Disclaimer : The only thing I own are the typos.
Warnings : Rated T for violence and language.
Author's Note : Thank you to everyone who's read, favorited, followed and reviewed so far. I apologize for the lengthy delay in the newest chapter. Life has been pretty hectic: started writing a book, took a vacation and worked like crazy. But that's not really an excuse, is it?
I did research the military rankings, but I'm not absolutely certain that they are right based on ages/timelines for the characters. If they are inaccurate, please don't hesitate to drop me a PM or review so I can correct the story.
Unknown Time, Unknown Place –
The air underneath the hood is hot and oppressive, almost strangling. Tim lifts his chin again, trying to encourage some fresh air through the space he creates…but nothing comes. With an exasperate sigh, he slumps against the wall. He thinks it might be covered with wood paneling, but he isn't sure what he feels anymore. His hands went numb hours ago. He strains against the zip-tie, flinching at the pain that shoots through his fingers like electricity.
He doesn't know how long he's been here. Or even where here is, for that matter.
He closes his eyes, desperate to remember anything that could help.
After they left the warehouse, the van took a circuitous route through the city. He tried to count the time between turns like Tony taught him, but he probably missed a few. Panic and adrenaline tend to destroy his concentration. The best he can figure is that they're somewhere near the city, just off 295.
For all I know we could be in Baltimore…
Tim grimaces at himself in the dark. There isn't time for a pity party. He needs to learn something tangible, something that will be able to help him and Tony.
After struggling to his feet, he takes a moment to orient himself. He stands in the center of the room that Hobgoblin locked them in earlier. Tony lies somewhere to the left, an unexpected hurdle in the darkness. Tim rolls his shoulder, feeling the bruise from when he tripped over his partner.
Based on the disconcerting silence then and now, Tony must still be unconscious.
The chill that traipses down his spine spurs Tim to take another tour of their prison.
He can't – won't - think about why Tony hasn't woken up yet.
His useless fingers run over the walls, tracing the divets in the uneven wood. Eventually, he finds the door and tests the knob again. Locked...just like last time. He didn't expect anything different. By the time he finds his way back to his original position, terror burns white-hot in his chest again.
This isn't helping…
To the left, he hears an low exhalation, something between a cough and a moan. Tim's heart rises in his throat, fearing what could be happening to Tony.
Is he getting sick? Or having a seizure? Or -
Tony coughs again, before slurring: "McGee? Is that you?"
"Tony! You're awake, thank G-d!" Tim yelps.
"Whoa, whoa, calm down, Probie. I'm fine. Just breathe," Tony replies, his voice weaker than his words.
Tim hasn't noticed that his breathing has edged onto hyperventilations. He pulls a deep inhale and holds it, searching for calm, as Tony makes a scritching noise like he's standing up. The floor creaks under his weight as he draws closer. Seconds later, the hood disappears from Tim's head and he blinks owlishly to clear the spots from his vision.
Their prison is smaller than it seemed in the dark. The walls are lined with dingy wood-paneling and the only window is boarded up, allowing the dying bits of sunlight to sneak through the cracks. A bare bulb hangs overhead, casting the room with a constraining, sulfuric glow. But by far the worst part is the air, heavy with the reek of mold and stale cigarettes.
Tim's eyes finally focus on Tony's face. He looks worse than he did at the warehouse. His left cheek has taken a deep purple tinge and his eyes are glassy, almost unfocused. The right shoulder of his suit is stained dark red, but at least the bleeding has stopped. Tim is thankful for small mercies.
"Earth to Probie." Tony waves the hood to grab Tim's attention. "Do you feel better now?"
Tim nods half-heartedly. "A little…How are you?"
"I have a killer headache, but I'll be fine." Ignoring Tim's concerned gaze, Tony moves around the room. "Sit-rep, McGee."
Tim bites his lip. "We headed north on a highway. Based on the path we took, I think it was 295, but I'm not sure. We drove somewhere between forty minutes to an hour or so. But I have no idea where we are."
Closing his eyes, Tony makes a few mental calculations. "That puts us anywhere between Fort Meade and Baltimore. Did you see anything when you got here?"
"The hood didn't help, but we're about twenty steps from the van. The ground outside is concrete or maybe, asphalt. We moved through a couple rooms before we got here. I think we're in a house."
Tony stares at him for a long beat, clearly expecting more. When it doesn't come, his stance straightens and he says: "Good work, McGee."
Tim nods, but he knows that his superior doesn't mean the praise. It's one of the hallmarks of Tony's tenure as team leader. He tends to dole out compliments when they reach their darkest hours to boost morale. What works in the middle of the night during a case just doesn't feel the same here…
"Tony, what do we do?"
With a humorless chuckle, Tony tosses the hood aside. Contorting his body at an awkward angle, he uses his bound hands to probe the interior of his jacket. After a few tries, he grins wickedly at Tim.
"Aha. I found it!"
Tim cocks his head. "Found what?"
"The safety pin that my tailor always leaves behind for suit emergencies," Tony explains, holding up the tiny piece of metal.
"Of course, you have a tailor," Tim mutters, rolling his eyes.
"Did you really think I look this good by accident?" Tony displays his wrecked suit and matted hair.
Tim bites back a laugh. "It looks like you had an accident."
"Maybe I'm not at my best right now, but Juan Pablo will get me fixed up later." Tony slides behind Tim to work on the zip-tie. "Where do you shop, McGee? Are you still picking through the clearance rack at Walmart?"
"It was one time, Tony, one time - " Tim makes a face "- and I really liked that tie!"
"Yeah, I bet you would. The fact that it only cost you $3.98 makes Gibbs look like a big spender on his wardrobe. Hopefully, you'll follow his lead someday and graduate to the sales aisle at Sears."
"For your information, Tony, clothing is the one of the worst things you could buy. The return on your investment is absolutely nil. Speaking of investments – "
"Hold that thought, Probster."
Another jiggle and the zip-tie loosens enough for Tim to free his hands. He sighs with relief, taking a moment to rub his aching wrists. The pins and needles work their way into his fingers, the sensation stinging as it returns. Tony passes him the safety pin and he returns the favor, wiggling the point into the fastener until it gives way.
"I don't need your financial advice, Probie. I already own stock in Zegna."
Tim's eyebrow rises. "What's that? A biotech firm?"
Tony chuckles, then points to his suit. "My stock just took a hit, but I'll buy more shares soon."
After rolling his eyes, Tim takes a sobering survey of the room. "Tony, how do we get out of here?"
Pressing his lips together, Tony moves his way through the room. He checks the door, muttering a curse at the lock, before he heads to the window. He peers through the boards, frowning at the sight outside.
"It looks like we might be in a neighborhood, but the nearest house is dark."
When he raises his arms to test the boards, Tony lets out a quiet moan and clutches his right shoulder. Tim rushes over, easing to his side to complete the task for him. The wood doesn't have any give when he leans against it. He goes to pound on it, but Tony stops him.
"Don't make too much noise or they'll know something's up.
Tim nods. "The boards are probably screwed in anyway. We'll never get them loose from in here."
"So we can't get out that way and they're on the other side of that door." The gravity of the situation takes a moment to set in for Tony. "Son of a – "
"Please tell me you have a plan…"
"Yea, we do the only thing we can, fight." Tony fiddles with his belt, revealing the tiny knife. He tests it with his left hand, then settles for his right. "When you get an opening, you run."
Tim's eyes go wide. "But Tony, I – "
"Come on, McGee, no buts. We talked about this earlier. You get out of here, that's an order." Tony turns to face him, his features hard and unrelenting. "You know that you've had some problems following them since Gibbs left."
Tim's mouth gapes. "I've always listened, Tony!"
Tony shakes his head. "Not on the Dukakis case."
"You tried to make me leave a scene where there was an active shooter."
"For good reason, there wasn't enough cover for both of us and you didn't have a clear shot. I told you to go so you didn't get yourself killed, but you stayed anyway."
Tim pushes a breath through his teeth. "You needed the back-up."
"Ziva was there, somewhere. I told you both to leave on the Hanson case and you two ignored me," Tony continues, pointing his finger at Tim for effect.
"Did you really think we'd leave you to diffuse a bomb alone? Really, Tony? If we hadn't stayed, you'd be dead. Ziva was the only one of us who knew what to do."
Tony's cheeks pale. "I just need you to listen this time, Tim."
Squaring his shoulders, Tim draws himself to his full height. "Why? Why do you want me to run? Do you think I'm a coward? We should face these guys together. "
Tony gives a long pause. "Because I have no idea what these guys will do to us," Tony admits quietly, raw fear creeping onto his face. "I swore an oath to protect my team, to protect you." When Tim studies a spot on the floor, Tony adds something he doesn't usually: "Please."
Tim lets out a defeated sigh. "I'll go when I get a chance."
"Good." Tony heads to the door and presses his ear against it. "It sounds like those guys are sleeping out there. We might as well do the same, Probie. I'll take first watch. Get some rest while you can."
Wednesday, August 23, 2006 - 5:09am – Forensics Lab – NCIS Headquarters - Washington, DC –
Gibbs stands at the lab bench, enthralled by the images on the computer monitor. His hand grips the mouse, clicking through the crime scene photos from Tim and Tony's abduction. Even though he has gone through them already, he hopes that one more pass might yield something new…break the case wide open and bring his agents home.
He stops at an image of a shipping crate, an impressive number of shell casings strewn around it.
Why did they use so many bullets?
With the shake of his head, he scrolls through a few more pictures. He pauses to study one of an empty clip from a Sig. The following photo shows the weapon, abandoned and useless. Directly next to it, there is a spatter of blood on the floor, partially obscured by a suit jacket.
Someone was injured, probably one of the agents. One of his agents.
Clenching his jaw, he ignores the guilt that burns his throat. He couldn't have known what would happen when he left. That his agents would be abducted during a routine investigation. He clicks through the rest of the photos, barely allowing enough time to take in the details until he hits the end. There was nothing new to glean. He scrubs his hand over his face and reaches for the cup of NCIS-issue coffee Abby brought him. One sip makes his gut churn worse than it already does.
Now I remember why I haven't bothered with this shit since I left Washington.
He leans against the bench, dragging his tired eyes over Abby's toy collection. Not much has changed since his retirement party. Her plastic skulls and gothic figurines still poke out from their same locations. But her stuffed hippo is in the midst of an identity crisis with a spiked collar that's more fitting for a dog…or one of Abby's boyfriends. He picks up the plush, letting his fingers run over the gummy fur.
"What did she do to you?" he asks.
The hippo emits a fart, sending a hollow smile to his lips.
"So you finally learned to have fun? It's about darn time," a male voice says.
With two coffee cups in his hands and deep bags under his eyes, the leader of the other MCRT heads over. As Steve Barrows draws closed, the overhead light glistens off his bald head. He passes Gibbs one of the drinks. The presence of a freshly-brewed, off-site coffee is a welcome one.
Gibbs nods his greeting. "Barrows."
He shoots Gibbs a tight grin. "Great to see you too, Gibbs. Nice tan, by the way. Looks like retirement has been treating you well." He stops dead, his brown eyes widening. "What's on your face?"
"Got tired of shaving," he explains, smoothing his mustache.
"I bet you're using it to dust sand off your beer bottle." The simple shrug of Gibbs' shoulders makes Barrows laugh. "How are the shores of Mexico? All palm trees and cervezas?"
"Fine." An awkward silence stretches until Gibbs adds: "How's your daughter?"
Barrows flinches. "You know how much of a handful Izzy's been since Cindy passed away. I do my best, but it never seems like enough. I miss out on a lot. It comes with the job."
Gibbs nods slowly, tilting his head at the screen. "Speaking of…"
"Your old team? Until today, everything was going great. DiNozzo's come close to hitting your closure numbers with his own way. You know how he tends to be a bit more – " he searches for the right word " – dramatic. McGee grew into his own in his new position. And Ziva? Well, she's pretty difficult to figure out. But DiNozzo never speaks ill of her. You'd be proud of what they've accomplished, Gibbs."
"I always was," he replies, pulling a sip of coffee.
"I'm sure they knew," Barrows says, his eyebrows rising. "Have you seen Abby?"
"She's sleeping while – " Gibbs gestures to a computer that runs a scan " – this does whatever it's doing. What about your team? Any new leads?"
"Davenport and Ziva are getting a few hours while they can. I have Suzuki running down the anonymous tip that put McGee and DiNozzo in that warehouse. I just got myself up to speed on their case."
"Mind giving me the short version?"
Leaning over, Barrows gives a few clicks to computer to bring up a different set of photos and an image of a dark-haired man in service blues. Gibbs takes a second to glance through them. The scene appears to be gruesome with the man lying on the floor, the white carpet dyed red from a head wound. His right hand's wrapped around the hilt of a small gun.
"Meet Chief Special Warfare Operator, Zachery Mitchell, 36. Pay-rank, E-7. Former member of SEAL Team One," Barrows explains, flicking through a file on the lab bench. "Born and raised in Bethesda. He spent most of his naval career floating between various bases in California. He was stationed in Coronado until he was honorably discharged two months ago. He moved home to take care of his aging father, who died last week."
"It looks like he didn't take it well." Gibbs sighs as he surveys the images.
Barrows' lips pull into a sad smile. "DiNozzo's team didn't think so either. Their preliminary reports show they suspected suicide. But based on the deceased's combat history, DiNozzo decided to treat it as suspicious until Dr. Mallard finished his autopsy."
"What's in the history?"
"I have no idea. All I know is that his missions were based out of Afghanistan, but everything is classified. I'm still waiting for Shepard to work her magic so she can read me in on those missions."
"Don't hold your breath."
"I've learned not to, but I think it's safe to assume he was involved with something big. So until we know otherwise, we should consider his death related to DiNozzo and McGee's abduction." Barrows switches the photos back to the ones from the warehouse. "The switchboard received a call this afternoon at 2:07 from an unidentified male. The caller stated that the truth to Mitchell's death could be found in a warehouse in Southwest. DiNozzo never spoke to the caller, but he still decided to run down the lead."
Gibbs gestures to the screen. "And then..."
When Barrows brings up a photo of the shell casings, Gibbs flinches at the sight. "This is exactly what Ziva found when she got there. We put out a BOLO for them, but nothing's come back yet. Casings are from six distinct weapons. Abby's preliminary findings indicate there were three separate M4's, one M9, and two Sig Sauer P228's."
They stare at the image for several long moments until Barrows comments: "With that kind of firefight, I'm surprised that McGee and DiNozzo aren't dead."
Pulling a sip of his coffee, Gibbs studies the picture. With the number of bullets used, Tim and Tony should be dead. But something doesn't feel right. He pushes Barrows' hand out of the way so he can scroll through the images again. It's the first time he notices the location of the casings in relation to the bullet holes. The Sig Sauer bullets are buried in shipping crates, directly in front of the M4 and M9 casings…directly in front of the assailants' hiding spots.
His agents shot to kill, but the gunmen –
"Where are the M4 and M9 bullets?" Gibbs asks suddenly.
Barrows purses his lips. "They were all over the place. It's kind of funny with how those weapons are amazingly accurate, but the shots were wild. We assumed the assailants were untrained."
"Or they were trying to avoid DiNozzo and McGee."
There's a long pause as Barrows considers the suggestion. "So you think the abduction was planned and not a crime of opportunity?"
"It seems that way."
He makes a note in his file, then glances up with grave eyes. "This is personal."
Shrugging, Gibbs backs away from the computer. He needs a few moments to think, to process the situation. What should be a random crime turned out to be a vendetta against one of his agents. He scrubs his hand over his face, debating about which one could be the target.
Just as he steps into the hallway, an air-raid siren shrieks.
He nearly jumps out of his skin.
"Gibbs! Get in here!" Barrows yells.
With his hands clamped over his ears, Gibbs ducks back into the lab. The lights flash overhead like a strobe. His path back to the bench is nothing more than snippets that turn his stomach.
A black-clad figure bursts out of the office, making a jerky approach. When it materializes by his arm, he jumps again. The familiar grip on his arm brings him a surprising comfort in his near panic. Suddenly, the noise cuts out and the lab plunges into darkness. Gibbs wonders whether he's gone deaf and blind.
But when the overhead light crackles back on, he blinks to clear the pounding that starts in his head.
Next to him, Abby Scuito clutches his arm. She glances up, a sad smile barely reaching her puffy eyes. Her pigtails are wild, the fly-aways dancing in the fluorescent light. Gibbs tries his best to smooth them, but it only makes her hair worse. He kisses her head instead.
"Did you find anything about Tony and McGee yet?" She plays with the hem of her black microdress.
Gibbs shakes his head. "Not yet, but we will. What's with the new alarm, Abs?"
"I rewired the lab," she explains, "so I wouldn't miss anything."
"The first time I heard it, I damn near had a heart attack," Barrows interjects, rubbing his likely ringing ears. "What's the search results?"
Abby lets out a broken sigh, then scans her findings. "Do you remember that partial print that I found on the M9 casing, Steve? Well, I ran it through every database that I could think of." She grows quiet, her eyes squinting at the screen. "This can't be right."
"What is it?" Gibbs asks, peering over her shoulder.
She smashes a few buttons to bring up an image of a red-haired man. Wearing a navy working uniform, the young man sat with his defiant gaze directed at the camera.
"Special Warfare Operator, Second Class Matthew Cunningham, 31," she recites, gaze still glued to the computer monitor.
Heading for the door, Barrows waves for Gibbs to follow. "I'll have my team get out a BOLO and we'll bring DiNozzo and McGee home before the sun's up."
But Gibbs doesn't move, certain that Abby has more. She types frantically, scrolling through several databases and loading search after search. His eyes don't even have an opportunity to focus on her information before she moves onto another screen. Gibbs suddenly regrets forgetting his reading glasses in Mexico.
"Steve! Wait!" Abby calls.
He stops dead. "What?"
"Something's hinky here." She waits for Barrows returns to her side. "Cunningham's combat records are listed as classified, but he's from the same platoon as Zachery Mitchell. Wait, this is hinkier than I thought. It's like straight out of a movie…"
When she lets the silence stretch, Gibbs taps her shoulder. "Fill us in, Abs."
"There's no reason for his fingerprints to be here. Cunningham was killed in 2005 during his last tour."