Word Count: 3198
Spoilers: Chained, Conspiracy Theory, SWAK
Summary: Post SWAK. Conversations in isolation.
And in Health
It was the first time he'd woken properly (he didn't consider being launched into consciousness by a cough that jerked his entire body off the bed, hacking up a couple chunks of lung and sagging back into oblivion before his head hit the pillow to be 'waking up' in the traditional sense) since he'd passed out trying to explain Alien to Kate.
"Here, Tony." Someone held a straw to his lips. Nurse Emma. It had been days, then; he vaguely recalled other nurses, other voices, other hands supporting him. "Little sips."
"I'm an-" Oh God, need air, it's like breathing through a mile of quarter inch tubing "-old pro-" breathe lungs, you can do it "-at this now." He threw her a charming grin, thankful he could still do at least that much flirting without thinking it might kill him.
Emma smiled back indulgently and patted his shoulder as she rose, giving him the same little reassurance pep talk and laundry list of treatments she always gave as she left his bedside. He watched her mouth move but failed to listen and after what felt to him like hours, she turned and went through the whooshing isolation doors.
He turned his head, feeling deafened by the sound of his own breathing, the wheeze as he struggled to pull air into his lungs, the gurgling rattle as it hit the fluid it found there and the pathetic, gasp-like exhalation. The nasal cannula felt unpleasantly sticky and cold against his hot skin, but he definitely preferred it to being intubated. It was hard to say with the sci-fi lights, but he thought the tips of his fingers were still a bit blue. Oh, the joys of oxygen deprivation.
He was a wreck, a true and complete wreck.
At least the drugs were good, because he'd blinked and now he could almost swear that was Kate at the foot of the bed, dressed in adorably unsexy flannel pyjamas and tucking in his covers like a worried mother. He blinked again, but the only-slightly-bleary apparition of his partner stubbornly remained, her index finger pushing gently on his big toe where it threatened to escape the blankets and hang over the edge of the mattress.
"That would have been nice," he commented aloud. Mainly to practise talking without passing out. He still sounded a bit like Yoda with a chest cold. (When the plague you have had, look as good you'll not. He'd have laughed if he wasn't pretty sure that would set back his recovery about a month.)
Kate started at the first sound of his voice and looked up, surprised and apparently embarrassed to find him awake. She seemed to be real. Huh.
"Are you-" he raised an eyebrow, trying to pretend his pause was sardonic and not necessary to catch his breath, "still here?"
Defensiveness rose through her body language like a tide, her flinty expression in total conflict with the soft waves of her unstyled hair and her fuzzy, rumpled pyjamas. "No. I'm leaving."
He shook his head, slowly, so his brain didn't rattle around too much, "Don't." He stretched out his left hand towards her. He almost wanted to pull the covers back with his right- get her riled up with the insinuation, lessen the desperation of the moment- but the IV line seemed impossibly heavy and he'd lose any argument he managed to start right now, anyway.
She took his hand and sank down wearily into the chair he hadn't noticed was already conveniently drawn up to his bedside. "Damn it, Tony," she whispered, her fingers pushing between his and squeezing, "damn it."
"Sorry, Kate." He drifted off, not sure what he was apologising for. He just hated to see her looking so lost.
She looked down at the pyjamas Abby had brought for her and picked at the knee. What am I still doing here?
She couldn't stop asking herself and knew that the moment he was conscious long enough to get a firm grasp on reality, Tony would ask her the same thing. He wouldn't thank her for staying, for watching him at his weakest: defenceless and struggling, for probably bringing in all kinds of possible contagions every time she left the filtered isolation chamber and returned. He'd probably mock her for weeks if- when he got better. Maybe months. Maybe years. She could see this coming up in his speech if he was ever awarded a medal.
No, he definitely would not make it worth her while.
But she couldn't leave.
She turned his hand over where it rested in hers, her short little fingers looking downright stocky and graceless in such direct comparison to his. She had never noticed before, how long and slender they were, almost delicate as ridiculous as that sounded. Laughable, that Tony the brutish and uncouth should have fine, slim wrists and beautiful, tapered fingers. She wondered if he had played the piano as a child and tried to imagine him then; as the polished, privileged product of wealth and sophisticated old world culture. It was impossible. The pieces of his life as she knew them didn't fit together.
There was nothing to do here but study him and will him to get better, breathe along with him as if she could somehow ease the burden on his lungs. So she did.
He had a fine white scar beneath his chin where Jeffrey White's singing-sharp butcher's knife slid into the flesh when Tony moved to shoot the murderer blind over his shoulder. None of them had seen the cut until Abby's welcome hug covered her white lab coat in the blood which had soaked unnoticed into the pattern of Tony's red flannel shirt. By that time he was a little dizzy with blood loss, slow on the uptake, and he'd planted a kiss meant for her cheek on Abby's ear as she turned to yell at Gibbs for negligence.
When Kate's finger smoothed over the scar, he mumbled something and pulled his jaw away from her hand.
She flushed and hoped he was still too hopped up on medication to realise what she'd been doing. "Tony?"
"Mmmm?" his head tilted towards her voice.
"What have they got you on?" She'd missed the nurse's last round.
One foggy green eye peeled open and rolled sluggishly around the room before focussing (more or less) on her. "Wasn't listening. Codeine, probably."
"Oh yeah." The other eye opened to a slit, crinkled up by his goofy smile. "Couple extra hits of juice in the anti-inflam- aflama- swelling-reducer. This is the high life."
She couldn't stop a fond smile. "You're just a lightweight." Kate had always wondered before why he was so adamant about toughing it out on aspirin no matter what his problem was (she'd eventually written it off as more ridiculous male posturing). The real answer had come over the course of this nightmare when she'd overheard a doctor and nurse discussing medical history. It seemed someone was highly sensitive to opiates.
He pouted at this attack on his masculinity. "Am not. I may get a little... loopy."
"Like right now?" She didn't bother to hide her amusement.
"No. Maybe. Yes." He giggled breathlessly.
Kate's grin almost split her face. Oh he'd never live this down. "Well rock on, Sex-machine."
The pout returned, accompanied by wounded puppy-dog eyes as he pleaded, "Don't say thaaat, Katie."
She frowned, now recalling how much the nickname had upset him even sober. At the time all she wanted was a reaction and she hadn't chosen to question why it wasn't the one she'd been expecting. "Why does it bother you?"
"I'm not an idiot, DiNozzo." She studied his unhappy expression, thoroughly puzzled with his coyness. "It's exactly the kind of thing you're always bragging about, what makes this different?"
"Truth?" His eyes rolled up to hers again.
She pressed her lips together into a thin line and wondered if she were walking into something. "It'd be a nice change."
"It's so inadequate!" Tony started to laugh at her deeply irritated, I-should-have-known face, but he'd spoken too forcefully for his abused throat to take and he choked on a cough which became a fit.
"Damn it, Tony! Can't you be serious for even five minutes?" Kate grabbed his arm and shoulder with practised efficiency and hauled him into a sitting position, supporting his weight against her body and rubbing his back as he coughed. She sighed heavily, blowing her bangs out of her face, "Honestly."
" 'm s-sorry."
Her anger faded as she moved her hand over his back and felt the ridges of his spine and the curve of his ribs far too easily through his skin. He was still weak, feeble as a kitten, and he refused to eat solid food. Worry started flooding back and her soothing motions slowed as her heart rate increased. Supposedly he was doing miraculously well, all things considered, but she could see much too clearly the toll being taken on his body and could not help but think that maybe the doctors were wrong. Maybe that was why she couldn't leave, couldn't even consider it; some wire had gotten crossed in her brain and she found herself unable to shake the conviction that her close watch was the only thing holding the disease at bay. And he was her partner. Hers to protect.
"Okay," he said haggardly but firmly, pointedly not looking at her as she helped him lie back.
"Because they didn't mean it."
She blinked at him, her thoughts having drifted miles from the conversation, it took her a moment to realise he was answering her question. Honestly answering.
"It was sarcasm, it came from... it doesn't matter where it came from." He picked at the hem of his blanket, looking small and more withdrawn than she had ever seen him. He scratched his hand where the IV disappeared into his skin and his bearing shifted, his eyes sharp again. "Since we're being serious and everything, Katie, riddle me this: Why are you here?"
He held up an interrupting finger before she even knew what she was going to say, "Because we both know you were never infected. Why would you risk your life to stay with me? You barely even like me."
"Tony!" Preventing herself from elbowing him only by reminding herself he was still in uncomfortably precarious health, she was reduced to glaring at him as ferociously as she could manage. He was breaking all the rules, and sticking to the rules of their slightly dysfunctional relationship was what had held them together this far. It was exactly the wrong time to tear down the wall, didn't he get that? "Why are you like this, why are you so stupid!"
Tony was impassive. "Must be all those blows to the head."
"Oh, shut up." She stood to pace around the bed. "You're not stupid."
His eyes slid shut, as if the whole conversation were now wearying. "Have it your own way."
She just growled at him and a moment passed in silence.
"You didn't have to lie, you know," his voice became painstakingly casual and his eyes reopened a crack to watch her face.
"Yes, I did."
They stared at each other for a long time.
"Maybe you did."
"It's been almost a week."
"No one came to visit you."
"Not true. Abby came. Gibbs and-"
"But, no family, no friends-"
"I'm hurt. Aren't you my friend, Katie?"
"Of course I am, but-"
"See, friends came. You never left."
"Tony... don't you have anyone else?"
"I'm tired. Good night, Kate."
"So they're releasing you tomorrow," her tone was careful, she didn't know why the prospect frightened her so much. It had come to feel like this small glass room and row of beds made up the whole world, like time had ceased to exist. There were no days or nights, no past or future, there was just staring up into the blue lights and waiting for it to be okay. In here it almost felt like she could control the outcome, and she worried that when she left, everything would kick into high gear to make up for lost time. She worried that too much would have changed.
Tony rolled over to face her, tugging carefully on his IV line. "Coming with?"
He smiled at her, a smile that said he knew too much. "Maybe."
She scoffed at him out of habit, but a cloud settled over her again. "Tony?"
"What was it like?"
He stilled, serious. "The plague?"
He looked away. "It wasn't the best."
She felt stripped, exposed, like a little girl faced with something too big for her to understand or cope with. Her eyes were welling up and she couldn't stop it. The moment where she needed to be strong had passed and it was like everything was happening at once: finding out, fighting it, giving up, renewed hope, renewed fear... tears rolled down her cheeks. "You were dying."
"That's it? That's your reaction?" She wiped at her face, annoyed with herself, feeling disconnected from her own emotions. "Don't you have anything else to say?"
"Yeah." He rolled away from her. "I'm glad it was me. The rest of it I'll save up for my mid-life crisis. I figure I got a reputation to maintain. Go big or go home."
Kate stared at his tense back, at the bony jut of his shoulder and the unholy wreck of his hair. "You start building a boat in your basement, I'm calling the psych ward."
He chuckled, grateful she'd taken the bait and changed the subject. "I'm pretty useless with tools. And I don't have a basement."
"Record an album, then."
He froze and she wondered what nerve that had hit. He was sometimes like a ball of exposed wiring and touching even the safest-looking places could earn you a shock.
"One of those vanity labels, you know? Seems like a mid-life crisis kind of thing."
"Yeah," he said. He was far away.
She chewed her lip, figuring she'd probably live to regret this, but unable to leave it lie. "You do have a nice voice."
Tony turned back to face her and his expression was a strange mix of emotions, with apprehension, even distrust, taking centre stage.
"I mean, from what I've heard," she added hastily, trying to back track, "which I guess isn't much."
Suddenly he smiled at her, seemingly convinced to take her at face value. "I kinda wanted to be a musician when I was little. My mother beat it out of me parading me through every Talented Tot kiddie show on the east coast; being in front of five thousand rich weirdos in a sailor costume singing 'Nothin' Like a Dame' is a shame you don't forget, Katie. And, of course, eventually my father heard about it..." his voice trailed away and the smile faded.
Kate watched something pass in his eyes and said nothing for a long time. The more of these little stories he told, the more she started to think they were true. "When you get your breath back..." she hesitated. This was a bad idea, so bad, she would definitely regret this, he would see it as an opening for sure. But, damn it, she wanted to erase the shadows from his smile, even if it came at her expense. "Want to come embarrass me at karaoke?"
He seemed sceptical, "Really? In public?"
"There's a place in my neighbourhood. I can't sing a note, but I can show you off-" Kate dropped her head into her palm, "I didn't mean that-"
He started laughing, but whatever gleeful double entendre he planned to make went unspoken as he broke off coughing again. She went to him, ready to help, but he waved her away, swallowing carefully and seeming to recover.
Standing at his side, she found herself wringing her hands, whispering to herself, "I wish there were something I could do." She hated to feel helpless.
Tony seemed to hear her muttering under her breath and he looked up at her for a moment. "Are you over your cold?"
"Are you kidding?" she exclaimed, successfully distracted, "after a week of bed rest, air scrubbers, bug zapper lights, and a cocktail of antibiotics? I've never been so healthy in my life. I could-"
She started, surprised by his mildly devious smile, the familiar twinkle in his eyes. "What?"
He must have been a lot better, because when he tugged on her hand she tipped so far forward she needed to take a step and catch herself on the edge of his bed. The step put her totally within reach and his other hand curled around her throat and pulled her lips down to his.
The kiss was brief, but warm and firm, leaving her with a phantom sensation of softness and moisture where his mouth had touched hers.
"What-?" she began, still leaning over him and too shocked to play it off.
"Thank-you," he said, with earnest gratitude, "for staying."
"Thank you," she echoed, just as sincerely.
He looked perplexed, tilting his head in question.
She reached for his hand and held it tightly, wanting him to feel how much she meant it, "For making it."
They smiled foolishly at one another and Kate no longer felt so ridiculous knowing how much she would miss him when she went back to work tomorrow.