Disclaimer:- I do not own NCIS or its characters and any copyright infringement is unintentional.
A/N Sorry for the delay. Big long chapter...just for a change. :) L
From Hell's Heart
"Doctor Mallard?" a soft voice called. "Doctor Mallard?"
The ICU nurse stepped back as Ducky startled awake, looking almost comical with his glasses sitting precariously on the end of his nose.
"I'm sorry, my dear, I must have nodded off," he mumbled.
"That's quite alright. I'm sorry to disturb you but there are some people here asking for you."
"Asking for me? Good Lord, is it morning already?"
"Almost zero seven hundred," the nurse told him. "Why don't you take a break, you've been here all night?"
Ducky turned quickly to his right, surprised that Gibbs was no longer there.
"Did Agent Gibbs return to his room?" he asked hopefully but knowing better.
"He's just been taken downstairs to the imaging department. Commander Russell ordered a new CT and chest x-rays," she explained and added with a grimace. "Agent Gibbs wasn't too happy about leaving."
"I can imagine," Ducky replied with a disapproving shake of his head. "Tell me, my dear, how is Anthony this morning?"
"His condition is still serious but there's been some improvement in the last few hours," the nurse said, stepping aside so that Ducky could see for himself. "It took a little while for the doctors to find the right combination of steroids and inhalants. I'll tell your visitors that you'll be right out."
"Thank you, Lieutenant Dawson," Ducky said.
Despite acquiring a comfortable armchair from the maternity ward, immobility had caused stiffness in the elderly ME's back and leg muscles and he flexed them as he walked the few steps to Tony's bedside.
Tony's eyes were still bandaged and the steady whooshing sound of the ventilator was synchronised with the rise and fall of his chest. He placed a gentle hand on the younger man's sternum, concerned by the heat and the cracking sensation he felt with each breath.
"You're doing just fine, my boy," he said gently. "It appears you have some visitors. Why don't I step outside for a moment so they can see you, hmm?"
He stepped outside the ICU cubicle and spoke briefly again to the nurse before entering the small waiting room across the hall where Abby, McGee, Ziva and Palmer were seated. Abby was immediately on her feet, chewing anxiously on her lower lip.
"Anthony had an restful night," Ducky told them. "His doctors are quite pleased with this progress and hopeful that they can remove the vent within the next twenty-four hours."
"We went by Gibbs' room and the nurse said he hasn't been there all night," McGee said. "We thought he'd be here."
"He's been taken to the imaging department for more tests," Ducky huffed out a laugh and rubbed his fingers over tired eyes. "He really is the most exasperating man I have ever met. I told him that I would sit with our young man but no! Jethro prefers to put his own health at risk and foolishly defy his doctors to sit by the boy's bedside all night. Anthony is sedated and on a ventilator...he won't know whether Gibbs was there or not!"
An awkward silence fell over them as Ducky completed his uncharacteristic rant.
"Ducky," Abby said softly. "Tony may not know that Gibbs was with him…but Gibbs will know."
The ME shook his head and smiled sadly.
"You're quite right, my dear," he replied. "I do apologise for my outburst, it would seem I am more fatigued than I thought."
"Can we see Tony?" Abby asked the weary medical examiner.
"Just for a few moments," Ducky said leading them to the glass wall of the ICU cubicle.
As her gaze fell upon her friend, Abby's fingers flew to her mouth but failed to capture the gasp that escaped. She was unnerved by the quiet stillness of a man she knew to be animated, robust and blessed with a vigorous, if somewhat quirky, zest for life.
"Oh my God," she whispered, reaching into her purse for a tissue and scrubbing indignantly at the tears that slipped from her eyes and smeared her make-up.
"Now, Abigail, don't let the equipment alarm you. Anthony is not in any pain and he is receiving medication to strengthen and clear his lungs," Ducky assured her. "Why don't you and Ziva go and sit with him for few moments and when you're finished we'll all go and have some breakfast. I don't know about you but I could use a nice cup of tea?"
Ducky, McGee and Palmer watched as Abby and Ziva walked either side of Tony's bed and, tentatively, they each held one of his lax hands as they spoke quietly to him.
"I know how Abby feels," McGee said quietly. "He's so still…very un-Tony."
"Don't worry about Tony," Palmer replied. "He's like the Wile E Coyote of NCIS. He gets knocked down but he bounces back as determined as ever."
McGee leaned closer to the glass and appeared to be studying the ceiling above Tony's bed.
"What are you doing?" Palmer asked.
"Waiting for the Acme anvil to drop," McGee quipped.
Having completed his CT and x-rays, Gibbs insisted on a detour to the ICU to check his agent's condition. Despite being buoyed by the fact that Tony was doing much better, the sight of his agent unconscious and breathing with the assistance of a ventilator sickened him and brought back too many memories that he had unsuccessfully tried to bury in the recesses of his mind. After considerable debate he was assisted back to his room with renewed orders to get at least three hours rest before making his way back to the ICU.
His head pounded mercilessly with every movement as he reluctantly climbed onto his hospital bed. Despite copious amounts of irrigation and ointment, his eyes still stung from the effects of the smoke and fumes and his right eye and cheekbone wore an array of spectacular colours. He felt his chest tighten and he began coughing, his lungs burning from the effort. But somehow, the telltale sound of approaching platform boots and the promise of unconditional love brought a small smile to his lips.
The clomping sound grew louder then stopped suddenly beside his bed and he opened his eyes to the worried face of his forensic scientist.
She studied him, her eyes quickly gazing up and down his body looking for undisclosed injuries. If he'd been in a bar, he'd have thought he was about to get lucky.
"Abs? You okay?"
"I've been so worried," she said finally as she sat of the edge of his bed and pulled him into a hug that morphed into some kind of strange gothic sleeper hold. "Promise me, Gibbs, promise me you will never, ever, do anything like that again!"
He was spared from making that promise by the arrival of McGee and Ziva.
"I swear, Abby, if ever there was an Olympic games for all women wearing heels of six inches or more, you'd be a certain medal contender," McGee said.
"Good morning, Gibbs," Ziva said brightly, placing a coffee and a toasted bagel on the tray table at the foot of the bed. "We thought you might like some breakfast."
"You thought right," Gibbs replied.
"How are you feeling, Boss?" McGee asked.
"Ready to get out of here," he answered reaching for the coffee but feeling his stomach roll as the scent of the melted cheese bagel reached him.
"Ducky said the doctors have you in for at least one more night," McGee said.
"We'll see," he replied. "You seen DiNozzo?"
Abby's lips formed a thin straight line and she nodded her head.
"He'll be fine, Abs," Gibbs said.
"According to Ducky, the doctors may take Tony off the ventilator this afternoon," Ziva added hopefully.
"Anything new on Adams?"
"Ziva and I went back to his apartment. Every wall had some kind of creepy photographic montage of you and Tom Phillips. Looks like he'd been planning this for a long time."
"Adams obviously blamed you and Tom Phillips for the death of his wife and son," Ziva continued. "In his mind, you were the reason that he was in jail and not with his family when they died. He even planned for you to die in similar ways."
"Injecting a substance that induced heart failure, is how his son died and how he killed Tom Phillips. His wife burned to death and, well, that's what he was planning for you," McGee finished.
'Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. Just as he did to me, so I am going to do to him. I shall repay to each one according to his acting,' Gibbs recalled the words Adams recited over and over.
"We should return to the office and finish the paperwork," Ziva said. "You will call if you need anything, yes?"
"Hey," Gibbs called as McGee and Ziva turned back. "Good job, both of you."
The agents smiled at the rare acknowledgement and continued toward the elevator.
"You know Gibbs, from an artistic point of view that is one wicked black eye! I could take a photo and hang it in my gallery between my image of a shotgun-shattered backbone and my ice pick to the cerebellum." She leaned forward and kissed his cheek. "Gotta go! Get some rest. I'll be back with my camera."
As she hurried to join McGee and Ziva, he closed his eyes as the sound of platform boots faded into the distance and he fell into a healing sleep.
Several hours later he was startled from his slumber by a man's voice and a hand on his forearm. Momentarily disoriented and acting on reflex he grabbed the assailant's wrist and executed a perfect thumb lock.
"Agent Gibbs," the man groaned between tightly clenched teeth. "It's me, Jimmy Palmer!"
"Palmer! What the hell?" Gibbs replied, releasing Palmer from his grip before noticing the wheelchair.
"Doctor Mallard asked me to come and get you. The doctors are with Tony and he said for me to tell you that it's good news."
Gibbs swung his feet from the bed, ignoring the slight vertigo and started for the door.
"Um…wait! Agent Gibbs!" Palmer called as he hastily positioned himself between Gibbs and the door. "Doctor Mallard said to tell you…um…these are his words not mine…that you are to sit your posterior in this wheelchair, or else."
"Or else, what?"
"See…he didn't exactly tell me that part," Palmer said laughing nervously.
"You think you can stop me, Palmer?"
"Not on my best day," Palmer said with certainty.
"Good answer," Gibbs replied as he strode for the ICU ward with Palmer and the empty wheelchair falling into step behind him.
Gibbs arrived at the ICU ward, Palmer on his heels still pushing the empty wheelchair and looking flustered.
Ducky's exasperated look went from Gibbs to his young assistant.
"Mister Palmer, didn't I tell you…"
"I…I tried, Doctor Mallard, really. I mean…"
"Not his fault, Duck," Gibbs cut in, his brow furrowing at the activity surrounding Tony's bed. "What's going on?"
"It's good news, Jethro," Ducky reported. "Anthony's doctor is very pleased with his progress. They've removed the bandages from his eyes and they're going to reduce the sedative."
"What about the vent?"
"They'll keep that attached for a few more hours to ensure that his respiratory system can cope without the aid of the machine."
Captain Keenan completed writing his orders on Tony's medical chart and turned to leave the cubicle stopping beside Gibbs and Ducky.
"Agent DiNozzo's respiratory rate is almost back to normal and his secretions are clearing. I want to repeat his bronchoscopy later this afternoon to check the swelling in his airways," the captain told them. "His eyes will be swollen and sore for a few days but his vision should not be affected. I assume that Doctor Mallard told you that I've reduced the sedative?"
Gibbs nodded and then asked. "When can we talk to him?"
"You can try to wake him now if you'd like but just for a minute. I prefer to test my patients responsiveness when they've been sedated for as long as Tony has," the captain said. "Don't expect much. It will take a while for the sedative to work its way out of his system. See if you can get him to open his eyes; talk to him, let him know you're there. If he continues to improve at this rate, we'll start to wean him off the machine, in the hope of removing the tube later this afternoon. He's a strong young man but with his track record of serious respiratory problems, I'd make sure he stays away from burning buildings in the future."
"Count on it," Gibbs said, shaking the captain's hand and feeling the relief immediately surge through his body.
Gibbs and Ducky moved into the cubicle and stood either side of Tony's bed. Exchanging a hopeful glance they leaned forward while Ducky quietly called his name. The increasing beat of the heart monitor was the first indication that Tony was waking up and starting to fight the sedation.
Consciousness was returning incrementally and Tony attempted to swallow against his burning, sore throat. He could hear his name being called and frowned at the voices trying to lure him from the comfortable, warm, darkness.
Gibbs repeated Tony's name and was rewarded with the rise of Tony's eyebrows, but nothing more.
"Hey, DiNozzo, you awake?"
Tony tried to swallow then found he couldn't, something was choking him. Fearful eyes sprung opened and he made a frantic grab at the ventilator. Hands caught his before he could disconnect the tube and then stronger hands held his arms down by his sides.
"Anthony, there's a tube in your throat to help you breathe," Ducky said gently. "I know it feels like you're choking but just relax and try not to think about breathing. You're doing fine, dear boy, just relax."
Despite Ducky's words, Tony eyes darted from side to side as he struggled to bring them into focus. They searched the area around his bed for the person that instinct and experience told him would be keeping vigil nearby. Finally, green eyes settled on the former Marine at his bedside and in a rare unsettling moment, Gibbs couldn't read the younger man's face. There was plenty of expression but he couldn't comprehend what he was seeing.
Tony's glassy and unfocussed eyes blinked several times in an attempt to clear his vision. His face hardened with a fury that impaled the lead agent and he angrily shrugged Gibbs' hand from arm. Gibbs was confused by his reaction but Tony's heavy lids drifted shut and he was gone again.
"Don't be too concerned by that reaction, Jethro," Ducky said. "He was disoriented and confused, he may not even have recognised us. I'm sure it was all quite innocent."
Gibbs nodded his silent agreement but he'd seen that look from Tony before – he just never expected to see it directed at him. As he watched his senior field agent surrender to more drug-induced sleep Gibbs sighed deeply, ruthlessly forbidding the wealth of emotion to settle over him.
…'And had you watched Ahab's face that night, you would have thought that in him two different things were warring'...
It was several more hours before Captain Keenan removed the tube from Tony's throat and switched off the ventilator. Gibbs returned to the ICU cubicle and leaned against the doorframe; he closed his eyes, shutting out his pounding headache and trying not to think about the intense emotion he'd seen in that single glance from Tony - he didn't want to contemplate the thoughts that lurked behind it. Maybe Ducky was right, maybe Tony was disoriented and confused…Gibbs' gut told him otherwise.
Abby sidled up to him quietly, wrapping her arms around his waist and giving him a tiny squeeze. As she rested her head on his shoulder, he relished the feeling of her love and concern and placed his arm around her shoulders.
"Are you okay?" she asked quietly.
He nodded without taking his eyes off his agent.
"Why aren't you in there with him?" she asked quietly. "What if he wakes up?"
"Gotta feeling I'm the last person he wants to see right now."
"Did Tony tell you that?"
"Not in words."
"He's angry, Gibbs, angry and confused. But there's no one on this earth he respects more than you…you know that, right? Tony DiNozzo will always be your loyal St Bernard – even if, right now, he wants to, like, tear your washing off the line, dig up your new petunias and pee on your carpet."
Abby placed her fingers on his lips to prevent him voicing his argument.
"No, Gibbs," she said sombrely. "When he wakes up, whether he's mad at you or not, he will totally expect you to be sitting right in that armchair beside the bed. If you're not there, he'll feel a whole lot worse…and so will you. So, Mister, get your tush into that chair where you belong, that's an order."
She kissed him on the cheek, handed him a coffee and gave him the gentle nudge he needed to step into the cubicle and sit beside the bed. He watched his agent sleep, his face was still flushed with fever and the dark smudges under both swollen reddened eyes contrasted starkly. Despite the awful wheezing sound, Gibbs was grateful beyond words for the steady rise and fall of the younger man's chest. He let the sounds lull him into a light sleep, his exhaustion overshadowing the stresses and strains of his own body as he sat in the armchair and waited for the storm he knew was coming.
The smell of cold coffee invaded his nostrils, making him a little nauseated. A chair creaked as someone shifted their weight - Gibbs. He thought about lying still and feigning sleep but knew that the former Marine had probably already noticed the subtle change in his breathing pattern.
A quick gasp of air caught in his throat and triggered the pressure building in his chest. Tony coughed harshly and as Gibbs rose to his feet to assist, the duty nurse was quickly through the door and by the younger man's side, coaxing him through and rubbing calming circles on his back. His respirations stuttered erratically before settling back into the rhythm of rapid, shallow puffs. She adjusted his nasal cannula and spooned some ice chips into his mouth, the cold slivers bringing welcome relief to his burning throat. She waited until his breathing returned to normal before she fussed with his blankets, smiled reassuringly at Gibbs and returned to the nurses' station.
Tony stared at the ceiling, gathering his thoughts. The silence that was once so easy between them was now crackling with things unsaid. Finally, the younger man's eyes swung Gibbs' way and he stared into their depths, disturbed to see no trace of his easy-going, eager to please agent. Instead, he saw anger, frustration and a deep and raw pain and his gut twisted as he realised that this moment had been building for far too long.
"DiNozzo…talk to me."
"Oh…now you wanna talk?" Tony huffed a humourless laugh. "I've been trying to get you to talk to me for over a week and now you want me to talk to you."
His voice sounded hoarse and raw and he set his jaw stubbornly as he shot a look of undisguised anger in the lead agent's direction.
"We're here now," Gibbs replied.
"No thanks to you," Tony snapped back. "No, wait, maybe it is thanks to you."
"I told you to get the hell out of that warehouse," Gibbs said more harshly than he intended.
"You're pissed at me?" Tony asked incredulously, immediately breaking into a round of coughing so harsh and so deep that it took several moments to get his breath back. Exhausted by the exertion, he swayed precariously almost toppling from the bed and Gibbs placed a steadying hand on his shoulder. Tony recoiled at the touch.
"Don't," he said, calm on the outside, but putting a warning into that single word.
Gibbs backed away with his hands held up in supplication
An awkward silence enveloped them again before Tony continued softly.
"When are you gonna start to trust me?"
"I do trust you."
Tony stifled a snort of disgust and met the older man's gaze.
"No you don't…it's been ten years Gibbs and you still don't treat me like a partner."
"Isn't it?" he argued. "When a case really gets to me or I get in over my head I come to you and we work it out. When you're the one in trouble you shut me out and you turn to Franks."
"I didn't go to Franks!"
"Maybe not this time but we both know you have in the past. You can't have it both ways, Gibbs. You expect total honesty; hell, you demand it. I've been more open and honest with you than anyone else in my life. You don't think that should work both ways?"
"I wasn't shutting you out. If nothing else gets through that thick skull of yours, trust me on that."
"Trust you? Trust you? I have always trusted you, you son-of-a-bitch. Always! There hasn't been a moment since we met when I haven't put my trust in you."
Tony's mouth hung open and he blinked his reddened eyes several times.
"I was under orders not to tell anyone…anyone!" he defended. "And, if memory serves, you'd quit the agency before I got that assignment."
"I came back."
"And I was still under orders!" Tony felt his chest tighten and took a moment to calm himself. "There were so many times I wanted to tell you…but I couldn't. I'd have thought if anyone would understand about following orders, it would be a Marine."
Unaccustomed to being the target of those resentful green eyes, Gibbs straightened in his chair but Tony's fierce regard never wavered.
"You say you don't shut me out? Maybe you've forgotten when I dragged your dead body from a submerged car or Ziva and I getting our skulls dented during the Domino case all because you shut us out, set off on your own or withheld information…wait a minute, aren't you the one whose past actions with Pedro Hernandez meant that the whole team including Abby, Ducky and the damn director concealed a capital offence?"
"I never asked anyone of you to do that!" Gibbs shouted.
"You didn't have to ask!" Tony yelled back. "Don't you get that? You didn't have to!"
Tony's breath caught again and he barked out a string of harsh, wet coughs until black spots danced before his eyes. Hacking and choking, his chest and ribs contracted painfully as he gasped frantically for breath but no matter how much air he drew in, it wasn't enough. Gibbs recognised the burgeoning panic on his agent's face and called for assistance, supporting his agent and muttering inanities until help arrived. Within moments the cubicle was swarming with medical personnel and Gibbs was asked to step outside.
After what seemed an interminable amount of time, Captain Keenan left his patient's side and turned to see Gibbs still waiting in the corridor.
"How is he?" Gibbs asked.
"He'll be fine," Keenan said. "We've started him on a nebuliser, he'll be on that for a few hours and I'll order one for him to take home."
"He's got one," Gibbs said. "Not his first rodeo."
"Can I see him?"
The captain opened his mouth to deny Gibbs' request but caught a glimpse of the depth of the lead agent's concern and nodded his head.
"Just for a moment," he said against his better judgement. "But don't disturb him - both of you need to rest."
Gibbs nodded and re-entered the cubicle. Standing at Tony's bedside, he winced as he listened to the painful wheezing gasps as the younger man struggled to breathe. Tony's eyes were closed, thick eyelashes dark against pale cheeks, and just as he thought his agent had drifted off to sleep, green eyes opened suddenly and sought him out. He lifted his hand toward the plastic mask covering his nose and mouth but Gibbs captured his wrist and shook his head.
"Leave it," he said quietly.
Tony remained silent, though his eyes were speaking volumes as regret and concern warred for dominance. He nodded at Gibbs, raising an eyebrow inquiringly.
"Sleep," Gibbs said, placing his hand on the younger man's head. "We'll talk later."
Without shifting his gaze from the former Marine, Tony's heavy eyelids blinked slowly until they remained closed and his breathing grew less noisy with each steady breath.
Sleep removed the fine lines of worry and pain from Tony's face making him appear much younger and reminding him of the intuitive young detective he'd taken under his wing many years before. It was hard for Gibbs to accept that Tony was no longer that young man who had so little stability and reassurance in his life. It was harder still to contemplate the thought that if he didn't re-evaluate their working relationship, one way or another, he could lose Tony forever.
Gibbs returned to his room but found sleep elusive. How long had this been brewing? How long had he not been looking, not been seeing? For someone who prided himself as a good leader with an uncanny ability to read his people, had he been deliberately blind to a truth that had been staring him right in the face?
Over the years there'd been more than a few situations in which Gibbs had reacted without thinking and then treated Tony as if he had no right to question decisions that were later proven so terribly wrong. There was no doubt that he'd wished things had gone differently in each of the cases Tony mentioned.
In attempting to help Maddie Tyler he'd almost killed them both; in attempting to clear the name of NCIS Agent Brent Langer and find the mole, he had withheld information and Tony and Ziva had been injured. And when the Reynosa Cartel sought revenge for the death of their father, Pedro Hernandez, he had unintentionally placed his own father in jeopardy. It was only due to the fact that his team, risked their own careers by concealing evidence of a capital crime, that he was not facing charges right now. And now he and Tony were recovering in hospital after yet another of his solo crusades. Not for one minute did he regret his actions in these situations – he did, however, regret that his family and his team had been caught up in them.
Gibbs felt a sharp pang of culpability at the truth of Tony's words but he knew guilt was a useless game, one he had no desire to lose himself in. He'd always thought of DiNozzo as his own man. A man who would not follow him blindly without the total confidence and certainty that he was being led where he wanted or needed to go. He'd learned that a long time ago when DiNozzo ended his police career rather than associating with a dirty cop. The truth of the matter was that DiNozzo, hell, his entire team would do whatever they had to and would risk everything for him - and that was a thought that both humbled and terrified him.
As a general rule, Gibbs was not known as a man who gave or sought absolution – it was his way or the highway. But in this case, he knew that he and Tony needed a resolution before one or both of them ended up dead.
As he climbed into his bed he realised that never had the gulf between he and Tony been so vast or the usually unshakeable bridge of their friendship been so vulnerable. Gibbs made a promise to reach across the divide and he hoped that the younger man was willing to meet him at least part of the way. As sleep eventually came for him, he hoped to find the words that he had never before needed with his senior field agent.
…'A healing came, to me, at last. And all that gloom, obsession, temper, rage, depression softened with the years and easy sleep without the pain dulled, at last, life's sharp and ragged edges. And my style could lighten and take an easier road without that heat and load'…
Tony woke the next morning to find the ventilator relocated to the corner of the room and the nebuliser on stand-by. The duty nurse advised him that he would most likely be moved to a private room later in the day. He managed a light breakfast and a short assisted walk before breathlessness and exhaustion claimed him and he crawled back into the bed.
His eyes fixed on some indiscriminate point as he recalled the previous day's argument with Gibbs. Since he was a small boy he'd learned to hide his true feelings behind a carefree façade. To tightened his grip on his protective shield and endure whatever life threw at him. What was it about Gibbs that could rip that shield asunder and expose what so few others ever saw?
There had been other mentors in Tony's life; football and basketball coaches, instructors at the police academy; people who had taken a keen interest in him for a short time and then moved on with their lives. Gibbs was the first person who saw his potential - not just as an athlete or a law enforcement officer but also as a person - and he pushed him hard to make sure he met the strict criteria. While many complained about the lead agent's hard-assed attitude and work ethic, Tony revelled in it and enjoyed the challenge of seeing how far he could push the older man's buttons before being shut down with a menacing glare or a glancing head slap.
The former Marine had cured him of his flight instinct, made him want to stay in one place, in one job, for longer than two years. He became someone Tony could trust with his life. In times of physical and emotional hardship, he accepted advice; comfort and assistance from Gibbs as he would from no other person and he drew on the former Marine's strength in ways both conscious and instinctive.
As a former Marine sniper, Gibbs had been specially trained to work alone; tracking, reconnoitring and executing his targets. Although, for the main part he lived up to his well-earned reputation as NCIS' finest, from time to time something triggered inside him like a preconditioned response and Gibbs set off without his team. Tony knew it was an inherent part of the lead agent's personality – it ran through his veins and was written into his DNA - to change it would be to change the man he respected more than any other.
He didn't really blame Gibbs for what happened nor did he really believe that Gibbs didn't trust him but there had to be a way to convince the man to accept his help and the help of his team - any one of whom would run through a brick wall for him.
Deep down, he knew they would never be equals…he didn't want that. He would always be Gibbs' right hand man, surrogate son or pesky kid brother no matter what. But on the work front, he had seventeen years law enforcement experience behind him, ten of those under Gibbs' leadership. The strength of their relationship, the depth of their friendship and their success as partners, was made of the enigmatic, undefinable element that only fate could create…and Tony was determined to do all he could to protect it.
Tony opened bleary eyes to find Gibbs sitting in the armchair and reading the newspaper.
"M'yeah," Tony replied around a jaw-breaking yawn that morphed into a harsh cough. He placed one hand on his chest for support before accepting a glass of water from the older man.
"Thanks," he rasped before noticing the older man was dressed in street clothes. "You going home?"
"After we talk."
Neither man moved or spoke. The air between them was not so much tense as uneasy. They eyed each other uncertainly, neither one knowing exactly what came next.
They were usually so good at this; communicating without words, offering unwavering support and trust to one another with a look that spoke volumes. They'd come to know each other so well over the past 10 years...so why was this so hard?
Uncomfortable discussing his feelings, Tony inevitably reverted to humour.
"Listen, Boss…I shouldn't have blown-up like I did yesterday…you know me and medication, right?"
"Seemed like more than medication, DiNozzo," Gibbs said. "You telling me you didn't mean what you said?"
Tony closed his eyes and released a shuddering breath.
"I know you trust me," he replied the sentences fractured, as he tried to control his breathing. "It's just…"
"Let's have it."
"You'd take a bullet for your friends, Boss - I know it, McGee knows it, hell everybody knows it…is it so hard for you to believe that I'd do it for you?"
"No…" Gibbs said, his eyes softening for an instant. "No…it's not."
"Did you ever once stop to think what would happen to this team if you got killed?"
"You'd take the lead, just like you did a few years back…like you did this week."
"Come on, Boss, we both know that didn't work. This is your team, not mine. I worked my ass off to keep the team together when you were in Mexico and they tried to adapt. But they made it pretty clear that they wanted you, not me."
"Hey, I'm not complaining, I wanted you back, too. I'm just saying…if something ever happened to you, nothing and no-one would hold this team together."
"I could say the same," Gibbs replied.
"Whether you shut me out because you think you're protecting me or whether it's that damned Captain Ahab complex, I'm a federal agent Gibbs, and a damn good one. Sometimes no matter how careful we are, people get hurt in the line. It happens…and not just to me."
Gibbs allowed a tiny grin to tug the corner of his mouth.
"Mostly to you."
A small smile snuck out before Tony could reel it in.
"Okay, I'll concede that point. What I'm saying is…I don't want your protection, Boss, I want your trust. I've earned it. Whatever else we are – we're partners, and if someone's coming after you, they're coming after us."
Gibbs felt his chest fill with pride and though he rarely, if ever, gave voice to his emotions, Tony heard the unspoken sentiment loud and clear as the former Marine saw his agent in a new light - not only as a subordinate; not only as a son or a bratty younger brother but also as an equal, a partner.
"Besides, every time you make me track you down it doesn't end well for me."
A tickle at the back of his throat and triggered the pressure building in his chest and Tony coughed so hard that he thought his chest was being torn apart. On his feet in an instant, Gibbs reached for the nebuliser. After checking that it had already been prepared for use, he switched it on and placed the mask over Tony's nose and mouth as the duty nurse arrived.
"I've got this," Gibbs told her, moving Tony into a sitting position and softly coaching his attempts to slow his breathing from the rapid, shallow gasps. The nurse looked to Tony for confirmation and smiled as he gave her a shaky 'thumbs up' signal. As the coughing subsided, Tony leaned back against the pillows, waiting for the tightness in his chest to ease. He shifted the mask to one side.
"You know… Boss…"
Gibbs moved the mask back into place.
"Shut up and breathe," he said, the gruff words unable to hide his concern.
As Tony's breathing returned to a normal rate they waited in an easy stillness. They were good at sharing stillness, always had been. Tony nodded to Gibbs who took the mask and shut off the nebuliser while the younger man made a second attempt at his previous observation.
"You know, Boss, on the black eye scale from one to ten, you got yourself a fifteen! But you gotta watch out for Abby. Last time I had a shiner like that, she followed me around with a camera for a week!"
Gibbs reached out his hand and Tony's grin fled, replaced by an anticipatory grimace as he waited for the head-slap that never arrived. Gibbs cupped a hand around the back of Tony's neck and gave a gentle squeeze. His unsaid words spoke volumes and both men silently acknowledged a mutual respect and affection that rarely found its voice but was a constant in both of their lives.
There were no promises, no reassurances and no platitudes – just the thought that their partnership had reached a new level, one of renewed trust and a more equal standing.
…'The drama's done. Why then here does any one step forth? — Because one did survive the wreck'….
A/N I hope you enjoyed the final chapter of From Hell's Heart. Special thanks to my amazing "co-writer" the literary genius, Herman Melville - there's a reason Moby Dick is a classic. Thank you all for your very kind reviews and encouragement, also to those of you who just read quietly along in the background. I hope you enjoyed this story. With every good wish, Laine.