A/N: Sorry for the delay. Got caught up watching Reunion and muttering to myself. Anyone else call writer!fail on Ziva's 'It's been a long three months' speech? Anyone? .....
Disclaimer: NCIS characters etc belong to Bellisarius and Co. If I owned them, I'd do things differently. (Oh wait, I already am... huh)
Any facts that sounds even remotely smart (i.e. medical jargon) probably came from Google, Wikipedia or similar. Some quotes taken from episode, but for the most part the theories/rationalizations are my own. Don't shoot.
Oh, and if you were as intrigued by Gibbs' 'koala on a submarine' line as I was, go hunt down 'The Q Word' for my take on what happened. It was going to be included here, but as always my 'tiny' idea blew up faster than a tin can in a microwave oven. Not that I'm, uh, shamelessly self-promoting or anything. Nope. None of that here.
Hope you enjoy.
The days immediately after Gibbs drops the bomb are like one big lost-in-translation frenzy.
It reminds Tony of a time years ago – Kate's first year on the team, in fact – when he was flying-tackled by an aggressive suspect and woke up with the headache from hell and the concussion-induced belief that everyone was not actually talking to him, but singing various lines from Modern Major General.
Tony doesn't know any cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse. Not then, not now. McGee might, but McGee doesn't say anything he can understand these days, or at least not with his voice. Their mouths move like badly dubbed kung fu movies and his internal Babelfish must have been damaged by the nuclear blast of therewerenosurvivors, because he can't seem to decipher it and usually he's pretty good at puzzles.
McGee speaks Geek, Ducky speaks M.D, and Palmer speaks Awkward. Abby's sentences run together like a particularly yappy Chihuahua… with ADHD…. on acid. Vance speaks Smug, and sometimes he speaks General, but it's hard to understand anything with the strong Toothpick drawl.
They watch him with wary eyes, bystanders unable to resist the blue and red flash of sirens even though they know they might see bodies and blood if they look too closely.
Except for Gibbs. Then and now, Gibbs always says exactly what he means.
"Grab your gear."
It penetrates like Pavlov's bell and the body responds accordingly. Conditional reflexes based on previous experiences, because this at least – this grahhb yor geer – is something Tony understands.
Victims speak Death or Hurt or Fear and suspects speak Fear or Guilt or Liar and these are things that Tony understands too, things that he can deal with as long as they're not directly related to him, because these strangers don't look at him like he's a bomb just waiting to go off.
Tony becomes a master at Gibbs!Stare, version 2.0. Maybe even better at it than the original. He tries it on Palmer and the lab assistant blushes and drops a tray of surgical instruments. McGee stumbles on his words. Ducky clucks his tongue, pushes up his face shield with a crackle of plastic and offers him tea.
New cup, new cup, move along, move along.
He tries it on Abby once when she pushes too hard, and she looks at him with a raised eyebrow and tells him that he'd better watch out or he'll start turning prematurely grey and foregoing all attempts at social pleasantries. Her eyes are huge and dark and filled with something raw. Tony presses a kiss to her forehead and walks away.
He uses it on Gibbs, and Gibbs looks at him evenly for a long moment and then smacks him upside the head. Walks away without a word, which is nice, because if he had to deal with Gibbs' cutting brand of sympathy he might just crack and shoot something.
"Grab your gear."
They march on like wounded soldiers, bandaged and bitter and feeling phantom pain in limbs they would swear weren't missing at all, except for the empty space where a hand or a foot or an eye used to be.
Almost two months Ziva's been dead; cold and rotting under the sea while he's been wishing that she was here so he could ask her what the hell she was thinking, why she couldn't just trust him enough to let him help. Maybe even ask if all that talk about soul mates and pretending was for a reason, once upon a time. Because Ziva is – was – nothing if not six foot of pure measured self-control in a five foot seven package.
She never does – did – anything without a reason, and whether that's because of training or bitter experience, he never really asked. There's a lot he never asked.
Guess he'll never know.
"Some idiot snuck a koala onto a submarine," he hears one morning, and blinks, because it's Gibbs' voice but Gibbs doesn't joke around like that.
On his right, McGee makes a strangled sound that might be a snort.
"Something funny, McGee?" Gibbs asks, and for the first time in days Tony shakes off the fog and looks at his Boss in disbelief. "DiNozzo. Nice of you to join us. Problem?"
"No, Boss," he replies, ignoring McGee's surprised expression. "It's just… You made a joke. You sure you don't want to sit down? It's always painful the first time."
"Grab your gear," Gibbs says sharply, but he doesn't quite turn quickly enough to hide his smile. McGee and Tony look at one another, and he's struck by how much older the junior agent looks. They fall in behind Gibbs as he heads for the elevator.
"It's a nice change from dead petty officers," McGee says lightly, his eyes darting between Tony and Gibbs' back as though he's not entirely sure what just happened. "Besides, how much trouble can one cute little bear be?"
Hours later, the slap whistles through the air for the almost-forgotten remark. Tony would smile at McGee's wince, but the angry scratches on his arm sting from the antiseptic and his ears are filled with the screaming of the frightened animal.
He sees dark eyes shining at him whenever he closes his.
The days pass and the anger fades from the front of his mind slowly, but it's easier somehow to just let the world fly by, slip into autopilot and let someone else direct the show.
Grab your gear.
And then one day, it's not.
It's the first time in a long time – maybe ever – that he's openly, blatantly defied Gibbs. The world comes to a standstill and he can hardly believe what he's just said. McGee holds his breath. Tony breathes slowly through his nose, willing himself to keep his head. If he's learnt anything in the past near decade with Gibbs, it's that threats and anger don't work well on the man. He's seen worse, and he's dealt out worse, and he's mostly immune to it.
Though everyone has their breaking point.
Tony's not sure what surprises him the most – the fact that he said it, or the fact that Gibbs is looking at him with an expression that is breathtakingly close to pride. There's no surprise in the ice blue eyes, and it's then that Tony realises that somehow, Gibbs has been waiting for this moment since the day he ripped off that bandaid.
There were no survivors.
And there aren't, and there's nothing they can do to change that, but there are still people to blame. People to hate. People to hurt. So he makes his case, and it turns out that vengeance is sufficient enough spark to light the fuse again, to blow him back into the world.
In a way, he thinks that if Ziva were here, she'd be proud.
"...and we leave in two days."
Abby stares at them for so long that Tony wonders if she's gone into some kind of fugue state. He wants to snap his fingers in front of her face, but given what they've just told her, she might bite them off and then convince Ducky to re-attach them. Slowly, and without anaesthetic.
Beside him, McGee shifts uncomfortably under the weight of her leaden gaze.
"I must have been standing way too close to the speakers last night," she says slowly after awhile, picking up the giant cup of Caf-Pow and shaking it, "Because I thought I just heard you say that you volunteered yourselves for a mission to Africa. But I must have misheard, because there's no way you would – "
"Well, actually – "
"Shut up, McGee!" Abby bites out, snapping like a wounded dog. They both take a step back as she starts to pace. "Just shut up, because if you're not going to tell me that I'm going deaf, i-if you're telling me that one death wasn't enough and now you're going off to the middle of the desert on some messed up revenge kick, I don't want to hear it."
She's never looked so beautiful as she does right now, fighting against the inevitable with fierce eyes and whipping hair, her hands spelling out all the things she can't find the words to say out loud.
Tony wishes he'd learnt to speak her language like Gibbs had. Her hands move like poetry, and he could use a little poetry in his life. He only knows a few signs, and none of them will make a difference to her anger.
Her voice, on the other hand, is approaching levels that only bats and canines can hear.
"Are you trying to send me completely insane? No, really, is it Make Abby Crazy week, because some advance warning would have been nice." Her voice cracks and breaks. "I would have kept the straitjacket."
"Abby," McGee says calmly, ever the peacemaker. "We – "
"I swear to God, McGee, if you say one more word I will kick your ass into next week with the tricks that I never told you Ziva taught me. And you made me say G-o-d, so you should know that I mean that."
"Abbs," Tony says with a frown, "What did you think was going to happen? We tracked Saleem to the camp, and convinced Vance to give us the green light. This is what we wanted."
"That's what you're supposed to do, DiNozzo." And then he knows just how mad she is, because she never calls him by his last name, and she never ever spits it out like it's poison. "You're investigators. You investigate stuff. Being an field agent and being a – a SEAL – is not the same thing, no matter how many stupid action movies you can quote."
"Abby," Gibbs intervenes, and they whirl as one because nobody heard the elevator.
"And you," she half-yells at Gibbs, her hands flailing madly, "You have glasses!" Gibbs blinks, but she's not done. "You have glasses, and bad eyesight, and it's been years since you were a Corps sniper, and I thought you got over your mid-life crisis thing when you were dating the woman with the convertible, and…" She deflates visibly before their eyes and turns away.
Even Gibbs is lost for words for what seems like hours. "Abby," he says finally, simply, in the gentle voice he reserves just for her. "I'll bring them back to you."
She sniffles petulantly as she turns, tears streaking down her face. Tries one last time. "Can't you send someone else to do it?" It's a pointless question, and from the look on her face she knows it and is horrified that she said it aloud.
Tony's not sure he could send someone else to possibly die in his place, not for something that – if he's being honest with himself – is less about stopping a terrorist from spreading more evil and mostly about getting payback for evil that's already been done.
Somehow, without him even noticing, Saleem has become his Ari.
Tony tries to pinpoint when exactly his life turned into Groundhog Day.
He wonders if this was what Gibbs felt after Kate's death when he was hell-bent on pursuing Ari, on getting revenge. He wonders if Gibbs had dreams about watching Ari's blood run red across the concrete floor and whether when he woke up, he classed them as dreams or nightmares.
As if she's read his mind using the super voodoo powers she sometimes jokes about, Abby says, "I know you've killed crazy terrorists before, Gibbs, but it's different this time. This guy, he's not Ari."
Gibbs' face twists for a split-second and Tony can't help but stare as he closes the door to the lab, twists the lock and walks forward until he's standing in between them all, the centre of their fucked-up little triangle. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.
"I didn't kill Ari Haswari," Gibbs says, the words falling like birds shot out of mid-air. "Ziva did."
It's probably not the best way to inspire Abby's confidence in his terrorist-shooting skills, but it certainly is efficient in rendering her speechless. She gapes, mouth flapping like a stranded fish, and McGee looks like someone's just pulled the rug out from under him. Gibbs looks like he wants to claw the memory out of his head, and Tony doesn't quite understand why.
Then Gibbs begins to speak, and within seconds Tony is wishing he was deaf.
There are plans to be made, and briefings, and things to tie up before anyone's going anywhere. Such is life in a government agency, where more time is spent filling in endless forms than actually carrying out the mission the forms don't really describe in the first place.
Tony updates his will, leaving what little he has not to the family he was born into – they have enough, and if they can't share then he's sure as hell not going to – but to the family he's made for himself. McGee spends a lot of time down in Abby's lab and if Gibbs disapproves of this, he never says a word. For his part, Gibbs spends a lot of time in the Director's office, which just gives weight to the thought that there's something else going on here that Tony's not being told about. A bigger picture.
The plan is really not a plan at all, as it turns out. They can prepare all they like, talk strategy and tactics and response times until they're blue in the face, but the reality is that Tony and McGee are more or less going in blind.
"That's what reconnaissance is all about, DiNozzo," Vance says when Tony tires of the endless chatter and points this fact out. "You want to back out, now would be a good time." Tony doesn't.
Vance doesn't look terribly concerned about this possibility, but by now Tony's learnt to read the man a little better and he's pretty sure it's a vote of confidence in his abilities rather than another reason to add to the now-mostly-defunct list of 'why DiNozzo's a screwup.'
He allows himself a moment to entertain the thought of standing at the podium accepting an award that doesn't have Gibbs' name on it. Just one moment, and then Vance turns to Gibbs and says something about tactical response scenarios and the moment passes.
Tony starts to believe that they might be able to keep their promise to Abby.
The day before they are scheduled to leave, Vance calls him into the office, sits him down, and proceeds to tell him about interrogation. He doesn't use the word 'torture' as such, but it hangs in the air anyway.
"Hey, if I can stand to sit through the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers," Tony says with a grin, though his mind is racing, "I can outlast anything."
And it says something else about Vance that he lets him play the clown, finally realizing that it's not about Tony not getting the point or failing to see the seriousness of the situation. It's about dealing with the horror of the idea however he can in the immediate aftermath, until he can sit down and process things in his own way.
So Vance smiles – smiles! – and says that in his mind, Planet of the Apes trumps The Invasion on any worst remake list, then shakes his hand.
"Come home safely, DiNozzo, and we'll discuss your future at NCIS," he says meaningfully with that same smile, and suddenly Tony realizes that maybe Vance is not the enemy after all.
"Anthony, my dear boy," Ducky says warmly as he strides through the automatic doors of Autopsy later that day. "So fortuitous that you should walk through my door. I was just about to call and ask if you had time to spare for a cup of tea."
Tony would much prefer something with proof, but he agrees anyway because that's what you do for family sometimes. You let them give you what they think you need.
Besides, it wouldn't do to get caught drinking on the job and removed from the not-so-secret mission before it even starts.
Ducky goes through the ritual of making tea as Tony watches silently, for once not needing to fill the space with meaningless chatter. The time for that has passed, and it's not necessarily what he wants to be remembered for.
Not that he's thinking only of the worst, but after more than a decade in law enforcement, a little bit of pragmatism has to rub off on a person.
Still, he doesn't quite know where to begin.
"Something on your mind?" Ducky asks lightly, setting two steaming mugs on a silver table that serves alternately as an instrument holder and the world's most grotesque tea trolley. Tony picks up the cup and lets the heat radiate though his skin.
"True Lies," he says by way of explanation, and something in Ducky's face flickers and is still. "See, I just came from the Director's office, and he was trying to – " Scare him? Warn him? " – tell me about, uh, certain methods that terrorists might use to get information from hostages. And I kept thinking of Arnie, but you know what they say…" He takes a sip and then grins. "You can't believe everything you see in the movies."
"Ah," Ducky says thoughtfully, his brow creased. "Sodium pentathol, then. Or to use the commonly coined phrase – truth serum."
"My experience is with the dead, Tony," Ducky says gently, "And it is not often that the dead tell lies. However," and Tony perks up, "There is someone who might be able to shed more light on this situation." There's a crash and a curse from inside the storeroom, and Ducky shakes his head indulgently. "Mr Palmer?"
The storeroom door swings open. "Sorry, Dr Mallard, the tray just – oh, hey Tony."
"Mr Palmer, if you have a moment, Tony has a question that might be nearer to your area of expertise than mine." Jimmy's eyes light up and he hurries over eagerly.
"I'm no expert, Tony, but I'll help wherever I can."
"Sodium – what was it – pentathol. Truth serum. Know anything about that?"
"Actually, I wrote a paper on it not long ago." Jimmy pushes his glasses up further on his nose, thinking. "Sodium thiopental. A drug of the barbiturate class. Psychologists believe that because lying requires more complex higher cortical functions than telling the truth, giving the drug to…"
"Phys ed major, Jimmy. Dumb it down."
He blushes. "Sorry. Uh, giving the drug to unwilling subjects may cause a suppression of these functions and result in the compulsion to tell the truth. In short – the person feels the urge to talk without restraint, and according to popular belief, they feel they are unable to lie."
"Sounds like the world's biggest barrel of laughs," Tony says easily, trying not to wince. "So if they shoot me up, the filter between my brain and my mouth disappears, huh?" He thinks about it for a minute. "Well, that's nothing new."
Ducky and Palmer both smile a little at his attempt at humour. Palmer opens his mouth to continue, doubt etched across his seemingly innocent face.
"Actually, a lot of the drug's effects are based on the subject's mistaken belief that they can't lie."
Tony leans forward, liking the sound of that. "Mistaken how?"
"Uh – well, my paper was about the effects of the drug on the GABA receptors in the brain and spinal cord, not on the specific…" Tony levels him with a watered-down DiNozzo stare. Wouldn't do to have him all stammering and flustered, after all.
To Tony's grudging approval, Palmer continues unfazed. He's in his element. "From a mostly non-medical standpoint, I believe it is possible to lie under the influences of thiopental. The person would either need to have a well-practiced false story firmly entrenched in his memory, or be a very good liar."
There's no accusation in his voice, no inflection at all really. Just a statement of fact.
"Most interesting, Mr Palmer," Ducky says, sipping from his cup. Tony follows suit, thinking about what he's just heard. Never hurts to be prepared.
"Was there… is there anything else you need?" Jimmy asks, eager to please as always. Tony smiles at him genuinely, thinking that if – when – they get back, he'll never refer to the well-meaning assistant as 'the autopsy gremlin' again.
Or at least not as often as he used to.
"Thanks, Agent Blacklung," he says easily, draining his mug and standing. Palmer blushes, a delighted grin spreading over his face. "And hey…" He suddenly can't think of anything to say. "I'll bring you back some sand, or an African princess or something."
"Sure, Tony." He returns to the storeroom and Ducky and Tony are alone again, or as alone as one can be with corpses waiting silently behind steel doors.
"Be safe, Tony," Ducky says simply, grasping his hand.
"No African princess for you, Ducky?"
The medical examiner laughs heartily despite the gravity of the situation. "Oh, I could tell you stories that would make your toes curl, dear boy." Tony can't quite hide his shudder. "Perhaps we shall save that conversation for another day."
"Something to look forward to, I'm sure," Tony shoots back as he heads towards the doors. "Keep an eye on Abby for us," he says as they slide open. "She's a little – "
"Yes, I had noticed," Ducky agrees with a sigh. "She is somewhat overwrought about the whole situation, isn't she. I suppose it is not without reason. Still, I shall do my best to keep her from worrying herself to… distraction."
"You'll keep, Doctor Mallard," Tony says as the doors close behind him.
He's already trying to plot out a believable cover story as the elevator moves through the floors. He was never a Boy Scout, but it can't hurt to be prepared.
Besides, after all his experience with women, he's an excellent liar.
"What, no air-con?" he grouses when they arrive in Somalia, looking at the poor excuse for a vehicle they've been assigned. "Is this thing even roadworthy?" He kicks a tire and hopes he covered his wince quickly enough.
"I'm guessing that they save the good cars for the missions when they don't expect them to be burnt and pillaged," McGee says casually, though the twitch at the corner of his mouth gives him away. "When do we head out?"
Tony looks at the sun for a long considered moment, then gives in and looks at his watch. "Couple of hours yet," he says a touch impatiently. Gibbs has disappeared somewhere with little more than a nod as a not-quite-goodbye, and other than a few random personnel they're mostly alone. "Make sure you visit the head before we go, Timmy. I'm pretty sure there are no gas stations where we're going."
"And that would be where, exactly?"
"Well, if my finely-honed instincts serve me correctly," Tony begins jovially, then sighs and looks at the sparse desert around him. "Hell on Earth."
Tim stares at him for a minute as the wind whips sand around them both. "Anyone ever tell you you'd make a shitty motivational speaker?"
"Nope. Mostly they just tell me to shut the hell up."
They laugh together before falling back into an awkward silence.
"Tony?" McGee says a short time later, "Do you think –"
"Not very often," Tony jokes, "It hurts my brain." He's fairly sure he knows where this is going, and less sure that he wants to talk about it, but…
That's what you do for family.
McGee's struggling. "Do you think Ziva would… would she approve?"
"Are you kidding, Tim?" Tony says, because of all the possible questions, this is something that he is sure of. "The opportunity for unadulterated violence, terrorist smackdown and bloodshed? She'd be the first one in the door."
It doesn't make what they're about to do any less insane, but in a strange way it helps.
Palmer never said it would burn like this. Maybe he forgot to mention it, maybe he simply didn't know. Tony's not sure which he'd prefer, and it doesn't matter really because the end result is still the same.
There's a tiny spot of blood in the crook of his elbow. No bigger than the head of a pin.
"Not only are you wrong, but you're wrong at the top of your voice." "
Dry lips and cracked split skin like a peach.
Tony is the master of smooth talking, the purveyor of white lies and misdirection, but fire and ice surge in his veins. Fire and ice and fear.
Window. Dust. One chair. No, two chairs. One empty, one full of Tony. Tied up and trying to keep his cool in the stifling heat of the room. McGee's supposedly unconscious body. One table. Syringes and tourniquets and truth in glass bottles. Keffiyeh stained with sweat and rage and death.
The hate burns worse than the drugs, worse than the sting of the beating he received, worse than the sight of McGee stretched limply on the floor.
Saleem asks him questions, baits and taunts and jeers, and Tony fights to stick to the script. It makes his muscles quiver almost uncontrollably, but not completely beyond control. He clenches his jaw whether he is telling truth or lies or a combination of both, throwing the hunting dog off the scent, and Saleem narrows his eyes in frustration as he spins his tale.
"I don't care about your team. I don't care about my team."
If there was ever a time for an Oscar-worthy performance, now would be it. Best Script. Best Screenplay. Best gratuitous movie references. Accepting the award for Anthony DiNozzo is Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs. Because everything should come full circle eventually, right?
There's a window behind his head, but the glass is dusty in places, and Tony hopes to God that Gibbs wasn't lying when he said that he hadn't forgotten any of his sniper skills and that his glasses were only for reading.
Sandpaper lines his throat, scratchy and raw. He can't take his eyes off the Caf-Pow in Saleem's flask, partly because it's a reminder that he has to stick to the script, partly because his throat is so dry he'd sacrifice his entire DVD collection for a drink. Even if the caffeine would probably send him into some kind of shock, given his current state.
He'll never complain about the rain in Washington again, that's for sure.
Time loses all meaning, and he's not quite sure whether he's awake or dreaming or caught in some kind of funky fugue state. Sometimes there is just one ugly terrorist, sometimes there are three, and they dance around his head with wild mad eyes.
Palmer left out the part about the sodium.. whatever… being like one big stoner fantasy, though given his air of innocence, maybe he wouldn't know what that feels like. Hell, Tony only tried it a couple of times himself, back in college, because he was eager to fit in and curious, but he was also an athlete whose future depended on his ability to pee clean urine into jars.
Before his knee buckled and snapped and strained underneath him, that is. It's a funny thing, how your priorities can shift all of a sudden.
Saleem is angry. At himself, at Tony, who knows. He's got the gun, and he can be angry at whoever he wants. That's what happens when you have the gun. The canteen clatters against the stone wall and red liquid spills out, glistening sickly in the sunlight. Tony would lick it from the floor, given the chance.
Saleem storms out, McGee whispers, Tony blinks twice against the fuzziness clouding his vision and tells him to wait. There's angry shouting from somewhere outside the room, and he doesn't speak Terrorist but it sure doesn't sound like Saleem's berating the thug outside the door for drinking the last of the Chardonnay, either.
Terrorist hospitality leaves something to be desired. He wonders idly if there's some kind of tourist board he can complain to. No chocolates on my pillow. Hell, no pillow at all. Wouldn't come back here if you paid me.
Footsteps approach rapidly in staccato bursts of anger, and the keffiyeh swims back into his vision. Tony blinks, sure that when Saleem left the room he didn't have time to grow himself a whole extra set of arms and legs like some kind of… regenerating alien.
Though it would certainly cement the surrealism of this whole snafu if Saleem peeled off his face right about now.
He's barely had time to think of a suitable movie when his world grinds to a halt, because Saleem is raging and pacing and ripping black cloth from what is not in fact his alien conjoined twin, but a gaunt bound figure in a chair much like his and something stirs in his gut underneath the layers of fire and ice and stick to the script, DiNozzo, just stick to the script.
And sweet mother of all that is holy, could he ever use an autocue machine in his line of sight right now. What's my goddamn line? He forgets everything they've rehearsed with the whip of a hood from a face.
Ziva stares back at him, beaten and bloody and broken, and yet somehow more breathtakingly beautiful than she's ever been. And Tony's seen a lot of beauty in his time. Blonde and red and blue and green and every variation in between.
And yet brown and brown never made his heart stutter in his chest quite like this.
This was not part of the plan. There's no script for this, and he's not sure what will happen if he goes off-book, but he's the master of improvising, the stand-up comedian of the Truth Serum Amphitheatre.
"So… how was your summer?"
Unsurprisingly, the audience doesn't laugh, but he's stuck on the stage with fire and ice in his veins and she looks at him with hopeless resigned eyes and tells him that she is ready to die and it's all he can do to not groan out loud.
Oh, the beauty that men create and admire, and the damage that they cause with words and fists and things that he does not want to think about.
She is undeniably damaged, and he is burning, and she is still beautiful.
If you asked him later, he would not remember most of what he said to Ziva, or what she said to him. He would not remember all the things they did not – could not – say. But that would be later, after the fact, in the future that he can't quite imagine now that the rules of the game have changed.
Now, in this moment when they are supposed to be deciding who lives and who dies, the words crowd and flood, hovering behind his clenched jaw, and Tony understands what Palmer was talking about, because he is most definitely feeling the urge to talk without restraint.
If he starts, he's not sure he'll be able to stop.
"Are you alright… McGee?" But her eyes remain on him as she asks, and in the pause he thinks he hears what she's unable to ask of him. It's a good thing really, because if she asked, he would have to tell her everything. Drugs or no drugs, she was always good at telling when he was lying.
Though once she stood proud and strong and now she is crushed and wilting like a flower ground under combat boots. Four months. Four months of…
Tony bites the inside of his mouth so hard he tastes blood on his tongue, because this he cannot deny. Ziva is gaunt and cowed and broken, but she is not beaten, and there is only one reason he can think of why a group of terrorists would transport a woman with them from camp to camp. For four months.
Time shifts and fades, and behind his back he clenches his hands so hard he feels his fingernails splinter against the soft flesh of his palm.
"Ziva. Can you fight?"
Can she fight? He would slap his own head if his hands weren't bound. She can't even stand.
She just sits there not quite meeting his gaze, one solitary tear breaking free from the corner of her right eye and meandering down her cheek for all – well, for him – to see. Can she fight? Probably not. Does she want to?
Tony doesn't want to think about that too hard. The more he thinks, the harder he has to clench his jaw against the words that spin and stick on the roof of his mouth like poison.
Saleem enters stage right, and it almost breaks Tony to see her beg for their lives, because in doing so she is begging for her death and that, that right there sends heat rocketing through his skull, because damned if he'll let another person he cares about die on his watch, no matter what they've done or suffered or said.
Finally, the shot whistles through the air, heralded by the tinkling of shattered glass. He wants to cheer but now is not the time for celebration. Miles to go.
And then Saleem is staring sightlessly at the filthy ceiling, blood pooling red on the concrete floor and inexplicably, Tony wonders if this is what Ziva saw when she knelt over her brother for the last time. She stares at the blood blankly as McGee cuts them free, and when Tony touches her shoulder she flinches and cowers like an animal.
Her eyes stare right through him as if she's not here at all, wild and dark with something he cannot describe without screaming like the damn koala they dragged from the USS Seawolf in a canvas bag.
They lift Ziva between them gently and try to ignore the ragged breath that escapes her at the movement. She is lighter than Tony ever thought possible and he winces at the feel of her ribs against his torso, the bones shifting in a way that tells him something's not right there, something's broken.
There's a shout and a scuffle and a sudden shot, and a figure crumples in the doorway before they have time to react. Ziva goes limp in their arms and they almost – almost – buckle under her sudden dead weight, because they too are tired and beaten and a little broken.
"Ziva," McGee murmurs, shaking her with infinite care, and she comes to with a startled gasp. "Let's go." They've spent enough time in this room. Tony wishes there was time to burn it to the ground, but someone else can take care of that part. He's done.
Another shout. Another shot. Another body to add to their growing tally of things they didn't kill. Tony wants to laugh, but it's taking all of his energy just to stand upright. They turn the corner and Tony blinks.
There's a Wookie waiting at the end of the corridor.
A Wookie, or possibly a Swamp Thing. He blinks again and wonders if it would be a bad time to ask McGee if he's seeing monsters in his mind too. Not exactly something that will inspire confidence, hearing that your senior agent is in fact going completely bat-shit crazy.
"Let's go home," the Swamp-Wookie says gruffly, and for one horrible moment Tony wonders how it's speaking with Gibbs' voice and… oh. Right. Gibbs in sniper's desert camouflage. Or… whatever the correct term is that's just out of reach of Tony's obviously drug-addled brain.
Wait. Gibbs is here?
Gibbs standing at the end of the corridor. Tony looks back at the dead men on the floor. Looks at Gibbs. Tries to calculate the distance between here and the hilltop where they'd agreed to set up the sniper's nest. He fails miserably.
"Boss, you learn a new skill you didn't tell us about?" Tony says roughly, licking cracked lips with a bone-dry tongue. He'd give up his entire… well, he'd probably give up his left testicle for water at this point. It's useless to try and avoid the truth.
Even for people who haven't been doped up to the eyeballs with truth-inducing drugs.
"The hell you talking about, DiNozzo?"
"Oh, nothing. Crazy talk. Say, have you been reading McGee's copy of Harry Potter lately, because you were on the hill and then you were here and how did you snipe that second guy but then make it all the way down – "
The slap doesn't hurt at all in comparison to all the other aches, but he suspects Gibbs might not be putting his usual effort into it under the circumstances.
"Shutting up, Boss."
They step out into the sunlight and Gibbs studies them as they flinch from the glare. Unconscious, Ziva's head lolls like a marionette whose strings have been cut, brushing his shoulder with each step.
"Rule Number Nine, DiNozzo."
"Perimeter guards took my knife on the first day, Boss."
"Not my rules. Abby's. Always keep a spare."
Tony wants to say – a spare what? – but his mouth won't cooperate, and then he gets it without having to ask. A spare sniper? Typical Gibbs.
Tony's knee threatens to give way. He misses a step and without a word Gibbs gathers Ziva in his arms, watching with wise eyes as Tim hooks Tony's arm around his shoulders and urges him forward.
They kick up the dirt behind them as they walk into the sunshine and towards safety.
Hours later, Tony struggles up from the darkness and for a terrifying moment he's sure he's in Hell.
It's hot and dark and sweaty and everything throbs, collecting behind his eyes in a mind-numbing whirlpool of fire and ache and noise. Someone's whimpering, ragged breaths and the wet sound of stifled tears. Shh, shh.
He wants to cover his ears but his traitorous hands disobey. He sinks back into oblivion without putting up a fight.
Much later, sounds start to filter in. A crackle of static and a rustle of fabric. Whispers rising and falling in the false darkness of not-really-night. He can taste the desert sand sour and angry on his tongue.
Someone coughs to his left, harsh and dry. The plane rattles and hums beneath him, and the hair on the back of his neck is prickling in a familiar way.
Somewhere on the floor near his feet, a shadow gathers and takes form, dark shining eyes staring at him steadily in the dim glow of the cabin. They flicker once, twice, and then disappear beneath heavy lids.
"DiNozzo," Gibbs says from somewhere on his right, low and rumbling and the one familiar thing about this unfamiliar world.
"Go back to sleep."
Tony wants to speak, but he's tired of lies and he's even more tired of truths and to be honest he's still not entirely sure where one ends and the other begins. His fingers tingle and he spares a glance for the figure on the stretcher, but closes his eyes obediently.
He's learnt something about orders in the last few months – namely, that sometimes people know what's good for you better than you do, and that you should listen to what they tell you. Sometimes.
He lets the darkness drag him down into its velvet embrace.
The plane rumbles on steadily towards home.
A/N: *cue curtain*
I'm purposely choosing not to write about the final scene of the premiere, since I don't think there's much more to say (and honestly, I thought the applause bit sucked all kinds of... something... so I don't really want to write about it). Forgive me?
Hope you enjoyed reading this, and if you did (or didn't): Feedback rocks my world. :)