Title: "Anchor and Hold"
Word Count: 16k
Rating: PG-13
Warning: Some coarse language.
Genre: Gen. H/C, Drama
Spoilers: Season Seven without specific spoilers.
Characters: Focus on Tony and Gibbs friendship with Team. Plus Ducky.
Summary: "Don't worry. I've worked several arson cases in Baltimore. I know a little about how a fire behaves. I'll be like Kurt Russell in Backdraft." Taking a step closer toward Tony, eyes wide and panicky, McGee hissed, "Kurt Russell died at the end of that movie."

A/N's: Written as a b-day fic for everybetty. Hope you enjoy hon!

This has been thoroughly researched, but I am not a physician. All mistakes are my own or stretched for creative license.

Thank you to coolbreeze1 for being a wonderful sounding board and beta. Special thanks to mischief5 for her thoughtful eyes and ears. You are a rock star!

"Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice." by Robert Frost.

If anything could put the fear of God into someone, it was a fire.

Feet rooted in a vat of invisible cement, Tony's heart thumped in his ears. The LeBond Warehouse took advantage of low property taxes, sandwiched between run-down dilapidated neighborhoods and sprawled across sixty acres. Flames towering over ten feet licked up the eastern wall of the building, plumes of heat thousands of degrees emanated off it in waves. Graysmoke choked the air; black clouds started blocking out the sky.

Tony flinched as a set of windows exploded, the hungry fire eagerly dining on an endless supply of oxygen. Clutching his cell phone, he watched transfixed as a wall of orange swelled over brick and mortar. He punched the speed dial; it took him directly to Gibbs' voicemail. Sirens droned in the background, but the guys with the Dalmatians and fire hoses were too far away.

Running like the hounds of hell were chasing him, McGee screeched to a halt in front of Tony, his motor-mouth going a mile a minute. "I didn't see anyone exit from the south loading dock. I think Ziva and Gibbs are still inside and they're not answering their phones."

"Figured that much out on my own, Probie," Tony growled, snapping his fingers. "Take off your shirt."

"What? Why? It's brand-new."


Nearly popping the buttons in his haste, McGee stared in astonishment as he handed over the overpriced Ralph Lauren. Tony shook his head and gestured impatiently. "No, I need your undershirt. Come on, Elf Lord, I know you're not used to getting undressed in a hurry."

"Why the hell do you need my—"

Tony grabbed the white tee and started folding it. "Cotton makes a better filter." Sliding it over his face like a mask, he tried not thinking about where the shirt had just been. "Keep an eye out for our little firebug."

"Tony, wait! You can't go in there!"

"Traffic's all tied up and we'll be lucky if we see help before the whole place becomes a tinderbox."

McGee stepped in front of him with a rare stony expression responsible for dozens of suspect confessions over the years. "Don't be stupid. I can't allow you to go in there. Even if it's to search for Gibbs and Ziva. It's suicidal."

Tony appreciated the act of concern, but brushed it away with a double-dose of confidence. "Don't worry. I worked several arson cases in Baltimore. I know a little about how a fire behaves. I'll be like Kurt Russell in Backdraft."

Taking a step closer, eyes wide and panicky, McGee hissed, "Kurt Russell died at the end of the movie."

"I'll be William Baldwin then."

Eyes flicking between Tony and the towering inferno, McGee's courageous heart grew three sizes and Tony would have none of it. "You're not coming in there with me, so don't think of suggesting something heroic. This isn't one of your online games. Unless you really have powers. Then by all means, use your ice spell."

"This isn't funny! When Gibbs—"

"He can chew me out after I find him." Tony wrapped the shirt around his nose and mouth like a bank-robber. "I mean it. If you see our suspect making a run for it—"

Cocking his weapon, McGee squared his shoulders. "He'll wish he stayed in the burning building."

This wasn't one of your brightest moves, DiNozzo.

Entering the warehouse was like stepping foot into a sauna, minus having a Swedish massage by a breathtakingly attractive woman. Despite breathing through the t-shirt, Tony could taste the ash and the harsh chemical tint in the air. He couldn't see for shit and walked through thick layers of smoke while trying to keep low with his best hunchback impersonation. The fire engulfed a massive space to his left, quickly eating a path toward the rest of the building.

The front part of the warehouse was lined with rows of large wooden pallets waiting to be loaded with industrial materials. Flames crackled and popped as they ate away at the skids. The hardwood fueled the fire, but it was greedy, wanting more, and jumped into the rafters toward the air conditioning ducts. Once it hit the aluminum ventilation system, the network of vents would accelerate the spread of the fire overhead. Tony had to outrun the beast. Gibbs and Ziva would undoubtedly seek another way out.

He tried using shallow breaths, each one scraping the back of his throat raw. The first inevitable coughing fit caused him to stagger, and for a moment, he got turned around, every direction filled with the same eyeball itching smoke. His vision blurred and watered, causing everything to look like a giant smear of grit.

Fire sought oxygen, which meant they both had the same endgame. The flames raged behind him and Tony ran the opposite direction, feet stumbling over unseen objects on the floor. Maybe if he hadn't taken a short cut and been snarled in bumper-to-bumper traffic, Gibbs and Ziva would have had more back up pursuing their lunatic arsonist. Of perhaps they could have waited for him and McGee to arrive. But what did they say about hindsight? Or NCIS agents blindly entering a fiery hellhole?

The smoke was thinner ahead and Tony scanned the area, searching rows of fifty-gallon drums for signs of his teammates. He was about to yell Ziva's name when the crack of gunshots rang out. Leading with the barrel of his Sig, Tony followed the sounds, knowing it would lead him to his friends. Sweat dribbled down his forehead and between his shoulder blades, gluing his clothes to the rest of his sticky body. Through the floating ash, he saw a pocket free of smoke.

Come one. Come on. Where was the closest cover?

At his one o'clock, Tony saw two figures huddled behind a stack of crates. Someone took potshots at their position and Tony watched a familiar Gibbs-shape return fire. The darkness and roaring inferno muffled the direction of the suspect's shots, and Tony made a dash toward his fellow agents.

The dense smoke made friendly fire a serious problem. He skidded to a stop, staring down the barrel of a gun with both hands up, the words 'it's me' a raspy wheeze.

"Damn it, DiNozzo," Gibbs snarled, his voice a fraction of its normal bite as he yanked Tony by the shirt and pulled him behind their meager cover. "What the hell are you doing?"

"Saving you?"

Gibbs gave him a glare that promised severe consequences before returning into a defensive position next to Ziva, who was slumped behind the crates. Tony immediately took the spot at the other end of the containers, splitting his focus between the suspect and his unconscious partner. If it weren't for the blood matting her hair and the soot all over her face, Ziva would have looked like she was taking a break by lounging against the crates.

"Is she okay?" Tony asked, forcing himself to concentrate ahead.

"Piece…of debris…hit her. She'll be fine," Gibbs growled before hunching over into a coughing fit.

More shots were fired at their position, forcing Tony to shove both Gibbs and Ziva to the ground as bullets ripped through the middle of the crates. The second the barrage ended, Tony fired blindly in return. But it was like aiming at the invisible man, depth and distance obscured by a rainstorm of swirling embers. His chest prickled with every breath and Tony ignored the suspect for a moment, searching for an exit.

Spotting a shrinking section of visible space at the rear of the building, Tony bent over and shook Gibbs by the shoulder. "Boss, I think I've found a way out. Can you walk?"

"Yes, DiNozzo," Gibbs snarled, which triggered another gasping jag.

"Listen to me," Tony barked. "Take Ziva and run toward the area where the smoke's not as dense and keep running. It'll lead to the docks."

"That's where we were headed."

"Yeah, well, this time, your brilliant plan will work because I'll cover you."


Gibbs' words were cut short by what sounded like a bomb going off. A blast of heat singed Tony's face, and he shielded his eyes as a ball of fire shot to the roof, blasting all those heavy drums into cinders of metal pieces. With his ears rattling, he grabbed Gibbs and propped him against what was left of the crates. Even stunned, Gibbs got with the program, reading Tony's mind.

Slinging Ziva's arm around his neck, Gibbs didn't need words to communicate the urgency of getting the hell out of here.

Tony noticed movement to his left and raised his weapon. "Run!" he screamed, aiming at the fuzzy blur and squeezing the trigger.

The blob ducked behind another set of cargo crates and Tony kept firing, giving Gibbs a head start. It was time to move positions, but Tony felt like a rat in a deadly maze. Squeezing off a couple more shots, he followed Gibbs' uneasy gait, running sideways to keep an eye out in both directions.

God, all the heat and smoke was stifling. Thousands of needles pricked inside his chest while it felt like a scrub brush drenched in cleaners had abused the inside of his nose. Stumbling in the darkness, he breathed through his mouth, making sure the Gibbs-shape was still on his feet. Still moving.


And, of course, Gibbs still had the breath to scream his name and make all kinds of demands with a single shout. Scanning behind him one final time in search of the suspect, Tony turned forward, ready for the final sprint toward the exit.

The fire surged above and the aluminum air conditioning ducts seared off with a gigantic crack. Massive flaming chunks came crashing down in front of him, pulling sheets of insulation with it. An entire wall of fire lay crumbled in Tony's path and he stood frozen, smoldering yellow-orange flames whipping out in front of him.


The Gibbs-shape was much smaller now and Tony shouted, "Keep going!"

Yelling cost him, his lungs spasming for air, those prickling sensations becoming stabbing knifes. Dots danced in his vision while that same lumpy shape hesitated. "Run!" Tony wheezed. "I'll go around it."

There was no telling whether Gibbs heard or not, internally fighting a million marine mottos. But Ziva's life was in the boss's hands and Gibbs sacrificed only a second before continuing out, once again his unspoken command hanging in the air.

Tracing the barrier of death with his eyes, Tony ran alongside it. There was a small gap between the fallen debris and the encroaching fire. Maneuvering around smoldering piles of metal, he tripped over his own feet, overcome by a sudden fit of dizziness. His arms pinwheeled. But Tony remained standing, panting for breath.

But the more he gasped for air, the more difficult it was. His steps slowed as he struggled to draw in oxygen, the knives in his chest plunging deeper. Pressing a fist into his chest to ease the pain, Tony hacked and coughed. Splotches of red-orange and grit fuzzed around him, until there was no telling what was and wasn't on fire.

Wiping at his tearing eyes, he stumbled about, noticing the yellow-green vapors whirling out of the charred remains of the steel drums a few meters way. Vapors that reeked like bleach.

That's very, very bad, DiNozzo.

His instincts screamed at him to turn around, and Tony obeyed, spinning and firing at the suspect who tried sneaking up behind him. One of his shots winged the bastard, but he'd spent ten seconds too long around poisoned air.

His legs wouldn't move of their own accord and they suddenly gave out on him. It felt like his lungs were caught in a vice. Breathing seemed like a labored struggle through a straw twisted into knots.

If only he could stab himself in the chest to relive the pressure.

A pair of boots appeared in front of him, walking a slow circle around him. Tony didn't have the energy to crane his neck much. But the agent inside him wouldn't give in to the pain. He forced his eyes to track upward and noticed a man staring down at him, clutching his bleeding arm. There wasn't anything extraordinary about the suspect; he was of average height and weight, an oxygen mask obscuring his features.

"R'lly?' Tony choked in disappointment at seeing the man behind the curtain.

The joke earned him a sharp kick to the ribs and he curled around the new influx of pain. All his other smart-assed remarks were swallowed up by his inability to breathe.

Misfiring on all cylinders, his world began to grey. Every scrap for breath was a long drawn-out fight. His tongue felt swollen and his stomach suddenly rebelled with a violent tremor.

The boots scrambled away while Tony emptied the inside of his stomach and the outer layer of his esophagus for good measure. The boots never returned and Tony was left crumbled on the floor. His chest hitched, trying to heave itself apart.

He crawled in the same direction as the suspect. Inch by painful inch.

Move. Got…to…keep…moving.

God. Please. Not this again.

His arms and legs finally gave out and he was left gasping like a fish on a dry dock, with only a roar filling his ears.

Gibbs staggered outside into booming alarms and voices. Red and blue lights flashed; uniforms rushed about in the distance. Ziva was mumbling now, her feet trying to dig in and support her weight, but she wasn't fully aware of her surroundings.

"I need some help!" he shouted, the energy nearly zapping the rest of his adrenaline.

Ziva tried pulling away in her confusion and the struggle was almost enough to bring them both crashing down. His head spinning, Gibbs didn't have the breath to waste on yelling. He fought to control the next bout of coughing, allowing his lungs to rebel once they got a whiff of fresh air.

People ran toward them, hands latching and pulling him and Ziva farther away from the building. Emergency workers took Ziva, and Gibbs suppressed the need to fight, allowing her to be pulled free. Once his burden was unloaded, he found himself a victim of gravity, hands catching him before he fell.

"You're going to be okay. Hold on," a voice instructed.

Gibbs instinctively wrestled for control, prompting the voice to add unnecessary reassurances. "You're going to be fine. Just breathe deeply."

Something hard and plastic was pressed over his nose, the sweet taste of oxygen clearing away some of the cobwebs. Batting away unfamiliar hands, Gibbs searched for Ziva, finding her struggling with those trying to help. At some point, they'd been handed over to the paramedics and Ziva was having none of their aid as they attempted to manhandle her toward a waiting ambulance.

"Sir, please, let me help you," a beefy paramedic requested.

"Who's in charge of the scene?" Gibbs rasped. He pushed past the surprised rescue worker and bullied his way toward the most senior-looking firefighter. "I've still got an agent in there. Have you found him?"

"Sir, you need to—"

"He was right behind me!"


"Don't sir me! I have a man still trapped inside that damn fire!"

The crusty old bird didn't argue with him any further, grabbing his radio. "Team three, be advised there's an NCIS agent still inside. Last known location south of the exit. Copy?" He listened intently to his squawking radio, turning his weathered face at Gibbs. "My guys have someone; they're bringing him out now."

His heart going a mile a minute, Gibbs stared off at the loading docks.


Head snapping at the sound of his name, Gibbs nearly lost his footing from dizziness. This raised a red flag for the stocky paramedic from earlier. "I must insist that you come over here, sir."

Everything became a chaos of voices: McGee's, the EMT's, the random shouting of emergency workers.

Gibbs found himself sitting down, oxygen mask firmly in place, the cacophony of noise clearing into distinctive voices with McGee worriedly crouching beside him. "Boss? Where's Tony?"

"He was providing cover. Some fallen debris separated us."

Pushing the mask away, Gibbs rubbed his hands rigorously over his face. What was taking so damn long?

He listened as Ziva argued with those who fussed over her, and watched as she got off the gurney and leaned next to it when she couldn't walk two steps without lurching drunkenly. Her face was streaked with ash, a white bandage freshly applied to her head. In the midst of chaos, both his agents looked to him for guidance and positive reassurance that everything was going to be okay. That one of their own was safe.

"DiNozzo's going to be fine. He promised me he'd be right behind us, and I'm holding him to that."

"Fire engine five has a superb track record," the bulky paramedic informed him. "Half the unit's ex-military."

Gibbs distracted himself from waiting and gave the paramedic the once over, noting his dark, shaved head and air of command. The guy could probably arm wrestle a bear. "And you?"

"Spent time in Iraq. Corpsman. Name's Thomas Jenkins, though most call me TJ." Placing a BP cuff around Gibbs' bicep, he pumped it tightly.

Time stretched endlessly. Gibbs was ready to jump off the gurney and haul DiNozzo out himself when splashes of yellow appeared from the docks, a limp figure supported between them. Gibbs rose on wobbly legs, meeting the rushing firefighters halfway, McGee and a woozy Ziva right behind him.

TJ was there first, easing DiNozzo out of his colleagues' hands, carefully placing his convulsing body to the ground. "I need an O2 mask!" Within seconds, the paramedic stiffened, waving away the rest of his approaching crew. "We've got an unknown chemical exposure."

Everyone else backed off and Gibbs turned on the paramedic. "Based on what suspicion?"

"Experience," TJ answered. He pulled out a green surgical mask and strapped it over his nose and mouth. "Your agent reeks of bleach," he said, as he strapped a portable oxygen mask over DiNozzo's face. "And he shows signs of severe respiratory distress beyond smoke inhalation."

"McGee!" Gibbs snapped. "Find out what chemicals are stored in that warehouse."

"On it, Boss!"

"I'd bet money it's chlorine. Nothin' else smells like it," TJ said. He pulled out a pair of scissors from one of his pockets and cut away DiNozzo's shirt. "I need a hose now!" he yelled, stripping DiNozzo down to his boxers. "What's your agent's name?"


"Hey, Tony. Don't you worry about a thing, okay? Gonna just find a juicy vein," TJ said, palpating along his patient's forearm and inserting the needle seconds later. "There we go. All done."

DiNozzo's face was bright red, verging on purple. He gasped for air beneath the mask, making wet hacking noises, limbs flailing in panic as he tried to roll over onto his side. Gibbs moved toward them, but TJ threw an arm up. "Don't come any closer." Then the paramedic waved over one of the firefighters and snatched the offered hose. Adjusting the pressure to a heavy mist, he sprayed down his patient. DiNozzo thrashed even more when the blast of cold water hit his chest.

"I'm sorry, buddy," TJ apologized. "I have to get rid of any remaining chemical residue."

He turned the hose off and pulled DiNozzo into a sitting position, holding him up by the shoulders. "There you go. This should ease your breathing." Waving a hand, he yelled at someone. "Bring over a stretcher. The hose should have washed off most of the chlorine, but we still need to be careful. I don't want anyone else getting sick from this stuff."

Squatting behind his agent, Gibbs took over the burden of supporting him.

"Hey! You're not wearing any protective gear."

"Except for a pair of latex gloves, neither are you," Gibbs snapped, allowing DiNozzo's head to rest against his shoulder. "Hang in there. You hear me?" he whispered.

The only reply he got in response was a shuddering hitching breath. Being soaking wet in the middle of winter couldn't be helping, and before Gibbs could yell for a blanket, DiNozzo's whole body jackknifed.

"Whoa, whoa, Tony, my man. Hold on," TJ coaxed, flagging over the other paramedic with the stretcher.

But DiNozzo made this sick strangling noise, and a milky froth foamed out of the corners of his mouth.

"Damn it, Tony!" Gibbs yelled, unable to control his growing fear. "Don't you give up on me!"

But the spasmodic jerks still ripped through DiNozzo and Gibbs frantically held onto him.

"We've got to take him to Bethesda... Sir, you've got to let him go."

Rising to his feet, Gibbs helped the paramedics lift up DiNozzo, settling him on the stretcher in one giant motion. Standing like a green private without a weapon or a set of orders, he watched helplessly as DiNozzo was hurriedly wheeled away.

"I'll intubate en route," TJ yelled to his partner.

"Hey," Gibbs rushed alongside the paramedic, feeling idiotic for not giving TJ his agent's past medical history. "DiNozzo was exposed to pneumonic plague four years ago. He's going to be more susceptible to whatever the hell he inhaled."

TJ kept his face schooled, but his eyes were a dead giveaway to that bit of news.

"Boss!" McGee ran over, shoving his cell phone into his pocket. "LeBond warehouse supplies Benzene, Acetone, Ethanol—" at Gibbs' daggered glare, McGee quit with the list-making. "According to records, they were about to transport a major shipment of liquid Chlorine."

"Knew it," TJ muttered.

Gibbs kept his team out of the way as DiNozzo was loaded onto the waiting ambulance. Ziva, even concussed, looked ready to jump in after him. Gibbs grabbed her by the shoulders.

"Go in the other ambulance. Get checked out." He pushed her into McGee's arms. "Ride with Ziva."


"Go. With. Her."

Gibbs hopped in the back of the bus right before the doors were closed. He glared at the paramedic, daring him to say something as he took a seat across from his agent.

"Stay out of the way and put on that oxygen mask behind you," TJ ordered. The man's scowl smoothed away for his patient. "Tony, I have to insert a tube down your throat to help you breath, but don't worry, I'm going to give you something to relax your airway. Make you more comfortable."

TJ plunged the contents of a syringe into an IV and moved behind DiNozzo's head, pulling away the useless oxygen mask. Pressing his fingers against the side of his patient's throat, he kept pressure along the carotid as he slid a large tube down the trachea, attaching the other end to a machine that provided oxygen.

DiNozzo's thrashing slowly eased, but Gibbs couldn't and wouldn't relax, keeping a hand on his agent's arm the whole ride.

The ride was a ten-minute blur, local squad cars escorting them through traffic in record time. The ER was even more frenzied with a horde of nurses and doctors waiting for them upon arrival.

"We've got a male Caucasian, early forties in severe respiratory distress from exposure to chlorine gas. Patient was hosed down at the scene," TJ recited. "Pulse is 120, resps rapid and shallow at 70. Intubated on the scene. He's hypertensive. BP's 160 over 100. Be advised that the patient's history includes exposure to pneumatic plague."

Gibbs waited in the corner as a swarm of green scrubs blocked most of his view, their burst of activity followed by a set of beeping and shrilling noises echoing DiNozzo's frenzied vitals. A wave of personnel shifted sides as men and women somehow avoided bumping into each other. A line of sight opened up when a short, slender physician of Indian descent took charge of the room.
Gibbs caught Verma MDon the nametag as he rushed by.

"Patient's name?" Dr. Verma asked.

"Tony DiNozzo. He's an NCIS agent," TJ replied, moving out of the way of a tech who transferred respirators.

Nodding, Dr. Verma unwrapped a stethoscope from around his neck and began listening to his patient's lungs. "I'm Dr. Verma, Agent DiNozzo; I'll be in charge of your care."

One nurse worked around the physician, attaching EKG leads to DiNozzo's chest while another switched out IVs.

"There are rale sounds in the right and left lobes. Get a chest x-ray, EKG, and an arterial blood gas," Verma instructed the sea of attentive eyes. "And someone page respiratory medicine for a consult."

"O2 levels are at 81 and falling," a young man shouted, his gaze a laser-focus on the gauges of the ventilator.

Scanning the room, the physician set his sights on a woman who didn't look old enough to drive. "Dr. Abbas, with intubation set in the field, what should be the next steps?"

"Make sure there's been no inadvertent dislodgement of the ET tube and perform a fiber-optic laryngoscopy to rule out blood and abrasions of the trachea."

"This is not a teaching situation," Gibbs growled.

A male nurse with a few inches and thirty pounds on Gibbs tried escorting him away, but Gibbs would have none of it, flashing his badge. "You touch me and you'll be in cuffs."

The nurse backed off and Dr. Verma didn't waste his time with the distraction. "Before we set up for the laryngoscopy, let's start him on levalbuterol and a 1% solution of Lidocaine."

A cart was rushed over and two nurses carefully rolled DiNozzo onto his side, sliding a large x-ray film under him. Draping lead-lined blankets over his torso, they yelled 'clear' while everyone took two steps back. As soon as the x-rays were snapped, another cart with a computer screen was wheeled over.

Selecting a flexible tube with a tiny camera at the end from a tray, the tiny doctor peered over in Gibbs' direction. "Out of respect for law enforcement, I have allowed you to linger there long enough. But it is time for you to leave. I will not ask twice."

Eyes scanning the dedicated staff working feverishly on DiNozzo, Gibbs nodded and left the curtained area, knowing that the rest of his team needed him now.

Walking into the corridor felt like facing a firing squad of questions he wouldn't have the answers to, but it became this slow motion of rushing bodies and voices, a gentle hand leading him toward a treatment room. A nurse spoke to him about smoke inhalation, but he didn't pay attention to her words. He took the O2 mask, nodded at the right questions, and let if fall when she went away.

Bone aching fatigue threatened to take over and he found himself stumbling toward a wall and plowed a fist into it. He'd screwed up. Big time. Lost his way inside the warehouse, allowed the suspect to turn the tables on him and Ziva. The warehouse might have been on fire, but it was that dirtbag's home turf.

If DiNozzo hadn't come in after them...

Hitting the wall again, Gibbs pressed his forehead against the cool surface. Tony. It was Gibbs' fault his agent was in there, fighting for his life. God, that image of Tony flailing for breath, frothing at the mouth. It would join the dozens of other horrific memories he carried around like an albatross. And maybe rightfully so.

Everything blurred together before reality tugged at his mind, bringing him around to muted lighting. Clearing away the fuzziness, he looked over into a familiar set of gentle eyes.

"It would seem in the chaos, you've forgotten about yourself, Jethro," Ducky admonished while taking a quick pulse. "A helpful young fella from the scene collected you before going out on another call."

Things had happened so fast, and it pained Gibbs not being in control of a damned thing. "Have you seen Ziva?"

"She's being even less cooperative than you, but Timothy is waiting with her." Ducky grabbed the oxygen mask and started to put it back around Gibbs mouth.

"I'm fine, Duck," Gibbs grunted. He pushed the damn plastic thing out of the way, eyes straying out into the hall. "You heard what happened on the scene?"

"I have."

Gibbs scrubbed a hand wearily over his face. "Do you have any idea what—?"

"It would be irresponsible of me to make any prognosis ahead of the test results." Ducky released a solemn breath, relenting under Gibbs steely gaze. "I have faith in Anthony's ability to fight this latest blow, but it won't be pretty. Chlorine gas was first used as a chemical agent in World War I in the Second Battle of Ypres. Back then, the odor was described as a mixture between pepper and pineapple. It—"


"Yes, well, I'll see if I'll be allowed in to observe as a courtesy," Ducky said, patting Gibbs on the shoulder. "Keep the faith, Jethro. Tony's a fighter."

Gibbs strolled into one of the examination rooms and found Ziva sitting irritably at the end of a bed, oxygen mask in her lap. She was in the process of ripping out her IV, McGee arguing with her and failing miserably.

"You better leave that in," Gibbs warned, marching over and staring at both of them. "McGee, what's the word from the scene? Did they find the bastard's body yet?"

"Um..." McGee floundered, eyes scrunched up. "Nothing yet, but the last time I checked, they were still trying to extinguish the blaze."

"And the last time was?" Gibbs snapped.

Checking his watch, McGee answered, "Fifteen minutes ago." Without further prompting, he hastily pulled out his cell phone. "I ...ah...can't use this in here. I'll have to go outside."

"What are you...?" The rest of the words died on his lips. Gibbs knew why McGee didn't want to walk away, or why the case wasn't forefront on his mind. They had a job to do, and working during a crisis focused unwanted anxiety, but he wasn't that much of a cold-hearted bastard. They all burned for the same answers. "We won't know anything for a while. Ducky's checking in on DiNozzo. In the meantime..."

"I'll get an update about the arson," McGee said, disappearing behind the curtain.

Scraping plastic legs across the tile, Gibbs settled himself heavily into the unforgiving chair. "How are you feeling?"

It was uncharacteristic for Ziva to be so quiet unless she was strategizing the best means to take out a target or interrogate a suspect. Her fingers played absently with the IV tubing, eyes avoiding his. "I'm fine. Just a bump on the head."

He didn't poke or prod, just bided his time until she opened up.

"I wasn't paying attention to my surroundings. If I hadn't been a liability, maybe—"

"There are no maybes. Hell, we didn't know that a fire had been started when we first entered."

"I was more focused on the suspect."

"And that's your main priority." Ziva turned away unconvinced and Gibbs let out a growl of frustration. "It was my call to keep pursuing him. I didn't have a clue how fast the fire would spread. I led us into a damn building without knowing the exits," he hissed, aggravating his raw throat.

Coughing turned into a dry hack, his chest hitching. Ziva shoved a glass of water into his hand, and as the liquid soothed away the irritation, all he could think about was what it must be like to depend on a machine to breath. All his carefully controlled anger started boiling up inside again.

He swirled around at the approaching footsteps, and McGee shrank back in response.

"I...uh...spoke to someone on the scene and they've just now contained the fire. There's no ETA when it'll be out or when they'll start going inside to investigate."

That was not what Gibbs wanted to hear, and it took every scrap of discipline to keep the lid on his frustration. "Pull up everything on LeBond Industries, see if there's a connection between it and the arsonist's other three targets."

"I'll get right on—"

McGee's words trailed off when Ducky entered and instantly became the center of attention. Gibbs studied his friend's body language, the sag in his shoulders, the way he kept his expression neutral.

"What have you heard?" Gibbs asked.

"Not much, I'm afraid," Ducky answered with a frown. "It can take up to twenty-four hours for the full effects of such an exposure to manifest. As of right now, they've kept Anthony on a ventilator as a precaution to take the burden off his lungs."

"So, it's like last time?"

It was hard to tell if McGee's question was asked in desperate hope or fearful dread.

"Chlorine gas reacts with water in the mucosa of the lungs to form hydrochloric acid, causing inflammation to the airway."

"English, Duck."

"His lungs are slowly filling with fluid. They've started an aggressive treatment to reverse the effects. So yes, Timothy, the symptoms are similar to those of y-pestis, and there is the possibility of capillary hyperemia, which could cause blood clots in the lungs."

"But they have a treatment?" Ziva spoke up for the first time. "This is a naval hospital; they are familiar with this chemical agent since it has been used recently in the Middle East."

"Yes. We don't have to search for a cure, my dear," Ducky tried calming them all, but he was a practical man. "This type of poisoning occurs from industrial accidents all the time. But I fear this is going to be another long and desperate fight for us all."

He dreamed of fluorescent blue lights; odd shadows ghosted over his skin, blood drops trailing down his lips. Tony tried wiping away the smear of crimson, but blood suddenly filled his throat and gushed out of his mouth. Choking, he flailed, all his screams paralyzed.

"Agent DiNozzo, please calm down."

I. Can't. Breathe.

"Agent DiNozzo, relax. Don't fight the vent. Let it help you."

And all that ghostly blue fuzzed into darkening grey.

"Listen to me. You can breathe, honey. You can breathe."

Warm hands touched each side of his face, and the image of a grandmother he barely remembered blurred in front of him.

"There you go. Just look at me, hon."

Not his grandmother, but a similar set of pale blue eyes.

"You can't talk. There's a tube down your throat. I know it's mighty uncomfortable. I'm giving you something to help you relax; everything is going to be fine, hon."

Her words whirled in his head, her fingers melting into his skin. Soon, everything hummed on clouds of golden honey, and Tony allowed himself to drift away.

A wall of smoke enveloped him during his next nightmare, filled his every breath, scraping a wool cloth over his eyes. Everything had skewed angles like mirrored reflections inside a fun house. The halls burst into flames, shattering all the glass. He found himself crawling on the floor, gasping for breath, a pair of black boots appearing in front of him.

When he looked up, he was rewarded with a kick to the face, then the rubber sole stomped on top of his chest.

Bolting awake, reality slammed into him and he was drowning.

"Tony," came a familiar voice.

He couldn't do this again—fight for every breath.

"Tony, it is me."

His eyes drifted toward the voice and slowly settled on Ziva's face.

"Relax your throat. Stop swallowing."

Tony wanted to shout, to beg her to take the fucking plastic thing out of his mouth. She must have sensed his terror. Ziva grabbed both his hands with hers. Stroking his knuckles, she timed every circle with the exhale and inhale of the machine.

"Drop your guard, Tony."

He had to be crushing her fingers, but she met the pressure, squeezing back.

"I am your partner and I have your back."

Ziva wouldn't let him suffocate. His terror eased up a notch as he focused on the hiss of the ventilator, allowing his chest to rise and fall with it.

"A nurse will be in soon to give you something, but even after she leaves, I will still be here."

His eyes drifted toward hers, resting on the bandage of her forehead. He wanted to ask how she was, if everyone else was all right. All he could remember were flames and smoke. Running inside a burning warehouse.

As if sensing his thoughts, Ziva gave his hands another squeeze. "Everyone is fine. Gibbs and McGee are safe."

Her orange hospital bracelet brushed against his wrist, and Ziva's smile turned devious. "I may have snuck out of my room."

Another person came around his bed, a splash of pale green and silver hair. "Miss. This is the ICU and you are not a patient on this ward."

"I am well aware of that."

The nurse sighed and, with a shake of her head, took out a syringe. "Time for your meds, hon. Rest up and you'll be as right as rain before you know it."

The room began spinning and Tony closed his eyes to stop the dizziness, Ziva's hands still griping his when the dreams took over.

His next visit to the land of the living was a slow slog through mud. When he fully awoke, his gag reflex kicked in immediately, his throat muscles rippling around the plastic. He concentrated on the rest of his body, flexing all five fingers and five toes until the rest of him relaxed. Opening his eyes, he discovered he had an audience. A woman in her early fifties who was too short to reach the top shelve at the grocery store glanced over at him, tiny curls of graying hair brushing her eyebrows. It took a second to focus on her face, recognizing the ghost of his grandmother from his earlier bouts of semi-conciseness.

Breathing through a tube, stuck flat on his back, and he didn't even have a hot nurse as a distraction.

"Agent DiNozzo, my name's Helen, and I'm here to extubate you. Please nod if you understand."

He nodded enthusiastically, wanting nothing more than to get rid of the thing.

"Good," she said, sweeping around his bed like someone who'd had their morning cup of coffee and checking the nearly empty bag of fluids. "I lowered the dose of your medication, so you should be more lucid. Do you understand me?"

Loud and clear, he wanted to say, a screaming migraine replacing that sweet, floating feeling.

"Now, you need to follow some really annoying rules. Got to see if you're still flying high as kite or not. Could you raise both your arms off the bed for me?"

Lifting up his limbs was a momentous struggle, all his strength wrung out of him. They grudgingly obeyed his commands, trembling as if he'd pumped weights nonstop for hours.

"Now keep them in the air. You're doing great."

Sweat beaded across his forehead, and Tony groaned when the nurse finally allowed him to lower them.

"Could you do the same with your head? Just raise it off the pillow a smidge."

His head felt like a pound anchor, and moving it from its cushy spot caused a buzzing in his ears. When the room went topsy–turvy, he squeezed his eyes shut, and a hand supported his neck as his head was eased back down.

"You okay to go on?"

He nodded again, scared to death of throwing up.

"I'm going to increase the angle of the bed until you're sitting up. You don't have to do a thing except lay there." The head of the bed shifted and Tony tried going with the flow, Helen carrying on a one-sided conversation. "There we go. All done. I'll let you get used to it a bit. And if you start feeling nauseated or have any major discomfort, hit the call button. In a half hour, I'll get rid of that ET tube, okay, hon?"

Sitting up, allowing the harsh edge of reality to lift away the fuzz from his brain, was a tedious form of torture. Before with the drugs, time was a whitewash of floating sensations, interrupted by momentary feelings of swallowing his own tongue.

Now every second that ticked by was one too many, his heart hammering loudly.

No sooner had he drifted off did he awake to Helen's ray-of-sunshine impersonation.

Hands on her hips, she surveyed the ventilator. "Let's get rid of that thing, shall we?" Turning several dials, the hiss of the machine by his ear finally died away. "Okay, hon. I'm going to need you to blow as hard as you can when I count to three."

His eyes widened when she wielded something like a meat baster by his mouth.

"No worries. That's just a little suction. Just think about some attractive dental assistant."

She counted to three, and Tony blew the largest breath he could, almost doubling over in the effort. His world filtered in and out in a wave of endless spasms as his lungs sought that reassuring flow of oxygen.

"Give your body time to adjust," she told him, placing a mask over his mouth and nose. "You've been on the vent for twenty-six hours."

Only twenty-six? It'd felt like days.

The flow of O2 felt too little and too thin, and he found himself panting into the plastic.

"Easy does it. Your lungs have to work for you now. Let them shake the cobwebs loose."

The mask fogged with every gasp, a hand rubbed up and down his arm until he adjusted to having to breathe on a pair of rusted-out motors.

"You're doing great. Now it looks like I'm going to have to remind some people about hospital rules regarding the number of visitors on this floor."

Tony watched the ray of sunshine become a thundercloud, shooing away those who dared come around the curtain divider. The conversation was just out of earshot, but he did catch a friendly warning as footsteps approached.

"You have ten minutes. Do not do anything to aggravate Agent DiNozzo or I'll have you both removed."

Without the horrid ventilator, Tony felt short of breath, exhaling heavily and hiccupping for air when he couldn't get a good enough draw of oxygen. He dug his nails into the sheets. Fought for a steady rhythm of inhaling and exhaling, trying to regain a sliver of control.

"You up for a couple questions, DiNozzo?"

Tony counted to ten, waiting for his body to settle, nodding his okay. Gibbs stepped closer, McGee hovering behind him, pen and paper in hand.

"We'll stick to yes-and-no questions for now," Gibbs began. "Did you see the suspect when you were in the warehouse?"

Nodding, Tony noticed the flash of anger across Gibbs face, not knowing who it was directed at.

"Did you see enough to identify him?"

Tony shook his head.

"The suspect was in there a long time," McGee speculated, pencil tapping the edge of his notebook. "Was he wearing an oxygen mask?"


"That would explain why he was able to keep Ziva and I pinned down without being affected by the smoke." Gibbs turned his attention toward Tony, his forehead furrowing. "Did you engage the suspect?"


"You went after him?"

Shoving the mask down, Tony wheezed, "No...he...tried..."

Gibbs pushed the mask right back on. "You defended yourself."

Head spinning, Tony suppressed a cough, which ended in a long painful sputter. Breathing as deeply as he could, he moved the mask a few inches away from his face. "I...winged him, Boss. Right...arm...but then..."

And then he'd been overcome by the fumes and left to die. Tony didn't need to say it out loud, the rage and promise of retribution reflected in his friends' expressions.

"He...hasn't been..."

"You take that mask off again and I'll head slap you until next week," Gibbs growled, pushing it back on.

Tony's aborted question was left unanswered, but even half-dead, his instincts were still sharp.

They hadn't located the suspect's body.

He braced a pillow across his chest, but the flimsy thing did little to absorb the pain. All he did was cough, the vibration agitating his ribs and shredding the raw linings of his throat. It never stopped. Each shaky drag on his oxygen resulted in a continuous wheezing fit and he prayed for that damned tube again when his vision began to gray.

At some point, Tony found himself lying on his side, curling his legs up on instinct.

"Come on, hon. Sit up a little, help clear away the junk." Helen appeared out of nowhere, getting him slightly vertical and allowing him to lean against her shoulder. "I know it hurts. It'll get better."

He didn't say a word, shaking with the bone-rattling coughs and so exhausted that he couldn't move to rest against the bed. Helen eased him back, fixing the front of his gown, fingers on his wrist to check his pulse despite the machines. Then she pulled out the dreaded nebulizer. He despised the thing, the noxious vapor giving him temporary relief before the meds kicked in and triggered another round of hacking.

She pulled his oxygen mask away and replaced it with the nebulizer, adjusting the mist. "I know you hate this, but I promise it's helping."

This was usually the point for a witty one-liner to shrug everything off, but he was too busy sucking on rotten candy fumes to care.

"My grandson has asthma. He loathes his inhaler, but that child loves the outdoors too much. Between the horses, ragweed, and oak trees on my farm, he always has to have it handy. Makes that same sour expression you do," she smiled.

That got a slight smile out of him, and he tried not to be too obnoxious about the whole thing.

"I hope you're hungry. You've got a lunch plate after your treatment. Think you're up for some grub?"

Thoughts of pepperoni pizza floated through his mind. Helen peered at the equipment above his head, scribbling down the readouts. "Let me guess. You'd prefer a hamburger and fries?"

His stomach growled loud enough over the humming of the nebulizer and they both laughed, Tony pressing the pillow into his stomach.

"By the time I return with your tray, you should be done. Can't promise you grease, but maybe some nice applesauce," she said with one last glance at the readouts before disappearing around the curtain.

He sunk into the bed and took solace in the twenty-minute reprieve inhaling the steroids would give him. But it was barely enough time to deal with his aching chest and sides from the constant muscle fatigue.

He fell asleep, however, and a set of squeaky wheels woke him up. Helen parked the tray to the side and swiftly disconnected the nebulizer. She handed him a cup of water and Tony rinsed his mouth, spitting in the bowl she provided.

Strapping his oxygen mask back on, she adjusted how it sat on his face. "You have a visitor, hon," Helen spoke, moving the tray over his bed. "Thought some company during lunch might cheer you up."

A familiar pair of pigtails bookended eyes accented with thick eyeliner and a set of maroon lips. Abby took a hesitant step closer, hands in little nervous balls in front of her chest. "Hey, Tony."

"Hey, Abs," he mumbled unintelligibly under the mask.

"I'm sorry I wasn't here when you were first admitted. I mean I was here, in the hospital, pacing the hallways and bothering everyone going in and out. I wasn't in your room, but I was mentally sitting next to you. I just couldn't...I mean..." Her gaze swept over all the buzzing equipment, the BP cuff around his arm, all his tubes, the EKG wires snaking out from his chest. Her eyes rested on his O2 mask, and her little brave expression started to break.

"Hey," he rasped, pulling away the plastic. "I'm fine."

His words snapped Abby out of whatever trance she was in, and she ran over like an ocean wave of gentle hugs. He winced in reaction, not prepared for such affection, although it shouldn't have been so surprising considering the source.

"Oh, no, am I hurting you?" she asked, frantically withdrawing from him.

"No," he wheezed.

Obviously feeling out of sorts, her eyes traveled toward his tray. "Wow, this lunch looks like something I'd make in my lab," she teased, then winced because Tony was supposed to eat it. Taking a fork, Abby poked at the pools of mush that was his soft-food diet. "Actually, the creamed corn and mashed potatoes look good. Beats the expired snacks in the vending machine."

It wouldn't matter to Tony if they were a packet of stale crackers; he was starving. He tried sitting straighter, but he lacked the strength to push himself up. Finding the control to the bed, he pressed the button, inclining so he was more vertical.

Reaching for the spoon, his hand trembled so badly it wouldn't work right, the silverware clattering to the tray. He tried again, this time securing it between thumb and index finger before it slipped out of his weak grip.

Frustrated, his breaths came faster, creating a tingle in his chest and triggering another horrible spasm. He collapsed the few inches back into the bed and hugged his ribs in exhaustion, his meal sitting completely out of reach.

"Have you heard about the latest dirt on Agent Ross in cyber crime?" Abby asked, deftly scooping a spoonful of lumpy potatoes. "He used his access to spy on old girlfriends and tampered with traffic cams to issue false speeding tickets to them." Taking the spoon, she kept talking, slipping down the oxygen mask and letting him take a bite. "And if that wasn't bad enough, he made sure all their automatic deposits went through aftertheir automatic bill payments."

She regaled him with tales of misuse of lab equipment and who was sleeping with who in each department, her stories coming out at McGee speed while she scooped spoonfuls of his lunch, holding them up to his mouth to chew.

"I also heard that Vance got chewed out in MTAC yesterday, but I won't know the juicy details until I get back."

Putting the utensil down, she steadied the cup of water that sloshed in his quivering hand so he could take a drink.

Amazingly, he finished the whole tray of food and found his head lolling to the side. Before he drifted off completely, he felt her fingers sift through his hair.

"Thanks, Abs," he mumbled under the mask, and finally succumbed to exhaustion.

It was 0430 and Gibbs took advantage of the open roads leading to Bethesda, gunning the accelerator. After staying past midnight at the office, he got three hours of fitful shut-eye before saying 'screw it' and flipped on his coffeemaker. It would be before visiting hours, but he wanted to see DiNozzo before diving back into the case. There weren't any voicemails on his cell, which meant zero new leads. He would have been ticked off about that if the team weren't already dead on their feet.

Three fires. Three warehouses that subcontracted supplies to the Navy. One dead petty officer from the first scene. Each blaze had been carefully orchestrated with accelerants, using several mini fires in precise locations that converged into one.

Like the one at LeBond. Except the arsonist had used the combustible chemicals on-site to ignite and spread the flames. The only reason he and Ziva had gone to the warehouse was because they were in the area when Abby called about a fire alarm in the vicinity.

It'd been DiNozzo's idea to monitor emergency switchboards covering all of the warehouses in the area with off-site security company contracts. With the sluggish economy, many places had cut actual physical guards. If any alarm got triggered, NCIS would know the same moment as the dispatchers.

He rounded the nurses' station, his badge out and up, and ignored the nurse's glare until she buzzed the door open.

His steps hesitated as he passed by other gravely ill patients, anxiety digging a pit in his stomach as he moved closer to curtains surrounding DiNozzo's bed. He hadn't expected three silhouettes standing behind the fabric and was even more surprised to discover one of them was Ducky's.

DiNozzo was pale, almost ashen. Two day's worth of stubble covered his face. His eyes were bloodshot, hair flat and a bit messy. A nurse had to hold him upright while a physician listened to his chest with his stethoscope.

"Give me the deepest breath you can, Tony," the doctor instructed.

Gasping under the mask, DiNozzo did as he was told and broke into a horrendous fit for air, the nurse having to take on his full weight. Gibbs almost darted inside to give them all hell, but he refrained from tearing everyone a new one. Ducky was there; he wouldn't let any harm come to DiNozzo, and the elder physician painstakingly observed without comment until the coughing fit ended.

"I've got rales in both the upper and lower left lobes." The doctor spoke to the nurse, but it was possibly for Ducky's ears as well.

The nurse eased DiNozzo back against the bed and plucked a thermometer out of a pocket, placing it in his ear. "Temp's 100."

Flipping pages to a chart, the doctor made several quick notations before speaking to his patient, eyes flicking toward Ducky occasionally as he spoke. "Tony, yesterday you were taken off the ventilator because I felt your lungs could handle it. You needed mechanical ventilation to help supply your body with oxygen, but if you'd stayed on it for too long, your lungs could have weakened even further. The next forty-eight hours won't be easy. Your bronchi are still filling with fluid so I'm going to put you on Lasix to help relax your respiratory muscles and dilate the blood vessels in your lungs."

DiNozzo listened, but it was obvious he was too exhausted to follow much of the medical babble.

"I know you're in a lot of discomfort, but other than general achiness, are you experiencing any severe chest pain?"

There was a hesitancy, but DiNozzo shook his head.


That got a nod.

"That's to be expected with chlorine gas poisoning. We'll see about managing the pain," the doctor said with a reassuring smile. Then he started rattling off instructions to the nurse. "Keep him on 100 percent oxygen and continue with courses of albuterol via nebulizer every four hours for his bronchospasm. If there are any flare-ups, you can administer a course of salbutamol." He checked his watch and continued with his list. "He's scheduled for a CT in an hour, and let's do a full screen for PT on his next blood draw. Let me know if his O2 stats drop below 90." Peering down when his pager went off, he looked over at DiNozzo. "It is very important that you let the staff know if you experience any further types of chest pain or nausea, all right, Tony?"

At DiNozzo's nod, the physician breezed past Gibbs, then stopped. "You're not allowed to—"

Flashing his badge again, Gibbs ignored the eye-roll he received and waited on the outskirts of the curtain. The nurse was speaking to DiNozzo while Ducky snagged the chart at the end of the bed, reading it quickly before walking over.

"You're here early," Ducky greeted, rubbing a hand over his haggard face. "And without a cup of coffee."

"Already drank it, but I'm sure we could find you one," Gibbs answered. "You been here the whole night?"

"I came by after my last autopsy. With the rest of you busy with the case, I didn't want Anthony to be alone."

"I'm glad you were here." Casting a quick glance back at the curtain, Gibbs gave his old friend a serious expression. "How is he?"

"Tony is doing as well as can be expected. He's developing a bad case of bronchitis that they're trying to keep from developing into full-fledged pneumonia."

"And?" Gibbs prompted, knowing there was more to it.

"The latest tests show the possible signs of blood clots in his lungs." Gibbs' face must have gone white because Ducky grabbed his arm. "If caught in time, it's manageable with medication. The chest x-rays he's scheduled are to rule them out. If there were causes for alarm, Tony would be undergoing an angiogram. They're just being overly cautious."

Gibbs stood there, jaw clenched.

"I'll get us both a cup of coffee. Why don't you go in?" Ducky suggested, giving Gibbs time and space to decompress.

The nurse finished up and eyed him suspiciously. "Agent DiNozzo needs his rest. Please don't be long."

Gibbs nodded and walked over. The head of the bed was raised, DiNozzo's chest hitched with every breath, a sheen of sweat beading over his forehead. "Tony?"

Eyes springing open, DiNozzo stared out in confusion before registering his presence. "Boss... Did you need…get a break in the case? Need me to—"

Gibbs was amazed he understood any of that babble under the muffle of plastic. "What I need you to do is to kick this thing in the teeth and get better."


Gibbs stood there, listened to loud whistling sounds for air, his anger rose to new levels. It was the damn plague all over again, except this time, it was his fault that Tony was laying there.

"You want me to call your father?"

It was a dumb question. Even a probie knew the answer to that. But he had to ask, even if DiNozzo Senior was a clueless, absentee parent.

"No. Don't."

He didn't feel like pushing things, unsure of what to say, but Gibbs didn't place much stock in words. Nailing the asshole responsible for this would soften the blow to this whole FUBARed situation.

Another horrendous coughing fit wracked DiNozzo and his whole body listed sideways. Gibbs grabbed him by the shoulders,and kept the younger man from doubling over the railing, feeling the heat emanate off DiNozzo's skin.

"I'm...sorry, Boss."

"What the hell for?"

Whole body shaking with each breath, DiNozzo rasped something about screwing up.

"Never apologize, you know that. And never ever apologize for something that's not your fault." Wrapping an arm around DiNozzo's back, he held him steady, allowing his head to rest against Gibbs chest. "You got Ziva and me out of a burning building. Saved our asses. If that's not bravery, I don't know what is."

"Did you...find...any...new..."

The rest of DiNozzo's words were lost in a heaving fit and Gibbs wished for five minutes alone with that fucking arsonist.

"You need to leave," a voice instructed. "I've got to wheel him in for a CT."

DiNozzo mumbled something about missing the other nurse as Gibbs moved away. After being kicked out, he found himself searching for Ducky, wandering aimlessly around the nurse's station.

"Hey," a woman with short silver hair approached him. "Are you with Agent DiNozzo?"


"Well, I cover the ICU during the early morning shift."

He had no clue why she was going at him like a Mother Grizzly Bear, but Gibbs never discounted anything in life. "Is there something you need me to—"

"What I need you to do," she interrupted, "is to remind your people that this isa hospital. We can't have everyone just barge in here and demand to see a patient."

Bristling, Gibbs stared at the nurse. "My team-"

"We're stretching the rules for you and the lovely Dr. Mallard, but your other agents have to abide by visiting hours."

Something ate away at his craw. "What are you talking about?"

Huffing in irritation, she grabbed a chart and a mug of steaming coffee. "The agent who accosted me about seeing Agent DiNozzo a few minutes ago. I told him I just came on shift, and when I saw how many people were overextending their welcome already, I told him he'd have to wait."

"What. Agent?"

"I didn't catch his name. He was really insistent. I figured he'd been hurt in that fire since he had an injured arm. He wanted me to tell Agent DiNozzo he'd be back to pay his respects."

Hand on his Sig, Gibbs searched the hall. "Where? Where did this agent go?"

Flustered and pressing a hand to her chest, the nurse backed away two steps. "I don't know. Toward the elevator."

"Are you sure? Did you see him go in?"

"Um, no. Why? What's this about?"

"Where's CT?" When she stared at him, Gibbs grabbed her elbow. "They took DiNozzo for a CT scan. Where is it?"

"Down the hall over there, tenth door on the right. But you can't go in."

He yanked his cell phone and hit the speed dial. Gibbs ran down the hall and skidded to a stop at a set of doors that refused to open for him. Eying the locking device, he noticed it required a hospital ID card to slide through. Staring through the glass window, he saw signs for various imaging test rooms.

Ziva answered on the fourth ring but Gibbs didn't let her get a word out. "Grab McGee and both of you get to the hospital. The suspect was here!"


"Now, Ziva. Tony's fine."

Clicking off, his eyes roamed the hospital. The bastard was had been right here.

But why? What was his endgame?

After sweeping the floor and ensuring that DiNozzo made it back to his bed without incident, Gibbs found Ducky just as McGee and Ziva arrived. Having informed hospital security of a possible situation, they were given a small waiting room on the same level as the ICU to hold a meeting.

"McGee, I want you to pull video feed from all of the security cameras. Ziva—"

"I will re-trace the suspect's steps according to the witness statement and dust for prints," she answered, her face a mask of chiseled stone.

"Why would the suspect come here?" McGee asked. "He's left no forensic evidence so far. We have no leads to his identity, just a basic profile. And now he shows up to visit Tony?"

"To finish the job?" Ziva speculated. "Thinking Tony could identify him?"

"But he was wearing a mask," McGee retorted.

"Perhaps it doesn't matter. He could be paranoid," Ziva countered.

"It could be remorse," Ducky suggested, all three heads turning toward him in scrutiny. "Arsonists like to watch things burn. Their targets are either political or personal in nature. They set fires out of anger or the need for revenge."

"To seek attention," Gibbs said, following the line of logic.

"Exactly. They get off on the chaos it creates," Ducky explained, his face reflecting that contemplative zone he went into when crawling inside someone's head. "They've failed in interpersonal relationships in the family, with friends, in marriage, and in school. For many, arson may be the only thing they have tried in their life that yields relative success."

"Why remorse?" Gibbs prodded.

"Most arsonists do not set off to commit homicide," Ducky answered.

"Petty Officer Wilson died in the first fire," Ziva pointed out, not buying the theory.

"But he wasn't supposed to be there," McGee reminded them. "He stopped by to pick up some paperwork. His death might have been an accident."


"Find out if the family has had any contact with the suspect," Gibbs demanded, feeling for the first time that they were onto something. "Phone calls, mail. See if they've had any contact with sympathetic strangers."

"And Tony?"

Ziva still had that haunted look of guilt, but it was something she needed to shake.

"I want one of us with him twenty-four seven. If this firebug steps foot in this hospital, I want him squashed." Checking the time, Gibbs was surprised that it was already 0800. "We'll meet back here in an hour."

"Um, Boss, it'll take me much longer to go over the security footage."

"Then I suggest that you work fast, McGee," Gibbs grumbled.

"Where are you going?" Ziva inquired, trying to school her emotions.

But Gibbs could see right through her mask. It was one he wore often.

"Someone needs to tell DiNozzo what's going on."

Security was posted outside the ICU ward and Gibbs gave them a nod as he walked by. Wandering over to the bed, he found DiNozzo curled up on his side, opening fevered eyes at his approach.

"Hey," DiNozzo rasped.

Taking a seat in the chair, Gibbs studied his agent's sweat-glistened face and bruised-looking lids. "You okay?"

"Headache...but on the bright side...just sucked on some meds, so I'm cough-free for a bit." Rubbing at his temples, DiNozzo took a drag on his oxygen mask. "Something...up?"

"The suspect tried to pay you a visit." Gibbs believed in cutting to the chase. No bullshit. "We're checking the camera feeds. If he comes back, we'll get him."

"Huh...guess he didn't have enough fun...the first time."

"We need to know what makes this SOB tick. Are you sure you didn't see anything that could ID him?"


"Did he ever hesitate or have second thoughts about leaving you?"

A flash of anger glinted in DiNozzo's eyes before he squeezed them closed. "No."

Maybe they were barking up the wrong tree with the remorse theory.

Groaning, DiNozzo pressed the heel of his hand against his forehead. "S'rry...Boss... I..."

"Get some rest, Tony," Gibbs said, squeezing DiNozzo's shoulder, worried by the heat that still raged beneath the gown.

With another glance at his watch, he headed toward the security office to check McGee's progress, not giving a damn that only twenty minutes had passed since their meeting.

"How are you doin', hon?"

"Better now," Tony mumbled under the mask as Helen wiped his forehead with a damp cloth.

"Ohhh, are you flirting with me? Doesn't Garcia take good care of you when I'm gone?"

Muttering those few words zapped the rest of his energy, and Tony found himself drifting like he did every five minutes but unable to fall asleep. Not when the entirety of his existence was a constant wheeze, the rest of his body too wrung out to do anything but lay there and shake. Helen dabbed at his cheeks with the sponge as he relished the moisture on his roasting skin.

"If you keep up with this whole fever nonsense, I'm going to have to pull out the cold compresses. Or is that your plan?"

"Busted," he whispered.

"Your CT results came back clear this morning. There were no signs of blood clots. Dr. Brzezinski was very pleased."

Tony followed Helen's movements with his eyes, since that was the only thing he was capable of doing.

"You thirsty?"

His mouth was bone-dry, and his throat felt like a cheese grater. Nodding, he tried lifting his head, but the movement sent the room spinning. Helen was there, easing a hand behind his neck until Tony rasped 'stop.'

It felt like he was falling, and he was panting when his stomach lurched. After thirty long seconds, he made a noise, and Helen, her hand still supporting his head, moved it a fraction so he could take the offered water.

The liquid was like sweet, sweet heaven. "Thanks."

Settling against his pillow, he felt like he might melt into the fabric. Tony stared at the ceiling, watched the shadows dance around, his thoughts swirling with them.

"I've got other patients to attend to, hon. I'll be back, but I'm only a call away. And I'm sure your friends are camped right outside as well. If that man tries to show up again, they'll be all over him like butter on toast."

Forcing his head to one side, he watched her disappear behind the fabric divider, her words stirring something louder and fiercer than his growing misery.

It wasn't a surprise when McGee showed up to take a seat, laptop propped on his knees. The babysitting game had begun.

"Hi...I...hope I didn't wake you. I downloaded all of the security footage to my computer, and Gibbs' been riding me to go over it all. I thought maybe you could use a friendly face and I could use the solitude to view it in peace."

Wiping away the sweat in his eyes, Tony tried to think through the soup of his boiling brain. "Progress?"

"None yet, I'm afraid. There's not enough camera angles to grab a good look. I found three frames of someone's back at the nurse's station, but he never turned where we could see his face."


"He didn't touch the desk in the hall, but Ziva went over the elevator. There were dozens and dozens to go through even though the panels get disinfected several times a day. Abby's on it."

He'd worked arson cases in Baltimore. Churches, homes, schools. All were symbols with hidden meanings. Fumbling for the controls, Tony raised the head of the bed even higher to help himself think. His wheezing had settled to a small set of spasms, his lungs too spent to give it their all. It was possible the latest steroid treatment was just wearing off, but Tony couldn't recall what it was like to take a solid breath without pain anymore.

The feeling of pinpricks inside his chest sharpened to tiny razorblades, but he rode them out, waiting for the two images of McGee to merge back into one. "W'y?" he rasped.

"I'm sorry, I didn't understand you."

Yanking the mask down, Tony stared bleary-eyed at his partner. "Why?"

"Why did he come to the hospital?"

"Motive...Probie," Tony hissed, burying a fist into his sternum.

Frowning, McGee shook his head. "We're still going over that. All three targets supplied industrial materials to the Navy. They're owned by different companies with no pending lawsuits or recent accidents. We're still searching personnel records of those who have been fired in the past five years, but so far, none of them have had any backgrounds that fit the profile."

His mind drifting, a voice whispered in Tony's mind, all gloating in awed fascination.

"Did it look at you? Did the fire look at you? It did. Our worlds aren't that far apart after all, are they? So whoever is doing this knows the animal well, doesn't he?"

That was one of the best scenes in the movie.

"He knows the animal," Tony muttered, recalling how the heat from the flames had licked his face.


"Our suspect knows all about fire," Tony mumbled. "Donald had a great performance...Tommy Lee's was good, too."

"Tony, what are you talking about? Are you talking about Backdraft again?"

Chair legs made a horrible scraping sound and McGee was up, staring at the equipment cluelessly. "Do you need me to call the nurse?"

"But it was really about the brothers...right?" Tony went on. "Backdraftwasn't about fire. It was about..." The air was thin, the razors becoming knives again. "Family..."

"That mask isn't there to frame that handsome face of yours," Helen announced as soon as she barged into his fabric cell, pressing the plastic back over his face. "That clip on your finger lets me know when your O2 stats go wonky." Like all grandmotherly people, her sharp tone softened. She rested a hand on his forehead and stuck something in his ear until it chirped. "103. Can't you do anything easy?"

He was bruised and broken, but not out. Not out.

"You listen to me, Tony. You. Will. Not. Die," Gibbs had ordered him once before.

Something wet melted under his armpits, icy liquid beaded around his lower areas.

He was tired of being sick. Of being trapped in bed by his own body.

People moved in and out around him, jiggling his IV. The feeling of rain pelted his skin.

Tony didn't open his eyes, not a single time, sleep finally winning a victory.

Cold water poured down his face, droplets soothing away the cracks by his lips. Sucking at the moisture, his heart clenched inside his chest. He recalled a fire hose, being stripped of his clothes. Of choking on his own fluids.

He jerked awake to blackness, then fading grey, until things slowly settled into a muted washout of color.

Beep, beep, beep.

"There you are, my dear boy. I'm sorry I had to take my leave earlier, but I needed to check on a few reports," Ducky said, strolling over and pulling up a vacant chair. "Of course, you probably won't remember our talks, but I know you heard me on some level, even if the rest of your brain chose to tune me out," he said with a charming smile. "We were discussing the fine works of Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales,to be exact."

Tony had no recollection of Ducky's previous visit,but the older man sounded as if he'd been reading aloud for hours. "Everyone's been by, just so you know." Ducky paused, turning a yellowed page. "Jethro and Tim are still here in fact, but I suggested they grab a bite to eat when it was time to cool you down again."

Fire. He'd been in a fire.

And the guy was still out there.


The chair creaked with a shift in weight and Ducky began reading, his voice soothing Tony back into a fitful slumber.

"His temp is down to 100. The cold compresses worked."

"Good. Keep him on eight hundred milligrams of Ibuprofen. The last set of tests showed a slight reduction in his edema. We might be rounding a corner."

Tony held onto the nebulizer, taking the awful medicine into his lungs.

You can do this, DiNozzo. You beat the damned plague. That's got to count for something.

Or maybe you used up all your karma on the previous near-death experience.

His ray of sunshine breezed in, removing the medical torture device. "That's one serious face you got going on there."

"Got a lot on my mind."

"All that you should be thinkin' about is getting better," Helen told him.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Don't ma'am me. I'm not in the military." Pen going a mile a minute in his chart, she hung the clipboard back on the bed. "Is there anything else you need before I grab some grub downstairs?"

Petty Officer Williams probably had a grandmother like Helen, Tony thought.

"Yeah. Do you think you could track down Agent Gibbs?"

Gibbs walked beside the right side of the gurney, Ziva the left. With McProbie somewhere behind him, Tony didn't open his eyes since vertigo had become a recent companion. The tension surrounding him was so thick you could cut it with a knife, but stepping down to a normal room had been the right call.

The only call.

No more fabric curtains. A real room with a real door and real windows. It almost made breathing easier. Almost.

The O2 mask was replaced with a nasal cannula, the plastic scratching his nostrils.

Helen stood there, unhappy scowl in place. If looks could kill, the rest of Tony's team would be tarred and feathered by now.

McGee's cell went off and he excused himself to answer it, looking relieved at the distraction.

Busying herself by hanging his IV and connecting the pulse oximeter, Helen scrutinized Tony. "If you think I'm going to come down here to check on you while I have real sick people to attend to, you're deluding yourself."

"Wouldn't...think of it."

"I better not find you back on my floor, if you know what's good for you," Helen threatened, crossing her arms in her most intimating manner.

"How else...will I find you...for our date?"

With a roll of her eyes, Helen took the time to glare at everyone else in the room, before taking her leave.

"I didn't know you were into older women, DiNozzo," Gibbs deadpanned.

"What can I say...I'm broadening my horizons."

Gibbs jabbed two fingers in the air, gesturing for Ziva to follow him out, and nearly collided with a bounding McGee.

"Boss," he yelped, sidestepping him. "I just got off the phone with Petty Officer Wilson's father. An anonymous donor just paid for the funeral in full. The family didn't accept the money and gave it to charity."

Eyes straying toward Tony's for a split second, Gibbs hung out by the door. "The fire marshal filed his final report on the LeBond arson. See if there's anything to dig up."

"On it," McGee said, scrambling out.

"Good luck," Tony offered, watching his boss linger longer than needed.

"I don't believe in luck, DiNozzo."

Tony allowed two orderlies who could pass as Redskins players to haul him up, keeping him upright when his slippered feet couldn't. Walking wasn't on his agenda apparently, and he played along with the illusion of moving on his own, the two linebackers doing all the work.

"The chair's just eight steps away," one of them encouraged. "I know it sucks, man, but your body has to get used to moving again. Helps avoid muscle weakness. Doctor's orders."

IV, catheter, and various other wires and tubes were rolled along with his reluctant feet. Tony was lowered into the chair, huffing and coughing on his portable oxygen.

"You did great," one of the linebackers praised.

Sure. For being carried.

Staring balefully at the NFL rejects, Tony focused on sitting upright, hoping not to fall right out as soon as his support was gone.

"You all right, Agent DiNozzo?"

"I'm...fine," Tony growled, unable to quiet the unconvincing cough that followed.

"The call button is—"

"By my side. Got it."

Funny how moving rooms felt like a gigantic victory. It still reeked of Lysol and hand sanitizer. Had the same repressed lighting and thin starched sheets. And he still had to use a nebulizer every few hours—and more than likely for weeks to come.

But it wasn't the ICU and twenty-four-hour monitoring, with that constant fear of being one alarm away from dying.

That was the job, though. Every minute of the day. While taking a bullet or getting blown up were accepted risks, it didn't mean he wasn't afraid of death. Ask him straight up and he might dance around the answer. Give a wink and say a joke. But deep inside he was scared shitless of it. He'd been that close once before, and God, the second time around was even worse.

So, yeah, sitting vertically in bed and breathing from a cannula instead of an oxygen mask was a victory. He was alone for once, his thoughts drifting into dangerous territory. Like how thrashed were his lungs? Would he pass the next physical? Would the headache that had taken up permanent residence in his temples ever go away?

But a louder, more persistent voice overrode all of those whispered what-ifs, and this one sounded more like an NCIS agent's. He tried focusing on what it was attempting to tell him. He trusted it. Trusted it so much that he had his little talk with Gibbs, dug in his heels, and insisted the man listen to it, too.

He was actually chilly for once, a nice change of pace from the last two days. He'd been given a robe to wear over his gown and was promised a set of scrub bottoms once he got rid of one of his accessories.

"Agent DiNozzo, it's time for your next scan."

Tony stared at the nurse, waiting for the two NFL linebackers to return with him. When the guy pushed the wheelchair forward, Tony stared anxiously at the gap between the bed and the seat.

"Hold on, I'll go get some help—"

"No. I'm good," Tony interrupted. "I should do this on my own."

Not waiting for an argument, he shoved away the sheets, swinging his legs around until they were inches from the floor. Pushing off with his hands, his feet hit the tile, knees buckling. The nurse grabbed him under the armpits with a long grunt and helped him into the chair.

"Just give me a sec," the nurse said, gathering all of the various tubes and securing them to the wheelchair pole. "There, you're all set."

White knuckling the armrests as he was wheeled, Tony stared straight ahead, those instincts taking over as he memorized where people walked in and out. Keeping up with all the turns down the hall.

"Wow. Left, right. Left, right. We taking the scenic route?" he asked after the fourth corner.

"You know hospitals. They like to keep imaging studies away from patients. All that extra radiation."

"Right. Wouldn't want that."

Reading the various signs outside the doors, Tony raised an eyebrow when they entered a room, the sign labeled "PET Scan" on the outside. The door opened automatically as they entered a dimly lit room filled with computers with a large window peering into an adjacent room with a large tube.

Staring at the vacant chairs in front of the controls, Tony gave his escort a smile. "We early for the party?"

It was the first time he got a good look at the orderly. The guy was clean-shaven with short brown hair. Average height and build. Mr. Nondescript.

"No, everyone is all accounted for," the guy replied, stepping toward the door to the hall.

"You got a name?" Tony asked, a suspicion confirmed when the lock went click.

"Lieutenant Andy Jacobs."

His head was roaring with another migraine, but Tony pushed it aside, ignoring the invisible drill to his temples. "I take it that you're not a Bethesda employee?" he asked, adjusting the flaps of his robe.

"No, sir."

Tony noted the southern accent for the first time. Possibly native Virginian. "Well, Andy," he said casually. "I was told you wanted to talk to me. You could have visited me in my room. Saved us the stroll."

Fingers tapping a staccato against his right hip, Andy shook his head. "I tried."


"It was too risky. Too many people and they—" Shaking his head again like a nervous tick, Andy paced. "They wouldn't understand."

That so? Tony thought, but he kept his tone even. Sympathetic. "Understand what?"

Andy waved a hand in Tony's direction. "I didn't mean for this to happen."

Squeezing the rubber armrests, Tony channeled all of his adrenaline at keeping physically and mentally together. "You didn't?" That why you kicked me when I was down?

"Of course not!" Striding over, nostrils flaring, Andy glared at him. "That wasn't my objective."

"And what was that?"

"To neutralize my targets!"

"Your targets?"

"Those profiteering on the war! You think they care about blood money?"

Breathing on his oxygen, trying to remain perfectly still and relaxed, Tony tried following the man's ramblings. "You were targeting the companies that provide supplies to the Navy."

"Yes, sir." Andy's fingers kept tapping against his hip. That's when Tony got a peak at the sidearm strapped there. "Those getting fat off the hog supplying the military. I had to stop them."

"By destroying the warehouses that shipped supplies to our bases in the Middle East," Tony said, piecing things together. Andy was breathing fast, his left eye twitching. "That took some skill, burning those places to the ground. How did you accomplish your mission?"

"I'm a chemical engineer. Wasn't hard."

That explained the sophistication behind the fires as well as the protective gear.

"And Petty Officer Wilson?"

"He wasn't supposed to be there. No one was! It was an unforeseen casualty."

"A casualty?" Tony growled, his chest tightening. "He wasn't a friendly fire accident, Lieutenant!"

"If he'd been following orders, been at his station instead of inside, it wouldn't have happened."

"And what about the NCIS agents you shot at? Were they unforeseen targets?" Tony snapped.

"They were a threat to the mission."

Catching his breath, arms wrapped around his ribs, Tony glared. "Yeah? And if they'd succumbed to the fumes? Been eliminated as a threat. You would have done the honorable thing and helped them out?"

Yelling triggered a bout of coughing, dark spots clouding his vision. Antagonizing an unstable suspect with a stick wasn't the best strategy when his ability to defend himself was close to nil.

"You know, I came here to apologize. Explain my mission."

"Yeah?" Tony wheezed. "And now?"

Antsy fingers tapped a beat on the butt of his gun as Andy peered intently at him."Analyzing the threat level to the rest of my campaign."

Ziva put an agitated lion to shame, pacing a scant four meters back and forth. "This is not a good idea."

"It was Tony's," McGee said, adjusting the volume level to the computer for the twentieth time.


"I agreed to it," Gibbs reminded them both. "I trust DiNozzo. He knows what he's doing."

"But Boss..." McGee looked over, hesitating a second before plowing onward. "Tony's—"

"Still an NCIS agent."

"And he's unarmed and vulnerable," Ziva hissed, not afraid to argue. "He shouldn't act as bait."

"He's wearing a wire and we're right across the hall. We have no physical evidence and no suspects. Give DiNozzo a chance to take this guy down."

Let him feel in control again.

"Agent DiNozzo, it's time for your next scan."

Everyone froze, McGee increasing the volume and clearing up the static.

"Tony does not have any tests scheduled," Ziva said, striding closer to the computer.

Listening intently, they monitored the conversation, Gibbs' gut churning when he realized DiNozzo was on the move. He hadn't expected their suspect to pose as a hospital worker.

"Should we go after him?" Ziva pressed.

"Not yet," Gibbs answered, smiling when DiNozzo fed them tidbits about which direction he was going. Thataboy, he thought.

Grabbing a notepad, McGee scribbled down the various turns while he listened.

Ziva was frozen in place, the bandage across her forehead the only indication that she'd been in the fire. She was practically vibrating with the need to do something, eyes laser-lined on the laptop.

"And Petty Officer Wilson?"

"He wasn't supposed to be there. No one was! It was an unforeseen casualty."

Biting his lip, Gibbs slammed his hands on the table, reining in his need to ring the guy's neck. That was it, the last nail in the coffin. But they needed a signal from Tony or risked going in blind.

Come on, DiNozzo, give the damned signal.

But things were escalating. Tony's voice had gone from calm to agitated.

"Yeah?" Tony coughed. "And if they'd succumbed to the fumes? Been eliminated as a threat. You would have done the honorable thing and helped them out?"

Damn it! Don't let your emotions get the better of you, DiNozzo, Gibbs groused. "That's it. We're going in," he ordered. Before things spiraled out of control.

Sixty seconds. Sixty seconds to go down one hall, turn, go another ten feet. Turn. Then turn again and again. Running full tilt, eyes roaming the empty hallways, he dismissed every possible bad outcome.

Locating the room, he slowed, ears straining for noise, waving McGee over. "Take out the lock."

Aiming his weapon inches away from the metal knob, McGee fired twice, smashing it apart.

Barging in, Gibbs aimed at the suspect's forehead. "NCIS! Hands on your head and get on your knees."

"Tell them, Tony! Tell them why I did this!"

Increasing the tension around the trigger, Gibbs eyes darted from the screaming suspect to DiNozzo, assessing the risk in a split second. He noticed the holstered .45, the agitated manner in which the guy was acting.

With Ziva covering, Gibbs grabbed the suspect's shoulder, squeezing it in just the right spot to pinch a nerve. The suspect was rendered motionless with a yelp and Gibbs shoved him down to the ground, taking one of the guy's arms and locking it behind his back.

"My arm!" the guy screamed.

Ziva disarmed the suspect, slapping the cuffs around both wrists. "Sorry, does it hurt?"

McGee was there, weapon still out, waiting for the unexpected because, this week, nothing could be taken for granted.

Satisfied that the asshole responsible for this nightmare was in custody, Gibbs holstered his gun and moved toward DiNozzo. "You okay?"

"We talking...rhetorically...Boss?"

Outside, the hall filled with the boys in blue and Gibbs nodded at Ziva. "Secure our suspect wherever security has a place and wait until backup arrives to transport him."

"Wait! I still have my mission to complete!"

With a hard shove, Ziva escorted the trash away with a satisfied expression. McGee was already on the phone, arranging for the agents to handle the transfer.

DiNozzo was silent except for the long drags on his oxygen, eyes focused on the door.

"Guess I'm your taxi," Gibbs grunted. Walking behind the wheelchair and taking the handles, he began pushing.

"Did you get everything?"

"Every word."


"Except for your signal."

"Oh...It must've not got picked up."

The need to head slap DiNozzo was great, but Gibbs let it go, wheeling his agent into his room. Without a word, he helped DiNozzo to his feet, holding him up as he swayed.

"'m...good now."

"Sit on the bed, Tony. I'll do the rest."

By 'doing the rest', Gibbs did everything. He held DiNozzo up, leaning him toward the bed. Once DiNozzo got a hip up, Gibbs took on all of his agent's weight and heaved him the rest of the way there. Thankfully an orderly bounded over, hanging various tubes and transferring the IV lines and portable oxygen.

With a tap on Gibbs' shoulder, the orderly gestured at DiNozzo. "I'll let the doc know he's back."

Cradling his head into his left hand, DiNozzo sighed.

"Another headache?" Gibbs asked.

"Think it's the same one."

"You can have until the morning to give me a report. I'll see about McGee finding you a tape recorder."

Patting DiNozzo on the shoulder, Gibbs turned to give him some peace when he heard a 'thanks, boss.'

Releasing a long breath, Gibbs knew exactly what he was being thanked for. "Next time your signal gets lost during a wire tap, you'll be out on your ass."

The moment his head hit the pillow, Tony slept. And slept. Through vital checks and blood draws. During his next nebulizer treatment, he might have pissed off the respiratory tech when he didn't inhale as fully as he should. But as soon as it was over, his lids became too heavy to keep open, and he allowed them to flutter shut.

"Come on, sleeping beauty, you gonna skip out on meatloaf?"

"Helen," he whispered, forcing himself awake.

"Don't get too excited. Just got off shift, thought I'd say hi, and noticed your tray just sitting here."

Tony grabbed the fork and cut through the soft meat. As he ate, his enthusiasm grew with each bite.


"Yeah. Been...tired," he mumbled between spoonfuls.

"Guess that's what happens when you save people from fires and take down criminals from your wheelchair. What do you do for an encore?"

"I skip those."

"Something tells me you're not one to shy away from the spotlight."

Laughing, Tony cleared his throat when everything tingled. "Normally, you're right."

"Awww. But only when it's highlighting your best side?"

Looking up sharply, he shoveled the last of the carrots into his mouth.

"This is Bethesda, hon. Working the ICU, I get all kinds. Traumatic brain injury, amputees, burn victims. People on the worst day of their life. It's not about appearing weak. It's about accepting your limitations and finding ways to overcome them."

Blushing, Tony fumbled for words. "I wasn't trying to compare myself to—"

"It's okay, hon," Helen hushed him, taking his arm. "Wasn't trying to. I'm just saying you're not alone. You've got your team. Never seen so many civilians act like such devoted marines. And lordy, that boss of yours. I think he'd cover your six through hell."

He smiled at that. Tony wasn't the same green agent that sought Gibb's approval for everything. Not always anyway. But getting thrown into the hurt locker again, not knowing when he'd get out—if he'd get out—had been a massive weight bearing down on him. Maybe getting Lt. Jacobs had been a way to ease that pressure. And maybe Gibbs had allowed him that luxury.

It wasn't like Leroy Jethro Gibbs hadn't had his fair share of life altering experiences that required him to get back on that horse.

"Guess getting hurt again...well, it scared me," he admitted.

"My grandson has a saying for such an occasion."

"Yeah, what's that?'

Helen gave him a cheeky grin. "Knowing is half the battle."

Approaching each day like it needed to be conquered was a good strategy. It helped that the nighttime nurse was quite the talkative type who lingered long enough to encourage him to hurry up and get better because of what was waiting outside. Sure, she had a boyfriend, and was ten years younger than Tony, but it was fun to flirt. It made him feel almost normal.

"Aren't you tired of being in bed?" Gibbs had asked him, plopping a deep-dish pizza with the works on his table.

"Sure am."

"You gonna do something about it?"

"Working on it," he replied.

A much more exciting torture device, one he was familiar with, replaced the nebulizer: the spirometer. Instead of breathing in meds, he had to breathe out so all the little balls would stay in the air. It was a lung capacity test, or a toy according to Ziva.

"I think you like being here. You can sleep all day. People bring you food and fluff your pillows."

After day six, Tony was crawling the walls. "Please tell me you're here to entertain me?"

"I'm too busy for that," she snorted, despite flipping the pages of a magazine.

"What happened to Jacobs?"

"He's undergoing psychiatric review. His brother was killed in Iraq guarding a convoy of private contractors."

"Let me guess. They were escorting employees of the companies that were involved in the rebuilding effort?"

"Not bad. Ducky tell you?"

"No, figured it out all on my own."

Placing the magazine down, Ziva fiddled with the edge of a page, crinkling it with her fingers. "Tony—"

"You don't have to say it. I understand. I mean...of course, if you wanted to show me any gratitude, I'm partial to a good massage anytime. Foot. Back. Maybe even a fully nu—"

His right cheek stung when it was hit with the magazine.

"I have to go. Some of us have work to do."

Despite her brisk exit, Tony saw the smirk on Ziva's face.

Dr. Brzezinski was worse than one of his professors, rambling on and on without taking a breath. The man was a medical robot, spitting out ten-thousand-dollar words, using crazy hand gestures and shoving a stack of care sheet instructions and prescriptions into Tony's hands.

Eyes fuzzed over, he turned toward Ducky for the translation, trying to keep the fear from registering in his face.

"You've got a long few weeks ahead, my dear boy. The headaches and vertigo will persist for a while, as will general weakness. Your body has been through a great ordeal, and it's going to need plenty of downtime and lots and lots of bed rest. "

He didn't need to be told twice. Tony doubted he could walk to his mailbox without huffing like an old man. "Yeah and then?" he pressed.

Grabbing a shoe and sliding it over Tony's foot, Ducky began lacing it up. "Every form of respiratory distress scars the lungs, my dear boy. Bronchitis, pneumonia. Since the body cannot recreate healthy skin or tissue, it puts together new fibers that, while not as functional as the original tissue, still serve as a protective, useful barrier. It is limited in function, but it does the job."

"So, that means?"

"That women will dig you more than ever," Ducky beamed.


"No, DiNozzo, it just means you better start hitting the gym more instead of watching movies all day." Gibbs stood there impatiently. "I don't have all day to drive you home."

"You're driving me home?" But Tony shut his mouth as soon as he said the words. "Right, Boss."

Settling himself in the wheelchair for his last stroll through the hospital, Tony gave Gibbs one of his patented smiles. "You know, Boss. If it wasn't for my love of cinema, I would have never cracked the case...or I mean, in my fevered state, of course, I would have never put the pieces of the puzzle of together. Not that I could have known about the brother but—"


"You ready, DiNozzo?"

As long as he was still in position to get head slapped, yeah, he thought he really was. For anything.


My first time writing an NCIS fic. Feedback is always appreciated.