AN: Today is the 1st anniversary of my very first posting on the site, chapter 1 of 'Body Language', so to celebrate I've written a story that is pure self-indulgence.
Firstly, it's a present for Diana Teo, who reviewed my first effort, and has never, ever missed since… she's become my friend and beloved sister on the other side of the world, an inspiration and my comfort when things go wrong.
She discovered that my totem animal is an otter, and hers a raven… there's one other in there, and she knows who she is…
Thank you to everyone who's ever written a kind or constructive review…and especially
Sarahsrr, who's also almost never missed…
TesubCalle, for her wonderfully constructive and helpful messages,
Sparkiebunnie, special young lady,
Azamiko, great help in whodunits,
The NaggingCube, for many a little gem of a suggestion,
Proseac, lass after my own heart,
XXSamanthaXX, brill for helpful advice,
Belker, for her encouragement and humour,
Genevra, time you wrote another one, gal…
and my three very, very special lustfest pals, Cheekymice, Vanishing Point 2000, and Cymraes.
Thank you all so very much… Now you've started me off, I'll keep on writing as long as I'm breathing.
The Otter and the Raven
The last time he'd visited the Howakhan village, he'd been woefully ill-clad for the things he ended up having to do, like riding a motorbike through the night, or dig himself and DiNozzo out of a collapsed building… this time he'd come prepared. Winters in Virginia, especially on the coast, were usually mild, and this cold snap wasn't expected to last long, but it was biting hard; and a guy who'd seen the lingering after-effects of pneumonia on a close friend wasn't taking any chances.
The t-shirt next to his skin was thermal, so were the socks under the fleece-lined long boots. He had several layers under the warm overcoat, and thinsulate lined gloves. He drew the line at long johns, but the jersey jockey shorts under his cord pants were longer than the boxers he usually wore, and the overcoat was almost knee length. He was ready for anything.
He'd decided to go for a walk because the food was delicious and plentiful, and their Howakhan hosts had been keen to see them enjoying themselves. He had enjoyed himself, but now he felt guiltily stuffed. When he thought no-one was looking, he rose from the mat where he'd been sitting, with a sideways glance at an equally full Tony leaning against the wall, dozing, with a couple of Howakhan children who'd decided they liked him keeping him sleepy company. He went out into the lobby where everyone had left their outer garments, found his jacket, coat and boots, and headed out into the moonlit night.
At first he intended simply to walk up the road through the village, but the moonlight reflecting off the new snow made visibility good enough to leave the lights of the main street and go wandering off up a track instead. He was pretty certain he could hear the sound of running water, and he followed it, until he came to a stream. He turned left towards a few scattered trees, and as the sound grew louder, his anticipation grew. He wasn't disappointed; the waterfall was only about six feet high, but it bounced down in two levels, and was studded with rocky outcrops, so the display of falling water was beautiful. Add in the rare factors of clear moonlight and snow, and Tim found it entrancing.
A nearby rock looked as if generations had sat there watching the cataract, and he added his backside to theirs. He imagined the children from the village on a sunny day, and heard their screams of laughter as they played in the water. He imagined long ago wolves in moonlight such as this, coming to drink, with the pack leader standing at the top of the cascade and letting out a mournful howl.
He realised that it was Thom. E. Gemcity who was sitting by the fall, and thought that if he was feeling like him, he ought to start writing again…. Well, flights of literary fancy didn't keep the cold out, and when he peeled back a glove to look at his watch he realised he'd been sitting there for almost twenty-five minutes, so he rose to his feet. He debated going back the way he'd come, but instead decided to climb the bank to the top of the waterfall, to stand where his wolf had stood. There was a plank bridge, which looked safe enough, so he crossed over, and turned back towards the village, striking diagonally across a field. He passed a frozen pond, the contours still visible under the light snow, and came to another track, going into a stand of dark trees.
He wondered if going into woods was a good idea, but he couldn't resist. If there wasn't enough moonlight coming through the wintry branches to see his way by, he'd retrace his steps and walk round.
It was clear enough; with much less snow the track was still visible, and every so often he saw a glimmer through the trees that showed where the village was, so that when the track forked, he knew to take the right hand path. It led back after maybe ten minutes to the main street, with its two golden-glowing lights. He'd no idea he'd walked so far; he stepped back into the school lobby and felt the warm air on his tingling face.
Gibbs stepped out of the hall and looked at him with raised eyebrows. "Where's DiNozzo?"
Tim blinked. "DiNozzo, Boss?"
"Yeah… 'bout so tall, green eyes, hair gel. You and him can't be let loose together… remember the guy?"
"Boss…" Tim chided in bewilderment, and when Gibbs saw that he really hadn't a clue what he was talking about, he relented.
"You've been gone maybe ninety minutes, McGee. Tony noticed when you went out, was a bit concerned when you hadn't come back in nearly an hour. No cell reception round here…Went to check you were OK." He grimaced, and added with a growl, "Said you couldn't go getting into trouble without him."
"Haven't seen him, Boss. I went to walk the food off…" He decided not to tell Gibbs he'd been sitting dreaming by a waterfall. "I walked round in a circle… I'll go the other way, see if I meet him."
Tony wouldn't have admitted to anyone that it was concern much more than boredom that sent him off after Tim… the food had been splendid, and he hadn't minded at all about looking after Shawn's young brothers while he helped his mother to clear up; the boys were born comedians who kept him laughing, and wonder of wonders, they liked his impressions.
But as late afternoon wore on into evening, more food kept coming, the school hall was warm… the boys tired, and so did he.
He saw McGee regarding him with amusement tugging at the corners of his mouth, and how he went out straight afterwards, then he let the warmth and the wash of conversation and background music lull him. When he opened his eyes again, half an hour had gone.
He glanced round; Gibbs was in conversation with Keshowse, sitting on a mat in front of the platform, where the Rainbow Lake still attracted a steady stream of admirers, young and old. At the other end of the room on the tiny dance floor, Ziva was dancing with a young Howakhan man, who seemed pretty well mesmerised by her. Tam sat quietly keeping a melancholy Sunny company; of McGee there was no sign. After another twenty minutes of people watching, he'd had enough. Whatever Tim was up to, he wanted to join in. He flipped his phone – no bars.
"Going to find out where McGee's got to, Boss."
"What makes you think he's up to something?"
"Well… he left nearly an hour ago. His coat's gone…"
Gibbs pursed his lips and nodded. "Fine… he's probably gone to walk his dinner off. Go check up if you think you need to… Oh, and DiNozzo?" Tony swung back, eyebrows raised. "If he's chatting up some local girl, leave him alone!" The SFA's only reply was a gleeful grin.
He found his outdoor clothes, which mirrored Tim's pretty closely if he had but known it; the exception being the long parka he'd bought because he liked the furry lining of the hood. He didn't care if it was fake. He'd opted for fairly heavyweight gabardine trousers, which had been great out on the hillside, but a little too warm indoors. He tucked them into his boots, zipped up the light brown parka and stepped out into the night.
A chuckle escaped him as he looked round; although the snowy ground was marked by many footprints, his partner's were easy to spot. The Howakhan footwear of choice in this weather was universally some sort of riggers, and the prints of Tim's Sorels were easy to distinguish. Hah, McGee, who's the tracker now?
Tim's footprints were the only ones to turn down the track at the edge of the village since the snow stopped, and Tony was a little disappointed to see that his friend was alone. Not that he'd been hoping McGee had found himself a lady, oh, no… he simply told himself that the possibilities for ragging would have been endless. Looked like McMoonlight was just out to enjoy the scenery. He began to look at it seriously himself, and admitted it was worth looking at.
He followed the footprints, and came to where his friend had found the stream and turned left. He'd heard the sound of the water, and like Tim before him, his excitement grew. Like Tim before him, he stood and watched with delight as the water foamed and tumbled between the snowy banks. There was no-one here to see him standing like a wondering child, only a silvery owl that winged its way, aloof and ghostly, above the fall and into the distance. After a while he noticed a rock that the snow had been brushed from, and realised that McGee had stayed for a while, sitting here, before his footprints went away again up the bank.
He began to think, as he followed, that he'd been making more of McGee's absence than he needed to, that the tracks indicated his friend was perfectly safe… Never mind, he'd never have seen the waterfall if he hadn't followed, never have picked his way carefully across the plank bridge, feeling like a carefree child for the first time since he couldn't remember when.
He came to an abrupt halt after a few minutes, realising that something was different. Noise… that was it. He pushed his hood back to hear more clearly what the sound was that was breaking into the white silence. It was splashing. Maybe two hundred yards away, a pond… frozen over… a dark shape moving in dark water, where the ice was broken… Tony ran.
It wasn't McGee. He spent a brief moment being thankful for that, before wondering what to do next. The dog that was thrashing about trying to get a purchase on the ice with its front paws, was large, very hairy, and of indeterminate ancestry, but he thought there was some pony in there somewhere, and maybe some Chewbacca…
He crouched at the side of the pond as near as he could get to the animal, yelling encouragement, but the dog could neither climb out, nor break the ice to swim nearer. It was tiring, and slipped back a few times, and Tony grimaced. He could see it was wearing a collar, so if he could grab that… he lay carefully down on the bank, then inched his way on his stomach out onto the ice. He could hear it shifting and groaning, and he didn't want to hear that, so he kept on calling encouragement to the dog, to cover the sound. The hairy beast changed direction, and started to struggle towards him. "Come on, boy… you can do it…" He was starting to feel cold, where his thighs and chest were in contact with the ice, but he was nearly there…
The dog's muzzle touched his hand. "C'mon…" He grabbed the collar, and pulled. The big animal's paws scrabbled frantically, and this time, with Tony's help, he heaved himself up. Full of gratitude, as the struggling man let go of his collar, the dog jumped onto his back with all four feet, used him as a stepping stone, and ran off into the distance. Not that Tony saw any of that, although he certainly felt it, as the added weight of the beast sent him face first through the ice.
As his head, chest and shoulders went down, he tried to throw his arms out, but they went through as well. The cold hit him like a blow to the lungs, and his mouth filled with icy pond water. What a way to die, he thought frantically… and then his hands hit the bottom of the pond. What….? He pushed himself up, and his head broke the surface… His legs were still out of the water, and his hands were down in the murky mud, his gloves rapidly filling with dirty, icy fluid. He pushed himself back, scrambled to the bank, and sat there glaring. Where his legs had been, he guessed, the pond was frozen solid. A few feet further out, it couldn't have been more than two feet deep; three at the most where the dog had been. If the ungrateful mutt had tried a bit harder…
He spat out water, rose gingerly to his feet and stood panting. So… what to do next? He pushed his hood off; it was soaking wet and not a lot of good. Wet and warm? Or take the parka off and be dry and cold? Unpleasant damp sensations on his chest were telling him that he was soaked to the skin, at the front at least; his back was still dry apart from the tops of his shoulders, but he could already feel rivulets flowing down his shoulder blades. He groaned. Wet was best, he supposed. At least his legs were dry, for the present.
He coughed, unexpectedly, a short, explosive bark. Great. Swell. He hoped he was only expelling pond water; it was a little soon for the always lurking, always hopeful spirit of the plague to be asserting its claim to him, wasn't it? Try not to think about it…
Go back the way he'd come? Or follow McGee's footsteps forward? The lights of the village were closer if he went on, and he wasn't that far away, so he set off at a weary trudge. Karma, DiNozzo… karma is whacking you over the head for hoping for a chance to tease McGee… oh, boy is he going to have fun at your expense when he sees you!
Another cough; he bent double and got rid of some more pond, then straightened as quickly as he could, head spinning, when he thought he was going to get rid of all that wonderful Howakhan cooking…
He started to shiver, as the cold water in his clothes began to win out against his body heat, and he tried to quicken his pace, eyes on the ground, peering at his friend's footprints. The cold was grabbing at him with bony hands like the branches of the trees he was moving under… what trees? He stopped and looked round, and realised why the marks of Tim's boots were getting harder to see. The moon was partially obscured by the wood he didn't even remember entering, and the further in he went, the less snow there was. Not good. He turned round, but couldn't really see where he's come from. So… can't go back. Keep going.
The next cough was throat-tearing, and made his chest burn, and he stood still and hung onto a tree until it stopped. This time, when the urge to lose his dinner came, he couldn't fight it. He wiped his mouth on his wet sleeve and growled angrily; he couldn't feel this bad this quickly – it was only psychological. He walked on, struggling now to see the path in the dim light, and having given up on the footprints altogether. Boketaw, he thought. I was flattered when Keshowse named me Fire… I could do with some now…
"It's inside you," a voice said, as if it were obvious. "You carry it with you… you don't need it from the outside." He looked down, to see an otter running beside him, circling his feet. Fine… a talking otter. I'm losing it.
"You're a long way from the stream."
"You're a long way from the village. And you're wet."
"So are you."
"I'm supposed to be. And it never gets through my fur. I can't feel it on my skin!"
"Big help," Tony muttered. "If you're supposed to be a spirit guide, I'm not impressed."
"It's just her way," a light voice said. "She always was a smartass." A raven, glossy black with a deep green sheen to her feathers, sat on a branch, her head on one side. "But she's company, and you need it just now."
Tony went along with it. "Fine. It's better to be made fun of than to be alone."
"You've always felt that way," the raven said matter-of-factly. "But we're not actually making fun of you."
"Poking you a bit, maybe," the otter said, running ahead and back to him.
"Prodding then… You need to keep going," the otter said sternly. "You're thinking of sitting down and taking a rest."
"No, I'm not," Tony said guiltily.
"Yes, you are. And it's not a good idea. You're not really ill yet, but you know you will be if you don't get dry and warm. Now come on… we'll race you."
"Race me? I'm going crazy…."
"You've always been crazy, Tony," the raven said, flying by him and alighting on another branch up ahead. The tree she'd chosen stood in a fork in the track. He hesitated, until both animals took the right hand path.
"Come on," the otter said again. "You don't need us to tell you that the village lights are to your right."
The big man turned his head with an effort. "Can't see them," he said truthfully, and stumbled slightly.
The raven flew close to him. "Hey!" she said sharply, sounding like a female Gibbs. "Move, DiNozzo. Don't be a wuss." He felt a small, sharp pain in the back of his leg, above the top of his boot.
"Ow! Did you bite me?"
"Me?" the otter protested. "No, no, no…"
"You're nearly there," the raven said more kindly. "Just stay awake… and follow the owl…"
Tony blinked, and his two strange companions were gone. He missed them. There was more snow on the ground now, and McGee's footprints were becoming more clear as he neared the edge of the woods. A pale shape sailed majestically over his head as the hunting owl moved out of the woods and over the field. He followed it, the real guide, and a moment later became aware of a small, bobbing yellow light ahead. A voice said incredulously, "Tony?"
Tim had switched his torch on so that if his friend spotted it, he'd know he was there. He didn't need it to see the state Tony was in.
"What the hell happened?"
"Er… I fell in a p-pond… well, a dog pushed me in…" He seemed to have been able to speak to his fur and feathery friends just fine, but his teeth were rattling so much he was almost incoherent to McGee. "It was…d-drowning… I p-p-pulled it out – you don't b-believe me…"
"Yes, I do," Tim said calmly. "You've got paw prints all the way down your back. You sure it was a dog? Feet the size of a yeti…"
"McGee, what are you doing?"
"Just co-operate." Ningapo Asun… the Friend of Stone…The parka had already been removed, next came the jacket, the shirt, and the T-shirt. Standing half-naked in the middle of a field, in the snow, Tony actually felt warmer than in his wet clothes.
"McGee, what are you doing?" The SFA thought the echo was a bit late, but no, Amonsoquath was growling. Of course Gibbs, the bear, would be there. Tony offered no resistance, and actually managed to help a little, as the Boss's sweater, and Tim's coat, warm from their body heat, were hung on his shivering form; his pond-smelly clothes were gathered up, and they set off back to the village. Before they'd gone far, a smaller figure ran up.
"Tony… I was worried about you!" Orei… Ziva was nothing like icy, as she put a comforting arm round him.
"I'm f-fine, Ziva… or I will be. You-you're all going to laugh yourselves s-silly when I tell you…" He coughed again, but now he was warmer it wasn't too bad.
"I dare say we will," she agreed with a smile. "You will have to explain when we are back inside in the warm."
"Sure," he agreed happily. He didn't mind being laughed at by his team; his friends – but he wasn't stupid. He would never tell them about the otter and the raven.
AN: Daft or wot? But I'm entitled to be… it's a special occasion!