Chapter 1: Fox Time
The early afternoon sunlight gleamed down on the pond’s surface from a bright blue sky as the silver fox emerged from the surrounding woods, trotting toward the water. He bent his head to drink, black-tipped ears flicking back and forth, alert for any sound from behind.
The fox raised his head and turned to face the trees, eyes and ears scanning the area. He shook himself, huffed out a breath, and moved back the way he’d come, disappearing into the new spring greenery.
A dragonfly zipped around the pond’s edge. A few birds flew by, but didn’t disturb the relative silence.
There was a sharp bark from somewhere within the trees; moments later the silver fox exploded out of the bushes, running flat out, followed closely by a slightly larger red fox sporting a huge canine grin.
The foxes tore around the pond. They were nearly halfway around when the silver fox feinted to the left, drawing the red one off course before he turned to his right and circled back around. The red fox yipped as sharp white teeth just grazed his leg, then tucked his tail and took off back the way they’d come. Silver chased red until the lead fox suddenly whirled around, meeting the other’s charge. There was a spinning, furry tangle of legs and tails, along with a rising crescendo of growls, barks, and rumbling snarls.
It took several minutes for the foxes to quiet down. They rested on the scuffed ground, both panting heavily. The red fox leaned forward to sniff and lick the silver’s face, and received a gentle head butt in return.
Human voices sounded from across the pond, coming from somewhere within the trees. Both foxes’ heads shot up, their necks stretching and ears pointed to the sky as they sought the source of the noise. They rose as one, staying low to the ground and moving in the opposite direction, melting into the bushes before the hikers made their way out of the trees and settled near the pond.
The foxes moved carefully through the underbrush, paying close attention to their surroundings, pausing often to be sure they weren’t followed. They eventually reached a small clearing with a tent pitched in the middle. They looked at each other, then split off, moving in opposite directions around the clearing, checking for any sign of human presence.
It wasn’t long before both foxes came out of the woods and moved quickly into the tent. The red fox playfully bumped the silver one with his hip once they were both inside; the silver fox responded by poking the red fox with his nose. Both foxes stretched and shook, then moved a little away from each other. Twin shimmers of light appeared in the tent, and the foxes were replaced by two men.
Tony grinned at Gibbs as he reached for his clothes. “Nice moves out there, Jethro!”
Gibbs returned the smile. “Not too bad yourself.”
“I almost had you there, after you left the pond… shoulda zigged instead of zagged.”
“Yup.” Gibbs zipped his jeans and tugged his t-shirt over his head. “You hungry?”
Gibbs shook his head, laughing. “I’ll get a fire started.”
A short time later he was grilling burgers over the campfire. Tony joined him, dropping a kiss on Gibbs’ head as he sat on the ground. “I’m thinking you were a cowboy in a previous life.”
Tony leaned back on his elbows, stretching his legs out in front. He looked over at Gibbs, sending his thoughts out rather than speaking. “Too bad we have to be at work tomorrow. Good idea you had, coming out here. I’m starting to like the outdoor life.”
Gibbs glanced over at him, smiling slightly. “Glad to hear it.” He tested one of the burgers, then removed it from the grill, handing the paper plate to Tony, then getting his own ready.
After they ate, Tony stretched out on the ground in the sun and fell asleep as Gibbs put out the fire. Gibbs watched him for a while, then got up and set off along one of the trails. It was a beautiful day, a little warmer than usual for the first week of April. Gibbs walked along the path, turning north when it split off, continuing until he came to a small ridge that looked out over the Blue Ridge mountains.
He leaned back against one of the trees near the edge and stayed there for several minutes, admiring the view. Wish we didn’t have to head back so soon… nice out here, being able to switch from fox to human. He smiled slightly, remembering how traumatic it had been, the first time he’d woken up as a fox. Funny how things change… I enjoy it now. Though I guess if Tony weren’t here with me, I might not bother.
He heard voices coming up the trail, possibly the same hikers from the pond. He moved quickly, fading back into the trees, using the same skills he’d perfected as a Marine sniper and continued to practice in the squad room and in Abby’s lab. The hikers, a group of five people, stopped to admire the view; Gibbs sighed mentally as they dropped their packs to the ground and sat, clearly not intending to move for a while. The former sniper settled in for a wait, thinking back over the past couple of months with Tony while the hikers talked amongst themselves.
“Where’d ya go?”
“Came back up the north trail to pick up our reserve stash. Bunch of hikers showed up.”
“You’re hiding from them, aren’t you?”
“Why? Not like you’re a fox right now.”
Gibbs shrugged even though Tony couldn’t see him. “This is ours. Don’t want to deal with outsiders.”
“Aw, Jethro, I’m touched.”
“I’m serious, Tony. Wouldn’t likely bother with the whole fox thing without you as a part of it.”
That thought was met by silence for a moment.
“I know, Jethro. Once we were back from the mountains, that first time, I missed the closeness we had when you were a fox.”
“You gotta admit it’s an awful lot of fun, though.”
“And I still say we should give some thought to finding a use for it on cases.”
“Too dangerous, Tony, you know that.”
“There could come a time when our foxy skills would come in handy, you know that.”
“You wanna try explaining it all to the rest of the team?”
“So, how long do you plan to hide from the big bad hikers? I was hoping to get a little private time in before we head back.”
“I’ll work on getting them out of here.”
“You do that. Over and out.”
Gibbs smiled at that; Tony had started saying it so he’d know when they were actually done with a mental conversation.
Focusing on the hikers, Gibbs picked the most restless one of the group and stared, imagining the young man as a target for his rifle. It didn’t take long before the guy was glancing around, peering into the woods, gradually becoming more agitated.
One of the girls there finally spoke up in exasperation. “Mike, what is wrong with you? You’re making me jumpy.”
Mike shook his head. “I just feel like I’m being watched. This place is giving me the creeps.”
Another man looked at his watch. “We should get going anyway, if we’re going to make the full loop before dark.”
Just for fun, Gibbs shifted his attention to the girl who had spoken to Mike. She started looking over her shoulder as she adjusted the straps of her pack; the others were already moving away. She frowned, staring into the bushes not far from where Gibbs was hiding, then jogged off to catch up to them.
Gibbs waited about ten more minutes, then rose from his spot and went back to the trail, following the hikers for a short distance before leaving it again. He made his way through the brush to a dense thicket, then dug at the freshly disturbed ground until he unearthed a plastic bag filled with clothes for each of them - their backups in case something happened and they couldn’t get back to the tent.
He headed back the way he’d come, carrying the bag under one arm, walking quickly as he anticipated what Tony wanted to do with their ‘private time.’ That’s one thing I can thank the spirit for, he thought. If I hadn’t become a fox, we might never have gotten together. Gibbs had valued their friendship, but this new relationship they had went a long way to bringing real happiness back into his life again. Gibbs smiled, deciding to use their few remaining hours in the woods to show Tony exactly how much he meant to him.
There was no sign of his partner when Gibbs made it back to the clearing, so he went directly into the tent. Tony was lying on his back on the sleeping bag, eyes closed, still wearing his t-shirt and jeans, although his feet were bare. Gibbs tossed the bag of clothes on the ground, then turned and zipped the tent door shut. He took off his hiking boots and socks, turning back around to see Tony watching him.
“I could have gone with you,” the younger man said.
“You were sleeping.” Gibbs stepped over to where Tony lay, then lowered himself so he was lying next to him, his head propped up on one hand.
Tony rolled onto his side, mimicking Gibbs. “You could have woken me up.”
“Nah. You needed your rest.”
“Oh yeah?” Tony’s gaze drifted down to Gibbs’ mouth.
“Yeah,” Gibbs said quietly, leaning in to kiss Tony’s lips.
Tony’s arms went around his lover and he shifted onto his back, pulling Gibbs on top of him. “Good,” he sent to his partner, and then there were no words spoken for a long time.
It wasn’t until much later than they originally planned that they took down the tent and hiked back to Gibbs’ car, getting back to civilization in time to catch a few hours sleep before heading to the Navy Yard the next morning.
Chapter 2: Curioser and Curioser
The ding of the elevator announced arrivals, causing Tim McGee to look up from his desk as Tony’s voice resonated through the bullpen.
“Seriously, Gibbs, you ought to try it. New month, new look, you know?”
Gibbs shook his head as he came around the corner of Ziva’s desk. “No, DiNozzo, I don’t know.”
Ziva smiled at him as he stowed his gun and badge in his desk. “Good morning, Gibbs.”
Gibbs met her eyes and nodded, then glanced over at Tony as the senior field agent sat down.
“Fine, Zee-vah, don’t say hi to me.”
Ziva sighed. “If you had given me another moment, I would have.”
Tony grinned, then looked at Tim. “Don’t you think the boss would look cool with dark hair?”
Tim stared at him. “What?”
Tony’s brow furrowed. “Do I need to translate what I say into geek speak?”
Tim sighed. “I don’t understand why you’d even ask that question.”
“Gibbs has grey hair, right?”
Everyone stared at him. He looked back at them, then sighed and made a dramatic gesture. “Light hair, dark mood. Dark hair, light mood! Just think how different work would be.”
Ziva drew in a breath, then exhaled without saying anything. Tim looked from Tony, who was grinning somewhat maniacally at their boss, to Gibbs, who simply sat back in his chair and stared at his second, with a slight smile on his face.
Gibbs abruptly stood up, tossing his empty cup in the trash. “Goin’ for coffee.” He left without another word.
Ziva and Tim both stared at Tony, who returned their gazes with a smug smile.
“In what universe do you think telling Gibbs he should dye his hair is a good idea?” Tim asked.
Tony shrugged. “Did you not notice that I didn’t even get a head slap? I should start calling you Probie again; those investigative skills of yours clearly need work.”
“Tony, you never stopped calling me Probie.”
“Oh, yeah.” Tony grinned at him, then picked up his desk phone on the first ring. “Hey, Abs… be right there.” He stood and waved at his coworkers on his way to the back elevator. “Try not to miss me too much!”
Tim shook his head as he looked back at his computer screen, then turned to meet Ziva’s gaze. She stood and quickly made her way over to his desk.
“This is definitely hinky,” she declared.
“No kidding. A few months ago, that would have gotten him a head slap.”
“And a glare. But Gibbs smiled, yes?”
“It was subtle, but it was there.”
Ziva huffed out a breath and leaned against the file cabinet. “Things have not been the same since they went to New Hampshire on that undercover mission.”
Tim nodded. “Tony gets away with way more stuff than he used to.”
“And Gibbs! He was impossible to deal with after they came back, and since they returned the second time, he has been… nice!”
Tim grimaced. “Yeah. Not all the time, but still...”
“Even some of the time is strange enough, McGee!” Ziva crossed her arms and looked morosely at the floor. “Abby is still silent on the subject?”
“Won’t say a word.” Tim hit a few keys on his board with more force than usual.
“Whatever happened had to be truly significant to cause such changes.” Ziva turned to face Tim, her expression sad. “Do you think we will ever know what it was?”
Tim shrugged. “I hope so.”
Their eyes met for a few seconds, and then Ziva went back to her desk and Tim’s attention focused on his monitor.
Tony hit the emergency stop as soon as the elevator was between floors. He leaned back against the wall, put his hands in his pockets, and closed his eyes, reaching out with his thoughts.
“I still think you should consider it. Those dark points on your fur are seriously attractive, you know.”
He smiled as he caught the mental sigh from his partner.
“Tony… what I look like as a fox is one thing. Not gonna happen.”
“Drop it, Tone. You’re just giving the rest of the team reason to continue speculating about us.”
“So why do it?”
“Cause it’s fun?”
There was no answer.
“You just rolled your eyes, didn’t you?”
“So… when can we go camping again? It’s more fun to go fox when we can really run.”
“I was thinking… maybe we should put in for some vacation time, head back north to the mountain next month. Be nice to see it in the spring.”
“I like the way you think, Boss… but would Vance approve it for both of us at once?”
“He might not like it, but I bet Human Resources would back us up - they’d rather we take the time.”
“Cool. Wanna go solo, or invite Greg to come along?”
There was a short pause before Gibbs’ voice sounded in Tony’s head.
“Was thinkin’ just you and me this time.”
“A romantic getaway, then.”
Gibbs’ laugh echoed in Tony’s head. “Yeah - think you can handle that?”
“I’ll handle you any day, big boy.”
“Good to know. Get back to work, Skippy.”
“Aye, aye, Captain.”
Tony hit the switch, and the elevator resumed its descent. Memories of their romp through the house as foxes the evening before crowded his head, including cleaning up the broken dishes resulting from Tony’s wild leap onto the table in an effort to keep Gibbs from grabbing his tail with his sharp teeth. Then the elevator came to a halt and Tony straightened his posture and his jacket, refocusing on the task at hand.
Abby turned from her computer as Tony strode into the lab. “Tony!” She moved quickly, pulling him into a hug.
Tony laughed as his arms went around her and returned the pressure. “Are you trying to make Gibbs jealous?”
“Ha! As if I could. He trusts you completely!”
“Trusts you too, Abs, you know that.” Tony pulled back and smiled at her. “So why did you call me down here? We don’t have a case.”
Abby leaned back against the table and shot him a wicked smile. “I didn’t get to talk to you all weekend! I need an update.”
“On you and Gibbs, of course! So, did you do it?”
Tony gaped at her for a second. “Abby! I don’t kiss and tell… well, not anymore, anyway.”
She shook her head. “Not that, silly, although if you did get a sudden urge to share I wouldn’t object. What I meant was, did you, you know, go all four-legged and fluffy?”
Tony let his head fall back and roll to his right, scoping out the doorway before looking back at her and giving her a mock scowl. “You wanna give the game away?”
Abby scoffed at him. “Oh, please. If anyone overheard, they’d think I was talking about some hinky sex act, not what I’m actually talking about!” Her expression grew thoughtful. “Although… I do wish you and Gibbs would think about letting Ziva and Timmy in on the big secret. They know something’s up, and that they’re in the dark and I’m not.”
“You haven’t spilled the beans, have you?”
Abby shook her head. “They wouldn’t believe me, even if I did slip up. But I’m being super careful, I promise.” She sighed. “I admit it’s not easy… they both feel left out, like there’s this line drawn between you guys and them.”
Tony slumped a bit as he leaned back next to her. “Yeah, I know,” he admitted. “But you know as well as I do that they won’t believe it unless they see it, and neither of us is ready for that.”
Abby pouted a little. “You showed me and Ducky.”
“Different circumstances.” Tony nudged her with his shoulder. “You were in on it from the beginning, and Ducky… well, he’s Ducky.”
Abby nodded in agreement.
“Besides,” Tony continued, “we can’t really say how they’d take it.”
“I think Tim would be okay with it. He’d have lots of questions, though.”
“Uh huh. And Ziva?”
Abby grimaced a bit. “I don’t know. She’s my friend, and I love her, but I don’t know how well she’d accept it.”
“I get it, I guess. I just don’t want the team to fall apart.”
Tony lifted his hand to her shoulder and squeezed. “I’ll talk to Jethro. Maybe we can do something to make sure they know we’re still the same team. I know I can change a few things.”
Abby was silent for a moment, then snickered a bit. “Jethro, huh?”
“Come on, Abs, we’ve been together for months now. I think I can get away with using his first name.”
“Technically, that’s his second name.”
“I’m not so sure I could get away with calling him Leroy.”
“Hmm, maybe not.” She turned to face him. “You guys still sharing dreams? You haven’t talked about that lately.”
Tony nodded. “Yup. Not all the time, but often enough.”
“Not what you might think… sometimes we’re foxes together, sometimes we aren’t. Sometimes we’re on the mountain, and the spirit might be there.” Tony shrugged and looked down at the floor. “No matter what, we’re always together.” He shrugged. “It’s nice.”
Abby bumped him with her shoulder. “I’m really happy for you guys.”
Tony’s phone rang; he picked it up and looked at the screen. “It’s the bossman.” He tapped the screen and raised the phone to his ear. “Very Special Agent DiNozzo, how may I help you?”
“Get back up here, we’ve got a case.” The call disconnected right away; Tony put the phone back on his belt.
“Gotta go, Abs.”
“Go get the bad guy!”
Tony grinned at her and jogged out of the lab, heading for the stairs.
There was a long silence once the team made their way past the MPs standing guard outside the yellow tape. Tony was the first to move further into the storeroom, taking just a few steps to get a closer look at the nearest body.
“Looks like his throat’s been cut, Boss.” He straightened up and reached for the camera slung over his shoulder.
Gibbs surveyed the scene a moment longer before gently nudging his youngest agent forward. “Bag and tag, McGee. Ziva, get statements from the guards outside.”
McGee swallowed audibly, but moved efficiently as he followed Tony, gathering evidence once it had been photographically documented. Ziva vanished without a word; they could hear her subdued voice seconds later, talking to the guards.
Gibbs stood silently, surveying the scene. Someone, probably one or more of the victims, had converted part of the storage area into a gaming room. A round table stood in the center of the room, covered by a battered poker table top, one of the folding kinds with slots for chips. There were five metal chairs near the table, two of them on their sides, with more chairs stacked against the wall.
There were three victims, all male, wearing Navy uniforms. One was slumped over the table, one arm outstretched as if he’d been reaching for the tumbled stack of chips in the middle, the other arm hanging down at his side. Two were on the ground, one lying on his side, curled into a fetal position; Gibbs guessed he’d been wounded in the abdomen. The other, the one Tony had approached first, was on his back, eyes staring up at the ceiling. Gibbs could see the gaping wound in his neck from where he stood; he didn’t need Ducky to confirm Tony’s observation.
There was blood everywhere.
Gibbs turned to see Ducky standing just beyond the tape, his face clearly showing his consternation. Palmer was right behind him, pale and silent. “Hey, Duck. Need to know how they died.”
Palmer reached for the tape, lifting it a bit so Ducky could easily pass underneath. “Watch your feet, Mister Palmer - we mustn’t step in the blood if we can help it.”
“That’s not going to be easy, Doctor.”
“Do the best you can, my boy.”
Gibbs began sketching out the scene, making notes where needed. He glanced over at Tony, who was documenting the table. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m alright. Lotta blood, Jethro. Whoever did this… pretty savage.”
“Yeah. Guy at the table… first victim?”
Tony looked around the room. “Be my guess. Judging by the way that guy over there fell, the one who’s curled up, maybe he tried to stop it. The other one… can’t tell if he was trying to run or not.”
Gibbs’ eyes narrowed as he looked at the bodies, trying to imagine the scene.
McGee looked up at him. “Boss?”
“There are five chairs, but only three bodies. Do we have two killers, or is there a witness around somewhere?”
Tony looked around. “Or maybe someone left before it went down.”
McGee gestured at the table. “Cards are a bit messed up, but I think there are five hands there, not four.”
Tony studied the remains of the game, then clasped the younger man on the shoulder. “Good observation, Tim. You’re right. Boss, we’ve got two to track down.”
“Make that one.” An unfamiliar, deep voice filled the room.
The three agents turned around; Ducky and Palmer stayed focused on the bodies. A tall, dark-skinned man with graying hair and a shocked expression stared at the scene, then visibly shook himself and turned toward Gibbs. “Agent Gibbs? I’m Senior Chief Petty Officer Derek Holt. These are my men.”
Gibbs moved forward, meeting the man’s outstretched hand in a firm shake. “What can you tell me, Chief?”
“Fourth man was airlifted to Bethesda before you arrived. Seaman Isaiah Powell.” He paused while Gibbs took notes. “I don’t know the extent of his injuries yet, so I can’t tell you if he’ll be in any condition to talk.”
Gibbs grunted an acknowledgment. “We’ll check on him.” He glanced around the room. “Can you identify the victims?”
The Chief nodded. “On the table… that’s Petty Officer Third Class Michael Garza. Seaman Jevon Dixon is over there, on his side.” He gestured toward the man lying on his back. “Petty Officer Second Class Dion Harris.”
Gibbs noted the names, then looked up at the man, whose jaw was clenched tight. Their eyes met. “They were good men, Agent Gibbs. I want the guy responsible for this.”
Gibbs nodded. “Know who he is?”
The Chief shook his head. “Guess only. Petty Officer Logan Barnes usually hangs out with these guys.” His brow furrowed. “Game like this is against regulations. Don’t know if it was him or someone else.”
“Who found the bodies?”
Ziva moved under the tape and into the room. “According to the guards outside, a Petty Officer Jamie Rhodes was looking for that man, Barnes, and found…” She gestured with her arm toward the room. “Petty Officer Rhodes is ready to speak to you anytime, Gibbs. They took her to the infirmary.”
Holt turned toward her. “Is she hurt?”
Ziva shook her head. “She is in shock,” she replied.
Gibbs nodded, then moved in Ducky’s direction. “What’ve you got for me, Duck?”
The medical examiner looked up from where he was crouched over Harris. “All these men were knifed, Jethro. These two,” he indicated Harris and Garza, “had their throats cut. I won’t know for sure until I get them home, but at first glance I would say that this man was grabbed from behind, while that one at the table was attacked from either in front or from the side.” He inclined his head toward Dixon. “That poor boy sustained a horrible abdominal wound; he likely lasted longer than the others, and was in a great deal of pain before he died.”
Gibbs took a deep breath, practically tasting the heavy scent of blood in the air, then exhaled slowly. “Any evidence of a struggle?”
Ducky got to his feet and moved to Dixon’s side. He knelt down, taking one of the dead hands in his own gloved ones. “There’s too much blood to say for sure, so until I can clean him up, this is pure conjecture. There do seem to be, however, be some cuts on his hands, which may indicate that he tried to stop his attacker. I see no such evidence on our other two victims, at least not at this time.”
“Taken by surprise,” Gibbs commented.
McGee stood, phone in hand. “I just spoke to one of the nurses at Bethesda, Boss… Petty Officer Powell is in surgery. He’s got a chest wound; there’s no chance we’ll get to speak with him today.”
“Good work, McGee.” He looked in Tony’s direction, to see his partner looking back at him. “DiNozzo! With me. Ziva… take over for him, you and McGee continue here. We’ll be back once we’ve talked with Rhodes.” He looked at Holt. “We could use your help if she’s in bad shape, Chief.”
Holt nodded, taking a long look at the dead men before turning and moving to the door. Gibbs followed, with Tony close behind. “I want you to talk with her, Tony… see if you can keep her calm.”
“You got it, Jethro.”
Witness and Suspect
Jamie Rhodes was a pretty brunette, in her late twenties, curled up in a chair and wrapped in a blanket. Holt approached one of the medics, who told him she was very lightly sedated, just enough to take the edge off, and should be able to talk to them.
She struggled to get up as soon as she saw Holt approach; he waved her back down and all three men grabbed some chairs.
“How are you doing, Rhodes?” Holt asked.
“I’m alright, sir,” she replied, but the glassy sheen to her eyes and the slight tremble of her lip said otherwise.
“These men are NCIS, Petty Officer,” he said quietly. “Do you feel up to answering their questions?”
She glanced at them, then at the floor, biting her lip. She took a deep breath, then nodded. “Yes, sir. I can do it.”
He nodded, then indicated the agents. “Agent Gibbs, Agent…”
“DiNozzo,” Tony said smoothly, leaning forward and gently taking her hand. “Call me Tony. Please, tell us anything you can. You never know what might help.”
She took a deep breath and gripped his hand, glancing at Gibbs and Holt before looking back at Tony, whose expression remained compassionate and encouraging. “I… the guys… they…” She swallowed hard, lowering her gaze, then raised her head and stared into Tony’s eyes. “The games were weekly when they could manage it. Dion usually organized them. I sat in on one or two, but it’s not really my thing.”
She hesitated, blinking rapidly. Tony squeezed her hand and nodded. She breathed deeply, gave him a small smile, and continued. “I knew they were playing early this morning. I went there looking for Logan… he hasn’t been doing all that well lately, and I wanted to make sure he was okay. I hadn’t seen him since Friday.”
“Are you two together?” Tony asked.
She shook her head. “We dated for a while when we first met, but,” she shrugged, “we’re better friends than lovers.” She looked at her CO. “I told you, sir, that he wasn’t right.”
“When was this?” Gibbs demanded.
“Take it easy, Jethro. She’s fragile.”
Gibbs glanced at Tony and nodded slightly. Tony gave him a small smile, then refocused on the petty officer. “What was bothering you about him?”
A tear made its way down her face. “He’s been acting strange lately. He could always be a bit moody, but this was different. He was being… paranoid, I guess. Accused Mike of stealing his knife the other day, when it was in his nightstand all along. They laughed about it, but later on Logan told me he still thought Mike had taken the knife, but put it back.” She shook her head. “I know that doesn’t sound like much, but Mike was Logan’s best friend, besides me. It just wasn’t normal. There were lots of little things like that.”
“Ask her what kind of knife it was,” Gibbs thought to Tony.
“What kind of knife? Standard issue?”
She shook her head again. “No… some sort of hunting knife, a present from his father. It’s all black, serrated on one side.”
Tony squeezed her hand, then let go. “I’m going to show you some pictures on my phone… maybe you can identify it for me.” He quickly tapped on the screen, then started scrolled slowly through some pictures, holding the phone so she could see.
“Thanks, Jamie.” Tony handed his phone to Gibbs, who stared at the screen for a moment, then sighed heavily.
“I can’t see this without my glasses, Tony.”
“Oops. Sorry. I’ll bookmark it.”
There was a tiny mental chuckle from Tony, and then he was all business again. “Was there anyone else at the games, besides Barnes, Dixon, Garza, Harris, and Powell?”
Rhodes’ eyes widened. “Izzy! Is he going to be alright?”
“He’s in surgery now.”
She took a deep breath and nodded slowly. “Yeah, sometimes there were others, but they were the regulars.”
“Do you know for sure if Barnes was there this morning?”
“No… I assumed he was, when there was no answer at his door.”
“The other guys who play… can you give me their names?”
Gibbs rose to his feet as Tony wrote the names, catching Holt’s eye and tilting his head toward the door.
They left the room, Holt sighing deeply as they went out of earshot. “I’ve got to report to my superiors, Agent Gibbs. I’m down most of my crew for this shift; I have to arrange for coverage. We’ve got planes to get flight ready.”
Gibbs nodded. “Just a few more questions. Rhodes talked to you about Barnes being unstable?”
Holt ran his hand through his hair. “She did. Maybe a week ago, maybe a bit more. I ordered a fitness for duty evaluation… I don’t know when it was scheduled.”
“We’ll follow up. You know Barnes well?”
“Not any more than anyone else under my command. Good worker, no complaints. Some minor disciplinary issues, but nothing involving any violent behavior.”
Gibbs made a few notes, then stowed them in his pocket. He pushed his cap up from his face. “I’m sorry for your losses, Senior Chief.”
Holt sighed and reached out to shake his hand. “Thank you, Agent Gibbs. I have to get to work - please keep me updated. I’ll make sure we look for Barnes on our end.”
“He may not be our man,” Gibbs cautioned. “He’s just our only lead at the moment.”
Holt nodded, then walked away. Gibbs watched him go, then moved back to the doorway in time to see Tony speaking quietly to Rhodes, who now had a small smile on her face despite the tears coursing down her cheeks.
“Yeah,” Tony replied. “Just trying to help her not blame herself if Barnes turns out to be our guy.”
“Any reason to think he isn’t?”
“Not from what she’s told me. I’ll show you the picture of the knife, when we get back to the Yard… I’m no Ducky, but I’m guessing it could do the damage we saw.”
“You done here? I’m going back to the scene. Lots to process; Tim and Ziva could probably use the help.”
“Right behind you, Jethro.”
Gibbs set off, his attention divided between watching where he was going and where Tony was. It wasn’t long before Tony caught up to him, walking next to him, just where he was supposed to be.
“What’ve we got?”
Tony, Ziva and McGee all jumped to their feet as Gibbs rounded the partition, coffee in hand. McGee was the first to grab the remote and pull one of the pictures Tony had taken at the crime scene up on the screen.
“We have an illicit poker game in a storeroom off a hanger at Pax River. Three dead, one survivor.” Another hit to the remote, and a picture of a young black man in uniform, a slight smile on his face, appeared on the screen, next to his service record. “Survivor is Seaman Isaiah Powell, originally from Grantsville, Maryland, enlisted just under a year ago. No disciplinary record. Powell’s primary responsibility is maintaining the electrical systems on the SH-60 Seahawk helicopters.” He brought up another picture, this one of the right side of the storeroom, with part of the table and a chair just visible in the foreground. “This is where Chief Holt said Powell was lying when they found him.”
Tim turned to face Gibbs. “I just got off the phone with Bethesda; the surgery went well; his injury was more superficial than they first thought. We should be able to speak with him tomorrow morning.” He paused, then continued. “Family’s been notified; his parents are with him at the hospital.”
Gibbs nodded, took a long sip of his coffee, and glanced at Ziva, who took the remote handoff from McGee and continued the narrative. “First victim: Petty Officer Michael Garza.” A click to the remote, and Garza’s ID picture and service record appeared on the screen, along with a shot of him slumped over the table. “Garza has been in the Navy for almost three years. The only infraction in his record is his involvement in a bar fight about four months after he enlisted. He is from a small town in Illinois; there is no record of any living family.” She hit the remote again, bringing his ID to the front and enlarging the picture. “He too worked on the Seahawk helicopters.”
She handed the remote back to McGee, who switched to the pictures of the second victim. “Seaman Jevon Dixon. Enlisted around the same time as Powell, from Baltimore, transferred to Pax River five months ago. He was training for maintenance on the F/A-18 Hornets. No disciplinary record.”
Tony cut in. “According to Petty Officer Rhodes, Dixon was the one who organized the poker games.”
McGee glanced at him and nodded. “Dixon’s brother makes his living as a professional poker player in LA. He’s been on several televised tournaments.”
Gibbs turned to face him. “People watch other people playing poker on tv?”
McGee nodded again. “Tuesday nights on ESPN… or ESPN2.” Gibbs stared at him for a moment, then shook his head and looked at the screen. “Family notified?”
“Yes. His mother and sister will be here in the morning. They’re insisting on viewing the body.”
“Handle the interview with them before they go to Autopsy.”
“Will do, Boss.”
Ziva took the remote and switched to the next set of pictures. “Petty Officer Dion Harris.” The serious young man in the picture was a stark contrast to the crime scene photo of him staring up at the ceiling, throat slashed. “He has been in the Navy for over three years, and worked on both the Hornets and the Seahawks. He was being considered for a promotion which would have transferred him to San Diego.”
“Not soon enough,” Gibbs muttered.
Ziva shook her head. “His family is on the west coast. They have been notified and have requested that the body be flown there as soon as possible.”
“Phone interviews, Ziva. See if he told them anything that might give us some idea why this happened.”
“Gibbs…” Ziva hesitated, but then continued. “All of the victims are either black or Hispanic. Could this have been racially motivated?”
Gibbs glanced over at Tony, who shrugged and responded. “Doesn’t seem like it.” He held out his hand for the remote, switching to a picture of Petty Officer Jamie Rhodes. “I asked Rhodes if there was any racial tension on base. She said anything she’s heard has been friendly banter, that everyone seemed to get along just fine. She participated in the games sometimes, and she’s white… so were many of the other guys who were on the list she gave me of occasional players... most of whom have alibis for early this morning.” He hit the remote again and brought up a picture of Derek Holt, the commanding officer. “Holt’s black; there’s nothing in any of his evaluations to indicate any bad feeling among any of the men under his command, regardless of race. Didn’t get a hint of anything like that in the interviews we conducted on base after Ducky and Palmer took the bodies.”
They all stared at the screen for a moment. Gibbs glanced over at Tony, who met his gaze.
“I can’t believe you didn’t get me coffee, Jethro.”
“You didn’t ask.”
“Yeah, ‘cause that would have been in character for us at work.”
The only reply was a mental snort.
“Suspects?” Gibbs asked the group.
Tony sighed and hit the remote again, bringing up three pictures. “Rhodes and Holt both have alibis. Holt was home with his family until 0700, after which he left for work and was in a meeting until the MPs notified him of the murders. Rhodes’ roommate vouches for her whereabouts all night, and security cameras show her entering the hanger just before 0800, then running back out less than ten minutes later. Unfortunately, that’s about all they show – the feed was cutting in and out all night. Could be Dixon’s fault; Rhodes thinks he might have been tampering with the cameras to hide the game. Anyway, that leaves -“ He paused as he clicked the remote and brought up a new ID picture and service record, “- Petty Officer Logan Barnes, who’s usually at the games and who’s now officially UA.”
The picture showed a strong-jawed white man with light brown eyes and dark hair; his records listed him at 6’2” and 195 lbs. Muscle definition was clearly visible in his arms under his uniform jacket.
“Rhodes said he’s been acting paranoid lately, but other than that, we’ve got nothing on him.” Another click and several documents appeared on the screen. “Barnes worked on the planes, but was also involved in weapon systems design. A few minor disciplinary actions on his record, but nothing that screams ‘I’m going to kill all my friends in a really violent way.’” Tony paused and looked at Gibbs. “Barnes does have a juvie record, but I’m waiting for the court order to get that unsealed. I do, however, have a copy of the fitness for duty report from a few days ago, faxed over from Pax River.”
He handed the papers to Gibbs, who flipped through them before absently thinking, “Get me my glasses?”
Tony jogged over to Gibbs’ desk, grabbed the glasses from the drawer where they usually sat, and dropped them in Gibbs’ outstretched hand. Gibbs put them on and quickly scanned the pages while Ziva and McGee exchanged wide-eyed stares.
Ziva turned to Tony. “I know you and Gibbs have been working together for a long time, Tony, but that was… I do not know what that was.”
Tony gave her a puzzled look, then his own eyes widened as he realized what they’d just done. He covered quickly with a smile and simply said, “Anticipate, Ziva. Gibbs’ eyes, small type. No brainer.”
“Still…” McGee started in, only to be interrupted by Gibbs sharp comment. “The case, people!”
Tony turned back to the screen, clearing his throat while sending thoughts Gibbs’ way. “Crap, Jethro. We’ve never screwed up like that before.”
“My fault, Tony. You covered just fine.”
Tony enlarged the picture of Barnes. “So – Petty Officer First Class Logan Barnes, native of Circleville, West Virginia, family still there, running a motel. That is a really, really small town, by the way. Been in the Navy just over four years, served with Petty Officer Garza since Garza was assigned to Pax River. According to Rhodes, Garza and Barnes were best buds. Also according to Rhodes, Barnes accused Garza of stealing his knife not long ago; said knife was apparently in Barnes’ room the entire time.”
He switched to a picture of a black hunting knife, with a partially serrated edge. “This, lady and gentlemen, is the Jungle Primitive. Ten inch blade, excellent gripping power, according to the website. Petty Officer Rhodes identified it.”
They all stared at the knife. “That is practically a machete,” Ziva commented. “It seems very capable of doing the damage we saw at the scene.”
“Between Ducky and Abby, we’ll know if that was the knife.” Gibbs looked at Tony. “Don’t suppose it was in Barnes’ quarters when you searched?”
Tony shook his head.
“Does Barnes have a motive?” McGee asked.
“Not that we know of.” Tony waved a hand toward the papers Gibbs was holding. “Clinical psychologist on base cleared Barnes for duty, but noted a few statements that indicated he wasn’t feeling secure around his work colleagues – whatever that means.”
McGee’s brow furrowed. “That’s not a lot to base a murder investigation on.”
“Nope.” Gibbs tossed the papers down onto Tony’s desk. “But at the moment, it’s all we’ve got, unless we want to start randomly investigating every person on that base.”
“Barnes could be our man,” Tony put in. “He could also be another victim, or maybe he wasn’t even at the game at all.”
Ziva frowned. “There was no blood trail away from the hanger.”
“Doesn’t mean Barnes wasn’t attacked somewhere else.”
Gibbs grunted, whether in agreement or frustration, neither Ziva nor McGee were sure. “Ducky and Abby should have something for us by now,” he commented, and turned toward Tony.
“Take McGee.” Tony thought. “Or Ziva. Either one, just not me.”
“Abby says they’re feeling left out. Besides, you really want to give them an opportunity to talk over our little goof up earlier?”
“Ziva! With me. McGee, start the phone interviews with Harris’ family. DiNozzo, deep background on Barnes – get me those court records! No contact with the family until we get a better sense about whether he’s our guy.”
Gibbs headed for the back elevator, with Ziva right behind him. Tony sat at his desk and focused on his computer, but he could feel Tim’s eyes on him.
“Put those McPupils somewhere else. Don’t you have work to do?”
McGee frowned and moved closer. “It can wait.”
“Don’t let Gibbs hear you say that.”
“Gibbs isn’t here right now. Tony… seriously, what was that?”
“What was what?”
“That thing with the glasses. Gibbs didn’t ask, but you just went into his desk and got them.”
“I told you – anticipation.”
McGee snorted. “Yeah, right. That doesn’t explain why Gibbs held out his hand for them, before you even had them. It was like he knew what you were doing, but he didn’t even look up.”
“It’s not a big deal, Tim. We’ve worked together for a long time, that’s all.”
“It is a big deal, Tony. That’s not the only time, just the most obvious one. There’ve been loads of times you guys have done stuff like that – it’s like you’re reading each others’ minds or something. It’s not always you anticipating, either. Sometimes it’s Gibbs.”
Tony just sat back and stared at him.
“It started a few weeks after you guys got back from up north that second time. Ziva and I both noticed. In fact, we’re keeping track.” McGee hurried over to his desk and came back with a print out listing Date, Time, and Nature of Incident, along with checkmarks under either ‘Gibbs’ or ‘DiNozzo’ to indicate who took action.
Tony looked it over, wincing internally at the number of times they’d slipped up and hadn’t realized it. “You need a McLife,” he drawled, handing the paper back to him.
“We’re going to figure this out, Tony.”
“Not likely, ‘cause there’s nothing to figure out. Now you’d better get to work before Gibbs get back and catches you spying on him.”
McGee huffed in annoyance, but finally went to his desk and focused on the case.
Autopsy and Forensics
Ducky and Jimmy were leaning over one of the bodies when Gibbs and Ziva came in.
“Ah, Jethro! You have perfect timing. Mister Palmer and I have just finished the last of our little gathering.”
“Any surprises, Duck?”
The medical examiner shook his head. “None, I’m afraid. It would appear that my initial interpretation of the scene was largely correct.” He handed the needle and thread to Palmer and moved off to one of the other tables, where Garza’s body lay. “It is, of course, impossible to say for sure the order in which these poor lads fell, but the angles of the wounds can give us a working hypothesis.” He pointed to a picture of the crime scene, taped up on the wall. “I do believe that Petty Officer Garza here was the killer’s first victim. The complete lack of defensive wounds, as well as the position of the body, suggests that he was taken by surprise. His throat was cut, perhaps as he was reaching for his winnings, and he died instantly.”
Gibbs looked down at the body while Ziva moved toward the picture, pointing to one area. “Here, Ducky, is where the survivor was found.”
Ducky moved forward, peering at the location, then nodded. “That fits in with my conjecture rather nicely. The survivor may have been seated here -“ He pointed to another spot, “- and may have tried to stop the killer, coming up behind him and getting stabbed for his pains.”
“He had a chest wound, but apparently it was not too severe.”
Palmer moved forward, clearly intrigued by the discussion. “Maybe he lived because Dixon,” he gestured to the body on the next table, “tried to stop the killer too.”
Gibbs moved right behind him, speaking suddenly and making Palmer jump. “Taking the killer’s attention away from Powell and getting himself killed.”
Ducky nodded while Palmer held a hand to his own chest, smiling weakly at a stony-faced Gibbs. “Yes… as I said this morning, the poor boy received a deep wound to his abdomen and bled out. He likely suffered a great deal.”
Gibbs tapped Palmer lightly on the head, getting a broader smile in return, before moving over to the third body. “Harris?”
Ducky sighed as he stood next to his friend. “Angle and depth of the wound indicates that he was grabbed from behind, the knife used to cut through the left carotid artery, like so.” He reached up and drew a line across Gibbs’ throat with the tip of his finger. “He died within seconds. I doubt anything could have been done for any of these three, even if medical attention had arrived sooner.”
Ziva spoke up, her voice subdued. “Harris was trying to run.” Ducky met her eyes and nodded. “Do you know what kind of knife it was, Ducky?”
“I do believe Abigail is working on that now, my dear. Mister Palmer sent her the measurements of the wounds a little over an hour ago.”
“Thanks, Duck,” Gibbs said, moving toward the door.
“A moment, Jethro.” Gibbs turned back, Ziva beside him. “This was a savage attack,” Ducky said, only to be interrupted.
“Yeah, I know. DiNozzo used the same word.”
“Anthony is a perceptive young man, Jethro. But what I meant to point out, is that the killer, whomever he may be, meant to murder these people. These attacks were calculated to dole out maximum damage with minimal effort. I do believe that if you do not find him quickly, there will be more deaths. But do be careful, all of you.”
Ziva smiled at him. “We will, Ducky.”
Ducky went back to the bodies as the two agents left the room, heading for Abby’s lab.
When they got there, they found her brandishing a large knife. “Now this is a knife!” she exclaimed as they walked in.
Gibbs reached out and gently removed the knife from her hands. “Wha’d’ya got, Abs?”
Abby smiled at him. “This is definitely the murder weapon, Gibbs. Well, not this one, since I had this one brought in from a local store after Tony texted me the picture this morning, but one exactly like it.”
“What kind of store sells a knife like that?” Ziva wondered.
“One of those outdoorsy places that cater to hikers, hunters, that sort of thing.”
Ziva hefted the blade. “Are there many jungles in this area?”
Abby grinned at her. “Oh, it’s not a machete.”
“Close enough,” Gibbs commented.
Abby pointed to the serrations on the top of the blade. “These match the internal damage on all three victims. And the guy with the gut wound – the blade was driven in to the hilt.”
Gibbs’ eyes narrowed as he studied the knife. “Anything else?”
“Yes!” Abby moved to the computer, followed by both agents. “I ran all the fingerprints through AFIS… you have seventy-nine suspects, once I eliminate the victims and the people who have alibied out so far, according to Tim.”
“This is going to take forever,” Ziva commented.
“Nope!” There was triumph in Abby’s voice. “I haven’t told you the best part yet.”
Gibbs stood there staring at her, the barest hint of a smile on his face. “What’s the best part?”
“I found a blood stain on the arm of Seaman Dixon’s uniform, tested it, and guess what I found?”
“The killer?” Ziva asked hopefully.
Abby raised one hand, finger pointed to the sky. “Meet -“ She hit a key and a picture popped up. “Petty Officer -“
“Logan Barnes,” Gibbs finished, his voice flat.
“Gibbs! You know I hate when you do that.”
Gibbs leaned in and kissed her on the forehead. “I know, Abs. He was already on our list. Two Caf-Pows next time.”
She inclined her head. “You’re forgiven.”
He flashed her a quick smile. “Go home, it’s late.”
She saluted and then waved to Ziva as they hurried out of the lab.
Gibbs and Ziva moved quickly back to their desks. “It’s Barnes,” Gibbs commented as Tony and Tim looked up. “Abby confirmed the knife, and found Barnes’ blood on Dixon’s uniform.”
McGee spoke up first, getting an annoyed look from Tony. “I talked with Harris’ family, Boss… they said he gave no indication of any trouble with anyone. They didn’t recognize Barnes’ name, although they said Harris could have mentioned him briefly, they weren’t sure.”
Gibbs nodded and looked at Tony. “Didn’t talk to Barnes’ family, as per your direction, but I did talk with the State Police captain who covers the region Circleville is in. Town’s too small to have its own police force. The motel the family runs caters to outdoor sportsmen… hikers, hunters, cross country skiers in winter, that sort of thing. Says the family’s good people, that Logan Barnes left the area before he took over the region, doesn’t have anything on him as an adult.”
“No court order yet. Still waiting. Chief Holt checked in, asking if we’d located Barnes… told him to keep an eye out, issued a BOLO.”
Gibbs shook his head. “Alright. Tomorrow morning, we talk with Dixon’s family, interview Powell, then we head out to Circleville. If he’s become paranoid like Petty Officer Rhodes suggested, he might head for familiar ground.” Gibbs opened his desk drawer, grabbing his gun and badge. “Go home, everyone. Dress appropriately… something tells me we’ll be enjoying the great outdoors.”
Both Tim and Ziva left quickly. Tony and Gibbs weren’t far behind, each heading to their own cars. Tony followed Gibbs out of the parking lot, starting up a mental conversation as soon as they’d both eased into traffic.
“Ziva say anything to you about the glasses thing?”
“Nope. If anything, she was quieter than usual.”
“That’s not a good sign.” Tony checked the mirrors, then changed lanes. “Tim interrogated me. They’ve been keeping tabs on us… we’ve screwed up plenty of times, Jethro. Today was just the worst.”
“No kidding. We’re going to have to tell them.”
“After this case… Barnes is dangerous. Need to keep our focus on the job.”
“Want me to go to my place tonight?”
“Don’t be stupid.”
Tony laughed out loud.
“I’ll stop off for some take out and beer. Any preference?”
“Chinese sounds good.”
“That it does. See you soon… over and out.”
A little over an hour later, both men were sitting on the couch in Gibbs’ living room, eating from take-out cartons. Tony tried to pick up a shrimp with chopsticks and watched as it zinged across the room. Gibbs watched it go and then mock-glared at Tony.
“Why do you keep trying to eat with those things?”
“Because every time I do, I think of Kate.”
Gibbs was silent for a moment, then smiled. “I’ll buy a case, stock up.”
Tony grinned at him and went after another shrimp, this time successfully. “What’s the plan of attack for tomorrow?”
Gibbs shrugged. “We’ll head out there, see what we can learn about Barnes and where he might hole up.”
“Think he’s with his family?”
“Could be. That’s why I don’t want to talk to them yet.”
“Surprise him, take him down before he hurts anyone else.”
“Yeah. If he’s really lost it, he might decide his family’s turned on him too.”
“Ouch. Definitely don’t need that.”
Tony poked around with the chopsticks, but the carton was empty. He glanced over at Gibbs, who caught the look and shifted his carton away from Tony. Tony smiled, then got up, clearing away the empty cartons bottles and bringing back fresh beers for both of them.
“We’re pretty sure it’s Barnes, right? That he’s the killer, not another victim?”
Gibbs shook his head. “No, we can’t be sure… if he was attacked and was already paranoid, he could be in hiding. Seems to me, though, the knife’s pretty telling.”
“Yeah. Probably not too many of those on base.” Tony watched Gibbs set his carton and chopsticks on the coffee table and lean back against the couch; he followed suit, letting his head drop onto Gibbs’ shoulder. “Unless the killer stole the knife from Barnes’ room… or got it away from him and then used it on the others.”
Gibbs yawned, and shifted around so his arm went around Tony’s shoulders. Tony scooted down a bit on the couch, trying to get comfortable.
“I’m starting to understand the reason for the size difference between men and women,” he commented. “I’m all squished.”
Gibbs laughed, turning his head to nuzzle Tony’s hair. “I’ve learned to appreciate the similarities.”
“I have too,” Tony protested, “I’m just sayin’.”
They sat there in silence, Gibbs idly running his fingers over Tony’s shoulder, while Tony’s hand rested on Gibbs’ knee, picking at the seam of his jeans.
“How are we gonna explain it all to Ziva and the McGoo?”
Gibbs sighed. “We can’t wait to talk about this until after we find the killer?”
Tony snorted. “You know they’re gonna ambush me at some point. I need to be prepared. They certainly won’t bug you about it.”
“So just stay with me all the time.”
Tony raised his head and dropped a kiss on Gibbs’ neck. “I’d love to. But that would mean giving them more time to plot against me. Not to mention that I really think we need to keep splitting up at work, to keep them from feeling left out.” He turned onto his side, wrapping his arm around Gibbs’ waist. “And do we tell them everything? About us, I mean.”
“Maybe not everything.”
“Ha. No, just that we’re together?”
“I think the whole were-fox thing is enough to start with, don’t you?”
“Is that what we are? Were-foxes?”
“I don’t know. Seems as good a term as any.”
“Maybe we should ask the spirit when we’re back on the mountain.” Tony sat up a bit. “But if you think about it, all the werewolves and such in the movies and the stories, they were mostly bitten by another werewolf, and that’s how they became werewolves. We didn’t get bitten. We got… what did Greg call it… oh, yeah, spirit-touched. So I don’t think we’re really were-foxes, do you?”
Gibbs pulled away from Tony, threading his fingers through the younger man’s hair and pulling him in for a kiss. The kiss went on for some time… once it finally ended, Tony was straddling Gibbs’ lap, and both men were disheveled and breathing heavily.
“Maybe,” Gibbs said huskily, “we should stop thinking about were-foxes and head to bed.”
“Excellent idea. We should get plenty of rest before heading out to the boonies.”
“I wasn’t really thinking of resting.”
“Another excellent idea.” Tony leaned in to give Gibbs a quick kiss on the lips, then pushed back and got to his feet, holding out his hand to help him up. “In case I haven’t said it recently, I love you, Jethro.”
“Good. You can show me exactly how much.”
“Oh, it’s on.”
They ran up the stairs, laughing as they went.
There is a Circleville in West Virginia. I’m using the name and the location, but know nothing about the town itself, so most likely what I end up writing about won’t be accurate at all.
Chapter 4: Collecting Intel
“Court order came through,” Tony commented as the email notification dinged on his computer. Gibbs, Ziva, and McGee all got to their feet from behind their desks and moved closer while Tony put the files up on the screen.
He remained at his desk, scanning through them quickly. “Barnes was arrested for aggravated assault at age 15… went after several boys on his soccer team, beat one up pretty badly – kid experienced permanent damage to his eyesight.”
“Does it say why?” Ziva asked.
Tony shook his head. “Transcripts aren’t included. Does show that he was sent to a psychiatric hospital, spent about six months there.”
“And then the records were sealed, so no one knew about his history when he joined the Navy.” McGee shook his head. “Doesn’t seem right.”
Ziva glanced at him. “He must have passed his psych eval.”
Gibbs sipped his coffee, then looked at Tony. “Contact the hospital, see what you can find out.”
Tony grimaced. “That’ll be a big fat zero… they’re just gonna cite confidentiality.”
“I know, but do it anyway.”
Tony sighed and reached for the phone.
They all turned to see two women near Ziva’s desk, the agent who’d escorted them there standing nearby. One was clearly a nervous teenager, while the other, presumably her mother, stood quietly, her face devoid of makeup and clearly showing her sorrow.
“I’m Adeela Dixon… Jevon’s mother.” Her hand came up to rest on the girl’s shoulder. “This is my daughter, Makena.”
Gibbs set his coffee down on Tony’s desk and moved forward, stopping a few feet in front of her. “Special Agent Gibbs. I’m sorry for your loss.”
She nodded, her eyes filling with tears. “Thank you.” There was a short pause before she continued. “I was told I could see my boy.”
Gibbs nodded, turning slightly and motioning toward Tim, who stepped closer. “We’ll call down, make sure they’re ready for you.”
Tim reached out to shake her hand, then did the same for Makena, who hesitated but then took his hand in a firm grip. “If you don’t mind,” he said, “we’d like to ask you a few questions first.”
Mrs. Dixon took a deep breath, glancing at her daughter, before nodding. “All right. I don’t know how much we can tell you.”
“You never know what might help.” He gestured toward the stairs. “There’s a conference room… can I get you anything?”
They all watched them go; Gibbs noticed the way Makena leaned on her mother a bit as they went up the stairs. “We need to find Barnes, Tony. I don’t want him to do this to another family.”
Tony simply looked at him for a moment, then nodded slightly, reaching again for the phone to start making calls.
Gibbs picked up his coffee, finished it off, then headed back to his desk, dropping the cup into the trash. “Ziva! Call Bethesda, see if Seaman Powell is ready for visitors.”
Several minutes later, Gibbs and Ziva were on their way to the hospital, leaving Tony to dig further into their suspect’s past.
After almost an hour of fruitless attempts to get information from a variety of doctors and administrators, Tony had very little new information. No one was willing to say anything beyond the fact that Barnes had ‘successfully completed’ treatment and been released when he was sixteen years old. Barnes’ Navy medical files didn’t show any sign of treatment for psychiatric disorders.
Huffing an exasperated sigh, Tony sat back in his chair, only to straighten up as the Dixons walked slowly past his desk to his left, McGee beside them, talking quietly. Adeela Dixon stopped by the window, digging through her purse, while Makena stood next to her, hands clenched into fists. Her mother let her hands drop, loosely clutching her bag. “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice choked with emotion, “I can’t… I didn’t know how hard it would be.”
“Are you going to be alright?” Tim asked.
“I thought he’d look like he was sleeping… I used to watch him sleep, when he was a little boy. Even when he was still, there was such life in him. Now… even though I knew he was dead, it was still a shock.” She shook her head. “I thought seeing him, it would be like he was still here… but it wasn’t. He’s gone.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “I’m sorry.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for.” McGee glanced around, then moved quickly to Ziva’s desk, grabbing her box of tissues. “Here… take this with you. Are you going to be okay to drive?”
She shook her head. “My sister dropped us off; we’re staying with her. She’ll pick us up when we call.”
“I’ll come wait with you.” McGee looked over at Tony, who nodded at him. The small group moved toward the elevator; Tony watched Makena walk by, her face devoid of emotion, her body rigid.
“Makena,” he called quietly.
She turned around, eyes wide, staring at him. He waved her over; she glanced back at her mother, then walked over to stand in front of his desk.
“We’ll get the guy who did this,” Tony told her.
She stared at him. “Will you kill him?”
“We’ll do whatever we need to.”
“If you’ll promise me something.”
Her brow furrowed. “What?”
Tony leaned forward a little. “Let yourself cry.”
She stared at him. “How do you know I haven’t?”
Tony smiled a bit. “Let’s just say I recognize a kindred spirit. You bottle it up inside, you’ll never be able to remember the good times with your brother. There were some, right?”
She nodded. “Yeah.”
“You can let yourself feel the pain, and still be strong for your mother.”
Makena swallowed, then nodded. “Okay. It’s a deal.” She held out her hand; Tony shook it once, then she turned and joined the others. Tony thought he saw her reach up to wipe at her eyes as she stepped into the elevator.
McGee came back a few minutes later. “Her sister was already there waiting for them,” he explained.
“Could they tell you anything?”
Tim shook his head. “Said he was fine last time they talked, which was last week. Couldn’t say for sure if he’d ever mentioned Logan Barnes, but he definitely didn’t talk about having any trouble with anyone. They’re a close family; he’d have told them.”
Their eyes met, and Tony nodded. “Good job, Tim.”
“You too, Tony.”
Seaman Isaiah Powell was awake, aware, and alone when Gibbs and Ziva entered his room. Ziva approached him first, introducing herself and Gibbs, and showing him her badge.
“We would very much like to hear from you what happened yesterday morning.”
Powell nodded slowly. “’kay.” He fumbled a bit with the controls for the bed, then raised the top so he was sitting up. “You have questions or you want me to talk?”
“Was it Petty Officer Logan Barnes who did this to you?”
Powell closed his eyes and nodded. “Yeah.”
Gibbs moved closer. “Why? What happened?”
Powell cleared his throat. “Dunno. He was quieter than usual, but that didn’t seem like a big deal. He was probably coming out even until that last hand… Mike had a full house. We was laughin’ about it, ‘cause last game we cleaned Mike out… Mike was reaching for the chips, and then Logan had that damn knife in his hands and next thing I knew Mike was slumped over the table and there was blood everywhere.” Powell shifted a bit on the bed, grimacing as his hand went to the bandage on his chest. “Not sure exactly what happened next. I remember I was on my feet, everyone was yelling… Logan came at me, I grabbed him, he got me, here.” He tapped his chest. “Figured that was it, until Jevon grabbed his arm...” Powell’s voice trailed off, and he blinked rapidly. “Saw Logan stab Jevon in the gut… then he was gone. Heard stuff…” He took a deep breath. “Blacked out soon after. Didn’t expect to wake up.” He looked up at Gibbs. “Didn’t see what happened to Dion. Heard they’re all dead.”
Ziva nodded. “You were lucky.”
“I guess.” Powell stared at the opposite wall, clearly not really seeing it.
“Did Barnes say anything when he pulled the knife?” Ziva asked.
Powell reached up to rub at his head. “He was yellin’ somethin’… ‘you’re not gonna do this to me,’ or something like that.” He thought for a moment. “I think he said ‘not again’… but I don’t know what he was talkin’ about.”
“How had Petty Office Barnes been acting in the days leading up to the game?” Gibbs asked.
Powell blinked, then shrugged. “Couldn’t tell ya. I didn’t see him much the past week or so. Been pullin’ some long days, trying to get my hours in on the Hornets. Wanted to be ready for deployment.” He looked at Gibbs with dull eyes. “Never been out of the country. Got even more reason to go, after all this.”
Gibbs nodded. “Anyone else we should be talking to about Barnes?”
“He usually hung out with Mike… Jamie too. Petty Officer Jamie Rhodes. They’d be more likely to know what was going on with him than I would.” He huffed out a breath. “Guess just Jamie, now.”
“Any idea where Barnes might go?”
Powell stared at him. “You don’t know where he is?”
Gibbs shook his head. “We’re looking for him.”
“Aw, shit.” Powell looked nervously at the door. “Think he’ll come here to finish the job?”
“I doubt it. But I can post a guard on your door.”
Powell nodded. “Please.” His gaze shifted between Ziva and Gibbs. “I don’t know what set him off, and I can’t say for sure that I remember what he was sayin’… but I do remember the look in his eyes. Man’s crazy.”
“Get some rest, Petty Officer.” Gibbs headed for the door.
Ziva smiled at the injured man. “Your family is here with you, yes?”
“Good. Take care of yourself.” She nodded to him, then went to catch up with Gibbs.
As soon as they were out of the building, Gibbs pulled his phone out of his pocket and made the call to arrange for Powell’s protection.
“Do you really think Powell is in danger?” Ziva asked.
“Nope.” They reached the car and got in. “But if Barnes really has snapped, there’s no good way to predict what he’ll do next.”
Ziva nodded. “Now we talk to his family?”
“Yeah.” Gibbs pulled out of the lot and set off for the Navy Yard. “Call McGee, get an update on his interview with the Dixons, tell him what Powell told us.”
Ziva reached for her phone, and Gibbs turned his attention to the road and to Tony. “Hey, Tony.”
“What’s up, Boss?”
“Seaman Powell confirmed Barnes was the killer. You get anything from the hospital?”
“What do you think?”
“Had to try.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Sure… why do you ask?”
“Your voice seems off.”
There was silence for a moment before Tony’s voice sounded in his head again. “The Dixons are nice people. They don’t deserve this.”
“Most people don’t. Gotta focus on stopping Barnes before he does this again.”
“Think he will?”
“Yeah. He’s delusional… hearing voices, seeing things, gone paranoid, whatever… no reason to think that’s gonna suddenly go away.”
“Got’cha. So… Circleville next. Want me and McGee to meet you guys in the lot?”
“No… gotta update Vance first. Should take two cars anyway… Circleville’s out in the middle of nowhere.”
“Okay. It’s over three hours to get there… well, less, if you’re driving.”
“You’re riding with me.”
“McGee’s had you long enough. It’s my turn.”
Tony’s surprised laugh sounded in his head. “Damn it, Jethro, don’t do that. I laughed out loud… now McGee’s gonna add that to his spreadsheet thingy.”
“I’m not even there… why would he think you laughing for no reason has anything to do with me?”
“I don’t know – maybe being paranoid is catching.”
“Whatever. You’re riding with me.”
“Nice to feel wanted.”
“And I’m not sharing a room with McGee or Ziva.”
“No argument from me. We leaving right after you talk to Vance?”
“Yeah… we can grab lunch on the way. Gotta get two Caf-Pows for Abby, too, before we go.”
“See you soon, Tony.”
“Okay, Jethro… over and out.”
Gibbs stared straight ahead, sending the car speeding forward while Ziva talked with McGee.
Chapter 5: West Virginia
Timber Ridge Motel
Tony pulled his attention away from the game on his cell phone and looked out the car window. “We still on 33?”
“Uh huh.” Gibbs stretched a bit, hands pressing against the steering wheel as he straightened his arms.
Tony grunted and turned his attention back to his phone. “Pass any signs?”
“Just went through Monkeytown.”
“See any monkeys?”
“Huh.” Tony hit a few links on his screen. “Okay, we’re not too far from where we take a left onto 28. Then it’ll be a right onto Upper Timber Ridge Road, follow it to the end to get to the motel.”
Gibbs nodded, his eyes on the road. “Call Ziva, give her a heads up.”
Tony tapped the screen a few times, then brought the phone to his ear. “Probette! Yeah, not too far – bossman’s gonna take a left up ahead at some point, then we go right after the post office… uh huh, in your dreams, Ziva.” He hung up and pocketed the phone, leaning back in his seat.
“What was that about?”
“Nothing, really… just Ziva being Ziva.”
“Offered to go in guns blazing?”
“Close enough. She really should have been born in the wild West, you know? Calamity Ziva… got a nice ring to it.”
Gibbs smiled and shook his head. “You’re quick enough to appreciate her skills when it comes down to hand-to-hand.”
“I know. Just sayin’.” They fell silent for a while, until Gibbs made the left off the main road, McGee following close behind in the second car. “Think we should tell the probies to stop in Circleville and start canvassing?”
Gibbs shot Tony a look from the corner of his eye. “Thought you wanted us to split up more.”
Tony snorted. “When we’re going after a violent psycho? Not a chance. I’m staying on your six.”
“Fine by me.” Gibbs leaned forward a bit, looking out the side windows. “Pretty wild country out here.”
“Not surprising… only about seven hundred people live in Circleville. McGee and Ziva could talk to the entire town in about an hour.”
“Bit more than that, I think. The motel first… establish whether Barnes is hiding out with his family, then canvass if we need to.”
Tony sighed. “I just hope they’re all alive when we get there.”
It was about another twenty minutes before they pulled up in front of the motel, which was mostly surrounded by a meadow, with trails leading toward the woods. Gibbs and Tony got out of the car slowly, scanning the area. There were several other cars in the gravel lot. The motel itself was a single story building, a typical set up with each room having a door to the outside. There was a house set further back, closer to the woods; a young woman came out the front and headed toward them.
“Place looks pretty nice,” Tony commented, as McGee parked the other car next to them.
Gibbs turned to face the young woman, who smiled as she reached them.
“Need some rooms?”
“Federal agents,” Gibbs said, holding up his badge. “Special Agent Gibbs, NCIS.”
Tony smiled at her. “I’m Special Agent DiNozzo... NCIS stands for –“
“I know what it is.” The smile had faded from her face. “Something’s happened to Logan, hasn’t it?”
“And you are?” Ziva asked as she came around the front of the car.
“Lauren Barnes… Logan’s twin sister.”
“Have you seen your brother recently?” Gibbs asked.
Lauren stared at him for a moment, then nodded. “He was home about three weeks ago… on leave.”
“Did he seem like himself when you saw him?”
Lauren crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Why? What’s going on?”
“Ms. Barnes,” Gibbs replied, “your brother disappeared from Pax River yesterday morning. Are you sure you haven’t seen him?”
Her eyes met his; she bit her lip, then shook her head. “I haven’t seen him or talked to him since he went back to work. You better come up to the house.” She turned and walked back the way she’d come, reaching up to run her hand through her long hair.
Gibbs took a few steps, then looked back at McGee and Ziva, nodding toward the motel. They turned back, moving toward the office, while Gibbs looked at Tony, who shook his head slightly. “I’m on your six, Jethro, remember?”
Lauren was on the porch, watching McGee and Ziva as they entered the office. “They’re searching the motel, aren’t they?”
Gibbs nodded, then reached into his jacket and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. “We have a warrant.”
Lauren took the paper and looked at it carefully, then handed it back to him, her eyes filling with tears. “Logan’s done something,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
Tony spoke softly. “Are you here alone?”
She shook her head. “My parents are here. My brother Nick should be back soon… he went to the hardware store in Bartow.” She turned her head and called out. “Mom! Dad! We’ve got company.”
A few minutes later, the three family members and the two agents were seated in the living room. Barnes’ father, John, shook his head. “Haven’t heard a thing from Logan since his leave was up,” he said.
“You’re absolutely sure?” Tony asked.
John and his wife Nicole looked at each other, clearly a bit bewildered. “Positive,” Nicole replied. “He calls maybe once a month… texts with Lauren and Nick more often, I think.”
John Barnes leaned forward in his seat. “What’s going on, Agent Gibbs?”
Gibbs and Tony exchanged a quick look. Tony spoke up, while Gibbs watched the family closely. “Your son was at a poker game early yesterday morning. It appears he attacked the men he was with… there was only one survivor.”
Nicole gasped, her hands going to her mouth. She turned to her husband, wide-eyed. John’s expression wavered between puzzled and shocked.
Lauren stared at Tony, her face serious, a tear escaping and running down her cheek. “You’re sure it was him?”
Tony nodded. “Forensics at the scene, and testimony from the survivor.”
“Not again,” Nicole murmured, her hands falling to her lap. John reached out and put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close.
Tony’s gaze sharpened. “The Seaman who survived the attack, Isaiah Powell… he reported that your son said something very much like that.”
John shook his head, his face sad. “You know my boy’s history, Agent Gibbs?”
Gibbs nodded. “We know he was charged with aggravated assault, and that he was hospitalized when he was fifteen. We don’t know the details.”
Lauren spoke up, her voice flat and emotionless, a contradiction to the tears slowly running down her face. “Logan had been off since he’d come home from his latest camping trip,” she said slowly. Her eyes met Tony’s. “He likes to go solo, says he feels in tune with the forest that way.”
“What do you mean by off?”
“Logan’s a loner. He’s comfortable with people, but he likes to spend time by himself. For a few weeks after that camping trip, he was quiet, withdrawn… wouldn’t talk to anyone much, not even me.” She reached up to wipe the tears away. “Twins tend to be close, you know?”
Nicole nodded. “He wasn’t sleeping well… and he started making crazy accusations before… before it happened.”
“Acting paranoid?” Gibbs asked.
They all stared at him; Nicole started crying. “They said he was fine, when he left that hospital! They said he was cured… why now?!”
“That’s what we want to find out, Mrs. Barnes… but we need to find Logan before someone else gets hurt.”
John shook his head. “He hasn’t been here,” he began, but broke off as the front door opened.
A voice sounded from the front. “Mom? Dad? Funny thing… I just ran into Ed Warner at the store, and he thought he saw Logan passing through town yesterday afternoon –“ A young man with some resemblance to the pictures they’d seen of Logan Barnes stopped short as he entered the room. “What’s going on?”
John motioned for his son to sit down. “Nick, these men are federal agents – they’re looking for Logan.”
Nick stared at them as he sat down. “Ed said he saw Logan in Bartow yesterday… I told him that wasn’t possible.”
“Unfortunately,” Tony said, “it’s very possible. We have reason to believe your brother killed three men yesterday morning.”
Nick gaped at him, while Lauren stared at the floor and their mother cried. John sighed heavily. “How?”
Tony pulled out his phone and pulled up a picture of the knife. “We think he used this.” He held it out for John to see.
The older man’s face twisted. “I gave that to him… a present for his twentieth birthday. Good hunting knife.”
“It’s pretty clear Barnes didn’t come here, Boss,” Tony thought.
“Yeah. Need to know where he’d go to hide out… and if the family could be in any danger.”
Gibbs looked at Lauren. “What can you tell us about Logan’s behavior before that first attack?”
Lauren looked up, taking a deep breath and running her hand through her hair before speaking. “I asked him why he couldn’t sleep… he said he was dreaming too much, and the dreams were so strange. Said they started when he was camping, wouldn’t stop.”
Tony leaned forward. “Did he tell you what the dreams were about?”
“Not really… once he said the trees were talking to him. But then he laughed it off, and I didn’t think anything of it until he was arrested.”
John cut in. “Doctors diagnosed him with a form of schizophrenia… said it was tied in to puberty, and hormones affecting the brain. They had him on some drugs when he was in the hospital, then weaned him off them.”
“They said...” Nicole had to fight to get herself under control. “They said his body chemistry stabilized… that the drugs acted like a reset button, and that he was fine, and could lead a normal life.”
“Do you know what triggered the attack back then?”
They all looked at each other, then at Lauren, who sat there for a moment before slowly shaking her head. “He never really told me. Once, when we visited him at the hospital, he said something about images in his head from his dreams, that they… I don’t know, they sort of combined with his friends when he looked at them, until they looked like monsters… like they weren’t his friends anymore.”
No one said anything for a moment, until Gibbs spoke up. “Did he describe those images, by any chance?”
Lauren’s brow furrowed. “Once, when we were at the hospital just after he went there. He was rambling, not making a lot of sense.”
“He’d only talk to Lauren then,” Nicole said. “No one else, just her.” Nicole smiled tearfully at her daughter. “Anything you can remember, honey.”
Lauren shook her head. “It’s not much… something about a ghost that looked like a tree… with long fingers like branches, a sort of face in the bark… I’m really not sure.”
Gibbs looked down at his pad of paper. “Tony…”
“This is going to sound strange,” Tony began, “but did he ever talk about dreaming that he was some sort of animal?”
They all stared at him. Lauren shook her head. “No… why?”
Tony smiled. “No reason… just something I heard, once. Similar case.”
She gave him a strange look, but didn’t say anything else.
Gibbs spoke up. “Any idea where he’d go from Bartow, if he was there yesterday?”
Nick and John looked at each other, then John turned to Gibbs. “Let’s go to the office. We have a map of Monongahela National Forest on the wall there.”
The men all rose; Lauren moved over to the couch to sit next to her mother while they left the house.
McGee and Ziva met them as they reached the office. “There is no sign of Petty Officer Barnes here or in the surrounding area,” Ziva announced.
Nick shook his head. “He wouldn’t come here if he were in trouble. He’d head for the woods.”
John nodded, ushering them all into the office. He went to the map that covered a good part of one wall. “We cater mostly to outdoor enthusiasts,” he said. “Hikers and hunters in the warmer months, snowmobilers and cross-country skiers when the snow’s on the ground. Logan’s got that forest in his blood – knows it like the back of his hand.” John turned to face Gibbs. “I understand that he’s done some horrible things, Agent Gibbs. But he’s my boy, and he’s not right. I don’t know if he can truly be responsible for what’s happened.”
Gibbs met his eyes. “If we can bring him in alive, we will.”
Nick drew in a sharp breath, staring at his father. John gave him a small smile, then held out his hand toward Gibbs. “I’ll take your word on that.”
Gibbs’ hand met his; they shook firmly. John turned toward the map. “Nick, you went with Logan for a few days when he was here last… where to?”
Nick stepped up to the map, glancing at his father before putting his index finger on a spot. “Here’s Bartow… that’s where Ed says he saw Logan yesterday.” He traced his finger northwest, to an area near a river and some higher terrain. “This is his favorite spot. You can take route 250 into the forest until it ends here.” He pointed out another spot. “From there, you have to go on foot. There are several sites along Mountain Lick Creek where he likes to camp.”
Tony came in close, taking some pictures with his phone.
“I could guide you there,” Nick began, but his father cut in.
“No, Nick. It could be dangerous.”
“Logan wouldn’t hurt me.”
John shook his head. “Not if he’s in his right mind. But if he’s had some sort of relapse, you can’t say that. He attacked your mother once, after he was arrested and before he went into the hospital.”
Nick stared at him. “I didn’t know that.”
John sighed. “We saw no reason to tell you. Lauren doesn’t know either, unless Logan told her.” He looked at his son seriously. “Besides… if things don’t go well, you don’t want to be there if these agents have to shoot your brother.”
Nick’s mouth opened but he made no sound.
John looked at Gibbs. “You want rooms for the night?”
Gibbs glanced at his watch. “Which is closer to route 250, here or Bartow?”
“Bartow’s a bit closer.”
“There a motel there?”
“We’ll go there. Your family doesn’t need us here right now.”
“I appreciate that, Agent Gibbs.” John hesitated. “Before you leave… can you give me contact information for the families of the men Logan hurt?”
Tony stepped forward. “If you don’t mind, we’ll ask them first.”
John nodded. “Very reasonable. If they say no, please tell them how sorry we all are.” John moved behind the desk, opening a drawer and pulling out several folded maps. “Here… one for each of you. You can’t access the maps online once you’re in the forest – no reception.”
“Do you need camping gear?” Nick asked.
Gibbs shook his head. “Not at this point. We’ll see what we can do during daylight hours.”
“The ranger for the Greenbrier district is Martin Holder. He’s a good guy.”
“We’ll speak to him before we set out,” Gibbs said.
“Thanks,” Tony added.
Gibbs reached out to shake John’s hand. “Do you want protection for your family?”
John shook his head. “No need, Agent Gibbs. I doubt Logan will come here as long as he’s not himself. He was horrified when he attacked his mother; I don’t think he’d risk it.”
Gibbs and Tony turned as one to leave, McGee and Ziva following. They were almost to their cars when John called out, “Remember your promise, Agent Gibbs.”
Gibbs turned to look at him, nodding once before tossing Tony the keys and getting in the car on the passenger side. There was a slight delay while Ziva and Tim squabbled over who was driving their car, and then they were pulling out of the lot and heading for Bartow.
Tony pushed the door shut with his foot, setting the bags of take out down on the dresser before kicking off his shoes. “You were right, Jethro… McGee called Chief Holt, who talked with Petty Officer Rhodes. Logan was fine until he returned from his last leave.”
Gibbs remained seated on the bed, his back against the headboard. His eyes met Tony’s. “It can’t be a coincidence, can it?”
Tony handed one of the wrapped burgers and a packet of fries to Gibbs before grabbing his own food and drink and sitting on the second bed. “You’re asking me? Really?”
Gibbs sighed and shook his head, taking a large bite out of his burger. “Lauren’s description is too much like what I’ve seen to write it off.”
“Fits what’s been in our shared dreams.”
“So… tree spirits or whatever they are aren’t limited to Mount Washington.”
“As far as we know, Logan’s never turned into an animal.”
“He didn’t have a basement, so we know he wasn’t building a boat.”
Gibbs glared at Tony over his sandwich, still chewing slowly.
“Hey, legit comment, Jethro.” Tony smiled slightly as he thought it.
“Yeah, I know.” Gibbs finished off his sandwich and got up off the bed, going to the bag on the dresser and grabbing a second one. He leaned against the furniture, unwrapping the burger and taking another big bite.
Tony balled up the paper that had covered his burger and tossed it into the trash. He held up a hand; Gibbs fished the last burger out of the sack and tossed it to him.
“Thing I don’t get,” Tony thought as he ate, “is why Logan went nuts. I mean, you got turned into a fox, and you didn’t lose it. He just had dreams.”
Gibbs had a long swallow of his beer before setting it down and staring at the wall. “I had you,” he finally sent out.
Tony stared at him.
“I’m serious, Tony. You were there when I woke up as a fox, and you barely left my side from that point on. I didn’t have to deal with the dreams alone, didn’t have to try to pretend everything was fine, or wonder if I was going crazy. Couldn’t exactly deny that I was a fox.”
Tony nodded, chewing thoughtfully. “So Logan’s out there alone, probably camps right next to a tree inhabited by a spirit, and somehow connects with it. He starts having dreams, and can’t shrug them off. The images from the dreams stay with him, until it’s not his friends on the team talking to him, it’s tree spirits… monsters. He finally cracks and lashes out.”
Gibbs picked up the thread. “The drugs they gave him stopped the dreams. Why?”
Tony shrugged. “That’s an Abby question. Or a Ducky question. Maybe they severed the connection between Logan and the spirit?” Tony’s expression became faintly alarmed. “You don’t think that could happen to us, do you?”
Gibbs shook his head. “No. And if it did, we know where to go to get it back.”
Tony got up, tossing the empty wrappers and beer bottle into the trash, then sat back on the bed, grabbing one of the maps and opening it up. “Heck of a lot of land to cover, Jethro. Maybe we should consider camping.”
“Not if we don’t have to. Logan’s gonna see us as the enemy… we’re not spending the night in unfamiliar territory that he knows like the back of his hand.”
“We could be looking for weeks. And what’s to stop him from simply moving on?”
Gibbs shook his head. “Nothing. We’ve got to go with the assumption that he’s going to stay on familiar ground.”
Tony made a face. “Well,” he said out loud, “I do have some thoughts about speeding things up.” He went to his pack and took out a sealed Ziploc bag, then tossed it to Gibbs.
Gibbs caught and looked at it, confused. He looked at Tony. “You’re going to throw dirty socks at him?”
Tony laughed. “Not exactly. That’s one of Logan’s socks.”
Gibbs stared at him for a moment, then his eyes widened and he shook his head. “No. Absolutely not.”
“C’mon, Gibbs! We go up there like this, it really could take weeks to find him. If I go fox, I can track him by scent. You know I’m good at it.”
“Tony, it’s not the same thing.”
“You worried about telling Ziva and Tim?”
“That’s part of it, yes!”
“We can tell them I’m coming at the possible hideout from another location, with one of the rangers.”
“And how do I explain knowing where you are and what you’re doing?”
Tony fished something else out of his pack and tossed it to Gibbs, who caught it easily. It was an earwig.
“You said it yourself, Gibbs… we need to stop him before he kills someone else. In the state he’s in, any hikers stumble across his campsite, they’re toast.”
Gibbs shook his head. “We can bring in dogs.”
Tony pointed at him. “Dogs can’t tell you what they smell or hear or see. And dogs need handlers – we’d be putting others at risk.”
There was a knock on the door, which was then opened immediately. Ziva and McGee stood there, their gazes shifting back and forth between Gibbs and Tony.
“What?” Gibbs barked out.
McGee blinked. “Uh, just checking in, Boss.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “No, you’re trying to catch us at something so you can add to your little spreadsheet.”
McGee glared at him. Ziva shook her head. “We just wanted to know if there was anything else we should do before we hit the hay.”
“Sack, Ziva, hit the sack,” Tony sighed.
“Maybe there is hay in the sack,” Ziva replied, wrinkling her nose at him.
Tony groaned and made a show of falling dramatically back on the bed. McGee, meanwhile, was looking at the plastic bag in Gibbs’ hands. “Is that a sock, Boss?”
“Yes, McGee, it’s a sock.” Gibbs stared at him impassively.
McGee’s mouth opened, then closed. “Okay, so, ah, goodnight.” He and Ziva backed out of the room, pulling the door shut behind them.
Gibbs shook his head and moved forward, throwing the deadbolt and latching the chain. Tony giggled suddenly. “They were hoping to catch us at something, you know they were.”
“Well, they didn’t.”
Tony laughed again. “I can just see it now. A checkmark under the Gibbs column, with the words ‘sock in bag’ under Nature of Incident. They’ll be up half the night speculating on what it means.”
Gibbs chuckled a bit as he made his way to the bathroom.
Several minutes later, both men were in their separate beds and the room was dark.
“This sucks,” Tony complained.
“It’s temporary. Can’t risk Ziva and Tim sneaking in and seeing us in bed together.”
There was silence, until suddenly Tony thought, “I have an idea.”
“No, really… one of us can go fox, and then we can share a bed. If the probies do try to spy on us, they won’t see a small fox hiding under the covers. We can just say one of us went for a walk if they ask about it.”
“That’s actually a good idea, Tony.”
There was a rustling sound, then a shimmer of light, and Tony pulled the covers up as the silver fox jumped onto the bed and curled up next to him. Tony pulled the fox in close, tucking him up against his chest. The fox licked his face once, then tucked his head under Tony’s chin; they were both asleep within minutes.
They ran shoulder to shoulder along the forest floor, jumping rocks and tree limbs that blocked their path. Whether they were running toward or away from something, neither one was sure… they just kept going, in that tireless canine lope, tails swishing through the air for balance. They ran for miles, as the tree branches seemed to bow in greeting as they passed by, moving with no goal in mind, just for the thrill of the run and the sheer joy of being together.
Chapter 6: Searching
Tim McGee awoke from a dream involving an earthquake, snakes, and a lot of hissing to find himself being shaken by the shoulder while Ziva repeatedly whispered his name.
“Alright, alright… I’m up.”
He pulled himself into a sitting position, reaching over to switch on the bedside lamp. He turned to face her, squinting and yawning. “Why am I up?”
“McGee!” She glanced furtively round the room. “We need to talk.”
He picked up his watch from the nightstand and peered at it. “Ziva, it’s 2:30 in the morning.”
“We may not have another opportunity!”
“Why are you whispering? Tony and the boss are three rooms away.”
Ziva straightened up and shifted back, sitting on the end of the bed. Tim glanced over at the door. “And how did you get in? I had the chain on.”
“That is not important right now.” She shook her head impatiently, speaking normally. “We need to talk about Tony and Gibbs.”
Tim reached up to rub at his eyes. “Ziva… can’t this wait? We’re going to have a long day of hiking ahead of us.”
“It cannot wait! Things are getting stranger and stranger.”
“Well… I admit that a dirty sock in a bag is a little weird.”
“Yes. I recognized that sock.”
“What do you mean, you recognize it? It looks like every other military issue sock.”
“Yes, but as soon as I saw it I remembered that Tony took it when we were searching Barnes’ quarters.”
“Took it? You mean put it in an evidence bag?”
“No, I mean he picked it up out of Barnes’ laundry basket, sniffed it, and then put it in his pocket.”
“Sniffed it? What do you mean, sniffed it?”
Ziva crossed her arms over her chest. “Do you have trouble understanding your own language so early in the morning?”
Tim leaned back against the headboard. “Yes, actually, I do have trouble understanding what’s going on when I’m woken up at 2:30 a.m. so that my partner can talk to me about my other partner sniffing someone’s dirty laundry!”
Ziva muttered something in Hebrew, dropped her arms and turned to face him. “McGee… Tony and Gibbs have been acting strangely for months. First they go on that undercover mission about which we still know nothing, then Gibbs is diagnosed with PTSD and they go back to where he says Tony saved his life, then when they come back it is as if they can read each other’s thoughts! Do you not think that is significant?”
“And now they are sharing a room… you and I have separate rooms. Why are they sharing a room?”
“We have separate rooms because I’m a guy and you’re a woman. Standard procedure. There’s no need for them to have separate rooms.”
“Why do you not share a room with Tony, and Gibbs have his own room? He is the team leader.”
Tim shook his head vehemently. “I am NOT sharing a room with Tony! He watches TV until way too late and won’t stop talking. Not to mention the practical jokes.”
“Then share a room with Gibbs.”
Tim just stared at her.
“Alright, yes, that would be uncomfortable.”
“Not for Tony, apparently.”
“But the sock, McGee! Why would Tony do that? And bring it with him?”
Tim shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe they’re planting a bug on it and hoping to mix it in with Barnes’ stuff if we find his hideout?”
It was Ziva’s turn to stare. “Why would we need to do that? If we find his hideout, we arrest him.”
“Ziva, I’m trying here.”
Ziva gave him a small smile. “I am sorry… this whole situation is just so frustrating.”
Tim nodded absently, his forehead creasing as he thought. “Why would Tony sniff someone else’s dirty sock? He’s usually so… what’s the word?”
“He is fastidious, yes? He makes me or you handle the disgusting jobs.”
They both sat in silence, until Ziva spoke up, her voice uncertain. “Perhaps he thinks he can track Barnes by scent?”
Their gazes met; seconds later they were laughing. “I can see it now,” Tim grinned, “Tony on all fours, sniffing his way along the trail!”
Ziva shook her head, giggling. “That is too funny. But obviously that is not it.”
Tim sighed. “Whatever the reason is, they’re clearly both on the same page. And they’re not telling us.”
Ziva nodded, her face resolute. “So far we have been too passive. We collect data as it falls into our laps – that is the correct phrase, yes?” At Tim’s nod, she continued. “We must pursue this more diligently if we are to get answers.”
Tim looked a little uncomfortable. “Didn’t work out so well when we busted in to their room a little while ago.”
“That does not mean it cannot work later. Perhaps we should go through their packs if we can get the chance. Or search Gibbs’ house.”
“Ziva! Gibbs will kill us for invading his privacy!”
“We must do something! We cannot have their backs if we don’t know what is going on.”
Tim let his head fall back. “Alright, if there’s an opportunity, we can start looking through their stuff. Maybe we’ll find some answers.” His gaze shifted from the ceiling to Ziva. “Now can I please go back to sleep?”
Ziva huffed out a breath. “Fine. I suppose we should hit the sack… McGee, what is wrong with ‘hit the hay’?”
Tim shook his head. “Nothing, Ziva. Tony’s messing with you again.”
Ziva’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “I will kill him.”
Tim threw back the covers and got out of bed, gently taking hold of Ziva’s arm and steering her toward the door. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, if only because then Gibbs will kill you.”
Ziva snorted at that, but her expression grew uncertain. “Alright… good night, Tim.”
“Night, Ziva.” Tim made sure to put the chain on the door again, taking a moment to investigate the simple mechanism to see if he could discover her method. Moments later, though, he was back in bed, lights out, slipping back into sleep.
Tony stirred and stretched as the beep from his watch alarm woke him. He turned on his back, reaching over to shut the thing off, then returned to his side, pulling the silver fox closer.
Gibbs yawned, flashing brilliant white teeth. Tony grinned. “You’re so cute when you do that.”
The fox’s growl rumbled low in his chest, but he shifted closer to Tony, turning his head to lick the man’s face.
“We should get up… we’re supposed to meet the others at the diner in half an hour.”
Gibbs grumbled, his voice trailing off to a whine. Tony laughed. “You’re team leader; they’re your rules. Change ‘em if you don’t like ‘em.”
This time he got a gentle nose punch to the chin. Tony laughed again, and ruffled the fox’s ears. “Seriously, let’s not give them anything else to gossip about.”
Gibbs sighed, then got to his feet on the bed, shaking himself vigorously. He stared down at Tony, who was now lying on his back, hands behind his head. The fox’s ears flipped sideways, then straight up. “Shift over,” he thought.
Tony scooted to the side using his shoulders and hips, watching as the fox was surrounded by the usual shimmering light.
As soon as he was human again, Gibbs leaned over, his lips meeting Tony’s for a brief, heartfelt kiss. “Morning,” he said quietly as he pulled back. They stared at each other for a moment, then Gibbs pushed up off the bed, tapping Tony on the head as he moved. “Let’s go, lazybones. We’ve got less than thirty minutes.”
Tony rolled his eyes and sighed heavily as he sat up, waiting until he heard the shower go on before following his partner into the bathroom.
The two men walked into the diner exactly on time, joining McGee and Ziva in one of the booths. The younger agents were already looking over the menus; Tony picked one up off the table while Gibbs signaled the waitress for coffee.
“Morning, Probies!” Tony said. “Sleep well?”
Ziva nodded, while McGee shrugged. “How about you guys?”
“Just fine, McPry.”
“Tony, how is that prying? You asked first!”
Gibbs looked at McGee, raising an eyebrow.
“Boss…” McGee let his voice trail off, settling for glaring at Tony, who grinned at him before looking down at his menu.
“What is our plan, Gibbs?” Ziva asked.
There was a brief delay while the waitress poured coffee and took their orders. As soon as she left, Gibbs pulled a map out of his jacket pocket, unfolded it, and set it down on the table. “We’ll head to the ranger station here, to the east, talk to them, see what they can tell us about the trails to Logan’s usual camp sites.” He pointed to a spot on the map, then ran his finger along the surface until he stopped at one of several red X’s. “Unless they give us a reason to do otherwise, we’ll start with this one. If there’s no sign of him there, we should have time to hit at least one more site before we’ll need to turn back.” He looked up at each team member. “Pack a lunch.”
“It would be easier to camp, rather than go back and forth,” Ziva pointed out.
Gibbs shook his head. “Like I said yesterday, too dangerous. Logan knows these woods; we don’t. Too easy for him to ambush us.”
“One of us could go fox, act as sentry,” Tony suggested, thinking the words.
“No. Too risky. Not unless we absolutely have to.”
“He’s not that dangerous if we know he’s there.”
“Not my point, Tony… too easy to get caught out by the others. You really want Ziva to see you naked?”
Gibbs turned to look at McGee, who was glancing back and forth between the two men, who’d been staring at each other. “What?”
McGee’s eyes widened a bit, then he shook his head. “Forgetting the whole weird staring thing you guys are doing – again – what’s up with calling Petty Officer Barnes by his first name? You never do that with a suspect.”
Gibbs held McGee’s gaze, while he thought to Tony. “Aw, hell.”
Ziva spoke up. “Calling Barnes by his first name makes it more personal… that is what they always told us in Mossad. I would think rule ten applies here.”
“On your six, Jethro.” Tony turned to face Ziva. “There’s… some similarities between what seems to be happening with Barnes and what happened up in New Hampshire.”
“Jethro, we’re going to have to tell them sooner or later. Might as well set the stage a bit.”
The others were silent until the food arrived, and then there were only the sounds of eating.
As they were all slowing down, McGee cleared his throat and spoke up. “Boss… if this case has some personal… I mean, maybe you should sit this one out?”
Gibbs slowly raised his head and stared at McGee. “Not sending you all into the woods to track a killer alone.”
“Yes, but –“
“Drop it, Ziva.”
They were all quiet again for a while, until Ziva pushed her empty plate away and spoke up. “I have a question.”
“No, Gibbs, it is about Barnes’ family. The father and brother seemed unusually accepting of the situation. Family members are not usually quite so helpful when their loved ones are accused of a capital crime.”
Gibbs glanced at Tony, who spoke up. “I think they’ve been waiting for the shoe to drop, Ziva. It’s happened before, so they don’t have trouble believing it.”
Ziva stared at him. “What does this have to do with shoes? Or socks, for that matter.” Her eyes narrowed. “And McGee told me last night that it is fine to hit the hay.”
Tony shot McGee a mild glare. “Gee, thanks, McTattle. Can’t blame me for trying, Ziva… remember when I got you to say that we were barking up the wrong bush? Figured it’s been a while.”
Ziva eyed the cutlery, then picked up her unused knife and fingered the edge.
“A little help here, Boss?”
Gibbs sighed, then reached out and took the knife from Ziva’s hand. “No maiming.” His gaze swept over the entire team. “Barnes’ family wants him back alive, so they’re cooperating. Petty Officer Barnes is clearly not in his right mind… we take him alive if at all possible.”
“Maybe Doctor Kate’s sister can help him,” Tony suggested.
McGee nodded. “If she can’t, she may know someone who can.”
“Are you sure this is wise, Gibbs?”
“I’m not forgetting that he killed three men, Ziva. But if he’s not in his right mind, he needs help, not killing. We’ll do what we have to, but we’ll try to take him alive.”
Tony looked at his watch. “Shall we? We’re burning daylight.” He tossed a few bills on the table as they all got up. “On me, this time.”
“Thanks, Tony,” McGee responded, clearly surprised. “I’ll get the next one.”
“Excellent! I’ll look up the nearest five-star restaurant.” Tony grinned while McGee shook his head, then reached up to rub his own after Gibbs’ hand connected.
“Let’s go, people.”
It was mid-afternoon; the team stood in the middle of a small clearing, looking at the signs of a campsite recently vacated.
“He didn’t leave much behind,” McGee commented.
“If it was him,” Ziva added.
Gibbs stood next to a large oak tree, running his fingers over bark that appeared chipped and scarred. “It was him.” He bent over to pick up a broken branch, looked at carefully, then tossed it down and picked up another. “DiNozzo.”
Tony left Ziva and McGee combing the ground for anything that might still be there and jogged over to the tree. “Boss?”
Gibbs gestured at the bark, then at the branches. “Looks like he took it out on the tree.”
Tony surveyed the area, nodding slowly. “Yeah.” He looked up at the tree, peering into the uppermost branches. “Think there’s a spirit here?”
Gibbs glanced over at the rest of the team; they were moving off in the opposite direction, looking for signs of where their quarry had gone. His gaze met Tony’s for a moment, then he laid his hand flat on the bark and closed his eyes.
Just as Gibbs put his hand on the tree, McGee found a small strip of cloth hanging off a low branch; he fished some tweezers and a bag out of a pocket and collected the scrap, then turned to call the others over. Rather than speaking, though, he stood staring at the picture of Gibbs, his eyes closed and hand flat on the tree, with Tony standing very close by. “Ziva!” he hissed.
She was at his side in an instant. “What is it?”
McGee gestured toward the two senior agents. “Look at that.”
They both watched while neither man moved. About a minute later, Gibbs lowered his hand, opened his eyes and shook his head. They saw Tony’s shoulders slump slightly, then the two men stared at each other, neither one speaking.
“Why do I feel like I’m in an episode of the Twilight Zone?”
Ziva sighed. “We must speak up, McGee… as soon as we close this case.”
As soon as Gibbs shook his head, Tony relaxed. “Not sure if I was hoping there would be one or not.”
“So if there’s no spirit there, why did he attack the tree?”
Gibbs looked down at the broken branches. “Maybe the spirit is in an oak like this one?”
“Or maybe he’s just hallucinating and thinks there’s a spirit. Maybe there never was one.” Tony reached up to remove his cap and run his fingers through his hair. “What’s our next move?”
Gibbs checked his watch. “It’ll take us several hours to hike back out. We should head back as soon as we’ve finished processing this site.”
“Better go see if the others found anything.”
Once McGee had shown them the scrap of cloth and where he’d found it, Gibbs was able to determine the direction Barnes had gone. He pulled out the map and pointed to a red X a fair distance to the northwest, near an extensive rocky outcropping. “Could be he’s looking for a more defensible position. The rangers said there are a lot of caves and other hiding places there.”
Ziva checked the map. “We can reach it before nightfall.”
Gibbs shook his head. “Not enough time for thorough recon. We’d be stuck out there with no shelter. If he knows the area as well as the rangers think he does, we’d be too easy a target.”
Ziva looked like she wanted to argue; Tony caught her attention and shook his head. She huffed out a breath but stayed quiet.
Gibbs pointed to a spot on the map. “That looks like an access road. We’ll check with the rangers on our way back, but we should be able to drive this far –“ he tapped the map – “ and hike in from there.”
Tony pointed to another spot, on the opposite side of the rocks. “There’s another road there; we could split up.”
Gibbs grunted in a noncommittal fashion; Tony rolled his eyes, earning himself another mild head slap.
“So,” Tony said, “back to the comforts of the Red Carpet Inn?”
Gibbs sighed. “Might as well. We won’t find anything else today.”
They set off, Gibbs in front, Tony just behind him, with Ziva bringing up the rear, scanning the area periodically.
Tony yawned as he came out of the bathroom, stretching a bit before moving to sit next to Gibbs on one of the beds. “I still say we should have taken the opportunity to have McGee get us a really nice dinner.”
“Nothing wrong with diner food,” Gibbs commented, as he studied the map.
Tony leaned over Gibbs’ shoulder and looked at the map. “You sure he’s there?”
Gibbs sighed. “No. But it makes sense. Not likely to leave a trail, tough to search… if he knows we’re looking for him, he might prefer to lay low rather than keep moving and risk being spotted.”
Tony sat back, tapping his fingers on his leg. “You know what I’m going to say.”
Gibbs kept his eyes on the map. “May as well say it anyway.”
“Time for me to go fox.”
Gibbs shook his head. Tony got up and moved to the other side of the bed, facing him, and sat back down. “Jethro.”
Gibbs looked up.
“It makes sense. You said it yourself – he’s not going to leave a visible trail if he’s on the rocks. It’s a more dangerous situation… he could hide out and pick off at least one of us if he’s got a gun – we’re going to be exposed out there. It’s almost two square miles of caves and hideouts.”
“We can search –“
“No, not really. Even if we can come up with a plan to go through the area safely, you heard what Ranger Holder said… they can try to keep hikers away, but it’s a big place, and they don’t have the manpower to cover all the access roads. We don’t know Barnes’ mental state at this point… maybe he’s himself again, and he’s hiding because he’s afraid to face up to what happened – but maybe he’s still hearing voices or having dreams or seeing monsters, in which case sooner or later someone else is going to get hurt or killed.”
Gibbs sat there for a long time, looking at the map without really seeing it. Tony waited as patiently as he could, resisting the temptation to try convincing Gibbs mind-to-mind. Finally, Gibbs looked up.
“I don’t want you hurt.”
“I don’t want me hurt either. Or you, or Tim, or Ziva. This is our best shot at catching him quickly. I can go in there, track him down, tell you exactly where he is, and get back out before he ever knows I’m there. And if Ziva and Tim see me, they won’t know it’s me. It’s not like either one of them is going to shoot a fox for no reason.”
Gibbs just looked at Tony, attempting an impassive stare, but Tony could see the turmoil in his eyes and the slight twitches of facial muscles that had always alerted him to Gibbs repressing his emotions.
“I’ll be careful, Jethro.”
Gibbs looked away, rubbing his face with one hand. He cleared his throat, then turned back to face Tony and pointed at the map. “Okay… you take one car to this access point on the far side. I’ll tell Ziva and McGee that you’re coming in on the other side with some of the rangers. If they question it, I’ll just say we need more eyes out there. I’ll carry clothes for you in my pack, find a way to leave them where you can get to them.” He looked up, his eyes meeting Tony’s. “You will back off as soon as his scent is strong enough to pinpoint his location. Promise me – you won’t engage, you won’t push for a visual. And if I tell you to get out of there and change back, you will do it.”
Tony grabbed Gibbs shoulder. “I promise you, Jethro, all those things. I just want to find him before we have more casualties on our hands.”
Gibbs nodded, then focused his attention on folding up the map. “You should get a head start… easier to explain it to the others if you’re not there.”
Tony let his hand fall. “Not a problem.”
They busied themselves with shifting items around in their packs. Tony made sure he had Barnes’ sock, while Gibbs transferred some of Tony’s clothes, including his extra pair of boots, into his pack.
A few minutes later, Tony turned on the television and found a baseball game. Both men watched for a while, until Gibbs got up to secure the door.
Tony turned the game off. “No bed checks this time, huh?”
Gibbs smiled slightly. “I’m pretty sure they’re going to confront us after this is settled.”
“You may be right. I think they saw us at the tree.”
“We’ll handle it.”
Gibbs nodded, deep in thought.
Tony watched him for a while. “My turn to go fox tonight?”
Gibbs turned to look at him. “Works for me.”
Tony shed his clothes quickly. “Gives me a little practice.”
Gibbs smiled and shook his head, getting under the covers while Tony shifted form. The red fox jumped up onto the bed, tail waving happily, showering Gibbs’ face with licks.
Laughing, Gibbs tried to fend him off. “Alright, Tony! Enough. Gonna be a long day tomorrow.”
Tony sighed and sat down, waiting while Gibbs settled onto his back. Tony then curled up next to him, resting his head on Gibbs’ shoulder. Gibbs’ arm went around the fox, holding him securely against his side.
“Night, Jethro. Sleep well.”
“You too, Tony.”
If they dreamed that night, neither remembered it.
Chapter 7: Shock
Tony reveled in his boundless energy as he loped through the forest. It was one of the reasons he loved to go fox; he felt as though he could run for hours if he wanted to.
He’d been running for about forty-five minutes, an easy canter as he moved from the access road where he’d left the car toward the rocky outcropping where they believed Petty Officer Barnes was holed up. He could see the trees thinning ahead, where the ground sloped sharply upwards. He slowed to a trot and then stopped completely and sat, lifting his nose and scenting the air, catching just the faintest whiff of the same scent from the sock he’d left sitting on the ground near the car.
“Hey, Tony… found something?”
“Yeah. I’m almost at the rocks, at the west side, just where there’s that sharp rise – remember the map?”
“Yes, DiNozzo, I remember.”
“Awesome. So, I caught a scent… he’s somewhere up there.”
“Be careful. You’re not exactly camouflaged against the rocks.”
“I know. I’ll stick to the tree line, see if I can get a stronger scent.”
“We’re still following the trail… likely about half an hour until we reach the southeast side, more if we circle around to where you are.”
“Don’t circle yet… scent’s too faint to say anything more specific about where he might be.” Tony raised his left hind leg to scratch behind his ear. “I’m all itchy.”
“I’ll give you a flea bath later.”
“Ha, ha, funny man.”
“Go on, track this guy down.”
Tony could hear the smile in Gibbs’ thoughts. “Will do. McGee and Ziva suspect anything?”
“Besides the fact that we’re not telling them everything? No.”
“Right. I’ll report back as soon as I find something. Over and out.”
Tony set off again, moving at a slow trot, air-scenting every few paces, tongue lolling out in a foxy grin at the mental picture of himself and Gibbs in a bathtub together. He headed up the slope, noting in passing a small rabbit crouching frozen under a bush. He had no urge to chase it, the same lack of interest he’d always had whenever he’d been a fox. He supposed that just supported Abby’s hypothesis that they weren’t real foxes, just fox-shaped humans… whatever that really meant.
He reached the edge of the trees and looked out over the expanse of rock. From where he stood, he could see plenty of crevasses and possible caves. “Too damn many hiding places.”
“Oh, sorry, didn’t realize I sent that out. I’m looking at just a small section of rock, and there’s tons of places someone could hide. Maybe we should come back with more agents? A SWAT team?”
“We can handle it, Tony… and we have a better chance of keeping him alive if it’s just us.”
Tony sat, folding his tail around his feet. “You really don’t want him hurt.”
There was a long pause before Gibbs responded.
“Not his fault a spirit got in his head.”
Tony chose his words carefully. “If it really was a spirit. Could be the guy’s just nuts.”
“And described the spirit we’ve seen to his sister? Too much coincidence.”
Tony huffed out a breath. “Yeah, you’re right.” He looked around, spotting an area off to his left where the trees and brush pushed out over the rocks. “I see a place with some cover… I can get a little further in, see if I can figure out a direction.”
Tony stood, shook himself, and set off. “Of course… I’m looking forward to that bath you promised me.” He grinned at Gibbs’ answering mental chuckle. “Over and out, again.”
He made his way up the slope, circling a large boulder and then crouching as he reached the narrow wedge of a few trees and some brush that meandered through the rocks. He reached the edge and stayed low, scanning the area for any sign of Barnes, but seeing nothing. He closed his eyes and scented again. The smell of the man was stronger now, although not overwhelming, and mixed in with a hint of metal. He moved through the brush to the opposite side and scented again, then moved back, thinking hard. One more whiff decided it.
“Got him… or at least got a direction.”
Tony wished he could send Gibbs a mental image of the terrain; so far, neither one of them had been able to do anything like that. “Okay… remember where there’s a sharp incline indicated on the map, about three miles southwest of where you were going to leave the car?”
“So, if I remember right, there was a rocky area near a pond.”
“Come around the pond and then head northwest… that’s where I am, in a sort of tapering wedge of woods that comes up into the rock before it just stops.”
“Hold on a sec.”
There was a long pause while Gibbs presumably pulled out his map and conferred with the others. Tony closed his eyes and scented again. He could still smell Barnes; the scent hadn’t faded. The hint of metal was still there. “Jethro… I think he’s got a gun. I can smell metal.”
“Got your location on the map. Get out of there. I’ll figure out a way to stash your clothes and your weapon; we should be there in about twenty.”
“Got’cha, Boss. Over and out.”
Tony carefully scanned the area again, but saw nothing. Based on the strength of the smell, he guessed Barnes was within a quarter mile. He decided to go back down the ridge to wait for the others. He stood, stretched, and turned, setting off at a trot.
Seconds later, he stepped on a smooth surface; before he could react, sharp edges slammed into his right hind leg and he fell to the ground, letting out a high-pitched cry of pain.
“Tony!” Gibbs couldn’t stop himself from calling Tony’s name as the scream echoed through his head.
“Boss? What is it?!” McGee moved quickly, reaching Gibbs’ side within a couple of seconds. Ziva was close behind, her hand on her gun. “What has happened?”
Gibbs stood still. “Tony? Talk to me, damn it!” He spoke the words as he thought them, his entire body tense as he waited for a response. When it came, it was jumbled, almost to the point of being nonsense.
“Listen to me… which leg?”
“Hind… bleeding. Fuck, that hurts.”
“Tony you’ve got to get out of there.” Gibbs looked at McGee and Ziva. “DiNozzo stepped in a trap of some kind. He’s hurt.”
Both junior agents were obviously worried. “If it’s a regular steel trap, the rangers should be able to get him out pretty easily,” McGee said. “And unless it’s a bear trap, his leg shouldn’t be broken.”
“He’s on his own,” Gibbs growled. “Come on!” He set off at a run.
McGee and Ziva were right behind, exchanging bewildered looks. “Why is he alone? What happened to the rangers?” Ziva called out.
“Not now, Ziva!”
Gibbs was outpacing both of them. He didn’t bother talking anymore as he communicated with Tony. “Status, DiNozzo!”
Tony’s thoughts came back to him, more coherently this time. “I’m bleeding pretty badly. Leg’s punctured in two spots… can’t tell if it’s broken or not.”
“Can you get out of it?”
“Yeah, if I shift back to human, shouldn’t be hard to do.” There was a pause. “Sorry, Boss… I screwed up. I smelled metal, but I wasn’t thinking of a trap.”
“Don’t worry about that now… you need to get out of there. If a hunter finds you like that…”
“Hold on… aw, hell.”
“What is it?”
“Can’t change now… Barnes is here. Just came around one of the boulders. Must have heard me. Shit, do I stay fox or shift?”
“Hell, Tony… stay fox, see what he does. If it looks like he’s about to hurt you, shift to scare him off. Just hang on, okay? We’re coming.”
Gibbs sped up, grimacing as his knee gave its first protest. “Barnes set the trap,” he called back to the others. “Tony can see him coming.” He heard McGee swear, and then was startled to see Ziva pull even with him, her face resolute and tense. Then she passed him, almost seeming to fly through the woods. Heart pounding, he ignored his knee and kept running. “Tony… what’s happening?!”
Tony crouched low, his leg still held firmly in the trap, ears pinned back, growling a warning as Barnes approached. He was aware of Gibbs’ insistent questions, but needed all his focus on Barnes, who was only a few yards away.
The man stopped, staring at Tony. Tony relaxed a little as he realized that Barnes didn’t have a gun. He was tall, wearing jeans, hiking boots, and a flannel button down over a t-shirt. His hair was short but he clearly hadn’t shaved in several days. Tony’s gaze lingered on the large knife strapped to Barnes’ belt.
Barnes’ eyes scanned the trees before focusing again on the fox. “That wasn’t meant for you,” he mumbled. “Supposed to stop whoever’s coming for me… give me time to think.” He stared at Tony for a moment, his eyes strangely blank, then shook himself and moved closer, crouching down.
Tony drew back a little, lifting his lips and snarling at the man.
Barnes’ hand went to the knife, but he hesitated, once more scanning the woods. “Forest won’t like this,” he said quietly. He shook his head. “Easy now,” he crooned, shifting a little closer to Tony. “I won’t hurt you. Lemme get you out of there.”
Tony’s snarls died down. He watched Barnes carefully, ready to shift if the man turned violent. Barnes reached for the trap, pushing down on a lever, forcing the steel jaws apart.
As soon as the pressure released, Tony leapt away, only to fall as his leg wouldn’t take his weight. Before he could right himself and try to stand on three legs, Barnes grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, holding him firmly while he used his free hand under Tony’s hindquarters to pick him up.
“Tony – what’s going on?!”
“Barnes… he got me out of the trap. Leg’s not working. Barnes is carrying me. Jethro, he’s fucking carrying me!”
“He’s not hurting you?”
“No, not yet. He’s got me by my neck – can’t bite him.”
“Don’t try! Where’s he taking you?”
Tony looked around, turning his head, which made Barnes tighten his grip. “Over the rocks… we’re going back around a large boulder, to the right… ok, now north...” Tony tried to shift in Barnes’ grip, whining slightly as the movement sent pain rocketing through is leg. “I think my leg’s broken.”
“We’re almost there, Tony. Hang on.”
“Be careful! Barnes set the trap to stop us from finding him. There could be others.” Tony lay still in Barnes’ grip, trying to calm down. He watched for landmarks and relayed them to Gibbs, giving him directions as Barnes slipped sideways through a narrow crevice, holding Tony tight against his chest as they scraped past the rocks.
The crevice opened up into a decent sized cave, lit by sunlight filtering down through cracks in the rock above. Tony registered a bedroll, a large backpack, and a few items scattered around before Barnes moved quickly to the pack, half dropping Tony to the ground but keeping a firm grip on his neck to avoid being bitten. He rummaged through the pack, pulling out a first aid kit.
“Jethro… he’s got medical supplies. I think he’s trying to help me.”
“Cooperate with him… don’t do anything to set him off.”
“Trust me, I have no intention of doing anything of the sort.”
“See a gun?”
Tony looked around again. “No… but I can’t see everywhere. Cave entrance is tight… once you get in, there’s lots of room, but you’re going to be target practice.”
“We’ll worry about that when we get there. You stay alive, Tony.”
“Doing my best.”
“We’re getting close… but we’ve got to slow down in case of more traps.”
“Okay. Be careful.”
Barnes turned and sat, his back against the cave wall, pulling Tony onto his lap by the scruff of his neck. Tony let out an involuntary growl; Barnes repeated the word “easy” several times, using his free hand to fish for something in the kit. Tony saw him pull out several long strips of gauze, layering them and then picking them up by one end and draping them over Tony’s muzzle.
Tony followed Gibbs’ orders and lay quietly while Barnes let go of his neck and quickly tied the gauze around the fox’s mouth. Once that was done, Barnes relaxed and began stroking Tony’s back.
“I help you, maybe the forest monsters will leave me alone,” Barnes muttered. Tony turned his head slightly to look up at his captor; Barnes’ eyes had a faraway look in them, and the muscles in his face and neck twitched a bit.
Barnes focused on him, smiling slightly. “It’s okay… I worked for a vet when I was in high school. Let me check your leg.”
Tony closed his eyes as Barnes prodded the injured leg, wincing slightly at the shooting pain.
“Fracture… ok, this is gonna hurt.” Barnes stroked Tony’s back again, then grasped his leg and manipulated the leg, pushing the displaced bone back into place.
Tony yelped through the makeshift muzzle. He must have broadcast the sound through his thoughts; Gibbs’ frantic questions sounded in his head.
“I’m alright,” he reassured his partner. “Barnes set the bone… he’s disinfecting the punctures now, and wrapping it.”
“We’re almost there,” Gibbs told him.
Barnes put everything back in the pack, then settled against the wall, holding Tony in his lap and petting him. “I’ll make a bargain,” Barnes said quietly. “I’ll bring you to the tree, say I’ll let you go if they’ll leave me alone.” His fingers suddenly tightened on Tony’s side, causing the fox to shift uncomfortably. “Can’t make up for what I did back on the base… but the monsters don’t care about that. Figure that one out later… just need time…” He fell silent, continuing to stroke Tony’s side.
“Jethro… he’s petting me. This is creepy.”
“As long as he’s not hurting you, Tony, I don’t care about that right now.”
“Gonna seriously need that bath later.”
“One thing at a time. We’re at the cave entrance.”
Tony glanced up; Barnes’ head was back against the rock, his eyes closed. His hand on Tony’s fur stopped its motion.
“I think he’s falling asleep… be very, very quiet.”
Tony’s gaze locked on the cave entrance. His heart sped up as he saw Gibbs slowly and silently make his way inside, followed by Ziva and then McGee.
Just as McGee made his way in, Barnes’ eyes snapped open and his hand darted underneath the bedroll, coming back out with a semi-automatic pistol.
McGee’s and Ziva’s guns came up, just as Gibbs yelled, “Don’t shoot!”
Tim McGee was about to pull the trigger when Gibbs’ yell stopped him. He kept his eyes on the gun in Barnes’ hand. “Boss?”
“Gibbs, I have the shot,” Ziva protested.
Tim glanced over at their boss; Gibbs had his gun trained on Barnes, but his face was unusually pale and his jaw muscles were visibly clenched tight. “Lower your weapons,” he ground out.
“Gibbs, that is not –“
“Now. Do it.” Gibbs’ voice was deadly quiet; Ziva lowered her gun slowly, eyes fixed on Barnes. Tim followed suit, his eyes darting around the cave. There was no sign of Tony. Just Barnes, staring at them, his face strangely blank, with a muzzled, bandaged fox, of all things, on his lap.
“Where’s Tony?” Ziva whispered urgently. Tim shrugged helplessly.
Gibbs and Barnes stared at each other for a long moment. Barnes had his gun resting on his lap now, the barrel laying over the fox’s shoulders.
“Let the fox go, Petty Officer,” Gibbs’ voice was still quiet, authoritative, but Tim was astounded to see the gun in Gibbs’ hands waver slightly.
Barnes shook his head. “Can’t. Fox is my way out.”
Tim could see Gibbs swallow convulsively. “How’s that?”
Barnes looked down at the fox. Tim saw Ziva’s arm muscles twitch, and knew she wanted to take the shot.
“Trapped him. Wasn’t supposed to be him… trap was for you. Whoever was after me… but got the fox. Was gonna kill it, put it out of its misery, but then I thought the forest wouldn’t like that.” Barnes paused, his gaze unfocused now, stroking the barrel of the gun over the fox’s fur. “Set the leg… gonna take the fox to the tree, to where the monsters are, bargain with them. Protect the forest, leave me alone. Get out of my head.”
Tim stared at Barnes. “He’s crazy,” he muttered.
“McGee, quiet,” Gibbs ordered. “Tell me more about the monsters,” he said to Barnes.
The gun stopped its motion, and Barnes looked up at Gibbs, his gaze sharp. “You won’t understand.”
“You’d be surprised,” Gibbs said wryly.
Barnes started to ramble about the monsters, but Tim wasn’t really listening. He was staring at the fox, laying quietly on Barnes’ lap. The fox was staring at Gibbs, green eyes intent. Tim blinked, then looked at Gibbs. Gibbs was looking not at Barnes, but at the fox.
Barnes kept talking. “Thought it was over, back then. They said I was cured… but then it happened again. They came back… I thought I was going crazy. Monsters in my head, couldn’t sleep or I’d dream about them.”
Gibbs took a small step forward. Barnes saw it, and tightened his grip on the fox, shifting the gun in his hand. Gibbs stopped immediately.
“Went to the game, was doing ok, but then Dion cracked some joke, they were all laughing, and then it wasn’t them, it was the monsters. Mike won the hand, but it wasn’t him, it was the thing from the tree. The thing turned toward me… its face… next thing I knew, my knife was in my hand and Mike, Dion, Isaiah, Jevon… they were all dead. The monsters got in them… I had to do it.” Barnes looked up at Gibbs, tears in his eyes. “Didn’t I? I had to.”
“Isaiah Powell is alive,” Gibbs said quietly.
Barnes blinked rapidly, then shook his head. “Can’t be. So much blood…” His voice trailed off and his hand tightened in the fox’s fur.
Gibbs said something, but Tim didn’t really hear him. He was staring at the fox’s leg… the one Barnes had said was caught in a trap. Tim flashed back to hearing Gibbs say Tony was caught in a trap. Then he remembered Ziva telling him about Tony sniffing the sock…
His thoughts were interrupted by Gibbs shouting Barnes’ name. Tim refocused on the scene in front of him, seeing Barnes slowly getting to his feet, holding the fox like a shield, gun loosely pointed at the fox’s head.
Barnes stared at Gibbs. “Maybe it’s not the right bargain,” he said, apparently mostly to himself. “Maybe I should kill the fox… then the monsters will kill me. I won’t have to see them anymore.”
Tim looked quickly at Gibbs; his gun was steady, trained on Barnes’ face, but there was panic in Gibbs’ expression, and Tim was sure Gibbs’ eyes were wet. The fox lifted its head, staring at Gibbs… and all the observations Tim had catalogued over the past several months suddenly fell into place. “He was telling the truth,” Tim said to no one in particular, his eyes wide. “All those months ago, he was telling the truth!”
Barnes’ grip on his gun shifted; Ziva brought her own back up.
Tim grabbed her arm. “No! You could hit Tony!”
Ziva kept her eyes on Barnes. “What do you mean?! Tony is not here!”
“Yes, he is,” Tim insisted, “he’s the fox!”
Ziva turned her head to stare at him. Tim gently pushed her arm down, all the while staring at the fox, who was now looking back at him, his tail wagging slightly.
“What… Tim? What do you mean?”
“I’ll explain later,” Tim whispered, tugging on her arm to pull her away from Gibbs.
Gibbs’ voice rose slightly. “Killing the fox won’t help. I’ve seen the monsters… talked to them. I know.”
Everyone in the cave stared at Gibbs. Barnes lowered his gun. “You’ve seen them too?”
Gibbs nodded. “I have. Not here… up north, in New Hampshire. You’re not crazy, Petty Officer. They’re real.”
Barnes blinked. His grip on the fox loosened, and he lowered his gun. “What do they look like?”
Gibbs lowered his own gun. “Tall, thin… whitish color. Long arms, fingers like branches. Black holes for what could be eyes and a mouth of sorts. Skin like bark.”
Barnes took a deep breath. “You have seen them.”
Gibbs nodded. “I can talk to them. So can Tony.” He gestured to the fox. Ziva turned to stare at him, then at the fox. “We have a friend,” Gibbs continued, “a shaman. He can help you.”
Barnes’ legs suddenly gave way, and he collapsed back against the wall of the cave. The fox whined as he hit the ground, but otherwise stayed motionless.
Barnes stared at Gibbs. “Why?”
“Why did the monsters get in our heads?” Gibbs asked.
Gibbs holstered his gun. “In my case, it was because the monster was in some lumber I was using. It needed me to help it get home.” He looked at Barnes and shook his head. “I don’t know why one started talking to you. Maybe you camped near it… maybe it was curious.”
Barnes stared at him, then started to shake. The gun slipped from his hand; the fox immediately pulled himself up onto three legs and hobbled toward Gibbs. Ziva and Tim moved forward, each grabbing one of Barnes’ arms and pushing him onto his stomach, cuffing his hands behind his back. He didn’t put up any resistance.
Ziva grabbed the gun he’d dropped and turned to face Gibbs. “Clear,” she announced, her voice uncertain as she watched Gibbs carefully pull the fox into his arms, holding it close.
Tim helped Barnes sit up and back against the cave wall, but he didn’t think the man was aware of him. Barnes’ eyes were open, but his gaze was turned inward; he didn’t seem to be aware of anything or anyone in the cave.
Gibbs gently set the fox down and removed the makeshift muzzle. “McGee,” he called out, as he stroked the fox’s head.
“My pack, outside… get it.”
“Right away.” McGee made his way through the crevice and quickly as he could, grabbed Gibbs’ pack, and brought it back in, setting it down next to his boss. He then backed away to stand next to Ziva, who was clearly confused.
“Tim… who was telling the truth? When?”
“Tony. Remember back when they first returned from up north? Tony told us that crazy story about Gibbs being turned into a fox.” Tim thought back to that moment.
Tony shook his head. “It’s over.”
“Are you sure?” McGee looked worried.
Tony sighed and looked up at them. The concern on both their parts and the hurt on Ziva’s were genuine. “Alright. I’m only going to go through this once.” He glanced around the room, and the others leaned in close automatically. He then spoke in a loud whisper.
“An angry tree spirit that was living in the wood Gibbs was using to make his latest boat turned him into a fox. The only way to get him back to human again was for us to bring the spirit back to the White Mountains, which we did. We planted a tree for it to live in, and it made Gibbs human again as a thank you.”
He stared seriously at Ziva and McGee, who stared back. McGee clearly didn’t believe him, while Ziva was just angry. “I cannot believe that you would tell such a silly story. You must know that it will not make us stop asking questions!”
Ziva stared at him. “But you said Tony is the fox!”
Gibbs glanced over at them as he pulled a jacket out of his pack and draped it over the fox. “Tony became a fox on our second trip.” He looked down at the fox and moved back a bit; there was a shimmer of light, and then Tony was lying there, the jacket covering his lap. Gibbs immediately began checking his leg.
Tony looked at Tim. “Nice job, McSleuth, figuring it out.”
Gibbs lifted a hand to Tony’s head, stroking his fingers through his hair. “Leg’s definitely broken,” he said quietly. He looked at Tim and Ziva. “We were planning to tell you, after this case was done.”
Tim stared at Gibbs’ fingers in Tony’s hair. “Looks like you have more than just monsters and foxes to tell us about.”
Gibbs and Tony exchanged a glance, then Tony nodded. “Yeah. But can it wait until we’re back at the motel?”
Tim looked at Barnes, still sitting there staring blankly into space. “How are we going to get there?”
Gibbs sighed and rubbed his hand over his face. “You and Ziva walk Barnes back to our car. Take him to the local LEOs, get him booked and locked up for the night. I’ll get Tony back to his car, get him to a hospital. We’ll meet you back at the motel.”
“Tony’s leg is broken,” Ziva protested. “How will you get him there?”
Gibbs smiled slightly. “I’ll carry him.”
Tony sighed, then waved at Tim and Ziva before there was another shimmer of light, and he was a fox again. Gibbs stuffed the jacket in his pack, took the pack back outside the cave, then came back in and carefully picked Tony up.
Tim stared at them, trying to make sense of everything. “You can become a fox too, can’t you?”
Gibbs nodded. “We’ll discuss it back at the motel,” he said firmly.
Tim watched him adjust his hold on Tony, resting his forehead on the fox’s for a moment before heading out of the cave. He looked at Ziva. “You okay?”
Ziva shook her head. “I do not know what I am! This is not possible… but I saw it.”
Tim nodded. “Now I’m wondering if I really want to know after all.” He sighed and looked at Barnes. “Let’s see if we can get him up and moving.”
Barnes was still staring at nothing, but he responded easily enough to their prompting, standing and moving where he was directed to go. Tim transferred the knife in its sheath to his own belt after they exited the cave. “We’ll send some of the rangers to gather up all Barnes’ stuff, and to check for more traps,” he said.
Ziva nodded as she watched Gibbs and Tony disappear into the trees. “He really was tracking Barnes by scent,” she said, clearly amazed.
Tim smiled slightly. “We were right.”
Ziva shook her head. “It is difficult to wrap my head around it all.”
“Let’s just get Barnes to the car. We’ll worry about it later.”
They set off, moving carefully since Barnes was in no condition to tell them where any other traps might be.
Walking in the Woods
Gibbs moved carefully through the trees, carrying Tony by supporting the fox’s haunches; Tony’s front legs rested over Gibbs’ shoulder, and his head was tucked into Gibbs’ neck.
Neither had spoken, either out loud or mind to mind, since Gibbs first entered the cave. Tony hadn’t wanted to distract Gibbs from dealing with Barnes, and Gibbs had kept his focus on keeping Barnes calm and not letting Ziva or McGee take a shot that might hit Tony.
Tony shifted a little, wincing at the pain that shot through his leg, but wanting to get that much closer to Gibbs, to erase the feeling of Barnes’ hands on him. Gibbs tightened his grip, careful not to move the injured leg.
“You okay?” he finally asked.
Tony sighed into Gibbs’ neck. “Yeah. Really thought my number was up.”
“Not on my watch.”
Gibbs kept walking.
Tony raised his head and looked around. “You’re heading too far north.”
The older man corrected course. “Where did you leave the keys?”
“Under a rock… I’ll show you when we get to the car.”
Gibbs grunted in acknowledgement. Tony settled back down, breathing in Gibbs’ scent.
“Do we have to go to the hospital?”
Gibbs laughed suddenly. “You have a broken leg, Tony… what do you think?”
“I was thinking maybe we could get Ducky to drive out here. I just want to go back to the motel and take a long, hot shower. Barnes was petting me.”
“At least you weren’t human at the time.”
“Ugh. You had to put that thought there?”
Gibbs sighed. “Sooner we get back to the motel, sooner we have to talk to the others.”
“They seemed to handle it pretty well.”
“They were in shock. Wait until they’ve had time to think about it.”
“I’m kinda proud of Probie for putting the pieces together. Didn’t expect him to do that.”
“He’ll be okay. Not sure how accepting Ziva will be.”
Tony huffed out a breath. “She won’t be happy until you shift too, you know.”
They fell silent again, and after a while Tony started to doze, despite the ache in his leg.
The fox yipped a bit, surprised at being woken up so suddenly.
Gibbs shifted Tony over a bit, freeing up one arm and reaching up to stroke his fur. “Sorry. Need to know which way to go.”
Tony looked around; they were back at the access road. He sniffed the air. “To the right. Just around that bend, I think.”
They reached the car a few minutes later. Gibbs set Tony down and removed his pack, tossing it to the ground and opening it, digging out Tony’s clothes while Tony shifted back to human form. A few minutes later, with some help from Gibbs, Tony was dressed and sitting in the front passenger seat.
Gibbs tossed his pack in the back, along with the sock, and moved around to the front. Tony took his cell phone out of the glove compartment and checked for the nearest hospital while Gibbs got in the car and started it up.
Tony entered the coordinates into the car’s GPS and looked expectantly at his partner; Gibbs simply sat there, staring out the windshield.
“Jethro? You okay?”
Gibbs closed his eyes, then turned and pulled Tony into a hug. Tony ignored the spike of pain in his leg and returned the pressure, pulling Gibbs as close as he could.
“Almost lost you.” Gibbs spoke into Tony’s neck, his voice muffled.
“You didn’t. Not on your watch, remember?”
Gibbs nodded, took a deep breath, and let go, sitting back and putting his seat belt on. Tony did the same, and Gibbs threw the car into gear, turning it around and heading out of the woods.
Tony flung the crutches down and let himself collapse back on the motel bed, grimacing slightly at the soreness in his leg when it hit the mattress.
Gibbs rolled his eyes and bent down to pick up the discarded crutches. “Of course it’s going to hurt if you do that, dumbass.”
Tony stuck his tongue out at his partner, then concentrated on using his hands and his good leg to change position until his back was against the headboard. He stared at the cast on his lower leg, bending forward and reaching out to tap it with his knuckles. “You know what this means, right?”
“Yeah. I’m gonna be on top for a while.”
Tony couldn’t help the combination giggle-snort that escaped. “Besides that.” He hit the cast again. “I can’t go fox. The cast won’t resize.”
Gibbs sighed quietly, then set the crutches against the wall and sat on the bed next to Tony. He ran his fingers through Tony’s hair. “May be just as well. Need to rethink when we do that.”
Tony nodded slightly, favoring Gibbs with a small smile. “In my defense, I was right about locating Barnes faster.”
“Tony.” Gibbs shook his head. “Wasn’t your fault. Could have happened to any of us if you hadn’t been the one to step in it.”
“Not you, with your super-Spidey-sniper-senses.”
Gibbs smiled. “Maybe.”
Tony shook himself. “I need a shower.” He considered his leg. “Or maybe a bath.”
“You are not washing me with dog shampoo.”
“Uh huh. Can it wait?”
“I’m thinkin’ we should have the talk with Ziva and McGee first. Wanna take care of you – without interruptions.”
“I do like the sound of that. Okay… call them in. I’ll just deal with the creepiness of our suspect petting me all by myself.”
Gibbs reached out and patted Tony gently on the head. “Good boy.”
Tony swatted at Gibbs’ hand, glaring half-heartedly. “You think you’re so funny.”
Gibbs favored him with a real smile. “You love it, and you know it.”
Tony’s glare faded, and an answering smile surfaced. “Yeah, I do.”
Their gazes held while Gibbs pulled out his phone and hit the button to call McGee. He reached for Tony’s hand, grasping it tightly while talking to his junior agent. “We’re back. Barnes all settled in?”
Tony’s thumb caressed the back of Gibbs’ hand while he waited out the long pause.
“I’ll put a call in to Vance, see if he can get Dr. Cranston on board for this one. Come on over here – we’ll read you in.” Gibbs flipped his phone shut, leaning in to drop a quick kiss on Tony’s lips. “Barnes is locked up at the local station… still completely out of it.”
Tony sighed and let go of Gibbs’ hand. “I feel for the guy… none of this was really his fault.”
Gibbs shrugged. “Depends on how you look at it. Not his fault the spirit got in his head, but he could have gotten help… talked to someone. His friends might still be alive if he had.”
Tony stared at him. “Since when are you in favor of shrinks?”
“Not shrinks, Tony… letting someone have your back.” Gibbs got to his feet at the knock on the door, opening it to let McGee and Ziva into the room.
McGee’s expression as he took a seat on the other bed was a combination of excited and concerned. “You okay, Tony?”
Tony grinned at him. “I’m awesome.” He pointed to his leg. “Carrying my own club for knocking the bad guys over the head.”
Ziva snorted as she sat on the only chair. “You are not flexible enough to do that, Tony.”
Tony waggled his eyebrows. “And how would you know?”
Gibbs sighed heavily as he sat on the foot of Tony’s bed. “Zip it, DiNozzo.” He looked at the two agents. “Questions?”
McGee blinked at that; Ziva’s mouth opened, then shut again.
Tony shook his head. “Probably easier to give them the summary, Boss.”
Gibbs shrugged and tilted his head toward Tony. “Go ahead.”
Tony’s eyes lit up. “I get to make a speech!” He pointed at Ziva and McGee. “You two, no questions until it’s over.”
He then launched into a relatively succinct retelling of finding Gibbs as a fox for the first time, enlisting Abby’s help, and the subsequent trip to New Hampshire. The only interruption was Ziva’s protest that Vance knew and they didn’t; Gibbs simply stared at her and she fell silent.
“So, then Ducky diagnosed Gibbs with PTSD, and we went back up to New Hampshire with this friend of Abby’s, who’s an Abenaki shaman.” Tony looked at Gibbs. “You better fill in the part I wasn’t awake for.”
Gibbs’ eyes met his for a long moment before he turned to the others. “Tony’s lungs gave out. Couldn’t take the cold. We were at the spirit’s tree; Tony was dying. I got the spirit to save Tony’s life.”
Tony laughed. “What he’s not saying is that Abby’s shaman friend convinced Gibbs that he could talk to the spirit in fox form… that’s when Gibbs found out he’d had the ability to control the shift, probably since he was turned human on our first trip.”
Gibbs continued as if Tony hadn’t spoken. “Spirit came out of the tree and touched Tony, turning him into the fox you saw back at the cave. Since then, we can become foxes when we want.”
McGee nodded slowly. “That’s why you guys have been going on camping trips.”
Tony stared at him. “You know that how?”
McGee returned the stare. “I hacked into your credit card statements.”
“You did what?!”
“Oh, please… that’s no different from you going through our desks for personal info.”
Gibbs put his hand on Tony’s shoulder. “Tony, he’s right. McGee, don’t do it again.”
Ziva spoke up. “Does Vance know about this ability to become foxes?”
Tony rolled his eyes at Gibbs. “Vance knew about Gibbs the first time around… we had to get permission for the time off. We never told him about me or about Gibbs being able to control it. As far as the director knows, it was a one-shot deal.”
“So Abby knows.”
Gibbs nodded. “And Ducky.”
“Only fair,” Tony put in. “We needed his help convincing Vance we had to go back north.”
Ziva considered that. “You did not tell us because we did not need to know.”
There was a short pause until Tony spoke up again. “Ziva… when it first happened, I didn’t want to believe it. Then it was all about trying to get him back to normal – there wasn’t anything you guys could really have done to help. We weren’t in any real danger.”
McGee’s eyes narrowed. “Gibbs said you saved his life.”
Gibbs cut in. “He did. Without Tony, I might never have become human again. Or I might have ended up like Barnes.”
“People shoot mad animals,” Ziva said quietly.
Silence fell again.
“Really want to hug you right now, Jethro.”
“You’re doing it again,” McGee said.
Tony gave him his fake innocent look. “What?”
“That thing you do, the way you look at each other right before one of you does something that makes it seem like you’re reading each other’s minds.”
“Well,” Tony responded, “that’s ‘cause we’re reading each other’s minds.”
“Oh, please,” Ziva said, shaking her head.
“It’s true!” Tony protested.
Gibbs nodded. “Seems to be a… gift, from the spirit. Didn’t start until after we got back from the second trip.”
“You’re serious.” Ziva stared at him.
“We need to test it,” McGee stated firmly.
“How?” Tony asked.
McGee smiled. “Simple. Ziva and Gibbs go outside, Ziva says something to Gibbs, you tell me what she said, I write it down and then Ziva checks it.”
Tony looked at Gibbs, who sighed, then abruptly got to his feet. “Fine. Let’s go.”
Once they’d left the room, McGee’s shoulders slumped slightly. “Were you really going to tell us after we closed the case?”
Tony nodded. “Yes, Tim, we were. Neither one of us was happy about keeping you both in the dark. But we were dealing with a lot.”
McGee gazed at him for a moment. “Not just the whole fox thing either.”
Tony shook his head slowly, a genuine smile spreading over his face. “No, not just that.”
McGee nodded. “I’m happy for you guys. It’s about time.”
“Hey, Jethro… McGee says it’s about time we got together.”
“That’s nice. Let’s guess this over with… never did like party games.”
“Ziva says ‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.’”
“Damn it… now I owe her fifty bucks.”
“I bet her years ago that she couldn’t get you to quote poetry.”
“Just tell McGee… and she says to add ‘Ziva is a better shot than Tony.’”
“Of course she does. I’m not saying that.”
“Whatever. I’m not doing this again.”
“Of all the modern catch phrases, you would pick up on that one.”
“We’re going to get take out from the diner. Back in a bit.”
“Awesome. Over and out.”
Tony looked at McGee. “They’re picking up take out from the diner. And Ziva got Gibbs to quote the beginning of Jabberwocky.”
Tony sighed. “He said, ‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.’”
McGee typed it all into his phone. “’All mimsy were the borogroves, and the mome raths outgrabe.’”
“No, he didn’t say that part.”
“I’m just going along. I love that poem.” He looked up at Tony. “You know you owe Ziva fifty bucks. “
McGee pocketed his phone while Tony leaned forward and rapped on his cast again. “So… you and Gibbs.”
Tony sat back and looked at him. “Me and Gibbs. What did you mean, it’s about time?”
“Well, it is. It’s been obvious for years that you’re crazy about the guy… and he’s always had a soft spot for you.”
Tony grinned. “Not always soft.”
McGee shook his head. “I neither want nor need details.” He smiled. “It’s obvious you guys are happy together.”
“You knew we were together?”
“No… but looking back now that I do know, it’s obvious.”
“Huh. Doesn’t bother you?”
“Not at all. Hasn’t affected the team… that was just you guys not telling us about the fox thing.”
“Think Ziva will be okay with it?”
“With you and Gibbs? She and Abby already have conversations about how they wish they could watch.”
Tony grimaced. “I don’t think I want to know.”
McGee shook his head seriously. “You really don’t. As far as the fox thing goes… it’ll take her some time to get used to the idea.” McGee sat forward. “You know she’s going to want to see Gibbs change into a fox.”
“Like you don’t?”
“I’ll admit to a certain curiosity.”
“You’re actually handling it all really well.”
McGee shrugged. “Now stuff makes sense that didn’t before. It’s a wacky sort of sense, but I like it better than being in the dark. Mostly.”
Tony grinned at that. “And it’s like being in a comic book. Or a video game.”
McGee laughed. “And it’s like being a comic book.”
“Tony… you want dessert?”
“Yeah… something chocolate.” Tony spoke the words out loud as well as thinking them.
McGee stared at him, eyes wide. “You were just talking to Gibbs, weren’t you?”
Tony nodded. “Comes in handy, doesn’t it.”
“What’s the range?” McGee sat forward eagerly. “Is it like hearing his voice in your head?”
“Dunno what the range is… so far, it hasn’t seemed to matter how far apart we are. And yeah, it’s like he’s talking, just in my head.”
“So you’re not really reading minds?”
“It’s like regular talking, just in our heads. We’re not sharing private thoughts or anything, if that’s what you’re asking. And I can’t feel what he feels or see what he sees, or vice versa.”
“That’s going to be a big help on cases.”
“Already has been.”
McGee nodded, falling silent and thinking for a while. He eventually changed the subject and they engaged in small talk until Gibbs and Ziva returned with dinner.
McGee hit a few buttons on his phone and held it out to Ziva, who read the screen and then looked at Gibbs. “I did not really think you were lying.” Gibbs glanced at her, grunting an acknowledgment from where he sat on Tony’s bed, already eating. She then looked at Tony. “You owe me fifty dollars.”
Tony swallowed his food. “Yup. Got cash in my wallet. Soon as I finish eating.”
Once they had all finished, Ziva had gotten her money, and Gibbs had walked around with the trash can for them to clean up, Ziva cleared her throat. “I think it is time for the last bit of proof.”
Gibbs shot her a mild glare. She glared back. “You didn’t tell us for months. Ducky, Abby, and the director are all in the know. They have all seen you as a fox, yes?”
Tony looked at Gibbs, who looked back, then stood, rubbing his head with one hand. “Be right back.” He strode into the bathroom and firmly shut the door.
Ziva looked at Tony. “Are you being open about your relationship too?”
“To the team,” he replied. “But apparently you already knew.”
“That part was easy. Women’s intuition.”
“More like women’s dirty minds, from what McGee tells me.”
Ziva simply smirked at him.
There was a banging sound from the bathroom door. Tony grinned. “Go let Gibbs out, Tim.”
McGee jumped to his feet and hurried to the door. Gibbs paced out, tail swishing slightly in annoyance, moving quickly to jump onto the empty bed, where he sat up straight, curling his tail around his feet.
Tony grinned while Ziva and McGee stared.
“Can I… can I touch him?” McGee asked.
Gibbs grumbled a little, but dipped his head in agreement. McGee moved forward slowly, carefully reaching forward.
“Oh, for… I’m not going to bite him.”
Tony laughed. “Gibbs says to get a move on, Probie.”
McGee jumped a bit, then stepped forward and gently let his hand fall on Gibbs’s shoulder. “Wow… his fur is so soft.”
Tony just smiled, watching as Ziva suddenly got to her feet and marched to the bathroom, disappearing for a few seconds before reemerging.
“Did you think we stashed a fox in there and that Gibbs was hiding behind the shower curtain?” Tony asked.
“No… yes… I do not know!” Ziva stared at Gibbs, who met her gaze squarely. “His eyes… they are his eyes.”
Tony nodded. “That’s how Abby knew right away the fox was Gibbs.”
McGee dropped his hand from Gibbs’ back and stepped away, sitting back down on the far side of the bed. “And you didn’t?”
“Told you… I didn’t want to believe it.”
Ziva continued to stare. Gibbs heaved a sigh, stood, stretched, then jumped lightly off the bed and approached her, nudging her hand with his nose.
McGee’s eyes widened; he glanced over at Tony, who shrugged. “He’s a little more affectionate as a fox.”
Ziva was petting the fox now, shaking her head. “I do not believe it; but clearly I have to.”
Gibbs nudged her hand again, then stepped away, jumping onto the bed with Tony this time, sitting up straight. “Tell them it’s time to go,” he thought to Tony.
Tony reached out to rub Gibbs’ fur behind his ears. “Say goodnight, kids. Me and Jethro have a private party planned.”
The fox turned around and nose-punched Tony hard in the side.
“Ow! Guess I wasn’t supposed to advertise that.”
Ziva smiled as she moved to the door. “Is that better or worse than the head slaps?”
“Oh, he can paw slap too. The nose punch is more effective, though.”
She looked at McGee, who nodded and commented, “Yup, he likes it.”
They both paused at the door. “Thanks for telling us,” McGee said.
Ziva nodded. “And do not worry; we will not tell anyone.”
Tony shook his head. “That was never the concern.”
Ziva nodded again, smiled slightly, and left, with McGee close behind.
Gibbs moved to curl up next to Tony, resting his head on Tony’s abdomen. “I hate being on display like that.”
“I know.” Tony stroked the black and grey fur. “It was necessary, though.”
“Yeah.” Gibbs closed his eyes and relaxed under Tony’s hand. “Glad it’s done.”
“Until one of them suggests one of us go fox while we’re on a case. You know Ziva’s going to think of a million and one ways to use fox time as a tactical advantage.”
Gibbs’ eyes snapped open, staring into Tony’s. “Not happening. Not after today. Was too close – you were too vulnerable.”
“I sure missed my gun.”
They lay there silently for a while, neither one wanting to lose the quiet connection.
Finally, Gibbs huffed out a breath and got to his feet, stretching before jumping down off the bed and trotting into the bathroom. About a minute later, Tony heard the water running in the bathtub and Gibbs leaned around the door frame. “Got the water running… you coming?”
Tony pulled himself into a sitting position, reaching for the crutches before using them to hoist himself to his feet. His leg was sore and he didn’t want to use it any more than he had to. He joined Gibbs in the bathroom, where his partner stood naked, pouring bubble bath into the steaming tub.
“You got me bubble bath?”
“You like bubbles. Why wouldn’t I get you bubble bath?”
“You know, I don’t understand your ex-wives at all.”
Gibbs turned around and flashed him a grin. “We get along better than I did with them.”
Tony set the crutches against the wall and leaned back against the sink, unbuttoning his shirt. “That’s a good thing.” He watched Gibbs test the water temperature. “Hey… you sure that tub’s clean?”
“Yup. Called the manager while you were getting your leg taken care of and asked for extra cleaning in here.”
“I think I love you.”
“What do you mean, ‘think’?”
Tony laughed and removed his belt. He paused and looked mournfully down at his jeans; the leg had been cut straight up to allow it to fit over the cast. “I really liked these jeans.”
Gibbs laughed. “Sure confused that nurse when she asked why they weren’t damaged and you said you changed before coming to the hospital.”
“Yeah, not my best excuse. I mean, who does that? But we didn’t think about it at the time.”
“True.” Gibbs turned around and helped Tony out of his pants. He checked the tub, then turned the water off. “I’ll wrap the cast and help you get in there.” They’d picked up plastic wrap on the way back from the hospital; within a few minutes, Tony was easing into the hot water, truly relaxing for the first time all day.
He was vaguely aware of Gibbs leaving the room; he heard him talking, but didn’t bother trying to listen to what he was saying. A few minutes later Gibbs returned, kneeling next to the tub and using his hands to wet Tony’s hair before pouring shampoo on it.
“That better not be flea shampoo.”
Gibbs chuckled quietly. “It’s not, I promise.” He started massaging Tony’s head, getting a happy groan out of the man.
“That feels amazing.”
“Wanna make you feel better. You had a rough day.”
“So did you.” Tony kept his eyes closed, enjoying the feel of Gibbs’ fingers working through his hair. “We should do this every day.”
Gibbs laughed, but didn’t say anything.
Tony stayed quiet as Gibbs rinsed and repeated, then rinsed again before grabbing a wash cloth and picking up one of Tony’s arms, gently scrubbing him clean.
“Who were you talking to, before?”
“Vance. Gave him an update, told him Barnes needs psychiatric care. He’s going to put a call in to Rachel Cranston, see if she’s available.”
“She will be. She likes us.”
“I think she feels closer to Kate when we’re around.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me.” Gibbs shifted over and started on Tony’s good leg. “I’ll call Greg in the morning, see if he’s in the area. We could use his expertise too.”
“Greg and Dr. Cranston together… that could be interesting. Especially when she finds out about the whole tree spirit thing.”
“Yeah… she’s got to know, if she’s going to help him.”
Tony nodded. “Of course.”
Gibbs finished cleaning Tony a short time later. “You ready to get out?”
“Are you kidding? No way. This feels great.” He opened his eyes and looked up to see Gibbs sitting on the floor, gazing at him seriously. “You okay?”
Gibbs nodded. “Been a long day. Almost went real bad.”
Tony reached out and grasped Gibbs’ hand. “Didn’t. Barnes helped me… doesn’t matter why. You got through to him. He’ll get some help, and he won’t hurt anyone else.” He laced his fingers through Gibbs’. “And now there’s no more secrets from the team… that’s gotta feel good.”
“It does.” Gibbs got to his feet, pulling gently on Tony’s arm. “Come on… gotta rinse all those bubbles off you, get you in bed. Then I need a shower.”
Tony protested, but not very much.
A short time later Tony was half asleep under the covers when Gibbs joined him.
“Fastest shower in the east,” Tony mumbled.
Gibbs laughed quietly in his ear as he pulled Tony close. “You’ve got the slowest.”
“Not when I have a work deadline,” Tony argued.
“Yeah, you’re right.”
Tony pulled Gibbs a bit closer. “Guess we can share a bed now… the terrible twosome isn’t gonna bother trying to sneak in anymore.”
“Not for the same reason, at least. Wouldn’t put it past Ziva to try catching us at something.”
“I’m too tired tonight. We can let her try to catch us tomorrow, though.”
“How about we do whatever we like tomorrow but don’t let her catch us?”
“Good idea.” Tony sighed, turning so his forehead rested on Gibbs’. “Sorry I scared you today.”
“It’s okay, Tony… you’re safe, the case is closed.”
Gibbs lay awake for a while after Tony fell asleep, breathing in the scent of him and thanking whatever guardian angel was working overtime that he hadn’t lost yet another person he loved that day.
Jabberwocky is by Lewis Carroll, published in Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There around 1871.
Chapter 9: Friends and Family
The foxes ran through the forest. A sense of danger and urgency drove them on; to Tony, it felt as though something loomed over him, waiting to strike. He sent a mental question to Gibbs, but Gibbs just ran faster. Tony sped up as Gibbs pulled ahead, feeling vaguely uneasy about his leg, although he wasn’t sure why.
They were on the trail leading to the tree, the one they’d planted. They reached it faster than they should have; Tony was surprised he wasn’t tired. Gibbs slowed down as he reached the tree, standing on his hind legs, front paws up on the bark, yipping demands to the spirit inside.
The spirit emerged, reaching out with long, spindly fingers to gently touch both foxes. Tony felt reassured by the sense of welcome. Gibbs barked again; this time his questions echoed in Tony’s head.
The spirit stood quietly, branch-like arms swaying slightly, then a cascade of images streamed through both foxes’ minds. A sense of time past, ancient meetings, many spirits coming together, sharing stories of the wilderness and these strange two-legged beings who called themselves ‘men.’
Both foxes reeled slightly from the weight of so many memories. The spirit reached out again, touching them, providing support. They thanked him for his help and turned back the way they’d come, running again but with lighter hearts.
Tony woke suddenly, reaching up to rub his eyes before turning to face Gibbs. The older man lay on his side, watching his partner.
“Wow,” Tony commented after a moment of silent gazing. “That felt real.”
Gibbs’ gaze shifted to the side for a second before settling back on Tony’s eyes. “Yeah.”
“Very Lord of the Rings.” Tony stretched, extending his arms above his head, then turned to give Gibbs a quick kiss on the lips. “Remember that scene with all the ents gathering, before they took down Saruman?”
“Except our spirit seems to get to the point a lot quicker.” Tony pulled himself up to a sitting position. “Think our dream really meant what it said? That the spirit Barnes encountered was just curious, not evil or anything?”
Gibbs nodded slowly.
Tony grinned. “I got the impression our spirit was a bit critical of Barnes’ spirit… like it’s too inexperienced, young, even.” He leaned forward to bang on his cast. “Leg itches.” He turned to smile at Gibbs. “Felt good to run… I hope we have a lot more dreams like that, at least until I can go fox again. I feel all kinds of energized… like I’ve got runner’s high or something.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “It felt so real,” he said, shaking his head. Then he smiled and poked Gibbs in the shoulder. “You’re quiet.”
“It was real,” Gibbs said.
Tony laughed. “How could it be? We’re in West Virginia, not New Hampshire.”
Gibbs sat up, leaning in to return the favor of a quick kiss. Then he reached up to pull something out of Tony’s hair. “I don’t know how, but either we were there or the spirit was here,” he said, handing Tony the pine needles he’d just removed. He shot his lover a grin before throwing the covers back and heading for the bathroom. “C’mon, we’re meeting the others at the diner in less than thirty.”
Tony stared at the pine needles in his hand. “No way,” his whispered. “Maybe they were here from yesterday…” He knew that wasn’t true, though... not after the bath Gibbs had given him. He reached for his crutches, laying the pine needles on the nightstand. “We need to talk to Greg,” he called out as he moved slowly toward the bathroom, getting a grunt in response.
They arrived at the diner before the younger agents. Their waitress from the previous morning, whose name tag read ‘Sammy,’ waved them to a booth and filled their coffee cups as they sat. “Nice thing ya’ll did, bringing Logan Barnes in safe.”
“You know about that?” Tony asked.
“Well, sure, honey. Jim Turner, he’s one of the deputies, he got Logan settled for the night when your agents brought him in. After they left, Jim called Frank Pierce, the minister, who called Nicole Barnes and let her know her boy was safe. Told her not to come visit, on account of Logan not seemin’ to know exactly what was goin’ on. Word this morning is he’s still not talkin’ to anyone.” She patted Tony’s shoulder. “Your leg feelin’ okay, sweetie?”
“Uh, I’m fine, thanks.”
Sammy nodded, then shook her head. “Shame he put out the traps like that. But he’s not really right in the head.”
“And you know about the trap because…”
She grinned. “My sister Holly was one of the nurses takin’ care of ya yesterday. She called me with the update, on account of how I served ya’ll breakfast.”
Tony blinked. “And she knew that because...”
Sammy laughed. “Honey, everyone in town knows who ya’ll are and why you’re here. Four feds, three who are smokin’ hot guys and one who looks like she stepped out of a fancy magazine – we don’t exactly get visitors like you every day.”
Tony stared at her. “You think McGee is ‘smokin’ hot’?”
Gibbs snorted and reached up to tap Tony on the head. Sammy laughed. “I’ll be back to take your order after the others get here.”
Tony stared at Gibbs. “I’m in the same category as McGoo? You’re in the same category?” He shook his head. “These people need to get out more.”
Gibbs’ mouth quirked up into a small smile. “We better remember never to come here undercover.”
“No kidding.” Tony sighed. “We should have called Barnes’ family ourselves.”
Gibbs nodded. “Was more concerned about you at the time. We’ll stop over on our way back.”
McGee and Ziva arrived a few minutes later. Greetings were exchanged (grunts on Gibbs’ part), and they all looked over the menus, except for Tony, who stared at Tim.
“What?” McGee asked, torn between curious and irritated.
Tony grinned suddenly. “You’re hot, McModel.”
McGee’s brow furrowed. His opened his mouth to retort, then shut it, shaking his head. “I think I’ll have the French toast,” he commented.
Sammy came back, took their orders, and left. Gibbs surveyed his team as he sipped his coffee. “We good?” he asked.
Ziva and McGee glanced at each other, then looked back at him and nodded. “Of course,” Ziva said quietly. “We are both happy that you have finally trusted us with your secrets.”
Gibbs shook his head. “Wasn’t about trust, Ziva. If I didn’t trust you, you wouldn’t be on my team.”
Ziva inclined her head. “Thank you.”
McGee looked at Tony. “What’s it like, being a fox?”
Tony’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s a conversation for a more private venue, McBlab.”
The younger agent laughed self-consciously. “Sorry, you’re right. I just… it’s fascinating.”
“We’ll get together with Abby, talk about it,” Tony offered. “After we get this thing with Barnes wrapped up.”
Gibbs nodded. “After breakfast, we’ll head over to the jail, pick him up. Ziva, McGee, you’ll drive him back to the Navy Yard. Tony and I will stop off and see Barnes’ family on the way back.”
They discussed what Ziva and McGee should do if Barnes became uncooperative until their food arrived. Sammy winked at McGee, which seemed to confuse him, while Tony grumbled into his food, earning another light head slap.
Nicole and Lauren Barnes came out onto the front porch while Tony and Gibbs were still walking up the path from the parking lot. Tony hobbled along on his crutches; Gibbs had suggested he stay in the car, but Tony didn’t want any part of that.
Gibbs reached out to shake Nicole Barnes’ hand; she brushed it aside and moved in to hug him tightly. “Thank you,” she whispered, tears starting to escape from her eyes.
Gibbs stood there, holding her awkwardly, while Lauren looked at Tony. “I’m sorry about your leg,” she said quietly.
Tony shook his head. “It’s okay. Six weeks, I’ll be good as new.”
Lauren gave him a small smile while her mother pulled back, wiping her eyes. “I’m sorry,” Nicole said, “I was so sure I wouldn’t see my boy alive again.”
Tony spoke up. “We should have called you yesterday,” he apologized.
Nicole shook her head while motioning the agents into the house. “You had your leg to think about. It’s alright. Jim called Frank who called us.”
Tony smiled as he lowered himself into a chair. “Quite the network you have here.”
Nicole returned the smile. “Very useful when the kids are teenagers and getting into trouble.”
Lauren rolled her eyes as she pulled her phone out of her pocket. “I’ll call Dad so he and Nick can come back.”
They made small talk until John and Nick arrived. After another round of handshakes, John spoke up. “Thank you for keeping your promise, Agent Gibbs.” His gaze shifted to Tony. “Appreciate you not taking out your injury on Logan.”
Tony shook his head. “Part of the job,” he replied, knocking on his cast.
Nick sat forward. “Can you tell us how it went down?”
Gibbs gave them a succinct version of Barnes’ capture, leaving out the foxy aspects. The way he told it, Barnes took Tony hostage after Tony stepped in the trap, intending to use him to get away.
“Nice one, Jethro.”
“Figure if Barnes remembers you as a fox, he’ll chalk it up to his insanity.”
“How is he now?” John asked.
Gibbs shook his head. “Hard to say. We saw him this morning; he’s on his way back to the Navy Yard with Agents David and McGee. Doesn’t seem to be very aware of what’s going on at the moment.”
Lauren stood. “I’m going to D.C.,” she announced. “Logan needs someone there with him.”
Nicole nodded as her daughter left the room to pack. “Logan and Lauren are very close. If anyone can get through to him, it’ll be her.”
Gibbs nodded. “We’re bringing in mental health experts. Our director has a call in to Dr. Cranston; we’ve worked with her before. You’ll like her. We’re also hoping to have Dr. Monlatak as a consultant; he’s worked with us on cases like these.”
“Stretching a truth a bit, aren’t you?”
“Not by that much, really. And if he can help, he’ll probably run into the family at some point.”
“Will he stand trial?” John asked.
“Probably too early to say,” Tony replied. “A full psychiatric evaluation will take some time.”
Nicole sniffled, cleared her throat, and smiled at Gibbs and Tony even as her eyes filled with tears. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go help Lauren get her things together. Thank you again.” She left the room, walking quickly.
John sighed and sat back in his chair. “She’s taking this hard.”
Gibbs nodded. “Unless you have any more questions, we should get on the road.”
“You’ll keep us informed?” John asked.
“Of course.” Gibbs stood, getting his wallet out and giving John a card. “If Dr. Cranston can take this case, I’ll make sure she’s in touch with you.” He shook John’s hand, then turned to help Tony get up out of the chair.
John started to apologize to Tony for his son’s actions; Tony shook his head. “Part of the job,” he said again.
A short time later they were in the car and heading back to the main road.
“Well… that was uncomfortable,” Tony said.
Gibbs sighed. “Family’s in pain. Parents probably feel responsible on some level.”
Tony nodded. “Guess so.” He settled back in his seat, watching the scenery and thinking about the families of Barnes’ victims, remembering the Dixons. He didn’t say anything to Gibbs, either out loud or mentally, but Gibbs reached out and took Tony’s hand, squeezing gently.
Gibbs’ phone rang. He let go of Tony’s hand and fished it off his belt, glancing at the screen. “Vance,” he commented before flipping it open. “Yeah, Gibbs.”
Tony sat quietly, listening in on Gibbs’ side of the conversation, which consisted mostly of one word responses. Gibbs flipped the phone shut and held onto it as he put his hand back on the steering wheel. “Dr. Cranston’s on board. She’s going to meet with us when we get back to the Yard, then she’ll observe Barnes, meet with the family as soon as possible.”
“Good thing Lauren’s coming to D.C.”
Gibbs nodded, then held the phone out to Tony. “Call Greg… let’s see if we can get him to at least talk with her soon.”
Tony nodded. “You know she’s gonna have to see you go fox to believe it.”
“I’d do it, but…” Tony gestured at his cast.
“Yeah, I know.”
Tony opened Gibbs’ phone, shaking his head at the outdated technology. “This is impossible. I’ve got him in my contacts.” He returned the phone, which Gibbs took without comment. Tony scrolled through his contacts, tapped the screen a few times. “Putting him on speaker,” he told Gibbs.
There were only two rings before Greg’s voice came over the speaker. “Tony! How are you? How’s Gibbs?”
“Hey, Greg. We’re good, thanks. You in town?”
“Yeah. They do make me teach classes occasionally. Got one this semester on Native American mythology. Supposed to get together with Abby this weekend… maybe we can all hang out?”
“Sounds like a plan to me… actually calling about a case we’re on. Naval Petty Officer went camping, apparently made contact with a spirit, went crazy, killed a bunch of people.”
“Wow. You’re sure about the spirit?”
“Pretty sure. He recognized Gibbs’ description. Some things he told a family member add up. We’re thinking he just happened to camp next to the wrong tree.”
“It’s possible, I guess. Not sure why the spirit would bother.”
“Well… here’s the thing. Gibbs and I shared a dream last night… our spirit shared some memories with us, of spirits getting together and talking about us. Humans in general, I mean. Ours spirit told us the one that messed with our Petty Officer’s head was just curious, didn’t mean any harm.”
“It talked to you in your dream?”
“More than talked, I think… either it was with us in the room or we made a trip to New Hampshire from our motel in West Virginia.”
“What do you mean?”
“I had pine needles in my hair when I woke up. They weren’t there earlier. Gibbs can attest to that.”
“That’s unheard of. This connection you have with the spirit… I don’t know what to make of it.”
“Neither do we.”
Gibbs spoke up. “You been back up the mountain?”
“A few weeks ago, when we were on break. Got in some flying time, got some more about the spirit’s history, but I think it’s more reticent with me. You guys need to come back up with me sometime.”
“We’ve got a psychiatrist lined up…we’d like you to help out too. Only so much she can do without knowing the whole story.”
“You trust her?”
“Absolutely. Family connection.”
Tony smiled at that, reaching over to squeeze Gibbs’ shoulder.
“Let me know when she’s free. We can meet at your place, convince her we know what we’re talking about.”
“Should be fun,” Tony commented.
“We’ll get back to you,” Gibbs said. “We should be meeting with her this afternoon.”
“Sounds good. Gotta run – my class is coming in.”
“We’ll be in touch.”
“See ya, Greg,” Tony added, ending the call.
They drove on in silence for a few minutes.
“Think she’ll be okay with all this?” Tony eventually asked.
Gibbs shrugged. “Hope so. Think she’ll at least listen to anything that might help a patient.”
“I was hoping for some quality time alone later.”
Gibbs smiled at that, glancing at Tony. “You mean after we update Vance and Abby, check on Barnes, follow up with the victims’ families, meet with Dr. Cranston, file the initial paperwork, then meet with Greg and Rachel again?”
“Yeah.” Tony sighed. “I’ll pencil you in for next week.”
Gibbs laughed at that, then reached for Tony’s hand again as the car sped up, heading for home.
Chapter 10: Next Steps
Special thanks to MidwestDreamer for some comments concerning Rachel Cranston that helped me write her. I hope I was able to do the character justice.
Gibbs and Tony exited the elevator and headed for their desks; Gibbs walked slowly, staying by Tony’s side as the younger man used his crutches.
“How did it go with Barnes’ family?” Ziva asked as Tony settled into his chair and Gibbs headed for his desk.
“About as you’d expect,” Tony shrugged. “His sister is on her way here. Mom’s upset, Dad seems resigned. Mostly they’re happy he’s alive.”
“How’d it go with the transfer?” Gibbs asked.
McGee spoke up. “No problems, Boss. Barnes was quiet the whole ride back; we booked him here and then Vance had us take him to Bethesda… he’s under observation there.”
Gibbs nodded. “Get me a status update on Seaman Powell.” He turned on his computer and started rummaging through a drawer.
“Coming right up.” McGee reached for the phone, glancing over at Tony as he did so. “How’s your leg?”
Tony sighed as he straightened up in his chair and powered up his own computer. “Itchy. Sore where the trap got me.” His desk phone rang; he answered it while McGee requested the information Gibbs wanted. “Hey, Ducky… it’s fine, really… a little sore, but that’s – okay, I’ll be right there.” He hung up and looked at Gibbs. “That was Ducky – I swear the man has his own network of spies. Or maybe he’s patched into the security feed.” He pushed his chair back, grabbed his crutches, and struggled to his feet. “He wants to see me.”
Gibbs looked at him, then nodded. “Reports when you get back up here.”
Tony grinned at him. “Of course.” He headed for the back elevator.
McGee hung up the phone. “Seaman Powell is doing much better. They’re releasing him in the morning. He’ll be on medical leave for a while until he heals up.”
Gibbs considered that for a moment, then turned toward Ziva. “Ziva… take McGee, head over to the hospital and give Seaman Powell an update on Barnes. Only what he needs to know.”
Ziva nodded and rose to her feet. “I’ll drive,” she told McGee.
“No way… you drove back from the hospital, and I’m still feeling queasy.”
Gibbs smiled slightly, then reached into his desk and took out a package of Dramamine, tossing it McGee’s way. McGee caught it, hesitated, then rolled his eyes and followed Ziva to the elevator. “Fine,” he grumbled.
Gibbs sat back, taking in the empty bullpen. He thought back over the past few days, grimacing as he remembered how close he’d come to losing Tony. Shaking his head, he reached for the phone and put a call into MTAC.
A short time later, he was standing in front of the large screen, facing Senior Chief Petty Officer Derek Holt and Petty Officer Jamie Rhodes.
“Chief,” Gibbs greeted him, nodding to the petty officer.
“Agent Gibbs. I took the liberty of including Petty Officer Rhodes in this debriefing. Thought she deserved to hear it first hand.”
Gibbs nodded again, then launched right into his update. “Petty Officer Barnes is alive and currently at Bethesda, scheduled for psychiatric evaluation.”
Jamie Rhodes closed her eyes; her head dropped and she visibly exhaled before straightening up. “Thank you, sir.”
Chief Holt rubbed his chin. “What kind of shape is he in? And are all your own people alright?”
“I saw Barnes this morning; he wasn’t responsive at the time. He’s likely in for a long haul in terms of recovery. We’ve got some of the best people in the area coming in to work with him.” He shifted his weight a bit. “My senior field agent is a little banged up; other than that, we were able to effect a clean capture.”
“My thanks to you all, especially your injured agent,” Chief Holt responded.
“Thank you, Chief.”
Jamie Rhode spoke up. “Agent Gibbs… is he allowed visitors?”
Gibbs shrugged. “I don’t know. Call the hospital and ask. You might want to wait a few days, until he’s had an initial eval.” He paused, then continued. “His sister Lauren is coming to stay nearby.”
Jamie nodded. “Lauren’s great. It’ll really help him to have her there. Thank you, Agent Gibbs.”
Chief Holt nodded. “Let me know if you need anything from me, Gibbs.”
“Will do, Chief.”
Gibbs turned toward the board operator and motioned for her to cut the feed, then made his way out of MTAC and toward the stairs. “Hey, Tony… how’re you doin’?”
“Ducky seems determined to give me a full physical, and Abby is promising me her grandmother’s famous jambalaya… says it’s better than chicken soup.”
“It is. Tell her to hold off until tomorrow.”
“I can do that. What are you up to?”
“ Sent Ziva and McGee to update Seaman Powell, just talked with Chief Holt and Petty Officer Rhodes.”
“Good idea. I’ll call the Dixons.”
“You sure? They’re not likely to be as happy he’s alive as the others have been.”
“I’m sure, Jethro.”
“Get back up here asap. It’s too empty.”
“Don’t say stuff like that. You make me laugh ‘cause I’m not sure if you’re being serious, and then people look at me funny since they don’t know you and I can talk like this.”
“You mean now Ducky thinks you might have a concussion?”
“Bingo. And I told him it wasn’t my head that got caught in that trap.”
Gibbs grinned as he sat at his desk. “Need me to come rescue you?”
“Nope. Just explain to my boss why I’m not already back up there working on reports, will ya?”
“You got it.”
“See you soon, Jethro. Over and out.”
Tony detoured to the break room on his way back from Autopsy. He set one crutch down on a table, then crutch-hopped his way over to the candy machine, getting a pack of peanut M&Ms before making his way back to the table and sitting down. He downed the M&Ms in two handfuls, then pulled out his cell and checked his contacts. Moments later he had the phone to his ear and was waiting out the rings.
“This is Special Agent Tony DiNozzo, NCIS. I have an update for you concerning the investigation into your son’s murder.”
“Just a minute – I’m putting you on speaker.” There was a pause. “All right, Agent DiNozzo. Makena is here with me.”
“I wanted to let you know that we caught Petty Officer Barnes today, out in West Virginia. He’s on lockdown and undergoing psychiatric evaluation.”
“He’s not dead?!” Makena’s voice seemed very loud.
“He’s not.” Tony spoke quietly.
“You said you’d kill him! You promised!”
Tony shook his head, even though she couldn’t see it. “No, I told you we’d do whatever we needed to. If we’d had no other choice, he’d be dead. We were able to bring him in, so we did.” There was only silence on the other end, so Tony resumed talking. “He’s not sane, Makena. I’m sorry I couldn’t do what you wanted… but he didn’t do what he did out of malice. If it helps at all, I think he wishes he hadn’t done it, and if he ever recovers, this is going to haunt him for the rest of his life.”
He caught motion from the corner of his eye. Looking up, he saw Gibbs standing by the entryway, back straight, arms at his sides.
Adeela Dixon’s voice echoed in his ear.
“I’m sorry Agent DiNozzo… Makena’s very upset. She ran off to her room after you said you were able to bring the man in.”
“I understand her pain, Mrs. Dixon.”
“Adeela, please… for what it’s worth, I think you did the right thing, even though a part of me wishes things had turned out differently.”
“I understand, Adeela.”
“Makena will too, in time. I’ll talk to her.”
“You need anything, please give me a call.”
“Thank you, Agent DiNozzo.”
“Thank you, Tony. I should go.”
“I’m very sorry for your loss.”
They both hung up. Tony looked up at Gibbs, who moved forward and sat across the table from him.
Tony shrugged. “The girl’s hurting. She wanted revenge. Her mom’s more level-headed about the whole thing.”
Gibbs watched Tony’s fingers drumming on the table top, glanced toward the hallway, then reached out to tap gently on his hand. “Can’t make everyone happy, Tony. Not in a situation like this.”
Tony nodded. “You’d think it would get easier after all these years.”
“Easier in that case usually means not caring.”
Tony shook his head. “Don’t want that.” He stretched and gave Gibbs a small smile. “Reports?”
Gibbs nodded. “I updated Vance. Dr. Cranston should be here soon.” He helped Tony pull himself to his feet, then handed him the crutch from the table. “Go on, get to work. Sooner we get all this done, sooner we can go home.”
It was late afternoon by the time Rachel Cranston arrived, smiling at Gibbs as she approached his desk, jacket slung over her arm.
“Hey, Doc.” Gibbs pushed his chair back and stood.
Rachel looked around at the empty desks, then turned to face him. “Something seems to be missing,” she said, a slight smile still on her face.
Gibbs returned the smile, coming around his desk and motioning for her to walk with him. “Team’s been out of state. Sent ‘em all home after the paperwork was done.” They walked down a hallway, heading for one of the conference rooms.
“Director Vance gave me a general outline of the case. From what he told me, the man you’ve arrested may not be responsible for his actions.”
Gibbs opened a door for her and let her precede him into the room. She sat on the far side of the table; he took a seat opposite her. “He’s nuts,” he commented.
Rachel turned her head slightly, meeting his eyes and smiling. “Hardly a clinical term.”
Gibbs sat forward, resting his forearms on the table. “I’d like you to stop by my place later, Doc. Need you to meet a guy who can give you some insight into this one.”
She mimicked his posture. “Now I’m intrigued.”
He gave her a small smile. “Up for a shock or two?”
Her eyes widened and she considered him for a moment. “Never let it be said that I backed down from a challenge.” She lowered her head and looked up at him. “You aren’t going to tell me what conclusion to draw regarding Petty Officer Barnes’ sanity, are you?”
Gibbs sat back and gave her a mock glare. “Not a chance. But there are some things you need to know if you’re going to help him.”
Rachel raised her head and sat back. “You have a vested interest in this man’s future.”
“Let’s just say we have more in common than you might think.”
“I was going to spend the rest of the afternoon going over the case file. If you fill me in, I can follow you home.” Her head tilted to one side. “Who is this man you want me to meet?”
“Name’s Greg Monlatak… he’s a professor in Native American mythology. Friend of Abby’s too.”
Rachel smiled. “Any friend of Abby’s.” She gave Gibbs a long, searching look. “A professor in mythology is going to give me pertinent information regarding a case involving a petty officer who murdered three people and may or may not be mentally competent to stand trial. Director Vance called me and asked for a personal favor, and now you want me to discuss the case away from official channels.”
Gibbs nodded once.
Her eyes narrowed a bit, then she smiled and reached for her bag, pulling out a small notebook and a pen. “Well then… let’s talk!”
Greg’s SUV was already parked in front of the house when Gibbs pulled into the driveway, followed closely by Rachel.
“Greg’s inside,” Gibbs commented as Rachel approached him.
“He just walks in when you’re not there?”
Rachel stopped walking and looked at him curiously. “I thought you said you sent everyone home.”
“I did.” Gibbs punctuated the statement with a little nod.
“I see,” Rachel said, moving to follow him into the house.
Tony was relaxing on the couch, beer in hand and broken leg propped up on the coffee table. Greg was in one of the armchairs, but he got to his feet as soon as Gibbs and Rachel entered. Gibbs introduced them; Rachel smiled and shook his hand, then settled on the opposite chair.
Tony grinned at her. “I’d get up, but…” he motioned toward his leg.
“Don’t be silly,” Rachel said, smiling at him. “It’s good to see you so relaxed.”
Tony’s smile intensified, and then he looked toward the kitchen. “I’ll order pizza later!” he called out.
They made small talk for a few minutes until Gibbs returned, with a beer for himself and a glass of wine for Rachel. She raised the glass to everyone, then took a sip. “Mmm! Excellent.”
“Picked it up at a wine tasting a few weeks ago,” Tony offered.
She glanced at him, then at Gibbs, but didn’t say anything.
Greg looked at Gibbs. “How do you want to do this?”
Rachel looked at him, then at Tony. “I’m starting to get worried.”
Tony shook his head. “It’s not bad… well, I guess that depends on your perspective. I mean, it’s not every day your world view gets turned on its ear, but it’s all worked out for us.”
Rachel regarded him steadily, then looked at Gibbs. “There’s a lot here you aren’t quite saying.”
Greg sat forward. “Maybe I should just jump in here. Jethro gave you the basics?”
Rachel nodded. “Logan Barnes has a history of paranoid schizophrenia, believed cured when he was a teenager, but that resurfaced and resulted in the deaths of three of his friends.”
“He told you about the trigger?”
“Yes… Barnes believed he was seeing monsters.”
“He actually was… in a way.”
Rachel set her wine down on the coffee table and sat forward, resting her forearms on her legs. “He was the victim of hallucinations brought on by the delusion he began suffering when he was camping alone.”
“Only it wasn’t all delusion.”
Rachel turned her head a bit, looking at Greg out of the corner of her narrowed eyes. “What are you suggesting?”
Greg sighed. “The monsters Barnes was seeing are real. There are spirits out there, for lack of a better word. They’ve been quiet for thousands of years… but as we’ve encroached on their habitat, they’re proving to be capable of acting in their own interests.”
Rachel looked down at the floor, then over at Gibbs, who was sitting on the couch next to Tony. “You could have just told me you had a second patient for me.”
Greg laughed. “I probably could use some therapy, but not for the reason you think. I’m an Abenaki shaman, and I’ve personally spoken with one of the spirits… the same one Jethro and Tony have dealt with.”
Rachel simply stared at Gibbs. Gibbs nudged Tony with his elbow; Tony, who’d been watching quietly, began speaking rapidly. “So… in a nutshell, late last fall I found Gibbs in his basement, only I didn’t think it was Gibbs, ‘cause of all the fur, four feet, and a tail. Turned out it was Gibbs, and Abby figured out that there was a spirit in the lumber he was working with, who wanted to go home to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Long story really, really short, I took fox-Gibbs up to New Hampshire, we returned the spirit to its home, and Gibbs was human again. We came back, but Gibbs ended up with PTSD, so we went back up the mountain with Greg here to try to settle him down. I ended up almost dying ‘cause of the plague – I’m guessing Kate told you about that – and the spirit saved my life by turning me into a fox. So here we are, all spirited up, were-foxes if you will. I’d show you, but I can’t ‘cause of my leg, so Gibbs is gonna show you, although he’s not real thrilled about having to put on a show, so it would be great if you would just, you know, go along with it all.”
Rachel stared at them all, then laughed. “I must say, as pranks go, this has got to be one of the best.”
Gibbs sighed, then stood, crooking his finger at Rachel to follow him. She got up, giving Tony a look reminiscent of Kate at her most exasperated, and followed him out of the room and down the hall to the small bathroom next to the kitchen.
Gibbs reached in, turning on the light, and gestured for her to go in. She gave him a look too, but walked in, making a show of looking around. “Is there supposed to be a spirit in here?”
Gibbs shook his head, waving her back out of the room. He changed places with her and started to close the door, but stopped, opening it a bit and looking at her seriously. “Stay,” he said firmly, pointing to the spot on the floor where she was standing. He then closed the door.
She stood there, starting at the door, her mouth partly open in disbelief. She turned toward the living room, only to see Greg leaning against the wall. “What –“
Greg shook his head. “Just wait a sec. And be ready to have your reality shift a bit.”
There was a scraping sound from inside the bathroom. Greg tilted his head toward the door. “Go ahead, open it.”
Rachel stared at the door, then abruptly moved forward, grasped the handle, and pushed the door open.
The silver and black fox walked out and looked up at her for a moment before trotting down the hall and into the living room.
Rachel watched him go, then walked quickly into the bathroom. Gibbs’ clothes were neatly folded, stacked on top of the toilet seat. She turned around and leaned out of the room, staring at Greg, who just smiled at her. She turned back into the room, knocking on the walls, and stomping on the floor before shaking her head and standing there for a moment, thinking.
While Rachel was investigating the room, Gibbs jumped up onto the couch next to Tony and sat up straight, tail curled around his feet. Tony reached over and rubbed the fox’s shoulder. “Think she’s gonna be okay with this?”
“Not easy for her, but yeah, she’ll be okay. She’ll likely handle it better than Kate would have.”
“I hope you’re right.”
Rachel came in the room. She walked right up to the couch, standing in front of Gibbs and looking into his eyes. Then she went back to her chair, sat down, picked up her wine glass, and downed half of it.
Setting the glass back down, she looked at Gibbs again, then at Tony. “Alright. Gibbs is a fox.”
Tony grinned, but before he could comment, Gibbs nose-punched him.
Greg laughed as he sat down. “These two are fun to hang out with.”
Rachel stared at Gibbs, shaking her head. “Never in a million years would I have believed this was possible.”
Tony nodded. “Took me a while. But you can see why we needed to read you in.”
“You’re saying Logan Barnes became a fox and it drove him insane?”
Tony shook his head. “As far as we know, he was never a fox or anything other than human. We think he happened to camp near a tree where a spirit lived, and that spirit was curious.”
Greg picked up the thread. “These spirits can communicate with us, in dreams, images… from what Barnes’ family has said, and what Barnes told Jethro and Tony when they caught him, it seems this particular spirit tried to communicate with him, learn about him… but Barnes couldn’t handle it.”
Rachel nodded slowly. “If he already had schizophrenic tendencies, something like that could certainly push him over the edge.”
“When we found him, he said he was seeing the ‘monsters’ everywhere… that his friends became the monsters. That’s why he killed them.”
Rachel sighed and sat back, crossing her arms over her chest. Gibbs jumped off the couch and walked over to her, getting up on his hind legs and resting one front paw on her arm. Then he backed away and trotted down the hall.
Rachel looked at Greg, who looked back at her. “I’m here to answer any questions you have.”
She shook her head. “I need time to process this. It’s… a lot to take in.”
Greg nodded, and got up, handing her a card. “Contact me anytime… we can talk on the phone, do lunch, dinner… whatever works.”
She looked down at the card, then smiled up at him. “I’ll certainly be in touch.”
He smiled at her, then went back to his seat.
Gibbs came back into the room, human again, and sat back down next to Tony. Rachel stared at him, then smiled and shook her head. “You seem to have adjusted rather well.”
Gibbs smiled suddenly. “You should have seen Tony, the first time he woke up as a fox. Adjusted a hell of a lot faster than I did.”
Rachel sat forward, running both her hands through her hair, a gesture neither man could remember having seen before. “What am I supposed to do with this information? I can’t just tell Barnes that it’s all real.”
“It isn’t,” Greg commented. “I mean, the spirit is, but Barnes seeing it everywhere is not normal.”
Gibbs caught Rachel’s gaze. “You help him, like you would help anyone else. You know the truth, and that’s got to worth something.”
“You’ve put me in a very difficult position.”
“Are you more likely to be able to help him, knowing the truth?” Tony asked.
Rachel thought about it for a long moment, then sighed. “Yes,” she admitted. “My approach will be different.” She looked seriously at all three men. “You realize this makes him almost as much of a victim as the men he killed.”
Gibbs and Tony both nodded.
Rachel looked back down at the floor, her eyes narrowed, darting back and forth as she thought. “It may take a few days for him to stabilize enough for me to talk with him.” She looked at Greg. “Can we meet tomorrow?”
Greg nodded. “Absolutely. I don’t teach tomorrow, and I’ve got nothing scheduled that I can’t postpone. Just say when and where.”
Rachel nodded. “I’ll call you later.” She abruptly got to her feet. “Thank you for sharing this… I think.”
Tony gave her a sheepish look. “Sorry?”
She stared at him, then smiled. “I can see why Kate enjoyed working with you.”
Tony’s expression morphed into a genuine smile. “She was a lot of fun.”
“Yes, she was.” Rachel picked up her purse, then looked at Gibbs. “Walk me out?”
They headed for her car; Rachel turned to face him as she reached the passenger door. “Gibbs... years ago, Kate said to me that it was too bad neither you nor Tony was a woman, because you two were perfect for each other.”
Gibbs just looked at her.
Rachel smiled. “She was right. And I think she’d be happy for you… once she got over the initial shock.”
Gibbs smiled. “One of the best decisions I’ve ever made.” His face turned serious. “You take this case with Barnes wherever it leads you.”
She nodded. “I will. And don’t worry, your secret is safe with me.”
“Never doubted it.” His hand went to the small of her back, and he guided her to driver’s side door, opening it for her.
She got in and buckled up, then looked up at him seriously. “Take care of him, Gibbs. Kate had a real soft spot for him, even if she didn’t usually show it.”
Gibbs nodded and shut the door, watching as she started up the car, waved, then backed out of the driveway and drove off.
Tony ordered the pizza; the three men talked and ate until Greg eventually left. They’d spent some time discussing the pine needles Gibbs had found in Tony’s hair; Greg still had no idea how they’d gotten there or what it meant. Tony had kept them, carefully wrapped in a plastic bag.
Gibbs helped Tony up the stairs and into the bedroom after Greg left. They took turns in the bathroom, then got into bed.
“Rachel handled all that better than I expected,” Tony said.
Gibbs, lying with his hands behind his head and staring up at the ceiling, agreed. “She’s alright.” He turned to look at Tony. “She figured out that we’re together.”
“No surprise there. She okay with it?”
“More than okay. Said Kate thought we were perfect for each other, and that it was too bad one of us wasn’t female.”
Tony laughed quietly. “I’m surprised she never gave me a hard time about that.”
Gibbs smiled. “She might have thought we’d get together some day.”
“Kate? Really? She was a bit too... rigid, I guess, in her world view.”
“Maybe. But I think she’d have gotten used to the idea, if we had, back then.”
Tony thought about it, then sighed. “You realize we are in so much violation of rule four.”
Gibbs turned on to his side, facing Tony. “Yeah.”
“I mean… Greg, Abby, Ducky, McGee, Ziva, and now Dr. Kate’s sister. Vance too, if you count just the first time. That’s an awful lot of people to keep a secret, Jethro.”
“We can trust all of them.”
“We don’t have much choice.”
Gibbs reached out, laying his hand gently on Tony’s stomach. “How’s your leg?”
Tony moved his hand to cover Gibbs’. “S’okay. Wasn’t even itchy, until you asked just now.”
“I could distract you, if you want.”
“I think that sounds like an excellent idea.”
“I was hoping you’d say that.”
Gibbs rolled over, turned out the bedside light, then moved closer to Tony, resting his head on Tony’s chest for a moment before throwing back the covers and laying on top of his lover.
“I’m glad we ended up here… even if the way we did it was a little… strange.”
Tony laughed and wrapped his arms around Gibbs’ waist. “That’s an understatement.”
Gibbs leaned down and kissed him gently. “What do you want?”
“You. I want you. And then I want to dream about us, together.”
“You got me, Tony.”
It was over an hour before they were finally dreaming again.
Five Weeks Later
Tony grinned as he hobbled his way over to Gibbs’ desk. “It’s time!”
Gibbs sat back and smiled up at him. “A week early.”
“Latest X-ray says I’m healed…. which means this –“ he tapped on the cast –“is coming off. And you know what that means!”
Gibbs’ smile morphed into a grin. “You’re going to be on top?”
“Ha, ha, funny man… it means I can go fox again!”
“You know,” Tim McGee said as he walked past them, “if you’re trying to be subtle, staring at each other silently and grinning like idiots is not helping.”
Gibbs laughed quietly, ducking his head and pushing his chair forward. He shuffled through some papers while Tony turned around, indignant. “Hey!”
McGee looked up from where he was searching for something in a desk drawer. “Well,” he said defensively, “I shouldn’t have called the boss an idiot. But still.”
Tony faced Gibbs, pointing accusingly at McGee. Gibbs just shook his head. “He’s right, Tony. We asked him to tell us when we slip up.”
Tony’s arm fell to his side; his head fell back as he heaved an exasperated sigh. “Fine. But McSpoilsport, I thought you and Ziva were at a seminar across town.”
“We are. One of the tech guys asked me to share some of the new search techniques I’ve developed. Vance okayed it, so I had to come back and get the flash drive… ah! Here it is.” Tim stood up, flipping the drive in the air before catching it and stowing it away in his pocket. He moved from behind his desk, stopping next to Tony and glancing between the two men. “Gonna be a late morning?”
Gibbs looked at him, expressionless, then glanced sideways at Tony and smirked. “Yeah. Tell Ziva, come in at ten.”
McGee grinned. “Have fun!” He stepped away and headed for the elevator.
Tony shook his head as he watched him go. “Why do I feel like our private life is a little too exposed?”
“Ah, they mean well.” Gibbs waved him off. “Go. Shoo. Get that cast off.”
Tony threw him a mock salute. “Aye, aye, Captain… don’t be late.” He set off for the elevator.
Gibbs grinned to himself as he contemplated the evening ahead, then threw himself into the work he needed to catch up on.
The elevator dinged maybe thirty minutes later. Gibbs glanced up to see Rachel Cranston standing at the corner of Ziva’s desk, smiling at him. He returned the smile and got to his feet, coming around his desk to take her hand. “How’re you doing, Doc?”
“I’m just fine, thank you for asking.” She glanced around at the empty desks. “You’re alone.”
“Tony’s getting his cast off; the others are at a training seminar.”
“Then this may be the perfect time.”
Gibbs raised an eyebrow. “For?”
“For you to come with me to see Logan Barnes.”
Gibbs met her eyes for a long moment, then looked away. He took a deep breath, motioned for her to follow him, and set off for one of the conference rooms.
He poured a cup of coffee for Rachel as she sat, then took a seat opposite her, hands on the table, watching her. She smiled, sipped her coffee, grimaced at the taste, and set the cup down, pushing it away. “Barnes could use your help,” she stated, looking at him seriously.
Gibbs tilted his head sideways. “How so?”
Rachel exhaled, some tension leaving her body. She sat forward, looking at him intently. “It’s taken weeks, but he’s finally at point where he can start to heal.”
Gibbs nodded slowly. “I know Greg located the spirit.”
She nodded. “And managed to get it to cut ties with Barnes. The dreams have stopped. Now he’s dealing with the fallout… he killed his friends, and for all intents and purposes he’s lost his career.”
“How can I help?”
Rachel reached out and touched his hand briefly. “He needs to know he’s not alone.”
“Told him that in the cave.”
“Yes, but he doesn’t remember much of what happened there. It comes to him in bits and pieces. He knows someone told him about the spirits, but he doesn’t really remember who.”
“Why not? He wasn’t on drugs.”
“No… Greg told me the spirit had a pretty tight hold on Logan’s mind.”
She narrowed his eyes at him, tilting her head slightly and looking at him sideways. “Stop changing the subject. Yes, I’m having dinner with him again tonight. We’ve been seeing each other casually.”
Both Gibbs’ eyebrows rose.
Rachel huffed in exasperation and sat back. “And yes, it will probably be more than casual, but as long as we’re both working with Logan, we’re taking it slowly.” Her eyes widened. “Are you going to come see him or not?”
Gibbs looked at her for a long moment before sitting back in his chair. “Tony… Rachel Cranston is here. She wants me to go see Barnes. Means I’ll be home later than expected.”
“So I’ll tell McGee eleven instead of ten.”
Gibbs focused on Rachel; she was looking at him curiously. He gave her a half-smile. “Let’s go.”
Gibbs followed Rachel as she walked briskly through the hospital ward. They stopped at a door with a numbered lock box; Rachel punched a few buttons and the lock clicked. She glanced at Gibbs. “This isn’t really necessary anymore, but until the judge rules, it has to stay in place.” She knocked on the door, listening, then turned the handle, pushed the door open, and stepped in.
Logan Barnes was sitting at the barred window, a book in his lap, his arms crossed over his chest as he looked outside. He was dressed in a robe over pajamas, slippers on his feet. He looked up as they walked in, smiling slightly at Rachel; the smile faded as he looked at Gibbs.
“You look familiar,” he said quietly, unmoving.
Gibbs inclined his head. “Special Agent Gibbs, NCIS. I was one of the agents who found you in the woods.”
Barnes nodded slowly. “Okay.” He looked at Rachel, who smiled at him and moved to lean against the wall, motioning for Gibbs to sit down in the second chair.
“Logan,” she said quietly. “You remember someone telling you the monsters are real.”
Logan nodded, his expression tight.
“Agent Gibbs is that someone. He’s encountered one of them before. I thought it was time the two of you talked.”
Logan stared at Gibbs, who returned his gaze evenly. Gibbs then looked at Rachel, who stared back for moment. Gibbs tilted his head toward the door without breaking their connection.
Rachel shook her head. “I need to be here.”
Gibbs smiled. “No you don’t, Doc. Barnes here’ll tell you what you need to know.”
Rachel looked between the two men, noting Logan’s slightly hopeful expression. “Alright.” She smiled at Logan. “I’ll see you tomorrow at our usual time.”
Logan nodded but kept staring at Gibbs. Neither man spoke until the door closed behind her.
“They’re real,” Logan said, sounding uncertain.
Gibbs nodded. “Dr. Cranston told you.”
“Yeah.” Logan suddenly stood, moving to the window. “So did Greg. You know Greg?”
“I do. We hiked up Mount Washington to talk to one of the spirits.”
“The dreams stopped after Greg went to the tree… I told him where it was.”
Gibbs stayed quiet, waiting.
“My friends are dead.” Logan turned to look at him. “Dr. Cranston testified at the hearing last week. Said I wasn’t sane when I... when it happened. The Navy’s not going to prosecute… I’m to be discharged. They’re going to send me to another institution. Dr. Cranston says it might take a few years, but eventually I’ll be going home.” Logan leaned against the wall, hands in his pockets, looking at the floor. “It’s not right.”
“Wasn’t your fault.”
Logan stared at the floor a while longer, then looked at Gibbs. “I killed them. Mike, Jevon, Dion… they’re dead because I saw monsters instead of my friends. How am I supposed to live with that?”
Gibbs stood and took a few steps until he was next to Logan, looking out the window. “You live with it by trying to make up for what happened.”
Logan leaned against the wall, looking at Gibbs. “You kill anyone ‘cause of the monsters?”
Gibbs shook his head. “No. But I’ve killed… far more than you have.”
“Military? You’ve got the look.”
“Marine. Sniper, among other things. Then as an agent.”
Logan rested his head against the wall. “Ever kill a friend?”
Gibbs stared out the window for a long time. “People I cared about have died because of me,” he said finally. He stepped away from the window and looked at Logan. “You learn to live with it. You did what you did, and the reasons seemed right at the time. You live for your family now.”
Logan blinked rapidly, then looked down at the floor. “At the cave… JAG says I took a hostage… NCIS agent, caught his leg in a trap. I don’t remember… “
Gibbs waited him out.
“There was a fox… his leg was broken. I don’t remember a man.”
Gibbs took a deep breath. “You thought you were seeing a fox; it was an agent… my second in command.”
Logan stared at him. “Tony… I remember you called him Tony. But I was holding a fox.”
“Spirit had you seeing a lot of things.”
Logan reached up to rub his face. “I guess.” He dropped his hand and looked at Gibbs. “Will you tell him I’m sorry he got hurt?”
Logan stood there, leaning against the wall. “I’m tired,” he stated suddenly.
Gibbs looked at him carefully; Logan didn’t seem to be seeing him anymore. “Get some rest,” he said, then walked to the door, knocking on it to be released.
Dr. Cranston opened it; Gibbs glanced back to see that Logan hadn’t moved. He was still staring at nothing. Then Gibbs walked through the door and Rachel pulled it shut.
“How did it go?” she asked quietly.
Gibbs looked at her and shook his head. “Not sure I did any good.”
“Time will tell.” They started walking back down the hall. “Thank you for coming. He has a long road ahead; maybe this will help.”
Rachel sighed. “Hard to say. I think he would be, if he didn’t feel that dying would be the easy way out.”
“He wants to do penance,” Gibbs said.
“Yes… that’s as good a way to put it as any.”
“His family here?”
“His sister Lauren was staying in town for a while; now she comes to see him every week… his parents have been here a few times. His brother hasn’t, not yet.”
Gibbs nodded absently as they entered an elevator. He hit the button for the ground floor; Rachel turned to look at him. “If he asks…”
“I’ll talk to him again if he wants.”
“Hey Jethro… where are you?”
“Just dropped Rachel off. Heading home in a few.”
“How’d it go?”
“It went. Not an easy conversation.”
“Can’t imagine it would be.”
“He wanted me to tell you he’s sorry you got hurt.”
“Nice of him.”
“Yeah. Got that cast off?”
“Uh huh. Hurry home, will you?”
“Just got to make a quick call to Greg first.”
“Okay. I already picked up dinner. Say hi for me.”
“Will do. I’ll be there soon.”
“Cool. Over and out.”
Gibbs smiled as he sat in his car at the Navy Yard, then pulled his phone out of his pocket, flipped it open, and hit a few buttons.
“Gibbs! How are you?”
“Good… just saw Barnes.”
“Rachel said she was going to ask you to talk to him.”
“Well, she did.”
“Did it help?”
“I dunno… not my field. Rachel… she’s good people, Greg.”
Greg laughed. “I was wondering when you were going to warn me to behave.”
“I’m serious. She’s family.”
“Gibbs… we’re just friends right now. Maybe building something. I have no intention of making her unhappy.”
“Alright. You come up with anything more on those pine needles?”
“Some… they happen again?”
“Yup. Third time.”
“Same kind of dream?”
“Up on the mountain.”
“Well… from what I’ve learned so far, they can mean anything from long life to harmony with nature to warding off ghosts.”
“Harmony with nature makes sense.”
“Guess you’ll have to ask when you head up there.”
“Vance signed off for a few weeks from now. Tony’s got to do some physical therapy with his leg first.”
“Keep me posted… I can cancel a class or two and head up there with you if you want.”
“Thanks for the offer, but I think we’ll go this one alone.”
“No problem, just let me know if you change your mind.”
“Will do. Tony says hi.”
“Tell him I said hi back… have a good night, Gibbs.”
Gibbs flipped the phone shut and threw the car into gear, pulling out of the parking lot and heading for home.
Gibbs walked through the front door, locking it behind him and tossing his keys on the small table in the entry way.
There was no answer. Gibbs jogged up the stairs and walked into the master bedroom, and saw Tony’s clothes piled on the bed. Smiling, Gibbs quickly removed his own clothes, closed his eyes, and shifted into the fox.
He stretched all four legs, shook himself, then sat on the floor next to the bed, scenting the air and listening. He couldn’t pinpoint Tony’s location, although scent made it clear Tony had been in the room recently. Tracking his partner that way would be too difficult, since his scent was everywhere in the house, so Gibbs got to his feet and slowly made his way through the house, listening intently and checking every room.
He cleared the second and first floors, then made his way into the basement. There was still light coming through the small windows, but he relied more on his sharp hearing. His mouth opened in a foxy grin as he caught the faintest sound from the back corner behind the stairs.
Moving quietly, he snuck down to the basement floor, but instead of heading for the source of the sound, he walked toward the back of the room, ears and tail twitching in anticipation. Before he made it halfway across, a furry missile struck him from behind, sending both of them rolling across the floor.
“Got’cha!” Tony’s mental voice was gleeful.
Gibbs got his feet under him and leapt away, turning in mid-air to land facing Tony. The red fox was on his feet, crouched awkwardly as he kept most of his weight off his recently healed leg. Gibbs changed his plan of attack from pouncing to running, darting away from Tony and toward the stairs. He could hear Tony following close behind; he stayed just ahead of him, running up to the second floor and leaping onto the bed, turning to meet Tony’s charge.
Gibbs was bowled over by the slightly larger fox, and the two rolled around in a snarling, fuzzy heap, play-biting each other’s legs and necks. Gibbs tried to avoid Tony’s bad leg, but it was too hard to tell which leg was which; their play stopped abruptly when Tony yelped as Gibbs’ teeth closed on the wrong leg.
Gibbs let go immediately. “Sorry, Tony.”
“It’s fine. Surprised me more than anything else.”
The two foxes lay there, panting slightly; Gibbs moved to rest his head on Tony’s shoulders.
“Feel good to be a fox again?”
“You know it. I missed this.”
“Another few weeks and we’ll be up on the mountain.” Gibbs leaned over to sniff Tony’s leg. “Better really work on it.”
“Actually, the doctor said it’s in pretty good shape. Told me not to use crutches, and that I only need a few therapy sessions.”
“You clear to be in the field?”
“Yeah… just not to chase down any suspects.”
“We can let Ziva and McGee do that.”
“Sounds good to me.” Tony rolled onto his back, all four feet waving in the air, tail swishing back and forth. “I really missed this.”
Gibbs watched him for a moment, then shifted back to human form. “Know what I missed?”
The fox turned his head to look at him, rolled onto his stomach, and shifted back too. “What?”
Gibbs sat up, reached out with both hands to grab Tony’s shoulders, then fell back on the bed, pulling Tony on top of him. “This.” He slid one hand behind Tony’s head and drew him into a long, passionate kiss.
Tony eventually pulled away, smiling down at Gibbs. “I called McGee and told him not to come in until noon.”
“Got plans, do you?”
“You bet. Wanna get started?” Tony leaned down and scraped his teeth on Gibbs’ neck.
Gibbs’ hands gripped Tony’s neck and shoulder tightly. “Maybe we should take the whole day off.”
Tony moved again, his face inches from Gibbs’ own. “Maybe we should.” He moved in, capturing Gibbs’ lips with his own.
They made love until they were exhausted… then they dozed for a while, ate, and made love again, finally falling into a dreamless sleep in the early hours of the morning.
A special thank you to ArianaFeileacan, who pointed me in the right direction for meanings of the pine needles. Unbetaed and written in a state of semi-exhaustion, so apologies for any typos.
One more chapter to go.
“What do you think of pack donkeys?”
Gibbs stifled a grin as he turned around to watch Tony picking his way through the rocks. “Where you gonna keep ‘em when we’re not coming here?”
Gibbs snorted, hitched his pack up on his back, and moved on. It had been almost two hours since they left the Crawford Path; they weren’t far from their usual campsite. “Donkeys and a boat don’t mix.”
“Seriously, Jethro… I don’t remember my pack being this heavy.”
“We’re staying up here for five days, Tony – of course it’s heavier.”
“I just figured, without all the winter gear…”
“Weather’s still changeable, even though it’s almost June. Temperature can still drop up here. Gotta be ready.” Gibbs didn’t bother pointing out that the current temperature was probably somewhere in the mid forties.
Tony sighed loudly, but didn’t say anything. Gibbs smiled to himself, then sent out what he hoped would be a comforting thought. “I’ll give you a back rub tonight.”
“I like the sound of that.”
They arrived at the campsite about half an hour later. Gibbs walked up to the spirit’s tree, laying his hand on the bark and closing his eyes. He didn’t get anything coherent, just a quiet sense of welcome. “I think it’s asleep.”
“I’m sure we’ll get a chance to talk to it later.” Tony set his pack down and stretched, groaning theatrically. “Could really use that back rub now.”
“Great,” Gibbs said out loud as he dropped his pack next to Tony’s. “Set up the tent and I’ll get right on that.”
“Me?” Tony’s eyes widened.
Gibbs didn’t bother hiding his smile. “Why not? You did it on that first trip. I’ve done it every time since… you could use the practice.”
“What happened to ‘Marines do it better?’”
“We still do. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to improve.”
Tony rolled his eyes, but moved to clear the spot for the tent quickly enough. Gibbs sat on a nearby rock and watched, but other than a few minor suggestions, had nothing to criticize as Tony got the tent set up.
“Nice job,” he said, as Tony came and sat next to him.
Both men were quiet as they took in the view. They could see a good part of the mountain range from where they sat.
“Beautiful up here,” Tony thought. “Wasn’t so green before.”
Gibbs didn’t reply; he simply reached out and took Tony’s hand, entwining their fingers.
A short time later, Tony abruptly stood and stretched. “Wanna go fox?”
“What about your back rub?”
They stowed their gear in the tent; Gibbs took a spare set of clothes in a plastic bag and disappeared, returning a short time later. “I’ll show you where they are after we change.”
There were no signs of any other hikers in the area, so both men went in the tent, stripped, and changed form.
Tony shook himself vigorously, the tip of his tail twitching impatiently as he watched Gibbs stretch. Gibbs noticed and sat, yawning widely, white teeth glistening as his lips pulled back. “In a hurry, Tony?”
“Yes! Last time we were here, so was Greg, and I’d almost died, and we didn’t have a lot of time – now we can really explore. I want to run!”
Gibbs got to his feet, walked over to Tony, and gently head-butted him on the shoulder. “Then let’s run.” He turned and left the tent, breaking into a loping run, Tony following close behind.
They passed the spirit’s tree, dodging around others, wending their way through the sparse woods until they reached a patch of thick brush next to a rocky outcropping. Gibbs slowed to a stop and sniffed at the plants. “Our stuff’s under here,” he told Tony.
Tony sniffed the area, backed up and looked around, then leapt up onto one of the large rocks, scrambling up to the top. He paced from end to end, surveying the landscape; there were no people in sight. “Good spot, Jethro.”
Gibbs joined him, standing on the rock and looking out over the mountain range. A breeze ruffled his fur. “There’s room to crawl in and get dressed if we have to.”
“We shouldn’t need to,” Tony pointed out. “Greg says most hikers stick to the paths, want to reach the summit.”
“Doesn’t hurt to be prepared.”
“You’re such a boy scout!” Tony gave Gibbs a foxy grin, nose-punched him in the side, then leapt to the ground and took off running, Gibbs following close behind.
Tony stayed low to the ground, running flat out, circling trees and staying just a step ahead of Gibbs. He glanced back at one point to see the silver fox’s teeth about to close on his tail. He gave a startled yip, tucked his tail in close, gathered his legs under him, and put on a burst of speed that got him out of harm’s way.
Gibbs slowed to a lope, waiting for Tony to tire himself out. As soon as he saw the red fox stumble a bit, he put on his own burst of speed, quickly catching up and barreling into him. The two foxes rolled several yards, giving vent to snarls, yips, growls, and a flurry of play-biting.
They came to rest in a sunny spot, both breathing heavily. Tony lay flat out on his side, staring at Gibbs, whose head rested between his front paws, ears up, gazing at Tony with a hint of mischief in his eyes.
“One of these days…” Tony’s mental voice trailed off.
“What?” Gibbs challenged.
“Uh… we’re being watched.”
Gibbs quickly turned his head, looking over his shoulder at the pair of hikers staring at them from several yards away. No one moved.
“That was so cool,” the young woman commented to her male partner.
“Yeah,” he responded, “but I thought red and grey foxes were two different species?”
Foxes and humans stared at each other.
“Maybe the grey one is a mutant?”
Tony couldn’t help the snort that escaped. He rolled to his feet, grinning at Gibbs. “You’re a mutant! I knew it! Those super powers couldn’t just be a Marine thing.”
Gibbs nose-punched Tony in the side, keeping a wary eye on the hikers. “Just see if you’re getting a back rub now.”
“You promised! I set up the tent. No going back on that.”
The hikers were still watching them. “They’re not really behaving the way I thought foxes would,” the man commented.
“They’re not dogs, are they?”
“That’s it,” Gibbs thought. “We’re leaving.”
Tony got up, following Gibbs as he headed back the way they’d come, moving at a comfortable walk since the hikers weren’t coming any closer. Tony looked back over his shoulder and barked once; the woman raised her hand and waved.
“And so begins the legend of the foxes of Mount Washington,” Tony said gleefully.
Gibbs just sighed.
Gibbs poked at the fire with a small branch, causing the flames to leap a little higher. He sat back, leaning slightly on Tony, who was looking at the spirit’s tree.
“Think we should go say hi?”
“In a few minutes,” Gibbs replied.
They sat for a while, each lost in their own thoughts. Tony eventually stood and stretched, then walked away from the fire and toward the edge of the mountain. Gibbs watched him go, then got up and walked over to stand next to him, looking at Tony as the younger man gazed up at the stars. Gibbs looked up too; the sky was incredibly clear, and there were many more stars than he was used to seeing.
“Gonna be chilly tonight,” he said.
Tony shrugged. “That’s okay. I’ll be toasty warm after my backrub.”
Gibbs looked at him. “What’re you thinkin’ about?”
Tony sighed. “Logan Barnes, actually.”
Gibbs turned toward his partner. “Why?”
“Just… this was his thing, you know? Hiking, being in the woods. Wasn’t mine, not at all. We both run into these spirits, and now I’m out here enjoying being on the mountain, and he’s locked up in a hospital. Who knows if he’ll ever want to get out in the woods again. Seems strange, when you think about it. Sort of unfair.”
“Life’s not fair, Tony,” Gibbs said quietly. “We’ve both got plenty of reasons to know that.”
“I know.” Tony reached out, putting his arm around Gibbs’ waist and pulling him close for a moment before releasing him.
Gibbs reached for Tony’s hand, squeezing gently and then letting go. “Rachel called me yesterday. Barnes asked to speak to me again… wants to learn more about the spirits. She’s thinking it might help him to talk to Greg, me, and you, actually.”
“Me? Why me?”
Gibbs looked back up at the stars. “He wants to apologize to you. She said he contacted Isaiah Powell, talked with him over the phone. Apology isn’t much, but it’s a step.”
“No need, but if it will help him, sure.”
They were both quiet for a while, until Tony spoke up again. “Maybe Greg can teach him how to keep any spirits out of his head.”
They stood there for a few more minutes, after which Gibbs nudged Tony with his shoulder. “Come on… let’s go say hi.”
It was a short walk to the tree; both men put a hand on the bark and thought their greetings to the spirit.
They stayed for a while, each receiving a jumble of images and ideas, all less coherent than the initial greeting. The spirit eventually fell silent, and they made their way back to the fire, putting it out before getting into the tent. Gibbs switched on one of the small flashlights and they began to get undressed.
“Did any of that make sense to you?” Tony asked.
“Some,” Gibbs admitted, as he untied his boots. “Got a general sense that it’s happy we’re here.”
“Same. Thought there was more to it, though.”
“Yeah… my guess is we’ll get more tonight.”
“Of course.” Gibbs reached out a hand, laying his palm against Tony’s face. “Want that back rub now?”
Tony sent him a rakish grin. “Surprise me.”
They stood by the tree, in human form, and were joined by the spirit. Branch-like fingers rested on their shoulders, and they walked with the spirit, far beyond where they’d run that day as foxes. The spirit showed them hidden caves and pine groves. It took them lower on the mountain, showing them where a tribe had made their home thousands of years ago.
The sprit brought them to a bear’s den, and showed them a family of real foxes, the cubs sleeping in their den while their mother hunted for food. They saw a sheltered patch of brush where a small herd of deer were bedded down for the night, and watched an owl hunt for mice. They also found a campsite where several tents were pitched; they watched the people sitting around the fire talking. They recognized the young couple who’d watched them play in fox form earlier that day.
Then they were up at the summit; they couldn’t feel the wind or the cold. The spirit seemed to grow larger, dwarfing the observatory buildings. It blotted out some of the stars; for a moment, they seemed to be floating in space, able to see the entire mountain range below them. Then they were back at the tree; the spirit was its normal size again, and they shifted into foxes and ran off through the woods.
Tony woke slowly; he could smell coffee. He brought his arms out of the sleeping bag he shared with Gibbs, stretching them up and back.
A hand caught hold of his arm. “Careful – you’ll spill it.”
Tony smiled and opened his eyes. “How did you manage to sneak out of here and then sneak back in without me noticing?”
Gibbs smiled at him. “’Cause I tired you out last night.”
Tony grinned back. “You sure did.” He tilted his head up, located his coffee, then propped himself up on one elbow, grabbed the mug, and had a sip. “That’s good. What’s it like out there?”
“A little chilly. Sunny. Good day to go up to the summit.”
“That’ll be fun.” Tony had another sip, then looked around the tent. There were pine needles scattered over the sleeping bag. He picked one up, twirling it between his fingers, and glanced at Gibbs. “You?”
Gibbs shook his head. Tony nodded, then picked up more of the needles, letting them drift between his fingers and fall back down. “Crazy dream last night. Felt like we were being given a tour.”
“Felt like more than that.”
“It’s offering us something, isn’t it?”
“Between the pine needles and the dream… yeah, I think so.”
“Why don’t we ask?”
They got up, dressed, and stepped out into the bright sun and crisp air. Tony zipped up his jacket, and followed Gibbs to the tree.
They both laid hands on the trunk; Tony let Gibbs take the lead, listening to his questions and the spirit’s responses.
“The pine needles… can you tell us what they mean?”
“You gave us pine needles, and showed us the mountain. Why?”
“You want us to stay with you? On the mountain?”
Gibbs and Tony stared at each other. Gibbs’ brow furrowed; he closed his eyes, concentrating, and asked another question.
“Does it have to be now?”
“I don’t get that,” Tony muttered.
“Transition… what does that mean?”
Gibbs was quiet for a while. Tony watched him, searching his face for clues, but Gibbs’ eyes remained closed. He finally asked another question.
“Would we be foxes? Humans?”
“Can we think about it? Talk with our shaman friend?”
Gibbs moved away from the tree; Tony followed. They worked together to build up the fire, make some breakfast and more coffee, all in silence.
Tony eventually spoke. “Was it saying what I think it was saying?”
Gibbs gave him a small smile. “Offering us a place here, with it, to protect the mountain?”
“I think so.”
“What did that mean… death, change, life?”
Gibbs shrugged. “We’ll have to talk with Greg… but I think it’s saying if we want, when we die, we can come here.”
“And be spirits?”
“Got the impression we could take whatever form we wanted.”
“Wow. Jethro, this is… this is crazy.”
They were quiet for a long time. “You realize,” Tony thought hesitantly, “it’s offering us a chance to be together. Forever… or at least as close to it as makes any sense at all.”
Gibbs stared at him, then smiled. “You said it yourself… the legend of the foxes of Mount Washington.”
“Holy… something. I don’t even have the words.”
Tony drank some more coffee. “We need more information.”
Gibbs nodded. “We’ll talk with Greg, come back up here and hash it all out.” His eyes met Tony’s, his expression serious. “Not something we have to decide right now, Tony.”
“Yeah.” Tony took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “Seem to you it was more coherent than before?”
“Maybe a bit.”
“It said teach… is it learning about humans from us?”
“Lots of maybes and could bes in there.”
Gibbs laughed quietly. “Not like I’m an expert, Tony.”
“You realize we can’t talk to anyone else about this, except Greg. Can you imagine Abby’s reaction?”
“More than I can handle. So, we goin’ to the summit?”
They put together smaller packs and set off, walking side by side, under a bright blue sky.
They ran as foxes, red and silver, covering ground faster than they could awake. The spirit moved beside them, flowing over the ground. They left the mountain, heading for the next, and were joined by another spirit. They covered the range, meeting spirits like theirs, and others who had once been human, taking on forms of bears, owls, wolves, cougars, hawks, and so on. They discovered their spirit had a name, although neither of them could pronounce it. They saw the range, and gained insight into the history, not only of the mountains, but of the world. They had space and time open before them; theirs for the taking if they wanted it.
As they dreamt, they learned, and they knew they had decisions to make. For now, though, they curled up under the stars, enjoying the freedom of being together.
There may be more to the FoxVerse someday, but for now it’s back to the FIOverse. It’s going to take some time to get it all planned out, but I hope to be posting again before too long. Thanks to all of you who’ve enjoyed this series!