A Walk in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Everyone stood momentarily frozen. Gill dropped to her knees on the edge of the trail, white as a sheet, but she didn't scream or cry.
"Mom! Claire called frantically, her eyes screwed tight shut. Her mother held herself together, at least on the outside; she was utterly steady, a far cry from the confused, broken woman of only a few weeks ago.
"Stay calm, sweetheart." She had to raise her voice above the tumbling of the water. "And stay still. Tony's on his way down to you. Can you hold still until he gets there?"
"Yes, Mom." Claire's voice was a whisper, Gill only saw her lips move, but her calmness had got through to her daughter.
Josh wondered if he should follow the two agents, but thought that he was the only male left on the flat, and he'd better stay there; he doubted that any of the girls would have the strength to haul a person up when the time came. He lay down on the trail, his whole upper body over the edge and leaning downwards, and Anni sat on his legs to anchor him.
The four people on the slope were getting very wet from the waterfall, and were alarmingly close to the edge of the gully where the water tumbled away. Tony eased his way past Jack. "You OK for a minute, man?"
"Yeah. Get Claire."
"Will do. McGee's coming down for you, right?"
"I can climb…"
Tony nodded approvingly. Crazy… they were both stretched out on their stomachs on a death slide making conversation; at least they were pointing the right way. "Sure you can. But a bit of help never hurt. Wait for McGee, huh?" He edged his way on down.
He had no illusions as to how much trouble they were in. The scrubby vegetation was wet from the spray, and therefore hard to hold onto, and might pull out by the roots anyway. The ground was at an impossible angle, Claire was scared stiff, they had no ropes, and oh yes… he wasn't fit to be doing this. He reached the teenager's outstretched arm; she was lying precariously across the slope, in an ideal position to simply start rolling. He eased himself under her shoulder.
"Hi, Princess… d'you come here often, or did you just drop in?"
"That's me. Listen, Coopletina, I need you to do something for me. You don't need to open your eyes… but I want you to ease your shoulder away from me, and up the slope, OK?"
"I'll fall if I let go…"
"Well, no, you won't… cuz I'll hold on to you while you move a bit and get hold of a fresh chunk of bush, OK?" He put his arm across her waist. "Go on, try it. Aim for pointing up the hill, can you do that? Aim towards your Mom's voice."
He was very relieved to feel her trying to do as he asked. His ribs didn't like being leaned on, he was short of breath and didn't want Claire to hear it, and there was no way he was going to tell her what his left arm thought of keeping a grip on her. Twenty long, long feet above them, he could hear Gill calling encouragement, and if Claire could concentrate on what was up ahead instead of what was behind her, they'd be fine. Probably… he had to trust Tim to help Jack first, because the boy was directly above them. He didn't fancy trying to get her to go around him.
Mari recalled what she'd said to Tim not fifteen minutes ago, and she was afraid. "But I won't act it," she said to herself in a quiet, fierce voice. She snatched up Tony's sling, and her own expensive North Face jacket. Her eyes were on Tim, now more than ten feet down the slope, his feet level with Jack's head, and she was going to help her man one way or another. She had no intention of being a widow before she was even a wife.
Ziva had dragged Woolley over to the edge of the trail, his hands cuffed behind him, and was making him watch the drama playing out below. For a long moment her eyes lingered on Tony's face, but he was looking at Claire. "Keep still," she told her prisoner expressionlessly. "If any one of them falls, you follow."
Mari asked, "Do you have a knife?" and enjoyed how Woolley's eyes widened in even more fright. Without question, Ziva produced a four inch blade from somewhere, and Mari began to slice her jacket, one cut up from the hem, the next down from the collar, so it opened up like a Christmas streamer.
"Take mine too," Gill said, and in a few minutes the remains of the two coats were twisted together, with Tony's sling tied to the end. It was an awkward, lumpy makeshift rope, but it was effective, and Josh wrapped one end round his arm. He shook the length of it down towards Tim. It was just about long enough, and the agent was able to grab it and hang on, even although it was rapidly becoming as wet as everything else.
Tim actually grinned up at Mari briefly, feeling proud of her resourcefulness. Then he concentrated on what he had to do, well aware that he didn't just have Jack to consider; he didn't know how long Tony would be able to hold Claire. His eyes met Josh's for a moment, and he knew from the pain he saw there that the strain on Josh was as bad as what he was feeling himself.
"Jack," he called down, "You OK?"
"Sure." The youngster's voice was tight with the identical strain, but he was holding up.
"I can't come any further down without letting go of the rope… can you grab my leg yet?"
"Be patient. As soon as you can, you can start using me to climb up…I'll grab you soon as I can… come on… that's good… don't make any sudden moves…" He bit his lip and tried to suppress a hiss of pain as Jack grasped his ankle, which put more weight on his arm. He heard Josh's yelp too, above the noise of the cascading water. Mari came alongside Josh and gripped the rope with him.
Below them all, Tony watched, hanging onto a fistful of brush with his good hand, and keeping Claire sandwiched between his bad arm and his side. As Jack inched his way up, Tony kept urging the young girl on by even smaller degrees. He kept up a stream of cheerful nonsense as they went, feeling more reassured the closer she got to pointing straight up the slope. When she was no longer in a position to see down the hill, he'd get her to open her eyes.
Jack was alongside Tim now, with the agent helping to push him on with his free hand. As he got near enough to the rope, Tim passed it across to him, and was glad that the waterfall covered his sigh of relief. Gill and Anni took over from Josh to help pull, and only a few moments later the last scramble was done. Jack was back on the trail… only three more to go. The rope was dropped down to Tim again, but he lay where he was and rested his arms for a while. He didn't much want to turn his head and look down the hill, his dislike of heights was well known, but he needed to know where Claire and Tony were, and what sort of state the SFA was in.
In a way, he wished he'd never looked; DiNozzo's face was screwed up in agony, and Tim was pretty sure that not all the moisture on his forehead was spray. The last sideways manoeuvre to support Claire had made him slither onto a rock concealed in the bracken. It was grinding into his ribs, and there was no getting away from it without moving away from Claire, which wasn't an option. He said, "Hold still just a second, Princess…" and pushed his hand underneath his body. "Can you go sideways again?"
Claire felt out to her left, but couldn't find anything to hold onto.
"No!" she squeaked, on the verge of panic again.
"OK… just give me a minute to think…" with his hand protecting him from the lump of stone, the pain was easing, but he needed that hand to grip with. He sensed movement above him, looked up, and yelled. "No, McGee! No! It wouldn't help! Stay where you are!" He gestured furiously with his free hand, which of course meant that the stone ground into his ribs again. Tim stopped his intended climb down; Tony was right…Going further down the slope was counter-productive – but he hated to see his friend in that state. Tony pushed his face into the bracken and groaned; and then a soft hand touched his temple.
"Tony?" Claire said tentatively. "Tony, I can do it. I'll go sideways." He lifted his head; her eyes were open. Hanging off the side of a mountain, he smiled at her in delight. Very slowly, she turned her head the other way, spotted a good lump of brush, and grasped it. She pulled herself towards it, and looked back at him. "There," she said proudly.
Tony slithered after her with a sigh of relief. "You're a star," he said, and blew her a kiss.
After that things got better; the further to the left they inched themselves, the drier the bracken was, and the easier to hold. Above them, Tim grasped the rope again, and eased across with them. Claire became more confident, and Tony eased himself behind her. She felt braver about pushing a leg up the slope if she could feel Tony's weight against the other ankle; he wouldn't let her slip.
For his part, using the weight of his whole upper body to anchor her was much preferable to hanging on with his left arm. He hadn't thought for quite a while about the wound that the mercenary Veldt had inflicted; until today, that was. What were the odds of having two bullet wounds on the same side… concentrate, DiNozzo. The pain's easing… just concentrate.
Above him, Tim tensed. Claire got a grip on his ankle, and although there were two people on the top end of the rope, there was still only him hanging off the bottom. She wasn't as heavy or solid as Jack, but even so, the agent clenched his teeth, and just about every muscle in his body. "Go on," he heard Tony say firmly. "Tim's hand is only a foot from yours now…" and as he strained downwards and felt her small one placed into his, and heard Gill's relieved cry from above them, the pain thrumming along his other arm didn't seem to matter any more.
"I've got her, Tony."
"I know. I can still help take her weight a bit…"
"Sure…" It was easier to agree than to argue the point, but as Tim helped Claire nearer to the rope, he made sure that he kept lifting her. One more glance down at Tony had told him that if he felt wet, nervous and exhausted, the man further down the slope felt worse. He let go of the rope, looped the sling that formed the bottom end of it round Claire's elbow, and guided her other hand to grip the strap alongside it. He sighed with relief again, as the weight was off his arm, and as his relinquished burden was hauled upwards to the path with reassuring speed.
The rope came down again at once. Tony looked up at him. "Go on."
"You are kidding me," Tim said wearily.
"You've just hung on to someone, one handed, twice. And after that you're going to hold on to me?"
"I'm waiting. Will you quit talking and come up here?"
Tony got the message, smiled wryly and climbed. Tim let him pass, guided the rope to his hand, and followed him up the last ten feet. Willing hands reached for them both, and they collapsed onto the worn path gasping and panting. They looked at each other and began to giggle, until Ziva's voice cut into their laughter. She wasn't speaking to them, but her voice chilled them.
"Well, Mr. Woolley, it seems you get to live." Tony pushed himself up on one elbow – his good one – with a frown. Anni explained. "She told him she'd throw him off the mountain if any of you fell."
"Oh." Both agents spoke together, and it was all they could think of to say.
Gillian, however, was not lost for words. As Ziva hauled Woolley to his feet, she walked over to him, said "Bastard," very sweetly, and let off a right hook that put him on the ground again. Tony smiled inside; that was how the Gill he knew dealt with unpleasant things.
"Nice one, Mrs. Cooper."
The journey back down the trail was not so enjoyable as the outward bound walk, for all that it was downhill. Claire, in t-shirt and shorts, dried out the fastest, so she wasn't uncomfortable, but the scare had made her subdued. Jack kept apologising; he was embarrassed that his efforts to save Claire had only resulted in his having to be rescued himself. Gill, with one arm around her daughter, hauled the young man in with the other one.
"It was one of the bravest things I ever saw," she told him. "You didn't think of yourself –" and she threw a malevolent glance at Woolley as he shambled down the trail with Ziva's gun in his back. "Some people don't think of anyone but themselves… I know which I prefer, Jack."
Ziva herself concentrated utterly on her prisoner. She made him walk ahead of the whole group, so that if he misguidedly took off, she would have a clear run to bring him down again. She was glad to be at the front; she had asked Tony once how he was, and he hadn't brushed her off with a 'fine', simply saying that he'd be good when he had some dry clothes, and Gibbs was going to kill him.
Then he'd added thoughtfully, "You know, it's not so bad after all that our peaceful day together got hijacked… I reckon he's going to turn out to be a right bad'n, and we've saved Gill from him, and maybe future victims… nice work, David."
Now as she walked, she was thinking 'our peaceful day together…' That was what he'd wanted; peace, and her company… and healing… he needed that from her, as she needed it from him, but she could not, ever open her heart and soul to give or receive it. "And if you do not, sooner or later, you will be throwing away the one thing that could make life truly worth living, with someone who knows you were ready to die. You are a fool, and you will go on being one."
She was glad he was not walking alongside her; sometimes she thought he could read her mind, and right now it did not make good reading. She concentrated on her escort duty.
Tim was tired and wet, still shaky from the experience, and thankful that his walking boots had kept his feet dry. He was happy, in a strange way, for all that; he was bursting with pride at the way Marianne had handled the situation, and was thinking that maybe he ought to get another ring on her finger sooner than he'd planned. Tony as best man? He glanced back, and bit his lip.
Tony was walking with Josh and Anni, and they were lagging behind. The SFA stumbled from time to time, and although he smiled and chatted to his young friends, the act was getting harder to sustain. He'd forced himself to stop watching Ziva's back, far ahead, there was nothing to be gained from it. He felt awful, and Gibbs was gong to be mad as all hell, but he didn't see what else he could have done. Ziva or Tim had to deal with Woolley, which left two to go down the slope, and one of them was him.
Back in the trees, it wasn't as warm, even though the day was still beautiful, and he shivered. Josh said, "Here," pulled his coat out of his pack and put it round his shoulders, and that helped, he grinned and trudged on. He swore he'd never come to these mountains again, he'd never even wish to as long as he lived. Which wasn't going to be long when Gibbs found out what he'd done… Karma was kicking him; why was it that everything good that he tried to do lately just went wrong?
Get a grip. You don't like self-pity. He felt his arms being reached for, and realised that his two young friends were pulling them over their shoulders to support him. Sheez… did he look that bad? Through the trees ahead, he saw a welcome sight, the unmistakable flashing of a bank of blue lights. One of the team had had the forethought to call ahead for LEO back-up. With Gill being an intended victim, he was hoping they'd get the case themselves, but he had no idea how jurisdiction would pan out, and right now he felt too foggy to think about it.
A voice beside him said, "I'll take him, Josh."
Gibbs? "Boss… you must have driven like… like…"
"Well, yeah, DiNozzo… ya think I should have stayed in DC? What the hell happened?"
"Never mind, Josh'll tell me." He felt his arm pulled over Gibbs' shoulder – he was quite a bit taller than Josh – and the Marine's arm went round his waist. He shut up, not having the energy to do anything else, and waited for Josh to tell the tale, and the sword of Damocles to drop on him. He was aware of the voices, but not really hearing the words, and a short – at least he thought so – time later, he felt himself being pushed down into a seat. From the smell he knew it was Gibbs' yellow Challenger. He felt his wet t-shirt being pulled over his head, and made the effort to open his eyes.
Gibbs had dropped the ruined shirt on the floor, and was holding out Tony's own coat, retrieved from Gill's car. When it became obvious that his SFA wasn't managing any sort of speed just now, he dressed him himself, threading the sleeve gently over the injured arm first.
"Yeah… sorry, Boss…"
"I've got some sweat pants in the trunk. But I'd damned if I'm changing them for you. Clear?"
"Clear, Boss." He felt a bit better with the warmth of the coat, and made the effort. Of course, Ziva would take the moment when he was dropping his wet cords to come over. She looked at him, her face unreadable. He didn't know what she saw in his face, but something made her look away again.
"Gibbs," she said efficiently, "Woolley is being taken to Richmond to be held until jurisdiction is decided. The Director has been in touch with the police departments that investigated the previous incidents. Data will be exchanged, and Richmond have offered to collate it. I am going back with Gill to collect my car; I will come in tomorrow to make my statement, and work on the case if you require it."
Gibbs nodded, and watched her hurry away. He turned back to his SFA, who'd managed to get the sweats on and slumped back into the car seat. He swung his legs in, and said "Wait, OK?"
Tony waited, and thought. The Boss's voice had been calm enough… maybe he wasn't going to get chewed out? DiNozzo, you are not twelve years old, outside the head's office. Get a grip. He wondered what he'd done to upset Ziva, but knew she wasn't likely to tell him. You kill me, David…
Gibbs got in the driver's side, and Tony opened his eyes again. The Boss had his usual coffee and a box of do'nuts, and handed him a hot chocolate. "Eat. Drink." For a few minutes there was silence, while they let the food and hot drinks work their magic, then Gibbs said softly, "Not catching the breaks just now, are you?"
Tony laughed sadly. "Not lately, Boss. You do know there was nothing else I could have done?"
"Sure. And you did get the bad guy. But you didn't get what you wanted."
"No, Boss… " He brightened. "Can always count on you to turn up, though, right?"
"Right." He started the engine. "You can give me your statement in the morning before I go in to work. Then you go back to sleep and I don't want to find you've moved when I get back." He reached over and fastened Tony in like a child.
"Think we ought to call your guest room Tony's room, Boss?" the SFA asked drowsily.
"Ya want one of those cute little ceramic tiles on the door with your name on?"
"Can I have one with a picture of a puppy?" His voice tailed off sleepily.
Gibbs didn't answer. Hell, I already got one, DiNozzo…
AN: There. Thanks, everyone who's stuck with me!