Title: Each Separate Dying Ember
Author: Formidable Opponent
Pairing/s: Gibbs/Abby, very slightly implied Gibbs/Shannon, Gibbs/Jenny, Gibbs/Mann, Abby/Other
Summary: No flame stays burning forever, and they just happened to dwindle.
A/N: An homage to several of the fantastic writers out there who have used this narrative style; I can only dream to be as good as them some day. As the title is an allusion to Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," I would highly recommend you read the poem in addition to this fic. Read slowly and carefully—both Poe's poem and my story—I implore. Enjoy.
He looks toward the large panoramic window that ornaments the west wall of the building and sees that final orange glow that had accompanied tonight's sunset. And twilight approaches, when all the little things that had never seemed real before finally just click.
He sits at his desk with no plans for the night. He doesn't feel the need to rush on home—no family to get back to, no wife to kiss, no daughter to raise and squeeze—so he doesn't. And there he continues to sit, in a mood not at all unlike the attitude associated with the second "b" to his name.
He can feel his eyes begin to flutter, and he brings his thumb and forefinger to rub against the bridge of his nose. It's time for some coffee.
He stands up to leave, taking in his surroundings before making his way to the coffee machine. The squadroom, it's how he likes it—dark and barren—where he and his ghosts are alone.
Arriving at the machine, he searches his pocket for change. His fingers fall upon something rather pointy, and he winces. He takes it out, straining his eyes to recognize the tiny figure. It's one of Abby's toy soldiers.
He remembers earlier that day when she had given it to him. He had caught her recreating another apparently famous battle from history, using an assorted selection of plastics, papers, and wires—the Battle of Saragarhi. He had never heard of the battle before and this surprised her, but she happily took the chance to explain it to him.
She had gone through lengths to describe every little detail, arms flailing and gesturing wildly, and for the sake of time, she hurried to spill it all out with a quicker tongue than normal. He doesn't remember all of what she said, but he's managed to retain the general description: On September 12, 1897, twenty-one Sikhs of the 36th Sikhs of the British Indian Army took a last stand defending Fort Lockhart against ten thousand Afghan and Orakzai tribesmen. She told him, with particular regard, that to this day, the twenty-one Sikhs are commemorated yearly for their gallant struggle against all odds.
She reaches for his hand, turning it until his palm faces the ceiling. She plops down onto his hand a small figurine, made intricately with a bright blue wire. She looks up at him and smiles.
"What?" he asks.
"It's for you," she answers. She lets her fingers close his upturned hand. "Keep it."
He doesn't believe this is one of her usual unusual gestures. He catches her gaze and he questions, "Why?"
She steps closer, lessening the space between them. "Because this little guy gave his life to protect his country and his people against a force five-hundred times his own." She pushes his hand toward him, urging him to accept the toy soldier. "He's a hero."
It's a gift that reminds him of the handmade things his daughter would often give to him on Thursdays just because. Gifts he'd valued upon the thought and passion put into them, they were things he'd sworn to never throw out and things he'd kept to remind him of the maker. He looks down at his hand and feels his heart ache. "And the other twenty Sikhs?"
She reaches beside her and grabs another blue soldier, bringing it up between both of their faces. "This one's a hero, too. They all are." She hands him the toy. "You can have this fella, too, so they can fight together."
This time, he pushes her hand back. "No. You keep it. Just in case mine doesn't make it, yours will be safe."
The door to her lab is open as it always is.
The air seems different—it has nothing to do with the smell of gunpowder or the volume of the raving music—but he can't place it. He stands there silently at the threshold, watching her.
"I know you're there, Gibbs." She shuffles her weight from one foot to the other. Her back to him, she can feel his gaze boring through the fabric of her clothes and into her chest. It's a warm sensation that makes her hair stand on end, and she stands straighter, suddenly aware of her own breathing.
She can hear no footsteps, but knows he has walked closer to her. "What've you got, Abs?" The amplitude of his hoarse voice suggests he has come closer than she thought.
"Plenty." A shrug of her shoulder motions him toward the monitor.
He glides effortlessly to stand before the plasma, the sleeve of his arm brushing slightly across her back as he went. His eyes are focused on the screen, while hers are on him. "That's good work."
A moment longer, he stands there and she watches him, ravenously. She can't help her eyes from wandering. Past the short gruff hairs on the back of his neck, she takes sight of the skin above the hem of his shirt, and she imagines what his bare shoulders would look like and the broad muscles of his back.
And the rest of him.
A shift in his posture makes her blink once or twice. She watches him walk back to her and he leans in close. She swears he hovers above her longer than usual, but the thought is cut short when his kiss finally sweeps gently against her cheek.
Her breath is held and chest raised, eyes instinctively shut as she feels his lips.
When he is gone, all returns to normal, and the door remains open.
She knows it isn't possible to taste his lips after such a brief and chaste encounter, but she does taste him and it obsesses her.
He walks her to the door of her apartment building and stops a step below her. She considers inviting him in, but suspects his answer will be a polite no. She doesn't push the subject, either, seeing how she owes him as much on account of the trouble he'd gone through for them to have made to this point in the evening.
She unlocks the door but hesitates before opening it. Turning around and with a genuine smile on her face, she thanks him wholeheartedly for the dinner. She looks into his eyes and sees something there that's never present when he looks at others. He grins at her and she feels her stomach flutter. She wonders why he does it—why he does it for her.
From afar, it looks like a scene from one of Tony's movies, and in some part of her mind, she wishes that it was. There is a silence between them as they continue to stare, one that would cause an awkwardness if left to dawdle or end too abruptly if interrupted. He makes the first move, but it's nothing out of the ordinary.
He leans in to peck her on the cheek, a sweet and simple kiss, devoid of deeper intent. Devoid on his part, maybe, but for her, the almost surreal silence makes her impulsive and she changes the situation in a single motion.
At work or in front of others, he takes the precaution to keep his eyes open; here, in the dark and with no one around, he takes the liberty to shut them. It's a slip and she sees it.
Perhaps it's too early for it; such a drastic step could lead to adverse effects. But at this moment, she doesn't care to think on it. His lips come closer and she can hear her heart druming into her ears.
A slight tilt to the head and she meets his lips with her own, even surprised somewhat by her own action. He jerks back, only an inch or so, and makes no effort to stop her when she turns to leave and whispers goodnight.
"Happy birthday, Abs."
She sits with her back against the wall and knees drawn up beneath her chin. She wonders hopefully if he's still standing at the door, but she knows he isn't. She knows he's a man who never waits and she knows he's man who'll always pursue what he wants. She only wishes she didn't know.
"I found a partial on the bottle." She walks over to the central computer and maximizes the fingerprint onto the screen. "I could only locate three points on this print, so it's going to be a while before it finishes searching through AFIS, and when it's done, you'll probably end up writing down a few hundred names, most of them residing within the Tri-State area. If you want me to expand the search—"
He turns to face her and interrupts, "The bottle was empty, Abs. Did you get any DNA from the rim?"
Propping a hand against the top of the desk, she leans and says, "You would think so, but nada." She moves to the workbench and begins gesturing with her hands. "Whoever drank from this bottle—if they even drank from it—didn't put their mouth on it."
"Did you find anything else?"
She grabs a sealed container and brings it up to show him. "I did find traces of blood on the glass shards you found next to that other bottle." Walking back to the computer, she places the container beside the monitor and continues, "but so far, I haven't been able to ID it. Whoever's blood this is, he's not in any of our databases. And I tried them all."
Taking a final look at the monitor, he turns to leave, though not before uttering, "When you get the hits on that partial—"
"—I'll call you," she finishes. Looking back at the screen, she notices something flashing. "Gibbs!"
Beneath the frame of the door, he turns. "Yeah?"
"Got those hits."
He walks backs and reads 264 possible matches. "That was quick."
"You don't need me to remind you of your uncanny and actually really creepy but great timing."
"Nothing uncanny about it, Abs."
"You can never be too modest, can you, Gibbs?" He watches her walk to her office and begin shutting down her personal computer.
"Guess not." She takes off the lab coat and casts it swiftly onto the hanger. "Going somewhere, Abs?"
Letting her hair fall from its little buns, she shakes her head around and calls back, "My shift ended like two hours ago." Raising her head up, she looks at him and grins, "Besides, I've got a dinner date."
She watches for a sign, any sign in his demeanor in response to her assertion, but there's nothing. "You know, Gibbs, I should really teach you how to turn off my babies. Standing there doesn't help me get it done any faster." The machines shut off one by one, and the lights to the lab are the last to go.
"Some other time, Abby." He moves to take her purse and jacket from her hands and offers his arm. "Here, I'll walk to your car."
"Thanks." They wait side by side in front of the elevator, an awkward silence between them. She breaks it with minimal effort in the form of a question. "Got any plans for tonight?"
"Had plans." The elevator bings and as the doors slide open, he gestures her to go in first. "Broke them off."
She doesn't ask, but she knows they were plans with Colonel Mann. They've been seeing each other for weeks now but neither of them have ever brought it up in their normal conversations.
All she can say is, "Oh."
And all he can respond with is, "Yeah."
Another deafening silence and this time, the elevator bing spares them of this stiff situation. Again, he motions her to step out first, but she declines and turns to face him.
"It's always work before pleasure for you, isn't it, Gibbs?"
She could see his pupils dilate gravely.
She could hear the grumble that forged her name.
"Don't you remember?"
She could smell the certainty in his breath.
"No, I don't."
She could feel the pressure that made her weak.
"And when we—"
She could taste his hunger as if her own.
"What's there to remember, Abs?"
She could have sworn it was real but maybe...
She will come to him, he knows.
But he doesn't wait for her when he decides to pour the first drink. It is only when the bottle has lost a good third of its contents does he hear the sottish steps tramp across the hallway above.
He moves the bottle from the floor beside him as if to offer a seat and she sits down, staring solemnly at the stone floor beneath her legs. It's cold like many things in this world.
She doesn't look at him, nor does he at her.
The day's events parade throughout her head, each float struggling to head the procession and seize her unwavering attention. She shuts her eyes tight and leans back to rest against the spine of the boat.
They sit quietly. Silence hangs over them like a black shroud there only to mask the anguish and then leave without a permanent cure.
Her eyes shoot open at the sound of gunfire only she can hear.
She reaches for the bottle that stands stiff between them, but when she expects to feel the cold smoothness of glass, she is surprised with the electricity that accompanies the warm touch of flesh.
"That's enough for you," he whispers, seemingly unphased by the sensation of their contact. He doesn't dare speak louder lest the croak in his voice become apparent—lest the wraith of silence retaliate.
Her fingers linger over his and a float is lost at the end of the procession. "I haven't had any yet."
He turns to look at her and finds her eyes as bloodshot as his. "No, but you've been drinking." Pulling his hand, still grasped around the bottle, away from her touch, he moves to stand up. "You should rest."
Her eyes plead for him to stay with her, to share her pain and impart solace. And if the liquor will help, then so be it. "And have this all come to me in my sleep?" She reaches up and takes hold on the bottle. She pulls herself up with him as leverage, but she offers no thanks.
"You can use my bed." He feels her tug at the bottle, but he holds firm. "It'll be more comfortable."
Straightening herself, she stares into his eyes. She slides her hand up the bottle to caress his skin, her fingers teasing ever slightly. A surge of electricity, an aesthesis both pleasing and troubling, paralyzes him and he lets the bottle fall from his grasp. The shattered sound fills the room and chases away the comfort of their protective shroud with ease.
She winces at the noise, waiting a moment before turning. "Sorry," she says, almost inaudibly to his ears, "I'll go."
He watches her ascend the stairs and notices then that her steps are no longer drunken as they had been when she first arrived.
He only wishes he had known that she would leave.
It's the little things that drive him nuts.
When he feels her hand locking with his, he can't stop the slightest of smiles from forming across his lips. Her hands are smooth and soft, like latex gloves have shielded her skin for years. His hands, and he would sometimes stare at them in choler, are rough and callused, hardened by the embossed grips of guns.
A hasty tug and he swivels on the balls of his feet. She pulls him sportingly, playfully, weaving her fingers around his in the process.
It's a link, and she's got him tied to it.
At her workbench, she doesn't let him go. Her fingers tap incessantly against the back of his hand, the tips stroking paths of depressions, nails scratching—tantalizingly so—as they tail. There's a friction there that can't be articulated.
"Abby—" It's all he can manage.
When he sees her tush waving in the air, his eyes widen. The music is oblivious to him, and he senses her moving to the beat of his pulse. If it were only his pulse.
He's an old man, yet he's excited, maybe even aroused. It's pathetic, he thinks. He can feel the very flushing of his skin. And every pore on his body opens wide and he feels wet. Will she see it? God, he hopes she doesn't.
What he wants to do doesn't make him blush, not in the slightest. To grab and tear, to grope and fondle. Oh, these are dirty words, but they're not forbidden. But with her, maybe that will be enough to make him blush. And a blush snaps him out of this reverie.
"Abby—" Again, it's all he can manage.
When he smells her scent, like some rusty gunpowder pheromone, he is drawn to her—sexually, dare he think it. He recalls her telling him once, that without smell, one could not taste. Well, he can smell, and, oh, can he certainly taste.
It's normal for him, a sublimation of sorts, to kiss her on the cheek. And she expects it of him, always.
A step closer and she flaunts her cheek out at him. He stops short a inch from her, not anticipating such readiness.
With a quick but noisy peck, "You are a tease."
A fit of girlish giggles, no; she shows a wicked grin.
"What do you expect, my silver-haired fox? A formal invitation?"
She's just too much to manage.
A breeze from the slit in the window and the thin white sheet that covers them billows.
She stirs from an uncertain sleep and for a moment cannot remember where she is. An intake of his scent from the pillow beneath her face reminds her promptly and she almost smiles.
The body beside her, warm and ever comforting, stays stiff and doesn't waken.
She remembers what happened only hours before and she forgets to breathe. Her eyes begin to well and as if on cue, she feels his hand pull her closer.
His touch, something she'd once blindly craved for, repulses her. She would draw back, but with every bit of her will, she stays put.
The lust of his kisses and the certainty of his touch were enough to satiate this thirst of hers. She had wanted him and now she had him.
But when she recalls the sound of name unlike her own, she isn't so sure he was all hers.
She could be wrong; she may have misheard. The noise, per se, was really a muttered groan—one of little importance and made with many alike in the fits of passion.
But it was a name; she is sure. And that makes it significant.
She slips from his grasp as quietly as she can, careful of the sheets and the deadweight of his arm.
At the door, she turns to take one last look at him. What she sees beside him is not an image of herself, but of another woman—a beautiful woman with red hair.
Sanding requires a patience and consistency only few hands can manage. The up and down motion must be followed through and through; the pressure applied to the surface must stay completely uniform. He keeps his mind focused on these menial tasks until his hands begin working for themselves.
Far more than just tasks, they provide him with a vent for his troubles—and he has many troubles. The sound made from between the sand and splintered wood, raspy yet pleasantly monotonous, eases him. And the motion—up and down—keep his muscles in constant movement, so he is always ready to sprint into action when necessary.
She gives a pause at the door to his basement, weaving her fingers through her hair as she removes the bands which form her pigtails before coming down the stairs. She isn't discreet about her presence and lets her boots thump against the wooden steps.
One by one, like the rhythm of his sanding.
At the last step, she takes a deep breath, careful to let out the air without making too much of a noise. He continues to sand, his expression unchanged—stern and unblinking. He offers a only quiet "Abs" to welcome her, though he doesn't turn to look in her direction.
She walks up to him, her posture as austere as his demeanor and leans her shoulder against the polish of his cabin. She tries to catch his glance, tilting her head at a slight angle to better see his face. His chin and the areas that surround his mouth are covered by a tiny silver hairs, evidence that he hadn't bothered to shave that morning. She wants to touch him there, to feel the prickling against her palm and hold some part of him in her hands.
So she does.
Fingers caress his cheek as her palm lies flat on his chin, and she turns his head to face her. His eyes finally lock onto hers and they stare for what seems to be just short of an eternity. She sees nothing in his eyes besides an empty blue reflection.
And his sanding stops.
She pulls herself to him—or rather, him to her—and presses her lips against his. She doesn't waste time to cleave open his mouth with her tongue and trace the outline of his teeth. Her hand, once soft upon his cheek, pushes roughly at the back of his head, and she holds him steady.
Finding his tongue, she dances with it thunderously. The warm appendage is eager as her own, but a bit grudging at first. He comes quick to follow her lead, but before he can take control, she hastily pulls away.
She doesn't move far, in fact, their lips still touch if only barely. She heaves heavily against his burning mouth, lips brushing what remaining lipstick she has onto him, and she whispers, "I waited for you."
It isn't seductive or even remotely teasing. It's perfectly, and dead flat.
By the time he catches her meaning, she's left. The sand paper has fallen to the floor, and his muscles are just too stricken to pick it up.
It doesn't occur to her that death is permanent. Of course, there have been the few close to her who have untimely passed away, but she had never come to see that they are really gone. She overcame the despair eventually, at times tricking herself into thinking that they were on some extended vacation. Thoughts of them would pop up every so often—an image of their smile or something they may have said—and she might've reasoned with herself, "she's in a better place now," "it was her time," or with a handful of other empty expressions. But it isn't until today when she finally realizes that she will never see them again.
She will never see them marry. She will never see their happy little children. She will never see them grow old. And she will never see another of their wonderful smiles.
Yet she will see them in her dreams, and he will be no different.
Her phobia of autopsy has returned and this time, she doesn't want to face it.
But she must, and for him, she will.
Ducky once told her, the time Jenny had died, that he had refused to look at her body. He had paused in front of the bag that laid still across the table only to turn and leave. She understands why he chose to do so; she understands it wasn't an image he could bear to see. That was his one weakness, and now her one sympathy.
She won't be like him, though. If there had ever been one thing he'd preached, not only to her, but to everyone, was to avoid weakness—to overcome it.
There's a familiar but desolate air that inhabits autopsy like the far reaches of a recurring nightmare. The sterile cold tells her legs to high tail it out of there like a mouse seeking warm solace in the day within insulated walls.
But she continues on.
A white sheet, something rarely present, covers his body. There's a ghostly outline to his face, pale under the light, and she wonders if his skin shares such a shade.
Courage is all it takes and as she musters it, a hand hovers over—waiting.
A handsome face. And peace, perhaps. That's all she sees.
Silence. Not a sound save a voice in her head. Screaming, crying, whispering—she can't tell. But it rings and rings endlessly. It becomes hard to concentrate.
There are multiple things on her workbench today. She barely knows where to start, and she feels her avidity for forensics dissipating just slightly. It's an odd sensation, or is there even one?
A box to the right. She'll start here. A few stray items from the scene, cigarette butts to discarded wrappers, just odds and ends; they're nothing of real importance.
No, but this next box is. Clothes, his clothes, folded neatly in bags, are bloodied. It's not much, but enough to make her shut her eyes and inhale deeply.
Examining, it's what she's good at. To find the small things and analyze their significance, came like an instinct. And to search every crevice, every pocket, was a habit even stronger. But she'd never searched his pockets before and she's almost worried to think what she'll find in them.
She flinches as her finger is pricked through its glove. It's a sharp pain, numbing, caused by a little soldier not unlike him.
A Sikh, a Marine—a soldier. That was his life. To fight was his duty, to die was a possible consequence, which he had gladly accepted. But for his family, before him, to leave, that was never what he had signed up for. By God, it wasn't.
And to join them, she might guess, would be his wish if this—his death—had happened. And she knew—he knew—it would.
From his pocket to hers, to reunite with the other already in her possession, the toy soldier is safe and no longer alone. His battle is over and though he lost, he won. A victory, an achievement, a good deed done, whatever one may choose to call it, and many more. And a sacrifice—several of them.
A smile forms preciously across her lips and if he was there, he'd smile too. It would be a gallant grin, one to show all teeth, and one to say "my pain, my anguish—nevermore."
And she looks toward the windows of her lab, tears finally beginning to dry; it's just after dawn, and twilight approaches.
He had left her once and she was overjoyed when he came back. Now he's left her again and she's glad he hasn't.