That day marked a turning point in Tim's recovery. He seemed more settled mentally, and he actually started to eat, tiny amounts at first, but a little more each day. They took him outside every day, and he flourished in the warmth of the sun. It seems that he wasn't yet ready to speak, and although he could sleep without sedation, he still had to be sure that they would leave on the light. Progress was slow, but at least there was progress.
The discussion turned to Tim's rehabilitation after his release from Bethesda, and his schedule for continued therapy both physical and psychological. As he was resting one afternoon following an exhausting physical therapy session Ducky broached the subject of life outside the hospital.
"Timothy, how would it be if you came to stay with me? I don't have as much room as at the old house, but I think we can still manage not to get under each other's feet too much."
Tim hardly had to think about it, he was desperate to get out of the hospital, but he knew he wasn't ready to be alone, not yet. He smiled at Ducky and gave a quick nod of assent.
"Good; I'll speak to Doctor Quinlan, and we'll have you out of here as soon as we can...what's wrong?"
Ducky was taken aback by the sudden change in Tim's expression; his contented smile suddenly replaced by that horrible blank expression that they had seen far too much these last weeks. What was going on inside his mind?
He couldn't leave, he saw that now, he was safe here, they hadn't come for him; the bright lights kept them away, they liked the darkness...what if Ducky's house had dark corners? They would wait for him, and he couldn't stay awake all the time...he turned again to the window...He knew he couldn't stay here; he felt Ducky's hand on his shoulder.
"Timothy? Are you still with me? Can I get you anything?"
With a last lingering glance at the window Tim reached for the notepad and pencil on the bedside table. He gave one of his winsome smiles as the skull that adorned the top of the pencil wobbled as he picked it up, a gift from Abby; she was always trying to get him to smile, to communicate.
"In case you need to tell us something, or ask for anything, just, you know...write what you're thinking, whatever you like..."
But he'd never used it, he couldn't think of anything to write, he had been so confused. The voices had told him that no one wanted him back, that no one cared for him...yet they'd been here with him every day, waiting patiently for him to get better, to talk to them. His throat was still sore, he wasn't sure he could talk, it had been so long; he was sure of one thing...he knew what he had to do...
He opened the pad, and with a firm hand he wrote.
I need to go back
Ducky read the words, but he wasn't sure what they meant. Tim hesitated for a moment and continued.
to the bunker, I have to know.
Gibbs was driving well within the speed limit, giving Tim all the time he needed to rethink this idea.
He sat in the back of the car, perfectly still, hardly seeming to breathe, to blink. As the car pulled up to a halt, a wave of dizziness flowed through him, he reached out his hand to Abby, and she held on tight, she could feel the slight tremors that were shaking his body.
"Tim, we don't have to get out of the car, Gibbs can turn around and take us home."
But Tim did have to do this, he had to know…he gave her one of the sad little smiles to which they had become so accustomed these last weeks, released her hand and opened his door. As he did every time he stepped outside, he raised his face to the sun, seeming to gather strength from its warming rays.
The other car had parked beside Gibbs, and Ziva, Tony and Jimmy joined them as they waited…it was up to Tim to set the schedule, they would let him take all the time he needed before he went back down there. They all followed Gibbs toward the clearing, and hesitated as Tim halted and gazed around, a puzzled expression on his face. It was no surprise, unless you knew where the bunker entrance was it was almost impossible to see it, and Tim would have been in no condition to register where they were taking him that day. He turned to Gibbs with the question in his eyes.
"It's right over here Tim; when you're ready."
Tim slowly walked in the direction that Gibbs had indicated, and stopped with a gasp when he saw it, a fresh wave of nausea, and uncertainty swept over him. Then strong arms were holding him, they'd seen him stumble, and Tony and Gibbs were first to his side.
Ducky took a quick step forward, he had to put a stop to this, he had doubted the wisdom of this move from the moment Tim wrote those words on his notepad. Abby held tight to Ziva's hand, they both wanted to drag Tim away from there, to take him back to the hospital, back to safety. But they held their ground and stayed silent, fearful of breaking the delicate hold that Tim had on his self-control.
At a look from Gibbs Tony released Tim, leaned forward and pulled open the trap-door. Tim shivered, and Abby couldn't contain herself any longer, she ran to him.
"You don't have to do this Tim, you've done so well to come this far...but you don't have to go down there."
He raised her hand to his lips, kissed it, and nodded slowly, tried his best to smile for them all, and took a step closer to the shaft entrance. Gibbs handed Tim a flashlight, the most powerful one he had been able to find, switched on his own, and directed the beam down the shaft.
"Tim, I'll go down first, you follow when you're ready, and if you want to stop, any time, you just say...okay?"
A shaky thumbs-up from Tim, and Gibbs started his descent. When he reached the floor, Gibbs realised he had been holding his breath all the way down. Was this a colossal mistake? Was it too soon? Did Tim ever need to see this place again? He heard Tim's first step onto the ladder, and then watched with an admiration he would never be able to express as this young man, often characterised as the geek's geek, the soft touch, demonstrated the steel within, and step by step came closer to the place that had very nearly become his coffin.
He reached the ground and Gibbs rested his hand on Tim's arm.
"Good work Tim, now...take a minute...deep breath, remember what Ducky said."
Gibbs opened the door, and for the briefest moment he thought that Tim was going to change his mind, that he would turn and climb back out of here. But instead Tim took a deep breath, wiped his hand across his suddenly damp forehead, and walked slowly into the bunker.
There was no smell this time, only the faintest whiff of antiseptic, Vance had ensured that the bunker had been thoroughly cleaned as soon as all the evidence had been collected, once the photographs chronicling the conditions under which Tim had survived...barely survived, had been taken; a cleaning team had moved in.
Gibbs stood back as Tim shone the flashlight beam to and fro, into each corner, up and down; he took two more steps into the room and slowly walked all around the confines of the bunker, raking his fingers across the metal walls.
He was back at the doorway, and Gibbs was stunned when, instead of walking out and back up the ladder Tim reached out to him and with a slightly trembling hand switched off Gibbs' flashlight. The only illumination now came from a single source. Tim turned back into the room, checked every corner once more, he inhaled deeply and switched off his flashlight. They were subsumed in total darkness, Gibbs hardly dared breathe, he listened intently as Tim moved around the room; then through the dark, empty silence, he heard it.
Gibbs did not move a muscle...the first words since he'd been taken by the river, but what did he mean?
He didn't dare switch on the flashlight, not wanting to risk changing the mood…but there it was again, so quiet that he almost missed it.
Gibbs heard the distinctive sound of someone falling to the ground, and as he switched on his flashlight he saw that Tim was crying, silent tears coursing down his cheeks. He laid the flashlight on the ground, knelt beside Tim and rested his hand on his shoulder. Tim didn't flinch, didn't pull away; instead, he reached out his hand to Gibbs, and Gibbs grabbed it as if it was a lifeline…this time he wasn't letting Tim go, he gathered him in his arms as the silent tears turned to heaving sobs that shook his body.
"I've got you Tim…let it out…I've got you."
As the sobs subsided he turned his tear-stained face to Gibbs.
"The men…they found me…kept asking…hurting…I asked them to stop, to help me…so many times I asked…Then they left me here...I called and...called...but nobody came...for the longest time...then they came...the monsters...they kept on stabbing, screaming...I begged them to stop...begged and begged…they didn't listen…
He slumped against Gibbs, the strength that had got him this far suddenly spent. Gibbs didn't let go, Tim needed comfort right now, he needed to know that someone was here; someone real...As Tim knelt on the floor, waiting for his breathing to retain some semblance of normality, Gibbs glanced toward the door, he had told the others not to come down here, not unless they were called. He didn't want to rush Tim; he wanted him to take as long as necessary before they left this place, but he knew the others would be growing more anxious with every minute they were down here.
Gibbs helped him to his feet and Tim slowly made his way to the foot of the ladder; he hesitated.
"Are you sure?"
Gibbs felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders…he had longed to hear that word, longed for Tim to feel that he could still call Gibbs, 'Boss'. The days and weeks of emptiness, of thinking that he'd lost Tim for ever, then finding him again, only to have Tim reject him…had been almost too much to bear.
Gibbs made his way up the ladder and was greeted by eager, anxious faces.
"Where is he Gibbs? Is he okay? Should I go down there?"
When Abby paused to take a breath she saw Gibbs' expression, and her smile matched his own. Then they heard the sound of footsteps on the ladder, they moved closer to the trap-door, ready to help him take those last steps.
Tim emerged into the daylight, Tony reached out his hand and Tim held on tight as Tony helped him up the last few rungs and out of the shaft. He fell to his knees, suddenly, overwhelmingly exhausted, he was shivering.
"Here you go Tim, let's get you warm."
Jimmy enveloped Tim in the blanket he had carried from the car, and Ducky shooed the others away, he needed to check on Tim…but Tim had other ideas, he struggled to his feet, gripped the blanket closer to him, and glanced around his…friends, yes he knew that now with certainty, they were his friends.
His voice was barely audible, and it sounded raspy and dry from lack of use, but to those hearing Tim speak for the first time in so long, it was like the sweetest song they had ever heard.
To hear his voice again, to see a little of that haunted look leave his eyes. It was everything and more than any of them could ever have wished for. He was surrounded by smiling faces, words of support, of congratulation. They all knew there was a long, long way to go, but those steps into the bunker, they had been the first steps on that long road, and they would be with him every other step of the way, no one was letting him go, never again.
Ducky called a halt to proceedings, he was anxious to get Tim back to Bethesda before the inevitable reaction to today's events set in.
"Come along everyone, we've kept this young man out here long enough."
They headed back to the cars, Tim flinched slightly as he heard the trap-door close one last time, but Ziva and Abby kept hold of his hands and he carried on walking without a backward glance.
As he settled into his seat Tim tried to say something, but was overtaken by a fit of coughing. Gibbs grabbed a bottle of water, opened it and handed it to him. Tim hesitated.
"It's okay Tim, one hundred percent water."
He took the bottle and sipped slowly.
"Thanks Boss…and…what you said, back at the hospital..."
Gibbs waited, was this when Tim told him he couldn't work with him again, after what he'd done?
But Tim was smiling, a warm, shadow-free smile.
What can be said at all can be said clearly, and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must remain silent.