The memory throws up high and dry
A crowd of twisted things;
A twisted branch upon the beach
Eaten smooth, and polished
As if the world gave up
The secret of its skeleton,
Stiff and white.
~Rhapsody on a Windy Night, T.S. Elliot
* * *
Midnight. Gibbs has a grandfather clock somewhere in his house, and she counts the reverberations through the concrete floor. Seven hours to go.
He's bent over a sawhorse, slowly working his way through a flat timber board. The panel saw eats away gently, and he is absorbed enough to forget she's there. There's a distant rumble, and the lights blink slightly. Electricity is boiling three miles overhead. It won't hit them, but it still makes the air hum. Sometimes there's the drum of thunder, and her radio hisses. The lights flicker, but Gibbs doesn't miss a beat.
She's been leaning against the side table with a bench clamp poking into her side for the past two hours. They haven't said a word yet.
Her back is aching. She should move soon. But she doesn't, won't, can't. If she stands, she will be able to see it. Faint brown shadows, etched into the concrete.
Half past midnight, her muscles push her forward, and she finds herself there anyway. Still there. Faded to black. Could be oil, a grease stain. If Gibbs ever sells the house, no-one will know it was blood.
She was not a good as shot as him. The one that killed Agent Todd was dead centre over four hundred feet. Hers was off centre from barely ten. Split second hesitation will do that.
Ari apparently did not waver.
The air is empty; he is not here. She has not yet been haunted by ghosts that aren't of her own creation.
Gibbs looks at her sidelong. One eye has swelled shut, but the other is clear enough. She comes to stand next to him, watching him work. He clamps the wood together tightly, glue oozing out from the cracks.
His jaw is tight, and the burns on his cheek clench. "Is there something you want to say?"
She looks at him. "No."
It is not your fault. Bad luck. The whole cavelcade. Things that dull with repetition.
"How long have you made boats?"
His eyes return to the wood. "Long enough."
"My father used to collect bugs."
She looks at him sharply. "Why butterflies?"
He shrugs, noncommittal.
She leans back against the wall. "He used to have a pair of Queen Alexandra's Birdwings above his desk." Unpleasant things. One blue and one brown, splayed flat and frozen on the white.
Quiet. She watches, sometimes paces. He sands the boats arching ribcage, eyebrows drawn together.
A distant crack, and the lights go dull for a longer time. She rests her hand on her gun, and they come back on. Gibbs grunts, blows away sawdust. Her radio splutters.
"Everything alright? The lights keep flickering."
She moves up the stairs, and into the hall. "I noticed. It's all fine here."
"Have you checked the locks?"
She heads towards the front door. "This is not a horror movie, Tony." Her voice is wry as she twists the door knob. Still secure.
"I'm sure directors worldwide would disagree with you there. Do you know how many crazed murderer horror movies there are?"
"If you're about to tell me I'm going to turn this radio off." Back door is secure, too. She moves a chair in front. The clatter of it being knocked away should give her warning enough.
"Tim O'Kelly in Targets. That's all I'm saying. Anyway, it's all clear out here. How's the Boss?"
She glances back into the basement, then sighs inwardly when she sees where he is standing. "He found the bourbon."
"Ah." Tony falls silent for a moment.
"She's still critical. Ducky's going to update if anything changes."
A smash of breaking glass. She drops the radio, gun out. Gibbs sighs, stepping away from the cupboard. Bourbon washes across the floor, trailing wood shavings in its wake.
"Relax, Tony. Fake alarm." She moves down the stairs. Gibbs leans over, picking up the pieces of broken class.
"False alarm. What happened?"
"Dropped the bottle."
Tony swore a little. "Jeez, is now really the time for him to get drunk?"
"Hadn't even drunk it yet, DiNozzo." Gibbs mops up the bourbon, alcohol already vaporising into the heavy air. It makes her feel slightly giddy.
"Good thing, too. If this guy gets in you'll want to be sober."
She pockets the radio, steps carefully over the broken glass.
He doesn't look up. "Nothing changed with Abby?"
There is a fleeting expression, almost fear. Then he turns away.
She kneels down, helping him. He reaches for the neck of the bottle, clasps it too hard. He draws back sharply as it slices into his palm. She leans over, presses a cloth against his hand. He stares at the blood seeping through the cloth.
"You know, this is the third time someone's been hurt because of me." His eyes shut for a moment. She's close enough to feel the wake of his sigh against her skin. "I'm getting tired of it."
He frowns, finger rising to touch the burn above her eyebrow. There is pain like an electric spark, and she suppresses a flinch. "I didn't know you got that."
She removes herself from his touch. "It doesn't matter."
Because they had all been there, when the bomb went off. Tony and McGee by the door, her between it and the table where it had detonated. Focused, so the opener got the full brunt of it. Small enough to be undetected, but enough.
Gibbs, blown back. Too much off to the side. Abby, burning. And some man still coming. Called and said Gibbs would be dead by morning.
So they sit in the middle of the web, waiting. Hoping he'll get caught it the outer snares. Twelve agents outside, and her as the final barrier.
Her hand was still on his. She grasped it, gently. She could feel his trembling, and the anger rolling under the surface. In the silence and electric, beating air, there is only them.
* * *
She counts the chimes as they echo from the house above.
Gibbs is asleep. Back resting against the side of the boat, head drooping against his chest. No such pleasure for her. She would never forgive herself if she fell asleep on the job. Her clothes have curls of wood stuck to the outside, and smell of sawdust and spilt bourbon. She feels the chill of the morning air on her skin.
The lights flicker, die. She waits in the darkness for them to come back on, but they do not.
She flicks on the radio. "Tony?" Guttering, static. Reception's going funny in the storm.
She moves up into the hallway. "Tony."
A hiss and bubble from the storm. She frowns, uneasy. Her foot slides slightly on the floor. There's mud on the polished floorboards. She steps back against the wall. A long trail of mud.
Maybe she would have picked up the faint sound of breath, even without that sign. Chances were, though, she would not have.
"I know you're there."
Quiet. The breath stops, as though he thinks to hold it in. She waits, staring into the dark.
"I know who you are," it says.
She cocks her head towards the voice, turning slightly. "It is a shame I cannot return the favour." The radio is still hissing.
"Don't go for your gun."
"And why not?"
"Because you think you're faster than me." Movement in the shadow. She can pick his outline in the half light. "And you're not."
"Are you sure?"
"Faster then your colleagues." A flash of teeth. "Faster then that girl."
Anger flares, and her hand twitches.
He hadn't lied. Her gun is half drawn when she feels cold metal rammed against her throat. He reaches and yanks her gun away, throws it into the shadows.
She blinks at him. His eyes are too dark.
"Where is he?"
"Not here." She looks down at the dropped radio. No light.
Just her, then.
"Yes he is. Where is he?"
She shrugs slightly. "I'm not going to tell you."
"Because you think I'm going to kill him. Well, if you won't tell me that..." He pressed the barrel to the base of her throat. "I want you to tell me why I shouldn't ."
"He is a good man."
He jabbs harder. "We're all good men."
The air is beginning to get cut off. "If you kill him, he has no chance to suffer."
He snarled a laugh. "Depends on what you believe." He considers her. "If I kill you, maybe he'll get a chance."
"You won't be around to know if you do."
The man's head turned slightly. He took in the gun pushed under his ear, followed it up to Gibbs's face. Those tired eyes.
"What did I do, to make you so angry?" There is no rage in Gibbs's voice.
"You did nothing. You let him suffer." He grip was loosening against her neck. She shifted, resettled her weight. His guard was not down yet, but she would be ready if it did.
"Doesn't matter anyway, does i?." His voice was bitter. "He's dead, and you're still here. There's no such thing as justice." Ziva steps back quickly, out of gun range. He blinks at the empty space where she was, but she's behind him now.
Gibbs doesn't waver. "Would it really have made you feel better, to kill me?" His voice catches slightly. "To kill her?"
He glares at Gibbs. "Yes." There's finality in his tone, danger. Ziva goes for her knife.
Too long. The gun twitches up.
Reflexes jerk her head to the side. The gunshot blows out her eardrum, and warmth hits her on the cheek. She stumbles against the wall. Sound is suddenly muffled. She can hear yelling distantly, from outside.
Gibbs is bending over the man. He's shot himself between the eyes. Dead centre.
She touches her face, wipes off the blood. Blood from a man who in death thinks he throws on them a weight of fury and remembrance. In truth, he is unremarkable in the long twisted suffering of things they remember, and will fade in time.
It's that, not anything else, that makes her eyes start to sting.
In the ringing silence, his hand wraps around her arm. He hugs her tightly, and she presses her bloody face against his shirt. A man's dead on the floor, and the chair clatters as the door it kicked open.
It's a small moment of clarity, in a web of twisted things.