It’s been drilled into him since goddamn sniper school, and drilled even deeper into him since Hetty got her hooks into him four months ago (and God help any duckling who is stupid enough to fail to heed what Jack refers to as the "Gospel of Tyotia" in its entirety; at least the Russians can only torture you to death): if you aren’t absolutely, one hundred percent sure you’ve got the shot, don’t fucking take it. A target you don’t kill the first time is forewarned, and forewarned is forearmed, and forearmed means you (the lucky sniper who fucked up) are in really deep shit. Igor Andropov (Garik, and only in Russia was the diminutive form of a body’s name longer than the damn name itself; then again no one had ever accused the Russians of making any fucking sense) was a pretty low-priority target anyway: young guy, up-and-comer in the Second Directorate (counter-intelligence and internal political control) with a shitload of promise (Sofia says his smarts would’ve carried him even if he hadn’t been so well-connected politically), smart as hell, sharp eyes, and on a couple of occasions he’d gotten close enough to spitting distance from Hetty’s ducklings that their tyotia was worried, and allowed as how she wouldn’t mind a bit if Garik happened to eat a bit of lead when no one was looking and subsequently disappear without a trace.
Garik’s damn slippery, as it turns out. Almost like he might be worried someone’s out to kill him (and him a rising star in the KGB, imagine that!). Avoids deserted places, varies his routes everywhere, varies his schedule; hell, even pays attention to the doors by which he enters and leaves his apartment building. That had been the mistake Jethro’s last target made; impossible to follow the guy to or from his office, impossible to predict what time the man was going to come home, but he used the same fucking door whenever he did come home, and it had been a simple matter of being patient enough – and patience was a skill any good sniper had in abundance, along with breathing slowly and fucking holding still (which is a skill in which Jack, who fiddles with anything that isn’t tied down, screwed in, or glued on to something, is fairly goddamn deficient) – until the stars aligned and the guy came home when no one was watching. Garik’s not as stupid as the last guy, that’s for sure, but no human’s completely unpredictable when it comes down to it (everyone’s got some habit or other, usually a bad one, and it’s just a matter of finding out what the fuck it is).
Garik likes to smoke (cigarettes, Western ones if he can get his hands on them which is not really a particularly difficult feat for a man who’s certainly risen more than a few pay grades above travel agent at Intourist), but that’s not especially helpful to Jethro; most of the people in this damn frozen country smoke (including, these days, Jethro Gibbs, and he still misses the damn snuff). Fortunately Garik, as Jethro finally discovers after six weeks of following the little shit, has also got a helpful vice: he likes brothels. One in particular, and he undoubtedly likes a specific girl there, because while Garik doesn’t ever visit two weeks in a row and he never takes the same route to get there or to get home from there, it’s always on a Thursday (Chetverg), and it’s always after 9 PM, and he is limited by architecture, and probably also by whatever madam runs this place with an iron fist, in his choice of exits from the building.
Unfortunately, after weeks and weeks of watching and waiting (and hoping Garik, the slimy little fucker, will decide to scoot through this dark alley and not that one) when Jethro gets his chance, the wind decides to gust (and there’s never been any accounting for blind dumb luck in this buisness). Still got maybe a ninety-five percent chance of tapping Garik in the head and making the guy (as Sofia puts it with a grin that’s always disturbed the everliving fuck out of Jethro) dead-dead, but it’s that five percent chance of putting a bullet in the brick wall next to the target’s (Garik’s) head that’s worrisome (because forewarned is forearmed and Garik may be low-priority now, but he probably won’t be later if his career keeps following this trajectory, and he’s slippery enough that Jethro’s well-aware he’s only ever going to get one good chance at the bastard. Better not fuck up, Sgt. Gibbs).
Ninety-five percent. Garik gets to keep his brains until some other Thursday (maybe the girl was really fucking good this week. Maybe Garik will break pattern (not fucking likely, but a guy can hope) and go back next week. Maybe he’ll pass through this alley again, since this particular rooftop offers the best shot Jethro’s going to get; even then it’s not that good, and there’s a lot of snipers wouldn’t even try it). Jethro straightens up carefully, packs away his weapon, erases all signs he’s been there, goes home. Goes back to work.
Some other day. Low-priority target (for now; at the moment Garik isn’t placed highly enough to be much more than an irritant, but that’s changing. Quickly.). Hetty is willing to be patient (for now). So is Jethro.
And then it’s Tuesday night. Jack and Sofia go out (go out as Vanya and Raya), but beyond bolstering their cover (Vanya and Raya are a couple, here) they’re not working, not really. Jack likes Sofia (a lot) and Sofia who is tall and blonde and dark-eyed and too thin and really not Jethro’s type on account of being too fucking scary likes Jack right back and Hetty pretends she knows nothing of their nocturnal shenanigans because so far they haven’t handled themselves outside of the bedroom with anything less than consummate professionalism (and Jethro’s spent a hell of a lot of time lately pulling the pillow over his head because the walls in this damn apartment are really fucking thin). Vanya and Raya (Jack and Sofia) are going out for drinks and dancing with the other young hooligans of the city, and Jack promises to bring back some black-market cigarettes when they return.
Hetty asks Jethro if he might be interested in playing cards with his old spinster auntie while they sit home alone wasting away from boredom. He laughs. She wins most of his money.
Three hours later, Jack comes home alone. His eyes are blank and hollow, and his hands, his shirt are covered in blood and he goes about the act of cleaning himself up mechanically (the shirt, Jack says, will have to be burned and his voice is too even, too reasonable, and he is scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing at his hands in the cold water that is all that comes out of the rattling tap in the kitchen). Hetty looks at the blood on Jack, the empty space where Sofia should be, and makes a mute sound of horror.
Sofia’s dead. It’s so goddamn obvious the words don’t need to be said, but Jack says them anyway, and it’s like the bottom’s dropped out of the world (Sofia and her sweet smile and her gallows humor were a constant like gravity) and they’re never gonna stop falling and the only thing that keeps Jethro from being sucked down the rabbit hole is the look on his tyotia’s face (some poisonous mixture of shock, grief, and a deep cold fury that scares the living hell out of Leroy Jethro Gibbs).
Garik did it. Jack saw him, just for an instant, before the slippery fucker disappeared down a side street and out of sight. One moment Jack and Sofia were standing on the street talking, the next she was down with a bullet in her heart and no amount of first aid could possibly have saved her (Jack tried anyway. He fucking tried, until the authorities showed up and then he got the hell out of dodge because he didn’t have any choice, and goddamnit they’re not supposed to leave people behind, not even when they’re dead).
Jethro gets Hetty sat down (she’s shaking, and he thinks it’s more rage than shock), a glass of vodka in her hand (cheap stuff, pretty fucking terrible really, but it’s all they’ve got; all they’ve been able to get for the last little while and right now it’s the alcohol that counts more than anything). Hetty’s praising Jack for leaving the body (a hard thing, she knows, but clearly the Second Directorate had made Sofia, and any association with her, even in death -- especially in death – is therefore dangerous) and her voice scares Jethro even more than Jack’s did.
They move on three days later; with Sofia made and dead, mission’s probably been blown to hell in a fancy handbasket. Goes in the dead letter box and they’ll burn these covers (before their broken covers get them killed); maybe they’ll try again later. (He wishes they could have a funeral for Sofia. The world -- their world -- is really fucking unfair). For two days before they go, Jethro has no idea where Hetty is (he thinks Jack knows, but Jack has no interest in telling). The morning of the day they depart for pastures greener, Hetty comes back. She looks exhausted and there is naked grief in her eyes when she sheds her public face, but also something of satisfaction.
Hetty tells them (her voice is pleasant, almost cheerful, and Jethro feels chills run down his spine) that Garik will not trouble them again. Ever.
Jack O’Neill spends the first few months calling Jethro Gibbs “Kid,” or on a bad day, “Son.” (If Jack thought he could get away with it, he’d probably ruffle Jethro’s hair affectionately at regular intervals. Jethro’s his match in unarmed combat. Jack doesn’t try it). Jack is, after all, older, and he’s been at Hetty’s (their tyotia’s) side since ’72, which is pretty much a geological epoch in spy years. Jethro tries not to mind too much.
After Sofia dies, Jack doesn’t call him much of anything at all for a few weeks, not after he finds out that Jethro maybe had a shot at the slimy bastard who killed Sofia and didn’t take it. (Jethro points out that if he’d taken the shot and missed, Sofia would have been just as dead, and Garik would have been much harder to kill. Jack punches Jethro, damn near breaks his nose).
It’s not until they’re holed up in that wretched little house outside of Volograd waiting for the police (not the KGB this time, thank fuck, but it’s still a huge pain in the ass) to forget about them and they’ve got nothing to do but talk (and as little as Jack wants to talk to Jethro at that point, the man’s easily bored and there’s only so long Jack can stand sitting quietly and glaring) that they find out both of them love boats (wooden boats, the real deal; a tall ship and a star to steer her by), that they’ve both fantasized about someday building a yacht, planning the timbers with their own hands, and someday setting her in the water, sailing away somewhere else, anywhere else (sailing around the world, maybe, at liberty and at leisure).
It becomes their retirement plan, this imaginary yacht (their plan, Jack says, “for when they get out”). (Jack stops calling him Son and starts calling him Jethro). They won’t wear shoes. Shirts will be optional. They’ll speak English and drink yellow beer and listen to American music and watch the sun set into the ocean. In their free time, they argue endlessly over who will be captain and who will be first mate (there’s no clear resolution to this; Jethro maintains that since Marines are technically part of the Navy and flyboys don’t know a damn thing about boats, it ought to be him; Jack argues that as a commissioned officer he outranks Jethro). Hetty pointedly ignores them. Jenny (after she joins them) mostly rolls her eyes and mutters, “Men.”
Jack and Jethro tell Hetty that they plan to name the boat Saint Henrietta. She says she knows at least twenty different ways to kill them in their sleep. (They know she’s secretly flattered).
They’re still talking about the boat -- Jethro thinks it ought to be red, and Jack would rather paint it blue, and Jenny demands to know if they’re capable of thinking about anything else given that they’ve been going on and on about the damn boat (Saint Henrietta) for the entire year she’s known them – when they leave for Warsaw.
Hetty warns them it will be bad. At least as bad as Leningrad, maybe as bad as Minsk. She assures them it’s necessary (she doesn’t need to; by now the three of them know Hetty doesn’t risk their lives lightly). They hope to God it will be quick and bad. It’s not. After three months of somehow (miraculously) not dying on a daily basis, Jack and Jethro decide it’s time for Jenny to go home, go back to Hetty, get out of this mess (Jack and Jethro are in with the right folks now, and while Jenny’s not in the way – hardly; Jenny’s too damn good at what she does – she’s hardly mission-critical this time, and it would be nice if one of them made it to Christmas alive). Jenny doesn’t want to leave (is afraid to leave; Jethro can see it in her eyes, in that look of grief deferred – for now -- that Jenny’s afraid she’ll never see him again and he doesn’t want to give her promises he might not be able to keep). Jack and Jethro gang up on her, overrule her, finally convince her that they need to get information to Hetty that they don’t want to trust to anyone else’s hands (which is true), and both Jethro and Jack breathe a huge fucking sigh of relief once Jenny’s on that train and safely away.
It’s the Saint Henrietta that sees them through the next several months (they both lose at least twenty pounds. Jack stops sleeping. Jethro gets himself shot, though fortunately it’s just a graze even if it hurts like hell. They can’t risk communication more than once every few weeks, and it’s all one-way, them to their tyotia and no letters from home. The boat’s their lifeline, or life preserver, or whatever happens to be the most appropriate goddamn metaphor). Jack and Jethro talk about teak, and about rigging, and about what is going in the cabin (the most comfortable fucking mattresses money can buy; they’re both sick of sleeping on flat little things that feel like lumpy bricks) and what isn’t (anything that will remind them of the last few years). They’ll go somewhere in the Carribean, some obscure little island where they can lay on the beach and fish if they want to drink beer all day and not see another human being for weeks and most importantly not worry about freezing their balls off for six months out of the year.
“When we get out,” Jack says, and it becomes their mantra.
Maria’s not exactly part of the mission plan, but neither Jack nor Jethro have ever been big on leaving folks hung out to dry (and neither has Hetty; they figure she’ll approve). Maria’s Solidarity, important enough that her face is known, but she’s not anywhere close to high-enough ranking in the movement that the Commies are gonna offer her a one-way trip to the Free World country of her choice after a year in prison. No, the only one-way trip Maria will be taking if the SB (and why is it that scary fucking secret police always get cute little acronyms, anyway?) gets its hands on her is straight into some underground cell in some building that doesn’t officially exist, with the company of a very highly-trained interrogator.
They’ve met Maria a few times in passing: she’s a friend of one of their contacts here. She’s pretty, kind, tough as nails, utterly trustworthy. Jack likes her. Jethro likes her. When they find out (entirely by accident; it’s hardly the information they were looking for, but Hetty’s drummed into both of them that there’s no such thing as information that’s not worth having so long as it’s reliable) that the SB’s about to raid her apartment building in the hopes of picking up Maria Piotrowski, it’s Jethro that convinces Jack they need to grab Maria before the bad guys do. Jethro’s idea to save her life.
But it’s Jack (Jack who is usually the one quoting the Gospel of Tyotia at Jethro, chapter and verse), who promises Maria they’ll keep her safe, they’ll get her out of Poland once this is over.
“What the hell are you doing making promises, Jack?” Jethro demands later that night. “We don’t even know if we’re gonna get out of this in one piece.” (God hates a spy, Hetty always told them, and goes out of His way to break their promises).
Jack just shrugs with his usual overabundance of self-confidence, says they’ll figure something out.
Maria (who turns out to be a damn good cook, not to mention good company and a veritable fount of useful local knowledge) wants to know about the galley on the boat, says they ought to have good appliances, and stock it with something besides beer. She thinks they ought to have curtains. Jack rolls his eyes and mutters, “Women,” but he’s smiling. They start to think they might get away with it, might get out clean, Jack and Jethro and Maria, and leave this whole long nightmare of martial law and weekly near-death experiences behind them.
(The Saint Henrietta feels almost near enough to touch. Jethro should know better by now than to let himself hope).
In late August, Adamczyk sells them out. Does it quietly, so quietly they don’t know the goatfuck’s snuck up on them until it’s two AM and there’s six guys in black with guns (never a good sign) in the front room of the apartment that Jack and Jethro and Maria have been sharing in Gdansk, and thank fuck Jack and Maria are both phenomenally light sleepers or they’d all be toast; even so it’s a near thing, and in the end, proof of the theorem that spies should never, ever make promises (not to each other, and especially not to civilians).
Later, Jethro tries to explain to Jack that Jethro might be a damn good shot, but there’s only one of him, and there were still four of them and in that instant (and it’s damn unfair, but half the time instants are all the time they get in this business to make decisions that might shake the world) and it had been a choice between saving Maria and saving Jack (saving the mission, which might save thousands of lives if they play their cards right) and that was really no choice at all.
(It had been Jethro’s idea to save Maria, and later Jethro’s choice to let her die.)
This time Jack (Jack had promised he’d see Maria safe) does break Jethro’s nose. From then on, Jethro’s always ‘Gibbs’ to Jack O’Neill.
They never speak of the Saint Henrietta again. They don’t talk about Poland, either. Not long after, Jack’s called away for some military project called East Fly. He and Jethro (Gibbs) don’t speak to each other again for more than two decades.
They get six months of leave Stateside after Poland. Halfway through, Jenny drags Jethro to a movie, declaring he needs a night out. He’s surprised it’s a Star Trek movie, but apparently some friends of Jenny’s told her it was good. When they get to the speech about the good of the many versus the good of the few – or the one – Jethro chokes on a mouthful of tears. Jenny knows better than to ask. (We Do Not Talk About Poland.)
When he’s finally home for good, Jethro builds that first boat by himself, in his basement. He paints it blue. He finishes the cabin in teak. He names it Maria.
Jethro Gibbs thought he was done with Eastern Europe when the Berlin Wall fell, when the Bear embraced capitalism and the Western Way of Life and let go of a lot of its empire and fired pretty much the entirety of the KGB and then got too distracted with Problems at Home (Chechnya, the Mob, and abusive families tend to have problems with their children, so it’s not like any of it came as a tremendous surprise) to be too much trouble for the rest of the world.
Hetty had packed her things and gone home (“If you can call it that,” she’d muttered, thinking Jethro wasn’t listening) to a country she’d only seen in brief visits for at least three decades. Last he’d heard, their tyotia was living somewhere on the West Coast and avoiding Washington like it was full of plague rats. Jethro’d gone back to the Marines for awhile, not knowing what else to do. Operation: Just Cause. Desert Storm. Colombia. Joined NCIS (it had been NIS then) in 1992 after he left the Marines, still numb with grief for Shannon and Kelly. Jenny had taken a plum job as an analyst with CIA for awhile (the Agency had practically begged), but hated being trapped behind a desk while other people chased the bad guys and finally accepted a job with the NCIS Office of Special Projects (which was really a polite euphemism for shady undercover work). Jack (apparently; he and Jethro never talked anymore) continued soaring under the radar. Jethro hadn’t heard Jack was dead, though he hadn’t heard Jack was alive, either.
When Jethro comes home (to his half-furnished crackerbox apartment) from work late one night (fucking case was like looking for a needle in not just one, but ten, haystacks) and sees the message light flashing he figures it’s either his soon-to-be-ex-wife (bad enough she’d attacked him with a seven-iron, now she wants to take every asset Jethro’s even so much as looked at), or her bloodsucking goddamn divorce lawyer, but it’s not. It’s Hetty. The second message is from Mike Franks, saying that as of tomorrow morning, Jethro Gibbs has been reassigned indefinitely, at the Pentagon’s request.
Apparently (not that anyone’s precisely shocked) not all of the members of the KGB took kindly to enforced retirement, and a bunch of them have decided to embrace capitalism and become self-employed small business owners. A number of them have become major-problems-in-the-making on the world stage (a sizeable few are busily causing issues in Serbia), and Those On High would like them dealt with before they cause too much trouble.
It’s called Operation: Cossack, and it’s a joint venture between NCIS and Langley. Hetty does not look happy; glares daggers at Ethan Stanhope, her counterpart from the Agency, when Stanhope’s not looking. Hetty’s dislike of the Agency is legendary. They’ve brought Hetty in to run the thing: she’s one of only a handful to have operated successfully in Eastern Europe after Kim Philby had gone over to the Russians, and thus one of a bare handful with any intimate knowledge of the major players in that part of the world, not to mention a successful track record against the KGB, who had once been the best in the business (this was, Hetty had once muttered darkly, because the KGB still believed in making smart use of well-trained human assets instead of throwing money at technology).
Hetty won’t run the thing without her own people (won’t run the thing without her ducklings), so Jenny and Jethro find themselves “temporarily reassigned.” But the band’s not back together, not entirely. Hetty wants Jack, but whatever Jack’s up to these days, the military won’t let her have him. So (unhappily, reluctantly admitting they need a fourth for bridge) she calls in Ringo Starr.
Ringo Starr’s name is Callen, G. Callen (he says he doesn’t know what the G. stands for, poor kid). Good looking, very young (and Jethro has a hard time believing he’d been that young when he came to work for Hetty all those years – a lifetime – ago), paranoid, sharp, fast learner, and one of the best undercover operatives Jethro’s ever seen. Kid can be anyone practically, can melt into a crowd like he was never even there. Speaks flawless Russian (says he learned it from a foster sister, and their tyotia undoubtedly has refined his language skills until the boy can pass as native). Scares the hell out of Jethro. Reminds him a hell of a lot of Jack, and it’s clear Hetty adores the boy.
Jethro’s the senior field agent in charge (dubious perks of seniority and all that), but it seems natural for Callen to slip into Jack’s old role as their frontman, and he handles it well. Today he’s Gennady (Ganya), tomorrow Alexi the accountant, yesterday Sasha the shoe salesman. People trust him instantly (they shouldn’t).
Kid’s talented, kid’s smart, kid’s paranoid, but Callen doesn’t have Jethro’s years of experience, Jenny’s years of experience, Jack’s years of experience. Too damn easy to forget that. Jethro should have been watching him more closely, should have kept an eye out for the signs, should’ve figured that at some point the kid was going to fuck up (all the young ones do, and you just have to pray they’re good enough to get out of the situation before it gets them killed).
Callen gets involved with a local girl in Moscow. Pretty thing, blonde, works at a little dress shop. Her name is Oksana. Callen likes her (not in a permanent sort of way, but he says she’s fun), says a relationship with a local will help with his cover (which it might), says one of the women they’re keeping an eye on visits her dress shop periodically (even better), begs Jethro to keep it from Hetty and Jenny, who will almost certainly disapprove. Kid seems to have his head screwed on straight about this, so Jethro agrees.
Jethro should have insisted on meeting this Oksana, should never have trusted Callen’s read on the girl (but the kid makes it so damn easy to forget he’s not Jack, to forget he’s in his early twenties and has barely got his flight feathers).
One night, Callen, in his guise as Ganya Ill’ych Korotkiy, takes Oksana back to Ganya’s little apartment down the street from the dress store. They share supper and part of a bottle of vodka and make love, and then Oksana tells Gennady that she knows his real name is Callen, that he’s been an idiot, and tries to kill him. The girl (whose real name is probably not Oksana) is a pro, and it’s only goddamn blind stupid luck that Jethro (tonight he’s Andrei, a friend of Ganya’s father’s) happens to pick that moment to drop in.
Oksana’s a pro, but she’s as young as Callen, and Jethro’s (Andrei’s) sudden appearance (Callen’s a product of Hetty’s teaching; like Jethro and Jack, he never locks his door) startles her enough that her knife winds up just under Callen’s clavicle, instead of somewhere more – vital, and she takes off out the window (there’s a fire escape just outside) like a bat out of hell.
Callen keeps insisting he’ll be okay, that Jethro ought to go after the girl (all Jethro can think right now is that Hetty is going to kill the both of them when she finds out about this), but Jethro’s having none of it. He’s not about to leave one of his people alone and bleeding in enemy territory. They know what the girl (whatever Oksana’s real name happens to be) looks like, they know where she (or at least her cover identity) was working; they can pick up the trail later.
Hetty is (predictably) livid. (Jethro doesn’t blame her). They never do find Oksana again. (Hetty reminds Callen of his stupidity at every turn for the next six months).
For awhile, it looks like Operation: Cossack is doing some good, but in the end it turns out to be a bust. The bad guys always seem to be one step ahead of them, and either the bad guys are employing a psychic, or (more likely) they have a leak somewhere. Hetty tells Stanhope as much, but everyone connected to their little project vets clean. (Hetty says, grimly, that she’s never trusted the Agency, but her own investigations don’t turn up anything substantial). Eventually, they go home in disgust, having risked their lives and spent a great deal of Uncle Sam’s money for a handful of victories and a whole lot of getting their asses kicked.
Jethro doesn’t think much about Oksana in the intervening years, beyond the occasional argument with Callen over whether or not Jethro’s sudden entrance into Ganya’s apartment counts as saving Callen’s life. (Callen is perfectly willing to concede that Jethro saved his ass in Serbia, however).
In fact, it’s not until Hetty’s people at the Office of Special Projects roll up Stanhope (who, as it turns out, had been their leak all along – no wonder everyone had vetted clean and Hetty had been left scratching her head) that Jethro has any cause at all to regret letting Oksana flee down the fire escape that night.
Hetty briefs Jethro on the Stanhope matter as a courtesy. (What affects one duckling affects the whole flock. She thinks Jethro would want to know).
Stanhope, as it turns out, was the one that arranged the drive-by that nearly killed Callen, in an attempt to hide his tracks (hide the fact that he’d compromised Cossak; Stanhope thought Callen knew something that might implicate him, was worried Callen might put two and two together and tell Hetty). And it wasn’t the first time he’d made an attempt on Callen’s life.
Stanhope (worried about Callen’s sharp eyes even then, and hoping to scare Hetty off the case since he didn’t dare make a move on her life) was the one who hired Oksana all those years ago.
If only Jethro had listened to Callen, chased Oksana down the fire escape, and dealt with her like he should have done, he might have found out about Stanhope. If only he’d found out about Stanhope, Operation: Cossak might have succeeded, and Callen might never have been wounded in that drive-by.
(Jethro knows ‘if-onlies’ are just distractions, Monday-morning quarterbacking. Doesn’t stop them from keeping him up at night).
Nothing good has ever happened to Hetty’s ducklings in France, not one single fucking thing. For the longest time it was just little stuff (piddly shit): coupla bar fights, food poisoning, the memorably skeevy guy who’d hassled Jenny one night until she’d finally just lost all patience and punched the little turd in the face and then (still totally unrepentant) braved their tyotia’s (inevitable) lecture about not drawing attention to oneself. It was the kind of thing they joked about, France being cursed.
And then had come Cologne, and the three of them had been running for Western Europe like (wary and cautious) bats out of hell for the past week (Hetty was already in England, would be there for another couple of weeks, doing some kind of business for God and Country and probably attending a different party every night; she did that sort of thing) and they’d finally made it into France (Jenny and Jack and Jethro and still not traveling under their own I.D.s but at least they could safely speak English again among themselves again) and they thought they could maybe breathe, but it turned out the kid (and he had been just a kid – still had acne for fuck’s sake, but he was First Directorate clean through -- and Jethro hadn’t been that much older when Hetty first set him on the chessboard, though that seemed like a lifetime ago now) had been following them since Germany at least. Him or them and it really wasn’t any choice when it came down to it.
And it seemed to Jethro that their whole time here (‘here’ being the Worker’s Paradise, and Hetty’s Court of Miracles as Jack so charmingly called it) had been nothing but a long fucking string of failures and near-misses punctuated by the occasional tiny (minute, microscopic) win, but Hetty (in between cursing the name of a defector to the Russian side named Kim Philby, who – Hetty said – knew faces and named names and was basically a giant pain in the Free World’s ass) kept telling them that the fact they won at all (ever) was something of a minor miracle, that what they were doing was something no one else could do. Sometimes it helped to hear it, but usually he and Jack and Jenny (Little Jenny, Jack called her, and Jenny hated it) were too busy trying to manage the goatfuck du jour to worry about the broader implications of their work.
Jenny had been the only one with a clean shot at the kid, and she took it (and it was undoubtedly Jack’s voice whispering in her inner ear, “Us or them, kiddo.”), and the shot was textbook, perfect, right between the eyes and the kid (agent of the fucking KGB and it wasn’t like danger had any goddamn age limit; you must be this old to threaten the security of the United States and the safety of its officers) had just toppled over (almost gently) into the grass by the side of the road (Jethro couldn’t have done it any better himself but the praise died on his lips when he saw Jenny’s eyes).
She had barely spoken, barely eaten, barely slept for two days. (“He was so young,” she’d murmured at one point, once they were in the air on their way to England and France was once again safely behind them. Jethro’d heard her, just barely. Jack, who watched Jenny like a hawk, thankfully hadn’t.) In the hotel in London they’d made love (it was the only way Jethro knew to draw her back to Earth, back to them, to ground her before she lost herself), and when Jenny had finally fallen into an exhausted sleep, he’d kissed her forehead and promised her that he would make sure she would never again have to face a choice like the one she made (never mind that it had been the right choice on that roadside outside Cologne, that if Jethro could help it, Jenny – his Mata Hari, and she was brilliant and so lovely, but also brittle, and their tyotia had never been able to see it – would never have to kill again (never mind what Hetty said about the futility of making promises in this game; this once Jethro Gibbs was minded to just ignore the fucking Gospel of Tyotia). It was a silent promise, but it didn’t matter whether Jenny heard it or not, so long as Jethro kept it.
Now, almost two decades later, they’re back in France.
Paris. Jethro and Jenny, and her face has been drawn tight since Hetty put them on the plane, since before that, even (Jenny’d asked Hetty -- practically begged her -- to send someone else, anyone else, but there had been no one else to send and Jenny had never been able to turn her back on duty). The City of Fucking Light (and maybe it would be more romantic if they weren’t there to kill a couple of Russians, and Jethro wasn’t about to prove their tyotia’s old adage about why spies shouldn’t make promises, ever).
Svetlana Chernitskaya and Anatoly Zukov. Those are their targets. KGB, or rather ex-KGB since that august body (theoretically) no longer exists, gone with the Iron Curtain and the Berlin wall and other relics of Jethro’s past (so checkered you could probably make golf pants out of it). Used to be First Directorate. Chernitskaya’d been Zukov’s handler in the bad old days (and as a team they’d never been impressive enough to draw Hetty’s attention. Dangerous, undoubtedly (the KGB skimped neither on training nor on indoctrination), but strictly bit players; someone else’s problem, since their tyotia had bigger fish to fry). Working as free agents these days, Chernitskaya and Zukov (welcome to the New Russia, boys and girls), not dumb enough to throw their lot in with the fucking Russian Mafia (thank God or whoever for small mercies) but too damn greedy to retire. The pair (Jack would have called them Bonnie and Clyde, on account of the rumor that Zukov and Chernitskaya are also lovers) has been doing an awful lot of high-profile errands for a couple of major arms dealers of late, and State (not to mention the fucking Agency; it’s always the fucking Agency) has decided that Chernitskaya and Zukov (Bonnie and Clyde) are a huge fucking pain in the ass and wants them dealt with before they expand their client list any further.
Officially, Jethro and Jenny are supposed to get close to Bonnie and Clyde, arrest their asses, and haul them back Stateside to face Truth, Justice and the American Penal System. Unofficially he and Jenny have Other Instructions and guns with silencers (and Jethro’d promised Jenny she’d never have to make that choice again; damn Hetty for always being right).
Should be Callen with them, Callen who reminds Jethro so much of a young Jack (Jack before Poland, Jack who was sometimes hard and sometimes warm and sometimes both at once and always sharp as hell, Jack who met almost every crisis with open mockery), Hetty’s new golden boy (and it has been so long since their tyotia has allowed herself to love any of them. Not since Poland. We Do Not Talk About Poland), but it’s not (Callen’s on loan to the CIA, apparently, and can’t be spared, and Jack, even if he still were speaking to them – which he’s not – disappeared off to some sinkhole in BFE, Colorado three years ago). Their third (more handler than partner, but that’s okay, damn few folks Jethro would trust in the field with them after such short acquaintance) is a guy named William Decker, works with the Office of Special Projects at NCIS. Okay guy, worse than some, better than most. Jenny likes him, so that’s a plus. Not stupid: another plus. Still: not Callen. Not Jack.
Their covers are good (better than good; Hetty arranged them and Hetty does not cut corners), and Decker knows all the places, all the people, so it’s easy enough to get an in with the folks who know how to find Bonnie and Clyde. Easy enough to get close to Bonnie and Clyde.
Not gonna be easy (not gonna be possible) to arrest Bonnie and Clyde, but Jethro knew that going in (Jenny knew it too, he suspects, given the way she’d looked at Hetty when she’d asked Jethro and Jenny to go to France with silencers on their guns).
Divide and conquer. Jethro takes Zukov, Jenny gets Chernitskaya, and Decker – who knows everyone in the fucking City of fucking Light, apparently – promises to keep the local gendarmie off their asses if things go south (things often go south in this business; Decker’s only being practical). Jenny’s not happy about it (Jenny’s woken up three nights running with a nightmare she hasn’t had in a decade, burying her tears in her pillow in a futile attempt to not wake Jethro too) but she’s a pro; she puts on her game face and they go out into a rainy, moonless night.
It’s over quickly; with people like Hetty and her ducklings more or less out of the picture on the world stage (the Russian bear’s been tamed, after all), folks like Chernitskaya and Zukov have gotten careless, sloppy. Jethro’s never liked killing close-up (never liked killing, period) but this Zukov’s a bad character, kind of guy who kills family members too, just to get his jollies, and the world’s a damn sight better off without him. Those few seconds in the alley (the shot was a quiet thump and Zukov fell against the wall and slid down it, looking startled) are never going to be one of Jethro’s most treasured memories, but he’s gonna be able to sleep tonight.
Jenny’s already in the hotel room when he gets back, wearing a bathrobe, and her skin is pink from god only knows how long under a hot shower, and her eyes are flat, empty, and Jethro doesn’t think she knows she’s trembling. He wraps his arms around her, rocks her (she can’t cry, won’t speak), promises her that she’s done, this is her last, and he’ll do whatever it fucking takes to make sure of that. She may be finished in this business, but Jenny’s a pro (has always been a pro). She says the job’s done. Chernitskaya’s taken care of. It doesn’t even occur to Jethro confirm Jenny’s kill (doesn’t occur to him until later that his faith in Jenny would let Chernitskaya live on for another eight years, reborn as Natasha Lenkov).
(Jack always called Jenny Sheppard “Little Jenny.” Jack knew she would break some day. Jack would have checked, would’ve cleaned up any loose ends. Jack’s in Colorado).
It’s eight years later and Jenny’s lying dead on the floor of an abandoned diner near Los Angeles when Jethro realizes his mistake.
(Jack was right. Jethro should have checked).
Jethro could take the easy way out. It wouldn’t even be a crime, seeing as he’d be following orders and all: Jenny’s orders, orders that came from SecNav and a guy named Hammond, the guy in charge of the Hall of the Mountain King in BFE, Colorado where Jack’s spent the last however-many years of his life doing whatever it is that Jack does. Jenny tells them the situation’s more dangerous than they’d previously anticipated, that Hammond’s sending people who are better equipped than NCIS to deal with McAvoy, that Gibbs and his team are to sit the rest of this one out. Whoever the hell it is that Hammond’s sending, they’ll be in D.C. in six hours (Jenny doesn’t look happy – in point of fact, she looks downright pissed off, but orders are orders).
Problem is, McAvoy’s out to kill Trent Kort (at the time Jethro still thinks he’s just some crazy-ass Marine, even if the guy’s dangerous as hell and consistently two steps ahead of NCIS, goddamn him), and Trent Kort is landing at National in thirty minutes, and if they wait the requisite six hours, Kort’s going to be deader than the proverbial doornail and it’ll be on Jethro’s head. The guy’s (theoretically) on their side, and hating someone is no justification for letting him get dead. So it’s “Sorry, Jen. Trent Kort probably doesn’t have six hours,” and a mad dash to National (Ziva’s driving because she’s the best choice to get them there in the requisite amount of time and the entire team is probably going to have nightmares about the drive for weeks to come; even Gibbs wonders on a couple of occasions if they’re going to make it to National in one piece), and a mad dash through National, and there they find McAvoy with some weird device on his hand about to send Trent Kort on a one-way trip to the undiscovered country.
McAvoy turns out to be stubbornly resistant to lead bullets, and it’s Sam Carter (one of Jack O’Neill’s people, who followed them home from the Ass End of Nowhere Colorado) who eventually ends up taking McAvoy down with some fucked-up snake-shaped ray gun thingie (Carter insists, later, that it’s just a prototype they’re testing for the DoD, doesn’t bother to explain how she knew it was going to work or why she brought it along on this little ride in the handbasket in the first place).
Point is, if Gibbs had followed his orders and waited six hours, Trent Kort would be ex-CIA, ex-British, ex-living, breathing human being.
For a long time, Jethro thinks that as much as he hates the guy’s guts, saving Kort’s life was a good thing. For one thing, Jethro did his duty (duty is more important than orders, eleven times out of ten). For another, Kort owes Jethro a favor (owes Jethro his life). Kort gives Jethro the lowdown on Vance when Vance takes over after Jenny’s death. With the exception of that second fucked-up Farrow-Marshall case (the one right before Chernitskaya caught up with Jenny and everything changed), Kort mostly stays out of NCIS’s way and is a creepy fuck somewhere else. Someone else’s problem. This is fine with Jethro, and more than fine with the rest of his team.
And now it’s a couple of years after Jenny’s death in Los Angeles (and Jethro will always mark time by that date, the way he marked time by Leningrad (Sofia), the way he marked time by Gdansk (Maria), the days ever after divided neatly in two columns, before and after, and Jethro’s calendar is punctuated and subdivided by cities and the deaths of women he cared about and it isn’t fucking fair) when Jack (who didn’t even speak to him at Jenny’s funeral) calls him out of the blue on a sweltering June night (it’s 12 AM and Jethro’s still at the office finishing a report; air conditioning there’s better than the air conditioning at his house anyway) and asks Jethro if he can please come to the Pentagon in the morning.
Jack O’Neill needs his help. Jack must be desperate: he’s speaking to Jethro voluntarily. Even calling him by his first name. It’s pretty fucking bizarre.
Jethro doesn’t get the whole story (Jethro never gets the whole story; he’s starting to get used to it). But apparently Farrow-Marshall (the McAvoy case, the Hartford case, Jenny’s death) has been up to some Very Bad Shit (no surprise there), and Jack (Jack never says what he actually does at the Puzzle Palace, though his office is in E-ring and has a window and Jack has his own fucking secretary) was tasked with dealing with it. And while Jack and friends (whoever these ‘friends’ are) got the company more or less rolled up, a lot of the Very Bad Shit was being funneled through (and obfuscated by) a project at the Pentagon that was jointly funded by the Navy and the Air Force called COBRA (fucking COBRA, fucking McAvoy case, and if Jethro never hears that acronym again it’s going to be way too goddamn soon), which means military connections, which means there’s going to be an NCIS investigation (and probably a whole shitload of arrests) and Jack wants someone in charge that he can trust. Jethro says (diplomatically, he thinks; at least he doesn’t use any bad words) that it’s up to Vance who gets assigned to the case. Jack says that if Jethro agrees, Jack will clear it with SecNav himself and Vance won’t get a say in the matter.
(Jack is making an end run around Vance. It’s a damn obvious one, too. No use asking if Jack’s not volunteering the information. Yours is not to reason why, Gunny.)
Jethro’s expecting weird shit with this one (everything connected with Farrow-Marshall has stirred up weird shit the way tractors stir up bugs and worms during plowing season), but the investigation’s oddly straightforward. Mostly it turns up little fish, people who did x or y for some extra cash, or because they’d been threatened, or in one memorable case because the idiot woman actually thought it was going to advance her career, not anyone that actually knows anything. The big fish that the little fish name are long gone before Jethro’s team gets there; some of them clearly ran, but most of them were picked up by Jack’s people (not by NSA or CIA, which is interesting, and as far as Jethro can tell no one’s fighting Jack for custody of the big fish, which is damn interesting).
The other thing the investigation turns up are Trent Kort’s (figurative) fingerprints everywhere. Guy named Murphy who was assigned to COBRA got suspicious in the very beginning; a few weeks later Trent Kort showed up investigating the leak of a piece of equipment onto the black market and arrested Murphy (and Jethro remembers Ziva telling him that Murphy died in CIA custody a few weeks later, and that Murphy had probably been poisoned). Lot of the little fish Jethro picks up have their own Trent Kort stories (Jethro makes a point of asking after the first two bring up Kort’s name). Trent Kort meeting with this big fish or that big fish, Trent Kort intimidating this person, Trent Kort sending black cars to follow that one.
Trent Kort had been all up in Jenny’s business after they’d picked up Lieutenant Hartford two years ago. When Jenny insisted on investigating Hartford’s claims that she’d been framed for drug trafficking and the murders of two Marines because she’d voiced suspicions about something that was going on behind the scenes at COBRA, Kort had said a few things (that if you looked at them sideways) might be construed as threats (then again, Kort’s words might have been perfectly innocent expressions of concern; plausible deniability was the man’s stock in trade).
A few days before she died Jenny told Jethro (mentioned it in passing, really) that Trent Kort was friends with Kevin Balim, the CEO of Farrow-Marshall, that she’d seen them together at several parties in D.C.
Farrow-Marshall. Balim. Kort. COBRA. Jenny’s death (at Chernitskaya’s hands, but Chernitskaya should never have been able to find Jenny, to find Decker, to find any of them. Hetty had designed their covers in Paris. Hetty had been careful). There’s no proof, but the whole thing suddenly makes a horrible kind of sense.
Vance (who from the beginning has been distinctly unthrilled with Jethro’s poking around at the Pentagon and netting all the little fish still swimming around COBRA) refuses to let him investigate further, says Jenny’s murder is a case long closed. Jethro goes to Jack, hoping for a different answer, another end-run, a chance to find the truth Jethro’s never stopped owing Jenny.
Jack says no. (Jack at least looks pained; Jethro can see the grief in Jack’s eyes like a brief flash of heat lightning). Jack says, given factors in play right now (and ‘factors in play’ covers whole volumes, just as ‘overseas’ had, and Jethro still wonders what ‘overseas’ really means in Jack O’Neill’s lexicon) that investigating Kort is too risky. For now, the slimy bastard is untouchable.
Jack says he’s sorry. (Jethro thinks he means it).
That night, Jethro goes home and pours himself a glass of bourbon and wonders what might have changed if he’d followed Jenny’s orders that rainy night, if he and his team had stayed in the bullpen and waited six hours for Jack’s people to show up and left Kort to McAvoy at National. (Jethro could have taken the easy way out. It wouldn’t have been a crime, wouldn’t have been murder. Just following orders).