A/N: NavyNCISFF challenge for "Hung Out to Dry".

It's Not the Fall, It's the Sudden Stop

By Lizabeth S. Tucker

Tony was shocked when he felt himself fall out of the plane. He reached his hand out to grab something, anything without success. After the initial slam in the gut, he felt the exhilaration of the fall through the cool air. There was just something about the freefall that thrilled him.

The air rushed by with a whistling noise. Belly down, Tony felt the press of the air, almost giving him the sensation of being pushed back into the air. He found himself enjoying the sensation of falling in the velvety darkness. And it was definitely dark.

Lost in the joy of the jump, Tony almost forgot that he needed to pull his ripcord. He yanked the ring and felt himself violently pulled up and back as the parachute unfurled, catching the air. He found himself shouting out in joy. He experimentally played with the cords, making the chute sway from side to side, his body doing the same.

He turned his head slightly and saw the lights of the plane as it disappeared into the night. He could hope Gibbs was still in control of the situation, then mentally slapped himself on the back of his head. Of course he was. This was Gibbs, after all.

Tony realized that darker shapes were fast coming up at him. He realized that it was the trees and tried to prepare himself for landing. He struggled to direct the parachute to a clearing, but stray gusts of wind fought his efforts.

He slammed into a stand of trees, the branches slapping at him. Pine needles became as sharp as knives, cutting at protective clothing. A larger branch caught at the chute, slowing his descent. He jerked to a rough stop, his breath caught in his throat. Tony hung in the air for a moment. Just as he was about to worry how to get down, he broke loose and tumbled farther down the tree, slamming against larger branches.

The fear over the fall overrides the pain from the slaps of wood against barely padded flesh. Remembering his meager training, Tony resists trying to grab the tree. His chances of stopping the fall would be small, the additional damages from being so close to the trunk during his descent would be horrendous.

The parachute, now a tangled mess, would catch on branches on the way down, slowing the rate of his fall. The approach of the ground was a surprise, one Tony wasn't prepared for. He hit hard and too quickly to remember to roll.

White pain shot through him as his ankle gave way in a direction it wasn't meant to bend. He fell onto his side, gasping for breath. He struggled to focus, unwilling to give way to the scream fighting to be released. It took a few moments for his equilibrium to be restored. Once it did, Tony slowly pulled himself to a sitting position.

He surveyed his surroundings and groaned. There was no sign of a path from where he sat, much less a road. He would need to get himself out of the wilderness and to a location where he could get help or at least be seen by anyone who might pass by, probably not until morning.

Unzipping his jacket, the exhausted special agent reached inside to pull out his cellphone. He found only a crushed mass of circuitry and plastic. He dumped the mess onto the natural carpeted floor of the forest. He pulled the parachute pack off his back, dumping it on the ground next to his landing spot. Taking a deep breath, Tony struggled to get to his feet, hoping the ankle wasn't that badly injured. It didn't take him a moment to realize that was a useless wish. Just being in an upright position had him gasping for breath again from the overwhelming agony, even before he considered putting weight on it.

He collapsed back onto the ground, leaning forward over his legs as he waited for the pain to pass. He carefully unlaced his boot, realizing that the circulation could be cut off if the ankle became swollen. That was worrying enough to negate any possible support the boot could provide.

Tony slowly eased the boot off his foot, gently inspecting the ankle to verify that it was simply a sprain and not a break. He was almost completely sure, having suffered sprains over his years of sports more times than he cared to remember. Once his self-diagnosis was completed, he grabbed the tattered chute and continued ripping it into strips. He tied them around his ankle in support, before gazing around his landing spot. He needed something that could substitute as a crutch or cane.

He spotted a larger branch half buried in the pine straw about ten feet away. Although the chances were that it was too rotten to be useful, Tony couldn't see any other solution. He dragged himself across the distance, his injured ankle protesting the rough usage. He finally made it. He reached tentatively toward the wood, pleased when it appeared sturdy, not crumbly with rot.

The wood was about two inches in diameter, a sturdy stick to help him walk out of the area. He checked the height, pushing himself up against the nearest tree trunk. It was a little too long, so he pulled the small knife from his survival pack and began hacking at the end. It was slow work, but his perseverance was soon rewarded with a crutch with a perfect size.

Tony began his excruciatingly slow hobble in the direction he believed would lead him to the nearest road. The trees began to thin out around him as he continued throughout the night. The darkness began to press in on him, so Tony started singing in an effort to push back his childhood fears.

It came as a surprise when he found himself staring at the well-worn asphalt. He had found the road. He looked both ways, searching for signs of civilization without success. Unwilling to leave the area, knowing that would only make it harder to be found by whoever would be sent after him, Tony looked for a log to sit on. Instead he found a concrete remnant of a barricade and carefully lowered himself onto it.

Now that he was no longer moving, he could hear the sounds of the night echoing through the woods. Frogs croaked while crickets announced whatever crickets found important to announce. There was crackling in the trees behind Tony and he found himself constantly looking over his shoulder without ever seeing anything.

As the night deepened, Tony began to wonder just how far off course he had landed. He never doubted that Gibbs would send someone to find him, but how long would depend on the amount of time it took to book their murder suspect.

He was nodding off when a bright light jarred himself awake. He reached for his gun only to realize that he wasn't wearing one. The light was actually the headlights of an approaching vehicle. It pulled up beside him, the engine rumbling pleasantly.

"Thought you might have started walking back," said the unseen driver through the passenger window.

A smile bloomed across Tony's face. "I kinda banged up my ankle. Thought it was better to wait where you might be able to find me. Everything okay?"

Gibbs got out of the car, coming around the front to help a weaving Tony make his way into the vehicle. "Everything went fine. Except for my lead taking an unexpected leap out of the plane." He settled Tony into the passenger seat, leaning down to check the now swollen ankle. He shook his head. "Any other injuries?"

"Nope, not really."

That kind of answer earned him a light cuff on the back of his head and a stern look.

"I'm just a little banged up. Nothing more than a few bruises, boss, honest." Tony wasn't surprised that Gibbs visually verified his assessment. He sat quietly until it was done. He knew it was accepted when Gibbs closed the car door and walked back to the driver's side.

"Well, you've jumped now. Planning on doing it again?"

Tony leaned his head back on the headrest and smiled. "You know, it was kinda a rush. Until I hit the trees."

Gibbs shook his head. Turning the car around, he observed, "It's not the fall, it's the sudden stop that'll kill ya, DiNozzo."

March 2009