Disclaimer:- I do not own NCIS or its characters and any copyright infringement is unintentional
A/N:- Final chapter is a super long one, folks, even by my standards! Warning - there's a fair bit of angst for Tony but I didn't want to make light of the subject matter by offering a "miracle cure" ending. Heartfelt gratitude to all who read this story, with a special thank you to those of you who took an extra moment to leave a review, L
"It's over, Tony," Gibbs said quietly.
The former Marine felt his heart constrict as his agent turned desperate eyes to his, begging mutely for help.
"No, Boss, it's not."
Intense blue eyes silently urged him on and Tony quietly cleared his voice of emotion.
"Tony!" Abby exclaimed excitedly from the doorway.
The pounding of her platform boots reverberated in the large courtroom as she zeroed in on her target. Silently cursing the interruption, Gibbs stepped hastily between them, knowing his agent currently lacked the strength to absorb the impact from the Gothic Express. Abby skidded to a halt inches from Gibbs, her arms windmilling as she tried to keep her balance.
"Gibbs!" she scolded indignantly.
"Easy, Abs," he reminded her. "Broken ribs."
Abby's eyes widened and her fingers flew to her mouth as she realised the close call. Side-stepping Gibbs, she drew Tony into a gentle hug, one that he returned with a long shuddering sigh.
"Abs, can you give us a minute?" Gibbs asked.
Reluctantly pulling away from Tony, Abby's expression turned to alarm and her head swivelled from one man to the other as she noted their grim expressions.
"What's wrong?" she asked anxiously. "Something's wrong; tell me!"
Tony forced a fragile smile.
"Nothing's wrong, we're fine," he said, flicking his eyes to the lead agent. "Right, Boss?"
Gibbs swallowed the bitterness of another lost opportunity and reluctantly nodded in agreement. Accepting the reassurance, Abby brightened instantly.
"In that case, Mister," she said latching on to Tony's arm. "You, Very Special Agent DiNozzo, will be very special guest of honour at tonight's celebration dinner."
"Far be it from me to be the pooper of your party plans, my dear," Ducky said walking quietly toward them. "But I believe those celebrations may have to wait. At least until Anthony has had a good night's rest, hmm?"
Tony's lack of protest and the light sheen of sweat on his brow confirmed Ducky's diagnosis. The physical and emotional exertion of the day had taken its toll and he was exhausted.
Gibbs pulled Abby into a one armed hug.
"Ducky's right, Abs. Make it lunch tomorrow at my house," he suggested to his scientist.
"Really?" she asked.
"Barbecue," he replied, "just the team."
"And Commander Barnes," Abby added. "Because he was, like, totally awesome."
"Just the team," Gibbs stressed.
"Right and Agent Fornell, he helped a lot, Gibbs, even on his days off."
"Abs…quiet lunch, just the team."
Abby huffed her disappointment.
"Just the team. Right, Gibbs."
"You up to that, DiNozzo?" the lead agent asked.
"Sure, Boss," Tony said with a weary smile.
As they walked toward the exit of the courthouse Gibbs watched his agent with guarded concern, knowing the younger man was holding on by his fingertips and hoping like hell he could get him to open up before he shattered into a thousand pieces.
The drive home from the courthouse was mostly done in silence. Jackson's attempts to start conversation had fallen flat and the tension in the car was palpable. By the time they arrived at the former Marine's home, Tony's body was humming with fatigue. Gibbs steered him into the guestroom, relieved by Tony's compliance yet concerned for the same reason. He pulled an old USMC t-shirt and a pair of sweats from a dresser drawer and placed them on the foot of the bed. Looking back from the door, he frowned as he watched Tony moving like an arthritic old man.
"Tony," he said waiting until his agent met his gaze. "Good job today."
The words straightened Tony's shoulders like nothing else could have and a tired smile lifted the corners of his mouth.
Gibbs closed the door behind him before joining Jackson in the kitchen where the older man was using the microwave.
"Soup's nearly ready," Jackson said after a long moment. "Mind telling me what's going on with you two? And don't tell me nothing, Leroy, I've seen happier faces at a funeral."
"You know what I know," Gibbs shrugged.
"In other words, Tony's not talking."
Silence was the only reply and Jackson huffed softly at the irony of the situation. He removed the warmed soup and poured it into a large mug.
"He's a strong man, Leroy, but he's been through hell," Jack said. "You of people should know that you can't force anyone to talk if they're not ready. All you can do is tread softly and be there when he needs you."
Gibbs started to nod and then frowned at his father's words.
"Don't recall you ever treading softly," he said without rancour.
"Well, I reckon I've had plenty of years to think about it," Jackson countered. "Besides, I was raising a boy to be a man – seems like I didn't do such a bad job."
Gibbs saw the pride reflected in his father's watery blue eyes and he swallowed hard to force the lump out of his throat. It was Jackson who spoke again.
"You best get moving. Soup's getting cold," he said.
Nodding, Gibbs moved to the kitchen doorway and looked back at his father.
"Take my room tonight, Dad."
"What about you?"
"I'll take the couch," Gibbs said with a shrug. "In case Tony need's something."
As Jackson watched his son walk back toward the guestroom he whispered quietly.
"Nope…not such a bad job, at all."
Gibbs returned to the guestroom to find that exhaustion had triumphed over Tony's stubborn determination to stay awake. His broken sleep over the past month meant that he was constantly tired, yet he continually tried to fight sleep knowing that the nightmares laid in wait. He was sprawled across the bed, completely spent and so deeply asleep the former Marine couldn't bring himself to wake him.
Gibbs placed the soup on the bedside table and stood over the younger man, noting the changes the past few weeks of hell had wrought in him. He knew, better than anyone, the emotional scars that had been left unhealed and buried behind a wall of humour and nonchalance. But the small white stress lines around his mouth told Gibbs that, even in sleep, this man was holding on too tightly.
From the time he was a young child, Tony's method of dealing with pain was simple - bury it, ignore it, deny it. While he had mastered the technique better than most, this time it wasn't working. This time it was eating him alive and with a painful twist of his intuitive gut Gibbs realised that, for the first time in eight years, he couldn't guess the path of the younger man's thoughts.
Suffering was a personal thing and there was no way to truly gauge the level of someone else's pain. Hard as it was, Gibbs just had to wait and hope like hell that his agent would reach out to him again.
Sleep may have come instantly but inevitably the nightmares arrived and, like a samurai's sword, mercilessly sliced his soul to ribbons. The whispers echoed all around and hands furtively touched him. He was caught up in a barbed-wire tangle of memories; too tired to hold back the horrors that had been circling like vultures.
Images forced themselves to the forefront of his mind - men pinning him to the floor and laughing as they injected heroin into his veins. They churned around and around, a noxious mixture of anger, fear and shame. He couldn't move. He couldn't fight. A claustrophobic scream expanded in his chest and sweat broke out on his forehead and trickled coldly down his back. Fight it, DiNozzo! He heard his boss' voice in the far recesses of his mind, steadfast and uncompromising as his order floated like a tiny raft in the maelstrom.
The substance was overpowering him; the warm wave of anaesthesia swept through his veins, washing over his face, down his neck to his chest before crashing into a warm, golden explosion in his stomach and groin. A blessed sensation beyond the peak of orgasm brought relief from pain and nausea as every muscle in his body relaxed and his head lolled gently to his shoulder. Unburdened of the crushing weight of pain, blackness encroached on the edges of Tony's vision, a cool darkness beckoned to him and he surrendered willingly to it.
In an instant the images and sensations transformed as an unseen demon rose from the blackness. Venomous thoughts and insidious whispers of hopelessness and failure were planted into his mind, corroding his soul and self-worth. He shivered uncontrollably, lost in the throes of urgency for the substance his blood now craved. Burning sensations skittered along every nerve ending, wringing a cry of pain from his lips as an inferno of pain blasted through his mind like a blowtorch. Relentless nausea, muscle spasms and fever assailed him until he was spiralling down into the ravenous vortex of need and the gnawing hunger for heroin that could not be ignored and would never be satisfied.
The memories crashed in on him and he surged upward from the bed in a swirling cloud of fear and panic. His breath exploded from his damaged chest in an audible rush and he stumbled blindly for the door. He reached the back landing where slow gasps of cool air gave space for reason to return.
No longer able to support his weight, his knees buckled and he fell heavily into a chair. Leaning forward he cradled his aching head in his hands. Swallowing the knotted misery in his throat, his breath caught in a sob. He clamped his lips to deny it life but there was no denying the cause. Cold dread coiled in his stomach as he realised that this was an enemy he couldn't fight alone...he needed help.
Heavy footsteps and the sound of the back door slamming startled Jackson from his sleep in the upstairs bedroom. Throwing on his bathrobe and wincing at the protest of sleep-tightened muscles, he made his way carefully down the stairs and saw his son staring out of the kitchen window.
"What the heck happened?" Jackson asked around a jaw-breaking yawn.
Gibbs pointed with his chin to where his agent sat slumped in a chair on the back landing, one arm wrapped protectively around his ribs while the other ran trembling fingers through spiky bed-hair.
Jack sighed loudly.
"This has gotta stop, son," he said. "That young fella's in all kinds of pain."
"I'm on it," Gibbs replied, filling two mugs with coffee from the pot and turning for the door.
Taking a seat beside his agent, Gibbs gave him a gentle nudge with his shoulder and handed him a mug. He watched as Tony wrapped his long fingers around it and nodded his thanks. The younger man's skin was wet and clammy, his t-shirt nearly soaked and he was breathing in short, loud gasps.
"Talk to me," Gibbs' quiet voice touched him.
"Nothin' to say," Tony replied flatly.
"Tony," Gibbs persisted gently. "Please."
That one word, rarely uttered by his boss, had Tony trying desperately to marshal the emotions churning inside him. A cowardly voice at the back of his mind told him to run but he ignored it. He was so close that he could almost taste the freedom that would come from speaking the words to someone else. To unburden him of the mind numbing fear and shame he had struggled to suppress these last weeks.
Gibbs placed a hand on his shoulder, the heat and the weight of it reassuring him and silently urging him on. Finally, he turned desolate eyes to the former Marine and his voice choked with humiliation as the truth leaked out, quietly and shamefully.
"I'm in trouble, Boss."
There was no need for further explanation as the words sent Gibbs' stomach into a free-fall. Anger flared white-hot in his mind and the urge to take Grayson apart with his bare hands burned brightly. It faded instantly, extinguished by the look of self-loathing on the younger man's face.
"Thought I could do this alone," Tony huffed a humourless laugh and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. "Didn't wanna let you down."
Gibbs moved his hand to the younger man's nape.
"You have never let me down," he said hoarsely.
Tony turned his face away when he felt his control slipping. Desperately, he tried to shore up long-constructed emotional shields that were threatening to crumble at any minute. He dropped his gaze to the floor and offered the only thing left.
"I'm sorry, Boss."
Taking a long pull of his coffee to cover his own emotions, Gibbs cleared his throat with a quiet cough.
"Tony…listen to me. This…is not your fault."
Tony raised his head and met his boss' gaze; his pupils were dilated to black disks almost eclipsing the green iris. There was no disgust or pity in Gibbs' eyes, no betrayal or judgement, only a deep concern and acceptance that was almost Tony's undoing. Uneasy with so much overt emotion, Tony carded shaking fingers through his hair and attempted to gather the tattered remains of his self-control.
"We'll fix this," Gibbs promised. "Get you some help."
Tony nodded but the thought clenched a knot in his chest so tight that he could barely breathe and his head dropped suddenly, as if the burden of shame had made it too heavy to hold up.
"What if I can't do this?" The younger man's voice caught and dwindled to a raw whisper as an invisible blade pierced Gibbs' heart.
"You will," he replied definitively, giving his agent's nape a gentle squeeze. "We will."
From Gibbs, that reply was as good as a three-minute speech followed by a hug and Tony gave him a faint wintry smile – the best he could manage under the circumstances.
"I'll lose my job," Tony stated.
"Not gonna happen," Gibbs assured him, silently adding a resolute challenge, 'just let 'em try.'
Soft footsteps sounded behind them and a warm blanket was draped around Tony's shoulders.
"The doc's on his way," Jack said, giving Tony's shoulder a supportive pat before going back inside to wait for Ducky.
The two men waited in silence, allowing the peace of the early morning to soothe them. The sun was not yet up, but the sky was lightening. The thin, high clouds in the east were lit with brilliant colour, but in the west, stars were still visible.
Finally, the sound of Ducky's Morgan was heard at the front of the house and the elderly ME arrived toting his medical bag. Tony dropped his eyes to the ground and was uncharacteristically quiet as Gibbs brought Ducky up-to-date with the situation. Ducky's eyes were full of compassion for his young friend.
"There are many excellent drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinics," he told them.
A flicker of alarm lit Tony's eyes and was swiftly extinguished like a spark falling into water.
"In fact, an old school chum of mine is the head physician at an excellent facility in Hartford, Connecticut."
"Connecticut? That's a little far from home isn't it, Doc?" Jackson asked.
"Further's better," Gibbs said. "Less chance of him running into anyone he knows."
"Why don't we discuss that in the morning," Ducky suggested. "In the meantime, my boy, let's take a look at you."
Giving Tony a quick examination, Ducky scowled at the blood pressure reading and scoffed at Tony's insistence that he was feeling much better. His words were mocked by his rough gasps for air; harsh tremors and his sweat-soaked hair plastered to his brow.
"On my way here, I took the liberty of consulting with Captain Taylor who, you may recall, treated Anthony when he was admitted to Bethesda," Ducky said. "He suggested I administer a mild sedative."
"No," Tony said firmly. "No sedatives."
"Anthony," Ducky said gently. "Your heart and pulse are racing; your blood pressure is sky-high. Your body needs to rest."
Tony's eyes flicked to Gibbs who agreed with a barely perceptible nod, then, with a loud sigh of resignation, the younger man complied without further protest. As the ME prepared the syringe and injected the contents, Gibbs watched his agent screw his eyes shut and turn his face away.
"There now, that should do the trick," Ducky said. "Let's get you back to bed, young man, before we have to carry you, hmm?"
Gibbs helped Tony to his feet, keeping hold of his elbow to steady him as they walked to the door of the guestroom. Physically and emotionally spent, the younger man practically fell into bed. He blinked several times before his eyes stayed closed and his thick eyelashes formed a dark fringe against his pale cheeks.
Closing the door gently behind him, Gibbs joined Ducky and Jackson in the living room.
"What time frame are we looking at, Duck?" Gibbs asked.
"It goes without saying that this is not my area of expertise, however, Anthony being amenable to undergoing treatment is a very good start indeed," Ducky said. "I should think the sooner we can place him at a treatment facility, the better."
"The clinic at Hartford…it's good?"
"Oh my word, Hartford is one of the country's leading dependency treatment facilities."
"Think you can get him in, Duck?"
"I assure you, Jethro," Ducky said with a sad smile. "I will do my very best."
"You gotta team lunch tomorrow, son?" Jack said. "You reckon he's up to that?"
Gibbs eyes drifted to the closed door of the guestroom.
"What do ya think, Duck?"
"I think, after all he's been through, our young man might appreciate the company of good friends, don't you?"
While Ducky and Jackson chatted quietly, Gibbs opened the guestroom door and leaned heavily on the door frame. He was relieved to see the drug-induced sleep had eased the tension from his agent's face. He felt a tightening in his chest as he imagined how difficult it had been for Tony to admit he was in trouble. But of one thing he was certain…Tony needed his help and nothing or nobody would stop him from giving it.
A check of the guestroom several hours later revealed that Tony was still sleeping. One arm was tossed over his head while the other curled across his ribs protectively. Resisting the impulse to check for fever, Gibbs closed the door and continued on to the kitchen where the light conversation and laughter of his team filtered in from the back landing. Abby appeared at the doorway chewing anxiously on her bottom lip.
"Still sleeping," the lead agent replied in anticipation of her question.
"Is he okay? I mean…should I get Ducky?"
"He's fine, Abs."
Abby placed her hands on her hips and huffed in exasperation.
"That would be a lot easier to believe, Bossman, if you stopped checking on him, like, every five minutes," she said knowingly.
"It's hot. I was getting the drinks," he countered.
"And the chips and the barbecue tongs and the salad and the meat…" Abby added with a cheeky grin. "You came back empty-handed every time. Admit it Gibbs, you were totally checking on Tony."
Opening the fridge he handed the grinning scientist a large bowl of salad and a container of marinated meat and placed a chaste kiss on her cheek.
"Go!" he said with a small quirk of his lips. "People are hungry."
Tony woke slowly, drifting up from a deep and restful drug-induced sleep into a leaden body that felt as though it hadn't moved for days. He screwed his eyes shut against the bright sunlight that sliced through the curtains. From the dull ache behind his eyes, he knew his persistent headache was waiting to ambush him at his first ill-considered movement. His bladder demanded immediate attention and, bracing a hand against his damaged ribcage, he gritted his teeth and set about getting to his feet. Tentatively walking to the adjoining bathroom, he took care of business and splashed some cold water on his face to chase the murkiness from his brain.
Tony figured he knew the drill; he knew how to get his head back together after an undercover assignment. You just kept moving; putting one foot in front of another, taking one case after another until you started to recognise yourself in the mirror again. But this time things were different – he was different. He was trying to put the pieces back together but no matter how he turned them they just didn't fit anymore.
A sickening rush of fear surged through him as he felt the darkness return, coiling tightly around his soul. Panic pulled at the edges of his mind and he ruthlessly suppressed it, taking some deep breaths and fumbling with the lid of his meds. He placed two pills under his tongue and sat on the closed toilet until he felt the tablets begin to take effect.
When the roaring in his ears subsided, he heard his teammates and friends in the yard and concentrated on their voices to keep him focussed. Gibbs, Abby, McGee, Ziva, hell even Jackson, Ducky and Palmer had seen him at his worst and a wave of shame washed up with that realisation. He hated how exposed that made him feel and how much harder it would be to face them.
A soft knock at the door nearly sent him into orbit.
"DiNozzo? You okay?"
"Fine, Boss, …just…ah, taking a shower."
"Chows on in five," Gibbs said through the door. "And Tony?"
"Works better when the water's running."
With his hair towel-dried into spikes and wearing the clean sweats and t-shirt that had, again, appeared at the foot of his bed, Tony made his way to the back landing. Gibbs was manning the grill while the others sat at the large table, filling their plates with an array of fresh salads and barbecued meat. It was a sure bet that he was the topic of the hushed conversation that halted abruptly as Palmer spotted Tony in the doorway.
"Hey, look who's up!" the young ME assistant said a little too cheerily.
Abby sprung to her feet, wrapping her arms around him and burying her face in the crook of his neck. The intensity of her grip left him in no doubt that they all knew.
"Forgive me, dear boy," Ducky said. "I hoped we could offer you greater support if your friends all knew of your…predicament."
Tony's eyes closed and his face burned with shame.
"We love you, Tony," Abby whispered. "This isn't your fault."
"We are all here for you, Tony," Ziva said gently.
"Whatever you need, man," McGee added from the other side of the table.
Tony's internal struggle was plain to see as it played across his face and penetrated his usual mask of emotional detachment. Then, with a quick shake of his head, he abruptly snapped out of his thoughts and plastered on a smile that was all too bright.
"Abs," Tony rasped, "can't breathe."
Relaxing her grip, Abby tugged Tony by the arm to a nearby seat at the table and the casual conversations and light-hearted banter resumed as they enjoyed their meals and the all too rare casual get-together.
With lunch over and Tony's energy levels fading, the group adjourned to the living room for cake and coffee. Gibbs' sharp eyes watched his agent from the other side of the room. The jokes and smiles kept coming - reinforcing the mask of the extrovert yet hiding the face and feelings of the man. Closing his eyes he pushed aside his anxiety and tried to focus on the positive. Tony was home; his team was whole again and he would do whatever he could to ensure it stayed that way.
"Don't wanna seem ungrateful here, Probie," Tony said from the couch, "but you cut it a little fine with that winning basket, don't you think?"
"Er…not really sure what you mean?" McGee replied, not quite grasping the metaphor.
"I'm saying, McJumpshot, that I like the thrill of a three-point buzzer-beater as much as the next guy. But while you were counting down the clock, I was being fitted for orange coveralls."
"Tony!" Abby scolded lightly. "McGee worked night and day to crack the encryption on that account!"
"I don't think you understand what a highly intricate security program that was, Tony," McGee explained with a mixture of indignation and guilt. "I decrypted it as fast as I could and…and… besides… Ziva arrived later than I did!"
"Hey!" the Israeli protested. "You had weeks to crack that code. While I, on the other hand, had only a short time to collect a subpoena, view the CCTV footage and drive across town in peak hour traffic like some crazy woman to get it to the hearing!"
"You always drive like a crazy woman," McGee argued.
"That's true, Ziva," Abby said. "Road safety so isn't your strong suit."
"This from a woman who used to drive a hearse," Ziva scoffed.
The three voices competed for dominance as Abby, Ziva and McGee continued to squabble and bicker. Tony leaned back on the couch and lifted his feet onto the coffee table with a contented sigh. Looking on in amusement, Gibbs bit back a grin and leaned forward to speak into his senior agent's ear.
"Having fun, DiNozzo," he drawled.
"Time of my life, Boss," Tony replied, closing his eyes and clasping his hands behind his head as a Cheshire Cat smile formed on his pale face.
It was another hour before the team left and the house fell into relative silence. Ducky took a call on the back landing while Jackson helped Gibbs tidy the kitchen.
"Lunch was a good idea, Leroy," Jackson told his son. "They needed this time with Tony…I reckon he needed it, too."
Gibbs nodded silently in acknowledgement.
"What about you, son? How are you holding up?"
"Ask me when it's over, Dad," Gibbs said wearily.
"Well now, you can count on that," Jack replied firmly.
Tony was dozing restlessly on the couch and clasped his hands tightly together to resist pressing his fists against his throbbing temples. He thought about his teammates, overwhelmingly grateful that these people had come into his life. He felt their support and concern like warm flames on a cold winter's night. His thoughts drifted to Gibbs and he marvelled at the discordance of hard-ass Marine and caring friend and mentor. Beneath the head slaps and abrasive comments there was a father's compassion and loyalty that ran through the man like a vein of gold.
Panic gripped his chest and squeezed tightly – what if he let him down? What if he couldn't make it back? He concentrated on slowing his breathing until the panic subsided and reason returned. As long as his boss and his team had his back - he had a fighting chance.
He felt a gentle nudge on his shoulder and opened fatigue-bruised eyes to see Ducky entering the living room after completing his call. Wincing at the tweak from his ribcage, Tony sat up and waited until the others were seated.
"Duck?" Gibbs said. "That your friend from the clinic?"
"Indeed it was, Jethro," Ducky replied. "My old friend, Maurice Hollingsworth is now the head physician at the Hartford Valley Detox and Wellness Centre. It's an excellent facility with a first-class support program. In fact, Maurice and I were just saying-"
"Can you get him in, Duck?"
The lead agent's heart sank when Ducky released a heartfelt sigh.
"They are willing to take Anthony, of course," Ducky replied. "But not just yet…"
"Why the heck not?" Jackson protested. "If this is about money, Doc, I'd gladly-"
"I wish it were that simple, Jackson," Ducky said. "The programs available at Hartford are more geared toward patients who are currently taking minimum daily doses of methadone or Subutex and need support and encouragement as they take the final steps in their recovery."
"And Tony's just starting," Jackson stated.
"Yes, I'm afraid that even if we carefully fast-tracked Anthony's step-down process, it would take several months before he reached that stage."
Gibbs exchanged a look with his agent and saw the distress in Tony's eyes.
"We need to do this now, Duck."
"Jethro please! You witnessed for yourself the brutal effects of Subutex withdrawals when Anthony skipped several doses. If the tapering is not carefully monitored the effects can be very serious indeed. You can't seriously expect Anthony to-"
The ME stopped mid-flow and stroked his chin thoughtfully.
"I will need to make a few calls to verify," the ME said staring intently at Tony. "But there just might be another way."
"I'll do it," Tony said eagerly.
"No, Boss, whatever it is, I'll do it. I want my life back…I can't wait months."
He rubbed a hand across his brow, fingers pressing hard to ease the throbbing headache as his self-control hung by a gossamer thread. Ducky placed a warm hand on the younger man's forearm.
"Anthony, listen to me," he said gravely. "This other way…it is not without its risks."
The elevator deposited Gibbs to the fifth floor and he stepped out, walking directly to the nurses' station.
"Evening, Delores," he greeted the woman wearing pink scrubs and sitting behind the desk.
Nurse Manager, Delores Delahunty was nearing retirement age. Widowed and with no children, her job was her life and she ran the ICU like a well-oiled machine. She looked over the top of her glasses as the lead agent approached.
"I wondered when you'd show up," she said sternly.
"I left a message," he replied, "said I'd be late."
"And now you come in here, batting your eyes and expecting me to let you disturb my patient," she scolded.
Gibbs placed a Styrofoam cup on the counter.
"Caramel latte, skim milk, no sugar, just the way you like it," he said.
"Now how'd you know that?" she asked, narrowing her eyes.
The agent shrugged casually.
"I'm an investigator…s'what I do."
She pursed her lips thoughtfully and tried not to drown in the pools of his deep blue eyes.
"Well okay, you can go in," she huffed. "But only because I told him you were coming and I don't want him disappointed."
"Understood," Gibbs said gratefully. "How's he doing?"
"Stubborn and uncooperative," Delores sighed. "He's had a rough day and his fever's peaked again. I was about to check on him as soon as I give Mr Dixon his meds."
Gibbs let out a long breath and carded his fingers through his hair.
"You start the movie yet?" he asked.
"We waited for you."
With a grateful nod of his head, Gibbs turned for Tony's room and Delores watched him appreciably from behind.
"Thanks for the latte, Gunny," she called and then dropped her voice to a whisper. "But, sugar, you had me at 'Evening, Delores.'"
Gibbs stopped outside the door and took a minute to gather himself. Taking a deep breath, he entered the small room, blinking to adjust to the muted lighting. He glanced quickly at his agent before taking up the remote and watching the mounted plasma come to life. The beginning credits rolled with John Wayne in The Alamo.
"Good choice," Gibbs said with a nod of approval and another sideways glance. "I know this is hard, Tony…but I thought we agreed. You wanna get through this, you gotta cooperate."
His agent's face was partially hidden in the shadows but it was his stillness and the silence that Gibbs found most disturbing. The former Marine moved to the side of the bed, wincing at the gut-wrenching sight of his agent on a respirator, his chest rising and falling in a rhythm that was too evenly measured to be natural. Gibbs watched helplessly as Tony was trapped in his own private purgatory. He placed a gentle hand on the crown of the younger man's head, cringing at the heat pouring from him and his mind drifted back to a conversation in his living room two days prior.
With Tony in the early stages of his Subutex regime, his high daily dosage made him ineligible to enter the Hartford Valley Detox Centre. Ducky had suggested that resumption of the Ultra-Rapid Detox treatment might significantly reduce the step-down time from months to days.
Desperate to find a way out of this nightmare, Tony had hastily agreed. Gibbs and Jackson had both argued that there were other facilities that would accept him straight away without him having to take such radical action but the younger man was adamant; he wanted his life back – sooner rather than later – and if Ducky said Hartford was the best, then that's where he wanted to go.
With a little extra prodding, Tony had reluctantly told Gibbs of his fear of being stood down from his job if word of his dependency got out.
"I can't lose my job, Boss."
Gibbs pushed aside his own frustration and helplessness as he headed for the Navy yard. There wasn't much he could do to help Tony but he could make damn sure the agency stood by him.
"Well?" he asked anxiously as the director replaced the handset.
"He agreed," Vance said in his usual taciturn manner. "SecNav's still riding high on the favourable press NCIS has received since Grayson's arrest. He will ensure that DiNozzo's medical bills are paid and we'll delete any mention of dependency treatment from his file."
Gibbs nodded his satisfaction.
"There's a condition," Vance said.
"DiNozzo gets one shot at this and no second chances, if he relapses-"
"But if he does," Vance continued, "he'll be relieved of duty like anyone else."
"Understood," Gibbs replied turning on his heel and heading for the door.
"Gibbs?" the director called as Gibbs opened the office door. "Do what you have to. Get him back."
Gibbs' musings were interrupted as Delores entered the room carrying a bowl of water and several cold packs. Placing them on the rolling table, she checked Tony's vital signs and the readouts from the array of medical equipment and noted them on his chart.
"You're a stubborn man, Tony DiNozzo," she told the unconscious man. "What did I tell you about these fevers?"
"Doc still planning to extubate tomorrow?" Gibbs asked.
"According to his chart, Captain Taylor will extubate him in the morning about oh seven hundred."
"I'll be here," Gibbs nodded. "What happens next?"
"We'll reduce his Subutex to the lowest dosage he can safely handle, then monitor his condition for the rest of the day. All being well, you can take him home tomorrow afternoon. Dr Mallard said Tony's booked into Hartford Valley?"
"Hartford's a world-class facility," she said. "He'll be in very good hands."
She placed the tympanic thermometer in his ear and took his temperature.
"103, stubborn as a mule!" she tsked before noting the concern on the older man's face. "Fever is a normal part of detox process but we don't like to see it that high. I know it's hard to watch, Gunny, but the best part of URD is that Tony won't remember a thing."
Gibbs nodded grimly knowing for a fact that while Tony may never remember, he would never forget.
Quickly and efficiently Delores placed the cold packs on and under Tony's still form and reached for the washcloth in the bowl when her pager rang.
"Dang," she cursed quietly.
"Go," Gibbs told her. "I got this."
He reached for the cloth soaking in the basin and wrung out the excess water before passing it lightly over his agent's face and neck.
"You can do this, Tony," he said quietly. "Lotta good people have got your six."
They drove from Hartford airport in watchful silence; no humour or easy conversation anywhere to be seen and hope seemed a lifetime away. Behind the designer sunglasses, Tony's eyes were still hollowed by fatigue and the remnants of the URD treatment. Gibbs recognised the weary slump to his shoulders and the brittleness that spoke of a man who knew what it was to be broken and feared he would never be whole again. That was the burden that Tony DiNozzo now carried. The former Marine would have gladly given his own strength of will if it would help, but the physical power to fight this battle had to come from Tony.
Ducky's friend, Doctor Maurice Hollingsworth, met them at the centre and gave them a tour of the facility. With its fully equipped gym, tennis and basketball courts and manicured grounds, it looked more like a resort than a detox centre. The doctor explained that addiction recovery was equally dependent on physical and emotional wellbeing and the ability to relax and recapture all that life has to offer.
All too soon it was time for Gibbs to leave and, for an instant, Tony was all at sea, as if a sudden squall had knocked him off-course. He forced the panic from his mind and steadied himself with a cleansing breath. Looking away, his jaw moved as if he was searching for words then, after a long moment, he spoke in a raw whisper.
"Not sure I can do this, Boss?"
The sigh that Gibbs released came from his boots as he struggled inwardly with his own emotions. He looked intently at his agent and repeated the words he'd told him several nights ago.
"Never let me down before…you won't now."
Tony remained silent though his eyes were speaking volumes and in a rare show of emotion, Gibbs pulled his agent into an uncharacteristic hug with several encouraging back slaps. Tony hung on for a long moment before letting go and clearing the emotion from his voice with a quiet cough.
"See ya, in sixty days, Boss," he rasped, turning quickly and forcing himself to walk away before he changed his mind.
The lead agent watched him go.
"Make me proud, Tony," he whispered.
Gibbs hoisted his bag from the baggage claim, swung it over his shoulder and collected the keys to his pre-booked rental car. He shook his head at his extravagant decision to hire a luxury car rather than the more practical Dodge sedan. Stowing his bag in the trunk, he slipped behind the wheel, admired the feel of the luxury vehicle and headed for Hartford Valley Detox and Wellness Centre…and his senior field agent.
It had been nearly sixty days since he'd driven this road and the time had dragged by with irritating slowness. He, McGee and Ziva had worked effectively enough, closing their assigned cases and keeping up with the paperwork, but the MCRT was off-kilter. Although he'd never admit it aloud, he missed Tony's intuitiveness; the uniquely DiNozzo-esque way he looked at a case or interrogated a suspect and…if he was completely honest…he missed the yabba.
In the centre gymnasium, Tony finished a weights circuit and snatched his water bottle from his gym bag. He quenched his thirst and looked around the deserted building knowing that most of the staff and patients were attending a function in the conference centre. He closed his eyes for a moment and allowed a feeling of pride to wash over him. Fifty-nine days…and for thirty of them he'd been clean, facing each new day without the soul-destroying crutch of Subutex.
He'd put in the hard yards; taken the mandatory classes and attended the counselling sessions designed to help him retake control of his life. But it was in the gym that the former college athlete had found his greatest solace. The hours spent improving his physical fitness and regaining muscle mass had also helped restore his self-confidence and inner strength. While the ghost of his addiction would always live within him, Tony knew he was ready to return to his life.
Tossing his water bottle aside he picked up a basketball and moved to the court. His memory was flooded with images of his varsity days and hours of intense shooting, rebound, passing and footwork drills. He'd lost some speed and agility to age but there was no doubt that Anthony DiNozzo junior still knew his way around the court. He was standing on the mid-court line shaping to shoot when a familiar voice sounded from somewhere behind him.
"I got twenty that says you don't make that shot."
Eyes wide with surprise, Tony swung around to see his boss sitting in the bleachers.
"You might wanna rethink that, Boss, cause downtown is where I live," he grinned.
Gibbs felt an immediate release of tension as he silently welcomed the return of his cocky, self-assured agent.
"Show me what you got, hotshot," he replied.
Turning back to face the basket, Tony bounced the ball several times, never taking his eyes off the hoop. Bending his knees, he jumped high into the air, releasing the ball at the top of his jump and watching as it arced gracefully and dropped through the hoop without touching the rim.
"I still got some game, Boss," Tony said wearing a shit-eating grin.
"So I see," Gibbs replied, meeting his agent on court and handing him a twenty-dollar bill.
"Don't get me wrong, Boss, you're a sight for sore eyes and all," Tony said stashing the cash in the pocket of his shorts. "But I wasn't expecting you until later tonight."
"That why you're perfecting your jump shot when you're supposed to be attending a seminar?"
"Nope. I gotta free day today. The centre is holding a seminar for patients and families and …wait, that's why you're here?"
The familiar sting of a head slap elicited a surprised squeak.
"That's for not calling," Gibbs said.
"I thought about calling but, you know, it's kind of a lot to ask," Tony said still rubbing the back of his head. "How'd you find out about it anyway?"
"Your counsellor, Jill Martin, called. Thought you should have someone kicking your ass when you get outta here," Gibbs replied.
"And you're an excellent ass-kicker, Boss."
Gibbs checked his watch.
"You got fifteen minutes to hit the showers and clean up before it starts."
Tony's expression grew serious.
"If you'd rather not do this, Boss, I understa-"
"Fourteen minutes," the lead agent replied as the younger man jogged for the showers.
Gibbs and Tony spent the rest of the day attending the family support and education seminar in the conference centre. The seminar concentrated on the critical role of families/sponsors in recovery, learning the stages of dependency recovery, recognising signs of struggle and possible relapse triggers and providing support during the transition from rehab into life. Knowing Tony would never join a support group, Gibbs willingly stepped into the role of sponsor. When the seminar ended, Tony introduced Gibbs to his counsellor, Jill Martin.
"We meet at last," the counsellor said with a warm smile for Gibbs.
"At last?" Tony repeated, feeling he was missing something.
"After speaking on the phone twice a week for two months, I feel like I know you already," Jill told Gibbs. "I'm happy to know that Tony has someone like you in his corner."
As Gibbs and Jill walked together to the refreshments area and helped themselves to the coffee, Tony was moved by the lengths his boss was prepared to go to assist his recovery…of course, it didn't hurt that his counsellor was an attractive redhead.
Tossing his bathroom kit into his bag and zipping it closed, Tony's eyes did a final sweep of his room, making sure he hadn't forgotten anything.
Although he was thrilled to finally be going home, a sudden apprehension and self-doubt seized him. While he fully expected the journey back to full health would be long and arduous, Tony reassured himself that he would not be travelling that path alone. Gibbs would be there to steady him if he stumbled…just like always.
Pulling free from his thoughts, he found his boss watching him with concerned eyes and for a long moment, he held Gibbs' gaze - not as agents but as friends. Speaking from the heart without uttering a word, he thanked Gibbs for his unwavering support. A rare smile lifted the corners of Gibbs' mouth and he nodded his head, warmed by the unspoken sentiment - message received and understood.
"All set?" Gibbs asked.
Tony grabbed his jacket that was hanging over a chair near the dresser and Gibbs spotted something underneath.
"You forget something?" he asked.
He watched in confusion as, without looking, his agent gave the object a subtle kick that pushed it further out of sight.
"Ready when you are, Boss," came the overly bright reply that conveniently ignored his question.
Gibbs persisted, intrigued by the younger man's odd behaviour.
"What's that?" he asked.
Tony's face morphed into the look of innocence he'd spent his life perfecting.
Gibbs gave him an exasperated look and pointed.
"That box," he growled.
"Oh that! That's nothing…probably belonged to the guy who had this room before me," Tony said looking at his watch. "Is that the time? We better get going, Boss, if we're gonna call by Jack's on the way home."
Gibbs' eyes narrowed suspiciously - he wasn't buying. He reached down to retrieve the box only to have his agent anxiously block his path.
Gibbs' voice remained calm in stark contrast to the irritated look in his eyes.
"DiNozzo, you can move…or I'll move you," he said with a hint of menace.
Tony grimaced theatrically and reluctantly shuffled aside as Gibbs bent low and retrieved a hand made wooden toolbox.
"We can hand that in at the desk," Tony said. "I'm sure the centre has a lost and found."
Gibbs studied the toolbox before looking at his agent.
"You make this for me?" he asked.
"What? No!" Tony said, huffing a nervous laugh. "Like I said, Boss, the guy who had this room before me must have left that here."
Gibbs turned the toolbox around and pointed to the initials carved on the front – LJG.
"That freakin'...er...Larry Jim Grisling...ton...son," he said shaking his head disapprovingly. "Always leaving his stuff around. Anyway, I'm ready, Boss, let's go."
Gibbs quashed the ruse with a look not even Anthony DiNozzo could defy and the younger man sighed in resignation.
"Okay, this is not what it looks like," Tony started.
"You make this?"
"Then it's exactly what it looks like," Gibbs told him as he examined the workmanship.
"You know how it is, Boss, they like to keep us busy here, you know…so we don't think about…well you know…" Tony felt the heat of a blush. "This is stupid, it's no big deal...you should just leave it here and we can pretend you never saw it."
The younger man reached out to take the toolbox from Gibbs who snatched it away possessively.
"S'not bad, DiNozzo."
"Really?" the younger man said with surprise. "I had a little trouble with the hinges and one corner isn't right but..."
"Good job on the sanding," Gibbs remarked looking more closely at the gift. "File this back and that corner will fit fine."
Tony stared at his boss, trying to read his face.
"So…you're keeping it?"
"Well, yeah, DiNozzo," the former Marine drawled. "If ya think Larry Jim Grislingtonson won't mind."
Tony's face broke into a split-watermelon grin and Gibbs couldn't help but match it.
"Let's go," he said with a gentle shoulder barge.
Hoisting his bag to his shoulder and grabbing his jacket, Tony followed Gibbs to the door of his room and turned around for one final look.
"You okay?" Gibbs asked.
"I made it, Boss," he said softly.
Gibbs reached across to gently squeeze the younger man's nape.
"Damn, straight," he replied hoping that Tony could hear the pride in his voice.
Gibbs watched as Tony walked to the discharge desk to say goodbye to the nurses and staff. Although he'd travelled quite a distance to leave his perdition behind, he had a long way to go to truly find solace. The secret darkness that lay dormant within him could return at any time in quest of his soul but both men knew…if this unseen demon returned for Tony, it would have to get by Gibbs first.
Finally exiting the building and walking toward the parking lot Tony's voice broke the silence.
"Hey, Boss, I've been thinking," he said. "With my new found talent for woodwork, maybe next time you build a boat I can, you know, help you out?"
Gibbs swallowed the smile that formed on his lips.
"Baby steps, DiNozzo, baby steps."
He tossed the keys of the rental in Tony's direction and watched as his agent easily plucked them out of the air.
"You want me to drive?" he asked with surprise, his eyes already scanning the parking lot for the plate that matched the number on the key tag.
His eyes widened and his jaw dropped as he matched the number to the plate of a silver convertible.
"Boss!" he whispered, running his hand reverently along the sleek lines. "Do you know what this is? This is an Aston Martin DBS, the same model car that Bond drove in Quantum of Solace...this is amazing."
Gibbs grinned as his agent recited dialogue and movie trivia by rote.
"Welcome back, DiNozzo," he whispered.
A/N – Many thanks to a special reader who shared her own experiences with drug addiction and recovery with me and offered her advice on this chapter. Bless.
It's truly a humbling experience to have you travel each story's journey with me and to receive such overwhelming support. I hope you enjoyed it.
Until next time…with every good wish, L