“So tell me again why Tony always gets to drive the truck?”
Gibbs didn’t even look over at the desk where the other agent sat, fuming. “It was his turn, Kate. You got to ride in the nuclear submarine, remember?”
“That was a long time ago, Gibbs,” she responded, eyes narrowed. “It’s because I’m a woman, isn’t it?”
“Nope.” Her boss waited a beat and then added, “Might have something to do with your legs being shorter than his, though.” Gibbs looked up at her, face blank but eyes twinkling with a rare mischief. “Are you gonna accuse me of height discrimination now?”
Kate couldn’t help but grin, even if it was a bit sheepish. “No - but only if I get to drive the truck next time.”
“It’s a deal,” Gibbs agreed. “And if we need to transport a female witness in for questioning, like DiNozzo’s doing now with our male witness, Father Larson, you’re guaranteed to get the duty. I don’t dare have DiNozzo in a car - or any other vehicle - with a woman by himself. That’s just asking for trouble.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Kate murmured, turning back to her computer.
She didn’t realize she’d said it out loud until she felt the weight of eyes on her. Looking up, she winced when she discovered Jethro Gibbs’ penetrating blue gaze pinned on her.
“I just meant that Tony’s bark is worse than his bite,” Kate explained lamely. The last thing she needed was to screw up and let Gibbs know she was in on Tony’s secret. “No man chases women as much as he claims to….”
Kate was spared Gibbs’ reply by Abby’s approach.
“Gibbs, you are *so* not gonna believe this,” the forensic specialist said brightly.
“What?” He replied, after shooting one last glare Kate’s way. It must be important or Abby would have waited for him to come to the lab.
“You remember that set of DNA samples you brought me?” She asked. “The ones you wanted matched against the sample found at the scene?”
“I should since only dropped them off yesterday, Abbs.” Gibbs tried to be patient, knowing how much pleasure the young woman took in leading up to a big revelation.
“Well, while I was waiting for those to finish, I remembered what you said about Father Larson having been acquitted of a child molestation charge last year. I figured he’d have to have given a sample for that case, so I called in a favor with a friend of mine at the police department and got a copy of the report. While I was waiting for our DNA testing results, I cross-checked his previous sample against the one from the murder scene.
“And?” Gibbs prompted. It scared him a little that he’d followed her explanation perfectly. He also couldn’t figure out why there’d been anything interesting about Larson. The man’s DNA had only been taken because it was SOP - so far, there’d been no reason to link him to the crime as anything but a peripheral witness.
“No match,” Abby cheerfully explained. “But here’s where we get to the interesting part. When our testing was done, I *did* find a match between Father Larson’s and the murder scene sample.”
“So, the previous testing was wrong?” Kate asked, confused.
“Probably not,” Abby replied. “DNA testing’s been pretty routine for a while now. Besides, I compared it to our sample from Father Larson - no match there either.”
“Which means that the man we think is Father Larson isn’t and he isn’t just a navy chaplain we were bringing in for routine questioning; he’s likely the murderer” Gibbs said in a tense voice. “And DiNozzo doesn’t know it.”
As he was speaking, Gibbs was reaching for his cellphone. Tony’s number was on speed dial but, instead of a ring, all the agent got was a message that the number he was trying to reach was not in order.
Gibbs started moving towards the door. “Abby, I need you to put the word out. I want an APB on DiNozzo’s vehicle ASAP. And if you still have some pull with your pal at the police department, see if they can get a black and white out to trace DiNozzo’s path.” The town where Tony was transporting the witness from was about a half hour away. “Kate, you’re with me. We’ll work our way backwards along his route.”
Face serious, Kate nodded and followed, automatically checking that her gun was with her. “You think he’s in trouble, then.” It wasn’t a question. She had a sinking feeling in the pit of her own stomach.
“I don’t know,” Gibbs admitted, his long stride moving him so fast that Kate almost had to trot to keep up. “I just know I’m not willing to take a chance.”
“What are you doing?” Kate asked. They’d reached the highway and, instead of pulling out on to it, Gibbs had brought the car to a complete stop.
“Traffic,” her boss explained succinctly.
“I see that,” Kate responded.
Cars were gridlocked, the freeway was so congested that it wasn’t moving in either direction. She frowned at first but her expression cleared as something occurred to her.
“Maybe Tony’s caught in that mess and that’s why he didn’t make it to headquarters.”
“DiNozzo hates traffic,” Gibbs said curtly. Making a decision, he abruptly pressed the gas pedal and turned the car down a side street.
Kate hung on for dear life. “You think Tony took one of those shortcuts of his?”
“Yup,” the older agent confirmed. “The local cops can canvas the freeway, we’ll try the back roads.”
Jethro gripped the wheel tightly as he guided the car down the road at a speed well above the posted limit. It barely registered with him when Kate pulled her phone out and called the office. At least, not once the quick shake of her head confirmed there was no news on DiNozzo’s location. Instead, Gibbs was listening to an inner dialog - one where he heard Ducky’s voice repeating his words from the night Gibbs had refused his advice:
*** “I only hope it doesn’t take a trauma like seeing him injured for you to realize what he means to you.” ***
Gibbs had shrugged off Ducky’s words at the time, but now they rang with prophecy. Tony had been a cop - and a good one, else Gibbs wouldn’t have recruited him into NCIS. He could handle himself. But still, Jethro had been plagued by a bad feeling ever since he’d heard Abby’s news about Larson.
The car swerved as Kate’s light touch startled the older agent out of his dark thoughts. “What?”
“Abby got a hit on the DNA from the suspect posing as Larson….” Kate seemed reluctant to finish her sentence.
“Spit it out, Kate,” Gibbs growled, taking his eyes from the road just long enough to glare at her.
“The DNA matches that of samples collected at four different murder sites,” she reluctantly continued, as if saying the words made them more real. “That’s why the results came up so quickly in the database.” She didn’t need to add that suspected serial killer cases always got priority.
“Great,” Gibbs said sarcastically.
They lapsed into a tense silence again, the intermittent beeping of Kate’s cellphone as she repeatedly tried to call Tony the only sound. Except for them, the road was surprisingly empty. Just the right kind of shortcut Tony preferred and, incidentally, great territory for a serial killer to strike.
“He’ll be fine,” Kate finally said. “Can you imagine how hard Tony’ll be to live with when he realizes how worried we were? He’ll lap it up like cream.”
Gibbs didn’t answer. His keen eyes had spied signs of trouble on the other side of the highway, the side Tony would have been on, had he truly driven this way.
A broken guard rail.
Slamming on the brakes, Gibbs slewed the car into a gravel-pitching 180 degree turn. Kate hung on as best she could as they lurched to a stop just short of where the skid marks began.
Gibbs was out of the vehicle before the dust had time to settle. His head swiveled as he scanned the scene but the only immediate item of note was the shoe. After crouching down for a better look, Gibbs’ eyes closed briefly in relief. It was much too small - obviously not Tony’s.
“Gibbs, I have a body,” Kate called out in a strained voice.
Jethro was at her side in a heartbeat - the longest heartbeat in his life. Only when he got a good look at the corpse did he start to breathe again. It wasn’t Tony.
The man they’d thought was the navy chaplain, Father Larson, was clearly dead. His empty blue eyes stared up at the sky; the unnatural angle of his neck making it clear how he’d died. The corpse was missing one shoe and, more disturbingly, there was a bloody knife only a few yards away.
“Where’s the truck?” Kate asked, turning in a circle. “Where’s Tony?
Gibbs was thinking the same thing but, unlike his more inexperienced companion, he put thought to action. The senior agent trotted over to the twisted guardrail and peered down. From the broken shrub brush and shattered trees, it was clear that something big had come through but the vegetation was too thick to see to the bottom of the slope. He stepped over the remnants of the rail and skidded down the hillside, heedless of anything but the necessity of quickly reaching the bottom. From the muffled curses behind him, Kate had followed and was none-too-happy at the branches snapping back at her.
The trail of ruined foliage finally ran out and Gibbs’ worst fears were realized. The truck was indeed at the bottom of the ravine - upside down in a pond. Only the tip of one wheel was visible.
Gibbs didn’t slow down. Stripping off his shoes and jacket as he ran, he plunged into the water. It was murky, but thankfully the vehicle wasn’t too far down and enough daylight was able to penetrate to help him see. Gibbs used handholds on the truck to maneuver himself along its length, at once eager and dreading what he might find.
He saw Tony’s legs first. Feeling his heart pound in his chest - and not from any lack of oxygen - Gibbs dared to believe. Pulling himself around to the windshield, he peered in.
Tony was alive.
Jethro could see that the younger man had found an air pocket. He was relieved, until he saw that Tony was struggling to keep his head above water. Above water that had an ominous red cloud….
Gibbs pulled frantically at the vehicle door, but it wouldn’t budge. He could see Tony turn at the sound. Moving again to the windshield, Jethro motioned to DiNozzo that he’d be right back. He saw Tony’s lips move and realized that the trapped man was saying his name.
Jethro kicked to the surface, the burning of his oxygen-deprived lungs not hurting nearly as much as the pain of having to leave Tony trapped, even if temporarily. His head broke water and Gibbs gulped air quickly, determined to get back to Tony as soon as possible.
“Gibbs?” Kate was wavering at the edge of the pond, face and voice fearful as she braced herself for the worst.
“He’s alive,” the older agent said between gasps of breath. When Kate’s face lit up and she took a step forward, Gibbs held up a hand to stall her. “I’m gonna go back down and shoot out a window, equalize the pressure enough so I can get a door open and get him out. You call and get the EMTs here. Tony’s gonna need medical assistance.”
“They’re already on their way,” Kate answered but it was too late. Gibbs had already disappeared. She briefly considered diving in to help but decided against it. Gibbs wasn’t expecting it and the last thing she’d want to do would be to sneak up on him when she knew he’d be firing a gun.
Beneath the surface, Gibbs didn’t waste any time. He went first to the windshield and pounded on it to get Tony’s attention. To his dismay, Tony’s response was sluggish but it was difficult to determine why. The air pocket was small - was Tony running out of oxygen? Was the temperature of the water leading to hypothermia? Was the cloud of blood bigger than it had been before?
Gibbs gestured for Tony to stay back but he couldn’t tell if the younger man understood. Not daring to wait long enough to be sure, Gibbs brought up his gun and fired. Luckily, he hadn’t been in the water long enough for it to have damaged the weapon and it produced the desired results. A window blew inward and he felt the truck shudder as the pressure within and without equalized.
It also let more water into the car - filling what little airspace that had been previously trapped.
With a strength born of desperation, Gibbs yanked the nearest door open. Tony’s limp body floated within easy reach and he snagged a leg, pulling DiNozzo quickly but carefully out of the car. Once he had him out in the open water, Jethro lost no time in grabbing the other man underneath the arms and swimming as hard as he could. Time was of the essence and, no matter how hard he kicked his legs, it still seemed to take far too long.
As his head broke free, Gibbs felt some of Tony’s dead weight lighten. His hopes rose a bit, thinking that maybe DiNozzo had regained consciousness and was helping with his own rescue. No such luck. Kate had waded into the water and, although she was short, she was athletic, capable of bearing her share of the burden. Together, the two of them got Tony to shore and, once there, instincts born of decades of training kicked in. Gibbs’ tilted Tony’s head back and, after checking his passageway for obstructions, he covered the younger man’s mouth with his own, breathing air into him. Kate began compressions on Tony’s chest but Gibbs didn’t pay attention other than a vague notion that she was doing it; he trusted that Kate knew what she was doing. Instead, Gibbs applied all of his formidable powers of concentration onto Tony’s face, willing life into the lax lips underneath his own.
Whether it was Gibbs’ fierce determination or Tony’s will to live, their ministrations worked. After only a few moments, Tony gasped. Gibbs was barely able to move out of the way as water gushed out of DiNozzo’s mouth and he quickly moved to turn the younger man on his side so he didn’t choke as he vomited out what looked to be quarts of dirty pond water.
Jethro Gibbs thought it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
When the vomiting turned to coughing, Gibbs gathered Tony up into his arms. He’d daydreamed of a moment when he was holding DiNozzo, knowing he could never let it happen. His fantasies had been decidedly more romantic than the reality of this first embrace. Gibbs wouldn’t change it for the world, however, because Tony was alive and in his arms. Wet, cold, and a might fragrant from being submerged in some smelly water, but blessedly alive.
He protested at first as Kate draped his discarded jacket around Tony, thinking she was trying to take him, but quieted as he realized she was just trying to keep DiNozzo warm. After that, she stripped off her own coat and added it on top, before taking off her cardigan and reaching up underneath the makeshift blankets to press it against Tony’s side. Only then did Gibbs realize that DiNozzo’s shirt was bloody from some sort of wound. He’d been so wrapped up in Tony’s breathing that he hadn’t even noticed.
Left only in a thin silk shell, Kate shivered a little in the cool breeze. Gibbs looked at her, all the emotion he couldn’t express in his eyes, and she smiled kindly at him.
“I’m just going to go up top,” Kate said quietly, reaching out to brush damp bangs out of Tony’s closed eyes. “So I can direct the EMTs when they arrive.”
Gibbs nodded and she disappeared, the rustling of the shrubs as she climbed the slope fading as she moved further away. He looked down at Tony again, the slackness of the other man’s face reminding him just how closely he’d come to losing him. Tony moaned and Jethro could feel shudders ripping through the wounded man as both cold and shock set in. Gathering DiNozzo closer, Gibbs hoped that his body had some warmth he could share.
Tony moaned again and moved, as though he still thought he was trapped and struggling to work free.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got you,” Gibbs crooned, reaching down and pressing a kiss onto Tony’s lips. Either his words or the kiss calmed the unconscious DiNozzo, who immediately subsided. “And I’m not ever gonna let go.”
Even as he said it, Gibbs realized he’d spoken the literal truth. Ducky was right, he hadn’t known what Tony had truly meant to him until he thought he might lose him. Despite the rules against dating a colleague, despite having a heart that had been broken far too many times already, despite the fact that Tony deserved better, Jethro Gibbs had absolutely no intention of letting go.
And if that made him a fool, then so be it, because he’d just learned that he couldn’t live with the alternative.
~ the end ~
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