The sterile air in the hospital, tinged with the faint smells of antiseptic and fresh sheets, was the first thing Tony noticed when he resurfaced. His own apartment trapped scents inside and always, always there was the lingering aroma of takeout pizza or thick dust; women's houses usually had their own scents, like candles or cotton, sticky perfume, and so he knew—unfortunately—that this careful non-scent meant that he was somewhere else, somewhere not as good. The pain in his shoulder had faded to a dull numbness, held back by the slim IV line running to the inside of his elbow. Somewhere, in the far distance, fuzzed out by too many doors and too much volume control, he could hear a game-show playing. Bob Barker.
He opened his eyes and saw Pete lounging in the plastic chair at the side of his bed. He was reading a Philip K. Dick novel with a cracked spine. He squinted and made out the title.
"Funny," he said, his voice an impossibly dry croak, "I was just dreaming of electric sheep."
Pete dropped the book on the floor. He curled his smile into his usual scowl quickly enough, but before he did, Tony saw that it had been surprised and almost sort of joyful—and that was good to know, even if Pete had tamped down it pretty quickly.
"I've seen the Playboy calendar in your desk drawer, Tony. I think there's only one thing you ever dream about." He poured Tony a cup of water and handed it to him. "Here. You sound worse than Darth Vader. It's going to spoil the mood."
The water was wonderfully cold. "So what's my damage?"
"Never an easy question to answer," Pete said. His scowl flattened a little, turned into more of a genuine frown. "You got shot, which I'm fairly sure made an impression even on you, and which really pissed me off, because I expressly told Agent Gibbs to make sure that didn't happen. You haven't been out for long, though, and they stopped freaking out about you dying a couple of hours ago. You'll be fine."
"Interrogating the guy who shot you." Pete settled back into his chair. "He's not exactly what you'd call well-adjusted, is he?"
"Whereas you, of course, are the poster child for mental health," Tony said.
Pete held up his hands. "I'm not complaining about it. He called me. That's a definite improvement over Lucas."
Tony sipped at the water again. His head was still regrettably fuzzy, almost stuffed with cotton, and he wasn't sure whether to blame it on the drugs or the blood loss. He scratched absently at the IV line. "Pete, you want to go ask one of the nurses what they've got going into me here?"
"Can I ask why not?"
"Because I know you. And if they tell you, you'll start trying to figure out whether or not you actually need it, and you'll probably decide that you don't, and I don't want you ripping out your IV line and going AMA." He picked up the paperback off the floor and bent it back and forth, adding a few more creases to the already damaged spine. "And because you owe me a favor. I was just about to finish off the last of the honey-dust when I got Gibbs's call."
"Quite the sacrifice," Tony said.
"Not so much," Pete said, "when they thought you might be dying." He reached out and took a long drink of Tony's water. "Gibbs stayed here until they were sure you were okay. He's all right. Not much in the interpersonal relationships department, and a little prone to yelling, but he stuck with you. And he called me. He likes you. I think it'll be okay."
"I never said I was leaving."
"Tony. You'd have to be crazy to stay here."
"Yeah," he said. "Maybe that's true. But I'll miss you." He thought that he had to be careful there—that he had to thread the needle—because he had never been good at saying what he really meant straight out. He would've preferred to say something else, almost anything else, but that was the only thing that he really needed to get across to Pete, the only sentence in two years of tangled conversations that really mattered. It was important, and he didn't want Pete to misunderstand.
One corner of Pete's mouth slanted upwards. "Of course you'll miss me. I'm the only one who listens when you do that this-reminds-me-of-a-movie shtick."
He was smiling again, but not as happily—this was a little softer, a little sadder, and Tony thought that he did understand, after all. That was good. Because he would miss Pete, for the movie shtick and for everything else—because if he had been floating before, this was like finally stepping onto dry land again.
"So everybody was right. You got that cushy federal job after all. So it's Special Agent Dinozzo now. For two years, at least."
Even without looking, Tony would have known him. It may have gotten tattered in the last few days, but Lucas's voice had always been velvet-smooth. It could be warm sometimes, and soft as well as smooth, but Tony had the feeling that those days had long passed, that whatever good there had been between him and Lucas had died even before Gibbs had come around. Somewhere along the line, back when they had still been pitting Tony against suicide attempts and reporters, back when they had decided that he was a better pretty face than he was a cop, Lucas had left him and Tony had never gotten him back.
He didn't have him now, either, though Lucas was right in the room with him—not in one of his suits but just in jeans and an old Orioles tee-shirt, looking battered but still—in some stamp that could never be beaten off his face, even though Rob Kelly had tried—smug.
Tony heard Pete curse under his breath and knew that he was supposed to be mad, too, that Lucas was intruding on something that was none of his business, that Lucas had no right, but he was more tired than angry. However much sleep he had gotten under that filmy water of unconsciousness hadn't been enough. He wanted to sleep and he wanted to shower, he wanted to scrub all these shadows off his skin, and then he wanted at least one night where the most he had to consider was a woman, and not a woman like Marcia Kelly, who needed him, but just one who wanted him. Just something brief. He wanted those things but he didn't want Lucas, not really, not now, not anymore. He had Gibbs and maybe Ducky and Abby, too; he had Pete. That was enough.
But somewhere, dulled and weakened underneath his weariness and the heartbeat of his anger (I loved her too, you son-of-a-bitch), he still loved Lucas, and so he said, "That's right. For two years, at least. What are you doing here, Lucas?"
"Heard you got shot," Lucas said simply. "I wanted to see it for myself."
"How endearingly disturbing," Pete said. "Get out of here, Lucas. You already hit him once."
Lucas let out a chuff of air that was almost a laugh. "What, Woley, and one time is supposed to pay for all? My daughter's dead."
"I know that, and I'm sorry, but this isn't your show anymore."
"No," Lucas said, still looking at Tony. "No, I guess it isn't. And you got him eventually. Does it bother you that we might have gotten him sooner? How many wild-goose chases did Gibbs take you on? How many wrong turns? Do you wonder if we could have saved her?"
And that was where Lucas had him, where Lucas would always have him, because Tony knew that he could have solved it sooner, that Alex had died before Marie and that the pieces—at least most of them—had been there before Lucas's disastrous interview and Kelly's response. Yeah. It bothered him that he might have saved her. That he hadn't been smart enough, or good enough, or quick enough to do that. That he had loved her and she was dead and he could have stopped it. But he couldn't have stopped it with Lucas and that was the one thing that Lucas didn't understand, that Lucas would maybe never understand. And if he didn't understand that, Tony didn't know why he should waste his time explaining anything else.
"Gibbs is better than you are," he said, "and I'm better with Gibbs, too."
Lucas's smile froze in place. "Then get better soon, Tony, and get the hell out of here. Because if you stay one day longer than you have to, I can't guarantee that anyone's going to come when you call for backup. I hope they don't." It wasn't a taunt, Tony understood that instinctively, and it might not have even been a real threat—but beneath the words were Lucas's anger and Lucas's hurt, the remains of their spoiled and gone-sour friendship, and it was, at least, a wish. And sincere.
Lucas touched two fingers to his right eyebrow in an improvised salute.
"I hope it's worth it," he said. And then he left.
Pete poured him another glass of water. His hand was shaking. "Don't listen to him. He's an asshole. You didn't do anything wrong."
Tony took the water and didn't say anything, because there was so little he was sure of.
"You're a lot better than Lucas," Pete said. "You're a lot better than anyone else I know." Then he did something he had never done before—he leaned forward, just briefly, and squeezed Tony's shoulder. Just once. Just for a second. Then things moved back into place, and moved on.
Gibbs had conducted interrogations in hospital rooms before, but he hadn't done it often, and this interrogation, with Rob Kelly handcuffed to his hospital bed and smiling a slightly drug-fuzzed smile, unnerved him.
He was uncomfortable with the background noises, with the whines and beeps of the machines; uncomfortable, too, with the fact that Tony was somewhere on this same floor. Being uncomfortable made him angry and being angry made him wish that there was a wall to batter in, a lawyer at least, but Kelly had waived his rights and simply lay there, placidly answering questions, leaving nothing for Gibbs to fight. He set up the tape recorder to catch the simple, poisonous answers; that was all. No tricks.
From Alex's confession of hearing the noises at night to Kelly's assumption that his wife had been having an affair, there was a straight and unbroken line; Gibbs had followed that same path himself. Kelly even confessed to beating Marcia—"Sometimes I'd lose my temper"—and relayed the scene that had taken place between them when he had first accused her. The scene had resulted in a chipped tooth, a damaged kidney, and another set of black eyes. He had wanted to kill her but he knew that that would be tricky, that they would see the bruises, that the neighbors would talk, that the husband was always the first suspect. He wanted to kill her but even more than that, he wanted to kill Alex, pretty little Alex, who looked so much like her mother and nothing like her father. He'd gone over it again and again. Who did she look like? Did he know? Had he met his wife's lover? He had kept his outbursts to Marcia but he had started to focus all of his real hatred on Alex, the girl that he thought represented the culmination of his wife's affair, the girl who was both his cheating wife and her lover. The girl that could take all the punishment he wanted to deliver to both wife and unknown lover.
His confession was smooth, untouched by any regret. He was angry, but even the anger seemed a little distant, now. He seemed content. Self-satisfied. And why not? Hadn't he broken his wife well enough, in the end?
"But why Ellie Lacher?"
He would start there. He had to start asking why and he had to start somewhere, because he had the feeling that there were many whys that Kelly didn't know. Why had he started beating his wife? Why had he thought that it would be right or reasonable to do what he had done? Gibbs had been in the game a long time. He knew these questions didn't have any answers. Not with men like Rob Kelly.
"I needed a distraction. Something where you couldn't see the forest for the trees. And I knew that Lacher had trouble sleeping, knew about that occasional little habit of his. The whole base knew. Some guys just can't handle it."
Something clicked into place. "You got the Seconal from him."
"Something nice," Kelly said. "For his daughter. Too bad I ran out before Marie. I told him that I had trouble, too, that I couldn't take it. Insomnia." He smiled. "Problems with my wife. He ate it up. Brought me the reds the very next day."
"And you killed his daughter," Gibbs said.
Kelly shrugged. "He was a junkie and his wife was dead. He wasn't going to win any father-of-the-year awards. I think I did the little girl a favor." But his voice slanted a little at the end and Gibbs knew that it hadn't been about doing Ellie Lacher a favor, that it hadn't been about Bryan Lacher himself, or even confusing the investigation by producing a forest instead of a single isolated tree. It had been about obsession. It was the way he lingered over the words "little girl," the way he looked down when he smiled then, as if laughing over some private joke. Revenge had just been an excuse, not a motive. It had just been empty justification, something to plaster over his actions to hold them together when the case finally made it to court. He had done this because he had wanted to. No other reason.
Kelly looked up at him for a moment, his serene mask flickered and Gibbs saw something uneasy underneath it, some ripple in the waters. Maybe Kelly knew that Gibbs could see straight through him. Then the plastic pulled back into place and his smile became wider.
"You probably want to know about Marie Bayer, too."
"No," Gibbs said. "We figured that out."
"I'm more interested in Max Prestor, your little peeping-tom and hired photographer."
"That's a much more boring story," Kelly said. "I just needed one more thing that wouldn't point to me. Prestor's little photography fetish is a matter of public record. And I even remember when it happened. Marcia started making sure all the curtains were closed at night. I gift-wrapped him for you. Prestor's photographs and those drugs that went back to Lacher. You didn't have anything."
"We had the lotion," Gibbs said. "That Buttercream lotion your daughter loved. The one you put on your gloves before you killed her. That wasn't all part of your little forest, was it?" He leaned over the hospital bed and put his hand on the railing only an inch from the steel cuff that locked Kelly in place. "Now why would a guy as smart as you go to all that trouble just to use something so distinctive? Something you had right in your house? Not the same bottle—bet you kept yours somewhere else, somewhere private, but definitely not the medicine cabinet—but the same lotion. I don't know, but I think I can make a guess."
Kelly's mouth tightened. "Guess away."
"We thought like you, that was the problem. We jumped to the same conclusions. When Dinozzo found that lotion, when your wife said that Alex had asked for it specifically, he thought the same thing you did. There had to be another man in the picture. Someone that Alex had gotten cozy with. Someone who wore that lotion. What do you think, Petty Officer? Did the guy your wife was doing on the side wear this? That's why you put it on. That wasn't some random splash. You wanted to incriminate him. Wanted us to find him for you. The ultimate revenge fantasy."
"But you didn't," Kelly said. His lips were tight, almost white, and the anger was back full-force. "You didn't find him, you weren't good enough."
"Good enough to find you."
Gibbs leaned even closer, his lips almost against Kelly's ear. "Your wife didn't have a lover."
"She did. I know she did."
"She didn't. And we checked Alex's DNA with yours. Perfect match."
Kelly turned his head to the side hard but Gibbs pulled up before they collided. "But the noises—"
"You paid that psychiatrist a lot of money. Maybe you should have asked him. Anxiety disorder. She was just scared because mommy was. Mommy was going to leave you, by the way. Too bad she didn't."
"Teacher, product placement, free sample, just grabbed it in the store. There are a dozen answers, a dozen things you never thought of. But hey, we didn't think about it either. We're used to assuming the worst, too. But you're the one that went all the way. Did she call you daddy when you killed her? Did she beg? Wouldn't have mattered. You would have done it anyway. You're not the hero. You're not even that smart. You're just one more freak, maybe a little worse than the last one that hit the headlines, maybe not. And they'll forget about you. And your wife, she's still here. Wonder who she'll marry while you're rotting in prison. Doesn't matter. You'll have other things on your mind. Do you know what they do to guys like you in prison, Kelly?"
Kelly was white now, dead-white. He had lost. Whatever fragile little patch those reasons and justifications had made over his mind had been too deeply stitched in to be torn away without damage. He hadn't like it when Gibbs had been able to see him and now he could see himself.
But that was cheap, oh God, that wasn't much. Not much at all.
Three dead daughters and one dead father, for no reason really but Kelly's own twisted mind.
Kelly was asking for him now and he sounded wheedling, sounded desperate, as if there might be a deal to make or if he had finally decided that he wanted a lawyer after all, but Gibbs didn't listen. He was done. He walked out and closed the door. Halfway down the hall, he could still hear Kelly calling for him, calling out for him, wanting absolution.
Gibbs had none of that to give, not for anyone, and his supply of kindness had always been sparse enough that there was little to go around. He couldn't waste any on Kelly. Not when there were other things he had to do.
He went to Tony's door and knocked before entering. Tony had a little more color now than he'd had three hours ago, when Gibbs had left him, and he was awake—the remains of laughter were fading from his face when Gibbs opened the door. He still remembered how to be human, then. That was good. And if he could bury or burn this quickly, that was all the better. That was what he told himself, at least, though some thought as sharp as a razor blade pressed into him and told him that no matter what, it wasn't good that Tony could come back this quickly, wasn't good that Tony was so proficient at burying or burning those ruined pieces of his heart, but he shook it off. He had to shake it off. He was the same way.
"Hey, Dinozzo," he said. "Woley."
"I hear we got the bad guy," Tony said. "And you shot him."
"Didn't have much of a choice."
"You don't hear me arguing about it." There was a small smile on his face still. "Pete, you mind? Just for a couple minutes? I'll give you money for the cafeteria."
Woley waved a hand. "If you're leaving, I'd better get in the habit of buying my own lunch." He tossed his book on the nightstand and nodded at Gibbs, who got the strange feeling that he was being given permission for something. "Anyway, maybe Abby's still around. You can pour your own water for a couple of hours, Tony. Agent Gibbs."
Then he was gone, too, and it was just the two of them.
Gibbs took Woley's place in the uncomfortable plastic chair. Damned things always made his back hurt. He wouldn't stay long.
"You're going to be on sick leave for a while and then on desk duty after that," Gibbs said. "My guess is that somewhere in there, you'll hand in your resignation letter. Don't imagine there'll be any question of them refusing to accept it."
"No," Tony said, with a small, cramped smile. "Probably not."
"So you resign," Gibbs said, "and you take some time off." That wasn't a question and he hoped Tony realized that; he would ask Tony one thing, but not everything, and not this. Not when he had seen how close Tony was to burning out. "Couple days, couple weeks, even. Then you should make your way over to DC."
"To see the Washington Monument," Tony said. "I always wanted that."
"The Monument's for tourists," Gibbs said. "I was thinking you could get an apartment."
"Sure. And maybe one of those plants you don't have to water a lot. Bamboo."
If Tony intended to be this irritating as a matter of course, Gibbs was going to have to cut into his paychecks to pay for more Scotch. But he knew what Tony wanted and it wasn't such a hard thing to do, not really. "You want to work for me or not, Dinozzo?"
Tony smiled. "Yeah," he said. "I do." But eventually his smile faded around the corners. "I'm going to remind you of this, aren't I? That's not such a good thing. You sure you want to hire someone that's just going to really be the souvenir from hell?"
No. Because he was good at getting rid of the things that didn't matter; good at carving away whatever he didn't absolutely need.
He didn't say that, though. He asked the question he needed to get the answer he already knew. "What about you?"
Tony shrugged. "There are a couple skeletons in my closet, boss, but I'm usually pretty good at locking the door. It's not much of a problem."
"Not a problem for me, either." Everyone carried their pasts around, it wasn't like they could help it. But he didn't have to examine his own too closely. If he were in the habit of doing that, he never would have gotten this far.
He had let go of worse things than this.
He wasn't good at forgiveness—because to forgive was to remember forever—but he was good at forgetting.
"Good," Tony said. He met Gibbs's eyes. "Because I wasn't trying to get out of taking the job. I want it. I just don't want it badly enough for you to screw you over."
He had never made a hire like this before; never chosen someone who wanted to work for him and not just for NCIS, for the feds, for the money.
"I never asked you to worry about me, Dinozzo," he said. "Three weeks. Anything more than that, don't bother showing up. Anything much less than that, don't bother expecting active duty." He thought that meant that Tony would probably get to DC in about two weeks and talk himself onto active duty after about two-and-a-half. That would be enough time. Enough time to forget, if not to forgive, most everything that had happened in Baltimore.
"Three weeks. Got it, boss. See you then."
Gibbs just nodded and patted the side of the bed before he left. There was, after all, no point in saying goodbye.
Author's Notes: Okay, if you stuck around for this long—through all of the tangles, interminably long waits, and hit-and-miss author response (thankfully, I'm on top of my game at the moment and I'll make sure to get back to everyone)—then I really, sincerely hope that you also enjoyed the ending. I'm planning a sequel tentatively called The Third Day, in which that botched undercover assignment Tony mentions a few times in Rictus comes back to haunt him during current-era NCIS, but I've learned my lesson on writing novels: I'll finish it before I begin posting. Until then, I think I'll stick to one-shots for a while.
Once again, thank you so much for all of your comments, support, and readership. I couldn't have gotten through this without you.
Way Belated Author's Note: Inexcusably late, but still better than never: the structure of the crimes in Rictus is based off Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders, which would make much better bedtime reading than this. Thanks to the Dame for any cleverness in plotting and a smack to me for forgetting to note that originally.