Seven days ago, Special Agent Timothy McGee, reaching for calm, had decided he should be grateful for his fear of heights. All things considered, acrophobia was a phobia much preferable to claustrophobia. Which he did not suffer from, he kept reminding himself, as he adjusted to the reality of being trapped underground with Gibbs and DiNozzo in a 20'x16' space-a recently renovated and reinforced Civil War era tornado shelter in rural West Virginia.
The path to their predicament had begun four days ago with the kidnapping of Daniel Atwater, the seventeen year old son of Quantico based Marine Captain Ray Atwater. The victim's grandfather had begun an investment company thirty-eight years prior. He'd had great success and was now faced with a ransom demand of five million dollars in exchange for his grandson's life.
Because the crime was being investigated jointly between NCIS and the FBI, FBI Special Agent Avery Harrison had been assigned to supposedly work lead over Gibbs' team. Agent Harrison, an old friend of Capt. Atwater's, had been chosen at Atwater's insistence. Fortunately, Harrison seemed content to work with, rather than over, Gibbs. Since Ziva was away in Israel, Gibbs was minutely more receptive to taking an outsider onto the team than he normally would have been.
Although Harrison acted personally concerned and very motivated, the only leads he discovered were red herrings. Abby had found the fingerprint on young Atwater's Camaro that led to their suspect. Tony had discovered the suspect's purchase of a prepaid cell phone from a convenience store near the suspect's apartment and McGee had tracked its last usage to a rural West Virginia location. They left Abby to monitor the number and notify them if it was switched back on and the four agents immediately headed west. It had been Harrison who had contacted the local W.V. LEOS before they left D.C. And, with Gibbs at the wheel, it had been Harrison that kept in phone contact during the three hour drive there, making preparations to coordinate the search.
By late afternoon, they were nearing the county seat when Harrison received then relayed the news of a citizen's tip of suspicious activity at an old, abandoned tobacco plantation. He'd gotten the information and directions right before they entered a cell reception dead zone and were left with no means of contact with the county sheriff's department.
They'd abandoned the sedan on a dirt road and walked the plantation mansion's long, overgrown drive. Only a kudzu shrouded, rotted wood skeleton was left of the home. They'd done a quick reconnaissance of the remains before they'd spread out and begun the search of the surrounding grounds. Harrison had soon called out, alerting them to the discovery of an eight inch thick, metal sheathed trapdoor rising at a thirty degree angle from the earth.
Gibbs, weapon drawn, had signaled Tim to pull the bolt and lift the door. As soon as it was a few inches open, Gibbs pointed both his SIG and a flashlight down inside, sweeping the light across the unoccupied shelter. He hurried down the steps as soon as the door was fully opened, followed closely by McGee.
Tony stayed outside, gun drawn, scanning the shelter's perimeter. Until Harrison, once Tony's back was turned, grabbed his gun hand and tried to force him back and down into the opening. DiNozzo shouted out a warning just as Harrison pulled the trigger of his own weapon.
Gibbs and McGee rushed to the steps and Gibbs was knocked off his feet as Tony tumbled down the stairs. The door was slammed home and bolted before Gibbs regained his footing.
As gunshot wounds went, Tony's wasn't a bad one. It was through and through the flesh of his left bicep. After glancing around the room, Gibbs grabbed shirts from a cardboard box of clothing and managed to stop the bleeding before critical loss. Muted scrapes and thumps could be heard against the overhead door, the sounds stopping before Gibbs was done dressing Tony's wound.
Once Tony's injury was cared for as best they could, the three agents took inventory of their environment and situation.
They were trapped in a space the size of Tim's parent's bedroom at the old, smaller house of his childhood. The shelter had been refitted with cinder block walls and a concrete floor. At one end of the rectangular room, set off-center two-thirds across that wall, was the steep, open wooden staircase. A rumpled sleeping bag was laid out on the right, more spacious side of the steps. Beside it sat two more, still rolled, bags. At the room's other end, opposite the sleeping area, was set up a micro living area.
Furnishings, in the right-hand corner, consisted of a standing TV tray whose surface was topped in woodgrain-pattern plastic and a gray metal folding chair. A fluorescent double tube-bulbed Coleman lantern, along with a heap of extra batteries rested on the floor beside the chair. Stacked against the wall were cases of bottled water. Alongside the box of clothes was a box of nonperishable food items including granola bars, peanut butter crackers, canned goods and a can opener.
In the left-hand corner of that end of the room was a five gallon bucket sitting beside an open twelve roll pack of toilet paper. The bucket's contents were evidence someone had been here recently.
When Gibbs shone a flashlight into a 12"x8" opening cut high into the center of that wall, the view ended a yard in as it curved upward.
The first and most obvious conclusion they reached that night was that old family friend Avery Harrison was, if not the instigator, at least an accomplice in Daniel Atwater's kidnapping. Indications were that Daniel had been held here but moved when Harrison realized they were getting close. The fact that Harrison had deliberately brought them here and shown himself suggested he feared something discovered in their investigation connected him to the crime. Adding insult to injury was the fact that, although they discussed and rehashed all the evidence, they couldn't guess what that connection was.
They remembered that only Harrison had had any contact with local law enforcement, jumping to his cell phone as soon as their destination was announced. That fact made it a pretty safe bet that there hadn't been any actual contact with the local LEOs, just Harrison carrying on one sided conversations for their benefit.
While the local authorities couldn't be counted on for help, they knew Abby wouldn't waste any time raising an alarm. When she tried and was unable to contact them or get a fix on their phones, she'd be on the case. Since Harrison was sure to make himself scarce, the search would be on for four missing federal agents. It would be a massive, inter agency affair sure, as Tony noted, to have their faces plastered in the papers and over the area, maybe even network, newscasts.
Their general destination was on the record and whatever clues they'd missed that connected Harrison to the crime were there somewhere to be discovered. They would be found and found soon. That was the consensus they reached right before Gibbs announced it was time to call it a night.
They unfurled and arranged the sleeping bags to maximize the tiny space. The open sleeping bag was turned vertically and placed in the corner, its head against the longer wall and its side flush with the perpendicular wall. The second was unrolled and laid out beside it. The third bag was placed in the smaller space on the other side of the steps, situated horizontally against that wall.
As soon as it was in place, Tony had immediately fallen down onto the first bag. Gibbs took the one beside him and Tim stretched out on the single bag across the room. Gibbs switched off the lantern and they all settled down to sleep that first night.
Six days ago, Tim was wakened by a protesting ache from his hipbone when he rolled from his back to his side. Opening his eyes to darkness broken only by a high and dim rectangular glow triggered realization and a flutter of panic in his chest he quickly squashed.
He took a deep breath and shoved the involuntary 'buried alive' thought aside. He lay in a tornado shelter, not a tomb. The situation was temporary, not terminal.
He depressed a tiny button on the side of his watch to illuminate the dial and saw the time was 7:07am. Abby would have tried to contact them, all of them individually, numerous times. She'd have gone to Vance, probably hours ago. By now, Vance would have initiated a search backed with the full resources of both NCIS and the FBI. They'd be found and found soon. No need to worry.
Except, maybe for Tony for whatever private searches and applications were discovered when they scoured his office computer hard drive for case clues. Tim grinned imagining Vance following links in Tony's history of sites visited. Tony was too smart to leave incriminating evidence that easy to find, though. Surely at the end of each work day he-
Tim flinched, startled from his thoughts by a groan that became a shuddering, hissing intake of breath. McGee's back was to his fellow agents but he knew the sound came from Tony as he woke.
Tony had, last night, done an excellent job keeping the pain hidden. One of the many contradictions that made up the paradox that was DiNozzo was his tendency to whine and demand sympathy for minor injuries while capable of remarkable stoicism when really suffering.
Tony had been shot, had a bullet rip through his arm. Of course Tim knew it must have hurt, hurt like hell. But as long as Tony kept the pain under wraps, Tim was happy to ignore it, pretend along with DiNozzo. Tony suppressing the pain helped Tim suppress the panic that simmered in the back of his mind. Panic that had threatened to boil over from the second the trap door had dropped shut on them.
Keeping the lid on that panic required disregarding any fact that contraindicated a quick rescue and happy ending. Such as the fact that, before they'd left D.C., Harrison had been left alone in the squad room while they were down in Abby's lab, the case files and their computers unguarded. Or that gunshot wounds treated with antibiotics and a physician's attention were much more likely to heal than gunshot wounds untreated past being wrapped in dirty clothing. The food and water here were finite and would eventually run out. They were in the middle of nowhere, underground, the entrance camouflaged, in an ancient shelter maybe no one but Harrison even knew existed.
Dwelling on those facts was dangerous, drawing Tim away from the reassuring found and found soon conclusion, forcing him towards the possibility that was unacceptable, horrifying and was wrong to even acknowledge as a possibility. Tim didn't go to Tony or call out to ask if he was okay. He only lay silent, listening as DiNozzo got a handle on the pain while he himself concentrated on keeping the terror at bay.
As their first waking hours passed, McGee was proud of himself and Tony. Both of them were doing impressive imitations of people not trapped in a Margaret Mitchell rewrite of The Cask of Amontillado.
They discussed the case some more. They cursed Harrison and praised Abby and her case solving skills. They compared the relative scare factors of tornadoes versus earthquakes. Tornado talk segued into the Wizard of Oz with Tony relating entertaining tales of the Munchkins real life debauchery and Tim recalling that the flying monkeys traumatized him so badly that he refused a trip to the zoo on his fifth birthday.
Gibbs didn't join in their discussions. He began the day by pulling a tee shirt from the clothes box. He ripped it, folded it and tied it off forming it into a makeshift sling. He handed the sling to Tony saying "Wear it." and that was the extent of his interaction with his team members.
He kept to himself as much as possible in such cramped quarters. He pawed through the food box scowling, removing items then tossing them back in with exceptional force. Three times he repeated the rummaging without ever taking anything out to eat. In between spiking cans and fracturing crackers, he alternated stalking the shelter's confines and sitting silent and still. He ignored or snarled answers to any question or attempt to draw him into conversation.
Two hours into the day, there was a leaden lull in said conversation. Under other circumstances it could have been a companionable silence. Under their present circumstances, Tim desperately tried to think of something to say to keep the pretense of normalcy up and keep the walls from closing in.
Tony looked to Gibbs. For a minute, he watched the boss pacing the shelter's perimeter. Then, he began an observational narrative, styled after a typical National Geographic voice over, of the effects of caffeine withdrawal, exacerbated by stressful habitat and conditions, on homo sapien Gibbsius. Tim cringed when, ignoring Gibbs' order to knock it off, Tony continued, citing the surly demand as yet another symptom.
Gibbs was nose to nose with DiNozzo in an instant, blasting a very loud, very profane, two minute and thirty-five second, extremely derogatory verbal explosion into Tony's face that reddened Tim's ears from across the room.
DiNozzo withstood the heat, unperturbed. A beat after Gibbs rant ended, Tony responded in a familiar, flippant, mock-hurt tone.
"Boss, I'm wounded."
Gibbs glared a second longer then huffed and muttered something under his breath before turning away. While never approaching cheerful, his post-vent attitude and demeanor were improved.
Tim stared down at the SIG cradled in his trembling, open palms. He ignored Gibbs' voice, loud and contemptuous. Scathing, yelling, calling him every degrading and profane variation of 'coward'. Yesterday, Gibbs' contempt would have devastated him. Now, he no longer cared what Gibbs thought of him. He'd turned his back on Gibbs and his opinion and his voice and was huddled in the opposite corner of the shelter, putting as much distance as possible between himself and what was left of Tony. Because what was left of Tony became more unbearable by the second.
Eyes closed against the sight, he couldn't escape the suffocating, putrid stench; the sound of the vermin squirming, feeding. Tim knew there was only one way out. There would be no rescue; death was the only escape from this place. There was no sense in prolonging the inevitable, the suffering. He preferred to take his exit before he lost his last, tenuous grip on sanity. He had hung on as long and hard as he could and his hold was slipping fast. It was time.
He placed the barrel in his mouth and tasted and felt the tang of oil and gun powder and cold steel on his tongue. He sent up a last, brief prayer for forgiveness then pulled the trigger.
Tim heard the harsh, panicked gasp that was almost a sob, realized it was him, realized he was alive. His thoughts had only just cleared to waking when Gibbs called out to him.
"Fine, Boss," he answered.
But, he wasn't. He was shaking, still tasting metal. He'd woken from one nightmare but lay trapped in another. He held still in the dark and silence until he heard Gibbs settle back down into his sleeping bag, relieved the team leader hadn't questioned or commented on his outcry. Tim spent the next two hours laying awake, waiting for dawn.
When that fourth morning there finally broke, Tim was much happier than previously to see the dim shaft of outside light reach into the shelter. For three nights, sleep had been a welcome respite from reality.
Awake, he was forced to wrestle and tame the dread and fear of what could happen. He had manfully dealt with all the worst case scenarios. He'd stretched out onto the sleeping bag last night proud of himself for handling the situation well and looking forward to the safe haven of sleep.
But, last night, his subconscious unleashed the variable he'd left out of the every equation. Tim had confronted the possibility of starving, dying of thirst, unfound and entombed. Acknowledged that Tony could die from the untreated wound. What he hadn't acknowledged was the horror of sharing his last days with DiNozzo's rotting remains.
It was hard, today, for Tim to look at Tony and not recall the oozing, gruesome face of his nightmare. Harder still was that his friend's true state wasn't reassuring.
As if touched and ravaged by Tim's dream, Tony was very obviously worse today than yesterday. He had gone downhill, to an extent that should have taken days, overnight. Tim had tried to convince himself that it was his imagination. But, every successive glance at DiNozzo proved it was almost too true to face.
Tim looked away from Tony to stare at what DiNozzo had dubbed the 'game room', a two foot square, checkerboard pattern marked in Sharpie on the concrete floor.
Their second afternoon there, Gibbs had spent hours making a complete set of chess pieces from empty plastic water bottles. Cutting forms with his knife and using a slot and T-tab fastening method, he'd made impressive facsimiles of all but the pawns. Those were represented by bottle caps. Black pieces were marked with a black 'X'.
It had been a welcome diversion. During a match, they could pretend that concentration was what precluded conversation. Stratigizing could take their minds off the setting for a brief while. Gibbs, expectedly, won ninety percent of the matches he played. Tim had been surprised when Tony, in their matches against one another, beat him more than a third of the time.
Tim smiled, remembering a game played yesterday. Tim had captured Tony's knight. But, before Tim could claim the playing piece, Tony had snatched it from reach, hopping it around the squares and upending Tim's rook, going on and on about twas but a flesh wound and elderberries and pawns that said 'ni' and killer McLepuses. DiNozzo had been goofily, reassuringly Tony, a comfort and distraction from the shelter's confines. Today, though, Tony was very different.
DiNozzo had spent most of this day lying down, turned onto his uninjured side, facing away from them both and still. He'd sipped some water. Gibbs' insistence that he try to eat had ended badly. Tim had only barely managed to control his own gut as Tony vomited.
Gibbs had dealt well yesterday with his caffeine withdrawal. While not a fount of conversation, he had joined in the chess matches, replied to questions and smiled at Tony's antics. Today, he was almost as still as Tony.
Tim spent the day with his notepad out, trying to distract himself by working on scenes for his next novel. His attempts had been supplanted by thoughts of a farewell note to his family. But, he didn't put words to paper. It seemed too much like surrender and there would be time enough later to write a goodbye. He did, though, mentally prepare and continually re-write and edit a rough draft. It would be the most important piece he'd ever written and he wanted to get it right.
It was early afternoon when Gibbs knelt by Tony's side with a water bottle in his hand. He tapped DiNozzo's shoulder and urged him to drink. When Tony was done drinking, Gibbs pointed to his injured arm and said "Let's have a look."
Tony watched Gibbs' face as he lifted the dressing off the wound. Gibbs placed a palm on Tony's forehead and let the touch linger as their gazes locked a few seconds, a message silently delivered and understood. That silent communication, their bond, had, at times, triggered twinges of envy in Tim.
Tim was proud of how far he'd come since his stammering probie days. He was secure and confident of his place on the team of the legendary Jethro Gibbs. It was a position of status, acknowledged as a place earned by the excellence at the job necessary to secure the assignment and the intestinal fortitude necessary to endure working with Gibbs. Tim knew, though, that no matter how good he was at his job, no matter how far his relationship evolved with the boss, he'd never have the connection there was between Gibbs and DiNozzo.
That connection didn't trigger jealousy this time though, but dread. Tim could read the bad news in that look and he had to fight the panic that flared inside him and tried to worm it's way to the surface.
The mostly silent day seemed to drag on forever. Even so, Tim hated seeing the small shaft of outside light recede across the floor and fade. The previous three nights he'd welcomed sleep as a respite from their reality. Now, he dreaded what might wait in his dreams. He reluctantly lay down onto his sleeping bag when Gibbs flicked off the lantern. In spite of his apprehension, he was asleep within an hour.
A yelp woke him to the pitch black, followed by a pained curse. A lantern suddenly lit and he saw Gibbs on his knees, washed in harsh underlight and shadows, SIG in hand looking Tony's way. Tony was scrambling up, only half lit in the edge of the lantern's glow, flailing with his good hand against his wounded arm. Tim watched him grab something then, with an enraged growl, hurl it against the shelter's wall. Tim heard the object thump against the cinder block then hit the ground.
Tim snatched up his flashlight, turned it on and shone its beam in the direction Tony had thrown. The spotlight found the corpse of a huge rat, gore spilling from its burst gut.
Gibbs set down the SIG and went to Tony, placing one hand under the elbow of DiNozzo's injured arm, the other at Tony's back. Tim turned the flashlight's beam toward DiNozzo and saw fresh blood running from just below the bandages covering the gunshot wound. Tony was swaying on his feet, his breathing too fast, his whole body shaking.
"Come on," Gibbs said, taking hold of Tony's shoulders, guiding him back down to sit on the sleeping bag. Tim pulled a tee shirt from the clothing box and handed it to Gibbs then focused his flashlight's beam on Tony's new wound. Gibbs raised Tony's arm and used the shirt to wipe away the blood.
Evidence of the gunshot wound extended now beyond the paisley bandage, the area streaked red and swollen, the new damage in that same area. From what Tim could see, Tony's forcible removal of the rat had caused more damage than the bite itself, raising a small wedge of flesh.
Gibbs picked up a half bottle of water that sat beside the sleeping bags. He held Tony's arm over the concrete floor and poured the water over the injury. After inspecting the bite, he tore a strip from the tee shirt to wind around the new wound site. When done, he gave DiNozzo's knee a pat.
"You're okay," Gibbs said.
Tony stared open mouthed at Gibbs a few seconds before speaking.
"Okay? I'm okay? You call this okay? I am not okay! I'm-"
His voice became louder and shakier, each word veering closer to hysteria. Tim worried that Tony was about to let go and lose it, fearing that if Tony lost it, he wouldn't be far behind.
Gibbs interrupted, cutting Tony off with an exceptionally loud and sharp
He reached a palm to Tony's cheek to hold his face and force him to look at him as he spoke, emphasizing each word.
"You. Are. Okay."
"I..." Tony paused, his jaw clenching, his eyes suddenly bright with unshed tears . He blinked them away before they could gather and fall, took a deep breath, shook his head and gave a tight lipped, twisted smile before speaking.
"I," DiNozzo said, glaring at Gibbs, "Am fucking peachy." Tony's tone was ragged and harsh, but the hint of hysteria was gone.
Gibbs gave an approving pat to Tony's face before dropping his hand down to his side.
Gibbs stood, grabbed a shirt from the box and used it to pick up the corpse, twirling it into the cloth then swiping at the small pool of blood that had formed on the floor. He walked to the trash pile that had been started before their arrival and placed the gory bundle on top.
After glancing toward the ventilation opening, he moved to dump the remaining two shirts and pair of boxers from the clothing box. Gibbs placed the box below the vent, looked back up, moved it forward a few inches, then took a step back to peruse it before nudging it with his foot just a touch closer.
Tim, shaken by the rat encounter, felt his heart rate decrease to approach normal as he watched Gibbs. As the boss adjusted the box's placement, McGee flashed back to his mother's attempts to vanquish his recurring nightmares the year he was nine. She had moved the nail here and there to center it exactly above his headboard before hammering it home. Because, she had explained, one had to be sure to find the very best spot to hang a dream catcher to assure optimum interception of nightmares.
Gibbs walked back to the sleeping bags to speak to Tony.
"Lay back down."
Tim could tell by the cynical glare that Tony shot Gibbs that he had no more faith in the rat catcher than Tim had had in his mother's dream catcher. The only move DiNozzo made was to look away.
After a second, Gibbs went to tear a sleeve off a shirt. He tied a knot just above the cuff, dropped batteries inside and knotted the sleeve again to bundle the batteries at the end. He dragged the chair to beside the box and sat down, the loaded sleeve resting on his thigh. Once settled, he turned his gaze back to Tony.
DiNozzo had been watching Gibbs and frowned back at him for a second before laying down. Now in the aftermath of an adrenaline surge, Tim was exhausted. The sight of Gibbs sitting watch left McGee illogically, childishly comforted and he lay down to sleep, less afraid than he had been the night before.
Tim's leg slid against damp, blood red satin as he caressed pale skin, warm and smooth beneath his hand. He sighed and woke with a satisfied smile, still feeling black silky strands on his shoulder and cheek.
His first waking thought was profound regret that it had been only a dream. He kept his eyes closed, hoping he could fall back to sleep and rejoin Abby. Then an assault froze him still and breathless .
The rat's corpse couldn't be fully ripened yet, should have barely registered beneath the existing miasma. The combination of the contents of the waste bucket, vomit, blood and three men unwashed for four days had already turned the atmosphere into a vile fourth occupant of the barely ventilated 20X16 foot room. He'd done his best to disregard the stench, tune it out and ignore it like an incessant, obscene background noise.
But, this was a tendril of his nightmare reaching him awake to wind and tighten round him. The smell of death, oppressive and waiting in the wings, a premonition of horrors yet to come.
Tim kept his eyes closed, working to suppress the terror, drenched in sweat. He felt the heat that enveloped him and realized the perspiration was a result of the temperature rather than his fears. Insulated by the earth, under mild April weather, the shelter had stayed comfortably in the 70s. Now, the room was stifling. Tim took a deep breath, wondering, if it was this hot so early, what lay in store as the day wore on. He opened his eyes and glanced at his watch, surprised to find it was after 2:00pm. He'd slept eleven hours.
Tim spent the day in the folding chair, battling what his mother had called his over-active imagination and struggling to hang on to his last thread of optimism. This was their fifth day here. It was too late to be rescued quickly, that hope was gone. 'Soon' was off the table and he was unavoidably faced with the possibilities of too late or never.
Last week, five days would have seemed like only a tiny and insignificant measure in a lifetime. How much longer five days was now was evident in how much they'd changed. Never in full light, always partially shadowed in harsh florescence, Gibbs and Tony, with scraggly new beards, hollowed eyes and gaunt faces were beginning to resemble pale specters more than the men who'd been entombed just five days ago.
With no mirror, Tim couldn't see the changes in himself, but he could feel the decline. His whole body ached from four nights with only a sleeping bag between him and the concrete floor and he felt what little energy he had left melting away in the heat. Yesterday, he'd daydreamed hungrily of cheeseburgers and filet mignon or anything that wasn't canned or dry and salty. Today, he had no appetite and the thought of eating turned his stomach. He had no choice in the heat, he had to drink water. But it was an ordeal to swallow as the taste of death slid over his tongue.
All of them had shed their shirts as the temperature climbed. Gibbs had used his knife to hack off his jeans just above the knee. McGee had traded his slacks for the pair of boxers left in the clothing supply. Tony wore only the boxer/brief style underwear he preferred. His exposed chest bore evidence of his tumble down the stairs, splotched with large dark bruises across his right side and ribcage.
Gibbs spent his day at Tony's side. Not long after Tim had woken, Gibbs had torn and folded half a shirt, drenched it in water and began wiping down Tony's face and laying it across his forehead.
Their first day trapped, Tim had begun a covert, ongoing mental exercise. Counting the water bottles, dividing by three and calculating how long the supply would last with various rates of consumption per man per day. He hadn't been overly worried then, still confident in Abby's ability to quickly track them down.
Today, over the past four hours, Gibbs had used the last four bottles of one case and already removed two from the last case of twenty-four bottles. He'd forced Tony to drink one and drank down two others himself. The other three bottles' water he'd poured onto the cloth to cool DiNozzo down.
Gibbs had never made any formal attempt to ration water. They'd all partaken sparingly, too aware the supply was limited. None of them had ever wasted it, Tim thought as he watched Gibbs pour more precious water onto the folded cloth. And, he wasn't wasting it now, Tim told himself, ashamed and stopping the dissenting thought from fully forming. He turned away from Gibbs and looked down to his notebook and tried to write.
Giving up on working on his novel, Tim spent an hour trying to compose the farewell note to his family. He was frustrated trying to mentally gather words together, never satisfied enough to commit any of his thoughts to paper. He was finding it difficult to convey what he felt without going maudlin. He wanted to leave a parting message that would comfort them and give the impression that he had faced death with a courage he didn't feel. He was engrossed in the effort when a buzz near his ear distracted him.
There had been beetles and woods roaches in the shelter, relentlessly tracked and dispatched on sight. But, this was the first fly to make its way down. Tim swatted at the annoyance. The instant his hand made faint contact with the insect, his gut connected to the nightmare unleashing visions of the hungry, squirming maggots devouring Tony's remains.
Tim shot up from the chair and began a frantic effort to kill the fly, falling into the wall and sliding down to the floor in relief when he finally caught and smashed it in a hand clap. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath then opened his eyes to find Gibbs staring at him from his place beside a dozing DiNozzo.
Sitting there trembling, heart pounding, Tim felt exposed. All his panic and weakness out on display for judgment as Gibbs' gaze homed in. He couldn't pretend or hide, Gibbs could clearly see how pathetic his agent had turned. As the seconds ticked by, Tim felt himself begin to crumble under the silent scrutiny. He spoke, desperate to escape the moment.
"There was a fly," he said, as if it was a rational excuse for him cowering on the concrete floor.
Gibbs nodded. "That's a good job, Tim."
Braced for recrimination and contempt, Tim was stunned by the reassurance and affection in Gibbs' response. He felt the figurative pat on the back, heard the unspoken 'hang in there, you're doing fine'. Gibbs unexpected faith in him was undeserved and overwhelming. He turned away, grabbing an empty cracker wrapper to wipe the fly's remains from his hand and avoid eye contact with Gibbs. Glancing up to see the boss's attention turned to Tony, Tim stood and went back to the chair.
The evening passed quietly. There was intermittent conversation between Tony and Gibbs, mostly remember-when type talk about events before Tim's time on the team. McGee had found his way to actually writing something. He'd filled six pages of his notepad with a sketchy scene of Tibbs and Agent Tommy engaged in an intense pursuit of the bad guy. He was about to write the capture when Tony's loud exclamation took his attention.
"I knew it!"
"Knew what?" Gibbs asked.
"Take two, Boss. Bubonic. Which will probably morph into septicemic which means I'll be the only bastard in history ever to hit the plague trifecta."
"People get bitten by rats everyday, DiNozzo. You don't have the plague."
"People? Haven't you noticed, I'm not people. This is me, Gibbs! Me! Bombs, bullets, knives, crazy gun wielding barmaids, lamp-swinging bridal hostages. The Black Death. Hello? The Black Death, Gibbs! People don't have my track record. Look! Look where I am! Shot, buried alive, going downhill fast. But, that's not enough, not for me. Oh, no! Gotta throw a rat into the equation so I can go another round with the plague."
"Hoof beats always equal zebra in your book?"
"This," Tony said, wincing as his fingers brushed lightly over a swollen, red lump bulging from under his armpit, "Is not a zebra. It's called a bubo. Bubo, fever, headache, fatigue, muscle aches. The symptoms are all there."
"Yeah, the symptoms are all there-for an infection." Gibbs said. When he went to replace the cloth over Tony's forehead, DiNozzo batted it away.
"Stop wasting water! It won't do any good."
"Don't go pissy on me."
"Excuse the hell outta me!" Tony's voice rose in anger. "I've had a branding iron grinding into my arm and an elephant on my chest the last few days. Maybe taking that into consideration, not to mention the fact that I'm dying, maybe, just maybe, you could cut me a little slack."
"You're not dying."
"You're not God and I am dying!"
"So, you're God?"
"No, I'm not God. I'm just dying."
"Knock it off!" Gibbs ordered.
"Well, I would if I could, Gibbs. The whole dying thing, I mean. But, I can't. I don't get a say in it and you being pissed at me won't change that."
"You throwing in the towel?"
"I'm facing facts."
"That's what you call it?"
"That's what it is!"
"What it is, DiNozzo," Gibbs said, "Is laying down and giving up. That part of it, you do have a say in. No excuses."
Tim cringed, the tone of Gibbs' voice the one he'd expected to hear as he'd sat trembling against the cinder block wall. He held his breath as he watched the angry, silent stare down between the two men. It was Tony who broke the silence.
"Fine. I'm the little agent that could. I think I can, I think I can, I think-oh look! It worked! I'm all healed up and good to go. It's a miracle, the power of positive thinking!"
Tim breathed, relieved. Tony the pissed-off smart ass was much preferable to Tony the hopeless. Gibbs poured more water onto the folded cloth. When he laid it across Tony's forehead, DiNozzo scowled up at him and Gibbs smiled back down.
It was after midnight when Tim, his aching bones protesting the hours pressed against the metal back and seat of the chair, went to lay down. Gibbs hadn't extinguished the lantern at 11:00pm as he had the other nights. He left it glowing at the foot of the pair of his and Tony's sleeping bags. He hadn't laid down, either. He still sat at Tony's side. DiNozzo's eyes were closed. In natural sleep, Tim hoped, rather than fever induced unconsciousness. McGee watched his friend a few minutes, silently praying for his healing and his life, then closed his eyes.
He was still awake thirty minutes later when he heard the creak of the wooden steps. He opened his eyes, surprised to see Gibbs ascending the stairs. He stopped and looked up towards the door, only inches from his face. Tim had cast many longing glances towards that door himself, imagining the fresh air and sunlight and freedom just beyond.
Futile longings, he knew. They had seen it from the outside and inside and it was steel clad and impossible to open by any means at hand. Gibbs hadn't looked its way the whole time, apparently not a fan of wasted, wishful thinking. Now, though, he reached up, settling both palms flat against the door, staring and pushing up against the rough timber. Then, his eyes closed and his head dropped, chin to chest, between his still up stretched arms.
The naked despair on his face was so un-Gibbslike, Tim was shocked. When Gibbs opened his eyes, raised his head and clenched his hands into fists, Tim was scared.
As he watched Gibbs' despair morph into rage and intensify as he stood with the sides of his fists pressed against the door, Tim's alarm spiked towards panic. He knew the impending eruption wouldn't end with a bellow and a palm slammed into wood. McGee feared an aftermath that left Gibbs' hands mangled and his own composure vaporized in the meltdown.
"Boss!" McGee flinched as Gibbs' fury turned his way, "No, please..."
Gibbs' fists flew down to his side, clenching and unclenching as he glared at Tim. For a moment, McGee feared the rage would be taken out on him rather than the shelter's door.
But, Gibbs turned away, pounded down the steps, retook his place at Tony's side and turned off the light.
The next morning, Tim took his seat in the chair. He only left, briefly, when the pain of the metal compressing flesh to bone became too much. Uncomfortable as it was, it gave him some illusion of separation; a space apart from Tony. A place where he could less conspicuously avoid, as much as possible, the scene only feet away.
Gibbs stayed sitting at DiNozzo's side. Early, there were brief bits of conversation between the two men. As the day wore on, there was mostly silence, frequently broken by incompletely suppressed sounds of pain from Tony and the rarer murmur of comfort from Gibbs.
Tim only stole brief glances their way, pretended not to hear, never reacted to the noises so close by. Tim wished he could give them some privacy so that Tony could let go and hurt without an audience.
His conscience immediately contradicted and shamed him. The wish wasn't for Tony's benefit but his own. He didn't want to face the pain or the dread possibility that was fast turning inevitable. The nightmare scenario loomed closer and closer to reality.
Trying to escape that thought, Tim stood to stretch and relieve the ache in his spine and rear. He kept his back to his team mates and glanced at the meager food supplies left-two packs of crackers and a can of ravioli. He wasn't hungry now and doubted he'd be hungry again before he left this place so the lack of food was of little concern.
More troubling was the water inventory. There were nine bottles left, all for drinking. Gibbs had had given up using them in his attempts to lower Tony's temperature. Tim was thirsty now but he didn't reach for a bottle. The odor of death was so thick, he imagined the air full of putrid molecules inhaled with every breath. To drink was to actually taste. The rat's corpse had robbed him of one of the few pleasantries possible in this place. Even slaking his thirst had become a nightmarish ordeal. Preferable, though, to no water to drink. Nine bottles was too close to one bottle to no water left. And, no matter how sparingly they drank, it would soon be down to that one last bottle.
Tim had heard stories of bodies recovered having rationed themselves to death. They had died of thirst while still carrying water. He knew that the expert advice, when exposed to the elements, was to not ration. What about when trapped underground, he wondered.
Rationing could simply serve to prolong the inevitable end, extend the suffering. Or, hoarding the last bottle too long could result in an unnecessary death when just that much water would have been enough to survive until rescue.
Tim looked from the water bottles to the knotted shirt sleeve that held the last four remaining D cell batteries. Usually, Gibbs would light both of the lantern's tubes for at least a few hours during what was daylight outside. Today, he had only switched on one of the florescent bars. Gibbs may not have rationed the water but he had begun to ration the light. The water would run out first.
Soon, the time would come when there was only one bottle left here. Gibbs wouldn't touch it, he knew. It would be left to Tim to drink or not. He imagined it would be like drinking away the last bit of hope left, the end. No, not the very end, he thought. The very end would be when no light remained.
Tim recalled the cold weight of the steel barrel on his tongue, the nightmare solution and conclusion. Never, he silently told himself, never. He couldn't leave that behind for his family to find. Never, he promised himself and prayed he would be able to keep his word.
Late afternoon, Tim sat in his chair, his notepad open and blank on the table before him. He was, again, futilely trying to compose an appropriate farewell. Leaving behind the wrong message would be worse than no message at all. It seemed impossible to express all the love, gratitude and comfort his family was owed. He could write out some stoic and false composition of hope and courage, but he didn't want to leave behind a lie. He had just decided to give up for the time being when he was startled by Tony calling out to him.
McGee didn't look up from his pad. He hadn't made eye contact with DiNozzo in almost 24 hours and feared he'd be called out on the evasion. After a few seconds passed with no response, Tony spoke again.
"Come here." Tony said.
Tim clutched the pad tight, taking a moment to steel himself before looking Tony's way.
"What?" Tim asked.
Tony gestured with his head, urging him over.
Tim left the chair and walked a couple of steps then stopped. Gibbs rose and came to stand before Tim. He paused a second to look Tim in the eye before continuing over to sit in the chair. Terrified as he was of facing Tony, the censure he thought he saw in Gibbs' gaze and the shame it triggered were harder to bear. Tim moved to sit on Gibbs' sleeping bag.
He kept his eyes turned to be sure the swollen arm wasn't in view. He battled a gag reflex and the urge to bolt away when the stench of the infection joined the pervasive smell of death and threatened to overwhelm him. But, he couldn't run, there was no escape.
"You working on the next book?" Tony asked.
Tim nodded a lie.
"Do me a favor. Give Agent Tommy a primo cool death scene."
Tim felt trapped, forced to face the nightmare and talk death with it. DiNozzo had already begun the transformation from living to dead. He was horridly gaunt and the features that protruded from the shadows seemed more skin over skull than face. Even his voice, weak and faded, sounded not like Tony but like a precursor to the end. Tim hoped his own voice wouldn't betray his thoughts when he responded.
"I can't kill off the heroes."
"Hero? Hah! Tibbs is the hero, MacGregor's the brains. Tommy's a narcissistic, testosterone-fueled Ken doll with the disposition of an immature eighth grader."
There was no accusation or acrimony in Tony's tone but Tim still winced, recognizing the last sentence. He'd typed those words out of MacGregor's mouth with the scent of acetone still on his fingers.
He sat silent, guilt edging into the fear, at a loss for a response. Until he recalled a paragraph written late one night. It was on the same night he'd heard the gunshots, run flat out, skidded around the corner into the alley and found two bodies sprawled on the ground. One was their suspect. The other was Tony, down and still, with a small pool of blood beneath his head. The blood came from a graze wound to his shoulder, he'd discovered as DiNozzo groaned and sat up. But, for a second, he hadn't known that.
"Tommy," Tim quoted, "Could be, at times, maddening. But, more important than what he was at times was what he was always. Steadfastly brave and loyal and the best fellow agent, and friend, MacGregor could hope for."
Tony closed his eyes and raised his right arm a few inches.
"Been nice knowing you, Tim."
Tim stared at the shaky hand extended his way. Tony was offering a last handshake; he was saying goodbye. Tony was dying. The aftermath of DiNozzo's death had been the basis of the nightmare, the heart of the unyielding knot of terror in his gut.
But, now, for the first time, Tony's death itself loomed distinct and devastating, a fact suddenly realized with almost unbearable clarity. Tony was dying.
Tim reached for Tony's hand, all fear forgotten in an onslaught of grief. DiNozzo's grip was weak and lasted only a couple of seconds but Tim didn't let go. He lowered their joined hands to rest on the sleeping bag and leaned his back against the cinder block wall. He sat there for hours, his hand over Tony's in a loose grasp, until Gibbs came to reclaim his place.
It was just past 4:00am when Gibbs calling out Tony's name woke Tim from a dreamless sleep. He opened his eyes to see his team mates battling.
DiNozzo was up on one knee, his other heel scraping against the ground for a foothold, struggling to stand as Gibbs tried to push him down with a grip on both shoulders. Tony was fighting Gibbs' hold, swinging wildly with his right arm and fist and growling out guttural words, most unintelligible beyond the obscenities.
Gibbs released Tony's shoulders, caught his right wrist in one hand and gripped the back of Tony's neck with the other. He leaned his face to DiNozzo's and began yelling orders from inches away, loudly and angrily commanding him down, ordering him still.
McGee scrambled on hands and knees across the floor towards them just as Tony collapsed. DiNozzo slumped forward onto Gibbs' chest then was still, his neck against Gibbs' shoulder and his head a dead weight, drooping to the side.
A bolt of grief and terror paralyzed Tim, triggering a silent, desperate, repeating plea of no, please, no, please, no...
McGee looked in vain for any signs of life left in Tony. He was motionless in Gibbs' embrace. Tim looked from Tony to Gibbs' face for an answer but found none. The emotion of only seconds earlier was gone. He stared over Tony's shoulder to the opposite wall, his expression barren, almost blank.
After an excruciating minute passed, dreading the answer, Tim managed to speak.
"He's alive," Gibbs said. There was no relief, nothing at all, in his tone. It was as flat as his expression.
Relief was only one of the emotions that flooded through Tim. He sat back on his heels and took a deep breath.
Gibbs lowered Tony back down to his sleeping bag. Then, he sat beside him with his back against the wall and a hand resting on DiNozzo's shoulder.
Gibbs left the light on and stared dully across the room. It was obvious he had no intention of sleeping. He probably hadn't slept at all tonight, instead sitting sentry for DiNozzo. Tim wondered how much sleep, if any, he had gotten the night before. Physical exhaustion, on top of everything else, was too much for even Gibbs to carry long without breaking. He needed sleep.
Tim knew he wouldn't be able to budge him from Tony's side during what could be the last hours of Tony's life. But, maybe he could convince him to rest, at least for a while.
Tim gathered his sleeping bag up and folded it. He went and placed it at Tony's feet, sat down on it and leaned back into the wall. He placed one palm on Tony's leg just above his ankle, looked to Gibbs and spoke.
"Rest, Boss. I got him."
Gibbs acted as if he hadn't heard.
"You have to sleep," Tim insisted. "At least for a little while."
Gibbs looked at him a second then glanced back to Tony before nodding and lying down.
While Gibbs slept, Tim sat at Tony's feet, his fear reduced to an undercurrent beneath a pounding regret. He had let that fear rob him of what could be the last hours he could have shared with his friend. He wished he could have the time back to support Tony, talk to Tony, simply be there for Tony. But, it was too late. He had squandered that last chance over a nightmare.
At least he had come around in time for goodbye. Tim wondered if Tony had wanted to make one more, final farewell. DiNozzo had spent years striving to live up to Gibbs' expectations. It was no surprise he would choose to die by them. But, had he wished for something different, left something unsaid?
McGee looked to Gibbs sleeping. If Tony had tried, would the boss have denied him or allowed Tony to let go and say goodbye? Gibbs hadn't left Tony's side, with a hand on his shoulder or arm, offering his presence and words to help him ride out the pain.
Hang on, you're doing good, it'll be okay...Tim couldn't help but hear every word exchanged between the two of them. Gibbs words were gently spoken, disguised as comfort but every one translated to an unequivocal order. Stay strong, don't let go. Do not die.
Goodbye was not an option. Tim wondered if Gibbs would have his own regrets of how he'd spent Tony's last conscious hours.
Maybe not the last, Tim told himself as the fear rose and threatened to re-take control. Tony wasn't dead yet. There was still a chance he would live. They could still be rescued in time for treatment. There was also the possibility Tony could fight off the infection. Stranger things had happened. People had survived before penicillin. It wasn't a gut wound, the almost certain death of older times. No matter how bad the infection, there was always the chance Tony's defenses could rally and knock it back and down.
But, what lay in store if Tony did manage to fight off the infection? Only a slower, painful death. It might be better if he never woke on this side again. In spite of the agony of the past few days, maybe DiNozzo would end up the most fortunate of the three of them. The least fortunate would be the last survivor, trapped alone with the remains of the predeceased.
McGee's heartbeat raced as the thought registered. He hadn't thought past Tony's death, hadn't considered the possibility of being trapped with, not one, but two decaying corpses. Without Gibbs. Tim hadn't considered Gibbs dying before him because Gibbs was all steel will and invincibility. But, Gibbs was human and the possibility existed he would go first.
The thought of being left alone in the dark without Gibbs almost unleashed panic full fledged. Suddenly his nightmare's end reared up, unreeling in his mind as a traitorous comfort. Tim clenched his fists and only just stopped himself from pounding them into his thighs as he fought for control. Terror, rage and shame almost overcame him before he managed to fight them down. That escape was not an option, would never be. He would not let go, he would not give in, he told himself. He wouldn't.
To Tim's great relief, Gibbs woke a little after 9:00am. Although the boss needed more rest, Tim was selfishly happy to have company in his ongoing struggle against panic. Gibbs sat up and looked to Tony, placing a palm on his forehead.
"No change" Tim said.
Gibbs sat still a few seconds before going to get two bottles of water. He handed one to Tim. The other, he opened and took a sip. After McGee had emptied his bottle, Gibbs spoke, nodding towards Tony.
"Raise his head some."
Tim sat and stretched his legs between Tony's head and the wall. He propped Tony's shoulders against his thigh and placed a hand at the back of his head to help support it almost upright, leaned slightly back. He winced in sympathy at the pained sounds from DiNozzo but was grateful that he wasn't so far gone as to not to be able to make any sound at all.
It took Gibbs over an hour to get the bottle of water into Tony. His thumb over the opening, he drizzled it a few drops at a time into Tony's mouth. A couple of times, DiNozzo responded enough to actually swallow, seemingly more by instinct than conscious action. A few times, his eyes half opened, prompting Gibbs to speak to him. But, there was no indication from Tony that he understood or even heard.
Once DiNozzo was settled back down, diverting task done, silence surrounded them. Tim's resolution to be brave flickered, minute by minute, like a candle flame. Tony wouldn't have let the silence reign. He had a knack for filling empty moments with pointless talk that served a purpose. Tim couldn't find a single thing to say.
Tim didn't have unnecessary, purely social conversations with Gibbs. He wouldn't know how to attempt to carry one on in the best of circumstances. How could they make small talk in their present situation? Gibbs could withstand the silence indefinitely, unbothered. But, the quiet ate away at McGee's resolve. If the silence was this resounding now, he wondered how much more soul-deafening would it be over Tony's corpse?
As time passed, Tim's control of his fears waxed and waned and the heat of the day intensified. Tim was sure he'd already sweated out more than the volume of water he'd consumed today. Now, his skin was alarmingly dry. Thirst was unrelenting and there were only five bottles of water left. He waited for Gibbs to take the lead in the matter and suggest drinking. But, when he felt lightheaded, even as he sat there still, Tim was afraid to wait any longer. He grabbed two of the bottles and sat beside Gibbs, holding one out his way.
Gibbs glanced down at the bottle, shook his head then turned his gaze to Tony. It figured that Gibbs would fore go his share for Tim's sake. And, even as far gone as he was, Tony's sake as well, McGee thought as he just then realized that Gibbs had only sipped once from the bottle earlier. At least three fourths of its water had gone to DiNozzo. While McGee appreciated Gibbs' misguided sacrifice for his team mates' benefit, it was imperative that Gibbs drink.
Lost for words to insist that he did, Tim simply extended the bottle closer. Gibbs didn't acknowledge him or the movement and turned his face away. Suddenly, Tim's perception shifted with gut-wrenching force.
Gibbs was all steel will and determination, he would never let go. But, what if he did? Tim had comforted himself with the irrational belief that Gibbs' would utilize that formidable will to live, to survive Tim. But, if he could will himself alive, he could as easily will himself dead.
Tim looked for some sign that he was wrong, that Gibbs' didn't plan to abandon him, leave him alone to the dark and nightmares. But, Gibbs ignored Tim's voice, refused to meet Tim's eyes. It was true. Gibbs hadn't stopped drinking for their sakes. He was betraying Tim, planning his escape, taking the easy way out, breaking all his own rules.
Terror and rage ripped through McGee. Like a child on the verge of a tantrum, he wanted to strike out at Gibbs and scream 'No fair!'
McGee shoved the bottle against Gibbs' chest, held it there and spoke.
"No man left behind, Boss?"
Tim had meant it as a challenge, an angry accusation. If any hints of desperation or begging sounded, McGee didn't care. Whatever it took. Gibbs had forced Tony to die by his creed and Tim would do his damnedest to force Gibbs to live with it.
Gibbs squinted at Tim who only pressed the bottle harder into his chest. The squint turned into a rage gathering glare that had McGee quaking but still standing his ground. Gibbs could beat him senseless as long as he drank. Which he did. Scowling, as if being forced to drink bitter poison, he drained the bottle then hurled it across the room into the wall.
As the bottle bounced and clattered across the floor, Tim snatched up his sleeping bag and retreated back to his side of the room.
If the quiet had been unnerving before, it was oppressive now. In the combined silence and heat, Tim felt smothered. Each successive hour, the air seemed heavier and Tim felt weaker. And thirstier.
He kept glancing back to the remaining three water bottles. He wanted to drink, but kept postponing the inevitable. He refused to drink without Gibbs and he feared Gibbs' response to any demand that he drink. Even more than he feared Gibbs reaction, he feared the end of the water. The longer he waited, the longer the water lasted.
Through the hours, Tim had stolen many quick, surreptitious glances at Gibbs, trying to get a fix on his post-bottle hurling mood. Every time he dared look Gibbs' way, the boss had his eyes closed or was looking at Tony or the walls-never Tim's way. Until now, when Tim looked once again and saw Gibbs looking back at him, watching McGee with a wearier version of the half smile he often turned to hide from Tony.
Part of Tim was annoyed that Gibbs was aware of and amused by his apprehensive surveillence. The vast majority of Tim was immensely relieved to find affection rather than anger in Gibbs' expression. McGee watched him as he went to get two bottles of water, came to sit at Tims' side and handed him one. Tim twisted off the cap then looked to Gibbs, waiting for him to drink first. Gibbs removed the lid, tapped his bottle against Tim's, then spoke his first words in hours.
Tim sat at Tony's feet. Gibbs was in his usual place at Tony's side. Both tubes of the lantern glowed. Tim knew, without being told, that Gibbs was done rationing the light. Until the batteries gave out, they would have their artificial daylight while the sun was up outside. All the water was gone. There had been no agonizing debate over when or if to drink that last bottle. As soon as Tim and Gibbs had finished drinking theirs, it had gone to Tony.
Instead of feeling devastated as the last of the water disappeared, Tim had found the process unexpectedly comforting. It had felt very right to work with Gibbs to ensure everything possible had been done for Tony before settling in to await the end.
Remembering the terror provoked earlier by thoughts of this moment, Tim smiled a small smile at the ironic turn that he felt better now than he had then. It was early yet; he didn't delude himself that there was no chance his composure might shatter later. But, he was done sacrificing this hour to the possible horrors of the next. Every hour, every minute he didn't surrender to the fear was a victory. He might eventually lose the war. But, he could live with himself now, knowing he'd give the battle all he had.
The turning point had been the quiet 'Semper Fi'; spoken as both a reassurance and a commendation. Gibbs had-
A noise drew Tim from his thoughts. At first, he thought it was just another random rustling of a forest creature on the door's surface. Until it grew more vigorous, reminiscent of the sounds Harrison had made as he camouflaged the entrance. When he heard what sounded like muffled voices, he stood, disbelieving, to stare at the door. Gibbs grabbed his SIG and shouldered Tim aside, taking a shooter's stance at the foot of the stairs, weapon aimed up and ready.
Then, the hinges creaked and Tim was blinded. He closed his eyes against the sudden flood of light and heard a familiar voice call out.
A/N: When I got to this point of the story, I was trying to decide whether to continue it, leave it there, or write an epilogue. I also had 'Omission' as a WIP. Since the two stories' themes would be so similar from this point on (Tony's recovery) I decide not to continue Sheltered and marked it complete with a closing A/N that tied some loose ends.
When I began writing an epilogue, I removed the A/N and the 'complete' tag. After I had a good bit of it written, I lost it in a computer crash. I was already having a lot of trouble writing, so I can't blame the documents loss for not finishing my stories. But, it certainly didn't help. Since there's no telling if I'll ever get the epilogue written, I'm again marking the story complete.
The epilogue was set months down the line and written from Tim's POV. The main points were that it was Fornell that found them and Tony made a complete recovery.