Tony was back at NCIS, sitting at his desk after everyone else had gone home, scrolling through a batch of crime scene photos on his computer that depicted a blue sedan that had collided head-on with a rather large, gnarly tree. He had dated Brenda Bitner for only a night, but he prided himself on his investigative skills. If he wasn't able to read someone with whom he had spent an entire night, how was he supposed to read someone at a moment's notice and be able to say without a shadow of a doubt whether or not the culprit was guilty or innocent?
Just as suddenly as he had arrived at NCIS, he was transported to a dark alley where a blond escort had just been grabbed around the neck by club owner Frank Holtz. As Tony rounded the corner, he saw the man spin around, a gun appearing in his hand, and fire at him and John Carson: Metro Detective and man with a dream. Time seemed to slow as Tony felt himself shying away behind the boxes as he returned fire, but John remained out in the open, unable to find cover behind the small car. One shot shattered the windshield before Tony had the angle that allowed him to fire the kill shot. Sure, the assailant was fatally wounded, but at the end of the day, so was John. Tony had watched as the life had slipped out of him, while he was pounding on John's ribs, trying so hard to save the very man who had just discovered he had something to live for.
His side was aching in agony, but Tony refused to press the morphine pump. He needed to give his statement to Gibbs in a clear state of mind, not deluded by painkillers, before the most important details were lost and Sheffield and Davies, though he suspected those were just aliases, could be brought to justice.
But the pain served another purpose. It reminded him of his decision. The one he knew he had to make, even though he was not going to enjoy it. He loved NCIS and everything it stood for, the people he worked with, and even Vance on occasion. But he had failed too many people, escaped too many brushes with death, and was unable to stop too many murderers to just brush aside what had happened yesterday.
It would be the worst decision he had ever made since he had people at NCIS who loved him, but therein lay the problem. It was a Catch-22, a lose-lose situation, the unwinnable paradox. Yet, he was determined to do what was right for the team, not what was best for him…
"Cheer up, Tony. At least you're in room 237."
Tony looked from the sheet he was wringing guiltily between his hands, his eyes blank and emotionless, to find McGee standing at his hospital door.
"You know, the room from The Shining?" the younger agent coached, anxious to see a reaction from his partner.
"Oh," was all Tony said before he returned his gaze to the rumpled sheet.
"I'd've thought you'd be a little more excited about that…" McGee tried again.
"Well, McGee, it's hard to make movie references when your witness just bit the big one."
"You've gotta stop blaming yourself for that, Tony. There was nothing you could do."
"Wasn't there, McGee? I can think of a plethora of them: I should have checked their IDs more thoroughly, managed to get a call off to Gibbs, stayed conscious longer… Maybe I couldn't've stopped them from killing Carson, but I sure as hell should have stopped them before they attacked you."
Tony's thoughts suddenly shifted and he looked up at McGee with anger in his eyes, his almost bipolar mood swings being fuelled by the earlier dose of painkillers he had been given without his consent. "You broke protocol, McGee; you were supposed to stay with the witness!"
"And just what was I supposed to do, Tony? Stay in the backroom while they did God-knows-what to you? That's not what teammates do."
"Yeah, but if you had, we might still have a case against one of the world's biggest drug distributors."
"One of these days, Tony, you are going to have to stop blaming yourself. Hopefully that day is sooner than later, cos I don't know how much more of this self-pity bullshit I can take," McGee shouted as he stormed from the room and slamming the door petulantly behind him, almost immediately regretting his harsh words.
He stood outside Tony's door for a long while before turning sharply and slamming his fist into the hospital wall. What the hell was wrong with him? His partner had almost died and, here he was, engaging in a verbal fight just hours after they had both been hospitalized.
He jumped slightly at the rough hand on his shoulder.
"It's going to be okay, McGee," Gibbs said, offering the younger agent a cup of coffee.
"No, boss, it's not. Have you seen him? He hasn't said one even-remotely Tony thing since he arrived! And that was yesterday evening!"
"Just give him some time, McGee. Be there for him. When he's ready, he'll open up to us all."
The younger agent took a deep breath, held it for a long few seconds, then exhaled loudly. "Was I wrong boss? I mean, I thought there was nothing we could have done—she was dead, the roof was falling, Tony was bleeding out…"
Gibbs stared at McGee for a long moment before speaking. "No, Tim, you weren't. You made a judgment call—"
"I wanted to save her, wanted nothing more than to find her alive, but…"
"She's wasn't, and there's nothing else you could have done," Gibbs finished.
"Then why is Tony in there blaming himself?" McGee asked, practically shouting. A nearby nurse shot him a piercing glare and he lowered his voice, sending the woman a silent apology. "Why am I able to accept that we did nothing wrong and shit happens sometimes, whether we like it or not? When we made it outside…I was glad, boss. Really glad it wasn't me who was laying in there. Glad I would get another chance to see my family, my friends…"
McGee turned his gaze to Gibbs and for the first time, the Lead Agent saw the question behind the blue eyes. "Does that make me a bad person?"
"No, no, McGee, it doesn't." Gibbs pinched the bridge of his nose as he contemplated how to phrase what he wanted to say. "You did the best job you could. We lost our witness. Yeah, that's not ideal—it would have nailing Iniguez much easier. But you and DiNozzo survived and right now, that's all that matters. We'll do the best with what we have now and see what happens. If we can't incriminate, we'll wait until Iniguez crawls out from whatever rock he is hiding under. Whether that's six months or ten years, we'll be ready: ready to avenge the death of Carson, Officer Jackson, and the attempted murders on two of NCIS' finest."
McGee's mouth dropped open in shock for two reasons: one, this was the longest speech he had ever heard his boss make in one sitting, maybe the most words he'd ever heard Gibbs say in an entire day, with the exception of the Renny Grant case, and two, Gibbs had just complimented him? Around Gibbs, true compliments were scarcer than water in the Sahara.
"Really boss?" McGee asked, his eyes begging Gibbs to confirm, to tell him that he hadn't been wrong, to take about the doubt that still lingered, even after all that had been said.
"Wouldn't say what I didn't mean."
"Thanks, boss," McGee replied honestly.
Gibbs nodded once before handing McGee a temporary cell phone, a far cry from the iPhone to which he was accustomed. "Heard yours was ruined."
McGee accepted the phone, but continued to stare at it in the palm of his hand as the events of the previous night flashed into his consciousness.
"You sure you're okay, Tim?" Gibbs asked, his voice unusually soft.
"Yeah, boss. I'll be fine," McGee confirmed, a slight lift to his posture as Gibbs' words hit home. Yeah, today was not one he would be writing home about, but instead of worrying about the past, he had a better chance of finding one of Iniguez' men's slipups if he were back at NCIS analyzing the data and drawing conclusions between two seemingly irrelevant pieces of information.
He reviewed the events of the night one final time, shoving aside the uncertainty that crept into his thoughts. He had done the best he could. Maybe Iniguez had won this round, but with Team Gibbs on the case, there was no way he was walking, either for today's incident or Ensign Jackson's murder.
"Good," Gibbs thumped McGee on the shoulder before marching into Tony's hospital room, most likely to give his Senior Field Agent the same speech he had just given McGee. The younger agent watched his boss enter, and with one final glance in Tony's direction, headed back to NCIS headquarters, making a promise to let his partner know just how appreciated he truly was, in hopes it would help snap Tony out of his funk.
Tony didn't even look up from the sheet he was intent on strangling between his fingers as Gibbs dragged a heavy chair across the room and positioned it next to the bed.
"DiNozzo," Gibbs greeted. "How are you doing today?"
"Fine," Tony responded without even glancing at his boss.
"Tony." Something in Gibbs' voice made Tony look up from the sheet he was wrapping tightly around his hands.
"Yeah, boss?" Tony asked, his voice empty and hollow.
"How are you really doing?"
"Peachy, Gibbs. I just let our witness die. But no big deal? Happens all the time, right?" Tony's voice grew louder and louder and he became more and more animated. "Just part of the job. We just move on, forget about those we've lost…"
Tony paused, but Gibbs didn't respond, knowing the younger man really wasn't waiting for a platitude, one of the major differences that separated Tony and McGee. McGee had grown a lot in the past few years, but he also needed that guiding hand occasionally, telling him he was doing the right thing or headed in the right direction. In his father's absence, Tony had been relying on himself for so long that his sense of right and wrong was unshakable. He stood strong in his beliefs, and nothing anyone else could say would change what Anthony DiNozzo believed.
Today, he was trusting Gibbs with the thoughts that had been haunting him since the yesterday's fire, knowing that his boss would listen, and not offer advice or tell him it was all okay; Gibbs knew that with one-hundred percent certainty, since, after all, he'd been in a similar situation a few times himself.
"It's all my fault Gibbs. I wasn't strong enough to save McGee, save Carson…This time we got lucky, but what happens next time?"
"DiNozzo—" Gibbs began, trying to stop the "what-ifs" before they had a chance to rear their ugly heads.
"I mean," Tony continued as if Gibbs hadn't spoken at all, "the next time, what? We all die and the new Iniguez walks? Is that how things are going to go down?"
"You and I both know that isn't true DiNozzo," Gibbs interrupted.
"Yeah, whatever, Gibbs," Tony replied, averting his gaze and focusing on the controls next to his left arm. He was silent for a long moment.
"Gibbs…there's something I've been meaning to talk to you about…"
In that instant, Gibbs knew what Tony was going to say. "Don't, Tony."
"I have to, boss. Can't figure out any other way—"
"No, DiNozzo. Not now, not until you've had a chance to sort some things out—"
"It's gotta be now, boss."
"No, Tony. It does not have to be now. You're not going to make any rash decisions while you're under the influence of some damn strong drugs—I won't let you. And if you would stop yammering for long enough for someone else to speak, I have something to tell you."
Tony nodded absently, not really hearing what Gibbs had said. He released his death grip on the sheet and began picking at the gauze wrapped around his left hand, keeping the injured appendage from further swelling.
"Ya did good, Tony." Gibbs' voice softened into just a shadow of his usually gruff tone as he rested his hand on Tony's own, stopping him from pulling off the bandage. "You did all you could. Don't delude yourself into believing differently."
Tony continued to stare absently into the distance.
Gibbs reached over and gently slapped the back of his agent's head. Tony instantly snapped to attention and locked gazes with his boss.
"Did you hear me, DiNozzo? Cos I'm not saying it again."
"I heard ya, boss," Tony repeated, nodding once in confirmation.
"Good," Gibbs replied. "Now, I know this is going to be difficult, but, if you're up to it—"
"You need my statement. I know, boss." Tony gave Gibbs a lopsided smile. The Lead Agent nodded and pulled a small tape recorded from his pocket, switching it on.
Tony took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Here goes…"
With that, he began his story, from the moment he and McGee escorted Carson from NCIS premises to the moment they had exited the building sans one witness. Gibbs just listened, nodding encouragingly at Tony reported the facts with as much detail as he could remember. He waited patiently while Tony hesitated around the time the Marshalls arrived, not wanting to push the man who had already been through so much in the last eighteen hours.
The two agents sat in silence for a long while after Tony was finished until nurse Elaine sauntered through the door.
She flipped through his file and checked the various machines to which Tony was attached. "You're due for your next dose of pain medication, mister," she tutted, noting the time chart. "You're never going to get out of here if you don't do as the doctor ordered."
As she was speaking, pain lanced through his side, reminding Tony of the injury he had received not too long ago. Though, in his defense, he hadn't noticed it was truly hurting until she had mentioned it. Somehow, he was unaffected by the pain, knowing it was keeping him grounded, reminding of him of his failures and the choices he would have to make to ensure the safety of those about whom he cared. On the other hand, he knew Gibbs wouldn't leave until he received his next dose of morphine.
"I'm—" he began, trying his best to convince Gibbs that the pain meds weren't necessary.
Gibbs had anticipated his agent's response and was already reaching for the morphine pump before his agent opened his mouth.
"Rest, DiNozzo," Gibbs ordered as he thumbed the button. "I'll be back in a few hours. If I find out that you so much as irritated one of these fine nurses, I'll tan your hide six ways to Sunday."
"Yes, boss…" Tony managed as the drugs pulled him under again. He'd do what Gibbs said, for now. His mind was made up though and nothing his boss said was going to change his mind. He was a danger to his friends—his family. No one else was going to die because of his stupidity.
He could guarantee it.