A/N: Sorry for the delay! I wanted to get the end just right...hopefully I did. Endings are the bane of my existence. Thanks for your support and patience with me during this slower-than-usual journey! I do read and truly appreciate every single review that I get, and I love knowing that people seem to enjoy reading my stories. Thank you all so much. By the way, I promise never to start another story without at least having an outline first. I don't like making y'all wait so long between updates!
Standard disclaimers apply, blah dee blah, not a doctor, lawyer, or - saddest of all - the owner of NCIS. I hope you enjoy the final chapter. -abby
Painkillers had taken the edge off his discomfort, but even so Tony knew exactly where he was before even opening his eyes. Back in a hospital bed. At least I'm still alive. The memory of his altercation with Peter was vivid, both in the senior field agent's mind and the ache that seemed to emanate from every part of his body.
Though he really just wanted to go back to sleep, it was too late. Tony heard a familiar voice.
"Gibbs! Look! I think he's waking up!" Abby's exclamation seemed shrill, a painful contrast to her usual husky tone. Tony couldn't help but wince at the resulting spike of agony in his already throbbing head.
"Shh, Abbs," came another, quieter voice. "I'm sure he feels like hell. As well he should, after a bonehead stunt like the one he pulled."
Tony risked cracking his eyes open, just a little. He was surprised to find that doing so had no effect on the substantial ache in his skull, so he went ahead and opened them the rest of the way. Sure enough, he found Abby and Gibbs watching him intently. "Hey," he croaked nonchalantly, as if he wasn't lying flat on his back in a hospital bed and instead had just walked into the bullpen on an ordinary day.
"Hey, yourself," Abby said, thankfully far more quietly than before. She leaned down to give her friend a quick, gentle kiss on the forehead. "You had us worried," she chided softly. "Really Tony, you've got to be more careful."
Tony smiled tiredly. "I was careful," he responded, annoyed at the rasp in his voice. No doubt a result of that bastard trying to strangle me. "I didn't die. And neither did Tim." Wait, right? Suddenly Tony realized that he had passed out before anyone else had arrived in McGee's ICU room. Anything could have happened after that...
It was Gibbs who saw the question written on his agent's face. He answered by moving out of the way to reveal a sleeping Tim in the next bed. "He's fine, DiNozzo. Busted a stitch when he got up, but that's it." He paused. "He came out of it better than you for sure. Took the surgeons almost three hours to clean up the mess you made of your ankle."
Tony looked down at his blanket-covered feet, and sure enough, the right one was obviously heavily bandaged and elevated under the covers. It ached dully, along with the rest of him. The senior field agent sighed heavily.
Abby put her hands on her hips and opened her mouth, a move Tony recognized as the start of an imminent - and undoubtedly lengthy - lecture. Fortunately, Gibbs recognized it too and stopped the scolding before it even began. "Abbs. Give him a break for now."
Tony heard what his superior did not say and knew that he was in for a hell of a tongue-lashing later. He's pissed.
And as if reading his mind, in that creepy way that only Gibbs could achieve, the older man said simply, "We'll talk about this some other time, DiNozzo. You aren't getting off that easy. You almost got yourself killed."
Yeah, yeah, Tony thought crossly as he stifled the urge to roll his eyes. Apparently it's okay for Probie to do that, but not me. What the hell was I supposed to do? We were trapped. There was no one to help us.
Tim had awakened during the quiet exchange and he spoke up. "He did save my life, Boss." Although he agreed with Gibbs and Abby - Tony was far too reckless for his own good - McGee still felt the need to step in and keep Gibbs from giving his partner too much grief.
To everyone's surprise, Gibbs agreed readily. "It's true," he commented gruffly. Abby couldn't hide a grin as he continued, "and that's why I'm not going to kill him myself this time." Ice blue eyes bored into Tony's bloodshot green ones. "But if he can't get it through his thick damn skull that his life is worth just as much as anyone else's - next time he's fair game."
Tony was about to protest when Abby stepped in. "He's right, you know. Always so quick to throw yourself in front of the bus, but you just don't get why anyone would be willing to do the same for you."
Tim chimed in next. "I think we're about even now, wouldn't you say?"
"Even?" The cocktail of drugs dripping through the IV was making Tony foggy. He wasn't quite following.
Abby and Gibbs waited silently, arms folded across their chests as Tim patiently responded. "It's over. I saved your life, you saved mine. We're even. So from now on, we just watch each other's six. The way that partners do."
"The way that friends do," Abby corrected.
"Brothers," Tim rephrased. "The way that brothers always should. Deal?"
Abby nodded approvingly at McGee's choice of words, and Gibbs raised an eyebrow as he awaited DiNozzo's response. It was always a crap shoot with his senior field agent whenever emotions were involved.
Tony sighed again. He could tell that he was fighting a losing battle. Contrary to what they all seem to think, I do know when I'm licked. "Deal." Tony could hardly think straight and he hurt like hell, but for the moment he was actually willing to accept the fact that his teammates cared about him. Whether I deserve it or not.
"And so if this happens again, there's not going to be any of this tit-for-tat business, right?" Tim joined Abby and Gibbs in watching Tony carefully. "Can we dispense with the score-keeping and just agree to look out for each other?"
Tony seemed lost in thought. After a moment he said slowly, "Tit-for-tat...I've always thought that was a weird saying. What does it even mean? I mean, I know what-"
Abby and Tim exchanged an amused glance and cut Tony off in unison. "Painkillers." Even Gibbs hid a smile at his slightly loopy agent's expense.
"The point, DiNozzo, is that next time you two get into a situation like this, you need to remember the important thing." Gibbs paused to be sure that he had Tony's full attention, groggy though it was. "The important thing is that you both come out of it alive." He allowed a small smile of approval to surface. "You did good." The silver-haired man turned to face McGee as he continued, "Both of you."
"Thanks, Boss." Tony nodded, but seemed focused on something else. "Hey, wait a minute. Who said we're getting into another situation like this?" His words were beginning to slur, but the righteous indignation was clear. "I, for one, am done with the woods." He stabbed a finger in the air for emphasis.
Tim agreed. "Me too. Nothing I learned while camping as a kid prepared me for being chased through the forest by religious zealots with huge knives."
Abby giggled, but her face quickly turned serious. "Oh, you know you'll end up in a mess again. You boys just attract trouble. But that's okay. I made sure we'll find you fast when it happens next time." She grinned wickedly and turned on her heel, clomping toward the door in her heavy platform boots. "Come on, Bossman. Gotta go."
Wait, what? What does she mean? Tony watched, puzzled, as Gibbs followed the young woman. "Boss?" The confused senior field agent queried.
Gibbs just shook his head and replied simply, "I have to drive Abby to the Navy Yard. I really hope that you'll both be exactly where I left you by the time I get back."
"Boss! Abbs!" Tony protested as adamantly as his damaged vocal cords would allow. "What did you mean, you'll find us fast next time?"
Abby's wide green eyes were the very picture of innocence as she replied. "You know that tracking device we talked about implanting? You had surgery on your ankle. You were already under anesthesia and cut open and everything." With that, the dark-haired scientist smiled cheerfully and slipped through the door that Gibbs was holding open.
"What? Abbs! You didn't!" Tony knew he sounded pathetic, and besides, the door was settling back into its frame after his friends' hasty exit. The exhausted agent turned to McGee. "Probie! She didn't, did she?"
Tim's shrug was one-sided to avoid pulling at the stitches in his still-tender injury. "Hell if I know. But how bad could it be? You do go missing a lot, Tony," he pointed out.
"That's not fair," Tony started to argue, but realized he didn't have the energy to protest the unfortunately true statement. He settled for rolling his eyes. "Was I out long?" Tony was stubbornly fighting the encroaching sleep, but knew he wouldn't be able to hold it off for too much longer.
"No, six hours or so I guess. You trashed your ankle pretty good. They took you right to surgery after the thing with Peter." Tim studied his friend's pale face. "It looks like you'll have to keep off it for a few months." McGee hated to be the bearer of bad news but figured Tony may as well hear it from a friend.
The reaction was about what Tim had expected. Tony couldn't speak loudly but the disgust in his voice was still apparent. "That old man really worked me over. Pathetic. I should have been able to take him without half-killing myself in the process."
"No," Tim said flatly. "Don't do that."
"Do what? State fact?"
"He may be old, but he was Special Forces in Vietnam. He had serious hand-to-hand combat skills. You put up a hell of a fight, Tony. Especially considering your condition at the time. Don't beat yourself up," Tim said softly.
Tony snorted at the irony in his friend's words. I'm not the one who beat me nearly to a pulp.
Undaunted, Tim continued. "You're a gigantic pain in the ass but I don't know what I'd do without you, okay? So just...have enough respect for me to be more concerned about what happens to you."
That convoluted logic was far too much for Tony's drug-addled mind to grasp. "What the hell does that even mean?" He blinked owlishly at the younger man.
It was Tim's turn to roll his eyes. "Okay, fine, I didn't word that very well. Just remember that even though you may not think your life is worth much, the rest of us don't agree. And we don't want to attend your funeral anytime soon."
"Hmph," was Tony's only reply. After a few moments, he spoke again, his weak voice laced with concern. "What happened to the nurses? Why didn't they come? He didn't kill them, did he?"
Tim shook his head. "No, apparently he put whatever Lacy used on us in the coffee. He must have been watching for a few days, and knew that the head nurse had a habit of getting a fresh cup to everyone at the same time when she came in for the night shift. He took out all but one that way. Even Special Agent Sloane had some."
"That stuff was really strong," Tony observed softly, remembering how quickly it had taken effect that night in the bar. Seems like ages ago.
"Yep," Tim agreed. "And one of the nurses doesn't drink coffee so he locked her in a utility closet."
"I'm surprised he didn't kill her."
"So am I. Boss said that in addition to Haagensen, they found six other bodies in that pit. Guess Peter was only interested in killing people who refused to join his cult."
At the lack of response from his partner, Tim looked over to see that Tony had dozed off mid-conversation. He smiled and said quietly, "Get some sleep, DiNozzo. You've earned it."
Several hours later, Tim awakened with a jolt. What the...? He heard moaning and it was increasing in volume. It took Tim's sleepy mind a moment to realize that the anguished sound was coming from DiNozzo. As Tim watched, the senior field agent began to thrash uncomfortably in the bed.
"No! Leave him alone!" Tony began to cry out in his sleep.
"Tony!" Tim tried to rouse his partner, unsuccessfully. Tony continued thrashing and moaning, and his strangled cries were becoming louder.
"NO! You're killing him! Stop!"
Tim was perturbed by the pleading note that was creeping into Tony's damaged voice. "DiNozzo, come on! Wake up!"
When Tony still did not react to his friend, Tim's concern shot up several notches. I've gotta snap him out of it. The younger man knew that Tony would be mortified if the nurses heard his shouts.
Slowly, Tim dragged his legs out from under the blankets and shakily rose to his feet as Tony continued his tortured yelling. "No, NO! God! PLEASE! Probie! Oh god!" The words caught in Tony's throat and he shuddered in his sleep. "Tim!"
"Tony!" Tim shuffled hurriedly to his friend's side. "Tony! Wake up!"
There was still no response, no indication that Tony was aware of anything outside of his dream world. Must be a hell of a nightmare, McGee thought worriedly as he cautiously sat on the side of Tony's bed and reached for his partner's shoulder.
Finally the senior field agent startled awake. He blinked, confused, and focused on McGee. And as realization dawned, a smile spread across Tony's face and he sat up, unashamedly grabbing his partner in a fierce embrace.
Tim tensed in surprise, then awkwardly returned the hug. "You okay?" He asked, voice muffled.
DiNozzo pulled back almost immediately. "Sorry, Probie. I was..." he trailed off, looking sheepish.
"Having a nightmare. It's okay," Tim assured the older man. "Looked like it was pretty intense."
"Peter was here...you were...I couldn't..." Tony was clearly still shaken by the vivid dream. "It was so real. I thought for sure that you were...gone. Probie, I..."
"I know," Tim replied with a smile. "I'm just glad it was a nightmare and not reality." The smile faded as he studied Tony for a moment. "It's really over, you know."
"I hope so," Tony said softly. "If you tell anyone I hugged you like that..." Tony eyed his friend menacingly.
"You'll kill me." Tim grinned in response, and for the first time since the beginning of the whole situation saw genuine happiness in Tony's green eyes.
"Believe it," Tony teased cheerfully, the horror of the nightmare already fading into memory. "Although now that we're blood brothers, I don't know the protocol. Do brothers hug? Is that allowed? I don't have any experience with this."
Tim couldn't suppress a chuckle. "Yeah, I think it's allowed. Probably considered normal, even."
Tony's expression suddenly turned serious as he commented solemnly, "I know that it's part of the job to risk our lives. I know that there's always a chance that one of us won't be coming back. It's happened before. It'll probably happen again." He paused, and Tim waited patiently for the rest. "But I'm really glad that wasn't the case this time. You know?" Sincerity was written all over Tony's face as he looked at his friend.
A silent nod, and then, "Yeah. Believe me, I know."
Tim gingerly made his way back into his own bed, and relaxed into the pillows as Tony spoke once more. The senior field agent was clearly fading, sleep overtaking him, but before falling asleep he managed, "Thanks, Probie. Thank you for caring enough to save my life."
The younger agent smiled slightly in return, though Tony had already fallen asleep. Tim whispered, "Any time, Tony. Any time."