- Chapter Thirteen -
It takes him a long time to realise what is missing.
Other things are felt through the endless dark – the taste of rubber, skin itching – but the concept of no pain is noticed first and seems to raise some feeling of doubt. He is so very aware of the sound of his own rasping breath, because beyond that he can't hear anything at all.
Gradually, there are other things. Rubbing. No, wrong word. Brushing. Feathers on his palm. He hears his parents, and they sound sad.
But then his concentration breaks, and he loses them. It happens a lot: perception ripped from under him. He is entombed in the silent earth, though it is not so bad; for when rough hands drag him through the underground room he can turn away and it vanishes. The smell of dirt gradually weakens, and he thinks these other dreams will fade with him into the black. It will not be so bad.
Then comes the sound of breathing, though this time it is not his. It stays, even when he loses track. He tries to locate it, feeling the creak of his neck moving.
The voice is sharp, and comes from everywhere. He flinches, hesitates. Uncertain.
Feeling. Someone is gripping his fingers. He's afraid, because he knows the voice.
This new voice must be his. It sounds broken.
He tries to open his eyes, but light slices his mind apart and he turns away. His hand clings to hers and he's scared because he can't feel anything. It's so white and he can only hear them breathing.
"Am I dead?"
A wet sounding laugh. "No, you're fine. You're okay."
Where did the pain go? He's shivering, but he feels nothing. The walls have gone, he can feel their vacancy, but his hands can't move to stretch out. Where are the walls?
Voice again, that too real voice and the too hard hand holding his. "You're out. It's okay."
Twice said, less meant. No pain, his body reminds him, and there must be something wrong. His mind searches and remembers the ceiling opening up, and light for the first time in days. It's trapped him in this halfway place of numbness.
He shudders, escapes away into the shadows and the smell of dust.
She fades, and what's left is far more confusing and fragmented. He recalls only snatches and can't seem to link them together to any reasonable continuity.
Sometimes, he is in a hospital. He can barely move through broken bones and bullet holes. He swears he can still feel it burning in his chest, though a nurse tells him three times she saw them take it out. He can't quite work out how he got here, and he's never awake long enough to ask.
Other times, he hears the sound of the light buzzing and can hear them moving around behind the door. But he is alone in the dark and the dirt. He can't tell which one is the dream.
At some point, he is shaken awake, or falls back into sleep.
Hospital, with men standing over him. But they are not doctors. He doesn't know who they are.
He looks between them. Shuts his eyes and opens them again. Still there.
One of them leans close, and his voice is low. "We need to talk to you." His hand is close by his head, and the backs of it are all hairy.
"What…" Wow, that hurts. Feels like he's swallowed barbed wire.
"Agent McGee." Voice is sharper.
Go away, go away. He just wants to sleep.
"What are you doing."
His eyes open. That voice doesn't belong to either of the suddenly silent men.
"Agent Gibbs, you shouldn't be here."
"Get out. Now."
"You have no authority—"
"Care to try me?"
Quiet. Every threat in the world hidden between syllables. The two consider. Then Hairy Hands steps back.
"We will have to come back, you understand."
"And when you do he won't have half the pharmacy shoved up his arm." Gibbs moves forward. "Get. Out."
The shadow men walk away. Tim blinks his eyes, watches a pale ghost peer down at him. He feels pressure on his arm for an instant. The hand is real and he suddenly understands that he is here and not dead. That place with the men walking outside the door is smoke in his head, and here and now he is in a hospital looking up at Gibbs, who is looking back.
"Boss…" It comes out a dull croak, and agony spikes up his chest.
The jaw above him tightens. "Go back to sleep, Tim."
There's a commotion outside. It fades into the jangle of his head, and he barely has time to shut his eyes.
He dreams of the taste of blood and cold touching the small of his back. Cabbie smiles down at him.
"What are you waiting for? She's right there."
He looks down, sees—
He feels a jolt in his chest, gasps at the pain it causes. Opens his eyes to black hair and shadows.
"Ziva?" he croaks.
He knows it's wrong the moment it comes out, for the head turns.
Abby. Sitting by the bed with her head turned to the dark window. She starts, turns. When she smiles it shivers a little on her face.
Shy, she touches his hand. He can feel her shaking, so he opens his fingers. Her skin's clammy and rough with goosebumps. It shocks him awake, blinking at her. There are shadows under her eyes and she wears no makeup.
"What?" he says, because it's the first thing he can think of.
"What what?" Tony looks bemused. He is slouched in a chair in the corner, eyes half shut, though it's hard to tell from the shadows.
It's night outside, and raining. Odd, he thinks. Even underground he should have known about the rain. He turns his eyes between them, making sure he's not dreaming. They look awful. Ill and grey. Wonders why, for they were the ones in the sun. Therefore they must be real, for they surprise him.
Her hand tightens. "How are you feeling?" she asks him. Her voice is timid.
"Okay." It sounds like a file on wood, and he swallows. "How did…?"
"We got you out." Tony's tone is flat, abrupt. Abby looks away and out the window.
Tim tries to remember, but there is only that last moment of light with his chest burning. There is a desert between there and here.
"We tried to dig you out." Tony shrugs, evades the question. "It sort of worked." He seems ill at ease in his chair, and watches with clouded eyes. His fingers are bound with gauze, and Tim feels a little ill to realise that he probably wasn't being metaphorical. Abby's other hand is bound tight.
Too many little details are coming at him at once, and he has to shut his eyes for a minute. He can hear them sitting, and waiting. The realness, the living weight of them, presses him down in suffocation. He listens to the sound of rain, feet squeaking outside the curtains. But above that he can hear a neon light fizzing, from somewhere to his left. The sound calms him, and he opens his eyes again.
Above him Abby's head is turned away, looking out the window. There is a distant, drawn expression on her face. She always hated rain.
There's a question he wants to ask, but he can't find it. Though his thoughts are ordered enough, he doesn't know where to go from here. He stares across at Tony, still slumped in his chair. He picks his own question to answer.
"You've been asleep for eight days since we got you out," he says. "You were in there thirteen."
Seems so generic, the way Tony says 'in there'.
He does not wait for the next question. "Ziva's okay. The only one of the terrorists who made it was the big guy. Lenny?"
So. Cabbie and Screamer are dead. And she lives.
He feels nothing.
Actually, not true. He's skin is pebbling and he's trembling, so he must be cold. His head…
He moves his stiff hand upward, touches his head. A naked scalp shivers under his fingertips.
Abby looks embarrassed. "You, um… had lice. They figured…thought it would be easier this way."
He feels the bumps on his head, the itch of red welts across his stomach and down his arms.
He know he should be mortified. He knows they expect him to be, and he can practically see the quips dangling on Tony's tongue and the reassurances in Abby.
But he doesn't care. He looks at the bites and can honestly say he doesn't care at all.
So he says nothing, and so do they.
He wakes. 1:01 AM.
It takes him a long time to fall back asleep. He is listening for something that isn't there, and it takes him until daybreak to realise what.
The buzz of a dying lightbulb, and the sound of breathing.
For the next three days, he moves. Only in the most loose sense, of course. Mostly it's him lying on his back twitching like an overturned insect.
Legs are shrivelled. It takes him a whole day to sit up, another to turn his legs to swing down from the bed. The first time he tries to stand they don't even flicker. When he tries the second, broken glass stabs into his calf muscle and he feels it all the way up to the hole in his chest.
He sees his family, Sarah. His mother touches his prickly head gently then hugs him and his father cries in front of him for the first time in his life. Tony and Gibbs visits some and Abby a lot, but he senses that someone has told them to give him some space because there is always an anxiety to them that tightens the air, as though they worry he might shatter if they breathe too loudly. Ducky asks after his health and his head and seems almost relieved at his jumbled memories. He feels bewildered and, somehow, ashamed.
But these emotions are fleeting, and when he is alone there is nothing. He sits and feels not empty, because there is nothing to fill.
Mostly, he sleeps.
Late on the fourth day (Twelfth day? He can't remember), he stands by himself.
He's hunched and trembling, but that is enough. It's one more creaking step to getting out of this place, back to where he might remember himself. Nothing Tim is beginning to worry him in a vague sort of way.
"That's great!" The physiotherapist grins as he sinks slowly back onto the side of the bed. "Want do you want to do now? Have a rest?"
He considers. "Could I use the bathroom?"
He rushes off to discuss it with the head nurse. Tim sits patiently, wistfully. He remembers it was a very long time ago that he used something that flushed.
A nurse comes back, unplugs him from monitors and offers a large red arm to grip. He makes his slow, shambling way to the door six feet to his left, wheeling his IV and dragging his left foot. She opens the door, then retreats to a safe distance.
McGee shuts the door after her, and is somehow relieved that there is no lock. The thought of one makes his heart twist his throat.
He spends longer in there than he needs. The cool clean whiteness of it is like heaven, and some very distant part feels pleasure. But there is something else he came in here to see. He needs to see what it is that makes people's eyes drift, look away.
He stares at himself in the mirror.
A scarred, wide-eyed stranger stares at him blankly.
"What happened to you?" he murmurs, then shakes his head. In the mirror the man shudders.
The biggest shock is his face. It looks like someone has puffed him up with a bicycle pump. His skin is red and stretched tight and decaying with bruises.
He drags off the hospital gown, looks at himself in the mirror. It's more a cursory glance than anything. Fist sized bruises the colour of dirt are sunk into his stomach, there's a thick ugly scar on the mirror side to his heart still showing holes where the stitches used to go.
Do you see yourself, Timothy McGee?
Wow, the screwed you over, didn't they? Look at what they did to your face, man. That hole punched in your chest. Doesn't it make you mad?
He looks at his face in the mirror, and there's not even a flicker.
He turns around, peers over his shoulder.
"Woah," Skin wasn't meant to be so colourful. There are boot shapes on his shoulder blades, all across his back.
He frowns. Marching up either side of his spine are penny sized welts, crusting over. He reaches to try and touch one with his fingers, hisses at sudden, sharp pain.
That's when he sees it. In the thick muscle next to his neck, deep red welts puckered with infection.
His fingers rise, brush the half-moon sunk into his back.
His eyes widen.
Air rushes out of him, and he clutches the sink because he knows he's going to be sick.
He wakes. 4:14 AM.
Fifth time tonight.
The universe is having a balanced month. Thirteen days after they were exhumed, a nurse pushes Ziva into his room.
She's in a wheelchair. Atrophied legs, just like him. The accessories she brings are an IV (only one bag, unlike him), three trailing lines and an oxygen tank. The mask on her faces fogs up gently when she breathes, crinkles a little when she smiles. Cables rope out from the crook in her elbow and the back of her hand, pool in her lap.
The nurse excuses himself, and they are alone.
"Hey." He is doomed to croaking, it seems.
"Hello, McGee." Her voice is rough and cracks along the words. He sees her looking him over, her eye lingering on the scar on his chest. "Are you okay?"
"I'm alive." Tries to smile, but whatever expression she sees makes her look away and down. She fiddles with the plastic tag around her wrist
There is silence between them. It borders on uncomfortable, but they have really gone past that kind of awkwardness. Shouldn't they?
He has no idea what he wants to ask. No idea what they should say, now that they finally made it through.
"Is he still alive?" he asks.
Lenny. Surely he has a real name out here. Screamer and Cabbie sound odd and fake. This world of white sheets and grey curtains, this is real.
Her eyelids lower as her fingers still gnaw at the tag on her wrist. "Yes. He is still unconscious."
He's still not sure what to think of that. Sometimes when he closes his eyes, he remembers his face looking down at him when he first woke up in that place. Dark eyes he even now can't fathom.
He hears the squeak of wheels as she moves closer. Her hand lifts and, seeing he doesn't recoil, grips his wrist.
It's funny, how well he knows her hand. He's felt it cold around his broken fingers, against his battered head, touching him in the side when his voiced failed and against his cheek when he accepted he was going to die.
Now it's chapped, dry with peeling nail beds. There is a cannula in the back of her hand and her nails are broken. She gently holds his wrist, looks at the bandages around his fingers with the corners of her mouth drawn down. She's wearing a look distantly reminiscent of pain.
"I'm glad you're okay," he says.
Her eyes crease; for a moment, she locks her fingers with the stubs of his. "And you, Tim."
They speak of nothing things, load up the quiet with irrelevances they thought they might not talk about again. She tells him that twice now reporters have tried to sneak into her room, and Gibbs nearly broke one of their arms. He thinks back to the men with hairy hands, but doubts. From that early part of his memories, he still can't quite tell which parts were real.
There are things neither of them wants to talk about, and that's fine. One of them is Abby and Tony and the shadow of Gibbs behind them.
That, perhaps, is not.
His eyes are starting to droop, she breathes slower. Both of them silent, now. Not trying so hard to fill empty space. It's not something they're used to.
He stirs at the sound of feet, opens his eyes as the nurse grips the handle bars, starts to gently roll her away. Her arm rolls, falls limp. The nurse gently moves it back onto her lap, and Tim can see a round burn near the crook of her elbow. Size of a penny.
He feels a sharp pain in his shoulder. For the first time in thirteen days, he feels something.
Deep, deep. Fear.
"Ziva…" he says.
It's in his voice. She stills, face turns slowly up to him. There's something in the way her jaw is held, the wide, glassy look of her eye, that makes his voice fail.