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End of His Rope

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Prologue: Tobias

Present Day

FBI agent Tobias Fornell slammed the door to his apartment shut, dropped his keys on the table by the door, and shrugged his trench coat off. He let out a long sigh, his shoulders drooping as he hung up his coat and loosened his tie. He was tired. It had been another long day at work, and even though he was home now, he wasn’t done yet. He had to keep looking into this, especially since he could see the deadline looming, and he didn’t want to be pulled off this case because they had nothing on it. He stared at his tan trench coat and, without meaning to, he remembered that time Anthony DiNozzo gave him a hard time for his supposed clichéd style.

“Is there a class at Quantico that teaches all of you Feebies how to dress like every FBI G-man in every movie ever?” Tony had snarked.

Tobias had responded with a middle finger as he walked on, trailing after Gibbs towards Gibbs’ fucked up idea of an office. One day, that elevator was going to refuse to start back up after one of Gibbs’ famous emergency stops and trap Gibbs’ victims in there with him during what was inevitably an uncomfortable discussion. Or worse, it would just give up the ghost and let gravity win, and fall right down to the bottom when Gibbs pressed the emergency stop button. He was definitely not using an elevator in the way it was meant to be used, and Tobias had no desire to go down with it. But of course he was going to get in the elevator with Gibbs. It was what they all did.

He could hear Tony chuckling about his clothes as he walked by. “Hey, at least I’m not a fashion plate,” Tobias threw over his shoulder.

“Why, Toby, thank you for noticing that I’m wearing a new Zegna today!” Tony yelled after him. “I think it makes my ass look awesome!”

“Fuck. You,” Tobias raised both middle fingers this time.

“You wish!” Tony called back.

“Shut up or I’ll find a reason to arrest you again.”

“Meh… You know the charges will never stick,” came the irrepressible answer.

“Get back to work, DiNozzo!” Gibbs barked, holding the elevator door open and glaring impatiently at Tobias.

“On it, Boss!” Tony’s response had been tongue in cheek, and Tobias could see Gibbs roll his eyes but he didn’t say anything else.

It was actually a pretty good memory of the agent, Tobias thought to himself, as he padded to the kitchen and dropped his briefcase on the table along with his handcuffs. Still thinking about the NCIS agent, he went to his bedroom, shed his work clothes and pulled on jeans and a sweatshirt. Anthony DiNozzo was someone Tobias actually liked. He was smart, uncanny at putting together clues to solve crimes, he was funny and surprisingly thoughtful, for all that he portrayed himself to be a cad. Despite himself, Tobias actually liked the man. Besides, he’d been the one putting up with Gibbs as a boss for years. Just for that, he had to be a veritable saint. It was no wonder he had a reputation for being a flirt and commitment phobic. Tobias figured he would need a lot of anonymous and casual sex, too, if he was partnered with Gibbs all day, every day. The poor man needed an outlet for his frustrations and no woman would ever want to voluntarily tie herself to a man whose life was dedicated to making Gibbs’ life, in and out of work, easier. Tobias never begrudged Gibbs’ Senior Field Agent whatever comfort he might find in the arms of random strangers. The guy definitely needed coping mechanisms to put up with the shit that Gibbs put him through.

He trudged into his kitchen, grabbed two bottles of Heineken and took them to his kitchen table, where he twisted the top off one, carelessly dropped it on the table, drank a few swallows of beer and placed the bottle on the table. Directly. Cold, sweaty glass on wood. Without a coaster. Take that, Diane, he thought to himself. It was nice not to have to care about rings on the table and to be endlessly nagged about the use of coasters. He got his briefcase, opened it, and took out a bunch of files, and various other items, scattering them on the table so he could see them.

First, there was Anthony DiNozzo’s NCIS badge, with his ID, his picture looking out at him, looking like the headshot of some movie star. He certainly had the looks to be one, but he wasn’t. It was important to note that even though he could have parlayed his looks into a different sort of career, he hadn’t done that. He’d dedicated his life to the pursuit of justice, a dangerous, time consuming, and for the most part thankless vocation. He was a hardworking schmuck, trying to make a difference in the world, just like Tobias was. Although Tobias would argue that the photo on his own ID did not look quite as glamorous as Tony’s did. They would probably be hard pressed to find anyone whose ID badge made them look as good as Tony’s did. Fuck the man and his stupid classic bone structure and photogenic nature.

He sighed, looking at Tony’s badge. It felt so wrong for Tobias to be in possession of it. It should be with Tony, ready to be whipped out as he gave his trademark ‘Very Special Agent’ spiel. But no. Tobias had it, and it wasn’t because of anything good. He tapped it and nodded, feeling that resolve strengthen within him. He had a job to do, and he had to do it.

Then, he put the strip of leather down by the badge. It was black leather, and although at first glance it looked like it could’ve been something attached to a key ring, he’d learned that it was a collar. The kind that a sexual submissive might wear. He’d also found out that this collar had cost a lot of money and was in excellent condition. Gibbs didn’t remember it being a part of the original case file, but for whatever reason, Tony had squirreled it away with the copy of the case file that he wasn’t even supposed to have anymore. Tobias could only conclude that it was something personal of Tony’s, but was significant enough to be hidden away with the secret case file in his secret hiding place.

Next, he smacked a fat stack of file folders onto the table, opening the first folder. This was the folder, the problematic one as it was a copy Tony had apparently secretly made and maintained even before the originals had been yanked away from him and his team. The case file that Tony should no longer possess. Tobias had it now, and he’d been working hard to ensure that nobody but Gibbs knew he had it. He would probably have to keep it in his house and stop carrying it around in case it was confiscated. He didn’t want to lose the files now when he had no other leads, and he couldn’t afford to lose these the way the MCRT had had their official copy and all evidence removed.

He rummaged through the file. There were papers, forms and documents, and photos paper-clipped together, and he separated a few of the photos out. It wasn’t anything he hadn’t scrutinized before, but maybe tonight it would jar something in his brain, allow him to make some connection or other to figure out what the hell had happened.

Then there was a Philadelphia Police Department badge on a metal chain, the kind a cop put around his neck and could easily slip under his clothes if need be. He’d looked into the badge number and it was no longer in use. The detective who used to have this badge had been killed on the job, he’d been part of the security team for a mob related case and been shot and killed during an attempt to assassinate a witness he had been holding in protective custody. It had happened over a decade ago, and when Tobias asked around to see if any of them remembered the dead detective or Tony, whose time at the Philly PD overlapped with the dead detective’s time, they definitely remembered Tony for his takedown of the Macaluso family. Hell, even Tobias had known about Tony’s undercover work bringing down the Macalusos. But no one could say for certain if Tony and Detective Matthew Holbrook had known each other. Tobias didn’t even think there was a real connection to the case that Tony had been working on off the books, but he’d kept this badge and the leather collar in his secret stash, along with the files, so Tobias had to wonder if there was some intangible connection that he couldn’t see right now. Looking at it all together might help him. Besides, he wanted to keep all of Tony’s secret things together. When he found the man, and he was going to find the man, some of these things might be of value to Tony.

Finally, there was a length of rope, tied in a series of complicated knots. Gibbs hadn’t known what type of knot it was, so it wasn’t something that Marines, sailors, or boy scouts might be familiar with, but the knots were definitely complicated. It wasn’t the exact rope that had been in the original case file because of course that had been sent to Abby as evidence and subsequently confiscated with the rest of the original case file. But Tony had bought the same type of rope and tied that knot, so he didn’t mess up the evidence, or get it taken away with the rest of the original case file. And it had been clear that he wasn’t an expert at tying these knots, because compared to the pictures in the file, the knots there had been much more expertly tied, beautiful even. The knots in Tony’s rope looked clumsy by comparison. Tobias didn’t know how the rope fit into the case, but Tony had apparently needed to feel it, to tie it, and to have it as a concrete example of what the case was that he’d been looking into. On his own time. After it had been taken away from their team, and the MCRT had been told to stay out of it.

This was a case that Anthony DiNozzo had not been able to let go of. He’d made a copy of the file from the beginning, maintaining a personal, secret copy of it for a reason that Tobias did not yet understand. And he’d kept digging into things that he wasn’t supposed to, despite the case being yanked out of their hands. Gibbs had said that the order had come from up high. Higher than Vance. Higher even than the SecNav. Gibbs didn’t know how high the order to turn in all of their case materials and stop investigating it had come from, and while he would normally have dug in his heels and continued to investigate anyway, fuck orders and the fucking brass that might have given them, they had been assigned another grueling and far more immediate and high priority case. Gibbs would have come back to this investigation once they had closed that case, but apparently Tony hadn’t been able to let it go, for reasons that neither Gibbs nor his teammates understood. He’d quietly continued to work on it, even though as a team, the MCRT had been running low on sleep and rest. He gave his normal full attention to the next case, of course, but instead of taking cat naps like the others on the few breaks that they’d been granted, he’d operated on caffeine and apparently no sleep in order to secretly keep working the case that had been yanked away from them.

He hadn’t even been keeping Gibbs apprised of his progress. Normally, he would, and Gibbs would turn a blind eye at this kind of behavior because, let’s face it, that was what Gibbs sanctioned, perhaps even encouraged. But this time, Gibbs had told him to leave it be for the time being, until they could work together on it as a team. But Tony just couldn’t do it. It was rare that Tony DiNozzo would disobey one of Gibbs’ direct orders, but this was one of them. He’d been investigating away on his own, poking into whatever it was he’d poked into. And after they finally closed that next case, the MCRT was allowed to go home and take a day off to recover. Unfortunately, when they were all due back at work, Tony did not come in.

Gibbs had done his usual barely legal maneuvers to track down Tony’s cell phone, and gone to his apartment. But when he got there, Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo was absent. His car was there in the parking lot where it usually was, his keys were in the bowl by the front door, his wallet, badge, gun, ID were all present and accounted for. Everything was there. The apartment was immaculate, which was apparently, how Tony kept it, something that had surprised Tobias when Gibbs was finally forced to call him in. The disappearance of a federal agent was the FBI’s jurisdiction after all. They found a plate of half eaten food on his coffee table, half a glass of wine, the TV still on. The rest of the bottle of wine was open in the kitchen, waiting for Tony to come back and pour himself a refill.

Nothing was out of place. Nothing had been ransacked. Gibbs didn’t think that anything was missing, other than the agent himself. It didn’t look like the man had packed anything and left, and it definitely didn’t look as if he had been forcibly taken away from the apartment. There was no CCTV footage anywhere of Tony leaving the apartment after he’d gotten home that night that they closed their case. And after a whole month of people from the FBI and of course NCIS diligently looking for him, they still could find no trace of the man anywhere.

It was as if he had vanished into thin air.

Luckily, these secret files of his had been hidden away and Gibbs had known about Tony’s secret hiding place. Tobias had spent the last month trying to use the usual tools to try to locate the missing federal agent. However, they had all come up with a big fat nothing. And throughout this time, he’d had to fight with Gibbs every single day, because the fucking man refused to cede that Tony’s case was outside of NCIS’s jurisdiction. Had butted in and impeded his progress with his demands. Wouldn’t let Tobias do his thing and forced them to work together at his house. But today, Tobias had put his foot down and refused to keep working at Gibbs’ house. He’d worked the case with his own people today, and brought the work back to his own apartment and tonight, Gibbs was not invited to join him. He had been disinvited and discouraged to come around, in fact.

They were on a deadline now. Tobias needed to rethink everything and he didn’t need Gibbs breathing down his neck and refusing to consider other theories of what might have happened to Tony. He was desperate enough now to follow Anthony DiNozzo’s last moves before he disappeared. Figure out what Tony might have learned about the case they’d been ordered to cease investigating that could have somehow led to his disappearance.

He had only a few more days to figure this out, before the FBI considered this a cold case and he would officially be taken off the case. Tobias wanted to find this man, no matter what happened. He didn’t want this case to grow cold. How could an honest to god Federal Agent just disappear into thin air? And how could it be that there was no trace of him anywhere? There should have been something, some small trail to follow. It would have been logical then, if the trail went cold. The absence of such a trail was not normal. It was an impossible, superhuman feat.

And besides, it was Tony. He knew the guy. He liked the guy. And he was missing. Tobias wasn’t just looking for any old missing person. He was looking for his friend.

And the fact that someone could just pluck this man, this experienced law enforcement officer, right out of his home and disappear him so thoroughly in a city like DC where there were countless traffic cams, CCTV and other cameras, it was unthinkable. Who would do this, and why? And how had they accomplished it?