16 Across: ABC soap opera created by Nixon and Marland.
Gibbs reviewed the few shows he knew were still on television and, upon finding none of them fit, he moved on to the next question.
5 Down: Gibbs concentrated harder, squinting as the words began to dance from line to line. Played…Cooper Alden…
Ah hell. Gibbs sighed heavily and scrubbed at his aching eyes before placing the book on DiNozzo's bedside table. He looked up, longing to see his agent cracking jokes about his worsening eye sight or him needing glasses on a full-time basis, but the bed remained eerily silent, his agent deathly still, surrounded by a multitude monitors and IV drips.
Suddenly, Tony groaned loudly and threw his arm with the IV into the air, muttering unintelligibly as he began to toss and turn rapidly. His unusually pale face was taught with discomfort and his eyes were squeezed tightly shut as if to ward off unpleasant memories.
Gibbs automatically reached for the nurse call button, his finger barely touching the soft plastic when Tony shifted onto his side and sighed contentedly, ceasing to move. The Lead Agent watched the thin red line dip and peak on the heart monitor, satisfied his agent was still breathing before releasing both the button and the breath he had unconsciously been holding.
It had been a long—he paused and checked the wall calendar—two days since he and Ziva had rescued Tony and McGee from the abandoned house in Maryland. They had split up upon entering to cover twice the ground and hopefully locate DiNozzo and McGee twice as quickly. As Ziva had headed back to the exit, having searched her entire side and come up empty, she had encountered both Fries and Talbot. They had drawn their weapons, Talbot managing to get off a shot before Ziva returned fire, hitting him directly in the chest. Fries who had been hiding behind a far column had surrendered after seeing his partner fall. Talbot was pronounced dead at the scene and Fries had been more than willing to turn state's evidence on Sheldon in exchange for a shorter sentence.
True to her word, Ziva had left the state troopers with Fries and had personally escorted the emergency medical technicians towards Gibbs' location. As the unconscious agents were being lifted out of the basement, DiNozzo had woken briefly, shouting McGee's name and thrashing wildly, trying to catch a glimpse of his partner in the adjacent gurney. When no amount of reassurance from the technicians had been able to calm Tony, Gibbs had placed himself into DiNozzo's line of sight and informed him that McGee was in capable hands before the painkillers combined with sheer exhaustion pulled his agent back into unconsciousness.
This excitement was followed by an agonizingly long wait in the emergency room, many platitudes to Abby and a silently fuming Ziva who informed Palmer that had a new torture technique she was anxious to employ on the man who had caused such damage to her friends. It was during this time that Metro reported that Sheldon had escaped a thorough canvass and the surrounding roadblocks. A gruff call to the new agent…Bartlett? Bacon?...ensured that the APB had been updated with Sheldon's latest description and his photo had been emailed to every law enforcement agency in the Tri-State area.
Finally, after the traffic in the emergency department had peaked and come to a standstill, did an avuncular white-haired doctor emerge and ask for the agents' families.
DiNozzo had been lucky, Doctor Sloan had informed the anxious team…relatively speaking. Other than opening his wound and running a low-grade fever, Tony was in relatively good condition. Doctor Travis, one of the best trauma surgeons in the hospital, had closed the wound and packed it so it would remain immobile, with strict instruction that the wound was to be completely healed before the stitches were professionally removed. The hyoscyamine was expected to pass through his system in a few hours with little, if any, lasting effects. Finally, though he had added a few additional bruises to his collection, none were life-threatening. Agent DiNozzo was being given a dose of antibiotics to combat the minor infection picked up from the filthy room and IV fluids until he regained consciousness.
Special Agent McGee was a completely different story. The doctors had rushed him into a CAT scan the moment he was wheeled into the room having been started on an anti-seizure drip en route to Bethesda. The scan had revealed swelling in his cerebral cortex, the result of his additional head trauma; the fluid was pressing on the areas of the brain thought to be associated with memory storage, he detailed in accordance to what Gibbs had gleaned from Tony's broken speech. After a through examination which required multiple consults, the team treating McGee had decided to combat the swelling with a rigid steroid and diuretic plan, though they had been upfront in stating that if these methods were not successful, they would have to drill a small hole into McGee's skull to reduce the swelling.
With that news, the doctor had rollerbladed off, leaving a multitude of squealing nurses and fist-shaking orderlies in his wake.
The next twenty-four hours had been the most crucial and Gibbs, along with McGee's family who had arrived more quickly than seemed humanly possible, kept a vigil beside his bedside. As if drawing upon their support, the computer geek continued to fight, remaining stable and continuing to breathe on his own. After fourteen hours, the doctors were cautiously optimistic that the computer genius would not need the surgery for the last batch of scans showed notable reduction in the intracranial pressure. Though McGee had not yet regained consciousness, a very irate Gibbs had been assured by the medical staff that given the condition in which he arrived, this was not unusual.
Finally, after thirty-six hours, DiNozzo regained consciousness, immediately inquiring about McGee's condition. Upon discovering that his partner was doing as well as could be expected, he had allowed himself to suffer through the battery of tests and examinations about his identity and his current location. He was determined to remain awake until he had seen for himself that his partner was alright, but a stout nurse had other plans. Ignoring his objections, she had injected the IV with an additional dose of painkillers while he was concentrated on debating his current condition with Gibbs. With a scowl, he had valiantly fought the pull of the drugs, but ultimately was forced to surrender after being fixed with a deep glare from his boss.
And so Gibbs alternated between both agents' bedsides, a permanent fixture while McGee was taken to his nearest scans and Tony was visited every few hours by another attractive nurse.
He typically stayed as long as possible, the nurses turning a blind eye to his presence even after visiting hours were over until today when Doctor Sloan and Ducky took it upon themselves to see that Gibbs' visiting privileges would be revoked unless he left after visiting hours were over, showered and ate a decent meal not from the hospital cafeteria.
With a deep scowl, Gibbs grudgingly obeyed only after threatening the guards outside his agents' doors with the promise that if anything happened to his men, the guards would be resigned to mall cop status for the rest of their careers.
Exactly one minute before visiting hours were scheduled to begin the next morning, Gibbs marched into the hospital, his customary cup of coffee in hand. He stopped by the nurse's station and was informed that Tony and McGee were both improving and Doctor Travis had even slated Tony's release for the next few days assuming there were no setbacks. Knowing how thrilled DiNozzo would be to hear the good news, Gibbs walked into his agent's room, glaring pointedly at the guard as he passed.
His coffee cup fell from his fingers as he found the bed unoccupied but neatly made and the heart monitor disconnected with the leads lying in small coiled circles.
He drew his weapon and systematically cleared the room. Finding it indeed empty, he sprinted into the hallway and grabbed the guard's lapels, throwing him into the wall.
"Where is he?" he demanded loudly, knowing Tony's appointments with various doctors were not scheduled until later in the day.
The guard squirmed under Gibbs' sharp glare but managed to answer with some clarity. "He's with Officer Spencer. He said he had to visit his partner, said it was a matter of life and death. He begged me to let me go. He swore he'd be back before you were."
"And you let him?"
"We called the front desk and Spencer, one of the best cops I know, walked him between rooms and will walk him back when he's finished. I would trust Officer Spencer with my life, Agent Gibbs. Your man was in good hands. I wouldn't've let him go if I'd've thought otherwise…"
Gibbs glared at the man and shoved him into the wall one final time before releasing him. The man was sputtering something about not being reported but Gibbs was no longer listening, intent on getting to McGee's room as fast as possible.
As he turned into the wing, he breathed a sigh of relief as he heard Tony's voice floating into the deserted corridor. The guard was standing at attention outside though he had moved a few feet down the hallway in order to allow the NCIS agents some privacy.
"He okay?" Gibbs asked brusquely, flashing his badge.
"Never better," the long-haired guard replied, glancing up and down the hallway to ensure no one else was present. The corners of his mouth twitched into a half-smile and he took a few steps further down so Gibbs could take his former post closer to the door.
"I don't know if you can hear me, Tim," the Lead Agent heard Tony began with much hesitation, "but this always works in movies so I'm going to talk to you like you're awake…"
"You know how many Probies came and went while Gibbs and I were just a two-man team?" DiNozzo asked a lifeless McGee, tentatively reaching out and grabbing McGee's hand. He would never admit it to McGee, but the gesture brought him reassurance that his partner was still alive, and hopefully, alerted the unconscious man that people cared about him. "More than the amount of dates I had when I started working here. They were a dime-a-dozen—we didn't bother to learn their names they were kicked off the team so fast. But you: Gibbs cottoned to you right away, even with your stutter. He got your name right from the start and that means something.
"Six short years later, you finished the training manual: you've started to think for yourself and took the lead on that case last year. I'd hate to have to break in a newbie when the best one we've ever had is lying…here…" Tony's demeanor shifted as he felt an unfamiliar wetness behind his eyes. He paused to collect himself, cursing the nurse who had been insistent on dosing him with additional painkillers.
Temporarily unable to speak, he glanced at the clock, noting exactly how long he had been gone. It was imperative he returned to his room before Gibbs arrived so neither he nor the guard would get into trouble. With that in mind, he forced himself to relax and focused on what he needed to say.
When he spoke again, his voice was strained with emotion as he fought to keep his composure. "We need you, Tim, and I don't think I've ever told you that. You kept coming after me—you didn't remember who I was—I didn't want to hurt you, McGee. But you kept coming and I didn't have a choice. I didn't want to do it. You have to be okay Probie: I don't know if I can deal with the fact that I killed you…"
There was a small scuffle in the hallway and Tony looked up suddenly to see Gibbs standing by the doorway.
"Boss," he yelped in surprise, swiping viciously under his eye in case a drop had escaped. Though his hand came away dry, he stared expectantly at his boss, waiting to be reprimanded for eluding the hospital staff.
He most definitely was not expecting Gibbs to pull up a chair and sit beside him.
"You didn't kill him DiNozzo," Gibbs offered, choosing to ignore whatever Tony thought he may have seen.
"You didn't see him, boss. He came at me, calling me Jean-Paul Reinier, Gus Bricker…he wouldn't stop fighting: I had…I had to put him into a choke-hold, Gibbs, but he wouldn't give in. I was worried I was going to strangle him…" Tony shuddered as the memory returned to him.
"Tony." The Senior Field Agent continued watching the heart monitor until a rough hand under his chin forced him to make eye contact with his boss.
"That was not your fault," the Marine said softly.
"But Gibbs—" Tony protested feebly.
"You saved his life, DiNozzo."
"It shouldn't have needed saving. If he hadn't broken protocol in coming alone to my place he wouldn't have gotten the second head injury, boss."
"He thought it was the right thing to do," Gibbs remarked without passing judgment.
"No, boss, that's the right thing for me todo. McGee makes checklists for brushing and flossing and considers every last detail before making a decision, then before actually going, he calls for backup."
There was a moment of silence before Gibbs spoke. "Tim's not a Probie anymore."
And there was truth to that statement, Tony realized. He knew McGee had blossomed into a very capable agent over the last few years but he was unaware the computer specialist had learned more from DiNozzo than he had intended. Secretly, he was proud that his partner had found the spine to throw the book out the window—not that he would ever tell McGee that—but he was also very touched that the subject of his pranks and McNicknames cared that much about him.
Though it was hard to think that one day Team Gibbs would no longer exist and that they would each have their own teams, McGee had already shown he was more than capable of leading his groupies down in the Cyber-Crimes unit and had continued to prove his dedication and loyalty to his team by acting against policy when the situation called for it. He no longer took Tony's jokes so spinelessly, actually giving DiNozzo a nickname of his own and needling his partner with all the force of the original barb. Despite all odds, it appeared Timothy McGee had grown up and there was nothing Tony could have done to keep him from coming alone to his place.
"I'm still going to kick his ass when he wakes up," Tony decided, staring pointedly at McGee's pale features.
A small smile flitted over Gibbs' face and the two lapsed into silence, this one slightly more comfortable than the last. Their fight and the harsh words exchanged were still weighing heavily on both their minds, though neither of the men knew how to approach the subject.
Finally, Tony could stand the quiet no longer. "About what I—"
Gibbs shook his head dismissively, knowing exactly to what his agent was referring. "It's covered."
"No, boss, it's definitely not. I didn't mean what I said…you have your reasons, I know that. I should never have doubted you."
"You were drugged."
Tony shook his head. "That's not an excuse, boss. I never doubt you, but sometimes I wish you'd let us in on your plans, ya know? The whole Lone Wolf thing's only gonna get you killed one day and I…well, I don't…"
Damn these painkillers, Tony thought, looking away in embarrassment. He sounded like a child, worrying about his boss like this.
But when he glanced back at his boss, he saw the understanding in Gibbs' eyes. It would be weird working with someone who didn't know him as well as Gibbs did, Tony realized. In all their years together, they had developed this entire language build solely on stares, hand gestures and head-slaps that somehow sufficed to convey what Gibbs wanted done with as few words as possible.
Which brought him to his other point.
DiNozzo opened his mouth to speak again but, at that moment, McGee made a strangled noise and scrunched his face in pain. The heart rate monitor screamed as the beats per minute increased and the semi-conscious man began twisting wildly.
"He's waking up," Tony ventured hesitantly, keeping his face reserved in case this was another false alarm.
Gibbs pushed the nurse call button as McGee's motions became more violent and he began gasping for air. He stood and gently pressed on the younger man's shoulders, keeping him from hurting himself further until the nurse arrived.
He spoke the agent's name softly but with purpose, reassuring him that his team was there, until the fighting stopped and McGee's eyes slid open.
He glanced around the room in confusion, his gaze finally focusing on the man in front of him. "G'bs?" he rasped after a long moment.
Gibbs nodded, relief visible on his normally stoic face. "Do you know where you are?" he asked.
McGee's pain-filled eyes slid left, landing on DiNozzo. "H'sp'l," he replied, continuing to stare at Tony.
"T'ny," he croaked after a long moment.
"You remember me?" Tony asked cautiously, unable to keep the excitement out of his voice.
"'y w'dn't I?" McGee responded as his eyelids threatened to close.
Tony and Gibbs exchange glances but decided not to elaborate.
"Forget I mentioned it. How are you feeling?"
The nurse chose this moment to waltz in and, seeing her patient was awake, began evaluating him, taking note of his various vital signs and questioning him about his location as Gibbs had done only a moment ago.
Knowing McGee would be occupied for the next few minutes, Gibbs decided now would be the best time to clear up what he had said during the fight. "DiNozzo—" Gibbs began.
"I know," Tony interrupted, mistakenly assuming his boss was going to inform him that he needed to return to his own room, "but…the bed over there's empty and this way you could keep an eye on both of us at once…"
Gibbs looked over at the nurse who was watching their conversation while checking the bandage around McGee's head. "I'll check to see if anyone else is scheduled to occupy this room," she said without being asked. "If his doctor signs off on it, I'll allow it."
Finding the wound healing nicely, she left after promising McGee she'd return with his attending physician, but the drugs she had administered had already taken effect, pulling the Probie into a light sleep.
"Boss, I really am sorry," Tony said as he pulled himself into the adjacent bed with a final glance at his partner. "Drugs or not I was outta line."
"Debatable," Gibbs responded, sliding the chair against the back wall so he could monitor both of his agents at the same time.
Silence settled on the room as the Lead Agent pondered his next statement.
"Don't say it boss," Tony interrupted with a lopsided grin, "sign of weakness and all."
Gibbs fixed DiNozzo with his signature glare.
"Shutting up boss." Tony slouched uncomfortably into the sheets, hoping this was the end of the conversation. He had been in the wrong: there was no reason for Gibbs to apologize. He had been asking for it, continuing to second-guess his boss' actions.
"Remember what I told you when you thought you were going to quit the force?"
"Rule #5: you don't waste good," Tony recited by rote.
"Well, you're good, DiNozzo. In fact, you're one of the best. I'd hate to see you go."
Tony's eyes widened and his mouth literally fell open. Never let it be said one Leroy Jethro Gibbs wasn't direct.
Gibbs nodded once.
Gibbs nodded again.
There was a short pause while Tony's brain raced to understand what his boss had just said. He furrowed his brow as he stared at his boss in shock. Did Gibbs really want him on his team after what he'd said? It was true he had been on Gibbs' team the longest which had to stand for something. Stan Burley, his predecessor, held the record for seven years, two of which were spent being referred to as Steve, before he had come along. Was that because Gibbs' really wanted him around or because it was better to keep an eye on the unknowns instead of assigning them elsewhere? But when did Gibbs openly lie to his partner's face? Sure, Gibbs tended to walk away without telling them where he was going, but that wasn't really lying per say. He wanted to believe Gibbs wanted him around because the Marine was the only person who understood him at a level that surprised even Tony. Gibbs had the uncanny ability to see right through his mask and automatically knowing whatever it was that he was trying to keep secret.
Maybe it wouldn't hurt to stick around for a while, just until McGee was fully healed; he'd test the waters and see if they could return to where they had been as a team before this whole debacle. Plus, he had just bought a new entertainment station custom-designed for his living room and he wasn't looking forward to having to drag that down the three flights of stairs in his apartment to return it, considering the hours he had spent getting it in to his place.
He raised his eyebrows in question, silently asking both whether Gibbs was certain and whether he still had a place on the team.
"If you want it," Gibbs said in response to the second question.
"I want it," Tony affirmed with a genuine mega-watt smile.
Gibbs nodded once. "Get some sleep DiNozzo. We still gotta criminal to catch."
"On it…boss," Tony replied as his eyes drifted closed, exhaustion having hit him like a tidal wave.
For the first time since he had been assigned protection detail for Susanna Carson, his dreams were not filled with memories of those he had lost.
He was standing in an unfamiliar room—a young boy's room—walls covered in posters and concert memorabilia, watching as a dark-haired teen threw clothes into a bag.
"I decided to do what my dad wanted me to do," Josh Cooper said.
"Ah, I'm guessing he's not a big fan of Jello shots," Tony watched himself continue as he flipped through a magazine.
"No, but he was a fan of Princeton," the boy glanced up, a resolute smile on his face.
Tony watched himself look up from the magazine, seeing the relief that washed over his face. He remembered being in that room for the first time and hearing that Josh Cooper had decided to finish college. He heard his cell phone beep and he watched himself reach for the device and examine the caller ID. He knew Gibbs was calling. He glanced back up at the boy, but discovered he was no longer sitting in Josh's room.
Instead, he was standing in an abandoned prison cell, intense heat radiating from the thick stone walls. He heard scuffling and watched himself, Ziva and McGee stumble awkwardly from their prison cell, all three bloodied, bruised and grimy.
"You saved me, Tony." DiNozzo spun around in the hallway to find a perfectly healthy Ziva David leaning against the far wall, her hair lying in soft waves against her radiant skin, while the rag-tag crew continued to hobble awkwardly towards the exit. "You did that for me."
"I'd have done it for any of you," Tony shook his head dismissively, not sure of the point of this conversation. The three turned the corner and heard a loud bang, which Tony realized was the sound of Gibbs taking out the final guard.
"But that's just the point, Tony," Ziva said as she sauntered up to him and ran her hand gently down his jaw line. "You do so much good here at NCIS but you refuse to acknowledge it. I'm not sure anyone else would have come for me if you had not been so adamant about my rescue." She paused, struggling to come up with the right words to express her feelings. "I owe you everything. Please, do not forget that."
She tapped him gently on the cheek and the world spun around the two of them. When it stopped, Ziva had disappeared and Tony was standing on a wharf, watching as he gave CPR to a soaked Gibbs while Maddie Tyler lay a few feet away. Neither of the two was breathing.
He cringed as he heard himself yelling at his boss to breathe and watched the absolute horror on his face as he made the decision to stop giving CPR to his boss and starting to assist Maddie. Just watching the scene brought back the lump in his throat and the knots in his stomach that he had experienced on that very day, not knowing if his boss would have survived.
"Did you forget, DiNozzo?" Tony whirled around to see Gibbs standing behind him with two cups of coffee in his hands. He silently offered DiNozzo the one on the right. Tony suspiciously accepted it, sniffing it once before taking a small sip, practically sighing with pleasure as the warm mocha slid down his throat.
He took one more hearty sip before responding. "No, boss. I could never forget."
"You didn't stop," Gibbs stated, taking a long draw from his black coffee.
"What makes you think you're any less important to us, Tony?" Gibbs asked, leaving Tony to watch as his boss' eyes fluttered open and he began to expunge the Potomac from his lungs.
In the hospital room, Gibbs watched the strife in his agent's face fade away, the tension flowing out of his person in almost palpable waves. A small smile tugged at the corner of DiNozzo's mouth as he drifted into what Gibbs knew was a deep, healing sleep.
And in that moment, the Lead Agent knew that his team was on its way to making a full recovery.