It might be necessary to re-read the previous chapter because of the long delay, but I've included a paragraph or so from the end of it below too, to help jog your memory. =)

He grasped Tony's shoulders, and managed somehow in a moment that was completely void in his memory afterwards, to bring him back from the panicked haze he had worked himself into.

The replay of that horrible second of inaction resonated in the marine's mind for the rest of the night, until the dawn light stole into the room through the drawn blinds, and Gibbs remained staring at the whitewashed ceiling the whole time, unable to stop contemplating what could have been the unearthing of one of the biggest constants in his life, had the situation been more dire. He prided himself on his reflexes – indeed, they were a large part of his line of work – but that had been the standard reaction of a civilian.

Evidently, dependence was a sword that could cut both ways.

Gibbs was holding his shoulders tight, so tight that for a split second it hurt, but then the grip loosened.

"Tony, breathe with me. Come on now, you're fine, it's okay..."

The long stream of comforting babble flowed around him, encased him in a protective shield of the familiar and trustworthy.

The avalanche of his thoughts slowed, levelled out as he obeyed Gibbs's voice with an effort.

"You're fine, just lie back down..."

He allowed the guidance of firm hands to angle his body towards the bed, and sank into the mattress bonelessly, the soporific effect of his pills settling over him as the dosage time ticked on, and slowly his staring eyes closed.

Unknown to him, Gibbs lingered at his bedside for a few minutes longer, ascertaining that it had indeed just been a temporary attack, and there was no need to summon a nurse. Easing into a slow and steady rhythm, the heavy breathing caused by complete and utter exhaustion that Tony had succumbed to confirmed Gibbs's conclusion.

Any other observer would have witnessed the sudden retreat back to the cot with mystification, but had he been conscious, Tony would have noticed the slight tremor that ran through the older man, as he sat down heavily on the collapsible bed.

Light flickered into the room through the cream blinds of the hospital room, and as Tony awoke at the bidding of a voice he knew to pay attention to, the events of the previous night seemed akin to those of a distant past or the life of a character from a movie.

Not the life of one Anthony DiNozzo Jr. anyway.

But the edge in the blue eyes told him that it was all real, and that he'd better accept it fast, for Gibbs was on the warpath - that look was the one that glinted when they faced a particularly tough nut of a case - and it had been known to do much more difficult tasks than get a young-ish SFA who admired him to spill his guts.

However fortunately, or unfortunately for Tony's nerves, there stood Dr Pitt and Dr Mallard at the other side of his bed to Gibbs.

The Italian struggled up into a sitting position, barely noticing the supporting hand that lingered between his shoulder blades until it rubbed briefly and then disappeared.

Disconcerted, Tony glanced up at Gibbs, and then looked to the doctor.

"You're fine," came Pitt's simple announcement, accompanied by a broad smile. "I didn't want to wake you, but Agent Gibbs insisted that you'd want to know straight away..."

Pitt's amiable chatter continued, but it most definitely did not warrant the huge grin that adorned Tony's face for its entire duration, but not one of the three men called him up on it.

Gibbs was not a man who succumbed to sentiment often, but even he wondered for a moment whether if the room was suddenly thrown into darkness, Tony's grin would keep it lit.

Eventually, the young man came down from the cloud on which he had been floating and looked from Ducky to Pitt expectantly.

"What is it Anthony?" Ducky questioned, already having an inkling of what was on the man's mind from experience past.

"Can I go now?" Came the abrupt and hope-filled inquiry.

The slight sting on the back of his head told him just what Gibbs thought of that idea, but Ducky only wore an expression of mild forbearance on his face.

Pitt was the one to respond though, and with a firm shake of his head at that, holding up his hand in anticipation of the barrage of pleading and arguments that would follow.

"Tony, hear me out first. There's no way I can let you out tonight - and by that I mean absolutely no way. But, if you have adequate supervision," a brief but pointed glance at Gibbs, "then unless there are some unforeseen complications, you should be alright to go tomorrow, on the condition you attend your scheduled check-ups."

Tony's shoulders sagged. He knew an ultimatum when he heard one.

But Pitt clapped his shoulder gently, and reminded him, "None of that changes the fact you've got good news to be thankful for!"

Green eyes looked up at that, and the chestnut head bobbed earnestly, as Tony reached a hand out to shake the doctor's.

"I know - and thanks." The gap of a heartbeat, and then, "You'd turn a blind eye if I got Gibbs to smuggle pizza in, right?"

The marine in question didn't as much as blink in response to the cheekiness, instead taking the smiling doctor aside to talk to him.

Gazing over Ducky's shoulder, Tony gnawed the inside of his lip as he tried to make out what was being said.

Then a bow-tie and collar obscured his vision, and Tony started, before fixing Ducky with a quick smile.

"Anthony," the ME said softly, almost as if not to be overheard. "What is troubling you, my dear boy?"

"Does he really care?" Tony asked abruptly, his usual skittery attitude to such questions quashed by his frustration, though he trained his eyes firmly on the two talking men, so as not to have to face the perceptive gaze of the ME.

"Yes." The answer was as immediate as it was assured.

Tony stared into the blue eyes partly hidden behind glass lenses, and saw his own distorted reflection.

"How can you be so sure?" He asked, almost envious of the certainty with which the ME was able to assert his conclusions.

"You don't have to look hard to see it, my dear boy - why are you so uncertain?" Was the gentle not-quite-answer, and Tony swallowed hard against the words that wanted to erupt from his throat.

Because I'm not sure how to be anything else.

Ducky was left to dwell on what had, and what had not been said, for Pitt began to move back towards them, to give Tony a few cautionary words.

"I want you to take it easy Tony – Doctor Rennson informed me of your fall last night, and you're very fortunate that it didn't cause any additional damage. I understand that you want to be discharged as soon as possible, but injuring yourself again is not the way to go about it."

Tony nodded automatically, not quite registering the advice given but acknowledging it all the same.

When Gibbs came back over, he said nothing regarding what he had been talking to Pitt about, and Tony didn't ask.

~ Qalam