Hey folks! Well here it is, finally, the last chapter of this story. Thanks so much to all of you who stuck with me through this one and especially those who kept sending me PMs to ask when it would be finished. That helped so much!
A lot has happened since my last update and you can see more info if you go to my profile page but I'll just say that I've been working and traveling (for work) a lot, as well as some other big projects. One big project that has been started is my own original novel. I even have a publisher interested in it so if all goes well, you should see that soon. Also I just finished filming a reality TV show a few weeks ago (yes, you read that right). I can't say what show it was or what it's about yet, but keep checking my profile page as well as my twitter feeds, Facebook, etc. As soon as I'm allowed to announce it, I will. Promise!
For now, let's get back to the story. Hope you guys like the ending. :o)
"Yep. Second 'B', remember?"
"Gibbs, this ride would go a hell of a lot faster if you would stop checking on me every two minutes."
Tony couldn't quite help the frustration that leaked its way into his voice. The truth was he felt like total crap but he didn't want to say that; afraid that it would make Gibbs' hovering even worse. Besides, as bad as he felt, it was still a whole lot better than before. He wanted to just keep on riding. It's not like they had much of a choice anyway.
"Don't get pissy, DiNozzo," Gibbs grumbled back, getting ready to march his horse forward once again.
"But I thought you wanted me pissed, Boss." Tony grinned mischievously, losing a bit of his momentary bad mood as he realized his own joke.
Shaking his head with the slightest chuckle, Gibbs pulled his horse forward and rode ahead. If his Senior Field Agent was feeling well enough to make cracks at his expense, he was definitely doing better than Gibbs thought. Maybe it was time to stop pecking at him like a mother hen and just get the ride done.
They rode on for a while in silence, Gibbs fighting every urge to stop and check on Tony at five-minute intervals. Letting his ears be his guide to how the other man was doing, Gibbs kept them trained on the horse behind him and listened for the slightest difference in the animal's steps. If Tony was going to go down, no doubt his horse would be the first to know.
At the sound of Tony's voice, Gibbs pulled his horse to an immediate stop, ready to jump off and help the other man with whatever he needed. When Gibbs looked back though, he didn't see Tony looking any worse than he did the last time. What Gibbs did see what Tony looking intently into a nearby rock face, staring transfixed at what he saw there.
"What do you see DiNozzo?" Gibbs asked, wary that the ride may have tired his agent enough to bring back the fever and the hallucinations from before.
But Tony wasn't listening, instead he held his hand out slowly. "It's okay boy, no one's going to hurt you."
Now fearing that Tony wasn't hallucinating but had just invited a mountain lion or some other wild creature to join them, he began to turn his horse so that he could go back and stop him.
"Wait, Boss. I almost got him to come out."
"DiNozzo we're not taking any wild animals back with us."
"Shh!" Tony shushed Gibbs quietly, stopping the older man in his tracks. Apparently his Senior Field Agent wasn't joking around. Gibbs waited.
Keeping his eyes trained on the small opening in the rock, Gibbs kept one hand over his gun, prepared to shoot the visitor if it turned out not to be as friendly as Tony apparently assumed it to be. Within another minute, Gibbs heard tentative steps and soon saw a shadow along the wall, moving slowly.
"Come on….," Tony coughed again, making Gibbs frown. They needed to get back to safety and this was wasting valuable time. But looking at the intense concentration on Tony's face, Gibbs held his peace.
"That's it, good boy…." Tony broke into a huge grin and Gibbs' eyebrows shot up as a nose poked itself out of the small cave, followed by the body of a bay horse, fully saddled and bridled, with a white blaze on its head. The animal walked slowly up to Tony's outstretched hand, sniffing gently before allowing himself to be scratched.
"What do you think, Boss? Can we keep him?" Tony looked at Gibbs in triumph.
"Well I'll be damned." Gibbs replied.
"Must be Elizabeth Sax's horse, don't you think, Boss? I bet she rode as close as she dared to Dina's place then let the fellow go. He probably would've made it home too, if the storm hadn't come up. Poor guy." Tony kept scratching at the horse's neck, then reached forward to pull the reins over the animal's ears.
"Okay Boss, let's all get back home now."
Gibbs shook his head then nodded, pulling his horse forward again, marveling at the way Tony was always looking out for the welfare of others – even wayward animals - above his own.
"McGee, you do realize that looking at the horizon for Gibbs and Tony every other minute will not make them come any faster, right?" Ziva asked after she watched her partner pace over to the highest ridge near the riding stable. When they had arrived, McGee had pondered getting Jake to give them a couple of horses so they could right out and meet Gibbs and Tony. He had quickly given up on that the idea. Considering how badly their last trip on horseback had gone, McGee figured they should leave the riding up to the experts.
Jake had offered to ride out, but McGee had assured the man that Gibbs and Tony would make it just fine. Now after an hour of waiting and watching, he was wondering if that had been the best idea. Maybe he should have let the older man go out and check to see if something hadn't happened to their friends.
Ziva had told Jake that they had been delayed by the storm and unable to go back home to see their children; keeping up with their original cover. Jake had seemed a little surprised but mostly just wanted to make sure that the two men, and his horses, came back okay.
McGee kept his gaze trained on the farthest part of the trail that he could see from his vantage point. Sighing dejectedly, he was about to turn away when something caught his eye. Squinting in the sun, he looked closer and felt a smile cross his features as he saw his boss and partner clearly.
As the pair came closer, McGee's grin fell slightly and he turned to look at Ziva. They could both see that though Tony was riding on his own, he definitely didn't look well.
"How's it going DiNozzo?" Gibbs asked, peering over his shoulder to look back at his Senior Field Agent.
"Hunky dory, Boss. Don't worry about me," Tony replied, his statement punctuated with a few coughs. Now that they were nearly there, whatever strength reserves he'd had at the beginning of the ride were about done. Even rescuing Sax's wayward horse, who Tony had decided to call "Oliver" ("He's kinda like an orphan, Gibbs, since we found him out here all alone.") had only given him some extra strength for a short while. Leaning heavily on to the saddle horn, Tony was now struggling just to keep himself upright, as well as keep hold of Oliver's reins. He'd made it this far and he was going to be damned if he was going to fall off again. Especially in front of McGee and Ziva.
"C'mon Tony, you can do it." Gibbs whispered to himself as they both rode on.
Tony needed to do this last bit on his own. Gibbs hadn't missed the determination and maybe just a touch of humiliation in those eyes when Tony had declared he could make it the rest of the way. Tony didn't want to be rescued. He didn't want to show up in front of his friends on anything less than his own steam. Well, maybe his steam plus that of a four-legged friend.
And even though Gibbs wanted to stop, to take the younger man down off of his horse and carry him back if he had to, the team leader wasn't going to do it. He was going to let Tony win this one battle. Maybe it was exactly what his senior field agent needed to let go of the terrible memories that had plagued him when the fever came. Gibbs knew Tony was ashamed of some of the things he said and having to be carted in from the desert like an invalid was just going to add insult to injury.
So as much as it hurt Gibbs to see his agent suffering, he did nothing to stop it. Unless Tony looked like he was going to actually fall off that horse, Gibbs was going to stay where he was, riding ahead and letting the younger man take the steps he needed to feel like a man again.
As they finally approached the stable, Gibbs saw his other agents standing on the hill and waved to show that they were okay. McGee and Ziva didn't need to know that Tony was barely staying on his horse and Tony certainly didn't need their pitying looks.
Gibbs pulled his horse up, stopping in front of McGee, Ziva and Jake. The old stable owner walked forward to take hold of the reins.
"Glad to see you and your man made it back okay, Jethro. That storm was a doozy and from what I hear, there's another one not too far behind it."
The team leader only nodded, all of his attention currently on Tony's slow descent from the saddle. Dismounting his own horse quickly, Gibbs was there to stand by and make sure Tony didn't collapse, while staying back to let Tony stand on his own (if shaky) feet.
"Hey Jake, got room for an extra mouth? We found a stray on our way back." Tony said with a strained smile, holding out Oliver's reins.
Jake had already tied both Gibbs' and Dina's horses to a nearby rail and turned back when he heard his name.
"I know that horse. A buddy of mine a few miles up the road reported this one missing a couple days ago. Someone showed up to his place in the middle of the night and snatched the gelding right out of the barn, gear and all. He'll be mighty grateful to you folks for finding him. Much obliged."
Noting with concern that Tony's strength was waning fast, Gibbs spoke up.
"McGee, bring the car up. DiNozzo has won himself a trip to the nearest doctor."
McGee ran off and Ziva walked up worriedly. "Are you okay, Tony?"
"I'm good. Nothing a few days rest and maybe a hot nurse or two won't fix." Tony replied, getting into the backseat of the car as McGee pulled up.
"He'll live. C'mon DiNozzo, hospital is the next stop on this vacation," Gibbs ordered, surprising everyone when he didn't take the keys from McGee and instead jumped into the backseat. Finding that his agents had thought ahead and placed blankets on the seats, he handed one to Tony.
With effusive thanks to Jake for taking care of the horses, as well as brief instructions on when Comanche should be picked up by her owner, McGee drove away from the stable.
As soon as they pulled away, Tony laid his head against the back of the seat, closing his eyes and letting the exhaustion take him.
"Yeah Duck, the docs here already told me all that," Gibbs was saying, pacing quietly in the hallway outside Tony's room. As soon as they had arrived, the medical staff had whisked the younger man away, setting him up in a room and giving him the treatments he needed.
Gibbs had sent McGee and Ziva back to the hotel to get some real rest. Meanwhile, he had managed to catch a few winks in the chair by Tony's bed. By some miracle Tony had beaten off most of the illness on his own. Once allowed to rest in a warm bed, with plenty of fluids and some antibiotics to help his body battle the last bits of the valley fever, he was doing pretty well for a man Gibbs hadn't been sure would survive just hours ago. The worst seemed past them now and he had taken advantage of the quiet to call Ducky and update him on Tony's condition.
"They say a few days, then he can probably head home, as long as we promise to keep an eye on him there. No, I'm sending Ziva and McGee back tomorrow. I'll bring Tony back myself. They have cases to work on."
After talking to his friend for a while longer, Gibbs hung up the phone, staring at it for a moment as he stood alone in the hallway.
"You can go home too you know, Boss," a voice said quietly from inside the room. Gibbs looked up to find Tony blinking at him sleepily. Gibbs was grateful to see only fatigue in those eyes and not the pain and fever he had seen in them recently.
Walking into the room, Gibbs again took the seat next to Tony's bed.
"Nope, not gonna happen DiNozzo. Seems like every time I let you out of my sight recently, you find a way to get into trouble. I'm taking you home so that I can make sure you make it and don't somehow get lost on the way or pick up another deadly disease before you get there."
"Aw Boss, you were worried about me." Tony said with a sly grin.
"Worried? Nah. Do you realize the stack of paperwork that's on your desk right now? You think I'm going to fill all that out for you, you're crazy."
Tony groaned but chuckled a little bit too, happy that his boss wasn't being easy on him. He'd had enough of that in the past few days.
"Gibss, you're a bastard, you know that?"
Gibbs chuckled himself, also happy that his Senior Field Agent felt well enough to give him some lip.
"Yep. Second 'B', remember?"