As the days passed Anthony's health gradually improved, although, Dr Mallard still judged him too pale and weak and full of bruises to be allowed to descend to the parlour, never mind be allowed to roam abroad. They all took it by turns to fetch and carry for him and provide what they could by means of entertainment. Abby read adventure novels to him with great enthusiasm in a myriad of voices, the Lady brought news of society so that Anthony might not fall behind with the latest gossip, Dr Mallard called daily to dress his wounds with gentle hands and Timothy himself played endless hands of cards, finding to his surprise that he won more often than he lost.
"You would win more frequently if you did not take such outrageous risks." He realised.
"That McGee is why they call it gambling, for where is the sport in playing it safe?" Anthony was unrepentant.
"It might serve to keep your head more firmly attached to your shoulders," They both looked up as Gibbs appeared in the doorway.
"That was one time, sir," Anthony protested. "And it is most unkind of you to keep reminding me of it for who could know that such a brute of a man would prove to be so adept with a sword, much less that he would have any honour to defend?"
Gibbs did not respond. Instead he approached Anthony's sickbed, looking his assistant carefully up and down, before he evidently came to a conclusion. Drawing up a chair he glanced across at Timothy.
"Will you excuse us, McGee?"
"No matter what he might say, sir," Timothy strove to protect his friend, for Gibbs' grave expression did not bode well for Anthony. "He is too weak to bear anything but light conversation."
"I think you might be surprised by what Anthony can bear, McGee," Gibbs gave his assistant an unreadable look. "And this cannot wait."
Even so Timothy hesitated. During the day Gibbs had seemed content to leave the welfare of his assistant in the hands of his friends and went about his business much as before. Timothy wasn't at all sure he was supposed to know that each night their employer had settled himself into the armchair by Anthony's bedside, so that with a soothing word or gentle touch he might keep the raging nightmares at bay.
It was his thirst which had driven him out of a warm bed in the dead of the night, sliding his feet into his slippers and wrapping his dressing gown around him against the chill. Padding quietly down to the kitchen he drank deeply, taking a glass of the cool water back upstairs with him to avoid the necessity of any further excursions. It was just before he reached the first landing where both Gibbs and Anthony had their rooms that he froze at the sound of voices.
"I knew when he closed the trapdoor upon me that he had left me in that stinking hole to die." Anthony's ragged tone as much as the stark words made Timothy's blood run cold.
"I would have found you." Gibbs' response brooked no argument.
"I never doubted that for a second, sir," Anthony agreed. "The trouble was, I feared I did not possess sufficient strength to endure until I was found. For the knife wound troubled me somewhat and my captors had not the least idea of hospitality."
Timothy realised he was eavesdropping on what was obviously a very private conversation. But to move away now might only serve to attract attention to his presence and he had no desire to add to Anthony's burden by embarrassing him in that way.
"And yet even weak with fever and lack of nourishment, you nonetheless despatched one and nearly evaded another." Gibbs pointed out with no small degree of pride.
"But now I am merely a burden to you, for it will be some time before I can be of any serviceable use. I can barely manage to hold a fork with any degree of skill, never mind a weapon."
"Anthony." Gibbs sighed.
"Do the others know?" Anthony asked, before his employer could say anything further on that matter.
"No," Gibbs allowed. "For McGee delivered the ransom note to me with its seal intact. I said merely that the kidnappers had no idea who you were and that you had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Both of which are true enough."
"And people say you have no sense of humour," Anthony spoke fondly. Then he sobered. "I know that you do not believe in them, sir, but it was the worst of all co-incidences that I should be mistaken for his Lordship's heir. If I had known he was in town .."
"What's done is done. Although the resemblance between you is apparently quite remarkable."
Gibbs offered absolution, but for what offence Timothy wasn't at all sure. Although, on reflection it seemed obvious that Anthony might have links, no matter how unwelcome or unacknowledged to quality. Timothy doubted there was a family in England who didn't have similar skeleton's in their closets.
"Really? I have not seen him since he was a young boy. However, I have no wish to draw you into my troubles, sir," Anthony paused. "If you would prefer that I took my leave..?"
Timothy had not been able to hear Gibbs response. But the fact that Anthony could even broach the matter distressed him. Clearly his friend had no idea just how troubled their employer had been by his disappearance. Nor how determined Gibbs had been to return him safely to the fold. Knowing what needed to be done, but not at all sure that he was equal to the task, Timothy enlisted re-enforcements.
"You are looking so much better every day." Abigail enthused.
"I don't see how that can be," Anthony pouted. "For Ducky will allow me nothing but thin broth and beef tea. And Gibbs, despite his own great aversion to being in an invalid state has followed the good doctor's instructions to the letter, which is most unfair when what I really need to regain my strength is a decent cut of steak."
"Oh no," McGee shook his head at the rather obvious ploy. "For I am rightly far more scared of Gibbs or Ducky than I am of you and I have orders merely to see that if you drink your beef tea at luncheon you might have a little boiled chicken for supper."
"It is worse than being in the nursery," Anthony scowled. "At least then I might look forward to an egg custard or a strawberry blancmange for desert."
"It is only because Gibbs cares for you so deeply," Abigail pointed out. "He has been quite beside himself with worry about you."
"Worried?" Anthony blinked. "Gibbs knows I can take care of myself. I have been doing so for some considerable time before we made our acquaintance after all."
"You didn't see him when you were missing," Timothy shook his head, "He barely ate, hardly slept indeed he would not rest at all if there was the slightest word or barest rumour which might lead him to you. I think he would have died before he ever gave up the merest chance that he might bring the prodigal safely home."
"I am not Gibbs' son." Anthony averted his eyes.
"Perhaps not in blood," Timothy summoned his courage, for if Anthony could endure being kidnapped and sorely hurt this was the least he could do for his friend. "But you are like kin to all of us. Abby was ready to give up her dowry to secure your release, the Lady her gems, Dr Mallard his stocks and shares and myself my stipend from Lord Trevington. But in fact none of it was necessary for Gibbs took the whole part upon himself to pay the entire ransom."
"He did?" And suddenly Timothy had Anthony's full attention, the formerly dull green eyes sharp with curiosity, despite his body's weakened state. "Gibbs doesn't have that kind of money."
"Evidently, he does," At the time Timothy had been too preoccupied with Anthony's own well being to greatly care where Gibbs had secured such riches. But now his friend's open astonishment had rekindled his own curiosity. "Or he found it from somewhere."
"Help me up." Anthony demanded, all at once.
"Anthony," Timothy baulked. His friend was still barely skin and bones and he had been given no licence to help him further than the chamber pot under the bed. "I'm not at all sure that is such a good idea."
"Either you will help me or I will stagger across to Gibbs' bedroom under my own steam," Anthony assured him. "Either way, Gibbs will without doubt blame you for letting me out of bed and there is much less chance of my permanently injuring myself with your assistance than without it. But I'll leave that matter to your own conscience."
"Help him, Timothy," Abigail insisted. "For he is more than stubborn enough to make the attempt unaided and if he does injure himself I will blame you also."
"Oh very well," Timothy acquiesced, given that he could do nothing else in the face of such blackmail. "But if Gibbs catches us, I am blaming both of you, for you Abigail are higher in his affections and Anthony has been longer in his employ and thus has the advantage of seniority and quite possibly being addled in the head from your recent captivity besides."
"Addled in the head?" Anthony frowned at the description and then grinned. "I rather like that. In fact, I might use that the next time Gibbs decides to chastise me in his customary manner. Now help me up."
Mindful that it was not quite proper, (for all their prostrations of being exactly like brother and sister) ,for Miss Abigail to see Anthony bare legged in his nightgown, he waited until she had excused herself, before helping Anthony carefully to his feet and together they journeyed the few short steps along the landing to Gibbs' bedroom. And if Anthony leant rather heavily upon him, Timothy resolved not to mention it.
Although, never locked, the door to Gibbs bed chamber always stood firmly closed, so much so that Timothy had never even glimpsed beyond the threshold before today. The plain blue walls were not unexpected, nor the well crafted but functional wooden furniture. The rug on the scrubbed wooden floor boards was of good quality although a little worn in places.
The patchwork quilt, clearly hand made with hours of love and patience, was more of a surprise, but it was the large rectangle of bare wall which captured all of Anthony's attention.
The surprised huff of air was all he managed before his legs quite unexpectedly gave out and Timothy was left to struggle to support the suddenly dead weight in his arms, trying desperately to stop Anthony's apparently now entirely addled brain making forceful contact with the hard wooden floorboards. He was losing the battle when suddenly much of the weight was taken from him and he looked across to see Gibbs supporting Anthony's other side.
"Sir, I .." He knew not how to excuse their breach of their employer's privacy.
"Sit him down," Gibbs' tone was clipped even as he helped to steer the sagging figure towards the edge of the bed. Only once the younger man was safely seated, did he give vent to his feelings, anger, frustration, and worry making his tone sharp. "What on earth were you thinking?"
"You sold it." Still staring at the blank spot on the wall Anthony's tone was rich with disbelief.
Timothy held his breath as Gibbs looked at his assistant, his expression dark with emotion, before turning his own gaze to the bare patch of wall. Looking back again Timothy saw him take in Anthony's stricken expression, his deathly pallor and the stiff way he was holding himself as if braced for a physical blow. Gibbs scrubbed a hand over his face, visibly collecting himself before he spoke.
"It was but oil on canvas."
"Indeed, it was nothing of the sort," Anthony refuted with a sharpness of tone that no mere assistant would generally dare utilise with any employer. "It was a masterpiece and so much more besides. I cannot imagine why you would even contemplate such an action at all. Never mind consider it anything like a fair exchange."
"You of all people should understand that value is a relative concept." Gibbs tilted his head.
To which Anthony did not respond at all, except to merely press his lips together very tightly, as two pink spots blossomed in his cheeks. His jaw clenched tight and his eyes suddenly became very bright. Watching his friend struggle Timothy wondered if he should take his leave, but he could not help but feel that too many people in his lifetime had left Anthony to his own devices and he was not about to be counted among their number.
"I am truly in your debt, sir," Anthony finally managed, in a slightly choked tone. "And if I do nothing else of value with my life I will endeavour to repay your kindness by striving to reunite you with your most cherished possession."
"Like hell you will." Gibbs vetoed that sharply.
Anthony looked up at him, his eyes wide and startled in his pale face at Gibbs' curt tone, looking for all the world like a school boy being roundly scolded for some transition he didn't fully understand. Once again Timothy was reminded just how physically and emotionally frail his friend continued to be after his dreadful ordeal. Belatedly, Gibbs clearly realised it also, for he laid a gentle hand on Anthony's cheek and softened his tone considerably.
"Tony, that portrait can do nothing to replace those I love."
Timothy straightened up slightly, holding his breath in so tightly that his chest hurt. All at once, it seemed as if everything depended on Anthony not misunderstanding all the layers of affection behind that statement. For if he were truly to come back to himself he needed to accept that they had all, but most especially Gibbs, been willing to do whatever it took to see him safely home.
"In truth sir, I think you have struck a rather poor bargain." Anthony managed.
"You will allow me to be the judge of that," Gibbs placed a firm hand on his assistant's shoulder and squeezed hard.
"Then you shall do me the honour of accepting my eternal gratitude and steadfast loyalty, sir." Anthony finally allowed, after a moment or two to gather his emotions. "For truly I have nothing at all else to offer you."
In response, Gibbs gave a genuine smile and something tight in Timothy's chest loosened, as he watched their employer, muss Anthony's hair fondly.
"Which I shall count as a fair exchange, for to my mind, those are qualities beyond riches and I never wish to hear another word to the contrary on the matter are we clear?"
"Yes sir." Anthony hesitated.
Gibbs rolled his eyes.
"You are still too weak to stand and yet you remain determined to push the boundaries?
"I stood," Anthony defended his actions. "And then I walked here unaided." His eyes slid towards Timothy. "Well, mostly. That has to be worth a decent dinner at least, instead of this regime of soups and beef tea, some lamb chops perhaps, or steak, or something a man can actually chew."
"Really?" Gibbs pretended to consider that. "How would you feel about a side of venison?"
Anthony and Timothy exchanged a look of surprise, for venison was a rare treat indeed and a meat far more expensive than this household usually entertained at the dinner table.
"It was Lord Morrow's gift, in thanks for the safe return of his heir and apology for your part in the matter," Gibbs explained. "And he also wished to pass on his assurance that if he might ever be of service to you in matter, then he stands willing to do your bidding."
"That is more than kind of his Lordship," Anthony allowed. "But I cannot think of any business of mine, which might require his assistance, for I have no wish to be more than I am. And from now on I resolve from now on to live an entirely quiet life and not cause any of you a moment's concern."
"So, I should sell these theatre tickets I have already purchased for the opening of that new show next month?" Timothy suggested mischievously. "And also tell Mrs Harrison that you will not be able to make an eighth at her supper party on the 27th when she was so hoping to introduce you to her niece, who is freshly arrived from the country?"
"Never fear," Gibbs put in, his own eyes glinting with amusement at the impossible concept of his assistant settling for a quiet life. "For I am sure I can find sufficient book keeping and correspondence to keep Anthony fully occupied at home."
"You are too cruel, sir," Anthony scowled at him. "For you know I do not at all have the temperament to be your clerk. And you McGee, were merely making up the theatre engagement you interrupted at the commencement of our acquaintance, a debt which it would dishonour us both to neglect. Also, you do me a disservice to imagine I would wish to disappoint any young lady hoping for an introduction."
"So?" Timothy smiled. "In other words, everything shall be as before?"
"That depends," Anthony cast a shy glance at Gibbs. "Despite everything I am more than wiling to continue as your assistant, sir if you are still prepared to allow it?"
"Indeed, I wouldn't have it any other way." Gibbs smiled.
AN - For those of you who expressed the hope I might reveal a little more about Anthony's past, I direct you to Sequiter's brilliant story "Quality" coming soon to a computer near you. For my own part my next project is a tale set in the early days of Mr Anthony and Mr Gibbs association as Anthony finds his way as Gibbs new assistant. Many thanks to all who took a risk and brought into sharing this NCIS Victorian Verse. I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it.