7

A/N: Just something I couldn't quite help.

Many thanks to my dear Sternenlicht for beta and title!!

Disclaimer: Everyone and everything is DPB's, except for Jasper, who, in his inspirational form, belongs to the second Mrs de Winter and Daphne DuMaurier.

Now enjoy, and if you feel like a Tony-centred companion piece, just visit Sternenlicht, she's got a great one!!

Saying Grace

Hollis was woken by a clattering sound from outside, probably her neighbour's dog kicking over the dustbin again, or by the woman screaming in her dream, she wasn't sure which.

She didn't move for a few moments, her eyes still closed, giving her sleepy mind a second to convince her that there was no screaming woman anywhere, and that Jasper must have found a way to outsmart the back door again.

She sighed, sending a half-hearted, mental curse in the dog's general direction, and shifted a bit, slipping a hand beneath her pillow.

It took her a moment to become conscious of the emptiness beside her, and as if on cue, she shivered a bit.

The haze of sleep that had begun to settle on her again already, blew away as yesterday evening and now came flooding into her mind for good, the way that reality always strikes just-woken sleepers.

Pulling the blanket tightly around her body, Hollis sat up and let her gaze travel through the twilit, silent room. Pale moonlight and the weak, yellowish glow of a nearby streetlamp seeped through the drawn curtains, dispersing almost into nothingness and thus not aiding her eyesight much.

She ran a hand through her ruffled hair in a superfluous and rather mechanical attempt to put it back into some kind of order, a quiet huff escaping her lips.

Damn, this wasn't easy.

Not that she had expected it to be. Not extraordinarily, at least, not after the first few times she'd met Jethro. It hadn't taken her long to understand that there were a whole lot of things he wasn't talking about, and she had instinctively guessed that he had his reasons.

That didn't make it easier either, though, and the more – or less, depending on how one chose to look at it – she saw, the more complicated it got.

She'd had a notion that she would require patience, and that was not a virtue that came natural to her. Very much like him, she was used to having things done immediately, rarely having to ask for something twice, and mostly to rapid results.

She had known that she was in deeper than she had originally thought when she had found herself willing to muster up a little more than her customary measure of patience.

Despite all of that, though, she somehow would have thought that he'd stay for the night, the whole night, at some point.

That particular point being quite some time overdue by now.

From time to time she did wonder why she obviously was so very determined to make the effort and give this a try.

There were reasons for his leaving. Of course there were, else he would have stayed. And whereas she had been uncertain about her own, personal part in those reasons at first, she by now was fairly sure that it in fact had very little to do with her or even their relationship, very little if not nothing at all. It was something else. External things, she might have said.

What fazed her was her perfect inability to guess at those things.

After all, she was a woman, she was supposed to possess some amount of sensitivity. Up till now, she had thought she did, too. It was just that it didn't appear to get her anywhere with Jethro.

Hollis sighed again and glanced at the clock on her bedside table, taking no real notice of what time it actually was, and then let herself drop back onto the pillows. She instinctively rolled over to where Jethro had been lying when she'd fallen asleep, and that was the moment that she noticed his badge still resting on the sideboard, the silver official emblem miraculously catching the two photons that had made it all the way from the window to the opposite wall.

She sat up again.

Okay. Forget all of that.

She swung her legs over the bed's edge and reached for her satin dressing gown on the chair in the corner.

Standing, she pulled it on and padded through the fuzzy mist of light that had pooled on the carpet, towards the bedroom door, now noting with a smile that Gibbs' jacket still was where it had been yesterday.

Her whole apartment was dark and quiet, though, no clue as to where he might be.

As she walked past the door that led to her living room and kitchen, however, Hollis felt a faint draught brush her ankles. She smiled. Aha.

On the other side of the living room, the slide door to the balcony was open, and she could see Jethro sitting in one of the chairs outside.

The fresh air that was streaming in revived her a bit, although she wasn't sure whether that was what she really wanted right now.

"Jeez", she said as she stepped out onto the balcony, "you always get up this early?"

He looked up at her, studying her for a moment before asking: "What time is it?"

Hollis shrugged. "I don't know."

A faint smile tugged at his lips, as if to say Very funny, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. He seemed preoccupied in some way.

While Hollis pulled her dressing gown tighter around her body and sat down opposite of him, Gibbs returned to staring at the horizon, a horizon that still had much more of night than of dawn about it.

She watched him for a few moments, trying to disentangle the situation a bit.

Something was amiss, that much was clear. She had enough sensibility to see that.

He looked calm and relaxed as he sat there, but he wasn't. His eyes were trained on something she was sure wasn't there, and while the coldness of the stone beneath her bare feet and the chill of the night air bit into her skin, he didn't seem to notice, not even with his shirt only half done up.

Hollis pulled her legs up, preferring to have the somewhat less cold white plastic of the chair pressed against her naked soles.

"Reason you got up?" she asked.

He looked at her again, but for the moment made no reply. Instead, he took her hand and brushed a kiss on her knuckles. Releasing her hand, he said: "Go back to bed."

But Hollis didn't move. "Something wrong?" she inquired again, choosing to ignore his suggestion.

Gibbs slowly shook his head. "I'm fine."

It sounded calm, quiet, and automatic.

She waited for a while, figuring that after having said this, he would maybe start talking at some point. But that probably was what most other people would have done. Not Gibbs.

"You're not fine", she stated eventually, but she might just as well have said nothing, his reaction would probably have been the same. Hollis sighed inwardly. Okay, she thought, it's in the middle of the night, it's cold, I'm tired as hell and you're giving me a hard time again. That didn't sound too good. It sounded like she might be in danger of getting a little bitchy.

Then again, maybe it wasn't that bad at all. Maybe, in this somewhat surreal situation and with her a little on edge, she would just be spiteful enough to not let him get away so easily this time.

Involuntarily, she ran a hand over her face, as if that might help clear away a few veils of sleepiness.

"Is this about those agents that died last weekend?" she asked.

His brow creased a bit and he gave her a half-hearted shake of his head, but either thing was so vague, it might not have meant anything at all.

She sighed.

"Jethro, are you going to talk to me?"

For an instant, his frown deepened, but then he finally looked at her and smiled. "Nope", he replied, his voice gentle, as if asking her not to be angry about it.

Almost, she would have left it at that.

Even over the few months she had known him, she'd almost gotten used to this kind of … well, deal. It had always been I'll let you know what you need to know, and he always had. No more, no less. In time. Always in the right time.

But that had been the job.

Evidence, suspect statements, witnesses, tests results, a theory here and there, a gut feeling, if she was lucky.

This wasn't the job. This was him and her, them, us, and right now she wasn't Lieutenant Colonel Mann, she was Hollis.

This wasn't one of her cases that had strayed into his jurisdiction or one of his that had strayed into CID's.

It was a silly time of night or morning on her balcony, she was talking to someone she had come to care for and she wouldn't let this go just because he was used to fobbing people off.

If she was making the effort, then she would make it entirely.

"Okay", she said, letting her feet glide to the floor again and leaning in. This time, she didn't mind the cold stone underneath. "Now listen: I'm a grown woman. I head my own team. I've lost colleagues, I've lost friends. What makes you think I wouldn't understand?"

Gibbs went back to studying whatever was so thoroughly engaging his attention on one of the fragments of horizon between the suburban houses.

"I'm sure you have, Holl," he answered, ignoring her question. "It's not that."

Fine, she told herself. It's not that. Then what on earth was it? Or was he just trying to make her believe it wasn't that?

Good Lord, this man was frustrating. She felt tempted to heed her mum's favourite advice, Don't get involved with a man who is more complicated than you.

Good tip, she thought, just not very feasible in his case, Mum.

Somewhere below and to the right, Jasper gave a row of unmotivated, lazy barks and then seemed to fall asleep.

"Look", Hollis began again, "I only know so much, because you're still keeping your mouth shut most of the time." She paused, and decided to try the simple facts: just like when she was stuck during an investigation, felt like she had lost her way and needed to see everything clearly and in order again before going on.

"I know there was a bombing. I know three NCIS agents died," she said. "And I know you can't sleep. So what is it?" She inclined her head, trying to peer into his face. "Did you know them well?"

Gibbs closed his eyes and shook his head. For a few minutes, it didn't seem like he would be giving her an answer anymore than he had before, but Hollis had a feeling that something had cracked.

She didn't know why. Maybe it was just how she interpreted the way he'd sunken a bit further back into his chair, as though relaxing in some way. Giving up defences.

Sometimes, however, she wasn't sure if he ever really did that.

"I knew them too well", he finally said. "Almost."

Hollis frowned. Almost?

"What do you mean?"

He shrugged, all of a sudden looking every bit as tired as she would have thought him to be after a worked-through weekend and such a short night.

"It should have been us," he said. "My team was scheduled for the weekend shift. I asked the Director to change it." A minute pause, then: "I left earlier on Friday, I didn't check who was to be on call in our place anymore."

It took her a while to grasp what he really meant.

Briefly, she wondered why he had added that last bit, but it didn't matter, at least not right now. The question drowned among all the other things she suddenly found herself thinking about.

It should have been us,he had said, so it could have been you in whatever building that was that lunatic blew up.

All she could think of saying for the moments was: "Thank God." Quietly, more to herself than to him, but loud enough all the same, it seemed.

"Thank God, Hollis?" The fierceness of his voice as he repeated her words took her by surprise. "Three agents are dead. That's not Thank God."

"No", she agreed, speaking deliberately calm, but with determination. "No, that's Thank the Devil. But you were in a batting range with me instead of in some run-down building with a suicide bomber." She paused. "Thank God."

He turned away, mutely, and Hollis felt like cursing.

This conversation was like a yoyo. Each time she thought she was getting close enough to get a hold on him, to make him keep with her, he would push her back again and retreat.

Just as she was thinking that, however, Gibbs reached out and took her hand, cutting short any further words she might have been planning to say.

For a brief second, she almost believed he was holding on to her, just because his grip on her finger was so tight.

He drew a few light, gentle circles on the back of her hand with his thumb, absent-mindedly, all the while staring straight ahead, but eventually he let go again.

"Tony and Ziva", he said into the silence that followed.

"What?"

"Tony and Ziva would've been in there. They're a good team and they're good observers. They would've looked like a couple in that café down the street. I guess I wouldn't even have gone into the house. I'd have relied on them to pull it off on their own." He paused and ran a hand over his forehead. "It'd be them now."

His voice had sounded perfectly calm and controlled throughout this, but she had heard a myriad of other things in between the letters too.

A shadow of worry, the actual feeling faded along with the immediacy of the past hours' event, and she'd heard relief, too. Those were things she knew she would feel as well, they were just logical.

But there had been something else as well, something she couldn't really place and failed to comprehend.

"Jethro", she finally told him, "I don't know what you're saying. Your team's safe and sound, that's all that counts now." She broke off, waiting and hoping he'd tell her what it was that seemed to bother him so deeply.

Now, however, she could tell he was further away again, something had snapped and she had lost touch again.

"You feeling guilty for those other three agents?" Her voice sounded feeble in her own ears as she asked that. It was nonsense, and just an attempt to get back through to him.

But, to her surprise, the question actually did the job.

"Yeah", Gibbs said slowly, almost a bit vaguely. "Yeah, somehow, but that's pointless because there was no way to know." He ran both his hands over his face. "I'm glad it was them instead of Tony and Ziva, and that's what I feel guilty about."

He took a deep breath, eyes narrowing for a moment, as though he were bracing himself for something.

But then he looked at her, straight in the eyes for what was most likely the first time tonight. He lifted a hand, index finger and thumb just barely touching.

"We were this close to disaster, Holl, and the only reason why I turned down the weekend shift, were you."

And suddenly she understood why he'd been so strangely distant from the very moment he'd shown up at her door the evening before, looking a little apprehensive and endlessly tired.

Why everything had been oddly different, as though a part of their familiarity had slipped away.

And she was right about all of it, naturally.

With one light-hearted Let's do something this weekend and one minor decision, this woman had turned into the most integral part of his life. For the span of a weekend only, perhaps, but for that time she had been the reason for everything.

And because of what had happened that weekend, she had become a reason for the future, too.

"You saved my life again, it seems."

"You said you wouldn't have gone in", Hollis replied, automatically. Dumbly, she would probably have said, had it been anyone else speaking.

"No. No, I wouldn't." He seemed to search her face for something, but she couldn't have told whether he found it or not.

"You ever lost an agent?" he asked.

She looked to the ground, dark grey stone tiles and the blurry, twilight-infused outline or her own feet.

"Once."

"You ever lost a team, Holl?" It was a rhetorical question, she knew that. Neither of them had had to go through that so far, and yeah, he was right: losing one person under her charge and command had been horrible. Make it three, she thought. Imagine losing all the people you know best on your job.

"I saw Paula Cassidy", Gibbs went on, and for a moment, Hollis had trouble following his thoughts. She hadn't heard any names so far, but from Gibbs' face it was clear who Paula Cassidy had been.

"And I know", he said slowly, but with a steadiness to his voice that left her in no doubt of his seriousness, "that if it had been my team in that house, with that suicide bomber, I'd want to be in her place now."

"She's dead."

He held her gaze for a split second longer, then he turned away.

Hollis struggled for words, but she was finally lost for them. That last remark of his had been nothing she'd expected to hear, and in this chilly air, stuck somewhere between yesterday and tomorrow, and a feeling as though last night's wakeful hours were suddenly very far off and insubstantial, Hollis wondered whether he had meant that and didn't know what to say anymore.

So, instead, she leaned in further and took his face in both her hands. "I can't keep talking about this, Jethro", she told him quietly, but with a hint of urgency.

She knew they were just talking ifs here, huge ifs whose reality lay in the past already. Nothing tangible, nothing real.

And they were talking about things that had just stopped a few hours ago. It was natural that his balance would be upset in one way or the other.

He'd startled her a little all the same.

"I'm sorry, Holl", Gibbs said, dispelling her thoughts. "I shouldn't have said that." The reply seemed to come so easily off his lips that she almost felt silly for maybe having been a tad worried for a moment.

She shook her head decidedly. Heavens, she thought, what a night, she really wanted her bed. She wanted to sleep and find him still there tomorrow … however soon that might be.

But, again, this was not the moment to let anything go, not when they'd come this far.

"That's not what I meant, Jethro", she said. "Talk. Do talk to me, whenever there's something you need to talk about. Tell me how you feel." She gave a small shrug and managed a smile. "I'm a grown woman. I can handle a little fright from time to time.

Talk to me and … then let it go. Talk to me and then …", she tilted her head to one side and grinned for good now, "… and then kiss me. And we'll be fine."

He knew what she was trying to tell him: possibilities could be frightening, and more than that, but in the end they always remained possibilities. All of what he'd told her about Tony and Ziva, and about Paula and trading places and what not – none of it had happened and none of it was real.

But she was. Hollis was here and real and alive, and she wanted to be here. She wasn't hypothetical, far from a mere possibility.

Everyone who'd had to live through the past weekend would probably have given a lot to make it undone, but they couldn't. Gibbs didn't know if the whole team would have traded places with Cassidy and her men, had they been given the choice.

And the truth was, though sad and, at a first glance, maybe somehow unfair, that wasn't of any importance.

The weekend was over and Paula and her team had died, and Tony, Ziva and Tim were still alive.

Besides all the doubt and guilt, that was something to be grateful for, and there certainly was no blame in that.

Gibbs smiled and pulled Hollis close to kiss her. "So I guess I came by to say Thank you", he murmured against her lips.

He felt her answering smile.

"You're welcome", she whispered, "and we'll play baseball every single goddamn weekend from now on."

FIN

Reviews of all kinds more than welcome, as always!