There Loomed An Ogre
Tony shut the front door behind him with barely a sound, and had the presence of mind to remember to lock it before leaning his forehead onto the cool surface and taking a deep breath of yet more air that didn't smell of corpse.
That thought was all it took; he turned and bolted for the bathroom, heaving until throat, ribs and everything else hurt.
He knelt there for a minute, and a second minute, before he started to feel actual thoughts trying to creep in around the edges of his mind, and that was enough to throw him straight into action. Clothes, shoes – anything that smelt of that place was off, into a bag, then another, then another, then… Then the adrenaline rush wore off again, and he was left holding a parcel of at least seven carriers. Suddenly desperate to have no more to do with them, he raced to the balcony door and slung them out, banging it shut – and locked – again as though the bags would try to walk back in given half a chance.
Next. Shower. He detoured by the kitchen, picking up the lemon juice. He'd no idea if it would work, but it was worth trying – he'd known a couple of guys back in Baltimore who swore by it.
He stopped in the bathroom doorway, as it hit him that he parcelled up the knife along with his clothes that were on the balcony, and he'd have to go back into those damn bags again to get it. Which was before he remembered that his knife wasn't there, because it hadn't come home with him. Which led to his mind coming back face to face with why it hadn't come home with him. Which led to three things – a quick rush of everything he was trying not to think about regarding Gibbs and his team; before that was forcibly shoved into the background by a streak of panic a mile wide that he was unarmed, even though everything was locked, and he couldn't really take a weapon into the shower, but if something were to happen… And then another surge of nausea, fuelled by stench and fear and reaction and self-disgust, that had him diving for the toilet for a second time, the lemon juice rolling to a gentle halt across the bathroom floor.
This time, after his allotted two minutes before his brain tried to come back on line, he headed straight for the shower, pausing only to collect the renegade bottle, and turning the temperature up just a little hotter than he should.
He was shocked to find that nearly two hours had passed by the time that he'd finished in the bathroom – showered, hair washed, teeth cleaned, nails scrubbed, shaved. He'd found the bottle of coconut scented stuff that Lisa had left there – what? Four months ago? Maybe five. He'd shoved it in a bedroom cupboard after it flew past his ear when she'd finally worked out that "No, I'm not going to introduce you to my father" was not his way of saying "In a few weeks." He was glad he'd not thrown it now. It had helped.
He pulled on his oldest pair of sweats and a T-shirt that had seen 10 years service and was a good four shades of blue lighter than it had been originally, and mooched back into the kitchen. Didn't want food, but something to drink would be good. Opened the fridge, eyed the single beer within with distaste. It had been sitting there six weeks, and he reckoned it would see another six. The last thing he wanted was alcohol, and he rarely had company. Not in his home.
He shut the fridge again, and headed for the kettle. Coffee it was. He didn't exactly like the stuff, but in this case, it had benefits – strong enough, and he wouldn't be smelling or tasting anything else for a while. And it might help him not sleep into the bargain.
Making it killed a few minutes, anyway. By the time it was ready, he'd scanned the movie racks half-heartedly, knowing he wasn't going to watch any of them. TV on – flick, flick, flick – TV off. Nothing that wouldn't just irritate him by babbling in the background while he was wallowing. He'd settled for a CD from his private collection, and Prokofiev was now softly playing in the background. Dramatic and full of emotion. Just right.
It would ruin his DC reputation if anyone found this one out. Not that that mattered anymore.
There was nothing left to do, and he could feel his defences slipping. And much as he wanted to bury his head in the sand and pretend nothing had happened, if he didn't look this thing in the eye here and now, then odds were it would be tomorrow at work, and that would be so much worse, in so many ways.
How had he managed to be so fucking stupid? Screwing up on the case was bad enough, and no doubt he'd be hearing about letting himself get drugged at length from Gibbs tomorrow, and the director as well if his current run of luck held; not to mention the rest of the team sticking their collective oars in.
But then afterwards… Hell, he'd thought he'd got a handle on that behaviour by the time he hit his teens. Begging for a crumb from the big man's table. Looking for a word, a gesture… No, face up to it, DiNozzo. Looking for affirmation. Wanting confirmation that his existing made some sort of difference to someone, somewhere.
He got it. The throwaway comment that Gibbs thought nothing of, and he would catch, and keep, and hide away to pull out in dark times when he needed to remember that once, somebody had valued him. "Tony, as far as I'm concerned, you're irreplaceable." And how sad was he that he'd thought that was probably the best compliment he'd ever received?
He'd thought, for one delighted moment, that he'd meant it. That this hadn't just been a case of catching a killer, and finding him was a by-product, but that the team had been fighting for him.
Until he'd seen the desk, and McGee, and heard Gibbs' follow up comment, and the bottom had fallen out of the world again. And it was only years of practice that left him confident that no matter how much his throat had hurt and his stomach had churned, nobody else would have spotted anything that wasn't supposed to be on show.
So he'd looked put out, and then sheepish, and gone to the breakroom for water. Quick verbal report, agreement that the written report could wait until he'd gotten rid of 'eau de sewer' and he'd been able to slip out while the rest of them were getting the evidence put down.
And here he was. Regretting bitterly that he'd used baiting Gibbs as a handy distraction from what he'd just barely lived through. He'd been scared – really scared – but he'd stayed calm, considered his options, thought his way through each problem. And despite his outward resolve in the company of a man much, much worse off than he was, he hadn't been sure they'd be coming for him. Or that they'd find him if they were. He'd figured he was on his own, had been twice as surprised when Gibbs himself showed, and he'd let that colour his reactions once he was safe.
It was a mistake he would not be repeating. He'd sworn blind many years ago that he wouldn't let himself fall into that trap again. He had his own set of rules, and high up on the list was that he never let anybody know their opinion mattered to him. Right beneath remember not to let it matter. He'd learnt that lesson well, having been taught it almost from when he could understand what praise was. Build you up, then pull the ground out from under your feet and laugh when you fall flat on your face.
He swallowed hard on bile and tears and cooling coffee, forcibly reminding himself that he had also sworn he wouldn't waste any more wounded feelings and black moods on grade A bastards who didn't deserve to be given that kind of power.
Trouble was, he'd never found a way to stop it hurting. And he'd gotten complacent. He'd thought he might be fitting in this time; that for all the headslaps and the teasing and the cutting comments, that there was a place for him in this office, in this team. That this might be somewhere he could settle.
He'd not been ready for that to be ripped away so brutally and without warning, let alone at the end of the op from hell that already left him feeling like his skin had been flayed off and his nerves run across a cheese grater.
"Forget it McGee. He's still alive."
It still rang in his head, and wouldn't stop, and with every fresh pulse of it he could literally feel the punch of that comment, in his chest and his shoulders and his jaw. Apparently even his body was trying to tell him how monumentally stupid he'd been this time. He'd thought… He'd been wrong. So, so wrong, about everything. They hadn't thought he'd survive, and they weren't bothered.
And he wanted to forget he'd ever heard it, but he couldn't, because by the time he walked back into that office tomorrow he had to be in charge of it, so he could face Gibbs, and Kate, and all of them with a smirk and a throwaway comment, so none of them would ever know that it felt like he'd been thrown off a twelve storey building without a safety net.
When he hit bottom, it was going to hurt like hell.
He thought about going to bed, but dismissed it as an act of futility. There was nothing there tonight but tossing and turning and nightmares. Instead, he pulled on a jacket and shoes, switched his phone onto silent – not that anybody was going to be ringing it – and left the apartment. He knew where he would be welcome.