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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 10:32 pm 
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Senior Field Agent
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Joined: Thu Nov 15, 2012 8:40 pm
Posts: 10893
Location: ORLANDO
Title: "Grayscale"
Rating: FR15 (rated for strong language, sexual situations, graphic imagery, and violence)
Category: GEN
Genre: Casefile, Drama
Characters: Tony DiNozzo, Tim McGee, and team + original characters
Spoilers: Season 12

Summary: When DiNozzo makes a choice that jeopardizes both his career and his integrity, the fallout pits friend against friend and leads to some uncomfortable revelations. Is this who Tony really is, underneath it all, or has he been stretched to his breaking point?

Author’s Note: Set approx. one month post Season 12 finale (spoilers!) Contains canon pairings only. Tony-centric with McGee playing a pivotal role. This story is a weird combination of what I like to write and what I (usually) hate to write. Hope it works.

Acknowledgments:
Thanks go first to Madeline (Fingersnaps) for the prompt and for supporting me through the writing process. Also musical thanks to Radiohead and Thom Yorke for writing really creepy, weird music that fueled the muse for this one. Super very special creative thanks to Sarah (flootzavut) for tolerating my crazy babbling, and to Sheila (hazel mom) for also listening to a fair bit of babbling and even a few annoying text messages before I’d even put a word on paper, and for her suggestion of one plot point I decided to add (after I initially shot it down.) Thanks all!

Warnings: Dark themes & subject matter; crime against a child, major trigger (suicide)





GRAYSCALE


Courage. Intelligence. Loyalty.
It’ll only take you so far.







to preface it







“One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl… Three for a girl. I’m stuck on three, I just can’t get any further. My head is thick with sounds, my mouth thick with blood. Three for a girl. I can hear the magpies—they’re laughing, mocking me, a raucous cackling. A tiding. Bad tidings. I can see them now, black against the sun. Not the birds, something else. Someone’s coming. Someone is speaking to me. Now look. Now look what you made me do."

from The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins



***



July 8, 2015
Early morning.



Stumbling across the gravel access road, he carried something awkward and bulky in his arms. He scaled a low metal fence, climbed up the boulders that blocked the harbor from the open bay. He tripped up more than once, twice, almost falling but always catching himself. Drunk, or close to it. A small arm swung loosely from the bundled sheets—little fingers Crayola stained, wrist red and raw, pink bandaid on a thumb.


Under white moonlight, the Chesapeake’s currents swirled strong on one side, calm on the other. All of it black. Endless and black. Pinprick lights shone from the far shore, blinking, some white, more red. The tide gulped and gurgled against the rocks.


They reached the end of the breakwater, and there he mumbled, “Look what you’ve done. Look what I’ve done”


Dawn would break in an hour, or longer. But for now the darkness pressed in from all sides as the moon dodged in and out behind clouds, winking at the quiet harbor below.


He wedged the bundle between the rocks, just above the water, and that's where he left it.


“Look. Look what you’ve gone and made me do.”


That’s where he left her.


***



July 16, 2015
Interrogation Room B, NCIS



Lewis Wilson — marine, grieving father, murder suspect — had aged decades since the day a fisherman found his daughter’s dead body on a rock jetty miles from home.


He’d aged decades since that phone call. Decades since he’d been informed that nothing would ever be right or good or whole again. He hadn’t remembered what was said, what platitudes had been extended his and his wife’s way. The useless phrases, rote and tired: “We’ll do everything we can.” “I’m sorry for your loss.” “We’re gonna get the bastard who did this.” Everything from that point on — the phone call: “your daughter is dead.” — had melded into a blur of numb shock.


But before that, from the moment he and Tracy realized Lucy was gone, taken, stolen, GONE — everything had hurled onward at a frenzied, frantic pace. Because she was still out there. Somewhere. Waiting for them, her loving parents, to rescue her from wherever dark place she’d been hidden. There was hope.


Until the phone call. Until seeing her. Cold. Gray. Pink bandaid on her thumb — she’d gotten stung by an ant the day before. Oh, had she cried, and cried, and cried, and they’d kissed it all better. Marker stained hands — she’d been drawing the morning she was taken. The stick horse and the stick people and a shape that might have been the family dog, the masterpiece stuck to the refrigerator.


More platitudes. Sad faces. Pitying faces.


The grief had come to stay, lodged somewhere near his heart — right next to where he kept his little girl, now a gaping hole. His wife — her mother — was broken, like a bird struck by a stone, wing shattered, fluttering in circles on the grass.


The anger had come, too. Rage.


Violence.


And now he sat here at a table in Interrogation Room B. The lighting was bright, clinical. Probably showed all the lines in his now decades’ too old face. Across the table sat a man he’d come to vaguely know over the past several days. He wore a suit and tie, as usual, expensive, and he held a file with his name on it. Maybe it contained everything about him. His life. His guilt. His act of cold rage.


Gunnery Sergeant Lewis Wilson: Marine, grieving father, murder suspect.


But they’d prepped before this, rehearsed it, because this man, Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo, already knew what he’d done.


Hadn’t witnessed it. Hadn’t heard a confession. But he knew.


He stared at DiNozzo’s hands as if for the first time. Inspected them. Nails kept short and neat. Trigger finger callused from too much time on the trigger. No ring, but today there was a pink bandaid around one finger. Like Lucy’s.


It had started to peel. Like Lucy’s.


They’d rehearsed this.


After the questions, he walked out of the room into the hallway, dazed, where another agent escorted him back to the main entrance. There were some sympathetic looks, most from the blond agent who accompanied DiNozzo in the room, and some doubtful looks, most from the tall, skinny agent who stayed outside.


He felt DiNozzo watching, felt the weight of his eyes on his back. Following him. He wondered when he’d collapse under it all, the grief, the guilt.


Lewis Wilson: marine, grieving father…


Killer.


This was either some sort of twisted game, or fate was smiling on him, taking pity on him.


Wilson: mouse.


DiNozzo: cat.


And that cat had let him go.


***



Tony stared at Wilson’s back until he’d turned the corner.


Wilson didn’t have the face of a killer; then again, it wasn’t easy to tell, most times. His was the face of a father — grieving, angry, confused. A man bent to his breaking point. Maybe he wouldn’t have done it if Tony hadn’t given him the idea, vague and obscure as it was. Just that small bit of information.


Truth was, Tony didn't see Gunnery Sergeant Lewis Wilson sitting on the other side of that table; he saw Gibbs. All he saw was Gibbs. And that's what made this situation even worse.


That's why Tony did what he did.


That’s where the seed began to germinate.


After he pocketed the shell casings.


After he told McGee — none too gently — that he’d “handle it.”


After a dozen other unrelated events weeks, months, years before.


Something clicked. Then it broke.


And he knew it was wrong, but he did it anyway.






--
The comments section is here.

___________________________
Words in this post: 1302
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"He's thrown a kettle over a pub. What have you ever done?"
- Gareth Keenan

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Last edited by K9Lasko on Wed Jul 01, 2015 12:27 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Sat Jun 27, 2015 4:41 pm 
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Senior Field Agent
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Joined: Thu Nov 15, 2012 8:40 pm
Posts: 10893
Location: ORLANDO
PART ONE
[1/2]





September 15, 2015


Gibbs stood at his mailbox, separating the important stuff from the junk stuff. A few bills, a letter from USAA, a vehicle trade-in offer, pages of dollar store flyers. Something smaller fell to the concrete. Frowning, Gibbs stooped to pick it up. It was a postcard. Colorful, a painting of a woman at market surrounded by fruit. “Cartagena Magica” it read.


When he flipped it over, he immediately recognized the handwriting. A loopy kind of chicken scratch that seemed to defy an expensive boarding school upbringing.


The message wasn’t long. A handful of words.


Gibbs,
How did it feel,
getting away with it?

Yours,
Tony





***




July 8, 2015


Five a.m.


Zoe was still asleep in the bedroom, naked on disheveled sheets, but Tony hadn’t slept since he’d woken inexplicably at quarter to three. He hadn’t slept well for the past month. Not at all some nights, and he looked it: dark smudges under his eyes, skin sallow and sagging on his face, posture slumped.


He tried running himself tired at night. Tried taking hot baths to calm frayed nerves. Tried a bunch of other things that were supposed to be “relaxing”: Reading. Meditating. Cooking. Sex.


Zoe plied him with the sex, and often, which always used to be fun. But now it was as fun as brushing his teeth or vacuuming. Necessary, but not entirely pleasurable. Like a chore, or a favor.


Getting older, he told himself.


Now when he wanted to unwind, he went to the gun range and shot up paper targets that looked vaguely person-shaped. He could shoot for hours, if he let himself. It was the only thing that seemed to work, watching bullets punch through paper.


He wore nothing but boxer shorts as he filled a coffee mug, quarter hazelnut creamer, three quarters actual coffee. He sat on the couch, TV on but muted. It filled the small room with jumping bright light.


By now, Zoe’s place felt familiar. He knew his way around the kitchen and the living room, and most nights he stayed over, he waited until she was awake before leaving for work, if he could. He thought it would be weird dating an old friend, someone he hadn’t seen or talked to for years, but they’d picked up where they left off. Joked and teased with easy familiarity. Even their arguments were familiar.


He stared at the wall, stared at the faces broadcasting the early morning news, sipped coffee and thought about going on a run. There wouldn’t be anymore sleeping this morning, and besides, he had to leave for work in a couple hours.


Maybe he’d make breakfast for Zoe. Surprise her with French toast or something equally unhealthy—an apology drenched in butter, cinnamon and syrup after he could barely get it up last night in bed.


Again.


He was tired. Distracted. That’s what he told Zoe. That was his excuse. And that’s what he honestly hoped it was. Most nights now they made do with only lazy kissing. If Zoe was disappointed, she never let it show.


His phone buzzed on the coffee table. He jumped for it; anything for another distraction from the endless rounds through anxiety and paranoia.


“Hi,” he answered, recognizing the number.


“Did I wake you?” asked the woman on the other end of the call.


“No,” he said, keeping his voice quiet. He sat back on the couch and rubbed a hand over his face. “I’m already up. You okay? What’s going on?”


“Can’t sleep. You?”


“Same.”


“Can I come over?”


“Uh, now’s not really a good time.”


“I’m already outside your building.”


Tony squeezed the bridge of his nose. “I’m not there.”


“Oh.”


“Yeah.” He heard Zoe shifting around on the bed in the other room. “Look, I gotta go.”


“You said I could call you whenever,” she pressed.


“I know. I did. And you can. You should. Whenever you need to.”


“Okay. Talk soon.”


Tony disconnected the call and looked up to find Zoe standing half-dressed in the doorway. He smiled and stood up to embrace her.


“Who was that?” she asked, tone conversational.


“Work,” he lied as he kissed the side of her mouth. “Which is what I should be getting ready for.”


“It’s early. Did you sleep at all?”


“Yeah.”


She patted his stubbled cheek and headed for the adjoining kitchen. “You look like death warmed up in the microwave.”


“Thanks.” Tony sipped at his lukewarm coffee as she rooted around for something in the refrigerator. The sweetness of the creamer made his jaw ache.


“You know,” she said, “I realize that communication was never your strong suit, Tony, but you know I speak and understand English, right?”


Tony kept sipping. One thing he always liked about Zoe was her snark. That had definitely remained intact over the years.


“And if there’s something bothering you, we can talk about it. We need to talk about things.” She was making a lot of noise.


“We talk about a lot of things.”


“We talk about movies, television shows, guns, how fake the channel 4 news guy’s toupee looks, what to have for dinner…”


“Those sound like great things to talk about.”


“Where in the—?” Zoe swore at the refrigerator.


“On the counter,” Tony answered, then said, “I feel like we’ve had this discussion before.”


“There it is. Thank you. And yes, we have.” She soon joined him on the couch, coffee of her own in hand. She looked at his face, as if searching for some kind of clue. “You’re just… off. Have been since you got back. Since your boss got shot.” Then she shook her head. “I’m just worried.”


“Don’t worry.” He grinned, boyish and charming and toothy. “It’ll give you wrinkles.”


“Fine.” She slapped his leg. “You mailed the Netflix thing, right?”


“Yup,” he nodded. “What’s next on the list?”


“A Clockwork Orange.”


“I probably own that movie,” Tony said.


“I love that movie.”


It was a weird movie to love, but it was yet another reason their relationship worked.


Zoe leaned into him, kissed him, and he relaxed. With lazy words she said, “Date tonight? Here.”


And he said, “okay,” as he returned her kiss, hand wandering down her belly, skin hot to the touch. For a moment, maybe he could forget. Maybe he could promise her that everything was all right.


***



Ellie Bishop tapped a pen against her desk as she chewed on a granola bar. She stared at the empty space, Gibbs’ empty desk, across the way, largely untouched since that day about a month ago. Seemed longer, somehow. Time had slowed without the immediate threat of The Boss.


The Boss didn’t suffer fools gladly. He demanded. He ordered. He knew what he wanted, and he knew how to go about getting it. He pushed them. Everybody on his team had their place, their use—and they all knew where they fit.


Ellie thought at first she’d chafe against that style of leadership. But soon she’d grown to depend on it. Here, she wasn’t just an analyst. Here, she couldn’t simply get lost in her own head over some obscure problem or question. Here, she needed to be pushed and challenged and watched.


Here, she was a field agent who carried a weapon, who served warrants, who investigated real crimes in real time.


“It’s weird without Gibbs here," she said out loud.


"I know," McGee agreed, mildly. He'd spent the past hour re-organizing his email inbox... for the third time this week. He’d gone through several documents pertaining to a few recently closed cases, and a fresh lead on a cold case had led them to nothing but more dead ends. In between that, there was the tip line, which typically brought forth nobody but busy-bodies and crazy people—adultery, adultery, adultery. An ex hanging around too often. Midnight liaisons. Domestic disputes. Sexual harassment.


And there was paperwork. Always paperwork.


With Gibbs out on medical leave after the Iraq incident, Tony had taken on the role of acting team lead. Tony and McGee had decided to share the bulk of the paperwork, throwing a few scraps Ellie's way as well. She needed the experience. She was happy for it. The guys laughed at her enthusiasm over filling out an office supply requisition form.


"It's so—“ Ellie went on.


"Don't say it," Tony warned from his own desk. He had arrived before them, and he hadn’t moved much since eight a.m. He had that smile on his face, a bit painted on and forced. Like he was afraid that if he stopped smiling, somehow something would break, and maybe the earth would stop turning and they’d all fall off. Or something like that. So he thought he ought to keep smiling, just to be safe.


That was Ellie’s own creative interpretation. She knew there was a lot she didn’t know about Tony. And any further attempts to get to know him were foiled by that same plastic grin. Whenever she complained to McGee about something Tony’d done or said, he always explained, voice conciliatory, “You’ve got to get to know him…” And she always wanted to snap, “That’s the problem!”


Watching Tony now, Ellie played dumb. ”Say what? Quiet?”


Tony shot her a look. "Great."


"Aren't you bored?" Ellie asked him. If she was bored, he had to be. They all had to be.


"The boss’ll be back soon enough. Then you'll regret ever missing him," Tony deadpanned. He winked at her.


Tony didn’t lead like Gibbs. He encouraged close collaboration. He and McGee called the little meetings “campfires” with knowing looks pointed at each other. (Bosom buddies, those two. A shared past.) Ellie didn’t mind the campfires. It worked better than shouting across the bullpen. And sometimes it felt better to be talked with than talked at.


But still—Gibbs pushed her. Tony didn’t, either because he didn’t have the time, didn’t know how, or simply didn’t want to. He coached her, sure, let her do things, too. But mostly he left her alone.


He even let her sit on the floor with her earbuds in. He didn’t seem to care.


She missed Gibbs.


The phone on his empty desk rang.


"See what you've done?" McGee said as Tony leapt up to grab it.


Leaning awkwardly over the desk, Tony answered with enthusiasm, "Gibbs' desk, this is very special acting team lead Anthony Di—“ He stopped, smile fading as he listened.


McGee and Ellie exchanged worried looks.


"Yes, sir," Tony finally said, scribbling something on a post-it note. "Got it... I understand." He hung up the phone, thrust the post-it note in McGee's lap, and reached under his own desk for his backpack. "I need you to McGPS that. Quick like a bunny."


McGee looked at the note on which Tony had hastily scribbled an address. He didn't know exactly where it was, but he knew it was somewhere near the harbor. “New case?"


"That was Vance," Tony said, as he attached his holster to his belt.


Ellie seemed confused. "I thought he was on vacation with his kids."


“Back early. He wants us on this case. A bad case. Someone he knows, personally.” Tony was already headed for the elevator. "Dead kid."


McGee followed him quickly. Ellie scrambled after them, saying as the door slid closed, “Why’d he call Gibbs’ phone?”


“Because technically, he’s still the boss," Tony said, before challenging, "But if you don't think we can handle it without him, I suggest you just stay here, Bishop. Otherwise, you can shut up and follow orders. Got it?"


McGee raised his brows at Tony’s strong language but didn't move to intervene.


Ellie didn't bark back. She simply nodded and said, "I got it."


The doors opened, revealing the parking garage and beyond that, bright morning sunlight and warm summer air.


"Good," Tony said, trying to relieve the tension that had built up amongst the three of them. "Last one to the truck buys us all lunch.”


***



Nine a.m.


The temperature hovered between early morning cool and noon-time hot. Humid yet still breezy. Pale blue sky, cloudless. Haze gone for now, until the afternoon, when the pollution would rise from the pavement downtown and spread.


The NCIS Medical Examiner's van was already on scene by the time the team arrived. Jimmy Palmer gave them a jaunty wave from where he readied the gurney and gathered a few other sundry items needed to move a body from dumping ground to morgue.


Tony parked the truck on the shoulder of the gravel access road. Several patrol cars also lined the road. A few metro, a couple county, one harbor security. Local police had long been active here, taping off the area, securing the scene, flagging down potential witnesses.


A few late morning joggers, all in tight pants and headbands, had stopped to gawk, and a couple boats headed out for the bay idled slowly, drifting at a speed that matched the lazy breeze. Tony could see Dr. Mallard’s stooped form out on the end of the rock jetty; he crouched down over something. A detective gingerly made his way back toward the road, cheap loafers likely no match for slick boulders.


"Tim, can you liaise with these cops?" Tony asked. Then he turned to Ellie, who had the camera already in hand, ready. "Take pictures. Remember what I told you. We need close ups, but we also need perspective. Better to take too many than not enough."


She nodded.


While McGee intercepted the detective, Tony stepped over the small metal fence, more decoration than security, and navigated the boulders to get to Ducky, Ellie following a few feet behind.


The veteran ME had a dark look on his face that didn't quite fit with the beautiful, sunny day on the harbor. "Tony," he greeted simply.


Tony looked down at what Ducky had been crouching over.


The blow flies had gotten here before anybody else. They swarmed wildly in the air above and congregated near the eyes, the nostrils, the mouth.


The child's body, naked and half-wrapped in a sheet, was wedged between two black boulders. Water lapped over her forehead, eyes half open, and blond hair fanned out around it. Tony could already see the dark bruising on her throat. He swallowed hard and rubbed his fingers just below his mouth.


Ellie must have already taken a look, too, because she'd moved away to vomit her morning granola bar into the harbor, camera still clutched closely to her chest.


Now everything stunk like vomit, shit, death and harbor water. A few seagulls flapped around high above, screaming and crying, and mixed with them, the crows. White and black against blue.


"Seems our killer was not entirely familiar with the tidal patterns here, or the fact that the area is heavily traveled by boaters," Ducky was saying. "I'm sure he—or she—expected the body to be washed away by now.”


“Or maybe he wanted it to be found. Eventually.”


“It’s possible,” Ducky nodded, squinting up at Tony. “Guilt.”


“Notoriety,” Tony countered, then he asked, “ID?”


“Yes. The detective I spoke to confirmed this is the missing child of marine—“


"Lewis Wilson," Tony finished. “Director Vance gave us a friendly early morning call. Said this is high priority. Personal friend, I guess.”


"Ah," Dr. Mallard nodded. "The highest priority. It's difficult for me to evaluate further here, considering the position of our poor child. I’ll have better luck in autopsy.”


"Strangled," Tony said. "Abrasions on the wrists."


"Yes. Even from here that is apparent,” Ducky spoke slowly, like he had a lingering bad taste in his mouth.


Tony turned to Ellie, who still looked three shades too pale. "You okay taking photos?"


"Yes," she lied, taking an uncoordinated step forward.


He shook his head and reached to take the camera. "I'll take them. You go help McGee."


Ellie frowned. "I can do it. I'm fine."


"You're not fine." Tony took the camera from her anyway, and she didn't exactly resist giving it up to him. "You're human. It's okay."


She looked ashamed.


"It's okay," he repeated. "Really."


Nodding, she headed in the opposite direction, away from the dead little girl covered in blow flies.


Tony got to work, choosing his footing on the boulders carefully as he angled himself and the camera for the best shots of the body. He felt Ducky watching him.


Ducky said, ”Maybe the question should be, are you okay?"


Tony, too engrossed in his work to take his eyes from it, answered, "Why wouldn't I be?" He crouched, balancing on the edge. "I'm fucking fantastic. Beautiful day. Blue sky. Great view from here. Great park to run in. All the looky-loos over there have the right idea.”


Ducky clucked a tongue at Tony's gallows humor.


"I dated a woman who lived in this neighborhood, right down there,” Tony said. "She had a really nice house and huge—“ Tony stopped himself, remembering he was in polite company. But not before cupping the air in front of his chest with one hand. "Not cheap, you know? Quality assets.”


"Ah." Ducky held onto Tony's arm as he leaned a bit too far and almost lost his balance.


"Not the typical spot to drop your dead bodies. So much traffic.” Tony frowned.


Ducky mused, “I suspect we will all be feeling this one.”


"Well, you know what they say." Tony studied the pink bandaid on the girl's thumb and the colored marker stains on her hands. The bandaid had started to peel, and the stains had started to fade. "When you stop feeling, it's time to reconsider what you're doing."


After that, Tony stayed quiet, and so did Dr. Mallard. There wouldn't be any random encyclopedic facts, no witty repartee or in-depth recollections this morning. Silence was good enough for now. Good enough for the both of them. A sense of uneasiness settled between them.


“Are you sure you’re well?” Ducky asked again.


“Yeah,” Tony answered easily, smiling. “Of course.”


By the time Jimmy and a few other helpful hands brought the portable gurney out to the body, Tony had made it back to the road, where he stood, staring with a faraway look on his face at the sailboats and yachts tethered in the marina. They were expensive, some of them the million-dollar type of yacht. A rich man’s dumping ground? Random? Convenient?


"Tony?" McGee interrupted his thousand-mile stare with a troubled look of his own.


Tony turned his way, then asked, "Metro have anything to share?"


"They ID'd the body," McGee said. "Lucile Wilson. Likely killed elsewhere, then dumped here. Somebody would have heard otherwise. They say this area's popular with early-morning joggers and bicyclists, and there are houses nearby. Metro's been all over the marina asking questions."


Tony nodded. He squinted back toward where he left Ducky. He and Jimmy didn't have an enviable task.


"They had K9 out here earlier," McGee added. "Lost the track at the road."


"Any security cameras in the area?"


"In the marina, yeah, but not over here."


"Where's Bishop?" Tony then asked. His mind was all over the place. He found it hard to focus.


It was the dead kid, maybe. The blow flies swirling in a black cloud.


"Oh," McGee paused, wondering if he ought to cover for her. But then he shook his head. Tony looked more than a bit thrown off himself. There was nothing routine about looking at a dead child tossed out like last night's trash. "She said she needed a moment. She's in the truck. I’m gonna help Ducky and Palmer.”


Tony did find Ellie in the truck. Not up front, but in the back, door swung wide open, sitting crosslegged amongst all of the strapped down crates of crime scene supplies. She had her head in her hands, and it looked like she was studying the scuffs on her shoes. She must have heard Tony's footsteps in the gravel, because she looked up and met his eyes.


"Taking a break?" he asked.


"I wanted to reorganize some of this stuff," she replied. "You know, for easier access and all..."


Tony gave her a soft and encouraging smile. Maybe he'd been a bit too rough on her earlier, back at NCIS. He liked Ellie. Liked where her heart was, although sometimes her head was a bit behind. She was smart, yes. Brilliant, even. But field smart? Not so much. Not yet.


Gibbs had done a good job with her, but he hadn’t left a blueprint of his training method for Tony. Maybe she’d figure the rest of it out on her own, or maybe McGee’d take her on. Tony didn’t have the energy for it right now.


"Wanted to get my mind off..." She frowned. "But that's probably the wrong answer. I should have my mind on this. Should be helping us get to the bottom of this. That child—“


"Yeah, she's dead," Tony interrupted. "She was killed by a bad person, and we're gonna catch that bad person and they're gonna get what they deserve. That's our job. Simple. Not our job to internalize everything, or dwell on how evil all of this is.”


Pot, meet kettle. But what Tony found easy these days was lying. Maybe that was something his old self would’ve believed. No internalizing… No dwelling…


“You were right. I couldn't take those pictures," Ellie admitted.


"Like I said, that's fine. We work as a team. You can't do it? Ask a teammate. Tim, me, Gibbs -- if he were here."


"I couldn't even function after I saw... that. I don’t understand. This isn’t my first dead child. I mean, there was that boy who blew up the bus—”


"Stop being so hard on yourself. This is still new to you, but soon it'll be old news. So, buck up and learn from it."


"And I thought shooting and killing a man would be the hardest part about this job," Ellie said before letting out a dark laugh. She rubbed her face, then looked back at Tony. "Thanks. Just needed to..."


"I get it. We’ve all been where you are, sitting in the truck and re-organizing stuff.”


Ellie didn’t look so sure.


“Tim spent a whole week in here once.”


“Really?”


“Yeah,” Tony nodded sagely, winking.


McGee rounded the back of the truck, saying, “They're all set." When he saw the two of them gazing seriously at each other, he paused.


Tony clapped Tim’s shoulder and squeezed it. “Speak of the devil.”


"Everything okay?” Tim asked.


Ellie grinned. “Tony was just telling me how you spent a whole week in the truck re-organizing.”


Tim gave both of them a sour look. “It was a mess.”


“That’s what they all say,” Tony said as he gave them a fake smile. “Just another day in paradise. So, who's buying lunch?”


None of them felt much like eating lunch, let alone buying it. So Tony pointed the truck back toward the Navy Yard. Tony fiddled with the radio, changing stations every five minutes, before McGee finally switched it off. They sat in silence for the remainder of the ride.


***



Back in the bullpen, they went over the preliminary evidence and the crime scene photos Tony had taken. Ellie excused herself for a bathroom break afterward. McGee watched her go, and then looked at Tony who seemed suddenly engrossed in a piece of paper he'd found on Gibbs' desk.


"You think she's okay?" Tim asked.


Tony answered, "No." Then asked, "After seeing that, are you okay?"


"No," Tim admitted.


“Good. Wouldn’t be right, feeling okay about this,” Tony stood up and left.


“Tony—"


"I want you to call Lewis Wilson," Tony said over his shoulder. He wanted to avoid what he knew was coming. Wanted to avoid all of the ‘are you okays.’ “I want him to know we'll be coming by for a visit. But first, make sure someone’s already informed him about his kid.”


McGee scrolled through the crime scene photographs for a fifth time. Dead. Dead. Dead. Death from different angles. Flies. Bruises. All of the frames nicely in focus. Perfect.


He picked up the phone.


***



Abby Sciuto had him in a bone-crushing hug before he’d fully passed through the sliding glass doors. She shouted, “Tony!” which barely managed to pass through the deafening racket of The Twisted Clowns, or whatever the hell she listened to these days.


Tony rocked back to absorb her forward momentum and wrapped his arms around her. When she let him go, still hanging on to his elbows, she leaned forward to kiss his cheek.


Ever since he’d been back, Abby had taken to doing this, greeting him as if she wasn’t sure she’d see him again. It made Tony smile, each and every time. And this smile was real, small and genuine and it reached his eyes where it seemed to stick whenever one caught the other’s gaze.


They loved each other, really, the kind of quiet, gentle love of close friends.


Tony was saying something, but Abby couldn’t hear him over the music. So she turned and put the noise on mute. Then, too loudly, she asked, “What’s up?”


“Need to know what you have so far,” Tony said, looking over her shoulder at the lab equipment and the computer.


“Not much,” she began. “But then I’ve just received it.”


“McGee and I gotta go see the father.”


Abby frowned then hugged him again, this time gentler.


“Hey,” Tony shrugged her off. “It’s just another day, Abs.”


She watched him, eyes doubtful, knowing.


“What?” he asked.


She didn’t say it. She didn’t ask if he was ‘okay.’ If he was fine, or well, or still sane and in control of his mental and emotional faculties. She was Abby, so she skipped right for the meat of the issue: “People say that, Tony, and then the next day they’re completely off their rocker.”


“I’m firmly on my rocker, Abby,” Tony assured her. His voice had a sharp edge to it that didn’t invite further conversation.


“Just saying.” She wandered over to her computer. “You know, I wish people would quit just dumping bodies into the bay. People totally swim in that water. I swim in that water.”


“Thank you for that astute observation, Erin Brockovitch.”


Abby turned on her heel and glared at him. “Like I said, I don’t have anything yet. I pulled some DNA from the sample taken from the body.” She looked back at the monitor. “I’m running it through CODIS. It’s gonna take a bit. Give it time.”


“No push?” Tony asked, brows raised.


Abby clucked her tongue. “Look, my lab here has the fastest DNA turn-around in the east. So you, mister, just need to be patient. Science—“ she waved her hands around at the lab, “—rushes for no one.”


“So I guess we’ll have to rely on old-fashioned police-work for now,” Tony said, chewing his lip as he watched the computer. “Gut feelings, bad takeout, and heartburn.”


Abby hugged him again, just because.


“I’m gonna get bruises from you,” Tony said with a small laugh. “What would I tell Zoe?”


“You tell her I came first.”


He laughed even louder, and suddenly he felt okay again, like his old self, whoever that was.


Abby punched him in the arm. “Better get on it, DiNozzo.”


“Yeah,” Tony said, “Guess I should.”


***



Lewis and Tracy Wilson's home was located on a quiet stretch of leafy neighborhood. The homes were all single story ranch style, and the yards were well-maintained. Tony pulled the agency-issued Charger up to the curb in front of a light blue house. Number 295.


The lawn was immaculate and had been perfectly edged. The flower beds had been re-mulched. Pansies in multiple colors were in full-bloom, although they’d started to flag a bit in the heat. A healthy cherry tree also bloomed in the side yard, spent pink petals ringing the grass around it.


"This it?" Tony asked.


McGee looked down at his phone's GPS, then at the mailbox number. "Looks like it. House number 295."


"Man, this guy's yard puts Gibbs' to shame," Tony remarked, putting the car in park and shutting off the engine.


They both stepped out of the car and walked up the front path.


"Look at that," Tony went on, pointing at the edge of the concrete walkway. "Not a single blade of grass out of place."


"Amazing," McGee said with thick sarcasm. "Can we be serious now?"


"If you insist, McGrumps."


"I am not—“


Tony put a hand on his arm.


McGee looked at him, confused. "What?"


"I hate this part."


McGee paused to consider Tony. "Yeah," he agreed. "So do I. But it’s—“


"Part of the job. Right." Tony looked like he'd rather donate a testicle.


Tim could relate as he knocked on the door with an impending feeling of doom, and they both waited patiently as a dog barked inside. The stars and stripes fluttered on a flag pole nearby. Tony straightened his tie, and McGee brushed away some lint on his own sleeve.


The door cracked open revealing a woman with puffy red eyes and greasy-looking hair. "Hello?" she asked with hesitation.


"Tracy Wilson?" McGee asked.


She nodded.


"I'm Special Agent Timothy McGee, and this is Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo—“ They both showed their NCIS IDs. The woman looked at them with distant, vacant interest. "We're from NCIS, and we'd like to express our condolences for your loss."


"Yes... Right," Mrs. Wilson replied airily.


"We'd also like," Tony spoke up, "to talk to you about your daughter and the circumstances surrounding her abduction and…” He stopped himself because he thought saying the word “murder” might push the woman over the edge. She already looked like she was peering over it. “…her death,” he said instead. “I know it’s a bad time, but anything at all you two can share with us will help with the investigation.”


"Yes," Mrs. Wilson said again. "Of course." She seemed to be a million miles away, mentally and emotionally.


"Is your husband home?" Tony asked.


"He's putting the dog out back. She's... not fond of strangers," Tracy said as she opened the door wider, inviting them inside. "Please. Come in." She had short blond hair and a tall, reedy figure. Her swaying gait was reminiscent of a cattail caught in a breeze. She pointed vaguely at the living room love-seat. "Feel free to sit down. I'll go get Lew.” She wandered down the hall, footsteps quiet, mouse-like.


Soon, Lewis strode into living room, extending a hand immediately towards Tony first, and then McGee. "Tracy said y'all were from NCIS?" he asked, getting straight to the point.


"Yes, sir," Tony replied. "Special Agents McGee and DiNozzo. We shared our condolences with your wife."


Lewis Wilson gave them a blank look. And then, as if just now remembering what had happened, his face grew dark. "Thank you," he murmured. The man, dressed in loose BDUs and a faded USMC t-shirt, looked like he hadn't slept in a year. He had closely cropped brown hair, high and tight, but still long enough that when he ran his hand through the top of it, it looked a bit wild. "Sit, sit," he insisted, waving at the love-seat. "What can I do for? What have you found? I wanna help. It’s been torture sitting here at home, since that phone call…”


"Well," Tony started. “First we'd like some information—“


“Of course, of course.”


“When was the last time you saw your daughter?"


Lewis nodded, and said, "Yesterday morning, before I left for the base."


"What about your wife?"


"Same. She works at the elementary school. Kids are out for the summer, but the teachers are still workshopping. We had..." Lewis ran a hand over his face, as if he regretted every decision he'd made in the last twenty-four hours. "We had the neighbor girl come over to watch Lucy. She always babysits for us. Never had a problem. Lucy is a smart girl. Good kid. Always.


"We came back around four, Tracy and me. Amanda — that's the neighbor girl. She'd fallen asleep on the couch. She told us Lucy was playing out back with Hella — that's our dog. We couldn't find Lucy anywhere, and Hella was locked up in the shed, barking her head off. Asked Amanda why she hadn't heard the damn dog.


"We called the cops. They came, but... Lucy is eight. She knows better than to go off to a friend’s house without letting the sitter know," Lewis shook his head. "Cops said maybe she ran away. I said there's no way… No way in hell…”


"Do you think she would've gone with a stranger?" McGee asked.


“No. Never. And that dog? She hates strangers. She would’ve taken a bite out’f them.”


“Blood on the dog?” McGee said.


“No. I checked her over. Nothing.”


McGee nodded, then changed the prior question. “What about someone she knew?”


Lewis stared now at his knee, as if running through all of the possible scenarios. All of the mistakes he’d thought he made. "I don’t—" His voice trailed off, before finding itself again. “I don’t know. But I do know she didn't run away. We were supposed to go to the movies today. Her birthday is next week. I got up this morning and I made her a piece of peanut butter toast. And for lunch, I made a sandwich for her, just how she likes it. She wasn’t here to eat them, but I made them anyway. I keep thinking of all the things I should be doing for Lucy right now. I feel like she'll walk through the back door with that dog, and she'll have dirt on her knees and elbows, and she'll be hungry for another sandwich... None of this is real right now. Y’all gotta understand.” The man looked incredibly close to tears right now, and from a back bedroom, the sound of sobbing from Lucy’s mother was loud and clear.


"This is what I'd like you to do for us," Tony began, carefully.


"Anything. Anything at all," Lewis nodded.


"We'd like you to put together a list of anybody — I mean, anybody — who you think might’ve done this to Lucy. I want you to email it to me." Tony leaned over with his NCIS business card. "Send ‘em as you think of them. Start with the neighbor girl—“


"Amanda?" Lewis seemed skeptical. "She wouldn’t—"


"We need to cast a wide net here," McGee added. "We don't want to overlook any possibilities. Remember, it's probably someone who knows your home and property. Someone your daughter knew and may have trusted. Someone who knew the dog."


"Get with your wife. She may know other people to consider," Tony said before assuring, "We'll do everything we can on our end."


"You'd better," a voice suddenly came from the hallway. Tracy Wilson, face a picture of desolate despair, leaned against the doorway like it was the only thing holding her up. But her eyes — despite the puffy redness brought on from hours of tears — held a special kind of anger. "You find the monster who killed our baby.”


“That’s our job, ma’am.” Tony stood up. “You mind if we take a look around? Out back?”


Lewis looked up from the floor. “Yeah. Yes, sure, of course.”


The backyard was as neat as the front yard, with the exception of the yellow spots from all the dog piss. Lewis had locked the dog in the concrete run, which was flanked by the back-end of the property and the wooden shed. The dog, buff-colored and leggy and with a tongue that hung nearly to her chest, paced back and forth, watching the house. As soon as Tony and Tim stepped onto the deck, she began to bark in earnest.


After a couple minutes walking the grid, both of them sweating in the late afternoon heat, Tony saw something in the grass, right next to the unlocked gate. Cigarette butt. Could just be trash. Could be nothing. Tony picked it up with a gloved hand and slid it into a bag.


“Found something?” Tim asked from behind him, speaking loudly to be heard over the incessant barking.


“Maybe.” Tony looked toward the dog, frowning. “That a Jethro dog?”


McGee shook his head. “No. That’s a Malinois.”


The run fence rattled as the dog began jumping up and down against it. She was almost able to reach the top of the chainlink with every upward lunge. “Bad news dog,” Tony said.


“Whoever took Lucy definitely knew that dog,” Tim agreed.


Tony watched the angry animal jump and bark, jump and bark. “I don’t like dogs.”


“Doesn’t look like she likes you either.”


Before leaving, Tony made sure to ask: “Either one of you smoke?” He held up the bag with the solitary cigarette butt.


Both Tracy and Lewis shook their heads, but it was Tracy who added, “The guy who comes regularly to spray for pests… I know he does.”


“Josh?” Lewis seemed doubtful. But his fists clenched and unclenched regardless.


“He knows the dog, Lew.”


“First one on the list,” Tony said, as he and McGee headed out. “Email me.”


***



In the car on the return trip to the Navy Yard, Tim suggested they stop for dinner.


Tony pulled into an Applebee's parking lot and let the car idle. The restaurant looked crowded. A family of three headed for the door, a little girl running ahead of them. She turned, blond pigtails swinging, face grinning…


Pink bandaid, marker stains on her hands. Real or imagined.


The father reached to grab her hand.


Tony shut off the engine. It tick tick ticked as it cooled. Neither of them moved to get out.


"You think Gibbs is gonna come back to work?" Tony suddenly asked, staring out across the lot.


"No," Tim said, truthful.


"What makes you think that?"


Tim shrugged. "Just a feeling. But you know him better than I do."


"No, I don't," Tony denied. "Not really."


Tim sighed, drummed his fingers next to the car’s window. ”You know you can talk to me, Tony. About anything,” he said. “You’ve been acting strange ever since you got back from Iraq. Everybody’s noticed, in case you think we haven’t.”


“I’m fine, McGee. I’m okay. Just tired, maybe. Stayed up too late marathon watching Orange is the New Black.” Tony smiled dismissively. “Well, you wanna go eat?”


Tim kept a doubtful eye on him, but he didn’t know what else to say. Tony was stubborn, he knew. They all knew that. And he also had a tough-it-out mentality that was neither healthy nor sustaining. Tim decided to drop it for now; he wasn’t spoiling for a fight. “I’m not feeling very hungry after all."


"Good. Neither am I." Tony started the car up again, put it in drive.


They rode the rest of the way in silence.


***



The morgue doors opened, jarring Dr. Mallard from his thoughts. He knew it wasn’t Jimmy Palmer; he’d been sent home to his wife and child hours ago. Nor was it Abigail; she tended to avoid this part of the building at all costs. Too many ghosts, he guessed.


His visitor had to be an agent. Someone here for answers about the girl he’d autopsied earlier today, or at least here for the pieces that could form into answers. That’s what homicides were: gory puzzles. Some more difficult than others. Some left unfinished. Others solved, framed and put on the wall.


Without looking to see who it was, Ducky recognized the role he ought to take.


“What do you got, Ducky?” Tony asked.


"Lucile Wilson," Ducky began without preamble, as he'd done time and time again. "Age eight. Primary cause of death was manual strangulation. But as you can see, she has an assortment of contusions all over her body. Inflicted before death, mostly. Some post-mortem, likely caused by the act of dragging her naked body out onto that jetty. See here?"


He gently turned one of the small arms.


"Cigarette burns. And abrasions on the wrists. She was restrained and tormented. Our killer is a rather depraved individual, Jethro—“ Ducky caught himself, and he looked back at DiNozzo with genuine chagrin. "I apologize, Anthony. The older I get, the harder it is adjusting to change. Not that I don't enjoy seeing your smiling face down here more often."


Tony stared at the dead kid, at the cigarette burns traveling down toward her wrists. He said, "Don't worry about it.”


“I assume you’ve already spoken with the girl’s family?” Ducky asked.


Tony put his fingers to his mouth and began to chew on his nails. “Yeah.” He then ran a hand over his face, looked up at the lights and now chewed on his lip.


Ducky spoke gently, “I can feel your anxiety from over here, Tony.”


Tony shot him a strong look of warning. Odd. Uncharacteristic. Subtly aggressive. And it set Ducky’s nerves on edge. Where what used to be sweet friendliness was now sour, antagonistic bitterness.


He hadn’t ever doubted DiNozzo’s ability to hoodwink the psychological gatekeepers—those who had the ability to check “yes” or “no” on the fitness for duty survey, and Tony had certainly been put through his paces upon return from his ill-fated Zakho excursion with Gibbs.


Tony had won the fight, evidently, but this didn’t exactly look like a victory to Dr. Mallard.


Because Tony was a mess, flailing under the unrelenting pressure. Ducky could see it clearly, what might come. He was a ticking time bomb.


He considered trying again, but then thought better of it. DiNozzo was finding new ways to compensate. He would sort himself out, as he usually did. They all had jobs to do, and nobody would be able to stomach screwing this one up.


Except—


“The case,” Tony prompted impatiently, lest either of them forget.


“Right.” Ducky put his attention back on the job. “I’ve sent a sample up for forensic analysis. Abby should have received it hours ago. Like I said, Tony, we’re dealing with a very depraved man, and—”


"I got the point. There's a bad guy out there."


Ducky suddenly touched Tony’s elbow, his hand grasping bone, muscle, and pure tension. Tony wasn’t looking at him; his eyes were locked on the corpse, glued there in sick fascination. "Catch this bastard, Tony," he demanded, voice low in his throat, barbed and serious. "Catch this animal, and lock it up."


"You can count on it.” Tony turned away from the dead child and took the stairs.


***



In the stairwell, surrounded by the echoing clang of the heavy metal door shutting him in, Tony massaged one side of his head while pulling out his cell phone. His thumb nudged it awake, tapping in the passcode. 0719. His birthday. Not exactly top secret stuff; he knew Tim wouldn’t approve. Then again, he was fairly sure Tim already knew his passcode.


One missed call, from the number that had called early this morning. Was it still the same day?


He called Zoe first. She was still at work, so her phone rang straight to voicemail. "Yeah, hey, it's me. We're gonna have to cancel tonight. I, uh. Something’s come up. Work stuff. You know how it is. Ah, so yeah. I'll call you later. Or you can call me.” He paused awkwardly. “I love you.”


Tony hit end, pocketed the phone.


He rested his head against the wall, soaked up the fake fluorescent lighting, and closed his eyes. It took him a bit to realize how badly his hands were shaking.


***



Eight p.m. and Gibbs’ residential street enjoyed a summertime calm. Nothing but the smell of barbecue, the sounds of barking dogs, laughter and splashes from a backyard pool, and the thwap thwap thwap of a basketball slapping a neighbor’s driveway pavement.


Tony needed some calm, and almost on instinct, he’d headed here.


He hadn’t heard from the boss in a few days. The silence was disconcerting. Maybe El Jefe needed another good prod, or several. A few more rude prying questions. The DiNozzo Special Treatment.


Thunderclouds had built up to the south. They flashed and rumbled, but stayed where they were. Far off and black. Outside the car, Tony immediately started to sweat. Humidity hung suspended like a wet, warm cloth. He loosened his tie and shrugged out of the dark gray suit jacket. He could already feel the moisture staining his armpits and rolling down his sides.


Tony’d let himself in, closing the front door loudly and draping his jacket on one of the chairs at the kitchen table. The house smelled like baked frozen pizza, wood shavings, and lacquer. A distinctive Jethro Gibbs kind of homey.


He helped himself to a beer and a slice of coagulated and congealed pizza, long gone cold and probably growing bacteria en masse under the oven hood’s weak light.


He heard laughter from the basement, and voices, pounding and scraping.


As Tony chewed slowly, he spotted the purple backpack leaned against the table leg. He rested his hip against the cabinets and shoved more pizza into his mouth. He'd eaten breakfast on-the-go and they’d all skipped lunch and dinner. Right now, he was willing to eat the entire remains of the pizza plus the cardboard box it came in.


"Hey DiNozzo!" Gibbs shouted from below. "You here to raid my fridge, or are you gonna come down here and help us?"


Tony finished the first slice, then grabbed another. He plodded obediently down the steps.


The boat looked a little more finished than the last time he saw it, and the newest (and unlikeliest) project — Emily Fornell's soap box derby car — seemed to have taken shape overnight.


"Wow, Boss," Tony spoke with his mouth full as he scanned the cramped basement. "You've kept busy."


Gibbs looked up from where he was chipping away some excess wood. He frowned faintly at Tony. "Yeah." He stood up, gimped over to the work table, grabbed something, and then limped back to the wooden car.


Emily sat cross-legged on the table, drawing on a large white piece of paper. She looked up and said, “Hey.”


“Hey yourself, kid.” Tony ate the last of the pizza and wiped his hand on his pants. He smiled at her, and leaned over to catch a look at what she was drawing. She pulled it away.


“Everything okay?" Gibbs asked casually, keeping his eyes on his work.


Tony sat on the steps and took a swig of his beer. “Can’t complain." He looked briefly at Emily — who was again engrossed in her drawing — and then back at Gibbs. “Just work stuff."


"Don't censor yourselves on my account," Emily deadpanned.


Gibbs nodded and tossed Tony a piece of sandpaper. "Better get sanding then, DiNozzo."


Tony caught the sandpaper, put the beer aside, and crouched down next to the wooden car. “So, Emily, you're really getting in this thing?"


"Yeah," she answered without looking up.


“I hope it has brakes," Tony said.


Gibbs smirked.


"Brakes are a requirement," Emily said.


"And a helmet?" Tony added.


"Yes. That, too." Emily huffed out a put-upon sigh. "Ugh. You two are as bad as my dad."


"Our interests lie in keeping your brain inside your skull," Tony winked at her. "Until you're eighteen. Then you get to do whatever you want."


"Parenthood goes far beyond age eighteen, Tony," Gibbs murmured.


Tony felt Gibbs' eyes on him, but he didn't look his way, choosing only to shrug, continue his sanding, and admit, "What do I know?” His hand slipped and the rough grain bit his finger hard. Tony inspected the small shard of wood planted in his finger meat. "Ouch.”


Gibbs grabbed him by the wrist and dragged his hand under the bright light.


"I have bandaids in my backpack," Emily offered brightly, already hopping off the table and heading up the stairs.


"Grab a tweezers, too, will you," Gibbs called after her.


"I can get it out on my own, Boss. Just a splinter."


Gibbs ignored him, choosing rather to turn Tony's finger under the light, inspecting the splinter and determining how best to extract it.


Tony rolled his eyes and watched him, noticing how much he’d let his hair grow out. He had a gray five o’clock shadow well underway on his face. He wore casual clothes. Jeans and a ratty, stained old NIS t-shirt. He didn’t appear especially stressed or troubled. If anything, he looked at peace. Which was strange.


He almost opened his mouth to say something, ask something, but then Emily bounded back down the steps with tweezers, alcohol, and a handful of bandaids.


She watched while Gibbs performed minor surgery on Tony’s unlucky middle finger. He dumped some alcohol on it, only saying afterward, "This is gonna sting."


Tony squeaked, and puffed out a breath. “Appreciate the warning.”


Emily then came at him with a bandaid.


“It doesn’t need a bandaid," Tony said, pulling his hand away.


"Don't be such a big baby!" Emily heckled.


Gibbs watched in amusement, shaking his head as he settled back down to work. He warned, “DiNozzo, take the damn bandaid.”


Emily took his hand, wrapped his finger, and said, “Better?”


Tony stared at it and maybe he nodded, but he couldn’t know, because suddenly his mind was elsewhere.


Pink bandaid.


Marker stains, fading.


Gray skin.


Bruised.


Cigarette burns.


Hands, violent hands, wrapped around a small throat.


Choking, choking…


Pink bandaid.


It had started to peel. It had started to—



He felt a gentle hand on his bicep, and he jerked in surprise, heart skipping wildly. He heard talking, and then his name repeated a couple times.


“What? What is it?” Tony finally asked, catching himself looking right into Gibbs’ eyes, which were dulled by booze or pain meds or both. He hadn’t noticed that before.


Gibbs’ face was close. Weirdly close. And he looked confused. “The hell’s the matter with you?” Gibbs asked him.


Tony moved robotically; he pulled away. Regained some space. Forced himself back into a mold of normalcy. “Distracted. That’s all. Work stuff.”


“Work stuff,” Gibbs repeated. He didn’t pry, but he kept a wary eye on Tony.


“Where'd Emily go?" Tony asked.


“Told her to head upstairs,” Gibbs said. “You zoned out for a while, just staring at your hands. What’s that about?”


“Nothing.” Tony completely changed the subject. "So when are you thinking of coming back to work?"


Gibbs gave him a doubtful look. ‘Nothing’ isn’t what he had in mind. He shrugged, ”If I come back, it won't be for another few weeks."


When,” Tony corrected. "When you come back."


"I got shot, DiNozzo. I'm not ready."


"You're never 'not ready'."


"Different this time. And look at yourself,” Gibbs challenged. “Were you ready?”


“What’s that mean? I didn’t get shot.”


“I’m talking about the panic attack you just had in my basement.”


“You’re exaggerating. It’s just stress. We all feel it. Getting used to being team lead again…”


Gibbs hummed. “Right.” He didn’t push the subject. Some donkeys couldn’t be led to water, let alone be forced to drink it.


They settled into silence. They heard Emily moving around upstairs. She turned on the television.


"So when will you 'be ready'?" Tony cocked his head. "Boss, you gotta believe that we miss your cheery presence." He smiled, although it looked wounded, in a way.


"I'm sure you do," Gibbs avoided the question, and Tony's fake smiley aesthetics. "You're doing fine as team lead, Tony. If that’s your problem.”


"I know that, Boss, but it's not the same."


"Yeah, well, get used to it."


"What does that mean?" Tony pressed. "You're not coming back?"


Gibbs threw his head back in irritation at Tony's persistent, one-track line of questioning. “DiNozzo—"


"Uncle Gibbs!" Emily called from the top of the stairs. "Dad's here!”


Welcoming the distraction, Gibbs yelled in reply, "Tomorrow! Six pm! I'll pick you up!"


Loud footsteps and then the front door opening and slamming shut.


There was a rumble of thunder, closer than anything before. Maybe the storm was finally on its way.


"You guys must really be into this soap box derby thing," Tony said, touching the raw wood. It still needed a lot of work.


Gibbs got up stiffly and hobbled over to the table. He shrugged. "Emily is. She needs to get her mind off... things."


"That's nice of you to get involved."


Again, Gibbs simply hummed. More silence. Tony basked in it. Maybe things could straighten back to normal. Maybe—


”You got a reason to be here?" Gibbs finally asked impatiently.


Tony got the hint that the silence meant drastically different things to them. ”Just came to check in on you, I guess."


"And badger me about coming back to work."


"That's not—“


"Bullshit, Tony." He pointed a knowing finger at Tony's face. "I know you, bub. You're checking in, making sure I didn't eat my gun or drink myself blind."


Tony couldn't deny Gibbs' claims, so he said, "Is that so wrong of me? I mean, maybe this comes as a surprise to you, but people care. They care about you. People worry." Tony looked away, then muttered, "I worry."


Now that Fornell’s kid was gone, Gibbs poured himself a large helping of bourbon. Tony's eyes followed him. “That’s not me anymore,” Gibbs said. “I’ve made my peace. You should, too.”


“Should you be drinking?” Tony asked. “Aren’t you still taking your meds?”


“Gee, DiNozzo, are you my physician now?” Gibbs picked up his hand planer and moved toward the boat.


Tony didn’t take the bait, even though he knew Gibbs wanted him to, if only to derail the uncomfortable conversation. If Gibbs was disappointed by Tony’s discretion, he didn’t show it. He simply began ignoring him.


“You never talk about it," Tony prodded, referring to Zakho, Iraq and child suicide bombers, Luke Harris — just a kid, brainwashed and programmed to kill. Gibbs thought he could save him, protect him. It was a naive notion.


Gibbs always did have a soft spot for children.


Gibbs would have been all over this Lucy Wilson case. He certainly wouldn’t be sitting here shooting the breeze with an old coworker, looking for friendship and maybe some absolution. He’d be at NCIS, working tirelessly. No sleep. No food. Just obsession to keep him going. Maybe he would have already—in only a day—found the killer, gotten the family justice.


Maybe he’d’ve already found the animal and shot him dead.


Gibbs was like that. Man of action.


And Tony… What the hell was Tony doing? Too fucked up and jittery to get through a day in peace. Can’t sleep. Can’t fuck his girlfriend. Can’t get along with McGee or Ducky or Ellie. Can’t do the job he promised everybody he could do.


Just limping along, screwing stuff up, having panic attacks at the sight of bandaids. He was sloppy seconds, compared to Gibbs. Right? That’s what everybody was thinking. Right?


Tony repeated, “You never talk about it.”


"I talk about it," Gibbs countered. "Just not with you."


"And why not? I was there." He wanted to add: I saw him shoot you, and then I shot him. Five times. Maybe six. The memory isn’t all there. But he didn’t. Of course Gibbs knew the basics, knew that Tony’d been forced to shoot and kill Luke Harris. But details… That would bother Gibbs, he knew, to know the intimate details. How many times Tony pulled the trigger, how much lead he’d pumped into a fifteen-year-old brainwashed weapon. What it looked like, what it smelt like, what it felt like.


"I know you were there."


"We should talk about it." I killed that kid, and I was glad I did. You couldn’t even recognize him after I was done with him.


"I don't want to talk about it."


"But what if I do?" Because I really think I'm going nuts over here.


"Then find someone else!" Gibbs roared, the anger rearing up suddenly. Then he repeated, "I don't want to talk about it." He drained his glass, setting it down hard on the table. The plane scraped furiously against the wood, until it was all Gibbs could hear, his back to DiNozzo.


After a few minutes, when Gibbs’ muscles began to burn and the still healing wound in his torso began to smart, he stopped. But when he turned around to pour himself another drink, Tony was gone.





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Location: ORLANDO
PART ONE
[2/2]







July 9, 2015


Three a.m.


Another storm front headed in from the Atlantic. Rain beat against the window, ceaseless.


His window. His bed. His apartment.


Lightning flashed. He flinched. A long, low rumble.


Tony couldn’t sleep again. A dream woke him, intense and violent. He couldn’t get it out of his head, because it wasn’t purely fantasy.


He wished one dead kid was all he had to face for one lifetime. One grieving father and mother. One depraved individual. Out there, somewhere. Maybe planning another.


And another, and another, and another.


So he sat awake on his couch, completely naked, spooning half-melted mint choco chip ice cream into his mouth.


Zoe called late last night. They didn’t argue, nor did they really talk. She said she was working late on a case. Something important. He said he understood. She said she understood about last night.


Another reason this relationship worked.


The woman from early yesterday morning called, too. She asked where he’d been. She hadn’t seen him. Where had he been?


The icy film on the ice cream carton began to melt. It dripped onto his bare leg where it burned.


***



Bright and early, Jimmy Palmer loped across the bullpen wearing his standard issue green scrubs and carrying a tupperware filled to the brim with tan-colored cookies.


McGee had come in early to get the ball rolling, and Ellie had arrived not too long afterward. Ellie looked over notes from yesterday, while McGee ran the names provided so far by Lewis Wilson. He asterisked those of special interest. Lewis and Tracy had been thorough.


“Hey guys!” Jimmy called out to them. He held the tupperware aloft. “I baked some cookies for everybody.”


“New hobby, Jimmy?” McGee asked as he reached over to grab a fresh printout of a particularly long NCIC result.


Jimmy set the cookies in front of Ellie, knowing she’d be the first to go for one, then he turned toward McGee. “Well, I baked them for Breena—“


Ellie had already taken a bite out of one, but was now trying to spit it back into her hand without drawing any attention.


“—But,” Jimmy babbled on, “she ate one, then suggested that it would be nice if I brought them in for you guys. And I thought that maybe she was worried about losing the baby weight—“


“I sure hope you didn’t tell her that,” McGee deadpanned, trying to ignore Ellie secretly tossing the cookie in the trash can, a pinched look on her face.


“Oh cookies!” Abby suddenly appeared from out of nowhere, snatching one from Ellie’s desk. Ellie gave her a look of warning, but Abby either didn’t see it, or she’d misread it. Everybody had gotten to know how protective Ellie became over her food. Everybody had a mutual interest in maintaining their limbs.


“Oh no,” Jimmy went on, oblivious, “she just knew about the case with the little girl and thought—“


Abby had already openly gagged on the cookie. “Jimmy!” she exclaimed.


Jimmy turned around to look at her, concerned. “What?”


“I think you switched up the salt and the sugar,” she said.


Jimmy’s face fell. “Oh. Damn it! I worked so hard on these…”


But Abby was already jumping on to the next topic, and the reason she’d come up here. “So hey guys! Where’s Tony?”


Tim and Ellie looked at each other then at the clock. It had already edged past nine o’clock. Tony was late.


“I don’t know,” Tim said. “Maybe he missed his bus.”


“Aren’t you two carpooling together?”


“We’re… kind of taking a break.”


“Timmy!” Abby wailed.


Ellie winced. And Jimmy, looking browbeaten, took his salty cookies and headed for the stairs.


“What?” Tim asked, annoyed. “He spilled coffee all over my new car’s interior!”


“Wasn’t even that much,” Tony said from near the elevator, backpack slung over his shoulder.


“There you are!” Abby jumped on him, then caught a whiff of eau de DiNozzo—and not the good kind. “God Tony, didn’t you take a shower?”


“I went on a run,” Tony lied in his own defense. He sniffed under his armpit.


She studied him closely, noting his bloodshot eyes, stringy hair, oily skin, and general haggard appearance. “You look like shit, baby.”


Tony pried himself out of her grip. “Thanks, Abs.” He threw his backpack under his desk before gingerly sitting in his chair. He sat there for several moments, head in his hands. Then he dragged his palms across his face and looked at them: Abby and Tim and Ellie.


They were staring at him, each with their own puzzled expression.


He ignored all of them. “So what do we got?”


Abby spoke for them, always the bold one. “Tony, what’s going on?”


“I said,” Tony ground out, enunciating carefully, fingers at his temples, “What do we got?”


“About a dozen interviews set up for today,” Tim said. “A couple BOLOs out on those we couldn’t contact. But most everybody is cooperating. Local LEOs are being very helpful.”


“Good, McGee. That’s good. Full day.” Tony looked now at Abby. He raised his brows, expecting something new.


She sighed. “Good news… I managed to pull some DNA off the cigarette butt you found in the Wilson’s backyard.”


“And?”


“And what, DiNozzo? It was a miracle I got that far. Gonna take longer to match that sample with the one taken from a body.”


“And anything from CODIS yet on that other sample?”


“Nope. Later today maybe.”


“Okay.” Tony nodded. “Thank you.” He looked Ellie’s way. “You’re gonna help with interviews, Ellie-belly. With Tim.”


And with that, he waggled the computer mouse and checked his email. One unread from Vance, marked urgent. He felt Abby watching him, and when he looked up, she was right there in front of his desk. “Hey Abby,” he said, quietly.


“Hey Tony.” She didn’t move. At least not until he broke down and smiled. A real one. One that reached his eyes. It was getting harder and harder to do.


She grinned in reply. “There he is.”


After she left, Tony looked up at the balcony-level and saw Vance.


Sit rep time.


***



Tony sat in the leather chair across from the director’s desk, hands kept folded in his lap. Vance didn’t sit; he paced, while saying, “I’m trusting you with this, DiNozzo. I consider Lewis Wilson a friend of mine. I didn’t want just any Tom, Dick, or Harry on this one.”


“It’s a good thing my name isn’t Tom, Dick, or Harry then, isn’t it?” Tony joked.


Vance stopped pacing. He’d long ago accepted that the occasional dumb remark was to be expected while dealing with DiNozzo. There really wasn’t much getting around that. So he simply said, “Exactly. What’s the plan?”


“McGee’s got suspect interviews lined up today. BOLOs out on those who won’t respond. LEOs got feelers out for us. Got the lab working on forensics. Results still pending. Already got the autopsy report from our ME. Metro’s faxed us any relevant witness statements taken at the harbor. A lot of pots are on the fire; one of them’s bound to boil.”


“But nothing concrete.”


“It’s been a day,” Tony said, suddenly irked. “Give it time. This is homicide. You gotta dig around in the dirt before you get to the good stuff.”


Vance nodded, conceding the point, and reminding himself there was a reason he kept agents like DiNozzo around. These were the people who’d done the job for years, learned from it, had their ass kicked by it. In many ways, Tony’s no-nonsense cop instincts, his patience and his persistence, were invaluable. And Vance doubted Tony even knew that, being so entrenched in the job and trying to keep up. So Vance asked, “Have anybody on the top of your list?”


“Yes. A couple.”


“Good. Keep me updated.”


Summarily dismissed, Tony stumbled down the steps and promptly applied some deodorant.


***



Ten a.m and the official start of the interviews.


McGee doodled on a notepad in empty Interrogation Room A as he waited for the first person of interest to show up. He looked briefly at the one-way glass. He knew Tony was somewhere behind there, observing and slugging back what had to be the third energy drink of the morning. Maybe only the second…


He looked back at his doodle. It was supposed to be a dragon, but right now it looked more like a demented seahorse. He drew some flames shooting out of its face.


Yes, it was definitely his third. Had to be. Worry over Tony had long begun to foment in the back of his mind, and now it was pushing its way to the front of his mind. He couldn’t not think about it. Something wasn’t right, and it wasn’t just spilled coffee in his brand new car.


Even though that did piss him off. Now when he got into his car before or after work, instead of breathing in the chemical bouquet of New Car, he got a face full of hot hazelnut creamer. He cursed Tony everyday because of it. Delilah said he ought to just take it to a professional detailer. But Tim came from a long line of hardworking, self-reliant McGees, and McGees detailed their own damn cars.


The doodle-flames weren’t working out. Now it looked like the demented seahorse was eating a whole lot of piping hot bacon.


He sighed and looked up at the clock. Then he checked his watch.


Ten oh five.


The door opened, bringing Ellie and a young man with brown hair. He was their first: Josh Perez, pest control guy, cigarette smoker. No lawyer with him. He’d come alone and seemed bemused.


Tim folded the paper and stuck it in his pocket. Time to stop thinking about Tony and his problems, and focus on the case at hand. But he took one look at this guy — nervous and doe-eyed and following Ellie like a docile puppy — and thought this interrogation wouldn’t get them far because this wasn’t their child killer. Tim had his own gut feelings; they were called common sense.


He glanced again at the one-way glass and could almost imagine Tony shaking his head, too.


They settled in, and Tim silently began pulling out the photographs, lining them up on the table in front of Perez.


Their questions were pointed, basic. And Perez had long turned ghostly white. Ellie toed the wastebasket his way.


This guy may have dropped that cigarette — and really, they didn’t even know that for sure — but he didn’t kill Lucy.


***



At lunch, all three of them went over what was left on the list.


McGee had already asterisked those most suspect, while Tony triple asterisked those who’d preemptively brought a lawyer—Rule No. 14 and all.


At each of the scheduled meetings, Tony made sure somebody from the legal department briefed each one of the potential suspects regarding the DNA sample to be collected after each interview. Abby would be very busy for the rest of the week.


Ellie chewed on her pen cap while her sandwich sat untouched. That was a sure sign the day wasn’t going too well.


“Who’s left?” Tony asked.


“Uh…” McGee glanced at the list. “Cary Byrd. Used to work under Lewis Wilson. Dishonorable discharge four or so months ago.”


Tony suddenly looked more awake. “Is this the one who was a dog handler?”


“Yeah. We’ve got him asterisked five times.”


“And highlighted,” Ellie added.


“He actually gonna show?” Tony seemed doubtful. He could be five states over by now.


Nobody answered.


Until McGee struck up the courage and said, “Yeah, there’s something I didn’t tell you about this guy…”


***



Cary Byrd did show up, and he came with a DEA agent stuck to his hip like an ugly prom date.


"Okay, and who are you?" McGee asked Cary Byrd's plus one as soon as they entered the room and took a seat.


The man wore black tactical pants and a hard expression. "I'm Agent Craig, DEA. Cary Byrd is an informant and material witness for an extremely high value joint DEA-FBI operation," Craig explained, looking vaguely pissed off. "It's really not in the operation's best interest for him to be here. I believe I informed you of that when we made the appointment.”


“Yes, thanks for coming. NCIS is investigating a homicide,” McGee said, always patient. “And—"


"The DEA and FBI are investigating several high profile homicides,” Craig broke in aggressively. "And Mr Byrd is a vital piece of our information pie—“


The door of the interrogation room opened suddenly, bringing forth Tony, who noisily took a seat next to Tim. "Oh I'm sorry. Am I interrupting something?" he asked. "Someone said the word pie."


"Who are you?" Craig bristled.


Byrd, who had stayed quiet, continued to watch silently with an odd smirk on his face.


"Hi," Tony extended a hand. "I'm Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo, lead agent on this case. This here is my senior field agent, Special Agent Timothy McGee. You may have spoken to him on the phone. Don't let the sweet face fool you. He's one mean sonuvabitch."


McGee blinked from where he was opening the case folder.


"Are you done, Special Agent DiGiorno?" Craig mocked.


"No, actually." Tony gestured for Byrd to pull the chair closer.


He did, reluctantly.


McGee then began to pull the photographs from the folder and, just as he’d done at every other interview, lined them up in front of both Agent Craig and Cary Byrd.


Lucy’s naked dead body tortured and beaten, thrown out on the rocks of that jetty. There were more photos, taken during autopsy. Cigarette burns. Bruises. Then one last photo: the girl alive and healthy, a school photo. Smiling for the camera. Blond hair tied in pig tails.


"You see," Tony said. "We're investigating the murder of a child. A little girl. Her name is Lucile Wilson, eight years old. She's the daughter of a marine who's done two tours, Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, I don't know what kind of pie you all are cooking over at the DEA, FBI, whatever, but—“ Tony shrugged, "your informant friend here is suspect numero uno at this point. We need a sample of his DNA. Simple. Yes or no, or we'll find some reason or another to further detain Mr. Byrd.”


Tony flipped through a few more papers, then spoke directly to Byrd, “We got a lot to go on here. Says you got kicked out of Wilson’s command for,” he read the document verbatim, “kicking a Military Working Dog in the head.”


“Nature of the work,” Byrd replied, smoothly.


“Some domestics, animal cruelty, possession—“ Tony continued to look through the papers. “I’m not privy to your investigation, Agent Craig, but I sure hope you’re not staking it on the integrity of this guy. Because really—“ he looked down, “dogfighting. Really? People love dogs,” Tony mused.


Agent Craig opened his mouth, but Tony immediately interrupted him, looking again at Byrd, “Hey, you an animal lover, Cary? I mean, when you’re not busy kicking them in the head or forcing them to fight to the death?”


Byrd still had that smirk on his face. Self-assured. Like a man who knew the hand he was dealt trumped whatever Tony could put together. He said, drawling, “I like a good dog, Agent Dee-Nozzo.”


Tony looked at McGee, and McGee seemed unnerved.


“Just how well do you know the Wilsons?” Tony went on. “You’ve been over to their place?”


“I worked with Lewis for years. And yeah, been over a coupl’a times.”


“They have a dog. You know that dog?”


Byrd nodded. “Nice dog.”


“You smoke?” Tony tapped his pen rapidly against the table.


“Yeah.”


McGee held up an evidence bag containing the cigarette butt. He said, “We found this near the gate in the Wilson’s backyard.”


Byrd waved it off. “Look, that gunny was a pain in my ass — and a lotta other people’s, too. I tapped my working dog with my foot; I didn’t kick him. He got it wrong in the report, and I got my ass chewed out, demoted, then soon after booted out all together. Guy’s a damn pathological liar and an animal rights liberal wing-nut.”


“So, I take it you’re not friendly with them?” Tony asked, sarcastic.


“He got me fired, so no. I’m not.”


Tony began pushing the photographs closer. “Why’d you kill her? Bone to pick? Needed someone to pay? Think you could get away with it, ‘cause you’ve got some feds in your pocket?”


But Byrd wasn't looking at the spread of photos. Agent Craig on the other hand had given them a good look and had set his lips in a firm line. Maybe he was a father. Or maybe he was just a decent human being.


Tony set his attention now fully on Byrd. "What, you don't wanna look? Don’t wanna admire your own handiwork?”


“That a requirement?" Byrd asked in a lazy drawl. “Think I’ll pass.”


Sensing his partner was about to vault over the table and choke the life out of this one, McGee decided to intervene. "DNA sample. Yes or no.” Under the table, he reached out a hand and put it on Tony’s knee.


Byrd balked, eyes narrowed. “What if I say no?”


“We’ll get it from you anyway,” Tony replied, seemingly bored by the question.


Agent Craig said, “Cary, let them take it.”


McGee waved a forensic tech in.


Tony looked on silently as the sample was taken. Then he stood up, and beckoned for Agent Craig to follow.


“I’m 99.9 percent sure this is our guy,” Tony said as soon as they were alone in the hallway, keeping his voice low as to not attract attention.


“You have no proof,” Craig shot back.


“We’re getting proof right now, and I’d bet a kidney it’ll match the DNA we found on the victim.”


Craig’s resolve began to falter. “Look, even if that’s the case, it’ll get stacked on top of everything else, pending completion of this operation we’re doin’. So yeah, maybe he’ll be your guy.”


“I’m sorry, but I think murdering a kid’s got precedence over whatever drug case you’re working. Any judge’ll see that.”


“Not just a drug case. Like I said… High-profile murders. Several. And Byrd’s already under suspicion for having participated—“


“So you’re saying he’s killed before?”


“No proof.”


Tony turned away. He couldn’t believe this horse shit. “You’re kidding.”


“And look—“ Now Agent Craig appeared extremely contrite. “Byrd’s supposed to be watched twenty-four seven. The FBI’s on that. That was the agreement. There must have been a lapse somewhere—“


“A lapse,” Tony deadpanned. “A kid is dead because of a lapse.”


“I don’t know what to say, okay? This is a goddamned mess. But I have to tell you, even if you come up with proof — DNA proof — NCIS won’t be able to touch this guy. Not until our operation is over. That’s the facts. He’ll be charged, but he’s still ours.”


“Right, so he can enjoy all the fancy privileges federal witnesses get. Great. I’m sure this dead kid’s parents are gonna be thrilled to hear this.”


The interrogation room door opened, and Byrd stepped out, followed by McGee who was busy speaking with the forensics guy.


Byrd made sure to look right at Tony.


And then he smiled, an expression twisted and haughty and meant for no one else but Tony.


Laughing silently. Taunting.


The rage came then, provoked from somewhere just under the surface, and for a moment, Tony forgot how to breathe.


***



END OF PART ONE



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PostPosted: Sun Jun 28, 2015 1:51 pm 
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Joined: Thu Nov 15, 2012 8:40 pm
Posts: 10893
Location: ORLANDO
PART TWO
[1/2]









July 16, 2015


As Lewis Wilson drove his truck down the highway, he could picture his little girl beside him -- window open, blond hair whirling, brown eyes smiling. Carefree, happy, whole.


They were headed for the movies, the zoo, any number of places. He'd take lots of pictures; Trace kept a scrapbook. Lucy's book.


His little girl was growing up too quickly. Just yesterday, he'd picked her up out of her crib and promised her the world. Today, he'd show it to her.


Face open and innocent — nose and eyes just like her mother's — she asked, "Where are we going?"


Sweat beaded on his forehead, but his hands did not shake.


A gun now sat in his little girl's place.


He parked the truck up against the curb. Then, pulling out his cell phone, he dialed DiNozzo’s number.


Said only two words.


“Thank you.”


***



July 8, 2015


A little past six p.m.


He’d stepped out of work, backpack on his shoulder, passed Tim at the snack machine looking forlornly at a package of Nutter Butters. He wasn’t going to stop, but Tim grabbed him by the arm.


“Hey Tony,” he said, “you got any change?”


Tony dug in his pockets and produced some wrinkled dollar bills and a couple quarters.


“Thanks.” Tim smiled. “You leaving?”


“I’ve got plans.”


“Zoe?”


Tony shrugged. “Plans.”


“Okay.” Tim had given him an odd look, but the pull of the Nutter Butters was too strong. “I’ll be here for an hour or so—”


Tony left before he’d finished talking. He promised Lindsey he’d meet her at the cafe out by the park, and he’d brushed her off enough this week.


But work always seemed to come first.


His cell rang in the middle of their conversation, and seeing the number, he put a finger up. “Gotta take this. Sorry.”


Lindsey watched from where she sat, sitting with legs crossed on the cafe chair. She was young, dressed in some diner hash slinging uniform, a little stained, and had long honey-brown hair pulled into a messy bun.


Lewis Wilson was talking as soon as Tony picked up, “There is someone. He worked on base under me. A dog handler. I had to write him a bad review. He wasn't happy."


"He wasn't happy," Tony repeated, glancing Lindsey’s way briefly, shaking his head in apology. "You're gonna have to be a little more specific."


"More than a little pissed off. Unhinged, really, which only supported my claims in the report. He needed counseling,” Lewis explained. "But I never—“


"We'll need his info, to add to our list,” Tony said.


"And he was at our home," Lewis said, as if suddenly remembering something crucial. "We had a barbecue last May. I invited some of my crew..."


Tony cradled the cell phone between his cheek and his shoulder, gesturing at Lindsey to throw him a pen. She dug in her purse, chucked one his way.


Lewis seemed far, far away on the other end, musing, remembering. “Then I invited him again. Thought he just needed more direction…”


"Wilson?" Tony prompted, grabbing a napkin, clicking the pen open. "You with me?”


Lewis stayed quiet for a while.


“Hello?”


Finally, he answered, "He played with my dog, Hella.” Another pause. Then on repeat: “He played with the damn dog.”


Tony got the name out of him: Cary Byrd. Then he assured, “This is good information. I got my best agent on it, okay?”


As soon as the call disconnected, Tony texted the name to McGee with a quick note: “This guy. We need to get him in ASAP.” And as a joke: “xoxo.”


Lindsey watched him from across the table, slowly turning her glass of iced coffee with her fingers. The patio they sat on was shaded, yet still warm. Tony’d taken off his suit jacket, and she’d joked about taking off her shirt.


Tony laughed nervously told her not to say that, and Lindsey called him a stick in the mud.


“Sorry about that,” Tony said, putting the phone down. “Been a day.”


“Are you coming to the group tonight? You’ve skipped a bunch of sessions.”


Tony shrugged, watched her, and took a long drink from a bottle of Red Stripe. “Kind of busy.”


She frowned. “You know I’m gonna have to find a new support partner if you drop out.”


He relented. “I’ll try to be there tonight.”


Instead, he'd gone to Gibbs’ place.


***






July 9, 2015


McGee stopped him. He’d been right there, right next to Byrd, talking with the forensics guy. He’d looked Tony’s way, just in time. In that fraction of a second, he saw what was coming.


The hair trigger.


Things slowed down.


Then they sped up, as McGee reacted, stepping forward without a word, grabbing Tony and holding him in place. Byrd screaming in the background, voice high-pitched and wild: “Keep that psycho away from me!”


Only then did McGee get in Tony’s face and yell at him, fingers digging into his flesh. He didn’t remember what he’d said.


***



Death and chemical cleaner and something else. Bone dust. Burnt flesh. Gun powder. Blood. Or maybe Tony had only imagined those last ones, because they were stuck in his head, always, waiting for some innocuous trigger.


Autopsy’s ventilation hummed overhead, loud only because everything else was silent. He could hear his own breathing, still faster than normal.


They’d told him to sit here on the stainless steel table. Told him to calm down, Ducky’s voice quiet, soothing, and Tim asking him to listen, do what he’s told.


“I’m fine now,” Tony said. “I just lost my cool up there.” He moved to get up.


But Ducky pushed him down and gave him a look that encouraged no argument. “Stay.”


Tony stayed. He was staying. Sitting here obediently while he watched them talk outside the glass doors, Ducky and McGee, and Vance. Talking about him and the fact that he’d attacked — tried to attack — Cary Byrd.


And if someone asked him now, he wouldn’t lie about it. He’d have gladly taken that piss ant to the ground and smashed his face repeatedly against the wall. Again and again and again. It would have felt good. So good.


Vance had his mouth set in a straight line. Briefly, Tony caught his eyes through the glass.


God, he was screwed.


“Get a grip, DiNozzo,” he whispered to himself. “What are you doing?”


The doors slid open, and Vance stalked right up to where Tony sat, finger out and pointing. “What the hell were you thinking up there?”


“I wasn’t,” Tony said. “I admit, I lost my cool.”


“You lost your cool,” Vance said, voice edging on disbelief. “You lost your cool.”


“Won’t happen again.”


Vance considered him, eyes narrowed. “I should bench you right now.”


“It won’t happen again,” Tony repeated, in assurance. It wouldn’t. “But I don’t think it’s right for that scumbag to get carte blanche.”


“He’s not. The FBI is aware of the situation. He will be dealt with, upon verification of the evidence.”


“And that’s gonna be good enough for your friend?”


“Not my decision, DiNozzo.”


Tony blew out a breath. He smelled bullshit.


“So it won’t happen again,” Vance said, a warning. A demand, a command, and something Tony might choose to follow. “You’re to stay away from him.


Tony nodded.


Vance added, “You’re lucky he’s not filing a complaint.”


And Tony thought, He’s lucky I didn’t kill him.


After the director had gone, Tony looked up to find Tim in his place. He said nothing. Tony didn’t recognize the expression on Tim’s face, nor did Tim give him a hint.


It wasn’t exactly fear, but it might have been something like it.


***



July 10, 2015


Nine p.m.


Tony went home to his apartment after a workday fill with nothing useful—no forensics breakthroughs, a few time-wasting interviews—and found Zoe already there. She must’ve been waiting for him. She had dinner made, although by this time it looked cold and lonely, sitting there forgotten on the stovetop. They exchanged pleasantries, but it didn’t go much further than that. She stood next to the counter drinking a glass of red wine. The bottle sat open nearby, breathing. A nice pinot. Nothing fancy.


“So Tony,” Zoe started it off, keeping her tone light as she watched him across the kitchen counter. He was pawing through a stack of mail, days old. “Who’s Lindsey?”


“What is this?” Tony asked, not looking up. “An intervention?”


“I don’t know what it is,” she said. “Answer the question.”


Tony gave a honest answer. “An acquaintance.”


“That’s why she calls and texts you all the time? Times, dates, places?”


“You looked through my phone.” It wasn’t a question.


“While you were in the shower. Only bringing it up now because things have gotten strange with you.”


He smiled at her; it was odd and strained. He’d had jealous, suspicious girlfriends before, but he usually got rid of them before it got too bad. Tony hadn’t ever suspected Zoe would be a part of that group. “How’d you know the passcode?”


“Not that hard; it’s your birth month and date,” she bristled. “Look Tony—“


“I’m not cheating on you, if that’s what you’re about to say,” Tony said.


Of course it couldn’t be as banal and cliche as another woman. A few quickies here and there to curb the stress and inevitable slump of a longer-than-two-month relationship. None of that. He should’ve let Zoe in on this sooner, he knew, but like she always told him, communication wasn’t always his strong suit.


“I can’t tell if you’re lying, or if you’re actually telling the truth.”


“I’m telling the truth.”


Zoe swirled the wine around in the glass. She said, “I’m not checking up on you. I’m worried about you. But every time I bring it up…” She let out a breath, looked at him.


The look of honest concern on her face made him relent. “Some nights, I’ve been going to a support group, okay? She’s been showing up there, too. We talked, and she just sort of… clung. Can’t get rid of her, and besides, I don’t want to be responsible for the next jump she makes from some bridge.”


“Support group for what?” Zoe prodded. “Is that the men’s group you were talking about a while ago?”


“No,” Tony hedged. “This one’s different.”


Zoe kept her gaze on him, expecting something.


“For PTSD,” Tony said, feeling stupid as soon as it came out of his mouth. “An old friend of mine said it might be helpful, based… on what I’ve experienced.”


“Tony…” Zoe put the glass down. “I’m sorry. Why didn’t you tell me?”


“I didn’t want to tell you.”


“Why?”


“Because I’m a lot different than I was back when we first met. A lot has changed. I’ve changed, and not necessarily for the better. I didn’t want to freak you out, or scare you away, or x, y, z. The past few years have been… It’s been rough.”


She shook her head. “I’m different, too, Tony. Neither of us are the same. Of course we’ve changed. Why would I expect that from you?”


“I don’t know. I really don’t know.”


“Should you be working right now?” She had to ask. And even now, in the comfort of his home, he looked spooked. She thought back to several events, all those sleepless nights, the wild mood-swings, the general state of anxiety that was so unlike Tony, either past or present. Only now did it seem obvious.


For all those nights, she’d been sleeping next to someone she hadn’t really known. Someone who’d been—for all intents and purposes—suffering silently in the midst of his own fear.


But Tony scoffed at her. “I’m fine to work. What happened to Gibbs shook me up. But I got cleared.”


“Yet you’re going to a PTSD support group.”


“I don’t go very often. Haven’t gone in a week or so actually. It doesn’t help; it’s just a group of fucked up people telling fucked up stories.”


“That’s the point.”


Tony shrugged. “It’s not helping.”


“And this Lindsey… she goes to it, too.”


“Yes. Still doubt me?”


Zoe gave him a weak smile. “No.” She reached for him, put her hands on his face and looked at his eyes close enough to tell the green flecks from the brown. They were dull, worn out. “You need to talk to someone.”


“I’m talking to you.”


“No. A professional.”


He shook his head. “Don’t worry,” Tony said, voice quiet, repeating the refrain he’d often used with her. “It’ll give you wrinkles.” The playfulness of it seemed like some distant memory.


He kissed her, pressed her back against the refrigerator. “It’s this case,” he said between breaths, between groping caresses. “Just this case. It’ll get better.”


Naked in bed, they talked in the dark, lying comfortably close. Zoe’s fingers played with the hair on the back of his head.


“You remember the Comstock case?” Tony asked.


Zoe paused her fingers, briefly, then answered, “Yeah, that was the last one you worked. Until you turned tail and ran. Never understood why you did that. You didn’t have it that bad, you know.”


“You really don’t remember more about that case?”


“Sure I do. It totally blew. Guy got off on some bizarre technicality. Pretty bogus. Political.”


“That didn’t bother you.”


Again, her fingers stilled. “That a statement, or a question?”


Tony shrugged a shoulder. “Either.”


Zoe considered him for a while. “No. It bothered me a lot, but it was part of the job there. In that department, it happened. Can’t tell me it never happened in Baltimore.”


“No, it did. Often. Maybe I’d grown tougher.”


Zoe stared at the ceiling, at the dark shadow of the motionless ceiling fan.


Tony went on, “Grown blinder. But it never failed to piss me off. After Philly, I had to beg for that Baltimore job.”


“Didn’t like it there, either?”


“For a while it was fine. Kept me going. Found out my partner was dirty, and well… that always manages to skew things a bit.”


“Yeah?”


“Couldn’t bring myself to turn him in. Gibbs found me, saw something in me I didn’t. And suddenly I had a choice. I could do the ‘right thing’ or I could go off with Gibbs and forget about it.”


“And you went with Gibbs, and you’ve stayed with him.”


“Yeah. I have.”


“Do you regret it?”


“Never.”


Zoe nudged him, “So what about the Comstock case?”


“I was angry. No justice. All the ends left loose. The guy was still out there. Free. Living like any other person, like you or me. We all knew he killed that boy. Nobody cared.”


“We cared, but there was nothing we could do.”


Tony stayed quiet. Then, voice barely audible, he said, “I sat parked in front of his house for two hours. Just sat there, with my gun in my lap.”


Zoe stiffened, but she didn’t interrupt.


“I waited. I don’t know what for. Looking back at it now, yeah, it was crazy. Could I have walked in there and shot him myself? Sure. Why not. We’re all killers in this profession. You can dress it up however you’d like to.”


“That’s not true,” Zoe argued. “When we kill, it’s either you or them or someone else.”


“Doesn’t matter. Pull that trigger and you’re changing the course of someone’s life, ending it. I sat there for two hours. But I didn’t do it. I had a choice. I could do it, or leave. What’s the ‘right thing’?”


“You didn’t do it, because you’re not a killer, Tony. You’re a protector. That’s your job. You protect.”


Tony shook his head. “No. I didn’t do it because I didn’t have the courage to do it. I ran. You’ve said it yourself.”


“Tony—“


“No, damn it. We should’ve gotten that boy justice. His family. What about them?”


“It wasn't in your hands.”


“It could’ve been.” And then, finally, “It could be.”


Zoe looked at the edges of his face in the darkness, and for a long moment, she didn’t recognize him. Almost like she’d been dating a stranger, just like Tony had warned earlier. But something gnawed at her: this Tony wasn’t right. All this talk about killing and justice and the like. In her own mind, she went back to her prior question: Should you be working? The answer was no. He shouldn’t be out there like this.


Cautiously, she put out a hand and ran her fingers through his hair again. “Hey.”


Tony lay motionless, head on her leg, staring at the wall. Not even blinking.


She kept touching his head, repeating, “You’re not a killer. You were never a killer. You’re a protector. And you’re going to get help.”


Until finally, he turned his face into her thigh. She felt the tears before she saw them.


***



July 13, 2015


A Monday. Hot again. Damp outside. It rained only enough to make everything smell like earthworms, decay, and wet dog. Then the sun came back out to further bake the landscape.


Instead of showing up at work on time, Tony’d gone on a late morning run. He ran longer and farther and harder than he had in months. His chest ached afterward from breathing so hard. He threw up bile in some old lady’s bushes.


When he got home, he glanced at his phone. A text message from McGee.


Where the hell are you? DNA results are in.


He had a strong feeling he wouldn’t be surprised.


***



DiNozzo agreed to meet Wilson in a conference room at NCIS to go over the case’s progress, or as it was now, where the case had been meant to end. Tony invited him to sit, but Lewis had refused, so they both stood instead.


“So you have Cary Byrd, right? He’s the guy,” Lewis started. He had a harried look about him, as if he’d just gotten out of bed and discovered he had somewhere to be. He was halfway put together. The current child-less Lewis clearly couldn’t reconcile with the past Lewis—the one who’d actually been alive inside. “You’ve arrested him? Is he here now?”


Tony hedged the question, beginning instead, “Okay, this is what’s going on. Have you talked at all to Vance about it?”


“No,” Lewis said, bitterly. “He’s keeping me in the dark.”


Tony had a distinct feeling that relationship was over. He said, “We had Byrd in for questioning. We got consent for a DNA sample. The results came this morning.”


“And?”


“It’s a match with the sample we took from Lucy’s body,” Tony said.


“I knew it!” Lewis exploded, stepping away to pace. “I knew it. Fucking bastard. Knew it as soon as I remembered that barbecue… and the dog…” Lewis stopped and looked at Tony. “So you’ve got him then.”


“Basically.”


“Basically? What’s that mean?”


Tony rubbed the bridge of his nose, then said, “Look, there’s a snag. Cary Byrd is cooperating with the DEA and FBI on another case. He’s being charged, but he’s not going anywhere, for now.”


“He’s still out there.” Lewis fixed a vacant stare on the wall.


“He’s still out there,” Tony confirmed. “Under federal supervision.”


The vacant stared turned dark as he turned it toward Tony. “And a lot of good that did for Luce.”


“Wish I had better news, but my hands are tied.” That was a well-trained response, on Tony’s part.


Lewis had Tony against the wall before either of them knew what they were doing. Tony’s back hit the plaster with a solid thunk. “Then maybe you just weren’t good enough,” he hissed.


Tony didn’t push back. He yielded to the other man’s anger, familiar anger, like Gibbs during the heat of a case. Like Gibbs when he knew the law couldn’t provide them justice, not this time. The likeness was so striking, especially now that it was directed at him. He said, slowly, looking right into Lewis’ betrayed eyes, “Thought the same thing.”


Lewis moved away. He crossed the room to stare at the corner, laughing bitterly.


“He’s still not being watched between 1200 and 1400,” Tony said.


Lewis turned and said, “What’re you saying?”


And Tony said, “I’m only here to give you information.”


***



Midnight.


Tony wasn’t sleeping; he was drinking, and pacing. Waiting for Zoe to get home


He broke a glass. Cut his finger.


Watched the blood swirl around the sink.


Back when he’d been at Gibbs’ place, Emily had given him extra pink bandaids. He wrapped his finger, stared at it.


He sat on the floor to study crumbs left behind by the broom.


A key turned in the lock. The door opened. The kitchen light switched on.


Zoe saw the broken glass, blood on the counter, and she found him on the floor. Sitting, head cocked and looking at nothing.


“It’s only a little cut,” Tony slurred, drunk. “Only a little cut.”


***





July 16, 2015


Cary Byrd rented a row house in an area that hovered somewhere just below gentrification. The nearest available parking was three blocks away, even with Tony circling around twice. On the corner of the next block, a young man was obviously hustling some kind of illegal substance. He was there one moment, then gone the next. But a two-bit dime bag dealer wasn't really on their agenda.


Lewis Wilson had called DiNozzo fifty minutes earlier, saying only two words: Thank you.


It had taken Tony ten minutes alone to convince McGee to come with him, to watch his six and be a second pair of eyes. “Just a hunch I have…” Tony’d said.


And Tim had given him that same look he’d had on his face back in autopsy, after Tony tried to get a piece of Byrd. He’d known it was a Bad Idea, but he said, “I don’t think you should go alone.”


So here they were, Tim having visions that his own career would be ending this afternoon, for sure. Because following Tony was definitely a Bad Idea. He knew what happened between Tony and Cary Byrd hadn’t been a fluke, a one time event, an isolated occurrence — it was just another piece that fit into a greater pattern of behavior. A dangerous pattern.


Tony hopped up the three steps to the front door, while McGee stayed on street level, watching the surroundings. Tony knocked, loudly. No answer. He knocked again.


McGee stepped up to the window, barred in decorative wrought iron. The curtain was parted an inch, but that was enough. Dread filled him as he said, "Tony, we got blood..."


"C'mere," Tony urged, as the both of them grabbed for their weapons, holding them down toward the ground, fingers off the trigger. Tony reached for the door knob; McGee kept an eye on the street. An old man smoking a cigar sat on a stoop across the street and watched, knit cap on his head and no expression on his face.


The door was unlocked. It swung inward, banging against the wall, as Tony shoved it open and began to clear the room. Tim followed, calling out, "Federal agents!"


In the middle of the living room, Byrd lay spread eagle on the carpet wearing nothing but a bathrobe and his own blood, leaving him fully exposed. McGee took the steps two at a time to clear the upper floor, while Tony quickly checked the rest of the lower level: the master bedroom, the bathroom, the closets. Nothing. Nobody. He went to the kitchen. It was surprisingly tidy, clear of clutter. Nothing on the counter except three empty casings.


McGee came back downstairs, having also found nothing, nobody. Just Cary Byrd's dead half-naked body, two bullets in the chest, and another shot to the head. Pieces from the back of his skull now decorated the couch against the far wall. Blood everywhere. Dead gray eyes stared up at the slowly spinning ceiling fan. Mouth open in silent surprise.


Very, very dead, but McGee found himself kneeling and checking his pulse anyway. Still warm. But still very, very dead.


"Tim, it's clear," Tony came up behind McGee suddenly, causing him to flinch.


"Somebody shot him," Tim observed.


"That, I can see," Tony re-holstered his weapon while scanning the carpet. “Policed his brass,” he said, feeling the weight of the shells in his pocket.


“Too much of a coincidence… Tony do you think—?”


“No,” Tony immediately denied.


“Wilson called you. I saw. Then you wanted to come out here. And now, the guy’s dead. How do you know it’s not him?” Tim demanded, feeling the suspicion and the multitude of coincidences gnawing at him


“Gut feeling.”


“Well, I don’t think—“


“I’m not gonna argue with you McGee. I’m lead here; I make the decisions. We’ll follow protocol, bring Wilson in for questioning. Standard stuff. Got it?”


Tim stared at Tony.


“Now let’s hurry the fuck up. FBI detail’s gonna be back soon.”


Tim kept staring at him. “How did you know they wouldn’t be here?”


“I don’t know,” Tony lied. He’d known. Gibbs’ Rule No. 35: Always watch the watchers. “Do I look like a damn psychic?”


“Why did you want me here?” Tim asked. “What’s going on?”


“What would they think if they came here and only found me?”


Tim shook his head, still confused.


“I trust you,” Tony said. “That’s why you’re here. Because I know I can trust you.”


“How will I know what to do or say if you don’t clue me in?”


“I’ll handle it. And don’t look at me like that,” Tony snapped, referring to the apprehensive expression on Tim’s face. It was the same kind of look he’d give a crazy guy with a loaded weapon, and a close relative of the look he’d given him twice earlier.


Because right now Tony sort of was the crazy guy with a loaded weapon.


Tim nodded, and he did what he was told.



--
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PostPosted: Sun Jun 28, 2015 10:21 pm 
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PART TWO
[2/2]










July 17, 2015


Another night at Casa de Gibbs. He hadn’t been here in a while.


The gun range wasn’t working from him anymore.


Maybe he needed peace. Maybe he just needed some good advice.


They sat out on the back deck, breathed in the spicy stink of freshly spread mulch, listened to the tree frogs and the crickets and the neighbors’ idle barking dogs. A cat leapt onto a nearby privacy fence, and it sat there, deathly still.


Gibbs made small talk, an event as rare as hen’s teeth, while Tony stared at the thick, cloying black night, mind reeling over what he’d done to Abby earlier, in her office when she’d woken him up from an uneasy nap.


“Tim came by earlier,” Gibbs was saying. “He had some interesting things to say.”


Tony was only half-listening, too wrapped up in his own head. Too wrapped up in himself.


“About you,” Gibbs added.


Now Tony was listening.


"You lied on an official report?” Gibbs asked.


"I didn't lie."


"Withheld evidence?"


Tony skirted the question. “Everything in that report was truthful."


"You just... decided to leave some things out."


"Right."


"So, not entirely truthful.”


"Truthful enough."


"There aren't gradients of the truth, Tony. Not while doing our kind of work."


"Sure there are,” Tony said. “There are for you."


"Gonna play that game with me, DiNozzo?" Gibbs warned.


"Maybe I am.”


Gibbs' eyes took on a hardness that gave Tony pause.


Then Tony said, softly, "Maybe I’ve built you up too much in my head."


Gibbs' demeanor softened minutely. “Maybe you get it now.”


“Okay,” Tony admitted. “Lie of omission. I'll go to confession."


“So you did lie on an official report."


"Yes. I guess I did.” Tony couldn’t believe he was falling for his boss’s old interrogation method. The man was good at it.


“Why?" Gibbs pressed.


"Because it was the right thing to do."


"According to who?"


Tony amended his answer, “I thought it was the right thing to do."


"They'll have your hide, Tony. Obstructing justice—Hell, you know. You're a goddamn cop. Have been half your life."


"That's never stopped you before."


"I've never lied on an official report,” Gibbs said. “Nor have I encouraged it."


“Really.” Tony didn’t look convinced. “I sometimes remember looking the other way. Several times, actually."


"You wanna play the moral olympics, DiNozzo? That what you're after here?"


"No, I'm here because I’ve got nowhere else to be right now.” And I’m pretty sure tomorrow I’ll be out on my ass. No job, no career, no future. “I’m asking for advice. From a mentor I've always respected."


"Okay. As a mentor, I'm asking you what in the hell you were thinking? What in the hell were you thinking, dragging McGee into it? And Bishop, too! And I also think I should kick your ass, because I taught you better than that. Of all the stupid things—“


"That what Mike Franks would tell you to say?"


"This isn't about Franks."


"No, because good ol' Franks would have told you: Go 'head. Cover it up. Bastard got what he deserved. Right?” Tony challenged.


"Franks has nothing to do with what I've taught you."


"He has everything to do with it. So many times you two have done god knows what. But it's all justice served, right?"


Gibbs said nothing.


“Right?" Tony said again.


“And Cary Byrd? He murdered a child. A little girl. Eight years old. Tortured her. Strangled her. Then he dragged her naked body out to the end of a rock jetty, and he left her there, hoping the tide would come and wash it all away." Tony worked his jaw. "It didn't; a fisherman found her.”


“This got anything to do with that happened in Philadelphia?” Gibbs asked after a pause.


“No,” Tony lied.


"Why'd you lie for him, this Lewis Wilson?”


“Wow, McGee really did tell you everything,” Tony frowned.


“Damn right he did, and he’s pissed about it, as he should be,” Gibbs said. “But most of all, he’s worried about your miserable ass.”


Tony looked away. He’d never meant to put Tim on the spot. That hadn’t been his goal.


Gibbs repeated the question. “Why’d you do it?”


"He's an honorable man.”


"We put away once honorable men all the time, DiNozzo. All the time.”


He said, “This is different.” But he didn’t sound sure about it. Gibbs was already poking holes in Tony’s logic. Instead of conceding the point, he began to get angry.


"How so?”


"He reminds me of someone."


Gibbs pushed and pushed. ”Who does he remind you of?”


Tony stood up, the chair scraping against the wood deck loudly, started pacing, slowly at first and then quicker. Gibbs’ eyes followed him, cautious. He wanted Tony angry, but he didn’t want to provoke violence. Tony was now raking a hand over his face and hair. He stank like he hadn't taken a shower in days, and his suit was rumpled. So unlike Tony, who was as fastidious as a house cat.


"Who does he remind you of, Tony?" Gibbs asked again. "This isn't your problem. Why are you covering for him?"


Tony suddenly stopped and turned, staring straight at Gibbs. "He reminds me of you.”


They both remained quiet for a while. Gibbs' face remained inscrutable, while Tony's bore all the classic signs of chronic stress. Finally, Gibbs asked, voice level but with a sharp edge, "You got an accusation to make?"


"An accusation? Never. Suspicions? Yes."


"I never asked anybody to lie for me."


"You didn't need to, because we understood,” Tony argued. “We could relate. We could rationalize it.”


"That's never an excuse."


"So what then?” Tony raised his voice. “What do I get for playing this game? Your game? For looking the other way, huh?"


"You're better than this, Tony."


"How so?"


"You know better!" Gibbs yelled, matching Tony’s tone. "And you're not me!"


"You know what? Fuck you, you self-righteous asshole. A good man's child is dead. And a miserable piece of dog meat got what it deserved. Case closed.”


“And you’re sure this has got nothing to do with Philadelphia?”


“That’s in the past.”


“You seem stuck in the past.”


“Pot, meet kettle,” Tony ground out.


"You're not me," Gibbs repeated. And at Tony’s pissed off stare, he clarified, “You’re better than me. And right now you're out of control. You need to rein this in before it destroys you. It's not worth it."


"It was worth it to someone to save you once,” Tony said. “Many times."


"Oh, Tony." Gibbs looked away, shaking his head.


Tony frowned, saying without emotion, ”You’re disappointed.”


"I don't know. I honestly don't know."


“So what's Tim gonna do about me?"


"That's up to him."


Tony nodded. Fair enough. "What are you gonna do?"


Gibbs didn't move or say anything for several moments. Then he looked Tony in the eye. "I'd save you, if I could. That'll always be my answer."


***




July 16, 2015


Tony drove to the Wilsons’ house, going twenty over on the highway and relying on the vehicle’s government plates to keep the traffic cops away. He turned onto the familiar street, looking for the blue house with the perfect yard.


A woman in short shorts, tank-top and visor walked her golden retriever. Two teenaged boys shot hoops. A gray-haired man read the local news rag on a porch. A grill smoked in a driveway.


He almost missed it, and he braked hard, parking crooked along the curb. The grass had grown up, unkempt, and it looked like it needed a good dose of water. He saw curtains flutter in a window as he walked up the front path.


Lewis met him outside, saying, “I guess this is it.”


The dog barked.


Tony ignored him, instead pulling out the casings. They sat on his palm, innocent pieces of brass. “Left a little something behind?”


“You’ll find the gun inside,” Lewis spoke in monotone.


“I have to bring you in for some questions,” Tony explained quickly, re-pocketing the casings. “Standard stuff. Swab your hands… You wore gloves?”


Lewis said nothing.


“Are you listening?” Tony asked. “Do you want to end up in Leavenworth? I hear it’s all sorts of fun there.”


“Why are you doing this?”


“Because you did the right thing.” Tony took him by the arm. “We’re gonna go over everything in the car.”


Lewis didn’t try to resist.


The door flew open, revealing Tracy, face drawn and worried. “What’s going on? What are you doing? What’s going on?” She held the dog by the collar with both hands as it continued to bark.


Tony stared at the dog. All of those teeth clacking, spit flying. He didn’t like his odds if that thing got loose. “Byrd turned up dead,” he shouted over the fracas. “Just gonna have a little talk.”


She looked at them in confusion.


“It’s okay, Trace,” Lewis assured her. “Put the dog up. I’ll explain everything when I get back.”


In the car, Tony met Lewis’ eyes in the rearview mirror. “This is what’s going to happen…”


***




July 17, 2015


Cary Byrd was barely cold by the time Director Vance had a meeting assembled in an empty conference room, and none of the attendees were particularly happy about the current chain of events.


DiNozzo found it oddly fitting that this was the same conference room he’d met Wilson in, days previous.


“I wanna know,” Agent Craig the DEA guy began, looking straight at DiNozzo, “what NCIS was doing at our asset’s residence immediately after his death?”


Tony had kept quiet for the most part, situated toward the back of the room and out of the line of fire. Vance already talked to him privately in his office, swore at him frontwards and sideways, up and down, tore him a gaping new one. Tony hadn’t yet been able to lick his wounds. And Vance had ended the whole thing with: “I’m not through with you, so don’t get any ideas in your head.”


“That’s a good question,” the FBI guy chimed in, predictably dressed in a bargain-basement priced, off the rack suit, hair slicked-back and oily. The moment Tony caught a whiff of him, he’d been on edge. Which wouldn’t exactly be a new phenomenon as of late—but there was something about him. “I was sure NCIS understood they were to stay away from Cary Byrd.”


Tony couldn’t stand it. He said, “What’s the deal with your security set-up, huh? That’s a better question.”


“As we stated earlier,” the FBI guy flapped his lips as he stared daggers at DiNozzo, “we were aware of the security lapses and were working to resolve them.” Out came the standard bullshit that already had Tony bristling


“Looks like ‘a lapse,’” Tony air-quoted, “killed your informant. Whoops.”


“DiNozzo!” Vance barked, “You’d be wise to keep your damn mouth shut.”


“Except to answer the question,” Agent Craig added. “Why were you and Special Agent McGee there in the first place. You already had indisputable evidence for your case. Your job was done.” Craig looked around. “Where is McGee?”


“You leave him out of this,” Tony said. Vance warned him with another scathing look, and this time Tony answered safely, “Everything’s in my report.”


“And McGee’s report?” Craig pressed.


“Pending.”


“And you already interviewed Lewis Wilson regarding his potential culpability,” FBI-guy went on. “Awfully quick work.”


“Well, we don’t like to sit around and naval gaze around here, unlike—“


Vance warned Tony with yet another look.


“It’s in the report,” Tony said. “Gunnery Sergeant Lewis Wilson didn’t do it.”


“I find your delay tactics incredibly irritating.”


“It’s my specialty,” Tony quipped, smiling without a hint of friendliness.


“I want full transparency,” the FBI-guy—Special Agent Skinner by name—then said. “Total transparency. We’re picking up the investigation from here.”


Vance received a cell phone call and excused himself, giving everybody a look that very clearly said, “play nice.”


The door clicked shut, and immediately FBI-Guy-Skinner was in Tony’s face, “pissed off” written all over him. “Listen here you little upstart, I don’t know who you think you are, but I know you’ve been up to no good.”


“Yeah?” Tony countered, “Look at yourself. I can smell the dirt from here. You enjoy making special deals with child killers?”


“I don’t do it because I enjoy it. I do it because I have to!” Skinner shoved him in disgust.


Tony shoved back.


“Hey, hey, guys. C’mon,” Agent Craig stepped in, pulling Skinner away.


“Years,” Skinner went on to say. “That’s how long we’ve been working on our op. Years. And you blew it!” He pointed at Tony.


Tony had no doubt that if they were anywhere but the middle of NCIS headquarters, the two of them would be on the ground trying to kill each other, like a pair of Cary Byrd’s fighting dogs.


It seemed extreme, but the anger in the room was palpable.


“It’s not blown, Tom,” Craig said, still keeping a hand on Skinner. “Calm down. Byrd was just one part, and you gotta admit he was a liability…”


Skinner shrugged him off. Craig’s words fell on deaf ears. “I’ll get to the bottom of this,” he warned, “and when I do, I’m going after YOU.” He pointed a finger at Tony, who stood a safe distance away, heart pounding, breath fast.


Skinner then straightened his suit jacket and tie, patted his hair back down, and left, Craig following him out.


Tony swallowed hard and ran a hand over his mouth.


It was only a matter of time now. He felt the weight of the shell casings, still tucked in his pants pocket. He knew there was a part of Lewis Wilson that wanted to be caught, to be punished for what he’d done—that’s why he’d left them there, on the counter, in plain view.


But there was an even bigger part of Tony that wanted to see him get away with it. Like Gibbs had gotten away with it.


Because Byrd getting blown away was justice served, wasn’t it. And it tasted really sweet. He wanted it to happen, and Lewis Wilson had been a weapon as good as any other.


***



Four p.m.


The day’s heat had reached its apex, and it showed no signs of reprieve. The blue sky stretched out until it hit mature oak trees on all sides.


Gibbs’ old truck sat in the driveway, piled high with a load of dark mulch.


Tim parked his car in the street, and he followed the trail of spilled mulch around the side of the house, past the hardy begonias and the hedge, still in need of a trim. He found Gibbs leaning against the half-empty wheelbarrow, staring out at the neighbor’s shed.


If Gibbs was surprised by Tim’s visit, he didn’t show it. He simply looked Tim’s way and wiped some sweat off his forehead with the dirty sleeve of his t-shirt. “Guessing you’re not here to help with the yard work,” Gibbs said, eyeing Tim’s work clothes.


“No,” Tim said, honestly. “Thought you might be locked up in your basement.”


Gibbs gave him a look. Then he gently shook his head. He took the shovel and began piling the mulch on the flower beds, limping and unsteady on his feet. “Yard’s not gonna take care of itself.”


“Shouldn’t you be resting or something?”


He threw the shovel aside, crouched down, and began to spread the bark around. It reeked like decaying wood and dog shit, pungent and visceral. Tim was surprised by the heat that came off just the load in the wheelbarrow, and when Gibbs went to shovel out some more, it almost looked like it was steaming.


Gibbs finally spoke, “Been doing a lot of resting lately.” He gave him a critical look. “You here doing DiNozzo a favor or something? Asking me about when I’m coming back? He hasn’t been around to hassle me in days.”


Tim shook his head. “Not why I’m here…” He bit his lip, hard.


Gibbs stopped and leaned again against the wheelbarrow. He narrowed his eyes.


"Boss, I need some advice, and I thought I'd come to you because... Well, because,” Tim said. “It's just... I'm concerned about Tony. He's... He's seriously compromising a case.”


Listening, Gibbs wiped his hands against his jeans.


“He’s not right… in the head,” Tim went on. “I don’t know— I think something really bad is going to happen. I think something bad has already happened. I don’t know what to do.”


Wordlessly, Gibbs invited Tim inside. He cleaned himself up a bit, cracked open beers for both of them, left them sweating on the kitchen table. Tim didn’t touch it. Gibbs sat across from him, easing himself into the chair, and he said, “Talk.”


McGee talked. He’d made a mental list of all of Tony’s strange behavior, all of it since that trip to Iraq. The mood swings, the vacant staring, the short fuse, his personal involvement. He detailed the current case, the circumstances, how Tony went after Cary Byrd in the hallway at NCIS, and then what happened at Byrd’s place.


“He knows who killed him. He was so… calm. Like he expected it. Like he’d been waiting for it.”


“Do you know who killed Cary Byrd?” Gibbs asked. “Tim?”


Tim looked past Gibbs, at the refrigerator. Just staring and remembering.


“I think you know.”


“Tony took a call from Lewis Wilson right before we left for Byrd’s place. While we were there, he told me he’d ‘handle it.’ It was a warning; we were both thinking the same thing.


“A couple or so days before that, Tony met with Wilson at NCIS. Ellie told me about it; she saw Tony after. Said he seemed shaken, bothered; he snapped at her, which he’d been doing lately. Then he left for the day. It was barely even two in the afternoon.


“Tony brought Wilson in for questioning himself, about Byrd’s death. Took Ellie in with him. Maybe because he thought she wouldn’t catch on. Maybe because she was already sympathetic. I don’t know. She told me, afterward, that it had been weird. As if both of them already knew what they were going to say.” Tim paused. “So yeah, I do know who killed him, and Tony let him go without further suspicion.”


Gibbs sat quietly, then he asked, gently, “Where is Tony now?”


“He was with Abby when I left to come here. In her office. Vance took him to task early today. The secretary told me. She said they were yelling for fifteen minutes, at least. Then, later, there was a meeting in a conference room, with Vance, some other agents… FBI or DEA or something. And Tony, too. Ellie said she saw them all head down the hallway. When I saw him last, he looked at me like he wanted to say something. He looked afraid.”


“What did he say?”


Tim shook his head. “He didn’t say anything. Just kept walking.” He chewed on the side of his cheek. He’d already started to sweat from the nervous anxiety enveloping him. He should’ve been angry at Tony, pissed off that he’d put him in this situation. But Tim was more shocked than anything else. This was so out-of-character for DiNozzo, so bizarre. “Vance is waiting for my report. Said if I don’t produce it, the FBI guy will subpoena me, eventually. Gibbs, I love Tony, but I won’t lie under oath. What am I gonna do? What should I do?”


"Looks like you've got a decision to make, McGee.” Gibbs looked Tim right in the eye, as if trying to impart some of his own strength.


But they both knew it was a fruitless endeavor. This was all on Tim.


"It's a decision I can't make,” Tim said.


"You sure about that? You know the facts, the truth, you're just as culpable. You have to think about that, your own life, your career.”


"You think I should call Tony out on this?" McGee asked in disbelief.


“I think you should’ve done it a while ago,” Gibbs said. “Whatever Tony’s done to himself, don’t let him do it to you, too.”


"They'll take his badge, for sure. Or more. I don't want that!"


"I didn't say you did."


"Then what are you saying?"


"I'm saying you've come to the wrong person."


"I thought you could help me," McGee frowned. “Tell me what to do.”


Gibbs shook his head, smiling wryly. "I'm telling you to go to Tony. Talk to him. He's the one you should be confronting."


"I don't know if I can do this, Boss,” Tim admitted, quietly.


"He'd do it for you."


"I'd never get myself into this kind of position.”


“I don’t think he thought he would, either.”


***



Abby had given a frazzled Tony refuge on her futon while she typed reports on the in-office computer. The soft clacking of keys managed to lull his busy mind into something that might have been sleep.


When it got too late to stay at work any longer, she stood up, stretched, and gently nudged him awake.


The gentle nudge didn’t beget a gentle awakening. Tony sucked in a breath, spasming into a sitting position, and before Abby even knew it, he had her by the neck.


It lasted only a second, and Abby wasn’t yet able to process a reaction. He let her go; his hands burned. She stumbled to the side, hitting her hip against the desk, eyes open wide with shock.


“I’m sorry,” he was saying, voice croaked and broken. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”


“I shouldn’t have startled you,” she said, even while looking at him with poorly veiled fear.


He raked his hands through this hair, saying again, “I’m sorry.”


It took awhile and a few more babbled apologies, but Abby finally sat beside him. She didn’t move to hug him. Rather, she slowly put a hand on his knee, subtle and supportive. He leaned into her, and she could feel him shaking.


What’s wrong with you? she wanted to ask, but she didn’t. Right now, she was too afraid to move too much or say too much. So she just touched him and let him regain his bearings.


She wanted Tony back. Her normal, healthy, stable, happy Tony. Her friend. Not this guy, whoever this was. This broken man, this once proud man.


***





July 19, 2015


Barely eight a.m. and Vance was already on his ass about that report. The man was no dummy. He seemed to know what was going on, and still he pressed, as if prodding, urging Tim not to be a fool here. Because that was the truth. There was loyalty, and then there was just plain stupidity.


He loved Tony, yes. But he couldn’t… He wouldn’t…


Talk to him, Gibbs had said. He’s the one you should be confronting.


McGee took that advice to heart. He’d wasted enough time watching the metaphorical clouds build on the horizon. So he’d come in early, planted himself at his desk, and he worked on his report. And when Vance came around to breathe down his neck, Tim looked at him and he said: “You’ll have it soon.”


He rounded on DiNozzo in a quiet section of hallway, after he’d finally decided to show up, late again and reeking of cigar smoke and something else he couldn’t place. He hadn’t shaved, either.


No preamble. Just tightly restrained anger. He took Tony by the arm and launched right into it, perhaps a bit strongly. But damn it, this was ridiculous. "So what?” Tim asked him. “Why are you doing this? Because you can get away with it?"


Tony wrenched himself away. ”Maybe I can."


"You know, that makes you no better than the people we investigate."


"Maybe that's true."


Tim took a step back. He shook his head. He didn’t understand. He didn’t understand at all. “I have so much respect for you, Tony. I don’t—“


“Is your report finished?” Tony interrupted.


Tim opened his mouth, then closed it. “Yeah. Finished up this morning.” He looked away, guilty. “Vance has it,” he said to the wall.


The silence felt like it might never end. Until Tim spoke again, looking at Tony and trying to figure out the weirdly empty look on his face. All he could think to say was: “We love you.”


***



Vance called him up for a “sit rep.” As soon as the door closed, Tony knew what was coming, and it sure wasn’t a sit rep. Nor was it a happy birthday.


***




July 21, 2015


Things fell apart.


Friendly. Approachable. Good-natured. Fair. Just.


They’d said these things about him once.


“Go be friendly; it’s what you’re good at.”


Even Gibbs had said that once.


Like a goddamned sea otter. Fun and playful and mostly harmless. His charm could put the surliest of characters at ease.


But at the end of the day he wasn’t really any of these things, was he?


They were juxtaposed with the reality—Tony’s perceived reality. His lies. His aggression. The violent thoughts that plagued his sleep and his waking hours. He couldn’t fucking sleep. Couldn’t fucking function. Couldn’t get away from it.


Blood. The smell of it. Mutilated bodies. Fifteen-year-old kid. He’d shot his face off. And he liked it.


Tony’d figured out pretty quick he had no real safety net.


He’d fooled the government psychologists. He needed to work, wanted to work. He’d given all the right answers, did a song and dance, smiled, laughed. He’s DiNozzo! Takes a licking, keeps ticking. Over and over.


Even though he wasn’t ready, clearly. Even though he wasn’t all right at all. Gibbs may have been severely wounded that day in Iraq, but Tony had been damaged in a way that was almost undetectable, even by himself.


Unstable. Adrift. Volatile.


Crazy.


Waiting for the switch.


Ducky had taken him aside, worried about what he’d been seeing, what he’d been denying was there in front of his face, ever since Tony’d come back — and even from before.


McGee hadn’t been speaking with him, since he’d confronted Tony, yelled in his face—hurt and betrayed. No, they hadn’t talked since Tim had made the decision to go to Vance, since he’d sent the report, the real report. No lies. No bullshit.


Gibbs? Said he’d save him, if he could. And he couldn’t. Not this time. Not from this. None of this was Gibbs’ fault. All of this was Gibbs’ fault.


Abby… She’d hugged him gently right afterward. After he’d been stripped of his gun, his badge, his career, his dignity. She’d hugged him and said, “You’re better than this, baby.” Like she was disappointed, yet she loved him anyway, despite everything. Like he was an undeserving leper.


They all were disappointed. He’d fucked up. Big time. He’d let them all down.


You’re better than this.


Then McGee called him from NCIS, while he was at home, hitting the bottle fairly hard. Wanting to call Gibbs. Wanting to not call Gibbs.


Fucking bastard. Always got away with everything. And even when he didn’t, he had his loyal minions to cover his ass. Never asked for it, he said. Horse shit. He expected it.


“They arrested Lewis Wilson,” Tim was saying, voice tinny over the phone. “Tony, they’re asking about you.”


***



END OF PART TWO



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PostPosted: Wed Jul 01, 2015 12:26 am 
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Location: ORLANDO
PART THREE
[1/1]











July 23-24, 2015


He never drank canned beer, but he needed more fodder for his makeshift shooting range. He popped open another, drank it down quickly, the carbonation burning the back of his throat. The cheap beer was drinkable like water, a perfect chaser for the gut-rot Gibbs kept by the crate-load in the corner. Man probably had his own distillery somewhere in these woods. He had enough to stay blind, stinking drunk for days.


And the more thinking Tony did up here, holed away in Gibbs’ cabin, the more certain his plan became.


Step one: Go on a boat ride. Throw away the bullet casings, all three of them. Let the lake have his secret.


Step two… step two…


Tony woke the next morning in the mud by the lake, staring up at the sky. He watched a vulture soaring up high, black against the deep blue expanse, circling, circling, searching for something. It was joined by another, then another. Three black birds going round and round up there. Thunder rolled far away to the west, where white puffy clouds grew upward, not outward. His skin felt burnt and stretched, his clothes damp.


Step two: Eliminate the threat.


***



July 22, 2015


"Almost done, isn't it?" Tobias Fornell asked as he slowly descended the steps.


Gibbs sat next to his boat, working his way through another bottle of bourbon and watching a spaghetti western on the old black and white television. He looked up and gave his old friend a wry grin. "Talking about the boat or the car?"


"Either."


"Or neither," Gibbs suggested, putting his empty glass down. "You bring Emily?"


"No. She's at Diane's mother's place for the week." Fornell ran his hand over the car. "Looks nice."


"We've been workin' hard." Gibbs wiped his hands off on a rag. "You hungry?" he headed for the steps, limping up them. He was done with the basement for the night.


Fornell trailed after him. "Not especially."


"Then you came just to chat?" Gibbs asked, humor implied.


"Came to thank you."


"What for?"


"Helping Emily."


"The car's no big deal. Been fun."


"Not just with the car," Fornell said. "Everything. She loves spending time here. With you. Stability. She needs that."


"Yeah well." Gibbs grabbed a beer from the fridge, pried the top off and took a long swallow. He set it on the kitchen counter and looked at his friend closely. "Hell, you don't have to thank me, Tobias. You know Em's always welcome here. Not working now, so I've got the time."


"And how's that working out for you?"


"Finding other ways to occupy my time. Thinking things over.”


"And drink."


Gibbs took another swig of beer, unapologetic. "You're one to talk, Tobias."


"Yes, I went down that road."


"You aren't anymore?"


"I'm trying," Fornell answered honestly. “Look— I came here to thank you, yes. But also…” He paused, carefully measuring his words before opening his mouth again. “When was the last time you spoke with DiNozzo?"


If Gibbs seemed surprised by the question, he didn't let on. He answered, "Been a couple days or so.”


"He's in a bit of trouble," Fornell said. "NCIS suspended him. No pay. Pending an investigation. FBI filed a charge. Obstruction of justice. DoD is sniffing around. It… doesn’t look good.”


Gibbs leaned against his counter and stared at the cabinets he'd been meaning to refinish.


"Withholding evidence in a murder investigation,” Fornell added.


"McGee?"


"Not involved," Fornell assured. "Officially, anyway. Pretty sure DiNozzo made certain of that, with Vance's help. Said he acted alone.”


Gibbs nodded. "Tony'd never let McGee take any of the fall. He knows it's all on him. It was his decision."


"So you're aware of the situation?” He shouldn’t have been surprised.


"McGee came to me."


"And Tony?"


"He came to me, too. We had a disagreement. It didn't exactly end well. He told me it was his decision to make. I respect that." Gibbs moved into the living room and flipped on the television to a baseball game.


"His career is over,” Fornell said.


"Yeah well, Tobias, like I said. That's on him.”


“Skinner is out for blood. I know that guy, Jethro. He’s ruthless, and he’s not gonna stop until DiNozzo’s reputation has been all but eviscerated. You just gonna sit here on the sidelines and watch it happen?” Fornell kept prodding. “Isn’t that a rule of yours?”


Gibbs didn’t answer. That wasn’t one of his rules; it was one of Tony’s.


"And what would make him do that? He's a good cop. Spent his whole life in law enforcement. He knows better."


Gibbs looked him in the eye. ”Maybe he tried protecting someone he thought was worth protecting."


"Not good enough."


"Maybe the fact that a child killer would be getting special privileges from the FBI and the DEA just didn't sit well with him?" Gibbs snapped.


"Again, not really an excuse."


"Well, Tobias, I ain't got an excuse for you. I can't excuse DiNozzo, because I don't know what's goin' on in that head of his half the time, okay?" Gibbs threw his hands up. "You really need to be asking him yourself."


"Thing is..." Fornell started. "We've been looking for him."


Gibbs narrowed his eyes.


"Can't find him."


"What're you talking about?"


"Just wondering if you'd know where he was..." Fornell gave him a look, as if he already knew where Tony had chosen to hide, but wanted Gibbs to take the hint.


"No," Gibbs answered flatly. "No idea."


"Didn't think so." Fornell nodded, as if pleased with the answer. "Emily will be back Friday. I'll bring her over."


"Sounds great."


As soon as the other man shut the front door, Gibbs had his cell phone out, dialing McGee. He had enough ghosts lurking on his conscience. Enough was enough.


***



July 16, 2015


“This is what’s going to happen,” Tony said, watching Lewis in the rearview mirror. “You didn’t kill Cary Byrd.”


Lewis opened his mouth.


“Hey!” Tony warned him. “I don’t wanna hear it.”


“The truth?”


“You didn’t touch him, got it?” Tony said.


“Not afraid to face the consequences, DiNozzo.”


Tony frowned at the mirror. “Maybe you should be.”


***



July 24, 2015


In the cabin, alone with Tony, Tim moved carefully, talked carefully. He almost didn’t recognize his friend, not like this. “I'm sorry, if you felt like I betrayed you."


"You didn't."


"I didn't want this to happen to you, Tony."


Tony didn't answer.


Tim’s voice was quiet. “Never wanted this."


"You did what you had to,” Tony said. “You did the right thing."


McGee didn't look so sure.


"You did. You know, I'm fucking proud of you Tim. I put you in an unbelievably shitty situation, and I should have never done that. Shouldn't have done that to you, because you're a good agent. You made all the right choices. Tough choices."


"You need to come back, Tony.”


"I won't. I've ruined my career. Almost ruined yours. And if they come to arrest me for what I've done, I won't allow it.”


***



Parked just off the main road, Tobias Fornell looked at the dirt path that led up to Gibbs’ rustic retreat. He remembered driving here, all those months ago, in a numb haze, wondering where the next drink would come from and desperately trying not to think of Diane, or his daughter—now left without a mother. It had looked pretty bleak for a while.


Such a beautiful piece of country up here. Odd how it played host for those seeking nothing but an end.


Now he waited after having dropped McGee here, sparse words spoken between them. “You talk to him,” Fornell said. “Get him to see reason.” And McGee had said, “I’ll try.”


It took a lot of cajoling and posturing to convince Special Agent Skinner that this was the best method, and he used his leverage with the FBI director to push it. This was more medical intervention than a criminal apprehension. Last thing the FBI needed, Fornell pointed out, was another media circus. Skinner relented, finally, grudgingly.


So he waited, hoping he’d get a phone call from McGee saying everything was fine and to come up. And they’d sit out on the wooden benches Gibbs made with his own bare hands, have a beer, and go over how they were going to keep DiNozzo out of prison.


Just a typical summer afternoon.


His phone jingled. Not a call, but a text message. From McGee, only three letters: SOS.


***



"What do you mean?” Tim asked.


"McGee, I just want you to know now that whatever happens, none of it is your fault."


"What are you talking about? What do you mean?" Suddenly Tim had a dark and sinking feeling that Tony’s behavior had taken yet another turn. A sharp turn in a direction he really didn’t want them to go.


"Just need you to know that,” Tony went on. “Whatever happens. Okay?"


“Tony—"


"Just promise me."


"Okay, I promise. Now—“


"I know what you had to do. I know you told them where I was."


Tim shook his head. ”I didn’t—"


"That's okay."


"It's not okay!"


“You need to leave now,” Tony said with an eerie sense of calm. “It was nice seeing you, but now you need to leave. It’ll all be okay.” He picked up the gun that he’d been keeping on the spartan wooden table. It had been there since Tim has arrived, a silent centerpiece of their conversation.


And McGee knew he should’ve taken it. Put it somewhere else. But Tony had been acting so strangely, so bizarrely, one moment smiling, the next pissed off. Erratic. Unpredictable. Dangerous. He had been afraid to even touch it, so he’d left it. Of all the things he predicted might happen out here, this wasn’t it. This wasn’t Tony, except it was, and whatever the man was going through had reached terminal velocity out here in this cabin. Rock bottom was fast approaching.


“What the fuck are you doing?" Tim asked, voice wild.


"I'm done.” Tony sat himself against the rustic wooden wall. He turned he gun around in his hands; they weren’t even shaking.


Tim took a step forward. When he saw Tony stare down the barrel of that gun, his heart began to thud. He felt like he was watching the scene from somewhere else. Some place removed. He heard himself still talking, “Done with what?"


“What do you do when the dog goes bad and kills someone?” Tony asked, question cryptic and faraway.


Tim said nothing, not understanding where Tony was going with this.


“What do you do?” Tony babbled. “Do you keep letting it out of the cage?”


“You need a break, Tony.” Tim edged closer. “You don't... You don't..."


"Don't what?"


"You don't take your own life."


“Funny.” Tony laughed. “It's like a permanent break. Sounds nice.”


"It's not fucking funny!” Tim yelled. This whole situation was surreal. “You’re delusional. You’re sick. Please, just give me the gun. Please, this isn’t fixing anything. Please, just stop; I’ll take care of everything. We’ll figure things out. We’ll get help, together.”


Tony smiled faintly, staring not at Tim but at the opposite wall. “That’s nice of you to offer.” His hands moved.


***



July 7, 2015


“Look at what you did, you little brat!” the man yelled, enraged.


The child screamed, long and shrill, until she was silenced by large hands.


Hands on her throat, pressing, squeezing, crushing.


“Look what you’re making me do.” Seething voice. Spit flying. Anger, hate, frustration. “Look what your piece of shit father has done to me.”


***



July 24, 2015


Step two.


“I’m ready,” Tony said. “I’m ready for some peace now.”


And then McGee showed up.


***



The struggle lasted seconds. Tim may have weighed less, but he hadn’t spent the last several days without sleep, nor had he been drinking heavily while starving himself, so he used his own physical and mental health to his advantage. He managed to wrest the loaded gun out of Tony’s grip, and that proved easy enough, but Tony proved even more tenacious as Tim tried to pin him to the dirty cabin floor.


Tony gave him a good jab in the ribs with a knee. Tim gasped, trying to regain his breath, and he half-shoved half-punched Tony to the side. Unable to compensate, Tony fell off of him and into a stack of liquor crates, head cracking against the side of one.


Sitting on the floor, wheezing painfully, Tim watched in horror as Tony’s arms dog-paddled awkwardly against the crates, body then stiffening and jerking before it finally slumped to a rest. Tim shook in shocked disbelief as he kicked the gun far away, just to be safe, and floundered toward Tony. He was relieved to find him breathing, bleeding, and semi-aware, half-propped up by the crates.


“Jesus,” Tony slurred breathlessly, “McSugar Ray Robinson here.”


“Didn’t mean to shove you,” Tim said. He reached a hand out to part the hair and check the bleeding wound on Tony’s head.


Tony flinched, groaning and chewing on air.


“You okay?” Tony’s continued neurological issues made him worry.


“Been hit harder.”


“You gonna try that again?” Tim asked.


Tony’s eyes closed. He moved to rub his head, but Tim grabbed his wrist.


“Hey,” Tim snapped. “Answer my question: are you going to try that again?”


Tony answered honestly. “I don’t know right now.”


Tim leaned back, exhausted. He breathed hard, equal parts exertion and raw shock. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry we let it go for this long. I’m so fucking sorry.” He mumbled this over and over as he fumbled around for his cell phone. He sent a text to Fornell, kept it short, quick, afraid Tony might notice and become agitated. But right now he looked more preoccupied with maintaining his consciousness.


Tony moaned, horked once, then vomited straight booze. He kept drooling as the nausea built again, and he retched.


“Hey, hey. Stay awake,” Tim urged. “That’s all you gotta do right now.”


***



The cabin door flung open, and Fornell rushed through, followed by a gust of wet, earthy air. He looked around, eyes landing on Tony first, sprawled against the crates, half-insensate, and then McGee, who crouched beside him, breathing hard and fast.


Kid was well on his way toward hyperventilating.


There was vomit nearby, stinking of alcohol and stomach acid.


“What the hell happened?” he barked at McGee.


McGee looked up at him, his eyes wet and his body shaking. He couldn’t answer, and Fornell didn’t push for one. He saw the gun on the floor, against the opposite wall. He could put two and two together. Frowning, he turned away and pulled out his cell phone.


“Yeah, he’s here,” he spoke into the piece of glass and plastic. “No, it’s not good. No, this is what’s going to happen…”


***



September 15, 2015


The postcard’s message wasn’t long. A handful of words, all of them in DiNozzo’s familiar handwriting.


Gibbs,
How did it feel,
getting away with it?

Yours,
Tony



How did it feel?


Gibbs’ was surprised to find his hand shaking. He glanced at the postmark. Not Colombia, but here. United States. D.C.


He’d never left the states, like he announced he would be doing. After the hospital stay. After the rounds of therapy and medication meant to stabilize his mood.


Said he was ready for a little vacay far away from here. And he’d laughed then, actually laughed, as he said, “Not like I’ve got a job to hurry back to, right?”


How did it feel, getting away with it?


He looked at his house, then back down the street. No second car parked in the driveway, no other vehicle out of place. Mail in hand, he went inside. The door was unlocked, as was customary. Gently, he set his keys on the foyer table. Set the mail next to them.


Gibbs found him sitting at the kitchen table. Calm. Neatly dressed. He’d been taking care of himself lately. He had his hands clasped in front of him, and on the other end of the table was a gun. Familiar in that he knew what kind it was, but its ownership, he didn’t know. Or its purpose.


“I got your postcard,” Gibbs said, conversational, although he didn’t move toward the table. “Perfect timing.” He didn’t know Tony’s state of mind yet. He wanted to feel him out, see what was going on in that head of his.


McGee said he’d been better. Doing better. Been doing really well.


“How’s Colombia these days?” Gibbs added.


“I wouldn’t know,” Tony said.


“Figured you’d be halfway around the world by now, DiNozzo.”


“What can I say? Maybe my ramblin’ days are over. Got something to stick around for, I guess.”


“See you brought a friend.” Gibbs motioned toward the gun.


And Tony said, “That’s how close I came, Boss. Tim can attest to that. And I wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t given me a fairly nasty concussion against your old crates of vintage bourbon. Simple, really. I’d be dead.” Tony paused. “Guess I should thank the bourbon, too.”


“We’ve all been there.”


“Have we?” Tony seemed honestly curious.


Gibbs shook his head. “You asked me how it felt, Tony. Your postcard.”


“Didn’t know how else to put it. What’s wrong is right. What’s right is wrong. How did it feel?”


“Like shit.”


Tony laughed. He leaned back, wrapped his arms around himself. “I’d like you to have it.”


“Have what?”


“The gun. Nice little Beretta. Figured she’s your type.”


Gibbs raised his brows.


“Been my backup since I can remember. Would be a shame to lock it away for good.” Tony shrugged. “What do I need it for? Got a woman who’s packing the heat for me.” He raised his hand and waggled his fingers, smiling cheekily.


Gibbs saw the ring now. He hadn’t noticed before. He matched Tony’s smile, and from there it grew. It almost hurt. “Congrats, DiNozzo. Never thought it would happen.”


Tony said, “I had my doubts, too.”


***



July 25, 2015


When he could see again, all he could see was Tim’s face and Tim’s eyes.


“You awake?” a familiar voice asked, miles and miles away it seemed.


It was dark in this room. Dark outside, maybe. He made a noise, a grunting croak that got caught somewhere in his throat.


Tim spoke more, words garbled, fast, complex.


Worry. Love. Hope.


Someone turned on the light.


***





END.





--
Final note: I used Fingersnaps' first prompt: "Chiaroscuro: Tony and Tim are multi-faceted characters; men of courage, intelligence and loyalty. What happens when one or both move from the light into the dark? This could be the darkness of despair, a dark place of captivity or dark days of injury or illness. Can the shadows be dispelled and our hero(es) return to the daylight?" Thank you for the inspiration.

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