The next morning, Gibbs marched into the squad room, finding it unusually quiet. Ziva clearly hadn't gone home the previous night and was reclining in her chair, eyes closed, grabbing a few winks while her computer continued to run Carson's most recent phone calls.
Gibbs looked across the room to see McGee typing furiously at his desk with a hard determination that was not typical for the younger agent. He stopped in front of McGee's desk, but the typing continued without pause.
The Lead Agent waited silently until the keys stopped clacking and McGee looked straight into Gibbs' eyes. "I'm fine, boss," he responded before returning his gaze to his monitor.
Gibbs saw right through McGee's thinly veiled lie. The younger man was clearly hurting. Though he said he had not needed to stay the night in the hospital for observation – Gibbs suspected he had checked himself out AMA – Tim had sustained a minor concussion, meaning the entire team would need to monitor his actions and response times for the next twenty-four hours. There was a large bandage taped next to McGee's nose, keeping the broken bone aligned so it would heal straight. The swelling had already spread under his eyes, turning the areas a deep purple that looked painful, if nothing else.
But Gibbs respected the fact that McGee was dealing with the events of the previous days in his own way, throwing himself back into his work, trying to avoid having the free time to think, to remember, to feel.
McGee had, in a very DiNozzo move, refused a protection detail, insisting he would spend most of his time at NCIS headquarters, arguably the safest building in D.C. The moment he had politely declined, Gibbs and Ziva had locked eyes over McGee's shoulder, silently confirming that one of them would stay with McGee at all hours, day or night.
Gibbs cleared his throat, causing McGee to look up in irritation from his work. Gibbs held up one finger and moved it left, right, up, and down, catalogued McGee's reaction time and slightly sluggish pupils. Now he had a baseline for the computer genius' injuries and would know if the younger man needed some time off.
"Can I get back to work?" McGee asked, a hint of non-typical anger in his voice.
"Yup," Gibbs nodded, heading out of the room and towards Autopsy.
The doors in Autopsy whooshed open to reveal Ducky leaving over Susanna Carson's remains while Palmer was labeling some samples, meant for Abby and her various machines.
"I once knew this poor chap who tried to impress his girlfriend with this unique flame-throwing trick. He ended up rather like you," Ducky recounted to Carson as scraped her ribs with a cotton swab, hoping to gather enough flesh for a DNA test.
"What do you have for me, Duck?" the Marine barked, cringing at the intense smell radiating from the center of the room.
"Sadly, Jethro, not much," Ducky motioned with his head toward the charred remains that littered the table. "I have reviewed Agent McGee's story and his account of the events seems consistent with what I can deduce happened to our poor Miss Carson here."
Ducky waved Gibbs closer and pointed out an indentation in Carson's left sixth rib. "I suspect that is the cause of death."
"Shot in the heart," Gibbs commented, leaning over to get a closer view of the bone. "Someone was trying to send a message."
"I think that was fairly obvious considering our perpetrator then decided to douse her in gasoline and light her on fire. A preliminary examination suggests that our witness died almost instantly, and would not have felt the flames as they consumed her person."
"That's the best news I've heard all day, Duck." Gibbs nodded his thanks and headed out of Autopsy.
"Jethro." Gibbs stopped and turned to face the doctor.
"How is McGee coping with that happened? On my breaks, I have taken to finding him and giving him regular examinations for his suspected head injury, but I can hardly get him to look up from his monitor."
"I'm on it Duck," Gibbs turned to head back to the squad room.
"Jethro, and our young Anthony? I haven't been able to visit as much as I would have liked—the body count in here is almost unbearable. We are using every available slab in this place."
Gibbs nodded his thanks. In an almost uncharacteristic move, Ducky waited patiently for Gibbs to begin speaking without beginning another anecdote about his time in Scotland or one of the many other places to which he had travelled.
"I don't know, Duck," Gibbs scrubbed his hands over his face, "DiNozzo's distant, closed off."
"Surely he's not disobeying the doctor's orders?"
"No," Gibbs shook his head, "but he's not itching to get out of there like he usually is. He listens to the staff, swallows pills, answers questions, but his heart isn't in it. Hell, Duck, he doesn't even flirt with the nurses."
"Oh my Jethro, that is serious, but it is to be expected," Ducky replied, standing closer to his friend and placing his hand on Gibbs' shoulder. "Our Anthony has been through far more than other agent in this building, yourself included. He has been dealt the unwinnable hand, but yet, he gets by. I suspect that, on a daily basis, he faces a multitude of ghosts of those he wasn't able to save. Our poor lad never takes time for himself to deal with what has happened, and reacts rather similarly to you," Ducky added, narrowing his eyes at the agent, "throwing himself deeper and deeper into his work until he no longer has time for himself to deal with what all has happened to him. I would imagine he is suffering from bout of survivor's guilt: why he was the one that lived, and the like."
"You think we'll loose him, Duck?"
The question hadn't been entirely unexpected, but it still caught the elderly ME off guard.
"This is the longest he's ever stayed in one place," Gibbs continued while Ducky formulated his answer, "I can only keep him for so long before he moves on to some paradise where he only has to works every other day."
"Oh dear, Jethro. You mustn't be worried about those things. If I recall, your gut reaction after someone's demise is usually the same as our young Italian's. Discarding your hiatus in Mexico, you've never followed through on such feelings."
Ducky looked directly into Gibbs' eyes and was able to see the uncertainty that resided behind the baby blues.
"Just give him time, Jethro. Support him, be there for him, act as you usually do. These things have a way of working themselves out."
A loud sniffled interrupted the Kodak moment. Ducky turned to see Mr. Palmer sniffling loudly by his desk, swiping a finger under his eye to mop up the tears.
"That's beautiful, Doctor, really beaut—"
"Mr. Palmer," Ducky clucked disapprovingly, "you should have taken those samples to Abby hours ago. She is probably spinning in circles, consuming far more Caf-Pows! than is medically advisable while she copes with your tardiness."
"Yes, Dr. Mallard," Palmer dashed for the elevator which Gibbs had called while Ducky was reprimanding his assistant.
"Hope you're right, Duck," Gibbs stated as the doors slid shut.
"Aren't I usually?" Ducky responded lightly but the elevator had left, leaving Ducky alone with Carson's remains.
"C'mon, babies. You can do it! This is no time to take a breather," Abby Scuito exclaimed as she rushed around the room, willing her machines to work faster. "Tony and McGee need you! Yes, I know Tony comes in and presses all your buttons and causes you to overheat, but he's one of the best Field Agents we've ever had! You don't want to have Burley back again, do you?" Abby asked her equipment, all of which were buzzing, beeping, and flickering. "He hated all of you and sent you death glares when you came up with something inconclusive, in case you've forgotten."
The Mass Spectrometer clicked almost sympathetically.
"And you thought I didn't notice," Abby walked over to her favorite piece of lab equipment and wrapped her arms around its main cylinder, fighting back the tears that were dancing at the edges of her vision and threatening to fall. Long ago, she had pledged to not jump off the deep end every time someone she cared about was injured, knowing that she'd be wasting valuable time pitying them while she could be catching the perps. She knew it was part of the job, but it hurt her intensely to see someone she loved in a sling, on crutches, or covered in bandages, but she had promised anyway, and to this day, no one who had hurt one of her friends had gotten away with it.
"Of course I did. Then there's McGee who thinks he knows how to fix you all when you overheat, but really doesn't. He only offers out of love though, you have to know that."
A small scuffling caught Abby's attention. Said agent was standing in the doorway, his hand raised as if to knock on the open door.
"MCGEE!" Abby cried, running over to her friend and enclosing him in a tight hug. "You're back at work already? I wasn't expecting to see you for the next few days. How is your nose?"
She pulled back and examiner her friend who remained still and silent.
"Say something," she ordered.
"How do they do it, Abby?" he asked, his voice soft and hesitant, practically breaking at the end of his question.
"How does who do what?"
"Tony. Gibbs. Ziva. But especially Tony. How does he get hurt so often and show back up to work as if nothing had happened?"
"Oh Timmy," Abby comforted, taking her friend's hand and leading him into her private office where she pushed him into her reclining chair and forced a Caf-Pow! into his hands. "Don't worry about that now. You just be glad you're alive."
"No, Abby," McGee slammed the Caf-Pow! onto her desk, sending the red liquid sloshing over the Styrofoam. "That's not good enough. I want to now how they deal with this stuff: Gibbs gets shot by Ari and is back to work within hours. Ziva looses her childhood friend and has her report finished before lunch. Tony contracts the plague and returns to work one week early, though he can hardly walk from his car to the elevator without gasping for breath. His car explodes and he waltzes in, ready to find out who wanted him dead. He has his nose broken by a kamikaze Marine and continues to work as if getting his broken was a daily occurrence—"
"Well, for Tony, it practically is," Abby grinned. The smile dropped immediately from her face when she realized that wasn't what McGee wanted to hear.
"I'm serious, Abby! I don't know how he does it! My face feels like it's going to explode. I can't breathe through my nose and every sudden movement jars the bone, bringing the 4th of July fireworks back to my vision and sends the world spinning off its axis. Someone's pounding on my head with a sledgehammer and my eyes feel like they weigh a hundred pounds each. I can't concentrate on my work for longer than a few minutes before I have to look away. I don't know how I'm supposed to help when I can only work in a few minute intervals. Yet, within minutes of Tony's return, he always has something to offer, something useful that we've overlooked. I need to know how he does it!"
Abby crouched next to McGee, wrapping her arms around him and rubbing her hands in circles, as Gibbs had done to her a few days ago. That small gesture had made her feel better and she didn't see any reason why it wouldn't help McGee.
"You're not Tony, Timmy. Nor are you Gibbs or Ziva. You are cut from a completely different piece of wood. You're not so strong on the people front—well, you aren't," she justified to McGee's raised eyebrow, "and Tony's not so good at the whole computer thing. Whom does he call again when his TV colors get all inside, outside, upside down? Not some cable guy, or his neighborhood Geek Squad. He calls you, McGee. That's what you're good at. Tony's better at good old fashioned police work, that's just the way it is. And don't take this the wrong way, Timmy, but he's had more experience in the field than you. I can't tell you what those Metro cops have to deal with on a daily basis, but since Tony never speaks about it, I can tell you, it is not pretty. He survived the only way he would, growing a thick skin that few have been able to penetrate.
"Don't feel like you have to compare yourself to him," she repeated. "He's seen the seedier side of the bigger cities—"
"And I haven't?" McGee retorted indignantly.
"Stop interrupting. For someone who didn't want to speak when the first arrived, you sure have a lot to say."
Abby narrowed her eyes at McGee, who closed his mouth without speaking.
"—you have had no reason to distance yourself from the work. You've always had people to fall back on when the going got rough, Tony hasn't. He's learned to deal with the world differently. He feels that he can't show his feelings for fear that people are going to judge him for his weakness; he's learned that he has to fight for his place in life, that nothing will be handed to him. You've been taught that feelings are a normal human emotion and have been encouraged to share them with others; you've been taught that others care about you and are here to help you get through a tragedy.
"It's not a crime to take the day to deal with what has happened. Nor is it a crime to see a therapist if you can't deal with it by yourself. But I need you to know this, Timmy: we're always here for you: day, night or anytime in between."
"But you still haven't told me—"
"Don't worry how they do it, McGee. Just worry about being you, doing your work, and finding some lost computer trail that Tony wouldn't be able to see if it bit him in the nose, okay? And if you need a break, come on down here. I think I still have those aromatic candles around here somewhere – they were quite helpful the last time…"
"No thanks, Abs. That is an experience I can do without." McGee wrapped his arms around his long-time friend who was blessed with the ability to understand everyone from the loquacious Medical Examiner to the reserved Mossad assassin. "I needed that."
"I know you did," she replied, tightening her hug one final time before releasing him. "Feel better?"
"Yeah, Abby, I do."
"Good." Abby stood up and walked behind McGee, grabbing the backrest and tipping the chair forward.
"Now get back to work," she ordered, pointing at the elevator. "There's a killer, two rogue US Marshalls, and a drug lord that need to be caught before we can go home."
"Yes, ma'am," McGee saluted before scurrying for the elevator.
Abby sighed heavily and gave herself a quick self-hug. She walked over to the stereo and cracked up Three Cracked Skull's latest album as motivation for getting her job done faster.
The eighth circle of hell was reserved for those who betrayed her friends, and she was certain that by the time she was finished, said circle would have some new occupants.
He couldn't sleep.
Every time he closed his eyes, he was haunted by pictures of those who had died around him: his friends, his family, his victims, his acquaintances, especially Susanna Carson. They played like a broken projector without pause, without mercy for the man whose head they occupied. Occasionally, the victims would turn to Tony and beg him for help, beg him to do something, beg him to have seen the connection earlier.
He knew logically that the dreams weren't real, that he really had done all he could, with perhaps the exception of Jenny's death, but that didn't change the fact that he couldn't stop the images from playing on his eyelids.
He never mentioned them to anyone, afraid that the attending physician would mandate time with a shrink, only prolonging his exposure with those at NCIS. The last thing he wanted at the moment was for someone else to die while Sheffield and Davies were still out there. He hoped that they thought that he and McGee had died in the blaze. As per usual, the media had neglected to cover the fire, now whether that was because NCIS was involved or they had bigger fish to fry, Tony wasn't sure.
As ironic as it sounded, he knew he was safest here in the hospital. The old Tony DiNozzo would have smooth-talked the newest intern into bringing him the discharge papers the morning after he was brought in, but the new Tony knew that he was doing his team the greatest service by staying here, far away from them and anyone who wanted to finish the job. Vance had kicked up security willingly after news of the fire hit his desk even before Gibbs found the time to call. His room was the farthest possible from the hospital entrance, was visible from at least two security cameras at any minute, and had rotating guards outside his door in case Sheffield or Davies came back to finish the job. The only medical personnel allowed in his room were those he had had previous contact with on one of many past cases, and the massive Norwegian brick wall outside his door quickly deterred most lost passersby.
Yup, he was safe here, for the moment at least. He was upset to learn that McGee had refused the protection detail. McGee had cited the many occasions Tony had done so himself, but that didn't make it right. What if something would happen to the Probie while Tony was stuck in the hospital? He'd never forgive himself. But the stubborn geek hadn't listened, much to Tony's dismay, and had brushed all concern away from himself, telling Tony to get better and promising that he'd stay indoors and away from windows.
While Tony wanted nothing more than to watch out for McGee, he knew having the two of them in the same room was not a wise idea since it made both of them easy targets if Sheffield and Davies were still out there. Gibbs and Ziva would have the Probie's six. The Probie couldn't have asked for a better pseudo-protection detail, but he was getting it anyway, whether he liked it or not.
Knowing McGee and the rest of the team were safe for the moment at least, Tony once again closed his eyes and tried to get some uninterrupted rest.