A Matter of Time
At first the Champion was alone, but he failed more often than not so it was decided to give him a Companion. One who would guard his back and stand at his side.
Slap. Slap. Slap.
Looking down in confusion, Tony wiggled his toes. Yes, those were his bare feet on the cold, white linoleum.
The question was why. Where was he?
Looking around, he recognized a hospital hallway when he saw one and yes this was the standard ugly, way-too-small, extremely revealing hospital gown he wore. A hospital – he must be hurt. He didn't feel any pain but a brief self-pat down revealed a hole in his abdomen. A bullet hole. Not good. He should be in a bed, hooked up and at least bandaged. But he wasn't bleeding. He should be bleeding.
He couldn't feel any pain, even when his fingers touched the hole so they must have given him the good drugs. Gibbs was gonna like that. Gibbs. There was something about Gibbs. Tony clenched his eyes shut and struggled to remember. Why couldn't he remember? Pressing both hands to his head, Tony tried to concentrate.
Warehouse. He—no they had been in the empty warehouse down by docks checking out a lead. It had been almost sunset so only a bit of light made it through the dirty windows high above. Ziva was off to the left, McGee somewhere behind them, stumbling over something on the bare, dusty floor. Gibbs had point and he was… he was…
A noise, ahead and to the left. Gibbs shouldn't have looked, shouldn't have taken his attention from what he was doing. Tony saw the gunman's head pop up over a tumbled stack of crates. Saw the frightened face and the gun lift with purpose and he did the only thing he could—he dove. It was a beautiful dive, arms high, good form. He might have even yelled at Gibbs. The last thing he remembered was Gibbs horrified face or was it the two pops, one right after the other. He had a vest on, of course he had.
Starting to run, Tony slowed only long enough to glance in each room he passed. He was halfway down the impossibly long hall before it dawned on him that not only was every room empty, but he'd seen no one in the halls either.
"Hey!" He shouted, coming to a stop and turning around. "Hey! Is anyone there?"
Nothing. No, wait... Turning back in the direction he'd been headed, there was something, a faint noise coming from one of the rooms down there. Taking off again, Tony ran toward the sound.
Slap. Slap. Slap. Faster now until the sound of bare feet on linoleum blurred into one sharp slap. He barely noticed the gown flapping loosely around him. The hall was too long to be real. Maybe he was dreaming.
The closer he got, the easier it was to identify the noise. There, the last door on the right. Tony swung around, one hand on the doorframe. Television. It was just a television, playing some stupid SyFy space movie.
Not the least out of breath, but knowing he should be, Tony looked around and leaned back to read the little bronze plate beside the door. Waiting Room. Yeah okay, anyone could see that by the two ugly orange faux plastic chairs and two matching couches along the wall. Both chairs were facing an old-fashioned, console tv with a small wooden table between them.
Fine. He walked around the small room looking for something to tell him what the hell was going on. No pictures on the wall. He looked for a remote, but found nothing on the table, not even a magazine or a phone. Phone. Patting his sides, it took him several seconds to realize hospital gowns didn't have pockets. Damn it.
A burst of laser fire drew his attention to the TV and he glanced over out of habit, not really looking at the movie.
"On it boss!" His head snapped forward and surprise, surprise. One of the guys in the shiny spacesuits looked a lot like Very Special Anthony DiNozzo. Before he could blink, the movie was cutoff mid word and a commercial broke in.
Only it wasn't really a commercial, just a goofy looking announcer standing there looking back at him. What the…. Tony leaned closer and the announcer mimicked his actions, going so far as to tilt his head and wink at Tony.
"Hi. Sorry about that. You're a bit early." The guy said with no particular accent. He wasn't very tall, had a head full of curly, pale blond hair and the ugliest thick round glasses Tony'd ever seen—in fire-engine red. Behind them, warm brown eyes gazed back at him full of amusement.
"Um." Tony said intelligently and stepped back, thighs hitting one of the orange chairs and he sat down abruptly and shot back up in a flash when cold plastic-plether hit his bare backside. The guy on the TV giggled and Tony looked around for a hidden camera before folding the hospital gown tightly around himself and sat carefully.
"So." The camera zoomed in and Tony could only see his head and the top of his shoulders. "Howya been Anthony?"
"You know me?" Tony swallowed hard. He was shot. This is a hospital so he's either in a dream or a nightmare…. Some bad reaction to the anesthetic or a painkiller. "Who are you? Where am I?"
The guy chortled and Tony was seriously close to losing it. "Look, Chuckles—"
"Anthony, Anthony." Chuckles shook his head in mock dismay and held up a hand. "I really wish they'd agree to recording at least one of these interviews so I don't have to repeat myself time after time ... after time."
"Who are you?" Tony enunciated slowly so the moron would get it and maybe answer the question. Shifting uncomfortably in the chair, his hands squeezed the wooden arms and he started to hyperventilate. Chuckles made frantic shushing noises.
"SSSSHhhhh!" He actually put his finger across his lips and widened his eyes at Tony till he could see white around his pupils. "They'll hear you and trust me…" He gave a theatrical shudder. "You don't want that. No sir, Anthony. You do not want them looking this way."
"Then tell me what's going on. Who are you? Where am I and what the hell is going on!" Tony was shouting at the end, half-standing. "Never mind, this is a drug-induced dream and I'm not really here. I get it."
Chuckles looked around apprehensively and used both hands to placate Tony. "Hush now. Really Anthony you'd think by now, you'd at least remember this much."
"Hush I said!" Chuckles made an annoyed face. "Don't you dare say that word aloud HERE." He looked around again. "If you will kindly sit down and shut up, I will explain everything." Rolling his head around on his neck, he rearranged his face into a serious expression. "After all, it's my job to… just because I… "
"Enough already!" Tony growled and pulled his hands away from the arms and gripped the seat. "Just spit it out." Calm down, he told himself, this is just a dream.
"Fine. What was the question again?" Chuckles deadpanned and ruined it with a laugh. "No, no. I remember… who am I?" He cleared his throat and looked to his left.
"You've already named me…. Chuckles. I don't believe you've chosen that name before." He stopped to taste the word, rolling it around on his tongue. "I like it. It has a certain je ne se qua. Yes, I definitely like it." Beaming at Tony, he nodded enthusiastically. "It's much better than the … um never mind."
"I've …I've been here? Named you?" Tony frowned, struggling to understand the concept. After all this was a dream right? Rolling with the punches would be better than waking up screaming in agony, right? "How can I name you?"
"Oh yes, dozens … hundreds of times." Chuckles nods again. "I quite like the names you come up with, much better than the other one." His mouth drooped momentarily, but the smile was instantly back.
"Other one?" Tony asked. "What other one?"
"Oh…." Chuckles waved his hand airily. "You know…." He coughed and looked left and right before leaning in and whispering. "The Champion." Nodding he straightened up and rolled his eyes to the left and right.
"Champion?" Tony frowned. "Who is the Champion?"
"SHHHHH!" Chuckles ducked. "I told you to be quiet! Don't say his name out loud. It's bad luck. You could summon him and that would be…" Chuckles pursed his lips and shook his head.
"Bad?" Tony offered idly wondering why he wasn't just getting up and leaving instead of sitting here wasting his time. "Who is this guy? The champion of what?"
"It would be … sad." Chuckles decided, suiting his expression to the word. "Well, you wouldn't have to wait alone, but his time's not over yet so it would…." He trailed off and pursed his lips again. "Huh. I don't remember his name this time around, let me check." Lifting up a scroll, an honest-to-goodness scroll, Chuckles unwound one side, rolling the slack up with the other side as he searched, the tip of his tongue sticking out.
"Oh ummm…. Oh, yes here it is. Leroy Jethro Gibbs." He looked up in surprise and back down at the scroll. "Yes, that's what it says… but really, who'd pick out that name." Shaking his head over parents who would name a baby Leroy Jethro, he looked up at Tony and grinned. "Your name is always some variant of Antonius." Happy to find something he could answer, he went on in a sing-song voice. "Antony, Anton, Antonio, Antonius, Nino, Tonio, or even..." Pausing for effect, he giggled. "Tony. That's my favorite…Tony."
"What'd you mean, his time isn't up?" Tony swallowed. "Does that mean my time is up?" Tony gripped the seat beside his knees until his knuckles were white. "'Cause I'm here?"
"Why… yes, Tony." Chuckles said softly. "You're obviously here, so yes, I'm afraid so."
"I'm dead?" Tony asked just to be clear. Chuckles nodded slowly, waving his hand back and forth in maybe/maybe not motion. "And this is like … what? Purgatory?" Tony looked around in confusion.
"Oh my no. No, Tony." Chuckles threw his head back and laughed. After a few seconds he was able to control himself and stopped just before Tony lost his temper again. "This …" Spreading his arms wide, Chuckles grinned widely. "This is the Waiting Room." Nodding happily after his announcement, Chuckles shivered in delight.
"The waiting room?" Tony asked and looked around again at the cheesy orange and fake wood furniture, the bare off-white walls. "Yeah, I got that from the sign at the door. Doesn't tell me a thing. Not even a table full of old magazines?" He asked sarcastically. This was turning into some dream. He couldn't wait to tell Abby, she'd totally freak.
"I'm so sorry. You won't be able to tell Abby. This isn't a dream Anthony. This is … this is it. "
Starting to feel a bit uneasy, Tony shook his head slowly and wrapped his arms around himself. "This can't be it. This is a dream. I'm in a hospital somewhere. I was shot… I remember I was… I jumped in front of Gibbs… some guy came out of nowhere…" Tony stopped in confusion and frowned in concentration. Why was it so hard to remember?
"Yes!" Chuckles smiled. "You threw yourself in front of the bullet that would have killed the Champion and died for him. Just like you're meant to."
"Wait. What?" Tony froze. "I'm meant to die for Gibbs?" Not that he wouldn't but… meant?
"You're the Champion's Companion. You protect him from harm." Chuckles explained patiently. "And if necessary, you die for him, like you have time and time again. And how you will in the …"
"What?" Tony asked unable to believe what he was hearing. "I… what?"
"You saved him." Chuckles repeated as if Tony didn't get it. "Your job is done for this cycle. So you can rest. And er… wait."
"So it's my destiny to die saving Gibbs? Over and over?" Tony raved. "Don't I ever get it right?"
"You get it right. You save him." Tony wanted to throw something at the screen, reach through the screen and pull Chuckles out here where he could shake some sense into him. "He doesn't die and is able to vanquish more evil. That's the way it works."
"That's all I am? A shield? A freaking vest for Gibbs?" Tony fought the growing anger, reminding himself this was a hallucination, or better yet, this was a nightmare. "That's it? That's my destiny?"
"Of course not." Brows drawn together, Chuckles sighed with impatience. "It's your choice. It has been, every single time. It would be so much easier if you could remember. You beg, you plead, you volunteer. Only you... Yada, yada, yada."
"This is insane." Tony raked both hands through his hair. "I don't believe it. It's just a dream. This is just some bad shrimp I had for lunch."
"All. True." Chuckles nodded his head solemnly. "If you'd just watch—"
"No!" Tony shouted and exploded out of the chair. "This is some freaking nightmare or something… something." Stomping around the room, Tony wrapped his arms around himself holding the hospital gown tightly closed. "This is insane! No, I'm clearly the insane one! You can't expect me to believe in this … this nonsense! It's not even a good plot for a movie!" Stopping at the door, he leaned forward and rested his forehead on the frame. "I need to wake up."
"You are awake." Tony didn't bother turning to look at the TV.
"Prove it." Tony leaned up with a sudden grin. "You can't! You can't prove this is a stupid nightmare, because this is a stupid nightmare! Ha!" Having found the solution, Tony calmed down and walked back to the chair. Might as well make himself comfortable until he woke up. Maybe there was a movie on. A real movie.
Chuckles was looking at him with his head tipped to the side and a considering look in his eyes. Tony watched him chew on his bottom lip in fascination. This guy was weird. Why'd he always have the weirdest dreams?
"Ok." Chuckles nodded, a feverish light giving his eyes a weird glitter. "Okay." He drew the word out and turned to the left motioning with both hands. "You have some time left. I'll send you back and you can see that this is reality and you're really at the end of this life." He looked straight at Tony. "You don't have long, so make the best of it. Remember…" He held up one finger. "They won't be able to see or hear you, but even you should be able to tell the difference between what's real and what's not. This, my friend, is very real." With a snap of his fingers, Tony blinked and he was in a different waiting room.
Abby hugged Burt tightly to her chest with one arm and sobbed quietly while McGee tried to comfort her. She'd made an attempt to wipe her face, but Tony could still see streaks of makeup smeared across her cheek. Even McGee's eyes were suspiciously red. Ziva sat stiffly beside him, stone-faced and seeing nothing, both hands clasped tightly together in her lap. Palmer sat in the other corner, whispering quietly into his phone.
"Come on guys! It's not that bad." Tony joked but no one paid him any attention. "Guys? Hey I'm right here!" Waving his hand in front of them, Tony walked closer and tried to touch Abby's shoulder. His hand sank in and he jerked back in shock. She shivered and turned her head into McGee's shoulder sobbing louder.
"Guys?" Tony whispered. "McCrybaby? Abs? I'm right here!"
"He can't die Timmy. He just can't!" Abby hiccupped and pulled back slightly. "First we lost Kate and now we're going to lose Tony?" She shook her head and wiped ineffectively at her face with one black-lace covered hand. "It's not fair Tim. It's not fair!" She wailed.
"I know." McGee said at the same time Tony shouted. "I'm not dead! I'm right here!"
"You know I always expected it would be me to … to … to get shot first." McGee wrapped both arms around Abby. "I'm the probie. I still make mistakes. Tony's always so careful. It's … he's…"
"I know." Abby nodded. "I'll never be able to watch a movie again." Abby started crying. "I'm gonna miss him so much!"
"Hey!" Tony waved his arms at them. "Not dead!"
"We'll give him the best funeral." McGee laid his cheek on Abby's head. "We'll hire all the limo's in DC and make a parade."
"Yeah." Abby agreed with a sob. "And a band. Tony'd love a marching band."
"That sounds nice guys, but hey! Still not dead!" Tony jumped up and down and grabbed the back of his hospital gown when he felt the breeze. No one paid him any attention.
'Stop it!" Ziva hissed. "He's not dead yet! You can't…"
"You heard Ducky. The doctors said—" McGee turned his head to look at her.
"I don't care what Ducky or the damn doctors say!" Ziva shouted and jumped to her feet. "Tony isn't dead! He can't die. He…" She clapped a hand over her mouth.
"Ziva." McGee let go of Abby and stood holding both arms out to Ziva. "We don't want him to die either."
Ziva shook her head and stepped back. "He can't die." She said in a low voice, visibly trying to get control of herself. "I never… I never told him…." She turned to the window and stared out.
"What?" Tony walked up behind her. "What didn't you tell me Ziva?"
McGee and Abby both went to stand beside Ziva, each putting a hand on her shoulder. "We all love him, Ziva." Abby said softly.
"You all love me? Ha!" Tony snorted. "You'll be fighting over my stuff by tomorrow morning." Shaking his head after he realized what he said, Tony backed away from them toward the door and saw Ducky walking away down the hall. "Stop planning my funeral! I'm not dead yet!" He shouted over his shoulder and followed Ducky.
Down the hall two doors on the left, he found Ducky and Gibbs and …himself. Drawn immediately to the bed, he stared down and didn't recognize the still body in the bed. Too many tubes and monitors. Too many bandages. Why was his head and neck all wrapped up like that, he didn't… Feeling around his neck, Tony found a gouge where a bullet had grazed his neck. Ah. Two shots.
"I'm sorry Jethro." Ducky patted Gibbs on the shoulder and ran a practiced eye over the humming monitors. "The doctors say it's only a matter of time."
" NO." Gibbs lifted his head and Tony saw with surprise that Gibbs was holding his hand. He'd pulled it through the bars and held it in both of his own. "No Ducky. DiNozzo doesn't have my permission to die." Gibbs voice was thick and rough; his eyes were so dark and hollow—he looked as if he hadn't slept in days. "He's not going to die. Not today."
"Jethro." Ducky shook his head and hearing the weariness in his voice, Tony swallowed heavily. Glancing down at himself he shook his head in denial. That … that mummy wasn't him. Where was his tan? He'd paid a lot for that tan and the little skin he could see was too pale. Looked like a vampire had sucked him dry. He felt sick looking down at … at that guy in the bed.
"If only the bullet hadn't nicked his Carotid artery, he would have had a chance. I'm sorry Jethro, but he lost too much blood at the scene. Nothing you could have done would've saved him." Ducky sighed and smoothed the blanket down across Tony's chest. "Oh, Anthony. I never wanted to see you on my table."
"Gibbs?" Tony whispered wrapping his arms around himself. "I'm not dead Gibbs." This wasn't real. This was a dream. A damn unfunny dream, but still a dream. He'd wake up any minute now and everyone would laugh and tease him about getting hurt again and he'd flirt with the nurses and beg probie to sneak him some pizza and…
"It's my fault." Gibbs lifted one hand free to wipe at his eyes. "They keep dying for me. Why the hell do they do that, Duck?" Gibbs sounded so hopeless, it broke Tony's heart.
His voice shook with emotion and Tony crouched down in front of him, something he wasn't going to repeat in a hospital gown anytime soon. "I'm here boss. I'm right here." Tony reached out to touch Gibbs' arm, letting it hover a moment before pulling back. "I'm not dead. Don't give up on me Boss. I'm not dead."
"Pacci and Kate and Jen and Mike and now Tony." Gibbs shook his head and looked up at Ducky. "I can't take this anymore Duck. I can't keep losing so many good people. I lost Shannon and Kelly. Why? Why does everyone I love have to die? I can't lose Tony." He added in a whisper. "He's like a son to me." Tony could barely hear him; he couldn't understand how Ducky could.
"I know Jethro. We all know how you feel about Anthony." Ducky dropped heavily in the other chair beside the window, leaned back and laid his arm across his eyes. "Believe me, I know."
"You never said boss." Tony smiled up at him. "But you know, you treated me better than my own father ever did."
"Has anyone contacted Anthony's father?" Ducky asked suddenly, lifting his arm to look at Gibbs.
Gibbs shrugged. "Vance said he'd find him. The bastard's probably over in Europe partying it up with some rich asshole, trying to make a buck."
"Rio." Tony said, glancing at Ducky. "This time of year, he's bound to be in Rio."
"Duck—" Gibbs' voice was cut off as Tony was zapped back into the empty waiting room with Chuckles.
"I wasn't done—" Tony shouted.
"I have some paper work to fill out, so you'll have to entertain yourself." Chuckles shook his head. "I've already broken the rules once and time is of the essence."
Chuckles was gone and the TV changed to where Gibbs was standing over a bleeding Tony, short-sword held up with both hands, bleeding from multiple small cuts and one broken arrow shaft in his shoulder. Both were dressed in Union uniforms. To the side, screaming Indians on horseback flowed down the hill like the tide rushing in. Gibbs and Tony were alone, the dead piled around them. Soldiers and Indians alike.
That Tony begged that Gibbs to go, to save himself. And that Gibbs answered gruffly. "And leave you behind to die alone. No."
"Please General. I'm a goner anyway." Tony watched himself beg the general to go with wide-eyes. "You need to save yourself, to go back for reinforcements."
"Not leaving you behind, lieutenant. I don't leave people behind. Never been a coward, not gonna start now." Shuffling his feet for a better stance, the General patted his hat on tighter.
The lieutenant wiped the blood from his face and struggled to his feet. "Then help me stand up. I can still fight. I can still watch your six."
The general looked down and shook his head. "Have I told you how proud I am of you soldier? Proud to have to stand with me."
"No sir. But I knew. I'm proud to stand with you too sir."
The general grinned and took a step back, putting down a hand to help the lieutenant to his feet. "I'm proud to 've known you, son. You've served me well. Now it's time to die with honor." His gaze turned to the enemy, almost within reach now. "I've three shots left." He pulled the colt from the holster and sighed.
The lieutenant choked and spit blood. "I'll follow you to hell, sir."
"I never doubted it."
The screen went black a couple seconds before Chuckles showed up.
"So we're like soldiers? Living over and over again?" Tony asked bemused. "That's just—"
"He's the Champion of the Light. You're his Companion. Been that way for thousands of years. Gonna be…" Chuckles trailed off and flicked his eyes to the side.
"Why not Shannon? A companion would be a woman… we're not… we're not…" Tony stuttered over the words. "We're not …involved... together..."
"Oh my, no." Chuckles chuckled. "It's not like that at all! The Champion and the Companion are soul-linked, not romantically linked." Pursing his lips, he shook his head at Tony. "You Americans… everything is always about sex. No. You're more like… different sides of the same coin?" He looked hopefully at Tony who had a puzzled look on his face. "Closer than brothers, but not lovers." Chuckles repeated that soundlessly, moving his lips and then laughed at his own joke. "Look I'm a poet and don't know it!" He laughed harder, throwing his head back and Tony snarled. "I crack me up!"
"Chuckles!" Tony looked around, unless he tossed the other chair, there was nothing to throw at the TV.
"All right. All right." Chuckles fought for control. "Don't you get it?"
"I get it fine. You're just not funny. Shut up and explain about Gibbs. About this companion thing." Inhaling sharply, Tony wondered if that's how Gibbs saw him half the time. Damn.
"You don't have to be rude." Chuckles huffed. "If you can move past the modern idea of a male/female pairings only, this will make more sense. One is not complete without the other. Oh, down the years, there've been wives and children for both of you of course, but you're always together. Fighting the Darkness."
"No." Tony shook his head. "No, that's … that's just wrong. There's nothing sexual between us. We're not like that."
"You're not listening Tony. Of course there's nothing sexual between you. That would just muddy the waters. You're warriors, there's no room for that kind of ... stuff. Companions are …" Chuckles eyes danced and his hand came up to half-cover his mouth but the snigger escaped. "He's your BFF if you will."
"BFF?" Tony asked incredulously. "Are you for real? No, never mind. I forgot this was just a dream. "
Suddenly serious, the curly-haired blond glared at Tony. "I'm very real. So are you and so is he." He sighed and looked off to the side. "Can't we at least tape this part so I wouldn't have to explain it over and over and over?" Tony couldn't hear any other voices, but Chuckles seemed to because he rolled his eyes and finally nodded. "Fine." Tony heard him say under his breath before turning back to face him. "BFF. What does that stand for?" Lifting one blond eyebrow expectantly, he waited.
Tony laughed nervously and made a 'are you kidding?' face. Chuckles waited eyebrow still up. "Best Friends Forever." He answered in a sing song voice with air quotes.
"Exactly!" Chuckles exclaimed and Tony thought he was seconds from clapping his hands and jumping up and down like Abby.
"Best friends forever?" Tony repeating it again, this time with a question in his voice.
Chuckles' face fell and he chewed his bottom lip for a moment. "Best meaning: of the highest quality, excellent; most advantageous, suitable, or desirable. Friends meaning: A person or persons you have things in common with; a person or persons you hold in high regard or love in a nonsexual manner. Forever meaning: until the end of time and perhaps beyond." Tony could see him grinning and rocking on his feet. "Yes. Exactly like that. BFF."
"You're insane." Tony dropped his head in his hands and tried to shake it. "No, I'm insane. This is my dream or rather… my nightmare."
"You're not insane Tony. This isn't a dream. I thought we took care of that notion already." Chuckles lost the grin and Tony thought he was going to come through the screen and hug him. "It'll take some time, but you'll believe. How many dreams can you use all five senses in? You see, you touch, you hear, you smell."
"That's only four and I don't smell anything but antiseptic, just like any hospital." Tony mumbled into his hands and heard Chuckles groan. "I'm thinking of shortening your name to Chuck. You're not funny anymore."
"Ha. Ha. Smell that Tony. Taste that!"
Tony didn't need to look up to smell the pizza on the table beside him. He wasn't hungry, but only a fool turned down free pizza. Lifting the lid he breathed in the aroma. At least they fed you in purgatory.
"Take this and amuse yourself. I'll be back in a bit." Chuckles tossed the remote at Tony who watched in disbelief as the remove came flying thru the screen to bang him on the knee and bounce under the chair. Swallowing heavily he moved his feet looking around, but didn't immediately see the remote.
The TV meanwhile had joined another movie of him and Gibbs midstream. "Hey." He shouted at Chuckles. "Is this all you can show? The end, where I die? I'd like to see the beginning or the middle too." No answer. With a sigh, he picked up a slice and rolled it lengthwise, biting the tip off with a moan of pleasure. "Good pizza! I'm gonna need some beer with this you know!"
When no beer appeared, Tony settled back in the chair and looked at the screen. This time Gibbs was some kind of Commodore on a ship if all the fancy braid on his shoulders meant anything. The ship was tossing back and forth in dark, rolling seas and Tony must be the Captain, trying to hold onto the wheel with a sword in one hand. Pirates. Tony leaned forward eagerly; there should be pirates if they were on a ship dressed like that. Captain Jack Sparrow, Tony grinned. This was his dream and he wanted Pirates. And beer. Therefore, there would be…
There were no pirates and no beer, just another ship shooting cannon balls at them and a fierce storm with enough wind and lightening to satisfy any action movie lover. The rain came down in sheets and Tony could barely make out what they were saying. Hell, he grumped, the Tony on the screen could barely make out what anyone was saying either. More swords, more fighting and then the guy who was Gibbs slipped in a puddle of blood. Flailing madly, jumping back from a sword slicing an arc through the air. The captain watched in horror as Gibbs stumbled backwards over a coil of rope and went over the side of the ship.
Without a second thought, Captain Tony dropped his sword and racing across the wet deck, dived after him. The scene stopped when the waves closed over his head and the TV went dark for several minutes before a harried looking Chuckles appeared.
"I'm kind of in the middle of something right now." Chuckles raked a hand thru his curls, but they bounced back looking untouched. "Can you just amuse yourself with the remote some more?" Without waiting for an answer the screen went blank.
Tony looked around for the remote and saw the pizza had disappeared. "Hey! I wasn't done with that." The screen remained blank and giving the TV a dark look he bent over to look for the remote. Finally finding it under one of the couches, he turned it this way and that before deciding to just push buttons.
"Sir, I respectfully request retreat. We're out—" A war movie. Tony couldn't tell if it was WWI or WWII. Looked like II from the shape of the helmets. They were crouched in a trench and the sounds of gunfire in the distance punctuated the darkness.
"Sergeant, our orders are to hold this hill, and we're damn well gonna hold it." That Gibbs took off his helmet and scratched his head frantically. "We do not retreat."
"Sir, there's not enough men left to hold this hill or any other hill." This Tony was dressed in a grimy green uniform and he was dirty. Tony wrinkled his nose. Very dirty. "Sir—"
"Sergeant! Need I remind you reinforcements are on the way?" He patted his pockets for more ammo and found a few bullets. "We will hold this hill or die trying."
"Lieutenant, sir." The sergeant put a hand out and stilled the lieutenant's arm. "We will hold the hill and we will die trying, but you need to get back to headquarters. Don't frown at me sir, they need your intel. You cannot die today."
"I don't plan on dying today soldier. No one is retreating, especially not me. I will not abandon my men."
"Sir—" the sergeant tried again, but a sudden burst of loud gunfire drowned him out. "That was too close sir. You need to go now!"
"Reinforcements are on the way. No one is leaving this trench." He held up a hand when the sergeant started to argue. "No one sergeant. That's an order. Do you understand me?"
"But sir." The sergeant shook his head and someone screamed grenade! They both ducked, trying to make themselves smaller. When nothing happened, the sergeant opened his eyes and saw the grenade rolling down the trench and before he could think he dove and landed on top of it.
Tony watched with wide eyes, unable to look away, pushing buttons frantically so he didn't see himself blown to bits. Closing his eyes, he heard the lieutenant shouting his name right before a loud explosion and then silence. Opening one eye, Tony breathed a sigh of relief at the blank screen. How many times could you watch yourself die before you got a headache? How many times had they died anyway?
For what seemed like hours, Tony pushed one button after another. This time they stood at the mouth of a cave. Gibbs looked like some medieval knight in scratched up armor while Tony was dressed in raggedy looking leather pants and a once-white, linen shirt. With a sigh he grumbled out loud to himself. "Gibbs gets to be a knight and I'm what? His squire? Some companion! Why can't I be a knight too?"
No one answered him and his attention was drawn back to the screen when strange, monster-like noises came from the TV.
"Get my shield, son." The knight gestured at a Percheron tethered to a pile of rocks off to the side. The squire ran and lifted down a large round shield from the saddle and ran back to the knight, holding it out to him.
"It comes, my lord." He said unnecessarily as they both turned to look at the cave opening resolutely.
"I can hear boy. Get back before you get hurt."
Tony leaned forward in the chair, expecting a dragon but what came slithering out the entrance was more snake than dragon. It had two scaled heads on long sinewy necks that could almost come at the knight from front and back at the same time. The squire tripped over a rock and sat down suddenly attracting the snake's attention.
"Die foul Worm!" The knight took the opportunity to slice into one of the necks. It whipped both heads back to the knight with a hiss, one head banging against the other, hanging by a thread, flinging green gore in a wide arc. From its mouth fell a partially eaten body of a man. The squire scrambled to his knees, retching up his breakfast. Tony sympathized and thought he might lose the pizza as well.
The knight danced backwards, sword up, cursing at the creature, but instead of attacking the knight, it lunged forward at the squire trying to get to his feet. With a shout, the knight raced forward, stabbing into the body of the worm. It jerked back, ripping the sword from the knight's hands and pulled its good head back to give it room to strike at the knight, mouth open and hissing in rage. The knight braced his feet and held the shield aloft.
Meanwhile the squire wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and took the situation in at a glance. With his own scream of rage, he darted forward, leaping over the whipping tail and grabbed the sword still hanging from the middle of the worm. It took both hands to pull it free, but when he finally wiggled it out, he immediately slammed it in again and again. The worm faltered mid-lunge and twisted itself around, squeezing the squire, trapping him in its coils. The squire screamed and stabbed again. The worm hissed with its good head and lunged at the squire, mouth open. Unable to get away from the squeezing coils, the squire buried the sword to the hilt in the roof of the snake's mouth, shoving into its tiny brain with a scream of victory.
Mouth agape, Tony watched in horrified disbelief as the knight pulled uselessly at the coils wrapped tightly around the squire as it squirmed and writhed in death throes. He heard himself whispering no, no, no over and over. The squire disappeared in the surging coils and Tony heard muffled screams for a moment before the snake convulsed and was still. In pained silence the knight climbed onto the snake and with a grim face unwound the coils until he found the squire's arm and started pulling.
Pushing buttons at random, Tony looked away, unwilling to see himself squashed to death. This was… this was… there were no words for this. Finding the blank channel again, Tony laid the remote on the table and went to lie down on the couch, facing away from the TV. He couldn't take any more.
"We only keep the relevant parts."
"Mmmm Whaaa?" Tony rolled over and blinked at the TV. He must have fallen asleep. "What?" Rubbing at his eyes, he sat up and pulled the hospital gown down. "Can't I get something else to put on?" He asked plaintively. "This thing is just indecent."
"You asked why you only saw the endings. We only keep the relevant parts."
"I don't want to see myself die over and over." Tony stretched, raising both arms over his head. "I want to see some good stuff."
"Think about it Tony." Chuckles sighed. "Every minute of every day of every life?" He shook his head in amusement. "That would take forever to watch."
"Well not every minute." Tony agreed. "But there's bound to be better stuff than the blood and the dying."
"Of course there is." Chuckles nodded.
"Well can I see it?" Tony asked impatiently rubbing his face.
Chuckles shook his head, an amused smile playing at his lips. "Not yet."
"So I get to sit here and talk to you or watch myself and Gibbs die until he really dies?" Tony dropped his hands and held them out in question.
"Um. Yeah pretty much."
"No." Tony stood and approached the TV. "You have to send me back."
"I can't do that!" Chuckles said in a shocked voice with a face to match. "Oh no, I can't!"
"You have to. Someone has to protect Gibbs."
"Once you're officially here, you can't go back Tony. I'm sorry, but those are the rules." Chuckles said softly.
"Okay. Okay." Tony started pacing, gripping his hands together in front of himself and thinking furiously. "Will you send someone else to watch his back?" He stopped in front of the TV.
"Who?" Chuckles asked curiously. "You're the Companion. There is no one else."
"Find someone!" Tony yelled. "Find someone to watch over him or send me back!"
"Don't Tony me, you sanctimonious son-of-a-bitch!" Tony slammed his palm against the cabinet over the TV screen and Chuckles jumped, eyes darting frantically around. "You have to send someone!"
"Please?" Tony's voice broke. "Please? I'll get down on my knees and beg if it helps." Starting to suit actions to words, but Chuckles' sarcastic answer stopped him and he straightened.
"Oh gee, the magic word." Rolling his eyes Chuckles pressed his lips together. "Like that's gonna work here."
"Then tell me what'll work and I'll do it." Tony took a couple steps backward and sat back in the chair on the right ignoring the sudden chill on his bare backside. Chuckles twisted his mouth but his eyes were sympathetic.
"I don't know what else to do. I can't…" Tony raked an agitated hand thru his hair and paced around the room. "You can't just let him die!" He cried out in an agonized voice and Chuckles shook his head.
"You do remember who's in the hospital on life support, don't you?" He leaned forward and peered at Tony myopically through the screen. "It's your life on the line right now, not the Champion."
"Of course I understand that!" Tony growled. "How stupid do you think I am? The point is if I'm not there and you won't send someone else to watch Gibbs' six, then sooner or later he's gonna die." Gesturing with both hands, Tony tried his best to explain to this moron that Gibbs had to be protected. He took chances, he wasn't careful…
"Anthony." Chuckles said gently and Tony wanted to scream. He could see the big fat NO already. "Everyone dies, sooner or later. But…" He went on matter-of-factly, the sad face gone in an instant. "Without you, it's bound to be sooner. It always is."
Tony growled in frustration and threw himself farther back into the chair. Angry eyes darting around the room before landing on the TV, a fight scene caught his attention. Apparently the Chuckles commercial was over.
Elbows on knees, head in hands, Tony watched the battle. Some kind of Roman Soldier—Gladiator thing. Short leather skirts, knee-high laced sandals and bloody swords. Screaming horses and chariots, too much blood for anything less than an R rating.
As if aware of Tony's scrutiny, the camera zoomed in on a hilltop with some scraggly trees and two soldiers, one down on one knee, forearm crossed over his chest. Blinking furiously, Tony slid forward in the chair. That was him. He was the soldier kneeling before…. Gibbs? A younger Gibbs, but definitely Gibbs. His head was bowed and his sword was on the rocky ground beside him. Gibbs was looking out over the battle, shaking his head and saying something. The soldier got to his feet and dug around in a pack, finally bringing out something wrapped in oil cloth.
Tony grabbed the remote off the table. Of course it was on mute.
"Tribunus, please you need to eat something." The soldier said. The Tribunus refused to take the cloth-wrapped bundle with a tiny shake of his head.
"You eat it Centurion. I'm not hungry."
"But my lord, you barely ate a bite for breakfast. You must—" Tony watched in fascination as the Tribunus rounded on the Centurion. Just like Gibbs, he thought with a shake of his head realizing they weren't talking in English and yet he understood every word.
"I must?" The Tribunus roared glaring at the Centurion who swallowed but didn't back down. "Who are you to tell me what I must or must not do?"
"I am your Centurion, lord. It is my honor and my curse to keep you alive." The Centurion poked the bundle into the Tribunus' stomach again. "Your life is more important than any other. You must live."
"And what about the men? What about them Centurion? Are their lives of no value?" The Tribunus growled softly, but took the bundle, unwrapping a block of cheese and broke off a small chunk.
"They are soldiers, sir. They understand." The Centurion took the small piece the General broke off and handed to him. "If you die, we all die. That must not happen."
"Bah." Thrusting the cheese back at the Centurion, the older man stared down the hill again. "I am not above death Centurion. No mortal man is." He took a few steps away from the Centurion and rubbed at his face. Tony watched as the Tribunus scratched at the thick growth of hair on his face. It wasn't a beard, more like several days of no time to shave.
"My lord—" the Centurion shoved the Tribunus back and gasped as a spear sprouted from his chest between the thick leather bands. Twisting around with a look of horror on his face, the Tribunus caught him before he hit the ground. "I … Tribbb…Tri…"
"No!" Scrabbling around with one hand, Tony watched as he tried and failed to reach his shield. Dragging the dead-weight Centurion a few feet to lean against one of the leafless trees, he scrambled back for shield and short sword. "Damn barbarians! I'll send you back to hell— all of you!" Spears started flying thick through the afternoon sky and the shield did little to cover them both.
"Tri…" The Centurion coughed up a mouthful of blood unable to keep it from trickling between his lips and reached out a hand to touch the Tribunus crouching beside him.
"Hold on Antonius. I'll get the healer." Gone was the gruffness and rage at the futility and Tony pressed his lips together at the sight of so much emotion on the Tribunus —on Gibbs' face.
"Care…ful, my … my…" The Centurion either passed out or died and Tony watched in disbelief as the Tribunus hugged him to his chest with a sharp cry.
"Brave Antonius, bravest of companions…" The Tribunus choked as he broke the spear off and jerked it out of the Centurion's chest before laying him flat. "I will build you a pyre to remember. I—" The screen shifted and Chuckles was back.
"No, wait." Tony waved at the screen. "What happened? Did the Tribunus … did Gibbs die?"
Chuckles chuckled and rolled his eyes. "You're here aren't you? Think about it."
Tony blinked a few times and shouted. "NO! Gibbs still needs me. He's still out there. He needs me to be on his six." Chuckles stared at him calmly. "Please." Tony whispered without hope and closed his eyes against Chuckles' face.
"Most of these scenes show us dying together. I thought you said I was supposed to save him?" Tony hoped he got the right mixture of annoyance and pleading in his voice. "How can I save him if I'm dead?"
"You're not seeing the whole picture yet, only the end bits. There are other scenes where you save him and you don't die."
"You've already sent me back as some kind of ghost. You said I wasn't exactly dead yet, so there's still time to send me back. He needs me. I have to be there for him."
"And you have been there." Chuckles placated. "You'll be there next time."
"I need to be there this time." Tony paced the small room. Fifteen steps across, fifteen back. "I'll make a deal."
"Whatever do you think you have that I could possibly want?" Chuckles asked curiously pushing the ugly, red glasses up his nose. "You don't have anything."
"A wager then." Tony said desperately. "I can… I can…" He trailed off, not thinking of anything he could do.
"You can what?" Chuckles asked derisively. "There's nothing you…." He trailed off and Tony stopped to see the arrested look in his eyes.
"What?" He took a few steps backwards and collapsed into the chair, not even feeling the plether anymore. "What? You thought of something. What?"
"Maybe." Chuckles allowed, patting down his pockets, he pulled out a watch. "Hmmmm. Do you think you can convince the Champion to believe?"
"Yes. Sure." Tony nodded. "Believe in what?"
"This." Chuckles waved his arm around. "The Waiting Room, his destiny as the Champion and you being his Companion."
"Um." Tony's face fell. Gibbs wouldn't go for any of this. "Is there something else?"
"It's this or nothing." Chuckles grinned and it really wasn't a happy grin. Had Chuckles always had that many teeth?
"Okay. Okay fine." Tony nodded. A chance, he had a chance. "Send me back I can do that."
"You have five minutes." Chuckles glanced at the watch again. "Five minutes and twelve seconds."
"NO!" Tony surged to his feet. "That's not fair. No one could convince Gibbs of anything in five minutes! Give me an hour or two."
"Five minutes and twelve seconds." Chuckles was adamant.
"Half an hour?" Tony pleaded. "Fifteen minutes!"
"Five minutes and twelve seconds."
"Why are you stuck on 'five minutes and twelve seconds'?" Tony demanded. "That's not enough time!"
"Because you only have five minutes and twelve seconds left."
"What?" Stunned, Tony sat back down. "I… five minutes?"
"And twelve seconds. Yes." Chuckles answered patiently. "Out there, you only have five minutes. You wasted so much earlier…"
"Why didn't you tell me?" His voice barely above a whisper, Tony held his head in his hands. Five minutes. Five minutes. The words repeated on an endless loop in his head. Five minutes left. It was hopeless. Absolutely hopeless.
"You didn't ask." Chuckles said sharply. Tony's head snapped up and he gave a nervous laugh.
"I didn't ask?" Tony rubbed his face and wanted to scream. "How the hell would I know to ask in the first place!"
"Well." Tony thought he looked pretty guilty. "You've been here enough…"
"If I've been here enough..." Tony snarled. "… then maybe you should know what you're doing by now."
"This isn't helping." Chuckles lifted his chin. "If you want to try and convince the Champion, you need to stop wasting time with these recriminations. After a—"
"Fine!" Tony stood and tugged his gown down. "I'm ready." He said not having the first clue of what he was going to say.
At least he hadn't had to run down the endless hallway again. Tony stood in front of the open door to his room and looking longingly back toward the other waiting room. The one where his team waited for him to die. He hadn't really said goodbye but there wasn't any time now.
Steadying himself, he straightened his back and marched in. He had five minutes and twelve fucking seconds to make Gibbs – who barely believed in things he could actually see – believe in multiple lives, Champions and Companions and the fucking Waiting Room.
He could do it. He would do it. The alternative didn't bear thinking of.
Gibbs was still in the chair, face in his hands, muttering softly. Was he praying?
"Gibbs?" Tony crossed the room and knelt in front of him. That was barely better than crouching. Damn hospital gowns. "Gibbs?" He repeated softly.
Looking up at the sound, Gibbs saw Tony and jerked back in the chair in fright before relaxing and rubbing his mouth. Glancing up at the ceiling, he spoke. "This is not what I meant."
"Boss?" Tony wanted to reach out and touch but was afraid. "I'm not dead boss."
"Great. Now I'm seeing things." Gibbs looked over Tony's head. "You're not here."
"I'm here boss. I'm not dead. You're not seeing—"
"Go away." Gibbs waved both hands at Tony in a shooing motion. "Too tired. Need coffee." Bracing both hands on the arms of the chair, Gibbs went to stand up and Tony pushed him back down with a hand in the middle of his chest. Gibbs made a strangled noise and froze.
"Whoa!" Tony flexed his fingers and touched Gibbs again.
"A dream. This is a dream." Gibbs relaxed and rubbed his face. "I'm asleep."
"Not a dream boss. Well, maybe. I don't know how it works." Tony stood and started pacing. This room was significantly smaller than the Waiting Room.
"If you knew how that gown flapped up when you turn, you wouldn't be doing it quite so fast DiNozzo." Gibbs chuckled.
"Dammit boss!" Tony put both hands in his hair and felt like ripping it out. "There's no time for jokes. I only have five minutes."
"Five minutes for what?" Gibbs had obviously decided to enjoy this respite from reality.
"Five minutes to convince you that … that… Oh fucking hell. I'm never gonna be able to convince you in time." Tony despaired and collapsed in the other chair. "Do you believe in reincarnation boss?"
"Nope." Gibbs said quickly, but giving Tony a puzzled frown.
"I knew it." Tony moaned. "Look boss I'll just come right out and tell you. You have to listen and you have to believe me."
"I'll listen. Not promising anything on the believing part." Gibbs nodded.
"This isn't a dream. You're not dreaming."
"Ducky once said five minutes is a long time for a dream. Most are over in seconds." Gibbs mused wondering what Tony was getting at.
"Pinch yourself. Use all your senses." Tony pinched himself. "See not a dream." He watched while Gibbs pinched his arm. His eyes lifted to Tony with misgiving. "Yeah, boss. Not a dream."
"Then you're a ghost." Gibbs sighed. "Or some kind of spirit."
"Not dead." Tony motioned to the bed where his… his … he lay and the machines were steadily beeping. "You don't seem too frightened about me being a ghost? I know I'd be freaking out if your ghost…" Tony trailed off at the look in Gibbs' eyes. He was wasting too much time. Stealing a glance at the clunky, black watch that appeared on his wrist he cringed.
"Saw Shannon a couple times." Gibbs mumbled. "Look DiNozzo, if you're really here and you only have five minutes, get to the damn point. I'm surprised you haven't dragged in twenty movie references by now."
"Funny you should ask about movies." Tony didn't laugh. "Shannon, huh? I don't know if I'm a ghost or a spirit or just a dream, but boss you have to say you believe me before this stupid watch goes off because…. Because…" Tony gulped and glanced at the bed, then back down at the watch, ticking slowly on. "Because the monitors will go off and I'll die."
"You'll die in five minutes if I don't tell you I believe in reincarnation?" Gibbs rolled his eyes. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard you say DiNozzo. And you've said some pretty stupid things."
"Not just reincarnation. Or maybe it's not even that. Past lives maybe." Tony got up to pace again. Somehow he thought better when he was moving. "And five minutes was three minutes ago. No, not just that. You have to believe that you're something called a Champion and I'm your Companion and you fight evil and you have for … forever I guess."
Tony gave Gibbs a hopeful smile and waited. He didn't have long. Gibbs shook his head incredulously and guffawed. "I was wrong. This is stupider than any movie I ever heard of."
"Well." Tony sat back in the hair, ready to give up. "There's a TV in the Waiting Room playing the highlights of our past lives—well the part where I die anyway."
"Waiting Room?" Gibbs asked getting up to look out the window. "You were in a Waiting Room?"
"Yeah. I think it's purgatory, even though Chuckles denied it." Tony stared at Gibbs, memorizing everything he could. Time was running out. "Chuckles is like the MC or something. Announcer. Anyway. I beg—asked him to give me a chance to come back so I could watch your back, cause he won't send someone else and I only had the five minutes and twelve seconds left and… well it doesn't matter now." Tony got to his feet and Gibbs turned to look at him.
"When I die, I'll be zapped back there and I guess I just sit there and wait for you until you die and we can get on with the next life." Tony shrugged. "There was a really cool one playing when I came in —we were on a spaceship. I guess I wasn't supposed to see that yet. Chuckles cut it off quick enough. So I know I'll see you again boss."
"DiNozzo!" Gibbs glanced at the bed. "You're not making sense."
"So either say you believe now, or I'll see you when your luck runs out. Which won't be long without me there to watch your six."
"You're not gonna die, DiNozzo." Gibbs walked toward him, hand outstretched. "I won't let you die."
Tony smiled sadly and shook his head. "If you want me to live, all you have to say is you believe boss. I suppose you have to mean it too. Chuckles can probably tell." Tony closed his eyes at the warmth of Gibbs' hand on his shoulder. It would be a long time before he felt that again. At least he hoped it would be a long time.
"You are NOT going to die Tony." Gibbs said softly, shaking Tony's shoulder in emphasis.
"When you die, boss, we'll sit there together and watch reruns." Tony sobbed a laugh. "I know how much you like movies, but this time, you're the star. And I'm your goofy side-kick—the expendable side-kick."
Gibbs growled and grabbed Tony roughly by both shoulders and shook him. You're not expendable!" He shouted leaning in, his face inches from Tony's. "Do you hear me DiNozzo! You Are Not Expendable!"
Tony shook his head and leaned in resting his forehead on Gibbs shoulder. "You're the Champion of the Light." He sighed. "I'm just your Companion."
"You're more than just a companion, Tony." Gibbs said softly, lifting one hand to pat the back of his head – a faint reminder of a head-slap. "You've been my partner, my friend and confidante when I need one. You've always given more than a hundred percent to me and the team. If anyone is a champion, it should be you."
Pulling back, Tony lifted his wrist so they could both see. "Twelve seconds boss." He said with a little sob. "In twelve seconds, I'm going to code and then I'm going to die."
"Not happening." Gibbs said faintly, eyes glued to the watch, despite himself.
They watched the twelve seconds click away and heard a tiny beep. Not even a second later, Tony's monitors went haywire, alarms shrieking from each one. Gibbs's head snapped around to stare at them and Tony took a step toward the door. "No." Gibbs whispered spinning around to look at Tony.
Tony smiled sadly, finally accepting that he'd failed. He nodded slowly and stepped back. "Okay. It's okay. I understand." He nodded again and ducked his head. "I tried."
"DiNozzo." Gibbs frowned and tried to reach for Tony, but the younger man took another step back and Gibbs dropped his hands
"You were a great boss, I'm proud to have worked for you." Tony smiled at Gibbs, memorizing his face. Who knew how long he'd be waiting and he hoped it was a long, long time. "And it's not like I won't see you again…. But please try to be careful. I don't want to see you too soon." Tony took another step backwards feeling like everything was moving in slow motion. "Goodbye Gibbs." Shaking his head, he half-turned giving Gibbs a sloppy salute and called out. "I'm ready, Chuckles. I told you five minutes wasn't enough time…" Tony swallowed over the lump in his throat and all the monitor alarms beside Tony's bed started shrieking louder if that were possible.
Three nurses rushed in, screaming for the crash cart, pushing Gibbs aside. Tony tuned, still in slow motion and glanced once at his body on the bed, wrapped in bandages and full of tubes, and turned toward the door and took a step. "It's all right Boss, I'll wait. I'll wait forever if I have to." He could feel himself going transparent and his voice was barely audible.
Gibbs looked at Tony—through Tony—and the alarms and the nurses and at the back of Tony's head, walking away from him and back to the monitors, straight-lining one by one. "I believe!" Shouting loudly, he dodged nurses and doctors to run after an almost invisible Tony. "Wait! I believe!"
Tony stopped, turning with a wide grin and the alarms stopped, cut off instantly, showing normal readouts and the nurses looked at each other in surprise overlaid with confusion before checking each machine. An orderly pushed the crash cart in the room and looked around in surprise.
Tony had a second to open his mouth before he blinked out of existence.