A/N: For a number of different reasons, I've posted NCIS stories under different pen names. I've decided to move all of them together under one name.
When I began posting this one, I thought I'd have it done before Halloween of 2010. That did not happen. When Halloween 2011 approached, I asked my good friend and favorite NCIS fanfic writer, Laine3112, if she'd be interested in taking it over and finishing the job. She agreed and wrote the rest of the story in her typically excellent way. I wrote chapters 1-8, Laine wrote chapters 9-15. You can access Laine's profile from my favorite authors list.
Thanks again, Laine, for all the support and encouragement and your wonderful work!
Category: TV Shows » NCIS
Language: English, Rating: Rated: T
Published: 10-19-10, Updated: 10-23-11
Chapters: 15, Words: 24,623
Chapter 1: Chapter 1
Gibbs set the bowl of candy on a table by the door. Halloween was on a Saturday this year and today was only Thursday. He had it, though, and there was no reason not to go ahead and set it out. There was a smattering of the orange and black paper-wrapped cheap crap, just for tradition's sake. But, it was full of what Kelly had called the 'good stuff'. Miniature Snickers and M&M packs, cellophane squares of candy corn, tiny boxes of Nerds and plenty of what had been her favorite-Skittles.
Halloween without her had been almost as painful as Christmas. She had loved Halloween. The refrigerator would be covered with crayon drawings of jack-o-lanterns and ghosts by October's first week and the cardboard cut-outs selected and taped in the front window. By the second week, the pumpkin was always carved and set up on the front porch, the candle lit nightly.
She had loved the dress-up fun of the costume, the adventure of trick-or-treating. And the candy. He remembered the returns home, the plastic pumpkin upended on the kitchen table to dump and excitedly inspect the loot. She'd always grab the Skittles first.
Halloween had become a painful rather than happy time. Princesses were common and every one skipping down a sidewalk on October 31st reminded him of his own sweet princess. Her costume that last year. His porch had been dark on Halloween the past eighteen years.
He'd intended it to stay dark this year, too. Until, on yesterday's trip to Walmart to pick up sandpaper, he'd come across the Halloween aisle. Every other year, he had passed it by. Last night, he had hesitated and looked at the fairy wings and princess wigs and monster masks, recalling Kelly's thrills and giggles as she prepared for and anticipated the big night.
He'd returned home and dropped the bags of sandpaper and candy and a big orange plastic bowl decorated with ghosts and jack-o-lanterns on the kitchen counter. The Halloween things had been an impulse buy, giving in to a sudden urge to participate again rather than hide behind closed curtains.
The phone call was unplanned and on impulse, too. He had phoned Tony and invited him over Saturday night. They would grill steaks and sip beer in the back yard and eat before dusk when the frequent call of the doorbell would begin. DiNozzo would be a great candy-hander-outer. Gibbs imagined his vivacious patter and costume commentary laced with movie references, embellished flattery to delight the girls and exaggerated horror and disgust at the more gruesome disguises.
Had Tony turned down his invitation and left him alone, he likely wouldn't have been able to turn the light on and face the trick-or-treaters. Halloween had been so painful because of the joyful memories of when he had shared it with Kelly. He wanted to let go of some of the pain and re-find some of the joy. Reawaken lost connections and numbed feelings. Reclaim family.
Fall had turned squirrels and rabbits into red herrings, the loud crunching and crackling of leaves from different directions keeping him on edge and muddying his course away from the threat. His thoughts were already muddy enough and desperate. Nothing was clear outside his perceptions of pain and cold and dark and the need to escape. He leaned into the rough bark of a tree and ran a trembling hand over his face.
The collar of his dress shirt chafed against his neck, saturated with dried-stiff blood from the source of the pain in his head. He remembered a struggle, an escape, then running. Running through the dark, stumbling, falling, skin scraped and torn, rising and running more. He had to keep running, tried to push off the tree and run more. But, he fell to his knees, would have fallen face first into the ground if he hadn't leaned again to the trunk's support. Reaching round it, he tried to pull himself up, to stand, to run more.
He couldn't. It was a supreme effort to simply remain kneeling rather than collapsing. He dropped his arms and concentrated on steadying his breathing and hanging on to consciousness as he felt himself slipping away.
He heard the sound of steps crackling and dragging through the leaves and prayed it was a deer. The beam of a flashlight swept through the woods around him then found him.
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
Gibbs had ended last night in an exceptionally good mood caused by an earlier, fleeting instant when he had felt...something. A delusional episode, he told himself now. But, last night it had felt like a blessing. For one intangible second he had felt Kelly's love and approval; a pure and joyous connection with his daughter, untainted by pain.
He'd retired warmed by the experience but had woken in agony. The nightmare's specifics slipped away on waking, but the absolute horror lingered. Kelly distressed and pleading. Danger. Death.
Gibbs remained haunted by the dream as he prepared for work and drove away. He may not have been happy before, but he had felt better than this. Dropping the shields to reach for better had led to worse. As soon as he got home, he'd dump the candy, bowl and all, into the trash.
Tony hated Halloween. Gibbs tried to convince himself DiNozzo would be relieved to have the invitation revoked.
He went through entrance security knowing work wouldn't offer its usual distractions. His team had no open cases and Abby and Ziva were away on a long-scheduled trip to New Orleans to attend Abby's brother's wedding. Abby wouldn't be there to call him on his bad mood and hug him out of it. At 7:30am, he took a seat behind his desk. McGee arrived at 7:45. At 8:10, Tim stood and walked away, returning two minutes later.
"Well?" Gibbs asked. For a second, Tim looked as if he'd plead ignorance to the question but thought better of it and answered.
Gibbs hit his #1 speed dial, ready to tear into Tony for being late. The call went immediately to voice mail. After the tone, Gibbs left his message.
"Where the hell are you?" and snapped his phone shut.
Twenty minutes later, he tried again with the same result.
"It's off." Tim's voice drew his attention. "I can't get a fix until it's turned back on."
McGee obviously shared Gibbs' almost illogical concern, heightened by his failed attempt to locate Tony. It was early yet to be so alarmed, he was just past an hour late. But, DiNozzo was never both that late and unreachable. The vague dread he'd felt all morning thickened into fear.
"Watch it. I'm headed to his place."
Twelve hours later, there was still no word from or of Tony. His apartment had been in order, his parking spot empty. Gibbs had but a BOLO out on DiNozzo's car immediately on returning to the bull pen. Then he'd headed upstairs to speak to Vance.
With no evidence of a threat, two hours late for work hadn't warranted reporting a federal agent missing. Fortunately, Vance had sided with Gibbs' gut rather than protocol and allowed him to open an investigation with access to agency resources. An NCIS team had been assigned to work under Gibbs. Tony's apartment had been processed and his neighborhood canvassed but no clues to his whereabouts were found. One neighbor reported exchanging greetings in the parking lot when he'd left for work yesterday morning; no one there had seen him since then. It was around 6:30 last night when he'd told Gibbs good night, stepped into the elevator and disappeared.
More than twenty-four hours had passed since Tony's last sighting. Gibbs tired not to let his thoughts go to the worst possible reasons he wasn't responding. He was desperately wishing for some further action to take when Tim called out.
"Boss! We got a signal!" McGee's fingers clattered against the keyboard as Gibbs pulled his phone from his pocket and hit number one. After seven rings, it went to voice mail and Gibbs left a message.
"We're gonna find you, Tony. Hang on."
An hour later, Gibbs maneuvered the sedan to the side of a dirt road that had skirted a forest their last four miles and stopped. With his PDA, McGee had continued tracking Tony's cell on the ride. The directions now ran perpendicular to the road. They exited the car. Gibbs switched on his flashlight and swept it across the facing dark and trees.
Tim eyed the dense woods before them, his stricken expression most likely triggered by the same thought weighing on Gibbs. The site had all the earmarks of a body dump.
Gibbs walked at McGee's side as much as he could with no cleared trail, aiming his flashlight to light their path. Tim watched the screen and led the way. McGee's attention concentrated on the PDA, Gibbs was first to catch sight of a faint glow through the trees.
His first impression as the source of the light became visible in the distance was of a surreal crucifixion tableau. Staged in a small glen, the play of light and shadow was a striking interruption of the surrounding dark. Two arms outstretched straight, body suspended, hanging down.
McGee put his PDA in his jacket pocket, removed his phone and punched #3 then send. The theme from 'Star Trek' began, becoming louder the closer they came to the macabre scarecrow, ending when they were within a few feet.
The pumpkin that served as the head was almost eye level with Gibbs. Candle light flickered through the crudely hacked, contorted features of the jack-o-lantern. Singed-black and orange tendrils and fleshy gobs were visible hanging and clinging inside.
The legs were formed of stuffed jeans. Over the ragged red flannel shirt, the scarecrow wore a gray Armani suit coat. The flashlight's beam glinted off a half inch of exposed steel. The rest of the dagger's blade was plunged through fabric into what would have been the straw man's heart, the cloth around the tear stained with blood.
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
Gibbs called Roberts, the leader of the team co-assigned the case, to bring the crime scene truck. Gibbs had driven the sedan expecting to find a discarded phone, not a crime scene. Tony didn't have his phone or he'd have contacted them by now. Gibbs had left that last message more for himself than DiNozzo.
After Tim had sent Roberts their coordinates, Gibbs handed his flashlight to him, pulled out a pair of gloves from his pocket and put them on. He reached into the gray jacket's pocket and retrieved Tony's cell phone to open and check incoming and outgoing communications. McGee's and his were the last listed. He closed the phone and slid it into an evidence bag.
"He'd be having a field day with this one," Tim said. "Pumpkinhead meets Michael Myers."
Gibbs looked at him. Tim shrugged.
"Movies. You know how he is, he'd be loving this one. Going on and on, quoting and improvising and acting out; driving everybody nuts until you finally shut him up."
Tim's eyes brightened in the candle light, he blinked and looked down. Gibbs gave McGee a minute by doing a slow walk-around of the scarecrow, shining the beam up and down, inspecting it from all sides.
The cross beam wasn't part of the figure as was typical. Instead, the head and body were a separate unit, its arms wrapped with wire to hold it to the wood support.
When Gibbs made his way back to Tim's side, McGee looked at him and spoke.
"You don't think..."
"If he was dead, he'd be here instead of this," Gibbs said, motioning toward the eerie effigy.
Tim nodded vigorously, accepting reassurance derived more from wishful thinking than evidence. The evidence staring them in the face was Tony's jacket with a knife driven into where Tony's heart would be, stained with what was likely Tony's blood. His obstinately optimistic interpretation of that evidence, his decision to leave the crime scene truck behind-DiNozzo would be bringing up rivers in Egypt about now. But, Gibbs refused to admit the possibility that Tony was gone.
Twenty minutes later, they were sitting waiting, silent, on the pine straw that carpeted the clearing's floor. McGee had sat quietly beside him, with frequent anxious glances and twitches in reaction to forest noises. Washed in the glow emanating from the grotesque head, encircled by dark and surrounded by sounds of movement through the brush and dried leaves, it was no wonder Tim was unsettled. Gibbs wasn't sitting easy, himself.
He didn't think they were in any danger. They had been sitting ducks since entering the area. If someone had wanted to take them out, they'd had ample opportunity already. Still, he listened, on guard for sounds of human movement.
More than the setting, impatience had him on edge, anxious for Roberts to arrive to secure the scene so he could leave. It was doubtful there would be anything useful found here, but he'd order the glen and surrounding area searched thoroughly in day light.
A piercing, wailing, shriek began and brought McGee to his feet. As it rose to a crescendo, McGee drew his SIG, aimed pointlessly to the dark. Gibbs stood and put his hand on Tim's shoulder and said "Owl."
It had sounded more like an agonized, unearthly death howl, enough to rattle even him. But he put that down to nerves and stuck with owl.
They'd just settled back down when the first beep sounded, followed by two more. Gibbs took Tony's phone from his pocket, pulled it from the evidence bag and flipped it open. He punched the button to view the new text message. Holding the phone at near arm's length, he was able to focus and read the message.
His blood is on your hands Gibbs.
Doctor Mallard was reaching for his coat when the doors to autopsy swished open. He looked over to see Jethro walking backwards through the entrance. McGee held one end of a body bag, Gibbs the other. Tim swung even with Jethro and they both moved sideways to deposit their load onto an autopsy table.
"Not Anthony?" Ducky said, a look of dread on his face.
"Nope," Gibbs replied. He unzipped the body bag and Mallard leaned over it to see. The ME raised his eyebrows.
"Oh, my," he said and pulled the plastic open wider for a better look.
Gibbs turned to Tim.
"You get on the phone, where it was sold, when, any other calls it's made or gotten."
McGee nodded and left the room. From the glen, Tim had been able to find out it was a Trac phone with no identity attached. Even though he'd had the program up and running only seconds after the text came through, the phone had already been turned off and untrackable.
Gibbs didn't have much hope they'd wring any useful information out of the number. But, there was the off chance the store clerk who rang-up the purchase would remember and be able to describe who bought it.
"I want to make sure there's nothing hidden," Gibbs told Ducky. "X-rays, linings, the stuffing screened and sifted, everything fine tooth comb. Blood typing first."
He was sure it was Tony's blood and he doubted there would be any clues found, but he couldn't not try. He was grasping at straws, he thought, thinking that DiNozzo would appreciate the pun.
Tony woke to cold against his skin and in his bones and fiery spikes of pain in his head and arm. He opened his eyes to a ceiling; dimly lit rafters and rusty tin. Blinking, taking a deep breath against the pain, he glanced down to the source in his left arm. A blood saturated cloth was wound around his bicep. Red droplets were gathered, swelling over the edges and leaking onto the silver duct tape that bound the dressing at top and bottom.
He tried to reach his right hand to the wound but couldn't. He looked to see more duct tape, wrapped round his arm just above and below the elbow, securing the arm to a board that jutted perpendicular to his body. From under a silver square in the crook of his arm, clear tubing stained red inside snaked down and out of sight. Tony tried to sit up, felt the restraints across his chest and down his legs, holding him immobile. He closed his eyes and fought a rising panic.
Chapter 4: Chapter 4
Once it had been disrobed and disassembled, they'd discovered that the bulk of the scarecrow's stuffing had been newspaper, the previous Sunday's edition of The Washington Post. Pine needles had filled in the ends of the extremities. Gibbs had screened the straw and handed over the task of going over the newspaper to forensics tech David Armstrong, Abby's stand-in he'd called to come in to assist.
Although DNA results that could absolutely confirm the blood was Tony's would take time, a quick test confirmed it was his type. Minute traces of tissue, as well as more blood, still clung to the dagger's blade. All indications were that Tony had been stabbed. The only hopeful finding was that, after microscopic examination of cells removed from the blade, Ducky believed the knife had penetrated skeletal muscle rather than cardiac muscle.
That one accusatory text sent to Gibbs via Tony's cell was the only recorded use of the Trac phone. It had been sold at 7:42pm Monday night at a Walmart, at the same time Gibbs was in the same store choosing Halloween candy. Even someone who believed in coincidences would have a hard time naming that one. Gibbs knew he was the target that had put Tony in the crossfire.
They'd done all they could with the evidence they had. He'd sent Tim home for a few hours rest. Armstrong would work through the night and monitor the Trac number. He hated to call it a night himself but exhaustion was dragging him further down each hour. He'd finally given in to Mallard's insistence he leave for some rest. Ducky poured them both a parting shot of scotch to seal the deal.
"It's because of me," Gibbs said as he accepted the glass. He winced as he tossed back the scotch. "Whatever hell he's going through is-"
"Don't you dare, Jethro!" Mallard cut him off. "You can't afford a self-indulgent wallow, to cloud your thoughts with unearned guilt. You need them clear and focused only to find Tony. This is not your fault."
He didn't dispute Ducky's words, looked away from his concerned gaze. But, he knew it was his fault. Tony was suffering, may be dying, may be dead because of him.
"Don't go, daddy, don't go, please don't go..."
He woke gasping and trembling. Suffocated by the usual grief and guilt, but intensified by something darker and unfamiliar. It hadn't been the typical re-living of the last time he'd seen his daughter alive, the recurring nightmare that had become rarer as years passed. This time he didn't see her face, her tears, her arms out, begging him to stay. He didn't see her at all. He was surrounded by blackest dark, searching blind, desperately trying to find her. But, she wasn't there. Only her voice, reaching, barely heard, from a vast distance.
His cell rang, startling him from his thoughts. He let three rings go unanswered as he took the time to compose himself before flipping it open. It was from NCIS dispatch. Metro PD had called in a response to his BOLO on Tony's car. It had been found in the parking lot of The Abyss.
He knew of the place. Dozens of spookfests popped up in October, ranging from school fund raising haunted trails to the mega attraction that was The Abyss haunted house. For the past eight years, their billboard had gone up in late September, looming over the highway exit just one south of the ramp Gibbs took home. He could be there in ten minutes. He called McGee to arrange a tow and meet him there then headed out.
Gibbs pulled onto the paved portion of a five acre parking lot. The huge, elaborate facade of the building was an expert fiberglass facsimile of rotting wood that suggested the Addams family home on steroids and bad acid. A mutilated corpse hung from a balcony and the agonized face and pleading, outstretched arms of a bloodied woman leaned from an open, second story window. There were skeletons, ghouls and copious cobwebs; all under lit by hidden, green-tinted lights.
Gibbs exited his car and spotted Tony's Mustang across the lot. A Metro patrol car flanked by two uniformed officers was parked halfway between his car and DiNozzo's. He watched one of the officers approach and began walking to meet him halfway.
"Jack Martin," he said as he extended his hand. He looked like a veteran cop, about Gibbs' age and in good shape to be past fifty. "You must be Agent Gibbs."
Gibbs nodded and shook his hand.
"One of the cast called it in," Martin said, nodding towards a pacing, distressed figure. Judging from a distance, Gibbs guessed zombie due to the exposed skull and jaw and skin hanging from what should have been one side of his face. A cell phone was held to the ear of his better side by bony, flesh-stripped fingers. "He stayed late to do scut work. Saw it when he left to go, went to check it out and freaked out."
"Kinda ironic, considering all the gruesome shit they got going on in there. Real's not the same thing, though."
"You didn't know? The guy's head in the back seat. Head as in solo, minus body."
As the implication struck and threatened to overwhelm him, he immediately deflected.
"Maybe it's a prop."
The officer shook his head.
"I saw it myself. No prop, it's the real McCoy. Set up on a plastic dollar store party platter with happy little pumpkins and black cats dancing around the edges. The back seat's a bloody mess." He shuddered. "Crazy sonuvabitch."
"Marty!" The other uniform shouted, his body leaning half out of the patrol car's open, driver's side door. "Officer down on Revelle Drive!"
"That's only a couple blocks from here. You'll be okay?" It was only a rhetorical question, thrown over Martin's shoulder as he ran to the cruiser. The car was in motion just as his door closed and tore out of the lot.
Gibbs was left standing alone, still and stunned. He wasn't okay, might never be okay again. He wanted to go see that it wasn't Tony, relieve himself of the paralyzing dread and the threatening grief. But, for a time, he couldn't move. He finally willed himself to set one foot in front of the other to cover the fifty feet to the Mustang.
At thirty feet, he could see the blood smears across the back driver's side window, at ten he could make out the rust-spattered orange and contrasting border of the platter's front edge, that part dimly lit from the nearby simulated graveyard's lamp post. The rest of the plate was in deep shadow. He could see only a vague, dark mass set in the center.
He raised his flashlight as he took his next, faltering steps forward, struggling to force himself to switch it on and confront what horror waited in the back seat of Tony's car.
The flashlight flew from his hand as he was struck by an intense burn in his back that jerked him rigid and immobile as it pulsed in an instant throughout his body. For a second, he felt suspended, paralyzed. Then he pitched forward, his head bouncing against the roof of the Mustang before he dropped, boneless; sprawled face down and unmoving on the ground
Chapter 5: Chapter 5
He was back in the inky void, Kelly crying out to him for help. He couldn't discern words, he more felt her distress than heard. For so long, for forever it seemed, he'd struggled to understand, to reach her. He had to save her, he couldn't fail her, lose her again.
"Where are you? I can't find you!'" He dropped to his knees onto nothing. "Kelly!" Blind and desperate with no direction in the dark, nowhere to turn, he cried out in despair. "God, please... Kelly!"
"In the woods in a tree house like your BDUs. Hurry, daddy, hurry..."
So faint and faraway, the words finally, barely made it through, touched him before her voice stilled.
Then, he was torn from the black, suddenly back in the world, helpless on his back. The leering face of a rotting corpse loomed over him, loose flesh sliding from exposed bone, hanging, dangling inches above his face as the cadaver leaned in close and spoke.
"He'll die in agony, alone. You can't save him."
Gibbs felt a sharp stab of pain in his side and fought to wrench away from the restraining weight on his shoulder.
He froze on hearing the familiar voice, opened his eyes and blinked against the light. After a few seconds, his vision cleared and he saw Mallard's face above him.
"You're safe, Jethro. You're in Bethesda, you'll be fine."
His thougts still hazy, he had almost calmed when the memory ripped through the confusion and he half sat, gasping against the pain.
"Was it Tony?"
"Jethro, you have to be still," Mallard said, gently pushing Jethro back down.
"The head, was it Tony's?"
"By the time Timothy arrived, it was gone. There's no way of knowing. You need to rest, you shouldn't even be awake yet. You have a stab wound, a nasty taser burn and a-"
"The cops saw it! What did they say?"
"They said it did resemble Anthony. But, they saw it under very brief, very unfavorable conditions. They said it was possible, but they were by no means certain. Now, really, Jethro, you need to-"
"The blood? He said there was blood all over the back seat."
Mallard hesitated, then sighed, removed his hand from Jethro's shoulder and leaned back into the chair.
Gibbs closed his eyes.
"That doesn't prove he's dead!" Ducky insisted.
Gibbs cursed himself for his hesitation, the fear that had slowed his steps. If he'd been quicker, he'd know.
"You're not." Mallard interrupted his thoughts. Gibbs looked back to him.
"Dead; you're not dead." Ducky shook his head. "Why have you at his mercy, unable to defend yourself, and not inflict a mortal wound? It's as if he deliberately avoided any life threatening injury. If he's acting on a vendetta, using Tony against you, if it was Tony's head, why not let you suffer the actual sight of it and witness your reaction?"
He tapped Gibbs' arm.
"He's toying with you, extending the game by denying confirmation."
"He'll die in agony..."
Gibbs suddenly realized that part of the nightmare was recollection, not conjured in a dream. Real and said right before the dagger had been plunged into his side. He'll. He will die. Not dead yet.
There was a tap on the cracked door before it swung open and a nurse peeked her head in the room.
"Dr. Mallard, you have a phone call."
Tim slammed shut the desk drawer and slumped into his seat. He'd left Bethesda to return to the squad room. He had spent the hours since desperately searching for just one more lead to follow but had found nothing but dead ends. Robert's team had arrived to work the scene while Tim had followed the ambulance to the hospital. They'd gotten back an hour ago with nothing promising, only bagged and tagged garbage. Tony's Mustang was still being gone over by Armstrong and Robert's team but no useful evidence had been found other than the expected match to Tony's blood type.
He'd finally been able to reach the teen-aged Walmart clerk who'd sold the Trac phone. There were two cash purcahses of that model phone that night. She recalled flirting with a cute white guy her age and selling the other to a harried bleached-blonde woman with three bratty, impatient kids in tow. Neither seemed to fit the profile of a murderous decapitator. It seemed likely that the phone had been bought by proxy before it was passed on to the perp, probably purchased by the boy.
Security recordings were on a 24 hour loop, all footage of the night in question discarded before they'd inquired. In desperation, he'd scheduled a sketch artist to visit the clerk to draw up likenesses of the cute guy and the mom. But, he didn't expect any helpful results.
Exhaustion was dogging him and he'd soon have to give in, at least long enough for a short nap. He glanced at his watch. It was 5:42am, almost four hours since he'd come upon Gibbs down and still, light glistening off fresh blood and glinting off the exposed steel of the dagger's blade; the knife a twin of the one they'd discovered stabbed through Tony's jacket.
McGee had dialed for help as he knelt at Gibbs' side, terrified he was dead. Just as he'd reached trembling fingers to the carotid artery, he'd been startled off his knees onto his rear when Gibbs grabbed his sleeve and rasped out
"Is it Tony?"
Tim flinched in his chair, remembering the moment he had realized that Gibbs wasn't just repeating himself and talking out of his head from blood loss. That Tony's head might be in the Mustang's back seat and Gibbs was insisting he go look. His hands staunching the flow of blood around the blade protruding from the boss' lower left side, he'd refused. Gibbs had just began to struggle to rise and go see for himself when the ambulance arrived.
Tim's heart had thumped wildly against his chest as he'd followed Gibbs demand and took that one shaky step to the car, forced himself to grip the edge of the door, already an inch ajar, and yank it open. He'd found a blood smeared orange plastic circle, empty, sitting in the middle of the blood spattered back seat.
The brazenness of the perp had added insult to injury. On his drive to the scene, McGee's PDA had alerted him that the Trac phone had been used but not long enough to catch a location. The man had set the stage, spoken to the responding cops and called in the bogus officer down alert from the scene. Gibbs' freshly spilled blood told Tim he had missed the attacker by only minutes, if that long. He could have been watching, grisly bundle in hand, observing from the adjacent wooded lot, as McGee approached.
Tim was shutting down his computer, intending to head down to Abby's lab for a few hours rest on her futon, when his phone rang. They had a hit on their lookout.
The blue Impala had been spotted on the side of a dirt road that bordered a hunting preserve, eleven miles south of where Tim and Gibbs had discovered the scarecrow. A citizen had called in what appeared to be an abandoned car with blood smeared around and over the trunk's latch. When they checked the plate, the responding LEOs discovered the Impala had been reported stolen. When they popped the trunk, they discovered the nude, decapitated male body inside. They'd contacted NCIS due to their BOLO out for any corpse-less head or headless corpse.
Robert's team was in the response truck. Tim had driven alone in an agency sedan, bracing himself on the ride over for what he was about to encounter. He arrived to a scene lit by flashing blues and reds that blinked and whirled through the gathering dawn. County cop's and Sheriff's department vehicles lined both sides of the dirt road.
He left the car and was greeted by Sheriff Thomas Brackman. Although it might end up an NCIS case, a headless corpse had been found in Brackman's county and he had taken charge and called in all available area LEOs. A search of the woods was already underway. After giving a brief sit-rep, Brackman led him to the Impala.
A county cop stood by the open trunk and watched McGee approach. Tim smelled the odor of the morgue before he saw the nude male cadaver lying on it's side in an almost fetal position, a gory gap where the head should have been.
The Sheriff looked to him as if waiting for an answer.
Tony would have had some smart ass comment about nude identification. But, Tim had no comment and no clue. It was Tony's general body type, but so were many men's. Tim's gaze went to the hands. Other than his face, it was Tony's hands that were most on display, grabbing attention. Gesturing, pointing, playing video games, tapping, waving wildly about.
These hands were pallid and lifeless, fingers in a loose death curl. They didn't look like Tony's but that could be wishful thinking combined with the abnormality of them gray-tinged and still.
McGee took a long step back and turned away from the sight. He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked over to see the questioning eyes of the NCIS medical examiner.
"Don't know yet," Tim said.
Sharon Kramer, Roberts' senior field agent, walked past them, her hands gloved and holding a mobile fingerprint scanner.
Mallard and McGee watched Kramer lift the corpse's right hand and place its index finger against the scanner's reader window. Ducky's grip tightened on Tim's shoulder as they waited while an interminable minute passed.
"No record," Kramer called out.
As an NCIS agent, Tony's prints were on file. No match meant this wasn't Tony. Tim took a deep breath and his chin dropped to his chest. He heard Ducky's small sigh of relief then felt a pat to his shoulder before Mallard left to go to the body.
The ME set his bag on the ground, donned gloves and pulled out and switched on a flashlight before beginning his inspection. After a second, he scowled, aimed the beam and gently prodded the side of the neck stump. He leaned closer to inspect a small gash almost obscured by the dried blood that formed a crackled veneer over the skin. After a few seconds, he straightened and turned to speak to McGee.
"Our unfortunate unknown has been embalmed."
Before McGee could respond, Sheriff Brackman called out.
"We got something!"
It took a twenty minute hike through the woods to get there. Not being a hunter, Tim didn't know if the structure qualified as an elaborate blind or an elevated hunting shack. It was built on stilts, set about twenty feet off the ground and looked to be an approximately 500 square foot rectangular space with a slant-tin roof. It was situated at the edge of a clearing, nestled against the trees behind it. The building and the roof were painted in a camo design to blend in with the leafy backdrop. Steep wood stairs led up to a side entrance.
McGee climbed the steps and went past the deputy on the landing who had called it in. As he crossed the doorway's threshold, he was immediately confronted with the message on the opposite wall painted in blood in large, slashing letters.
You're too late Gibbs
Chapter 6: Chapter 6
He maneuvered the riding lawn mower to a stop beside a granite marker and cut the power. After glancing around the grounds to be sure they were empty of the living, he climbed off the mower to sit atop the tombstone. He ran his fingers across the smooth, polished stone surface and remembered. Forty-two days ago, when everything he had lived for for so long was his for the taking. When, at long last, the perfect moment came to consummate his life's sole surviving passion. He remembered how he had let that moment pass.
He had been following his target for four days when he'd been given his chance. He had watched from deep shadowed shade as his prey knelt before the grave. He had stood a minute still, almost overwhelmed by the proximity and opportunity. The pounding anticipation had sent tremors through his fingers as he lifted the pistol. He'd taken a moment to steady his hands and aimed the crippling shot, the prelude to the final confrontation. Then the conversation and kill shot imagined for so long finally, finally so close. But, as his finger began to tighten on the trigger, he realized that it wasn't enough.
Mere minutes of pain and terror followed too soon by the release of death were nowhere near sufficient retribution for the suffering he had endured the last twelve years. That he would continue to suffer for as long as his wretched life dragged on. It couldn't end so quickly. He had lowered his weapon and, as he stood there watching, begun weaving the first threads of a new plan.
Lying in pain and exhausted, Gibbs impatiently awaited McGee's arrival. He'd spent hours fighting the frustration, the pain and the gut twisting dread and fear for Tony. He'd struggled against the need to rest and sleep. The battle had been made more difficult by the lack of coffee and the remnants of the sedative and the absolute minimum dosage of the analgesic he'd tried to refuse. They fuzzed his thoughts and he needed them sharp.
What he didn't need was another nightmare, the aftermath of which was worse than the nightmare itself. He couldn't endure more of Kelly's dream-conjured pleas. He couldn't wake to face that awful feeling again, unable to save her from imagined and past dangers on top of him being helpless to save Tony from too-real and present agonies.
He needed most of all to be out of here and doing something, anything to help find DiNozzo. Tim's brief phone description of what they'd found in the hunting shack had left him enraged, consumed with dread and beyond frustrated that he was useless in a hospital bed rather than out joining in the investigation. He'd instructed McGee to bring as much of the investigation as possible to him so he could scour it. He hoped against odds he'd find something there. He was desperate for something to do besides lie there terrified for Tony and fighting sleep.
Finally, after a single tap, the door opened and Tim entered. "How are you-"
"What do you have?" Gibbs cut him off, eying the file folder under his arm.
"I need what you have first, Boss." Tim said, taking a seat in the bedside chair and keeping the file to himself.
"Just what you already know. He got the drop on me. Tasered me, said 'He'll die in agony, alone. You can't save him', then stabbed me. Then you showed up."
"Nothing familiar about the voice, any-"
"If I recognized the voice, you think I'd be keeping it a secret?"
"No, Boss. But, I have to have to write it up, I have to ask you."
Tim sighed, his exhaustion obvious, before speaking again.
"We're running a search of MOs and recent releases from your case files. So far, nobody's sticking out. Any ideas who'd be using Tony to get back at you?"
He'd spent hours asking himself the same thing. He had too many enemies. So many enemies and so few friends. He shook his head.
"No COD yet on our John Doe," Tim continued. "Unless something shows on the tox screen, Ducky's saying it's likely a head injury or disease. He can't pinpoint the time of death because of the embalming. Decomp has started. But, depending on environment and conditions, it could be anywhere from a few days to weeks. We're canvassing funeral homes and cemeteries. There's only one recent report of disturbed graves in the state. Civil War era cemetery, though. They were most likely after artifacts and the bodies weren't taken."
McGee paused before leaning slightly in towards Gibbs, a pleading tone in his voice.
"Think, Boss. Anything, anything at all..."
Gibbs tried to quell the anger rising in response to Tim's questioning; asking as if Gibbs hadn't already turned himself inside out in search of a clue. But, McGee was as desperate as he was for answers. He was just doing his job, following SOP. So many times, victims, with prodding, recovered lost details after the shock wore off.
He wasn't a victim, though. He knew the drill and he'd gone over that forty-five seconds a thousand times. Relived the boot on his hip that flipped him to his back, the utter helplessness of not being able to move, the horror of a nightmare face leaning over him, the words spoken, the blade of the dagger descending... As the concussion's effects lessened and the sedatives and heavy painkillers slowly left his system, the memory had become clearer, but no more helpful.
"No." He answered and held out his hand. Tim handed over the file.
Gibbs shuffled past the cursory evidence lists to the print-outs of crime scene photos. He'd known what he'd see there but the sight still hit him harder than physical blows. The message, written to him in Tony's blood, the table where Tony had been restrained as the bastard bled him.
He came to an exterior long shot of the building, what he had been told was a hunting shack. As the sight registered, triggered memories replaced conscious thought; memories that tore him away and threw him back both many years and mere hours.
He heard her giggling before he saw her. She toddled down the hallway, swamped in his uniform shirt with her arms held straight out in front. The sleeves hung down at an angle from her hidden hands, their cuffs and the shirt's back dragging along the carpet. She looked up at him and grinned.
"Me wear you boos, daddy."
Three years older, the photo of her five that came in the first mail call after his first deployment since her birth. Kelly asleep, but not with the yellow puppy-print security blanket she always slept with. Clutched instead in a little fist and tucked under her chin was one of his worn woodland camouflage Battle Dress Uniform shirts.
Crying out to him across a vast, dark distance. "In the woods in a tree house like your BDUs..."
"Boss?" Tim was half standing, watching him with concern. "You okay?"
He didn't respond, continued to stare down at the camo-painted house high and flush against the trees.
"Boss!" Tim was standing now, his hand reaching towards him. Gibbs forced his eyes away from the photo and shut the folder.
"I'm fine!" He cut Tim off to shut him up and looked down to the closed folder, avoiding McGee's worried gaze. "Go, get back on it and let me know anything new."
He steered the pickup down the long, secluded driveway then pulled to a stop in the small cleared area in front of an aging mobile home. The trailer was part of a package deal with the job. Its driveway began off a dirt road a half mile down from the cemetery's back entrance, hidden away on the wooded outskirts of their property.
He had only taken the job as part of his new plan. But, over these past few weeks, this tiny, rundown space became something he enjoyed coming back to, it had become home. Whenever he left the property he was reminded how much more at home he was among the dead than the living.
Tonight, it ended. He would lose his home and his life's only purpose. As he opened the trailer door, a sense of impending loss throbbed in his chest, threatening to interfere with the thrill of knowing that culmination was at hand. He immediately squashed that hint of hesitancy.
Just as he had earlier smothered the last, dying whisper of a withered conscience that had said it was wrong to inflict an agonizing death on an innocent party. Right and wrong no longer existed, were only discarded, meaningless concepts of a previous lifetime. His sole surviving principle was vengeance.
Chapter 7: Chapter 7
Tim didn't move. Gibbs willed him to leave so he could be left alone to absorb and decipher; to face the stunning possibility that the voice in his dreams wasn't speaking from his subconscious but from his long dead daughter.
He was just about to bark at Tim to get back on the job when there was a knock at the door. Harry Sanchez, the NCIS agent guarding Gibbs' room, entered. Visible standing outside the open doorway was an elderly female volunteer beside a cart loaded with flower arrangements and magazines.
"What?" Tim asked.
"A card for Agent Gibbs," Sanchez said. "Feels like there's something in it, some kind of disc, maybe. CD, DVD. I just thought-"
"Get me gloves." Gibbs said.
Tim looked from Gibbs to the envelope in Sanchez's hand.
"Maybe we should take it back to-"
"Get me gloves!" Gibbs demanded.
Tim grabbed gloves from a box mounted on the wall. He tossed two to Gibbs then gloved both his hands before he took the card from Sanchez.
McGee held the envelope up to the light and gingerly inspected it with his fingertips before handing it over to Gibbs. It was a standard card size, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, Room 312 written on the front.
"Clear the room and shut the door."
Sanchez followed his order but Tim stayed put. Gibbs didn't believe there was any physical danger in the envelope, it didn't fit the game. All but the most sophisticated explosives were ruled out by the configuration. There was a remote possibility of a biological agent but he was sure there was no threat and wasn't willing to wait to have his gut proven right.
He was just as sure there would be no fingerprints or other clues to be found. But, he was still careful to preserve any possible evidence. He worked a gloved fingernail under the flap's edge and slowly lifted it open. He pulled out the card.
The front had a picture of an ocean sunset and the caption 'With Deepest Sympathy'. He opened the card and saw the disc. Light reflected in prismatic rays across its silver mirror surface, interrupted by the letters scrawled in black ink:
Anthony D. DiNozzo's Final Farewell
He flipped the disc against the front cover and read the card's message.
Gone from our sight
but never from our memories
or our hearts.
He shall be greatly missed.
Gibbs stared down at the disc, frozen by the fact he might hold Tony's death scene in his hand. After a moment, he spoke.
"You got your kit and laptop in the car?"
Tim nodded, his gaze on the card.
"Go get them. And, coffee."
The volunteer who had delivered the card wasn't helpful. It had been on the cart when she began her rounds. Roberts' team was on its way to question gift shop employees and view security camera footage.
Gibbs had spent the past fifteen minutes Tim took to dust and photograph the card sipping coffee and fighting an almost unbearable twist of impatience and dread. A need to know coupled with never wanting to see the possible horrors hidden inside the silver slice of plastic. A surreal undercurrent running beneath everything was the question of Kelly's voice. A question deferred until after he had the disc's answers.
The disc and card inside had been clean. The prints found on the envelope's exterior were sent to be run through the system and against prints being taken now at Bethesda. Gibbs expected them to match hospital employees and Sanchez and leave unknowns who'd handled it previously.
McGee had set up his laptop on the room's wheeled bed table. It was already open and running and programmed to record the DVD as it played. Done with processing, he carefully cleaned the disc of powder. He walked to the computer and pushed the button that extended the DVD tray and set the disc into the tray.
The DVD was evidence, but what it contained was personal, too. Possibly as personal as a family member's death. Gibbs did not want company when he first watched it, wanted to deal alone with it first.
After placing the disc, McGee hesitated a moment before sitting in the bedside chair. Gibbs pulled the table over the bed, the laptop's screen directly in front of him. He made no move to engage the disc and didn't look Tim's way. After a few seconds, McGee stood.
"I'll be right outside," he said and left the room.
Gibbs pushed the disc into the laptop. After a click and whir, Tony appeared on screen.
28 Hours Earlier:
Tony woke to the sound of the door opening then closing. And, the ever present pain and weakness. The fear of what came next, the fear of the end. He kept his eyes shut as he heard the footsteps approach.
A weak spark inside urged him to prepare to lash out, to fight. It was quickly smothered by frailty and memories of previous attempts. The first was hazy, only a vague recollection of a struggle, a short lived freedom as he'd run through the woods, faltered and been re-captured and dragged back.
The second try had been after he'd been cut loose from the tape binding him to the table. The instant he'd felt the last restraint severed, he had lunged up against his captor. He had fought with all he had which, sapped by injuries and blood loss, had been way too little. It had been a brief struggle that left him with a new gash across his chest and a rib broken in an impact against the table's edge. He'd passed out and come to bound to a chair. The same situation he woke in now.
Now, even weaker than before and every breath an ordeal, he didn't move, made no plans to fight for freedom. He just sat there still until he flinched when he felt the man's fingers tap against his cheek.
"Anthony, wake up, open your eyes."
It was the first time he'd heard his voice. Till now he'd been silent, faceless behind the ski mask. Tony didn't respond. He only waited for whatever came next.
"I'm offering an explanation and an opportunity, Anthony."
He thought he may have screamed out 'Why?' at some point earlier. His memory was fuzzy, evasive. But, he thought he had begged a reason earlier. He opened his eyes.
Tony blinked against the light aimed into his face until his eyes adjusted enough to see his captor sitting in shadows, just outside the light's beam. He was in a seat in front and a little to the side, his face still hidden beneath a ski mask.
"Good," he said seeing Tony watching him. "Explanation first: you're here, you'll die, because of Gibbs. You're payback, you're paying for Gibbs' sins. Do you understand? It's Gibbs' fault you're here."
Tony squinted at the man. Gibbs' fault? Payback for what? Why him?
"I can't give you details because he'll hear. No clues allowed. Part of the payback is I escape free and clear. Just like he did for so long. His time ran out, though. Yours is running out as we speak. Literally. You are about to die an awful death. That's the bad news. The good news is, you have an opportunity not many people have."
He pointed to the table behind him, still shrouded with strips of duct tape. DiNozzo looked and saw a vague outline of something standing in its middle, about the size of a pack of cigarettes but thinner.
"It's a recorder. Pretty amazing considering the old prop-up-over-the-shoulder elephants from before. $1200 for them, a hundred bucks for that. Real progress, cheap technology. It's filming, taping, whatever they call what they do now. You're being recorded. That's your opportunity right there. The chance to say goodbye. Send a last message to Gibbs and I guarantee he'll get it before you die. So, Anthony, whatever's in your heart, on your mind, the time is now."
Tony saw a tiny glint of light reflecting off the lens. Gibbs would see him , would hear him.
His first impulse was to scream 'Save me! It hurts so bad, I'm afraid, I don't want to die. Please, save me!'
He squashed the impulse and tried to sit straighter in the chair, staring at the lens, struggling to look stronger and find the right thing to say. He had fought a lifelong compulsion to run his mouth, his talking drove Gibbs to distraction on a daily basis. But, now, when it mattered most, he had no words. His sense of humor escaped him and no movie scene came to mind.
Then he remembered, recalled appropriate words he'd read, that he'd come across every year. During the yearly chore of sorting through Fathers Day greeting cards in search of any sentiment even remotely appropriate for his father. Hallmark didn't offer verses of paternal disappointment and mostly benign neglect darkened, on rare occasions, by mood and scotch to backhands and blows; abuse they'd never discussed and both pretended had never happened.
Every year, before he settled on some humorous card to send his father, he found messages extolling strength and example and faith and encouragement that would have been perfect for Gibbs. Perfect, but words he couldn't say, not even now, not even if he could remember them verbatim.
He didn't want to say goodbye. He didn't want to die. Without thinking, he tried to take a deep breath to steady himself and a new agony ripped through his chest. He was mortified to feel tears suddenly flood his eyes and lowered his head to hide them from the lens.
That was the last last impression he wanted to leave, weak and in tears. The pain ebbed and he blinked the tears away, let them fall and waited for them to clear his eyes before he faced the lens again.
He was about to lift his head and try again to say goodbye when the perfect message came to him, the best farewell he could offer Gibbs. He kept his chin against his chest and spoke softly.
"Louder," the man said. "He can't hear you."
Tony murmured again. He tensed and waited and prayed for strength.
"Damn it, Anthony, look up! He can't hear you, he can't see you."
Tony whispered and his downcast eyes saw the shadow move towards him, the arm reaching. As soon as the man's fingers touched beneath his chin to raise his head, Tony attacked.
Chapter 8: Chapter 8
Gibbs' relief on seeing Tony's image appear on screen was quickly stifled by the sight of his condition. He sat bound to a chair, shirtless. A mottled, red, second skin spread over his lower torso. The blood's source was a long, exposed gash across the top of his chest. A blood-sodden dressing wound around one arm and a large, purple-black bruise struck down his left ribcage.
His face was down, hidden. And, he was still, too still. Gibbs squinted, desperate to find some sign of life. He tensed even further when a black leather gloved hand reached into the scene and touched Tony's face.
The voice began speaking from off screen, low and carefully modulated to camouflage identity. His eyes on Tony, Gibbs tried to concentrate, to listen carefully as his tormentor spoke. Some of the words spoken sliced painfully through his attempts to recognize the voice.
"...you'll die because of Gibbs"
"It's Gibbs' fault you're here."
"You are about to die an awful death."
"So, Anthony, whatever's in your heart, on your mind, the time is now."
What was in Tony's heart and on his mind was evident in the suffering on his face. Pain and other worse things that were very rarely deployed from Tony's vast arsenal of expressions. Fear and despair.
When he saw the flash of tears in DiNozzo's eyes, Gibbs' vision blurred. Tightly controlled emotions threatened to erupt and spill out with the wetness he felt trailing down his cheeks . He angrily swiped the tears away with the back of his hand. In the instant it had taken to clear his vision, Tony's face was down, the top half hidden from Gibbs' view.
He saw DiNozzo speak, but couldn't make out any words.
"Louder," the man said to Tony. "He can't hear you."
Gibbs silently urged DiNozzo to follow his captor's order. He wanted to hear whatever Tony had to say to him.
"Damn it, Anthony, look up! He can't hear you, he can't see you."
But, Gibbs did see. He saw the subtle shift in body language, the tensing of Tony's shoulders, the tightening of his jaw. He knew before it was delivered what Tony's parting message would be. Actions spoke louder than words and there had never been a lot of words between them.
As he waited the seconds it took for the action to begin, Gibbs' grasped the table's edge in a white-knuckled, painful grip. His distressed anticipation was touched with a relieved pride that Tony would not go out cowed in fearful surrender.
With an agonized roar, Tony launched himself forward and out of view. Only the sounds of the battle played out on screen after the picture wobbled then upended to show a very dim ceiling. Tony's yells were drowned out by an outcry from his captor.
Gibbs heard the pain in the angry curse from the stranger's voice. Underneath the crushing anxiety, he felt a flare of grim satisfaction knowing that Tony had scored a hit.
The picture flipped from the ceiling back to its previous position. DiNozzo was jerked upright back into view. He cried out as the chair was shoved into place, then began panting to regain control. A gloved hand reached from the shadows to yank his head back by the hair. A blade appeared at Tony's throat, the point digging in underneath his jaw just enough to release a bead of blood.
"Are you in a hurry, Anthony?" The voice was angry, less carefully controlled. "Do you want to die now?"
Tony didn't answer, only sat still, his face contorted. DiNozzo's silence prompted the man to push the blade fractionally deeper into his skin. The bead of blood swelled then began a continuous, thickening trickle down his neck.
"Do you prefer your throat cut now to what I have planned for you?"
Gibbs' eyes focused on the blade, so tiny in the screen but so potentially lethal, as it dug deeper.
"That depends. Whattaya got planned?"
Gibbs was torn between sending Tony a mental attaboy or head slap; buoyed to hear the defiant smart ass undaunted, but worried the attitude would provoke the man to push the knife further in.
"The worst, the worst you can imagine. If it's any consolation, I'll make sure Gibbs finds what's left of you. Way too late to save you. It's a done deal; you will die. You want to keep fucking around when you can't win? You want to waste your opportunity? It's a gift, Anthony. I'm giving you the gift of goodbye."
"Speaking of goodbye," Tony answered, " You got any to say, you better say your own. Quick. Because, as soon as you kill me, it's over for you."
"Wishful thinking. He'll never find me."
"Oh, he'll find you," Tony insisted. "You won't be hard to find." He seemed to be fading fast, fighting to keep his eyes open. There were hitches and hesitations in his speech as he struggled get the rest of his words out.
"Because, the minute you kill me, you turn into a big, fat, white whale with a harpoon up the ass in your very near future."
Tony was attempting one of his cocky, contemptuous smirks but barely managed the beginning of a smile before he lost the battle and his eyes closed and his pained expression fell slack. The man withdrew the knife out of camera range. When he let go of Tony's hair, DiNozzo's face dropped forward.
A gloved hand cupped his chin and lifted his face back up. Another hand tapped his cheek.
"Come on Anthony, before it's too late."
Tony didn't respond. There was no reaction,either, to the subsequent slap across Dinozzo's face. Then, the man shook Tony's shoulder, provoking a groan. He shook him again.
"You have to talk to Gibbs."
"Boss?" Tony mumbled and his eyes blinked half open.
"Yeah, Boss; Boss is watching. Last chance, Anthony, to say goodbye to Gibbs."
Tony's dazed gaze searched around the room until he saw the recorder. His expression cleared from half-conscious confusion to full understanding.
Gibbs watched as Tony stared directly into the lens and opened his mouth as if to speak. But, he was silent. A glaze of tears suddenly shone over Dinozzo's eyes and Gibbs murmured "Tony...", wanting desperately to reach into the screen to save him.
Then, Tony raised his chin and clenched his jaw. The sheen of tears faded then disappeared. DiNozzo smiled a small smile, grim but defiant. For a second, as Gibbs stared back at Tony looking at him from the screen, it was as if their gazes were really locked. As if Tony could see him and feel the caring and pride in Gibbs' eyes as clearly as Gibbs could read the caring and courage in Tony's. Then, Tony spoke his two word farewell to Gibbs.
He opened the trailer door and, as he crossed the threshold, felt the recently acquired familiar comfort of coming home. Something so recently gained so soon to be lost. This was the last time he would come home here, this was the last night Anthony would spend alive. Melancholy tried to settle over him like a shroud and he tossed it off.
Gibbs should have played the disc by now. He wished he could have witnessed the reaction, but that was impossible. He could imagine, though. He was the victim of a powerful imagination. David's last cries resounded too often and echoed always.
He would record Anthony's agonized death screams for Gibbs to hear, plunge the same barbed arrow into Gibbs' heart that he carried embedded into his own. Impossible to extract, the pain a reminder with every beat. A life of unending torment was a much more satisfying retribution than death.
It was a pity Anthony was his means to justice. A shame such a spirited man, guiltless, would have to have that spirit snuffed out. He'd underestimated DiNozzo and been caught off guard three times. First was the early escape that led to a chase through the woods and then the struggle that had led to inadvertent, further injuries. Then the last attack that, while foolish and doomed, was still admirable in a recklessly brave, damn-the-odds kind of way.
He grabbed the ski mask from the kitchen table and pulled it on then walked to the bedroom. He went to the closet door, opened it and pulled the string that lit the bare bulb hanging inside.
Anthony lay on the floor, bound hand and foot. He was on his side, eyes closed, his knees necessarily drawn a bit towards his chest to fit in the small space.
He thought about dragging him out and propping him up for their conversation but decided against it. DiNozzo had lost a lot of blood from both planned and unplanned injuries and had felt way too warm when he'd moved him, probably a fever from an infection. There was also the injury to his side that could have caused internal damage. Any exertion, especially another foolhardy attack, could be the end of him. The man would handle him with care, he had to survive to play out the final act.
"Anthony, time to rise and shine."
DiNozzo didn't open his eyes. His captor nudged him with a toe, on guard for any further surprises.
"Come on, up and at 'em. Time to talk."
Anthony didn't respond
"You don't want one last conversation among the living?"
"With you? I'll pass." His voice was weak but still strong enough to deliver the note of contempt.
The man slid down the wall to sit at DiNozzo's feet. Anthony lay unmoving, eyes closed, ignoring him. It was almost time. He would lose Anthony soon and he wanted this last conversation. The connections he had with DiNozzo and Gibbs were the only human bonds he had left. One soon to be severed by death, one left only a shadow of itself once the deed was done.
Anthony had proven himself exceedingly stubborn. He would use his refusal to talk as the only weapon he had left. The man couldn't force him to interact, but he could tempt him.
"Curiosity, then? Aren't you curious?"
He hadn't wanted to show himself. There was still the last act to film for Gibbs' viewing. He was worried DiNozzo might scream out a clue as he died. It was only remotely possible that, through the pain and terror, he'd be coherent enough but it wasn't a chance he had wanted to take. He could always edit the footage, though.
Anthony offered no resistance when he rolled him from his side to his back. After he had DiNozzo facing him from the floor, he stood and pulled the ski mask off.
"Don't you want to see me? The mask is gone."
DiNozzo opened his eyes and blinked against the light. The man saw his reaction as he got his first clear view. The shocked grimace, the involuntary flinch of fear against the ugly unexpected.
He watched Anthony watch him as he ran his hands down the opposite sides of his face. His fingertips slid smoothly over the warm skin on the right. His left hand dragged a jagged path down the hard, scarred ruins of what remained of the left side.
"I thought about throwing acid in his face. But, I'm not totally blameless. I owe penance for my part. You're retribution for his."
Chapter 9: Chapter 9
The man laughed humorlessly, his smile twisted disturbingly by paralyzing nerve damage. His left eye, blinded by a milky-white substance, appeared to protrude from its lidless socket. Small holes appeared where the man's nose and left ear once were and the left side of his scalp, face and neck were badly discolored by severe hypertrophic scarring.
Tony closed his eyes and took a composing breath. Despite the situation, when he reopened his eyes, his initial shock and revulsion had been replaced by sadness and sympathy for the man standing before him with such horrific injuries.
"I didn't always look like this," the man said reaching for his wallet and removing a photo. He stared at it fondly and held it in front of Tony's face. "There was a time when I was considered quite handsome."
Tony blinked rapidly trying to focus his vision and he looked at the photo of two men. One appeared much older than the other but there was an undeniable familial resemblance.
"Your son?" Tony asked through laboring breaths.
"David," the man responded with an almost palpable desolation. "He was at college, studying to be a lawyer. He was the best thing in my life, the only thing that mattered – and your friend Gibbs killed him twelve years ago."
"I didn't know Gibbs…twelve years ago," Tony said in a desperate whisper. "I had nothing…to do with your son's death. Why me?"
The man stared at the agent for a few moments, noting his short, erratic breaths and his face flushed with confusion and fever. He felt a twinge of remorse – this man was about to die in retribution for Gibbs actions; he deserved to know why.
"Because death is too easy for Gibbs," the man replied, his face contorting in hatred. "I want him to live the rest of his miserable life knowing the consequences of what he did and suffering the loss of someone he cares for like family."
"Then you picked…the wrong guy," Tony gasped painfully. "Gibbs is my boss. Spends half his time…growling at me and the rest…smacking me upside the head."
A sneer formed on the other man's face.
"Don't lie to me, Anthony, I've been planning this for a long time. I've seen you with him out of work. I've seen the way you treat his home like your own, the meals you've shared, the football games you've watched, I've seen you at the batting cage together…all things I once did with my son."
"You think by killing me…you will destroy Gibbs?" Tony met other man's steely gaze and spoke with pride. "It won't work – he's too strong. He lost his wife and daughter and he survived it."
"One doesn't survive a loss like that, Anthony, one simply continues to exist. Tell me, is he strong enough to survive that kind of loss again - especially with the added guilt of knowing that you died because of him?"
"You bet he is," Tony answered defiantly.
"We'll see," the man spat.
"You could have…killed me before…during the recording," Tony rasped. "What stopped you?"
"That was just a rehearsal," the man said. "I have your final performance all planned."
"We'll see how well Leroy Jethro Gibbs deals with watching a recording of your death. How strong will he be when he witnesses your terror and hears your agonized screams for help as your body slowly travels into the crematory furnace?" He looked at his watch and turned back to Tony, his face a grotesque mask of hatred and pain. "It's almost time."
The man walked into the next room leaving Tony alone and struggling to breathe. With a strength born of fear and desperation, he fought to extract his body from his closet prison and frantically worked to free his hands and feet that were still tightly bound.
His body trembled uncontrollably as fear shattered his composure and his ability to think clearly. Even through the haze loomed the things he knew for certain; he did not want to die and he did not want Gibbs to see him screaming in abject terror in the final moments of his life. He knew he owed the former Marine that much – he also knew he lacked the courage to go to his death quietly.
The man appeared again, kneeling beside him.
"Please don't do this," Tony pleaded.
"The time for talking is over, Anthony. Gibbs took my son away from me forever, now I'm taking his."
He took a chloroform soaked rag from behind his back and Tony's eyes widened with fear as he tried unsuccessfully to move his battered body further away. Despite his desperate struggle, he was quickly overpowered and the sickly sweet scent penetrated his senses. The world spun sickeningly around him as he closed his eyes and tried to think past the fog in his brain. He struggled against unconsciousness until, with a silent apology to his boss, he surrendered to the darkness.
Doctor Mallard exited the elevator and strode purposefully toward Gibbs' room. He veered to the small waiting room across the hall when McGee called his name.
"I came as soon as I got your message," he said breathlessly. "What on earth happened?"
"We received a DVD that allegedly contained a goodbye message from Tony. The boss wanted to watch it alone so I waited out here. The next thing I know, there's an almighty crash and I found him lying on the floor."
"Jethro has a knife wound and a serious concussion. He is in no condition to be walking around," Ducky said disapprovingly as they quietly entered Gibbs' room, relieved to find the lead agent sleeping deeply. "Was he unconscious?"
"No but he was disoriented and kept trying to leave. He became combative and the doctors were forced to sedate him. They said he should sleep for a few hours."
Ducky nodded his head and muttered quietly as he read Gibbs' medical chart and then turned back to McGee.
"Have you watched the DVD?" he asked.
McGee's eyes dropped to the floor and he swallowed hard against the lump in his throat.
"It's not good, Ducky. Tony could be dead for all I know and I'm no closer to knowing who this guy is or why he has a vendetta against the boss," he raised pleading blue eyes to meet those of the kindly ME. "I could really use your help."
"Then you shall have it, my boy," Ducky said taking McGee by the elbow and steering him toward the door.
Gibbs was running through an open field, the long grass tangling around his feet causing him to stumble in the darkness. Cold sweat soaked his shirt and sent shivers of terror down his back. Exhausted and confused he slid to a stop and rested his hands on his knees as he tried desperately to slow his breathing.
A tiny voice sounded in the distance, frantic and urgent. He spun around peering into the darkness and trying to determine the direction it came from.
"Kelly? Baby, where are you?" he yelled.
"Hurry, Daddy, there's not much time…he's dying, Daddy!"
Gibbs' gut clenched painfully and he ran agitated fingers through his short silver hair.
"Who's dying? Kelly? Hold on, baby, Daddy's coming!"
"Hurry, Daddy, hurry!"
He sat up quickly, gasping loudly as his sutures pulled painfully in his side and his lungs searched desperately for oxygen. Blurry eyes darted around the room in a bid to identify his surroundings. Unable to hold himself upright, he fell back against the pillows, still feeling the strong pull of the sedative. He felt his heart pounding against his sternum as heavy lids snapped closed and refused to open again. He lay quietly trying to collect the scattered fragments of his composure but drugs and sleep called to him and he tumbled into oblivion.
With a series of loud grunts and groans, the man pulled Tony's unconscious body from the bed of his pickup. Grasping him under the arms, he dragged the agent into a nearby burial vault and laid him on the floor next to an open coffin.
He took a deep breath and bent over to put his hands under Tony's arms. He heaved and the body rose slowly. Dismayed by how heavy the agent's dead weight was, the man gritted his teeth and tightened his grip, pulling with all his strength until he was holding Tony almost upright in his arms.
He grimaced at the heat emanating from the body then shoved the upper part of Tony's torso over the edge of the coffin. It started to slide back and he pushed harder, inch by agonizing inch, until the rest of Tony's body finally fell into the coffin, landing with a dull thud.
He checked Tony's pulse, relieved to find it weak and rapid.
"Very good, Anthony. I wouldn't want you dying too soon and missing your grand finale."
He placed a piece of duct tape across Tony's mouth, checked the ropes on his hands and feet and nodded in satisfaction.
"I'm going to go start up the furnaces and make sure no one's around to disturb us," he said to the unconscious agent. "But don't worry; I'll be back for you."
He placed the lid loosely on the coffin, ensuring he left plenty of ventilation, and then he returned to his vehicle and headed for the nearby crematorium.
Chapter 10: Chapter 10
As Erik Chaney guided his pickup off the road into the cover of the nearby trees, he let go a string of vehement curses. The lights in the crematorium were on, smoke was billowing from the chimneys and the cars in the staff parking lot meant that the afternoon shift was working very late. He could only hope that the effects of the chloroform would keep Tony unconscious until he returned.
Chaney ruthlessly suppressed the pang of guilt that accompanied his thoughts of the young man left bound and unconscious in the hermetic coffin. He vaguely recalled a time when he was known as a man of conscience and compassion but that man died twelve years ago in the fiery car wreck that took the life of his only son…a fiery wreck caused by Leroy Jethro Gibbs.
Consumed with hatred and a burning desire for vengeance, Chaney's soul had been as defiled and mutilated as his once handsome face and his plan to exact a relentless, excruciating revenge was now at hand. If the young man had to die to achieve that, then so be it.
Once again, he removed the photo from his wallet, rubbing his thumb fondly over his son's image. He closed his eyes and stifled a mournful sob as the events leading to his last moments with David replayed in vivid detail against the backs of his eyelids.
He'd been out of work for fourteen months, laid off when the factory closed down. House payments and David's college tuition had quickly depleted his savings and job rejection after job rejection had all but destroyed his self-esteem. Alcohol and gambling became a constant in his life and, before he knew it, he was into a local loan shark for five grand. And then his luck changed…
A poker game with a couple of Marines provided enough money to pay off the debt and two months college tuition…until one of the Marines wanted his money back and forced him into an alley. A fight had ensued and the Marine had struck his head on the pavement and been badly injured. Though it was self-defense, Chaney had left the scene without calling for assistance, the Marine had nearly died and NCIS had been called to investigate.
Chaney found himself another poker game at another bar hoping things would blow over. He was on a winning streak for the first time in over a year. David found him drinking at the bar late one night and told him a Special Agent L. Jethro Gibbs had called at the house to talk to him. With NCIS closing in, Chaney panicked. He ignored his son's pleas to turn himself in and climbed behind the wheel of his car.
They were almost home when a squad car appeared behind them and gave a double burst of its yelp siren. He'd learned later that NCIS had placed a BOLO on his car and Metro had alerted them of his whereabouts. He planted his foot on the gas and a high-speed chase through a built-up area resulted in a fiery wreck that changed his life forever.
The car was quickly engulfed in excessive heat, smoke and flames. As fire licked at his clothes and skin, he screamed for his son to get out of the car. The driver's door was forced open and, despite his pleas for his rescuers to let him die, the man was pulled from the vehicle by Gibbs. He was wrapped in a fire retardant blanket until the flames on his body were extinguished leaving his skin a mass of smoldering, weeping burns. Chaney's charred and worthless remains were dragged from the fire while the best part of his life – his son - never made it out of the car.
He swiped angrily at the tears that fell from his undamaged right eye and looked up to see the last of the crematorium workers drive away. Climbing from his car, he quickly crossed the road and used his passkey to enter. He restarted the furnace, knowing it would take a while to reach the required sixteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit. He took his time to position his recorder where it would capture every vivid, grisly detail of Anthony DiNozzo's agonizing death.
"You took my son from me Gibbs – now I'll take yours."
The unrelenting pounding of a fierce headache roused Tony slowly from a drug-induced insensibility. The residual sickly sweet aroma of the chloroform still stained the skin around his nose and mouth. His throat was dry and, attempting to lick his lips, he found his mouth was taped shut. His eyes sprang open as his memories returned with the force of a tsunami and he began to hyperventilate. Fighting the urge to panic, he blinked his eyes several times to clear them but realized he was in complete darkness.
He lifted his bound hands only inches above him before he felt the cool metal surface overhead. Rising panic threatened to overwhelm him as he blindly explored his whereabouts and realized he was confined in a coffin. The sound of his muffled screams for help echoed eerily in the small space as he kicked wildly. Desperate fingers clawed at the lid but lacked the strength to push it more than a few inches upward. Exhausted and weak, his arms gave way and his heart stopped as he heard the lid lock into place with an ominous hiss as the coffin hermetically sealed.
He yelled futilely against the duct tape, his throat tightened and his chest burned as visions of his impending death came, faster and faster, overwhelming his senses. His nostrils flared and pinched with every panicked breath as he continued to kick and punch upward but his fevered body lacked the strength needed to break the seal of the coffin. Forcing himself to breathe slowly, he tried to gather enough strength of will to defeat the overwhelming wave of fear that gripped him.
'Now would be a good time, Boss,' he thought grimly.
His breathing was noisy and strained. Drenched in sweat and trembling with pain and fatigue, he clawed weakly at the smooth surface of the lid until he'd exhausted the last reserves of his energy. A tickle in his throat caused him to dry heave and he realized that with his mouth taped closed, aspiration was a real threat.
He turned his head feeling the cool metal surface of the coffin beneath his over-heated skin. He pressed his damp cheek against it, trying to slow his breathing as the panic slowly began to ebb. He huffed out a laugh; so many times in his life he'd faced down defeat and defied the odds with a glib tongue, a smart mouth and a sharp wit. This time he could see no victory, no way out.
He didn't want to give up - Anthony DiNozzo Junior was no quitter - but he knew that if death took him now, his captor's plans for Gibbs to watch his terrifying fiery death would be thwarted. Perhaps, in a way, he was still fighting. His thoughts turned to the former Marine, the man to whom he owed everything. It was Gibbs' no-nonsense attitude and tough-love that had given Tony the support and the confidence he needed to reach his full potential as an investigator and as a man. Involuntary tears streamed from both eyes, sliding down his temples before disappearing into his hair as Tony made his decision. He would do anything he could to spare Gibbs from having to watch his agonizing demise.
Suddenly unafraid and too tired to fight anymore, he closed his eyes and waited for death to claim him.
A thick mist had rolled in and settled over the field making it nearly impossible to check his footing as he ran indiscriminately in search of the small voice.
"Daddy! Daddy I'm scared. Where are you?"
"I'm here, baby, Daddy's here. Keep talking, Kelly, I'll find you."
Gibbs stopped running, his chest heaving as he tried to fill his lungs with oxygen. His battle-honed senses desperately tried to determine his daughter's whereabouts. She spoke again but this time, her voice began to fade.
"He's here with us now, Daddy, he's resting in the arms of God."
Gibbs burst into wakefulness with a huge gasp. His scrubs and the bed linen twisted and drenched in his sweat. As his heart beat painfully against his sternum, his daughter's words came back to him.
"He's here with us now, Daddy, he's resting in the arms of God."
A feeling of overwhelming loss engulfed him and he whispered desperately.
Chapter 11: Chapter 11
A thousand nameless fears hit him low in the belly, sucking the air from his lungs and leaving him feeling lost and hopelessly bereft. Sickened by the thought that Tony may already be dead, Gibbs slid quickly from his hospital bed and staggered to the adjoining bathroom as his stomach roiled and expelled its contents. Exhausted, he leaned against the sink with the remnants of the nightmare still clinging to him and Kelly's words reverberating in his mind.
'He's here with us now, Daddy. He's resting in the arms of God.'
His gut twisted again with an overwhelming horror and guilt that something in his past may have cost Tony his life. He shook his head to cast off the debilitating thoughts littering his mind. It was just a dream, he told himself, a terrifying, nightmare.
He pressed the call button, instructing the nurse who arrived moments later to prepare his discharge papers and bring the key to the locked cabinet beside his bed. He dressed quickly; shrugging into his jacket as the nurse returned and unlocked the cabinet containing his SIG, knife, wallet and ID. He signed the AMA papers, hurried to the taxi stand at the front of the hospital and climbed into the nearest cab, citing the Navy Yard as his destination.
Tony was an innocent party in a demented plan to cause him pain. The mere thought of the younger man suffering because of him fanned the flame of fury burning within him until it became a raging inferno. Tony was right, Gibbs had a new white whale and he intended to pursue it straight into the fires of hell.
The cab was almost at the Navy Yard when Kelly's voice called more insistently.
'He's here with us now, Daddy. He's resting in the arms of God.'
Feelings of anguish and despair engulfed him in equal measure while an intangible compulsion that would not be denied impelled him to make a decision that logic and reasoning could not explain.
"Change of plans," he said, before giving the cab driver a new destination.
Ducky exited the elevator and walked through the muted lighting of the almost vacant operations room. He sighed audibly at the sight of McGee alone at his desk, painstakingly scrutinizing every frame of the DVD that had been sent to Gibbs at the hospital.
"Timothy, you have been studying that footage for nearly three hours," the ME said.
McGee continued to analyze the footage, not taking his eyes off the plasma.
"This DVD is the only lead we have, Ducky," McGee replied. "There has to be something here, I must have missed something."
"Nonsense, my boy, if you haven't found anything by now then I would venture that there is nothing to be found."
McGee slumped back into his chair and ground the heels of his hands into his tired eyes.
"Tony and Gibbs are counting on me, Ducky," he said desperately.
"Then you owe it to them to be at your best and you can start by keeping your strength up," the older man said gesturing toward the cup of tea and sandwich he placed on the younger man's desk.
Nodding in reluctant agreement, McGee opened the plastic seal of the container. His stomach growled in loud protest and he realized that it had been hours since his last meal.
"Tony looks bad, Ducky," McGee said quietly, looking back at the plasma and the stilled image of his injured partner. "You think he's still alive?"
"I wish I knew, Timothy," Ducky replied. "But if there's one thing I've learned since making that young man's acquaintance, it's that only a fool would bet against Anthony DiNozzo, Junior."
"You're right," Tim said, trying unsuccessfully to smother a yawn.
"However, I have taken the liberty of calling Abigail and Ziva in New Orleans," the ME added. "They are taking the first flight home in the morning."
McGee looked concerned. "Do you think that's wise?"
"Wise?" Ducky asked. "Perhaps not – but tell me this, dear boy, would you like to be within a five-mile radius of either of them if they discovered that we purposely withheld news of Anthony's abduction and Jethro's injuries?"
McGee paled at the thought.
"Just as I suspected," Ducky chuckled and then looked around the conspicuously empty operations room. "May I inquire as to the whereabouts of Special Agent Roberts and his team? It was my understanding that they had been assigned to assist you to locate Anthony."
"Roberts sent his team home to get some rest about an hour ago," McGee explained. "We've hit dead end after dead end. Armstrong was unable to get anything useful from the sound bites on the DVD or from the DVD itself for that matter. They'll be back in a few hours – sooner if we get a lead."
"Need I ask why you are still here?" Ducky asked.
"Because Tony's my teammate, Ducky," McGee replied with a deep sigh. "I may be a one-man team at the moment but I won't let him down."
"It appears you are mistaken, my boy, we are a two-man team," Ducky replied definitively. He walked to Tony's desk and dragged his chair to the middle of the room before sitting in it. "I may not have your computer expertise, Timothy but between us, perhaps we can finally put a name to our John Doe. Now…what is it that Anthony says? Oh, yes, that's right…campfire!"
A smile lit up McGee's face for the first time in days as he steered his chair next to Ducky's. They focused their attention on the headless corpse, hoping that a successful identification of the body would lead them closer to Tony's abductor.
There had been no missing persons reports lodged in the Tri-State area during the past seven days that matched the description of their John Doe. The fingerprints had been removed; there was no head available for a dental ID and no discerning scars or birthmarks on the torso or limbs. Although the body had already been embalmed, Ducky located a small amount of blood clogged around the aorta that had allowed forensic tech, David Armstrong, to determine the type as O positive – they were still waiting for DNA results. As far as Ducky could ascertain, the man's vital organs had been in good condition and the exact cause of death was still unknown.
McGee had obtained hospital and funeral home records of all recorded deaths of white males, mid to late thirties, that fit the general description of their John Doe. He and Ducky began to cross check the lists, discounting those with gunshot or knife wounds, major traumas, organ failure and or those bodies ravaged by disease.
McGee's breath caught when the name Lance Harrison appeared on the funeral home list but did not appear on any hospital list. Further investigation and several late night calls revealed that Harrison had died from a sudden brain embolism at his home six days ago. His business magnate father had the family doctor pronounce his son's death at their home and his body was transported directly to the funeral home, by-passing any hospital involvement.
McGee hung up his desk phone and turned to Ducky.
"According to the funeral home, Lance Harrison's body was interred 3 days ago in the family burial vault at Oak Grove Memorial Park."
"If our deductions are correct and our John Doe is indeed Lance Harrison…"
"Then how did his body end up in the trunk of a car?" McGee asked.
"And who is currently occupying his coffin?" Ducky wondered grimly.
Tony woke with a start, still trapped in unrelenting darkness. He had never been as utterly petrified as he felt at this moment. His silent screams echoed in the vaults of his own mind. The air was hot and stifling and it was becoming harder to breathe. Thoughts of a horrifying death consumed him. Exhausted beyond measure, afraid and unable to fight anymore he simply let go. His heartbeat slowed and his breaths became shallow until they finally stuttered and stopped.
The blackness held him, cradled him gently in its grasp until a woman's voice sounded, disrupting the soothing silence.
"Don't do this, Tony!" the woman ordered firmly. "You can't do this to him! Do you hear me, Tony? He's coming for you – he always has and he always will. Hold on just a little longer. Dammit, Tony, breathe!"
Tony gasped noisily and took an unsteady breath, then another, then another until his breathing evened out and the woman spoke again.
"Atta boy, Tony. Just hold on. He's coming."
The voice should have left him terrified, fearing for his sanity but he was strangely calm as he closed his eyes and prayed that, one way or another, this nightmare would end quickly.
Gibbs handed the cab driver his fare and gingerly eased his way out of the vehicle before entering the front gates of Oak Grove Memorial Park.
With only the moonlight to guide him, he negotiated the flowerbeds, manicured lawns and the nearby open plots that had been recently excavated and cordoned off with safety tape. He cursed silently when he tripped over a pick handle left lying nearby.
He had been inexplicably drawn to his wife and daughter's grave sites in the middle of the night and, as he knelt beside the simple marble headstones, he started to doubt the sanity of his actions. The small vases at the base of the headstones contained the slightly wilted remains of the roses and daisies he had brought on his previous visit just four days ago. The deep apricot colored roses were Shannon's favorites. They only bloomed for a short time each spring but Gibbs had found a nursery with a hot house in DC that grew them all year round. He fingered the delicate petals of the daisies and smiled as he recalled Kelly's excitement the day they planted them in their garden at home.
As he wiped the fallen leaves and twigs from the headstones, he remembered the words of his antagonist.
'His blood is on your hands Gibbs.'
'He'll die in agony, alone. You can't save him.'
'You're too late Gibbs.'
'You're paying for Gibbs' sins. Do you understand? It's Gibbs' fault you're here.'
He scrubbed his hands over his face and released, a jagged, humorless laugh. He dismissed the warnings from his daughter as nightmares fueled by his concussion, pain meds and his concern and worry for his senior field agent. What was he doing here? Why had he felt so compelled to come here in the middle of the night when he should be searching for his agent?
He gently traced his fingers over the names inscribed on the headstones before bidding his family a heartfelt goodnight. He rose to his feet and began to turn away when a warm breeze gusted around him, kicking up the dirt and scattered leaves. He watched as one of Kelly's daisies was blown from the vase and skipped along the ground carried by the wind. It came to rest at the entrance of a nearby burial vault and Gibbs' gut clenched painfully when he read the inscription above the entrance.
"Resting in the arms of God."
Chapter 12: Chapter 12
"Resting in the arms of God."
Gibbs expelled a long breath and tried to compose himself. He had been coming to this cemetery regularly for nearly twenty years and, although he didn't remember ever having seen the inscription on the burial vault before, perhaps he had. Maybe the words had been locked away in the recesses of his mind and his concern and worry for Tony had brought them to the surface. He wanted to believe that…but he didn't.
He ran trembling fingers through his short hair as he desperately tried to separate reality from the vivid voices and images of his nightmares. Gibbs had built a reputation as a man known to frequently shun logic and reasoning to follow his gut…but even he struggled to understand what was happening here. He shook his head and cursed under his breath. He was all for intuition. But, had he crossed the line into delusional?
He looked back over his shoulder at the marble headstones marking the resting place of his wife and daughter and his heart ached with the still raw pain of their loss. There had to be a reason he had been drawn here tonight - he didn't believe in coincidences.
Was Tony here? Hurt, beaten, maybe even…he slammed the lid shut on any further devastating thoughts, knowing that the loss of the younger man might just tip him over the edge permanently. He had to find him and, although he had no plausible explanation, somehow he knew the answers were inside that burial vault.
Using his knife he forced the lock and opened the door, immediately aware of the pungent, stagnant air. He stepped into the unlit vault, somewhat relieved that the large translucent window high on the far wall allowed the moon to partially illuminate the interior. As his eyes adapted to the semi-darkness, he noted two coffins situated to the right of the entrance. The absence of footprints in the thick layer of dust on and around them indicated they had been undisturbed for some considerable time.
A sudden feeling of dread threatened to overwhelm him. As soon as he saw the highly polished metal casket against the far wall, he knew his agent was in it. His heart began to race as he walked unsteadily to the side of the casket. His hands were shaking as he reached for the clasps and he clenched his fists to still them before trying again. Taking a deep breath and holding it, he opened the lid.
A small involuntary gasp burst from his lips as his eyes fell upon his agent. Gibbs swallowed harshly, knowing that seeing Tony lying deathly still in the casket would feed his nightmares for years to come. DiNozzo's eyes were closed and his face was flushed, his sweat-dampened hair fell across his forehead.
The name came out in a raspy croak, barely above a whisper. Gibbs swallowed hard, but the result was the same.
"Tony?" The younger man didn't respond and Gibbs felt icy tendrils of fear wrap themselves tightly around his heart. He hesitated, afraid of what he might find until he saw the shallow rise and fall of the younger man's chest. Seeking confirmation, he gingerly pressed three fingers to Tony's throat, searching for a pulse. There! Weak and rapid and the former Marine's bones all but turned to water at the flutter under his fingertips.
Working quickly, he used his knife to cut the bindings from Tony's wrists and ankles, dropped the knife to the floor, then gently eased the duct tape from his agent's mouth. He winced at the heat radiating from Tony's fever-ridden body as he framed his face with his callused hands. Using his best command voice, he spoke again.
"Tony, look at me. Open your eyes and look at me."
Leaving his left hand cupped against one side of Tony's face, he tapped the fingers of his right hand against his cheek, relieved when his eyelids began to flutter slightly.
"That's it, open your eyes," Gibbs coaxed.
The eyelids opened to half-mast and familiar green eyes peered up at him, fever-bright and filled with fear and confusion. Several seconds passed before Gibbs saw the recognition seep into Tony's gaze and his breathing suddenly quickened.
"Boss?" he rasped, not daring to believe his eyes.
"Easy, Tony, breathe slowly," Gibbs instructed, his calm voice belying his own inner turmoil.
With strength born from overwhelming relief, Tony's body surged to a sitting position and his arms wrapped around the former Marine. Clutching the back of his shirt with both fists, he buried his face in Gibbs' shoulder as uncontrollable tremors vibrated through his body and threatened to tear him apart.
"She t-told me you'd c-come," Tony stated in a barely audible voice.
Shaken by the strength of his own emotions, Gibbs did the only thing he could…he held on tight, overwhelmingly grateful for the strength of the arms currently wrapped around him.
"I gotcha, Tony."
The words squeezed past Gibbs' constricted throat sounding hoarse and heavy as, unconsciously, he rocked their bodies gently back and forth as he had done so many times to comfort Kelly. His heart constricted at the unimaginable terror that had shattered the fortress surrounding Tony's emotions and left the younger man more exposed and vulnerable than Gibbs had ever seen him.
Tony continued to tremble, desperately trying to hold onto the vestiges of his self-control. He let the cadence of Gibbs' voice wash over him and felt his hand on his back, solid and comforting, anchoring him to the present.
After several minutes, Tony's energy flagged badly, the tremors diminished to shivers and Tony pulled back, struggling to reinstate his ever-present mask. Embarrassed by his loss of control, he lifted his head and swiped at his face with the sleeve of his shirt.
"B-Boss," he said, barely able to force the word past stuttering breaths and chattering teeth. "I ever t-tell you th-that I h-hate H-Halloween?"
"Shut up and breathe," Gibbs said, his harsh words spoken in the gentlest of tones.
He waited until Tony's breathing slowed then placed his hand on his agent's forehead wincing at the heat.
"How bad are you hurt?" he asked, before adding. "You tell me you're fine, DiNozzo, I'll hand you your ass."
"Wouldn't d-dream of it," Tony said with a grin that looked more like a grimace. "Chest hurts, h-hard to breathe. D-don't feel so good."
"You look like crap."
"Love you too, B-Boss."
Tony's grin suddenly disappeared and he sucked in a sharp breath, his eyes growing wild with panic.
"He's c-coming," he gasped. "Said h-he was c-coming back for me."
Gibbs took hold of the younger man's chin and turned his head to meet his gaze.
"Listen to me," he said firmly. "He wants you, he's gotta get through me first. You got that?"
Tony nodded gamely.
"I g-gotcha, Boss."
"Good. We're gonna get you outta here. Think you can walk?"
The lead agent adjusted his hold, preparing to take most of Tony's weight and help him to his feet. They exchanged a nod and then, after a silent three-count, Gibbs heaved the younger man over the side of the casket, shutting out Tony's stifled scream of pain and ignoring the renewed agony in his own head and side. Waves of darkness lapped at the edges of his vision as he took several unsteady steps, struggling to keep his feet.
Something in the casket caught his attention and he felt the blood drain from his face as he recognized the rare apricot-colored rose – Shannon's rose. With shaking fingers he reached out to touch the delicate petals, at a loss to know how it got into the casket. As his fingertips slid over the soft velvet of the rose, he heard again Tony's stuttered whisper, She told me you'd come.
Tony stumbled beside him bringing his attention back to the present and he wrapped his arm around his agent's waist feeling the heat and tremors running through Tony's body. As Gibbs drew his Sig, Tony's knees buckled, his eyelids fluttered and his chin dropped to his chest.
"Hey, DiNozzo!" Gibbs grunted, straining under the younger man's weight. "Stay with me, Tony!"
"M'up," Tony mumbled unconvincingly as he pulled himself upright, gritted his teeth against the pain and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.
They fell silent, Tony hurting too much to talk and Gibbs pouring all his flagging energy into moving them forward and out of the vault. Unable to carry the younger man, Gibbs guided Tony to a nearby bench before reaching for his cell to call McGee. Pacing anxiously, he pressed the on button several times before realizing that the battery was dead. His frustration boiled over and he heaved the cell into the night.
He scrubbed his face with his hands, desperate to get Tony to safety when he heard a soft gasp from behind him.
His stony expression belied his horror as he turned to see a badly disfigured man holding a knife to Tony's throat.
"Perhaps you will witness Anthony's death after all."
Chapter 13: Chapter 13
McGee suppressed a yawn as he guided the agency sedan through the suburban streets. He couldn't help but notice that the majority of houses featured elaborate displays of skeletons, jack-o-lanterns, ghouls and witches - all eerily lit in anticipation of the coming night. He checked the time on the console and realized that it was after midnight and Halloween had arrived.
From the time he was a small boy, McGee had always enjoyed Halloween; the costumes, the decorations, the trick or treating and parties. In fact, only a few short years ago, McGee's snow elf costume had been judged first runner-up at a large Halloween function.
The irony did not elude him that he and Ducky were on their way to Oak Grove Memorial Park to confirm whether the body of a man who had been interred almost a week ago was still in its final resting place. He shuddered as a cold shiver ran down his spine.
Ducky closed his cell with a loud click, bringing McGee's thoughts back to the present.
"That was the administrator of Oak Grove Memorial Park," Ducky said. "He is currently out of town; however, there is a full-time caretaker who lives in a trailer a short distance from the cemetery. He's arranging for the caretaker to meet us at the gate and escort us to the burial vault. Did you know, Timothy, that in parts of the United Kingdom the duties of the administrator are performed by a sexton? The word sexton is derived from the Medieval Latin word sacristanus meaning 'custodian of sacred objects'. Timothy? Are you alright, dear boy?"
"I've got a bad feeling about this, Ducky," McGee admitted. "We're only guessing that our headless John Doe is Lance Harrison. What if we open the casket and he's in there?"
"Then, I should think that would be sufficient confirmation that our assumptions were incorrect, don't you?"
"But we'd be back to square one – no closer to finding Tony or identifying our John Doe," McGee sighed. "And what if this is dangerous? Maybe I should call Roberts and have his team meet us at the cemetery in case we need back-up."
"In case we need back-up?" Ducky repeated incredulously. "It has been my experience, Timothy, that it is not the dead that seek to do you harm, it's the living."
"It's the living I'm worried about…Gibbs will kill me if anything happens to Tony while I'm wasting time at a cemetery."
"Nonsense!" Ducky admonished. "Jethro will understand that, with a distinct lack of evidence and the rest of your teammates indisposed, you followed every possible lead in your efforts to locate Anthony. It's what he trained you to do and he would expect no less from you…nor would I."
"Thanks, Ducky," McGee said, feeling some relief from the stress of the past few days. "I guess you're right."
"Of course I'm right," Ducky said confidently. "Now, buck up, dear boy, and let's have no more doom and gloom."
"It's Halloween and we're going to a cemetery in the middle of the night to make sure a dead man is still in his casket," McGee quipped grimly. "I think that's just cause for a little doom and gloom, don't you?"
A hand, gloved in black leather, cruelly fisted in Tony's hair and forced his head back as a cool metal blade bit painfully into his neck. Green eyes that only seconds before had been demanding to close were now wide with shock and fear.
Instinctively, Tony threw his hand to his neck and then gasped in pain as the blade slashed deeply across his palm. Forcing Tony to his feet and away from the bench, Chaney ensured his body was well-shielded behind the younger man, knowing that Gibbs wouldn't dare risk his agent by taking a shot.
Gibbs drew his Sig and aimed it in one fluid movement. His face was expressionless but his heart pounded painfully against his ribcage.
"Let him go, Chaney," he ordered his voice so fierce and full of anger that it was almost unrecognizable. "It's me you want, not him."
Chaney laughed bitterly, his breath hot against the back of Tony's neck.
"You remembered me, Special Agent Gibbs," he replied. "I'm flattered…but then again, my face is not easily forgotten these days."
"Put the knife down and step away," Gibbs ordered again.
"Anthony and I have unfinished business, don't we Anthony?" he asked, not receiving a response. "Now drop the gun."
The muscles along Gibbs' jaw line contracted and he bit down on his fear as he saw Chaney dig the knife a little further into Tony's neck. A thin red line appeared and began to produce tiny rivulets of blood that contrasted starkly against Tony's pallor as they trickled down his neck.
"Do it now!" Chaney screamed.
"Take it easy," the lead agent said as, reluctantly, he loosened his grip on his Sig Sauer and allowed it to hang from his finger by the trigger guard.
"Throw it over here," Chaney said. "Very carefully."
Gibbs tossed the gun in a gentle arc, noting exactly where it landed. His attention turned to his agent and he watched helplessly as the younger man swayed back and forth and battled to remain conscious.
Tony was almost out on his feet, gripped by fever and sweating profusely. His eyes were half closed and his head was held upright only by Chaney's harsh grip of his hair. Dark drops of blood continued to drip from Tony's hand, staining the lawn at his feet. He staggered as he struggled to remain upright, forcing Chaney to adjust his hold. He cried out in agony as broken ribs ground against broken ribs when Chaney's arm wrapped tightly around his chest.
With the knife still menacingly held at the younger man's throat Chaney looked up at the silver-haired agent, fierce intent clearly obvious in his eyes.
"You killed my son! David was the most important thing in my life. He died because of you!"
"No he didn't," Gibbs replied, holding his palms outward in a non-threatening manner and taking a small step forward.
The former Marine flicked his eyes to his agent, attempting to make eye contact but Tony's eyes were tightly closed, his chin resting on his chest as he fought against the pain. Gibbs was desperate to get his agent to a hospital fast. But, if he was going to attempt to jump Chaney, he needed the younger man's help to create a diversion.
"Why couldn't you have just left things alone?" Chaney sobbed, one side of his face contorting with emotion while the other was eerily motionless.
"I was doing my job," Gibbs explained calmly. "A Marine had been seriously injured."
"He came after me! I was protecting myself!" Chaney yelled.
"You left the scene without calling for help - the Marine nearly died," Gibbs said taking another small step.
"But he didn't die! David did – and it was your fault!" the man accused.
"You led MetroPD on a high-speed chase," Gibbs reasoned. "I didn't arrive until after you lost control and hit that tree."
"You could have helped him; you could have dragged David from the car and left me!"
It was clear to Gibbs that Chaney's distorted memories of that day had overtaken reality. Any other time he would feel for the man. But, right now, Chaney was holding a knife to his agent's neck and threatening to take his life. A torrent of emotion washed over the former Marine and an overwhelming protective instinct surged through his veins. He would fight to the death rather than allow this man to hurt Tony again.
He chanced another look at the younger man, relieved to see familiar green eyes looking back at him. Gibbs gave an almost imperceptible nod and felt his chest fill with pride when his agent returned a glance that silently communicated his understanding. Tony adjusted his stance, spreading his weight evenly and, without hesitation, he placed his life and his trust in his Boss' hands as he waited for the opportunity to strike.
"Coroner's report confirmed that David died instantly," Gibbs told Chaney. "He broke his neck. It wouldn't have mattered if we'd got him out of the car…he was already dead."
"No! You're lying!" Chaney roared.
"Your blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit," Gibbs said. "You killed your son the minute you got behind the wheel of that car."
"Shut up! Shut up!" Chaney shrieked, his trembling hand pointing the knife accusingly at Gibbs. "You left my son in the car and I was forced to watch him die…now it's your turn."
With all the strength he could muster, Tony stiffened his body and threw his head back catching Chaney completely by surprise. A short, stifled scream followed the unmistakable crunch of smashing bone beneath the scar-rimmed cavities that were all that was left of his nose.
His own knees buckled from the force of the blow and he held on tenaciously knowing his boss would undoubtedly have his six. In a blur of movement, Gibbs launched himself toward them, grunting in pain as the sutures in his side were ripped from his skin. With a forceful push he sent Tony sprawling to the ground in the direction of his Sig as he lunged for the deranged man and the knife.
Unable to control his fall, Tony hit the ground with bone-rattling force. The pain in his ribs blindsided him as it burgeoned to full-blown agony. As his world darkened, he saw Gibbs' Sig lying a few feet to his right. Gasping for breath, his vision narrowed to a mere pinprick of color and light and despite his desperate urging, his body steadfastly refused to move. The shadowy images of Gibbs and Chaney wrestling for the knife were the last he saw before oblivion overwhelmed him.
Chapter 14: Chapter 14
Gibbs wrapped his fingers over Chaney's as the two men grappled on the ground for control of the knife. As the struggle continued he bit back a curse, remembering he'd left his own knife in the burial vault after he'd freed Tony. Chaney twisted his body and the razor sharp blade loomed dangerously close to the agent's right eye. Gibbs doubled his efforts, his muscles trembling from exertion. Relief washed over him as the knife began to deviate away from his face in painstakingly slow increments.
He chanced a quick look in Tony's direction; his concern and panic battled for dominance as he realized the younger man had passed out. In his peripheral vision he recognized the garden faucet he'd used many times when filling Shannon and Kelly's flower vases. Throwing his weight to one side, he pitched and rolled, wrestling the other man's body along with him until the faucet was within reach. Altering his grip he pounded their hands against the steel post until, finally, Chaney released his hold and the knife dropped through the grate into the drain below.
Chaney's attention diverted to the growing bloodstain on Gibbs' shirt and his gloved fingers taloned and then squeezed the wound. The former Marine stifled a shout as his vision grayed around the edges and bile burned the back of his throat. Having discharged himself from the hospital only two hours before, he knew he was well below par and at a definite disadvantage. Without conscious thought, self-preservation kicked in and he let go a right cross that struck Chaney a mind-numbing blow to the temple, sending him stumbling backward.
Grateful for the respite, Gibbs fought to suppress the pain in his side and control his breathing. Battle-honed senses screamed danger and he forced his exhausted body to move. His heart stopped as Chaney staggered in the direction of the discarded Sig Sauer...and Tony. The younger man remained frighteningly still; unaware and completely vulnerable.
Unbridled anger and fear for Tony's safety combined to provide the huge surge of adrenalin that got Gibbs to his feet. Thoughts of his own painful injuries vanished in an instant as his intrinsic mile-wide protective streak came rushing to the fore. Tony was more than his agent and Gibbs would fight to the death to prevent Chaney from laying another hand on him.
Calling on his last reserves of energy, he yelled Chaney's name and ran directly at him with the speed and strength of a pissed-off grizzly bear. Leaning forward, he hit the other man under the ribcage with his shoulder. Gibbs kept his legs pumping; driving both men through the yellow safety tape surrounding two newly excavated graves. Losing their footing, they knocked over the wheelbarrow and tools that had been left by the grave sites and they crashed to the ground with a bone-jarring thud.
Breathless and stunned, Gibbs lay on his back, the wound in his side burning in white-hot agony. His chest heaved as he inhaled in huge gulps of air. He sensed movement above him and opened his eyes to see Chaney swinging a large garden spade at his head. He twisted and rolled, barely avoiding the impact as he regained his feet with a speed he didn't know he had left in him. He grabbed onto the long wooden handle before Chaney could pull it back. For an instant their eyes met, Gibbs' fierce and implacable, while Chaney's were filled with murderous rage. He could smell Chaney's sweat along with his own and hoped to hell the other man was hurting as much as he was.
The agent pulled backward with all his strength, trying to twist the spade out of Chaney's hands but the other man was stronger and Gibbs felt his fingers losing their grip. Instead of continuing to pull, he reversed his hold and shoved the handle straight into Chaney's face.
The blow knocked Chaney back a few stumbling steps and bought Gibbs a few precious seconds. He felt his energy levels dropping rapidly. The adrenalin charging his system and his desperate need to protect Tony were the only things keeping him on his feet. He was gasping for breath. No matter how much air he drew in, it wasn't enough. His arms and legs were trembling from his efforts. As Chaney advanced again, Gibbs knew he couldn't keep this up much longer. He had to bring this fight to an end, fast.
He clenched his fist tightly and put everything he had into a powerful right hook that connected flush on Chaney's jaw, snapping his head back with the force of the blow. The man's legs turned to jello as he staggered backward and tripped over the excavation tools strewn across the ground. He fell hard; a sickening crack sounded as he struck his head on a large marble headstone and stilled instantly.
Completely spent, Gibbs fell to his knees knowing nothing but pain and gasping breaths. He didn't remember losing consciousness but when he opened his eyes, he found himself face down on the manicured lawn. As the fogginess in his brain cleared his memories came rushing back. He looked to his right, noting that Chaney remained unmoved and then he focused his attention on Tony.
Still engulfed by the post-adrenaline rush that left him weak and trembling, he attempted to get to his feet but his legs refused to support him. He gritted his teeth against the agonizing protest of his abused body and began to drag himself several yards to where his agent lay.
In the soft glow of the moonlight, Gibbs could see his agent's too pale face. The younger man's eyes were closed but his brow furrowed at the sound of his name.
"DiNozzo? Hey, you with me?"
Fever-bright eyes slowly opened, then widened and filled with terror.
"No…no," he rasped painfully, slowly shaking his head.
Gibbs kept his distance. Tony was clearly disoriented and confused.
"Take it easy," he said, gently. "It's over. You're gonna be fine."
His agent's eyes were wild as he flung out one hand, desperately scrabbling for the gun. He bit his lip as the movement caused his face to twist in agony.
"Tony!" Gibbs called, alarmed by the younger man's reaction. "Tony, listen to me! It's all over, you're safe."
Tony's fingers found the Sig and he wrapped them around the grip. He gritted his teeth and swung his arm upward with all his remaining strength.
"Don't move….stay away," he gasped, looking as if he might fly apart at any moment. He was trembling so badly the gun kept wavering off target even with his two-handed grip.
Gibbs cursed at his inability to get through to his badly traumatized agent. The terrifying experience of the past few days appeared to have pushed the younger man over the edge. He drew a deep breath, regaining some composure with its slow expulsion, and attempted to speak around the huge lump in his throat.
"Tony, it's me…put the gun down. Let's go home."
"Stay back," he growled.
The confusion and fear in Tony's eyes changed to stark, undisguised horror.
"No!" he screamed.
Gibbs looked on helplessly as time slowed to a series of snapshot impressions. The barrel of the Sig wavered in his direction as Tony's finger slowly squeezed the trigger. Gibbs felt the heat of the bullet as it passed close to his head and he flattened himself against the ground.
As an agonized shriek sounded from behind him, he spun around to see Chaney's horribly disfigured face contorted with pain and fury. His arms were held over his head as he swung a pick in a downward arc toward Gibbs' head. Three more shots rang out and as the rapid-fire bullets tore through him, Chaney's body twitched and jerked in a macabre dance and the pick fell harmlessly to the ground. The lifeless form collapsed in the dirt, his eyes staring unseeingly up at the sky.
Tony lowered the weapon and his facial expression slackened. Gibbs made a grab for him as his eyelids fluttered and his eyes rolled back. He maneuvered them until he could lean against the bench and positioned Tony in front of him so the younger man could rest against him. He winced as the heat of Tony's fever registered through his clothes.
"I gotcha, Tony," he said in a strained whisper. "I gotcha."
Tony felt the security of the strong arms around him and his head thudded against Gibbs' shoulder as his world faded into blackness. The former Marine tightened his embrace, knowing how close he'd come to losing his agent. Pain and exhaustion called to him and he let his eyelids flutter shut as a familiar female voice spoke softly to him.
'You did it, Jethro, you found him.'
Gibbs opened his eyes, searching for the source of the words and choked back a heart-wrenching sob as an apparition of his wife and daughter gently rippled in the soft breeze. Their much-loved faces glowed in the moonlight as they smiled down at him.
'He held on knowing you'd find him…and you did. We're so proud of you, honey…of both of you!'
Gibbs rubbed his cheek against the top of Tony's head, unaware of his tears until he felt the wetness in the younger man's hair.
'Keep him close, Jethro, he needs you…and you need him. He's your family now.'
He struggled against unconsciousness as their images began to fade and a beloved sweet voice added.
'We love you, Daddy!'
As he rested his cheek against Tony's head, he thought he heard McGee's voice calling from far away but he was too far-gone, and the effort of fighting the pull of oblivion was too great.
Chapter 15: Chapter 15
They'd spent two days in a private room at Bethesda hospital; Tony suffering from a long list of ailments including concussion, broken ribs, dehydration and a severe infection of the knife wounds on his arm and chest that had resulted in a high fever. The wound in Gibbs' side had been re-sutured and his collection of bruises and lacerations treated. He was kept overnight for observation and discharged the following day but refused to leave until his agent could also be discharged.
As Tony burned with fever, terrifying nightmares of being trapped in the casket plagued him. Numerous times he cried out in his sleep, sweat-soaked and wild-eyed as his body trembled and his active mind replayed the shocking memories over and over. Gibbs waved away the nursing staff and pulled his agent close, grateful for the strong pain medication that plundered Tony's defensive walls and allowed him to accept physical comfort from the older man.
"I gotcha, Tony," Gibbs whispered. "Not going anywhere. I gotcha."
He held the younger man, making a silent vow to be there for as long as he was needed. He felt his own resolve falter as he glimpsed the horror that reflected in his agent's eyes. He tightened his embrace and Tony relaxed by aching degrees until his tormented face eased into that of innocent sleep.
The following morning, Gibbs quietly watched his team interacting. Hearing of Tony's abduction, Ziva and Abby had cut short their trip to New Orleans and fussed over him like two mother hens. McGee, Palmer and Ducky joined the fray and Gibbs realized once again how important these people had become in his life.
Tony was pale and washed out with shadows under his eyes and a flush on his cheeks from the fever. Gibbs watched his senior field agent tenaciously hold his mask in place as he teased McGee about Abby catching the bouquet at her brother's wedding. His tone was light and believable, giving his friends no hint of his inner turmoil. Tony had become far too good at hiding the pain over the years but Gibbs knew this young man too well to fall for that. Meeting his glance, Tony treated Gibbs to a small travesty of a smile, one of those little quirks of the lips that didn't reach his eyes…but he knew his boss wasn't buying it.
There had never been a question about where Tony would go to recuperate when he was released from the hospital. From the moment they'd met in Baltimore and the gruff former Marine tucked the young detective firmly under his wing, Gibbs' home had quickly become the one place where the younger man could close the door on the harsh realities of life - and Gibbs wouldn't have it any other way.
Their relationship covered many spectrums – they were partners, friends, mentor and student, surrogate father and son. But, one thing was certain - whatever and whoever else came into their lives, it would always be their constant.
Two days had passed since their release from Bethesda and while the lead agent was pleased that the frequency of Tony's nightmares had diminished, he was concerned that his agent still appeared thoroughly exhausted. He studied the strong face; the bristle of a newly grown shadow, the dark bruises of fatigue stark against pale skin - and anger welled up inside him like a dark tide as realization dawned. DiNozzo wasn't sleeping better; in his desperation to avoid his terrifying nightmares, the younger man had just stopped sleeping! Gibbs had to admit that the intrinsic stubbornness of the man was one of his best but most infuriating attributes.
"Hit the rack, DiNozzo," Gibbs growled. "That's an order."
Surprise was quickly replaced by defiance in Tony's eyes but he kept his tone light.
"All due respect, Boss, I'm a little old to be sent to my room. Especially when, strictly speaking, it's not even my room."
"Walk upstairs, take your meds and get some damn sleep or I'll knock you out and carry your ass up there! Your choice."
They stood toe to toe in a battle of wills, neither willing to give an inch - until Gibbs realized the younger man perceived his nightmares as weaknesses. The strong medication at the hospital may have knocked down Tony's defensive walls but now he was doing all he could to rebuild and reinforce them. He was doing what he always did – coping the best way he could.
Running his fingers through his short silver hair, Gibbs offered a rare compromise and suggested they watch one of the many classic movies Tony had given him over the years. He took a seat in the armchair leaving the couch for his agent. As the movie played, Gibbs glanced surreptitiously as Tony's eyelids grew heavier and heavier until he lost his battle with exhaustion and, finally, his breathing slipped into the deep, even cadence of sleep.
Throwing a light afghan over his slumbering agent, Gibbs took advantage of the warm evening and took his coffee onto the back deck. He sighed audibly when Tony appeared less than an hour later.
"Thought you were sleeping," he said.
"I was," Tony replied, taking a seat on the vacant deck chair and tucking his hands into his armpits to hide the trembling remnants of his latest nightmare.
Gibbs looked at him, one brow arched and Tony shrugged, offering his most irreverent grin in reply.
"It was a power nap."
Noting the dark smudges under his eyes that silently dispelled the notion he got any kind of beneficial sleep, Gibbs remarked.
"Not powerful enough. You still look like crap." He got to his feet ignoring the popping of his knees and turned to walk inside. "Time for dinner. I'll order a pizza."
Tony grimaced slightly. "I'm not really hun-"
Gibbs haltered the objection with a menacing glare. This had to stop.
"You make me eat a sausage and pepperoni pizza with extra cheese by myself, DiNozzo, you'll be eating your next meal through a straw, you got that?"
"I got it," his agent dutifully replied before calling after him. "Don't mean to sound ungrateful here Boss, but your bedside manner could use a little work."
When the pizza was delivered they sat on the couch to watch the rest of the movie but both men were lost in their own thoughts and neither paid it any attention.
Generally speaking, Gibbs and Tony had never been very good at talking - words just weren't their thing - never had been. Most of the time the silence spoke more eloquently and they communicated on a level that didn't need explaining; speaking from the heart without uttering a word; offering unwavering support with a nod of the head or a knowing look; words of affection were rarely spoken but they were felt just the same.
As a child, Tony had developed a self-defense mechanism that both strengthened and isolated him and was damn hard to crack. His usual method of dealing with hurt was to hide it behind a façade of nonchalance and humor until he could stuff the pain down far enough to function. He kept it all inside, relaxing the stranglehold on his emotions only in moments of great vulnerability or when Gibbs managed to pour half a bottle of bourbon into him. As Gibbs looked at the younger man, he knew it wouldn't be too long before he cracked the seal on another bottle.
It was a source of great pride for the former Marine that Tony sought him out when he was hurt or confused or needed another perspective. Yet, Gibbs knew that he couldn't push, that Tony would talk in his own time and not before.
The movie had finished and reverted to the Ryder Cup highlights before either man noticed. After ensuring Tony took his meds, Gibbs placed the leftover pizza in the fridge and suggested they call it a night.
Ironically, sleep also proved to be frustratingly elusive for Gibbs. He lay on his bed staring at the ceiling; the light of the moon shining through his bedroom window suffused the room in a soft silvery luster. He laced his fingers behind his head and for what seemed like the hundredth time, he attempted to recall each step of the investigation into Tony's abduction - seeking logic where there was none, reason that didn't exist and understanding from the incomprehensible.
His wife and daughter were frequent visitors in his dreams; the pain of their loss had never dulled, and it was not the first time that he had seen Kelly in an apparition. Trapped in a submerged car, his lungs burning from lack of oxygen, he'd seen his daughter's image and heard her much loved voice. But while the father in him ached to believe that Kelly was somehow reaching out to him, the trained investigator had dismissed the incident as the onset of hypoxia. But this time was different…there were so many unanswered questions, so much that couldn't be explained.
Kelly's frantic voice had come to him in nightmares, correctly predicting the danger at the large Halloween attraction where he had been attacked and injured. It told him of the camouflaged hunting shack where Chaney had smeared Tony's blood in a chilling message on the walls. The voice had warned him to hurry – "he" was dying, it had said before the chilling statement "He's here with us now, Daddy. He's resting in the arms of God."
All of those messages had come to him in his sleep and could be attributed to stress, his concussion or pain meds. But how could he explain the small white daisy that danced across the ground from Kelly's grave to the entrance of the burial vault? What justification existed to explain the deep apricot-colored rose he'd found in the casket with Tony? And when the younger man had breathlessly declared, "She told me you'd come," to whom had he been referring?
The statement Gibbs had given from his hospital bed was sketchy at best and deliberately vague at worst. Neither McGee nor Vance had called him on it, presuming that his concussion had impaired his memory of what took place that night…maybe it had. When Tony had been well enough to give his statement, there wasn't much he could add but Gibbs had the distinct impression that, like him, there was a lot the younger man was omitting.
He sighed and tried to block the too-vivid image of Tony lying pale and still in the casket, knowing it was going to be a very long time before it failed to cause his breath to catch whenever it sprang into his mind. The deeply disturbing memory was still too fresh.
A stifled cry rent the silence of the house. Gibbs tensed as he heard the creaking of the floorboards in the hallway and bare feet quickly descending the stairs as if being chased by a demon. A stumble and a subsequent curse followed as Tony crossed the living room and exited the patio door leading to the back deck. Gibbs heaved a huge sigh and scrubbed his face with his hands.
He twisted to look at the clock, feeling the pull of the sutures in his side and noting it was zero one hundred. He climbed to his feet with a groan, noting that his muscles and bruises now only yelled in protest when he stretched rather than screaming in agony. He made his way down the stairs to the kitchen and switched on the light, making his presence known so that he wouldn't startle his agent. As he waited for the coffee to boil and the pizza to reheat, he watched the younger man through the kitchen window.
Tony was seated on the steps to the landing, his chest heaving as he gently rocked back and forth. Even in the dim light, Gibbs could see that his hair and his shirt were soaked with sweat and his cheeks wore the blush of fever that seemed to revisit each night.
Gibbs balanced the coffee and pizza and walked out to the deck, taking a seat beside the younger man and offering the pizza.
"Eat," he said not about to take no for an answer.
Now breathing a little easier, Tony rubbed his face with both hands before taking a slice of pizza.
"Thanks," he said, in a voice Gibbs could barely hear.
Gibbs passed him a mug of coffee, grimacing in sympathy as Tony's trembling hands spilled the hot liquid over the rim onto his fingers.
Tony took a sip of coffee, sucking in a breath as the alcohol it contained warmed his throat and trailed a comforting fire down deep in his gut.
"Ah, Boss," Tony rasped. "Ducky said no alcohol."
"You see Ducky here anywhere, DiNozzo?"
"Nope," he said with a ghost of a grin. "No Ducky here."
They sat quietly, until they'd finished their coffee and pizza and Gibbs produced the bottle of bourbon and half-filled the mugs.
"You okay?" Gibbs asked.
"Just a little claustrophobic," Tony laughed hollowly. "Needed some fresh air."
Gibbs nodded silently, allowing Tony to set the pace of the conversation.
"We've faced all kinds of shit in this job, Boss. I don't know why this is getting to me."
"It's on your list."
"Of the worst ways to die," Gibbs told him as the young man returned a puzzled look. "Heard you tell Kate a few years back. Your three worst ways to die were getting eaten by a shark, falling in a wood-chipper and-"
"Being buried alive," Tony said nodding at the memory. "Well, now you can add being the main course at a madman's weenie roast."
"What you went through would shake anyone up. But you did the hard part…you survived. S'only been a few days. Give it time…you'll get past this. Just like always."
The absence of doubt in the older man's eyes caused Tony's throat to close and he swallowed hard to maintain control.
"Yeah." His voice came out as a strained whisper. "Thanks, Boss…you know…for coming for me…for saving my life."
"It's what you do for family," Gibbs replied softly. "Thought you'd know that by now."
"No one gets left behind, right?" Tony said, the bourbon washing away the residual effects of the nightmare and the last of the shakes.
"Bet your ass," the team leader's low, tight voice told more eloquently than words how deeply Tony's latest brush with death had affected him. "Besides, debt's already paid with interest."
"What do you mean?"
"You saved my life and I still got both my ears. Your aim's improved since Columbia."
"Still say that wasn't my fault," Tony protested with a smile that faded to the barest curve of his lips. "Sorry we did get to celebrate Halloween, Boss."
"Celebrate it? Hell, DiNozzo, we lived it!"
"I know you wanted this year to be different...to be...better," he said, unsure of whether to mention Gibbs' daughter.
Gibbs snaked an arm around Tony's shoulders and gently squeeze the nape of his neck.
"Halloween was a bust...but Thanksgiving's gonna be huge."
They exchanged a grin and clinked their coffee mugs in a silent toast, knowing that they both had a lot to be thankful for.
They spent the next thirty minutes sitting companionably side by side in the cool night air. Gibbs saw so many things in Tony's eyes; things he was unwilling or unable to speak about, at least not tonight. The former Marine knew that for all Tony's usual volubility, he was extremely close-mouthed when it came to discussing his true feelings. Another night, another bottle of bourbon and Tony would open up to Gibbs and, hopefully, put his demons to rest.
What he needed right now was a good night's sleep. As the younger man's eyes started to close, Gibbs gave him a nudge and, for the third time that night, he told him to hit the rack. As Tony attempted to get to his feet, he found to his embarrassment that exhaustion, pain meds and his bourbon nightcap had conspired against him and his trembling limbs weren't ready to cooperate. Taking hold of his elbow, Gibbs helped his agent to his feet, back through the living room and up the stairs to the guest room. He stumbled against the nightstand, upsetting but not breaking an empty vase, and tumbled into bed.
"M'fine, Boss," he mumbled when he saw Gibbs had taken some spare pillows from the linen chest and moved the overstuffed armchair beside the bed.
"Go to sleep, DiNozzo," Gibbs said, making himself as comfortable as possible.
"You don't need to stay," Tony muttered almost incoherently.
For all his protesting, his eyes opened briefly as if to ensure his boss was by his side. A soft "night, Boss" followed and, this time, when he closed his eyes, sleep was too insistent to be resisted and he drifted off to sleep.
Gibbs gave a tiny shake of his head and allowed a quick grin. DiNozzo brought out both ends of the emotional range in the former Marine. He could irritate him to the ends of his patience and he could bring out his strongest paternal instincts. Nearly losing Tony had irrevocably driven home the fact that you don't need to come from the same gene pool to be family.
Counting on his instincts to wake him if Tony needed him, Gibbs fell into a sound sleep the moment his head hit the pillow.
The sweet sound of his daughter's laughter delighted him and he watched transfixed as Kelly and Shannon planted their daisies in the back garden. The sun shone brightly bringing out the red in their long hair as they giggled and talked with a closeness only shared between mother and daughter. He felt his chest fill and overflow with love. This was the image he would take back to the Gulf for his next tour. This was the image he would do anything in the world to return home to.
As Gibbs hovered at the cusp between dreaming and waking he felt a feather-soft touch against his lips and another on his cheek. He woke to find the sun streaming through the window and Tony still out like a light, having slept through the night for the first time since his abduction.
Untangling his legs from the blanket that had twisted around him, he climbed to his feet and felt his muscles sigh in relief as he stretched his back and shoulders. He felt relaxed and refreshed despite the less than ideal sleeping conditions.
A familiar scent floated on the gentle morning breeze and Gibbs turned toward the nightstand. His breath caught and his heart quickened at the sight of the vase filled with deep apricot-colored roses and white daisies.