Disclaimer:- I do not own NCIS or its characters and any copyright infringement is unintentional.
A/N Apologies for the "War and Peace" proportions of this final chapter – I hope you enjoy it, L
A Hiding to Nothing
Putting the agency sedan into a controlled slide, Gibbs parked the vehicle at the curb in front of the Thomas residence. With the dust still settling around them, they climbed from the car.
Knowing that a crowd of strangers would more than likely intimidate a young child, Gibbs instructed the others to stay with the vehicle. He was halfway up the front path before he noticed Ducky following right on his heels.
Sighing, he tried to tell himself that the ME was as concerned about Palmer and DiNozzo as he was. But Gibbs was a man used to having his orders followed without question or hesitation and Ducky was trying his over-extended patience.
"Can I help you, Duck?" he asked with a hint of irritation.
"I know what you're going to say, Jethro," the doctor replied, "but I'll be as quiet as a wee mouse. You won't even know that I'm here."
"Don't bet on it," Gibbs muttered, turning on his heel and leading the way to the front door.
He reached for the doorbell when Ducky grabbed his wrist and pointed to a small sign that read - 'Shhhh, our baby is sleeping.'
Rolling his eyes impatiently, Gibbs knocked gently on the doorframe. After a moment a young woman with dark eyes and dark brown shoulder-length hair answered.
"May I help you?" she asked quietly.
"Special Agent Gibbs and Doctor Mallard, NCIS," he said holding his ID and badge for her inspection. "We're looking for Mrs John Thomas."
"I'm Liz Thomas," the woman whispered as the colour drained from her face. "Oh my God…has something happened to my husband? Please tell me he's not dead."
"Your husband's in the military, ma'am?"
"Marines," she replied. "Special Operations Regiment, he's currently deployed."
"We didn't mean to worry you. We're not here about your husband…we're here about your son."
"My son?" Liz said looking deeply puzzled.
"We'd like to talk with him. It's very important."
"I think there's been a mistake, Agent..er"
"Gibbs…and there's no mistake. Two of our people are missing; one is seriously injured. Your son called Doctor Mallard this morning on a cell number he could have only gotten from our people."
"I'm sorry Agent Gibbs but that's not possible, my son is only five years old."
"Five and a quarter going on six, actually," Ducky said with a disarming smile. "And if memory serves, his name is Ethan Liam Samuel Thomas, his dog, Buster, was startled by the thunder and ran away and he has a baby sister named…Amy."
As the young woman stared blankly, trying to understand how these men knew so much about her family, Ducky's cell phone rang.
"Doctor Mallard speaking."
"Is that Doctor Duck?" the small voice whispered.
"Ethan? Is that you, my boy?" Ducky replied putting the call on speaker.
"Yes, it's me…Ethan Liam Samuel Thomas."
Liz' hand flew to her mouth as she recognised her child's voice. She unlatched the door, allowing the men to enter the living room and then led them to Ethan's bedroom where the boy was supposed to be taking a nap. She looked startled when the room appeared empty but calmed a little when Gibbs put his finger to his lips to quieten her and pointed to the closet door.
"Can you hear me, Doctor Duck?" Ethan asked worriedly.
Gibbs quietly opened the closet door and they found the boy sitting on the floor among the shoes and toys, his back toward them.
"I can't talk any louder or my Mom will hear me and I'll be in big trouble," he explained. "My Dad says that a man is as good as his word. Girls don't get that, Doctor Duck."
Liz cleared her throat and the boy stilled instantly. Slowly, the blonde head turned to face them, his brown eyes wide with surprise and a hint of trepidation.
The sound of voices and movement from the front room of the cabin, led Palmer to deduce that their captors were getting ready to leave. Although he tried to convince himself otherwise, he knew there was no way the Indonesians would leave them alive. He hoped that Ethan had made it home and contacted Ducky and Gibbs…and he prayed that his teammates would find them in time.
He crossed his arms in a self-hug, seeking warmth and trying to stop the tremors that were progressively getting worse. Beside him, still burning with fever, Tony was becoming agitated – muttering and squirming. Palmer extended a hand and checked Tony's vital signs noting that his temperature and pulse had increased dangerously.
"Don't know," Tony muttered.
"What don't you know, Tony?" Jimmy asked, surprised by his steady voice.
Tony's eyes flickered open, a brief moment of lucidity amongst the avalanche of pain-induced confusion.
"Don't know where we…where we are," he rasped.
The words struck Palmer like a kick in the stomach but he found enough resolve to answer calmly.
"We're being held in a cabin. You were shot, remember?" Jimmy said, battling to suppress a rush of fear. "But you're going to be just fine and Agent Gibbs and Doctor Mallard are going to find us really soon, okay? Okay, Tony?"
"'kay," he whispered in reply.
Tony turned his eyes toward his friend and tried to reassure him with a small smile but it was clear to Palmer that the ex-detective had little fight left.
"Hold on, Tony," Palmer pleaded. "Please hold on."
Tony managed a small, almost imperceptible nod before his eyes closed and he drifted off again.
They lured the startled boy out of his closet and, noting his wary look at his Mom, assured him that he was not in any trouble. When they made their introductions, Ethan surprised the elderly medical examiner by giving him a huge hug. He was so happy! He had kept his promise to his friend and now Doctor Duck was here. He positively identified a photo of Jimmy Palmer and told them he had seen him on the track that led to the old Mitchell place. Liz explained that the old Mitchell place had been deserted for six years, since the old man died and the cabin had fallen into disrepair.
"We get a lot of vagrants wandering through the forest and staying in the old cabin," she said. "That's why I'm so strict about Ethan leaving the yard. I keep the gate locked and I have no idea how he gets out."
Gibbs swallowed a smile as the boy innocently batted his long eyelashes at his mother.
"Ethan, do you know where Jimmy is now?" Gibbs asked.
"He's with Tony," Ethan said biting his bottom lip. "He said Tony was badly hurt. He went back to help him and he told me to run home and call Doctor Duck."
"I'm so sorry," Liz said. "Ethan tried to tell me but I was so cross that he'd left the yard I wouldn't let him explain."
"You weren't to know, my dear," Ducky replied.
"Where is this Mitchell place?" Gibbs asked.
"If you take the track, it's about a two mile hike from here but if you drive, the only way in is to go to the other side of the forest, leave your car and then hike a mile. Old man Mitchell was a bit of a recluse."
"We'll take the track," Gibbs announced turning on his heel to tell Ziva and McGee to gear up.
"You can use our back gate," Liz offered. "It will save you a little time."
Gibbs nodded his thanks as he reached the front door.
"Wait!" Ethan cried. "Agent Gibbs, will you look for my dog?"
The former Marine's lips formed a quirky smile as he looked at the little face peering anxiously up at him
"You bet," he said ruffling the blonde head affectionately before striding back to the car and calling to Ziva and McGee.
He popped the trunk and reached for the Kevlar vests as his agents joined him.
"Take only what you need. We gotta cover two-miles on foot and we gotta do it fast," he said reaching for the Remington shotguns.
As the agents silently donned their vests and checked their weapons, Ducky reached for the spare Kevlar.
"Not gonna happen," Gibbs said taking a firm hold of the older man's wrist.
"May I ask, why not?" Ducky answered indignantly.
Gibbs remained silent but his withering glance spoke volumes.
"That glare may work on your agents, Jethro, but I'm not easily intimidated."
"You're not an agent either, Ducky, you're a doctor."
"And Anthony needs immediate medical attention," he countered tapping his medical bag.
"We have to move fast, we can't wait for you."
"May I remind you, Jethro, that I was a miler at Eton."
"That was fifty years ago, Duck!"
"If you're waiting on me, Special Agent Gibbs, I can assure you that you'll be backing up!"
Knowing they had little time to waste, Gibbs grabbed the spare Kevlar vest and fitted the protective garment to the stubborn doctor's torso.
"You keep up and stick close," he growled. "You do what I say when I say it – we clear?"
"Crystal," Ducky replied, eyeing the shotgun McGee was holding for Gibbs.
"Don't even think about it," he snapped and turned to see Ziva jogging toward the house. "Hey! You got somewhere to be?"
Ziva turned back to her team leader.
"I need to borrow some shoes and clothes," she said.
"Did you ever try running through a forest dressed in a business suit and high heels?" Ziva asked as she continued up the front path.
Tucking his laptop under the passenger seat, the image of Gibbs running in high heels drifted through McGee's mind and he snorted softly.
"Something funny, McGee?" Gibbs growled.
"No, Boss, er…just…er…clearing my throat," he replied avoiding meeting the lead agent's eye.
"Calm down, Jethro, I'm sure the dear girl won't keep us waiting long," Ducky said.
"I've had four wives, Duck. I've spent half my life waiting for women to change their clothes."
"It really was an amazing shot."
Palmer continued to speak quietly to the unresponsive man, as much to bring comfort to himself as to Tony, and willing his friend to reply.
Jimmy was cold and tired; his head ached and the room tilted nauseatingly with his every movement. The dampness of the floor seeped through his clothing and seemed to permeate into his bones. He had lived with hypoglycaemia long enough to know that if help didn't arrive soon, he and Tony would both be in desperate trouble.
He huffed out a laugh that bordered on hysteria sob as he thought of the macabre irony. Only DiNozzo and Palmer could survive two days held captive by Jemaah Islamiyah and both die anyway. He shut down that train of thought before it left the station.
Tony shifted restlessly beside him and Palmer struggled in behind him easing the agent's back against his chest. Tony's fever produced enough excess body heat to warm both men. He monitored the rise and falls of his friend's chest and listened to his raspy breathing as he continued his recollection.
"We were behind 33-35 with seven seconds left on the clock, remember? You pushed the ball up court, waiting for someone to get clear, then, with three seconds left and defenders in your face, you launched the ball for a 26-foot 3-pointer that won us the game."
He gave the man a gentle shake.
"Just think of the mileage you can get with that story," Palmer said. "You could drive McGee and Ziva crazy! You've gotta hang on so we can go and watch the play-offs next week, right?"
He closed his eyes and took a fortifying breath.
"Help's coming, Tony, just hang on."
Geared up and suitably attired the agents started toward the back gate of the Thomas' yard when Ethan blocked it, his little arms holding on tight to both sides of the gateway.
"Please take me with you," his brown eyes pleaded with Gibbs. "I won't slow you down, I can run really fast."
Ignoring the pain it caused, Gibbs took a knee so he could talk to the child face to face.
"Sorry, big guy; can't do that."
"But I said I'd help Jimmy, Agent Gibbs, I promised."
"You did help…you called us," Gibbs assured him. "Kept your word like a fine Marine...just like your Dad."
His eyes filled and the little blonde head drooped forward in an attempt to hide the traitorous tears. Gibbs eased two fingers under the boy's chin and lifted his head until their eyes met. He wiped the tears with a gentle swipe of his thumb and looked into their dark brown depths.
"Need you to stay here, look after your Mom and your baby sister. Can you do that?"
The boy reluctantly nodded his head and went to stand by his mother, taking her hand protectively.
"Good man," Gibbs said.
Liz caught the lead agent's gaze and silently mouthed "thank you."
He nodded his acknowledgement and turned back to his team.
McGee and Ziva hurried out through the gate and headed for the trail as Gibbs tried one last time to dissuade the stubborn medical examiner.
"Any point asking you to stay put?" he said.
"None whatsoever," Ducky replied definitively.
"s'what I thought," Gibbs replied resignedly. "Let's go, double time."
They made good time along the track; Gibbs taking point and Ziva covering the rear with McGee pacing Ducky in between. They backed tracked Ethan's footprints until they found the small clearing where he had met with Palmer and turned back toward the house. Picking up the pace they followed Palmer's trail, passing the remains of the little boy's dog on the way.
They stepped cautiously and stayed within the tree line to prevent being seen as they approached. The crudely built dwelling looked more like a shanty than a cabin and was built in the middle of a clearing. The surrounding trees were approximately fifty feet from the cabin on all four sides. The front and both sides had large picture windows making a covert approach from the front almost impossible.
"Ziva, check the back. I want to know what we're dealing with," Gibbs said.
"On it," the Israeli replied as she set-off on silent feet, keeping to the tree line.
Gibbs, McGee and Ducky hunkered down in the undergrowth rechecking the equipment and waiting for her return. Gibbs handed a water bottle to the ME who, despite looking rather flushed and breathing heavily, had kept up with the agents surprising well. A few more moments passed before Ziva's voice sounded through their earwigs, warning of her return.
"Coming in," she said to avoid startling her teammates as she approached.
"What've you got?" Gibbs asked.
"The room at the rear has only one centre window, approximately nine feet above the ground," she reported. "If we approached the cabin from the rear and moved forward on either side staying close to the walls, I believe we could storm the front door and take the terrorists by surprise."
"Tony and Palmer?"
"The rear room would seem the most likely place to hold them."
"We need eyes in that room and we need to know exactly where DiNozzo and Palmer are and how many terrorists we're dealing with," Gibbs said.
"Boss, I can use the SWATscope to get a look in the rear window," McGee suggested, removing the cylindrical surveillance periscope from his backpack. "At least we'll know where Tony and Palmer are and whether they're alone."
"We need a diversion," Ziva said. "Something to draw the terrorists out."
"We could request satellite coverage with heat seeking capability," McGee suggested.
"No time," Gibbs said.
"Tear gas and smoke canisters?" Ziva offered.
"They'd kill our people before we could make a move," the lead agent replied. "We circle to the back. When we're certain our people are alone in that room we'll take the front."
"Er, Boss?" McGee drawled.
Ziva and Gibbs turned in the direction McGee was looking, shocked to see their chief medical examiner wandering toward the front of the cabin. He had discarded his jacket and Kevlar vest, revealing his red bowtie and matching suspenders. He'd tucked the bottoms of his slacks into a pair of argyle socks and hung agency issued binoculars around his neck.
"What is Ducky doing?" Ziva hissed.
"Trying to get his damn head shot off," Gibbs snapped. "McGee, get to the rear window. Find out if Tony and Palmer are in that room. Now!"
"Right, Boss," McGee replied, setting off quickly through the trees.
"Ziva, find a position and hold your fire until I give the order."
"Understood," she answered and hurried off to find a position opposite Gibbs.
As the elderly man knocked on the cabin door, Gibbs muttered a curse.
"Dammit it, Ducky!"
With the ransom money stowed and the rest of their gear packed, Sanjaya and Muluk had turned their attention to how best to deal with their captives. Although they had chosen the cabin due to its remote location, there was still the chance that someone could stumble upon it, find the bodies and contact the police. They didn't have the time or inclination to dig a grave and therefore decided they would take the two men deeper into the forest before killing them and covering their bodies with foliage.
Decision made, they were just getting to their feet when they were startled by a knock at the door and the sound of a cultured British accent.
"Hello? Hello, is anybody there?"
Drawing their weapons, they pressed themselves to the wall on either side of the large front window, cursing that their complacency had allowed someone to take them by surprise. The sight of the elderly man at the door took them aback.
"Get rid of him," Sanjaya hissed, tucking his gun back into the waistband of his jeans but never taking his hand from the grip.
Muluk opened the door a few inches and took in the innocuous appearance of the man.
"What do you want?" he growled.
"Good day to you, young Sir," Ducky greeted cordially. "My name is Professor Donald Mallard of the Richmond Ornithology and Bird Watching Society. I wonder if I might trouble you for some water?"
Muluk's dark eyes scanned the tree line for any sign of movement. When a long moment passed, Ducky cleared his throat and held up a water bottle.
"Despite the overcast conditions, it is unseasonably hot and I'm afraid I exhausted my water supply quite sometime ago. Would you mind?"
As Muluk took the bottle and handed it to Sanjaya to fill, the door opened a little wider and Ducky's eyes surreptitiously swept the room. Hidden in the tree line to the left and the right of the cabin, Gibbs and Ziva steadied their weapons and prepared to fire at the first sign of trouble.
"What are you doing here," Muluk growled.
"I'm very pleased you asked," Ducky replied. "Our society has recently had several reported sightings of the red-headed woodpecker in this vicinity. It is very rare indeed for this species to be so far north during the winter months…I wonder if you may have seen one during your stay? They are a medium-sized woodpecker with black upper-parts and tail and white under-parts and rump. The head, throat, and upper breast are dark red. The wings are black with large white patches while the bill, legs and feet are black. This is the only woodpecker in the east with a completely red head."
"I do not know this bird," Muluk said, not bothering to disguise his irritation.
"Oh…not to worry, I have a friend who has a penchant for birds of the red-headed variety although not the feathered species, if you get my meaning," Ducky chuckled as the filled water bottle was thrust toward him.
"I thank you for your kindness," Ducky said as the door closed firmly in his face. "Well…I must be off. The red-headed woodpecker waits for no man!"
As Ducky turned and walked down the track away from the cabin, his voice sounded in Gibbs' earwig.
"Only two men are currently in the front of the cabin."
"In position, Boss."
"You see our people?"
"I got 'em. They're alone in the rear room. Boss…they're not moving."
Gibbs' gut clenched painfully but he refused to surrender hope.
"Hold you're position,"he instructed. "Ziva and I are on our way. Ducky, find somewhere to take cover until I give you the all clear. You got that?"
"I hear you, Jethro," Ducky replied.
"Ziva, move out."
Moments later, Gibbs and Ziva burst from the tree line directly behind the cabin and ran at a crouch to join McGee under the window. He took the SWATscope from McGee and adjusted the angle until he saw the two men lying, unmoving, on the ground. Palmer was leaning against the wall, his head canted awkwardly to the side as Tony sprawled against him, bloodied and beaten. The sight sent shards of fear deep into the former Marine's heart until his agent shifted restlessly and was stilled as Palmer murmured a few words.
"They're alive," Gibbs said as voices rose loudly from the front of the cabin.
Handing the SWATscope back to McGee he silently signalled for his agents to take the left side of the cabin while he took the right and, staying as close to the walls as they could, they crouched low under the side-windows before taking their positions either side of the front door.
Chancing a look through the window, Gibbs saw the packs by the door and knew the terrorists were about to leave. He signalled for McGee and Ziva to take the man on the right while he covered the man on the left. Adrenalin surged through his veins as Sanjaya attached a silencer to his gun and unlocked the door to the back room.
As the door swung on its hinges and crashed into the wall, Palmer startled awake. Reflexively, the young medical examiner tightened his hold on his friend as Sanjaya stepped menacingly into the room. Palmer's heart skipped as the Indonesian raised his gun and pointed it at Tony's head.
"No!" Palmer shouted.
The word had barely left his mouth before all hell broke loose at the front of the cabin and Sanjaya's head exploded in a mess of blood and bone. Before Palmer could fully comprehend what had happened, Gibbs appeared at his side. Jimmy knew the lead agent was speaking because his lips were moving but somehow he couldn't make out the words. His heart was pounding painfully against his sternum and he took a deep breath to compose himself and allow reality to filter back into his brain.
"You hurt, Jimmy?" Gibbs asked with a rare use of the younger man's given name.
Still unable to form words, Palmer shook his head. Gibbs' attention was drawn to his agent and he rested the palm of his hand on Tony's forehead, cringing at the heat he felt.
"Get Ducky in here and get a Medivac!" Gibbs ordered as he tried to prise his injured agent out of the young ME assistant's grip. "I've got him, Palmer. Let him go, I got him."
Reluctantly, Jimmy released his friend. He closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall. A moment later, a warm hand rested on the side of his face and he opened his eyes to the sight of his mentor kneeling beside him, concern and relief fighting for dominance on his face.
Suddenly enveloped in Ducky's protective embrace, Palmer's bruised face burned with shame as tears flowed unchecked down his cheeks. His shame was short-lived when he noticed with surprise, similar tears tracking the face of Doctor Donald Mallard.
"I'm here, my boy," Ducky said. "I'm here."
Ducky frowned, noting that Palmer was sweating and trembling despite the coldness of the room. He studied the younger man a moment before reaching for his medical bag.
"How bad is it, Jimmy?" he asked.
"Not so bad," Palmer replied gamely.
"I can see some of Anthony's bravado has rubbed off on you," he frowned before producing a bag of glucose tablets and placing two into his assistant's hand. "It's a good thing I always carry these with me."
Jimmy looked confused.
"For you, Doctor?"
"No, my boy," Ducky smiled gently. "For you."
He patted Jimmy's knee before moving to kneel next to Tony and gently turning the injured man's head toward him.
"Anthony, can you hear me?" he asked, gently tapping the agent's cheek. "Anthony?"
Receiving no response, he quickly took Tony's vital signs and gently eased the hoodie from his shoulder. The untreated bullet wound excreted fluids that reeked of infection. Tony's left eye was swollen tightly closed and the skin was badly bruised. To the doctor's surprise a deep gash in Tony's eyebrow was currently being held together by a Gumby and Pokey bandaid. McGee and Ziva appeared at the door.
"All clear, Boss, Medivac's on the way and the other guy's cuffed and ready to transport."
Ducky withdrew a syringe from his medical bag and gave Tony a shot of antibiotic.
"There's not much I can do, Jethro, but clean these wounds and try to keep him stable until the EMT's arrive. Keep trying to rouse him, let him know you're here."
Gibbs' fingers trembled as the tension and fear that had been his constant companion since his agent's disappearance, dissipated. He cupped the younger man's cheek, encouraging him to break through the thick haze separating him from his friends.
"Tony," he said quietly. "Tony, open your eyes."
When it became obvious that the gentle approach wasn't working, Gibbs realised a change of tack was in order. He tapped the cheek a little more firmly and hardened his tone.
"Hey, DiNozzo, look at me!"
Finally, in response to the direct command, one bleary green eye opened and some conscious function seemed to emerge from the younger man.
"B-boss," came the whispered reply. "J-Jimmy?"
"He's fine," Gibbs replied. "Medics are on the way."
Ducky had readied a gauze dressing with antiseptic but hesitated before applying it.
"Anthony," he said seriously. "I'm afraid this is going to be quite painful."
Tony took a deep breath and nodded his understanding while Gibbs moved in behind him to support his weight. As the ME placed the gauze over the wound a spear of pure agony shot through Tony's shoulder. He arched his back off the ground, clenching his jaw to trap the scream that tried to escape. Gibbs held him tightly, his presence the only comfort he could give. The burning pain slowly subsided, leaving him completely exhausted. As his eyelids closed he leaned heavily against the lead agent's chest.
"Stay with us, Tony," Gibbs urged.
But despite his best efforts, with a soft sigh, Tony's world went still except for the comforting sound of his Boss' heartbeat.
Tony and Palmer were airlifted to Bethesda and, upon their arrival, were whisked into the trauma ward. Having insisted on making the flight with their subordinates, Ducky and Gibbs attended to the medical insurance forms and were anxiously waiting for news while Ziva and McGee escorted the remaining prisoner back to the Navy yard.
Abby arrived soon after, bearing hot beverages and hugs and reassuring both men that Tony and Jimmy would be just fine. Barely a word had been spoken between the lead agent and the chief medical examiner but Ducky had known Gibbs long enough to realise that he was royally pissed. Never one to avoid a confrontation, Ducky took a seat beside his old friend and sighed theatrically.
"We got them back Jethro, true, they're a little worse for wear but we did it," he said.
"What you did, Duck, was disobey my orders and jeopardise yourself and my team," Gibbs stated.
"Oh come now, Jethro, surely you can't be bothered by my brief venture into improvisational acting?" Ducky's smile disappeared when he saw the lead agent's hard expression. "You needed the intel and I got it. I should think a thank you might be in order."
"You want me to thank you, Duck?" Gibbs said incredulously. "What part of stick close and do what I tell you to do, didn't you understand?"
"Special Agent Gibbs, are you angry at what I did or that I didn't first seek your permission?"
"I wouldn't have given my permission!" Gibbs growled.
"That is precisely why I did not ask for it!" Ducky countered. "You needed a diversion and I was very careful to-."
"Removing your body armour is not being careful!"
"I couldn't very well knock on the door wearing a Kevlar emblazoned with NCIS."
"You ever think what would've happened if they'd shot you, Duck? They'd have killed Tony and Palmer next! I'd have kicked DiNozzo's ass if he'd have pulled a stunt like that-"
"Stop it!" Abby scolded stepping between them. "Stop it, stop it, stop it before one of you says something you'll totally regret. Can we at least wait until we know whether Tony and Jimmy are okay before you two kill each other? I can only deal with so much heartache at one time."
Exchanging one last icy look the men returned to neutral corners until a doctor appeared fifteen minutes later to provide updates on their team mates.
Jimmy was suffering from the onset of hypoglycaemia and was currently receiving treatment to stabilise his sugar levels. He had various bruises and contusions although none appeared to be serious. He was dehydrated and exhausted and was being moved to a private room for overnight observation.
Tony was being prepared for emergency surgery to remove the bullet and clean and debride his infected shoulder. X-rays revealed he had also sustained a broken rib and a fractured orbital. As the doctor disappeared back through the swinging doors of the trauma rooms, Ducky left to call Breena and Palmer's mother and to sit with his young assistant.
It was several hours later that Gibbs and Abby were told that Tony had been transferred from the operating theatre directly to the SICU to receive both post-operative care and treatment for septicaemia. They were taken to ICU to speak with Tony's doctor and as they looked through the glass walls of the cubicle, they were deeply troubled by the amount of medical equipment currently in use or on standby.
"Try not to be alarmed by all of this," the doctor said waving his hand toward the equipment. "We're giving Tony broad-spectrum antibiotics, blood transfusions and we're treating him with oxygen and medication to keep his white blood count and his blood pressure under control. We believe we've caught this early enough to stop it before it can do any harm."
"What kind of harm?" Gibbs asked.
"Worst case - and I assure you we are a long way from that – septicaemia can cause serious and potentially lethal complications, including septic shock which can lead to organ failure. That's why we have the respirator and dialysis machine standing by."
"Oh my God, Tony could die?" Abby whispered, tears glistened in her eyes, cutting small trails of misery down her cheeks.
"As I said, Ms Scuito, Tony's a long way from that point and we're working hard to ensure he never gets there. He's strong and he's healthy and that will work in his favour. You can sit with him if you like but try not to disturb him."
McGee and Ziva arrived to check on their teammates' condition and to update Gibbs on the case. Using the contact details retrieved from the JI memory stick, Homeland Security had formed a task force to take all members named on the list into custody on suspicion of conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism on US soil.
As it was getting late, Gibbs asked McGee and Ziva to see a reluctant Abby home safely and he continued his vigil by his agent's bedside. Once again, his whole universe had diminished to a non-descript little cubicle with its beeping monitors.
Gibbs stared at Tony's lax features, wondering how the younger man's vibrant personality could have vanished in such a short time, trapped within the confines of his dangerously ill body. Gibbs was surprised when Tony partially opened his good eye, his brow furrowed in confusion until he focussed on Gibbs sitting in the nearby chair. As their eyes met, a thousand unspoken words crossed the small space between them until the pull of medication drew the younger man back into the depths of a drug-induced sleep.
Gibbs dozed, on and off, in the backbreaking chair, watching the cavalcade of medical staff wander in and out of the cubicle. They silently checked and adjusted Tony's various intravenous medications, recorded his vitals and disappeared back into the night. When his agent became restless, he placed his hand on Tony's forehead - it was way too hot. Beneath the oxygen mask, Tony sighed and turned his head toward the haven of his boss' cool palm, accepting the comfort from Gibbs as he would from no other person and drawing on the former Marine's strength in ways both conscious and instinctive.
Gibbs reached for the call button when a distinctly familiar voice sounded from behind him.
"It's alright, Jethro."
He turned to see Ducky standing by the door looking unusually tired and old.
"He's burning up, Duck."
"That's a good sign," Ducky said moving beside the bed and placing the digital thermometer in Tony's ear.
When the instrument beeped, Ducky checked the reading and nodded, satisfied that the temperature wasn't dangerously high.
"A symptom of septic shock is low body temperature. Our young man is doing what he always does…he's fighting."
"He'll be fine," Ducky said, the relief evident on his face. "The doctor gave him a mild sedative to help him sleep and he'll be released first thing in the morning."
A moment's awkward silence passed between them until they spoke at the same time.
They exchanged a small grin.
"You told me something several years ago that is very relevant today. You said, never apologise…except to a friend," Ducky said. "I'm afraid I let my concern for Mister Palmer and Anthony override my self-preservation and plain old common sense. I hope you can forgive me."
Gibbs huffed out a laugh and pulled the older man into a one armed hug.
"You ever do that again and I'll shoot you myself."
Ducky chuckled then realised the sheets were moulding themselves to Tony's sweaty body, making the hospital gown a sodden second skin.
"Let's see what we can do about making this young man more comfortable, hmmm?"
Ducky spent the night keeping Gibbs company as Tony battled a high fever and the dangerous effects of septicaemia. He watched Gibbs move to the younger man's side each time he shifted restlessly and murmured incoherently beneath the oxygen mask. The ME marvelled at how a simple touch of Gibbs' hand said 'safe' to his agent and the sound of Gibbs' voice reached into the darkness of Tony's fevered mind and calmed him almost instantly.
By late afternoon on the following day, Tony's condition had improved considerably. His fever had broken during the night and the oxygen mask had been replaced by a cannula. He had slept most of the day and woke to the familiar smell of freshly brewed coffee.
"Boss?" he said quietly, watching through one bleary eye as Gibbs lowered the newspaper he was reading.
"How you feeling?" Gibbs asked, getting to his feet to pour a drink of water for his agent.
"Like I've been hit by a truck," Tony replied, taking the straw between his lips and sipping the cool liquid. "You been here all night?"
Gibbs gave him a wan smile that clearly said 'where else would I be?'
"If I'd figured out that clue earlier you could have avoided some of this," Gibbs stated with rare self-reproachful colouring his tone.
"What?" Tony asked, trying desperately to banish the drowsiness that had cloaked him on waking.
"I didn't get the clue, DiNozzo! I wasted valuable time. You and Palmer could have been killed."
"Well, it was a bit of a long shot," Tony replied.
"I've been your partner for over ten years, I'm supposed to know how you think! You trusted me to be on the same page and I wasn't in the same damn book!"
"Come on, Boss, we both know those clues were a little cryptic…even for me."
"Six months ago I'd have read you loud and clear," Gibbs said shaking his head in disgust. "Before Barrett and your assignment for SecNav."
A small smile snuck out before Tony could reel it in.
"You saying you missed me, Boss?"
"Cos it kinda sounded like that's what you were saying even though you never actually said the words," the younger man grinned smugly. "You missed me, didn't ya?"
"Like a fat kid on a diet misses chocolate cake, DiNozzo," Gibbs growled unconvincingly.
"I knew it," Tony said with a huge shit-eating grin. "Maybe we'll just have to spend a bit more time together, you know, hanging out watching ESPN, eating pizza or having a hit in the batting cage. Re-establish our connection…you know…for work."
Gibbs watched as what little energy the younger man had drained quickly away and he leaned back into the pillows.
"Sleep," Gibbs directed. "I've got an errand to run, I'll be back later."
Tony nodded his head sleepily.
"You know, Boss, feeling guilty and being guilty aren't one and the same thing," he said as sleep took him.
Gibbs smiled at the sleeping man, grateful for the total absolution.
"Roger that, DiNozzo."
EPILOGUE – ONE WEEK LATER
"Ethan, can you look through the window and see who's at the door, please?" Liz called from the kitchen.
Leaving his matchbox cars on the mat, Ethan climbed onto the couch and looked out the living room window.
"Mommy! It's Jimmy and Doctor Duck!" the excited little boy exclaimed.
Wiping her hands on a dishcloth and tucking a loose strand of dark hair behind her ear, Liz smiled knowing as she opened the front door, her son almost vibrating with joyful anticipation.
"Good afternoon, Mrs Thomas," Ducky greeted cordially. "I do hope we aren't interrupting anything."
"Not at all, Doctor Mallard, please come in…and please call me Liz."
"Only if you call me, Ducky," the elderly ME replied with a mischievous grin. "Allow me to introduce my assistant."
"Jimmy!" Ethan called as Palmer reached down and hoisted the little boy onto his hip. "Mommy, this is Jimmy – Jimmy this is my Mommy."
Liz and Palmer exchanged greetings and the men were welcomed into her home.
"I can't tell you how relieved we were to hear that you and Tony were okay," Liz said. "Can I get you a cup of coffee or tea?"
"Actually, Liz, we're here to see young Ethan," Ducky said.
"Yes, you," Palmer replied putting the boy down and ruffling the blonde head.
"We've brought a small token of our appreciation for helping Mister Pa- Jimmy and Tony," Ducky said, handling Ethan a wrapped parcel. "You were exceptionally brave for such a wee lad."
Ethan glanced at his mother for permission to accept the gift; she gave it with a smile and a nod.
Carefully removing the paper, Ethan opened the small box to reveal a dog leash and a collar. His brown eyes welled with unshed tears and his little chin started to quiver.
"Don't you like it?" Ducky asked.
"It's very nice, thank you," the trembling voice replied. "But my dog Buster died. Agent Gibbs brought his body home cause he's a Marine and they don't leave anyone behind. He helped me dig a grave in the garden and we buried him."
"Oh dear," Ducky said sadly. "We're very sorry to hear about Buster, my boy."
A loud hammering noise sounded from the back yard and Ducky and Liz exchanged a wink before they went outside to find Gibbs putting the finishing touches to a small woodwork project.
"Agent Gibbs!" Ethan yelled excitedly as he ran to the lead agent and hugged him around his knees. "You're here, too! Doctor Duck and Jimmy just got here!"
"That so?" Gibbs replied.
"What are you doing?" the inquisitive boy asked as he looked around the man and saw a small dog kennel.
"Thought you could use this," Gibbs replied, watching as the little boy's face scrunched in confusion.
"Agent Gibbs?" he said, gesturing for Gibbs to come closer. Gibbs took a knee and looked the boy in the eyes. "Buster died, remember? I don't have a dog anymore."
"Didn't build it for Buster," Gibbs said pointing to the side gate where Abby and Tony were waiting, both wearing goofy big grins.
"It's okay. That's my friend Abby and the guy wearing the sling is Tony," Gibbs said. "Why don't you go and see what they've got for you?"
As Ethan walked slowly toward them, Abby and Tony separated to reveal a scruffy little white dog with bright intelligent eyes and a large black spot on his back.
"Ethan, this is Titch," Abby said.
The little boy's jaw dropped open and a small sob escaped.
"He's mine?" he asked with pleading brown eyes.
"Well, that depends," Abby said. "The man at the dog rescue centre said this dog could only go to a home where someone would play with him and he'd get lots of love."
"I would love him and I'd play with him everyday," Ethan said earnestly.
"And…," Tony added. "He could only go to a little boy who is five and a quarter going on six."
"I…I'm five and a quarter going on six," the little boy said, wiping his eyes on the sleeve of his shirt. "And I would brush him and feed him and give him a bath and lots of cuddles and…"
"Well then," Tony said looking at Abby. "Looks like Titch has found a new home."
Ethan glanced back at his Mom who was also struggling with tears of her own.
"He's yours, honey," she said. "Agent Gibbs called me last night to arrange it."
"He's really mine?" Ethan asked again. "All mine?"
"He's really yours!" Abby smiled widely. "Why don't you call him?"
Ethan crouched down and tentatively called to the dog. With a burst of enthusiasm the scruffy little dog launched himself at the little boy, wagging his tail and licking at his face as Ethan giggled with joy. Climbing to his feet he scampered to his Mom and each of his guests and gave them his very best thank you hugs.
"I hope you saved one of those hugs for me, yes?" Ziva asked as she and McGee arrived both carrying armfuls of groceries.
"Let's get this barbeque going," McGee added. "I'm starving."
Ducky and Gibbs manned the barbeque, each sipping a drink and watching as Ethan played ball with Titch in the backyard – the little dog struggling to come to terms with the concept of fetch. McGee and Palmer joined in the fun attempting to show Ethan some basic dog training commands but the little dog only had eyes for Ethan.
Gibbs kept a watchful eye on Tony, who had been released from hospital only hours before and was dozing on a deck chair. He was still very pale and although the swelling in and around his eye had reduced considerably the bruising was still very prominent. He tired easily and his muscles still ached from the residual effects of the fever. His shoulder and broken rib were painful and would take several weeks to heal. The entire team dreaded the long stint of desk duty that awaited their senior field agent, knowing too well that a bored DiNozzo was a dangerous DiNozzo.
Abby and Ziva assisted Liz to prepare the salads and desserts and to set the table on the large decking area while goo-ing and gaa-ing over seven week old Amy. As they waited for the last of the steaks to finish cooking, Palmer called Ethan over to the deck chair where Tony was still resting.
"Tony and I have another surprise for you," Palmer told Ethan.
"I don't think my Mommy would let me have another dog," he whispered.
"It's not another dog," Palmer laughed handing him another small parcel. "Your Mom told us that you watch these guys on TV all the time."
Ethan squealed gleefully as he opened the gift and held the two figurines up for everyone to see.
"It's Gumby and Pokey!"
"Bet you didn't know that we used to watch them on TV when we were your age," Palmer said.
"Really?" Ethan said.
"Yep," Tony replied. "And do you know how Gumby and Pokey met?"
The little boy shook his head listening intently.
"In the third episode, Gumby went into a western town out in the desert. There were two sets of railroad tracks and Pokey had his hoof caught in one. A train was coming and to save him, Gumby had to throw a switch that moved the train to another track. He did it just before the train went by. Pokey was saved and they became buddies from then on."
"That's kind of like us, Ethan," Palmer told him. "Tony and I were in a lot of trouble and we needed someone to help us and you did. You called Doctor Duck and help came for us. You were very, very, brave."
"Just like Gumby?" he asked.
"Just like Gumby," Tony agreed and pulled him into a one armed hug. "Thanks big guy."
Ethan smiled shyly and gave Palmer a matching hug as they were called to the table and dinner was served.
A gentle breeze cooled the heat of the fading sun as the team joined the Thomas family at the table. Ethan chatted excitedly to his new friends but struggled to cut his small steak until Liz leaned over him and cut his dinner into manageable pieces. Beside him, a one armed Tony was having a similar problem and looked expectantly at Gibbs. The former Marine rolled his eyes before reaching over Tony and cutting up his dinner. The younger man's smug smile instantly morphed into a frown when he received a gentle head slap for his trouble.
After dessert was eaten, the team cleaned up the kitchen while Liz herded a reluctant but exhausted Ethan off to bed. Ducky joined Gibbs on the deck, handing him a coffee and watching quietly as the younger members of the team talked and laughed together.
There's something medicinal about shared laughter, its healing properties outstrip any other form of communication. Nervous tension dissolves under its influence, anxiety morphs into release. Feeling his boss' eyes on him Tony met his gaze and smiled…and just like that Gibbs' world righted itself.
A/N Huge thanks to Liz for trusting me with her story idea. Liz has also asked me to mention that she has written a thank you and will post it as a review once this chapter is posted. Thanks for your numerous kind wishes and prayers for "our little champion," Ethan. Many thanks, as always, to those who have supported this story with your encouraging reviews and alerts. Until next time, with every good wish, L