Title: The Mighty Soul
Spoilers: Through "Truth Or Consequences" (ep 7x01)
Summary: Tony finds a friend in the least likely place.
Disclaimer: I don't own NCIS or anything to do with NCIS (although Original Characters come from my own brain).
Author's Note: Reviews are appreciated, and I hope you enjoy the story.
X X X
It happened so fast that Special Agent Anthony "Tony" DiNozzo never really saw it coming.
The happy-go-lucky Navy cop was fine one day, and within a matter of months, his world tumbled apart. Completely and irrevocably. And no matter how much it hurt… for the better.
It all started with a new friend, standing only a little over four feet tall, with the Tony's twin personality and the spirit of a giant. They say big things come in little packages. This story proves it.
Because just a handful of short months ago, Tony met Alex…
X X X
A few hours ago, Tony had chased down a suspect. For some reason, the little weasel in a Marine Corp. uniform had taken one look at the NCIS ball cap and sprinted. Sure, the agent had eventually caught him, but it had been after hoofing it over five blocks and taking a kick straight to the chest.
Why do they run? Tony mused, as he lay back on the emergency room table with his arms at his side, and his legs dangling over the end.
Agents nearly always caught runners, slamming them face-down on the pavement or against a wall in the end. It rarely ended nicely, and more often than not, someone got pretty banged up. The suspect even fought back now and then. Sometimes cops even wanted them to – assault on any kind of officer never boded well for a fleeing suspect. Yet that was how Tony found himself getting his ribs x-rayed. Again.
"This routine's getting old," he muttered under his breath.
As tired as he was, he still couldn't sleep in the antiseptic smelling place. Upon arrival, a nurse had shoved him on one of those paper-covered, barely-padded tables that crinkled every time he moved; not to mention it provided as much comfort as a Teflon-coated rock.
And the fluorescent lights that perpetually hummed didn't help much, either.
"Damn it," he muttered, gingerly working himself upright when his ribs began to scream.
The evening had already dragged its way toward night, and Tony still sat in the military hospital's emergency room. At least he'd been through X-Ray, although it didn't matter much. He had to wait on the doctor to deliver a verdict.
Anyone who knew Tony understood that the agent should never be allowed to get bored. It rarely ended well for those around him. The man – although approaching middle age – had a child's imagination and a penchant for finding trouble. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but Tony had an infinite number of lives.
With his head tilted back and staring up at the ceiling, he pondered what tomorrow might bring – when he could sit at his desk and fire spitballs at his co-workers. Counting the ceiling tiles had stopped being fun a long time ago. He might as well plan a prank or two.
"You ever kill anyone with that gun?" a young voice asked from the vicinity of his knee, making him jump. Which made one hand instinctively wrap around his aching ribs.
Tony groaned and then glanced down. Instead of eager, morbid curiosity, he saw a child with a look of genuine interest. The intensity in the kid's gaze made him squirm, as did the child's bald head and wheelchair. For half a second, the typically unflappable agent didn't know quite what to say.
"Uh," he replied. Oh, intelligent reply, DiNozzo.
Kids usually made him nervous. Sick, pale kids that looked like they'd been through a war even more so.
"Are you a cop?" the child asked, ignoring Tony's discomfort.
Unfortunately, the kid didn't look to be going anywhere anytime soon, and Tony forced the paper to crinkle under his butt as he shifted. Eventually, though, he realized an answer was expected, and sighed.
"I'm an NCIS Special Agent," he replied.
Most kids would start pelting off questions about bad guys. This kid was different, because the child simply stared him down with the most amazing blue eyes. And in the midst of their staring contest, it occurred to Tony that he couldn't really tell whether the child in front of him was male or female. Dark eyelashes and a young smooth face didn't scream 'boy' or 'girl' to him. The bald head didn't help much, either.
"Well, I'm Alex," the kid finally said.
Okay, that's not much of a hint, Tony mused, impressed at the kid's fortitude. The agent had been sending off gigantic waves of 'leave me alone.'
"Nice to meet you, Alex," he replied, extending his hand. And when the kid gripped his fingers, gave a childish shake, and smiled, Tony found himself charmed to the core by a pair of dimpled cheeks.
"So what's an NCIS special agent?"
And that question set off a conversation answering everything from the type of gun loosely laid over his side to the types of cases the Naval Criminal Investigate Services agents handled. That in turn led to movies, and Tony found himself easing off the paper-coated exam table to sit in the chair next to the kid.
That was where the emergency room doctor found them half an hour later.
"No broken ribs, and you seem to be doing just fine," the physician amusedly stated, eyeing the two. Focusing on Tony, he grinned and said, "I see you've met our wandering patient."
Tony was like a child, squirming in his chair, when he said, "Alex and I have been talking James Bond and his toys."
"The cooooooolest super spy in the universe," Alex declared in with a very serious, very authoritative voice. "Seriously, nobody could beat the toys that guy's got. Q rocks!"
"I imagine so," the physician replied, squatting down to the same level as the enthralled agent and child. Looking at Alex, he said, "But you will have to hustle if you want some of that ice cream being passed around in your room."
Alex's eyes got wide and the kid was gone with a quick wave, rolling the steel contraption down the corridor in a flash.
"What's Alex's deal? Cancer?" Tony asked, watching as the child rounded out of sight in the direction of the elevator.
"Yeah," the doctor quietly replied. "She came into the emergency room a few weeks ago and has been here since."
The physician's tone settled on Tony like the worst kind of chill – it ran deep, cold, and to the core. Tony found himself asking, "Terminal?"
As if that simple query broke him from a trance, the emergency room doctor turned his head to look at Tony before saying, "Her oncologist is doing everything in his power to treat her, but it doesn't look good."
Even the fluorescence of the room seemed to dim a little when the doctor added, "I keep up with her." Smiling, he said, "I think we all do – she's one of those patients that get under your skin, you know?"
In the ensuing silence, Tony stared down the hall, mentally re-watching Alex roll away toward a hopeful bowl of ice cream.
And it didn't seem fair.
Two nights later, though, even Tony was surprised to find himself walking down the halls of Bethesda's naval hospital. Feeling awkward. Carrying a big, stuffed panda bear in a tuxedo. The bear really lit up the cool charts, though, considering he sported a martini glass in one paw (shaken, not stirred) and a revolver in the other. Bear. James Bear.
Once he stepped foot into the brightly painted, cheery hallway, though, he didn't feel quite so out of place. Toys abounded. Unlike most other areas of the hospital that remained eerily quiet and utterly sterile, sounds of laughter drifted through the halls, and for a second it felt more like he was walking into a daycare facility.
His suit jacket had been left in his car, although he still adorned his waistcoat and sidearm. Alex thought it was cool, so why not indulge her a little?
"Hey," he said, sidling up to a harried nurse holding the hand of what appeared to be a petulant pre-teen boy.
While the kid squirmed, the nurse shot an exasperated look at Tony and asked, "Can I help you?"
"Yeah, I met a little girl named Alex the other day," Tony replied, unsure of how to proceed. He hadn't exactly asked her last name and suddenly felt awkward about it. It had seemed like a good idea awhile ago.
"Hold on a second," the nurse muttered at Tony before turning to the young charge with the petulant look and glaring eyes. To the boy she held her calm better than Tony felt he ever could when she said, "You need to go back to your room. I don't want to have to call security."
For a moment, the kid looked like he might rebel, but eventually he ducked his head, muttered a few choice words under his breath, and stomped off down the wide hallway.
The nurse's eyes never broke contact with the morose kid, even as she said, "That's Seth. His father died in Iraq two months ago. Seth's going home as soon as his system recovers a little more, because he's in remission."
When she turned to face Tony, her eyes held a hint of misery when she added, "His father never got to see him well."
What do you say to that? Tony wondered. Nothing could be said, because sometimes life just sucked that way.
Then just as quickly, the nurse huffed out a breath, smiled, and said, "If you're talking about Alexandra Manes, she's third door on your right. Fourth bed. She'll be happy for the company if she's there." A twinkle shot through the nurse's amused brown eyes when she continued, "She's better than Houdini at the escape routine."
The nurse was right, Tony mused when he walked into the expansive room with six beds. A couple of pale, frail children lay resting quietly at the back of the room, while others sat on a bed toward the front, raucously playing a video game.
And Alex was nowhere in sight. However, sitting in a chair next to the child's bed, an older woman dozed amidst the chaos.
The internal debate lasted only a few seconds – to stay or to go – before Tony finally stepped to the end of the bed and laid the bear down gently. If he'd had any hopes of not waking the slumbering woman, he failed miserably. As soon as the stuffed toy gently touched the blankets, the woman Tony pegged to be in her early-sixties awoke and sat up, slightly startled.
"I'm sorry," Tony quietly murmured. "I just brought this for the kid."
He refrained from stating how she looked tired, even as the woman stood, held out her hand, and quietly said, "You must be the agent Alex has been talking about non-stop."
"She's been talking about me?" he asked with a grin and feeling supremely pleased.
"Oh yes," she replied, her eyes dancing, holding her hand out to Tony. "I'm Alex's grandmother, Sheila."
And in an attempt to keep the mood light, he softly kissed the back of her hand, making Sheila laugh in delight.
"It's a pleasure to meet you," he answered, releasing her hand and glancing about the room pointedly.
"My granddaughter wandered off a bit ago," Sheila offered with a grin. "She's my little adventurer – always off doing something interesting."
"Then this place must be hell," Tony mused aloud, wincing when he realized what he'd said. "Excuse me, I mean—"
"Don't apologize," Sheila said, grinning wide, "because it's true. For someone with her energy, being cooped up is the worst form of torture."
Because Tony could often be fidgety and restless, he truly got it. The kid had spirit.
"I assume she always returns, though?" he asked, and watched in fascination as a few years slipped off the woman's face and she threw her head back and laughed. Sheila sure as heck didn't fit the typical grandmotherly role. Sure, she might be older, but she struck Tony as feisty. Just like her granddaughter.
"I imagine she'll be back anytime," she answered. "She always comes back at snack time. And meal time. And dessert time."
"So if there's food involved, she suddenly appears?" Tony asked, amused.
"Oh heavens, yes," she replied. Conspiratorially, Sheila rounded the bed to stand next to Tony, lean in, and whisper, "I'm afraid the child has a network of informants that keep her in the know."
Thinking of how the emergency room doctor told Alex about ice cream, Tony could only grin. The kids would make a good agent. Stretching her limbs, Sheila said, "Just wait a few minutes, and I'm sure she'll turn up."
And she did.
The adults heard the girl before they actually saw her. Both turned and smiled at the impetuous kid when she yelled, "Tony! You're here!"
"And I brought you a friend," he answered as Alex rounded the corner and rolled her way across the room.
"Awesome," she breathlessly replied. "He's like a cross between Kung Fu Panda and James Bond."
Dropping the toy into her lap, Tony crouched down and said, "I wanted to thank you for keeping me company the other day."
"Are you okay?" she asked, more curiosity than concern in her face and voice.
"Oh yeah. Occasionally I have to kick some bad guy's butt. Every now and again they get in a good punch, and I have to come in and get checked out. It's no biggie," he replied.
"Cool. You're like an action hero that goes hand-to-hand with major bad guys, huh?"
"Sometimes," Tony replied with a grin. He didn't need to add that at times he jumped out of the line of fire and let one of his partners take out the bad guy for him. No reason to disillusion the kid, after all.
Then the barrage of questions came flying. Have you ever had to shoot anyone? Yes. What's the worst thing that's happened to you? Got the pneumonic plague from a psycho and ended up in the hospital for weeks. You ever been shot or anything? A few times – shot a couple, stabbed a couple. Do you get to travel like people in the military? Sometimes. I was a cop on a big ship for awhile. Do you have any cool toys like James Bond? I have a friend that's a lot like Q.
Tony found himself having fun and pulling up a chair. A few minutes later, he glanced up at Sheila and offered, "Why don't you go get some fresh air, maybe a walk. I'll be here for a little while."
As the grateful woman walked away, the discussion turned to what kind of adventures a girl could have in a hospital.
Then she mentioned she was ten years old, and Tony couldn't hide his surprise. She looked no older than eight, being so slight in frame and young in the face.
"I get that a lot," Alex said, cocking her head to the side and giving him a look. "I'm small for my age."
"That doesn't seem to stop you," Tony wryly commented, earning a dimpled grin. Then glancing around and leaning in, he asked, "Are you ready for another adventure?"
In return, Alex glanced around to make sure no ears were perked in their directly. Cupping her hands, she whispered, "I've been pretending the nurses and doctors are in the enemy camp. I've got a few loyal spies, though. Wanna play?"
With a quick, private word to one particular loyal spy in the form of a nurse, Tony idly pushed Alex's wheelchair down the hall until out of sight of prying eyes. Then they vaulted.
The nurse to whom Tony had spoken had unconditionally stated that Alex couldn't go outside. They didn't need to, though, because a wide array of floors and buildings lay at their fingertips. It only took the push of a button or roll of Alex's wheels to transport the duo to another place where they could explore (so long as they stayed out of those places marked Personnel Only).
At one point they ended up sprawled out on the linoleum floor shooting marbles in an empty room, until a nurse caught them. Unfortunately, this particular nurse was of the curmudgeonly type – not one of their allies. Tony and Alex fled.
An hour after their play time started, Alex yawned widely and grinned, showing off her dimpled cheeks.
"I think it's time to rest," Tony said, languidly pushing her chair down the hall as she tilted her head back and looked up at him. Smiling, he asked, "Can I come back and play again?"
With her eyes twinkling, she answered, "Yes. But next time, bring a cool toy from your friend that's like Q."
And with that challenge in mind, Tony delivered Alex to a waiting Sheila.
"Thank you," the older woman murmured as Tony helped Alex into her bed.
"It's been a blast," Tony replied, really meaning every word. He couldn't remember a time he'd just had fun like that. Glancing down at the girl who lay propped against the pillows, he said, "I'll be back. And I'll bring toys."
"Let me walk you out," Sheila offered, rounding the bed.
Taking her hand into the crook of his arm, they walked out side-by-side, pausing at the nurse's station. The nurse who manned the area glanced up and smiled at Tony.
"Thank you for spending time with her," Sheila said, her smile turning weary. "You have no idea what that means to both of us."
For a moment, he studied the older woman. She really looked tired, and her pale blue eyes were ringed with dark circles. The streaks of gray in her light brown hair shone in the harsh fluorescent light, and Tony wondered for the first time just how long Sheila had been at the hospital.
"Where are her parents?" he asked.
"My son – her father – was a Marine," she replied. "He and his wife died in a car accident when Alex was a toddler."
Which meant Sheila had been raising Alex.
"Do you mind if I visit again?" Tony asked, and then hastily added, "There are times I'm on a case and can't make it on a scheduled basis, but when I'm not…"
"Alex would love it," Sheila confirmed, laying her hand on his bicep and squeezing gently. "I think you have become her favorite person."
That was how Tony found himself willingly gracing the halls of the naval hospital's children's ward on free nights and weekends. It was also how he almost got caught stealing NCIS supplies by their forensic analyst, Abigail Scuito. He'd barely managed to sneak out the laptop and special forensic software, and then return them before Abby noticed the absence. Of course he'd taken it on the weekend and returned it before she ever had a chance to see the gaping hole on her desk. Tony hadn't expected her to come in on their rare free weekend. That he'd passed her on his way out proved how close he cut it.
And he didn't want to explain to his favorite forensic expert and best friend how a little pixie had rapidly become his favorite person in the world. While Tony could charm the nurses with his sophisticated charm, Alex beguiled them with her amazing smile and indomitable energy.
So more often than not, Sheila got a break while Tony took care of the little girl.
And it only faltered once.
Several weeks after their initial meeting, Tony bound into the children's ward, carrying a video game in one hand and a small box of forbidden candy in the other. Grinning at the nurse as he passed, he was so excited to see Alex and tell her about the Cold Case they'd just closed (a case of romance, intrigue, and cool fights), that he didn't hear the nurse call out to him until it was too late.
When he walked into the room, the child he expected to find greeting him wasn't smiling. She certainly wasn't anxiously waiting to play with her very own special agent. Instead, she lay pale and clammy in her bed. All around her, the plastic curtain had been pulled, making a bubble of protective sterility.
Thoughts of a blue-lit decontamination room and days upon days of battling the plague overwhelmed him, and he found himself staring unblinkingly at Alex through the clear sheet. His heart raced and a cold sweat broke over him.
"She's caught a chest cold," Sheila explained from where she sat in scrubs and sporting a mask inside the curtains. "And with her immune system so weak from her treatment…"
The worry in the older woman wasn't lost on Tony, and he found himself suddenly jittery. In place of the excitement he felt, something cold and steely settled into his stomach; and the urge to bolt overwhelmed him until he trembled.
"I brought these for her," Tony said, staring down at the sleeping form in the bed. Settling the items on a little table outside the protective walls, he gave in and just walked away. Yet he didn't make it past the nurse's desk. His feet stopped working, and he used his arms to support his weight, while he squeezed his eyes shut.
He had no idea how long he stood there, feeling weak and ineffectual. That he was shaking didn't really register until he felt Sheila laid her hand on his back and rub small circles.
"It's hard to see her like that," she quietly murmured. "Alex is never that quiet."
When Tony still couldn't find his voice, she wrapped an arm around his waist and squeezed, leaning her head against him. Very quietly, she said, "And it's okay to be scared to death. At times like this, I don't know what to do, either."
Surprised at her words, Tony turned and gave Sheila a hug, unsure of himself. For the first time, Alex's condition really hit home, and he knew without a doubt she was the bravest person he'd ever met.
"But if you can't be here for the bad, then I don't know if you should be here for the good," Sheila said. When Tony looked down into her eyes, he saw no malice. In those blue orbs, he found only honesty and fatigue layered upon each other.
Then giving her a squeeze, he just nodded his head sharply once and walked away.
So it surprised him when he found himself standing at the foot of Alex's bed just an hour later. He still didn't know what to do or how he was going to handle it. But looking at Sheila, he resolutely said, "Go get something to eat. Get some air. I'll be here if she wakes up."
"We'll talk a little more when I get back," Sheila said with a grateful smile.
And later, they did talk. That was how Tony found out the details – how Alex had been sick before. That the doctors had found tumors again. That this time around, the little girl's luck was running thin.
X X X
It took well over a week for Alex to fully get over the cold. While a healthy child might get the sniffles, Alex ended up with a mild infection. Unfortunately, even as Alex got better, she'd been ordered to bed rest. It perturbed the child greatly that Tony agreed.
"You gotta listen to the doc," Tony said, taking Sheila's seat as the older woman left to run some errands.
"There's nothing to do," Alex lamented in return. Glaring at Tony, her eyes took on a twinkle and she demanded, "Tell me a story."
"About what?" Tony asked. This had been going on for several days, so he had gotten used to entertaining the child.
"Tell me about one of your favorite partners," she demanded.
"Kate," Tony mused. "Caitlin Todd used to be a secret service agent before she came to work as my partner. She worked on the president's airplane in the security detail."
"She's an NCIS agent now?"
Wishing he'd never brought up the subject, Tony felt his heart clench when he replied, "No. She died in the line of duty a few years back. She was kind of like a sister and we had fun together."
"Oh," Alex replied. "Do you have a lot of friends who have died?"
Only a child could get away with that kind of question, Tony thought. When her face turned expectant, Tony quietly said, "Yeah. I've had quite a few friends who died in the line of duty."
"It makes you sad," she replied, reaching out to squeeze the hand he'd laid on the edge of her bed.
Since he couldn't exactly explain to Alex that it tore a piece of him off every time he lost a friend, lover, or partner, he simply replied, "Yeah. Losing them makes me really sad."
"Tell me about your friends at work now," she commanded, scooting over as a hint for Tony to stretch out next to her.
He'd discovered the last time she'd demanded a story that she really liked snuggling up next to him while she listened. And if she was ill enough, she'd fall asleep curled into him, leaving Tony to wonder if perhaps the emotions rolling through him were what his boss, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, had felt before the boss's family had been killed. Did every father experience this melancholy, prideful sense of swelling in his chest that made his heart bigger?
"Well, I've told you about Abby and all the stuff she works with in her lab. Now let me tell you about Tim McGee. I like to call him McGeek or Elf Lord," Tony explained as Alex laid her head on his chest.
"Why?" she asked into his shirt.
"Let's just say that McGee is the biggest geek I know. Plus, it's fun," Tony replied, smiling. From there he launched into a tale involving pranks and superglue until Sheila returned to find Alex out cold.
"Thank you," she whispered, taking her chair next to the bed and smiling at the grown man who lay in the too-short bed.
"Glad to be here," he replied, slowly extricating himself and pulling the covers up over Alex. In the dim glow of the room, he watched the child snuggle deep into the covers and bent to kiss her forehead.
A piece of his brash heart seized and burned, though, when she thickly murmured, "Love you, Tony."
And for once, without hesitation, he whispered back the most terrifying words in the world.
"I love you too, kid."
X X X
Over the course of the first couple of months, Tony figured out a routine. He knew when Alex was going through chemo, she'd spend a great deal of time asleep. If he could, he'd stop by and leave a note. A day or two after those treatments, he'd show up with a grin, his heart breaking sometimes when she didn't have enough energy to even move.
With every visit, she became more pallid. Her eyes looked a little darker, and fatigue etched her small face. Yet every now and again, she would harness up her energy into a big burst, and want nothing more than to play. So when she could scamper about in that wheelchair of hers, he took advantage of the time.
It was turning out to be another one of those days she could barely move when Tony arrived, waving a pen he'd found while shopping online.
"It acts like a normal pen," he explained, handing the silver object to her. "But it's got a camera in it, too, that can transmit to the laptop I'm going to set up right over here."
So he did just that – hooking up the laptop and starting up the wireless application that received signals from the gadget he'd brought. While she grinned and clicked, he made faces at her and showed her how to load them up.
"This is really sweeeeeet," she said, capturing an image of the two of them sticking their tongues out at the camera.
After a short time – just a few minutes, really – she sighed and set the pen down on the nightstand. Looking up, she smiled and said, "I don't feel good anymore, Tony."
For a moment, he thought his heart might be made of glass. It splintered into little shards, piercing through every bit of him. Inhaling deep, he gave her the best smile he could, and said, "Scoot over."
When he crawled into the bed, he waited for Alex to curl into him before he let himself relax. Reality could be so damn cruel and she snuggled against him. But at the end of the day, she was still Alex – although worn on the outside, vivacious and curious on the inside.
"Tell me about Gibbs," she demanded. "He sounds like Oscar the Grouch."
"And you would be absolutely right," Tony exclaimed barking a laugh. "He is a grouch."
"Then why do you work for him?"
"Because he'll always have my six," he replied. At the girl's confused look, he explained, "That means that no matter what, he'll watch out for me. And that matters in my line of work."
Squinting up at him, Tony waited for her to respond. He could see her mind working, and knew she'd have an opinion on the matter. Alex always had an opinion – an aspect that charmed Tony to no end.
"I suppose that's important, so you don't get killed by the bad guys," Alex wisely concluded before dropping her head to his chest. "Now tell me the story about how you and McGee and Gibbs went and got Ziva in Somalia."
"You've already heard that story a few times," Tony pointed out.
"I know," she replied. The exasperation in her voice made him grin, and Tony acquiesced.
"It all started with a ship called the Damocles."
X X X
Alex had been having more bad days than good lately when Tony was picked to go undercover. So that night when he walked into the room and settled himself on the edge of Alex's bed, he felt dread at having to tell her he wouldn't be around for awhile.
He should have known better. Instead of feeling sad over his not being around, her eyes shone and her voice held awe when she asked, "Do you get to dress up like a scumbag like they do in the movies? Or do you get to wear a tuxedo, like James Bond?"
"Neither," he replied. "I'm going to be dressed like a soldier."
"Really? That's so coooooool."
He loved the way he drew that word out. Sobering, he explained to Alex and Sheila, "You can't discuss what I've told you. Actually, I could get in serious trouble if anyone knew I'd said anything. And I could be gone for a week."
Dropping his personal NCIS cap on Alex's bare head, he smiled and said, "I'll get back as soon as I can, though."
"And you'll be safe?" she asked, chewing her lower lip.
"I'll be just fine," Tony replied. "Promise."
Glancing at Sheila, he smiled tightly and said, "If anything happens, call my cell. I'll check it as soon as I can."
A quick glance at his watch made Tony realize he had to leave. In less than three hours, he'd be going underground – into a world of sex, drugs, and child slavery. Not a world he wanted to even be thinking about, let alone infiltrating. But since no one had met the keeper of the children yet (the real keeper being detained at the Navy Yard), they had a chance to shut down an insidious, evil operation.
Shaking his head, Tony forced the thoughts away and smiled at the child in the bed. Leaning down, he gently kissed her too-thin, pale cheek and whispered, "Love you, Alex," and let her hug him as tight as her weakening body would allow.
"Love you too, Tony."
"Hey Alex?" he said, garnering her attention. "I'll always have your six."
X X X
The operation nearly failed so many times that Tony felt a rush of relief when it came to an end. Woulda. Shoulda. Coulda. They never counted, so Tony was happy when the bust went down. In total, two Naval personnel had died in a hail of gunfire and the third had been arrested while Tony released the children being transported for trade. As he'd made the arrest, McGee had gone to work gathering up others implicated in the ring of criminals, and social services swept in to take care of all the little girls.
That week was a hellish nightmare as he watched children show up – drugged at first and then terrified.
His job as keeper had put him in close proximity to the young girls, all between seven and twelve years of age, and he'd watched them cry themselves to sleep every night and huddle together in shipping containers during the day. All the while, he'd kept a sneer on his face and done his best to terrorize them to keep them in line; and it killed him that he'd be the face they saw in their nightmares for the rest of their lives.
But it had kept them safe and untouched – a small blessing that very nearly didn't happen. If Tony hadn't been able to convince the leader of the crew that the children would be worth more if left "pure", Tony had no doubt several of the girls would have been raped. Or worst.
"I really hated that, Boss," Tony announced as he strode through the bullpen, pulling off the uniform he'd worn a piece at a time. Standing in only a pair of slacks in the middle of the bullpen, he sloughed on a t-shirt, and dropped his drawers. The jeans in his desk would be a far cry better than wearing the uniform in which the bust went down.
"Finish getting changed and get to interrogation," Gibbs said, settling behind his desk as he pulled together his files.
"Sounds good," Tony replied, grinning.
It felt fantastic taking down scumbags, and on days like today, he felt on top of the world.
"Then let's get it done, DiNozzo," the team leader said. "And maybe I'll buy you a pizza."
Reaching into his desk, Gibbs grabbed Tony's credentials and cell and tossed them to the waiting agent.
On his way out of the bullpen, Tony flipped open his phone and frowned.
"DiNozzo. Interrogation. Now," Gibbs reminded the still Tony. When his agent didn't move, though, the team leader walked over to where the younger man stood stock still. "You okay?"
Recognizing the number, Tony felt his heart stop and he lifted the phone to his ear, listening to the first of several messages: Tony, it's Sheila. Alex has taken a turn for the worst. Come quick.
He didn't hear if there was more to the message. Instead he snapped his cell phone shut and ran on instinct. Without a word, and ignoring the orders of his leader, he walked away. Not walked. Ran for the stairs. If he even dared the elevator, Gibbs would trap him between floors, and Tony didn't have time.
Vaulting down entire half-flights at a time, Tony's mind buzzed. He vaguely heard Gibbs telling him to get the hell back there, but he couldn't think. He could barely breathe, and it felt like every cell trembled. While he might have had a few tense moments keeping his young charges physically safe during the op, at no point had he felt this scared.
X X X
The drive to Bethesda was a blur. At one point his cell began to buzz, and he turned it off. He really didn't want to talk to Gibbs. All he could think about was the promise he'd made to one particular little girl and her grandmother.
Sprinting through the halls, he made it from the parking garage to the children's ward in record time. Several nurses called his name as he rounded the corner, entered Alex's room and came to a heart-shattering stop.
Every ounce of life seeped out of him and onto the floor as he stared at the empty bed.
He knew one of the nurses was speaking to him, but the words didn't make sense. None of it did. It hadn't even been a week. Six days he'd been under, acting the part he needed.
"She went home," a familiar voice said, and he glanced down to see one of the regular nurses watching him. Her face somber, she laid a hand on the arms he'd crossed in front of her chest and added, "It's her time, Tony. Her grandmother took her home to die in familiar surroundings."
The sob burst out of him unexpectedly and he could only nod, praying it wasn't too late. Unsure of what else to do, he drew in a long breath and finally said, "I don't know where she lives."
Even to himself, his voice sounded thick and watery.
Bless the men and women who manned the desk, though, because before he knew it, he had an address in hand and was racing toward the door. It wasn't far. He could get there quickly and pray to God he was in time. Because he didn't think he'd be able to live with himself if he didn't.
Breaking land-speed records, he made it to Arlington by weaving in and out of traffic and praying he didn't get pulled over by a cop. The entire time, his mind whirled and he gripped the wheel so hard his knuckles ached. Every taste, sight, and sound seemed so dull because he couldn't calm his thoughts.
He didn't particularly care about getting towed when he parked in the middle of the street and vaulted up the steps to the small brownstone. The door opened before Tony could knock, and he found himself face-to-face with Sheila.
Tony's heart sank at the sight of her red-rimmed eyes, making his knees weak.
"She's been asking for you," Sheila quietly said, drawing him in.
"I'm not too late?" he quietly asked, and she smiled sadly.
"No," she replied. "You're just in time."
He had a terrible feeling he knew what for.
Following Sheila to the living room, he found Alex laying in a child's hospital bed set up in the middle of the space. A wide array of movies lay on the night stand, with everything from 'The Lion King' to 'Goldfinger'. Although the child lay frail on the bed, sound asleep, the television quietly play a cartoon.
"What should I do?" Tony whispered, an unsettling helplessness washing over him.
"The same as always," Sheila replied, grasping his hand and squeezing. "Just sit with her. Let her know you're there."
Nodding, he pulled up a chair, settled back, and put his hand on Alex's limp one.
Tony had no idea how long he sat there watching the child swallowed up by blankets and pillows. Watching her, he murmured, "She's so damn small."
"I know," Sheila said, taking a seat next to him. Reaching out, she smiled tremulously and continued, "But she's mighty."
Feeling his first genuine smile, Tony glanced at the older woman and nodded. "Never met anyone like her," he admitted.
The ensuing silence, although not oppressive, still weighed heavy with emotion. For a time, Tony found himself content to go through everything he wanted to tell her – not about the case they'd just closed, though. She didn't need to hear about monsters that sold little girls. Instead, he told her about being on stakeouts and chasing perps and doing the dreaded paperwork.
"I've tried not to ask how she's doing," Tony quietly confessed. "I haven't wanted you to tell me."
"I know," Sheila replied. "I figured you'd ask when you were ready."
Tearing his gaze from Alex, he looked at Sheila and asked, "How much longer?"
Sheila placed the paperback she'd been thumbing through on a little table near the foot of the bed, grasped Tony's hand, and replied, "I think she's only hung on these last weeks because of you… to live adventures with you. And now to say goodbye to you."
Nodding sharply, Tony turned his gaze back to the still child and leaned back in his seat. He hadn't slept in days. Fatigue seeped deep into tissue, settling like a weight on his chest; and in the dull hum of the sounds in the room, he felt his eyes begin to droop. It surprised him when after an hour or so, he slipped into sleep.
He woke with a start when Sheila shook his shoulder, smiled, and murmured, "She's awake."
Turning his attention, he smiled for the first time in hours. For there, with her bed elevated a little, Alex's grayish lips turned slightly up, although her breathing remained shallow.
"Hey, kid," he said, trying to sound enthusiastic.
"You're here," she simply replied in childish innocence. And that was all it took. While Alex lay back, watching Tony with adoring eyes, her special agent regaled her with tales of adventure and intrigue.
And less than thirty six hours later, that same special agent held onto her hand, whispered, "I love you, Alex," and felt her slip away.
X X X
Tony hadn't shown up to work in days, and amazingly nobody had bothered him. Gibbs must have gotten a clue, since Tony had not turned on his cell.
Sheila hadn't needed help with the arrangements – they'd already been made. A single phone call had taken care of the necessities; that had been good. Neither adult seemed to function for the first day.
The need for fresh clothes had driven Tony home, where he'd stood numbly under the shower, not noticing when the water turned cold. Part of him wanted to crawl into a corner and never emerge, but he couldn't.
The memorial had been planned, and was just a day away. Simple and elegant, the small chapel would hold those who came to pay their respects.
It wasn't until the day of the service that it really hit home. In front of his closet, as he stared blankly at a navy blue suit and appropriate gray tie, he realized precisely what he'd lost. There would be no more eager visits to the hospital – no more playing cloak and dagger in the halls. Never again would he and Alex stealthily sneak an ice cream off the cart to share in the janitor's closet at the end of the hall.
With tears streaking down his face, he reached out, grabbed the sober suit and hurled it across the room; because it just pissed him off. All of it made him so damn angry. Alex had never been somber in spirit. She'd been a child of energy and wit.
Pulling open a plastic dry cleaner's bag at the back of the closet, he drew out a different garment and tossed it on the bed. The memorial might be for the living, but he was there for her.
An hour later, pulling up outside the small chapel, Tony ignored the stunned looks as he sauntered past the other mourners. Some – particularly the doctors and nurses – smiled or chuckled appreciatively as he passed. The funeral director, on the other hand, frowned in disdain. But Tony had always been good at not giving a damn what others thought. The one person he didn't want to offend gasped from where she stood at the front of the room, held her gloved hands over her mouth, and began to laugh as he approached.
"Bond. James Bond," Tony announced, holding out his arms to show off his tuxedo.
"And don't you look like him," she said, grinning at him as she grabbed hold and held him in a tight hug. Drawing back, she ran her palm over his cheek, held her tears bravely in check, and said, "This is exactly what Alex would have wanted."
X X X
By the time Tony finally got home, every muscle ached with fatigue and his eyes burned. Truth be told, he couldn't remember the last time he'd slept more than an hour or so. The days had just begun to blur.
The last thing he'd expected to find was Gibbs sitting on the couch, drinking a beer.
The sight of his team leader might have made Tony's step falter, but the agent kept moving toward the bedroom without a word. It seemed like all syllables had escaped him for the moment – an odd sensation, considering his gift of gab.
"Here," Gibbs said after Tony re-emerged from the bedroom, offering a cold brown bottle.
Tony didn't even want to know what Gibbs had found out. In some ways he felt foolish not having shared Alex with the others. He hadn't meant to keep it a secret in any way. It was just special between him and her. Something unique and perfect.
As the men sat in silence, sipping their beer, Tony thought about the adventurous soul he'd gotten to know. Somewhere in there he saw a glimpse of what Gibbs must feel every single day; because Tony didn't think the hole in his chest could ever fill up. And he thought of Kelly, Gibbs' daughter that had died so tragically young.
If heaven existed, he could imagine Alex's parents weeping tears of joy at the reunion and tears of sorrow at the shortened life.
"She was a cool kid," Tony said, settling back into his chair. "You would've liked her."
And for nearly an hour he talked about adventures and intrigue – sickness and health. When those words finally slowed and Tony's speech began to slur from fatigue, Gibbs stood up.
"I'll be in tomorrow," Tony muttered, as Gibbs brusquely nodded and slid into his jacket. Before the older man could walk away, he asked, "Will it ever stop hurting?"
Looking down at his agent, Gibbs studied the younger man for a moment before softly replying, "Not really. But one day you'll be able to breathe."
With those parting words, the team leader silently let himself out of the apartment.
Alone with his thoughts, Tony stretched out on the couch, closed his eyes, and slept. In his dreams, he saw two little blue-eyed girl sitting together on a cloud, whispering as girls are wont to do. Kelly's dark brown hair and smile reminded him of her father; and in his dreams, Alex's wavy, blonde hair shimmered in the bright sun, even though Tony had never seen her with hair.
They stood a hundred feet away, picking flowers and spinning around.
Raising his hand, Tony waved and watched Alex wave in return, while Kelly smiled wide and grasped her new friend's hand. Just as they began to turn, Alex suddenly stopped – giving Tony a glimpse of the healthy child she'd always held within her spirit.
"It doesn't hurt anymore," she called out in a lilting, happy voice. The smile turned serene, making Tony's breath catch in his throat.
Simple beauty replaced ravaging illness.
It was the first peaceful sleep he'd had in weeks.
X X X
The first week back had been filled with awkward looks and concerned glances. Yet after a time, he'd fallen back into a routine. McGee gave him space, until Tony began to joke again. Ziva tried to corner him more than once, although he managed to sidestep her each time. The smile he'd plastered on his face began to feel more genuine.
Even Abby had just hugged him, stayed silent (a rarity), and kissed him on the cheek the day he returned.
Tony kept in contact with Sheila – taking her to dinner now and again. Alone at a table, they would huddle together, and Tony would get to know the healthy side of Alex. Some nights, he would dream of her. Sometimes the child would be with others, and sometimes alone. Once, he even dreamed of her with his mother.
In his mind, he and Alex would sometimes talk; and more than once he woke up in tears.
And life marched on.
Weeks turned to months, and the months to years, and Alex's hold on his heart – although forever strong – eased enough so he could breathe.
He never talked to the others about her, because words did not exist to describe what the child meant; what she would always mean. Only Gibbs could fully understand, so instead Tony paid silent tribute with memories, and on the anniversaries that passed of her birth and death, he took a few moments alone.
It wasn't until several years later he would understand just how much his friendships had mattered at the hardest moments of his life.
Holding his newborn daughter in his arms, Tony looked into the eyes of his exhausted and smiling wife. His own eyes watered, spilling lightly down his cheeks, and he curved his large finger under a tiny fist.
"She's perfect," he whispered in awe. "Just perfect."
They hadn't discussed names – the pregnancy had been difficult and they had been afraid to jinx it. Once they had almost lost their unborn child. Gazing down into his wife's dark brown eyes, his lips quirked up and he asked, "So?"
A moment ago, as she'd delivered his first child, Tony hadn't thought he could possibly be a luckier man. He'd been wrong. Because she gave him the greatest give of all.
"Our little one fought like a warrior to be born. Alexandra is a good name for a warrior, is it not?" she asked.
Choked with emotion, he could only nod in response. But in his mind, Tony saw a little blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl laugh with delight.
"Hello, Alex," he whispered to the baby in his arms. "Let me tell you a story of intrigue, adventure, and romance."
Settling on the edge of the bed, he gazed into his wife's eyes when he said, "It all started with a ship called the Damocles."