Disclaimer:- I do not own NCIS or its characters and any copyright infringement is unintentional.
A/N This story was intended to be my first ever attempt at Fan Fiction writing. I was all set to post it when a crisis of confidence changed my mind. The story begins the morning after the S5 episode Requiem. At that time, the volume of good Requiem stories that were written and posted overwhelmed me, so I hid mine away on a portable hard drive, never to see the light of day. I found it again a few months ago.
Encouraged by a good friend, I've decided to dust it off and post it. It was originally a multi-chapter but I've posted it as a (rather long) one shot. My writing has changed a little over the years - there's no investigation and very little research or humour but it contains a lot of hurt!Tony and lots of angst. The prologue and subsequent "roll back" in time was written to emulate the actual episode, so don't panic if, (later in the story) you think you've already read that part. :)
After four years in the "wilderness"- it is what it is. L
Requiem For a Dream
Slipping through the opening doors of the elevator, Gibbs hustled down the long corridor of the ICU, eager to resume his place by his agent's side. As he rounded the corner to Tony's room he came to a dead stop; icy tendrils of dread squeezed his heart - something was wrong.
There were too many medical staff milling around the younger man's bed or walking in and out of the room with professional haste. For one awful moment, everything stood still, then time resumed its normal order and years of training and command took over. Gibbs tossed his coffee into a nearby trashcan and quickly moved to the door, his gaze intent on Tony's lax form that was alternately hidden and revealed by the medical dance surrounding him.
"What happened? What's going on?" Gibbs called, the tremor in his voice was unnatural and he despised it.
The nurses glanced briefly in his direction but didn't answer, taken aback by his brusque attitude.
"Jethro," Ducky answered as he emerged from the throng.
He moved forward, taking a firm hold of Gibbs' arm and leading him from the room back into the corridor. Breaking free of his old friend's grip the former Marine turned beseeching blue eyes on him.
"Damn it, Duck, what the hell happened?"
48 Hours Earlier
McGee and Ziva exited the elevator and rounded the partition into the bullpen, surprised to find their senior field agent already at his desk. His head was propped up on one hand and he gave no indication that he'd heard his teammates approach.
"Good morning, Tony," Ziva greeted loudly and a little too cheerily for his liking.
"No need to yell, Zee-vah," Tony grumbled.
"I thought, perhaps, you had fallen asleep at your desk again," she goaded.
"Doing reports…same thing." Tony sighed, not raising his aching head from the haven of his palm.
"Is the boss in yet?" McGee asked, glancing at the team leader's conspicuously vacant desk.
"Director gave him some down-time."
"And he took it?" the younger man asked trying to recall if Gibbs had ever taken a day off before.
"According to Ducky, Gibbs is going to collect Maddie from the hospital this morning and help her move her things back into a Georgetown dorm. Then they're catching a flight to Oakland so she can see her Mom. He'll be back some time tomorrow."
"Does the boss think that Maddie's still in danger?" McGee asked.
"It's just Gibbs being Gibbs; he wants to make sure she's safe."
"It is understandable, after all, she was his daughter's best friend," Ziva stated. "They are both feeling okay, yes?"
"So I'm told," Tony said, sounding a little miffed.
"You did not see Gibbs last night," Ziva asked in surprise.
"Nope. By the time I'd escaped the clutches of the EMT's, Gibbs was on his way to hospital and when we'd finished processing the crime scene the director and Internal Affairs were lying in wait for me."
"Did you get any sleep?" McGee asked, noting that Tony looked tired and drawn. "You look like hell."
"Thanks, Probie, I'd like to see how you look after IA spent four hours examining your every word. I've been interrogated, investigated, queried, questioned, scrutinised and terrorised…only thing missing was the thumb screws."
"And?" Ziva prompted.
"Righteous shoot," Tony answered flatly. "Times two."
"That's great," McGee said. "So, I guess all we need to do is type up our reports and we've closed another case."
"You mean, all you need to do is type up your reports, Probalicious," Tony replied. "I am done."
Ziva and McGee exchanged a surprised look as Tony retrieved his newly minted report from the printer, signed it with a flourish and placed it in the inbox on Gibbs' desk.
"You're finished already?" McGee asked.
"Brevity, McGoo, concise and to the point - it works every time," Tony replied.
"You cannot be finished so soon," Ziva scoffed. "Only yesterday Gibbs was reminding you that the end of month reports were due."
"She's right, Tony," McGee recalled from his days as acting senior field agent. "The boss said he wanted those reports before you left today."
"And they will be done," Tony replied confidently. "In fact, they already are!"
"Really?" the younger man asked. "Even next month's requisition report?"
"Don't forget the overtime and expenses return? You were late lodging those last month and I was counting on the extra money," Ziva said.
"Done and waiting for sign off," he answered crisply.
"Your firearms discharge report?" McGee added.
"And do not forget the damage to an agency vehicle report," Ziva stated.
"Done and done," Tony answered before pursing his lips in thought. "You know, that's never really seemed fair to me – Gibbs gets to smash up the cars and I get stuck with the paperwork."
"That's the lot of the senior field agent, Tony," McGee said sympathetically. "I'm impressed; you got those reports done in record time."
"Like I always tell you, Probie, work smarter not harder," he said. Leaning back in his chair with a weary sigh, he closed his eyes and placed his feet on the desk. "Once you reach my level of experience and expertise as an NCIS very special agent, you gain superior time-management and administrative proficiency skills…"
"And he was here all night completing them," Director Shepard said as she rounded the partition and swept Tony's feet from the desk.
Sitting up quickly, he tried to dispel the dizziness it caused and reluctantly admitted.
"And…I was here all night completing them."
Jenny frowned slightly at Tony's pallor but dismissed it as fatigue.
"I hope you didn't claim overtime for the thirty minutes you spent asleep at your desk?" Jenny said, with a mock seriousness.
"Just a power nap, Ma'am," Tony explained with a grimace. "And...ah, no I didn't."
"Good," she replied with the hint of a smile on her lips. "Then you'll be re-energised enough to take the lead in a new case. I know you're a man down but with Balboa's team on witness protection I can't afford to take your team off rotation."
"Understood, Director," Tony said, suddenly all business. "What've we got?"
"A dead Marine," she replied handing Tony a piece of paper with the crime scene address. "Ducky and Palmer are en route."
"Grab your gear," the acting lead agent instructed.
Every now and then an investigation breaks in all the right ways and this one did just that. The death of Lance Corporal Adam Seymour was the result of too much alcohol and an argument with a nightclub bouncer that quickly turned violent and moved to a dark alleyway at the rear of the club. Seymour's death wasn't premeditated or intentional and despite the fact that the bouncer had fled the scene and attempted to leave the country, he made no effort to cover his tracks. He was easily traced and eventually apprehended in the departure lounge of Dulles Airport.
Although he initially denied all knowledge of Seymour's death, the accumulation of evidence countered his argument and the DNA from his skinned knuckles, found on the face of the victim, sealed his fate with indisputable finality.
While the bouncer was cooling his heels in an NCIS holding cell, Tony was upstairs waiting to tell the director that case was successfully resolved and Ziva and McGee were attending to the mountain of paperwork that each and every case entailed. Ziva sighed audibly drawing McGee's attention.
"Something wrong, Ziva?" he asked.
"Tony has not been himself today," she replied.
"At least he hasn't tried to impersonate Gibbs this time," McGee joked.
"I am serious, McGee. There has been no teasing, no jokes, no movie references…not even a single campfire. He does not look well."
"Well, he has been working for nearly forty hours straight, he's probably just exhausted," McGee replied. "It's Friday night, we have the weekend off, he can rest up and Gibbs will be back on Monday."
"I believe Gibbs may be part of the problem," she whispered loudly making sure Tony was not around. "After what happened yesterday at the pier, Gibbs did not even call Tony today."
"To be fair, the boss' cell is sitting at the bottom of the Potomac," he said. "He didn't have time to replace it before he left for California. Besides, you know how they are, they'll probably catch up after Gibbs gets home tomorrow night."
"So you think I am making a mountain out of a moleskin, yes?"
"Er…it's mountain out of a molehill and I'm just saying that women tend to make a bigger issue of this kind of stuff than men do, that's all," he said with a shrug.
"And you are not concerned?"
"'Bout Tony and Gibbs? Nope…not a bit."
"Then how did you know that Gibbs will be home tomorrow night and not tomorrow morning?"
"Because McSnoop checked all the airlines and found his flight schedule," Tony said as he returned to the bullpen and startled his teammates. "Go home. Director said the paperwork could wait until Monday."
"Sweet," McGee said, as he started to tidy his desk then noticing that Tony was not doing likewise. "What about you? You're leaving, too, right?"
"I'll be right behind you," Tony replied. He felt himself start to shiver and quickly stiffened his body to hide the tremors. "Soon as I arrange the prisoner transfer for Mr Muscles downstairs, I am outta here."
"I am happy to do that for you, Tony," Ziva said scrutinising her colleague and not liking was she was seeing. "You need to rest."
"As acting lead agent I'm first one in, last one out, Ziva," he replied. "Sooner I get this done, the sooner I can leave. Thanks, but get outta here, enjoy the weekend."
He felt his chest tighten and suppressed a cough, watching in his peripheral vision as his teammates reluctantly packed up, said their goodnights and entered the elevator.
His hands shook like he'd just popped a fistful of amphetamines and he opened the top drawer of his desk and thumbed the lid off a bottle of Tylenol. He swallowed two tablets in the hope of eradicating his persistent headache.
"Tired, just tired," he whispered to himself then forced himself to his feet to arrange the prisoner transfer.
McGee was pacing impatiently at the hospital entrance, silently cursing the officious admissions nurse and her "no cell phone" policy and barely noticing the sea of faces walking in and out of the Emergency department.
"Yes, I understand you are not an answering service," he said curtly into his cell. "But we have an urgent situation here and unless you wish to be charged with impeding a federal agent in the course of his duty, you will have Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs contact me via the switchboard at Bethesda Hospital the minute he checks-in for his flight. Thank you."
Snapping his cell shut he turned to see Ducky approaching from the parking lot.
"Ducky," he called. "Thanks for coming."
"Of course, dear boy," Ducky said removing his hat. "What on earth happened?"
"Tony looked a little off-colour yesterday so I called him this morning to see if he was okay," McGee explained. "When he didn't answer, I went to his apartment."
"I found him passed out just inside the door. Looks like he'd been there all night; he was still wearing his shoulder holster."
"I called 911 and had the ambulance bring him straight here to Bethesda."
"You did the right thing, Timothy. Tell me, were you able to rouse him?"
"Just for a minute. He said a few words but he wasn't making any sense. I should've checked on him last night."
"Don't blame yourself, dear boy. I, too, thought he looked a little peaked yesterday but he insisted he was merely fatigued. Have you been able to contact Jethro?"
"I can't reach him, Ducky! He didn't replace his cell before he left for California," McGee said with exasperation colouring his tone. "I contacted Maddie and she gave me the number of the hotel he stayed at last night but when I called there he'd already checked out! His flight isn't until 1500 and there's no way of reaching him until he checks in at the airport."
"Good Lord, that's seven hours from now!"
"And at least another seven hours until he gets here," McGee said turning worried eyes to the elderly ME. "They haven't told me anything since they brought Tony in. Do you think you could…"
"Of course, I'll find out what I can about Anthony's condition while you contact the director and the others."
"Ziva was worried about Tony last night…I shrugged her off…she's going to kill me."
"Oh come now, Timothy, Ziva would never kill you…maim you, perhaps, but never kill you," Ducky said with a twinkle in his blue eyes. "Chin up, for all we know, Anthony could be sitting up in bed enjoying the attention of a pretty nurse."
They exchanged a glance, each silently acknowledging their wishful thinking before Ducky entered the building to check on Tony's condition. McGee slumped onto a park bench outside the hospital entrance; he closed his eyes and took a deep breath to gather himself. The image of Tony's body lying prone on his living room floor had etched itself into his mind.
DiNozzo's hair was damp and matted to his ashen face and McGee cringed at the heat of Tony's skin as he sought and found his partner's racing pulse. Relief had washed over him as Tony roused slowly, looking up with bleary fever-bright eyes and clearly confused about what was happening or where he was.
As McGee rushed back from the kitchen with some icepacks and towels Tony became agitated, slurring a barely coherent apology and muttering something about being too slow. Before the younger man could glean more information, Tony had passed out again.
McGee pushed the memory from his mind and braced himself, then he called his teammates and asked them to meet him at Bethesda. With Ziva, Abby and Palmer on their way and Ducky with Tony, all he could do was wait and hope like hell that his senior field agent had another tough fight left in him.
It was almost an hour later that the highly anxious team were led to a "quiet room" adjoining the Emergency department. The sombre expressions on the faces of Ducky and Bethesda's pulmonary specialist, Captain James Lewis caused them all to brace themselves for bad news.
Ducky took a deep breath. "Anthony is suffering from a severe chest infection that was likely acquired during his recent venture into the murky depths of the Potomac River. It has caused inflammation to the tissue of both lungs and is complicated by the pulmonary fibrosis that resulted from his bout with Y-Pestis."
He looked at the concerned faces around him and Captain Lewis added.
"As a result of the infection, Agent DiNozzo's fever is dangerously high. He is experiencing what we call an alteration of consciousness which means he is delirious, confused and exhibiting a significantly reduced response to stimuli."
"Oh my God," Abby said quietly. "Y-Pestis nearly killed Tony. It's so not right that he has to do this again."
McGee drew Abby into a one armed hug.
"We're working hard to bring his fever down and improve his oxygen saturation levels while aggressively treating the infection. At this stage, we're reticent to intubate but if he starts to show signs of cyanosis or hypoxemic respiratory failure we will have no choice but to resort to artificial ventilation."
"Is there any word from Jethro, Timothy?" Ducky asked.
"Not yet," McGee replied.
"Of all times for Jethro to break his own rule number three," Ducky said with a shake of his head.
"Rule number three, Doctor?" Palmer asked.
"Never be unreachable," Ducky, Ziva, Abby and McGee replied together.
"Can we see him, Ducky?" Abby asked, tentatively. "Can we see Tony?"
"Of course, my dear," the ME replied gently. "Anthony is currently being transferred to the ICU. Captain Lewis has kindly arranged for us to wait in the staff lounge nearby."
"There's a phone you can use and I've advised the switchboard operator where you'll be in case Agent Gibbs calls," Captain Lewis said holding the door open and ushering the group out.
As they thanked the Captain and made their way to the elevator, they prepared themselves for a long anxious wait.
McGee leapt to his feet as the phone in the staff lounge rang.
"Special Agent McGee," he said.
A few moments later he replaced the receiver in the cradle and turned to face his anxious teammates. The supervisor of the United Airlines ticketing office advised that Gibbs had already changed his booking to an earlier flight and was currently on his way back to DC.
"I knew it, I knew it!" Abby said excitedly. "I told you, Timmy, those two have this weird cosmic connection or something. Gibbs must have totally picked up on Tony's vibes and knew he was in trouble."
"Er…I don't think so Ab's. If the boss knew Tony was sick, he would have called us."
"Come on, McGee! Gibbs and Tony have always been close. They're so close, when Gibbs stubs his toe, Tony says ouch; when Gibbs cuts himself shaving, Tony bleeds; when Gibbs has gas, Tony-"
"I think we get the gist, Abigail, dear," Ducky quickly interjected. "Do we know when will Jethro arrive, Timothy?"
McGee explained that Gibbs' flight was scheduled to land in Detroit in twenty minutes. He had a thirty-minute layover during which time the United Airlines ground staff would ask him to call McGee at Bethesda. His direct flight from Detroit to Dulles would arrive ninety minutes later.
"Perhaps the director could arrange for a car to collect Gibbs at the airport?" Ziva suggested.
McGee nodded. "I just hope Tony can hang on until the boss gets here."
"Agent Gibbs will never forgive himself if something happens to Tony," Palmer added.
"No! We can't lose him, Jimmy, we just can't!" Abby cried, her mascara trailing two lines of misery down her pale cheeks.
"That is quite enough!" Ducky scolded. "Listen to me, all of you! How many times does that boy have to prove us wrong before we put our faith in him? I'm not about to give up on him and neither should you. He needs our strength and reassurance. If you cannot give him that, than I suggest you go home right now!"
His softened his expression as he looked at the sombre faces around him.
"Talk to him. He'll likely be confused and frightened but he needs to know that he is not alone. Tell him to keep fighting...tell him to come on back to us. If anybody can get through this…it's Anthony."
Abby and McGee quietly entered the ICU cubicle and stood silently at their friend's side. The head of the bed was raised slightly and Tony was propped up on several pillows to assist his breathing. IV's administered a strong cocktail of antibiotics and replaced badly needed fluids and electrolytes while an assortment of sounds were emitted from the machines positioned by his bed.
Despite the oxygen mask that misted sporadically as Tony struggled to breathe, his respirations were shallow and noisy. His skin was ashen and his long, dark lashes stood out starkly against pale cheeks as his eyes danced frantically under their closed lids. Tony moved fitfully in the throes of delirium, muttering under his breath in snatches of unintelligible phrases. Taking his lax hand in hers Abby pressed their palms together, admiring his long, slender fingers before kissing his palm and lightly brushing a damp strand of hair off his forehead.
McGee reached for the cloth soaking in the basin of water by the bedside table. Wringing out the excess water, he passed the cloth to Abby who wiped the sweat from her friend's face and neck.
"Tony? You gotta come back to us, okay? We..."
Her voice broke and she felt McGee's hand gently squeeze her shoulder in support.
"We need you, Tony," she continued, her voice dropping to a hoarse whisper. "Gibbs needs you."
Tony moaned softly, his head moving from side to side trying to dislodge the mask. The numbers displayed on the bedside equipment increased as his agitation grew. Long eyelashes twitched and slowly rose. Dazed and fever-bright eyes searched the room as best as they could but could not locate the man they desperately sought.
"M'sorry, Boss," he said, the words badly muffled beneath the oxygen mask.
"Tony?" Abby said. "Tony, it's us, Abby and McGee. We're right here with you."
"Too slow…was too slow…m'sorry."
The thrashing calmed, the murmuring stopped and a moment later, Tony's eyes fluttered closed again. Abby turned to McGee, wrapping her arms around him and needing his reassurance.
"He'll make it back, Abs," McGee said. "Tony always makes it back."
Her lips curved upward as she forced a smile and their eyes spoke of a hope they refused to surrender.
"Staff lounge, Doctor Mallard speaking," Ducky said into the phone.
"Jethro, thank heavens you called."
"I got a message that McGee was in Bethesda. How is he? What happened?"
"I'm afraid the message was rather inaccurate. Timothy is certainly at Bethesda, as are we all, but he is not in Bethesda. It's an understandable error under the circumstances. In fact, it reminds me of the time that I was-"
"Ducky, will you just tell me what the hell happened?"
"Oh, of course, Jethro, I really am sorry…Timothy is fine…but I'm afraid our dear Anthony is critically ill."
Gibbs felt the colour run from his face as Ducky explained Tony's current condition.
"So you see, Jethro, it's rather fortuitous that you decided to take an earlier flight home."
"I caught an early flight to take him to a damn basketball game," Gibbs said. "I wanted to tell him…"
"Never mind. I'll be there in three hours. Keep him alive, Duck, I don't care what you have to do just…keep him alive."
In Tony's room, the nursing staff checked and recorded his vitals, replaced the IV bags and checked the flow rates. Still concerned that his temperature hadn't dropped, they quickly and efficiently changed the bed linen before wringing out the washcloths and wiping them over Tony's face, neck, limbs and body. They placed a couple of cold packs behind his neck and under his armpits and groin, then stripped the blanket off the bed and folded it neatly at the foot, leaving only the sheet covering him. Gathering their things they left the room until their next scheduled observation in fifteen minutes.
Ziva and Palmer sat quietly observing the shallow rise and falls of Tony's chest and listening to his raspy breathing. Caught in the twilight between a conscious and unconscious state, he muttered incoherently and moved restlessly. He felt a cool cloth being pressed onto his forehead and he fought to open his eyes.
"Boss?" he whispered into the oxygen mask. "Boss, m'sorry,"
His eyes fluttered open a few times as he struggled with consciousness and Ziva and Palmer moved closer.
"Hey Tony," Palmer said. "Agent Gibbs isn't here but he's…"
"Was…was too slow," Tony said. "He was trapped…in car…I couldn't get…couldn't get him out." He coughed harshly, his respirations stuttering erratically before he sunk back into the pillows and the world faded away.
"Tony? Tony, he's fine, Agent Gibbs is fine and he's on his way. Just hold on, okay?"
"He cannot hear you, Jimmy," Ziva said cupping her hand to the side of Tony's face and registering the heat pouring from him. Although she refused to show it, his uncharacteristic stillness frightened her. "He is getting worse."
"Should I get Doctor Mallard?" Palmer asked.
"He does not need Ducky," Ziva said softly. "He needs Gibbs."
"I agree with Abby and McGee," Ziva said returning to the staff lounge with Palmer in tow. "Tony woke for just a moment but he was very distressed and confused."
"Was he apologising to Gibbs?" Abby asked.
"Yes," Ziva replied. "He also said that Gibbs was trapped in the car and he could not get him out."
"He became quite agitated, Doctor," Palmer added. "Like he was reliving the accident."
"If Anthony was experiencing REM," Ducky said. "It is not uncommon for a trauma of that magnitude to revisit when one is sleeping or altered as in Anthony's case."
"But why would Tony be apologising to Gibbs?" Abby asked. "He, like, totally saved Gibbs and Maddie's lives."
"Unless…" Ducky stroked his chin in thought.
"Ducky?" Ziva prompted.
"This is all conjecture, of course," Ducky continued. "But what if, in his altered state, the poor lad believes that he was too late to save Jethro. In the fleeting moments of semi-consciousness when he looks around the room, he expects to see the one man who is always by his hospital bedside."
"And when he doesn't see the boss, he thinks his dream is true and that Gibbs is dead," McGee finished. "Makes sense."
"Tony has not seen or heard from Gibbs since the accident," Ziva said. "In his delirium it is possible that he would think the worst."
"Oh my God, poor Tony!" Abby said. "You have to tell him, Ducky, you have to tell him that Gibbs is alive and he's on his way."
"I can tell him, Abigail, but in his current state, he may not be well enough to understand?" Ducky said rising to his feet. "The man we need for this…is Jethro."
Tony's vital signs were weakening and his condition continued to deteriorate as fever ravaged his body. Despite efforts to reduce his temperature, he was still burning with fever, delirious and muttering incoherently. He reacted to pain stimuli but was unresponsive to voices or questions. His long legs moved restlessly beneath the sodden sheet as his respirations and pulse increased to dangerous levels. His breath stuttered out in staccato bursts and his eyelids twitched furiously as his dreams continued to torment him.
Ducky watched as the medical staff moved more equipment into the already crowded cubicle. An ECG, defibrillator and ventilator were readied for use, if needed.
McGee suddenly appeared at the door, wearing a wide smile.
"The boss' ETA is three minutes. I'll meet him downstairs and bring him straight here," he said, disappearing without waiting for an answer.
Ducky moved the chair closer to the bed and reached for the younger man's hand through the rail.
"Did you hear that, Anthony? Jethro will soon be here," he stated, disappointed at the lack of response. "Hold on, my boy, hold on."
Captain Lewis returned to the cubicle and nodded a greeting in Ducky's direction before checking his patient and reviewing Tony's chart.
"I'm sorry, Doctor, he's not getting enough oxygen and there are signs of cyanosis. I'm going to have to intubate."
"I understand of course, Captain, but Agent Gibbs has just arrived, he'll be here at any moment. Is there any chance we can hold off on the sedation until Anthony sees him."
"You really think that will help?"
"I know it will," Ducky said definitively.
"Five minutes and then I'll have to intubate."
"Thank you, Captain," Ducky replied as the sound of shoes pounding down the corridor grew louder and a breathless Leroy Jethro Gibbs appeared at the cubicle door.
"How is he?" he asked, skipping the formalities and moving to the side of Tony's bed.
"Not good, I'm afraid, Jethro," Ducky replied. "His core body temperature is critically high and his respiratory system is failing. Captain Lewis is about to intubate."
"Give me a minute," Gibbs said, receiving a nod from the pulmonary specialist.
He placed a gentle hand on the side of his agent's face, cringing at the heat pouring from him and turned Tony's face toward him. Careful not to dislodge the oxygen mask, he called his name several times until his voice reached into the darkness of the younger man's mind and eyelashes spiked with dampness fluttered as the green eyes opened to half-mast.
"Boss?" Tony frowned in confusion, a thousand jumbled thoughts vied for attention at the same time.
He reached a trembling hand to the oxygen mask only to have Gibbs intercept his fingers and give them a light squeeze.
"Leave it," the former Marine directed.
"How?" Tony rasped as his brow furrowed in confusion. "You okay?"
A smile teased the corner of the lead agent's mouth.
"I'm not the one in ICU, DiNozzo," he quipped.
Gibbs tightened the grip on his agent's hand as coughs erupted from him in harsh bursts; the sound was wet and congested and too reminiscent of his battle with the pneumonic plague. Exhausted by the exertion, he sunk into the pillows and met his boss' concerned gaze.
"Can't…can't do this…this again, B-Boss."
His body heaved painfully as another harsh cough surged through him, snatching away his breath and causing his chest to convulse in an attempt to draw air into starving lungs. In his peripheral vision, the doctor and a nurse prepared the respirator. Gibbs gently gripped the younger man's chin with his free hand and leaned in close, forcing Tony to meet his eyes.
"You can…and you will. You hear me?" Gibbs said with conviction.
Trust softened the fear in Tony's eyes and he replied with a nod as his eyes suddenly lost all focus. He drew in a shaky breath before his entire body arched into an uncontrollable spasm. Alarms on the nearby machines wailed and the heart monitor doubled its beat as chaos erupted and Tony's hand clutched Gibbs' with an unbreakable hold.
"He's seizing, let's move!" the doctor said to his nurse as they moved in on Tony and positioned the respirator.
The medical-speak was going over his head but Gibbs could see the results. Meds were injected into Tony's IV and as it entered his bloodstream, the agent's eyelids slid closed and the tension left his body. Releasing Tony's lax hand, Gibbs felt instantly bereft but stepped back as more nursing staff surrounded the bed. Backing against the far wall Gibbs ran agitated fingers through his short, silver hair and tried to collect the scattered fragments of his composure.
He resisted the urge to turn away when the doctor tipped Tony's head and guided the long tube down his throat. Despite the supportive presence of Ducky at his side, Gibbs' mental prayer became two desperate words - not Tony.
The medical team stripped Tony to his boxers and took several large flex pads from a cooler. Removing the pads from the wrapping they rolled Tony carefully onto his side and adhered three pads to his back, three to his chest and abdomen and one to each thigh.
"What are they?" Gibbs asked.
"Cooling pads designed for therapeutic hypothermia," Ducky replied. "The pads are adhered to the patient's body to lower the core temperature at a faster rate than other cooling methods. They draw the heat from the patient's body while transferring their cold energy into the patient, it's really quite ingenious in its simplicity."
"Then why didn't they use them before now?" Gibbs demanded.
"The pads are part of a clinical trial. The hospital administrator had to request urgent permission to include Anthony in the trials."
Satisfied that Tony was stabilised, Captain Lewis rounded the bed and joined them.
"Tony's our star pneumonic plague survivor," he quipped offering his hand to Gibbs and introducing himself. "We pulled out all the stops."
"What now?" Gibbs asked.
"Now we wait," Lewis replied. "Tony's been sedated and placed on the vent to ease the strain on his lungs and he's receiving the strongest possible medication to fight the infection. The cooling pads will reduce his temperature and that in turn will reduce the chances of another febrile seizure."
"How long will he be on the vent?"
"The next 24 hours are critical," the captain replied. "We'll be watching him closely and if there's sufficient improvement, we'll wean him off the vent this time tomorrow. There's really nothing you can do for him here. Why don't you all go home and come back in the morning?"
Gibbs nodded distractedly before taking a seat in the chair beside his agent's bed, determined to wait this hell out. His body language and the set of his jaw clearly communicated that he was not going anywhere.
"I believe you have your answer, Captain," Ducky said exchanging a wry smile with the specialist who left to answer his pager.
Gibbs was a military man, a US Marine Gunnery Sergeant, expected to conceal emotions and rely on his training; but he hunched forward in the chair beside the bed and reached for Tony's wrist, needing the contact and fighting the irrational thought that if he let go, Tony might, too.
"We gonna lose him, Duck?"
"He's fighting for his life, Jethro, but he is fighting," Ducky said. "And now I have a fight of my own to win - telling the others of Anthony's condition and convincing them to go home."
The elderly ME chuckled as he made his way through the door and into the corridor.
With his free hand, Gibbs gently ran a cool washcloth across Tony's sweat-slicked face.
"Listen to me, DiNozzo," he said softly. "We're not done yet. You hear me…we are not done. You fight with every ounce of stubborn, pig-headedness you've got - just like last time…and I'll be right here."
Almost seven years ago, Tony DiNozzo had forced his way into the former Marine's life with all the subtlety of a runaway bulldozer. The ex-detective had an enthusiasm and a spark for life that sometimes wore out the people around him and a wealth of complexities that he kept hidden, showing only what he wanted to be seen - even with the people he cared about.
But while there was plenty of times he made Gibbs want to smack him upside the head, there were many more times when, without thought or hesitation, he put his life on the line to save the life of a citizen or a team mate...or both. And then there were times like this, when he managed to painfully twist the older man's heart into a pretzel and bring his long forgotten parental instincts to the fore. As he watched his agent's silent battle, he held tightly to the conviction that he could not bear to think of a world without Tony DiNozzo in it.
Gibbs kept one hand on the younger man's wrist, letting him know that he was not alone. Exhausted by a long flight and hours of anxiety, Gibbs listened to the soothing cadence of the heart monitor and surrendered to his body's demand for rest and an end to this nightmare.
Gibbs walked determinedly through the emergency room of the hospital, absently noting the number of people seated in the waiting area. The ubiquitous cup of steaming hot coffee was firmly entrenched in his left hand as he made his way to the elevator and repeatedly pressed the button to the ICU level.
After a twenty-hour bedside vigil and the best critical care Bethesda could offer, he could see little improvement in his agent's condition. Gibbs glanced quickly at his watch. Ducky had insisted that Gibbs take a break of at least two hours but the former Marine had no intention of leaving the younger man alone for that long.
Reluctantly, Gibbs admitted to himself that the walk and the fresh air had helped ease the tension in his muscles. Despite the fact that he'd left the ICU ward only thirty minutes ago, he felt inexplicably drawn back to his agent's side. Too many times during his life, Tony had been forced to fight alone; now, as he battled for his life Gibbs intended to be right there with him.
He leaned against the wall of the elevator and took a few deep breaths, feeling the remnants of pain from his still bruised chest. His blue eyes grew bleak with recall and he shook his head at the injustice. Just over two days ago, DiNozzo had pummelled, breathed and coaxed the life back into him on a wooden pier by the river and now the younger man was holding on to his own life by a gossamer thread.
Gibbs ran slightly trembling fingers over tired, red-rimmed eyes as he recalled the ethereal image of his daughter calling his name as the murky waters of the Potomac chased the last of the precious oxygen from his lungs and he began to drown. He squinted his eyes as if doing so would make the image re-emerge and when it didn't he was torn with mixed emotions. Kelly's words echoed in his mind.
'Daddy, go back, Daddy…it's okay, I love you, Daddy, go back.'
Her words brought him comfort and a warmth surged through his body as a sad smile ghosted over his lips.
"You're right, baby girl," he whispered. "I'm still needed here."
Slipping through the opening doors of the elevator, Gibbs hustled down the long corridor of the ICU, eager to resume his place by his agent's side. As he rounded the corner to Tony's room he came to a dead stop; icy tendrils of dread grasped and squeezed his heart - something was wrong.
There was too many medical staff milling around the younger man's bed or walking in and out of the room with professional haste. For one awful moment, everything stood still, then time resumed its normal order and years of training and command took over. Gibbs tossed his coffee into a nearby trashcan and quickly moved to the door, his gaze intent on Tony's lax form that was alternately hidden and revealed by the medical dance surrounding him.
"What happened ? What's going on?" Gibbs called, the tremor in his voice was unnatural and he despised it.
The nurses glanced briefly in his direction but didn't answer, taken aback by his brusque attitude.
"Jethro," Ducky answered as he emerged from the throng.
He moved forward, taking a firm hold of Gibbs' arm and leading him from the room back into the corridor. Breaking free of his old friend's grip the former Marine turned beseeching blue eyes on him.
"Damn it, Duck, what the hell happened?" he growled.
"For goodness sake, Jethro, you must calm down, it's very good news," Ducky replied. "Anthony's fever has broken and his core body temperature is almost back to normal. He is still very weak but it looks like our young man has once again fought the good fight."
He turned away from the ME, needing a moment with his back turned to compose himself. He ran his hand over his beard-roughened jaw and sighed heavily as the fear that had been squeezing his chest quickly released its grip. Turning back to Ducky he stated.
"I want to see him."
"Of course! As soon as the nursing staff have finished changing the linen and making him a little more comfortable, you can go in" Ducky said. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I gave my word that I would call Abigail the minute I had any news."
That strong paternal feeling rose to the fore once again as he waited impatiently outside the door of his agent's room and a small smile ghosted across his lips.
"Atta boy, Tony," he whispered.
Tony had passed most of the day slipping in and out of restless sleep. His dark eyelashes were still painfully vivid against the pallor of his face and the remnants of fever coloured his cheeks. The ventilator had been moved to the side of the room, replaced by a nasal cannula and although he was still very ill his condition was no longer critical.
Coffee in hand, Gibbs leaned against the far wall observing the playful banter as Tony's teammates visited with their senior field agent. Their relief bubbled into exuberance that had twice incurred a censure from a rather dictatorial head nurse. They had all been concerned about Tony and they needed this time to reconnect and reassure themselves that he was going to be fine. Gibbs watched with bemusement as the chatter and laughter continued fifteen minutes after Tony had fallen asleep.
"Hey," he called softly. Attracting the attention of his team, he pointed with his chin to the sleeping man. "Say goodnight."
It was another four hours before Tony resurfaced unaware of how long he'd slept and surprised that his teammates had gone. After a bout of harsh coughing, Gibbs held a cup to the younger man's mouth and he sipped with relief as the coolness slid down his throat and eased the dryness that had settled there. Then, a moment later, the heavy lids drifted shut and he was gone again.
The light from the setting sun burst rudely into the room and Tony frowned and rolled away from it. Gibbs stood, ignoring the groan of his back and leg muscles and quietly closed the curtains.
"Boss," Tony whispered.
"Right here, DiNozzo," Gibbs replied.
"You been here all day?"
"Watching me sleep?"
"Huh…that's nice...and a little creepy," Tony said with a grimace. "How was your trip?"
"Well…you nearly died."
"Oh…right," he yawned.
"I cut short my trip before I knew you were sick. Tried calling your cell and left a message on your home answering machine."
"Thought we could catch a Wizards game…bought a couple of tickets."
"Guess there's not much chance of them springing me tonight…"
"Game hasn't started yet. Shame to waste the tickets, maybe you could take McGee?"
"You crazy? Taking McGee to a basketball game is like taking you to a chess tournament. Besides, the tickets were for you."
"Didn't get the chance to tell you before…" Gibbs said faltering as he searched for the right words.
He huffed in a breath, rolled his neck, and stared up at the ceiling as if expecting the words to materialize. After a moment he met Tony's gaze with sincere intent.
"What you did at the pier…was a hell of a thing, Tony."
"You do that again…you end up back in here…and I'll kick your ass. Are we clear?"
"We're clear," Tony replied. "No offence, Boss, but the whisker burn was a major turn off."
The lead agent flashed a rare smile that was matched by his agent.
"Director called by while you were sleeping. She's looking into some kind of official commendation."
Gibbs sipped his coffee and watched as Tony squirmed uncomfortably.
"Tell her not to bother."
"You saved Maddie's life…and mine."
"Don't need commendations for doing my job, right?" Tony said echoing the lead agent's own words.
Verbal communication between the two men was often made redundant by simple understanding but as Gibbs raised his eyes to meet his agent's he hoped Tony could read the pride in his expression.
"Plenty of room in my desk drawer if you change your mind," Gibbs said.
Overwhelmed, Tony met his gaze and quickly looked away.
"You're alive…s'enough," he mumbled through another yawn.
"Remember that next time you start whining about the head slaps and long hours…."
"Like the head slaps," Tony murmured as his eyes slid closed. "Means you care…"
Gibbs gave a small smile as Tony's body relaxed into sleep.
"Ya got that right," he whispered.
In the quiet of the evening, Gibbs thought about the little things and how they could become so important. The steady beat of Tony's heart monitor, skin that no longer burned with fever beneath his fingertips and a chest that rose and fell naturally to the sleeper's own relaxed rhythm.
As he watched his agent sleep, gratitude and relief tightened his chest. It was another close call and they were in for a long recuperation with corti-steroids and inhalants and breathing therapy and chest x-rays. But Tony would be fine and that was the main thing…in fact, that was the only thing.
A/N The cooling pads were based on EmCools Flex Pads which were on trial when the story was originally written and are now commonly used in hospitals world-wide. I hope you enjoyed the story, L