- PART IV –
Down into the dark.
Longer way down than she realised. Though at first they could hear one (but only one) moving, now there's just the sound of water. She wishes they could let her down faster. If they had died while she was waiting above, she does not think she could bear it.
She gasps as the water touches her; it claws up her clothes, trying to drag her under.
She can see only very faintly. McGee is bound to the wall, silent and unmoving. Tony clings weakly to the cracks in the stone and is barely coherent. He touches her to check she's real (hands like a corpse) and asks if she's seen the Border Collie, which she assumes is a sign he is not quite dead yet. She tells him she is real, and he goes quiet.
McGee hangs limp, rope around his chest and eyes rolled up in his head. She can't find a pulse at all.
Tony holds him weakly with the other arm, shakes him and tells him he hasn't remembered what movie it was yet. She cuts the rope in two places, and he slumps down into the water. The noose goes under his arms, and she pulls it tight.
He is lifted up, water streaming down. There are dark drops among the pale ones, but they are just as cold.
She pulls Tony aside as McGee is winched upward; she does not trust the rope, and if he falls it might be the end of them. Tony's eyes move, but it does not seem he sees her. This is too much for his cold addled brain to cope with, and it's shutting down.
He's out. She can see the stars, and somehow it makes her chest ache.
The rope falls again, splashes between them. She throws it over him, tightens it around his chest. So close.
"We... not leaving you down here."
"We're not... leaving you... alone."
"I know, Tony. Keep a grip on the rope, yes?"
She understands what he was trying to say only when they drag him above her, and she is left to float in the echoey silence. She can hear the sound of her own breath bouncing, feel the water running over her. She is very glad for the little light there is; when she realises they were in here in the dark, she feels a wave of hate for him.
The voice, the coward on the other end of the phone. After this, he has not long for this world. Not if she has a breath left in her body.
Her arms are starting to cramp up, she grips the metal pipe in the wall. The water sighs around her, and she pulls herself out of it as much as she can. From her higher angle, she pauses.
There's something white in the water below her. She turns to look, but the rope hits the water and she turns away, grips it with numb fingers.
It rises up with a jerk, and she leaves the sound of the whispering water behind.
She shuts her eyes for the trip up; the lurch is making her feel sick, and she only knows she reaches the top when Gibbs grabs her by the scruff of her jacket and hauls her over the edge. She sees Tony and McGee spread out over the grass, oxygen masks on their faces. Behind them the blades of a helicopter turn slowly.
She lets her face sink down into the grass. Too early for relief, but she can take in a breath. A single breath, and that will be enough.
Beside her, Gibbs's phone beeps as they move back into the cell reception.
It's a text.
Don't forget -
It's only dead when cold and dead.
Cold and dead.
It is certainly how McGee appears on the stretcher, face white and waxlike with his eyelashes looking too dark.
But one of the paramedics listens, and says that somewhere deep down, his heart is still beating. Weak, at a fraction of what it should; but still there.
It remains through the helicopter ride to the nearest hospital; is still there when he is wheeled into emergency.
His heart is still beating as they wait outside, silent.
They are pretending not to notice the agents guarding the doors, sitting close. Abby says something about a mammalian diving reflex, but her explanation of seals and penguins leaves him at a loss. It is Ducky who says what he needs to hear: McGee has slowed to a complete stop to try and live through the cold at the bottom of the well; but whether he can get out of it is another matter entirely.
"...What's with the hospital scrubs?"
"I had to remove my wet clothing."
"Huh. Sorry I missed it."
"I bet. How are you feeling?"
"Still freezing. Even with all this foil. Feels very Alien, ya know?"
"I have no idea."
"...How's the McPopsicle?"
"Still unconscious, but his pulse is increasing."
"You need to sell your optimism a bit better, Ziva. Smile more."
"Will he wake up?"
"They are… uncertain. They are still warming him up."
"Like a microwave dinner. Toaster. McPoptart."
"There is nothing to be gained from that, Tony. Rest."
Four hours since he was brought back. Abby and Ducky have moved on from discussing active rewarming to frostbite and the whether the cold water might actually save his fingers. Ziva hands him a coffee but says nothing.
Tony is awake and, though half dead from exhaustion, will live.
A doctor comes and reports that McGee's heart rate is increasing, slowly. Blood has been allowed to return to his limbs, and it's moved into both his hands and feet to leave no grey areas.
But still he does not wake.
"He's stabilising. Now it's just a matter of waiting."
"Can... can we see him?"
"If you'd like."
The room is too warm, too humid. He starts to sweat, and it feels very odd after so much cold.
His skin is pinker, darker; bruises are beginning to show through, mottled and purple. All of him seems to be swelling. There are dark marks across his chest where he had bound himself up with the rope. It was the only thing that saved him; through his half-listening to Abby and Ducky, he knows he should have died of exhaustion long before they found them. Tony was almost gone when they pulled him out; an hour more, and he would have been.
Was that the plan? Let them die in front of each other? Leave them in the dark with the other dead beside them?
He knows that was only part of it. The plan was to jerk their strings, watch them dance.
Abby jerks upright suddenly, bends forward. Ducky turns, calls for the doctor.
For twenty one hours after he took that phone call, his eyes open.
And so, he lives. They sit and watch the doctor check him over, and the consensus is he just might make it through.
Ducky's glasses are misting up a little; Abby hugs him very gingerly once the doctor leaves. He looks bewildered, dazed. He's barely conscious and will probably be in the hospital for weeks, but he lives. Ziva touches his hand gently as if to make sure of it, grips it gently.
McGee's eyes track over them, fall on him. Even through his exhaustion, his weakness, there is something there in those green eyes. There is still light in there, even after being in that dark place.
Gibbs smiles, and McGee's eyes crinkle. They have things they will say, later. When he has had time, it will be a long talk indeed.
Right now, all he does is ask quietly just what on earth happened.
Ziva and Ducky sit and tell him, though no one really believes it will explain it any more. In the distraction, Gibbs slips out.
After a moment, Abby follows.
He turns, looks at her. The light from the grey twilight is shining through the window, and he suddenly looks so very old.
That despair she saw in her Lab is back; it had never really left him.
They have slipped out a gap in the hunter's net, but he can wait. He has the advantage of time and endless patience. Because these guys never let things be.
She wants to tell him it doesn't matter. It could be every bad guy against them, and they'd still stand where they were. Because no one else will.
He smiles at her faintly.
"I know, Abby."
That's all she says.
McGee's eyes are shut, dozing. Ducky nods a little in his chair, and Ziva sits curled in hers, eyes shut. Abby sits calm beside him, holding his hand and watching as they sleep. This is the night where they can lie down exhausted, only to rise tomorrow and begin again.
He shuts the door, moves away; as he passes Tony's room, he sees his eyes flick open and turn. At Gibbs's nod, his lip twitches a little, and he at last sleeps.
But Gibbs does not stop. He moves to the window to watch the dawn, red and burning in the east. Without looking at his watch, he knows.
Twenty two hours is up.
As if on cue, his phone rings.
He takes it out of his pocket, considers it for a moment. But as he flicks it open there is a click, and the sound of a dial tone.
He stares at it for a long time, thinking.
Perhaps he waited too long.
Or maybe that was the message itself.
Time would tell, one way or another.
He closes the phone, shuts his eyes.
- END -