Call it a gut feeling.
I can't explain it any better than that. I feel the weight of impending. . .what! doom is too melodramatic, catastrophe is too all-encompassing. Something is wrong, off key. . .and I can't tell what the hell it is or where the danger lies.
I don't like this feeling of being out of control.
I don't like it when I don't understand.
My senses are heightened, I watch, I listen and I still can't pin it down. It's like a clue is always just out of my sight, unfocussed and ephemeral and no damn glasses will ever be enough to stop it slipping away and hiding in plain sight.
It s been six months since Somalia. Six months since we got the team back together. . .not back to normal, that's just not possible. It changed us all and the ripples of damage are still churning under a veneer of tranquillity.
Every day I take stock, cataloguing the changes in the team dynamic, watching for the subtle tells, for the clues, but they are all trying so damned hard to prove to themselves and each other that they have put the desert behind them that they are exhausting themselves in the process.
This get together was Ducky's idea; a picnic in Rock Creek Park. . .away from crime and violence for a few precious hours, away from the office and telephones and technology, a chance to spend some time together and cement the walls still fragile from the legacy misuse and mistrust.
Ducky share my concerns but he isn't in the midst of it like I am. He knows the team well and has an intuitive grasp of the subtle undercurrents that ebb and flow round and through the team. But he doesn't see the whole picture. . .none of us do. There has been too much silence. We are all locked into a puzzle and I fear that a vital piece is still missing.
It is dusk and the team, my team, are sprawled around the glowing embers of a bonfire, pleasantly exhausted from an afternoon of tag football, Frisbee and one too many burgers. Ducky made his excuses a while age and left for his Saturday evening Bridge game. Tony and Jimmy are trading increasingly ridiculous stories and seem oblivious to their surroundings. . .but Tony is not oblivious. He catches my eye, just briefly; he is keeping his eye on his team too. It has been like that ever since our return. There is a maturity he has grown into in the wake of his experiences while help captive. He has always been a team-player but Ziva's defection, her 'death' and dramatic return have hit him harder that he will ever admit. The tension between them is gone and in its place is a mutual understanding far stronger than that which came before.
Ziva and Abby are huddled beneath a blanket; it is only in Abby's company that Ziva is ever truly relaxed. We have all seen it; Ziva is still not at ease in male company though she hides the fact as well as she can. In the elevator she presses herself into the back corner, she still flinches at loud noises and too many mornings she arrives at work pale and red-eyed and it doesn't take a genius to see that at night she is back in a stinking cell at the mercy of merciless captors. She has said almost nothing to me of her time in captivity; whether she has spoken to Abby of her ordeal I can only guess. Ziva has always been so strong, so self contained and now. . .now she more fragile, more gentle. . .more human. She has regained her health, her strength. . .and that was McGee's doing. It was McGee who helped her find an apartment, McGee who took her to doctors' appointments until she was well enough to drive herself, McGee who dragged her out every morning for a run, slowly at first, taking Jethro along as an excuse and a safety net until the running itself was again a pleasure and a release.
My eyes focus on McGee who is sitting on the other side of Ziva, close but not too close, watchful and silent with an exhausted dog between them. He stares into the dying embers of the fire and unconsciously pulls at Jethro's ears. And I realise that ever since our return this is where he has been, a quiet guardian, waiting to be called upon but not pushing himself forward; always in the background but always there; for Ziva, for Abby, for Tony . McGee will always be Tony's Probie but now he is so much more than that, he has proved himself time and again. Not that he has been untouched by the African jaunt. He says it is eczema, an allergy, Ducky reckons it is stress but his hands and wrists are red and inflamed and a source of quiet torment. . .not even Tony teases him when his dips into the tub of prescription cream that is now a permanent fixture on his desk. And I have never once heard him complain; our gentle giant, a stoic and a damn fine agent.
I hate hospitals.
Every time I enter the sanitised, clinical halls I always hope it is the last time; it never is.
"Agent Gibbs," she sobs, still as distraught as she was when she called me at 09.30 on a quiet off-duty Sunday. She collapses into my arms sobbing too hard for me to make any sense of what she is saying.
"Sarah, where's Tim," I urge when her tears slow.
"I was mad at him," she blurts out through more tears. "He was supposed to meet me for breakfast and he didn't show. I waited and waited and I called his cell half a dozen times and I said some really awful things. . .and I didn't mean them."
"Then what, Sarah?" That feeling in my gut tightening to the point of pain.
"I had breakfast and he still didn't show. . .so I went round to his apartment. I knew something was wrong. . .I could hear Jethro whining but Tim didn't answer the door. I had to get the Super to let me in."
"Is Tim alright, Sarah?"
"I don't know. Nobody has been out to tell me anything. He was hardly breathing when I found him, Agent Gibbs. . .the EMT's said it was an overdose. . .they found a prescription bottle. They said Tim tried to kill himself!"
Tim. . .Suicide. . .the pain in my gut wracks up to excruciating and I'm thankful that I manage to stagger to a chair before my legs give out.
"Are you sure it's not a mistake?" I croak, wishing for a strong slug off coffee to give my brain a kick start.
"Sleeping pills. . .they said it was sleeping pills."
"How long has he had trouble sleeping?" I ask, still trying to get my head around the fact that this is Tim we are talking about.
"I didn't know he was. . .he used to tell me everything but recently. . .he's been very distant. That's why I was so pleased when he suggested breakfast. . .we haven't done that in ages."
We sit and wait in silence, flinching every time the automatic doors swish open. After an hour I take a walk to find coffee and to call Ducky. I don't feel up to dealing with this alone and I know the team will want to be here for Tim and for Sarah.
Abby arrives first and I hand Sarah into her care, knowing that keeping her busy will keep Abby from spiralling into panic. Ducky and Ziva are next, followed shortly by Tony. I tell them all I know, which is almost nothing.
"Gibbs, this must be a mistake. Tim wouldn't do this. . .he wouldn't!"
I catch Ziva's eye and I see something there, a flash of pain and understanding so acute that I wonder she doesn't gasp aloud at the intensity of it.
"Anyone would do it if the pain is bad enough, Abby." Ziva whispers loudly enough that we all hear it.
"Pain? What pain?"
"Only McGee can tell you that. . .only he has the right to share that which he has tried so hard to hide."
Ziva is shaking, wound so tight she can only contain the violence of it by pacing. Abby hands Sarah to Ducky and stops Ziva's agitated pacing and Ziva melts into her embrace, sobbing onto her shoulder. . .the only time I have ever seen her express her emotions so openly. And I can hear her litany through the desperation of her sobs 'Do not let him die. Do not let him die. . .please, do not let him die'.
Hours later they let Sarah and me into ICU. The doctors' and nurses faces show the strain of the battle they have just fought so valiantly and they offer us the soft gently smiles of victory. Tim lies pale and still, reliant on a ventilator for breathing, IV's for hydration and a dialysis machine to rid his body of the poisons he ingested. The doctor is talking to Sarah but I cannot listen because as I look at Tim I see that every inch of exposed skin is red and raw and weeping.
"Is that caused by the drugs?" I interrupt. I want to touch, to offer comfort but I am afraid of causing pain.
I can't interpret the Doctor's expression as he hesitates.
"No," he says finally and now I recognise the expression as pity, as compassion. "Timothy did that to himself."
"Hasn't he been getting treatment for his eczema?" I ask. "He must have been in agony!" But I know that this is more than an allergy, more than a stress reaction.
"No, Agent Gibbs," the doctor repeats, "Tim did this too himself."
And that's when I know. That's when the realisation hits with the force of a sledgehammer. I swallow down the bile in my throat. That dread feeling in my gut; the knowledge of just what he didn't say, what he didn't tell. Six months of pretending that nothing was wrong. Six months of him shielding us from a secret so big, so awful. . .
I can't bear to stay in that room a second longer.
And then I am in the waiting room and I have Ziva pinned up against the wall. She isn't scared. She is resigned.
"You knew!" I yell. "All this time you knew and you didn't say anything!"
I can hear Abby crying and Tony and Ducky are trying to pull me away. Ziva doesn't fight back, doesn't try to escape. She waves Tony and Ducky away and brings her hands up to cup my face. She isn't afraid; she knows even now that I would never harm her.
"It was not my place," she says gently. "It wasn't what he wanted. . .he didn't want to burden any of us with that knowledge."
"He tried to kill himself, Ziva! Do you understand that? He tried to kill himself!"
"I understand all too well. He thought he could contain it," she explains, " he tried to help himself by helping me. . .he is a good man, the best I have known, Gibbs. . .a very good man and we will help him. We will all help him. We will be there for him as he was there for me."
The anger drains away and I am left with the pain.
I failed him. We all failed him. He shouldn't have had to hide this; he shouldn't have had to bear this alone.
"Did he ever talk to you about it?" I ask her.
"No, Gibbs. I gave him the opportunity but he did not want to talk. . .even when I told him what they did to me."
"But you knew. . .you knew what they did to him?"
"I guessed. . .as soon as I saw him. I had a long time to learn how they operated."
She takes my hand and holds my eyes daring me to look away. "You trained for war, Gibbs, you know this. . .it was never about lust or gratification. . .it was about power and subjugation and humiliation. . .we were never more than objects to them. I am glad they are all dead."
"They died too easily."
"Dead is dead, Gibbs."
"Are you alright, Ziva?" such a small question and yet I have not asked her before.
"I will be. . .my counsellor tells me it will take time. . .I have learned to be patient."
"We will make sure he no longer hides from this," she assures me. I pull her into a hug and she allows it, briefly.
We have to wait another day before Tim wakes up and we are all there when his eyes flutter open.
This time we will all be there for him.
Shireling 5th October 2009