It was quiet in the hospital. No wonder: it was in the middle of the night after all, and as such, well after visiting hours, with only the night staff present at the front desk and even the doctors asleep in their own quarters until their presence became needed. Not that anyone dared remind Gibbs (“second B is for bastard”) of that. The nurses had long ago learnt to leave him alone and just to work around him as if he weren’t there at all. They’d had time to adjust: the boss of NCIS’ A-team had spent most of last month in this very room, sitting on that very chair.
And the reason for this predicament was lying too still in the bed by the window, where the full moon shone brightly through the narrow slits of the blinds, bathing the prone figure in a hollow-like blue color. The machines that were responsible for keeping the young man alive broke the silence with their occasional hisses and chirps, but Gibbs couldn’t really hear them anymore. He was too deep in his thoughts to be aware of anything but his agent, periodically checking to make sure he was still breathing – still there. Gibbs wasn’t Abby. He wasn’t McGee. He wouldn’t trust the equipment alone to take good care of such a precious person. He would do it himself.
“I’m here, DiNozzo. I’ve got your six, like always. Now you just sleep and heal, all right? You don’t have to worry about anything else; we’ve got everything covered.” – He whispered the mantra that had been keeping him going for weeks. Ever since it had happened.
It was something they didn’t speak about. If they did, it would make it real, and nobody wanted that. He had actually forbidden even Abby to talk about it when she was visiting Tony, and she had agreed, albeit grudgingly. The doctors said it didn’t matter either way because the ailing agent couldn’t hear them but Gibbs wasn’t convinced: DiNozzo had always defied the laws of nature ever since he had met him what felt like a lifetime ago, so why wouldn’t he now? That’s why he knew the young man would be all right. Eventually. They’d just had to wait for him to come out of the coma and then it would be fine.
“You like getting into trouble, don’t you, DiNozzo? Was it like that when you were a child? Or were you too busy trying to dodge your father’s slaps to be carefree back then?” – Because he knew. Something else he never ever spoke about, but it didn’t mean he was ignorant. Maybe they should talk sometime? Maybe not talking about things didn’t help… He didn’t know. He wasn’t a man of many words, anyone who knew him could attest to that. – “Did you go to movie theaters instead of school on a bright Wednesday morning? Did you sneak into the strand after hours to have a swim when you should have been at home, sleeping? Did you steal a toothbrush from the store because of a dare with friends? Or did you have to rush home after lessons to pry the beer bottle out of your drunken father’s hands and get him upstairs into his room when you were a skinny eleven-year-old? Did you have to make sure he wouldn’t choke in his own vomit instead of partying with classmates?”
Tony didn’t answer. Of course he didn’t. He was deep in a coma which he might never wake from – at least, according to the doctors. Gibbs didn’t hold a medical degree per se, but he was the boy’s… boss. Yes: boss. The word ‘dad’ came to mind as well but he never acknowledged it. Maybe he should? The word ‘father’ surely brought a bunch of bad memories for the subject of his worries, but what about ‘dad’?
Because what did ‘dad’ mean? He had been a dad once, a long time ago in a galaxy far away…
Being a dad meant you took care of your child; worried for them but let them try their wings as much as possible. You gave praises when warranted but were careful not to overdo it. You were strict but loving and approachable. You cared.
Well, he cared!
“But, Boss: we’re all fine! It really wasn’t all that dangerous…” – Tony said, looking anywhere but at Gibbs for fear he’d belie his statement right away with his expression. The situation on the field had indeed been a bit more perilous than he wanted to admit… - “Look: we captured the suspects and none of us got injured! Seriously, I mean.” – He insisted, finally risking a glance at the leader standing in front of him, looking for all the world like he wanted to throttle his senior field agent with his bare hands.
“So, just let me get this straight: you had Ziva and McGee on lookout while you entered the building.”
“And you didn’t take your gun.”
“Yeah… well… You see I thought I’d snoop around a bit first and if I got caught I could say I was only passing by and---”
“And naturally you did get caught.”
“And did they believe you?”
“So they proceeded to beat you to a pulp.” – It was not a question but an observation.
Ooops… Tony fidgeted nervously. He hadn’t felt this uncomfortable ever since he’d been caught looking through Kate’s handbag a few years ago.
“I wouldn’t… khm… use these words… but yes, Boss.” – He admitted finally, still wincing at the memory of the kicks he had received. But still, he didn’t get what the big deal was. He’d had far worse…
Gibbs crossed his arms over his chest, looking even more menacing.
“Which words would you use then, DiNozzo?”
“Ahm… Maybe… I think---”
“No, actually DiNozzo, I believe you don’t think and definitely didn’t back then. You play with your life as if you had some to spare but let me tell you: you don’t! You’re not a cat but even if you were, you wouldn’t have any more lives left to play Russian roulette with!” – Gibbs was determined to make the kid understand. Couldn’t that stupid boy see he was worried? – “The undeniable success of your little stunt and the fact that you’re still alive and able to listen to my chewing you out was only dumb luck! So, what’s that tell you?”
“That I should try for the Euro Jackpot?” – Hard smack to the head. – “Ouch! Okay, okay: Never to assume I’ll be that lucky again.”
“Right. So: keep that in mind.”
With that, Gibbs dismissed his senior field agent with a wave of his hand, hoping the mostly hidden message had gotten through.
Tony rubbed the back of his head, muttering under his breath:
“I still think the Lottery-version sounds better.”
Gibbs chuckled at the memory, having replayed the scene in his mind. He quickly sobered though.
“It didn’t get through to you, did it? Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here now…” – He sighed sadly. – “Somehow, right from the very beginning you’ve always seemed to think you are replaceable, no matter how I’ve been trying to show you otherwise.”
A good dad taught his children how precious and unique they were. That whatever happened and however bad they might have behaved, he’d still love them the same and would never, ever give up on them.
Dads did that. Some fathers didn’t…
“Who told you that, DiNozzo?” – His agent just stared determinedly at the floor, not saying a word. – “I want to know who’s responsible for your thinking you need to protect everyone around you even with your own life!” – The younger man had nearly killed himself for the ‘greater cause’. Yet again. – “So, I’ll ask one more time: who told you you were expendable?”
“I’ll kill him!” – Shouted Gibbs suddenly, causing a female agent behind him to drop the document she had been holding and shriek in fright at the sudden and unexpected outburst. She was totally ignored.
Tony just shrugged.
“Not worth going to prison for.”
“Yes, DiNozzo: you are!”
The agent smiled sweetly.
“I meant my father, but I thanks, Boss.”
“I love you too.”
That had been not so long ago. Gibbs felt like he should have known then that something like it would happen; it seemed DiNozzo was incapable – or even worse: unwilling – to take care of himself, thinking everyone and everything was more important than him and his well-being. And the boss also knew why this was: because of the bastard that had the nerve to call himself the kid’s father! Who hadn’t been there for his little boy when his mother had died. Who had, instead, let his son take care of him why he wallowed in self-pity, not the other way around. Who hadn’t hesitated to show his disdain and displeasure by throwing punches. Not affectionate head slaps (the closest things to a parental caress the younger man would ever tolerate) but real, hard and painful punches.
“This will stop now, DiNozzo. I mean it: it stops. You will get better; of course you will. And then, we’ll talk.” – He promised, squeezing the younger agent’s hand, mindful of the IV line attached to it. – “And I won’t take no for an answer. No more joking or hiding behind the façade of a clown on your part. And certainly no more simple gruff monosyllables and eye-rolls that I hope you’ll understand on my part. Both of us will have to step out of our comfort zones.”
That was a promise Gibbs intended to keep.
He knew some of the others had their own suspicions about the apparent suicidal behavior of the young man by now. Ducky had mentioned it more than once to Gibbs already, voicing the same fear Gibbs himself felt all the time but was unable to put into words. ‘If you don’t stop this nonsense, Jethro, we’ll soon lose that boy for good.’ – The old ME had said. Abby had suggested putting Tony into an impenetrable bubble, while McGee had joked the senior field agent should probably increase his life insurance coverage level and make his teammates the beneficiaries.
And he would never forget Kate’s exasperation on her very first week with NCIS, just after the two had nearly gotten blown up…
“Does this happen to you often?” – Kate asked her new partner, still trying to catch her breath after the run they’d had upon discovering a bomb with a timer set to go off in 15 seconds. The two agents only just managed to get far enough before the explosion had happened to stay alive and relatively unharmed. It had been a close call and Gibbs, who’d had the misfortune to watch the happenings from afar, still couldn’t open his mouth without fear he’d say something he would regret afterwards.
Tony wiped the cold perspiration from his brow with the sleeve of his shirt and gave a weak little laugh.
“Only once or twice.”
“A day.” – He clarified.
Kate stepped back a bit as if she had been slapped.
“Remind me never to come near you again.”
“She tried to tell me; did you know that? Kate… She tried to talk to me, especially after you cuffed yourself to a psychopath and disappeared for days, but I wouldn’t listen. I think it’s all my fault.” – Gibbs shook his head sadly, remembering their deceased teammate and her worry for the young man lying in front of him helplessly. – “She said she thought you had a certain kind of… wish?... desire?... whatever… for death. Or just the danger. I was stupid enough to insist she mind her own business. That you were just young and reckless but not suicidal. Because admitting there was a problem would have meant I wasn’t doing my job of watching your six properly…”
Gibbs shifted on the uncomfortable hospital chair and groaned as his back protested against the movement. This chair had practically been his home for weeks, and it was slowly but steadily getting unbearable. Not to mention that, as Ducky had oh so nicely reminded him the day before, he wasn’t getting any younger either.
“Come on, DiNozzo, it’s time to wake up. Just for a moment, okay? Just so that I’ll know you’ll be fine. Of course I know anyway but… All right, if you’re still tired, I guess it’s all right if you rest a bit longer. You never have time to sleep enough anyway…” – Gibbs stood to stretch his legs a bit and almost fell back down as a dizzy spell hit him with full force. – “Wow, I guess I should eat something. I might have forgotten today… and yesterday, probably. I don’t know, I can’t really remember. Every day is the same.”
It hadn’t always been like that, he mused. Not so long ago, every day used to be an adventure and a new challenge in their job…
“You did WHAT, DiNozzo?”
“Ahm… Boss, it’s not important, really. Look, I’ve got the suspect’s cell phone…” – The young man said, waving the device around wildly like a shiny new prize. – “Probie can work his magic on it and then Abby can miraculously---”
“You pretended to be a drug addict and just walked up to Meyers to ask for Heroin? Are you completely out of your mind!?”
The senior field agent gulped.
“But it worked…”
“He could have shot you right then and there.”
“But he didn’t. He didn’t even notice it when I lifted his cell---”
“HE COULD HAVE KILLED YOU!”
“Shut up and come with me.”
“On your six, Boss.”
“No. On my twelve, DiNozzo.” – Hissed Gibbs, slapping the back of his agent’s head and pushing him forward. – “I want to keep an eye on you.”
When Gibbs finally slept half-sitting on the uncomfortable hospital chair, he was tormented by nightmares all featuring Tony’s horrible death and him watching, powerless to stop it.
NCIS * NCIS * NCIS * NCIS * NCIS * NCIS * NCIS * NCIS
The next few days didn’t bring any change: Tony remained unconscious and unresponsive to everything going on around him, while Gibbs refused to leave his agent’s side and kept on insisting the young man would be all right eventually, he just needed to sleep because he was tired. And while the others had started to lose hope, the leader was more determined than ever to make sure his senior field agent knew he was loved and cared for.
“Jethro, go home…”
“Listen: Young Anthony definitely won’t wake up in the next few hours. You can go, have a shower, eat something and sleep in your own bed.”
Ducky sighed in defeat.
“All right. Can I bring you something then? A change of clothes, maybe some food? What about a good cup of coffee?”
“No, but thanks. I’m fine.”
“You are not fine, Jethro; you look like hell. As a matter of fact, you look as bad as Anthony.”
Gibbs narrowed his eyes dangerously at his old friend.
“Oh, yes? And then why am I sitting here, waiting for him to wake up, and why is he in a coma? This should be the other way around!”
“Dead God, don’t say that! None of you should be in that position, my friend! This young man did what any of us would have done and---”
“DON’T! I don’t want to hear it!” – It was true. He didn’t bear to even think about it.
The ME checked the medical equipment and made a few notes in his notebook, while absentmindedly running his fingers through the ailing agent’s longish hair. He knew Tony would never let it grow out like this but it was quite interesting to see how his dark brown hair curled up at the ends when growing.
“Abigail is worried, Jethro. So are the others. Me too.”
“I’m worried to. But he’ll wake up.”
“I meant about you. We miss you. Ziva and Timothy are doing their best, and Jenny is helping as much as she can by giving them easier jobs… My concern is that Ziva seems to still be somewhat uncertain about her place on the team, while, I’m afraid, Timothy is not ready to be senior field agent yet. I believe young Anthony was helping them more than either of us realized… Agent Lee is still very new but tries to assist nevertheless, even though she would need constant supervision and support herself. Again, it would be Anthony’s job to look out for her; Timothy is not ready for that by far. Abigail is… well, she’s Abigail. Though there’s no more blaring music and I’ve never seen her act this professional before. Mr. Palmer is keeping her company whenever she feels like crying but… She is mourning the loss of two friends at once, since not only is Anthony in a coma, you don’t speak to her anymore either.” – There was poorly concealed disapproval in the older man’s voice that would have been impossible to miss. – “Only you could make things better now, Jethro.”
Gibbs chose not to comment but remained stubbornly silent, looking out the window and studying the birds trying to build a nest on the benches of the nearby tree instead. The old doctor would go away. As he had learnt a long time ago: everyone left eventually.
NCIS * NCIS * NCIS * NCIS * NCIS * NCIS * NCIS * NCIS
Gibbs was thinking about the team. His team. Even though he didn’t want to pay attention, Doctor Mallard’s words had stuck. And struck.
Oh, he knew Tony had been doing more for the other two than even they realized… How could he not know? The young agent had been ready to even die for them, and had come close to it when McGee had made a very rookie mistake of missing a shot and loosing his gun to the suspect… If it hadn’t been for Tony’s quick thinking and rather reckless actions, there would have been another funeral for them to attend. As it was, McGee had come out of the situation unharmed albeit deeply ashamed, while Tony had walked away with ‘just’ a bullet in his shoulder.
And Gibbs had been pissed off, even more than normally.
“Tony? Why is Gibbs so mad at McGee?” – Asked Abby as soon as the senior field agent entered her lab, his arm still in sling but even so looking his normal chirpy self.
“Hm… I don’t know.” – He shrugged with his uninjured shoulder. – “Maybe Probie’s been playing ‘five-in-a-row’ and Boss caught him. Happened to me all the time in Math.”
He flashed his patented hundred-watt smile that showed Abby he knew quite well she hadn’t been talking about getting caught playing silly games but he still wouldn’t reveal any more than that.
She wasn’t one to give up easily tough.
“Tony… I think it’s because of you…”
“Oh. Well, that used to happen a lot too.”
“I didn’t mean that!” – She playfully hit her friend’s good arm, causing the young man to whine good-naturedly about the abuse. – “I mean: because of what happened to you…
Gibbs, who had been standing just outside the door unbeknownst to both of them, chose this exact moment to make his grand entrance. Tony wouldn’t betray the trust of his probationary agent anyway, so there was no use listening for more information.
“You wouldn’t betray them ever, would you?” – He smiled affectionately at the sleeping man. – “Do they even know how much you do for them? I doubt they do… How many extra hours you pull so that they can go home in time? How many of their reports you’ve written for them? Or the extra paperwork they don’t even know exists because you do it all the time for all three of you? Every time Ziva crashes a car or begins a fight… Each time McGee hacks into a system for information or when Abby and he do their ‘magic’ as you call it… They don’t even think you understand what they do. What would they say if they knew it’s you who justifies their actions to the higher ups so that they can sleep peacefully?”
He chuckled at the mental image of their confused faces at the revelation. Maybe now they’d learn… Maybe now they would have to realize there’s no one to do it for them this time and Jenny may be cutting them some slack for a while but it couldn’t go on forever. Maybe in the future they’d give Tony the respect he deserved.
“But you don’t need their respect, do you? You’ve only ever wanted mine…”
“What were you thinking, DiNozzo? Were you even thinking? I expressively told you not to obey my orders now! That they weren’t for you this time!” – Gibbs felt like he could explode. The team had just finished arresting the members of a whole drug cartel which they had been after for many weeks in a joint operation with the FBI.
Tony was sick with the flu and it was especially dangerous for him, because of his Plague-damaged lungs. The boss, supported by Tobias Fornell himself, had told him in a no nonsense way that he could only come with them if he remained in the car and only contributed to surveillance. He had made the headstrong man promise not to take his orders to heart, even is he heard ‘go’ or ‘now’ over the comms.
So, how had he ended up with a concussion and a horrible coughing fit that had left him breathless for minutes after single-handedly catching two of the bad guys? This kid would be the death of him one day, of that, Gibbs was sure.
“Yes, you did! You followed Ziva and McGee!”
“Well, I obeyed your order not to obey your orders! That was exactly what you wanted me to do and I did!” – Insisted the sick man whose cheeks were getting redder and redder with fever by the minute. – “Otherwise I’d have disobeyed, and I’d never do that!” – He continued, crossing his arms for good measure. Or maybe in order to try and keep himself from shivering; at this point, either could be the case…
“DiNozzo, for God’s sake, I told you not to move from the car!”
“You also told me not to obey your orders, Boss. And you weren’t specific which orders you meant. So technically I didn’t disobey you.”
“Yes, you did!”
“No, I only didn’t obey, it’s not the same as disobeying!”
Gibbs pinched the bridge of his nose tiredly and had to fight the urge to scream.
“Just how is that not the same?” – He wanted to know, although he had a feeling he wouldn’t like the answer.
“Because I only did what you told me to do! That was your order!”
“So, this is all my fault then?” – The ‘Fearless Leader’ concluded, torn between wanting to laugh hysterically and the desire to burst out in frustrated tears. Sometimes dealing with his senior field agent felt like taking care of a snappy two-year-old.
“Yes! Well… khm… no? Ah, this is Catch-22!” – The agent gesticulated wildly as if trying to chase away some particularly bothersome flies.
“Oh, for… Come on, Tony, let’s get you to Ducky. And not a word about that anymore. You’re giving me a headache.”
“You can be something, Tony.” – Sighed Gibbs, sipping his already cold and terribly tasteless coffee; the only kind the hospital vending machine had to offer. – “Sometimes I just don’t know what to do with you. But I wouldn’t trade you for the world. So, you’ll have to come back to us, all right? I think by now you’ve slept enough…”
Was there really a slight twitch or had he imagined it? Excitedly, the leader set his abomination of a coffee on the nightstand and gently took the young man’s cold hand.
“DiNozzo?” – Nothing. – “Tony…?” – Still nothing. – “Can you hear me? I know I saw your fingers move. Come on, son!” – That had the desired effect: the comatose agent very-very weakly squeezed his hand. – “Oh! Come on, Tony! You can do it; just open those eyes!”
As soon as he had seen the first signs of wakefulness, Gibbs had pressed the button to call the staff, so now there were two nurses, a doctor and the boss waiting for the young man to finally become aware of his surroundings.
“Agent Gibbs?” – Whispered the elderly doctor, looking almost mesmerized. – “Talk to him again. He seems to react to your voice.”
“Ahm… all right. Khm…” – Crouching down, Gibbs leaned close to his agent so that only the two of them could hear what he was saying: - “DiNozzo, wake up. This is an order you can’t disobey!”
Ever so slowly, infinitely tired and slightly unfocused hazel green eyes opened. The poor man clearly didn’t have an idea where he was or what had happened but his first reaction wouldn’t surprise anyone who knew him:
Gibbs smiled in real happiness for the first time in weeks. This always worked.
“Welcome back to the land of the living, Tony.”
Everything would be all right now.