He couldn't breathe.
McGee rolled onto his back, coughing loudly. There appeared to be some sort of cloud filling the room at an alarming rate, leaving him virtually blind.
The house was on fire! They had to get out of there. But where was Tony? And where was Susanna?
Knowing Tony would rip him a new one if McGee went for him first, he attempted to locate the bathroom where he had last seen Carson. He crawled towards what he considered the back of the house but had to stop when the heat became unbearable.
McGee squinted, seeing the dark, human-shaped blur that was lying at the base of the flame that was radiating from the bathroom floor. Assuming the military crawl, McGee crept forward toward the increasing heat until he was able to just barely reach Susanna's neck without his outstretched fingers and feel for a pulse. There was no movement under his fingers, no indication that there was still life in the woman.
That was all confirmation McGee needed that they had failed their protection duty. He locked his feelings away in the back of his mind and focused on the more important task: finding Tony and getting out of there alive.
Once McGee was a suitable distance from the blaze, he raised himself onto hands and knees and began crawling away from the blaze, ignoring the pounding in his nose. He could worry about the most likely broken bone later. Right now, he had to get out of the house.
He reached out with one hand and discovered the carpet was sticky underneath his limb. He pulled the hand close to his face and saw the scarlet liquid that was covering his hand: blood. With increased urgency, he patted around the area, his gut sinking when his hand landed on a warm body. Tony!
McGee crept closer and saw Tony's ashen face. His eyes quickly travelled Tony's entire frame and saw the seeping bullet wound. The blood was flowing from Tony's side without any signs of slowing, coming to rest on the carpet where it slowly clotted. McGee looked down and noticed, with great alarm, that he was kneeling in a large pool of Tony's blood.
"Tony!" McGee shouted, trying to revive his partner. He would rather Tony woke and helped himself out of the room since McGee was fairly sure he would only end up hurting his friend if he was forced to lift him out of the room.
"I can't carry you, DiNozzo! You need to wake up!"
Still, Tony remained motionless.
The younger agent quickly shed his jacket and managed to wrap it around Tony's waist, knotting it tightly to stem the blood flow.
Tony's eyes snapped open at the feminine voice—the voice he thought he would never hear again…Yet, there she was, artistically framed against the blinding white light behind her, kneeling over him in that incredibly short Catholic school uniform skirt and the collared blouse open just one button too low.
"How…Where am I? Where is McGee? Where's Carson?" Tony sat up quickly, surprisingly without pain.
He cocked his head to the side. "Am I dead?"
"Not yet," was the response. Tony couldn't help grinning as none other than Kate Todd bent over to inspect his side, allowing him an unobstructed view of her cleavage.
Kate saw his grin and pulled upright, clutching at the collar of her blouse.
"Sorry, Katie," Tony replied, leaning back on his elbows, not feeling the least bit apologetic.
"Some things never change," Kate huffed. She snapped her fingers and, in an instant, she was wearing a more conservative pant suit. "But this I'd never thought I'd see: Tony DiNozzo admitting defeat."
"I failed, Kate." Tony said quietly, squeezing his eyes shut against the memories that threatened to drown him. "Failed McGee, failed Carson, and failed boss. He trusted me with this assignment and I let him down. I couldn't protect her. Couldn't protect you…"
"That wasn't your fault, Tony," Kate shook her head sadly. "Not then, not now. There was nothing you could have done. But McGee is still out there and he needs you. It's up to you: Keep having one of your X-rated hallucinations or wake up and help save McGee. The Tony DiNozzo I used to know would do the latter."
"I haven't changed, Katie," Tony returned, unable to mask the irritation that flashed onto his face. He never thought he would have had a platonic dream featuring Caitlyn Todd, and never one where she doubted his dedication to his job and his partners.
"Prove it," Kate grinned as she began fading away, leaving McGee's worried face inches from Tony's chin.
"Too close…McGoo," Tony murmured, taking stock of his surroundings. It was too smoky to get a good look at the Probie, but Tony could see enough to know that McGee's nose was badly broken. Having had a broken nose or two in the past, he could tell by the way McGee refrained from expressing any sort of emotion that his nose was killing him.
McGee sprang back, disappearing from Tony's view as the smoke filled the space between them.
"Let's go, DiNozzo," McGee urged. "The roof isn't gonna hold much longer."
Tony's eyes closed and McGee feared his partner had lost consciousness again. A few seconds later, the Senior Field Agent wrapped his right arm tightly around his torso and reached his left arm toward McGee.
The Probie stood, entwining Tony's hand firmly in his own and pulling the Italian to his feet.
"Susanna…Gotta save…S'na," Tony rasped, staggering toward the back of the house.
"Too late, Tony," McGee coughed. "We have to get out of here!"
"Witness," Tony protested.
"She's gone, Tony."
"No…can't be…" Tony stammered as he stumbled over his own feet and almost fell. McGee hurried forward and caught the older man, slinging Tony's arm over his shoulders.
"We're going, DiNozzo," McGee announced, heading toward the doorway. "McGee's Rule Number One: Never leave a man behind. I'm not going to tell Gibbs I lost both you and Carson - I'd never see the light of day again."
The two were quiet as they struggled forward, hopefully in the general direction of the front entrance.
"Thanks…Tim," Tony croaked, after a long moment.
"Don't mention it," McGee struggled to support both his and Tony's weight as smoke billowed into the room darker and faster than before.
Tony muttered something under his breath, not loud enough to be heard clearly by his partner.
"No Tony! Stay with me! Don't go toward the light!" McGee cried, thinking his partner had said "light". He spared a second to glance at his friend and noted how Tony's eyes were barely open and the speed at which his face was paling.
"No…McDeaf…Right," Tony pointed weakly with his left arm to a spot of light in the distance.
Breathing a heavy sigh of relief, McGee adjusted the course, feeling a warm liquid beginning to trickle down his side. Tony's blood – it was soaking through the jacket. At this rate, Tony had maybe a few more minutes until he lost consciousness. McGee quickened his pace to an awkward hobble, knowing each step brought the two of them closer to safety and medical care.
As they burst through the door both men were surprised to see Gibbs and Ziva racing toward them.
"Carson?" Gibbs asked, slinging Tony's other arm over his shoulder and supporting some of Tony's weight as Ziva ran into the house to try to save Carson.
McGee shook his head. "Gone," he wheezed, hungrily gulping fresh air into his lungs as he helped Tony away from the burning home. He looked around and saw people gawping at the house that was billowing smoke and flames. They hobbled a few more feet before gently laying Tony on the ground.
"Tony!" Gibbs called but he received no response from the listing Senior Field Agent. "DiNozzo!"
"Boss?" Tony croaked weakly.
"No, Santa Claus," Gibbs couldn't help quipping as he pressed the jacket deeper into Tony's side. "Stay with us, DiNozzo."
Tony's lips were moving but no sound was coming out.
McGee bent closer, hearing sirens in the background.
"Messed…up boss," Tony whispered. "Big…time."
"Don't worry about that now, DiNozzo. Just stay with us now. You're going to be fine."
Just then, Ziva came sprinting out of the house.
"Get down!" she shouted, throwing herself as far away from the house as possible.
Gibbs and McGee dove on top of Tony as the side of the house exploded. Splinters went flying everywhere and a small piece of a cabinet pierced the earth inches away from McGee.
Through the dim, Tony saw the bright flash of light and knew what had happened.
"S'na!" he rasped, trying to throw McGee and Gibbs off of him.
"Stay still, DiNozzo!" Gibbs called, returning to pressing down McGee's once white jacket.
"She's gone, Tony, and you will be too if you don't stop moving."
"Boss…" Tony's tone nearly broke Gibbs' heart.
"You need to pull through, DiNozzo. You hear me?"
But Tony was no longer listening. The effort he had put into sitting upright proved to be too much for his injured body. His eyes rolled back into his head and he slacked against the ground, giving McGee a few scant seconds to catch his friend before he added another injury to his collection. Gibbs pressed harder on the jacket trying to elicit a response in his agent, feeling the warm blood begin to flow between his fingers, but Tony remained completely still and deathly pale.
"We need help here!" Gibbs yelled to the paramedics who were unloading the gurney. "Now!"
Elaine Jensen, Bethesda's on-duty nurse, glanced up from her paperwork to see a woman dressed in a black mini-skirt and Death Eaters tank top clomp through the entrance wearing black, six-inch military platform boots.
"Can I help you?" Elaine asked, trying to keep the disapproval out of her voice.
"Anthony DiNozzo and Timothy McGee. Where are they?"
Elaine pointed to a wooden door off to the left, having dealt with the rest of this strange family earlier in the day. Nodding her thanks, Abby stomped into the small waiting room to find Ducky browsing a magazine. Unbeknownst to the Goth, Ziva had left a few minutes ago, unable to wait any longer for an update. She volunteered to secure the crime scene to ensure that those who did this to her partners would be caught and justly tried in the American court system that she had come to know and appreciate.
"How are they?" she demanded.
Ducky rose and placed his hands on Abby's shoulders, gently leading her over to an empty seat before taking her hands in his.
"Timothy suffered a broken nose. It is being repaired as we speak and he should be out shortly."
"And Tony?" Abby asked, hesitantly, trying hard to remain calm.
"Our Anthony is in a spot more trouble. He was shot," Ducky paused as Abby gasped loudly, raising her hands to her mouth in shock. "Now, now, my dear. Anthony was quite lucky. The bullet missed his vital organs, and will sustain only a small amount of muscle damage. He was just released from surgery and a doctor Sloan is very hopeful he will make a full recovery."
Gibbs walked into the room in time to hear the last sentence of Ducky's diagnosis. Abby sprang from her seat and enclosed Gibbs in a tight hug.
"They're going to be okay, right, Gibbs? I mean, you just visited them, right?"
"See for yourself," Gibbs replied, stepping out of the doorway so Abby could see McGee standing in the hallway.
"McGee!" Abby crooned as her friend entered, a butterfly bandage over his nose and deep purple bruises already forming under his eyes. She sprinted over, her arms open wide. "You're okay! You're okay!"
After a while, she stepped back and punched McGee in the arm, none too gently.
"What was that for?" he demanded, rubbing the sore spot on his arm.
"For not taking care of yourself. I told you about my dream, and did you listen? No—"
Abby was interrupted as Elaine stuck her head into the door. "Anthony DiNozzo is awake. Room 237."
"Can I see him, Gibbs? Please?" Abby begged. "I have to make sure he's all right!"
"Go on," Gibbs motioned toward the door, knowing there was no arguing with a concerned Scuito.
"Thank you Gibbs! Thank you!" Abby dashed down the hallway but was stopped by a burly security guard standing directly in front of the door.
"Abigail Scuito. I'm on the list," she said, pushing past the guard and into the room.
"Tony!" she cried as she saw her friend awake. Tony was physically in the room, but his mind was clearly somewhere else. He was staring through Abby, but from the expression on his face, he was not having pleasant thoughts.
"Tony?" she asked hesitantly, stepping next to the bed and taking his hand. Tony blinked once and stared up at Abby as if just noticing her arrival.
Tears formed in Abby's eyes as she saw the blank, pain-filled emptiness in Tony's expression. This wasn't right! Tony's face should be full of laughter, mischief, fierce determination at times when one of his partners was in danger. Never emptiness and never forlorn. She forced back the gasp, knowing it would only worsen the situation, and fought to keep her tears at bay.
"Is McGee okay?" Tony asked with absolutely no emotion in his tone.
"Fine," Abby responded, not sure how to act around this new Tony.
Tony just nodded and stared unseeingly at the sheets that covered him.
Well, this wasn't working, Abby thought. Time for Plan B. "Yeah, his nose is broken," she babbled, pulling a chair next to Tony's bedside, "but nurse Elaine straightened it out. He's got these ugly bruises under his eyes though. He looks kind of like The Joker…" Abby paused, waiting for Tony to respond to her movie reference.
"Yeah," Tony responded softly, a slight quaver in his tone.
"Are you feeling okay, Tony?"
"I'm—" Tony began, but abruptly switched gears. "No, Abby, I'm not. I let my partner get hurt and our witness get killed. And that's only in the last few hours, who knows what will happen over the next few days…"
"Stop, Tony," Abby demanded, raising her hand in protest. "You will not blame yourself for this Anthony DiNozzo. We know—no, you know, you tried your best to save McGee and Carson, but you were shot, Tony. I mean, look at yourself. Can't you see that you put up a fight? That you didn't go down easily? That you cared enough about the others to try to save them?"
"But I failed, Abs. McGee's injured and Carson's dead. Yeah, I did a capital job of protecting them."
"Just go, Abs. Please?" Tony begged, looking up from his hands again with that sad, vacant expression.
Abby bit her bottom lip, hard, to keep the tears hidden as she exited the room. What was wrong with Tony? She had never seen him act this way before. Well, no, that wasn't true. She'd seen him act this way only twice before, once after Kate's death, and a second time after Jenny's. He was a completely different person, not at all like the normal Tony that flitted around the squad room making movie references that only she understood, but who could be completely serious at a moment's notice, ready to kick down a door and right a wrong.
Gibbs met her in the hallway and Abby crashed into him, sobbing loudly.
"He's changed, Gibbs. That's not Tony in there. It's someone else: someone who just…gives up on life. He blames himself for the accident and won't accept that it wasn't his fault," she bawled into his shoulder.
"Shhh…" Gibbs placated, rubbing his hands in circles over the Goth's back. "He's going to be fine, Abby. He's just going through a rough patch right now. Just give him time to heal and he'll be back to his normal, obnoxious self."
"Not nice, Gibbs," Abby exclaimed, pulling away from her boss and wiping the tears from her face. "He's not going to be happy you called him that."
"You tell him when he's back to normal. I'm sure he'd appreciate it."
Abby only nodded, looking hopefully at Gibbs. "Can you just say it again?"
"He's going to be fine, Abby," Gibbs repeated, pulling the Goth into another soft hug.
"He'd better be," Abby responded. "Or he'll be answering to me."
"Only after he answers to me," Gibbs contributed with a half-smile. After a second, he handed over a plastic bag.
"What are these?" Abby asked, looking up at Gibbs in confusion.
"Tony and McGee's clothes. I need you to run them for prints and other pertinent fibers."
Abby just stared at the clothes in silence, painfully aware of the vast amount of scarlet on both of them.
"So much blood…" she muttered under her breath, running her thumb up and down the plastic.
"I know Gibbs. It's the best thing I can do for them right now," she turned, giving Gibbs a weak smile.
She took a deep breath, raising herself to her full height. "It's the only thing I can do for them right now. By the time I'm done running this analysis, you will not only be able to know the identity of the men who did this, but the fiber count of Tony's incredibly attractive suit, whether his suit is the real deal or a cheap knock-off, the number of women McGee has encountered in this Nordstrom's Off the Rack leather jacket, and possibly who sewed the material together, granted I can gather enough DNA from the underside of the buttons or the inside of the jacket linings. Hopefully, in all of that, you will be able to find something that helps…"
"As soon as you can." Gibs leaned over and gently kissed the top of Abby's head.
"You know me Gibbs. I'm speedier than lightning, faster than a minnow can swim a dipper and quicker than you can say Jack Robinson," she declared theatrically as she dashed out of the hospital, a rather remarkable accomplishment considering the height of her platform boots.
"I know you are Abs," Gibbs said to her retreating form. "If anyone can find us a lead, it's you."