They found the body of Reginald Bronson Senior sitting in his armchair, a neat bullet wound to his head. Gibbs ordered Ziva and McGee to search upstairs as he'd taken the ground floor, calling Ducky on his cell phone as he did so.
The son, the man Julia and her colleagues had identified, was gone.
Reginald Bronson Junior was a doctor who'd travelled back and forth to Washington DC several times over the last few months under the name of Robert Thomas. Gibbs didn't want to think about why he'd made so many frequent visits, didn't want to think about the man being so close to Abby for so long with no one knowing about it.
He heard Ziva and McGee declare upstairs clear, then heard them come downstairs, both clutching plastic evidence bags.
"Photographs from inside the house," McGee announced, evidently sickened. "Looks like there was a hidden camera or something in the cellar with them." He paused for a split-second. "The picture of Abby was on top of the pile."
Ziva handed him her own evidence bag, her expression grim. "Fake ID for Doctor Robert Thomas and his wife, Dana."
"Probably has another identity ready," Gibbs thought aloud. "One he doesn't think we can trace." He opened his mouth to give them further instructions but closed it when his cell phone rang, flipping open the phone when he saw Tony's number on the display. "Gibbs."
He pulled up just in time to see her drive off with another man. Nick hit the steering wheel in frustration and started backing out of the hotel parking lot only to slam his foot down on the brake as another car sped into the lot behind him. He watched as a man got out, his car blocking Nick's own, and raced into the hotel, resigning himself to sitting and waiting.
When the man returned a few minutes later, a frantic expression on his face and his phone pressed to his ear, Nick wound down the window in order to ask him to politely move his vehicle but the request died on his lips as he overheard one side of the conversation.
"Abby's gone, Boss. The door was open, her stuff was still there. The girl on reception says she left with a man fitting Bronson's description."
"Abby?" Nick pushed open his door as the other man walked by. He manoeuvred himself to stand in front of him, blocking the way to the man's car. "Abby Sciuto?"
"Wait a minute, there's a guy here who knows her." The man stopped and stared at him almost accusingly. "You know Abby?"
"I'm her brother," Nick replied swiftly, running a hand through his hair. "I saw her leave about five minutes ago with some guy. Is she in trouble?"
The man pulled out a badge from his pocket, flashing it as he introduced himself. "Tony DiNozzo. I work with your sister at NCIS. Boss, Abby's brother's here. He said he saw her leave five minutes ago." Tony waited for a moment, listening to what was said on the other end of the phone. "Did you see which direction they went in? Did she look like she was being threatened?"
Nick blinked, searching his mind, picturing his sister. "She looked pale," he said slowly, "she was all hunched up in the passenger seat. They went left at the junction." Left towards the Hell House. He felt himself blanch, his head swimming. "I think I know where they were going."
"They went left, Boss." Tony waited for a beat before stepping around Nick and heading for his car. "Yeah, I think they're heading there, too."
Nick scrambled after him, running around the car to the passenger's side and opening the door. He had it open and was half-way in before Tony had hung up and settled himself behind the wheel. "I'm going with you," he insisted, his expression determined. "She's my sister and she's in trouble. I'm going with you."
Tony muttered something that could've been a curse under his breath but which was lost in the slamming of the car door. "Put your seatbelt on," was all he said as he started the engine and put his foot down on the gas.
"You thought he was a hero but he wasn't." Reginald Bronson Junior told her derisively, a smirk on his face as she shrank away from him. "You recognise me, don't you? You knew my dad pretty well. Reggie, you called him."
Abby stayed silent, her arms wrapped around herself as they sped towards their destination. She recognised him, yes, but wasn't sure why he wanted to hurt her. Reggie Bronson was the man who'd found her and the others traipsing through the woods after making their escape. He was the one who'd taken them to safety, reunited them with their parents.
He'd saved their lives.
The man sitting beside her was undoubtedly his son. He looked so much like his father but instead of the sad look that had always been present in Reggie's eyes, there was a frenzied glint in his son's.
"The old man said he was just wandering in the woods, walking the dogs that night, didn't he? Lame excuse. Really lame," Reginald scoffed. "I always wondered why the cops didn't see through it straight away. And I always wondered why the others didn't just spill their guts like the spineless wimps they are. They were always scared of him, though. Never figured that out. Never knew what he had over them."
"I don't understand what you're saying." Abby broke her silence, her eyes narrowed as she stared out at the passing scenery. "Reggie saved us. Why he was there isn't relevant. He was there and he got us to safety before they could find us."
Reginald laughed, a horribly familiar sound that made her squirm in her seat. "That's what he wanted you to think, Babe. That's what he wanted to believe himself." He looked at her, catching her eye, and she saw something she didn't like on his face. "My dearest dad is the reason you were there in the first place, darling. He started the operation, then chickened out and wanted to end it. The others didn't agree, so he left on bad terms."
Abby shook her head, refusing to believe it. The Reggie Bronson she remembered had been kind and concerned. He'd even visited her in hospital, bringing her magazines and chocolate and flowers. "Then you're not the son of the man I thought you were."
"Oh, I'm his son, alright." Reginald shot her another grin, another flash of those white teeth. "He got me to read the descriptions of the overseas clients, you know. I looked for girls that matched it at school, made notes, took pictures when none of you were watching. It was Dad who got me involved, Abigail, and me who chose you."
"I don't believe you." She shook her head again, arms wrapped tightly around her upper body as he drove. "I don't believe a word you're saying."
"I figured as much," he murmured, putting his foot down on the accelerator once they were on a fairly open road. "That's why I'm going to prove it to you before I take you home."
She had a horrible, sinking feeling in her stomach that they'd disagree about where her home actually was so decided to stay silent, hoping Tony had made it to the hotel and realised she was gone. Hopefully, he'd be right behind them with Gibbs, Ziva and McGee not too far behind.
She'd been lucky in escaping the clutches of the Hell House the first time. Abby crossed her fingers and hoped her luck would last.
He forced her down into the cellar, the gun he held steadily in her direction all the motivation she needed to follow his order.
She just needed to buy some time, Abby told herself firmly, picking her way gingerly down the rotten steps to the place she never wanted to see again for as long as she lived.
If she lived.
Reginald stared at the cages, a sickening smile she would describe as nostalgic crossing over his face as he inhaled the scent of dirt and damp air deeply. "We were here not so long ago," he told her gleefully, an almost childlike excitement on his features. Almost childlike, but nowhere near as innocent. "A few days, in fact. It was like old times, seeing you asleep in your cage. Defenceless, helpless. I could've had you then, you know, but I waited. I wanted you to remember me, to remember what we had before."
"We had nothing before." She pressed herself against the wall adjacent to the cages, determined she wouldn't step inside one of them again. "I don't even know you."
"Yes, you do." He grinned at her, lopsided and almost... love struck. It made her feel sick to her stomach. "Think, Abigail. Try to remember me."
She tried, if only to appease him, but her mind was blank. She hadn't known Reggie had a son, let alone a son her age who'd gone to the same school as she had. "I'm sorry, I really don't remember you. Were we in any classes together...?"
Reginald gave her a frustrated look. "Not from school," he told her scathingly. "From here."
She shook her head and watched as he picked up a discarded sledgehammer. She flinched when he swung it back over his shoulder, confusion and relief warring inside her when he walked into her cage rather than towards her.
As he swung at the wall, Abby eyed the stairs, wondering if she'd make it up them before he noticed and fired his gun.
"Don't even think about," he called out, another grin on his face as he popped his head around the door of the cage, waving the gun at her as if he'd read her thoughts. "One creak and I'll shoot, Abigail."
"I thought you wanted me alive," Abby returned quietly. "If you wanted me dead, you could've killed me in DC."
"I don't want you dead," he sounded almost cheerful, disappearing back into the cage, speaking in between dull thuds as he hit the wall. "But I'm a doctor, just so you know. I can put you back together again if you get hurt."
"Great." Still, she edged towards the stairs just in case an opportunity arose.
His jubilant shout stopped her from getting more than a few feet away from her goal and Reginald left the cage wearing a triumphant expression. He didn't seem to notice that she'd moved, lunging for her, grabbing her arm and dragging her with him back to her cage. Abby dug her heels in but couldn't get any purchase in the dirt.
"You'll remember soon," Reginald promised, pushing her in front of him, forward, into the cage. "You might not have seen me but you'll have heard me, Abigail. I used to talk to you all of the time, remember?"
She found herself staring at a gaping hole, at the small passageway beyond it that had been concealed from view. A narrow tunnel, wide enough for maybe two people at a push, spanned the back of all of the cells.
"You... You were spying on us? Watching us?" She twisted in his grasp, jerking away from him. "You were here the whole time?"
He didn't seem to register her disgust or anger, his expression one of twisted pride. "I had to go to school during the week. Didn't want anyone asking questions. But when I wasn't there, I was here. Every day. I watched you all, that's how I knew Maria was thinking about getting away. I told Dad and the others and they dealt with her."
"You're the reason they killed her? The reason they took her away?" Abby stumbled over the brick and stone he knocked away, finding herself in the damp, dark tunnel with her back pressed against a cobweb ridden wall just so she could avoid the hand he reached out to her. "You watched them beat us, watched them kill the others, and you did nothing about it? You just *watched*?"
His expression changed slowly as he realised she wasn't as pleased with his revelation as he was. He frowned at her, genuine puzzlement on his face. "I was looking out for you," he told her in a small voice, all traces of arrogance quickly fading under a look of hurt. "I wouldn't let them kill you, Abigail. Not when they promised you'd be mine."
"Before they shipped me off to whoever would pay the highest?" Her voice was shrill even to her own ears and Abby took a small step to the side, towards the bend in the tunnel she could see out of the corner of her eye. "Did you think they'd let you keep me? Because they wouldn't. They already had a buyer in mind when they brought me here and you know that."
"I could've talked them around." Reginald shrugged, sincerely believing the words that were leaving his mouth. "I would've found them someone else, someone who fit their requirements. I just had to wait till I was eighteen, Abigail. Then I could have you." His expression hardened. "But you had to ruin it all, didn't you? You had to run and ruin it all."
Alarmed at the sudden switch in his demeanour, having learned enough from past cases at NCIS and encounters with crazy ex-boyfriends to know it wasn't a good sign, Abby took a chance and ran.
She had no way of knowing where the tunnel ended or whether she was running in the right direction but she ran on blindly, feeling her way forward when she heard him enter the tunnel behind her.
Tony and Nick opened their car doors at the same time, both heading towards the front of the house. They stopped when another car pulled up, pausing to acknowledge Gibbs, Ziva and McGee.
"Bronson's car," McGee confirmed needlessly, drawing his weapon in unison with his teammates.
"It's the car I saw Abby in," Nick responded. "Bronson as in Reggie Bronson? The guy I saw her with wasn't that old."
"You saw her with his son," Tony supplied. "Maybe you should wait in the car, Nick."
The sound of a shot being fired made them all start. "No. Not a chance." Shaking his head, Nick squared his shoulders and started towards the front door. "That's my sister in there."
Tony exchanged a look with Gibbs, who gave a small, impatient nod. "Then stay behind us. Don't get in the way."
The special agents led the way into the house, with Nick close behind. While he knew sign language well having been raised by two deaf parents, Nick was clueless when the foursome began gesturing to each other and instead stayed back, lingering near the door, listening for any sign of his sister.
They all froze when there was another shot, followed by a strangled cry and a shout of anger. That was all the warning they got before Abby burst into the room from a door they hadn't noticed, her eyes wild and her body covered in dirt and grime.
Nick noticed the blood first.
He grabbed for her, pulling her roughly against him and, with that act, he saved her life.
Reginald Bronson Junior followed a few moments later, sliding to a halt when he noticed the four guns pointed at him and the woman he'd been chasing in the arms of a man he didn't recognise. His eyes narrowed, an unattractive snarl arranging his mouth, and aimed his gun in Abby's direction.
Four shots rang out simultaneously and he fell to the floor.
Abby's legs gave way beneath her and her brother lowered her gently to the ground as her friends looked on, each of them wanting to go to her but holding themselves back. Nick kept his arms around her, his eyes bright as he cradled her against his chest.
"I'm sorry," he mumbled into her hair. "I'm sorry for everything, Abby."
Exhausted, Abby wasn't really aware of his words or of who was holding her at first. She sat and stared at the body of the man who'd forced her to confront her past, who hadn't been able to let her let it go and felt a strange sense of peace settle over her.
The nightmare was finally over.
The funeral for Reggie Bronson Senior wasn't very well attended. Those who would have once gone refused to when the full story was revealed in the papers. They felt betrayed, angry that their reluctant hero hadn't been much of a hero at all.
All but two of the girls he'd supposedly helped to rescue refused to attend and no one, not even Abby herself, could blame them. She stood with her hands clasped in front of her, watching as the simple coffin containing his body was lowered into the ground, aware of the presence of her friends and family.
"Does this mean we have to start the countdown again?" Lori asked from her place at Abby's side. "I mean, will it be twenty-one years next time or the first anniversary of it all being over?"
Abby gave her a small, tired smile. "Does it really matter?" She shrugged her shoulders. "It's really over now. That's the most important thing, right? We survived. Again."
"You survived." Lori returned the smile and reached out to touch her arm gently. "You're unbreakable." There was a moment of silence and Lori let her hand drop reluctantly. "I should go if I'm going to make my flight."
"I'll see you next year if not before," Abby murmured, returning her attention to the hole in the ground where Reggie Bronson lay.
As Lori left, Nick stepped up to take her place beside his sister. He stood for a few moments without saying anything, his eyes fixed on the barely visible coffin but his focus on the woman beside him. "I felt guilty," he told her quietly. "When we were kids, when they took you... I thought it was my fault you were gone."
"Why would you think that?" Startled, Abby turned to face him. "You had nothing to do with it, Nick."
"It was because of me you argued with Mom and Dad," Nick murmured. "Don't you remember?"
Abby's brow furrowed and she shook her head. "I don't remember what that argument was about, Nick. It was so long ago..."
"It was because of me," he repeated guiltily. "I'd been in your room. I'd lost an action figure and for some reason, I thought you were hiding it from me. I went in your room looking for it and knocked over a bottle of nail varnish you'd left open on the desk. It spilled on the carpet. I... I remember trying to clean it up but the stain just got worse. Then I tried to hide it but you... You came home and saw it and got mad and started shouting at me. Mom and Dad told you to stop and you started arguing with them." He glanced up at her guiltily. "You really don't remember that?"
"No, I don't. There was no stain when I got back," she answered just as softly. "I'd remember if there was."
"Mom and Dad bought a new carpet for your room when you were... while you were gone." Nick hung his head. "I thought you knew. I thought you blamed me."
She shook her head vehemently and took a step forward, wrapping her arms around him tightly. "I've never blamed you, Nick. I could never blame you." She stepped back, blinking rapidly. "I thought I'd done something to make you hate me but I couldn't figure out what it was."
Nick ran a hand through his hair, his smile tentative. "I guess we're as bad as each other."
"It must run in the family." Abby's smile was just as uncertain as her brother's.
"It really would be nice if you came to see us sometime, Abby. Maybe you could spend a week or two with us at the house."
"That'd be good." Her smile brightened and she leaned in on impulse to hug him again before letting him go. "I'll call you when I get to DC."
"You better." Nick took a few steps away, waving at her over his shoulder as he walked away towards his car.
Alone at the graveside, Abby crouched down to pick up the wild flowers she'd lain at the foot of the grave earlier. "I know you were responsible for a lot of what happened to us but I also know you tried to fix things, too. It might've been too late but you tried and that's got to be worth something. Not a lot, I'll admit, but something." She let the flowers drop into the hole, where they landed atop of the casket. "If you hadn't changed your mind and helped us, we'd all be dead or worse. For that, I hope you find peace."
After a few more moments of contemplation, Abby finally felt ready to leave. She stood, wincing a little as the stitches in her arm where Bronson Junior's bullet had grazed her, and turned on her heel, striding confidently towards the car where her friends waited, ready to take her back to DC and her future.