Ties that Bind
Summary: Two men encounter each other in front of the Ground Zero memorial for very different reasons, but discover they have a lot in common. CSI New York/ NCIS crossover. Gibbs and Mac Taylor.
Mac sighed, raising his face slowly from the wire of the fence. His fingers were numb from clutching at the links. He sighed again, shifting his face against the metal, feeling the coldness of it.
Last night...last night had been one of those nights. The nights he couldn't sleep, when every sound and smell and breath was a torment of memories. When even his guitar brought him no relief. No surprise, since today would have been his anniversary. Or since the case they'd been involved in over the past few days had involved a young wife, and he'd had to speak to the grieving husband. The combination of memory and moments had kept him awake, driven him here in the evening hours, to stand before the memorial. He couldn't recall when he'd leaned into the fence, or how long he'd been standing there, clutching at the metal wire like a lifeline. But he knew the sky was lightening, and that it was probably close to time for him to go to work. He needed to collect his wits.
He shifted again, pushing himself upright, away from the metal support. But his body was stiff, painfully so. His knees were locked, refusing to obey him. He cursed as he stumbled, falling forward toward the pavement.
"Woah. Easy there." Strong hands caught his arms, steadying him, supporting him. Holding him while he got his feet back under him. It was embarrassing, but he was grateful for the kindness. "You okay?" A strong, certain voice, to match the grip that kept him upright.
"Yes. Thank you." He turned to look his rescuer in the eyes.
The man before him was older than he was, but his actual age was hard to determine. His hair was silver-white, but it was difficult to tell if the lines that creased his face were age or expression lines. There was a peculiar ageless look about him, supported by the intense blue eyes, deep-set and shining, penetrating. He had a strong jaw, and an expressive face, more stern than anything else. The man looked as if he scowled for a living, but also as if he had a generous smile. The hands that still supported Mac were warm, even through the coat, and strong. It was a face that matched the voice, and the grip. He was about Mac's height, straight backed, and looked to be in good physical condition.
The feeling had returned to Mac's legs. He shifted away slowly, and the stranger let him go. "Thank you. Sorry about that. I'm not usually this clumsy." He felt awkward, trying to explain, but the man at least deserved that much. "Just a little stiff."
"Yeah. I gathered that." The look the man gave him was speculative, but not unfriendly. Then he turned to look back at the memorial. "Not surprised. You've been there all night."
Years of CSI experience and field training, not to mention a few close calls with stalkers, made Mac stiffen. "How did you know I was here all night? Were you following me?" He felt his hand shifting by reflex toward the gun he wore.
The man held up his hands. "Easy." He shook his head. "Wasn't following you." He gestured down the street. "Hotel's around the corner. Came by here last night. Saw you this morning, out looking for coffee."
Mac blinked. "Most hotels serve coffee, in the rooms or in the lounge."
The man chuckled, his head shifting in a minute shake. "That's...not coffee."
Mac sighed, remembering when he'd spent two weeks in London, living in hotels. He didn't remember the coffee being that bad, but then, he wasn't much of a coffee drinker. Not compared to most of his department. He shook his head. "Sorry. Guess I'm a little paranoid." He shook his head again, ran one hand over his face. "Look, how about we start over." He held out a hand. "Mac Taylor. Thanks for giving me a hand."
The man shook, his own hand strong and warm and calloused. "No problem. Jethro Gibbs."
Mac felt a smile cross his face. There was something about the man that he liked. Perhaps it was the straightforward demeanor. But there was a sense of connection, of camaraderie, that he didn't get often. "So...did you get that coffee yet?"
Jethro shook his head. "Nope. Don't know where a good place is."
Mac nodded. "Well, it just so happens, I know a place round the corner, has decent product. Why don't you let me buy you a cup, as an apology."
Gibbs shook his head with a smile. "Don't apologize. Sign of weakness."
Mac had to laugh a little. "As a thank you then, for keeping me off the pavement." He gestured.
Gibbs tilted his head, with a short nod. "Now that, I think I can do."
"Great. This way." Mac gestured, and the two of them set off down the street.
Ten minutes later, they arrived at the coffee shop he most frequently stopped at after rough nights. It was actually more of a small diner, but it had good coffee, and a great staff. The man behind the counter looked up as he entered, and waved him a friendly greeting. "Hey Mac!"
"Hey." He settled at his favorite table, and Jethro settled across from him. Seconds later, the man came over to take their order. "My usual, and whatever he wants." He gestured.
"Sure thing. Want your early bird special, or the late night one?" The man grinned.
"Late night." Mac returned the smile, then turned to look at his companion. "They've got great oatmeal."
Jethro laughed. "More of an eggs kinda guy myself." His gaze flicked over the menu. "Two eggs, over-easy, and coffee. Black."
"You got it." The waiter grinned, took both menus, and headed back to the counter. He stopped halfway there. "Large coffee?"
"Of course." Mac nodded, and the man continued on his way.
They sat in silence, relaxed and comfortable, until the man brought two large cups and set them down. Mac watched as his companion lifted the cup, sniffed, and took a long drink without a moment of hesitation. "Ah..."
"Take it straight, huh?" Mac grinned. He'd been watching the other man, putting together the coffee with the straight back, the solid physique, and the short, neat haircut. "Don't tell me...military?"
"Marines." Gibbs' smile said he knew where the question had come from. "You?" He gestured to Mac's coffee, black except for a packet of sugar.
"The same. But not for a while. Inactive reserves."
Gibbs nodded. "Sounds about right." He took another long drink of his coffee. "Any reason to be standing on a street corner all night?"
Mac shook his head. He liked the man, but he wasn't sure he wanted to discuss the painful past with him. "Just...thinking about things." There was silence between them. Then he spoke, asking his own question. "You said you were staying in a hotel. You're not from New York?"
"Nope. Washington." Gibbs turned in his seat, anything else he might have said halted by the arrival of their waiter, bringing food.
For a few minutes, both men applied themselves to breakfast. Mac was tempted to let the conversation lie, but...he was curious. It was in his nature as a CSI, to want to know things. And Gibbs intrigued him. He had a feeling there was more to the man's presence than simple accident. Not that he thought Gibbs was a danger, he just had a feeling there was more to the story.
He held his silence until they had both finished their food, and were sipping the coffee. He was beginning to feel more awake and, as a consequence, more curious. He took another drink, then spoke quietly. "So...up from Washington?"
"Yeah." Jethro nodded, met his gaze. He had the feeling he was being both studied and challenged, in a subtle way. Or, at least, as subtle as the man could manage.
He wasn't going to pass up on it. "That's quite a trip. Here on business?"
"Nope. Not exactly." Jethro shook his head, took another sip of coffee, and looked at the cup appreciatively. "This is good coffee. Know if they offer bags you can take home?"
"I don't think so. But I've never asked." Mac felt a grin crease one corner of his mouth at the deflection. "But they do have to-go cups."
"That'll do." Gibbs smiled back, and Mac knew the man was definitely watching him. Why, he wasn't sure.
They got cups, then left the diner. Mac looked at his watch. He still had a little time. Of course, he could just go home and get a shower, and a quick change. But he was still intrigued, as he rarely was in a city where chance encounters happened all the time. He gestured. "Mind if I walk with you back to your hotel?"
"Nope. Not unless it's out of your way." Gibbs followed the gesture. There was a hint of satisfaction in the smile hovering about his lips though, that suggested to Mac that he too was intrigued.
"Not particularly." By some unspoken consent, the two of them began moving up the pavement. The usual morning press of people was out, though it was thinner than it might have been. Common courtesy and respect for the dead, or the grieving, made people walk wide of Ground Zero. Mac was far too common a visitor here to avoid it any longer.
As they neared the fence, his companion slowed, looking across the ground. There was speculation, almost akin to brooding, on the angular face. Brooding, and melancholy. But there was also an odd, intense sort of focus in the blue gaze, as if it provoked a particularly difficult train of thought. Mac slowed and stopped, and Jethro stopped with him. He followed his companion's gaze. The man seemed to be focused on something, but he wasn't sure what. He looked over the rubble, feeling the familiar ache and twisting in his gut. A night of vigil had eased the pain somewhat, for now, but it still hurt.
Gibbs hadn't moved. Mac studied the face, trying to place the emotions on it, then spoke softly. "Did you lose someone here?"
"Nope." Gibbs shook his head. "Just...tryin' to remember."
That was far from what he'd expected. "Trying to remember?"
"Yeah." Gibbs glanced at him, then looked back over the area. "I read the reports. Know where I was, know what happened. But I can't remember a damn thing. Thought if I came here, it might come back a little."
"You...can't remember?" Shock hit him, confusion, then a sort of outraged fury. "Where the hell were you?"
"On 9/11?" Gibbs looked at him. "I was in my office, at NCIS. That's what the reports say. Director logged me in MTAC for most of the day."
"You're law enforcement?" That explained a lot of the connection he felt with the man. But still... "How could you forget? What happened that day was one of the greatest tragedies to strike this country." The words came out with more heat and bitterness than he intended, the sharpness fueled by the wounds that still bled within his heart. "You, more than anyone else..."
"I know." The soft words cut him off, and though there was no apology spoken, he heard the regret in that voice. "I wish like hell I could remember."
"Why would you forget it in the first place?" Mac bit back his anger, trying to hold back the pain and fury surging through him.
"Didn't mean to." The man before him took another swallow of coffee, still looking over the Ground Zero. There was pain, and confusion, and sudden vulnerability in the strong countenance. "Didn't have much say in it." He took another swallow of coffee. Mac stared at him. Gibbs met his gaze, then turned away, obviously sensing his roiling emotions. "Couple years back, got caught in an explosion. Spent five days in a coma, woke up thinking it was 1991. One of my team finally got me back, but there are things I still can't remember."
1991. The time lost was staggering. If the man had been a suspect in interrogation, Mac would have said he was joking. Or lying. But there was too much regret and confusion in that blue gaze. Too much frankness in the way Gibbs spoke of it. "That's a long time to forget."
"Yeah." Gibbs nodded.
Mac's gaze drifted to the memorial beyond the fence. He wondered what it would be like, to forget everything. How would he feel, if he couldn't remember that day? But there was no such solace, or curse, for him. Unbidden, the memories rose in his mind, in his heart, tearing at him as they had through the long cold darkness of the night.
He moved forward, without even thinking, swallowed up once more by the grief. His hands came up, to rest on the fence. And, without meaning to speak, he heard the words tumbling from his mouth. "I can't forget a single moment of that day."
A part of him rebelled at the idea of revealing such terrible pain to a near-stranger. He'd never even spoken of it with his co-workers. Stella had even commented once, that he'd shut himself away. The rest of him was stumbling over the understanding of how many people would love to forget that tragic day, and the knowledge that the man standing quietly beside him had traveled over several hundred miles to try and remember, because it mattered to him.
The two emotions warred within him then subsided. Words tumbled from him in a low monotone, like blood from a wound that could not be staunched.
"I got up. It was just a normal day. Ate breakfast with my wife, Claire. I cut myself shaving, and she was teasing me. She shared her music with me while we rode to work. We were going to go to the opera that night. And then...I went to my office, over at NYPD. I was starting to question a suspect, and the news came. About the first plane. We dropped everything. Nothing mattered but the news. We stumbled outside, and we could see the smoke rising. You could almost see the first tower crumbling, even then. We were still trying to coordinate, to get over the shock, when the second plane hit."
There was no way to stop the flood of memory and emotion, no way to hold it back. He closed his eyes, his face pressed into the metal fencing. "We raced to the scene, but there was nothing we could do. We tried to assist the fire and rescue teams. An hour and a half later...the buildings collapsed. There was so much destruction." He swallowed, images of burning masonry, of piles of rubble the dust cloud that had blotted out the sun flashing in his mind. The image of the debris field, and the sound of people screaming, crying out. "There were people...so many people. Some of them staggered out from the edges of the collapse. So many more were running forward, trying to help. Calling out names. Yelling for survivors. Some of the fire teams were trapped inside, when it fell."
He'd had friends on those teams. Most officers had friends among the emergency staff, and the fire and rescue crews. He knew the faces and the names of every one of his friends who had died that day. And yet...one name eclipsed all others in his mind. Claire.
He couldn't speak of it, his throat closed up at even the thought. He swallowed, wondering if he could stop, but the words continued to break free from someplace deep inside him. So monotone, so factual, he didn't understand why. He felt like he should be screaming. O r weeping.
"The crews waved us back at first, to do crowd control. But it didn't last. The magnitude of the disaster. Before noon, we were all out there. Shifting rubble, wading through debris and fires and wreckage. We were looking for survivors, but...with the way things happened..." He swallowed again.
His mind couldn't touch on the depth of it, couldn't find the words for it. "I spent...two, maybe three days, moving rubble. I remember, one of my friends, tried to get me away after the first twelve hours. I couldn't go. I worked until I collapsed, until they had to drag me away. My friend carried me home. I woke up...I couldn't stay. I went to the lab, to get my work clothes. They told me we'd been assigned to help ID the victims, and take the calls of those who had missing family. There wasn't any more hope for survivors. We knew the odds. We spent the next few days..." His throat closed on the words, on the memories. Memories of ten, twelve, fourteen hour days, putting ID's with bodies, names with remains. And the terrible, terrible hope, and hopelessness. As the first week went by, no longer any hope that Claire would be alive, and the unbearable, numbing grief he hadn't even had tears for. The days that followed, hoping at least for her remains. He'd gone down to Autopsy every single day asking Sid, almost begging for confirmation, for closure if he could have nothing else.
"I spent my days at the office, my nights working the cleaning crews." He hadn't even gone home, unless he absolutely had to, for the first month or so. He'd been somewhat of an insomniac before, but the whole ordeal had made it ten times worse. He dimly recalled Stella and Flack teaming together, to force him to eat, to sleep when he was staggering with weariness. There were vague memories of Sid and Sheldon rigging him a cot and blankets in a closet near Autopsy, when he couldn't bear to leave from hope that the next body might be his wife. "After a while though, there was just nothing." Nothing more to do. No more bodies to discover, no more rubble to move. Nothing more to hope for, either in miracles or in closure.
The words ran dry. He remained where he was, embarrassed and yet, oddly relieved by the sharing of the burden.
Gibbs spoke softly, his words gentle. "You lost someone here."
It wasn't really a question, but he responded anyway. "My wife. Claire. She was in the World Trade Center that day." He felt himself pause, then the words broke free. "She called me. From here, on that day. I was on the phone with her, when the second plane hit. And the line went dead." He swallowed against the remembered terror of that moment, terror that gave way to agony. "They never found her body. I can't even bury her."
The silence that fell between them gave him time to breathe, to regain the composure that had deserted him. He was suddenly ashamed, of the way he'd revealed such personal information to a near-stranger. Ashamed, and embarrassed, to have exposed himself so deeply. He took a deep breath, and forced himself to let go of the fence. To turn and face his companion.
Gibbs was standing quietly beside him, no expression on his face. He knew he didn't owe the man any explanation, or any apology, but he spoke it anyway. "Sorry. You...didn't need to hear that."
"Maybe." The other man shrugged, and met his gaze. "But you needed to say it."
There was no condemnation, no exasperation, no surprise in the blue eyes. Only strength, and the faint hint of concern. And open support, offering a connection, accepting his words with easy understanding.
He looked back at the memorial. In all the time he'd been here, all the time he'd tried to deal with the loss, he'd never wanted to speak of it. Not even when his closest friends, the ones to whom he usually confided everything, urged him to. Flack had even tried to get him drunk, once or twice, to loosen his tongue. Even Sid had tried. He looked back at Gibbs. "Why do you say that?"
Gibbs gestured to his face. "Look in your eyes. Way you were holding onto that fence."
Mac looked at the fence, then back at the man. "You weren't just walking by." He wasn't sure why he was so certain, only that he was.
Gibbs took a drink of coffee, though the beverage couldn't have been more than lukewarm. "I was last night."
"But not this morning."
"No." Gibbs shook his head. Mac waited for an explanation, but he didn't offer anything further.
Half a dozen questions pulsed in his mind. He managed one. "Why?"
Gibbs took another long drink of coffee. His gaze was fixed on the fenced in area, his eyes thoughtful. He was silent for so long that Mac thought he might not answer. Then the words emerged. "Your expression. I used to see that look in the mirror. After my wife and daughter died."
"Your wife and daughter?" He knew it was none of his business, but he couldn't help the question.
"Yeah." There was a pause, then the other man spoke, his tone much the same as Mac's had been only minutes earlier. That flat, almost-monotone, conveying pain too great even for tears. "I was deployed for Desert Storm. My wife witnessed a murder of a marine, went to report it. They tried to protect her." He lifted the cup to his lips, then seemed to think better of it. "Bastard sniped their driver. They died in the crash."
Mac thought it was the end of the story, but after a moment, Gibbs spoke again, offering the words as hesitantly as Mac had spoken of Claire's body. "Got the news right before an assault. I was so shocked, I ran right in front of a bomb. By the time I woke up, I was stateside, and my wife and daughter had been buried for two weeks."
Silence fell between them again, each man remembering his loss and acknowledging the others. Mac looked back at the field. It hurt, but less somehow. He wasn't sure if it was because he'd finally spoken of the painful memories, or if it was because a part of him was distracted by the pain his companion carried, so similar to his own. As if the shared pain formed a kind of support between them that lessened the burden. The words came to his tongue without conscious thought, somehow more heartfelt than they'd been in a very long time. "I'm sorry for your loss."
Gibbs met his eyes, nodded. "I could say the same."
Simple words, but they relaxed him. He even felt the tiniest of smiles breaking across his face. He jerked his head down the street. "Come on. I was supposed to walk you to your hotel."
An answering smile curved Jethro's mouth on one side. "Yeah. You were." There was the faintest air of teasing, born of compassion and relief on both their parts.
The hotel turned out to be a few blocks away. Jethro retraced his steps, the two of them walking in the easy silence of comrades until the silver-haired man stopped and jerked his head at a building. "That one's mine."
Mac nodded. His brain pulled up a fragment of earlier conversation. "Hey. You said you worked at NCIS?"
"Yeah." Gibbs nodded, a question appearing in the blue eyes. "And you said you worked NYPD."
"I do." He could see the light in Gibbs eyes, the connection being made, that they were essentially brothers in arms. He looked up at the building, memorizing the name. "Why don't I stop by after work? We can catch some dinner, and compare job stories." He met the other man's eyes. "Unless you're going out of town already."
Gibbs chuckled. "Not until tomorrow." He held Mac's gaze a moment. "You buyin'?"
"Sure. Why not." The good humor in the eyes was infectious, and his mood felt lighter than it had in days. Certainly in the past 24 hours. "Say...eight?"
"Sounds good." Gibbs reached into an inner breast pocket on his jacket and withdrew a wallet, from which he extracted a card, the standard for law enforcement officers everywhere. He handed it over. "Cell's on the back."
Mac nodded, and withdrew his own card, passing it across. "See you then."
Jethro gave him a nod, that smile still playing around the corners of his mouth, then turned and strode back into the building. Mac watched the tall form vanish through the doors, then shook himself and hurried to find a taxi. Fortunately, the first cab he hailed stopped, and he was able to settle inside. Once he was comfortably relaxed and in transit, he took a closer look at the card. "Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, huh?" His eyebrow went up at the 'Special Agent'. But it did explain how the man had known how to approach him, and how to steer their conversation as he had. He chuckled a little, then slipped it into his jacket. A quick glance at his watch revealed he was already late. He knew he'd have to explain himself, but he couldn't bring himself to be sorry with the way things had turned out.
He was in his office, hanging up his jacket when Stella walked in. She blinked. "Mac, you're late." Her tone was chiding, laced with genuine concern.
"I know. I'm sorry. Something came up."
She was staring at his shirt. "Is that the same suit you wore yesterday?"
"It is." He glanced up, saw the concern in her eyes. "I was going to grab a quick change and a wash in the lockers. I've got a clean suit down there."
"I know. But Mac..."
He knew the question she wanted to ask, and shook his head. "I didn't make it home last night."
She moved closer, the files in her hands momentarily forgotten. "Are you okay?"
He paused a moment. But, somewhat to his surprise, he was. The lingering depression and pain that had driven him to Ground Zero the night before had faded, eased by the morning's encounter. "Yeah, I'm good."
"You're sure." She took a step forward, looking into his eyes. "I mean, yesterday..."
"Stella." He stopped her question, looking her square in the eyes. "I'm okay. Really."
"If you say so." She set the folders on his desk, then turned back to the doors of his office. She was halfway out them when she stopped and turned. "You know...Sid and Flack and I were thinking, about maybe grabbing some dinner this evening. If you want to join us, you're more than welcome to."
He smiled. Of course Stella and Flack and Sid would have recognized the date. There were a few days every year they tried to coerce him into going out. They knew which days he was likely to have trouble, and were more than willing to try and distract him. He usually let them, knowing the company helped some. But he shook his head. "Not tonight. I've actually got somewhere to be."
She blinked, and there was concern in her gaze. "Mac..."
"It's not what you think." He caught her eyes with a smile in his, and held up the card he'd pulled from his jacket pocket. "I met a colleague of ours, from Washington, while I was out getting breakfast this morning." Almost the truth. Gibbs was a Fed, which was slightly different. And he hadn't exactly been going for breakfast when they'd met. But it was close enough. And they had enough in common, working in law enforcement, to have common ties and understandings. That would have been true even if the job had been the only thing they shared. "We were talking, and I offered to take him to dinner."
"Dinner?" Now she was surprised. "That's unusual."
That got a short laugh out of him. "Well, this guy's an unusual guy." Which was completely true, when he thought about it. When he thought about their encounter, and what they'd talked about. He gave her a quick grin. "I'll let you know how it goes."
"Sure." She tilted her head, studying him with that calm, focused gaze she used to try and measure whether or not he was telling the truth. She'd gotten very good at reading him, during their years together. Finally, she smiled. "I'll let you get dressed, and we can go over those case files."
"Thanks." He waited until she left the office, then looked back at the card in his hand.
It was strange, how fast he'd formed such a connection. He hadn't thought, when those hands had caught his arm, that he would find a connection. But even so, despite the fact that the association was only hours old, he could feel the shared bonds of work, loss and strength. It was as oddly comforting as it was disconcerting.
He smiled and put the card on his desk, where he could pick it up when he returned from changing. His mind was already wandering to what stories he could tell, how they would compare to Gibbs. He was willing to bet the other man had some good ones. As he strolled out of his office and headed to the lockers, the smile was still on his face.
He could hardly wait for dinner.
Author'sNote: This just sort of...happened in my head. May seem a little OOC for Mac, but...he has his rough days.