Chapter Warnings: Strong language, semi-graphic violence, and dark themes

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"A cold wind blows on a windless day

Hear the cry for new life, the morning's flame

You were the brightest light that burned too soon in vain

Who will bring you back from where there's no return?"

Ben's Song by Sarah McLachlan

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Softness brushed against his skin, feather light. His whole body seared with pain, barely distinguishable from the rhythmic pounding of his head.

"...Coddling him," an acidic baritone jarred his brain. "Try to remember...betrayed..."

...trying to follow orders," a light voice protested. "The fever...you want to explain how..."

A rush of fear. Sluggishly, he pried open his lids.

Indistinct forms, like bleeding watercolors, hovered at the corners of his vision.

"...a blanket? You've..."

The strain was too much. His eyes fluttered shut. The voices trailed away.

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The bitter wind howled, swallowing the shouts of the police squad. Gibbs adjusted his bulletproof vest roughly, and reached out automatic fingers to check for his gun.

A heavy hand gripped his shoulder.

The Baltimore police chief stood at the agent's shoulder, grey eyes somber. "Medevac is standing by for your call," he promised, thinning hair flopping wildly in the gusts. "We've got your back. Bring home your man, alright?"

"Thanks." Gibbs forced out the social nicety, always somewhat foreign on his tongue.

A bracing pat was his only answer.

Gibbs turned narrowed eyes on the backseat of his car. Macaluso, his shell of casual brooding restored, watched the proceedings with a gaze that gave away nothing. The dark-haired cop from earlier—Thompson—and another officer sat next to him, watching the prisoner with near palpable wariness.

Gibbs shared their sentiment.

Jerkily, the agent tugged on a plainclothes jacket. Unobtrusiveness meant everything. Macaluso would have men watching Tony—armed, and possibly with orders to execute their captive at the sight of a cop. The longer they could pretend to be insignificant, the better chance they all had.

"Everything's set."

That blunt though muted voice was Kraut. Shame still dripped from his every word, nearly palpable in its intensity. Gibbs grimaced, jerking his head towards the passenger seat in tacit command, and inhaled lightly.

It was time.

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Joe Ghervio slammed the door to the basement, locking it firmly behind him.

"Where is he?"

Tom Bianchi dropped into one of the wooden seats, face set in sullen lines, and ignored the snappish query. The rickety chair creaked alarmingly—even brand new, it hadn't been built to hold the man's bull-like structure—but held.

"That man—" Ghervio pointed at the door, unnecessarily. "—won't last much longer."

Bianchi crossed bulky arms. "Doctor, are you?"

Ghervio dismissed both the comment and the hostility with a floppy wave. "I've cleaned up enough them to know. In any case, he's not going to feel much more. It's the fever that does it, you know?" He began to pace.

"I know. I heard you the first three times." Hostility boiled in the simple words.

Ghervio ignored him, in favor of further pacing, and cast a furtive glance at the still-closed door.

"You're going soft."

The gangly form stilled. "Please." Ghervio flung himself into the opposing chair, eyebrows tilted scornfully at the suggestion. "Florentino was funny, I'll admit it. But a rat's a rat."

The silence grew.

"Have you seen the news?" The question was slow, grudging, as though dredged up against Bianchi's will.

Ghervio slouched, fingers twitching at a sporadic tempo. "No. Should I?"

"It's Maria."

"Obsessing over the boss's cousin again?" Ghervio goaded, batting his eyelashes in mocking parody. "Let it go, Tom. Like she was ever going to pick someone who looked like you."

"She's dead."

The caustic smirk faded. "Dead?"

Bianchi lit a cigarette, with fingers that failed to be quite steady.

"Mike's going to go spare," Ghervio marveled, tilting his head back to stare at the ceiling uneasily. "This is—this is going to be war. Who dared to touch his golden girl?"

The other man said nothing. Ghervio looked at him sharply.

Whatever he saw there had him lurching upright, mouth open. "No way. You think?"

"Witness. Broad daylight. The description matches." With each methodical word, Bianchi inhaled on the cigarette.

Ghervio pulled out of his seat, shaking his hands wildly with dismay. "Shit. What was he thinking? What was he doing? What happened?" He stopped still in his tracks, meeting Bianchi's eyes. "Why didn't he tell us?"

The other man just held his gaze, mouth twisting into an ugly curl.

Ghervio slumped into his chair once more. "Shit," he repeated, the sound quieter but tinged with the beginnings of anger. "We're in as deep as he is—what's that?"

Bianchi went rigid, hand reaching for his pistol.

"I heard something outside," Ghervio whispered, grabbing his own gun and lowering into a crouch.

Bianchi joined him, slinking low towards the window.

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"It is here."

Face haughty as a lion's, Macaluso stared out the window.

Gibbs followed his gaze, finding a tiny townhouse, condemned by the look of it, with a battered shutters and an overgrown lawn.

He pulled the car to a stop, with a casualness he was far from feeling. The car behind him, following at a cautious distance, did the same—concealed from view of the house by a wildly overgrown hedge. "125 Westmont," Gibbs barked into his walkie-talkie, knowing even more back up would be here almost immediately—which meant that if they wanted the element of surprise, they needed to move.

"Stay with him," the agent snapped at the lighter haired of the two officers in the backseat. Not waiting for a reply, he swung out of his seat, slamming the door shut behind him. Thompson and Kraut joined him outside. The second car emptied four more officers onto the street. Gibbs gestured for them to go around the back, and nodded at his two men.

They were at the front door in seconds, pressed against the doorframe with guns drawn. The window was shuttered, dark. The blood thrummed in Gibbs's veins.

"Baltimore Police," Thompson shouted, banging on the door. "Open up!"

Silence.

Gibbs formed the universal two fingered "eyes on me" gesture. Both men nodded in acknowledgement, their focus locked. Quickly, Gibbs lifted three fingers, lowering them one by one.

One. Two. Three.

Go.

Gibbs slammed his heel just below the doorknob. The door flew open, swinging wide.

The agent broke right, escaping the chokepoint of the entryway and making it to the corner. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Thompson doing the same. Moving swiftly, he scanned the room—a table, chairs, counters, drawers. No place to hide. "Clear," he shouted, not dropping his gun. The scent of nicotine lay in the air, heavy enough to choke. Adrenaline surged.

People—and here recently.

Two doors lay straight ahead, the only apparent exits. Gibbs hesitated, picking the one to the right on split-second instinct. This time, Kraut slid in next to him, Thompson taking up the rear. One. Two. Three.

The door banged open, and Gibbs had just enough time to process a narrow staircase before a twin cracks rang out.

Flinging himself sideways, the agent hit the ground, even as the wooden floor sprayed splinters.

A bullet imbedded in the floor, shining dully.

Gibbs swore mentally, mind racing, as bullets continued to thud, landing perilously close to the three men. Narrow stairs, leading from a single doorway. A deathtrap. How many of them, lying in wait? How many of them, if any, in other parts of the house, waiting for the intruders to think themselves safe?

On the other side of the doorframe, Thompson and Kraut gazed at him questioningly. The agent set his jaw.

The shooting paused.

"Police! Drop your weapons," Thompson yelled.

No response.

More officers burst in the open front door, keeping carefully plastered against the walls. "No back entry," their leader shouted, crouching down behind a table, out of range of the gunmen.

In answer, more firing.

"We—need a distraction," Gibbs bellowed at Kraut, his voice barely audible over the chaos. "They're—shooting—at anything that moves. Let's give them—a new—target!"

Nodding, Kraut slid sideways, dragging himself over to the cabinetry, and scrabbling wildly through its contents.

An array of pots and pans, metal and hopelessly jumbled, crashed to the floor. Kraut lifted one, in question.

Gibbs nodded impatiently, beckoning fiercely.

Grabbing a few of the largest, Kraut scuttled back over. The officer who'd shouted passed a few more over to Thompson, eyes alight with understanding.

They waited. The gunshots quieted.

Gibbs nodded.

Thompson and Kraut launched forward, and threw.

The racket deafened thought. Panicked shouts echoed, barely audible through the clanging.

Gibbs fired a volley of shots, then plunged down the steps, heart in his mouth. Thompson and Kraut were hot on his heels.

A sound caught his ear. Spinning around, gun held high, the agent glimpsed a dark shape vanishing around a corner and—out of the corner of his eye—a bloody, slumped figure so familiar that for an instant time stilled.

Then the small, flickering light illuminating the room went dead.

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Macaluso watched the house with narrowed eyes, listening the pat-pat-pat of gunfire with a spark of bitter satisfaction. Ghervio and Bianchi were excellent shots, and they had the home court advantage. If—by some miracle—Florentino were still alive, he would never make it out of the crossfire.

And if the police paid for the informant's life with a few of their own...

The Mafia boss smiled. The officer next to him shifted uneasily.

Justice would still have some meaning, after all.

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Shouting a warning, Gibbs slammed into the floor, the bruising impact smashing the air out of his lungs. Twin thumps hit beside him, and not a moment too soon.

Bullets sang, not a foot above their heads.

The brush with death was as dizzying as it ever was, but Gibbs was no stranger to peril. And the gunman had given himself away. Sniper's keen vision already adjusting to the gloom, the agent narrowed his eyes and fired—once, twice, three times—in the direction of the shooter.

A strangled yell was his reward.

Gotcha, Gibbs thought, cold with primal triumph, and slithered sideways, several feet away from his last location. The moment's glimpse of Tony's still, huddled form flashed in his head ceaselessly, a snarled mix of horror and hope shredding at his heart like knives. But there was no time to investigate; no chance of getting near the kid without getting them both shot to pieces. There was still at least one more shooter, biding his time.

Yet if even just one bullet went astray...

They could lose DiNozzo anyway.

Cursing inwardly, Gibbs strained his hearing, but he could here nothing above the bustle upstairs. The shooters, so clever in their lighting ploy, had screwed up in not making the most of their advantage when they had it. Now the darkness—such an dangerous disadvantage just a moment ago—acted as an equalizer.

The stillness was unearthly.

The tiniest husk of fabric, and Kraut's mouth was right near his ear. "I'll draw out the shooter," the larger man breathed, the air tickling the hairs on the agent's neck.

Gibbs' gut roiled. He gripped the thick wrist with an iron hand, and glared into darkness. But Kraut's face was swallowed by shadows. Don't you dare—

"I got Tony into this. I'm going to get him out," the deep voice whispered, hard with resolve. The limb ripped out of his hold.

Helpless, furious, Gibbs froze in place, finger on the trigger, ears tracking the slow, faint, hush hush of Kraut's progress. Then—

"Hey, I think you got him." The booming voice sounded out to Gibbs' left, loud as a thunderclap in the silence.

Idiot

Bullets cracked, a seemingly endless stream pouring out of the darkness.

Gibbs swiveled and shot, pouring his heart and soul into the firing. As though in another universe, he was aware of Thompson doing the same at his shoulder.

A scream, high and unfamiliar, pierced through the darkness—then stopped, as cleanly as though chopped off with a hatchet.

As though on some bizarre cue, the light flickered on. Springing up, Thompson at his side, Gibbs pivoted, scanning the space behind them for new hiding places, and coming up dry. In the light, the room was almost completely empty. Across the room—half concealed by a bullet-riddled metal filing cabinet, lay an unmoving body in a puddle of blood. A few feet away, another figure rocked back and forth, clutching his leg. A gun lay some distance away, out of reach of the still fingers.

Gibbs raced forward towards the first, kicking the abandoned firearm far out of the man's reach for good measure. Two fingers on the man's pulse—

"Dead," Gibbs announced sharply.

"Clear! This one's still alive." Thompson yelled, his own gun leveled at the combatant's head. "Get down here, and that Medevac had better be ready!"

Leaping to his feet Gibbs ran over to the one area he hadn't dared to inspect yet, save for the most cursory of checks.

A massive form, face smeared scarlet, draped over Tony's body, forming a human shield.

"Hey!" Gibbs gripped Kraut's shoulder, throat tight. "Let go now."

A low groan was his answer.

Relief, heavy as an anvil to the chest, thudded through him. Not dead. Desperately, he pealed the officer off, lowering him gently the floor.

Then the breath caught in his throat.

A gaping hole in the detective's neck gushed blood like a fountain.

"Officer down," Gibbs managed, strangled by the weight of his dismay. Hands rushed to help him, putting on pressure, but there was no saving from a wound like this.

"To—" the gurgling syllable was almost indistinguishable, but Gibbs leaned forward anyway. Blood bubbled out of his neck with the exertion, even as a flood tears rolled down the round face. "—nee—"

"I've got him," Gibbs promised as fiercely as he knew how, and pulled away, insides aching dully.

At first, he couldn't distinguish any sign of breath. The younger man's face was slack, the once flawless skin a sickening mass of blood and bruises. "Come on, Tony," he heard himself ordering, the pleading tone sounding like a stranger's to his own ears, and touched a hand to the detective's neck.

Heat, alarming in its intensity. And the pounding—fast. Too fast.

But—alive.

Alive.

His heart lurched out of control. "DiNozzo's alive," Gibbs barked. A dirt-encrusted blanket draped over the kid's body. The agent ripped it off. They'd need to keep him warm, but he had to check for worse wounds.

The stench of sweat, blood and vomit hit his nose like a wall. Swallowing, Gibbs took in the rust-soaked dress shirt, the fabric shredded to non-existence across DiNozzo's chest. Puckered lacerations, raised and weeping, stood out everywhere against pale, crimson-smeared skin. Shackles—bulky, ice cold to the touch—linked his wrists to the wall.

"Get me bolt cutters," Gibbs thundered.

A burst of cold air from the frantic motion behind raced over them both. Tony shuddered convulsively, a tiny, lost moan making it past his swollen lips. The eyes flickered behind closed lids, then went still.

"I've got you," Gibbs said roughly. "Y'hear me, Tony? I've got you."

The younger man twitched, face wrenching with distress.

Miraculously, bolt cutters pressed into his grip only seconds later, the massive tool comforting in his hold.

A woman, speaking quickly and firmly to the men behind her, fell in beside him, assessing Tony's vitals with the brisk efficiency of someone well accustomed to her job.

Gibbs gripped a link of the chain, and snapped it, as near to the wrist as he could. Without a key, the wide bands around the wrists themselves would have to be sawed off, and they had no time for that now. Gently—gently—Gibbs lowered the warm hand to the ground, but not before he noticed the unnatural angle of at least two slender digits.

Rage boiled just under the surface, hot enough to melt iron. He worked mechanically, jaw clenched to the point of pain, mentally cataloguing each wound, each break, as he snapped the second chain.

Adding them to Macaluso's ledger.

But nothing would ever be enough to pay for this.

He stepped away, chest clenching excruciatingly.

Tony mumbled incoherently as hands maneuvered him into the stretcher, beads of sweat trickling down his blackened face.

"Special Agent Gibbs? We'll process the scene." The lead officer from the second group of men—the one who'd sequestered himself behind the table—had come to stand at Gibbs' shoulder.

"A statement." Gibbs clipped out in what was intended to be a question, eyes not diverting from the stretcher's progress.

The detective shook his head. "Thompson. Yours will hold. Detective West is taking Macaluso back to the station. I don't know what game the bastard was playing, but we'll find out later, I guess. You can head to the hospital, get a report."

Gibbs nodded, the tiny movement, oddly, all that he could manage at the moment. The hospital. Of course. He brushed back the hair from his forehead with unsteady fingers.

Cold wetness smeared his face.

The agent lowered his hands, registering for the first time their glossy red coating.

Kraut's blood, thanks to his heroic madness. Blue eyes, lit only with concern for his friend even at death's door, pierced through Gibbs, sparking a surge of sorrow. And some of the blood DiNozzo's, no doubt, DiNozzo, with his broken fingers and fevered trembling—

DiNozzo, still looking shattered and fragile and corpselike in Gibbs's mental eye.

The viciousness of the thought grounded him, snapping his focus back into crystal clarity.

The hospital. To wait for news. To protect Tony as far as he was able. And above all, to make sure Tony didn't think for one moment in that fevered brain of his that he had permission to die.

After all this...

He didn't damn well have the right.

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Chapter Notes: Well, there y'go! Shorter than normal, but definitely the obvious stopping point. Hope you enjoyed! As always, please let me know what you think! :) Many more things will be explained/addressed in the following chapters. Maybe three, four more to go? Possibly more. I'm not sure!

I really wanted Macaluso dead, but...it wouldn't be canonical, so I suppressed the temptation. :P Perhaps I can still contrive to shoot him in the kneecaps.

Also...I noticed the new picture thing, but decided not to bother—for now, anyway. If people don't think it's their "thing" after reading the prompt, I'm really not sure why a little picture is going to change their minds!