A painful throbbing brought Tony back to consciousness. Blood rushed though his temples and his head felt like it was being used as a drum for one of Abby's death metal bands. He wanted to reach out and hold his head until the pounding ceased, but his hands were bound tightly in front of him with a rough rope.
Eyes still closed, he took a quick bodily inventory and discerned that nothing was broken and, fortunately, his stitches were still in tact. He had accrued a few additional bruises which he had suspected were from being dragged none-too-gently into this room. His left ankle, though, was encased in a heavy metal object: probably a shackle of some sort, he thought as he continued to lie silently, feigning unconsciousness.
"I know you are awake, Mr. DiNozzo."
Tony forced his eyes open and immediately regretted it. Though there was no light in the room, the small movement of parting his eyelids increased the pounding in his head tenfold. He gently touched his temple, wincing as his fingers came away crusted in dried blood.
He glanced across the room to see Nathaniel Sheldon crouching against the far wall, tossing a bottle of water between his gloved hands. The windowless room was made of stone with an aged wooden door at the far end of the room.
DiNozzo shot a quick look at his ankle and discovered it was bound in an antique manacle whose end was welded to a stone wall plate. The chain was about two feet in length, not nearly long enough to rush Sheldon.
"If this is about keeping Night of the Living Dead for over a month, I could return it to Blockbuster before you open tomorrow…" he quipped as he raised himself into a sitting position.
Sheldon shook his head condescendingly. "I have heard stories about you, Anthony DiNozzo."
"All good I hope," Tony leaned casually against the back wall as if he was having a relaxing conversation with a friend, not bound hand and foot in a windowless cell facing off against his captor. "If there are a few from a Director Vance, you can ignore them—the man has it in for me." He flashed Sheldon his most winning smile.
"Silence," Sheldon said, pulling a .45 from the small of his back. "I am not here to listen to your troubles with your Director—"
"What then? You wanted some fashion advice?" Tony raised his eyebrows distastefully as he eyed the well-dressed man. "Armani jacket suit, three button. Classy, but I'm a fan of the two, myself. The Zegna shoes? Hard to come by and gives you an air of sophistication. But the socks from Sears: tactless. Screams cheap, careless, or just plain stupid."
Sheldon calmly clicked the safety off the weapon and pointed it at Tony's chest.
"Continue speaking and I will stupidly fire my weapon directly into your heart."
Tony closed his mouth but continued to glare sharply at his captor.
"This will be quick and painless…for me at least," Sheldon grinned. "Before the fun begins, I need you to know why you are here. You remember my brother Mark, do you not? He was only twenty when you arrested him for dealing drugs five years ago."
The case came filtering back to Tony one detail at a time. Petty Officer Jacob Mason had almost overdosed on a patch of improperly prepared marijuana, the dose being almost four times the normal limit. His friends, alarmed by the thought of his death, had quickly given up the dealer, Mark Sheldon, in exchange for small reprimand on their service records instead of a general discharge. He had been tried, convicted and sent to Leavenworth for at least ten years.
"Did you know Mark almost killed PFC Mason as well?"
Sheldon stepped forward, gun raised threateningly. "He did nothing of the sort."
Tony snorted in derision. "Sure he did. He sold tainted marijuana to the entire crew of the USS Ronald Reagan and was stupid enough to get caught on tape. You're lucky Mason survived otherwise your brother might have been in jail for—"
Sheldon stepped closer and viciously backhanded Tony, causing the agent to bite down on the inside of his cheek.
DiNozzo shook his head to clear the stars from his sight.
"Didn't see that coming," he muttered to himself, cursing his missed opportunity to attack Sheldon. It was as if he was standing in a fog: he had seen Sheldon coming but couldn't convince his body to react.
"Mark was set-up," Sheldon stated, his eyes flashing.
"The hell he was. There was not a single juror that wasn't ready to convict," Tony returned, intentionally baiting Sheldon for another chance to overpower him. It would be more difficult with his leg iron, considering he only had a radius of about two feet, but people tended to make stupid mistakes when the names of their loved ones were being threatened. "There's no way he's walking: not now, not in the next five years."
Sheldon's finger twitched, but he refrained from firing the weapon. He did, however, take one step closer to Tony, playing perfectly into the agent's hastily constructed plan.
"You do not know my brother the way I do. There was no way he would have dealt drugs," Iniguez' second-in-command spat.
"And Olivia Newton-John never had plastic surgery," Tony scoffed. "Let's face it: your idiot brother is a lost cause."
Sheldon purpled and stepped forward with the gun raised. Seeing that Sheldon was almost in his reach, Tony straightened up slightly, shifting his weight forward so he could quickly spring forward and grab the gun.
But, Sheldon must have seen DiNozzo's preparations for he paused without taking the final step.
"Very good, Agent DiNozzo," he congratulated. "Goading the opponent into making an error in judgment is a very solid plan, however, rarely successful. Where on earth did you learn that?"
"How to Be a Successful Criminal in Four Easy Steps," Tony deadpanned. "Borrowed it from the public library last month. You can read it when I'm done."
Sheldon had had enough with DiNozzo's disrespectful attitude: he had worked long and hard to get where he was today. Not everyone could be fortunate enough to have a wealthy family that could afford a military boarding school and was gifted enough to merit a full-ride athletic scholarship to Ohio State University—no, he and Mark had been born to a family who did not care about whether they came home at night or not. He had done a lot of things in his past that he was not proud of, but helping his brother out of a jam was most definitely not one of them.
Tony saw the pistol butt heading for his face and tried desperately to get out of the way but, despite his best efforts, his reaction time was still shot. The grip smashed into his cheekbone, sending him crashing into the wall. He collapsed to the floor, black spots closing in around the edges of his vision.
Through the haze, he felt the cold metal of the gun being shoved against his chest.
"I have had just about all I am going to take from you, Mr. DiNozzo." The weapon was driven harder into his chest, almost to the point of bruising his ribcage. "If my brother's life were not at stake, I would kill you here and now."
Tony sat silently, staring defiantly at Sheldon as his vision slowly began to return. But even though his face revealed no emotion, his heart was racing. He was far too young to die: far, far, far too young. His father had lived a care-free lifestyle that was anything but healthy and, yet, he had made it to the ripe old age of eighty-one without problems. Tony had hoped that he should be so lucky. There was so much he had not accomplished yet: getting married and settling down, having his own team, maybe teaching a son how to play basketball...
These thoughts faded as quickly as they had come. He had taken an oath to serve and protect and Mark Sheldon was guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt. DiNozzo would do whatever it took to ensure that he stayed behind bars, not selling lethal drugs to the entire US Navy.
Sheldon stared at Tony, surprised by the certainty with which the agent refused to beg for his life. He had encountered greater men, all of whom had broken down weeping for mercy in the end…but not DiNozzo. Good, he finally decided. It would make the next step of his plan that much more interesting.
Tony felt the gun pull away from his chest. He tried to force himself to his feet but there seemed to be a block between his brain and his muscles; he unhappily slouched against the wall while the droning in his head started faded.
Sheldon walked to the center of the room, pulled a Smith and Wesson from his waistband and tossed it at the agent so it landed within his reach. In a moment of adrenaline-induced clarity, Tony clumsily snatched the weapon off the ground, took aim at Sheldon and pulled the trigger.
He stared at the gun in shock as he heard a hollow click and no bullets were fired.
"It is not loaded you imbecile," Sheldon patronized. "Now, toss it back."
Tony hesitated, knowing he had just placed his prints on a weapon other than his own. He knew the reason any criminal would have someone else hold an empty gun was to convict him of murder. He had been publically accused of murder twice in the last four years and was fairly sure a third case would not end in his favor, especially if an Agent Slacks had anything to say about it.
His reverie was interrupted by a loud gun shot. The bullet whistled by DiNozzo's ear and embedded itself in the wall not two inches from his head.
"I told you to Toss. It. Back." Sheldon repeated slowly, waving the gun threateningly.
"Or what?" Tony growled. "You gonna shoot me Sheldon? That's a banner idea. That's a sure-fire way to get your brother out of jail. Oh, wait—you shoot me and you'll end up in jail with him. I'm almost positive Gibbs could arrange for the two of you to have neighboring cells if that's what you really want…"
"Ah, your infamous Agent Gibbs," his captor smirked, "If the man is as great an agent as you say, where is he?"
Tony recalled the fight he and Gibbs had had the night before, the words returning to him with the force of a strong punch to the stomach:
'Like when you went to Mexico to avenge your family's death?'
'"You're. A. Bastard."
"And how's that working out for you?"
"Great…until some big city detective tried to follow in my footsteps."'
He fought to keep his face impassive and shoved his feelings back into the locked box where they belonged. "He's coming, Sheldon. I'd bet my life on it."
"If you do not toss me the weapon promptly, it will not be your life you are betting." Sheldon pulled a small item from his pocket and fingered it for a long moment before chucking it at Tony. The agent saw a glint of gold and barely managed to catch the object between his stiff fingers.
His heart stopped beating as he turned the object around and saw the gold badge. He only needed to glance at the numbers to know who the owner was.
"Give me the weapon," Sheldon reiterated, "or your partner dies."
Damn, the Probie must have come over again after he had examined Keenan's body and had somehow gotten himself kidnapped as well.
"I need proof Special Agent McGee is still alive," Tony spoke up in a level tone that masked his concern.
Sheldon sighed deeply and pulled a cellular phone from his pocket. He dialed a number and waited silently for someone else to pick up.
"Put him on," he demanded.
He crouched next to DiNozzo, pressed the gun against his chest, and shoved the phone next to his ear.
Tony winced as he heard a fleshy collision followed by a loud groan and a few seconds of heavy breathing.
"Whazza?" McGee slurred, confusion evident in his voice.
Sheldon snapped the phone closed and stepped away, a gleeful expression on his face.
Oh shit McGee, DiNozzo thought, the S&W still sitting in his hands. Slurring words was a sign of a serious concussion. He knew McGee had already had a concussion from the Carson incident, albeit a minor one, but he also knew McIdiot had refused to stay overnight for observation. His condition must have seriously deteriorated since Tony had last seen him.
That was all the proof Tony needed to hear: he was perfectly fine with putting his own life in danger, but he would never, ever, endanger his partner's future.
He gently underhanded the weapon to the center of the room.
"One final thing." Sheldon reached for the far wall and picked up the bottle of water that had been sitting there. He tossed it to Tony, who barely managed to drop McGee's badge in time to catch it.
Tony hesitated, looking warily at the bottle, knowing it was probably laced with a strong hallucinogenic.
Sheldon pulled out his cell phone and began to dial.
"No, no, no! Wait!" Tony popped open the water and downed the entire bottle, grimacing as the grimy liquid slid down his throat.
While he was drinking, Sheldon pulled a pen from his pocket and slid it through the trigger guard of the S&W, picking up the weapon without having left his fingerprints.
"There," Tony dropped the empty bottle on the ground. "Now let me see Special Agent McGee."
"In due time, in due time," Sheldon cackled. "It is good that you are cooperating though. I would hate to end your partner's life prematurely," Sheldon added as he walked out of the room, slamming and locking the door behind him.
From the hallway, Sheldon could see into the room where Special Agent McGee was being held. The agent was bound to a chair and was being interrogated by Fries. The answer he had just given was apparently not the correct one, for Fries drove his fist into the computer geek's stomach leaving the man gasping and sputtering for air. Fries grabbed the agent's hair and pulled his head back, shoving a worn leather wallet into his face and shouting a question.
"What's the plan boss?" Sheldon turned around to see Talbot standing behind him, practically twitching with excitement.
Sheldon motioned to the S&W he was still holding. "Once the hyoscyamine is absorbed into DiNozzo's system, you are going to shoot McGee. The police—"
"Boss!" Fries dashed out of McGee's interrogation room and quietly spoke with Sheldon for a long moment.
"Hey!" Talbot interjected but the two ignored him.
"Is that so?" Sheldon rubbed his chin while he considered what Fries had just told him. "Put him in the same room as DiNozzo."
But his lackeys stood there, staring at him in silence. Sheldon sighed deeply and prayed to the gods to give him the courage to not kill the two men he had hired to help him pull off his plan.
Tony was fumbling with his belt buckle, trying to access his knife that was hidden within. He was unable to grasp the leather since his hands were shaking so badly he could hardly hold the leather for more than a few seconds at a time and he was beginning to see double.
The contents of the water bottle had definitely been a drug which had passed into his system rather quickly. He squinted hard at his belt, trying to sharpen his rapidly blurring vision before attempting to force the leather through the belt loop for the umpteenth time. Having finally gotten a decent grip on the belt, he pulled quickly with his hand before his fingers would release the leather. In his excitement, he had forgotten about the proximity of the wall and ended up smacking his elbow into the stone, his hand releasing the belt as pain radiated through his forearm.
He cursed silently, reaching up to wipe the sweat from his face. Damn it was hot in here, he thought, noting for the first time how the temperature had increased in the room. He took a deep breath, stretched his fingers and tried again to undo his belt.
He looked up as he heard the deadbolt creak.
"What do you want this time, Sheldon? My first born child?" he quipped, but his glib comment was lacking its usual intensity.
The door opened and a body was thrown into the room; it thudded painfully against the floor and rolled once before coming to a complete stop.
"McGee!" Tony shouted, but his partner did not respond.
He fumbled with his belt with more conviction this time, finally managing to get the leather through the metal loop. He pulled his knife free and carefully maneuvered it into his leg iron. After what seemed like hours, the antique lock clicked and the shackle fell open.
As he sprang to his feet, his vision started spinning faster than a turbine in a Kenmore washing machine. He blinked viciously and scrubbed his eyes with his hands before pushing away from the wall and stumbling toward his partner.
He knelt beside McGee and gently rolled the younger man onto his back, gasping in surprise as took in Tim's bloodied and bruised face.
"McGee!" Tony hissed, shaking the geek's shoulder with his bound hands. "Come on, Tim. Wake up!"
He breathed a sign of relief as McGee let out a groan.
"That's it, Probie," he coached encouragingly as his partner's eyes slid open.
Fear tore through DiNozzo as he saw McGee's pupils were uneven and he seemed to have a hard time recognizing where he was.
"Wh'r 'm I?" McGee rasped.
"I don't know." DiNozzo saw McGee's eyes roll slightly backwards. "You have to stay with me, Tim. You have a serious concussion so you have to stay awake. Trust me: I would know."
Tim struggled to lift his lids again, his eyes searching the room for something familiar that would tell him where he was. His gaze landed on the man in front of him, assessing in the tousled hair, the bleeding cheekbone and the knife held between his two bound, shaking hands.
His brown eyes locked onto the man's green ones and McGee dug deep within himself, summoning the strength to put together a coherent sentence.
"Wh…who 're you?" he asked the dark-haired man.