Author: Jo. R (driftingatdusk)
Rating: FR-18 for sensitive themes
Warning: Abuse, Violence, Adult themes
Category: Angst, Drama, Team, Case-file, Abby/Tony friendship, Abby/Ziva friendship, Abby/Gibbs friendship, Abby/McGee friendship.
Spoilers: Tiny one for 'Bloodbath'.
Summary: Abby learns that twenty years of freedom isn't long enough when someone from the past won't let her go. Can the team help her be unbreakable or will she fall?
Authors Note: Read the warnings, they're there for a reason.
Authors Note 2: I've had this finished for over a year. It's... For reasons I can't explain, this story means something to me so I've been reluctant to post/share it mostly due to apprehension on my part as to how it'll be received.
There were some things not even her closest friends knew. The people she called her family, the ones she relied on and would do anything for, she loved them all but still hadn't been able to bring herself to let them in on the secret of her past.
Once or twice, she'd come close to telling Gibbs. If she'd ever gotten close to telling one of them, confiding the whole truth and nothing but the truth, it was to him.
Sitting in the bar with the others, the five who, like her, survived, Abby Sciuto wasn't entirely sure what had kept her from doing so.
It wasn't as if she was ashamed of what had happened. It wasn't as if she'd asked for it or done anything to deserve it; she'd been a happy-go-lucky teenager on her way home from a friend's house, seventeen years and four months old.
How could she have known there was someone following her home that night? How was she to know she'd already been picked, one of a dozen, hand-picked to order? To be beaten and broken until she was weak and willing to do anything to save herself the pain and humiliation?
Tears stung her eyes even as the shot she downed stung and burned its way down her throat.
She couldn't understand why she couldn't tell them. She was open about pretty much every other aspect of her life – too open, in some respects. She loved and trusted them all beyond measure but there was still something making her hold back, a little nagging voice that she couldn't silence despite her best efforts.
Gibbs would be protective and strong for her sake. He'd be hurt at first, that she kept it from him. But then he'd remember how he'd kept secrets, too. Then he might get a little angry about it – not at her, she knew, but at the situation. Frustrated because he hadn't been able to protect her or help her or save her. And then he'd hold her, hug her. Kiss her cheek and make her feel safe. He'd probably take her home that night and try teaching her the art of woodworking again just so he could keep her close and reassure himself as well as her that she was okay.
Ducky would be sympathetic and, she imagined, aghast that she'd kept it to herself for so long. He would listen patiently as she talked about, encourage her to talk more when she wanted to clam up and forget she'd said anything. He'd pour her cup after cup of tea and find exactly the right words to say when she needed to hear them the most.
Tony would handle it better than most who knew him would believe. He'd be calm and in that, she would take comfort. He would listen to her patiently and offer her a night or maybe a week of movie marathons at his apartment or hers. He'd worry about her, hover over her for a while. Watch her when he thought she wasn't looking but smile and claim otherwise when she caught him.
McGee... She wasn't sure what McGee would do. He'd be sweet and stumble over his words and probably be awkward with her at first but wouldn't turn her away if she asked him for a hug. She wondered if knowing the truth, if knowing her secret, would change the way he looked back on their previous relationship, if it would change the way he looked at her now.
Ziva would understand. She would offer a shoulder to cry on and listen without comment, without judgement to everything Abby had to say. She would offer to track down and kill anyone living who'd had anything to do with it whereas Gibbs, if he were to know, would be tempted to do so without asking for her approval first.
"Hey, Abby!" Lori Cleaves slid onto the barstool beside her, a sweet smile on her face as her face shone with perspiration from her efforts on the dance floor. "Why aren't you dancing?"
Abby tried to smile at the pretty redhead but couldn't quite manage it for long. Lori was the one she liked most of her fellow survivors though all of them held a special place in her heart. Lori was the only one whom she'd known before entering what they now called the Hell House, though Lori's arrival had come three months after her own.
"Don't feel like it tonight," she admitted with a shrug of one shoulder. "You go. Keep dancing. Keep celebrating."
The smile dropped from Lori's face, concern lighting her blue eyes. "You, out of all of us, should be the one celebrating." She reached out and caught Abby's hand before the black-haired woman could reach for the new shot the bartender had placed in front of her. "Abby. We survived." Lori gave her a tremulous smile when Abby looked at her again. "Twenty-years ago, we got out of the Hell House. *You* got us out. Doesn't that make you happy?"
"Happy?" Happy that she'd survived it, yes. Happy she'd been able to help the others escape when she'd put a plan five-months in the making in to action, yes. Happy she'd been there, had to go through it all in the first? "I'm glad we all got out. The five of us. And I'm happy for you and the others that you're so pleased we've made it to this landmark."
"But not for yourself?" Lori pulled her hand back, confusion taking the place of her concern. "I don't understand, Abs. I thought you of all people..."
"I was there three months longer than you. Two months longer than anyone else in this bar." Abby reached for the shot glass, her fingers clenching around it. "Five of us got out but there were seven who didn't make it. Seven girls who never got to see what life had in store for them." She downed the shot, slamming the glass back down on the counter. "Why couldn't they survive, too, Lor? Why couldn't they get to party and celebrate twenty-years of freedom?"
Lori's expression softened sympathetically. "Maybe it was just their time."
A humourless snort of laughter escaped her. Abby rolled her eyes, lifting a hand to attract the attention of the bartender. "Sometimes I wonder how you can have so much faith, Lori."
"You usually have enough of your own." Lori held up a hand when the bartender started to pour them both a fresh drink. "Not for me, thanks." She waited until he'd gone before looking to her friend. "What's bothering you, Abby? The truth. This is me you're talking to. I know when you're lying."
Turning the shot glass, admiring the way the light reflected through the coloured liquid within, Abby took a few moments to arrange her thoughts. "Twenty-years is a long time, Lori. What've I got to show for it? You've got your faith and your photos and your travels. Rachel and Karin have their husbands and kids. Lindsey's happy with a new guy every six months. You've all moved on and got over it and are ready to celebrate what you've achieved over the last twenty-years and me..." She shrugged and stared sightlessly ahead of her at the spotlights reflected off the mirrored back of the bar. "I still haven't been able to bring myself to admit what happened to the people I'm closest to. There's something in me that won't let go of what happened. It happened twenty years ago and I know everyone involved is dead or behind bars but there's still a part of me that thinks it's not over."
There was a momentary silence, one in which Abby stared down at the liquid in her glass, her eyes stinging. Lori watched her, her heart aching for her friend, unable to find any words let alone the right ones.
Abby shook her head, pushing the shot glass away before getting to her feet. "I'm bringing you all down and I don't mean to. I don't want to, not today of all days." She leaned in to kiss Lori's cheek softly. "Enjoy the rest of your night, Lor. We'll meet for a late lunch tomorrow, okay? I've got the afternoon off so we can spend it doing whatever you want. I'll show you the sights."
"If you need me before that, call me." Lori stopped her from leaving with a hand on her arm. "I mean it, Abby. I'll tell the others you've got a headache or something but I won't be fobbed off with a phoney excuse."
"I'll call you," Abby promised. She gave Lori one last hug before leaving the bar, slipping past the bouncers on the door to join the thankfully short queue of people already waiting for a cab.
The NCIS Headquarters at the Navy Yard were somehow not what she'd been expecting. Lori walked through the security scanners with a nervous smile at the guard on duty, taking back the watch and bracelet she'd had to remove.
She fidgeted with the security pass around her neck as she stood in the elevator behind the agents who'd boarded after her, trying not to listen as two of them chatted about a case they were working on. She'd had enough of police talk in her childhood and still couldn't understand what had possessed Abby to choose to work in a profession that would remind her daily of the experience they'd had as teenagers.
She was relieved when they got out on the floor below hers, more so when the elevator doors slid open again to let her out. She hated small spaces, another throwback to what they'd been through. Elevators reminded her of cages and cages reminded her of...
Lori shook herself mentally. While Abby chose to confront her fears head on so that she could conquer them, Lori was happy to avoid them at all costs.
She walked out into the open plan office, her steps faltering when she realised she couldn't see Abby and had no idea where it was she was supposed to go.
A man in a suit brushed by her, his pace hurried. She followed slowly, watching as he dropped down into a chair at a neat desk with a sigh of relief.
"Just in time, McTardy," the man at the desk beside him said. "Lunch hour's called lunch hour for a reason, you know."
"There was a queue at the bank." The man who'd just sat down gave his colleague a dark look. "Of course if someone had put in for my share of Hanson's leaving present, I wouldn't have needed to go out at all, would I?"
As the two men bantered, Lori walked over to the desk of the dark-haired woman who watched them in open amusement, tangling her fingers in the strap of her pass nervously. "I'm sorry to interrupt..."
The woman turned at the sound of her voice, a polite albeit reserved smile on her face. "Are you lost?"
"Yeah, I guess." Lori gave her an embarrassed smile. "I was supposed to meeting my friend here for lunch, only she didn't tell me where to go after I got to this floor. Maybe you know her. Her name's Abby Sciuto?"
"Abby?" The woman's brow furrowed, her dark gaze drifting away from Lori to glance at the two men who's conversation had stopped around about the time Lori had spoken. "Abby is on a half day today," the woman answered. "She is not due in for another hour. Perhaps you were meant to meet elsewhere?"
Lori frowned and shook her head. "No, it was definitely here. She has the afternoon off, not the morning."
"But I thought..."
"You thought wrong. We all did. The temp updating the absence tracking system screwed up so it didn't highlight her not signing in this morning." The answer came from a third man, older than the other two, who swept past Lori to pick up a cell phone on the remaining empty desk in their section. He flipped the cell phone open and pressed it to his ear, his blue eyes glancing at her before fixing on the man who'd brushed past her. "McGee, see if you can track her cell. DiNozzo, try her home number."
"On it, Boss," came the answer from both men while the woman got to her feet, giving Lori a questioning glance.
"When did you last speak to Abby?" She demanded, her eyes narrowed as though in suspicion.
Lori balked and took half a step back. "We went out last night to celebrate. She left early, said she'd see me today." She looked beyond the woman to the silver-haired man scowling in impatience. "She hasn't come in this morning?"
The man looked at her, catching her gaze. "What were you celebrating?"
"Twenty-years," Lori hedged. She was pretty sure the people staring at her were the people Abby had told her about, the friends she called her family. The ones she hadn't told. Forgive me, Abby, she thought briefly, hoping the little voice in her head was wrong and that Abby's disappearance had nothing to do with their discussion at the bar. "Twenty years of freedom from the Hell House."
"Ziva." The sound of her name was obviously an order to do something. The woman – Ziva – nodded and retook her seat, her fingers flying over the keyboard. The man opened his mouth to say something else but was distracted by what he heard on the other end of the phone. "Abby. Where are you?"
Three things happened at once.
The one who'd been tasked with tracking her spoke up. "She's in New Orleans, Gibbs."
The plasma screen in between his desk and that of the man who'd been identified as DiNozzo flickered to life and images and news reports Lori had hoped she'd never see again appeared in full, terrifying colour.
"The Hell House is the nickname given to a place in New Orleans. Twelve teenage girls were abducted as part of a human-trafficking scam. Only five of them survived," Ziva announced grimly.
"Why were you celebrating...Oh, Abs." DiNozzo stopped mid-sentence, his eyes growing wider as an image of one of the five survivors overlapped the images of the house and the old newspaper headlines.
They all stared at the screen. A teenage version of Abby Sciuto, minus her tattoos and the smile they all knew so well, stared back.
"What are you doing there, Abs?" Gibbs, the man Lori could now place as Abby's boss and unmistakable leader of the team, stared at the image as he hit the speaker button on the phone he held.
Abby's voice filled the stunned silence, small and confused and obviously scared.
"I don't know, Gibbs. I woke up... I woke up in a ditch when my phone rang. I don't know how I got here. I don't know where I am."
Gibbs had someone, probably Tony, arrange for the local LEOs to pick her up and take her to the nearest hospital. The man himself had kept her on the phone until they'd got there, assuring her he was on his way and that everything was going to be okay.
For a little while, she let herself believe him.
She sat patiently through the checks the doctors at the hospital insisted on carrying out, offered advice to the lab tech who'd been instructed to take samples for a forensic kit and answered the questions of the cops as best as she could.
Her blood ran cold when the cop asking questions told her where she'd been found and she'd retreated into herself after that, drawing her legs up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them as she sat on the bed in a hospital gown, watching the minute hand of the clock on the wall opposite her go around.
Almost three hours after waking up to her cell phone ringing, the door to her room opened.
Abby held herself still as Gibbs walked into the room. She hated the lone tear that slid down her cheek but couldn't unclasp her hands to wipe it away; scared they'd tremble too much and embarrass her all the more.
"Abby." All but ignoring the officer still in the room, no doubt following his orders not to leave her alone, Gibbs covered the distance between them in four easy strides. He gazed at her with such compassion in his eyes that she realised he knew. Her eyes closed moments before his hand touched her cheek and she leaned into his palm. "Why didn't you tell me, Abs?"
She opened her eyes at the tone of voice he used, hurt but without reproach. It made her eyes sting all the more. "I didn't know how," she admitted softly. "I didn't... I wanted to tell you but the words wouldn't come."
With a sigh he couldn't keep back, Gibbs drew her against him gently, another sigh, one of relief, escaping him when she melted against him and wrapped her own arms around his middle.
"Sir?" The police officer who'd been sitting watching the scene play out spoke up. "Agent Gibbs?"
He kept one arm around her but turned to acknowledge the man who'd spoken. "Officer Smith?"
"My boss said to give you a full report, Sir." Officer Smith stood with his hands behind his back, waiting expectantly.
"I can tell you," Abby murmured from her place pressed against his side. She looked past Gibbs to give the officer a small, uncertain smile. "I think I know everything?"
Officer Smith nodded at her. "You do, Ma'am. But if you'd prefer not to..."
"I'll be fine, thank you."
Officer Smith looked to Gibbs. "In that case, I'll get back to the station and dig out the old case files for you, Agent Gibbs. If your people need anything, we'll be happy to help."
"My agents are waiting in the hall," Gibbs said, the sound of his voice stopping Officer Smith from leaving. "Could you give Agents McGee and David a lift back to your station? They can help you look for those files and bring 'em back to our hotel."
"Yes, Sir. Not a problem." Officer Smith seemed relieved not to have to handle the case himself and left the two with another nod.
As the door closed behind him, Abby released a sigh and drew back from Gibbs so she could make room for him to sit on the bed beside her.
"They found me two and a half miles away. From... from the house where they kept us. My shoes and the anklet I was wearing last night are missing." Her voice was surprisingly calm, her gaze fixed on the hands she kept clasped in her lap. "I don't know how I got here. I remember getting a cab home last night and walking up the stairs to my apartment but I don't actually remember unlocking the front door and going inside." When his hands covered hers, Abby looked up and met his gaze. "I have to go back there, Gibbs. I don't want to but I know I have to."
His hands tightened around hers, his normally light blue eyes dark with an emotion she couldn't place. "We'll go together, Abby. You don't have to do it alone."
Relief mingled with dread and knotted in her stomach, fighting against the urge to beg him to take her home to DC.
She had to go back, and that knowledge terrified her.
It looked inconspicuous from the outside. Old and rundown, with broken windows no one had cared to fix. Wood cladding hung off in places, rotted in others. The wooden steps had succumbed to damp rot and what looked like termites, making them potentially dangerous ground.
To many who passed, it would look like a sad reflection on old fashioned family values. A traditional building, left to fall into disarray, uncared for and fading into the obscurity only time could create.
To those that knew the truth and remembered the stories, it was an unlikely location for sick, horrific deeds that had forever changed the lives of those it had touched.
What had once been a carefully tended garden so as not to arouse suspicion from anyone passing by was an overgrown tangle of weeds and plants and bushes. Old trees stood tall and withered at its side, bent and gnarled as if too tired to stand up straight. As if knowing there was nothing to be proud about shielding this place from the ravages of the wind.
Abby looked up at the house and squared her shoulders against the shudder that worked its way down her spine.
The Hell House.
It didn't look as scary as she remembered but there was still something about it that made her want to turn and run the other way.
If not for the two people standing behind her, she thought she might have done.
Ziva and McGee were still at the local station, no doubt learning all they could about what had happened within the house's crumbling walls; Abby was afraid she was about to relive it.
"You can stay out here, Abby." It was Tony who offered, coming to stand on her right as Gibbs moved to stand on her left. "You don't have to go inside."
They would understand, she knew. They wouldn't think any less of her if she decided to do as he offered and stay in the car with the air conditioning on and the radio blasting out the local radio stations she'd grown up with.
They wouldn't think any less of her, but she would.
She gave him a smile of thanks and squared her shoulders instead of accepting the offer. It was after midday, the sun beginning to make its descent as shadows danced over the house and made it look more imposing than she thought it had a right to.
She was a grown up, she reminded herself. An adult who'd overcome the traumas of her youth. An adult in the midst of her second childhood some would argue, but maybe that was because she'd always felt a little robbed of the first.
"I can do this," she said, mostly to herself than the two men either side of her. "It's just a house."
Abby led the way through the overgrown grasses to the front of the house and the rotting steps. She took a deep breath and clenched her fists at her sides, determined to take the first step alone.
And stepped not into a house but straight into a nightmare.
She was seventeen again, waking up to a world she no longer recognised.
Her tongue felt heavy and dry in her mouth but she couldn't get it to move. Couldn't swallow, couldn't close her dry lips. She panicked, thought she was going to choke.
She tried to move her hands, her arms. They wouldn't budge.
She tried to move her feet, her legs, to roll over so that she wasn't lying on her stomach. She couldn't.
Her hair fell like a heavy curtain over her eyes, over her face. She couldn't see, couldn't move.
The cry for help couldn't leave her throat; it just echoed uselessly around her head.
After a few moments of intense panic, moments that stretched into agonising minutes, she realised she could hear voices above the pounding in her head. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes and she blinked, the only physical movement her betrayal of a body would allow.
"... seventeen, two parents, both deaf..."
"... she be missed?"
"...argument last night... runaway..."
They were talking about her, she realised with a jolt. How did they know her parents were deaf? How did they know she'd had an argument with them last night?
How did they know so much about her?
"... client willing to wait... wants her to be compliant.."
"... take a while... This one's feisty..."
A laugh, cold and unpleasant, one that scared her.
"... most fun with those... cage in the cellar..."
She heard footsteps, felt the vibrations of them through the wooden floorboard her head was resting on.
Coming closer, coming towards her, coming for her...
Abby squeezed her eyes shut as tight as they would go and tried to pretend she wasn't there.
She stumbled, almost tripping over her own feet. Abby blinked, brought back to the present as two pairs of arms reached out to steady her. She didn't miss the concerned glance they exchanged when they thought she wasn't looking but was too lost in the moment to call them on it.
The house smelt different. There was no underlying smell of bleach like it had once held before, no longer reminding her of the hospital room she'd spent an uncomfortable four hours in when she was six and had broken her arm falling out of the tree Ryan Parker dared her to climb. There was no cloying scent of vanilla trying to disguise it, either, though she remembered now, standing there in the present, that that had been the favoured smell of her captors.
It was damp and rotten and the dust in the air tickled the back of her throat and made her nose itch.
"I'm okay." She wasn't and they knew it but neither of them commented. Neither of them let her go, either. "We need to go to the cellar. It's through the kitchen, I think. Stairs are at the back of the house, anyway."
She moved to walk in the direction she'd indicated but Gibbs' hand tightening on her arm stopped her.
"Wait, Abby." He motioned to the floor with the hand that wasn't holding her in place. "Footprints."
In an instant, Tony was crouched down, studying them. He shone the flashlight he'd taken from his pocket over the indents in the dust, his brow furrowed as he looked up at the still standing pair. "They're fresh," he announced grimly. "One pair going that way, I'm guessing male sized eight. Two coming back out this way towards the front door. One is the same as the first but the second... Smaller, barefoot."
"Mine," Abby supplied, glancing at Gibbs with undisguised fear in her eyes. "I was here."
"You don't know that for sure." Gibbs was careful to keep his voice neutral. "Could be a homeless person using this place to shelter at night." Could be, but all three of them doubted it. "DiNozzo, go get the camera from the car. We need to document it before we contaminate the scene anymore than we have."
"On it, boss."
Without hesitation, his senior field agent went back to the car. Abby felt Gibbs' eyes on her and knew she was being studied. She did her best to meet and hold his gaze, trying to convince herself as much as him that she was fine with the current situation.
After a long moment, her gaze dropped.
"You don't have to do this," Gibbs told her gently. He moved closer to her, unapologetically invading her personal space the way he always had, something that reassured her that maybe not everything had to change as a result of the others knowing her secret. The hand he had on her arm moved upwards to touch her cheek, fingers moving effortlessly into the sign they both knew and treasured: 'my girl'. "No one will think any less of you if you go back to the car and wait for us to see what's down there."
"No one but myself." She gave him the strongest smile she could muster, catching his hand before it could fall away, squeezing his fingers in silent thanks. "I have to do this, Gibbs. It's been twenty years since I was here last and I have to prove to myself I'm not the same scared girl I used to be."
"Just don't forget that you're not alone this time," Gibbs reminded her quietly.
They waited in companionable silence for Tony to come back, both noticing but neither commenting that their hands remained joined. For Abby, it was a source of comfort and strength. For Gibbs, it was an attempt at keeping his forensic specialist from losing herself in her past.
When Tony returned with the kit from the back of the car, he and Gibbs got to work processing the scene as quickly and efficiently as they could, both wanting to get her out of the house and away from it as soon as possible. They worked in silence, with none of the usual banter, both shooting glances in Abby's direction to make sure she was okay.
Abby, for her part, stood with her arms wrapped around her middle. She shuffled occasionally on her feet in the boots that someone had given her at the hospital, a size too big but the gesture still appreciated. She stared at the footprints in the dust, knowing they'd be able to match the shoeless print to her own feet.
Wondering who would do it since she wouldn't be able to work the forensics of the case herself.
As soon as they were finished, Abby took a timid step towards the doorway leading to the kitchen, which in turn would lead to the cellar where she'd spent six months of her life, most of them planning her breakout but some, she was ashamed to admit, spent wishing for the freedom death could bring.
She squared her shoulders and clenched her hands into fists so tight that her fingernails, scraped clean at the hospital, dug into the flesh of her palms hard enough to create crescent-shaped indents that would take a while to fade.
Still, she insisted on leading the way to the cellar door, forcing herself forward when she would have preferred to go back.
The nightmare, she knew, had only just begun.
Gibbs insisted on going first down the stairs into the darkness that was her personal hell. He wouldn't hear otherwise, aiming his torch pointedly at the rotting steps, telling her they had no idea what was down there and he wasn't about to let the unarmed woman in boots that were too big break her neck in trying to find out.
In the end, having him in front and knowing Tony behind was a reassurance, a link back to reality that she found she desperately needed.
There were a dozen cages, like prison cells, all in a row against the walls. Rotting wood and crumbling brick covered the steel bars between them so that the one-time occupants had been unable to see each other. The floors were the same as always, compacted dirt littered in places with rusty nails and broken glass. There were no windows, the walls bricked up with a second layer to prevent the screams and shouts and cries of those kept down in the cellar from seeping out into the real world.
Abby shuddered and forced herself to take a deep breath of damp air. She picked her way carefully to the cage that had been hers, the place she'd lived and breathed and hurt for six months.
The door was open; the dirt on the floor was disturbed.
Tony or Gibbs, she wasn't sure which, shone their flashlight into it and something sparkled in its beam.
"I'll go, Abs." Gibbs touched her arm as he past her, giving a look to Tony that told his senior field agent to stay close. Crouching down in the small space, unable to stop his imagination from supplying him with images of a younger Abby curled up in the corner, Gibbs picked up the item that had caught the light, turning slightly to show it to the others.
"It's my anklet," Abby said in a whisper. "I was wearing it last night."
The silver chain was slipped inside a plastic evidence bag, and then secured in Gibbs' pocket. He straightened and turned in a full circle, noting that there was barely enough room for him to do so. Shining his torch in the corner of the cage, he found first one shoe, then another, his stomach twisting at the certain knowledge that Abby had indeed been brought back here. "Pictures, DiNozzo," he ordered, walking out of the cage to take Tony's place beside Abby.
"I was here, wasn't I?" She leaned into him when his arm went around her, her legs unsteady but somehow still holding her weight. "Someone brought me here and left me. Someone doesn't want me to forget."
"Maybe there's something someone wants you to remember," Gibbs murmured, brushing his lips against her temple as she trembled against him. "We'll figure it out, Abby."
Usually, she would have believed him without hesitation. This time, though, Abby couldn't be so sure.