“Come on Tony, five more minutes and you can go back to the apartment.”
“I’m done, can’t do any more.”
“You can, you went this far yesterday, time to push on and do another circuit.”
Tony leaned forward, bracing his hands on his knees as he took some deep breaths, who would have thought walking would be so exhausting? Okay, they hadn’t been strolling, but they weren’t exactly jogging either, yet he was so tired. He wanted to stop feeling so weak and weary every day, he wanted to be able to outrun Tim the way he always had; yet here he was struggling to catch his breath when all they’d done was power-walk five circuits of the park. “I’m thirsty, can we go home?” Even to his own ears the question sounded pathetic.
“Here, take a drink.” Tim handed Tony one of the water bottles he’d carried with him. “Then we’ll do another circuit.”
“Don’t you ever listen?” Tony snatched the bottle and gulped down some water. “I said I’d had enough, I’m tired.”
“I know Tony. You’re doing great, just one more...”
“You know! How the hell do you know?” Thrusting the bottle back at Tim he started walking. “Were you the one who spent a week in the ICU, who had to be doped on pain-meds just to get through a day? Correct me if I’m wrong but I didn’t think you were the one who had a bullet rip through your gut. When you’ve spent three weeks in hospital wondering if you’re ever going to live a normal life again, then you can tell me you damn well know!”
Tim didn’t flinch, he’d heard it all before, and some much worse since Tony’s recovery started in earnest; he’d take the verbal outbursts over the quiet beeps of hospital monitors any day. Tim had been at the hospital as much as he could in the early days, although the first day after Tony woke was a blank to him; his body had finally submitted to the need for rest. He’d slept for eighteen hours; returning refreshed to the hospital, Tim had taken his place at Tony’s bedside ready to offer any support necessary to help his friend start out on the road to recovery. The road had proved to be a bumpy one, and they hadn’t yet reached the end.
Tim kept pace with Tony as he strode around the perimeter of the park, if he kept this up they might manage two extra circuits. It hadn’t been deliberate, but it looked as if goading him into anger, had given Tony renewed energy. Mid-way through the second circuit Tony started to slow down, and this time Tim could see he really had used up the last reserves of his energy.
“We could cut through the park Tony, take the quick route home.”
“No way, you’ve dragged me this far, I can finish.”
“Okay, but slow down, you’re not in a race.”
Tony slowed to a snail’s pace and looked over at Tim. “Oh yes I am; if I don’t pass my physical next week they won’t let me go back to desk duty...listen to me, can you believe I’m missing paperwork? I just want to do something so I can feel useful again, back in the swing of things instead of being on the outside looking in.”
“You have time Tony, we can do more circuits tomorrow, or we can drive over to Rock Creek Park, see if we can take a walk there without stumbling on a dead body.” Tim’s attempt at lightening the mood fell on stony ground.
“Anything would be better than trudging round this place any longer, I swear I know every leaf on every tree.”
“Okay, maybe a change of scene will make you feel better.”
“Gee, thanks for your expert opinion Doctor McGee; did you sneak in a medical degree to go with all the others you have?”
They’d arrived back at Tony’s apartment and Tim keyed in the access security code, Tony brushed past him. “Damn it, can’t you even let me open my own door! I can take it from here, unless you want to escort me to the bathroom.”
“Forget it, and don’t worry about coming round tomorrow, I’m good. I can do this on my own; you get back to doing your job and leave me alone!” The door slammed in his face and for the time it took to take two deep breaths Tim stared at the door, then he turned away with a slight smile on his face. He took out his phone and called Gibbs as he did every day after meeting with Tony.
“How’s he doing Tim?”
“He finally told me to leave him alone; looks like he’s really on the mend Boss.”
“Tim; if you want we can call in on Tony.” Delilah had enjoyed the evening, time for just the two of them had been at a premium since Tony was shot and she’d relished spending a few hours with Tim.
“He’ll be okay, Gibbs said he’d check in on him, and if he wants to talk he has my number.”
She reached across the table and held his hand. “He doesn’t mean it you know, when he lashes out at you, it’s frustration talking.”
“It’s not a problem Delilah, really it’s not. After what he’s been through...guess he’s entitled to be angry, he’s the jock, the one who wins all the races, who played college ball, and right now even the geek could beat him hands down.”
“Hey, you’re a highly trained field agent for an armed federal agency...” Delilah smiled as she saw Tim’s eyebrow go up. “Okay, you’re not exactly pro-sport standard, but you’re much more than a geek; and speaking as a geek, what’s so bad about...?”
Tim was laughing as he put up his hands in surrender. “I give up; I’m never going to win that argument, how about I plead the fifth?”
“It’s lame, but I’ll accept it.” She raised her wine glass. “Maybe it’s time to toast his recovery, if he’s arguing with you it really does look like the worst is behind him...and you.”
Tim shrugged but he picked up his glass and angled it toward hers. “I hope you’re right, he’s been through so much. Watching him day after day in the hospital, he was hurt so bad...at first we were so focussed on his physical recovery we didn’t think about how it was affecting him here.” Tim tapped his forehead. “I know on the surface Tony is all wise-cracks and James Bond charm, but deep down he...he keeps a lot inside; I should have spotted it earlier.”
“Don’t Tim, you weren’t the only one who didn’t see...guess Tony’s had a lifetime acting his part, makes him very good at hiding. You’ve been there for him Tim, every day.”
“Not every day...”
“Give yourself a break! You missed one day, and only because you practically collapsed at the hospital. You’ve been a good friend Tim, the best; and Tony will remember that, after the pain has gone and he’s back at work, when you’re bickering over whose turn it is to get coffee; he’ll know when he needed you, you were there, you helped get him through.”
“Maybe, right now all he can see is the things he can’t do; makes it hard to see an end to the healing.”
“But there is an end Tim, and you can see it even if Tony can’t. You’ve watched him improve little by little because you’ve been at his side, after work you went to the hospital, helped with his physical therapy, made him work even when he just wanted to lay around.”
“I neglected you. Delilah, I...”
“You never neglected me; you spent your time with the person who needed you most. I love spending time with you, but even more than that, I love the fact that you put your life on hold to help out your partner.”
“He’ll be able to manage on his own soon, you’ve been so patient, I’ll make it up to you I promise.”
“Tim,” she brushed her fingers lightly across his cheek. “We’ll have lots of time to be together when everything’s back to normal. Listen to me, I think you’re pretty amazing; the only promise I want from you is that you don’t ever change.”
Gibbs hadn’t said a lot, which wasn’t much of a surprise, he rarely did; but there were times when he had a way of not saying much and it felt like he was screaming at the top of his lungs. Tonight had been one of those times. Tony had regretted his outburst to Tim about twenty seconds after he’d slammed the door shut, but he didn’t know how to make things right so he’d headed up to his apartment and hit the shower. Several times during the evening he’d reached for his phone only he knew Tim was out with Delilah, and they’d had so little time together he didn’t want to intrude, so he’d let it lie, and then Gibbs arrived.
“So, you’re ready to go solo? Good to know DiNozzo, guess that means you won’t be wanting steak tonight.” Before he could get out a coherent reply Gibbs had headed into the kitchen; Tony sat in silence as the pans clattered and plates were almost thrown on the counter.
He’d made a few attempts to start up a conversation, but short of updating him on their latest case Gibbs was a closed book. Once the plates had been cleared and squared away Gibbs picked up his jacket. “There’s coffee brewing, have a cup or two and take some time to think, I’ve been told it’s good for the soul.”
“You’ve been through a hell of a time Tony, I know, I’ve been there...we can only do so much, the rest of it, it’s up to you.”
With that Gibbs had gone; Tony poured a large mug of coffee and sat down to think...so much of what he’d been through he didn’t want to think about, not the pain, the catheter, the indignity, the frustration, the pain...always it came back to the pain. Without the meds he’d have given up for sure, if what he felt when they were wearing off was even a taste of what things could have been without them, he didn’t want to imagine trying to get through this without drugs. He was trying hard to wean himself off them and most of the day he could do it, but the nights...when he tried to sleep and the memory of the bullet ripping though his flesh, his body burning then freezing...for a few seconds back then he had wanted to die, the pain was too much, but there was a voice calling him back, Tim...
They’d all told him, if Tim hadn’t stopped the bleeding...no, he had to stop going back, had to move forward, but it was so hard, without his dad, without Ziva...She hadn’t even called, guess when she said he was loved didn’t necessarily mean she loved him. Abby had emailed her, and she’d sent a reply wishing him a speedy recovery, there was no mention of her coming for a visit, or any sign of an invitation for Tony to go to Israel when he was able. He’d tried his hardest not to let it get to him; but he wasn’t fooling anyone, not even his dad.
They had all tried to keep him occupied, talked to him about anything that didn’t involve memories of her; wasn’t easy, she’d been a part of all their lives for seven years. His dad was good at distracting him, with shared memories of Tony’s childhood, coupled with stories of the great and good, and some downright bad people he dealt with on a daily basis. Tony found himself falling under his dad’s spell again, and for a time he felt like they were getting along better than they had in a long while; couldn’t last, and it didn’t. No sooner was he out of the ICU than his dad got a call, an opportunity just too good to miss, like they always were.
Tony hadn’t tried to stop him, there wouldn’t have been any point, he’d seen than look in his dad’s eyes often enough to know there was no holding him back, not even when his son was stuck in a hospital bed.
The day after his dad left was tough; he was slowly coming to terms with his injuries, had even taken a few steps, with help, but he’d done it. Then his dad went and he felt as if the ground had been kicked from under him; he felt so alone; abandoned. Tony slammed the mug on the table, looking back on that day now, he felt embarrassed and ashamed; how could he have forgotten, even for a minute, let alone a day, how could he? The team hadn’t abandoned him, not then, not now, they’d stuck by him, helped him every step of the way.
Each and every one of them had spent long hours of their valuable off-duty time with him, and he appreciated it, he really did. He couldn’t understand why he lashed out at them, at Tim.
Tony shook his head, this wasn’t the time to lie, least of all to himself, he knew exactly why he’d lost his temper; he was hurting and he was frustrated by what he saw as a lack of progress in his recovery. At first his aims were easily quantified and attainable, he wanted to get out of the ICU, then he wanted to be out of the hospital. There were stumbles along the way, but he achieved his aims, with help, lots of help, from the medical professionals, from his friends. Ducky was there with words of wisdom and fond reminiscences to help pass the long hours; Abby visited often and always brought her trademark positivity and lots of homemade cookies. Gibbs had given up on his basement projects and spent time at his bedside offering silent support, then when he was out of bed the support was of a more practical variety; Gibbs was good at practical.
They’d all been good and helped him through some tough times, but when he was at his lowest ebb, when his dad walked away, when he was almost ready to give up, one person kept him grounded, Tim. So why was he also the person who felt the cutting edge of Tony’s tongue so often? Simple answer was he was with him more often than the others; no, that was too simple. The more honest answer would be that he allowed himself to relax more when Tim was with him, he let down his guard, and sometimes when the pain was too much, or the terrible prospect of losing the job he loved filled his vision, it was Tim who took it all, who listened, who asked if he wanted a visit from Reverend Miller. Tony didn’t want him, for a while he wanted to shut himself off from the rest of the world, hide away so no one else could see how helpless he was.
There were days he wanted to hit something, someone…he was so frustrated, he had never felt so physically vulnerable; he hated it, and at times he hated anyone who forced him to accept his limitations. Because Tim was the one who spent most time with him, he was the one who heard all about Tony’s frustrations, and he heard them more than once.
Tony set down his mug on the table, and thought about getting up for a refill, a quick glance at the clock had him deciding against it. He should be getting to bed; he’d never get to sleep if he had a third, and he needed his sleep if he was going to beat Tim tomorrow.
“I almost had you; if I hadn’t missed my step on the last bend…”
“Tony, I told you before, this isn’t a race.”
“You’re only saying that because next time you’re going to come second.” Tony was just about getting his breath back, he was tired again, but it was a good tired; the sun was shining, the park looked great, he felt better than he had since the shooting, and there was one other thing…”Tim, you were right.”
Tim smiled and handed him a bottle of water, he’d been a little worried that Tony would dig in his heels and refuse to do any exercise today, but when he went to pick him up Tony seemed eager to get going. Their walk in Rock Creek Park had gone better than he could have hoped. “Told you a change of scene would be good.”
“Sure, but that’s not…Tim, you were right about me having time; guess what I don’t have is patience, or gratitude.”
“Let me say it. I’ve been a right royal pain in the ass, treated you like a servant, just like we said we’d never do…You’ve taken it all and not once have you told me to stick it.”
“I’m not a saint Tony, there have been times…let’s just say the Elf Lord has been on a killing spree more than once in the last five weeks.”
“I’ll make it up to you Tim.”
“No you won’t because you don’t owe me anything, I owe you my life.”
“No way! What did you say, after The Chameleon tried to get me? You said you had my back, and one day I’d have yours…it’s who were are Tim, it’s what we do. I can’t wait to get back to work so we can get back to being a team again.”
“It’ll be great to have you back, but only when the doctor says you’re ready.”
Tony knew that time wasn’t here right now, he was getting closer, and he could see the day, not too far away when he’d be walking into the squad room, fit and raring to go. He took another drink and smiled at the group of youngsters playing football, yeah, it was good to be around people; the ball was missed by one of the players and came bouncing toward them. Without a thought Tony leapt up, grabbed the football and steadied himself for the throw. “Go deep!”
The youngsters went running and Tony threw the ball, it arced through the air, wasn’t quite a perfect spiral, but it was close. There was a round of applause from everyone watching and Tony grinned as he enjoyed the moment. “He’s still got it!”