—or until Tony's blindness resolved itself. He didn't allow himself to wonder if his sight would return on schedule with the doctor's timeline. It was too nerve-racking.
Gibbs got out of the classic car and shut the door, watching Tony do the same. But then DiNozzo just stood there, pausing for a long moment before reaching out a hand to find the roof of the car and sliding his hand down the windshield and along the hood. He stopped then, looking more uncertain than Gibbs had ever seen him look.
And then Gibbs realized he was just staring when he should be helping. He moved toward Tony, who was unnervingly still as a statue, the light above the garage door casting a long shadow behind him, and Gibbs tried to think of something to say.
But then Tony turned, putting his right hand on the hood and following the lines of the car back to the trunk, where he stopped and looked in the general direction of the driver's side door, about five feet from where Gibbs was actually standing.
"Can you pop the trunk, please?" Tony asked, his voice quieter than usual but still firm.
Gibbs realized he wanted to grab his bag and he almost told him not to worry about it, that he would get it after Tony was settled inside. But the determined set of Tony's mouth told Gibbs this wasn't just about a bag. It was about Tony's need to do things for himself and keep up some semblance of normalcy.
Gibbs opened the door again and hit the release, taking a moment slightly longer than necessary to grab his own bag from the backseat to give Tony time to find his. He shut the door just as Tony was slinging the bag over his shoulder and tracing his way back to the front of the car, where Gibbs met him, remembering to speak before touching.
"I'm on your left, a step forward," he said, keeping his tone casual even as Tony's eyes slid away.
Gibbs guessed from Tony's reddened cheeks and bit lip that he was realizing too that walking around might not be the most uncomfortable thing they would have to do in the next couple of days. But Gibbs was proud when Tony took a step and found his arm with his free hand, nodding his thanks as they made their way toward the house.
"Step," Gibbs said, just as Tony started to slow in anticipation of the front stairs.
"Last one?" Tony said when they reached the top, and it wasn't much of question.
"Yep," Gibbs answered anyway, remembering to speak and not just nod.
Tony's smile was slightly sheepish. "I guess it helps that I've been here a time or two."
"Guess so," Gibbs agreed. He was half-smiling at their early success, and he pulled the screen door open without thinking, just as Tony was reaching for it.
"Ow!" Tony yelped as he grabbed his right index finger.
Gibbs went still. "Tell me I didn't just break your finger," he said.
Tony wrinkled his nose as he flexed the sore digit. "Just jammed it," he said, shrugging. "It's fine. My fault. It's not like I didn't know that door was there."
"Still, shoulda warned you," Gibbs said, apologizing without actually violating Rule 6.
"Don't worry about it," Tony said, shrugging again as they made it into the house without incident. "I'll consider myself lucky if I make it through this without breaking my nose on a wall."
Gibbs nodded, realized the gesture was pointless, and said, "I'll, uh, do my best." He almost rolled his eyes at himself but stopped when he saw the look on Tony's face. Anyone else might have thought he was upset, but Gibbs knew it was Tony's standard reaction whenever he was nice to him. So to lighten the uncomfortable atmosphere, Gibbs said, "You get to thank me once for this, DiNozzo. Not for every little thing I give you a hand with. Got it?"
Anyone else might have thought that rude, or harsh. But Tony just smiled. "Got it, Boss." There was a bit of a spark in his unseeing eyes when he added, "And it's nice of you to let me stay here."
Gibbs noted the careful phrasing and shook his head, a smile on his face. "You are one slippery SOB, you know that?"
DiNozzo looked surprised for a second, and then some other emotion Gibbs couldn't identify flashed across his face. But it was gone before Gibbs was even sure he'd seen it. Tony grinned. "What? That was just a simple statement of fact."
"Sure it was," Gibbs said, his tone light even while he was searching Tony's face for another glimpse of whatever dark emotion he had suppressed so quickly. But he couldn't find a trace of it. And he realized he was just staring again while Tony waited patiently. Gibbs again felt guilty for using Tony's blindness for a chance to study him without his knowledge.
"Come on," Gibbs said, dropping his unneeded overnight bag by the door. "Time to hit the rack."
Tony nodded, his fingers twitching on the strap of his bag. "Yeah, I'm beat." The nervous fidgeting continued and his tone matched when he added, "I wonder how long it'll take me to brush my teeth."
Gibbs watched Tony yawn around the end of the sentence, and he fought uncharacteristic nervousness of his own. Gibbs had no problems taking charge and he rarely second-guessed himself, so he found his indecision annoying. He didn't want to upset Tony by coddling him and making him uncomfortable, but he also didn't want to be callous and let Tony struggle with every little thing just to avoid awkwardness.
Tony yawned again, and Gibbs made up his mind.
"Be a lot quicker if you let me give you hand finding everything."
Gibbs waited while Tony had a short internal struggle of his own before giving in with a nod and a small smile that bordered on smirk.
" 'Preciate it," he said, breaking into a crooked grin as Gibbs grabbed his arm and gave him a careful shove toward the stairs.
Having been a Marine, Gibbs knew how to sleep whenever and wherever possible—even if he didn't really want to. His thoughts were swirling, filled with concern even though the few minutes he'd spent in the bathroom with his senior field agent weren't nearly as uncomfortable as he'd been dreading they would be.
After locating Tony's toothbrush and toothpaste, and handing over the readied brush, Gibbs had put a washcloth on the sink, grasped Tony's free hand, and placed it on top to show him where it was. He then touched Tony's hand to the faucet to orient him further, and said, "Soap's on the left. You good?"
Tony had nodded, looking more curious than worried about performing the nighttime rituals without his sight. Gibbs had thought about putting Tony's hand on the faucet and showing him which way was on and which was off, but he realized it was unnecessary because his agent would be able to hear the water running. A long-dormant paternal side of him wanted to err on the side of caution in everything, but he stuffed the feelings down, knowing it was better to let Tony slosh water on the floor than to embarrass him by treating him like a child.
So Gibbs had just said, "You know your way to the rack. Yell if you need anything."
Things were going well so far—jammed fingers aside—but still Gibbs was worried. And he knew Tony was, too. Despite the smiles, the jokes about "thank yous" and the lack of major awkwardness, it was obvious that neither of them was forgetting for a moment why Tony was there, why he accepted the help in something as simple as putting toothpaste on a toothbrush.
The migraines—as infuriating as they were to Gibbs when Tony was suffering and he could do nothing about it, and as painful as they were for Tony—were something they had gotten used to. Gibbs was as skilled as a doctor at administering the injections, and Tony had finally started seeming at least a little less embarrassed and more able to deal with his perceived weakness when Gibbs was helping him through the pain.
But then the damned condition had thrown them another curveball.
Trying to shrug off his own concern, Gibbs couldn't imagine how terrified Tony must be, lying there just down the hall, his vision as black as the night pressing at the windows he couldn't see. The doctor had assured them that it wasn't permanent. But Gibbs knew if he was having trouble believing there was no chance the blindness would be permanent, then Tony must be struggling even more.
Finally, Gibbs did make himself sleep, but not without first wondering if the worst was yet to come.
Having been a Marine had also taught him to be alert even in sleep, so when the floor in the hall creaked under Tony's weight at dawn, Gibbs was awake in an instant. He didn't get up, though, because some instinct was telling him Tony didn't want company.
Gibbs thought about all the obstacles and hazards that might lie in Tony's path, but still he did not move. He didn't want to embarrass him over a quick trip to the head.
But when the footsteps moved toward the stairs, Gibbs silently sat up, cocking his head and listening as Tony padded softly down. He strained to follow the movements, wincing at Tony's soft curse when he caught his foot on what was probably the same table Gibbs always did when he didn't put a light on.
He finally got up, moving quickly when he realized that while Tony might want to be alone, he also might need help. Gibbs also found himself wanting to keep Tony nearby, thoughts of whatever was going on in his head causing him to collapse, or have a seizure, or some other catastrophe making him want to stay close.
And once he thought about it, Gibbs wasn't even sure Tony would want to be alone. Without his sight, there was little he could do to distract himself, and Gibbs didn't like the idea of Tony sitting there alone and in the dark with nothing but pain and uncertainty to keep him company.
Gibbs made his way down the stairs, not realizing until he found himself standing silently staring into his kitchen that he hadn't made a sound. He wasn't sure if it had been intentional. He just watched Tony feel his way along the countertops and through the cabinet by the sink for a glass.
Tony paused, cocking his head slightly before opening another cabinet.
Gibbs knew what he was looking for, but still he did not speak.
Tony turned back toward the table with a glass and the bottle of bourbon, inching forward until his hip hit the edge.
"Should I have grabbed two glasses?" he asked, sightless eyes aimed toward the doorway in which Gibbs was standing.
"Should you be drinking?" Gibbs countered mildly, watching relief cross Tony's face as he located him by his voice. The emotion was strange to Gibbs, who wondered who else Tony might have been expecting. It reminded him of how Tony had locked himself in his car earlier in the night, and he made a note to press Jenny harder about those side missions.
The blindness might be making Tony vulnerable right now, but Gibbs had his six.
And he still would after Tony's sight returned.
Tony smiled wryly. "Maybe I can drink myself unblind."
The smile was gone by the end of the sentence, and Gibbs frowned at the thinly veiled fear in his friend's expression. He wasn't sure if it was Tony's inability to see others' faces or just the raw fear he was feeling, but Gibbs was unsettled by being able to read him so easily.
But Gibbs ignored all that and said, "Seriously, DiNozzo. Did the doc say you could drink?" His tone wasn't judgmental but still Tony's eyes slid away, off toward some unseen spot on the floor.
"Didn't say I couldn't," he said quietly, a finger running in a longing circle around the rim of the glass.
Gibbs shrugged, remembering too late Tony couldn't see it. "You know your head better than anyone, I guess," he said, wishing he had kept his mouth shut. But the fear of the unknown, of not knowing exactly what was going on Tony's head, it too was making Gibbs unsettled in a way he hadn't been in a long time.
He sat down at the table opposite his agent, making sure to drag the chair across the floor so Tony knew where he was.
Tony nodded. "And I doubt this could get any worse." He unscrewed the cap on the bottle and found the glass with his other hand, hooking a finger inside and pouring until the amber liquid hit the tip. He slid the bottle toward Gibbs, frowning.
"I got it," Gibbs said, knowing the source of the stress. He got up and got a glass, pouring his own drink and watching Tony sip slowly, his eyes on the tabletop instead of following Gibbs' movements. But those green eyes kept flicking upward, and Gibbs realized it was bothering Tony not knowing where he was.
Gibbs wondered if it was just the blindness making him so uncharacteristically skittish, and his earlier thoughts about those side missions made him ask, "You wanna tell me the real reason you didn't want to go back to your place?"
Tony closed his eyes, his smile tight, humorless.
He was quiet for so long that Gibbs almost told him not to worry about it.
"You have better bourbon than I do?" Tony said, his tone questioning even though he had to know the joking response wasn't going to fly.
"You don't drink bourbon," Gibbs pointed out.
Tony cocked his head, turning the glass in his hand. "I might start," he said, his eyes flicking in the general direction of where he had set the bottle. "This stuff's good. What is it?"
Gibbs hesitated but then shook his head and smiled. "That fancy Eagle Rare you just happened to forget on my desk last week." He paused, his unseen smile widening. "On my birthday."
Gibbs expected Tony to smile, so the pained look on his agent's face took him by surprise. Still, he asked, "Who spilled? Ducky? Abbs?"
Tony's flinch at the scientist's name told Gibbs who had revealed the carefully guarded secret of his birth date. He wondered why Tony looked suddenly paler—it wasn't like he was actually mad about it.
"I found out from Abby," Tony said carefully, "but she didn't tell me."
Gibbs frowned, trying to make sense of that. Tony just rotated his drink in precise quarter-turns, his fingers examining the pattern etched into the glass.
Gibbs puzzled over the cryptic words for a moment before it clicked. "I've been back a year now," he said quietly, watching Tony's frown pull down tighter. He realized he had no idea how Tony really felt about his abrupt demotion. If he was honest with himself, he wasn't sure he wanted to know exactly how Tony felt about his return.
"Yeah," Tony said, hesitating before closing his mouth and staring down at the table.
Gibbs could guess what he was thinking, because he could imagine how upset Abby would have been with him gone and missing their traditional birthday dinner. He wondered what Tony had done to talk her off the ledge. "Tony," he said, bumping his hand against his agent's restless, roaming fingers. "Thanks."
The smile he got in return was worth handing out the rare praise.
"I know she's going to find out sooner or later," Tony said, the abrupt change in topics taking Gibbs by surprise. Tony's eyes, still focused on the glass in his hand, were troubled.
Gibbs waited. And he shrugged off the odd feeling that Tony didn't really believe that.
"I didn't lie to you, Gibbs," Tony said, his sightless gaze flicking up in his direction before he realized he couldn't look his boss in the eyes. "I really just didn't want her to come over and find out about my…"
"Okay," Gibbs said, with a tight frown. He studied Tony's face with open curiosity, and this time he didn't feel so bad about taking advantage of the blindness. Tony was lying. He was sure of it.
But he had no idea why.
"And," Tony said, his smile sheepish, "I like it here. Feels comfortable."
Gibbs smiled, feeling his tension sliding away at the truth in the embarrassed admission. He ignored Tony's red cheeks and said, "Must be the sawdust."
Tony grinned. "Must be."
With a glance at the lightening sky outside the window, Gibbs said, "Think I'm gonna head down there. Coming?"
Tony drew a deep breath and shook his head, yawning. "Nah. I'm gonna go back to bed."
Gibbs nodded, getting up and taking the glasses to the sink. "Good. You can use the weekend to catch up on sleep," he said, turning in time to catch the guilt on Tony's face.
But the guilt turned quickly to a confused frown as Tony used both hands to feel across the surface of the table. Gibbs realized he was looking for the empty glass. "In the sink," he said.
"It was empty."
"I know," Tony said quietly, getting up.
Gibbs watched him move carefully toward the stairs, his hand out in front of him. He didn't offer assistance, knowing Tony knew his way around well enough to get to the steps. "Tony," Gibbs said, feeling strangely guilty himself. He hesitated, watching Tony stare at his own hand on the rail. "Yell if you need anything."
Tony gave him another nod, his expression unreadable again, and then he was gone.
Tony felt sick.
He paused outside the upstairs bathroom, his hand on the wall as he gave himself time to decide if his stomach was going to settle before he continued down the hall. He let his fingers trail across the soft blue paint that he couldn't see but knew as well as the colors of his own home. He forced himself to concentrate on getting to bed without falling over so he wouldn't have to think about the roiling in his gut.
It had nothing to do with the migraine.
And everything to do with lying to Gibbs.
He had been careful up to this point, sticking to half-truths and deflections when he needed to get away from the team or keep them from getting too close to the truth of what he was really doing. He had never outright lied to Gibbs before. He hated it. The guilt gnawing at his belly was almost enough to make him call Jenny and tell her he was done. He couldn't do this anymore. It was crazy to have let it go this far.
He was in way, way too deep.
He still didn't know what he was going to do about moving in with Jeanne, and he stopped thinking about it because he realized there was nothing he could do.
Instead, he tried to imagine how that conversation with Jenny would go. Badly, he knew. Jenny had some sort of personal beef with the Frog; Tony was sure of that, but he didn't know what it was. He saw Rule 10 flash in neon across the blackness of his vision, and he felt another bite of guilt. Gibbs and the director went way back, and Tony had no idea if his boss was aware of just how deep Jenny's obsession with the Frog went.
Gibbs would want to know. Tony knew that. And yet he just kept on sneaking around—to see Jeanne, to do whatever else the director asked him to—and he also kept his mouth shut.
He turned onto his stomach, feeling disgusted with himself. Unfortunately, he also felt the familiar heavy thud of pain against his temples.
His needles were in his bag, which was … somewhere. He didn't remember. It wasn't the bourbon—he'd poured himself barely a splash, knowing that getting drunk with Gibbs could easily turn into spilling his guts to Gibbs.
And then he wondered again why that would be so bad.
The pain flared, and Tony blew out a long breath, cursing his condition. The pain was familiar, but brutal. It never ceased to amaze him how he seemed to forget what it was like between bouts with the migraines. It was always bad, and he knew that, but somehow he managed to forget just how bad it could get. Maybe he blocked it on purpose.
There was no blocking it now.
He shoved a hand against his forehead, breathing deeply as the agony built by the second. He knew he should be looking for his bag, but the blindness and the nausea when he moved made that impossible. He thought about calling out to Gibbs, but he was too stubborn.
He pressed his face into the pillow, rocking as he fought the drills boring into his temples. He felt his cheeks flush red when he realized he would soon be summoning Gibbs whether he wanted to or not. The pain hit a shrieking crescendo and he felt the scream building at the back of his throat. He curled onto his side, fighting it.
The words had him gasping even though Gibbs had barely whispered them. He felt a tug on his shirt, and then the warmth of Gibbs' hand pressing against his side just before the chill of the alcohol wipe across his stomach. The bite of the needle came next, and Tony heaved a sigh of relief, even though the pain was still shredding his brain.
Gibbs didn't speak, but he didn't move his hand either.
Tony tried to calm his breathing, biting his lip to keep from moaning in agony. He felt his mouth twist into a grim half-smile, thinking he had more than one reason to keep his mouth shut. The urge to spill the entire undercover op to his boss was almost as overwhelming as the pain.
But Tony didn't say anything. He barely moved an inch until the storm in his head had raged itself out and he lay spent, exhausted by the effort of not screaming. He still didn't trust himself to speak without saying things he knew he would later regret, and oddly, the urge to spill was even stronger now that he wasn't fighting the pain.
"Okay?" Gibbs asked, his voice still low.
Tony nodded, glad the movement didn't hurt.
"No thanks," Tony said. His hand snaked out, latching onto Gibbs' wrist as he moved to stand.
Gibbs waited, an unseen silver eyebrow arching at how easily Tony had found his hand.
"How did you know?" Tony asked, looking up. But his eyes were about a foot to the right of Gibbs' face.
"That I…" Tony stopped. Frowned. "That I needed you."
Gibbs smiled, taking Tony by the wrist and disentangling.
"I know you, Tony," he said, walking to the door. "You know you can't keep things from me."
Later that evening, Tony was lying on Gibbs' ugly old couch, listening to a college football game and letting his mind wander. He had tried picturing the plays as the doctor had suggested, but his brain kept pulling up memories of his time on the field at Ohio State. Most were good memories, but there was always the knowledge at the back of his head of how it all had ended.
He moved his leg in an attempt to alleviate the phantom pain in the knee he had blown out, but the joint just gave a soft pop, as if to remind him that it would always hurt—just sometimes more than others.
Tony jumped, knowing he had been so buried in his thoughts that he had missed whatever purposeful noise Gibbs had made in an effort to avoid scaring him as he returned from the basement. He felt an odd little twinge, thinking about how his boss had been going out of his way all day to tap walls or scrape chairs, and then he felt an even sharper twinge as it occurred to him that Gibbs might have realized it wasn't just the blindness that was making him jumpy. How the hell had the Frog's people found those trackers?
"I'm up," he said, making no move to actually become upright.
"Hungry?" Gibbs asked.
He was, but despite the anti-emetic pills, he was still feeling slightly nauseous. "Maybe a little," he answered, hoping Gibbs wouldn't suggest their usual pizza—or even the rare treat of steak, cowboy-style. His stomach couldn't handle either.
Gibbs seemed to read his wariness and said, "I have some soup I could heat up."
Relieved, Tony started to sit up. "I can get—"
"Shut up, DiNozzo."
There was an undertone of affection in the words that Tony normally would have smiled at, but the guilt over his lie turned the small kindness into something sharp that made him press a hand to his belly. Apparently his stomach couldn't handle that, either.
Tony lay back, thinking about how easy the day had been once he'd made his way down the stairs after sleeping until half past noon. He frowned, remembering the jolt as he'd realized he didn't know what time it was—and couldn't know unless he asked Gibbs. It shouldn't have bothered him—it wasn't like he had anywhere to be, especially after a surprisingly easy call to a very busy Jeanne, who simply wished him a speedy recovery when he lied to her about having the flu.
But it did bother him, not knowing the time. He wondered somewhere deep down if he was fixated on it because it was easier than thinking about how easily Jeanne had accepted his lie. And even busy, he had heard her concern for him during the short call.
It hurt worse than the migraine.
But his thoughts meandered away again, and he considered how much it irked him that he didn't even have the usual cues from beyond the windows. He didn't even know if it was still daylight.
He tried to focus on the game again, but he quickly grew frustrated with the commentators, who never seemed to mention how much time was left. He wondered if that was abnormal for announcers or if he'd just never noticed before because he had always been able to see the clock on the screen. He tried to judge the time, considering they'd finished blathering through halftime of the late afternoon matchup and football games usually lasted about three to four hours. Because of the slight fourth-quarter, close-game excitement creeping into commentators' voices, he figured it was probably about seven or seven-thirty.
He squeezed his already closed eyes harder in frustration as he realized he had just glanced at his wrist for the third time in as many minutes.
There was a thump from the hallway—Tony pictured Gibbs lightly kicking the wall, but of course he couldn't be sure—and this time he didn't jump at the voice behind him.
"Wanna eat in here or at the table?"
It was only eight words, but it sounded like a lot more to Tony, who was used to a Gibbs who could convey the question in a mere look.
"Probably less likely to make a mess at the table," Tony answered, frowning as he sat up. Dizziness was followed by the clammy feel of sweat popping out all over his skin, and he had to sit with his forearms braced on his thighs as he waited for the accompanying nausea to fade from the back of his throat. He almost laughed at the notion that the blindness had one bright side: He didn't need to bury his face in his hands because there was no light burning his aching eyes.
After the moment passed, Tony lifted his head and sat up straighter, unsure if he was ready to stand. Gibbs didn't ask and Tony wondered if his boss was just staring at him. The nausea flared again as he wondered what Gibbs was seeing on his face.
There was a closer thump and Tony didn't jump when Gibbs put his hand under his elbow to help him up.
"OK?" Gibbs asked when Tony was upright.
"I'm gonna…" Gibbs trailed off, giving Tony's arm a squeeze to let him know he meant he was going to make sure his agent didn't fall on his face on the short trip to the kitchen. Tony had never been more grateful for Gibbs' sparseness with words.
Gibbs didn't let go of him until he was seated at the table, and Tony felt his cheeks go hot as Gibbs gently took him by the wrist and tapped his hand against the bowl and then the spoon. Tony told himself to suck it up and get over the idea of Gibbs being gentle with him, and he found himself smiling a little as his hand found the wad of napkins Gibbs had put under the spoon.
Gibbs was no boy scout but he was definitely a Marine—always prepared.
Tony heard the exaggerated scrape of Gibbs taking the chair opposite him and the overly loud clank of Gibbs' spoon against his own bowl. And he was grateful, because needing the obvious clues was still better than sitting there wondering if Gibbs was just watching him eat.
The silence was companionable and Tony was glad to find it wasn't all that hard to get the soup from the bowl to his mouth without his sight. Still, he kept his left hand cupped around the bowl in an effort to gauge how much he might be dribbling, but that hand stayed mostly dry. His stomach was still a little unsettled so he pushed the bowl away before it was empty, just to be on the safe side.
"Good soup," he said, wondering not for the first time where he should point his eyes. He wondered if he was making Gibbs uncomfortable with his sightless stares. But then he realized that while Gibbs might be using more words and had touched him more in the past twenty-four hours than in the past four years combined, he was still Gibbs. He'd just say something.
True to his thoughts, Tony could practically feel the look Gibbs was giving him when he said, "It's crap from a can, DiNozzo."
Tony felt his mouth kick up at the corner. "Well, at least I didn't say thank you," he said, glad Gibbs didn't seem to mind his making a little game out of the very real gratitude he was feeling.
"Until now," Gibbs tossed back, and Tony could hear the half-smile behind the grumbling tone.
"I'd say I'm sorry, but you have rules against that."
That was normally the time when Gibbs would answer with a look, so it was a double hit to Tony when he said, "Like you ever follow rules."
His tone was joking, but Tony still froze. He put a hand to his head, wishing the spikes buried in his temples were real so he could simply pull them out and stop the agony. He also wished the pain was entirely physical, but in truth he was thinking about one rule in particular—he didn't know if it had a number, but it was definitely a rule, perhaps the most important rule of them all—don't ever lie to Gibbs.
He couldn't even find comfort in that his were mostly lies of omission. Maybe that was worse. The urge to spill the entire op was strong again, and Tony tried to school his face into a calmness he couldn't feel. It only got worse when Gibbs spoke again.
"Listen, Tony," he started, and right away the use of his first name made Tony's already racing pulse find a higher gear. Gibbs sounded uncomfortable, hesitant almost, and that only made Tony's breathing that much harder.
Tony was listening all right, but all he could hear were the things he knew he couldn't handle right then. What aren't you telling me? Why are lying to me? How could you lie to me? What's Jenny after? Why didn't you tell me? How exactly do you think it's going to end with Jeanne?
He knew some of those questions were unlikely. But not all of them.
But Gibbs didn't ask a question.
"I know it's not always easy for you to tell me certain things," he said, and somewhere in the back of Tony's panicking brain, he cursed the blindness for the simple reason that he'd never heard Gibbs sound awkward before and desperately wanted to know what his boss's face looked like as he spoke the words. "But I want you to tell me if the pain gets to be too much. It seems like it hasn't completely gone away this time, and I hope you know I don't mind taking you back to the hospital, if need be."
Tony was too stunned by the un-Gibbs-like rush of words—both the number and the concern in them—to feel foolish about having misread the moment.
But then Gibbs was Gibbs again. "Really, Tony, you look like shit."
"Come on," Gibbs said, loudly pushing back from the table and dropping the dishes with a clatter into the sink. "I haven't watched a ballgame in a while and it'll be fun to watch your Buckeyes knock around all those smart kids at Northwestern."
Tony's smile didn't fade, even when Gibbs wrapped a firm hand around his bicep to lead him back to the couch.
"It's ten before eight," Gibbs added, "so you've got time before kickoff if you need to hit the head or whatnot."
The words were light, but Tony knew Gibbs had seen him trying to check his watch earlier. His smile was gone by the time they reached the living room, and he knew he should be feeling warmed by the small gesture, but he couldn't. If Gibbs could read his anxiety over not knowing the time, what else was his ultra-perceptive boss seeing on his face?
He didn't have much time to think about that because of the sharp crack from just beyond the front windows of the house. With thoughts of found trackers on expensive luggage and the many long-range weapons an arms dealer could get his hands on, Tony's heart leapt into his already tight throat as his body hit the floor, instinctively covering his head even though he knew his arm—mere muscle and bone—was no match for a bullet.
Sightless eyes darted left and right as his hands searched the floor around him for Gibbs. How the hell did they find me here? Oh shit, all those shutters I heard photographing our every kiss were real. Gibbs, where are you? Jeanne, I'm sorry. Gibbs, please, please be all right.
Tony stopped flailing as soon as he heard Gibbs' voice—coming from where he was still standing.
Hot blood rushed into Tony's cheeks as he realized his sniper sent by an arms dealer for vengeance on his daughter's undercover lover was just a car backfiring.
"Well that's embarrassing," Tony tried to joke, wondering if he could laugh this off.
The silence in the room told him otherwise.
For a second, Tony was glad he couldn't see Gibbs' face as fingers dug painfully into his arm, just above his elbow, and he was hauled to his feet. The hand pushed him two quick steps forward and shoved him down onto the battered old couch.
Apparently Gibbs was done being gentle with him.
"Speak, DiNozzo," Gibbs said, his tone interrogation-room hard. "The truth."
Tony couldn't help the flinch.
Gibbs' voice was still hard, but it was marginally quieter when he said, "I know you're hurting. And I know this isn't the best time to be doing this. But I'm done. You're done. Tell me exactly what Jenny has you doing that's got you worried about taking a bullet in my living room."
Tony realized Gibbs' anger wasn't entirely directed at him. The director, had she been in the room, would be getting the exact same staring down Tony didn't need his sight to know he was getting. But still he just sat there, torn between loyalty and duty.
Gibbs' voice came even more softly. "I know what I'm asking, Tony," he said, blowing out a long breath. The last of his anger went with it. "I know that even if she didn't actually, verbally swear you to secrecy, that's what she expects from you."
Tony could only nod. He kept his eyes open but he didn't know where Gibbs was, and that made him even more uncomfortable. He waited as long as he could hold out before blurting, "Can you please just say something? I know you're not big on words and I know you're pissed at me, but please, Gibbs, I—" He stopped, took a deep breath and continued in a rush. "I can't see you and it's scaring the shit out of me."
Tony sensed a sudden stillness in the room, and then he heard the chair scrape across the floor. He pointed his eyes at the sound. "Thank you," he said quietly, useless eyes skittering away, ashamed.
"I'm sorry, Tony," Gibbs said, the genuine remorse in his tone only making Tony feel worse.
He felt like he needed to give something in return so he went with the truth—part of it, at least. "It's the Frog."
Gibbs surprised him by giving a short bark of a laugh. "Ya think?"
The words came out in a rush and Tony barely stopped to breathe—or think. "I did an undercover thing for Jenny and planted some trackers on some of his people's luggage a while back and some of those markers have recently gone dark. That day at the airport was the first time I saw Trent Kort and that's why I recognized him when his photo popped up on the plasma in the squad room that day and to be honest I'm not even sure why I lied to you about not knowing him. From the start, the director told me not to say a word to anyone about any of the side work I was doing for her—I guess she didn't want you knowing she was after the Frog but you've known that now for a while—but I guess I was just…"
"Following orders," Gibbs said, no judgment in his tone. "I know, DiNozzo. You were following your director's orders."
Neither spoke for a long moment.
"I guess that explains why you locked yourself in your car last night," Gibbs said thoughtfully. "And why you didn't want to be at your place this vulnerable."
Tony flinched again.
"Could this follow you home?" Gibbs asked, all business. "Or are you just nervous because they might have found the trackers?"
Oh, you know, Tony thought, the trackers, the fact that I was dressed as a hobo and singing ridiculously outside that restaurant, the fact that I'm sleeping with an arms dealer's daughter under an assumed name… Hey, maybe you can come to our housewarming party.
"Tony?" Gibbs' voice was suddenly full of concern, and Tony realized he had his head in his hands. "Are you in pain? Dammit, I shouldn't have—"
"I'm okay," he said, raising his eyes and dropping his hands. "I don't think the Frog's people are on to me. I'm just being cautious."
Tony pictured Gibbs nodding before he said, "All right."
There were enough unspoken words between them to derail a freight train, but neither said anything.
And Tony realized Gibbs was done with the interrogation—and he didn't miss that he had gotten off incredibly lightly. He knew he should just open his mouth and keep talking, but something stopped him. It was the same thing that had stopped the desire he'd had since the beginning to tell Gibbs everything, the same messy combination of things, really. One, whether he liked it or not, the director was still the director of the federal agency that he worked for, and she had given him an order. Two, Gibbs had left, and while Tony wasn't keeping secrets from him out of spite, he had to admit that their relationship had changed since before the Mexican hiatus—and while he was admitting things, he knew he wanted to prove to Gibbs, to the director, to McGee and Ziva, that he was good enough to handle the work even after his abrupt demotion. And finally, Tony knew Gibbs knew just how badly he had fallen for Jeanne. If his boss also knew that she was a mark, not a new girlfriend… Well, Tony had no idea how Gibbs would react to that, but he knew it wouldn't be pretty.
And lying there in his own private darkness, he also had to admit that his loyalty to Gibbs should have trumped all that. He could get up and run a thousand miles and never escape that truth.
Sounds of the football game filtered into his consciousness and Tony realized the conversation was over. He tried to settle in and pay attention, but without the visual of the game, he found himself unable to keep up.
He spent the next four quarters trying to convince himself it was because of his lack of sight.
Guilt was a bitch.
A coldhearted, unrelenting bitch.
Gibbs tried to focus on the football game, but the screen kept turning into a jumble of colors that swirled faster and faster with his churning thoughts. He wanted to turn and study Tony's face, to make sure his agent actually was okay, but he was sure Tony would feel his stare. The last thing Gibbs wanted was to make him more uncomfortable.
The guy's lying there in pain, probably scared out of his head not only because of a pack of lowlife dirtbags who may or may not want him dead, but also because he's damned blind, and what do I do? I decide now's a good time to interrogate him. Hell, Tony, I'm sorry.
Startled, Gibbs' eyes flew to the couch and he was about to ask if Tony was all right when the announcer's voice pierced his bubble of guilt. Northwestern had scored first.
"It's early," Gibbs said, sneaking a look at his agent.
"Yeah, I know," Tony said, frowning before he seemed to decide to shake it off. "Was it at least a pretty pass?"
Gibbs almost missed it, but there was a slight hopefulness in Tony's voice that made him feel worse. He knew it had nothing to do with the game.
"Nah," he said, settling deeper into the chair and forcing himself to focus on the TV. "Wobbly as all hell, but the wideout still managed to haul it in."
"Damned receivers," Tony said with a hint of a smile, because, Gibbs knew, he had been one.
"Quarterback should thank him," Gibbs said, "for making him look good."
They watched the rest of the matchup with more conversation than they ever would have if Tony could see the game playing out on the screen. Gibbs even gave a detailed—for him, anyway—description of a blown call that cost the Buckeyes a touchdown, and Tony made a joke about blind zebras that made Gibbs snort a real laugh. By the time half of Ohio was dashing onto the field to celebrate the come-from-behind win, the awkwardness was gone from the room.
Gibbs didn't move to click off the TV until Tony stood and stretched, saying, "I'm beat. Time to hit the rack." He added, "You know, you're pretty good at the play-by-play commentary, Boss."
The corner of Gibbs' mouth quirked up at the veiled thank you. "I think I'll keep my day job. Just in case."
Tony laughed and started making his way toward the stairs.
"Hold on," Gibbs said, getting up from the chair and shaking a foot that had fallen asleep. "I'll give you a hand."
Tony stopped on the bottom step, eyes on his hand on the newel post. "It's okay, Boss. I think I got the hang of it."
Gibbs stopped, looking up at his agent and trying to read his face. He kept his voice neutral. "Yell if you need anything."
"I will," Tony said before disappearing.
Gibbs spent a long while trying to decide if his smile had been strained, or altogether fake.
That was the thing about guilt: Just when you thought she had taken her shit and moved out, she was back, coldhearted as ever.
Tony came awake in an instant, wondering when Gibbs had gotten a dog.
And then he realized he was the one howling.
And then he realized why.
The pain was unlike anything he had ever felt, and considering his job, his football days, his migraines, the damned plague, that was saying something. He could never really say he got used to the agony of his migraines, but at least the pain was familiar. He knew what to expect.
Or at least he thought he knew.
This was like being stabbed through the base of his skull with a superheated, razor-sharp blade. Repeatedly. He had pried his eyes open for half a second to confirm he was still blind. And he still was. And it was no surprise considering the chainsaw about to take his head off.
He realized he was still screaming about the same time he noticed he wasn't alone. Gibbs was speaking softly into a phone, calling for an ambulance. Tony didn't stop him. He couldn't. He didn't want to.
The voice was suddenly right next to him, and he might have yelped. It was hard to tell with the roaring of the chainsaw and his own harsh cries. His stomach flipped and then he wasn't sure which way was up.
"Boss… floor… gonna… puke," he gasped.
"Already there," Gibbs said, his hand on the back of Tony's, uncurling his clenched fist until he felt carpet under his damp palm. "Go ahead."
In enough pain to be beyond embarrassment, Tony gagged without picking up his head. But nothing was coming up and the dry heaves felt like they were turning him inside out, jarring his imploding head with every powerful contraction of confused muscle.
"Please," he whispered, more than once.
He just wanted the searing pain to stop. He didn't even care if it killed him. It just had to stop. He didn't care if it was just for a minute—or a second.
It just had to stop.
But that wasn't in the cards.
The agony just kept drilling into the base of his skull and he wrenched his hand out of Gibbs' tight grasp, putting both hands to the back of his head and fully expecting to feel the wetness of blood. There was none, and if he had been even remotely coherent he would have noticed Gibbs pulling his hands away and examining the area himself. He also would have heard Gibbs' voice asking him over and over what he could do to help. It was probably better that the words didn't register because Tony would then know that Gibbs had already injected him and the medication wasn't even touching the pain, that it had been as futile as shooting an arrow at an aircraft carrier.
He did, however, hear Gibbs shout "Up here" an eternity later. Tony hoped that meant paramedics would soon be coming to put him out of his misery.
Through the fog of pain and the feel of too many unseen hands on his body, Tony somehow managed to tune out the medics' overly loud exchanges of information and find only Gibbs' soft voice amid the assault on his remaining senses.
His boss was apologizing. And that scared the shit out of him. But there was nothing he could do about it.
A tiny twinge in his arm joined the agony in his head—a bee sting to a bullet wound—and then there was nothing.
He was out cold.
When Tony woke up in the hospital the next morning, it took him a moment to realize he could see.
It took him even longer to realize that he didn't feel any better. Physically, yes, he felt fine—he had no idea if last night's episode was normal for BTM, but there were no lasting effects except the vague feeling that his memories of the pain didn't even come close to doing it justice. But it was gone now and he dealt with it the way he handled all things painful: He decided not to think about it.
So his body felt fine, but his mind was still tormented. Finally he could see that he couldn't go on like this anymore, couldn't keep up the lies.
It just had to stop.
He couldn't keep lying to Gibbs—especially after the million small kindnesses the man had shown him during this wretched weekend, but even more so because his boss deserved the truth.
Jenny was scheduled to return from her Paris trip that afternoon, and Tony decided he would tell her he couldn't use Jeanne anymore to help her get to the Frog. No op was more important than protecting the innocent, and he knew—to anyone else he would have said in his gut but he knew it in his heart, too—that Jeanne had no idea what her father really did for a living.
Tony even thought for a moment about meeting Jenny's plane at Dulles, but he knew he needed to see Jeanne first. He would go to the hospital today, but he decided he wouldn't tell Jeanne the truth there—not in front of all of her colleagues, not at her workplace. He realized with a twisting in his gut that it might include a few more lies because he knew as soon as she saw him, she would ask for confirmation that they were going to see the cute little bungalow that she sounded so excited about. He hated to do it, but he would lie to her and tell her they could go see it—and he would remind her, gently but firmly, that seeing the house didn't mean buying it.
He would tell her before they ever got within a mile of her cute little dream house.
He would tell her about his lies, tell her that her dream boyfriend was nothing more than a well-crafted mirage.
He would break her heart.
And in doing so, break his own.
He knew she would never forgive him—even if she were willing to try, he knew the lies would follow them, always.
But she deserved the truth. And he was going to give it to her.
One way or another, the lies were going to end today.