AUTHOR'S NOTE: I wanted to write a story where everyone was quietly and matter-of-factly rather heroic and awesome, and also, being me, I wanted there to be a spot of Tony h/c. This is naturally what resulted.
"I tried to warn you," Tony said. He stood still with his hands in his pockets, watching the gray ocean eat away at the shoreline. "I said that Maine in January was a mistake."
Ziva sputtered at the obvious injustice of this. "You said—you said nothing of the sort! You said, 'Oh, this is where they filmed The Cider House Rules, I hate that movie' and I remember because I thought that it had something to do with juice, but McGee said it didn't."
"Well," Tony said, "when I said that, what I meant was that Maine in January was a mistake."
The gulls called back and forth to each other in hollow sounding voices. Ziva, leaning with her arms folded against the damp sandbags, wondered what they were saying to each other, if they had a way of warning the gulls further out to keep well clear of the coming storm. She looked at Tony. His hair was beaded with sea spray and the sky's intermittent icy drizzle and, in the flatness of the clouded-over day, he looked tired: too many storms too often, for all of them. She slipped her hand into his coat pocket and closed it around his unused but still-warm glove, as if holding his hand.
He raised his eyebrows. "Ms. David," he said, "you're trying to seduce me. . . aren't you?"
"Just trying to give you a good reason to go inside," she said lightly. "The rain." She shook herself slightly, like a Labrador, and flicked him with water.
He swiped it from his coat. "This," he said, "is expensive. It's high quality leather."
"I will throw a snowball at you."
"Inside sounds good."
He laced his arm through hers as they headed back through the snow and slush towards the town hall, allowing her without comment to keep her hand in his pocket, her fingers knitted through the suede approximations of his. The sky hung low above them; she kept thinking that they would bump their heads on it. Every store front along the street was covered up with cardboard and all the signs on all the doors were turned to CLOSED: no one to man them, no one to shop them, everyone crowded into the basement of the town hall, including the three visiting NCIS Special Agents, who had gotten their fugitive sent home only to find themselves stranded. Tony had compared it to stepping in gum, taking your shoe off and throwing it as a far away as you could, and then stepping back onto the gum in your bare feet and finding yourself stuck—and sticky.
("Why are there no socks in this analogy?" McGee had asked. Tony had threatened to smother him with a pillow in his sleep. "You do have the next-door bed," he'd pointed out. "So maybe you want to reconsider your tone, McNitpick.")
Ziva did not mind staying, even with the storm rushing up the coast line making a battering ram of the sea: she liked the basement of the town hall, with its cool mint-green floor and its rows and rows of beds, she liked lying in one room with everyone else and hearing, all down the aisles, the soft sleep mumbles and pre-sleep murmurs, the snores, the children moving toy trucks against the floor. She liked the ladled-out soup and the handed-out pillows, everyone pitching in, Gibbs and McGee even now helping to find nooks and crannies in the basement for spare mats and sleeping bags in case of overflow. Everyone together.
Tony swung the door open and they wiped their feet carefully on the inside mat so they wouldn't track water down into the basement.
It was warm downstairs—she could tell already that it would soon be too warm, and they would all start shedding layers like snakes uncurling themselves from their skins—and Tony sniffed. "Cocoa," he said, his face splitting into a grin.
Ziva frowned. "It is too sweet, always."
This was nothing to Tony: "It's chocolate, it's warm, you drink it. Come on, Scrooge."
"January," she reminded him. "January, not Christmas."
"It's always Christmas in your heart, Ziva," he said, and dragged her into the hot chocolate line. She gave in without much protest—it was nice to see Tony excited about something that was not naked or available on DVD.
They got their cocoa and headed over to Gibbs and McGee, who were just finishing the hospital corners on the last bed in their row. Tony softly clapped one hand against his paper cup. McGee straightened, wiped a bead of sweat off his forehead and said, "Funny, DiNozzo," in the terse tones of someone who has spent much too much time conversing—or attempting to converse—with Gibbs.
"How do you get sweaty making a bed?" Ziva asked, with genuine curiosity.
"We put it up first. They're collapsible."
"You look a little collapsible right about now yourself, McGee," Tony said. If he heard the faint sliver of actual concern in his voice along with the mockery, he quickly took a sip of hot chocolate to disguise it. McGee glared at him.
"Well, DiNozzo," Gibbs said, "not all of us got to take a stroll."
"Ziva and I were watching the ocean for sudden movements."
"We are on the roster for later tonight," she said, because neither Gibbs nor McGee looked as if they were in the mood for Tony at all.
McGee brightened fractionally, but Tony was right—he still looked as if he were fraying about the edges, a different kind of weariness from Tony's now almost permanent stamp of fatigue. "Please say that you're spooning out soup or something."
"Well," Tony said, sounding eminently reasonable, "I can't say that, but I can say that pretty Polly picked a peck of pickled peppers."
Ziva—against her will—laughed.
"I hate you," McGee said. He directed this vaguely in-between Tony and Ziva.
She took pity on him and once again gave the real answer: "Tony is on soup and I am on patrol, to make sure that no one is left upstairs once the storm starts."
"They thought she was scarier than I was," Tony said. "Correctly." The hot chocolate had left a faint and milky line just above his upper lip, like a scar, or a kiss, and he absentmindedly licked it off. He looked at McGee and said, "God, Tim, sit down before you fall down, or something," and this time he didn't couch his concern in a joke.
Ziva shot a quick look at Tim and saw that Tony was right, he was distinctly wobbly on his feet. She stepped forward and pushed him back so that he toppled onto the bed.
"This isn't mine," he said, with mild protest, but he didn't get up, which was telling.
Tony looked at him accusingly. "You're sick." He managed to make it sound as if McGee had been a mass-murderer and not told them. He turned to Gibbs. "Boss."
Gibbs pressed his lips together, shook his head. Tony apparently accepted this as some sort of legitimate answer to his equally unspoken question—they did that sometimes, and Ziva never failed to find it both distracting and disconcerting.
"Well," Tony said. "Okay. Okay." He seemed to be talking to himself; he ran a hand through his hair and until it stood on end, still fractionally supported by the ice crystals. "Okay."
"Okay," Ziva said, because it seemed like the thing to do.
Tony leveled her with an icy, humorless glare, and then somehow gathered himself together. "Right. Probie, rest. I'm going to get you soup."
He looked at Gibbs; Gibbs jerked his head in the direction of the soup table that was still being set up. Tony went.
"Weird even for him," McGee said. He was still sitting up rather than lying down. He didn't look that bad, Ziva thought, not bad enough for Tony to worry over so much—just a little unsteady on his feet, a little feverish. Early stages of the—
Oh. She looked over to the soup table and saw, even from this far away, the straight-edged uprightness of Tony, the tension nestled into his back along his spine.
Gibbs crouched down beside the bed. "McGee. You know you were sick?" His voice was still level, but now that Ziva was listening for it, she could hear, underneath, the faint threat, the anger held in reserve underneath the thin and cracking veneer of calm.
McGee shook his head in a slow, cautious way that told Ziva he had a splitting headache. "I thought I was just tired. Sorry, boss," but what he was apologizing for was being inconvenient—all weak-kneed and achy in their presence. He had not yet realized, fuzzy-headed and distracted as he was, why Gibbs's question had had that danger running through it. If he did not know, she would not tell him—there was no point in it that she could see. She knew now what Tony had undoubtedly already realized—if he were going to catch something from McGee, he would have done it already.
"Come on, then," Gibbs said. "Your bed," and he and Ziva helped McGee up and kept hold of him as they escorted him to the beds that had already been marked out for them, Gibbs next to Ziva next to McGee next to Tony, Tony and Gibbs both on the edge, pressed in upon by strangers, which she didn't like, especially now—the basement seeming smaller and more claustrophobic with the illness trapped inside it like a bug in a bottle.
McGee sat down creakily and then swung his legs up onto the bed and scrunched down to lie on his back, one arm folded above his eyes to block out the yellow light from the overhead lamps. She was worried for Tony already, but that blackout pose made her worried for McGee, too, who after all couldn't help being sick and being inseparable from them, infectious, a patient zero. And the flu really was awful, in any case. She patted him gingerly on the shoulder.
"Soup and rest," she said.
Gibbs was more direct. "Stay," he said, as if talking to a dog, and headed over to Tony.
Ziva stayed with McGee and did her best to care about him, because she knew from hard-earned experience that if you worried over Tony in Tony's presence, the worry just slid off of him, water off a duck's back, deflected by his natural tendency to be irritating, and you ended up achieving nothing at all, except getting pissed instead of being worried, which was of course what Tony wanted.
McGee peeked up at her from underneath his arm. "Is it bad outside?"
She had almost forgotten about the storm. "Gray," she said obligingly, although she no longer cared about the weather. "Wet. The water keeps slapping against the docks, and I think it might break those little boats they have."
"Lobster boats," McGee said.
Ziva thought lobsters looked like overgrown cockroaches, all hard shells and squirming little legs, and could not understand the appeal of eating one at all, least of all why Tony and McGee had practically drooled on the plane ride to Maine about dipping them in melted butter and licking little shreds of meat off their fingertips. Gibbs had also seemed unmoved, but then again, Gibbs was Gibbs, and rarely seemed moved by anything, which was why his worry about Tony was even more worrying than anyone else's worry would ever have been.
She shrugged, heartlessly. "The lobsters will probably also die." And good riddance to them. "Would you like something to drink?" This was as far as Ziva could normally go with sick people: she could offer them orange juice. When it got down to wads of damp Kleenex and fevered brows, she left it for other people to deal with, but McGee was McGee, and she could at least get him a glass of orange juice with one of the bendy straws used for children and the ill.
He nodded, with the same delicate bobbing of the head.
"And aspirin," she said, because she could make an exception for him.
"Thanks, Ziva," he said, and flopped his arm back completely over his eyes.
A table at the far end of the basement was covered with plastic dispensers of chilled water, tea, and orange juice, as well as a steel urn of coffee and many plastic snap-boxes of crumbly chocolate chip cookies, but Ziva had to wait in line between a number of families attempting to console their crying and frightened children with processed sugar before she could get to the table. She decided her own rather frightened family could also use sugar, and so she swiped a couple of flimsy paper plates, stacked them together for strengths, and took an even half-dozen cookies—one for McGee, two for Tony, two for her, and one for Gibbs, who probably wouldn't eat it anyway—and three plastic glasses of orange juice and a cup of suspiciously thick-looking coffee, because she had never seen Gibbs drink anything else.
She took Tony his cookies and juice first. Having helped set up the soup table, he was leaning back against it, his face two shades whiter than normal, and slightly pinched around the eyes. She offered him her spoils of her war.
He took three cookies.
"One of those is Gibbs's," she said.
"Gibbs doesn't eat cookies," Tony said, having already stuffed most of them in his mouth. He was blasé enough about it that she believed him, since she thought that Tony's ordinary reaction to having accidentally eaten Gibbs's food would be to quickly find somewhere to hide. "If you give a Gibbs a cookie, he'll probably want a Scotch to go with it—"
"You're getting crumbs on me."
He brushed her shoulders off and drank his orange juice down in one gulp.
"Soup should be up in about five minutes," he said. "I can bring our poor ailing McGee his first, but you and Gibbs might want to go ahead and get in line." He looked at the cookies that still remained on Ziva's plate and said, "You know, there's this thing that people say, that you should always have dessert first, because you never know when you're going to die."
"You're not going to die, Tony." She said it very quietly.
The corners of his mouth curved in what was not really a smile. "Gibbs told me that once," he said. "But not this time."
"Gibbs isn't always right about everything."
"Now see," Tony said, "if I'd have said that, he would have been right behind me. Some people have all the luck."
The soup was vegetable, with or without beef—Ziva had been prepared for the worst after seeing the sludgy coffee, but the soup was actually remarkably edible, and came with big crusty pieces of Italian bread, which Tony confidently announced to be the best type of bread in the world.
There were tables set up for everyone, but they were worried about McGee, and about Tony, so they ate their dinner sitting together on their beds, sopping up leftover soup with bread (except for Tony, who thought putting anything on Italian bread except for olive oil and maybe butter was sacrilegious and possibly criminal as well). McGee, color high in his cheeks, propped himself up against the ribbed metal headboard and sipped and nibbled at the soup, making almost no progress at all. Tony watched him closely. Ziva could not decide if he looked like a rabbit watching a hawk—alert for signs that would mean his own downfall—or a mother watching a recalcitrant three-year-old. Both, she decided.
"McGee. Eat better."
McGee sighed. "Look, Tony, I appreciate you bringing it over ahead of time, but I'm just not hungry. And it's too thick, I feel like I'm going to choke on it." He gave a thick, muffled-sounded cough for emphasis. Tony very carefully did not flinch.
Instead, he took the soup bowl back. "You could have said that earlier," he said, and stood up, walked back over to the kitchen with it.
McGee goggled after him. "Is he mad?"
"Perhaps he made the soup personally," Ziva said, although she was pretty sure that was not the case. Even Gibbs looked a little bewildered.
But a minute later Tony marched back with the soup and a big china mug. "Eat," he said, putting the soup back down by McGee, "and drink."
"It's still soup," McGee said.
"Have I ever steered you wrong?"
McGee looked at him.
"With regards to soup?"
"Then why doubt me?"
McGee rolled his eyes and then winced, obviously regretting it—apparently the children's Tylenol Ziva had scrounged up for him had not been about as ineffective as they had both thought it would be. But he obediently took another half-spoonful of soup. He widened his eyes. "It's different. What did you do to it?" He quickly took another spoonful.
Tony snorted. "I would like everyone to note that the one thing that baffles McGee's MIT-educated brain is adding hot water to soup to thin it out, a concept I personally mastered when I was seven." He dropped the gloating when he saw how quickly McGee was burrowing through the newly thinned soup. "Sorry, Tim, should've done that first. My mother always needed hers thinned out, I should have remembered," and then his face changed, hardened quickly like cement into some unreadable pose. "And drink the tea, it's good for you, it's got chamomile or peppermint or something. I got it from an old lady by telling her you were sick and pathetic."
McGee drank his tea and wrinkled his nose. "It tastes like death."
"That's how you know it's healthy," Tony said.
He sat perfectly comfortable, balanced on the edge of the bed with his feet splayed out in the gap between his bed and McGee's, not at all as if he were dangling his feet in the River Styx, tempting fate, waltzing into a plague zone. He had watered down the soup and brought the tea. And he could have run, but to look at him, he had never even thought about it: there was nothing about him now to show that there was anything wrong.
The storm hit at one in the morning. Ziva bolted upright when the thunder clapped against the sides of the buildings: it was as if they were all caught inside a giant's hands. A few other lights were on, the basement dimly glowing, and she stepped gingerly out of bed, wary of children, and made her way over to stand between Tony and Tim's cots. Tony was still asleep, the worry lines on his face temporarily smoothed out, but Tim was awake, curled in on himself. He was shivering.
Ziva got down on her knees next to the bed. "It's hot in here," she said. "And you're shaking like one of those little dogs. You have a fever."
"I'm fine," he said through clenched teeth. He swung himself up with some effort, his arms clamped firmly around himself in a hug. "What were you two thinking?" He uncurled himself for a second and stabbed his hand in the air in Tony's direction.
She felt obscurely betrayed by his realization—if she had not told him, he should not have known. She discovered that she was hugging herself as well. "There was no point to upsetting you. What's done is done." She had always felt that that was a particularly horrible English phrase, so rife with finality, and she had believed it years ago but then less and less over the years, but—she believed it now. Done is done.
McGee, being more American than she was, didn't seem to feel like accepting this. "Well, it's done now, maybe, but it wasn't done then, he hadn't even stolen any of my food for a week!"
Ziva laughed. She couldn't help it.
Tony rolled over onto his side. "Why is everybody talking?"
McGee bit down onto his lower lip and said, without looking back at Tony, "You idiot, I'm going to get you sick."
It was the first time any of them had said it out loud.
Tony didn't seem to like hearing it: he gave Ziva a look of exquisite betrayal. "You told him?"
She shook her head. "He figured it out."
Tony sighed and shrugged off the sheets and blankets. He made his way over to McGee's bed, stood above him, and said firmly, "Don't worry about it, Tim."
McGee turned his head away. "You shouldn't get this close."
"If I'm sick, I'm sick, I was next to you the whole plane ride. Okay?"
"We can't leave," McGee said, "there's no hospital, I don't want to kill you, go away."
"That's very sweet, McDrama, but—" He squinted down at McGee. "You have a fever."
"No," Tony said, "you do," and pressed the back of his hand against McGee's forehead. "Really, and this is what I meant—if you get pissed at me, you only have Gibbs and Ziva to take care of you, and is that what you want in this situation? They can't even manage soup."
"Can manage soup just fine, DiNozzo."
Tony very admirably did not fall over, but he turned around slowly and said, "Could you not do the slinking-up-behind-me thing right now, boss? I'm in a delicate psychological position, as I was just explaining to McGee."
"How?" McGee said. "How were you explaining that?"
"Yes, I didn't get that from what you were saying either."
Tony pointed at first McGee and then Ziva. "Shut up, and shut up." He looked back at Gibbs and Ziva could just about, if she tilted her head, see how the expression on his face changed, how some of the bravado drained out of him. Tony showed his soft underbelly to nobody else. "Come on, boss," he said. "Give me a break." He leaned forward slightly, as if that would somehow stop McGee and Ziva from overhearing, even though they were all sandwiched together, everything audible and intimate: "I'll go crazy otherwise."
Gibbs looked him over, as if he were up for inspection. Finally, he said, "Do what you want, Tony."
Tony sighed. "Thank you. And I'll—"
"Yeah," Gibbs said. "You will."
Ziva really wished they would stop doing that.
Tony turned back to McGee. "See?"
"No. I don't know what just happened. Maybe it's the fever."
"It's not," Ziva said. "They are communicating telescopically."
"I do not think it means what you think it means," Tony said, but he didn't turn around to smirk at her, he just bent over McGee and scrutinized him. "Right. Off with the blankets. You're not cold, you just think you're cold, and you're only making it worse."
McGee stubbornly clung to the blankets anyway.
Tony shrugged. "Do what you want."
"That's an unusually mature response from you."
"It's just that I don't want your brain to boil inside of your skull," Tony said, in the eminently reasonable voice he only used when saying ridiculous things, "and so I can't let you keep the blanket. I'll have to take it away from you, and if there's a struggle, you may breathe on me or something, and then I'll probably die."
Tony played to win.
McGee surrendered the blanket.
Later that day, when they were getting wildly varying reports about how much snow had blanketed them in the night and they could all hear the thin whine of the generator keeping all the lights and heaters on, Ziva let an eight-year-old teach her how to play rummy while Gibbs watched Tony watch McGee. She played rummy very badly—Danielle kept taking all of her money.
"You're not very good at this," Danielle said dourly. She sounded as if, money aside, she would have preferred to play with someone better.
Ziva really did prefer not to deal with children, but Danielle was a distraction. "Perhaps I am letting you win."
"No," Danielle said, leaning her chin into her hand. "I don't think that's it."
After she had surrendered all of her cash and spare change over to Danielle, she went over and found Mary Ellen, the woman who was coordinating all the volunteer work—childcare, serving out the food, cleaning up, and so on—and tried to tell her about McGee and Tony while not saying "plague," which was trickier than she had initially thought.
"Agent McGee has the flu," Ziva said, "and so cannot volunteer for anything, and neither can Agent DiNozzo."
"He has the flu too? Oh dear."
Ziva would feel, after, that it would have been best to simply have allowed Mary Ellen her initial misconception. "He does not have the flu," she said, "but he may, and in the meantime, he needs to distract himself from it, and fortunately he enjoys both looking after McGee and annoying him, and now he can do both at the same time." She hesitated. "He can kill two birds with one stone." Was that right? It sounded too violent to be right.
"Oh, I see," Mary Ellen said, although her expression indicated that she did not actually see it at all, "and Agent DiNozzo—has medical training."
She thought about Tony adding the hot water to the soup and saying, unthinkingly, that his mother had always taken it like that. "Yes." Not exactly a lie.
That made a little more sense to Mary Ellen. "All right, dear," she said, "you go on and tell them that they're off the duty roster and we all hope they feel better soon."
Ziva blinked at her—when anyone here said too much at one time, Ziva had trouble understanding them, as they didn't really seem to use many consonants. Finally, she tried, "Thank you?" and, judging by Mary Ellen's smile, had made the correct response.
She went back to watch Gibbs watch Tony watch McGee. "Gibbs, what is a deah?"
Gibbs smirked. "Go ahead."
"She wahnts you to pahk youah cah in the Hahvahd yahrd, deah," Tony said, in a weird affected drawl that sounded almost exactly like Mary Ellen. "God, it took me years to lose that, and all I ever had up here was school."
"What is it?"
"It's Boston," McGee said wearily. Tony had gotten his fever down a little bit after he'd wheedled him into going back to sleep with a cold washcloth draped over his forehead, but aside from that he looked worse—white and exhausted. "Well, New England. Northeastern seaboard, which is where we are."
"It's the accent," Tony said, taking pity on her. "It messes with the vowels. Dear. She was calling you dear, and what did she say? Am I still on soup?"
"You are on McGee-watching."
"Wow," McGee said, "I'm really glad you had that conversation, Ziva, thanks for going to all the trouble."
Tony sniffed. "Do you have a fever now, McSnotty?"
"Yes," McGee said heartlessly.
"Well—okay, but less of one than you did before. The point is, you are a terrible patient, and I have been very pa—tolerant with you, and you are totally unappreciative of the fact that I am making you bett—"
The cough came in the middle of the word like a gunshot.
Whatever color McGee had had left in his face drained out.
It was the bad kind of cough—the thick, heavy kind, the one with the weight of sickness behind it. But when it was over, Tony straightened, his face so rigorously composed that it was as if he were sculpted out of wax. She had not known him the first time this had happened, when he had gotten sick and then gotten sicker, degree by degree, inching towards the gulf, but she knew him now, and she did not want to watch him go. She didn't think she could stand it.
"Better," Tony said. "Making you better."
After that, all they had was the hell of marking time. Ziva wrangled her way through Mary Ellen's elongated, interminable vowels and successfully got the four of them housed in a bleak and cement-floored arts and crafts room that had been too dismal to have any beds put into it when there had been room anywhere else, and she and Gibbs hauled off the cots and then hauled off the patients. Tony could still walk unaided—and seemed incapable of doing it any other way than rigidly upright, like a wind-up toy soldier, having learned all of the wrong lessons from Gibbs—but McGee could only sort of stumble along, and needed a hand on him that Ziva was happy to give. Or not happy. It made her better to keep hold of Tim.
She wondered if it made Gibbs better to watch Tony, even though Tony only shook off whatever hand landed on him as if it were a fly, something irritation to be swiped away.
"This room is incredibly depressing," Tony said. He evaluated the heavy rolls of white paper. "People probably dismember bodies in here."
Ziva looked at the paper. "It is probably too thin to absorb the blood."
"See," Tony said, "when I say it, I'm joking, but when you say it, it's like you've thought about it."
"I'm thinking about it now, Tony," she said, balancing the tone between seductive and murderous.
"She's funny," Tony announced to no one in particular.
McGee sat down on his bed. "You could try not being the way you think we think you think."
Even Gibbs stared at him.
"Okay," Tony said, "so his fever's up again."
"Oh no," Tony said, "don't start him up again."
"—that if we wrote it down," she finished, glaring at him, "it might make sense."
"I don't have any," McGee said. He seemed irritated with her.
"It's becoming irrelevant."
"Obviously in this conversation," Tony said.
"There won't be any in the future."
"Not if this is a representative sample of it."
"We'll just use cards for everything."
"I'm going to go get you another cold washcloth." He headed for the door, but Ziva blocked him.
"I can get it."
"You'll do it wrong," Tony said. "You have the nurturing instincts of one of those animals that eat their young. I don't want you to eat McGee." For the first time since he'd coughed—for the first time since he'd told her about the desserts, and about dying—he seemed like a real person, something more than an outside shell so slick that nothing touched it. "I can do this. I'm not going to die any faster just because I'm standing up."
"Nobody's dying," McGee remarked vaguely.
"Ziva." When she looked back at Gibbs, she could not read his face at all. He shook his head. "Tony, go. And orange juice again."
"It's pulpy," Tony said, but only as an exit line, because he was already out the door. It came to a heavy thud behind him and Ziva wasted a few seconds pondering the starvation and cannibalism that would happen if the door stuck that way and no one ever came to save them because Tony died on the outside and Mary Ellen forgot. It was something like a film, she thought—Tony rubbing off on her. And anyway, thinking about it was better than acknowledging the silence that hovered in the bleak little room now that Tony had left.
"He should rest," she said.
"He should," Gibbs agreed, "but he doesn't know how. And this, he can do."
"Well," she said, "it makes things no easier for us."
He raised his eyebrows.
Probably Tony would have known what he was trying to say.
This time, Tony came back with plastic bags of ice cubes wrapped up in washcloths. McGee saw it and hated it and, feverish as he was, he got his point across by sort of thrashing around on the bed every time Tony came near him and talking a low and pitchy stream of nonsense under his breath. Tony sucked in a breath, glanced at Gibbs and Ziva, and then turned back to McGee.
When he spoke this time, his voice was gentler, more coaxing: "I know, Tim, I know it hurts, I'm sorry, but you're burning up, okay? We need to get your temperature down a little. Remember, we did it before, and then you were better for a little while, right?" He slid a little closer, and this time McGee let him. It was like watching a bird get hypnotized by a snake. "It'll be okay, Tim, I promise, and I'll stay right here." He paused in speech, even as he was still coming slowly, softly forward, and revised his last statement: "Unless you want me gone."
"Don't," McGee said, just as Tony reached him.
Tony's shoulders relaxed almost imperceptibly. "Okay, then," he said, sounding relieved, as if the decision were over with now, "then I'll stay. Ready?"
McGee closed his eyes.
Tony put the first bag of ice cubes down across McGee's forehead, tucking in the corners of the washcloth neatly and precisely around the corners of it, hushing McGee's hiss of discomfort. Then he lifted McGee's arms and placed the other two cold-packs up high, brought down his arms again to scrunch the bags between arms and chest and hold them in place. McGee was breathing in-out, in-out, very quickly, and Tony hooked a foot backwards, caught a leg of his own cot, and dragged it slowly forward until he could sit on it and have his hand on McGee's shoulder.
"You're okay," Tony said, "you're fine." He coughed again—three times this time—and shook his head. "You'll be just fine."
He looked back at Gibbs and Ziva. "The two of you are on kitchen duty. You should go."
Gibbs nodded and started out without saying anything else, but Ziva lingered—she had to. There was that pinched look to Tony's face.
But he waved her away from him. "That means you too, deah."
She managed a smile.
"Not worse than him."
"Worse than you were earlier."
"Thus is the progression of time, Ziva." He rubbed McGee's shoulder absently while he was talking.
(She could not trace his motives: if she went far enough to his head, everything she knew about him turned to smoke. He had loved his mother, and his mother had been sick—he could do this for her, comfort McGee. Or he could do it for himself, as a distraction from the panic that sunk its claws into his mind. Or he could do it for McGee, whom he teased constantly but in whose defense he bristled instantly with outrage. Or it could be all things, or none of them, something she had yet to consider—thus was the progression of Tony's mind, which did not shed layers like an onion but rather kept getting bigger and bigger (and darker) the further she tried to go inside.)
"In the morning," she said, "we should be able to make it to the hospital here, at least, and they will have generators."
"That's good," he said evenly.
She realized, as she went out to her work in the kitchen, that she had given no relief to him, because he was not sure he would live until morning.
She found Gibbs making soup.
"Is that all we are ever going to eat here?"
Somewhat to her disappointment, he simply shrugged and kept stirring the soup instead of flinging the kettle to the floor and causing some sort of kitchen revolution.
"Tony thinks that he is going to die." She said it to be mean and hated herself the second it was out of her mouth, because it was too cruel—there was a granite streak in her sometimes that surfaced when she had no other options, but it was no excuse, and said, it could not be taken back again.
There was a long silence, and then Gibbs shook his head. "Tony's not going to die, Ziva. Tony's going to look after McGee, and McGee's going to get better."
"And we are going to look after Tony?"
"No, Ziva, we're going to make soup." He passed her the spoon. "Stir."
He added—not without compassion—"And wait."
McGee's fever went down again. (Small mercies.) He could sit up and eat the soup they gave him.
It was more than Tony could do. He pushed the bowl away and met Gibbs's hard look with a one-shouldered shrug. "Sorry, boss. Can't." He coughed again and this time it was a while before he could stop—when the fit was over, he folded his arms across his chest as if trying to hold himself together. His smile was tacked on his mouth just for them. "Plus, that, you know. Probably just spray it all over everyone, soup is not congenial for this."
"He threw up about an hour ago."
"God, McGee," Tony said, "you're such a tattletale. I bet everyone in school hated you."
"They did," McGee said shortly. "Thanks."
Tony bit down on his lower lip. "Oh. Sorry, Tim. I didn't mean it like—"
"You meant it the way you always mean it."
Ziva stared at him. To pick a fight, now, of all times? She would have thought better of McGee than that. Did he not understand what Tony had done for him, that it had been Tony who had sat up with him half the night, soaking cloths in cold water to bring his fever down, that it had been Tony waited for him and worried over him when the rest of them could only wait and worry over Tony? She bristled at the injustice of it, but there seemed no obvious way, no good way, to break the fight off now that it had started—cutting McGee off would not stop Tony from feeling the sting, the chill, and Ziva and Gibbs could not take it back or make it better.
"I don't," Tony said, "always mean anything only one way, I'm a man of many complexities." He was on autopilot, his mind scrambling for some kind of solution while his mouth went on. He caught up with himself. "Well, lots of people like you now."
"Great save," Tim said. Ziva could have broken icicles off his voice. He put his soup bowl down on the butcher's block counter with its uneven hash-marks from paper-cutters and body dismemberments, nodded curtly to Gibbs and Ziva, and stormed out of the room as effectively as someone still wobbly from the flu could, which wasn't very, but the point came across. The door thudding behind him with its normal sound of death and destruction.
"That is a very unnerving door," Tony said. He looked sick to his stomach again. "I should have kept my mouth shut. I talk too damned much—"
Ziva stormed out rather more effectively than McGee had, straight in the middle of Tony's sentence, and caught up with McGee in the hall. He was eating cookies and leaning heavily against the concession table.
"Do you not know that he has been looking after you?" She tried very hard not to yell it. "He is sick, he is maybe dying, and you choose now—he says things which are irritating all the time, if you would simply wait until he is better, you could have the same—"
"Ziva," McGee said, "I was making it up."
She looked at him. He ate another cookie.
"Tony always forgets real high school isn't like the movies. Nobody shoved me into a locker. I just hung out with the other guys who watched Star Trekand didn't bother anybody. I don't think that many people knew I existed, but there aren't these dark, disturbing memories just waiting to be unearthed by chance comments."
"Then why pretend?"
"Because I'm better, and now he's worse." In the white of his face, his eyes were intense. "If he wants to focus on helping me, let him try to make up for unearthing my imaginary childhood traumas. All I have to do is act touchy until morning and, let's face it, acting touchy around Tony is pretty easy. Did I mention that when he threw up, it was on my shoes?"
She looked at him in unabashed wonderment. "McGee. You are newly devious."
"Well," McGee said, eyeing another cookie with obvious longing, "I hate to admit this, but he'd probably do the same for me. And I was the one who made him sick. And anyway, I can't let him die where they filmed The Cider House Rules. He'd haunt me forever."
They all sat up with Tony through the night. (This involved a lot of coffee and, for McGee and Ziva, cookies. At least it made a change from the interminable soup.) Gibbs disappeared around eleven and came back with a pizza that was burned around the edges and soggy all the rest of the way through, very clearly a microwaved pizza that had been freezer-burnt only an hour before, but Tony looked at it as if were manna from heaven. He managed a slice, even though when Ziva tried to do the same, the still-bubbling tomato sauce burned her tongue, and everyone was happy for a while, even McGee, who was doing his level best to still look dark and troubled—but then, about half an hour later, he puked it up, hanging onto the trashcan sides and afterwards spitting out long and darkish strands of phlegm into the mess for good measure.
He had gotten over to the trashcan and its nest of curled scraps of paper on his own, but when he tried to get up afterwards, he sagged down for a second. Ziva made a move to help him, but Gibbs clamped his hand around her arm and shook his head, a signal that even she could read. Tony clung to the trashcan, breathing hard—but made it up and back to bed.
"Sorry, boss." His voice was a rasp.
Gibbs bent his head briefly to the side. He was closest to Tony, and he leaned forward, caught up hanging flap of blanket, and flipped it up neatly back into place.
Tony nodded at it—fucking hell, the two of them —and his eyes fluttered, closed. Each breath sounded like something taken in through Jell-O.
McGee said, with a thin sheen of desperation, "There's a Trivial Pursuit game down here somewhere. Mary Ellen said. We could just play the arts section, see whether I beat you with books or you beat me with movies."
Tony opened one eye, turned enough to the side to look at him. The clogged breath caught and increased intermittently in something that might, horrifyingly, have been a laugh. "Thought you didn't want to play with me, McGee."
A slight hesitation. "I don't."
"No—what you did— " A long and painful riff of coughs, all close together, as he doubled up into a sitting position and then fell back down again, his head banging against the pillow with a hard and barely cottoned thud—they would have to catch him next time, ease him down. "I know. What you did. What Kate tried to do. Not falling for it this time. But—" Two coughs. "Thanks for trying."
He slept then, a thin and restless sleep periodically broken by coughing fits. It was midnight, then one, then two, but the world was still dark and cold and Ziva was beginning to feel the hope that they would all make it to morning, and the eventual clearing of the snow, ebb away from her. She and McGee ate more cookies and found the Trivial Pursuit game, playing only for the science and history squares. She won a round, then he did, then Gibbs played for the history pie pieces and trounced them both, which wasn't fair, as Tony would have noted, since he'd lived through more of it than they had. Her throat hurt with all the things everyone wasn't saying.
She hated to wait more than she hated anything else. If Tony had to die—if she knew that—then she would rather kill him herself than watch him breathe less and less while they sat there and played Trivial Pursuit and talked listlessly about whether or not maybe the people who'd written the questions could have gotten the answers wrong and whether or not the person who'd brought up this issue (McGee) was just trying to dodge out of getting the dates for the American Civil War wrong (probably). They woke Tony up and gave him water. He choked on most of it. He went back to sleep. They went back to Trivial Pursuit and started getting repeats of questions that they'd gotten already, but it didn't matter, since no one was paying enough attention to really remember the answers even knowing that they already knew them. They gave McGee points for the Civil War thing and handicapped Gibbs's piece by making him answer two questions for every slice of pie. He won anyway. Four in the morning, five. The slits of windows at the top of the ceiling, where the roof of the basement met just with the snow of outside, began to show a low but golden light through the thick-packed white.
They started answering the film questions wrong on purpose, which literally jarred Tony from his sleep so that he could complain that they were getting them wrong and what kind of Trivial Pursuit game were they playing, anyway? He drank some orange juice and lay back on his cot with his eyes at half-mast, mechanically answering the film questions when they threw them at him, always getting them right, even if sometimes the effort of answering sent him into a heavy coughing fit. He was shaking, too, as obviously feverish as McGee had been, but no one could quite work out whether it would be better to cool him down and agitate him or to let him broil himself but be calmer about it.
At six-thirty, he called Gibbs over, and he must have been exhausted, Ziva thought unkindly, because they actually had to talk.
"Something to cool me down," Tony whispered. He was shivering. "Cold but I know I'm hot."
Gibbs laid his hand against Tony's forehead, which seemed pointless, since they already knew—and had known for hours—that he was burning up inside.
"We can do that," Gibbs said. His hand was still on Tony's forehead. "Not long now, DiNozzo."
"Yeah. Know that."
No, Ziva thought, Gibbs doesn't mean what you mean. Gibbs, tell him you don't.
But if he did, it was only in a way she couldn't hear or understand.
"I just want to be able to think. And I know what—I know what you—" He coughed and decided to drop off the word that had been causing trouble for him. "Small chance of that, right? But I'm—getting a little loopy, boss. Like the door's half the size of the room."
"It is an inherently creepy door," McGee said automatically.
Ziva stood up. Her legs had been starting to cramp with stillness in any case. "I will find you something cold," she said.
And somehow she did, although she never remembered doing it—but she came back with a dishtowel dripping icy water down her wrist. It was sopped full, like a sponge. She gave it to Gibbs, who wound it around Tony's brow in a matter-of-fact way that surprised her—probably, she thought, he had known about the soup trick, too. But even though she had gone on her quest and come back from it safe and sound, she felt purposeless rather than victorious, and stood still beside Tony, now closing his eyes as the water dripped down against them. He was not, at the moment, particularly good-looking. She wondered if telling him that would drive him to live into a more handsome future. He was very vain. It was possible.
Instead of telling him, though, she held his hand. He let her. It was not a very good sign.
Seven o'clock in the morning. She began to hear the stirring outside. Hope broke in her chest—and there was the real sunrise, that movement, that possibility of a world outside of these walls. They could go, and would go, even if they had to deal with the ominous door.
And Tony would live.
But he was choking suddenly on his own breath, coming up off the bed to double over, even, which he had not done in hours, had not had the strength to do—and his face was bluish, not white, not even gray—
Gibbs came forward quicker than she would have thought possible, curving his arm over Tony's back—
And McGee was standing stock still behind the cot. McGee, who had not wanted to let Tony die where they filmed The Cider House Rules.
(Which was not about juice.)
She thought of Tony saying Miss David, you're trying to seduce me, and her saying back, Just giving you a good reason to go inside.
Come inside, she thought. Stay.
And then she knew what to do. She understood Tony DiNozzo.
She darted forwards, almost knocking Gibbs out of her way, put her mouth to her ear, and whispered what she knew would make him decide to live.
Tony's eyes opened wide. The force of the coughs weakened minutely.
In the softness of the newfound silence, he whispered, "Promise?"
Two weeks later, Tony was back at work, looking only a shade too pale in his best Armani suit. He was grinning.
"You know what they filmed in D. C.?"
"If I said I didn't care," McGee said, a position somewhat belied by his own smile, "you'd probably still tell me, wouldn't you?"
"The Exorcist," Tony said.
"So no one else actually has to be here for you to have this conversation."
"All the President's Men," Tony went on, ticking them off his fingers. "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—"
"Okay, that's kind of obvious."
"No Way Out, Dave, The American President—"
"Seriously, some of these even I could guess."
Tony glared at him. "The Day the Earth Stood Still."
"Why are you looking at me like that?"
"It's a science fiction classic! How do you not know this? You don't even know the things you're supposed to know! I'm never going to call you McGeek again."
"Well," McGee said dryly, "that would be devastating."
"My point is," Tony said, clearly deciding to ignore him, "these are all much, much better movies than The Cider House Rules."
"Yeah, DiNozzo," Gibbs said. "We're all glad we're not in Maine anymore, too." He emphasized the too just a fraction more than normal. Tony beamed at him.
Ziva was beginning to get a sinking feeling in her stomach.
"And the further point," Tony said, as Ziva was beginning to wonder why sailors and Marines were feeling so unusually healthy today, "is that almost two hundred films have been filmed at least partially in our fair city here."
"No," she said loudly. "No, no, no. I take it back."
McGee blinked. "Um, guys? What are we talking about?"
Tony lit up like a Christmas tree. One of the tacky aluminum ones, too, she thought bitterly. "As I lay on my deathbed, McGee, the lovely Miss David made me a certain promise. A promise relating to my hatred of all things Cider House Rules. Should I live long enough to get back to D. C., she said—"
"Oh no," McGee said. "No. Ziva. You couldn't have been that stupid."
"Call it fearless, McGee," Gibbs said. If he weren't Gibbs, it would look as if he were about to laugh. "In the line of duty."
"I thought you just promised to sleep with him," McGee said, flabbergasted. "But this is horrible."
"Oh yes, McGee," Tony said. "(And I'm going to ignore that last part.) Our Ziva David promised me that she would watch, in my company, every film made in D. C."
"To be fair," Ziva said, "I thought you were probably going to die." But he hadn't. He had lived.
Maybe two hundred movies would not be so bad.
"Everyone else is of course also invited," Tony said graciously. "There will be popcorn."
She shot Gibbs a pleading look and McGee a threatening one.
McGee sighed. "I do need to be more literate in genre classics."
Tony pointed at him. "I don't understand what you just said."
"I'll come. At least to The Day the Earth Stood Still."
Gibbs looked ambiguous, which meant he just looked like normal Gibbs, but Tony seemed to read something else into it, and looked as if all his birthdays and Christmases had come at once.
And, as Tony went on to explain, with Ducky and Abby and Palmer already having been guilt-tripped through elliptic references to his near-death experience (and those were his exact words) into seeing at least one or two films, what they would have, in short, would be very cool. He was awfully smug about it, considering the whole thing had been her idea, but she let it go.
"I knew Maine was a good idea," Tony said.
That was it: probably somewhere around movie one hundred and twelve, she was going to kill him.