| conclusion |

SpongeBob wouldn't leave him alone.

Tony nodded as Abby went on, narrating with her hands, pigtails and words. He was trying to ignore the balloons still tied to the foot of his bed, but damn it, they multiplied into six. That gift shop downstairs seriously needed to rethink their offerings.

"…so they're going to fly in Albert's sister on a special visa to take care of Ornella." Abby paused long enough to drain her Caf-Pow dry. That was her second one in the past hour. Wow, overcompensating much?

"Gathering everyone's voice samples. Shooting you. The explosives. He was forced to do what they said to save his sister." Abby sighed. "I thought Gibbs was going to shoot Brinon when Ziva and McGee got the little girl out of that basement. Poor Al…" She blinked rapidly as she idly smoothed down his covers. She peered through her lashes at him.

"Yeah," Tony murmured, "poor Albert." The guilt he saw on her face faded. He fidgeted. He wondered if the heaviness binding around his shoulder and lower back would ever go away. Getting shot was not fun. Root canal was a barrel of laughs compared to this.

"I wonder how long Gands was on Brinon's payroll?" Abby mused.

"Long enough." McGee made a face as he entered Tony's room. He set a paper bag down on Tony's pullout table, next to the grayest hunk of meatloaf Tony had ever seen (and fully intended to ignore).

McGee smiled wearily; he still looked exhausted. The circles Tony had noted each day McGee swung by were darker. "Gands kept records of everything. Even how he manipulated the phones to call in the lockdown." McGee pulled a pretty good imitation of a Gibbs frown. "That was a security flaw no one figured on. He even made sure he was guarding the one exit Albert could escape through."

"He killed Hanks because he got close enough too Albert when everything happened," Tony concluded. He carefully prodded the dressing on his lower stomach. "It was all Gands' idea not Albert."

McGee nodded. "If it hadn't been for Gands' plan to steal back the evidence, we never would have known to look closer at the data to find enough to convict Brinon. So in the end, it all worked out."

"Speak for yourself." Tony grimaced. He rubbed gingerly at his sternum. It weirdly ached even though it was nowhere near the healing wound. He waggled his eyebrows and pointed to the bag. "Present?"

"Half a mocha chip muffin," McGee corrected him. He grinned and pushed it closer. "Bon appétit."

Tony pretended to lean back into his pillows in horror. "That's not from last week, is it?"

McGee rolled his eyes, but failed to completely hide the relief on his face.

Guess it had been kind of scary for everybody when Tony's fever had spiked and his memory had spiraled downward with it. At some point he thought he'd even seen Brad Pitt—the doctor, not the actor—but Tony wasn't sure if that had been delirium, flashback, or real.

"So how was the grand jury?" Tony asked.

McGee's grin turned wolfish. "Brinon'strial is next month."

Tony's shoulders relaxed. "Great." He dropped his head back into the pillows. He took measured breaths. His eyes narrowed when he saw SpongeBob floating into the room with Ziva and Palmer.

Palmer grinned when he saw Tony was awake, but his smile dimmed when he saw SpongeBob's twins tethered to the foot of Tony's bed. Palmer's ears pinked.

"Seriously," Tony grumbled half-heartedly, "you couldn't shop anywhere else besides the gift shop downstairs, Jimmy?"

Palmer chuckled nervously.

"I brought you a cappuccino instead," Ziva spoke up as she smiled smugly.

"I don't think Tony can have that yet, Ziva." McPartyPooper frowned.

"Oh no," Palmer hastened to say, "Dr. Mallard and Gibbs are talking with the doctors right now. They said any liquids are fine now."

"Great," Tony groaned. "Ducky's going to find out about the screw-up with the meds…" Stupid doctors didn't read up on his allergies. Isn't that what charts were for?

"Ooh, Ducky smackdown!" Abby perked up. She planted a kiss on Tony's forehead then rubbed the lipstick mark off with her thumb. "I'll be right back. I got to see this. When Ducky gets going with that accent of his…" She hooked Palmer by the elbow on her way out.

"I'll see you later, Tony!" Palmer yelped as he was dragged away.

"Send me video!" Tony whined as they hurried off.

"How you're feeling, Tony?" McGee asked as he gingerly sat on the edge of his bed.

Ziva frowned at the balloons.

Tony was tempted to ask her to channel her Mossad powers and pop them. "Good," Tony replied instead. He knew better than to claim he was fine because it would get back to Gibbs. He didn't want to get handcuffed to his bed again for suggesting he was fine enough to go home. Vance had not been happy to get that call from hospital security.

McGee rubbed the back of his neck. He cleared his throat. "Tony, I uh…" He dropped his gaze. "When Al had shot you, I…I'm sorry I didn't react faster."

Tony's brow knitted. "How much faster do you think you could have been?" He pointed to Ziva. "I don't think even she could have been faster. Or Gibbs."

"He's right, McGee," Ziva said, although she did look mildly disturbed at the implication she wasn't Superman-fast. "There was nothing you could have done."

"And from what I was told," Tony added, "you reacted pretty fast when you thought there was a grenade." McGee stammered, his face turning red, the gloom that clung to him faded. Better.

Tony smirked. "Very John McClane." It would be funny to see how McGee reacted when he's presented with his citation next month.

McGee smiled goofily. "Glad you're okay, Tony."

"Yes," Ziva agreed fervently.

"Hey, I'm glad I'm okay." Tony sobered. "Also glad Gibbs got Albert's kid sister away from Brinon."

McGee shook his head. "Brinon was never worried about the murder charge."

"Considering what we finally decoded in Gands' hard drive," Ziva continued, "murder was the least of his worries."

"Yeah, well, selling weapons to terrorist groups kind of trumps murder," Gibbs drawled as he entered. He studied Tony. Satisfied with whatever he saw, Gibbs settled into the seat that had been left vacant for him.

"Where's Ducky?" McGee craned his neck to check out the hallway.

"Still ripping Doctor Moron a new one," Gibbs said calmly. "I left because Abby said I was blocking her view."

Tony groaned. "You know, I'm stuck in here for another week. Ticking off my doctor might work against me here."

Gibbs nodded. "I'll be sure to remind Doctor Pitt when he gets here in a few minutes."


McGee shared a grin with Ziva. "Boss, Ziva and I are going to…uh…make sure Ducky doesn't get thrown out of the hospital."

"Don't ruin Abby's shot," Gibbs said. He nodded to them as they left.

Tony eyed the doorway. "You know, I don't think I had to worry about Ducky back in the morgue. I think Ducky can be a pretty scary guy if he wants to be."

"Yup." Gibbs smirked to himself. "Ask him about Manila some day." He paused. "And about the exploding monkey and the boat he stole."

Tony gaped. "I think I will," he choked out. He rolled his head carefully and laid on the pillows, listening to Gibbs drinking his coffee. It wasn't worth trying to tell Gibbs to go home. He'd worked with the ex-Marine long enough to know it was useless. Gibbs wasn't going anywhere. Sure, he drank umbrella drinks for a brief time in Mexico, but other than that, Gibbs stayed whether he was asked to or not.

Tony was okay with that.

"Albert could have killed me, boss." Damn it. That wasn't what Tony meant to say. He hadn't wanted to say it for days; didn't even want to think about it.

"Yep." Luckily, Gibbs didn't fancy himself an armchair shrink.

Tony blinked hard; the lump in his throat was a surprise to him. "I mean, I'd been a cop for…I never saw it coming."

"I think that was the point of blackmailing Albert." Gibbs set his cup down. "None of us saw it coming. None of us predicted Brinon would grab a nine-year-old girl to get her big brother to go on a suicide mission."

"You think Albert knew…" Tony asked, his throat tight. "Think he knew it was a suicide mission?"

"Think Albert couldn't risk caring."

Tony nodded numbly. He squinted, his eyes burning at the corners.

"Brinon better pay for this." Tony grimaced. It sounded whiny. "I mean, for Al—"

A hand dropped on top of his head. "He will," Gibbs promised, his voice sure, solid and steady.

Tony found himself calming. Still, he pinched the bridge of his nose. He wondered if maybe he should finally give in and ask for a sleeping aid tonight. He didn't want to keep seeing Albert's gun firing at his face; not when he knew the truth behind the attack.

"Man," Tony said thickly, "I can't wait to go home."

Gibbs grunted. "About that…"

A sneaky suspicion wiggled inside. "Boss?" He stared at Gibbs with growing dismay. "Look, I appreciate your concern. I get it. I do. But I got two weeks of sick leave when I get discharged and no offense, but two weeks at your place, begging your rabbit ears to at least give me public television is going to give me a relapse—"

"Did I say you were staying at my place, DiNozzo?"

Oh. Tony was relieved. Really, he was. "Oh…okay."

"My guest room is on the second floor," Gibbs went on, stiffly. "You're not okayed to be handling stairs."

Tony gulped. "You mean…"

"That sofabed of yours better be comfortable," Gibbs growled.

Tony laughed, strained. "It's new?" he offered. "Listen, boss, you don't have to—"

A light slap bobbed his head forward. Tony scoffed and smiled up at Gibbs.

The ex-Marine sat there, looking steadily back at him. After a moment, Gibbs's mouth curved crookedly. "You're welcome."

Tony cleared his throat and thought reaching for his coffee would spare them both all the warm and fuzzy things Gibbs could never say and Tony could never hear. He sighed happily, ignoring Gibbs's chuckle as he curled his hands around the still warm cardboard cup. God, he was sick and tired of lukewarm water and—

Spewed the coffee out after the first gulp.

"Aw man, she put salt in my coffee!"

| the end |

Author's Note: And this concludes my longest plotted NCIS fic yet. I hope the mystery was interesting. Thank you all for sticking by this story! Many thanks as well to brate7 and penfold_x for the beta! I know my constant 'tweaking' couldn't have been fun. Thank you for being so patient with me!

Pssst: Feedback is like cookies. I like cookies. -lol-