Fighting the Instinct to Breathe
I don't own the show or any of the characters on it. I just have the habit of daydreaming up different ideas for how things could have gone story-wise and then writing them out for kicks.
It was so simple and yet, somehow, impossible to comprehend. First, he was standing right there and then he was not.
The crime scene was a mess. Then again, Agent DiNozzo figured that seemed about right for the occasion. After all, someone had detonated a small bomb just a few yards from the very location he happened to be standing. That happened to be on what was left of a small bridge, stretching, now only part way, out over the river.
Somewhere behind him Gibbs was shouting again. His voice was a commanding bark, but Tony could easily detect an almost gentle, paternal undertone. That was Gibbs for you. McGee had used a particularly hilarious term to describe their boss just that morning. He had said (in a manner of absolute seriousness) that Gibbs was like a "den mother".
' Come again, Probie? '
'I'm not a Probie anymore, I--'
' Fine. Come again, McGeek. '
' Ok, I'm sorry! Elf Lord...'
McGee had simply rolled his eyes and continued, apparently deciding to direct his explanation toward Ziva, who had also been a part of the conversation. He'd described Gibbs as being like a mother fox, protecting her cubs from outsiders. It was amusingly accurate, so much so that even as he thought of it for the sixteenth time that day, the agent broke into an unwitting grin.
"What's so funny DiNozzo?"
How does he do that?
The reply came too rushed for his liking. Gibbs was surely onto him.
Somehow, this was all the junior agent's fault. DiNozzo figured he would find some way to pay him back later.
Oh, Probster...you're in for it.
While Tony planned his 'revenge', his eyes automatically sought out the other agent. McGee was standing a good twenty feet away from him, before a portion of bridge that was, quite simply, no longer there. Something near the edge had apparently caught his attention. But, something else caught Tony's.
"McGee! Be careful!"
Even as Gibbs was shouting Anthony DiNozzo was running. He had set off in a dead sprint, all of his energy focused on closing the gap between him and the younger agent who suddenly found the ground slipping out from underneath him. What had begun as a small fracture in the bridge's remnants had opened up, tracing a line between Agent McGee and the rest of the team. And then suddenly, he was falling. He wasn't alone.
Tony had reached the edge just as it had nearly swallowed his partner. He made a swipe for the young man, his body stretched to its absolute limit, fingers straining at air--but to no avail.
He watched, helpless, as his friend was swallowed by the expanse of the river that ran beneath the bridge. He waited for the space of a few breaths. Maybe McGee would reappear at the surface. Maybe the fall hadn't been so bad and he would come up any moment for air demanding help. That's right. Any second now...
"McGee! DiNozzo is he..."
Gibbs was nearly at his side and suddenly Tony knew he had to make a choice. He cast a glance in his boss's direction, it was half an apology and half a question. He didn't wait for an answer.
For a moment, he almost felt like he was flying.
The sensation was quickly replaced as he crashed through the surface of the river. He'd landed close to where McGee had gone under and, hopefully, close to McGee.
His immediate thought was that he needed to get air. He fought the instinct long enough to open his eyes and do a quick scan for his friend. Seeing nothing, he knew that his supply of oxygen was limited and that he would need to take in enough to try again. Tony began to fight his way upward.
He broke surface long enough to hear someone shouting his name—or part of his name—Ziva? He didn't pause to discern who it actually was. Instead, he took in as much air as he could garner in a single gulping breath and dove, submerging himself once more.
He was always picking on the junior agent. Always. Recently, McGee had started fighting back more and more, and Tony had considered that as something of a personal accomplishment.
Good for you, Probie. Showin' a little more spine.
It wasn't because he didn't like the younger man.
Why am I thinking about this right now?
Not even close.
McGee! Where are you?
This was how Anthony DiNozzo bonded. It was different with women. And even then, it was different depending on the woman. Women, he could break into categories. There were women like Kate—whom he had teased quite a bit. Kate was, always would be, a friend.
There were women like Ziva.
Ok, we're not going there.
With men—there were types and (then there was Gibbs).
There were enemies.
'Competition' may have been the better word. These weren't blood enemies or dangerous enemies. These were the types of guys that Tony might punch in the face during a drunken bar fight.
Or at Isabelle Perry's backyard graduation party…
There were criminals—really, criminals were virtually genderless. It was just that there were hot criminals and then there were criminals, and male criminals were immediately disqualified from the former category.
And then, there were friends.
That's you Probie. Don't go getting lost on me now…
The current was stronger than he'd expected, but it made it easy to guess which direction his friend had probably gone. Even so, he was almost out of breath when he found the man, unconscious and suspended amidst the rubble of the fallen bridge. Fighting the instinct to breathe, he moved forward faster than before. Reaching, repeating that moment on the bridge—fingers stretched and a desperation that cancelled out everything else.
Every harsh word.
Every insult between them.
Every moment of doubt.
There was no doubt left in Tony's mind. The urgency of the situation had transformed his thoughts with a clarity that only such moments ever produced.
That's so like you DiNozzo—you only ever realize anything when it's too late.
That's how it had been with Kate. All the bantering, all the subtle and not so subtle jabbing, all of the everything and then she was just gone—and he had been left wondering: did she know?
You were one of my best friend's Kate. I hope you knew that.Did McGee know that? Had he ever told his little Probie just how much he counted on him? Had he ever, even once, made his position clear?
Damnit McGee! Not you too!
He was close enough now to reach out and touch the junior field agent.
He'd only been inches away from Kate when—
There was a sound, like muffled thunder in his ears. More rubble from the bridge had tumbled into the river in what the agent had decided was most definitely not a good sign.
There was no time to waste. No time to think. Up we go, Probie.
Up we go, Probie.
As usual, McGee had to make things difficult.
Less than a moment after Tony began their struggle toward the surface, he was met with a surprising resistance—as if an invisible hand had reached out to snag McGee back. He turned, startled and already out of air. They didn't have time for this. His lungs were burning with a vengeance he had never known.
And then he saw it…the long metal pole that had somehow snagged on McGee's jacket. So that was why he hadn't floated up to the surface.
It wasn't difficult to yank the young agent free, but by now Tony has already used up the last of his breath. It terrified him, knowing that his partner had been submerged this entire time—how long had McGee gone without air? As he forced his way toward the surface—forced both of them—he tried to calculate. It had seemed to take hours—but really, he'd located the young man in a matter of minutes. Even still---there was a blackness edging in on his vision. His lungs were going to explode any second now.
No. Not now. They were too close—and Gibbs would kill him. Hell, if he died Gibbs would find some way to bring him back, just to kill him again.
McGee was heavy.
He was heavy.
Why hadn't he ditched his jacket before diving in?
So heavy, and that blackness was moving in. The surface seemed to stretch on miles above them and yet just out of reach.
I'm sorry, boss…
Agent DiNozzo felt a powerful grip on his arm, just before the world went black.
It had been a direct order—and DiNozzo hadn't obeyed.
Leroy Jethro Gibbs had decided that he was not going to kill his senior agent once he'd recovered both of his men—and he would recover them both alive.
He was too concerned. First seeing McGee disappear from the edge, bottoming out in a rush of debris, and then Agent DiNozzo.
Tony had cast him a look just before going in and damn all, that look would haunt him for the rest of his life. And that was regardless of whatever condition his men were in when he found them. He and Ziva reached the edge moments later. They could still see the disturbance in the water's surface where a man had gone down.
If he had reached '10' before his agent reappeared, Gibbs knew that he would probably be the next one in. To ensure that was the case—and to avoid further concern—he gave Ziva specific and immediate instructions. He knew that his remaining agent would not otherwise have allowed him to reach 5 before beating him to that punch.
Just as he had finished giving orders, Agent DiNozzo broke surface again.
For a moment, Ziva was lost to all else. But his agent had quickly disappeared back beneath the waves and now Ziva was running in the direction of the quickly assembling rescue crew. She would help lead the effort.
Gibbs waited a moment longer—McGee hadn't come up with Tony that time and now they were both impossible to see beneath the too dark surface. Too damned dark.
They were breaths…
He didn't wait any longer. He needed to take action, needed to find his men
How many had McGee and DiNozzo missed already?
Ziva hated hospitals.
This was no mild sentiment. In particular, she hated hospital waiting rooms—she hated the waiting room at Bethesda more than most.
The staff had looked on silently or ignored them as both she and Gibbs had paced furiously back and forth, back and forth. They had fallen into a sort of rhythm that from the outside must have appeared as a sort of dance.
"Can they not tell us how they are doing?"
She was the one to break the silence, to stop the dance. The tension still remained in its wake. It radiated from both herself and the leader of her team. Only Gibbs continued to pace—harder—a solo act.
"They'll let us know as soon as they know something."
Gibbs was not convinced. She knew he was not. She knew also that he was only responding in the manner he was—what some might call "reasonable"—for her benefit. Always, Gibbs looked out for the members of his team—even when only one of them was present.
How could this have happened?
It was so simple and yet, somehow, impossible to comprehend. First, he was standing right there and then he was not.
This was true of both of the men on whose condition the now exhausted agent was so eagerly awaiting an update. And she was exhausted—though she had yet to register that fact.
She had helped Gibbs lead the rescue effort. They'd spotted Tony first—and her boss had reached into the water with a speed that seemed unnatural to any man. If not for Ziva, Gibbs might have joined the two submerged agents. She had been the primary force keeping him in the boat as he strained over the edge, extending himself as far as he could to reach them. She had leant him all of her strength and then some. She had helped pull all three of them back. The action had seemed then, very natural.
What had not seemed natural was the lack of vitality emanating from either of the men. The absence of childish remarks from Tony and the bluish pallor of McGee's face had unsettled her—perhaps even terrified her, though terror was something that a woman such as David rarely admitted to.
Neither man had been conscious. Neither had responded to repeated efforts made toward rousing them. Even as ambulance arrived—sirens drowning out everything else—the only sounds to drown out were made by others.
It was selfish, she knew, but Ziva didn't care about the others. Maybe Gibbs...the rest were strangers. How were they helping? These moving faces and bodies, their chests rising and falling, their voices unfamiliar and unwelcome—how could she hear Tony or McGee over their clamor?
When Gibbs spoke it was with a purpose. There were orders being made and she understood. They had a purpose and right now that purpose was focused on two of the only friends she might acknowledge in this world.
At least Tony had been breathing.
"You're here for Mr. DiNozzo and Mr. McGee?"
"Agent's DiNozzo and McGee."
The Doctor had asked them the question what felt like hours ago. In reality, it had only been just over thirty minutes. Gibbs had insisted on using their proper titles. Inwardly, Ziva had agreed.
They were not ordinary men.
Shortly after, the doctor had faded back into the babble and noise and the faceless people that seemed to surround them here too. The others were on their way, but hadn't yet arrived. In the mean time, in a waiting room full of fifteen or so people—Gibbs and Ziva were the alone.
"You can see him now."
It was the first voice she'd heard in over thirty minutes.
When Timothy McGee had come to the first time, he'd heard voices. They were familiar and yet indistinguishable—just as the dark shapes that seemed to swim beyond his vision. Instinctively, he felt himself trying to call out to them. There was a sound that may have been his voice. He did not recognize that sound.
DiNozzo had been asleep for hours and in truth, his teammates were beginning to fear that he would never come out of it. Stillness was unnatural to him—although, Ducky had mused to the others—hospitals were not entirely so.
They had come into the room in turn—two at a time were allowed. Two visitors, two agents sleeping side by side in hospital beds, with only a curtain to separate them.
It had been Abby who pushed back the curtain. Somehow, the room just "made more sense" that way. Gibbs had relaxed noticeably, but far from entirely, now that he was able to keep an eye on both of his men at once.
McGee also remained unconscious as people sifted in and out of the room. Ziva and Gibbs, Gibbs and Abby, Ducky and Palmer, Ducky and Gibbs, Ducky and Ziva, the director came and went, others too. One by one they had been ordered home by Gibbs and eventually by the doctors.
Ziva had been the one to argue with the doctors. Neither agent's family would be arriving anytime during that night, or until the next day or so. Until then, someone should remain with them.
One person was allowed to stay.
There hadn't been much of an argument. It just seemed natural that they would take turns. The first shift was decided by seniority—it was unfair, but inevitable. No, not inevitable, but Ziva recognized that deep down, she was also concerned for Gibbs. It was best not to push him too hard in this moment. He was exhausted—more so than she was and when she returned in a few hours he would not be able to refute her presence. He would have to sleep. He would have done all he could—while still doing right by his team.
2 hours after Ziva had gone home, 2 hours before she would return, Anthony DiNozzo woke up.
The first thing that he had thought then, was that his head hurt.
That wasn't helping.
He had dreamed of Kate while he slept and for just a moment, he had expected hers to be the first voice he heard when he woke. But, Kate was gone. Even she had acknowledged that much in the dream that was rapidly fading from his memory.
They had been sitting together…in the interrogation room of all places.
"Making this as uncomfortable as possible, I see. That is so like you."
He had wanted to say: "I miss you."
"Shut up DiNozzo."
Right then—he'd wanted to hug her.
They had talked. Talked about Kate, talked about McGee.
"He's a good friend, Tony."
"He always has your back."
"I know that too."
"And you'll always have his."
She had always had a way of touching on more, hitting what was beneath the surface. That had been one of Kate's many talents.
"I'm sorry I didn't have yours."
The smile she had given him then had been so achingly familiar, it had to have been real.
"Tony…Ari shot me in the front, remember?"
So like her.
"I miss you, Kate. We all do."
"I miss you too."
"It's Ok. I know."
Somehow, it was time to go now. But, he wasn't ready for that. Not yet…
"It's Ok, Tony."
A pause and then…
She meant it. And it had to be real because she meant it.
"Oh and Tony…"
"I'll always have your back."
"You were a good friend too."
"DiNozzo, answer me! That's an order!"
"Geez, Boss…can't a guy catch a break around here."
Tony had a good idea of where he probably was. This wasn't the first time he'd woken in a strange place. While it was true that the locations varied (Isabelle Perry's bedroom…after the graduation party), the sound of Gibbs' voice and the urgency it contained made for a pretty good tip off. (Or was it her parent's bedroom?)
When he'd last seen Gibbs where had they been?
His conversation with Kate.
("He always has your back.")
"How you feelin' DiNozzo?"
"You with me?"
"He's right over there."
Tony followed the direction of Gibbs' arm. Sure enough, their junior agent lay in a bed not 5 feet away from him. Suddenly Gibbs was making a grab for his wrist as he fought to get out of bed. He wasn't really thinking about why, but his eyes never left his fallen friend.
He had already said goodbye to Kate.
Not you too, Probie.
Gibbs was shouting at him again. This time it was in an effort to get him to lie back down. But his boss understood, he had too, and the shouting subsided.
He winced as he felt the effects of sleep wearing off.
That headache was a doozey.
He would have settled for kneeling at his friend's bedside (standing, just yet, was iffy at best). However, Gibbs had managed to produce a chair in the short time that it had taken DiNozzo to get out of bed. Where it had come from, Tony wasn't sure. Gibbs was magic after all, he'd probably pulled it out of a hat, or some alternate dimension. Magic. Science fiction.
He dismissed the barb—even though it had never been meant as that, McGee didn't like it. He saw it as an insult and Tony was tired of things hurting his friends just now.
Tony was aware of Gibbs hovering somewhere just behind him.
"…I guess I should say, 'hey Tim.' I mean, you're always calling me by my first name and it's only fair. Hell, as senior agent, if anyone is going to be using first names around here…"
"Not that it matters. Seniority I mean. Well, unless you're Gibbs. Anyway…you know, this would be a really stupid way to die, don't you? I mean, c'mon…how anticlimactic can you get? And falling off a bridge…that's not even a little original. Haven't I taught you anything, McGee? C'mon, you're not some red shirt—that was a Star Trek Reference, by the way. I expect even you know that—not that there would be anything wrong if you did."
He was drowning again. That silence was going to kill him.
"I talked to Kate—err while I was sleeping, that is…"
He could feel the look he was getting, those eyes boring into the back of his head, but Gibbs said nothing.
"I know she misses you, but I also know that she isn't ready for you to join her just yet. In fact, she's made it your responsibility to watch my back. You hear that? We're stuck with each other…I'm supposed to do the same for you, that's why…"
"You jumped off a bridge."
Gibbs offered in his usual steady tone.
The heart monitor was beeping steadily beside McGee's bed. For everything, he looked like he was just sleeping. Hell, even the presence of all that technology didn't seem so strange—not if Tony didn't think about what it was for. He often imagined the junior agent cuddling up with his favorite computer at night. Maybe one shaped like a teddy bear, but still decidedly full of wires and just screaming: "technology"—"GEEK".
So what if he was?
He was their geek. They needed him.
"We need you, Probie."
It was then that he was aware of a hand gently squeezing his shoulder. He knew before Gibbs said anything that he was being told to go back to bed.
That sound again and the familiarity of those voices.
They were fading.
Without understanding why, McGee felt himself beginning to panic.
It was his first conscious thought—
—and his first conscious words.
" 'M not a probie 'n'more…"
It was the only appropriate response he could think of.
Somehow, it sent relief seeping through his veins…if only because everything had to be right in the world if he and Tony were bantering with each other.
And that was the hitch, wasn't it…
The thing he'd never realized…
"McGee, how're you feelin'?"
Though, he realized it now, in between breaths.
" 'M fine, boss."
Tony only ever really teased him when things were OK.
(Or, when he was trying to make things OK, which still implied some amount of hope.)
It was only in the darkest moments—the ones between heartbeats, when you weren't sure the next beat was coming—that his senior agent lost all humor. The last time had been when Kate died.
They had waited and waited on a beat that they knew wasn't coming.
"Y' look li' crap."
I'm glad you're here.
"You're looking pretty dashing yourself, McGetshurt…"
Tony's Jab was punctuated by the beep of the heart monitor beside his bed.
"You fell off a bridge."
McGee snorted, let out a breath…
"Y'mean we fell off a bridg'…"
"No. You fell…"
"DiNozzo jumped in to save you."
"I've always got your back, Probie."