Gibbs hit rewind and closed his eyes as he counted to three. He released the rewind button and hit pause. He opened his eyes and made sure that for the twenty-third time that night, he had stopped it at the right place. He swallowed and hit play. The scene replayed and for the twenty-third time that night, he flinched when he watched the bullet hit its mark. The flinch was miniscule. Only an observer who was looking for it would see it.
It didn't matter how many times he watched the security camera footage. Every time he would flinch.
His heart would begin to beat faster when he realized the time was drawing nearer. His breath would stop when he saw the man spin around and grab the woman, pulling her into a protective hug to make sure that every inch of the front of her body was covered by his. And then, the man's body would violently jerk when the bullet struck him. Then woman would jerk as well and they both fell to the ground. One killer edged into the screen, his gun still up and trained on the victims. Then, he gave a violent jerk of his own and dropped dead.
Gibbs hit rewind. He closed his eyes. He counted to three. He released the rewind button. He opened his eyes. He saw that he was at the right spot. He swallowed. He hit play. The scene once more unfolded before him.
And just like twenty-three times previously, there was nothing he could do about it.
"How many times are you gonna watch this, Gibbs?"
"When I figure out what the hell went wrong."
Vance stepped in front of the plasma and without turning his back on Gibbs, hit the power. The television went black.
"There's a lot wrong in that picture," said Vance, taking a step forward. The toothpick was unusually absent from Vance's mouth. "But there's nothing there that you could've prevented."
"Like hell there is," spat Gibbs. "They didn't have to be there. If I hadn't put her out in the field, then the killer wouldn't have targeted her, and then he wouldn't have had to protect her."
"I'll repeat what I said: there's nothing there that you could've prevented." Vance put his hands on the edge of Gibbs' desk and leaned forward so that the desk lamp illuminated his face. He certainly looked as pissed off as Gibbs. "Her eyes were needed out at the scene. No one realized that the killer was still there. No one could have foreseen that. And as for keeping your highly trained agent from doing his job—protecting—there's no way in hell that you could've ever prevented that."
Gibbs ran his hands over his face, trying to keep the atypical weary and sad expression from showing. He knew Vance saw through this though. He slammed his hand on his desk and sat back.
"I know. I know. I just wish that I could go back and take his place."
"Don't we all."
Gibbs looked up into Vance's eyes, a little surprised to see that Vance actually meant that.
"Thank you," said Gibbs softly.
Vance straightened up and pulled a fresh toothpick from his coat pocket. He put it between his teeth as he studied Gibbs.
"So when are you going over to the hospital," he asked.
Gibbs raised his eyebrows. "Excuse me?"
"To visit her?" Vance chewed for a few seconds. "You were going to visit her tonight, weren't you?"
"I don't think I'm up to it," confessed Gibbs. "I don't think that I'll be of any comfort."
"Jethro," sad Vance softly. "Sometimes people just need someone else to mourn with."
"Everyone else is there," stated Gibbs stubbornly.
"And you're their team leader," stated Vance, just as stubbornly. "They're looking to you for the next step. They know you're hurting just as much as them—maybe even more. But how you react is going to determine how they react."
"This isn't the first time we've lost someone close to us," said Gibbs. "I think they know how to move on right now."
"That's not what I mean," said Vance. He lowered his voice—not secretively—but for the appropriate tone of meaning. "They're worried about you." He sighed. "We all are. You've lost a lot of people close to you in your life, Jethro."
"I think this is going to be my last case, Vance," Gibbs said suddenly.
Vance studied him for a moment and nodded. "Just as long as you catch the bastard that got away first." He pulled the toothpick from his mouth. "Now, are you coming to the hospital or not? Ducky just called me. She really wants to see you."
Gibbs nodded. He stood up and went to follow Vance when he stopped abruptly, eyes frozen on the desk before him. Vance turned around.
"Yeah," breathed Gibbs. He shook his head. "Must be going crazy. For a moment I thought I saw…" He drifted off, not even wanting to mention it.
But Vance just nodded. "Yeah, me too." He turned back to the elevator and Gibbs followed.
As he left the squad room, he could've sworn that he heard a familiar voice:
"On your six, Boss."