A/N: First and foremost, I want to apologize about how long it has taken me to put this up, and to thank you for your gentle nudges and reminders. I got distracted by other projects and school, and to be honest I was really intimidated by this chapter. I have never experienced loss to this degree, and I want to make the grieving process for Tony and Jethro as realistic as possible. I've done research and drawn on my own, lesser, experiences, and I hope that these next few chapters seem at least plausible. Once again, I apologize profusely for the lack of updates over the summer, and thanks again for your continuing support. Y'all are the best!
Tony's waking wasn't dramatic, or abrupt, or really anything like it happened in the movies. He blinked droopy eyelids open and gazed around the room, finally zeroing in on Jethro with unfocused eyes.
"Tony? Tony, hey," Jethro signed quickly, gripping Tony's hand tightly in his and not even bothering to hold back the tears that welled in his eyes.
Tony blinked a few times and a hint of a smile graced his face before he slipped back into unconsciousness, his head lolling onto his shoulder. Jethro squeezed his son's hand in his own and smiled broadly for the first time in ages, feeling the skin at the corners of his mouth tug as they hadn't for weeks. It was a nice feeling, though he couldn't help but think it would be even nicer if Tony were still conscious and signing at that rapidfire speed he loved, his green eyes sparkling.
It was only after a few minutes of just staring at his son that Jethro realized he probably should tell a doctor, so he stood and cricked his back and neck, feeling the hours and days of sitting in a hard plastic chair in the hard tenseness of his muscles. He walked quickly, eager to tell the doctor and then get back to Tony's side.
Jethro snagged the sleeve of the first nurse he recognized in the hallway, relieved when she smiled and said she would go tell the doctor right away, then hurried back into the hospital room that has become his second home of late.
Tony was still and quiet, exactly as he had been when Jethro left, his face gaunt and pale and nothing like the Tony that Jethro loved and adored and missed terribly. He looked far older than his years.
"Come on, buddy," Jethro whispered, signing the words out of habit as he spoke. "Please, Tony. I need you to wake up, kiddo, let me see those beautiful eyes. Flirt with your pretty nurse, huh?"
Tony, predictably, remained silent and still; Gibbs shook his head and crossed his arms.
"This isn't uncommon, Agent Gibbs," Doctor Harris said as he stepped into the room. "He'll likely gain consciousness for brief moments of time that will only gradually get longer."
Jethro sighed. "I-I understand that, but I'm-" Jethro hesitated a second and chuckled in a sound half-hysterical and resembling a sob. "I'm just so damn tired of waiting."
Harris put a hand on Jethro's shoulder.
"I understand how you feel, Agent Gibbs. I wish I could give you better news."
"So do I," Jethro said, rubbing at his temples. He eyed Tony's still form and gently stroked one of his pale cheeks, then grinned lopsidedly. "Fine. I know you like to be stubborn, Tony, but so do I. I am not leaving this room until you wake up. You wanna take bets on who's going to win? It's gonna be me, kid, so you might as well give up now."
Harris smiled and shook his head. "It's going to be hard getting that past the nurses," he warned.
"I need to be here when my son wakes up, and I made a promise to him," Jethro said, his voice growing hard. "I am going to keep my word."
"Okay, Jethro I'll let the staff know, but if it takes longer than a day…"
"I understand," Jethro said, even as he vowed to himself that he wasn't going to leave even if that was the case.
The doctor nodded and left the room, and Jethro resumed sitting at Tony's side, brushing his hand through Tony's long hair.
"Prove 'em wrong, kid," he whispered. "You've been doing it your whole life. I know you can do it today. Prove them wrong."
It only took a few hours before Tony's hand started twitching in Jethro's, and his green eyes once again made an appearance.
"Hey, hey," Jethro signed, rubbing at his arm. "You're okay, buddy."
Tony's eyes widened and he reached for the tube, frowning when Jethro stopped the splinted fingers from reaching it.
"You're in the hospital," Jethro signed, making sure Tony was looking at him. "Leave that alone."
Painstakingly, Tony signed with his left hand, frowning in obvious pain and frustration that he couldn't use his right.
Jethro nodded and pressed the call button above Tony's bed, wishing there was something he could do to ease his son's pain.
"I know, Tony, the doctor's on his way."
Tony closed his eyes again and Jethro could see tears poking out of the corners, trailing slowly down his cheeks. Jethro squeezed his hand and traced 'OK' onto his palm. Tony squeezed back then slipped his hand out of Jethro's and once again went for the vent tube. Jethro shook his head and caught the wayward limb, kissing the small fingers before setting it at Tony's side.
"You need it, buddy," he signed. "Try to relax, okay?"
Tony continued to shift restlessly, making tiny noises of displeasure and confusion despite Jethro's attempts to soothe him. Tears were soon running down his face and then an alarm went off from the ventilator, startling Jethro and bringing several people rushing into the room.
"What's going on?" Jethro demanded, stepping out of the way of the nurses but keeping a firm grip on Tony's hand. Tony, for his part, was squeezing his hand tightly, almost desperately.
"He's just biting the tube, Mr. Gibbs," a nurse said, smiling reassuringly.
"He, uh, he said he's hurting," Jethro said, once more moving close to Tony's side. Tony stared at him with wide, terrified eyes, tears once again flowing freely. Jethro gently stroked the tears away, thumbing Tony's pale cheeks and trying to ground his son the best he could.
"Doctor Harris should be here soon," the nurse said, briefly stroking Tony's hair. "I can get you a bit of pain relief in the mean time."
"Thank you," Jethro murmured, watching as the nurse injected something into Tony's IV and Tony started to relax. "There you go, kiddo, you're okay bud," he said quietly. He had to crane awkwardly to establish eye contact with his son, who couldn't move his neck, but as the green eyes finally locked with his, red-rimmed and swollen as they were, he felt an overwhelming sense of calm wash over him and hoped Tony was able to feel some comfort from it too.
Finally, Tony's desperate movements stopped, the tears ceased, and he held Jethro's hand as tightly as Jethro was clinging to his.
"There you go, kid," Jethro whispered, pressing a kiss to Tony's forehead. "There you go."
By the next day, the doctor was comfortable enough with Tony's breathing to wean him from the ventilator. Jethro sat at his son's side and ran a hand through Tony's hair, quietly soothing him as the tube was removed and he gagged.
"Dad?" Tony signed as soon as he stopped coughing and a nurse had settled an oxygen mask over his face.
"Yeah, hey buddy," Jethro signed back, relieved that Tony was more coherent than the night before. "How you feeling?"
Tony frowned, scrunching up his nose in thought, before he gave a half-hearted shrug.
"Don't know. Feels funny."
Jethro inhaled sharply. "Funny how?"
Tony sighed and shrugged again.
"Numb," he signed. "It aches, but it doesn't really hurt too bad."
"That's the pain meds, kiddo," Jethro signed, feeling his heartrate settle down as his panic abated. "That's a good thing."
Tony frowned again. "I guess so. It's weird."
Jethro chuckled lightly and ruffled Tony's hair, casting an appraising eye over his son's body. The bruises on his face and scattered on his arms had mostly faded since Tony's time unconscious; his knee was in a brace and less swollen than it had been, but it would take some intense physical therapy for him to use it like normal again. His lungs were still wheezy, congested sounding, and it was clear that every breath was a bit uncomfortable, not to mention that his heart was still occasionally veering into arrhythmic territory. In all, Tony still had quite a ways to go, but he was awake and he was coherent, and that was enough for Jethro, at least for the time being.
A gentle touch on his arm had Jethro returning to the present. Tony was staring at him with wide eyes, lower lip trembling.
"Where's- is Kelly- or Mom-"
Jethro reached a hand out and gently gripped Tony's thigh.
"Are they okay?"
Jethro took a deep breath. He'd known this moment was coming, run through a thousand different scenarios in his head, but now that it was here, he found himself floundering a bit. Finally, he pressed a kiss to Tony's temple, then slowly signed to him.
"How much do you remember, Tony?"
Tony shook his head and frowned, his eyes fixed on a point somewhere beyond Jethro's head.
"I- the car crashed and then- it hurt and I was holding Kelly-"
Tony's breaths started coming in short gasps and the beeping of the heart monitor started to speed up. Jethro gripped Tony's upper arm and quickly clicked the call button.
"Tony, you're okay," he signed, then cupped Tony's face, trying to get him to focus. Tony, though, was beyond listening, his lips moving soundlessly, his gaze distant. A spike of fear ran through Jethro as he felt Tony trembling beneath his hands.
"Tony, come on kiddo, you need to breathe," Jethro signed, shouting the words aloud at the same time. "Help! I need some help in here!"
Tony was gasping for air, pained grunts punctuating the heaving breaths, and nothing Jethro did was having any effect.
"Sir, you need to get out of the way," a nurse said, gently shoving Jethro from Tony's side. He watched in fear as the nurse and doctor worked to soothe Tony; that proved ineffective as Tony's lips started to turn blue before he finally passed out, his breathing normalizing in his unconsciousness.
"What the hell just happened?" Jehtro demanded, standing at Tony's side, one hand clamped protectively onto his son's shoulder.
Harris sighed and took his glasses off before rubbing at his temples.
"Your son had a panic attack, Agent Gibbs," he said. "I'd hoped that the trauma might be easier to deal with than this, but Tony has been through quite an experience, and it's likely going to be a rough road for the both of you."
"Rough how, exactly?" Jethro asked quietly, gently kneading at Tony's shoulder in his anxiety.
"Well, he could continue having panic attacks, and could have nightmares, anxiety issues, and any number of things. I'm going to recommend a few pediatric counselors for you to look into, and I'll have a social worker stop by to give you some suggestions on how to deal with this the best way for both of you."
"I'm fine," Jethro said quickly. "We just need to make this better for Tony."
Harris raised an eyebrow. "You've been through trauma too, Agent Gibbs."
"I'm fine," Jethro repeated. "But I'll do whatever it takes to get Tony through this."
"Okay," Harris said finally. "Hopefully Tony will sleep for a while and get some rest; I'll make sure a social worker gets down here sometime today."
"Thank you," Jethro murmured. He pressed a kiss to Tony's forehead as Harris left the room, gently stroking his forehead. "We'll get you through this, buddy. You'll be okay."
Another week passed quickly. Tony's lungs started to clear up and his heart rate stabilized, and he was finally moved to a regular room. Of course, Jethro's whole team was eager and anxious to finally get to see Tony, but Jethro was hesitant. Tony had grown withdrawn and quiet, scarcely talking even to Jethro and Jackson, and Jethro was worried that his teammates would overwhelm Tony's tenuous grasp on reality.
"Hey buddy, you ready for therapy?" Jethro asked, glancing at the clock. Tony was curled up as much as he could be with his bad leg stretched out in front of him, looking blearily at Jethro and only shrugging in response. Jethro was concerned and more than a little frustrated; Tony had scarcely been eating and the doctors were starting to discuss putting in a feeding tube, and he had showed very little initiative in his therapy sessions. In discussions with Dr. Harris and Tony's therapist, Jethro had been told that while Tony might not be mentally prepared for therapy, if they waited too much longer he would have a permanent limp.
"Tony, I need you to talk to me, kid," he said, trying to get Tony to just communicate with him. So far, he'd refused to open up to the counselor as well, and Jethro was growing increasingly hopeless.
"Don't want to," Tony signed finally before turning away.
Jethro shook Tony's shoulder until Tony finally looked at him again, then shook his head.
"Tony, you need this. Your leg is going to be-"
"I don't care! I don't want it!" Tony signed angrily, glaring at Jethro with flared nostrils and clenched teeth. Jethro felt his own temper rising and took a deep breath, forcing himself to pause before answering.
"Fine. I'll let the therapist know, then I'm going to go take a shower and get cleaned up."
"Fine," Tony signed, then closed his eyes. Jethro clenched his jaw and walked out of the room. He'd been staying at a motel since the accident, both in order to be close to the hospital and to avoid the empty house, and heading back there now felt simultaneously like a release and a betrayal. He was frustrated and anxious about Tony, trying desperately not to think about his wife and daughter, and was growing antsy and short-tempered. He shucked his shirt off, fully intending to get into the shower, but found himself just sitting on the edge of the bed, unable to muster the motivation to move.
A knock on the door startled him.
"Jethro?" His father's voice asked through the door.
"Come on in, Dad," Jethro called, trying to instill some life into his voice.
Jackson stepped into the room and gently closed the door behind him, before sitting down next to Jethro with a sigh. He'd had to go home after the first week and a half but had continued making trips down every weekend to support Jethro and encourage Tony.
"How are you doing, son?" Jackson asked quietly. Jethro shrugged, running a hand through his hair.
"I'm fine. I'm just- I don't know how to help Tony with this. I don't know how to motivate him, and I have no idea what to do about the depression. And now- Dad, if he doesn't start trying with the therapy soon, his knee's going to be permanently screwed up. But I don't want to screw him up even more, and forcing him into something he isn't ready for so soon after—I just don't know what I should do. I-I feel lost, Dad."
Jackson was quiet a moment, a hand resting on Jethro's knee in a silent show of support.
"Have you told him that his knee won't get better without the therapy?" He asked finally.
"Yeah, don't know how much he took it in, though."
"Well son, hard as it is, I think maybe his mental health needs to take priority in this case."
"But Dad, his leg-"
"Is not as important as his mind and his soul, Jethro. If you can't figure this out and get him enjoying life again, what use will a fully functional leg really be?"
Jethro took a deep breath and nodded slowly.
"You're right Dad, and I've known it for a few days, but- but it's still hard, you know?"
"I know," Jackson murmured, wrapping an arm around his son's shoulders. "As for the rest, hopefully with time that will sort itself out."
Jethro nodded again, unable to speak for fear of completely losing it and bursting into tears. Instead, he leant into his father's embrace and just allowed himself to be held as he hadn't since he was a child.
A few hours later, showered and napped, Jethro walked back into Tony's hospital room to find Tony sitting up and looking anxiously toward the door, more expression on his face than there had been for ages.
"Dad!" He signed as soon as Jethro stepped into the room, then completely took Jethro aback by bursting into tears.
"Whoa, you're okay, buddy," Jethro signed, stepping quickly to Tony's side and enveloping him in a hug. He stayed there for a moment, a mirror of his own earlier embrace with Jackson, then moved back, gently thumbing Tony's tears off of his cheeks.
"Are you okay?" He signed, immense concern overtaking all of the frustration he had felt earlier.
"We were- we argued, and you were mad, and then you left, and I thought that maybe you-"
"You thought I wasn't coming back?" Jethro signed, his heart sinking with guilt as he thought of Tony sitting alone and scared and abandoned.
Tony nodded miserably, lower lip trembling again.
"Tony. I will always come back for you. Always. Do you understand?"
Tony nodded again, but he didn't look convinced.
"Mom didn't," he signed without looking up. Jethro took a deep breath to try and tamp down his own emotions, then tilted Tony's chin up so that they made eye contact.
"I know, Tony, and I can't promise you something won't happen to me, but as long as I'm breathing, I will be there for you. You are my son, and you are my family. We've got to stick together now, huh?"
Tony nodded, tears streaming down his face.
"Yeah. Just you and me now, I guess."
Jethro smiled painfully and wiped tears from his own face.
"Let's do the best we can, huh? Make your mom and Kelly proud."
Tony finally smiled, though it was nowhere near his normal mega-watt grin, and scrubbed at his eyes.
"I might be a little bit hungry," he signed finally. "And- and maybe I'm ready to try the therapy."
Jethro felt as if a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders and hugged Tony tightly, relieved and inspired by his son's newfound appreciation for life. And while he knew that Tony was in no way recovered from the trauma he had endured- and, to be honest, he knew that he himself still had a way to go too- at least they were making some progress. Life would never be the same, but together, maybe they could make it enjoyable again.