They chose not to kill her until they reached the dumping site, deciding not to risk leaving any more evidence of her stay at Branley's building than was already there. Abby couldn't help but roll her eyes at their discretion; they hadn't seemed concerned about leaving blood or other evidence behind during their attempts at questioning her.

She sat in the back of the van, her hands cuffed together and a strip of duct tape over her mouth, keeping her from screaming out for help.

Not that there would be anyone around to help her, she thought ruefully. John hadn't returned since their last conversation in the loft and she was sure they wouldn't be so stupid as to choose somewhere populated to kill her. Branley wanted her body found but the streetlights she'd glimpsed as they'd bundled her into the van in the underground parking lot suggesting the night was closing in around them.

After what felt like an eternity, the van rolled to a stop. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, bracing herself for the inevitable. She heard their voices, muffled through the closed doors, and a laugh that sent shivers down her spine.

Then she heard the shouting, the sound of bullets being fired and the pounding of feet against the tarmac.

Abby's heart began to pound in her chest as she heard a low, agonised groan followed by the sound of the key being turned in the lock of the van. She blinked when light flooded the back of the van, squinting against the bright light of a torch to try and make out more than the silhouette of the person standing in front of the open doors.


In no time at all, Gibbs was beside her, gently pulling the duct tape from over her mouth even as he barked out an order to the agents behind him to find a key for the handcuffs.

Leaning against him, Abby let her eyes slide shut again, listening to the sound of his voice more than the words of reassurance he spoke.

There was something comforting about being back at NCIS Headquarters, walking through the squad room and seeing the familiar faces, most of which seemed genuinely pleased to see her back. Abby smiled and paused to indulge in small talk with several agents, forcing herself not to be bothered by the way their eyes strayed to her still fading bruises visible on her face and neck.

She was greeted with hugs and grins from the agents she was closest to even though it'd only been a matter of hours since she'd seen most of them last. Even Ruby, the forensic specialist who had temporarily taken her place met her with a bright smile and a quick hug. Abby wondered if the younger woman had been told about her new assignment and decided from the pleased look on her face that she had.

After she'd said her hellos, Abby walked towards the stairs leading up to MTAC and the Directors office. Gibbs followed her, reaching out a hand to keep her from walking up them, a look of concern he didn't try to hide on his face.

"I won't be long," she promised with a smile. Despite their small audience, she moved to stand before him, leaning in to brush her lips against his cheek. "We can go as soon as I've done this."

"Sure you don't want me to come with you?"

"I'm sure." Without waiting for an answer, Abby started up the stairs. She headed straight for the Director's office, slowing when Pamela looked up at her. "Hey, Pamela. Is Director Vance available?"

Getting to her feet, Pamela gave her an apologetic smile. "I just put a call through to him. It was SecNav so he might be some time... Can I get you a drink of water or something? You're still on leave till next month, right?"

"I'm fine, thanks." Sitting on the edge of Pamela's desk, Abby let her gaze fall to the photographs beside the computer screen. "Your kids are cute. How old are they?"

"Steven's nine, Victoria's five." Pamela's smile was genuine but her eyes darted nervously from the photograph of her children to Abby. "They're a handful but they're worth it."

"Must be tough, raising them on your own." Abby waited a moment, dragging her gaze away from the innocent smiles to look at the Director's secretary. "Is that why you did it?"

"I didn't..." Pamela's attempt at a surprised expression fell flat as guilt shone in her eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry." A tear slipped down her cheek as she shook her head. "I thought... I didn't know he'd kill them. I just thought..."

"You can tell us exactly what you thought with a lawyer present, Pamela." Director Vance told her quietly, a note of compassion in his voice. He looked to Abby as his secretary was led away by the two agents who had been waiting in his office. "You found a trail from Branley to Ms. Cook."

"To her late husband," Abby answered with a shrug as she stood up from the desk. "Branley was paying into an account set up in his name, which automatically fed into accounts she'd set up for her children."

Director Vance sighed, not entirely happy with the revelation even though he felt relieved the leak at NCIS had been plugged. "Good work, Abby. Enjoy your vacation."

"I will, Sir. Thank you." With a final glance at the photograph on the desk, Abby forced herself to walk away.

Just under two weeks later, Josef Branley was finally convicted. As Tony, Ziva and McGee celebrated in a bar in Washington, DC along with Abby's new official assistant, Ruby Rae, Ducky and Jimmy Palmer, a dark haired couple walked hand in hand on a beach in Miami, enjoying the first real day of their new life together.

Miles away, in the sleepy town of Stillwater, Gibbs and Abby sat around an open fire with Jackson Gibbs.

"I almost don't want to go back tomorrow," Abby admitted with a sigh, leaning against Gibbs as Jackson handed her a mug of steaming coffee – sweetened exactly to her taste with cream and sugar he and his son would never use.

"You're welcome to stay longer," Jackson offered, his smile genuine. "I've loved having you both here."

Gibbs tightened his arm around her shoulders, turning his head to kiss her forehead. "If you wanted, I could call Vance and see if we can extend our leave."

Smiling up at him, Abby shook her head. "You're already itching to get back to it. Admit it, as much as you've enjoyed the last fortnight, you've been counting the days till we go back." When he didn't deny it, she took a sip from her drink before nestling her head against his shoulder, her hands clasped around the mug. "I miss the guys, and my lab."

"I'm sure they miss you, too." Jackson settled in the chair opposite the small couch the couple were sitting on. "But don't be a stranger. You're welcome anytime, Abby. With or without Leroy, I'd always be glad of the company."

"Gee, thanks, Dad." Gibbs rolled his eyes but gave his father a grateful grin when Abby tried to stifle her giggle in his shoulder; her mood had been sombre throughout the day, her mind preoccupied with thoughts of the court case wrapping up in Washington DC.

"I'll remember that, Jack. Thanks."

The three lapsed into a companionable silence, enjoying the company, their drinks and the warmth from the fire. When Jackson excused himself half an hour later, he bid them both a fond goodnight and left them alone.

Gibbs waited until he heard the door to his father's bedroom close before sitting up, easing her away from him gently. He smiled at her confusion and took her mug from her, setting it on the table in front of them before turning back to her.

"Something I gotta do before we go back." He almost laughed at the expression on her face, shaking his head. "Not *that*, don't worry." Relief and maybe a little bit of disappointment showed momentarily on her face, both disappearing behind genuine pleasure when he pulled the repaired necklace from his pocket. "Thought you'd want this back."

"I thought I'd lost them." Touching the dog tags, Abby smiled up at him with shining eyes. "Where...?"

An image flashed through his mind, of the snapped chain and pendant in a plastic evidence bag but Gibbs shook his head, dispelling it. "It doesn't matter." He motioned for her to turn around, lifting his hands to fasten the necklace around her slender throat when she complied. His fingers brushed the skin of her neck deliberately, the shiver that went through her in response making him smile.

Turning back to face him, she tilted her face up to his to accept his kiss. She settled back against him with a contented sigh a few moments later.

The nightmare was over. Life could begin again.