Thanks to everyone who has patiently waited for me to finish Undertow and for this post. Hope it is worth the wait. A special thanks to my awesome beta AZGirl—you're the best. I appreciate all the faithful followers of this story—you keep me inspired. Thank you!

Part 21

Tony leaned against the sink for support as he stared at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. The new haircut and the designer suit did little to hide the dark circles under his eyes or the hardened lines of exhaustion etched on his features. Truthfully, Tony wasn't worried about what he looked like; he was more concerned about the media circus camped outside the men's room, waiting for him to reappear and make his way to the court room. Why couldn't they just leave him alone? Thankfully, Gibbs was standing outside the door, making sure that no one followed him in the restroom and ensuring him the privacy he desperately craved.

He thought back to the crowd of reporters that had been waiting for him as he had arrived earlier that day. They had been relentless in their questions, but he had remained silent as Gibbs helped him from the car and into the government complex. His mind was constantly replaying the reporters' questions, exacerbating the pounding in his skull. How does it feel to learn that you were framed by one of your colleagues? Has the time you spent in prison forced you to become resentful of the very justice system that you worked for? What are you going to do once you're exonerated? Will you return to NCIS? He truly didn't have an answer to any of their questions, and even if he did, he certainly wouldn't share them with the press.

The sound of running water brought him back to the present; Tony didn't even remember turning on the faucet. He cupped the cool liquid in his hands and splashed his face with water. Grabbing a towel, he quickly dried his face and turned off the water. Throwing the towel away, he grabbed his crutches and steeled himself for the onslaught of inquiries that would assault him as soon as he opened the door.

Much to his surprise, no one was standing outside the door except for Gibbs. A raised brow asked the silent question of the team leader; how had he gotten rid of the reporters? The Marine shrugged. "All I did was guard the door."

"Yeah, right." Tony knew there was more to it than that; Gibbs probably vaporized them with his death stare and disposed of any remaining evidence. It didn't matter. They were gone and the older man had proven once again that he had his back. Apparently, he was going to have to get used to someone standing up for him again. Tony wasn't confident that he would ever be able to make that adjustment, because believing someone would be there for you meant trusting that they would actually be there. How could he expect that of anyone when he barely believed in himself?

"You ready to go in?" Gibbs asked, nodding towards the court room.

Tony glanced at the wooden door. He just had to go through that door and he would be formally exonerated. What if it was a trick? What if something went wrong? What if he ended up back in prison? Tony knew if that happened, he would end up dead; either by the hands of the other inmates and guards, but more than likely, by his own.

He startled when Gibbs placed a guiding hand on his elbow. "Tony? Let's go," the team leader quietly urged.

Tony wondered if the other man had any idea how close he had come to ending up on the floor simply because he had touched him. However, the fact that he was encumbered by his crutches had given Tony time to pause and consider his actions and refrain from hurting his former mentor. He knew he was going to have to get it through his head that he wasn't in prison and that not everyone was out to kill him. Pull it together, DiNozzo, or you'll go from prison to the looney bin.

With Gibbs close behind him, Tony hobbled into the courtroom. He was grateful that the agent hadn't drawn any attention to his earlier reaction; the Marine always knew when to play it cool. Tony just hoped that Gibbs wouldn't want to talk about it later; he still wasn't ready to allow anyone to delve into his disturbed and wounded psyche.

Ignoring the hushed whispers around him, he finally made it to his seat where his lawyer, Taylor Dylan, was waiting on him. Tony nodded a silent thanks to Gibbs as he helped him sit down. He felt a cold sheen of sweat forming on forehead as the images of his last court appearance began to replay in his mind; the verdict of guilty stilled echoed in his memory and haunted his dreams. Even though he had spent most of last night battling his thoughts and trying to keep his imagination from running wild, Tony still wasn't convinced that this was all just an incredible ruse.

"Tony?" Taylor called out to him. "Drink this."

Taking the offered glass of water, he forced his hand to quit trembling as he sipped the cool liquid. However, he instantly regretted drinking the water as it hit his empty stomach; Tony fought against the urge to throw up, not wanting to embarrass himself in front of his attorney and whoever else happened to be in the courtroom. As a result, the glass slipped from his hand to the floor, shattering into pieces, immediately silencing the low murmur of the others around him.

Stupid! He began quietly cursing himself for his clumsiness and the subsequent embarrassment he felt. Tony knew that someone was cleaning up the mess he made, but at the moment, he couldn't find the courage to even open his eyes. What was wrong with him? He had to hold himself together, especially in front of his lawyer.

Tony sensed someone kneeling beside him. It had to be Gibbs- at least he hoped it was Gibbs. Opening his eyes, he met the Marine's concerned gaze. "It's okay," the team leader reassured him.

"I can't do this," he said, his voice barely audible.

"Yes, you can."

Why did Gibbs have to have such faith in him when Tony didn't have the strength to believe in himself? He clenched his fists and shook his head. "No. No, I can't." He had reached his limit mentally, physically, and emotionally; Tony simply wanted to go home—well, back to Gibbs' house, which was serving as his temporary residence. Maybe he was being a coward, but he wasn't ready for this.

"All rise."

Tony felt the knot in his gut pull tighter as the bailiff ordered everyone to rise as the judge entered the courtroom. Glancing at Gibbs, he quickly schooled his features as he struggled to his feet. I am so screwed. He allowed the Marine to steady him as he steeled himself to face his future. Come on, DiNozzo. You don't have a choice. You can't leave now.

"Be seated," the Honorable Thomas Claymore ordered as he took the judge's bench.

He sat down, his eyes were fixed on the judge as the man began to speak; the last time he had seen Judge Claymore was the day of his sentencing and he had in no uncertain terms had told the former agent exactly what he thought of him.

***flashback***

"Mr. DiNozzo," the judge began. "Before you are taken away to begin your sentence, I would like to say a few things to you."

The courtroom was hushed, and Tony wanted nothing more than to crawl under the table; despite knowing he wasn't guilty, the life sentence that he had just received certainly made him feel otherwise. Unfortunately, he had nowhere to hide and he was forced to listen to whatever Claymore wanted to say to him.

"I truly despise those who believe they are above the law, but no more so than when that person was supposed to be a servant of the law. You took advantage of your position within in NCIS to commit a heinous crime and didn't think that you would get caught. Well Mr. DiNozzo, you did get caught and now you're going to spend the rest of your life paying for what your crime. Needless to say, being a former cop, life in prison isn't going to be easy for you, but please remember that you deserve every hardship that has come and is coming your way. May God have mercy…"

The judge shook his head. "I can't even say it. You don't deserve any mercy." Banging his gavel, he curtly said, "Court dismissed."

Tony reluctantly stood to his feet as the bailiffs escorted him out of the courtroom. He tried to forget about the harsh words that had been spoken, but he wasn't convinced that the judge had been wrong in his assessment. He had spent months proclaiming his innocence and only a handful of people had believed him; Tony was beginning to doubt his own innocence and believed that he was no longer worthy to be saved.

Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Gibbs glaring in the direction of the judge. He hadn't wanted the team leader to be present for his sentencing, but the older man had insisted. Tony knew that Gibbs wasn't pleased by the judge's comments and could tell by the determined look in the older man's eyes that he would one day make Claymore eat those words.

***end flashback***

"Before we begin, I am ordering this courtroom cleared of everyone except the D.A., Mr. DiNozzo, and his counsel," the Judge ordered.

As the room emptied, Tony heard the quiet protests of the press and a few others who thought they were going to get treated to a show. He was simultaneously surprised and terrified by this move on the judge's part. The idea of being in the spotlight no longer appealed to the young man; he had spent the last year serving as the center of attention and Tony still bore those scars.

The silence in the room was encouraging his over active imagination; he couldn't shake the feeling that something bad was about to happen. Tony gripped the arms of his chair, ignoring the shooting pain in his still healing wrist. He struggled to keep his breathing even as he felt sweat form under the material of his suddenly too tight collar. Gibbs had sat down in the extra chair at their table and Tony knew that he was risking contempt of court by staying by his side. Fortunately, the judge didn't ask Gibbs to leave; instead, Claymore's attention was riveted on him.

"Mr. DiNozzo?"

He nervously licked his lips and answered, "Yes, your Honor?" Tony was terrified at what the judge was going to say. Did he even dare to think that he would receive an apology?

"In light of the exculpatory evidence that has been presented, it is the decision of this court to exonerate you of all charges. Your record will be expunged and you will be free to resume your life," Claymore announced.

Tony's nervousness was quickly subsiding, only to be replaced by the anger that was always near the surface. Claymore had just told him he could resume his life. Did the judge seriously think that he was going to be able to pick up right where he left off? Maybe he should just ask Judge Claymore how the hell he was supposed to resume his life. His life had ruined by a crazed forensic scientist bent on revenge and he had lost everything.

Tony no longer had a job or a place to live, and people that he had once counted as friends had abandoned him. His personal accounts had been drained to reimburse his attorney and he had no idea about his credit cards and other assets, but he figured that they were either in collections or frozen. However, what bothered him the most was the fact that his reputation had been torn to shreds; his credibility as an agent and as a person had been ruined.

He clenched his jaw, fighting against the urge to blurt out a bitter retort. Tony forced himself to focus on what the judge's words even as his wrath continued to simmer; it wouldn't take a great deal to push him over the edge, but he knew he couldn't afford to do or say anything that would land him back in jail. He found himself grateful that Gibbs was close by; hopefully, the team leader could keep him out of trouble.

"On a more personal note, Mr. DiNozzo," Claymore continued. "I want to apologize for what I said to you at your sentencing. You were done a grave injustice and nothing that I can say or do can change that. I urge you to put this behind you; it will be difficult, but you have already proven that you're a resilient man and I believe that given time, you will once again find your place in society."

"Fancy words," Tony mumbled under his breath.

A harsh glare from his lawyer silenced him; sometimes her stare could almost rival Gibbs' infamous glower. Tony thought he heard Gibbs snicker, but the older man was a master at masking his emotions, so he couldn't be sure. Tony was also an expert at maintaining a façade, but the past year had worn him down, leaving fissures in the wall that he had created.

"Mr. DiNozzo, do you have anything you would like to say?" the judge asked.

"No sir," he quietly replied. "I think it would be better if I didn't say anything." Tony knew that it was in his best interests to remain silent and save his diatribe for later. He just hoped that Judge Claymore didn't press the issue.

"My client wishes to thank the court for its decision," Taylor interjected.

This time it was Tony's turn to glare at her. He truly couldn't believe the words that she had uttered. Why should he thank the court for anything? Tony had been stripped of everything that had ever mattered without a second thought. Judge Claymore had all but told him that he hoped that he ended up dead in prison and his attorney was thanking him; something was definitely skewed. "Like hell!" he snapped, momentarily forgetting that he had been trying to keep his thoughts to himself.

"Counselor, I have a feeling that thank you isn't what your client wants to say," the Judge mused. "Am I right, Mr. DiNozzo?'

"Thank you isn't the first thing that came to my mind," Tony honestly replied. "Quite frankly, your Honor, I don't think you want to hear what I have to say. l I just…I just want to get out of here and..." He paused, choosing his next words carefully. "And resume my life."

From the judge's expression, it was obvious to Tony that Claymore understood the point he was trying to make. "That wasn't a very good choice of words, was it? I apologize for that, Mr. DiNozzo."

"I don't want your apology. I just want to leave this place."

"I don't blame you. Please note that the D.A.'s office will make a statement to the press regarding your exoneration. I wish you the best of luck, Mr. DiNozzo." With a bang of his gavel, Judge Claymore declared that court was dismissed. As soon as the judge and the D.A. left, Tony buried his head in his hands. It was over and he had survived without doing anything that would warrant him being sent back to prison. He could hear Taylor gathering her papers as she was talking to Gibbs; he really wasn't paying attention to what they were saying but he had a feeling that the Marine was trying to get her away from him in case there was any fallout.

He heard her promise to come by later with copies of the paperwork. Tony knew that it could be weeks or months before everything was truly finalized, but right now, he really didn't care. The click of Taylor's heels against the tile floor spoke of a hasty retreat; he breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that he and Gibbs were the only ones in the room. The agent sat back down next to him and patiently waited to be acknowledged. After what seemed like an eternity, Tony finally looked up at him and shook his head. "Thanks for dealing with her."

"She was out of line," Gibbs said.

"Yeah. I probably was too."

The older man shrugged. "I think you showed considerable restraint."

"I was afraid not to."

"You ready to get out of here?"

Tony was definitely ready to go back to Gibbs' place; the only problem was that he knew that despite the Marine's earlier efforts that the press was more than likely waiting for him to make an appearance. "You gonna clear the way?"

"Got it all worked out. Back entrance," Gibbs explained. "Ducky's waiting."

A tired grin escaped his lips; once again, the team leader had proven that he had his six. Slowly rising to his feet, Tony grabbed his crutches and after making sure that he had his balance, he followed Gibbs to the side door which led to the back entrance that he had spoken of. They didn't have to wait but a few seconds before Ducky pulled up in the familiar agency vehicle. The ME and Gibbs helped situate him in the back seat, making sure his knee was propped up and that he was comfortable.

"How did it go, Jethro?" Ducky inquired.

"It went, Duck. We just need to get out of here."

"Of course. I'll have you two back to your house in two shakes of a lamb's tail."

Tony was amused by the doctor's assumption that he was going to drive. Some things never change; his former mentor still didn't trust the Scotsman's driving. He fondly recalled Ducky's poor sense of direction and how it was a playful source of contention between him and Palmer. The ME reluctantly handed the keys over to Gibbs and got in the passenger's seat.

He leaned his head against the seat as what little energy he had stored up left his body. Tony was utterly exhausted; today had been yet another day that he never wanted to repeat. The stress was too much for his overtaxed body but he could finally close his eyes, knowing that he was momentarily safe and that he could allow himself a brief respite. Unfortunately, his mind could not rest; his anger was still palpable and the irritation that he felt with the justice system in general was consuming him.

Wrapping his arms around his midsection, he continued to struggle against the nausea that had been plaguing him since this morning. Tony knew that he was eventually going to lose the battle with his stomach; he just hoped that he could wait until he got back to Gibbs' place. He felt like crap and was actually looking forward to lying down even if meant having to succumb to Ducky's well-intentioned ministrations.

He could sense the ME glancing back at him every couple of minutes as they weaved through the busy D.C. traffic. Ducky had been concerned about the stress that his court appearance would cause him and had warned him against doing anything to aggravate his still healing injuries. "I'm okay, Duck" Tony informed the doctor. "Just tired."

"I'm sure that simple fatigue explains the lovely shade of green now adorning your complexion," the physician mused.

"Matches my eyes," he quipped.

"As soon as we get back to Gibbs' house, I am going to give you a quick once over and then you are going to go to sleep. I know that you haven't slept well for the past couple of nights; now that your court appearance is behind you, maybe you can concentrate on getting better."

Tony sighed. He already knew that he would have to permit the Doctor to examine him, so he didn't waste his energy on protesting. Instead, he spent the time considering what his next move had to be. Tony desperately wanted to get out of Gibbs' house; he felt like his every move was being watched and in his opinion, it was too much like prison. He would have to find out if he had any kind of monetary assets left to his disposal and after that, perhaps he could find his own place. It wasn't much of a plan, but it was all he had at the moment.

As they pulled up to the front of the team leader's house, Tony noticed a couple of news trucks parked along the curb. "Don't they ever give up?" he mumbled.

"I'll deal with them, Tony," Gibbs stated as he put the vehicle in park.

"No," he growled. "I'll handle them." Gibbs had spent the majority of the morning keeping the vultures at bay; it was time for him to step up to the proverbial plate. Tony was tired and his frustration with not just the press, but everything, had reached an all time high. It was time to offer a statement and he had a feeling that they weren't going to like what he had to say.