END OF THE LINE
Tim dragged himself from the bathroom and crawled back under the covers. He felt like crap. It was bad enough getting caught out like a probie. It was a simple assignment and he'd screwed it up big time. He'd let Tony down and betrayed Gibbs trust in him. Now, throwing up every few minutes, made his misery complete.
When the paramedics arrived he'd felt fine. Ziva had wanted to stay with him, but he told her to go with Gibbs and he would join them as soon as he was cleared. At least that was the plan, then the sickness started. After being prodded and stuck with so many needles he wondered if he had any blood left, the docs eventually told him the canister didn't contain anything life threatening. The pounding headache and constant vomiting just made him wish he was dead. Then he remembered Tony…
Abby said he was in a bad way. That was hours ago, so surely he must be out of surgery by now? Tim threw back the covers to go find out for himself when the bile rose once again. He grabbed for the basin but it might just as well have been a million miles away. Suddenly it appeared under his chin – Gibbs.
His boss said nothing as he held the basin with one hand and supported his back with the other. When he was finished retching, the same firm hand helped him back against the pillows and handed him a glass of water. It tasted good, but the lingering acid reflux was still hanging around. He only risked a few sips.
"Sorry about that, boss."
"Don't be. Not your fault."
"I should have spotted him, Boss. Tony got shot because of me."
Gibbs shrugged. "Yeah, you should…but you didn't pull the trigger, McGee, and Tony's going be okay. He lost a lot of blood but the bullet managed to miss anything vital. He got out of surgery a few minutes ago."
Tim felt the tension leave his body. "That's great…Well not great as he got shot. I'm glad he's going to be all right."
"We all got lucky today." Gibbs said in a low voice. It wasn't the lecture he'd been expecting and Tim waited for the other shoe to drop. Gibbs continued, giving no sign he was going to tear a strip off. "The doc says you're in for a rough night but the effects don't last long. Hopefully you'll get out of here tomorrow."
"Thanks for coming to see me. I know you've been worried about Tony."
The easy going manner disappeared and Gibbs stared at him. "Why wouldn't I?" He asked sounding hurt. "I worry about all of you, McGee. You're a member of my team…you're family."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
"And stop apologizing – it's getting old." Gibbs muttered and as he started to walk away he glimpsed at the emesis basin, grimacing. "I'll ask a nurse to get that."
Gibbs' nod signalled his departure. When he'd first joined the team Gibbs' long silences used to make him nervous. It hadn't taken long before he'd learned the boss was economical with words. He only said what he needed to. When he did, it was always relevant and worth listening too.
Fact was Gibbs was more a father to him than his own dad. Gibbs was demanding and expected the best, but he always acknowledged a job well done. Not like the Admiral. As a kid he'd tried everything to please him. It was never good enough. Now, he no longer tried…
Tim nestled into the pillows and allowed the exhaustion he'd been keeping at bay to overwhelm him. It had been a lousy day but at least they'd caught Ferris and most important, Tony was going to be okay. He kept that thought in his mind as he drifted off. Hoping the sickness would let up long enough so he could get some sleep this time.
The adrenaline high was long gone, now it was only caffeine keeping him awake. He wanted a hot shower, a stiff bourbon and a full eight hours, but Gibbs was going nowhere till he finished what he'd set out to do.
McGee looked like a wet rag, so miserable he didn't have the heart to give him a proper dressing down. He'd been conservative with the truth about Tony too. It was true that the bullet missed anything vital, but the damn thing had caused enough damage to warrant ten units of blood over a three hour surgery. For a while it was touch and go. Tony was now in intensive care with a fifty/fifty chance of survival. The docs were being cautious but they were good enough odds for him. DiNozzo would make it. He'd survived worse.
He'd sent the rest of the team home, and intended to check in on him later. First there was another visit to make.
John was half asleep when he came in. There was a large dressing on the right of his forehead, but cleaned and dressed in a hospital gown he looked better than he'd ever seen him.
At the sight of him John stirred and shuffled up into a sitting position. "How's Tony?"
Gibbs came to stand by the side of the bed. "Alive, thanks to you."
The man visibly relaxed. "That's good to hear. He risked his life to save me."
Gibbs smiled. "From what I hear you made a good team. You could have left him, John, but you didn't. I owe you." Neither man spoke for a minute. John colored slightly, clearly embarrassed by the praise so Gibbs broke the silence. "What are you going to do now? I could make a few enquiries. Help you find work."
"Thanks, Gibbs, but I think I might have a job. The diner needs a short order chef. I worked as a cook in my hometown café before I joined up. It's not a sure thing but one of the waitresses is a cousin of the owner. She's putting in a good word for me."
"Well, if it falls through or if you need anything – be sure to let me know."
John extended a hand and Gibbs shook it.
"One more thing." Gibbs reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. "I called your daughter. She's been trying to find you, John. She wants you to call."
The former bum slumped back against the pillows and drew a hand through his long, straggly hair. "It's been too long, Gibbs. I'm a recovering alcoholic. What happens if I screw up again? I'd hate to put her through that."
"Life doesn't come with guarantees. All I know is if I got the chance to speak to my daughter again…I'd take it."
John's hands trembled slightly as he picked up the number. He looked up when Gibbs put a cell phone onto the bed. "She's expecting your call. It's a burner phone, I don't need it back."
It was John's decision to make so he left him alone. The guy was smart and brave. He hoped he had enough of both to do the right thing…
The crystal clear blue water looked inviting but that would mean getting wet. Tempting as it was, right now all he wanted to do was work on his tan.
Tony sipped his drink and watched the women passing by, his admiring gaze hidden by Ray-Bands. They normally passed in groups of two or four, skirting the edge of the white sands, laughing when they misjudged the tide and got their cute varnished toes soaked by the incoming waves. Then came the one he'd been waiting for.
She was a little older than the others but no less attractive because of it. The white tee she was wearing covered more than a bikini would but wet, it left nothing to the imagination. She spotted him and her glare would have made most men quake in their boots. Tony just grinned as she stormed over. Her wet hair falling into her eyes as it swung in damp tendrils around her face and down her shoulders.
"Hi, Kate…it's good to see you. Does this mean I'm dead? 'Cause if it does, Heaven doesn't look too bad from where I'm sitting."
She gave him a tight smile and stood with her hands on her hips. "You're not dead, Tony, but don't tempt me. What makes you think you'd get into Heaven anyway." Kate picked at the wet tee in distaste. "I might have guessed you'd pick this look when you decided to dream me up."
"Well it is a very good look." He grinned, then he remembered what he'd done and his smile faded. "Look, Kate, I'm sorry I forgot about you. I…I don't know how I could've done that."
"That's right, Tony, you forgot about me – for all of two minutes. I've got news for you, Frat boy, you're not infallible. You are one of the most childish, egotistical and infuriating men I ever met…but you're also one of the bravest. I always felt safe when I was with you. I knew you had my back."
"I couldn't stop Ari from killing you."
Kate rolled her eyes, and gave him the look of exasperation he remembered only too well. "And there you go again! Like I said before, you're not Superman. No one is infallible, not even Gibbs. You need to give yourself a break, Tony. And you need to wake up. It's time to stop hiding out in this fantasy you've created and join the world again. Oh, don't worry. I'll be around to give you a hard time when you do finally pass over. That's provided you make it up here. Listen. When you see Gibbs, tell him I said hi." Kate looked wistful as she glanced at the water. "I can't remember the last time I went swimming." Suddenly she turned wearing a grin and winked. "Last one in the water is a rotten egg."
He ran after her into the spray, but by the time he reached the edge of the beach she'd disappeared and so had the water. He was lying in a hospital bed, the sun from a nearby window shining in his eyes.
"Bout time you came round."
The statement sounded like a rebuke, but Gibbs looked relieved. Tony tried to lift his head but gave up the attempt when the room started spinning. As the memory of what had happened filtered back, he realized he'd got lucky. Survival though came at a price. He ached all over and there was a sharp burning pain in his side. From the fuzzy, heavy way his brain was digesting information, he reckoned the pain was masked by the meds. He could only guess how bad he'd feel without them. Tony lifted a hand to scratch his face surprised to find it covered in cuts and bruises. His two broken fingers were heavily strapped up again. Then he remembered how that happened. "Please tell me I broke his nose."
Gibbs chuckled. "Yeah…and fractured his jaw. Ferris wanted to press charges for brutality. I've never seen Vance laugh so hard. So, how are you feeling?"
"Sore. Relieved it's over."
"We linked the gun he shot you with to the two other murders. We also found a bunch of antiques. Ziva took a tip from your book and realized the dimensions of his garage didn't look right. Turns out he'd hidden everything behind a false wall. We also found a couple of laptops, including the one missing from the storage unit. Between Tim and Abby we have the names of everyone involved in the operation, including his buyers. Ferris tired to do a deal, but we've got enough to put him away for life. Everyone is going down. It's a slam dunk, Tony."
Tony picked at the sheets on his bed. "I feel sorry for his kid. Life is hard enough without growing up without a father being around."
Gibbs let out a long sigh. "Yeah, well, he wasn't exactly dad of the year. It wasn't the happy family life he'd painted. His wife told me they were going through a nasty divorce. From what I hear he used the kid as a pawn to make things difficult for her." Gibbs shrugged. "Who knows what goes on inside a marriage? Anyway, she's back home to take care of her daughter. There's no evidence to suggest she's a part of the operation. I'm glad for the kid's sake. They're going to be okay. So are you."
Tony went quiet for a moment. Physically he was a mess but mentally, emotionally he did feel better. The torture he'd suffered would live with him forever but in taking Ferris down, at least he'd proved to himself he wasn't a victim.
"You should go home, Boss. You look tired."
Gibbs'mouth twitched. "You telling me what to do now, DiNozzo?"
"Someone has to." He smiled. "Go on. I'm fine."
"Yeah…I know." Gibbs rose to his feet and winced slightly as he stretched out his back. "I'll see you later, Tony."
He heard a slight hiss and as more meds were delivered into his veins, Tony could feel sleep drag him under. As Gibbs reached the door he remembered something he'd promised to do. "Kate says hi…"
Gibbs turned, stared, but the man on the bed was already sleeping. He shook his head but was wearing a small smile as he walked away…
Downtime sucked. Back in Baltimore Tony knew guys who made a habit of bunking off but regardless of how hot the girl was, or what game was in town, personally he didn't get it. His work was pretty much his life, NCIS much more than that. They were the family he'd always wanted but never had. The glue that kept his life together and made it all make sense.
Senior was back on the scene, something he'd never expected, but the addition to his life wasn't unwelcome. Nonetheless, his father was unreliable. Tony had forgiven him for the betrayal in his past, but forgiving was not the same as forgetting. Fact was his father was also damaged goods. He couldn't help being the way he was, doing the things he did. Gibbs would never have his old man's charm but his boss was the real influence in his life. His uncompromising stance could grate at times, but he never let him down.
Honesty meant everything. He'd rather have someone who told him how it was and had his back, than be bolstered up with flattery and meaningless platitudes. Gibbs was always there when he needed a head slap to bring him down to earth, or a pep talk when he was at his lowest. He missed him. He missed all the team. He wanted back to work.
It hadn't been too bad in the beginning. Unable to do more than shuffle between the couch and bed he was content to watch re-runs of his favorite movies. That grew old as he'd started feeling better, getting antsy as frustration crept in. Five weeks on his wounds were mostly healed. The only obstacle preventing his return to duty, his psych evaluation.
He'd never been comfortable talking about his feelings. Tony understood the doc was only trying to do her job but he'd rather get shot than laying his emotions bare. That sort of brought him back to where he was now…
Doctor Keeler was nice, attractive even with a Michelle Pfeiffer look going on. In the beginning he'd tried to win her over with the old DiNozzo charm. It even worked for a while. At least he'd thought so, until it became clear she wasn't buying any of it. Several appointments later his heart sank when he realized he wasn't getting out of it. If he wanted back to work, he would have to give her something.
When he walked into the office he knew it was make or break time. She was waiting for him to address the elephant in the room. Come clean about what they'd been dancing around for weeks. The torture.
His palms were sweating, but he pinned a smile on his face as he nonchalantly sat down on the easy chair as if he didn't have a care in the world. It was showtime…
"I hope you're ready, Doc, because I don't intent to repeat this more than once."
She nodded, and sensing his need to get it over with stayed silent until he finished describing as little of the nightmare he could get away with. By the time he was done he felt drained. His hands clenched into fists on his lap.
"Thank you, Tony. I know how hard that must have been. How do you feel now?"
How did he feel? She was watching him closely, waiting for his mask to come back up but despite wanting to run away he stood his ground and kept it honest.
"That's kind of a dumb question, Doc." He gave her a half smile that didn't reach his eyes. "I'm angry. Angry at the men who did it, angry at the fact they're dead and it wasn't me who took them down." He took a calming breath, scared he would give too much of himself away. "I suppose I'm also angry at myself for being careless. I should've known something was up…But hey I've accepted I'm not perfect. Coming to see you has really helped. "
It was a big fat lie. He still awoke drenched in sweat. Sitting bolt upright in bed, his heart racing so fast it felt like it was trying to burst out his chest…Tony wasn't about to share this with anyone - ever. The mask was firmly back in place but he kept eye contact, and didn't flinch as the dark brown eyes assessed him, trying to gauge if he was telling the truth.
As she began to write he kept his demeanour relaxed and refrained from conversation. He hoped he'd done enough. Hoped he'd bared enough of his soul to get the pass he desperately wanted and get back to work.
Some people got solace in church, but Gibbs' basement was his sanctuary.
There, it was just him and the wood. A place where he shut out the world, all the bad memories pushed to the side as he fashioned the solid material into whatever he wanted. If the plan didn't work out, it didn't matter. No harm, no foul. He would either discard it, or start again. It was a solitary activity but he didn't consider himself to be a solitary man. Just a man who made the best of whatever life gave him. He was content with his own company, but wasn't adverse to the occasional visitor. Family were always welcome.
When he heard the familiar tread at the top of the stairs he suppressed a smile. "What did the doc say?"
Tony stopped mid step and rolled his eyes. Gibbs knew why. His team thought he knew everything. He didn't. He was just observant.
"She still wants to see me every couple of weeks, but I'm coming back to work. I start back Monday.
"Good," Gibbs turned round, "it's been hard on the team being a man down."
"Gee, thanks, Boss. It's nice to have been missed."
Gibbs said nothing but tipped the contents from two glass beakers and poured in a healthy measure of bourbon in each. He handed one over to Tony and raised his glass. "Welcome back, Tony. Here's to survival."
Tony cocked an eyebrow and the two men shared a look of understanding as they drank to the toast.
"How do you do it, Gibbs?"
He didn't need to ask what he meant. His nightmares started after Shannon and Kelly were murdered. Since then a bunch of others had joined them. Finding Tony badly beaten in the movie theatre, so confused he didn't even recognize him. That had hurt more than he would ever let on.
"I get up in the morning. Shower, brush my teeth and start my day. I'd be lying if I told you the nightmares go away…but they get less, easier to deal with as time goes by." He saw the pain hidden in the younger man's eyes. "You okay?"
Tony stared at the amber liquid as he swirled it about his glass. "Not yet…but I will be." He nodded towards the lump of wood Gibbs was working on. "What are you making?"
Gibbs looked at the man he considered to be a son, and accepted that was as much of an answer as he was going to get. He'd been in that dark place. Knew that only time would help heal the wounds. That, and the support of family. If or when Tony wanted to share he knew where to come. He doubted that would happen as Tony was like him in more ways either man would care to admit. DiNozzo might talk up a storm, but it was just that – talk. Deep down Tony was as private as he was. Right now, Gibbs decided to give him the out he was looking for.
"I'm making birdhouses for the VA hospital to sell. They've having a fete at the end of the month to raise money for Feed Our Vets. They're pretty easy to make. Want to give it a try?"
Tony paused for a moment and took another sip before coming to join him at the work bench. "Have you heard from John?"
"Yeah, I stopped by the diner. He makes a mean pot roast."
"Good, I'm glad. I'll need to stop by sometime." Tony picked up one of the half finished birdhouses. "Okay, what do I do?"
Gibbs took some sandpaper and started smoothing off the rough edges. "Hold the wood steady, and don't go against the grain. If you follow my lead I'll show you how it's done."
Tony glanced up and smiled. "I always do, Boss…"
Gibbs shook his head and smiled. "You're gonna do just fine, Tony."
"Yeah…" He finished the rest of his drink and put down the beaker. "So…I was thinking we should all go out to celebrate."
"Sounds good. Where do you have in mind?"
"I was thinking Italian. I know a place where they have lasagne to die for…"
Well that's a wrap!
I hope you enjoyed the story, and many thanks again to all who reviewed! It's been a pleasure to write this for you, and I've loved reading all your feedback. And please review this chapter too. I'd really like to know what you thought of the ending!
I also want to give a huge thanks to my wonderful beta and good pal Sterenyk Strey. She's put up with getting chapters at the last minute and hasn't complained once!
Again, many thanks for all your support.