Absolutely my first attempt at NCIS fic of any kind, but I've recently (and inevitably) become hooked on this show, and couldn't resist taking my hand at a story. As planned, this should be a three-to-four chapter/part story, getting up to maybe a hundred pages long. I hope you enjoy it.
The Window: Tony (I)
"Special Agent Anthony Dinozzo was reported missing last night and his whereabouts are currently unknown. NCIS is now following all possible leads."
He had touched the screen when they'd showed his picture. The static buzzed and whirred against him. He heard Kate taunting him in his head, Narcissus. He waited until they showed her and then he moved back, sat on the bed and waved. When they showed Gibbs, though, he closed all his fingers into a fist and bumped it in the air.
"All right, boss," he said happily, because Gibbs looked pissed beyond all belief. "Go get 'em. Well, go get me. Oh, come on," he said, as they showed McGee in the background, "you're letting Probie work my case?"
He was high-spirited for someone being held in a room he wouldn't have ever paid to stay in. He'd been there twelve hours already, but there was a TV, and he knew that Gibbs is coming along any minute. He could only imagine that reaction, something like: "Damn, Dinozzo, I do an all-nighter for you and you're sitting on a bed watching the goddamn news?"
And then a slap to the head.
He almost looked forward to it.
"Come on," he said, urging them. "I can't be that hard to lose."
He'd checked the room out when he'd woken up with a splitting headache and heavy limbs, and he checked it out again, eyes making a sweep as he reclined. The lights were bright as floodlights, and they seemed to be on a continuous state of lit, never dimming or shutting off. The room was almost all concrete, except for the tiny, unreachable steel ventilators near each ceiling and the immense door. One bed, twin-sized, with scratchy sheets and not enough covering, but that was cool, because he wasn't planning on doing a lot of sleeping - if Gibbs would be angry to find him in a room with an electronic view, he would be furious to come in and catch him taking a nap. He'd never hear the end of that water cooler conversation:
"Oh, did you hear how they found Dinozzo? Gibbs freaked, looked for him all night, and they finally break down the door and come in guns drawn - and the guy's asleep."
So the bed wasn't a big deal, except it was the only place to sit. The TV was the only thing there to look at, but he'd wandered into the two connecting rooms, equally composed of concrete and steel, to check them out. Unbelievable, and he'd actually laughed, holding his stomach and almost bending double.
Some captor this guy was. He'd fixed Tony up with a pantry and a bathroom. Okay, it was just an old sink that produced erratic spurts of rusty water, and a toilet so ancient it flushed by pulling a lamp cord, but he wasn't planning on taking a long soak, anyway. It was like the uncomfortable bed - one more dubious luxury he wouldn't have time to need.
The pantry was just as dismal.
"Whoever stocked this," he'd said to the emptiness, "had a really bland sense of food."
There were boxes of crackers, jars of peanut butter, bags of pretzels, packaged strips of jerky, and cases of bottled water. All of it plentiful, as if someone had been building this place as a bomb shelter. He was hungry, too, but he thought he'd leave that stuff alone. He wanted steak.
Plus, if he ushered Gibbs out quickly enough, he could probably manage a pretty convincing horror story: tell him that there'd been rats and a hideous voice coming out of the vents, telling him exactly what they were going to do with him, exactly where they'd hurt - and how cold it was. He'd tell Gibbs how cold it had been in the room, because that much was true.
It was freezing.
Tony yanked his jacket tighter around his shoulders and sighed.
"Special Agent Anthony Dinozzo has now been missing forty-eight hours."
He checked his watch.
"It's been forty-nine," he said, injured.
He tried to smile at the screen when they show his team again, but he didn't feel that it was working. He went to the mirror and checked it - it looked more like a frown, or a grimace. He touched the corners of his mouth and pushed them up towards his cheekbones. It made a twisted clown slash of a grin. He held it there anyway and walked back into the bedroom with two fingers propping up the corners of his smile. On the screen, Gibbs was telling whoever took Tony that he will find him.
Tony said weakly, "Right on."
The anonymous voice came back and told the viewing public that if they had any information on the missing Anthony Dinozzo, they should call the following number.
"Put Gibbs back on," he said. "Hey. Put Gibbs back on."
Like the TV was a phone, the voice was an operator, and he was really so desperate after two days in a room alone that he was talking to a soulless piece of technology.
The television got two channels.
They both had static and neither of them had sports. He got the news, unfunny syndicated comedies with canned laughter he never echoed; and occasional reruns of black-and-white movies he'd seen a million times before. In the first week, he was at the door demanding a sports package, HBO, and a decent pay-per-view adult film channel. When he did it the first time, he collapsed back onto the bed, laughing, because he knows it's only a little while until Gibbs shows up, and he could afford to waste energy being a jackass, because when Gibbs got there, he'd have something else to watch entirely - namely, Gibbs going nuclear all over whoever was keeping him in this place. But the second time, after five days in the room, he yelled until he couldn't talk, he fell back onto the bed and just lay there, and he threw the remote at the wall so hard that the plastic cracked. He screamed silent frustration to the blank gray ceiling.
You've got no right, and his lips were just imitations of speech. You've got no right, and Gibbs - Gibbs is going to - he'll - when he finds you -
He realized that he sounded like a child. When my father gets home . . .
He didn't care.
On the news, he saw Gibbs looking into a sailor's involvement in a methamphetamine trade gone bad.
For the first time, they didn't mention him. They don't show his picture. He waited at the edge of the bed with his feet swinging back and forth and knocking against the frame, and then they showed the weather. There were two commercials for cat food and one for a spaghetti sauce. He waited patiently. If there was one thing confinement had done, it had taught him to be patient.
The news came back, and they covered a local fire.
Then a rerun of the Twilight Zone came on. Tony sat there and stared at the black-and-white nostalgia sci-fi. He blinked and it was over, and a show was teaching him how to cook lobster. He salivated at the thought and felt disgusting, like Pavlov's dog.
But he was getting so sick of crackers and peanut butter, applied with his fingers. It made him feel like a four-year-old, and the temper tantrum he threw at the door, demanding grown-up food, probably hadn't helped dissuade (him? them? her?) whoever was keeping him that he wasn't.
Lobster. It was gorily red on the screen. Tony knelt and traced the shape with his fingers, and wow, how the mighty had fallen - gone from touching his photo to caressing the image of a crustacean instead.
He'd eaten lobster a few months ago, in a beautiful restaurant with a beautiful woman. He could remember the taste. He bit on his thumb and sucked on the moisture his mouth created, as if lingering somewhere in the print were the flavors of sweet seafood and melted butter.
"Still looking for me, boss?"
For the first time in years, Tony prayed on his knees by the side of the bed. It wasn't much of a prayer. He said Gibbs's name into his hand a hundred times, his teeth nipping against the pads of his interlaced fingers, and he tasted salt. It was either tears or the remains of the pretzels he ate for dinner still sticking to the sweat on his skin, or both. His knees were cold against the concrete floor, bare in his boxers, and Tony felt his weight settling uncomfortably on his haunches as he leaned back. He looked down and watched the muscles in his thighs shift and conform to a more recognizable shape.
He'd lost weight.
The next morning, he took up jogging around the room. He told the door that he wanted to be in good shape when Gibbs came and found him, that way he could do a little ass-kicking himself. He jogged, he stretched, he did push-ups and sit-ups, and he drank some of the lukewarm bottled water when he was done. It was exercise. He'd rather be boxing in the ring with Gibbs, never mind winning or losing, but it was motion.
He sat at the end of the bed and watched TV some more.
He was resisting feeling grateful for the television set. He resisted the thought that it could be worse. It could be better. He could have TiVo, he could have a DVD player, he could have his whole apartment and his job and his life. He wasn't going to be grateful for a crap TV with static on both channels.
It was there so he could see the news, he knew that. He wasn't Kate, but he could reason out a few basic motives on his own. He knew that he had a TV so he could see what Gibbs was doing to save them, and so he could scream at the set when they were nowhere close. He caught himself falling in line with their plans one day, and then he bit his pillow and yelled into that.
Yelled: You assholes, I'm here, not there!
Except he couldn't blame them, because he wasn't sure where here was. Here, as far as Tony Dinozzo was concerned, was a small room made of concrete.
He examined the pantry the second week, and found luxury items. Plain, unscented bars of soap. Extra toilet paper. Three packaged electric razors, but no shaving cream. He shaved carefully with a foam of soap and got razor burn. No shampoo.
He bathed the best he could by splashing water and chasing it with soap, and to wash his hair, he bent over the sink and stuck his head under the faucet and rubbed whatever strands of hair he could catch between his fingers with the Dial. His fingers came up dyed copper from occasional coughs of rusty water. His hair dried crinkly and stiff.
In the second week, he started streaking lines on the mirror, tally marks. He didn't count them, but one day he looked up and there were twenty squiggly white lines of dried, caked-on soap. He stared at them. They stared back.
Tony looked at his striped reflection, bared his teeth, and unexpectedly began to cry.
"What are you doing here, Dinozzo?"
"Just hanging out, I guess, boss. Keeping busy."
"Keeping busy? The hell are you talking about? You wake up, you raid the pantry for crackers and peanut butter, you brush your teeth, you run around your little rat wheel, you take a bath standing up, you put on the same clothes you've been wearing for the last month, and you sit down and watch us chasing you. You're doing this on my time, Dinozzo."
"Sorry. Not much to do."
"Well, find something. You think I want to bust this door down to rescue your ass from being bored? Find a way to actively suffer so this whole thing isn't a complete waste of my time."
He woke up sweating, his hands twisting into the sheets. He stared accusingly at the ceiling.
There were thirty-one soap-streaks on his bathroom mirror.
He wasn't mentioned on the news.
There was a daytime soap opera that he watched every afternoon. He started to memorize the character names unconsciously, and before long, he was throwing his pillow at the TV, frustrated because Marcia slept with William who was really Andy's gay lover, and how stupid could Marcia be, to not figure that out? But on the episode next week, he found out that Marcia really slept with William's brother, who turned out to really be William's sister, in drag. And Andy fell in love with William's transvestite sister and left William, who then really did sleep with Marcia. For revenge.
This was the most fun Tony had had in a long, long time. In forty-seven days, as a matter of fact. He couldn't see his reflection in the mirror anymore. Sixteen days since he was last on the news, fourteen days since he'd seen Gibbs. Eight days since his last dream.
He worked it out on his fingers: he hadn't spoken in a week.
He thought about it, but there was nothing to say. He could tell Marcia that being a gay guy's straight rebound was probably not a good idea, he could tell the news anchors that his name was Tony Dinozzo and he was still missing, thanks for all the concern, or he could tell Gibbs to find him.
But even if he talked, no one would hear him.
He moved his mouth and the sounds stayed in the back of his throat. A dusty sounding creak came out from between his lips.
Dinozzo, Gibbs said in his head, why don't you just shut up for a while?
No problem, boss.
He lay down on the bed and he didn't stand for two days. Marcia left the show to go live with her mother in Florida and get over the humiliation of being the rebound. Tony dreamed about palm trees and woke up sobbing like a little boy.
"After two months, the search for Special Agent Dinozzo has been called off."
In the end, that was all he deserved. A cursory announcement right before the weather review. He didn't see Gibbs. He howled at the television, demanded that it show him his boss.
He wanted to know that Gibbs was stalking around NCIS biting everyone's heads off. He wanted a shot of Gibbs saying that although the official investigation may be over, he wasn't going to rest until the people who stole Tony were dismembered. He wanted this to be Gibbs's Moby Dick.
But all he was given was a brief flash of a photograph and a cold voice, disconnected, spinning through space into his cold little room. When the screen was wiped clear and the news anchors, smug and immaculately-groomed, were ushered back into the pixels, Kelly gave Rob a peach-colored smile that spoke of perfectly orchestrated sympathy, and she said that it was sad, the way some people just disappeared into thin air. And Rob nodded gravely and agreed with her.
Tony punched his pillow, his mattress, his thigh. Muscles screamed in agony. He hit himself again and again, striking sideways.
"I didn't disappear!"
Over and over again, his fist swinging like a pendulum.
"I'm not in thin air! I'm here!"
He threw the remote at the wall again. It smacked against the cement and double-A batteries popped out and rolled across the floor, the sound escalating like guitar chords.
"What the hell are you playing at, Gibbs? I've been waiting, I've been a good little agent, I've been waiting for you the whole time, it's been sixty days, Gibbs -"
Sixty days. Sixty lines of soap on a mirror. Sixty fucking lines and now he didn't even have a face anymore, because when he looked into the glass, everything was a smear of soap-scum that broke and peeled under his fingers like marble when he touched a tally line. Sixty days, sixty lines, and Gibbs wasn't there. Gibbs wasn't even looking anymore. Gibbs was sitting in the office shooting bull with Kate, listening to Ducky ramble, bring Abby Caff-Pow -
Gibbs wasn't looking for him.
Gibbs was glad that he was gone.
Gibbs was sidetracked, Gibbs was focused on something else, Gibbs was following somebody else's trail.
Gibbs was glad he was gone.
The day he'd gone missing, they had toasted each other at lunch, little glasses of champagne at Kate's apartment after work. Kate had given a speech about how good it would be to be able to wear a skirt to work and not have to listen to him tease her about it, McGee had flushed and been grateful that there would be no more Probie-ribbing, and Gibbs had smiled more than he had ever smiled with Tony. He had ruffled McGee's hair. He had told them how good it was going to be, how relaxing, to not have to deal with Dinozzo, who was infuriating, incompetent, a smart-mouthed idiot who had had the absolute temerity to assume that he meant something, to want affirmation, to even corner him and demand to be told that he was important. Was cared for. Was loved.
God, they had toasted each other and made a game of it! They'd gone on the news, ribbing each other - "Who can keep a straight face? Oh, McGee will break for sure, keep him in the back. Gibbs - when you said, 'we will find him' - the way you looked, like you were really going to break someone's kneecaps just to find out where someone was stashing Dinozzo!"
"You laughed! You bastards, you laughed!"
Tony fell on his stomach on the bed and buried his face in the mattress, expecting to cry. He was surprised. He just breathed, air coming painful and burning its way down his throat, eyes teary but not . . . not crying. Just hiccupping into cold sheets, feeling his flushed face burn through.
Suddenly, he panicked.
He'd been cursing Gibbs, and he couldn't do that. Not when Gibbs was the only person who might, conceivably, be able to save him.
"I'm sorry," he said, but the words sounded trite, mixed in with a commercial for detergent. They were small, and his anger had been huge, all-consuming. "Gibbs, Kate, Ducky, Abby, McGee - I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. I'm sorry. I know you're looking. I know you won't give up."
He slid off the bed and walked unsteadily towards the television. Knelt. He started to pick up the remote from the ground, but instead pressed his hands against the screen, his palms covering the flickering images. If he could just reach far enough, he would feel them waiting for him. He could step through glass. Or at least, his voice would be borne by electricity and they would know that he was sorry, sincerely sorry.
He meant to apologize, but what came out was a plea.
"If you come and find me, I'll be so good." He sounds like a child again, trying to stay up past midnight. "Gibbs, I won't touch your coffee. I'll never be late. No personal phone calls at work. Kate, I won't touch your trash, I won't go through your things, I won't ever care if you have a date. I won't be mean to McGee. Ducky, I'll listen to you all the time."
More promises came out: he'd do whatever they wanted, he'd always do as he was told, he'd work overtime without pay, he'd pick up lunch for everyone, he'd be quiet and agreeable and considerate for the rest of his life, amen, if they would only come and let him out. He'd learned his lesson. He wanted to go home. Couldn't they just come and pick him up? Hadn't he been punished long enough?
The TV image turned to snow, the way it did every night.
Tony stared at the static surrounding his fingertips.
"Are you coming now?" he whispered, smiling hopefully.
The room was quiet. The white noise rolled over him and swallowed him whole.
After that, the TV was gone.
What frightened him most was how calmly he accepted its disappearance. In some distant part of his mind, outside of the fog, he knew that it had been taken away from him because his captor knew that he had seen the announcement: the search was over. That was the only reason he had ever had the television, all sixty days of life leading up to the one moment when the voice told him that they had given up. It had been stolen while he had slept. Maybe there was something in the food - more likely in the water - that made him drowsy. Someone had opened the door to his prison and he had slept through the whole thing.
Stupid. So stupid.
He'd noticed his own lack of energy, lately, but he'd dismissed it as the product of eating the same food day in and day out, and that was probably part of it. He wasn't starving, but he was malnourished anyway. His skin was yellowy and looked like wax, as if it had been poured over the shape of his bones. He hadn't exercised in a few days beyond walking to the bathroom and the pantry. His hair was slick with oil and he could smell the sour odor of his sweat in his clothes and sheets, watched the perspiration shimmer on his bare skin.
His clothes had a continuous odor now, no matter how often he bathed. They simply weren't designed to be worn for months at a time. The fabric was worn thin from tossing and turning on the bed, his sleep more restless than usual.
He worked his way through, establishing a new schedule designed to eat up his day. He woke up. He ate as little breakfast as possible as slowly as possible, trying to simultaneously conserve food and consume time. He bathed and washed his hair. He knocked down towers of plastic bottles and reassembled them. He napped. He bathed again, scrubbed his hair until his scalp bled. His skin became an irritated shade of pink, but it was better than its sick, jaundiced look. He recited song lyrics. He thought about how good it was going to be to get out of here, how Gibbs was going to break the door down and Tony was going to grin at him from the bed and chuck a water bottle at him. He thought about places he had been, places he hadn't been, women he'd been with, and women he wanted to be with. He washed his clothes in the sink and wrung them out to dry. He put on a shirt that was stiff and curly, dried in spirals. His pants were too sodden to wear for days, so he sat around in boxers, which dried quicker, or half-naked.
He entertained himself by developing new storylines for his soap opera. In his head, Marcia came back and had a madcap affair with William's transvestite sister. Then one of the twins, Colin, discovered that he had a fatal brain tumor, and his brother, Cory, gave him some of his own brain tissue. He reveled in the scientific impossibility of the scenario.
He marked lines of soap on the mirror. Sixty-one. Sixty-two.
On day seventy-three, he noticed that he could count the bones in his hands. He wiggled his fingers as he made another tally mark on the glass, and watched the tendons play about under his skin. He stood there for almost an hour, alternating fingers, alternating hands. This was Must-See TV. This was intricate, this interlacing of tissue. This was fascinating. He traced his bare ribs with his newly thin fingers. He counted them. He smoothed down the skin over his collarbone. Pressed the heel of his hand against the slope of one hip. He'd known the number of bones in his body but never conceived of this, never thought of touching them. So exposed. An autopsy on Ducky's table. He drew a Y-cut with his thumbnail, pressed hard enough to slice the skin. An irritated red line blossomed. Press hard enough, and he could cut out his own heart, understand his organs the way he was now understanding his bones.
Look at the freak show. He jabbed one finger into his stomach, twisting. If he'd had a cigarette, he would have burned himself. Patterned himself. The scratches were stripes, the cigarette burns would be spots, and Tony would be a zoo animal. Then someone would come and rescue him, because he would be exotic and intriguing. People paid to see zoo animals, someone would certainly come and find him, if only to see him, to point and laugh.
Tony laughed and laughed, and then he rocked his head back on his neck and slammed it forward into the mirror. Glass shattered around his ears.
He was bleeding from his nose, his mouth, his forehead. There was a triangle of glass in the sink. It had all broken so easily. He kept laughing through a foam of blood, spitting out mouthfuls of the stuff, Silky, copper flavor. Pennies. Tony wiped blood out of his eyes and kept laughing. He brandished the triangle, the sharp edges burrowing into his fingers, cutting rings into the softest parts of his hands.
Pretty face. His pretty face. All bloody. He felt it with his spare hand. None of the cuts were very deep, but he was bleeding so much -
A concussion. He was going to have a concussion.
He practically danced to the door, pounded on it, threw himself against it. "You've got to come and get me now! I'll die now! I'll bleed to death! I'll pass out! I'm going to have a concussion! You have to come and get me now, you sick fucks!"
His laughter echoed in his ears, loud and hysterical.
"Gotta rescue me now, Gibbs, I'll die if you don't."
He fell asleep on the floor by the door, blissfully sure that he would wake up in a hospital, sure that he would wake up and someone would be sitting by his bed, sure that he would have an IV taped to his arm, being told that he had scared them to death. Gibbs would smile at him. Abby would hug him. Kate would look momentarily soft and wistful. And he would tell them all that he had been a little frightened, but he would glaze over how mind-numbing the terror had become, and he would be nice to them and not ever say that he had known they had stopped looking.
But he woke up, and he was still in the room. Dried blood was caked over his face. His lips were swollen. His head pounded fiercely. He had fallen asleep with the shard of glass, and there were deep, bloody grooves in the fleshy parts of his lower fingers from clutching at it in his sleep. When he pushed a fingernail against the cut, he could still feel the sensation, and that, at least was something. No nerve damage. Or minimal nerve damage.
"Gibbs? You didn't come and get me. I thought - I thought -" He wrinkled his nose and pushed his bloody hand up over his face, feeling the crust of blood. "I shouldn't have even woken up. Hey, Gibbs, how many days now? How many days has it been? I broke the mirror."
A lightning bolt rocked into him.
"Seven years bad luck. That's - that's seven years, I'd die - I'd die in here - I can't take it." He scrubbed his arm over his face. He laughed nervously. "Seven years. Two thousand, five hundred fifty days. Okay. Sixty-one thousand, three hundred twenty hours. Minutes. I don't know. Seven years is an awful lot of minutes, Gibbs. I don't know if I can do that. Just - days. I can do days. I remember days."
Look out the window.
The window was the border between the room and the rest of the world, and he carved it in the place where the television used to be. He couldn't scratch the concrete with the glass, and he was afraid that too much effort would make it shatter in his hand, but after a minute of working, he went back to the bed and found that he had created the window, after all. That there was a perfect square, a gap in the wall, and when he looked in it, it stole his gaze.
Remember the way the days started too late in the morning, when the sun was already liquid gold and the asphalt boiled underneath his feet. Remember the time he woke up at five in the morning and called Kate, when he teased her until he came with her to watch the sunrise in front of the Washington Monument like they were tourists, sitting in the sundial shadow of the tower, with Kate digging her fingers into his ribs and moaning that if he ever woke her up that early ever again, he would be so dead, but yes, it was pretty. Remember everything. Remember the blare of the alarm clock, stumbling into the shower. Remember the smell of Gibbs's coffee, strong and black, how he wasn't supposed to touch but had stolen some anyway, his first week on the job, had taken a long drink of the coffee when Gibbs wasn't looking - that was the first time Gibbs had smacked him. The coffee had been bitter, but worth it, because of how Gibbs had looked at him like he was really looking at him. The first time Gibbs had said his name, growled, "Dinozzo - hands off the coffee."
Days. He could do that. He must have thousands of them in his memory, stockpiled away, and when he woke up, he would go over them, relive a morning. Good or bad didn't matter, as long as it wasn't a morning confined within these four walls.
He didn't eat that day. He leaned against the wall and remembered the way the band of Kate's watch had shimmered when they had watched the sunrise, how he had thrown grass on her shirt. Remembered the taste of Gibbs's coffee, two years gone on his tongue.
One hundred days.
He etched the number into his skin at the top of his shoulder, a straight line and two uneven eggs rolling down his upper arm. One hundred.
He was running out of memories.
It wasn't that he didn't have them anymore, it was just that he would reach for them and then they would slip away, the way sand receded in wave, his memories being stolen away inch by inch. He would fold his hands behind his head, close his eyes, and think about his first day on the job in Baltimore, but he would lose pieces of the day, so he would turn to the first time Gibbs had given him a compliment, but the details would grow fuzzy, the images black and white. His first girlfriend, but without the texture of her skin. It was like trying to assemble a Frankenstein's monster of a history, with none of the pieces fitting together exactly and all of them a little decayed.
It had been two days since he'd eaten anything, hours since he'd had any water. His voice was a croak.
"Hey," he said.
Gibbs was leaning against the wall.
"You come looking for me, boss?"
"It's nothing personal, Dinozzo. Would have done it for anyone."
Gibbs was looking at some imaginary speck of lint on his coat-sleeve, and he flicked it away. Tony felt ashamed, being naked, but his clothes were still sopping wet. He burrowed under the sheets and tried to turn, to hide his arm and the etched numbers from Gibbs, but Gibbs saw everything, just like he always had.
Gibbs looked disgusted. "This is a waste of my time."
"I'll get better," Tony said desperately, pushing himself up, and forgetting to hide the blood or his nakedness. The sheets fell down around his hips. "I promise. Just let me out."
"A hundred days and you're using yourself as a calendar." Gibbs was shaking his head from side to side, the cool expression in his eyes nothing but contempt. "McGee could have lasted longer. I thought you were supposed to be so tough, Dinozzo. It's just over three months, and you've got seven years to put behind you. If only you hadn't broken that mirror."
"You're always sorry. You never change and you never learn, but yeah, you're always sorry."
He winced. "When did you start sounding like my father, boss?"
"Three months and you still haven't found a way out of here. It's just pathetic, Dinozzo. I'm embarrassed. We spent hours and manpower looking for you, we expected a little resourcefulness on your part."
"I tried," he said, and he had, but the vent had been too high, even when he had been standing on the TV, and the room had been so solid, so impenetrable - he blinked. "How did you get in?"
Gibbs gave him the look that made his skin crawl, the look reserved for people who had dropped irrevocably low in his eyes. "I walked, Dinozzo. The door's open, for God's sake. You couldn't even walk out of here, could you? What is this, an extended vacation? You looking for another job? I don't have time for agents who can't figure out how to get out their kennels all by themselves."
"For puppies." Gibbs pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead. "You really are hopeless."
"The door's closed, boss."
He tried a weak impression of charm, tried to smile, but couldn't. But he was sure about this one, no way could he be wrong. The door was closed. The door was just another piece of the wall to him. It didn't even have a window - it was all steel. It was a way in, not a way out. His side didn't even have a handle, how could he reasonably be expected to walk out?
"That's the problem with you," Gibbs said, sipping from a cup of coffee that hadn't been there a moment ago. "When worst comes to worst, you'd rather sit here and wait for me to come and rescue you than take any initiative. That's why you're here in the first place. Don't you remember what happened before you woke up in here?"
"Bullshit, Dinozzo. You haven't even tried."
"Yes, I have! I've been over it in my head a hundred times!"
"What? Once a day?"
He buried his head in his hands. "I can't do this, boss. I can't get out of here. I've tried, you know, I'm not that bad. But you're crazy. The door's not open, the door doesn't even have a fucking handle, there's no handle, there's no way to reach the vent -" He realized that a whine was building in his throat, high and erratic, and he clamped his mouth shut, bit down on the fleshy part of his hand. "I don't know what to do. I don't know why I'm here. I don't know what happened. You want to know what I know, Gibbs? I know that you were looking for me and then I know you stopped. Because I really am replaceable."
Gibbs sighed. "You know I don't like self-pity."
"I don't care."
"Or petulance. You're not a child, Tony, stop acting like one."
"Help me," he said finally, lowering his voice. He couldn't even gain enough strength to lift his head and look at Gibbs; couldn't stand to see that contempt. "If you can walk through walls and get in here, you can help me out, can't you? I'll get better."
Something in the tone told him that it was safe to look up. It was an expression he had hardly ever seen on Gibbs's face - sympathy.
"If I could," Gibbs said, "I would."
He tried to understand, and couldn't. So stupid. He brought up one hand and pressed it out towards Gibbs and watched his hand sink through the plain black shirt. He felt the sudden heat of tears on his face, and turned aside, unwilling or unable to let even an imaginary Gibbs see him crying. Angrily, he wiped at his eyes, and turned back. Gibbs was smiling at him, eyes warm. He held out the cup of coffee with that logo that Tony, who had now forgotten so many things, couldn't help remembering perfectly.
"You ought to drink something," Gibbs said. "Stay alive, Dinozzo. I'm coming."
He accepted the cup and then almost dropped it. It didn't feel like the usual stiff paper, it was larger, slicker, heavier - oh. He tilted it and water brushed over his lips and tongue. He drank until his throat ached with the effort and then he tucked the empty bottle to his chest and crushed it, listening to the plastic give underneath his grip.
"Mine," he said, looking down at it.
"I'm coming," Gibbs said. "I promise. Nobody gets left behind."
"Not even me?"
Gibbs sipped his coffee. "Especially not you, Dinozzo."
"I wish you were real."
Gibbs didn't say anything, but he sat down beside him. Tony reached for a package of crackers and slowly began to eat. The crumbs stuck to his tongue and the salt irritated the cuts in his mouth, but he couldn't taste a thing. It hurt to swallow. He tried to pretend he was eating something else, but the thoughts of food were too distant, too unrelated. Had there really ever been anything that wasn't this?
"Stay with me," Gibbs said.
Tony closed his eyes and took another bite. "I'm trying."
On day one hundred twelve - the number plus twelve tally marks carved into his skin - it was Kate who woke him up, leaning over his bed. It was the smell of her perfume that he dreamed of, teasing its way into fitful dreams and sliding him upwards to consciousness. Her hair was hanging an inch above his face, but when he tried to sit up, he couldn't feel it slide over his skin, and that ruined the fantasy. Oh well. He wasn't sure how up he was to fantasies anyway. Just sitting up made his head spin. It definitely felt like all the action he could take for today.
"Malnutrition," Kate said imperiously, sitting down at the foot of his bed. "You need to eat something. Actually, you need to eat something different for a change, but that's not an option. So get yourself into the pantry and grab some food before you die in here."
"Fuck you," he whispered.
"You can't live on water, Tony."
"You're not even real." He threw an empty bottle at her and it passed clean through, proving his point. Hollow satisfaction devoured him. "Some NCIS agent, can't even manage to - to - to be corporeal." He grinned savagely. The word was there.
"Some NCIS agent," she mocked him. "Can't even manage to get out of bed."
"There's no point, Kate. No one's coming."
"Self-respect. The Tony Dinozzo I knew wouldn't give up."
He turned his face into the pillow. When he finally looked at her again, it was just to ask if she could hand him the glass, because he needed to mark off another day. Kate just crossed her arms over her chest and said that she wouldn't, even if she could. He told her that, as far as hallucinations went, she sucked, wasn't helpful in the slightest - even Gibbs had tricked him into thinking that he had some coffee. Even Gibbs had managed to trick him out of bed without him noticing.
"You were less crazy when Gibbs was here."
"Fine," he said, "then the least you could do is sleep with me."
Kate sighed. "Eat something and I'll think about it."
If someone had asked him at first, he would have said that there was enough food in the pantry to last a person for years. Still, he'd conserved food the best he could, and lately, eating had become more of a chore than a pleasure - a gritty necessity. But even with the conservation, even with his near starvation, the supply was more than dented. It had dwindled more than he'd realized. The water supply was even worse - he was down to the last two cases.
I could drink the sink water, if it got bad.
He wasn't sure that he'd survive swallowing any of that water, with the rust, but it was a bridge he'd have to cross. Eventually.
He slid down, back against the wall, and ate the first thing he found. He was halfway finished when he realized that he was forcing handfuls of pretzels into his mouth. Everything tasted the same, and all of it was harsh on his tongue. Everything was too dry, too rough. No wonder all he wanted these days was water. He wanted a river of it going through the room . . . He'd passed out of the land of needing lobster and friendship, and had gotten to the point where the thought of fresh, icy water was enough to make his eyes glaze over with longing.
"All right," he called, not looking up. "I ate."
There was no answer.
He turned his head. Kate was gone. Even the sheets were unwrinkled where she had been sitting a moment ago.
"Tease," he said flatly, and slumped over.
He cut the next tally into his arm, and some voice, some hallucination that he didn't recognize this time, urged him to go deep. Go for the gusto, Tony, it said, a hoarse whisper. Go deep, or who knows? It might heal and you might not have a mark. All the days will go away, and you won't have anything then.
He cut deep.
"I had a friend who did that," McGee said. He was looking at the blood on Tony's arm with frank fascination, too innocent for Tony to snap at him. "In high school. He, um, did that a lot. He said that it made everything go away."
"Yeah? What happened to him?"
McGee looked embarrassed, that little flush rising in his face. "He killed himself. I think - I think it was an accident. He was Catholic, I don't think he wanted to bleed out on purpose. But he cut deeper than he meant to, and he died." The flush deepened, turned almost scarlet. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have brought it up. That's - that's stupid of me."
"S'okay, Probie. Not your fault. Not even you."
"Don't go too deep," McGee said. "We're coming."
"Yeah, yeah, heard it all before and a thousand different ways. Gibbs and Kate said the same thing. But it doesn't matter, does it? You're all just voices in my head - no offense, Probie. I like the company. But promising myself that someone's coming to save me is just wishful thinking. Gibbs said that any NCIS agent ought to be able to find his way out of a room like this and not wait for someone to come, and he was right. Always is."
"But it wasn't Gibbs."
Tony crunched a pretzel between his teeth. "What?"
"It wasn't Gibbs," McGee said, his speech speeding up. "If we're not real, if Gibbs wasn't real when he was promising that he'd come and get you, then why would he be real when he was telling you that you were worthless? Just because a hallucination is, um, negative instead of positive, because the views you're pulling out to show to yourself are pessimistic and not optimistic, doesn't mean they're more valid. Why do you think Gibbs saying that you're hopeless is more valid than Gibbs saying that he's still looking?"
Even an imaginary McGee was smarter than him.
"Sure, whatever, Probie."
He had put nothing in his stomach and somehow it was coming up anyway, rebelling against the faintest hint of substance that he tried to put past his lips.
The nausea would lie in wait until he tried to eat and then it would attack again, dry-heaving and gagging before he could even get anything in his mouth. The water would stay down for maybe an hour before he was on his knees in front of the toilet, puking and clenching the sides until his knuckles whitened and his arms trembled. The strength it cost to hold him upright was almost more than his body was willing to give him, but some raw dignity left at his center couldn't bear the thought of collapsing and taking a face-first dive into his own vomit and the sour-smelling toilet water. He peeled away and leaned against the wall, panting, feeling waves of sweat break over his brow. His hair was soaked with it, it had gotten so long that cleaning it was a disaster, and now the sweat mixed with oil and made it feel almost unbearably heavy.
Sometimes it was Gibbs who was coaxing him to drink another bottle of water, to try again; sometimes it was Kate; sometimes Abby or McGee; sometimes it was even his mother. Sometimes his father was in the back of the room, sipping some tonic mix and looking at him with thinly-veiled disapproval. It was never Ducky. Tony thought that his mind, now going blank on his own memories, didn't have one-tenth of the capacity to summon Ducky's erudition.
It didn't matter who it was, because he knew that it wasn't them, and as he got weaker, he couldn't stand to listen to his own mind coddling him. He fought against them, concentrated on how empty the room was, how alone he was, and then he was throwing up again, hating his reality as much as his own body apparently hated him. He yelled at his passing, unreal companions until they vanished with one last reproving word and one last sentiment, an empty promise to rescue him that they couldn't fulfill.
Gibbs lasted the longest, but even he left eventually.
The way Tony figured it was that no one, not even your hallucinations, would want to put up with you when you were sick and a smart-ass to boot.
When they were gone, he wished that he could take it back. He called into the emptiness for one of them to come back and talk to him, to explain what he was thinking. He asked Gibbs to stay; asked Kate to tell him what was happening, why he was so sick; asked, pitifully, for his mother to sit with him. He took back the things he'd said to McGee, promised not to be mean, if McGee would help him.
But no one came.
You idiot. Everyone leaves. Everyone gets out of here but you. This is the end of the line, and face it, Dinozzo, you earned your stay. This is what you get for not being what they wanted. And then they tried to help and you turned them away? Not good enough, not real enough? They couldn't touch you, couldn't be everything you needed, so they were worthless? No wonder they locked you up in here. Anybody would.
He pressed his head down to the cool porcelain.
Kate had warned him about this. She'd said . . . something about karma. How, with women alone, he had built up enough bad karma to go around a couple of times. Enough to be reincarnated as a gnat. Enough to be locked in a refrigerator with a bathroom for however long the karma wheel wanted him to be.
"What goes around comes around," he said. He pushed off the toilet and fell against the wall. The cement felt cool and slick. "And around and around and around. Right, Gibbs?" Silence. "Listen, I'm sorry. I was out of line. Way sorry, boss. Come on. Where's a hallucination got to be anyway?"
There was no one, no one, no one. No one but him. And that was his fault, too.
The silence wrapped around him, pulled him under.
And the room, as if alive, gave him two options, heard so clearly in the quiet and sheer loneliness. Almost spoken in the faint whisper of the ventilator and the running of the water.
He could keep doing what he was doing, trying to push food into a body that didn't want it anymore; trying to give life to something was that was now so dead as to be ready for burial; trying to drive away the insanities that were filling the empty corners of his mind in a vain attempt to replace what had been stolen from him. He could choose to eat sparingly until there was nothing left to eat, he could choose to grind the now permanently bloodstained glass beneath his heel and give up counting, he could die in this room in the absolute agony of conscious starvation but perfect, undeterred sanity. That was option number one.
Option number two was to let go.
Not to cut deep, the way McGee had warned him about, but to just give up. To go back to the bedroom and close his eyes, to lose himself in whatever memories he had left. And when the hunger and thirst got to be too much - he wouldn't use it as motivation to rise and go looking. He could use it as a dual force to drive him down deeper, deeper - until he drowned. Option number two was insanity, the painless drifting that would separate him, would sever him, would give him back his friends.
"Tony, don't." McGee looked to be about an inch away from his face, leaning in so close that his eyes magnified and looked swimmy and exaggerated, almost cartoonish in his pale face. "Don't. Those aren't the only choices. Gibbs always said that you were on his team because you could think outside of the box. Think. You're in the box. Think your way out."
"I already told him," Tony said tiredly. "I tried getting out, there's no way."
"Not like that. Think outside your two choices. This place is getting to you."
"Probie, I broke a mirror with my face. I tried to convince a hallucination of Kate to sleep with me. I've got numbers carved into my skin. This place isn't getting to me, it's already gotten me. And I can't even imagine anyone to talk to be people I work with and my parents. I don't have a single old girlfriend strolling in to make me a really good offer, so yeah, I think I'm down to two choices, and if I'm talking to you, I think I'm closer to the second one."
McGee sat down, hard. "You don't have to do this."
He closed his eyes. "Oh, I really think I do, Probie."
"There's a third choice."
"Tell me, then. Don't hold back with all that knowledge, share with the class." He slid the glass triangle along the curve of his wrist, just lightly enough to scratch. The Not-McGee watched his motions warily, and Tony found that he liked watching his hallucinations be afraid for him. "Come on. Speak up. Teacher can't hear you, McGee."
"Well, I, I don't exactly know what it is, but general policies suggest that there - "
"That there's always a third choice, right?"
McGee nodded. "At least, there's a place where choice one meets choice two."
"Choice three," Tony said, "I kill myself right now, in this dingy little bathroom, and if Gibbs is still looking for me, he finds a corpse. And I'd think about feeling bad, except I'd be dead. So selfishly, I'd go about my way. No Patrick Swayze sticking around for this guy."
"There are four choices."
"You going to keep adding numbers till you find a solution that you like? Believe me, McGee, I've been over this. It doesn't get any better. He took the window and now all the voices are gone. So I have to make them up. That's why I have you."
"Ah," McGee said, nodding. "Like the Greek Chorus."
"It's amazing, the crap I can pull out of my own head to make you sound like you."
"There's a fourth option."
"Maybe I can't dredge up that much stuff. You're pretty much a broken record, aren't you?"
McGee was filling out some paperwork on his bent knees, his pen moving in unerring scratches across the paper. Tony sneaked a glance, but he couldn't read the words - it was as if the exact letters escaped him, leaving him with just pictures of sentences, the way McGee was just a picture of someone that he had known . . . once . . . a very, very long time ago. So long. Probie. Probationary agent. Forget it, McGee, he's still alive. And wasn't that when he had started resenting McGee, just a little?
Good a time as any to make his apologies.
"I'm sorry about that," he said. He didn't have to explain the "that" because McGee was him and he was McGee and option number two was looking better all the time, because then the apology could be real and the forgiveness more valid.
McGee waved his hand. "It's okay."
"I was a jackass to you."
"Not always," McGee said, and it sounded more convincing than a straight out "no, you weren't", so either not-McGee was a better liar than real-McGee, or Tony actually had been okay on a couple of occasions. "It was about Gibbs. It's usually about Gibbs."
"If I take option number two, you'll stick around, won't you? If I pull a reverse Russell Crowe, Beautiful Mind, if I decide that I'd really rather just be crazy instead of trying for that whole sanity thing, you'll be here, won't you? You. Gibbs. Kate. Abby. I can probably even get Ducky in here if I really try. Maybe I remember enough to make him be Ducky."
"You don't get to choose your hallucinations, Tony," McGee said. "You could end up with anything."
"Maybe anything is better than nothing."
McGee filled out another line of incomprehensible paperwork. "Yes," he said finally. "If you go with option number two, I'd stick around. All of us would. We're figments of your imagination, Tony, do you really think we have a better place to be?"
"That's good." He couldn't think. He couldn't even move. All he did was slide down the wall and lie on the floor, his cheek against the cool tile, and once this would have disgusted him, lying on the floor of a bathroom this filthy, this redolent with sweat, puke, and blood, but now he had moved beyond, to a place where dignity was so far off the charts that it wasn't even part of the sanity package-deal. "That's good, McGee. Real good."
McGee peered at him. "Are you going to choose something?"
His eyes fluttered shut again. "Maybe," he said. "Maybe later. You said - four options. So give me some time to figure out the last one, and then I'll pick."
That was Gibbs. He almost straightened, but Gibbs told him not to, said that he was tired and even the best had to sleep sometimes. He wished that Gibbs would put a hand on his shoulder or something, so that it would be real, but it wasn't, and Gibbs didn't.
"It's a good choice, Dinozzo."
He realized he was whispering. Had maybe been whispering the whole time.
"Sleeping," Gibbs said. He was smiling. He smelled like sawdust. It made Tony so sickeningly homesick that he wanted to curl up and let go, pick option two right now, but he forced his eyes to stay open and trained on his boss. The phantom of his boss. "That's what I'd do."
Gibbs nodded. "Really, Dinozzo."
"Will you - be here - when I wake up?"
Somehow, he got the words out from between the yawns, but even he could barely understand them. His throat was sore, his voice cracking on every syllable, the words themselves turning to mush as they slid out of his lips. They felt so heavy that he was surprised he didn't hear them splattering against the floor like oversized blood drops.
"I'll wait," Gibbs said.
Tony dreamed of a rescue, of the cavalry coming in and pulling him out of the place. Gibbs broke down the door and Tony was waiting on the bed, looking out his window, and he said simply, "Hey, boss. Been a long time." And Kate was there, sweeping in, gun drawn, and when she saw him, her face lit up and Tony showed them his window. His window, and how he had been watching them the whole time, looking for them while they were looking for him. "I knew you never stopped." And the dream wrapped itself into a loop and spun around him, tightening and encircling, a fantasy that he kept preserved.
One. Five. Six.
These numbers, on his right arm. It was harder to cut, he had to hold the glass in his left hand and stretch across his chest, and he'd never been ambidextrous.
"I wish you'd stop that," Gibbs said.
"Gotta know. How many days. It's important. Can't forget that, the way I've forgotten - everything."
The way he was now forgetting words. They slipped away from him. Words that he used to utilize to annoy Gibbs, to tease Kate, and to charm - he was now fumbling over them, unable to shape phonetic noises into anything meaningful. Twenty tallied days ago, when McGee had told him to find the fourth option, he had still been able to force the sounds coming out of his mouth to be something more than verbal slush. Now, he was losing even that. His visitors were in better shape, but even they were growing more taciturn. The other day - the other week - the other month - Kate was there, but she never said anything at all, just smiled at him from the corner while she worked numbers into her PDA.
"When you come," Tony said, "I'll have the numbers."
Kate was leaning against Gibbs's shoulder. "They don't mean anything, Tony. They're abstract concepts."
He shook his head. "No. Math - sometimes. Not numbers. Numbers are real." He tried to explain to her about how he had loved math in high school because of how abstract it could be, because of how the equations could be changed and shaped to give up their answers and secrets, but how he had also loved the concrete value of the numbers. How what you learned when you were in preschool by counting dried beans and reading off charts was still true - how it went: one, two, three, four . . . and on. All he could manage was the blunt declaration, "Real."
"They aren't real in here, Dinozzo," Gibbs said. "You know there's no time in a box."
"And if there's no time, you're just scratching yourself," Kate added. "That doesn't sound very sane to me, Tony. Not sane at all."
"I'm making it," he said. "Time. If there isn't any. I'll do it."
"You can't make time."
Was it really pity in Gibbs's voice? Was he really that far gone that Leroy Jethro Gibbs, who never pitied anyone, had stooped to pitying him? He flung his pillow at the shadow and watched in dispassionate, meek surrender as the small square of cloth thudded through, not touching a thing. Gibbs shook his head, and picked up the pillow, examining the stitching, before dismissing it and dropping it on the floor. No contempt now. Tony, looking down at his own body, filthy with blood and so thin, guessed that he had moved beyond contempt and into that incomprehensible pity that he didn't want. That he hadn't asked for.
"Yeah," Tony said. "Impossible, isn't it?"
"Did you find it?" Kate leaned forward eagerly. "The fourth option?"
He shook his head. "I think - McGee - I think he made it up. Invented. Make me feel better. Keep me from . . . number three. Killing myself. But there's no fourth. I checked. Looked out the window, and you said . . . no fourth. But you were coming, so that's . . . that's okay."
"We're coming," Gibbs said.
That was what Gibbs said more than anything else these days. Gibbs promised to come and save him, Kate asked if he had found the fourth option, McGee kept trying to get him to put the glass down and talk, and Abby complained about how boring the room was. Sometimes she sat with him on the bed and they looked out the window together, because that was a little more interesting than doing nothing at all. Sometimes she told him that he smelled and needed a shower, and Tony would groan but eventually find some soap - but then he'd just end up staring at the way it looked in his hand, the shape of it, and forget what he'd been trying to do. He'd pull the soap over dry skin and white flakes would peel off onto his scars. Sometimes one of them would make him eat something, or drink something, but mostly, they were just company, and redundant company at that.
"The fourth option," Kate prompted. "McGee said that it meets in the middle, between the first and second. Between sane and insane. Think about it."
"I can't." He pounded his fists against the bed, but they didn't make as much noise as they were supposed to. It was just muffled. Everything he did in here was muffled, all of it just an echo of what would have happened outside. "Can't think. Can't see it."
"For God's sake, Kate, give the boy some kind of a hint," Gibbs said. He was sitting now, the pillow across his knees. "He's trying."
Kate pushed hair out of her eyes. "It's like a kid with an imaginary friend," she said reluctantly. "He knows it's not real, but he doesn't stop pretending. He waits to grow out of it, because he will, and in the meantime, he enjoys what he sees. But he doesn't believe it."
"What I'm doing now," Tony said, and coughed. He meant to continue immediately, but the single cough lengthened and turned into a full-blown jag. When he could finally breathe again, he said, "What I'm doing now. Talking to you. But you're not here."
"You know we're not here," Gibbs said. "But you think that window is."
"I have a window," he said stubbornly. They'd had this argument before. "They put it there when they took away the TV. I have a window."
"All right," Gibbs said quietly. "You have a window. If you want."
"I need it," he said, not caring how he sounded. It was true, anyway. If he didn't have the window, he was just someone who had lost his mind, talking to himself in a room that was so cold and so sterile that it was like a tomb, a laboratory, a bell jar. He needed his window because, without the window, there was nothing but this room, never had been anything but this room, and even his hallucinations were less real - because what they were mimicking had never existed.
Kate prodded. "The fourth option. Between sane and insane. You can do this."
"I don't want to."
"Bad attitude, Dinozzo."
"Think about the window." She pointed to it, waved her hand in a cutting sideways arc. "You can have your window and you can have us, but you have to keep going. You have to believe that we're coming."
"You're already here," Tony said.
He gave them his best smile.
There was no more water.
He stood in the pantry with his head cocked to one side, listening as Gibbs told him what to do. It was simple stuff, Gibbs told him, Marine stuff, things he should have been taught. Stuff that he probably should have picked up on after three years with Gibbs, regardless of how much he supposedly hadn't been paying attention. He could almost feel the slap on the back of his head as Gibbs tried to get him into gear, told him to grab one of the empty bottles and go to the sink.
Marine Rule Googolplex: Always have some plastic bottles laying around.
"Good thing," Tony said, "I never - went in - for recycling. Right?"
He was starting to sound like someone with a bad case of asthma, panting for breath simply from the exertion of walking around the room, but he had to keep going. Had to get water. And Gibbs had shown him how. Marine trick - top secret stuff. He shouldn't have even told him, Gibbs could get in serious trouble - a breach of clearance. Confidentiality. He couldn't remember which. Either way, Gibbs had made him promise not to tell anyone.
He had to cling to the walls in order to make it to the bathroom.
"All right," he said. "Now. The water. The trick."
Gibbs was right behind him, Tony could almost feel that, and he wished that he hadn't broken the mirror. He wished that he could see Gibbs mirrored in behind him, maybe with a hand hovering over his shoulder, wanting to touch but not able. Gibbs wasn't real, but that wasn't his fault. He could have turned around, but it seemed like too much energy - impossible amounts. Might as well ask him to jet off for the moon.
"Put the bottle under the faucet," Gibbs said.
He stuck it beneath the tap, the top of the bottle nudging the rusty metal.
"Maybe open it first, Dinozzo."
"Oh." He felt his face heat up. "Right. Yeah." He unscrewed it and moved it back down into the sink. "Water's . . . water's gonna be rusty, boss. Maybe not safe to drink."
"Good thinking, Dinozzo. Move it back, let the water run for a while. Maybe it'll clear."
He smiled. Good thinking. He was thinking.
He tilted the bottle back so that the mouth faced his wrist instead of the faucet, and then turned the water. One of the knobs was stuck, and he had to pull at it, an involuntary whimper coming out from between his clenched teeth. So stuck. Super-glued. Iron-forged. Except it wasn't, and he knew it, he could just see the thin layer of rust holding it to, but he could feel the sweat pouring down his face, trying to get it to budge. Finally, with a terrific squeak, it lashed into full-power, and rusty water sprayed over his hands.
Even his curses sounded weak; pathetic.
"Good, Dinozzo. Good job."
"Seems like a lot of effort - just for water."
"You need it. You can do this. Look, the water's clearing up already."
And it was, although it was still a little orange-tinted. But Tony had been washing with this water for one hundred sixty-eight days now, and when he had still been able to keep his hair clean, he had let it run before - it never cleared up anymore than this. Always that fluorescent orange, like a neon light falling out of the faucet. At least it was a color - he had precious few of those. He moved the bottle back under the flow and watched it fill up with filthy orange, the color of rotten tangerines. Tangerines. Another word without a context - what was it, anyway? He just saw a roundness, a heaviness, a color - probably a made-up word. Probably not real, like Gibbs. Like Kate. Like him.
Thinner and thinner and more and more alone, until there was nothing left, and he was his very own ghost.
The water was running all over his hand.
"It's going to be cold this time," Gibbs said. He sounded as if he was trying to comfort. "I don't know what it's going to taste like, but it'll be cold."
"Like that," Tony said sleepily. "Different."
He raised the bottle to his lips and drank.
It was the worst thing he had ever tasted, he knew that beyond a doubt. It was enough to make him gag, and rusty water slopped all over his bare chest, all over his arms - the shock of the cold and the taste . . . he couldn't stand it. He spat again and again, but couldn't clear it, couldn't make the taste go away. It lingered in the corners of his mouth, in the lines of his sore gums, in the creases of his cracked lips.
"This is going to kill me!" he screamed at Gibbs, dashing the bottle down in the sink. "Is that what you want? Huh? Option number three? I can think of a few better ways to go!"
"You have to drink something," Gibbs said.
No matter how much he shouted, he couldn't do anything with Gibbs. Maybe phantom-McGee would have taken off when he started screaming, but Gibbs just crossed his arms and repeated his order: drink something. Anything. Dying of thirst, Gibbs assured him, had to be one of the worst ways to go, and he could have however long he wanted to think about that, except he, Gibbs, knew well enough that if it were up to Tony, he wouldn't realize that he needed water until he was too weak to get up and get it.
"So drink some," Gibbs said, finishing.
"You're trying to kill me."
"If you don't drink it, you'll die. I'm trying to convince you to get something in your system."
Tony looked at the bottle, still halfway full of orange-tinted water, visible pipe-matter floating up like motes in a beam of light. His stomach churned just looking at it. "I'll puke," he said. "I'll get sick again, no more food . . ."
"Dinozzo. You don't have any other options."
"Toilet," he said. "Toilet water."
"It's just as rusty, and you know it. Suck it up and take a drink."
"I hate you," he whispered, picking up the bottle. His hand squeezed it and water burbled up in the plastic, threatening again to spill. "I hate you, I hate you, I hate you so damn much, you bastard - you don't know what it's like . . ."
"Drink," Gibbs said. "Stay alive. And when I find you, you can tell me what it's like. You can make me understand."
Tony raised the bottle, tilted it back, and swallowed without tasting, just trying to get it down. He drank as quickly as he could, his Adam's apple moving in jerks as he gulped the second the water reached his throat, and then the bottle was empty. He threw it across the bathroom and it bounced weakly against the tiles, rolled to rest at the opposite wall. His lips were shaded orange, and sore from the force he'd used when he'd clamped the bottle to his lips, sore from sucking at the steady flow of liquid. His stomach roiled, rebelling, and Tony pressed both hands to his abdomen. No way. Not going to throw up. Not going to let this out of him. Not going to have to do it again so soon.
A cramp ripped through him and he dropped to his knees, head hanging. He curled on his side, hands trapped between his aching belly and his thighs.
It was McGee who sat down next to his head. "You won't die from drinking rusty water," McGee said. "Nobody dies from that." He sounded like he knew what he was talking about, had that lifted chin and steady gaze that he only had when he was absolutely sure. "It's not the rust that's the problem. There's something in the water besides that. Whatever is in the pipes is coming out in the water. You're right - it's not safe to drink."
"Tell that to Gibbs." He moaned as another cramp hit. He bit down, hard, and his teeth sliced into his tongue. Warm, wet blood filled his mouth. "He said to do it."
"He's right," McGee said automatically, nodding. "You need water more than anything else. Even if this is what's going to happen every time you drink. Pain doesn't mean that it'll kill you, but you know that you'll die if you stop drinking anything at all."
"Maybe better - devil I know . . . devil I don't."
"Not in this case." That was Kate. She lay down beside him, folded her hands under her head. Even though Tony knew the floor was filthy, it didn't seem to bother Kate, who looked untouchable, perfectly clean. She smelled like lilac soap and shampoo, glittered with the gold watch on her wrist and the necklace around her neck, sparkled with the diamonds in her ears. "Cavalry's coming, Tony."
"Okay." He didn't believe her, but he closed his eyes, just inhaled the sensations he was adding by imagining her. "Good."
The next day, he thought that his window was bigger - that it became the size of the whole wall. It opened up into the outside, into rich green lawns and buildings the perfect white of piped icing, into golden lights that glowed in rooms filled with people he knew and trusted. It had sights and sounds and smells, bright with all the possibilities he could hardly imagine anymore, and it glistened; it glimmered; it drew his eyes until he could look at nothing else, could not move, even when Gibbs shouted in one of his ears and Kate shouted in the other, urging him up and for more water. He couldn't move even if he wanted to, not to drink, not even to find the glass and scratch the days into his skin. He just looked out his window at the most gorgeous things that he had ever seen, so mind-blowing, so beautiful that he cried.