The Window: Gibbs (II)
The resignation letter Tony left on his desk was polite, well-phrased, and professional. Gibbs read it twice. He wondered about the other jobs that Tony had abandoned over the years, wondered if all of the letters he'd left had been as devoid of nuance as this one, or if it had taken practice to whittle away any sign of something deeper. He'd wanted more from Tony. He'd expected pain or regret or some kind of apology. Tony had given him typeface. As much as he wanted to read something more into the stark lines of print, as much as he wanted to hear Tony's bemused voice saying, Sorry, boss - - greener pastures and fewer memories. You know how it is, he couldn't. Tony had given nothing away.
He folded the letter and put it in his desk. Across the room, Tony looked at him, unblinking, like some kind of squatted idol carved from stone. Getting a reaction from Dinozzo used to be simple, but now Gibbs could only batter against that rock and hope that at least erosion was working in his favor. The resignation was just the formal announcement of what had been happening for months. Tony had been cutting him out since the incident in the bathroom and he'd even done a damned good job of making sure the two of them were rarely in the same room together, and never alone.
He'd been given foreshadowing enough, if he was the type of man who needed that. He felt compelled to write this down somewhere: this is what Tony Dinozzo does when he's getting ready to bolt. He could mail it to wherever Tony went next.
The pressure in his chest tightened and then the anger hit him, because, what the hell, Dinozzo? Tony had last longer here than anywhere else, didn't they all deserve something a little more than a fill-in-the-blank letter of resignation?
Tony was still looking at him, perfectly expressionless, daring him to . . . what? Make a scene? Crumble the letter in his fist? Yell? Gibbs thought about his second wife, who had told him she wanted a divorce in the middle of a crowded restaurant, thinking that he wouldn't have the nerve to fight about it there and then giving him a huge, shit-eating grin when he had, liking it. Drama queen. He hadn't thought that Tony would be the same way, but the letter and the careful nonchalance reeked of wife number two.
All they were missing was the cheap house wine.
Gibbs had never tried to save anyone before; he wasn't that kind of man. Rescue was easy, it was simple reconnaissance, and he had learned that years before Dinozzo. Rescuing Tony had been child's play compared to actually saving him. Still, he'd tried. He had done for Tony what he had never been willing to do for anyone: he had tried to make himself safe. He had waited in the hospital, coaxed Tony through physical therapy, and stared at those goddamned scars on his arms every time the scrubs top had shifted on Tony's skeleton frame.
He had walked Tony out of Hale's room wrapped in a filthy, blood-stained sheet; he had let Tony hit him; he had put his hands on Tony's shoulders while Tony cried into his shirt and whispered nightmares in his ear; and Tony left him a letter of resignation that was trite and meaningless and looked at him across the room like a stranger.
And maybe he was a stranger, in his long-sleeved shirt to hide the scars, with his sharp cheekbones, and his impassive eyes.
Gibbs touched the letter and felt the weight of Tony's indifference through the paper, striking against his fingertips, knocking his hand aside.
A year ago, the letter would have been a gauche joke; a ploy for attention. It would have been sly, with inserted jokes, and Gibbs would have known immediately that it was not serious, that it never could be. It was funny: in all of Tony's recounted stories of job-switches, he had always imagined someone too restless to settle down, someone who amiably parted ways after growing uncomfortable. He had never envisioned this kind of chilly blankness, this mechanical letter that held nothing of what he still thought to be the real Tony.
It scared the hell out of him to think that this new Tony might actually be the real one, the one that had always existed underneath the layers of humanity that he had wrapped around him for the sake of warmth. It was possible that he had underestimated (or was it overestimated, in this case?) Tony. Maybe Tony had always been steel and ice hidden behind his own skin, and Gibbs hadn't noticed.
But that couldn't be true, not when he had felt Tony's hands on his back, steadying him after he'd taken the bullet from Ari. It hadn't been true then. It hadn't been true for the Tony who had once helped him sand the boat with smooth, unbroken gestures.
He found himself longing for the boat, for the solidity of tools in his hands. Tony had understood him, at least for those few hours of sanding, what it meant to peel away the unnecessary wood to reach the idea of the elegant-lined boat he could always see underneath. One day, he was going to grind it down to nothing. Perfection kept slipping further into the grain and he chased it, following it down. He might eventually coax it into fitting into a bottle, but it would never leave the basement, never sail.
The layer of sawdust on his floor had thickened during Tony's disappearance.
It was maybe the thought of how the dust would kick up around his feet when he walked from bow to stern, frantically clawing at the wood with tools and sandpaper, that made his throat catch. The air would be full of sawdust, choking him, and Tony would be on some flight gaining distance through the sky, putting miles and time-zones between himself and Hale, between himself and his team. And the sound, in his own ears, of the tools slipping over the curve of the belly, whispers against silky-smooth wood, everything getting smaller and smaller, whittled away.
"Dinozzo," he said, "why don't we go get some coffee?"
Tony gave him some approximation of a smile and lifted his cup, circling it in the air so that Gibbs could hear the liquid inside sloshing around, and had Tony thought of everything?
"Thanks but no thanks, boss," he said. "I'm good."
He shouldn't have been surprised. He had taught Tony everything he knew about being a bastard, after all, but he hadn't expected that Tony would have been such a good student.
It would have been easy to pass the resignation letter off to Abby. Even to Kate or McGee. They were the ones that legitimately needed him, they were the ones who were closer to being friends. They were the ones who could bat their eyelashes and pout and convince Tony to stay. But it would be taking the coward's way out. If Tony stayed because of them, he would find a way to get himself killed within the month, just to crawl out of his own skin. There was a reason Tony hadn't told them. He had given the letter to Gibbs instead of going straight to the Director. He was giving Gibbs a chance to convince him, but only Gibbs.
Tony had drawn the line in the sand between the two of them, and what they were left with was a war of two people that didn't even want to fight.
He was the soldier; Dinozzo was only playing dress-up. All of the shit cases in the world didn't amount to the bodies of the fallen in his arms, bleeding out over his uniform. He knew warfare. Dinozzo was amateur hour.
Gibbs would win, he knew that, but he had seen enough Pyrrhic victories to know that winning wasn't always enough.
But he remembered the weight of Tony underneath his hands when Tony had collapsed against him. His mouth had still been aching from Tony's silly, stupid roundhouse. They had looked for him, he had tried to tell Dinozzo that, but Tony only answered that it had been okay, really. That he almost hadn't minded. Goddamn Dinozzo, still with tears on his face, telling Gibbs that he had had everything he had ever wanted.
Winning would have to be enough, because he wasn't sure he could have anything more.
He wasn't sure that Tony had anything more to give.
He stayed in the office late, drinking coffee that had grown cold and sluggish. It was the office pot, not strong enough to keep him awake, but he drank from habit. If there had ever been a night when Gibbs could not have fallen asleep, it would have been this one. He was too conscious the whole day of Tony's resignation letter in his desk drawer, seemingly curled and ready to hiss each time he passed his hand over the handle. It was easier to hate that coolly rational letter than it was to hate Tony - - Tony who used to beg for approval like a puppy sitting up on its haunches and who was now so damnably untouchable.
But not unreachable. At least, that was how he had gathered all his hopes and pinned them on his ability to bridge the gap that Hale had so mercilessly created between them.
He watched the hand of his watch move closer to eleven. The sky outside was a shadow, broken not by stars but by the occasional headlight piercing through. Dinozzo would be home by now. He might be sleeping, curled in his bed and breathing out nightmares into his pillow, but somehow Gibbs didn't think so. He thought it was more likely that Tony was before his own window, looking out at the inky darkness that closed him in, waiting.
Tony would know that it was show time.
By the time he could rouse himself from the silence and the reassurance of routine, by the time he could made the drive to Tony's, it was past midnight and heading closer to one. He sat outside the complex and listened to the soft hiss of the air conditioning. It should have been winter, so that his breath would freeze in the air, so that snow would soften the angles of the modern building and turn it into something mysterious, so that ice would frost the sidewalk and make each step dangerous. It should have been raining. But it was only night, warm and humid, and when he finally yanked the keys from the ignition and went out, his first breath of dewy air was like drowning.
Tony's door was unlocked. He had thought it would be.
"I had a feeling," Tony said, his voice from nowhere like a ventriloquist's trick. It took a moment for Gibbs's eyes to adjust to the darkness and to know that Tony was sitting on the sofa, his arms folded behind his head and his legs sprawled out over the floor. How long had he sat there in the dark? "You can't leave well enough alone, boss. Never could. Nothing's ever enough for you."
"Nothing, Dinozzo, is all you were going to give me."
Gibbs held up his hands. "Just the two of us here."
He could see the flash of teeth from Tony's smile. "Yeah, I know. No witnesses."
The grin stayed in the darkness, nothing but bared teeth. "Oh, boss," he said softly. "You're the one that's scared."
Gibbs found that it was true. "I could have told them," he said. "You would have stayed for them, wouldn't you?" He saw Tony's nod and pressed on. "But I didn't tell them, because if I made you stay, if I did that, you'd be gone in a month, one way or another, wouldn't you? There are just too many damned opportunities for you to get in the line of fire, and I can't spend every minute in the field looking over my shoulder to see if you're ready to die."
"What makes you think what you're doing is any different?" Tony moved suddenly, standing. "What makes you think I wouldn't stay if you asked?"
"I won't ask, Dinozzo."
His refusal stood between the two of them, something with its own life.
"I know," Tony said finally, quietly. "I know you won't. That's why I let you in." For that single second, there was an opening, and he could see the real Tony underneath the shadow, the one that could be found if the rest were only hewn away, but then it was gone. Tony turned away from him and headed for the kitchen. "Something to drink, boss? I've got some bottled water. It's not cold, but it's good enough."
He felt the cold on the back of his neck, the touch of a ghost.
"No," he said, though his mouth was dry. "I'm fine, Tony."
Tony padded back in, still smiling, as if he could no longer determine how to stop. He cradled the bottle in his arm as if the plastic might break apart like crystal at even the gentlest touch.
"I made towers," he said. "I never told you that. I knocked them all down by the time you found me, but I used to make towers out of these bottles. Stack them up and watch them fall. It's a little like building a house of cards, only I really just wanted them to hit the ground. I was always looking for something else: I wanted Dr. Pepper, coffee, beer."
He held up the bottle in his hand. The light through the curtains caught it, made the dust on the plastic glitter.
"But I don't have any of that here. Just this. It's easier this way.
"Are you sure you don't want anything to drink?"
"I'm sure," Gibbs said quietly.
Tony sat down again and only held the water, not even bothering to crack the bottle open. But of course he wouldn't have - - he would have never had all of it at once. He would have had only enough to moisten his mouth, trying to stretch out how long it would last. The full bottles must have been scattered grails, protected and sought-after.
"It's not as bad as you think it is, Gibbs," he said. "I put my foot through the TV the first time I got back, but I didn't move the furniture. There's no room with just a bed. I have fresh fruit in the kitchen and everything. But sometimes this is better."
"Sometimes," Tony said. "You don't understand. I used to wish that you hadn't found me."
"And now?" He was afraid of the answer.
Tony wouldn't look at him, but there was another chink in his armor, this one wider and deeper, all the way down to his heart.
"Sometimes," he only said.
"Why do you need to leave?"
"I want to forget."
"You want to forget the wrong things, Dinozzo. You drink the same water and you have the same scars, what do you want to leave behind?" He stood and remembered how it had been between them in the bathroom, with Tony's face only an inch away from his and screaming. Tony hating him. At least he had gotten something then, touched on some exposed wire and achieved a reaction. "You carry it around with you all the time. You never try to be anything but Hale's pet. Maybe he won after all, because it's been months and all you've really done is gain back some weight. You aren't better sometimes. You aren't better at all. Do you still think I'm there when I'm not? Do you still keep looking for that damn window? Is that where you are in your head all day, Tony? You would have done better if you had moved your furniture and admitted it. You never got out of that room even after I opened the door. You're still there."
"If I were there, I'd be dead."
"Isn't that what you wanted? You still wish I never found you? What was so great about it, Dinozzo? Were you really that desperate for some alone-time?"
Tony sat perfectly still, as if he would fly apart if he moved.
"I know what you're doing," he whispered. "It's not going to work. You arrogant son of a bitch, do you think I'll let you break me just so you can get me back how you want?"
If he had said it calmly, if he had said it coldly, there would never have been any hope.
But now Tony was desperate.
"What is it, Tony? You told me that you had everything you wanted there. What did you have? What did you lose when we saved your life?"
"I was happy, goddamn you. I was happy. I was dying and I was losing my mind, but at the very end, when it was going to be over, I was happy. It was so easy, boss. You don't even know. I gave up. I just sat there and I watched you like I used to watch the TV, I watched everyone, and it was perfect, Gibbs, the way I wanted things to be. I was out, I'd never been in, and I wasn't hungry or cold or dying or crazy, I was happy, don't you get that?"
Tony's face was livid now. He could never have been stone, no, not this Tony who was so obviously alive even if he didn't want to be. For the first time since he had been saved, he breathed in and seemed to fracture. He looked at Gibbs in absolute panic, and reached out to touch him. Gibbs let the warm hand settle against his face, sweaty and hot, as if Tony were blind and groping for some line of sight. Confirming truth, confirming reality.
"Like that," Gibbs said. "Like that, Tony," and he settled Tony's hand on his cheek. "It's going to be okay. I know now. I'm sorry. It's going to be okay."
Tony turned his head. "I never got better," he said. "I never did."
"I know." He kept his hand in Tony's hair. "I know you didn't. We'll make it better. You think I'm going to give up on you now, after all this? It isn't going to be perfect, Tony, but I understand now and it'll get better."
"I'll get better?"
Tony looked at him nakedly, the stone idol shattered to dust, the enemy reduced to a conquered friend. It was bitter, this victory, so much so that he barely felt the triumph in his own blood. But it was victory, nonetheless. Tony had finally shown him the truth. And if it were smaller than he had expected, if it was buried deeper than he'd known, he saw it now. He knew that he could get there.
"You'll get better," he said, because he could know no other truth. "You'll be fine."
The Window: Tony (III)
It was his only t-shirt, the NCIS one that he had worn as soft as butter. It left a few of the faded scars visible on his arms, but they had grown duller as he had grown browner, and now they seemed more artistic than troubling: small, uneven, notched tattoos. Still, he had maintained the longer shirts and the suits until today, uncomfortable with the exposure. It was, after all, his life, his secrets, written out on his skin.
But it wasn't as if Gibbs didn't already know them.
He leaned against the table and watched another strip of wood being slowly torn from the hull. Gibbs was never going to be done with that thing. Maybe he didn't even want to be. Everyone had their something.
"I didn't invite you over to drink all the Jack and watch the farm report, Dinozzo. Grab a sander and get to work."
"Yes, boss," he said, even though the wood was as smooth as silk everywhere he touched it. He liked the boat. "Just trying to see that thing you're always talking about, the Zen one. The boat within the boat. I'm trying to be the wood."
Gibbs glared at him, but two glasses of good bourbon would mellow out anyone's death stare.
Tony circled his side and touched where the boards came together. It was good, this thing he'd had a hand in making, and yes, it was an it and not a she. He was never going to surrender that point. But it was pretty beautiful, all things considered. Pretty okay.
When he lifted his hand to shield his eyes from the gasoline-yellow light overhead, his sleeve fell back and he could see the numbers he had carved into his skin. He jerked his arm back down and tugged at the sleeve, but remembered: just numbers. Just scars. And he was getting better. On days like this one, it wasn't so hard to believe that. He let go of the sleeve and gave in to that expanse of dated flesh.
Those weren't the numbers that were important anymore, anyway. They counted something he was slowly surrendering to the darkness.
"I have a date for Friday," he said, "so I won't be down."
"You think it'll go okay?"
"No," Tony said, laughing. "I'm pretty sure I'll screw it up, actually, but at least mental distress is a good excuse if she turns out to be a total Glenn Close. I've never had a chance to try out the 'it's not you, it's my lingering instability' ploy works."
"Looking on the bright side?"
Tony smiled but didn't answer, not wanting to lie when he was getting better at telling the truth, and ducked between two suspended planks to get at where he could maybe see something more defined and real underneath the surplus grain. He put his hand there and could feel it through the wood, like a heartbeat. It was within reach now. Just a slivery layer to be shed before he could touch it. It would look good, once he peeled it away.
He took the sander and brought it to the side of the boat, moved it easily over the surface. Almost there. He brushed a line of sawdust away and watched it develop.
"I think I'm done now, boss," he said.
He hadn't known that Gibbs was behind him until he felt the hand on his shoulder. "It looks good, Tony."
"Yeah, it does," Tony said, and meant it. "I really got it this time."
He turned his head to smile at Gibbs and then moved further down along the boat, his hand searching for some roughness that could be sanded away, some illusion that could be opened like a window into what was underneath.