.:STARDUST:.

-irishais-


The wise old owl sat on an oak.

The more he saw, the less he spoke,

the less he spoke, the more he heard.


One: everybody loves a winner

Leroy Jethro Gibbs stood at the edge of the shore, looking across the harbor at the Baltimore skyline. At three in the morning, there were very few people out and about— only a few of the most die-hard oyster fishermen were awake at this hour, and none of them were near here.

"Dump it," he said, and a couple of his men dragged the wrapped up corpse out of the trunk of the car, heaving it into the water.

"Think anyone'll find it?" Franks asked, sucking on another cigarette like they were going out of style. Gibbs watched the small splash and tracked the corpse as it sank into the water. It was a moot question, but it was a ritual, a test. The answer never changed. If it did, something had really gone wrong.

"That water's filthy enough that he'll rot before anyone even realizes he's gone," Gibbs replied, and turned away once the body had disappeared from sight. His men waited for Gibbs and Franks to slide back into the black Lincoln before they shut the door and got into the front seats.

"I'm getting too old for this shit." Franks rolled down the window and let the cool early-morning air flow through the car, flicking his cigarette butt out onto the gravel road as the driver pulled away from the edge of the harbor. "You gotta dump your bodies during regular business hours, rookie."

Gibbs snorted, softly. "Yes, because that'll go over real well when Fornell and his crew start getting calls about corpses going into the harbor at three in the afternoon rather than the middle of the night."

"We could be slick about it." His mentor reached into his inner pocket for another cigarette, and lit up. The bittersweet tobacco smell filled the car; Gibbs waved away the curl of smoke that floated in front of his face. Franks didn't miss the motion. "It's not gonna kill you, rookie," he commented. "And I'm sure the Feds have better things to worry about than a few losers goin' into the harbor."

Gibbs ignored him. The car rumbled onward, through the empty streets of Federal Hill, winding through the narrow residential stretches before it stopped in front of a nondescript stretch of row houses. The Lincoln's engine rumbled as the car idled. "Good night, Mike," he said, inclining his head toward the door, and the houses beyond. Franks gave him a long, hard look, and sucked down the last bit of his cigarette.

"Yeah, yeah," he said finally, and pushed open his door, leaving a lingering scent of smoke like cheap cologne in his wake.

xx

Three months earlier

The owl's eyes were blinking, and that meant a good night for Tony DiNozzo. It meant the feds weren't in town, so he could enjoy a good single malt older than he was in peace. Real scotch, not that fake stuff that they were passing off elsewhere in the city. He brought the cut-glass tumbler to his mouth— the taste was honey on fire as it flowed down his throat.

Delicious.

He set the glass back onto the polished wood of the bar, leaned back, and sighed as his muscles popped and eased. He reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out a pack of Chesterfields, shaking one out of the worn paper package. The match lit on the first strike, and he held the flame to the tip of the cigarette, inhaling deeply. A cig and a good drink. What a perfect finish to a perfect murder.

Assassination, he corrected himself mentally. Murder was such a strong word. The boss preferred, "disposed of," but Tony always thought that seemed too cagey, too hands-off for the whole situation, because honestly, when you were breaking into a guy's house in the middle of the night and putting a gun to the dead-center of his forehead, it was murder. Or assassination.

He drank some more scotch. Behind him, the band started up a new number, something familiar. He'd heard it played in other bars; it was new, pretty popular, he'd gathered. Tony only tended to pay attention to the music they used in the pictures.

Sometimes I wonder why I spend

The lonely nights dreaming of a song

The melody haunts my reverie

And I am once again with you...

The voice was haunting, floating out of the small, dimly lit stage at the back of the bar. Tony exhaled a mouthful of smoke, and took another sip of his scotch in its wake.

When our love was new

And each kiss an inspiration...

He knew what he would find when he turned around— a half dozen couples spinning on the little square dance floor, delirious with illegal drink and talk and music. He turned anyway, and there was the familiar scene, never failing to disappoint.

The singer was a stunning brunette, her dark hair cascading in waves around her face. The few lights around the stage winked off the satin of her dress, making it shimmer like blue water. Her eyes were closed, and she sang into the microphone like it was breaking her heart.

Ah, but that was long ago

Now my consolation is in the stardust of a song...

Tony found it very difficult to take his eyes off of her, and so he didn't bother to until a clump of ash fell off the tip of his cigarette and hit him in the leg. He swore quietly, brushing it off onto the floor, and felt like a fool for getting so distracted by a beautiful woman. When he looked up, she was looking at him.

Though I dream in vain

In my heart it will remain

My stardust melody

The memory of love's refrain...

There was a round of applause, and Tony turned back to his drink, tossing back the last of it.

"Buy a lady a drink?"

He nearly choked on the mouthful of liquor, and swallowed quickly, covering up his fumble with a brief cough to clear his through. She was standing next to him suddenly, her voice as silken as the scotch he'd just swallowed. He hadn't even realized that she had left the stage.

She laughed, a silvery, throaty sound. "I asked if you wanted to buy me a drink, not choke to death on your own." She gestured, and the bartender ambled over at her summons.

Tony stubbed out the last bit of his cigarette in the ashtray. "Oscar," he said, holding the singer's gaze, "get the lady with the pretty eyes whatever she wants."

The bartender nodded, and she ordered a glass of Cabernet; the wine that Oscar brought her was so dark it looked black in the dim lighting. She lifted the glass and swirled the wine, inhaling its bouquet- the motion was like a private ritual, so sincere in its intentions.

"The lady knows her wine," Tony commented.

She sipped from the glass. He watched the movement of her throat as she swallowed. "The lady does."

"What's your name?" he asked.

"Ziva." Her unfamiliar accent drew out the word as Zee-vaah.

"Tony," he replied, even though she hadn't asked. "Do you sing here often, Miss Ziva?" Her name rolled off his tongue.

"Not often." She declined to offer any other details; her long, elegant finger, topped with a nail painted a deep crimson, traced a ring around the edge of the glass. "Do you, Mr. Tony?"

"Sing? No, not so much." Tony raised his glass to the bartender, and Oscar pulled the bottle of single malt out from behind the bar, pouring a generous amount into the tumbler. "Thanks," he said. Oscar nodded, and withdrew.

"Then do you drink here often?" She eyed his glass.

His reply was a mimic of her deliberate terseness. "Not often." He found he couldn't maintain her facade of mystery, and allowed a smile to come to the corners of his mouth.

Ziva raised her glass, and clinked it against his. "To infrequent chances, then," she said.

"Hear, hear," Tony agreed, and tossed back a mouthful of his drink. It was going to be a good night for him, indeed.

xx

When he woke up the next morning, it was with a killer headache and the lingering scent of a beautiful woman's perfume in his bedsheets. He stretched and yawned, flinging aside the bedding.

"Oh, god," he mumbled upon sitting up and discovering that his head was not feeling quite firmly attached. The room spun to the left for a second, and settled. There had been drinking, flirting, a walk back to his place... he couldn't remember a whole lot of the rest of the evening, but it must have been fantastic. His foot hit something as he stood carefully- his emergency stash of bourbon, carefully hidden in a drawer beneath his underwear. The bottle was three-quarters empty.

Well. That explained the headache.

Tony stumbled out of his bedroom and into the small kitchenette. There was a note waiting for him, written on a napkin, set on his wobbly kitchen table and anchored in place by the salt shaker; unless there was another woman sneaking into his apartment, Ziva had very pretty handwriting.

Jasmine tea with lime for the hangover.

"Disgusting," he mumbled, setting down the note and picking up the salt. He pulled a glass out of the cabinet, filled it with some water, and dumped a pinch of salt into it. It took him a moment to locate the Tabasco, and even longer to find the lemon, buried as it was in the back of his refrigerator. He sent up the closest thing he had for a prayer of thanks for old family recipes- half a DiNozzo Detonator later, and he would be feeling right as rain.

He sat at the table, and fingered the edge of Ziva's note.

xx

There was a fleck of dried blood under her nail, Ziva realized. She hadn't noticed it last night because of the nail polish she had so carefully applied, but it was there, just under her thumbnail

She picked at it absently, gazing out at the harbor as the car cruised down Light Street.

The whole thing had gone cleanly.

Gibbs would be glad to hear it.