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Can't See The Ground
by: mhalachai (Send Feedback)
Series: - No Series - #1
Chapters: 001 Word Count: 3766
Character(s): Jethro Gibbs, Jenny Shepard
Category(ies): Angst/Drama, General
Pairing(s): - No Pairing -
Summary: Ghosts are stirring at NCIS and Jethro's starting to see the light... (spoilers up to season six's Last Man Standing and Agent Afloat)
It starts the night they finally get Tony back home after that mess on the Seahawk. They all gather around the office before heading home, and looking back, maybe Jethro can blame it all on how Abby is more touchy-feely than normal, how Ziva's scars from the bomb blast haven't quite faded, how Tony and McGee just can't stop needling each other. It's not the same as it was and it never will be, not even when Jethro thinks he sees a red-headed woman climbing the stairs to the director's office out of the corner of his eye. There's no one there. How could there be?
It all winds down and everyone goes home and Jethro can't really care to pay attention who leaves with who; he's just tired
and no wonder, he's over fifty now and it's not as easy to maintain the righteous anger against traitors as it once was.
Part of him still can't believe Langer was the spy.
He doesn't bother with heading down to the basement to unwind, just strips and showers the sea salt off his skin and falls into bed as easily as his aching joints will allow.
And he dreams.
He's in the basement, painting delicate detail on the side of the boat's white hull. The room smells like sawdust and paint and copper, air heavy and dry as the California desert.
The paintbrush slides along the hull, streaking thin red lines over the flawless surface. When the paint runs dry, he lifts the brush and dips it into the pool of red liquid in Jenny's cupped hands.
"It isn't what you think," she says into the basement's stillness. Her voice rasps softly. "What you heard, it's all an illusion."
The red paint on the boat begins to turn brown and fall in flakes to the concrete floor.
Her clear green gaze never leaves his face. "Do you really think Langer could do that? Turn traitor?"
No matter how fast he paints, the boat's surface mottles and warps. "It's there in the evidence," he says, desperate to finish.
Jenny opens her hands and the red liquid splashes everywhere. She leans forward until her hair hangs in his face, smelling of lilacs and burnt copper. "What evidence?" she breathes in his ear, and the doorbell rings and Jethro opens his eyes to his darkened bedroom.
Tobias Fornell is angry on his porch, pushing into the house before Jethro can open the door all the way. "Where the hell have you been?" Tobias demands, heading straight for the kitchen.
"On the water," Jethro says vaguely, but Tobias isn't listening.
"What the hell went down with Langer? What's this bullshit on seizing all his old files?"
"It's standard procedure and you know that," Jethro retorts. He puts water in the coffee maker; it might be five in the morning but he's up so he may as well.
"Yeah, and you and I both know what it's standard procedure for." Tobias rubs at his eyes and there's a spot of pink sparkly nail polish on the inside of his sleeve, and in spite of everything, Jethro has a moment's urge to sigh. It seems Tobias's kid Emily is very much her mother's daughter.
"It's there in the evidence," Jethro hears himself saying after a minute, and he braces for a half-expected soft voice in his ear but all he has is Tobias, stalking around the kitchen.
"And you believe that? You're the one who gave Langer the recommendation to transfer to NCIS." Tobias accepts a cup of coffee. "Are you seriously telling me you believe Langer could turn on his country like that?" He sips at the coffee and almost chokes. "Jesus Christ, how do you drink this tar?"
Jethro ignores the question. "I've been wrong about people before, Tobias, you know that."
"The hell, you say." Tobias takes another drink of the coffee. "You tell me what you'd do if this was one of your people. If I came to you and told you, sorry, we had to shoot DiNozzo because he was selling state secrets!"
"What do you want me to say?" Jethro demands. "It's what happened!"
Tobias puts down his cup so hard the liquid sloshes onto the counter. "Show me proof! Show me Langer had that money, that he had whatever you say your guy stole from the Pentagon. Show me some actual evidence!"
"I can't!" Jethro shouts back. Tobias stops moving. "I can't show you because it's not there." He crosses his arms over his chest and leans against the counter, too fucking old for this. "And I know
, Tobias. I know."
Tobias stares at Jethro. "You find out, then," and he sweeps out of the kitchen. The door slams loudly in the hall and Jethro is alone.
He picks up his forgotten coffee cup only to find the liquid almost gone. He could have sworn he'd poured a full cup and only took a sip.
He shakes his head and goes to dress. He's getting old and forgetful. That's all.
They catch a bad one that day, three dependants dead on a navy base in Virginia. Jethro stands in the dreary base house and looks at the small girl's corpse, lying shot and broken by the foot of the stairs. Upstairs, the mother tried to shelter the newborn's body with her own, but the woman was slender and the bullets high caliber. The exit wound in the tiny chest literally ripped the baby in two.
The mother's red hair and blue shirt are soaked with congealed blood.
Ziva falls back on stilted language patterns and McGee hasn't been this grey at a crime scene in years. Tony ignores them all, taking pictures like his life depends on it and all Jethro can think about is Emily's spilled pink nail polish on Tobias's trench coat.
The husband, a navy ensign, is missing along with many of his weapons. They find his body three days later, tucked away at a picnic site in a park closed for the season. The top of his head is missing, the bullet embedded in a nearby tree. There's a confession-suicide note in his pocket. The baby's not his, the wife pushed him to it, and so on and so on until Jethro stops reading and puts the note in an evidence bag and leans against the truck for a minute until he gets over the urge to call Vance and tender his resignation. Then he goes back to work.
The next time he dreams, he's in a humid Paris hotel room, standing by the open window watching the busy midnight streets.
"Things used to be so different," comes a voice from the bed.
He doesn't turn around. He knows what he will see.
"Back when we were in Paris."
"Things change," he tells her, refusing to give name to this ghost.
"They do." Movement, and she appears at his side, the sheet twirled around her slender naked body and this is Jenny the way she was in Paris, not the woman lying dead in the California desert. "I used to think about what it would have been like, if you'd stayed with me in Europe."
"Or if you'd come back with me to the States?"
The exposed skin on her shoulders is pale and spotted with sparse freckles, and cold to his tentative touch. "I almost went with you," she says in the tone of one confessing to dark deeds.
"Why didn't you?"
She smiles up at him then, and even though he knows
he's dreaming it's like a kick to the stomach because she's dead. "I never let anyone stand in my way, Jethro, you weren't going to be the first." She goes up on her tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek, her lips icy against his face. "There's only one thing you need to be asking yourself."
His mouth is dry and she's so very cold.
Her smile curves, her lips suddenly wet and stained blood-red. "How did Petty Officer Vargo's keycard get into Keating's backpack?"
Everything goes black and he opens his eyes to the sawdust-strewn workbench in the basement. It's cold and dark and he thinks he can smell copper shavings in the air.
The next day at work, he leaves his coffee on his desk while he goes down to talk to Ducky, and when he gets back to his desk the cup is empty.
He glares sharply around the squad room, but there's no clue as to what suicidal asshole drank his coffee
. McGee is scowling at his computer and Tony's carefully rearranging his desk and Ziva's complete attention is on Tony. If they'd seen someone at his desk, Tim at least would be pretending innocence.
Maybe it isn't anything. Maybe he just drank it on the drive in and forgot.
He thinks he sees a flash of red out of the corner of his eye but there's nothing there when he turns his head. He pulls his keycard out from his jacket pocket and taps it against his empty coffee cup as he watches the room ebb and flow around him.
He stays awake until two in the morning, working on the boat until he passes out against the hull. This time, he's in MTAC, watching the video footage streaming in from the squad room.
"Nothing new on?" he asks Jenny, her long hair brushing over her shoulders as she sits curled in the chair next to his.
"You don't want to watch your team at work?" she shoots back, stealing his coffee cup.
"This isn't my team." He watches Langer lean back in Tony's chair and pester Keating, while Lee types on Ziva's computer and ignores them both. "They never were."
"That's a little harsh, don't you think?" Jenny's voice is soft and mocking in MTAC' cool darkness.
"You can't trust people you're forced to work with, you know that."
"You were forced to work with me," Jenny reminds him.
He sighs, slouching down a bit in his chair. Onscreen, the mail cart trundles through the scene. "You were my new assignment, Jen, it's different."
She rests her head against his shoulder as she goes back to watching the screen. "I personally vetted Langer," she says, all business again. "I interviewed him, I talked to his partner and his bosses at the FBI, I even talked to his family."
"You've got people to do that for you," Jethro says in spite of himself.
"It's not the same." Jenny stands and walks to the screen. Dark wet splotches on her pale shirt make the cloth hang heavy as she moves. "Not when bringing in a new field agent from another agency."
"The FBI would have vetted him."
Jenny turns around, the light from the screen casting a halo around her hair. "The FBI?" The sarcasm in her voice is thick enough to stand on. "You expect me to trust the security of this nation to the FBI?"
He stands, suddenly cold and so tired. "You want to disparage the FBI, go haunt Fornell's dreams," he snaps. He picks up his coffee cup from the holder, but it's empty. He throws it against the screen. The cup bounces to the ground and rolls forgotten into a corner. "Whatever you want to say, just damn well say it!"
She doesn't react, just stands staring at him, bleeding to death in the middle of MTAC. "Was Langer the spy?" she finally asks.
"Answer the question!" Her voice goes up in a piercing shriek. His cell phone is ringing by his ear and he grabs at it, but it's too late. He's awake and the dream has shredded and Jenny's gone. High morning sun shines in the basement windows and Tony's on the line, wondering if he's coming into work because it's a Thursday after all and they have work to do and Jethro hangs up on him after the third sentence.
His coffee cup is full when he puts on his desk and empty when he goes to pick it up again ten minutes later.
He pushes Ziva out of the way on his way to the stairwell. He goes down a flight and stares at the white wall and breathes in and out until his heart rate goes back to normal and the world stop graying around the edges.
When he goes back to his desk, no one says a word.
"Ducky," he asks later that day, down in the morgue where only the dead surround them. "Do you believe in ghosts?"
The older man looks up from his autopsy with a crooked eyebrow. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Jethro, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," Ducky replies. "But actual specters? No, I do not. And," he adds, lifting an organ from the body cavity, "The last time I checked, neither did you. Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," Jethro says a little too quickly.
He's lying and they both know it.
He stops going into the basement.
It doesn't help.
The file on Langer is still too thin. They haven't found any odd deposits in his account or money hidden in his sock drawer. The forensic audit on Langer's accounts is running out of the San Diego office and even they haven't found a thing.
There's just no evidence
to show Langer's the spy and it's eating at Jethro's gut. Perhaps it's best that his coffee keeps vanishing into thin air; otherwise he'd be drinking himself into an ulcer.
It's Tuesday at eleven thirteen in the morning when everything comes to him. His third cup of coffee of the day has just evaporated and he's staring blankly into space, when something Tony says catches his attention.
Jethro has a strange sense of deja vu, seeing the scene before him from his desk and from a cold seat in MTAC with a dead woman at his side.
Tony (Langer) lean back in his chair and pesters Tim (Keating), while Ziva (Lee) types on her computer and ignores them both and Jethro's on his feet in an instant. "McGee, with me," he snaps, moving towards the stairs. He doesn't look back to see if the young man is behind him.
Vance is in his office and he's dead silent as Jethro asks Jenny's questions, Where's the evidence
and How did Vargo's keycard get into Keating's backpack
and Does any of this make any sense?
"What do you want?" Vance asks when Jethro winds down.
"We focused too much on Langer." Jethro leans on the desk, faintly aware of McGee standing by the door and the oddest impression of someone standing just behind him, out of sight. "We need to find out how that keycard got into Keating's backpack. I need to see the surveillance footage from the squad room on that day."
Vance doesn't ask anything more, just motions McGee to the desk and tells him where to find the footage on the secure drives. Tim's still astonished and surprised, but he works in silence while Vance stares at Gibbs, daring him to break.
"Here we go," Tim says after a few minutes. The footage appears on the plasma and they watch as Keating enters the squad room, drops his backpack beside his desk. Hours turn into minutes as McGee speeds up the playback.
They almost miss it. Jethro opens his mouth to say something but McGee's spotted it, halting the playback and skipping back a few minutes.
Lee's at the filing cabinet, putting something into the lower cabinet. Langer is on the phone, facing the other way, and Keating is so intent on his screen that nothing would pull him back. It only takes a few seconds. Lee's hand moves from the filing cabinet to Keating's backpack then back again, then she's on her feet and going back to the files.
McGee hits pause, then plays back the incriminating ten seconds.
Vance lets out a breath. "She played us," he says, low and flat.
Jethro flashes back to the sight of Langer lying dead in the computer room, a bullet in his brain and shattered glass on top of his supine body and how did that happen if he was the one to shoot out the windows?
and he can't believe what an idiot he is.
McGee clears his throat. "Um, boss..." he says hesitantly. "I don't think Michelle could... I mean..."
Jethro turns on his heel and glares at the younger man.
Perversely, the challenge straightens Tim's spine. "What I mean is, I don't think Michelle would be able to crack into that computer file on her own," he says. "She doesn't have the expertise on cracking encryptions."
"So you think she's working with someone?"
"It's possible, yes."
Jethro remembers the way Tim used to be, all deference and hesitation. He doesn't miss that pale shadow of this man before him. "So we need to take her down without letting her tip off any partners."
"Suggestions?" Vance asks.
There is it again, that sensation of someone standing right behind Jethro. He knows there's nothing there, but it gives him an idea. "Get her away from her computer and her phone. Away from anyone who might be working with her."
McGee perks up, his eyes shining with an idea. "The morgue. We get her into the morgue. There's never anyone down there but Ducky or Palmer."
"And if Palmer is working with her?"
"It's the best idea we have," Jethro interrupts. His hands ache with the guilt of failing Langer, of letting one of his team die on his watch because he wasn't fast enough. "I want her in custody now
Vance clenches his jaw and Jethro wonders if he feels that same gnawing painful guilt Jenny always felt when one of her agents died. He pushes off the thoughts as irrelevant. They have a murderer to stop. "Call Ducky."
Jethro thinks he hears someone say "Finally", but it's only the clatter of the phone in McGee's hand.
The take-down goes textbook perfect. Ducky calls Lee to bring down some obscure legal exhumation paperwork, and when the woman walks into the room, five armed agents grab her before she can reach for a phone or a weapon. Jethro and Ducky watch from where they have Palmer backed into a corner, just in case, but the young man appears truly horrified and doesn't move a muscle as Lee is dragged away, protesting the entire time.
Still. Vance will keep Palmer in custody while they question Lee.
Just in case.
The Director won't allow Jethro in on the interrogation, or even tell him where Homeland Security is taking Lee. "Somewhere out of sight for a while," is all he says. "You know you can't be in on this."
Jethro gets in Vance's face, ready to hit something and it might as well be the other man. "Langer was one of mine!"
"Which is why you're not in on this." Vance straightens his jacket on his shoulders. "We need her in once piece. This is bigger than Langer and you know that."
He does, really, but it takes everything he has to keep from following Vance out the door.
Instead, he drags Tim into the elevator and they go up to the squad room. Jethro steps out long enough to summon Ziva and Tony with a whistle. Once the whole team is in the elevator and headed down, Jethro hits the emergency stop and tells them all everything, not caring about secrecy. If he can't trust these people with national security, he'll eat a bullet.
Tony's incredulous, but Ziva only grows quieter and quieter. When Jethro finally sets the elevator back in motion and disgorges them all in the lobby, Ziva vanishes almost instantly. Jethro suspects where she's going. After all, the traitor stole the Joint Chiefs battle plans in case of an attack on Israel. In such a situation, certain people need to be told.
Perhaps it's just as well that Lee is no longer in the building where Ziva can get at her.
It's impossible to go back to work, so Jethro goes to Abby's lab and sits in her office and watches her work, creating order from chaos in a white lab coat and black pigtails.
Three days later, Keating digs his way out of Cyber Crimes and presents McGee with the fully decrypted files from Vargo's computer.
They now know who Lee is working with, and it's even worse than Jethro could have suspected.
His only consolation is that it's no one in NCIS. One traitor is enough.
The leaves are falling in brilliant yellows and reds on the cemetery when Jethro crosses the grass, flowers in hand. He lays the bouquet on the ground in front of Jenny's tombstone. He should leave, he knows. He's not good at this and besides, there's no point in staying. The dead don't talk and there's no such thing as ghosts.
Instead, he brushes leaves from a nearby bench and sits.
One might say he's waiting.
"I hate daffodils."
Jethro doesn't need to turn his head to knows she's there. "I know."
"You're not supposed to be mean to the dead."
"What are you going to do, haunt me?"
She laughs, a liquid sound the floats over the graveyard. "Maybe I'm not a ghost. Maybe I'm your subconscious. You'd have figured it all out eventually."
"Not fast enough." He should have brought coffee, something to do with his hands. "So now what?"
There's movement out of the corner of his eye. If he were to pretend, it might be a woman with red hair sitting on the bench at his side. Just maybe. "Why does there always have to be a 'now what' with you?" she asks. "Sometimes things just happen."
He wants to ask her what it's like to be dead; why of all the dead women in his life, she's the only one that came back (or won't leave him alone, but it's the same thing); if she's as tired of it all as he is.
But when he turns his head, there's no one there. It's possible there never was.
The rain begins on the way back to the car.
That night, he goes into the basement.
He doesn't dream.
He starts bringing two cups of coffee to work every day. He puts them both on his desk and only ever touches the one closest to him.
Some days, the other cup empties of its own accord.
Other days, it remains untouched.
MTAC - NCIS Fic