EDIT 23/03/12 - A/N: Please read A/N located at the bottom of this fic. Enjoy.

WARNINGS: Deathfic. Written by a Brit trying to be American; there may be errors. Zero research and barely plausible situations found here also. Based on a scene from the film 'Signs' (thank you to everyone who answered my original question about this!).

SPOILERS: 'Iced', Season 3. Set in or any time after Season 6. And 'Signs', I guess.

DISCLAIMER: Don't own.


To Delay and Stargaze

He was woken from his bourbon-induced sleep by the ringing of a cell phone. Blinking a few times to clear his blurred vision and wincing as various aches and pains that came with sleeping on an unfinished boat made themselves known, he squinted at the still-vibrating cell and Gibbs could see that it was 4:19am. The call was also from DiNozzo. Expecting it to be another case, Gibbs flipped open the phone and answered with his typical curt greeting.

"Yeah, Gibbs."

The voice on the other end was not what he had expected.

"Oh, hello. Is this Mr. Leroy Jethro Gibbs? Next of Kin for an Anthony DiNozzo?" the voice, which was definitely male but most definitely not the voice of his Senior Field Agent, asked.

"Yeah. Who are you?" Gibbs responded suspiciously, his gut churning painfully.

"My name is Chris Wilson. I'm an EMT attached to Bethesda Naval Hospital. I'm sorry to have woken you, sir, but earlier this morning, Mr. DiNozzo was involved in a serious car accident," Chris informed Gibbs sadly. Sometimes, he really hated his job.

"What?" Gibbs exclaimed, fully awake as he shot up. "Is he okay?"

"I'm very sorry, sir. Mr. DiNozzo's car collided with a truck at an intersection and his car was crushed and pinned by the truck. While Mr. DiNozzo is still alive-" Gibbs expelled a breath he didn't realise he'd been holding at the news his Senior Field Agent was still alive and kicking. His gut told him that he wasn't going to like what the EMT had to say next, though. "-because of how the accident occurred, Mr. DiNozzo has been pinned within the wreckage."

"So?" Gibbs stated as he shrugged on his jacket. Aside from the fact that Tony had been in a car accident, he couldn't see anything wrong with the situation. "Just cut him out."

"I'm afraid it's more complicated than that, sir. Rescue attempts were made but it's clear, from the extent of Mr. DiNozzo's injuries, that the only thing keeping him alive is the wreckage holding him together. As far as we can tell, Mr. DiNozzo has sustained major injuries to his torso and pelvic area. If we were to remove him, he would bleed out within minutes and there is a very high possibility that, to put it bluntly, he'd be leaving his legs in the wreckage, sir. I'm very sorry," the EMT repeated. "But at this point, it's a waiting game. We need you to come down here to the accident site to fill out some forms and perhaps offer Mr. DiNozzo some support."

The EMT rattled off the address of where the crash had taken place and waited for a response from the former marine. Gibbs scrubbed a hand down his face as heat seared his eyes, unable to speak. Hearing where the accident had happened just made it heartbreakingly real. He turned his palm over as tiny droplets of water ran over the back of his hands.

Tears?

He hadn't cried in years. Not even when Kate and Jenny had died. Maybe it was because they had died in the line of fire, doing what they'd believed was right. For Tony to die in some car accident was so…different, not to mention unfair. Gibbs swallowed thickly as his stomach rolled and he responded with the only thing he could think of.

"His name is Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo!" Gibbs roared before snapping the phone shut. He was tempted to hurl the damn thing across the room but knew he'd need it to contact the team.

Oh, God. The team. They were going to be devastated, all of them. For all the teasing that took place, the team were a tight-knit unit. A family. And they were going to lose their incorrigible big brother.

What does that make me then? Gibbs asked himself as he made his way up the basement stairs in a daze. From that perspective, he supposed that made him Tony's dad. He smiled ruefully as his vision blurred again. Of course.

Tony was a miniature of Gibbs in his younger years. His ability to make light of any situation, yet at the same time remain completely focused on a case had more than impressed Gibbs when they'd first met. His skills undercover were unmatched, his fieldwork exceptional. He was truly the best young agent Gibbs had ever worked with and Gibbs had soon discovered that Tony was one of the few people he'd ever encountered who had the balls to stand up to him and, yet, he was also one of the most emotionally vulnerable people he'd ever met, too.

The Supervisory Special Agent grinned at the paradox that was Anthony DiNozzo. They'd worked together for so long, had each other's six on more than one occasion; it was really no surprise that Gibbs had come to consider Tony the son he'd never had.

It had been clear, from the moment that Tony had come to work for Gibbs, that he'd held Gibbs up as the caring father he'd never experienced. Tony rarely went into the grisly details of his childhood but, from a few things that were unexplainable on his medical records and little tidbits Tony himself had provided when extremely drunk, Gibbs had been left to figure out that Anthony DiNozzo, Senior, was a nasty piece of work. Gibbs had never discouraged Tony's hero worship because, at first, he thought that the drive to impress this 'father figure' would bring better results in the field.

And it did.

But over time, Gibbs found himself relishing the role as Tony's mentor. The way Tony could finish his sentences in a way the rest of the team had never quite mastered and his confusing notion of demanding attention but his inability to fully accept it had puzzled Gibbs and he'd made it his personal mission to teach Tony more than just skills he could use in the field.

That had turned into cowboy-style steaks and a cold beer over a basketball game or an old movie Gibbs had begrudgingly let Tony talk him into watching and soon, they'd become more than just boss and subordinate. Hell, they were father and son and, just like his last family, this one was being taken from him as well.

Gibbs' ears rang suddenly and he gagged, slipping quickly into his downstairs bathroom and vomiting into the toilet bowl. He pretended not to notice the little pearls of moisture that rolled down his cheeks as he retched pitifully.

Finally, the painful choking stopped; leaving the former Marine with a horrible ache in his chest that he was damn sure wasn't heartburn. He rinsed his mouth out quickly and flushed the toilet, wishing he could just flush away this nightmare of a morning down with it.

Gibbs pulled out his cell and dialled for Ducky. He had to get Ducky to assemble the team and tell them to get their asses down to the accident site because Gibbs was sure that was five phone calls he couldn't make and, more importantly, Tony needed him now.

Steeling himself as Ducky answered rather sleepily, Gibbs quickly explained the situation. It was obvious that the news caused the old ME some distress as he received it. The older gentleman had coughed throatily and his voice was shaky. The conversation ended with Ducky's promise to get everyone up and down to the scene (except it wasn't a scene, it was Tony's deathbed…) and the sorrowful words, "I'm so sorry, Jethro."

Gibbs hung up and all but ran for his car. He knew Tony would be wondering where everyone was and the thought of the younger man dying without anyone around him shook Gibbs to the core. This would be perhaps the hardest thing he'd ever do, but he had to. He owed it to Tony, his Tony. He wouldn't fail him and he knew that some things needed to be said and if Tony died without hearing them, Gibbs wasn't sure if he could withstand the guilt.

Not again.

XXXXXX

The fifteen minute drive to the accident site was made in almost seven. It helped that there were nearly no other cars on the roads at this time. Gibbs could just imagine his Senior Field Agent's nauseated expression and his moaning that drove Gibbs insane at the best of times. What he would've given in that moment to just be en route to another crime scene, like usual.

When he arrived, Gibbs was shocked at the sight of the overturned truck in the distance. One ambulance was loading what Gibbs assumed to be the truck driver into it and looked ready to set off. The lights of ambulances, a couple of police cars and fire trucks rotated endlessly, casting flickers of colours over the roads that were damp with dew in the early morning. Gibbs approached the nearest EMT and flashed his ID, thankful that it was still in the inside pocket of the jacket he'd hastily thrown on.

"Jethro Gibbs," he explained. "Tony DiNozzo's Next of Kin."

Realisation dawned in the paramedic's eyes. "Come this way, sir. There are several forms that require your signature."

The forms were standard procedure in situations like these. They basically said that there was nothing that could be done for the patient and that the hospital and its doctors were not liable to be taken to court for situations out of their control.

Like this one, Gibbs thought, hurriedly scratching down his signature with shame. Those forms represented his willingness to give in. No. Nothing can be done, Gibbs thought bitterly, swallowing harshly. Tony wouldn't have wanted anyone to think that.

God, Gibbs realised starkly. I'm already thinking about him in the past tense. He quickly crushed that notion. Until he saw Tony's body give up for himself and could make sure he had provided support every step of the way for what had to be the most terrifying wait of Tony's life, Tony Was. Not. Dead.

Shaking his head wearily, Gibbs made his way towards the truck that lay on its side. What had once been Tony's treasured car was now just curled metal and it was intricately and almost artistically woven into the truck's undercarriage. He was escorted by a fireman who explained that they had made sure that the truck wouldn't explode from a gas leak or anything. Gibbs mildly offered his thanks and he stood staring at the accident site for some time before he could move any further.

Two EMTs were clustered over a certain spot, just to the left of the crushed wheels. Whether it was the crushed wheels of Tony's car or the truck, Gibbs didn't know but he guessed that must be where Tony was trapped. One of the EMTs nodded to his partner before sprinting away, giving the former Marine a good look at his Senior Field Agent. He almost vomited on the spot and his gut coiled horrifically at the sight of his second.

Tony's body was jammed between what once looked like a windscreen and the wheels of the truck. His legs and lower body in general were not visible and Gibbs blanched at the thought that his legs might not even be attached anyway.

Only Tony's head, chest and arms were not encased within the wreckage. His suit jacket and shirt were slashed to ribbons but Gibbs couldn't tell if that had happened as a result of the crash or if the paramedics had had to slice away Tony's clothes to make his injuries more accessible.

Tony's head was marred with lacerations and blood continually gushed from his nose. From the angle, it looked like it had been broken. Even from here, Gibbs could see Tony's slick, olive skin that indicated sweat. Tony's forehead had a thick white bandage tightly wrapped around it but the former Marine, practised from his time in combat, could already tell that the injury sustained there had likely caused a severe concussion. The bandage was already turning red and Gibbs felt his ears ring again.

Clenching his jaw, Gibbs watched as the stubborn Italian argued with the paramedic. The paramedic wanted to strap his arm, or at least make it more comfortable (broken, Gibbs assumed) but Tony was shaking his head. Suddenly, Tony screwed his eyes shut and Gibbs watched helplessly as he blew out a hiss of a breath. The EMT placed an oxygen mask over Tony's face and looked up as someone called her. She got up, touching Tony gently on the shoulder, before running off to attend to something else.

Gibbs was about to approach his dying second when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He gave a rare flinch and swung round, greeted by Ducky and the team, a paramedic having escorted them over. Gibbs looked them over once and took in their bedraggled and heartbroken appearances.

Ziva and McGee looked weary, their eyes glistening with unshed tears. They'd both hastily thrown on mismatching clothes and McGee stood in the middle of Ziva and Abby, clutching both of their hands.

Abby was a mess, her last remnants of make-up that hadn't been scrubbed off the night before were now mingling with tears that were slipping quickly down her pale cheeks. She was still in her pyjamas, clutching Bert tightly and, under any other circumstances, Gibbs might have smirked at the vampire bat night clothes that were so typically Abby but right now, he didn't even notice.

Ducky and Palmer stood solemn, both well acquainted with the prospect of death. However, even the experienced ME and his assistant were struggling to maintain their stoic expressions. Like McGee and Ziva, their eyes were both bright with tears and Gibbs wondered if Jimmy knew he was wearing no shoes.

"Hey," Gibbs greeted everyone softly. Instantly, Abby rushed forward and pulled Gibbs into a hug.

"Oh my God, Gibbs. I can't believe it's not true! I thought it was a really big, nasty joke, but you don't play jokes like this. Not even Tony would go this far for a prank and then Ducky picked me up and suddenly it was all real and I could see the lights but it doesn't make sense. I mean, it's Tony. Sure, he gets hurt a lot but he never actually dies," Abby babbled anxiously into Gibbs' ear. He rubbed her back, never breaking the embrace. He could feel her beginning to shake again with sobs and Ziva had to look away and McGee bit his lip as he tried to swallow a lump of emotion.

"It's so, so unfair, Gibbs," Abby mumbled, her voice distorted by the fabric of Gibbs' jacket and her misery.

"I know, Abs. I know," Gibbs replied, keeping his voice low so as to stop it from shaking.

"Perhaps we should start saying our farewells, Jethro," Ducky suggested, his usually youthful and nostalgic voice suddenly tired and aged. Gibbs just nodded his reply. He still didn't feel ready to even consider the idea that Tony would die here tonight.

"One at a time," Gibbs directed gruffly. "Say what you need to say. The EMTs don't know how long he's got."God, how could he be so clinical towards the death of one of his closest friends? Gibbs was almost ashamed but he knew the team would need his leadership now more than ever.

"I'll go first. Can I go first?" Abby asked, for clarification. Again, Gibbs just nodded. He knew Abby would have a lot to say and it was probably better for everyone if she went first.

However, Abby stilled as she stepped towards the police tape surrounding the wreck and got her first proper view of Tony. She waited nearly a full minute before Gibbs decided to step in impatiently. Tony might not have long and he couldn't waste any time. They'd already wasted too much…

"Problem, Abs?" he asked, trying to coax her into movement.

Without turning around, Abby whispered her reply. "I don't think I can go first anymore, Gibbs."

Scrubbing a hand down his face, Gibbs was about to make the decision to order Abby over to the wreckage or to get out of the way and let someone else say goodbye when McGee interrupted.

"I'll go, Boss," McGee said, causing everyone to look up. There was no mistaking the steely resolve in his voice or the confidence he exuded in his gait and stance. McGee might have been one of meeker members of the team, but Gibbs knew that when it came down to it, the young agent wouldn't hesitate to step up and do what he felt right.

"Atta boy, Tim," Gibbs praised McGee, using the coveted words of encouragement he usually reserved for his Senior Field Agent. McGee descended beneath the police tape and all but sprinted to Tony's side. The team watched as the exhausted Italian lifted his head and broke out in a mega-watt grin at the sight of McGee. Simultaneously, everyone's chests tightened at the happiness that the irrepressible man seemed to perpetually express. It was just one more thing to miss, one more thing to come to terms with but one more thing that no one was ready for.

Gibbs took a seat on the tarmac, the others slowly dropping down to join him. They could see Tony and McGee laughing for some time and later recognised the agonised trembling of McGee's shoulders when he began to cry. No one watched though. This first moment of sharing and goodbye was too personal and caused distress for each team member, whether they displayed it or not. Everyone averted their gaze and no one spoke.

Gibbs didn't think they could have even if they'd wanted to.

XXXXXX

It was just gone half past seven when the last of Team Gibbs finished saying their farewells. McGee had returned from his farewell with Tony in shreds and had stormed past Gibbs' gentle hand on his shoulder and Ziva's whispered words of comfort. He'd left to walk around for a little while. Gibbs knew he wasn't in any danger, since the area of road was shut until the wreckage could be cleared. Gibbs couldn't think until Tony dies. It was too painful.

Abby had gone after Tim. Her goodbye was probably the longest. Abby always wore her heart on her sleeve and the sounds of both gut-wrenching laughter and soul-wrecking tears carried across the accident site and struck chords with both Gibbs' team and the medical and rescue personnel.

Sadly, towards the end of Abby's speech to Tony about how he was the best big brother in the whole world and that she promised she would take extra good care of his goldfish (landlord be damned. Tony's pets would get the care they deserved.) Tony had begun coughing up blood. It wasn't much but it terrified Abby and the team and she'd screamed. Gibbs felt his heart seize up in his chest at the possibility that Tony might already be dead before he could say a proper farewell. One quick glance at Jimmy and Ziva told him that they were thinking the same thing.

Ducky rushed onto the scene at once, meeting with a team of EMTs who had witnessed the commotion and wanted to do everything they could in order to make their charming patient comfortable in his last hours. He'd ushered Abby back and the Forensic Technician had rushed straight into Gibbs' waiting arms.

Finally, the EMTs (along with Ducky) finished their ministrations and Ducky returned to the waiting team, fully complete now that McGee had returned, albeit with a hoarse voice and swollen hand. The ME's eyes were slightly pink around the edges and Ducky had to remove his glasses and dab at them with a handkerchief he'd pulled from his pocket. Ducky had obviously said his piece while assisting the paramedics. He never was one for saving face.

"Oh, Jethro," Ducky had said, his voice slightly raspy. "It is a most sad affair indeed." He'd sniffed quietly before busying himself with Tim's busted knuckles and Ziva had taken the opportunity to offer her goodbyes. As the team waited out yet another farewell, Gibbs couldn't help but feel more curious about what Ziva was saying to Tony than anyone else. Whatever it was, he hoped it wouldn't stray into the 'violation of Rule-12' category.

He wasn't blind and he could see the chemistry and attraction between the Mossad Liaison Officer and his Senior Field Agent and even he could understand the want to confess your undying love on your deathbed. Hell, he was no DiNozzo when it came to movies but just about everyone, including the former Marine, had seen that same clichéd scene where the dashing hero declared his love to the beautiful woman right before dying but he hoped that wouldn't happen here tonight.

He knew Tony would already be beating himself up over the 'maybes' and the 'what-if's' and the 'could have been's'. He didn't want to see Tony mourn the potential of a relationship with his partner that never happened. Not in his final hours.

Ziva's goodbye, eventually, also came to a finish and she'd made her way back under the police tape and waved her hand for Palmer to take his go. Palmer had looked cautiously between Ziva and Gibbs for confirmation that it was alright to take his turn but neither returned his gaze so he'd shrugged to himself before resignedly making his way to his injured friend.

Gibbs held Ziva's stare for a moment, his burning blue eyes demanding to know, to some extent, what she'd said to his Senior Field Agent. Reading his gaze with practise and little emotion, she shook her head slightly, dark curls bouncing. Gibbs nodded his response, offering his first smile since the situation had come to his attention almost three hours prior.

Ziva smiled sadly in response and Gibbs leaned forward and kissed her forehead because, for one second, she wasn't Ziva David and, for one second, she wasn't indestructible.

Jimmy, like everyone else, soon finished his heartfelt goodbye with Tony and he returned, also with puffy eyes and tear tracks. He accepted a hug from Abby before moving onto lose his sorrows in one of Ducky's tales.

It was Gibbs' turn.

At last.

XXXXXX

It was 7:32am and the sun was just beginning to rise as Leroy Jethro Gibbs swallowed his pride and approached the dying man he loved like a son. The wreck looked no prettier in the pinkish lights of the early morning; if anything, it looked uglier than before. Still, that wasn't what Gibbs needed to dwell on and he sat down heavily on the tarmac beside Tony's head, knees popping at their sudden misuse.

Tony's weary and swollen eyes opened sharply and he turned his pain-filled gaze to meet Gibbs' own. It sickened Gibbs that, even with him sat on the ground and Tony trapped in the wreck, they were roughly level. Tony smiled blithely, catching his boss off guard.

"Hey there, Boss," he greeted his mentor affectionately. "You draw the short straw or something?"

"Nah," Gibbs replied, slipping easily into the banter he rarely allowed himself to indulge in when on duty. "Just had a few things to work out first."

"Ah, I see," Tony replied, grunting slightly as he shifted and something caught.

"How you holding up, DiNozzo?" Gibbs asked gruffly after a few moments had passed.

"Well, I gotta tell you, Boss, I've seen better days," Tony answered. "But I guess getting crushed like a bug by a truck that looks like one of the robots from Transformers will do that to you." If he was standing, Gibbs knew that a shrug would've accompanied Tony's glib response.

"DiNozzo." It was a warning and a question all rolled into one.

"Concussion, multiple lacerations to my face, neck, arms and chest and a broken nose. Right arm's broken and ribs are nearly all broken or cracked. Dislocated collar bone, a likely punctured lung, steel pipe through my stomach and I can't feel my legs, Boss," Tony reported, detachedly.

Gibbs expelled a long breath. It was a horrific, fatal list and hearing it for real, in Tony's monotonous voice, was almost Gibbs' undoing.

"That's…that's a hell of a list," Gibbs said at last, not really sure what he should have been saying. He had been all prepared to tell Tony how proud he was of him and maybe even that he was like a son to the former Marine but now? Now he was in Tony's dying presence, Gibbs wasn't sure what to say.

"Yeah."

Once again, they lapsed into silence.

Gibbs moved back a bit and leaned his back against the upturned truck, watching Tony from the corner of his eye. He was gazing out at the rising sun.

"You know, when I was a kid, I used to stargaze a lot," Tony said unexpectedly, still looking out at the lilac sky.

"You sure about that, Tony?" Gibbs asked bemusedly, wondering when Tony, especially a younger and likely more hyperactive Tony would have sat still enough to watch the stars.

"I did!" Tony exclaimed, grinning. "My mom was a big fan of sunbathing without actually going outdoors so my dad had one of those retractable roof thingies put in. If it was a really clear night, which, you know, it usually wasn't, being in New York and all, but if it was clear, I used to just kick back and watch the stars. They fascinated me," Tony explained, his voice distant as he recalled the childhood memories.

"Everytime I had a problem, I'd just head for the nearest rooftop and use the stars to clear my head. 'Course after Kate died, I didn't go near rooftops at all. I kinda headed underground a bit, basements mostly," Tony muttered shyly, a bashful smile lighting up his pained and marred features.

At that, Gibbs grinned and lightly brushed a few strands of dark hair away from Tony's eyes, dismayed at the bits tightly clumped together with blood.

"It's the first place I went," Gibbs declared solemnly and, suddenly, Tony knew they weren't talking about Kate anymore. He held his breath, wincing at the white-hot whip of fire that cracked across his abdomen and blazed up and down his back. He had refused anything for the pain, wanting to be fully coherent in the presence of his friends. His family.

"You in pain?" Gibbs asked, unhappy concern colouring his tone as he watched Tony grimace. Tony thought he sounded more fatherly than ever.

"Just…need…a moment…" Tony wheezed. He gasped as scalding lava burned right the way up his frame. Well, from his hips at least. It didn't relinquish its sour hold on Tony's back and he found himself grabbing his boss' jacket as it rolled up his neck and spliced his head.

"Boss!" he gasped, agony flaring through his chest.

"Easy, Tony, easy," Gibbs instructed, his heart sinking and tears pricking the corners of his eyelids. He shifted slightly so that he was facing Tony but his shoulder could support Tony's head, should he pass out or something. Or die, Gibbs thought anxiously.

Tony barked out a constrained cough and blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth. Alarmed beyond reason, Gibbs yelled for a one of the EMTs who had been standing by. One of them, a man, rushed over with a small bag of medical supplies and, out of the corner of his eye, Gibbs could see the team watching the process, horror and worry tightening each of their faces. The EMT carefully wiped Tony's mouth and listened to his chest.

"Sounds like your punctured lung just got a bit more dangerous, Mr. DiNozzo. It sounds like air has entered the chest cavity which will ultimately lead to a collapsed lung. We have a number of choices here; as you know, the wreckage and your injuries make it too dangerous to try and remove you so we could start by doing a needle decompression and going from there or we could wait it out a little while longer?" the EMT asked, his gaze flickering between the patient and, he guessed, his father.

Tony breathed deeply for a moment, trying to steady his voice. "I'll wait for a bit longer, see what Pitt says when he gets here."

Gibbs looked surprised at the mention of Brad Pitt (the doctor, not the actor, he reminded himself). He hadn't seen him since Tony's bout with the plague. Tony must have had someone contact him.

"Dr. Pitt?" Gibbs asked as soon as the EMT had nodded his acquiescence and moved away.

"Sure, Boss. Brad's a buddy, he'll be able to explain all this technical stuff to me," DiNozzo replied, deflecting slightly. Gibbs' eyes narrowed.

"Ducky could've done that for you, Tony," Gibbs suggested softly.

Tony turned his head away slightly. "It's…kinda hard…hearing it from Ducky, Boss. It's...it's like your favourite uncle or something telling you you're going to die. Which you are, I guess, but you don't wanna hear it from your favourite uncle."

Gibbs recognised the thin tone to Tony's voice, the barely-restrained panic floating in his glimmering green eyes. Tony was scared.

Taking hold of Tony's hand in one hand and gripping his chin with the other, Gibbs looked directly at his boy as he sought to reassure him that it was okay to be afraid.

"Hey, hey! I'm right here with you. It's okay to be scared," Gibbs stated softly, never breaking the Italian's vulnerable gaze. Tony snorted, self-deprecatingly.

"I don't have the right to be scared," Tony whispered nastily. "I pulled out without looking. You'd think a guy would see a truck this size, what with the lights and all, but no. I just pulled out and BAM! Next thing I know, the truck's on its side and I'm stuck to the bottom of it. I don't even know the other driver's name! Is he okay, Boss? Did I kill him? " Tony asked, gripping Gibbs' hand as tightly as he could, desperately wanting to know if he was…oh, God…a murderer.

"Hey! DiNozzo, relax!" Gibbs stressed, not wanting Tony to give himself a coronary or something. "The guy's name is Andrew Collins. Docs said he's critical but stable. Might lose his legs but he's expected to live," Gibbs replied, hoping to offer some form of comfort as he relayed the information Ducky had given him upon his chat with the EMTs right after he'd spoken to Tony.

As Tony let the information sink in, Gibbs reached for his head and, with less than an eighth of the force he usually used, he lightly slapped Tony's head, bringing the Senior Field Agent's defiant gaze up.

"What was that for?" he complained but not letting go of Gibbs' hand for a second to check on it.

"For thinking it's not okay to be scared. You have every damn right to be, DiNozzo, and I don't want to hear you saying otherwise!" Gibbs instructed sternly. His voice was barely above a hushed whisper because he didn't want to exacerbate Tony's already-pounding head but his voice held the tone of a man who was not to be disobeyed at any cost.

"Sorry, Boss," Tony replied, his eyes silently thanking Gibbs. "Won't happen again."

"Good." Gibbs' reply was curt and designed to put an end to any self-doubt Tony was hanging onto but it didn't stop DiNozzo.

"Do you think they'll be waiting for me?" Tony asked unexpectedly. What the…

"Who, Tony?" Gibbs asked, wondering and slightly afraid of what his Senior Field Agent could mean.

"Everybody, I guess. My mom, Kate, Paula, Jenny. I need to apologise, Boss," Tony mumbled.

"For what?" Gibbs responded, still confused.

"Letting them die."

Dammit.

"Hell, DiNozzo, there were extenuating circumstances! Everyone, Jenny, Paula, even Kate, knew what they were letting themselves in for! You. Did Not. Let. Them. Die."Gibbs growled, feeling his voice grow louder as his temper soared. He couldn't believe Tony was blaming himself for the women he'd seen die. It wasn't right. You couldn't protect everyone and Gibbs knew that it was part of the job.

Granted, Tony's mother might not have been 'part of the job' but when life became too much to bear and you mixed sleeping pills with alcohol and left behind an eight year old to an abusive prick of a father, you didn't really count.

"Tony, listen to me," Gibbs worked hard to school his features as Tony flinched away from his volume. "None of that was your fault. Blame alcohol, your old man, whatever the hell you like for the death of your mother but none of them could have been saved, DiNozzo."

"Feels like I should've done something," Tony muttered quietly, but Gibbs thought he sounded somewhat reassured.

"Boss, can I ask you something?" Tony questioned. The former Marine nodded his response, not sure if he was gonna like what Tony had to ask but feeling compelled to let him ask anyway.

"After…after they died, how did you handle it?" Tony wondered.

Gibbs snorted slightly, but his chest tightened at the thought of his girls. Look after him, please. "Not well," he replied.

"First thing I did was try and drink my head off, then I stared at my gun for a good while. Figure I'll be doing a lot of that tonight," Gibbs said sadly. Tony flinched. The last thing he wanted was for his death to be the cause of Gibbs' suicide or something.

"Boss, you won't do anything rash, will you?" Tony asked urgently, gripping his mentor's hand tightly. Gibbs just looked away - he couldn't promise that.

"Boss! Please! You can't! You've got to think of Zee-vah and McGeek and Abs! You gotta take care of them for me, Boss," Tony pleaded, his voice splitting with pain and fear. The idea of Gibbs dying, even if he was dead, was more than Tony could bear.

"I already lost my family once, hell, twice after that damn explosion. I don't think I can't do it again, Tony," Gibbs explained, letting his words sink in. Despite the situation, Tony felt a pinkish tinge rise to his cheeks that had nothing to do with fever.

"It'll be okay, Boss," Tony tried to reassure the older man as best he could but in truth, he wasn't feeling so good.

"I'm…tired, Boss," the Senior Field Agent stammered, choking on a cough.

"Ah, dammit, Tony." and to Gibbs' shame, he could feel tears beginning to spill from his eyes. So unfair…

"It'll be okay, Boss," Tony repeated, not able to hold his tears back any longer either. He loved these people, they were his friends, his family. He wanted to watch them grow old, maybe with each other. He wanted to see them have kids and see himself have kids. He'd wasted so much time.

"I don't think I can do this, Boss," the Italian gasped out. "I was supposed to have…a family. Loads of little DiNozzos running around and annoying the hell out of Uncle Jethro."

Despite himself, Gibbs chuckled. God, he would have loved those kids. He resumed stroking Tony's hair back as he continued.

"I was…gonna get married, live the American Dream, all that stuff. Who's gonna tease McGee and correct Ziva's English? Who's gonna hug Abby and teach Palmer about old movies and listen to Ducky's stories? Who's gonna have your six, Boss?" Tony blurted out, more alarmed with the last one.

"S'okay, DiNozzo. Think I might leave the business after this," Gibbs reflected, gently brushing Tony's cheek with his fingers, being careful to avoid the viscous purple bruises and his broken nose.

"You…you shouldn't have to do that, Boss," Tony slurred slightly, tears still dripping from his stunning green eyes. He looked so young and Gibbs wondered what his father must have thought when the younger DiNozzo was born and he saw those expressive green eyes for the first time. Would he have felt unwavering pride like Gibbs did now? Unlikely, Gibbs thought bitterly. The guy was a bastard but Gibbs wondered guiltily if he should be informed.

"Tony, do you want me to call anyone?" Gibbs asked, in a rare display of kindness. He may have despised the man but a father deserved the chance to say goodbye to his son. "Your old man, maybe?" he suggested.

Tony shrugged slightly, hissing as he was caught off-guard by a rush of blinding agony. "Well, Brad isn't even here yet, Boss. I don't think my pa would show, somehow. Besides," Tony said, closing his eyes and smiling as he fought to keep his words coherent.

"My dad's already here."

In that one moment, Gibbs felt his heart freeze in his chest. It lasted about a second before waves of warm affection flowed over him. He tapped Tony's cheek, his Tony, who was still grinning. He opened his eyes and looked into the startlingly blue eyes of the man he considered his father and saw nothing but love and concern and happiness, feelings he usually thought were reserved for Abby only.

"You're damn right he is…son," Gibbs replied, still feeling little droplets of moisture stick to his cheeks. The tears, entwined with the cold of the morning, made Gibbs shiver slightly. He looked at Tony with some worry as he realised he wasn't shivering at all. It was November, for God's sake. The cold should have been getting to him. The fact that it wasn't spoke volumes about how tight the Grim Reaper's hold on his Senior Field Agent really was.

"You cold?" Gibbs asked, shrugging out of his jacket before Tony could reply. He gently draped it around the younger man and Tony shivered slightly as the warmth of the jacket met his cool skin.

"Feels nice," Tony mumbled and Gibbs thought he looked unbelievably young.

"It better. That jacket cost me a fortune," Gibbs complained good-naturedly. It had the desired effect. Tony chuckled slightly, breaking off with a cough.

"C'mon, Boss. You can't tell me Sears charges that much," Tony teased, feeling safe and wanted in his boss' clothing.

"Yeah, well," Gibbs said, ruffling Tony's hair playfully. "What's gonna happen to all your fancy suits, DiNozzo?" Gibbs wondered, kicking himself as soon as he asked it.

"I said Probie could have them," Tony replied, surprising Gibbs. "Of course, he'll need to have them taken in a bit. I told him he looks way too anorexic."

"Yeah? What did he say?" Gibbs asked, slightly fearful of the answer. The last time he'd seen him, Tim hadn't look like he was taking this morning well at all.

"He said that I'd be back to wearing them in no time, Boss. I think he's in denial," Tony replied, sadly. He didn't want to make it hard on anyone. This was a stupid mistake…

"I can understand that," Gibbs contemplated sadly. He was really going to miss the kid.

There was another moment of silence before Tony spoke up again. "You know, Boss, this reminds me of…"

Gibbs cut him short, not ready for Tony to leave but all-too-starkly recalling Ziva's thoughts on Tony's dying words. "I swear, DiNozzo, if you say 'movie', I'll kick your ass."

Tony rolled his eyes. "What I was going to say, was that this reminds me of the case we shared in Baltimore, Boss. Back when I was Detective Anthony DiNozzo!"

"Which part? The part where you pulled the missing kid out of that marsh, only to get stuck in yourself and I had to rescue your sorry ass or the part where you got shot in the foot and ended up leaning on me the entire way back to the station and using my shirt sleeve as a bandage?" Gibbs grumbled, recalling the case with fondness.

"Boss, if you thought I was gonna rip a sleeve off of my $200 shirt, then you had another thing coming," Tony protested, but they were both smiling and laughing.

XXXXXX

No one was laughing almost an hour later.

Gibbs had tried to keep Tony engaged for the better part of an hour to keep him from thinking about his slowly-worsening injuries and slowly-deteriorating condition but his speech was slurring badly and the paramedics had given him an oxygen mask and a portable oxygen tank. His tanned skin was pale and clammy and it was evident the end was approaching.

Gibbs had gathered the team and they'd been engaging in silly conversation for the better part of twenty minutes. Tony rarely spoke but he grinned a lot and let the familiar tones of his family wash over him. Gibbs had never let go of Tony's hand and occasionally resumed stroking the younger man's hair carefully. Abby held the Senior Field Agent's other hand in hers and McGee had a gentle clasp on Tony's uninjured shoulder. Ziva sat by Jimmy, too afraid to touch Tony in case he broke under her Mossad-tight grip. Ducky sat by Gibbs and, without words, accepted Gibbs' request to silently check Tony over.

Eventually, the conversation drew to a natural close and all eyes turned to Tony as he wheezed his way through another coughing fit. Blood trickled from his lips and Gibbs pulled down the Italian's oxygen mask and gently used his sleeve to wipe away Tony's life fluid. He glanced up at Ducky, distress plain in his crystal blue eyes and felt his stomach drop at Ducky's slight shake of head.

Tony's time was almost up.

Startling everyone, the dying Italian threw his head back in agony and moaned, tears he was unaware of dripping from his eyelids.

"I do-don't…th-think..I can-nn…hol' on…much lon'er..B-Boss," Tony panted desperately, his words slurring with death and fatigue. Instantly, the concern and misery that everyone had been trying to hide for the past half an hour came rushing back and Abby began to sob, gripping McGee around the neck tightly.

"Don't…don't cr-cry, Absss," Tony whispered, kissing her hand gently. "Pro-pro-bie'll take good care of ya, wo-won't you, Mc-McGee?"

"Sure thing, Tony," McGee mumbled, his voice cracking as he folded his own hand over Tony and Abby's.

"Th-thanksss…Muh-Gee, Tony mumbled. "You're a go-good agent."

Biting his lip and grinding his teeth, McGee tried to maintain his composure. "Thanks, Tony," he said, utter sincerity and sadness clouding his tone.

"I love you, Tony," Abby cried, kissing Tony's cheek and giving him the gentlest of hugs.

"Love…you too, Ab-Abby," Tony replied, fighting to keep his speech legible.

"Remember, Tony," Ziva said, addressing her partner as she shuffled forward. "You know I believe in ghosts. Drop out and say hello sometime." Her pretty face lit up with a fake smile as she watched the Italian slip away.

"It's 'drop in', Zee-vah," Tony teased good-naturedly. "I'll use…my ep-epic…sssupernatural p-powers…to hack into your…com-computer. Then I'll…get t-to ssee…those nude pictures of…you."

Ziva laughed but her eyes, like everyone else's, were glinting with tears in the morning light. "In your dreams, Tony," she smiled, sniffing and rubbing her cheek with the sleeve of her shirt.

"Oh, you b-bet," Tony responded. Gibbs stroked the back of Tony's head gently as he struggled through each word, suddenly reminded of the case where Tony had gotten in late after spending the night at a crime scene and had found several guns at the bottom of a drained pond. He'd praised the Senior Filed Agent by stroking the back of his head. Aside from the crusty parts that were clumped together with blood, Tony's hair was just as downy-soft as then.

"Palmer, p-put it h-here…" Tony demanded, releasing Gibbs' hand and outstretching his own to the Assistant Medical Examiner. Jimmy laughed and, as gently as a newborn kitten, lightly shook Tony's hand before lapsing into the secret handshake the grown men had apparently invented at some point.

Gibbs glanced at Ducky quickly and they shared a pained smile. Though younger and perhaps more jovial than the old Scotsman and the gruff Marine, it was like looking into a mirror to their past as they watched the second-in-command and the autopsy gremlin end their little ritual. Tony painstakingly slipped his hand back into Gibbs' and the Lead Agent carefully folded his fingers over Tony's own.

Tony smiled at the man he loved like a father. "I'm…tired n-now…B-Bosss," he slurred and Gibbs knew the moment had come.

"Okay, okay, Tony. You just get some rest now, alright?" Gibbs said, unbidden tears racing down his face as he watched his son's body start to shut down. McGee and Abby were already sobbing noisily; each hugging the other like there was no tomorrow. Ziva was trying to maintain her emotionless expression but silent tears streaked her cold skin.

Gibbs pressed his palm to Tony's forehead and softly kissed through his hand. "I love you, son," he whispered into his knuckles, his voice catching and broken. "You've made me proud." He didn't think Tony had heard him until he muttered:

"Love you too, Dad."

And with that he was gone.

There was one last half-breath as his body fully gave up and then Tony's head dropped in Gibbs' hands and his eyes went glassy.

"Tony? Tony!" Gibbs barked. He ignored the sobbing and yelling taking place in the background that he wouldn't realise until later was actually him as he tried to rouse the Italian from his eternal slumber. Tony just moved rhythmically, though, and didn't respond. Jimmy and McGee roughly pulled Gibbs away as Ducky pressed his fingers to Tony's neck and checked his watch.

"Time of death," he declared, solemnly. "9:16am."

Gibbs fell backwards in shock. He'd spent the whole morning since that damn telephone call preparing himself for this moment and, now it was here, it seemed totally unreal.

"No, no, no, no, no, no…" Gibbs roared, pounding the road violently and repetitively as he rested on his hands and knees.

That was the sight that greeted Dr. Pitt as he finally arrived at the scene of the accident. A Goth-girl and a tall, slim man had their arms around each other and were crying and wailing with an intensity that would have made the Ancient Greeks of Athens proud; a beautiful exotic woman sobbing abysmally into the shoulder of an elderly man with glasses; a younger gentleman, perhaps the youngest of them all, rubbing his face down frantically again and again as his shoulders heaved, spectacles on the ground beside him and, close to all of those, was the most tragic sight of a father desperately mourning the loss of his son.

Brad would have known from just this alone, without one glance at the greying body of his former football rival, that Tony was dead.

He was too late.

They all were.

XXXXXX


EDIT 23/03/12 - A/N: Okay, so those of you that knew of this fic before 23rd of March 2012 know that it had a very different ending, one that made little sense beyond my own imagination and inspired many reviews like, 'WHAT THE F...', etc. I know I promised a few of you an extra chapter to explain this original ending (I won't go into detail for those of you who didn't know of it) but, to be honest, as I was thinking about sitting down to write properly for the first time in months, I couldn't help but think that originally - in my very heart of hearts, even! - that this fic was always intended to be a solid Deathfic from the get-go. The ambiguous ending it originally had, I think, was a subconscious attempt by me to help this fic appeal to a wider audience by not totally conforming to complete Deathfic status and it just didn't work.

So, a while on, and I'm like 'SCREW THE SODDING SYSTEM!' and thus, this is now a full-on Deathfic with the original ending removed. I hope it's still a good read for those of you that knew it from 'before'; I'm certainly much happier with it! I debated re-uploading the whole thing but, you know, effort there. And all the reviews I received (THANK YOU, GUYS. YOU ARE ALL THE SEX.), despite most of them being confused, were absolutely lovely and too nice to delete along with the fic.

For those of you that are new, I hope you enjoyed 'To Delay and Stargaze' in its true, intended form.

Ad Astra.