A/N, 3/2/13: To clarify, this chapter opens with Ducky's thoughts prior to Jethro's arrival at Bethesda. After the line break, it picks up where chapter four left off.
This chapter is the last one I wrote of this story. Once again, Laine3112 finished what I started. I wrote chapters 1-5, Laine wrote chapters 6-9.
I'm very grateful that Laine was willing to take this one on so it would finally be completed. She's an excellent writer, the best NCIS fanfic has to offer, and I'm honored to have her help. If you haven't already read Laine's wonderful work, you can find a link to her profile in my favorite authors list.
Donald Mallard sat quiet in the chair at Tony's bedside, taking a brief break from the steady chatter he'd kept up, hoping Tony would latch onto his voice, follow it as a guide out of the abyss. Interspersed frequently among encouragements and rambling tales was a re-telling of the information he'd received from Tobias Fornell last night when he'd called anyone and everyone who might possibly know Jethro's whereabouts. If only one message made it through, he hoped Anthony would know that Gibbs had chosen him over Granger.
The bedside chair had hardly been empty the last almost 24 hours. Other than Ducky, Abby had occupied it the longest and Tim had spent a good bit of time at his friend's side, as had Ziva. Leon Vance had come, but whether he'd sat or stood during his short visit was unknown. It was a small relief that Gibbs had left Vance a terse message, so he hadn't disappeared with no word whatsoever. With Gibbs AWOL and Tony out and no ongoing active cases for the team, Vance had taken the MCRT off rotation, leaving them free to keep vigil at the hospital. He'd also agreed to, if necessary, call in the back-up ME so that Ducky could stay until Jethro arrived.
Jimmy Palmer had taken a turn at Tony's side and spent most of Ducky's waiting room time with him until Mallard had insisted he, and the rest of Team Gibbs and Abby, leave to go sleep, at least for a few hours. At their protests, he'd argued that, as a physician, he was best suited to stand vigil until Jethro arrived. Left unsaid and even more important, he was best suited to break the news to Jethro and deal with the fallout.
Other than wishing Tony would wake and respond, Jethro's was the only company he'd welcome now. Ducky knew that, soon, there would be the onslaught of acquaintances and fellow law enforcement officers, both past and present. Had Anthony been wounded in the line of duty, they'd have already been here. Word of mouth was slower this time since he'd been injured in an off-duty accident.
Even so, already a dozen NCIS agents, a night crew cleaning woman and two security officers had come by to inquire as to his condition. Jethro being absent, it had fallen on Ducky to assume the lead in dealing with them. Exhausted, he was grateful to have a break from concerned visitors asking how Anthony was doing. It was getting more difficult by the hour to answer that question optimisticly.
The septicemia-triggered systemic organ distress hadn't yet evolved into any full failure; there was no damage that was absolutely irreversible. But, in spite of the infusion of powerful antibiotics, Tony's condition hadn't improved, had, in fact, worsened in minute but ominous increments of rising temperature and lowered organ function and blood pressure. His life could end suddenly at any time, without warning. Mallard fervently hoped and prayed Jethro would arrive soon, for both Anthony and Jethro's sakes.
Doctors had done all they could, medicine had no more help to offer Anthony DiNozzo. Ducky believed Jethro's presence was the only thing left that might help now. Had Tony been only a bit worse, he'd have been more worried that Jethro's appearance would amount to a final farewell. The unexplainable, but very real, phenomenon of a dying patient, through strength of will and spirit, holding death at bay; holding on for someone or some event. One more Christmas, a new birth, a last goodbye to a loved one. He feared that, if Tony's condition deteriorated much more, Jethro's presence would be release to move on rather than an incentive and anchor to hold Tony here.
But, it wasn't to that point yet. Knowing DiNozzo and his stubborn refusal to give in to odds, Mallard expected he'd stave off death longer than would seem humanly possible. But, every human body had its limits, no matter the tenacity of spirit. He didn't delude himself that Jethro could magically save Anthony. But, he did believe his presence would help, could afford the edge that-
Mallard's thought was interrupted by a nurse's voice.
"Agent Gibbs is here. He's on his way up."
Ducky murmured a heartfelt "Thank God" before leaving Tony to go to meet Jethro.
Sitting on the bench outside the hospital, Ducky stopped dead in his recitation of Tony's 911 call, startled into silence when he glanced over at his friend. Gibbs had paled to a striking degree, a pained and stunned expression on his face.
Gibbs acted as if he hadn't heard. He reached a trembling hand into his jacket pocket to pull out his cell phone.
"Jethro, are you alright?"
He didn't respond, only began punching keys on the phone then held it up to his ear to listen. Then, the hand holding the cell fell to his thigh and his features twisted in agony.
Mallard had never seen Gibbs in such a state before, the man seemed to be silently, painfully unraveling before his eyes. A spike of panic shot through the physician as he realized he could be seeing a heart attack, a stroke...He could be watching his old friend die before his eyes.
He reached for Jethro's wrist to take his pulse but the arm jerked violently away from him. Hating to leave him but knowing time was of the essence, he grabbed Jethro's shoulders to try to turn him and force him down onto the bench.
"Lie down, I'm going for help."
Instead of reclining, Gibbs wrestled away from the touch and bolted from the bench and stood there looking dazed and lost.
"I did it!"
"Tony; he didn't trip, I pushed him. I did it!"
Trying to placate the disoriented man, keeping a grip on one shoulder with one hand while he reached with the other into his pocket for his phone to call for help, Ducky spoke.
"Tony was clear on what happened, he was alone."
Jethro shook his head.
"I was there, in the barn lot. He'd followed me, we argued. I was going to meet Alan and he grabbed my arm to stop me. I threw an elbow back to break away. He yelled for me and I kept walking and never looked back. I walked away from him lying there. He called before I even got the car started. I saw it was him and didn't answer; I turned the phone off and drove away."
Mallard froze, stunned by the confession.
Gibbs put his cell on speaker and replayed the message.
Ducky listened. This new, cruel twist to an already horrendous situation left him speechless for a moment. Then, he took the cell phone from Gibbs' hand, closed it and put it in his own pocket.
"It was an accident."
"It was me! If he dies, I killed him!"
"That's enough! Anthony made plain, to the point of asking to be sure it was recorded, so there would be no doubt as to what happened."
"He was lying. I've probably killed him but he's still covering for me."
"Even if what you say is true, the fact remains that it was an accident, unintentional. Both Anthony and I know that you'd never purposely hurt him that way. And, that you'd never have left him there if you'd known he was injured."
"He called for help, after I shoved him down and I ignored him, I left him alone with a stake through his gut!" Gibbs refused any absolution Ducky had to offer.
Ducky saw McGee approaching at a distance from the parking lot. He grabbed Gibbs by both shoulders.
"Not another word! Anthony chose what to tell the authorities. Those words could be his dying declaration, his last wish, his last message to you. You will not betray his wishes! Should he live, you're free to discuss it at length with him. But, I will not allow you to fall on your sword and ruin your life for no purpose whatsoever outside the self-indulgent, fleeting balm of confession. If it is true, you'll live with it and carry on, just as Anthony wanted."
"Timothy is here." Jethro didn't respond. Desperate to contain the situation before it got any further out of hand with McGee as witness, Ducky gave Gibbs' shoulders a shake and barked out an angry order.
"Pull yourself together! Now!"
Gibbs blinked at Ducky's harsh tone. The anguish on his friend's face sorely tempted Mallard to console him rather than stand firm. He let go of Gibbs' shoulders and turned to face McGee. He saw when Tim caught sight of Jethro, quickening his pace to a trot until he was standing beside them.
"Boss! Thank God."
Gibbs didn't respond.
"You okay?" Confronted with the sight of his unflappable boss standing there undone, concern and confusion replaced the relief on Tim's expression,
"He's hungover," Ducky said putting censure in his voice. "AWOL on a bender at the worst possible time." He shook his head. "Fine example he's set."
Tim was too good an investigator, knew Gibbs' too well, to accept that his present state was the result of only too much alcohol. Ducky was grateful he was also wise enough to, after a few seconds of silent deliberation, follow Ducky's lead and switch the subject to Tony.
"No," Mallard answered. There was no need to mention Anthony's decline now in Gibbs' presence. He would live or die, his present condition wasn't relevant, only the end result.
"Abby finally located Senior," Tim said. "She wasn't able to talk to him, he's off on safari in Botswana with a rich widow and a group of investors. She left a message, they said they should be able to deliver it to him within the next couple days. Does she know you're found and here?"
"Not yet," Ducky answered for Gibbs. "I'll call her to let her know after Jethro has a little time to rehydrate and re-group. " Mallard wasn't going to let Gibbs face anyone else until he'd recovered some equilibrium. He hoped McGee would follow his lead once again and not contact Abby himself.
"You go sit with Anthony while Jethro sorts himself out. Some fluids and a bite to eat should do it. We'll be back within the hour."
Tim nodded and, with one more concerned glance at his silent boss, left them.
Ducky placed a hand on Jethro's shoulder, gave it a supportive squeeze then gently pushed to maneuver him back towards the hospital entrance.
"No more coffee until you've-"
Gibbs shook off Ducky's hand and began walking away from the hospital.
"Where are you going?" When Jethro didn't answer, Mallard hurried to catch up and moved to block his path.
"He needs you here, Jethro."
"I'm the last person he needs. I put him there!"
"A bond built over a decade isn't destroyed by one unintentional act. Anthony's actions prove that whether you choose to admit it or not. He had to know the wound might well be mortal and his last conscious choice was to forgive and protect you. You can't answer such courage and devotion by abandoning him now when he needs you most! Medicine has done all it can. Now, it's all down to him. Your presence, your voice-"
"Stop!" Jethro cut him off. "Stop with the 'talk to him, he'll hear you'! You think I don't know what you're doing? You think a lie'll help; it'll make me feel better to pretend he hears an apology before he dies?"
Even though it was directed at him, Ducky welcomed Gibbs' rage, a small step out of the dazed surrender to anguish.
"It's not a lie, it's fact! Granted, not every time, perhaps not most times. But, many times, proven many times over. The human spirit still holds mysteries without scientific explanation and even men of science recognize them. Anthony DiNozzo is a man of exceptional spirit, no doubt he's giving the battle his all. But, at the moment, he's losing. Your presence matters! Whether it gives him added strength to persevere and survive or grants him the peace to let go and move on. Much as we all care for him, it's you he needs. If you abandon him now, you're as much as leaving him to die alone!"