A/N: I started out with the intent of writing a series of little tags to Truth or Consequences, and as usual, things quickly blew out into... well, this.
Spoilers for ToC, of course. If you haven't seen the episode, you might want to hold off until you either find it on the internet (like I did) or watch it on TV in whatever country you happen to reside in. In Australia, the premiere doesn't actually air until Tuesday... but I'm impatient as all hell and couldn't wait the extra week. Internet = love.
Warning for minor swearing and possibly controversial views (this will probably become more evident in the second part, which will be posted in the next few days). If you want to chat about why I think the way I do about things revealed in the episode (and the last few eps of Season 6), feel free to PM or email me. I accept that not everybody shares my views and am always happy to hear others, but outright flaming is not okay.
Begins immediately after Tony and Co arrive home from Israel. Hope you enjoy.
Three men step awkwardly from the plane, weary muscles protesting the hours of forced confinement. They unfold stiff limbs slowly like newborn lambs finding their feet in the outside world, away from the safety of warmth and moisture and lub-dub, lub-dub .
Tony blinks in the bright light as the world spins and refocuses into something that should be familiar but somehow is not.
His shoulder throbs to an uneven staccato beat, dull and pulsing and insistent.
There are pills in his bag but he doesn't bother to reach for them. He doesn't like the shades of Ace Ventura they bring out in him. Painkillers and him are like Gibbs and wives. It feels good for awhile, but in the end they're more trouble than they're worth.
He does not speak, because in the silence he can pretend that her voice is not missing, throaty and low and distinctive in its manner. Denial is not just a river in Egypt. There are things to be said, but there will be time for that later. Reports to make and bones to pick and hot anger to spill like blood.
Angry arrows to aim at faraway targets, short and clipped and feathered on the ends.
Why. What. When. How.
They fall short. He's no Robin Hood, and he doubts that the Prince of Thieves could shoot an arrow across oceans, even an imaginary one. Better instead to concentrate on the throb in his shoulder and behind his eyes, rather than any fair maidens that might bear rescuing. This is the 21st century, for fuck's sake, and maidens these days wear combat boots and a little too much eyeliner and know how to disable knights with paperclips.
Maidens can just rescue themselves, anyway. He's done.
"Tony," Gibbs says sharply, piercing through the red haze. "Let's go."
Tony nods and follows Gibbs and Vance across the tarmac like a good little soldier. Left; left; left right left. Vance is whistling tunelessly, and for a moment Tony thinks of telling him to stop, because after the buzz and hum of the plane his nerves are shot and his head is whirling. He doesn't. Instead, he falls in line and adds his whistle to Vance's, purposely avoiding any attempt at harmony.
He almost smiles at Gibbs' wince.
Nobody has come to meet them, and Tony is glad of the absence of familiar faces. He doesn't feel like putting on his jester hat just now. The Charger waits where they left it, and he slides into the backseat with eyes firmly fixed on the world outside.
He refuses to look at the empty backseat where just yesterday (or maybe the day before – all the time zone-hopping is wreaking hell on his internal calendar) she sat in stony silence, pointedly avoiding his gaze. Ziva made her choice, and he has a right to be a little angry, just as he had a right to be suspicious of her odd behaviour before the world exploded into chaos.
She might not have intended their song to end this way – an unresolved cadence of anger and hurt and loss – but it has ended nonetheless. They hang like notes suspended in the air, waiting for a resolution. The conductor (reason and training and common sense) left the stage midway through the piece and like good little performers, they wait with instruments raised and mouths open, running out of air and desperately needing a pause, a breath, an end.
He gives in and digs through his pack for the little orange bottle, pops the top and palms the little white pills, one two three.
"Two should do it, DiNozzo," Gibbs says from the front seat without turning his head. Which – given that he's driving – is probably a good thing.
Tony rolls his eyes and tosses back two pills with a violent jerk of his head. Oh. Not the best idea, DiNozzo. His head thuds against the headrest. It's not as hard as Israeli concrete, but it hurts all the same.
The pills leave a bitter taste in his mouth and slide haltingly down his desert-dry throat.
Tony watches the city streets fly by. Beside him, the empty seat reminds him of what's missing, taunting and cold.
"To train ze dolphin," he says dreamily later that night to the blue-patterned armchair in Gibbs' lounge room, "You must zink like ze dolphin."
It doesn't reply. How rude.
The end table on his right speaks instead. "Whatever he's on, I want some."
The table sounds suspiciously like Abby. Tony blinks, and pigtails swim into view.
"Where's our fearless leader, Little Bo Peep?"
She stares at him with six reddened eyes, and he cowers, imagining scythes and black hooded figures and the smell of brimstone. From behind him, McGee says something that he can't quite make out amid the roaring in his ears, and Abby nods, head bouncing then stilling abruptly like a marionette with cut strings.
"Basement," she says after a long swirling pause. The word takes shape in the air and bursts wetly in a shower of rainbow bubbles.
"Ah, I see," he replies, though he's entirely not sure he does. "Looking for his lost sheep." She sniffles and shifts closer to him, smelling of soap, tears and fruit punch.
"Something like that."
"Do sheep drink bourbon?" Tony wonders.
Someone vaguely McGee-shaped swims into view and looks at him closely. He hands Tony a glass and his lips move but Tony's not sure he's hearing right. Either Timmy's picked up some mad Spanish skills, or Tony's going insane.
Nod and stretch lips back over teeth in a loose grin. Don't mention the sudden linguistic switch, or that McGee's face is spotted with green and blue. Blink and breathe and try for a joke.
He raises the glass and pretends that he meant for his hand to tremble. "Why thank you, Helpy Helperton."
Abby sighs and chews on her bottom lip. "Come on, Ace. I'll drive you home."
His fractured bone heals slowly, until one day he wakes up surprised that it doesn't hurt when he rolls heavily out of bed. Scars always heal. This, he's learnt through bitter experience. Scars heal, and bones knit, and bit by bit they pick up the pieces and fall back into old rhythms.
His anger fades gradually, though sometimes in the moments before sleep claims him he imagines she's sitting on the end of his bed, having appeared out of nowhere like she used to in the early years. Not moving, not speaking. Just watching him with her face twisted in grief and anger and betrayal.
"Don't look at me like that," he says one night into the empty air, sick of the spectre of her. "I did what I had to do, and I'd do it all over again."
She doesn't appear after that.
McGee loses his snark and starts to grow into his role as Tony's partner. Familiar pounding beats greet them when they enter Abby's lab, each time a little louder, and she starts to bounce again as though infected by the pulsing rhythm. Gibbs starts calling him DiNozzo again, but the head slaps remain a thing of the past, and sometimes he sits back and lets Tony take the lead. A miracle in itself.
It makes him wonder what the weather is like in Rota this time of year, and whether Gibbs is wondering if he's wondering. Almost ten years now, and the urge to move on comes and goes occasionally, making him itch and pace and strain at his boundaries.
It doesn't matter really whether he stays or goes, because a change of scenery doesn't mean a change of heart. He who has spent his life running knows this too well. And yet he lingers as he passes the internal employment board, stating the vacant positions and the experience needed. Bahrain. Norfolk. Yokosuka.
Tony stays, and watches the cherry blossoms bloom and then wither on the trees.
By the time summer arrives, they've found their feet again, and he's almost forgotten that once there was a patch of hair on the back of his head that never quite sat flat since he joined Gibbs' team. Tony forgets the sound of her voice, but occasionally he catches himself messing up the odd idiom, and he's never sure whether to smile or throw something just to hear it break.
One day he starts his usual hunt-and-peck on the keyboard and each strike of the keys sends odd noises ringing through the air. Cymbal, snare, glockenspiel. Bird whistles and car horns and the low pound of the bass drum with each vowel. McGee hovers hesitantly behind his desk, fingers suspended in nervous anticipation, and breaks into a relieved smile when Tony laughs out loud.
"You're messing with the master, McSneaky."
"You think I haven't been paying attention for the last five years, Tony?"
Tony considers this. "Fair call. Now, work your geek magic and turn my funky sound machine back into a keyboard before the Boss appears." He thinks for a minute. "And when you're done, can you show me how to do his?"
Miracle of miracles, Gibbs laughs when he logs in to the sound of chiming bells and maracas, and for a moment Tony almost expects to hear Kate join in. That's how long it's been since they last dared to prank Gibbs.
The next morning, he brings donuts (more as a tribute to days gone by than a sign of things to come), and lets McGee choose first. They fall into a pattern of shared lunches and easy banter. It's not quite the same, but if he had to choose anyone, he'd rather it be McGee watching his six. Well, other than Gibbs, obviously – but he won't be around forever.
The desk opposite his remains empty, but somehow it doesn't catch his eye quite as much as it used to.
One Wednesday afternoon in late June, McGee pokes his fork tentatively around in his rice, spearing individual grains and letting them fall, his mouth opening and closing every so often like someone's hit the mute button.
"Spit it out, Probie," Tony says finally, tired of waiting. The man in front of him has outgrown the taunting origins of the name, leaving something familiar and comforting behind, like broken-in shoes you just can't bear to part with.
"We need another agent," he blurts, avoiding Tony's eyes. "I mean, when it's quiet things are okay, but last week when we had those three cases at once… We need another set of hands."
The junior agent flinches as he says the words – as if expecting an angry retort – but Tony just digs his chopsticks into his Kung Pao chicken and lets the words roll around in his head. Ziva isn't coming back, and though he remembers the days when it was just him and Gibbs (and the long-forgotten and not missed Vivian, and later; Kate and McGee) in the bullpen, he can't deny that the cases continue to flood in and he's a little tired of the long days and longer nights.
Eventually he agrees; and so does Gibbs, and the search begins.
Tony stares at his cell phone late one night, not knowing what the time is in Israel or wherever in the world she is and not particularly caring. He is drunk and suddenly angry and determined to give her a piece of his mind.
He thinks in this moment that if circumstances were reversed, he'd quite like to put his gun to her knee and ask her what the hell she thought she was doing, keeping secrets and sneaking around and not trusting him. If she'd come to him…
If he hadn't gone to her, would he be sitting here now trying to remember what her voice sounded like?
He can't quite see the numbers on the keypad through the bourbon haze, but his fingertips remember the familiar path that spells out Ziva.
Having long since given up on the awkward slippery surface of a glass, he tips the bottle up and takes a long pull, not taking his eyes off the screen. He's aware enough to realise that he crossed the line between blissfully intoxicated and nasty toilet-hugging drunk about twenty minutes and six aborted attempts ago, but not quite aware enough to stop his finger from hitting the button with as much conviction as Rocky landing the first punch to Apollo Creed's smug face.
The phone rings steadily, tinny and distant. Tony' s not sure whether to be happy about that or not. A click and silence for a long beat. He doesn't give her the chance to speak. The words bubble black and acidic from his lips, slurred and jumbled and he's not even sure he's speaking English at all.
And then he realizes that neither is she. He doesn't speak Hebrew, but he does recognize the distinctive sound of a voicemail greeting. God knows he's spent enough time listening to them – chasing up girls and chasing down leads. And other things.
It is her voice though, low and throaty and with a hint of a smirk. The beep comes before he's ready for it, and it's like a pin that punctures his earlier resolve. He deflates with an inaudible sigh and snaps the phone shut, staring at it for a long twisting moment before winding up and pitching it straight down the centre of the room.
Knocked it out of the fucking park, DiNozzo.
The guys in the supply room roll their eyes when Tony tells them what he wants the next day. He's been down here more times than he can count in his time at NCIS. The formidable Gibbs-slap damages circuitry. It's a proven fact.
Tony doesn't want to consider what that might mean for his brain.
He doesn't bother to correct them, just signs the paperwork with a shaky hand and heading for the elevator in what he hopes isn't an 'I've been hit by the bourbon bus' walk. He presses the button for the squad room floor and breathes out air so tainted with alcohol that if he was a smoker he'd set himself on fire trying to blow out the match.
"Hey, thanks a lot," one of them calls as he tries to stay upright. Tony looks at Jake or John or Jim (not that it matters) with a raised eyebrow. Guy seems genuine enough. "You guys must be doin' a bang-up job. Elevator's been working great for weeks now."
The doors close on Tony's sickly grin. The world lurches and he wonders how Gibbs can stand the acidic aftertaste of his poison of choice. Both of his poisons. The elevator creeps up through floors and he wonders if maybe the chemicals in coffee somehow neutralize the chemicals in bourbon. He'll have to ask Abby.
Black coffee makes him gag. Guess he's not ready for the big leagues after all.
"What'd you say to her, Boss?" Tony asks weeks later, shaking out his fingers.
"You really wanna know, DiNozzo?"
He thinks about it, and decides he doesn't really care. Joe at the security desk told him that Clare Connell fled the building, muttering about bastards and wanting cigarettes. Breaking your potential supervisor's hand at the first interview isn't a testament of your strength of character. It's just bad manners.
"Guess everybody's flappable."
He tries not to think of Ziva as he says it. Angry eyes and tight mouth and a hint of tears. The memory doesn't have the sting that it used to, though given the chance to give her a piece of his mind...
Probably best not to dwell on it.
The days trickle by in a swirl of bodies and crime scenes and paperwork. The chair remains empty.
He waits in the line at the coffee shop one morning, a fistful of sugars and spoons and flavourings in his hand. Unable to break the habit of surveying the environment around him for potential threats, he counts the number of people in the shop (six, it's still pretty early), makes a mental note of the cars parked outside and checks out the exits.
He's suddenly aware that it's become a habit of detached assessment rather than a way of scouting for potentially promising girls. An indignant voice protests ("women, Tony") inside his head, and he grins.
"Excuse me?" a female voice that is definitely not Kate says curiously, and his automatic grin is pure vintage DiNozzo. "Did you say something?"
She's small and blonde and busty. Maybe thirty, thirty-one, but untarnished by the horrors of the world. Her name is – of all things – Katherine; and for a minute he thinks about telling her a story about his dead partner and phone sex, but he doesn't. He's all about new beginnings these days. Instead, a joke rolls easily from his tongue, and she laughs like it's the funniest thing she's heard all day.
He can't help but laugh with her.
In return, he buys her coffee, and steps up to the counter to ask Jerry the ageing barista to hold his first order for a little while. They sit at a table by the window and he says all the right things and thinks with not a small dose of irony that the drought has finally broken.
Tony tries very hard not to think of the storm that preceded the rain.
In the spirit of healing and because it's what you do in these situations, he asks for her number. Moments later, there are round blue letters scrawled on the back of his hand (because wouldn't you know it, he's left his phone in the squad room), and for a moment he feels like he's hitched a ride on the DeLorean and gone back a few years.
"You a movie fan, Katherine?" he asks quickly, and if she sees his sudden thoughtful expression she doesn't comment on it.
"It depends on the company," she says coyly, twirling a strand of hair around her finger and leaning closer. "There's a new spy thriller out, a pair of CIA agents pretending to be husband and wife to lure out a criminal. We could – "
Tony barely hears the rest. He makes all the right noises and even manages a couple of lame jokes, but his heart isn't in it. He makes an excuse and promises to call, and she looks at him steadily. Her eyes are suddenly sharp and he thinks that his mask must be slipping.
"I'm a big girl, Tony. If you're not interested, just say so."
He's impressed despite himself. Thinks briefly of trying again with a lie, but decides in the end that he should start being honest, as penance for all the times he's used a line to worm his way out of such a situation.
"Let me guess," she says after a beat, "Bad breakup?"
Well, in a way it's the truth.
"You could say that," he replies, glad of the free pass. He nods in Jerry's direction and receives a nod and three fingers extended in return. Three minutes. "Hey, I gotta get back to work. Thanks for the chat. And… "
"I get it. Thanks for not being an asshole," Katherine says lightly, running her finger around the rim of her cup to catch the last few sprinkles of chocolate. Tony smiles at the odd gesture – she doesn't need to impress him anymore, it seems – and leaves with his tray of coffee.
It's only when he's on his way back to the Navy Yard that he realises that he can't remember what Kate's voice sounded like.
She has pixie-short hair and laughing eyes, and she edges close to him in the darkened room and talks about being tested. It's then that he realizes that maybe all of this is his test, and maybe he's failing it right now. He leaves without looking back, but doesn't understand why until he's handing the folder to Gibbs, striped rainbow from the MTAC screen.
Likes to live on the edge. Take risks. Pretty eyes. Thinks NCIS might offer some new challenges.
He can't put the pieces together for a moment when he sees Stan Burley on the screen, and then he does. His mouth dries out instantly. He wants to choke on the sand that seems to fill his throat. Gibbs the unflappable, Gibbs with the ice eyes and stoic heart is putting out feelers in the African desert, looking for…
Well, his boss is pretty chummy with Vance these days. Closed doors and meaningful glances and time alone in MTAC without him and McGee. Tony wonders if the two of them have something going on that they're not sharing. He wouldn't be surprised. Vance is the master of secrets – the king to his court jester – and Gibbs is practically a functional mute.
He dares to ask – casually, he thinks – about the identity of the woman captive. He's almost surprised that his voice doesn't crack or waver. His heart pounds in his chest.
Gibbs raises an eyebrow and Tony knows that he's as transparent as glass. His boss is a human lie detector, powered by black coffee and bourbon and something else that Tony is slowly beginning to understand.
"What kind of failure?"
"The kind with casualties."
A warning, or a reality check, or both? There are already too many casualties from Mossad's (sometimes blatantly illegal) fuckups. Sending a Mossad agent to carry out an unsanctioned operation on American soil that lead to the death of an American agent is not something one jokes about over cups of tea. Really, he wonders sometimes how Eli David still has a job.
Captain Hastings leaves in disgust when she hears him and Abby and McGee talking about hacking, and it's probably for the best, because they have all been raised by Gibbs, and Gibbs has never played by any rules except his own.
Life barrels on like a runaway train, and before Tony knows it he's moved from being hog-tied and dragged along the rails at the back to somewhere comfortable in the second class cabin. It's no Orient Express, but then he's no Poirot. He'll take what he can get on the regular Amtrak service, thanks.
They try the usual ways first. Matching cell records from the LA terrorist cell's phones to locations in the Horn of Africa, which according to McGee is where 'Nick' was selling his weapons. Nothing. Abby and McGee talk endlessly about codes and supply chains and what Tony classes as 'geek things'. Little details in big words. Even more nothing. In fact, 'nothing' is pretty much the theme of the week.
"It's always in the last place you look," McGee muses late one night, and before Tony can reach over to make contact with his head a slap rings through the air, closely followed by a yelp. Abby doesn't turn from the computer screen, but she does snort in a most unladylike manner.
"Timmy, if you don't want your head to hurt, you really shouldn't slap yourself."
McGee frowns and rubs the back of his head. "It's been awhile. I forgot how much it stung," he says ruefully, and for that he gets another slap from Tony. "What was that one for?"
"Consolidation, Mr MIT," Tony says with a grin, "If there are people that do that – keep looking when they've found what they were looking for – then there are probably people who need a little extra help revising old lessons. And wouldn't you know it, they're probably the same people. What a coinciden-- Gah!"
Abby smiles wolfishly and blows on her hand like it's a clichéd smoking gun barrel from an old gangster movie. "Consolidation, Very Special Agent DiNozzo. Do I need to remind you exactly what keeps you in Zegna suits and me in black lipstick and bowling shoes and Tim… well, he's a special case-"
"Exactly what I've always said," Tony interrupts, taking a step back when she whirls on him. She's more subdued and harder to read these days, and her current expression could very well be 'I'm amused by your witty banter but trying not to show it'. After all, she'll always stick up for McGee over him. Part and parcel of whatever complicated relationship they've got going on.
It could also be 'I'm about to do that thing that I threatened with the hydrochloric acid and a Foley catheter.' He's not taking any chances with Tony Junior, thank you very much.
"People who spend their lives looking for answers beyond answers and therefore have no right to pass judgement say what?" Abby says quickly, the words running together in a jumbled mess. Tony blinks.
"What?" he and McGee ask in simultaneous confusion. Abby shifts her weight with a silvery jingle of chains and smiles, satisfied.
There's a joke there somewhere, but he missed it.
She turns around and starts typing at a speed unfit for human fingers. Robot Abby, a cyborg powered by highly caffeinated fruity beverage; who stomps all over generally accepted stereotypes with her boot-clad feet and probably recharges overnight in a coffin.
He wonders how he'd describe the people he worked with if he was ever asked. He'd probably go with some kind of movie allusion. It's what he does. Well, not all that he does, but part of it.
Tin Man. The Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion and Dorothy. Ducky and Abby and Vance, because like many things, the simile starts to break down once you get past the main characters and start to look too closely at the special effects.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
McGee leans a little closer to Tony and opens his mouth, watching Abby's back carefully. Tony shakes his head with the barest of movements.
"If you value your prober, Probie, now is really not the time."
Everybody deals in their own unique way. Sometimes there are shared elements, common ground, and sometimes you have to find your own method of making sense of the madness.
So… you get hurt, and you carry the hurt, and before you know it you're flipping through real estate ads for a house with a basement and wondering where one gets the carpentry know-how to build a boat. Maybe not a boat. Tony thinks he'll start small. After all, everybody starts somewhere. Even Gibbs himself didn't just spring fully-formed into being.
Maybe a bird house that he can fill with seed.
Then he remembers that he hates birds, and that house prices in Washington are ridiculous.
Tony buys a model airplane kit instead, builds it in one long stretch of piecing and gluing and painting. His hands fall into the familiar rhythm like he's been doing it all his life.
Once upon a time – almost thirty years ago, give or take a few - he hung similar models from his ceiling with pushpins, having no-one to tell him about gravity and anchoring and inevitability, or that what goes up must always come down. He woke up in complete darkness and thought he was under attack, missiles dropping from the ceiling and crashing onto his blankets. By the time his mother burst through the door, eyes wide and wild and roaming, the floor was scattered with ruined aircraft and Tony was grinning with the adrenaline rush of destruction. The celebratory thrill of defending oneself against an unknown enemy – no matter how small the victory.
He gained a few lashes for making his mother worry (read: waking his father up with the noise) and learned an important lesson about gravity.
Everything falls eventually, no matter how hard you push in the pin. It's what you do in the aftermath that really counts. Fight or ignore… or flee?
With this in mind, Tony studies the finished product for a long moment, gleaming red white and blue under the lights above the breakfast bar. He could try to hang it from the ceiling – now that he's not seven, and hence somewhat wiser about screws and anchors and whatnot – but it seems out of place in the room somehow. He props it on top of the TV cabinet, blue and white smeared on his hands from the paint that has not yet fully dried.
The water in the kitchen sink is icy and clear. Blue and white smear and bleed down toward his fingertips to disappear slowly into the garbage disposal. The smallest smudge remains on the handle of the tap. Tony looks at it, considering, and then shrugs and turns away.
The little plane catches his eye. He crosses the room in long sure steps and raises his fist to crush it like Gibbs burns his boats. He hesitates at the last second, unable to follow through without really knowing why.
Everyone deals in their own way, and he's not Gibbs and right now he doesn't want to be.
On a whim, he digs in his pocket for his cell, scrolls down to 'K' and hits the button.
"As a Federal Agent," he says when the call connects. "I feel it's my job to warn you that a crime is about to be committed." Stupid, Tony, stupid. It doesn't even make any sense. He's seriously off his game these days.
Katherine just laughs indulgently. "Really, Tony. And what might that be?"
"Oh, no need to panic. It's just… well, there's a Porterhouse somewhere in the Washington area that's just begging to be murdered tonight. Care to join me?"
And then the train runs off the track. It's not at all like in the movies. They're not staring out the window in horror, watching the carriage approach the broken bridge at a speed that makes your eyes water. They're not even given a warning. If it were a movie, the music would swell ominously and it would be the audience's cue to point at the screen and mutter.
See that one? That guy there? He doesn't know it yet, but someone's set a bomb on the tracks ahead and he's about to be blown to smithereens. And what's he doing? Listening to nursery rhymes with a puzzled smile.
But life is not a movie. There's no director to call cut and very rarely do you get a second take. And the worst thing of all, you don't get your lines in advance, so you have no idea what's coming – and even when the clues are there, most of the time you miss the meaning. Because hindsight is cruel like that.
One minute Abby and McGee are singing and he's wondering whether to join in or slap them (it's been a long time, but it's what Gibbs would have done and after all, everyone always says he's so much like Gibbs). His fingers twitch at his side with the effort of not touching the spot on the back of his head.
They talk about goats and he pretends he gets it. The mention of Eli David makes him clench his jaw.
The next… oh, the next. There are no words for what he feels in that moment after Gibbs says what they've all been afraid to think.
Later, he rages at Gibbs for not breaking it to them more gently, and then it dawns on him that no matter the means, the end is always going to be the same. Do you rip off the band-aid with a flick of your wrist or do you peel it one hair at a time from your skin?
Thing about band-aids is, they're designed as a cover up. They protect the wound from dirt and grit and further injury, but they also shield it from open air. When you take it off, there's still going to be a wound underneath, regardless of the method.
He punches the button for the elevator so hard the skin on his knuckles splits like a ripe peach. Blood pools and drips and smears on his hand.
It seems fitting. After each death, there has been blood. Blood and brains on his face and in his hair, remnants of Kate spattered on his clothes like a gruesome imitation of a Jackson Pollock painting. Art appreciation for your average psychopath. Blood in his mouth, frozen open in retort. Bitter copper on his tongue.
Blood rushing through weakened, diseased veins as Custer eyes the door and prepares for her last stand. Blood; soaking the air of a faraway diner, blood cooling, pooling on a concrete floor.
A secret door closing with a slam that was dwarfed in the explosion seconds later, the unmistakeable sound of a person just… ceasing to be. Blood and chalky bone and remnants in jars, stains on concrete floors that have not disappeared even years later. The MCRT did not scrape the remains from the floor, did not have to separate terrorist from hero.
Ducky did, because that is what Ducky does – one last act of kindness for the people in their lives that they cannot save. Sparing them the indignity of a stranger looking down on them naked and cold and framed by gleaming steel.
All except one.
He touches a fingertip to ruby red and without really thinking about what he is doing, brings it to his mouth. Bitter copper on his tongue. He is furious suddenly, at her and at himself and at everyone who had a hand in her death.
"Tony," Abby says quietly from behind him, and he draws back from the uncooperative elevator button and braces his hot palms against the cool of the panel. "Don't."
"What kind of fool sends a team of Mossad officers to a camp in Africa, on a ship that belongs to the terrorists they're tracking in the first place?" Tony rages, purposely ignoring her soft plea. "What, Director David thought that his mighty word – or maybe his mighty bribe – would be good enough for the Damocles crew not to blow his team's cover? Arrogant son of a bitch that he is."
"You know what they say about assumptions, DiNozzo," Gibbs says sharply before Abby can reply, his voice cutting through the last shredded strands of Tony's control. He punches the button again and looks blankly at the streak of blood that remains.
Finally, thankfully, the doors open and he stumbles inside without looking back. Boots strike the floor behind him and stop. Gibbs mutters something that Tony can't hear through the pounding in his ears and Abby sighs low and sorrowful.
There were no survivors.
The doors slide closed with a hiss and the elevator echoes with the ragged breathing of someone who's just felt the bridge disappear from under him and is freefalling, waiting to hit the ground. Tony laughs wildly in the small space, and the reflected madness of it makes him cringe and cover his ears.
He hits the emergency button for the first time in weeks. To hell with the basement geeks and their praise for Gibbs' record non-hogging of the elevator. To hell with everything and everyone, at least for these few minutes when he can rip off the mask and give in to the churning in his gut and just. not. care. what anyone thinks of him.
That night, Tony goes home and grinds the model plane into splinters with furious flying fists. Flakes of paint float lazily through the air and settle on the carpet like the aftermath of a bomb blast. The neighbours bang on the shared wall at the noise he's making and he puts his fist through it in response.
He crawls into bed fully dressed, bottle clutched in his hand like a child and drinks himself into a stupor that almost counts as sleep, except that every time he closes his eyes he sees her face, suspended above him. Angry eyes and tight mouth and a hint of tears. You left me, she says over and over in a broken voice, you flew away and I died.
Tony knows that's not right, that it was Ziva's choice to stay behind, that he's not the only guilty party here. He knows it's not right like he knew he couldn't have saved Kate or Paula or his mother, or stopped Jenny from going to that diner on a lonely stretch of highway to find answers – and to die.
Tony knows this, but logic and reason and common sense have no place in a world of tearstained sheets and bloody knuckles and regrets.
Coming soon: Koalas on submarines and truth in little glass bottles and dusty rooms with dirty windows. AKA: The second half of ToC.
If you liked this, that is.
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