Last chapter, then. Don't kill me.
There had been so many thanks given: Jo's to the chopper crew, to NCIS, to Baz; Joel's to just about everyone.
"I remembered," he said, "when we were sitting in the car, that I'd not uttered one word of thanks, except to God. I owe you all, big time. I asked Andy to turn round."
"Will you be OK?" Tim asked, for everybody.
"I think so…" He glanced at the door that led to the cells, but had no inclination to go through it. He sighed; he felt awkward about saying any more, but they were concerned for him, and after everything they'd done, they deserved his trust. "OK, things weren't perfect. I knew Nettie resented the fact that I wouldn't spend my way through the money, or let her, but I thought she was happy in the end with waiting a few more years, and then we'd have a good life…I'm sure it's not easy to love someone who's away a lot of the time… I'm naïve I suppose." He shook himself, and hugged his son. "We'll be fine. Thank you again. I'll never forget." He went out with Andy, and they could hear Owen shouting "Car! Car!"
They'd all glanced at the back door, glad that the young marine had not arrived in time to hear the exchange that had taken place on the other side of it not ten minutes previously.
"Make yourself comfortable," Gibbs had said, as he steered Devoe into a cell. Nanette Saxon, in the cell next door, jumped to her feet, and held her hands out through the bars to him.
"Lewis!" She looked at him in surprise as he walked to the bed on the other side of the cell, and sat down "Lew! What's wrong, honey?"
Jo, behind Gibbs, thought, "Brainless or what?"
"What's wrong? I'm in a cell, that's what's wrong. It can't go wrong, you said, that's what's wrong. 'We'll get the money and run away together,'" he mocked. "You think I'd run away with you? And your brat? I was that far away from running away with a quarter of a million! Leave me alone, you silly cow." He lay down on the bunk and turned his back.
Nanette didn't have the sense to keep her mouth shut. "But Lew, we weren't going to take Owen! We were going to give him back to Joel, remember… and make a new start… Lew…"
Joanna swore softly. She called Nanette a few things that almost made Gibbs blush, and stalked out. Tony looked up from talking to Abby; Jo noted that Ziva was there too, looking over the forensic scientist's shoulder.
"Hey," he said when he saw Jo's face. He stood up to meet her, wincing in spite of himself, and absently rubbing his chest. His eyes were anxious.
"It's OK," she said, although her eyes were mad. "I've just heard a conversation I'd sooner not have heard, is all."
"Sure?" He touched her face; his gentle concern defused her anger. Even though they knew now that they could never be lovers, he still treated her with a tenderness that gave her a pain in her chest.
"Sure." As she explained what she'd heard she was still standing close to him, and over his shoulder, she could see the monitor screen that had a moment ago showed Abby, laughing with happiness that Owen had been found. Now it was Ziva's serious, beautiful face that was filling the screen, and she was watching them.
"Realise," Jo willed her silently. "Realise how good he is. Realise what you could have!"
There was a commotion at the front door which broke into her thoughts. Everybody looked. Everybody smiled. Baz reached for his camera and started shooting, as Helen Henderson and her soundman were marched in, in cuffs, by two state troopers.
"Where would you like these two?" one cop asked. "Oh, just leave them where they are for a minute," Gibbs told him with a malevolent grin. "Right in front of that camera."
"Sure," the policeman said obligingly, and he and his partner left.
Helen screeched, "You're not going to use that! You're not going to put me on show like this!"
Baz rubbed his bruised cheek, and put his eye back to the camera. "But Helen, it's an exclusive," he told her sweetly.
"How does it feel, Miss Henderson?" Gibbs asked.
"I didn't do anything!"
"One cameraman with facial injuries. One nice lady with a broken arm. One toddler hungry and cold and scared in the woods. One Federal Agent stabbed in the chest. All down to you, Miss Henderson," Gibbs told her coldly. "You didn't do anything."
A moment later, the cell corridor of a nice, well-behaved town's Sheriff's Office, was fuller than it had ever been since it was built.
So here he was, feeling physically much better, even if being desk bound on Ducky's say-so until his stitches were removed was a bore. Especially when the others were allowed to go out to play and he wasn't.
Ziva hadn't reacted when Tim had told her that Tony had been stabbed; he supposed that since he was obviously standing there just fine, there was nothing to say. Anyway, he reflected, she was sure to have seen much worse. Abby had squealed, and hugged, and fussed, and warmed his tired, hurt and emotionally drained heart.
He sat recalling the lunch he'd had with Jo three days ago. They had arranged it to make the parting at the end of the case less painful. Ziva had heard him confirming it on the phone, but hadn't shown any interest at all. He'd have given anything for a smile, hell, he'd have settled for a snarky comment, but her mind was clearly elsewhere.
"…. Hey, it's no trouble. I'm looking forward to it… it's to say thanks… what for? For saving my life, of course."
She'd driven up from Bartram, and he'd met her at his favourite Italian restaurant, having spent the rest of the time on the phone praising the food; she was wearing black kick-flare jeans with black boots, and a blouson jacket of sea-green silk. The boots were crusted with black bead flowers, and had two inch heels; her statuesque height wasn't the only thing about her that drew admiring glances from other men, and envious ones at him. He knew she deserved it, and yet he was thinking how completely unlike his tiny Ziva she was. (See, DiNozzo, this is how you'd have been if you were together. God, she deserves better.)
They'd enjoyed themselves; he'd showed off, speaking Italian to the proprietor. She'd laughed. Her eyes weren't as shadowed as when they'd first met; he really hoped she was feeling less down, and not just putting on a show for him. They found a new level to relate at, without the intensity, but a slightly flirty friendship, and without even mentioning it aloud, they decided this could work. They'd meet from time to time, he'd ask about Joel… they were bound to see each other when the trials came up. He'd call Seth from time to time too… he wished things could have been different…
He looked across at Ziva's desk, and knew they couldn't.
She'd been to see Abby, and he looked away as she came back to her seat. She wasn't going to catch him staring. Gibbs, who never missed a trick of course, noticed, but said nothing. There wasn't a thing he could do.
They worked on, as night began to fall, and Tony stood up and stretched. He was just beginning to think about taking his not particularly tired but definitely aching body home for a pizza, a soak and an early night, when his cell phone buzzed. Looking at the caller ID, Tony said "Hey, Seth," in a pleased voice.
The way Seth said, "Tony…" drained the blood from his face.
Something about the way he went still got Gibbs' attention. That got Tim's, and then Ziva's. Tony whispered "Yeah," a few times, but otherwise just listened. "I'll be there," he said finally, and disconnected. He remained stock still for a moment, and then swayed a little on his feet. He sat down on the edge of his desk, eyes unseeing. Gibbs was out of his seat and at his side in an instant. A second later, so was McGee. Ziva sat frozen in her seat, not understanding what was happening, but feeling a dreadful anxiety nevertheless.
Gibbs asked, as his own stomach plunged, "Joanna?"
With a great effort, Tony slowly turned to face him. The distress in his face was unbearable. "I.. I got to go to Bartram, Boss." Gibbs simply nodded, and waited. "She took four bullets, across her back." Each word struggled to emerge. Gibbs put his hand on his senior agent's shoulder, and tried to transmit strength, when in truth, he felt very weak. "Her… spinal cord is severed… her liver's almost destroyed. She's bleeding… internally… even if she were strong enough for surgery, they wouldn't be able to locate all the bleeds in time…" Tony looked at his Boss desperately. "She's going to go into cascade organ failure…" his face twisted with agony. "She doesn't have long. She's asking for me."
"Go," Gibbs said softly, his face infinitely sad. "Hey, I'll come with you."
"No, Boss, it's OK… well… if you're –"
"Tony!" Ziva spoke from his other side. "I will drive you."
"What…? I mean…"
"It is the Sheriff you are speaking of, yes? I am truly sorry, Tony. But I did not know this lady, so I am not as involved as Gibbs, or McGee. It would be safer, I think, and I am a fast driver."
"That OK with you, Tony?" Gibbs asked, gently for him.
Gibbs… Ziva… Tony was too devastated to make a decision. He simply nodded, allowed Ziva to pick up his jacket, his badge which she clipped to his belt, and his gun which she put in her backpack, and let her steer him towards the exit.
Gibbs said suddenly, "Tony… it wasn't…"
"Suicide by bad guy? No, Boss. Bad information. They…were told there was one supect. They cleared, she was cuffing him and… the other one came in from the garage and… shot her in the back. Semi automatic I guess…Andy Vincent shot him dead…"He stood still again, looking round him as if he couldn't remember what he was doing there. Ziva put her hand against the small of his back and pushed gently.
"Keep in touch," Gibbs mouthed at her, and she simply nodded back.
They had travelled about five miles before Ziva broke the silence. "If you wish to talk, Tony, you will find me a good listener. If not, then I will be quiet."
That got through the maelstrom of dreadful thoughts. No, he didn't want that! He didn't want her to think that she was simply the cabbie, and required to keep her mouth shut.
"No… Ziva… I wouldn't do that to you… I just…" he stifled a sob. "I don't know what to say."
"You are fond of her."
"She certainly made an impression on me… she's a good person, Ziva… she's been through a lot of very bad things, but she's still good…"
Ziva said thoughtfully, "Then I see why you were drawn to her," and waited to see if he would get her meaning, but he wasn't making any connections.
As she drove, she asked a leading question from time to time, choosing carefully, as she didn't wish to make him go anywhere he didn't want to. Looking back later, he recalled how delicately she'd handled him, and he was grateful. Right now it wasn't sinking in, but trying to form thoughts about Joanna, and articulate them to Ziva, was making the journey pass more speedily.
As they entered the hospital, Andy rose from where he'd been waiting. His uniform was blood-streaked, and Tony recoiled physically at the sight.
"Yeah I know," the Deputy said. He led them to a side corridor. "That door," he said, pointing. "Seth's with her."
"I will go and find a coffee machine," Ziva said. "Take as long as you need."
"I'll show you," Andy said.
Tony nodded his thanks as they walked away, and stood looking at the door with his feet like lead. He was failing her by being afraid. He reached out an unsteady hand, and pushed the door open.
All through the journey, he'd kept an irrational hope that there was some mistake; that he'd walk in and find that they'd done surgery, that there was hope. He stood and looked at one of the best women he'd ever met, and it was absolutely clear that there was none. The wisps of hair that framed her face were plastered to her skin by sweat. Her complexion was slightly sallow as her liver was no longer doing its job. There was a morphine drip, and nothing else; no heart monitor, or blood; they had given up, they were letting her die.
Seth looked up. The man he'd not thought of as old until now, looked bowed by age. He was sitting at her left side, carefully holding the hand where the drip was taped in.
"Tony… come and sit down, son. She's sleeping now, but she'll be real glad to see you." Tony realised with amazement that the man who had been her friend for a long time, had left her unhindered side for him, the newcomer. He was touched more than he could have said, if he'd been able to speak at all. He sank into the chair and took her hand.
After a while, Seth said, "She's seemed better lately, you know? A bit less intense… more light-hearted. I heard her singing, the other day. I never knew she could sing… she has the voice of a songbird…" He broke off, weeping silently.
"I didn't know she could sing, either," Tony said softly. He tried to think of something to give Seth a focus, and said eventually, "Is Andy OK?" Seth gave him a smile that was more of a frown, and began to reply, "Well, he's doin' all right…" when Joanna moved her head.
"Jo?" Seth said, "Hey, princess, d'you know who's here?"
Jo opened her eyes, and saw Tony, and the dying woman's face was lit by the most radiant smile he'd ever seen. The tears rolled down his cheeks, and she said in a husky, barely audible voice, "Sweetheart, don't cry."
"Can't help it," he told her honestly, "I don't want you to go."
"He-e-ey… listen… the way I see it, if there's no hereafter, then at least there's peace… although you know I tried… like you said… and I did find more than I had before… don't cry… you did that for me…"
"I wanted to make you feel happier."
"And if there is an afterlife?"
"I sort of think there is, Tony… and if there is, then Kim's there… and he's got our son… and he loves my girls too… I've got a family waiting for me… that's good."
"Yeah, that's good," he agreed.
Joanna was silent for a while, and then she said, "D'you know what I'd like, right now?"
"Chocolate?" he made a half-hearted attempt to tease.
"That'd be nice… no… I want you to hold me against your chest… against your heart, like you did that night."
"I might hurt you!"
"Don't think so… come on, Tony, give a girl a break… Seth…" Jo turned her head towards her old friend. "Tell him to do as he's told."
"You heard the lady, son."
"O…K…" Tony eased himself up onto the bed, and snaked his left arm carefully under her shoulders. He wriggled himself over to her, rather than trying to pull her to him. It took some doing, but in the end, he had her head safely on his breast, and she was smiling happily up at him. "Told ya!"
"So you did," he whispered, "so you did." He lay against her pillows, stroking her hair, as Seth stroked her other hand. After a while, she muttered, "Sleepy…"
"You sleep then, your pillow's going nowhere."
"Thanks…" she grinned at him and closed her eyes, and after a few minutes her breathing evened out. Tony lay there and didn't dare move. He watched her sleep for a while, he had no idea how long, and then she moved her head, and said quite clearly, "Kim…"
She took maybe three or four more breaths, and then quietly stopped. Seth laid his head down on her hand. Tony held her tightly, and wept with him.
Ziva put both arms round him to guide him back to her car. When they were both inside, she pulled a rug from the back seat and wrapped it round him. He looked at her beautiful face, all planes and shadows in the car park lights, and choked out, "Thanks."
"You are welcome, Tony."
He didn't speak after that, and she made no attempt to coax him. She could only guess at his thoughts, and would not intrude.
The lights on the freeway whipped by, and the mean little Cooper S flew through the night, buzzing like a hornet. "I owe her for her kindness," Tony thought. "She didn't need to do this. I don't even know if she even considers herself my friend any more. I had my chance… I let it go.
"And Joanna… maybe I shouldn't have let her go… maybe I had my chance there too… maybe I could have saved her… That's irrational and you know it," the other half of his mind reproved him. He stole a sideways glance at Ziva. "Joanna was right… what a klutz I am. Can't get anything right." He sighed softly, as his eyes filled with tears again. "Didn't get it right with you, Jo… Didn't get it right with Ziva either…" He sighed again, this time loudly enough for Ziva to hear him. She looked at him anxiously, and he looked back miserably.
"It's too late," he told her solemnly. "It's too late."
AN: Done, then. Genevra was right, it's been cathartic… don't know if I had the right to make other people miserable as well though… apologies.