Remembered if Outlived
It is not in Gibbs nature to be scared at the sight of a gun. To see a weapon directed at someone else, well...
That's another matter entirely.
Because he does fear to face the gun not directed at him, but at the two prone figures by the holders feet. One unnaturally still, but Gibbs can hear his panting breath and blood is still inching its way forward across the linoleum. The other moves fractionally, head turning to bring the gun to the corner of her eye.
Waiting. But she may never get the chance.
The worst kind of person to be holding a weapon: cornered with hostages. The path he shot Tony to get to was blocked, and now there's nothing to be done because the sound of heavy feet is coming from the door that is now his only exit.
"Put your gun down."
Gibbs's mouth is dry. "Can't do that, Justin. Not where yours is pointing."
"I swear to God I'll shoot them if you don't put down your gun."
He bends down, slides it away. Ziva's eyes flick towards it, judge the distance. Her own is shoved into the waistband of the man above her, and as far as Gibbs knows she is no longer in the habit of carrying knives. She may regret trying to delude herself into a safer world.
He kneels on the linoleum, feeling the vibration of many feet.
"What do you want to do now, Justin?"
Head turns sharply. "Don't call me that."
"Fine." His voice is mild.
The gun drifts between them, and Justin shuts his eyes. Trying to think. Because the three of them are between his exit, and one cop is already bleeding at his feet.
The door behind Gibbs creaks; someone's trying the handle.
"Don't open the door! I've got three hostages in here."
"We just want to talk."
Justin snorts. "Nothing to talk about."
"We don't want anyone else to get hurt, Justin."
"I want to get out of here. No cops following me."
Door handle twists - they're trying to get a man in the room, a face to the soothing voice.
You never get used to the sound of a gun firing. That sound still manages to make him jerk; he grunts at the slice of fire along his shoulder.
"That was a warning shot!" he says to the men outside the door. "Don't come in!"
"Okay, okay." The door handle stops. "What do you want, Justin?"
He licks his lips. Swallows. Gibbs eyes flicker down; Tony's are shut, and Ziva's are still locked on the gun.
"I don't want to go to jail," he says.
There is silence on the other side of the door. Because there is no avoiding jail after this. Not with Tony struggling for breath, or the other three they carried out on stretchers.
"We just want to help you end this, Justin. That's all we can do."
He takes in a shuddering breath.
They aren't listening. One more voice in the world that does not understand.
"Justin…" Gibbs's voice is soft.
"I said shut up!" His voice moves up to a shriek. The gun jerks up towards his throat, and Gibbs feels a very sharp jolt to his chest. He sees it in his eyes.
Three hostages means two he does not necessarily need. Two to prove he is quite willing and able. And with four down, what is one more…?
Gibbs flinches at the sound.
Two shots, tinny in the small space.
Justin's eyes go wide, and he half turns towards the door he thought was locked before his knees crumple under him. For a moment Gibbs is frozen. Ziva is already up, grabbing his gun to point down.
His eyes turn.
The door before him half opens, and a crouched figure unravels and approaches stiffly. The gun hangs limp in his hand. McGee's face is oddly still, watching as Ziva bends over.
Gibbs rolls Tony over with one hand. Eyes shut tight, his breath gutters.
He is unconscious, but will live.
Ziva's hand lifts. "He is dead, Gibbs," she says. But she is not looking at him, eyes turning up to McGee.
He seems to nod to himself, fractionally; then he turns, walks back the way he came. The sound of the door swinging shut is lost in the long dead sound of the ringing bell ordering the evacuation of the locked down classrooms. What follows is ordered, well practiced. The body is covered and Tony is stretchered away.
This is not the first time a shooting at a school ended badly.
It's three hours before he returns to NCIS. Tony was awake and at least half lucid when he left him in the hands of the surgeons. Pain flickers distantly from his shoulder, but the painkillers will kick in soon and it'll fade in time.
Ziva is the only one in the bullpen; Her head is held up by one hand as she tries to write down the turn of events while it is still fresh.
She looks up, briefly. "Abby has identified him formally as Justin Boake."
"He is being debriefed by the Director." She looks down at her watch. "They have been in there for thirty seven minutes."
"How was he?"
He supposes that was not a fair question to ask. Her eyes are without expression as she looks up at him.
"He could have been worse," she says at last.
The sound of a door opening creaks somewhere overhead. Their heads turn, and they see McGee being shown out of Vance's office. Even from here Gibbs can see the rigidity in his shoulders.
Behind him, Ziva slams a drawer shut. "Harah."
Gibbs eyes remain locked on that lowered head, and only lifts when he is standing before him.
His mouth opens, but he doesn't get the chance.
"Oh my god."
He's supposed he should have known Abby would be waiting too. She moves past him to get Tim in a crushing hug. He takes it without movement, eyes sliding out of focus.
That's the image he recalls. Hours later, sitting in the empty space where he used to have a boat.
That, and Tim's voice on the elevator downward as he left for the rest of the day. Not a word said the entire time, and then his head lifts and he speaks.
"He was fifteen, Boss."
The words make the walls around them reverberate, and he had shuddered.
All he could say was: "I know."
He had nothing to say then to help, nor now. Just staring at the boat shaped vacancy in his basement and waiting for the creak of the door upstairs.
But he does not come, and uncertainty becomes distinct unease.
He calls in sick the next day, and the one after.
Tony returns, arm bound in a sling and face grim. He shakes of the concern and sympathies, sits at his desk with a hard expression and watches the empty desk to his right.
"It shouldn't have been us."
It is abrupt, and makes Ziva look up. She considers his clenched jaw and too bright eyes.
"No," she says.
Sheer luck they had been two blocks over when the first calls of a boy with a gun had come in; an average response of fourteen minutes for tactical unit can add up to a lot of bodies. It should not have been, but there was no choice in the end.
At her agreement he falls silent, shifts unconfortably. The feeling must remain, because his frown gradually deepens. He keeps his eyes down, picking at an old stain on his desk.
"My fault," he mumbles.
"No, it is not." Her voice is curt. "It was unfortunate. It could not be helped."
"He was just a kid."
"He shot five people, Tony." Three boys who made his life hell and a teacher who tried to stop him. Single hand of victims.
"Well, how many—" He bites it off as her mouth tightens. There's a question neither particularly want to address.
Where she comes from, children are just smaller and more obedient carriers of explosives. He doesn't doubt she has been in these situations before, judging by the shadows under her eyes.
He falls quiet.
"It was his choice. He knew the risks when he brought that weapon into his school."
"Did he?" he challenges.
Her eyes are cold. "We cannot save people from themselves."
"So you're saying if you got the chance to go back, you would have taken that shot."
She considers him for a long moment, and in the end says nothing.
Some things are just not open to rationalisation.
At lunchtime, Gibbs drives to his place.
McGee doesn't seem all that surprised when he opens the door. He looks like he had gotten half ready before he decided he could not come in. There's a greyness about his face.
"Can I come in?"
He steps aside, wordless. The place is still neat as ever; no signs of calamity. Gibbs takes a seat at the kitchen table, watching McGee move about to make coffee. By the vacancy in his eyes he's on autopilot, thinking of harder things.
He stills, but can't seem to bring his eyes to look at him.
"How are you going?"
"Not bad, seeing as I killed a high school freshman two days ago."
"No one could argue that the shot was bad. He would have."
Pauses. Watches McGee in the kitchenette, face with that odd stillness.
"He would have done it. That's why I did it. But..."
There it is. There's always that addendum, that lingering doubt.
He waits, and in the end McGee gives a helpless shrug. "I remember what it was like." He sits at the table, stares across at Gibbs. "I remember feeling that. I mean... I was so angry as a kid. I thought that's how it was always going to be, and I knew it wasn't fair." His eyes flicker, and he's back in a place where intelligence gave you nothing, a good nature not much more.
"He never got the chance to see it can get better." He takes a breath. "I never gave him the chance."
Gibbs nods. How he of all people should have understood.
"It keeps going through my head. All the places I could have got him, and he might have lived. Arm, leg, shoulder. Could have called out to him, told him he was surrounded."
"He can still hold a gun in all of those scenarios, McGee."
Strange sense of familiarity, because he's had the same conversation with before. With Kate. The two of them are too merciful for a job like this. But then it had helped no-one, because she's long dead now and it hadn't saved her. Though perhaps McGee learnt from her mistakes, as he no longer hesitates. Just acts and regrets.
"He made the choice. All you were was the noose." He had seen the despair in his eyes. He would not have let it end any other way. "It's not your job to be the one to try to reason with him. It's way too late by the time we get there."
Perhaps the biggest lie in the job they have. They give training and techniques, but at the end of it all they hand them a gun, and that'll always be the final word.
McGee looks up, frowns. "You tried to reason with him."
He gives a shadow of a smile. "Guess I'm not very good at taking my own advice."
He returns on the third day. Looking a little grey around the edges, but his walk is steady enough. Gibbs sees him when he comes into the squadroom, and he hesitates for a long moment before making his way to his desk.
Gibbs gives him a brief nod, then looks back to his work. He watches from the corner of his eye as first Ziva then Tony approach his desk to speak in tones it's none of his business to listen to.
But something else does make him look up. A man and a woman, frozen in shock, being lead toward's Vance's office. He sees McGee stiffen out of the corner of his eye.
Not long after, the Secretary comes.
"Agent McGee and Gibbs, the Director would like to see you."
Tony rests his hand on McGees shoulder until he rises from his chair.
Gibbs does most of the talking. McGee sits quietly looking at his hands.
The father is uncomprehending in grief, and stares at him with blank surprise. The mother's eyes remain focused on Tim, and her expression is unreadable.
At the end as they are being led out, she pauses by his feet. She takes a breath, two, and says she does not blame him. He looks up at her, manages to give a small nod.
A lie, and he's pretty sure McGee doesn't believe her; but there are somethings that cannot be helped and words that must be said. Otherwise the wound will not heal and instead begin to fester. Does it to prevent a second wrong like children with guns.
He stops, turns back. McGee swallows, meets his eyes.
Gibbs looks away, down, and McGee follows his gaze to the bullpen. Sees Ziva observing with amusement Tony's one armed struggle with the photocopier, eventually taking pity on him and inserting the paper into the feeding tray.
He feels McGee pause, considering the action that made him pull the trigger. Understanding perhaps, a little. Enough to get him through the day and give in to Abby's offer of a drink.
For though Justin Boake does not remain to perceive his regret, Timothy McGee does.
This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow-
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.
- Emily Dickinson