Chapter 1: Loaded With Memories
"There, where houses were scattered like islands
There was my childhood; and what of me?
I'm a gun loaded with memories"
- Iris Fields, Shlomo Artzi
Sunday, January 15
It was high noon, and the valiant Elf Lord Althotar was rallying the troops against the evil warlord Jaghla when fate intervened. It was three in the morning on Sunday, and Tim McGee was online, liberating yet another virtual kingdom while firmly ignoring a novel draft, when his email alert pinged.
It wasn't work, because his colleagues would call him regardless of the hour. It also wasn't another gamer, who was more likely to see him online and IM him instead.
The subject line read U up? and the sender was Anat M. The body of the message was empty. Tim stared at the email. 3 a.m. in DC was 10 a.m. in Israel, and Israeli weekends ran Friday through Saturday. Anat was supposed to be at work, with even her work cell phone switched off, battery pulled out and stored securely. She was definitely not supposed to be on her personal smartphone, sending emails.
Tim grabbed his phone, thumbed down for Anat's number, and hit dial. Anat picked up on the second ring. "Please tell me you're all right."
"I'm all right," she said immediately. "Guess you're awake."
"Yes, I'm awake," he said. It came out a little snippy, but he was still trying to figure out what was going on. Anat was good with the time conversions; she was unlikely to ping him when it wasn't his Saturday morning or early afternoon. They skyped just about twelve hours before, and everything was fine and normal. Now, something clearly was not.
"How's the weather in DC?" she asked.
"I asked -"
"Anat, it's three in the morning."
"I asked if you were up."
He could snap Your English or say something else sarcastic, but he wasn't so tired as to forget what a colossally bad idea it was to get into a snark war with Israelis in general and Anat in particular. Plus, Anat sounded off, somehow, shorter and more distant than usual. "Is there any particular reason you're asking about the weather in DC?"
"Yeah, I get, like, two hours to pack."
Suddenly, Tim was very awake. "You're coming to DC?"
"Unfortunately," she said. "Not that I don't love you, but my job just decided to suck worse."
"Did you just -"
"Yeah," she said, and she still sounded more irritated and miserable than anything else. "See you Monday."
10:00 PST (07:00 EST)
The ground floor of the OSP hub was relatively quiet when G and Sam walked in. The time being ten on a Sunday morning, this wasn't too big a surprise. OSP was active 24/7, 365 days a year, but some times were still quieter than others.
Upstairs in Ops, though, things were in full swing. The room was populated to a level that indicated a major op was cooking. Eric dominated three keyboards and five monitors; Nell was absorbed in documents in Arabic; and Hettie was standing by the central desk, focused on the main display.
"So kind of you gentlemen to join us," she said.
G and Sam exchanged looks.
"What's going on?" G asked.
"A-Tahaluf Al-Islami," Hettie said.
Sam straightened. "The Islamic Alliance?"
"The terrorist ring nobody is even sure exists?" G demanded as he and Sam approached the central desk.
Hettie turned towards them. "That is correct," she said.
"I take it something's changed," Sam said.
Longer breath, mouth stayed a little open: it wasn't so much a tell of Hettie's as it was a deliberate signal. "That would also be correct."
Sam crossed his arms. "What's going on, Hettie?"
"It would appear that The Islamic Alliance are about to attempt a kidnapping on US soil. Specifically," she said, carefully, "intelligence suggests that they intend to kidnap someone involved with the P-LAM project."
It was an easy acronym to recall. G stated it out for protocol. "The portable anti-missile laser." Ballistic lasers were a sexy weapon system; the P-LAM project promised to provide a system powerful enough and accurate enough to install on a wide range of boats and aircrafts.
"Exactly," Hettie confirmed. "Now, since the company heading this project is based out of Baltimore, and Mr. Hanna here is one of three experts on this organization in the country, both of you will be on the 10 p.m. flight to Washington, DC."
"DC has the lead on this?" Sam asked. The note of skepticism was faint, but there.
Hettie picked up on it, too. "Director Vance assigned this case to Mr. Callen's old friend, Jethro Gibbs."
Gibbs was good news. If they had to cooperate with someone, at least it was Gibbs. Gibbs was trustworthy, and his team competent as the very least. Sam's point was valid still, so G reiterated it. "Why give the lead to Gibbs, if Sam's the expert?"
The corner of Hettie's mouth pulled as she said: "The intelligence regarding this kidnapping attempt originated with the Shin-Beit."
"Israeli domestic security?" Sam asked. This time, the skepticism was laid on thick.
"That is correct," Hettie said. She didn't sound any more fond of the idea than Sam or he. "As per protocol, the case officer is on her way to DC with all the relevant information."
That was precisely why G did not like this. He shook his head. "Our friends the Israelis are involved," he remarked to Sam. "This explains why Gibbs has lead."
"Ziva David," Sam replied.
"Worst Israel-America intelligence scandal since Jonathan Pollard," G agreed. Ziva David's defection was far worse, actually, but at least it was bad for the Israelis and not for his country.
Hettie lifted her hand from where she had her arms crossed on her chest, and pointed at him. "You do realize that you are going to be working with her, yes?" she asked pointedly.
G raised his arms in surrender, conceding the point. "I promise I'll play nice," he said.
Sam shot him a glance and then turned his attention back to Hettie. "Is there anything else we need to know?" he asked in his Back on track now, please voice.
"Ms. Jones will brief you on most of it," Hettie replied. "But there is one thing."
Monday, January 16
"Wait, rewind that," Tony said. "I didn't know that you and Anat stayed in touch."
"Neither did I," Ziva added.
She sounded playful, curious and had about her usual degree of accent, so Tony wasn't going to start worrying about her just yet. McGee, on the other hand, was in serious need of a distraction; which was why Tony, being a kind and responsible Senior Field Agent, was providing him one.
And if Tony needed a distraction himself, then he was totally justified in that. Tim had already called both Tony and Ziva on Sunday morning to tell them of Anat's mystery phone call. Vance's very personal assistant had contacted all of them later that day to tell them to be extra early on Monday. It was now 7 a.m. on Monday, and Gibbs has already been with Vance for an hour according to Cynthia. It was increasingly looking as if Anat was going to be not just in DC, but working with NCIS.
Whatever it was that brought a Shin-Beit analyst to DC, it was clearly not a routine workshop with the FBI and there was no way that it was anything but bad news.
Frankly, they all needed a distraction.
"So tell me, McRomeo," Tony drawled.
"Tony, for the hundredth time - " McGee began, exasperation dripping from every syllable.
The elevator dinged. Tim was already facing the elevator; Tony and Ziva turned. Two people stepped out. Both wore street clothes, looked like they could handle themselves and had NCIS badges displayed prominently on their belts.
"Agents Callen and Hanna," McGee said, sounding a little surprised.
"Agent McGee," said one of the two arrivals – smaller guy, an inch shorter than Gibbs, Caucasian.
The other guy – several inches taller than Tony, African American, built like a truck – held out his hand when he and the first guy arrived at Team Gibbs' aisle. "Sam Hanna," he said.
"Anthony DiNozzo," Tony said, shaking his head. "And that's…"
Ziva cut him off, offering her hand. "Ziva David."
There was no question whether Callen and Hanna knew who she was; Callen's look spoke volumes.
"Callen," he said. No first name, but he seemed okay with handshakes. "We already met McGee here."
Finally, Tony placed the names Callen and Hanna. Spring of '07, when Gibbs and McGee went to LA chasing after a weapons dealer called Liam and found Michael Rivkin instead. Tony knew their names, but their files had no photos: OSP's two top agents were standing in the MCRT squad room.
"Agent Gibbs is…" Tim began.
"With Director Vance?" Hanna suggested.
Tony narrowed his eyes at him. "You already know what this is about," he accused. He didn't like being out of the loop in general, and particularly when someone else was in the know.
Of course, the two OSP agents were too good to actually respond: they exchanged a look, and Callen made a gesture that might have been an aborted shrug, but that was all.
Tony did not get to continue to question them, because the elevator dinged again. This time, three people stepped in. One of them was security. The second was Anat. Curled up in a puffy coat and looking about as happy as a wet cat, she seemed even tinier than Tony remembered. She had a backpack slung over one shoulder and was dragging a trolley suitcase. The third person had only a trolley, coat slung over her left arm. She could be stepping into her own living room for all that she seemed uncomfortable.
"Pick up that jaw, DiNozzo," Yael Dunski said. "I think you might need it later."
"I still hate you," Tony informed her.
"Thought you might say that."
"Brought more sweets to buy us off with?"
Her expression didn't even flicker. "I bought you chocolate, but I ate it all on the plane."
Callen, who's been eyeing both Israelis with the interest of a lion watching a couple of gazelles, chose that moment to interrupt. "You must be Yael Dunski," he said.
That got Dunski's attention, all right. Her face and body still had all the expression of a mannequin, but Tony figured that her turning constituted a significant enough a tell.
"And you are?" she asked.
"Callen," he said. No first name, no handshake. "My boss says your aunt is still invited for tea."
To Tony's surprise, that made Dunski smile. The expression even seemed to be warm. "Tell Hettie that Ilana says her mulled wine recipe is still the best."
"I will," he promised.
Hanna offered his hand. "Sam Hanna," he said.
She shook it. "Dunski," she said.
"And your associate is…?" Callen asked.
"Anat Mejaled," Anat said. She'd dropped her bags at the empty desk behind McGee's while the rest of them were talking, and rounded back up, still in her coat. She shook Callen's and Hanna's hands - seemingly indifferent to her entire hand behind about the size of Hanna's pinkie finger - and then turned around to Team Gibbs.
Tony didn't expect the brief hug and the kiss on each cheek, but he wasn't about to complain; Ziva got a similar treatment; McGee got a second and far more serious hug following the kisses.
Callen and Hanna were doing a good job of hiding their interest, but they were getting very interested nevertheless. I know what happened here and you don't, Tony thought.
"It is good to see you," McGee told Anat when they broke apart.
"I was planning on a vacation, damnit," she said. "Not on being kidnapped."
Callen and Hanna were definitely interested. Now Tony was, too.
"So, you're kidnapping your own colleagues, now?" he asked Dunski flippantly.
Dunski's lips twitched. She didn't reply, though; Ziva did.
"She did not actually kidnap us," Ziva said.
"No, she just let us be kidnapped by terrorists."
"I also had eyes on you the entire time," Dunski said. Her gaze shifted behind Tony's shoulder. "Good morning."
"I wish I could say the same," Gibbs said, arriving from the direction of the stairs; Tony was so focused on the conversation, he failed to notice.
Gibbs and Callen knew each other, Tony knew that; he also knew that Gibbs counted Callen among the people he trusted, as much as Gibbs ever trusted anyone. He still didn't expect the look Gibbs gave Callen - a less concerned version of the one reserved for Ziva - and certainly not the look Callen gave Gibbs, which was full of fondness as well as something else that was almost Abby-like.
Tony managed to not bite the inside of his cheek, but his jaw still clenched. At least Hanna was watching Gibbs and Callen like a hawk, too, even if he was doing a better job at controlling his emotions.
Gibbs didn't stay put for even a second. Rather, he turned around and tossed behind his shoulder: "Conference room, everybody."
Predictably, Gibbs took the seat at the head of the table. DiNozzo sat to his immediate left- also unsurprisingly - and David continued that line. G took the seat on Gibbs' other side, and Sam sat down next to his partner. He had a split-second to try and predict Dunski's choice of a seat. Her and DiNozzo's earlier exchange, as well as the way Gibbs' lips thinned whenever he looked at her, indicated that there was no love lost between her and Gibbs' team. That suggested she might prefer his and G's side of the table. On the other hand, sitting down next to David would be the kind of contrary and possessive behavior that wouldn't surprise him in an Israeli.
Dunski walked right past David; Sam had to wonder if the two women were that professional or if they were deliberately ignoring each other. He realized where, exactly, Dunski intended to sit only as she came around the foot of the table and her eyes met his casually.
G tensed when Dunski indeed sat to Sam's immediate right. There was nothing Sam could do about that. Still, between that, Gibbs' tense restlessness and the way DiNozzo was watching every single person outside his team, the atmosphere in the room was more charged than Sam preferred.
McGee and Mejaled arrived a moment later. Sam was entirely unsurprised by the mammoth mug of coffee that Mejaled held with both hands. The woman carried it well, like someone who was used to it, but she had probably not slept in forty hours or more. There was an entire story in the way she and McGee moved around each other. There was solicitousness in the way he positioned himself relative to her, but Sam thought that it was the instinctive protectiveness of a decent man; Mejaled was small and skinny enough to seem fragile, and was about a decade younger than McGee unless Sam missed his mark. The shades of emotion in her body language were harder to read, masked by her tiredness and the irritation that accompanied it.
That McGee sat next to David was entirely predictable, but Sam was surprised by Mejaled sitting next to him unhesitatingly. Israelis were clan-like in their loyalties and, in his experience, tended to revert to an almost hive-mind mentality in the face of outside adversity. For Mejaled to break line this way suggested some serious history.
Dunski began the debrief as soon as Mejaled settled in.
"Friday, 20:00 local, IDF patrol captured a group attempting to steal the border from Egypt to Israel, not too far from Rafah. The group included Gazaan Palestinians and Sinai Bedouins, as well as several Sudanese."
Refugees, Sam figured. They made their way up north, to Egypt, and then often attempted to cross the border to Israel. Israeli authorities tended to round them up in special prisons, but Egyptian security forces were more often the ones who shot them dead.
"Some of the Gazaans and Sudanese carried hardware and documents on their person, which the IDF handed over to the Shin-Beit. The documents contained maps and photographs pertaining to attempted kidnappings of defence R&D personnel. The targeted personnel were all involved in the same joint US-Israel project, and one was a US citizen. Once the immediate threat had been neutralized, the Southern Department handed the case over to the Non-Arab Affairs Division."
"I thought you were working Jewish terrorists," DiNozzo remarked acidly.
"The Jewish and Liaison departments are part of the same division," she replied, and smoothly continued: "Initial screen turned up a suspected connection between the captured Gazaans and A-Tahaluf Al-Islami. Interrogation turned up a strong likelihood that a similar attack is to be executed here in the near time range."
"How good in this information?" Gibbs asked, words laced with distrust.
Mejaled put down the half-empty monster mug. "Good enough," she said, in a totally different voice than before. The annoyance was all but gone, and the tiredness had been pushed under a solid layer of professionalism.
"The intended Israeli target was Raz Shachar, 32," she continued, "electrical engineer on P-LAM." She pronounced it pay-lam and not pee-lam; Sam suppressed a smile at the Hebrew-ism. "P-LAM is a co-developed American-Israeli weapon system with cutting-edge technology in target acquisition and laser batteries, either of which would be of interest to a terrorist group. Additionally, if they nabbed the right guy on this end of things, they could gain access to any of the systems, networks and protocols that P-LAM interfaces or can interface on. It's a cross-platform anti-missile system. Some of those interface systems, your military won't share with the rest of NATO or with us." She said that with perfect neutrality. "The P-LAM project presents at least four potential interests. The Israeli target was working two of them. It's my assessment that there is a kidnapping of a parallel target about to go down here in the near time range."
"And that," Dunski said, very dryly, "is why I nabbed her off the North Shomron desk." There was a certain humor in the dryness, but that was all. Mejaled's resentment notwithstanding,
if Dunski felt anything but professional appreciation for her colleague she hid it perfectly - not that that was a surprise.
Mejaled turned to Gibbs. "I only have a shortlist of names, so get your analysts on this or get me access."
On Sam's left, G said: "We have an analyst." To his right, Dunski said: "The FBI should've forwarded you her clearance."
They spoke simultaneously. Sam was momentarily relieved to be blocking a direct line of sight between G and Dunski. The chairs were nice and cushy, but Sam could still almost feel G. His partner was always on edge around new people, and Dunski sent up every red flag in the book, if one knew what to look for. The tacit warning Hettie had relayed to Dunski might be the only thing making it possible for G to cooperate with the woman at all.
At least G's paranoia hasn't caught on to Mejaled yet, Sam thought as the woman's attention shifted from Gibbs to his partner. "Share and share back?" she asked.
"Sure," G said.
"Everything should be in English, but it's not like I'm going anywhere."
"You're going to give me that flash drive and go to sleep," Dunski said. Her voice was still calm, still impersonal, but there was less intelligence handler in it and more military CO. "We'll do without you for two hours."
"Oh, the generosity," Mejaled said, voice dripping sarcasm.
"Four if it can be wrangled," Dunski replied, deadpan, and Sam wasn't wrong about that shade of military.
"It's only fifty-two."
"Shamati alayich, shiv'im-veshtayim."
That was Whiny grouch, and I heard about you, Ms. Seventy-Two.
"Shmone." Dunski replied. It was a correction, 78 and not 72. She held out her hand. "Flash drive."
Mejaled pulled a secure flash drive out of her pocket and tossed it across the desk. Cool as she presented, fifty-two was definitely the number of hours she'd been awake. Sam caught the drive before it would whiz past them and hit the wall.
McGee nudged Mejaled's shoulder. "C'mon, let's find you a flat surface in a dark room."
"Dark is for the weak," she muttered back, but it was automatic.
Gibbs tapped on the table, trying to get everyone's attention. He got his team's and G's, at least, and Sam kept in line with his partner.
"You talk to your analyst," Gibbs told G, "see what you make of this."
G nodded. "Will do."
"DiNozzo, Ziva, you head out to Optix."
"Give them the heads-up," DiNozzo said promptly, shoulders straightening and relaxing at the prospect of work and - Sam thought wryly - probably also at getting out of a room that had Dunski in it. "On it, Boss."
"Be advised that we did not rule out an internal component," Dunski said.
"I know how to do my job, thanks," DiNozzo shot back icily as he made to stand up, David half a beat behind him.
"I'd say the same thing to my agents."
Gibbs nearly started. "He's not one of yours," he said, sharply.
G tensed at that, and Sam knew that kind of tension. G had just classified Gibbs' reaction to Dunski as a tacit order. Because G needed to be any more paranoid about the woman, Sam thought sourly
"I'll stay with Callen and Hanna," Dunski said, "as I'm the other person familiar with this data."
"Stay with them," Gibbs emphasized, giving G a meaningful and utterly unnecessary look. He pushed himself up. "Let's go."
Ziva's and DiNozzo's steps synched as they exited the room, bickering over who got to drive. It seemed to Yael that they didn't notice. There wasn't pain in the thought, quite. It would be better if she substituted Ziva for David, but so far she had no success on that one.
Gibbs was the next one out of the room, walking briskly and with his weight pushed forward as if he was in a hurry - to get somewhere or just to get away, she wasn't particularly interested - and Mejaled and McGee after that.
Hanna and Callen didn't get up either, she noticed. They all moved very nearly together, Hanna pushing slightly back from the table and Callen and she angling their chairs towards him so that the three of them could all look at each other. She didn't consciously try to fit into their rhythm and she didn't try not to; fitting in with Hanna was easier than not, and Callen was synched to him.
Hanna was Special Forces. She knew that since first laying eyes on him, though she was still working out which unit, precisely. Callen's tells seemed to be taken at out half a dozen different profiles. So far the only assessments she had reasonable confidence in were that he'd been CIA as well as at least one more agency that was probably not the FBI, and that he trusted Gibbs on a personal level. The latter constituted biographical evidence: the people who attached to Gibbs tended to have a personal experience so dysfunctional that Gibbs was the best they could relate to.
Knowing that, the distrust and very nearly hostility he regarded her with were unsurprising. He was also one of Hettie Lange's, though, and Yael had heard enough Hettie Tales to expect a standard of professionalism from anyone who had her stamp.
"I think we can get a video link here," Hanna said.
"Are the files okay to send over a regular NCIS connection or do we need an MTAC line?" Callen asked.
"A regular connection should suffice," she replied. "The files were encrypted with that in mind. Your analyst can get the decryption key from the consulate."
"All right, I'll set us up," Hanna said. The smile he tacked at the end of of that seemed forced, and he was a beat late in pushing himself up. The obvious explanation was distrust, but Yael withheld judgment on that as it did not fit in with anything else.
There was quite some intensity in the way Callen regarded her. It's been years since she's been subjected to that kind of scrutiny from someone in her line of work, but skills acquired as a nineteen-year-old trainee held solid. She didn't avoid his gaze but she also did not pay him any particular attention as they waited for the vidlink to connect.
When the display blinked to life, the person on the other end was a man in his mid-to-late twenties. "Hi, guys," he said cheerfully. "What's going on?"
"Hi, Eric," said Hanna; Callen was still glaring at her. "Do you mind fetching Nell? We have something for her."
'Nell' was the analyst. 'Eric''s presentation and mannerism seemed more appropriate for collections - electronic intelligence, likely.
"Sure thing," 'Eric' said, rolling back on his swivel chair. "Nell!" he called out, not too loudly. "Call me if you need me," he told the screen.
"Sure thing, Eric," Hanna said. Yael could hear the forced smile; she did not need to turn her head.
'Nell' approached the camera. She was in her early-to-mid twenties, and unlike 'Eric' she did not fail to register Yael's presence. She scanned the video feed briefly, and then focused on Callen. "What's going on?"
Same words, different intonation: 'Eric''s had been a casual greeting, and 'Nell''s a request for information.
'Nell' was looking at Callen, and it was Callen who answered. "Nell, this is Officer Dunski from the Shin-Beit. Officer Dunski, this is Nell Jones, our intelligence analyst." The first sentence was spoken in a casual, neutral tone that seemed reasonable between familiar colleagues. The second had more tension in it, as if merely addressing her was distasteful to him.
Jones offered a polite smile. Yael nodded.
"We're sending you some files," Callen said. "Sam?"
"I'm seeing it," Jones acknowledged. "What am I looking at?"
"Analysis done since 16:00 Pacific yesterday," Yael answered. Jones' eyebrows shot up, head slightly tilted, so Yael explained: "There's a Shin-Beit analyst attached to the case. She'll be available in a few hours but, in the meantime, I'm familiar with the raw data and the bulk of her work."
Jones' shoulders relaxed at the clarification. "Great," she said.
Callen cut in with what Yael would've said next. "You'll need a decryption key."
Jones cut him. "Already got it from the consulate."
"Good," Callen replied.
Jones returned her attention to Dunski. "Is there anything particularly noteworthy in the new files?" she asked.
"Mejaled updated her target criteria assessment," Yael began. She did not add I'd imagine these differ from yours; comparison and intersection would be in order. In this case it seemed the lesser risk to see what approach Jones would engage on her own than to potentially insult a good analyst. "We remain undetermined on Egyptian versus Sudanese."
"I thought you're confident that we're dealing with Al-Tahaluf Al-Islami?" Callen asked.
Yael did not fail to notice the baiting tone or the pointed use of 'you' versus 'we'. It was the kind of behavior she would've expected from Gibbs.
Interestingly, Hanna got in first, and there was something in his voice that could be exasperation. His face, when Yael turned slightly to include him in her field of vision, betrayed nothing. "Problem is, we don't know that much about them."
"I'd expect that whether we are looking for Sudanese, Egyptians, both or others would affect our course of action." Yael added a very slight bite to the 'our'. "At present," she continued, splitting her attention between Jones and Hanna, "the assessment is that while there is no basis to consider other nationalities, neither Sudanese nor Egyptian can be ruled out."
"Sudanese means refugees," Hanna said. He seemed somewhat upset about that.
"We need to know who's where and how many in the area," Callen said. He glanced back at Hanna. "Question for McGee?"
"Seems reasonable," Hanna said.
"All right, I'll start with that," Jones said. She glanced at something on her monitor that was not the video feed. "Once the files get here." She shifted her attention back to Yael. "You said you're familiar with the files?"
"Which part do you want to start from?"
"I was thinking we could compare notes on Optix personnel?"
It was what Yael thought, too. "Let's do that."
Callen was still glaring.
She'd been out by the fence some time before Tony came with their lunch. She'd gone exploring when he headed to the cafeteria; he'd called when he finally made it through the queue and back out, and then it took him a while more to make his way across Optix campus.
"Nice spot," he commented as he handed her her burrito. "Lovely view of... parking places. And the highway."
"Exactly," she said, biting into her burrito and swallowing almost without chewing. He was being sarcastic and she knew it. Pretending that she thought him serious was her brand of sarcasm, and this was such an easy serve he just provided her with. "If I wanted to case this place, that," she indicated the trees across the road, "is where I'd set up."
"Cameras?" he asked.
She shook her head. "For show," she said between bites.
He huffed and muttered: "Civilian contractors."
Her huff of agreement was automatic. The series of images came a bit later, memories fuzzy from disuse. In Israel, this would have never happened, she would've said, once: In Israel, the defence industry is subject to the same standard as the military. No: what she would have said was In my country. Israel wasn't her country anymore, though, and she did not say those things. That she even thought it was extraordinary.
"So, we should be checking things out over there," Tony said, filling in the silence she left.
"I don't know," she said. "There's acceptable security on the inside. If I wanted to grab an employee, it would be much easier to stage a kidnapping off campus than on it."
"We should check it out anyway. I know better than to argue tactics with you," he added hastily, "but you know what Gibbs would say."
"Point," she conceded.
"Better hope they narrowed down the list of names," he muttered. "There's over a hundred people on this project."
"I doubt more than twenty of them even made the preliminary list," she replied. "McGee and Anat should have everything ready for us by the time we get back."
"They seem pretty chummy, don't you think?"
She gave him a withering look.
His expression shifted, going from the Useless Frat Boy mask to something pensieve and serious. "What about you?" he asked.
"What about me, Tony?"
"Working with Israelis again," he said, the words a cushion against those that came next: "With Yael."
He could fool everyone else, but she noticed how carefully he pronounced the name, taking care to not have it sound like yell or Yale, and she knew to read the meaning in that. "I'm fine," she said, but her words were too sharp and the bite of burrito did not quite mask what her hard swallow was for.
"You were friends," he said. She knew that voice of his and she hated it: pitched soft and low, begging to be let in.
"So what if we were?"
"Ziva," he said, and this was an outright plea.
She re-wrapped the rest of the burrito in its paper, her movements too sharp.
"We were friends, now we are not," she said. "It is nothing."
"So you totally can't tell me where that sweatshirt is."
Yael's officer school graduation sweatshirt that she'd given to Ziva last May was at a front pile in her wardrobe, where she could always see the azure blue of it. She glared at Tony.
We are both professionals, she almost said but didn't: there was too much of Israel's defence culture in those words.
"I am fine," she said again, and this time the words were more convincing.
Tony was still giving her that look, though. "What?" she demanded.
He didn't flinch, quite, but his body did something flinch-like, becoming smaller and more distant somehow.
"Nothing," he said. It was a lie, but she didn't care enough to pry the truth from him. "We should had back if we want to avoid traffic."
"Or I could drive," she pointed out as they started walking in the direction of the main building, and the car.
He snorted. "I'd rather deal with traffic, thanks."
They moved to the squad room, eventually. It was impolite to occupy the conference room for the entire day, for one thing, and for another, McGee needed his specialized workstation. There was also, G noted after a while, the matter of easier access to the vending machines: Dunski had loaded Mejaled's desk with a six-inch-tall pile of snacks and an entire coffee pot from the break room. Dunski had restocked the coffee three times and the snacks once in the past three hours, but G wasn't entirely sure that Mejaled fully noticed either. The woman has been singularly focused on work since she'd woken up from her nap.
They had two key tasks, and they split into two sub-teams. G, McGee and Dunski were working their way through Optix personnel files, honing and prioritizing the list of potential targets. McGee was at his desk; G had dragged a chair to a spot between McGee's and DiNozzo's desks from which he could easily look around; Dunski opted to sit on the floor. If it was supposed to send some sort of a message, G had no idea what it was. On the other side of McGee's desk, Sam was leaning against the cubicle wall by the spare desk that Mejaled had occupied; they and Nell had been arguing Egyptian-versus-Sudanese for hours. It seemed that Sam had taken up arguing the Egyptian angle and Mejaled the Sudanese, while Nell refereed.
G's phone rang. He glanced at it, registered Eric's extension and glanced up at Sam before leaving his tablet on DiNozzo's desk and walking away without a word. He only picked up once at a safe distance.
"Go ahead, Eric," he said, putting his back to a wall and settling so that he could watch everyone else. He had a pretty good idea what this was about, as he'd asked Eric a question, and he did not want surprises.
"So you wanted to know about Dunski's history with Team Gibbs," Eric said.
G knew that voice: whatever had happened, it was interesting like the interesting life one wished on one's enemies. Not that G had seriously expected otherwise. "What have you got?"
"Well, a little over half a year ago, a Navy lieutenant went missing in Israel while visiting her brother. Gibbs and his people went to Israel and, long story short, the lieutenant had been kidnapped by the Jewish terrorist group her brother was a part of."
"How does Dunski fit into this?" G asked, though he already had an idea. I thought you were working Jewish terrorists, DiNozzo had said to Dunski earlier.
"She was the agent assigned to catch that particular group." The discomfort in Eric's voice was obvious as he added: "In the process of that, DiNozzo and David also got captured. They were held for approximately half a day, with constant aerial surveillance throughout that time."
"She deliberately let them be kidnapped," G said, repeating DiNozzo's accusation that Dunski had not bothered to deny.
"All evidence points that way, except that she couldn't actually know that David would trip the terrorists in the interview, could she?"
G hadn't taken his eyes off the squad room. "I need that case file," he told Eric.
"I thought you might say that."
"What about Mejaled? How does she fit in?"
"Gibbs' people were set up with the people responsible for catching Arab terrorists in that sector. I can't actually tell, but if I had to guess..."
"She's part of that group."
"Yeah," Eric agreed. "She and McGee appear to have been in regular contact since."
Mejaled was an analyst, not a human intelligence officer. She probably wasn't trying to recruit McGee as an asset, but G wouldn't put it past Dunski to try and lean on the relationship. Mejaled had an honest vibe to her, and Gibbs' entire team seemed okay with her, including Gibbs himself. It was possible that part of her hostility towards Dunski stemmed from having reached the same conclusion, and resenting it as much.
"Keep digging," he told Eric.
Chasing around the hellish bureaucracy that this kind of an operation created was not Gibbs' idea of a good way to spend a morning, and that was before one took into account that he returned to a squad room that had Israelis in it, that one of those Israelis was the damned Dunski woman - or the state he'd found his team's aisle in: takeaway and pizza boxes tucked almost but not quite out of sight, trash bins overflowing with candy wraps, and -
"What do you think you're doing?" he snapped at Dunski, who was sitting on the floor with a borrowed NCIS laptop, her back to McGee's desk.
"Profiling," she replied, not even bothering to take her eyes off the screen.
"We're down to a short list of potential at-risk persons," G said.
Gibbs still gave him an irritable glare, as G was perched at the very edge of a chair situated in the middle of the room, an unfinished takeaway box under his chair, a coffee pot within reach and a cup balanced precariously on the armrest. "How short?" he asked.
"Eight," G said.
"That's short?" Gibbs asked. It took a lot of personnel to protect eight people, when you didn't know what you were protecting them from, when or where.
"Tactical analysis should narrow that down," Dunski said. "Homes and commute routes make the likeliest points of attack."
"I assembled a comprehensive folder of maps, satellite images and traffic reports," McGee added, "but..."
The elevator dinged, its door sliding open to let DiNozzo and Ziva into the MCRT floor.
"I see we're just in time," DiNozzo announced with forced cheer as they approached the team's aisle. "Wow, it looks like a college study group in here."
"I had no idea that you know what study groups look like, Tony," McGee said. "Only frat parties."
"Ha-ha, McGeek," DiNozzo retorted, but whatever else he was about to add was cut off when he noticed just which chair G has taken over. "Is that my chair? And what is that coffee pot doing on my case files?"
G got up immediately, picking up the pot in the same movement. "I'm sorry," he said, with the too-earnest expression of a lifetime con man.
DiNozzo picked on that; his expression was dubious as he replied "Sure, no problem," and reached to wheel the chair back to the desk.
He failed to notice the cup that G had left on the armrest - until the cup crashed to the floor, splotching coffee on the carpet and on DiNozzo's too-expensive black suit.
Gibbs looked at G; so did Hanna, for that matter. G still had the mask on.
"Damnit!" DiNozzo swore. "What the -"
"I am sure it was an accident," Dunski said mildly. She - Gibbs did not fail to notice - got up from the floor and well out of range as soon as DiNozzo had commented on the chair. "Surely Agent Callen had forgotten he placed his coffee so unfortunately."
"I'm sure he did," Hanna said in fake agreement, still glaring daggers at G, who still had the innocent-bystander face on.
"Catch!" Mejaled called out. A split-second later a pack of wet wipes zoomed over the cubicle wall.
DiNozzo caught it with one hand. "Thanks!"
"Is everyone done, now?" Gibbs demanded.
Ziva was standing in front of her desk, DiNozzo behind his; Hanna relocated himself next to his partner, and both of them took up the space between DiNozzo's and McGee's desks; McGee was sitting at his desk; and Mejaled -
She poked her head out of the cubicle space. "Did somebody call a debrief and I missed it?" she asked and then, without waiting for an answer, got up from her chair and pushed it across Gibbs' desk, to the space between it and Ziva's. Dunski's eyes flicked to the space between Ziva's and DiNozzo's desks, but she remained standing by the cubicle wall.
"Right," Gibbs said. "Maps, tactical analysis. What else?"
"We alerted Optix to the situation and they upped their security," Ziva said, and then added: "As much as they can."
"Campus not secure?"
Ziva tilted her head in a half-shake. "Making it into any of the buildings wouldn't be a problem. Getting into the secure areas would be."
"Don't need more than the parking lot if you just want to grab somebody," Gibbs pointed out.
"We found no signs of surveillance around Optix park."
"Satellite imagery would make for good confirmation, if it exists," Dunski said. Her voice remained on the soft side.
McGee nearly spoke, but then glanced nervously at his boss. Gibbs glared at Dunski for good measure, but the woman might as well be blind. A moment later he transferred his attention to McGee and nodded subtly.
"I could check," McGee said. "Shouldn't be too much of a problem."
"You do that. What else?"
Hanna's and Mejaled's gazes connected for a second. Interestingly, Hanna ceded it to her with a small nod.
"On the human side we have profiling and analysis," she said. "We have months' worth of analysis in a day's work but I can't make even the outline of an op from it. But -" she gestured at Hanna.
"Eric and Nell are working out some sort of a meta-analysis," he said. "It'll take overnight to run -"
"- and we still need to clean up the data some more," Mejaled added.
"- but tomorrow morning we should have something," Hanna completed.
It went unsaid that Hanna could go undercover. Gibbs had seen the man's record; he was one of the best North and East Africa UCs that any American agency had. If anyone could insert himself into a terrorist cell in two days, in was him. They just needed to find him a terrorist cell to infiltrate.
They also needed to figure out which of the potential targets would be the easiest to grab, and where they were the most vulnerable. DiNozzo's knowledge of Baltimore's streets made him a natural choice for that assignment, but tactical analysis was another matter. Usually Gibbs would assign Ziva together with DiNozzo but then, usually there really wasn't a choice. This time he had G and his partner, both of whom did this kind of analysis as often as Gibbs' people ran background checks. There was also Dunski, but Gibbs dismissed that option immediately: he had a bad feeling about what might happen if he abandoned DiNozzo to that woman.
G was treating DiNozzo the way Gibbs remembered him treating new people, which meant badly. Hanna was so much of a SEAL that Gibbs would've known that without ever looking at his file. It made more sense to let Hanna run the intel of his own UC, though, and what he'd seen so far gave Gibbs the hunch that Mejaled, Hanna and Nell made too much of a natural team to break up. There was also that G and Dunski were the ones to assemble the map folder; G knew the material, and if Gibbs trusted anyone to stand between DiNozzo and Dunski it was him.
"Stay on that," Gibbs told Hanna and Mejaled.
Hanna inclined his head, and Mejaled gave a thumbs-up.
"Ziva, you with them."
She nodded once, sharply.
"DiNozzo, you know Baltimore?"
"Like the back of my hand, boss."
"Good. G's got a map book. I want you two to work a tac analysis from that."
"What about me, boss?" McGee asked.
Gibbs looked at Hanna. "That meta-analysis thing your guys are running, think they could use a hand with that?"
"Or a server cluster," McGee added. "Or - I'm really good at optimizing processes. And -"
Hanna cut him off with a tight smile. "I'll ask."
That was everyone, except for the spook in the room. She had to notice that he'd left her out, but Dunski's face of posture did not twitch or flicker. Gibbs debated it for a moment, and then told her, pointing for emphasis: "You, stay out of the way." It could be an admission of weakness but, here on his own turf, it was a clear signal that he did not need to worry about those things.
Still no response, damn her.
"What are you going to do?" G asked.
Of course it was G. Gibbs passed a hand through his hair. "Bug other agencies," he said. "Someone might know something and just not be in a sharing mood."
"Uh, boss?" McGee asked.
Gibbs knew what he was offering. "Analysis first," he told his agent. There was Abby, too, though McGee was the superior hacker. "Well?" he demanded.
At least he didn't need to add What are you all waiting for? Ziva finally went behind her own desk and sat down, and Mejaled pushed her chair the rest of the way over, the two women settling into what appeared to be a catch-up debrief while McGee and Hanna sorted things out over the phone with OSP's people in LA. DiNozzo had his biggest fake smile on and G was considering him like a live bomb under that indifferent front, but Gibbs was confident enough that they would watch each other's back. As for Dunski, she was picking up the boxes - just to be contrary, Gibbs was sure. She looked up just in time to catch him glaring at her and, expressionless as her face was, he would still swear that he saw a smirk there.
Chapter 2: Sidelined
"What does it feel like
To be permanently sidelined
Never at the center
Never close enough
Never allowed in"
- What Does It Feel Like, Knessiyat HaSechel
It was, Sam reflected ruefully and more than a little crossly, entirely too much like supervising one of his daughter's class activities. Or perhaps like babysitting an entire family's worth of children, as some of the 'kids' were decidedly more mature than others. He didn't actually need to supervise McGee, for example: he'd set the younger agent up with Eric, and then retreated to the safe distance of David's desk, where Mejaled was catching the other agent up.
Sam had positioned himself behind the two, listening with half an ear. Most of his attention was on G and DiNozzo, seated at DiNozzo's desk and arguing their way through every single word. G was at his absolute worst, and DiNozzo kept snapping at him. Sam kept shooting his partner warning glances right up until the two agents gave up and moved themselves and the outrageous pile of maps and traffic reports to the conference room, where the desk was actually big enough for the job.
That took G and DiNozzo off of Sam's hands, whether he liked it or not. McGee was still on the phone with Eric; Dunski had disappeared once she was done cleaning up everybody's mess, and Gibbs took off shortly after. Neither of them had been around for a while. Sam glanced down at David and Mejaled, and excused himself. David glanced up and nodded at him; Mejaled was focusing her fraying attention on the job.
The woman would need to be sent home - or rather, to her hotel room - at some point in the near future but in the meantime, Sam figured that Dunski had the right idea in bringing Mejaled coffee by the pot.
He went to the break room with the intent of bringing back a pot of coffee for Mejaled, a cup each for David and himself and maybe a bite to eat, if he could find anything from the vending machines that wasn't complete crap.
Dunski was sitting at one of the break room's tables. Sam would've almost - almost - missed her, except that the laptop stood out in a break room context. The woman was a pro at being looked over, Sam would give her that. She hadn't had that turned on earlier, though, so Sam took that as a signal and ignored her as he filled two cups. He took his with cream and no sugar, but that still left the mystery of David's.
"One cream, one sugar."
Sam turned around to look at Dunski. She'd lifted her eyes from the laptop and was looking straight at him. "For Ziva, yes?"
"Yeah," he agreed.
She nodded once, and returned her attention to her laptop. Sam didn't turn around, yet, wondering if Dunski actually knew that or was perhaps guessing, gaming in some way.
"I watched earlier, if that's what you want to know," Dunski said without lifting her eyes.
"Do you usually answer people's questions that they didn't ask?"
She did look up, at that. "Only if it's people I like."
He snorted, and turned back to the coffee.
Mejaled took the Magically Appearing Coffee for granted, same as before. Sam didn't really expect anything else. David accepted hers with an expression that was almost a smile, which was actually a pleasant surprise. Sam raised his own cup in acknowledgment.
It became quickly apparent, though, that coffee wasn't cutting it anymore for Mejaled. She could pull longer, Sam was sure; he just didn't think it was actually necessary.
"Hey, McGee," he called out.
McGee looked up.
"How's that fancy analysis going?"
McGee shook his head. "We shaved 20% off the expected run-time, but I still wouldn't expect anything tonight."
"Right," Sam agreed. "Hey, Mejaled." He nudged her shoulder, carefully; woman weighed no more than 85 pounds soaking wet. "It's just rehashing things for today. Go catch some Zs."
"I'd rather wait until I can get a bed, thanks."
Sam raised his eyebrows. "Shouldn't there be a hotel room with your name on it?"
"Two problems with that. One, Dunski and I share a car. Two, Dunski and I share a hotel room." She glanced at McGee, who was following the conversation. "I was planning on your couch, actually."
Well. That wasn't completely unexpected. It also implied that Mejaled would quite gladly get the hell out of the office as soon as McGee would deign to.
To his credit, McGee blinked only once before saying, "All right, let's go."
Special Agent "I am too special to have a first name" Callen was quite possibly the most annoying person on Earth. Tony would know, as he was working with some very annoying people. Hell: he was plenty annoying himself. As a matter of fact, Tony has put so much effort into his annoyance skills that he was quite certain he certified for being one of the most annoying people on Earth. But Agent Callen was just special. Agent Smith level of 'special'.
"You didn't even look at it."
"You minimized traffic hot spots along the route."
"It's what people do when they drive the same route to work every day."
"Mercedes Silva never took the path of least resistance in her life. She'll pick a route that'll force her to think her way to work every day."
What does that even mean, Tony thought irritably, but he didn't actually mean that. He knew what that meant: it was the way Ziva drove, though Mercedes Silva was probably a much saner driver. He also checked back the If you know so much, why don't you do this, because maybe Agent Callen farted profiles but Tony was the one who could make sense of the traffic patterns of the DC Metro in general and Baltimore in particular.
"That means -"
"I know what that means," Tony snapped.
Across the table, Agent Callen raised his arms in a gesture that was supposed to be appeasing but really was just annoying. "Sorry. I was just trying to help."
"I am sure you were." He sounded a bit like Ziva when she was angry, talking like that. That was actually pretty cool.
"I know that this is probably a different way of think- "
Okay, that was enough. Tony straightened in his chair. "Look, I successfully pulled a year-long undercover op, okay? So don't go all Doogie Howser on me."
"She must have been very pretty," Agent Callen said. That was the voice Gibbs used with smart-alec suspects, and he did not get to use that on Tony. "Do you still have her phone number?"
"Why?" Tony shot back. "Is that how it worked out for you?
That hit a nerve, judging by the way Agent Callen's face became extra blank. Good. Tony turned his attention back to the map he was sketching routes on.
And because his life sucked, that was when someone knocked on the door and, without waiting for reply, Dunski stepped in.
Tony glared at her. So, for the matter, did Agent Callen. It was good to know that Dunski was universally hated.
"Which is your done pile?" she asked.
Tony snorted; he couldn't help it. Mercedes Hernandez Silva was the second, and Agent Callen had just struck out what work Tony did on her.
"Robin Reese," Agent Callen said.
"I started with him also. Worked out his house, " Dunski said. She opened her hand, revealing a flash drive. "Trade?"
She was looking at Agent Callen. Just Agent Callen. Since she'd stepped through the door. Tony's jaw clenched. Not that he wanted Yael Dunski's attention, but...
"Sure," Agent Callen said.
Privately, Tony thought that he looked as if he'd been offered an amputation.
Dunski tossed Agent Callen the drive and then turned to look at Tony. The sudden shift of her attention was unnerving.
So was her smile, for that matter. "Last time I saw you in a suit, you were cooking in it. This is much better."
The hair on his arms had to be standing. His neck was prickling, like there was a predator considering him for lunch - no, wait, there was, and she rocked standard business attire as coolly as she did drab Shin-Beit cargos while she smiled down at him.
"Must be a real change of scenery for you," Agent Callen commented. Out of the corner of his eye, Tony noticed that he didn't seem to raise his eyes from the tablet. "You don't get to go out to play much, do you?"
Dunski's focus relaxed a little, not much but enough that Tony felt like he could breathe again. "That would depend on your definitions," she said.
Callen did look up, at that, but it could be because he tossed Dunski the flash drive; she caught it with one hand.
Callen pushed himself up. "I think it's a bigger pond," he said.
Dunski turned her head to follow Callen's movement. "I think size is only seen as an advantage by those who have it."
Callen, meanwhile, made it around the desk. He put himself between Dunski and Tony, which cut uncomfortably into everyone's personal space, and cast a glance back at Tony before telling Dunski: "Can't get to England in a row boat."
Okay, that was pretty good. All too familiar with the typical Israeli response to English idioms, Tony snorted.
"Now, if you don't mind," Callen continued, stepping forward and putting his hand not quite around Dunski's elbow, effectively pulling her with him and towards the door, "we actually have work to do."
Anat fell asleep in the car, as soon as she put her seatbelt on. That didn't really surprise Tim. She'd been talkative on the way from the office to the car, sure, but he knew to recognize the way her English became sparser, her accent more throaty, gesticulation coming in short and spazzy bouts. This level of tiredness was new, but he'd talked to her after enough forty-hour shifts to know what to look for.
He didn't need to wake her up; she woke up on her own as soon as the car stopped. Ziva did the same thing, whenever she fell asleep in the truck. It occurred to Tim that he should have expected it, really - Ziva always said it was a soldier thing and he knew Anat had served - but it was a little disconcerting, still.
She woke up sluggish, and Tim used that to grab her bags before she could. "Old habits die hard, I guess," he said flippantly.
He didn't expect a particularly witty reply - really, he didn't expect more than an eyeroll - but he definitely did not expect her to flinch. She looked at him for a few seconds and blinked once, slowly, before starting towards the elevator, and Tim had to wonder if she'd even noticed the flinch, herself.
He tried starting conversation on the way up. The first time Anat just looked at him; the second, she ignored. Tim took that as indication that four hours of sleep out of 61 hours total were a very different thing from forty-hour shifts and that her exhaustion finally caught up with her.
"Home sweet home," he said, mostly to himself, as he pushed his apartment door open. They'd both carried their laptops around their respective apartments for the other to see, but actually having Anat in his apartment still made him uncomfortably conscious of his state of Stuff. "Sorry about the mess."
Anat blinked as she looked around. She seemed a little less annoyed then she did in the elevator, so Tim figured that was as good as it got. "Shower's that way," he said, pointing. "I'll get you a towel."
Twenty minutes later, when she came out of the shower, Tim was just finishing making the couch. He'd stripped and re-made the bed, and also turned the heat a little higher than he usually preferred it. He would make do, for the one night, and he'd seen the way Anat had snuggled into her sweaters in the office. Plus, she was exhausted; that never did good to someone's cold resistance.
It somehow didn't surprise him that Anat had actual pajamas - cartoon mice chasing each other across pale yellow flannel - or that she wore a fleece over it. He didn't have a hair-dryer and she apparently didn't pack one, and her wet hair hung down past her waist, pulled almost-straight by its own weight.
He really couldn't decide if she looked better or worse than she did before the shower.
"Hey," he caught her shoulder as she made towards the couch. "You get the bed."
She frowned at him, and Tim mentally scolded himself. Israelis. He should have known. Seven years of sharing office space with Ziva and half a year of Anat's fond bewilderment should have prepared him for the idiot girl, so exhausted that she was barely stable on her feet and the circles under her eyes were showing clearly even in the dim light and through her dark skin, saying: "I was planning on your couch."
"You get the bed," he repeated, patiently, hand still on her shoulder.
She was still frowning. "But -"
"Anat, please don't argue." He could say My sister gets the bed, too, but that wasn't going to fly with her. "It's only half past six. I'm going to be up for a while." She could probably sleep through Fear Tower IV right now, so Tim continued to "The bedroom is warmer," which got her to relax a little, and then to: "And also, you're my guest and I'm going to fret if you don't take the bed." That was his winning ticket, and he knew it. Anat's mocking had no disrespect in it, and if he flat-out said that this was important to him then she would likely give, whether she understood his reasons or not.
"You're weird," she informed him. "Tell Effie I love her if you see her online?"
"I promise," he said. He doubted Anat's girlfriend would be online past one in the morning on a weekday but it had happened, before, when she was running a particularly successful campaign on one of her MMORPGs. And Anat was seven time zones to the west. "Now," he turned her around, carefully; she was tired and tense, and felt painfully fragile, though that fear was probably irrational, "bed. How long do you need in the morning?"
"Ten minutes not including breakfast," she mumbled as they walked towards the bedroom. "Unless my hair really hates your weather."
Fifteen minutes, then. "We'll grab breakfast on the road. That should give you almost twelve hours."
"Mm." They made it to the bed. Anat peeled back the blankets, sat down, and frowned, fingering one of the blankets.
"It's an electric blanket," Tim told her.
"Isn't it going to burn down the house or something?"
"I'll turn it off later," Tim promised. "Go to sleep, Anat."
Finally, she shrugged her fleece and socks off and got under the blankets. "Layla tov."
"Layla tov," he repeated. Good night. She was asleep before he finished saying: "Sleep well."
Tuesday, January 17
We forgot about the coyotes, Anat thought. The thought was incomplete, though, and she turned over as she searched her mind for what it connected to. That was when it occurred to her that the bed was strange - the feel of the pillow and the mattress wrong, the smell of the laundry detergent, the weight of the blanket - and the slight shock got her to open her eyes and wake the rest of the way up.
Tim's. She was at Tim's, she was pretty sure - she remembered leaving the office with him, but everything after that was scrambled. You're lucky Hanna kicked you out of the office, woman, she scolded herself as she got up from under the blankets, swearing softly as she reached for the fleece. You were being an idiot, acting like an over-motivated child.
Her anger cut off as the thought Coyotes caught up with her again as she pulled her socks on. They forgot about that, the day before, they all did. That happened - Ziva was out of practice, Anat tired, and unless she missed her mark then Nell was a research analyst and Hanna a field agent with a good head on his shoulders, neither of them to be expected to remember those things.
She was out of practice for this, too. Unlike the anger, the old ache settled in her chest like a cold weight. Anat forced herself to move, instead. The apartment was dark; she wasn't sure what time it was but she was pretty sure she wasn't supposed to be up just yet.
There was Tim, on the couch. He didn't look too uncomfortable, and she would've fitted better on the couch. She smiled fleetingly, indulgently. He'd be more uncomfortable if she insisted, so that would be against the point.
Finally, she found a clock: it was six in the morning. Not too early, then. She'd slept her fill. When had she gone to sleep? She couldn't remember, but the car ride had been long enough that waking was difficult, she remembered that. It probably wouldn't be too long until Tim would wake up. She could get dressed and have a cup of coffee in the meantime; she was itching to get back to the office already.
She had an op. It's been a while.
She pushed that ache down again, more sternly than before. The thought of coffee nagged at her, and a quick search through the kitchen - careful to not make noise, not wake Tim up - reminded her why: there was no instant coffee. If she wanted coffee, she had to deal with that thing that sat on the counter and pretended to be a coffee machine. Without waking Tim.
The advantage of a hotel not a kilometer from the Navy Yard was that she didn't have to deal with a car. The disadvantage of a hotel not a kilometer from the Navy Yard was that she didn't have a reason to not expose herself to DC winter. If that was a disadvantage; Yael was still debating the point when she walked into the MCRT floor, coat hanging on one arm and rather grateful that her oldest cousin's wife had weather-appropriate sweaters and a coat for Yael to borrow.
She'd assessed correctly: Ziva was already there, and so was Gibbs, but no one else, yet. Ziva didn't look up at the elevator sound but Gibbs did, for all that he quickly pretended not to.
"Good morning," Yael said as she passed Ziva's desk on the way to the one she shared with Mejaled. Gibbs didn't look up; Ziva did; Yael pretended to not look sideways.
She booted the laptop and went to fetch herself a cup of the local excuse for coffee. DiNozzo was already there when she returned, trading friendly insults with Ziva in a too-loud voice. Yael hung back, out of sight, listening. Not for the words; the words didn't matter. Mossad kept dossiers on everyone Ziva worked with regularly and Yael's next-younger cousin was Kidon, and so Yael knew that DiNozzo sounded remarkably the same on either side of an interview table.
There were tells, though. There always were. She'd noted several the day before: the conservative suit, the way the skin of his face hung and the nervous pitch of his shoulders, with the arms jutted out. Given all that, his rolling over under Callan's control schtick was unsurprising. Yael had tailored her intervention specifically to upset DiNozzo and so provoke territorial protectiveness out of Callen. DiNozzo's reaction had been even worse than she'd anticipated, and that was to say nothing of what Callen's reaction inadvertently betrayed. Nothing to do about that than give Callen space, though.
In the meantime, Yael stood hidden behind the stairs leading up to the command level and listened. Ziva's staccato was familiar even these years after, even in another tongue. Yael had all of half a second to bask in that before the undertone registered, a tightness that indicated anger. The kind of anger that was borne of hurt, Yael determined a moment later.
How did Ziva keep getting hurt?
DiNozzo's voice wasn't just too loud. It was also pitched high and sharp, same as his shoulders. Fear, Yael thought. The impression matched with the other observations: the way he'd dropped eye contact with Callen, the way he froze like a rabbit in front of her.
Ziva was hurt and angry, and DiNozzo was scared. That thought, too, rang old and hollow, painful.
The observation exhausted its efficacy. Yael started walking towards the team's aisle again. She was within sight of Ziva's desk but not yet Gibbs' when the elevator dinged, Mejaled's and McGee's voices audible a split-second before they stepped into the floor. They both sounded annoyed and McGee looked it, too, but it was superficial and Mejaled seemed more alert then she did since Sunday - no, more alert than that, even.
The hurt eased some at the realization. An itch at the back of her head disappeared once she had her sights on Mejaled again, too: she was responsible for the analyst, whether Mejaled liked it or not.
"I have never heard of anyone complaining about coffee -"
"You still shouldn't have touched it!"
"Oh, trouble in paradise?" DiNozzo crowed, edges blunted for the moment.
"If it was paradise I wouldn't need to figure out that monstrosity -"
"That monstrosity is a state-of-the-art espresso machine -"
"If it's so state-of-the-art you think they could make it -"
"Are you insulting my coffee machine?"
"No, only your manly territoriality and your taste in coffee."
They were standing in front of DiNozzo's desk, so absorbed in their argument that she managed to walk right behind them, unnoticed. Yael didn't sit at the desk but remained standing, selecting her angle so she could see everyone's faces. It was quite worth it, mostly for entertainment value.
Gibbs' eyes tracked her, not his team.
"What did she do, blew up your coffee machine and set your kitchen on fire?" DiNozzo asked.
"Almost," McGee said, irritably. "If she hadn't accidentally knocked over that box -"
"I don't know how you cook in that kitchen," Mejaled retorted.
"Mostly, he doesn't," Ziva called out without lifting her eyes from her paperwork.
"Look, Anat," McGee said exasperatedly, "just don't touch the coffee machine, okay?"
The elevator dinged.
"I can sleep in your bed but I can't make you coffee? How does that work out?"
Hanna and Callen froze where they stood, halfway between the elevators and the team's aisle. Gibbs' eyebrows climbed into his hair. Ziva's mouth was twitching, hard. DiNozzo's expression communicated the joy of a child with a toy, but it was forced, the cracks obvious if one paid attention.
"This is not what it sounds like," McGee said, sounding slightly panicked.
"Oh yeah, McGee?" Gibbs drawled.
McGee turned around to face his boss, seeming as guilty as a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "Uh, boss, I mean -"
"He means he was an idiot and slept on a couch smaller than he is."
McGee rolled his eyes and was about to say something, but Hanna chose that moment to announce his presence. "Where I come from, that's called being a gentleman."
"Good morning to you, too," Mejaled shot back.
The corner of Hanna's mouth twitched subtly.
"And you wanted to sleep in," Callen said with feigned lightness. "We would've missed all the fun."
The expression Hanna turned on his partner was an exact replica of the one her oldest cousin turned on her whenever she showed him up.
Mejaled poked McGee's arm from behind. "You said you can see if that program worked. See if that program worked. I want to know if I'm right."
"If you're right about what?" Hanna asked as Callen and he moved to join the others in the aisle, and McGee made towards his desk, Mejaled trailing behind him.
"The coyotes," she said. "They think like coyotes."
Oh, Yael thought. It should've occurred to her, too, but she'd been so distracted by her supposed allies she forgot to pay sufficient attention to the enemy.
"Who think like coyotes?" Gibbs asked.
"A-Tahaluf," Mejaled said. "I mean, terrorists in general."
"Coyotes prey on the vulnerable," Hanna said. "On people who feel they're out of options."
"You tell someone, die for us and we'll feed your family," Mejaled said in agreement. "You tell him, die for us or we'll kill you child."
"Or we won't help your family get to asylum," Hanna continued. "You think they're using the refugees."
"It's what the rest of the nutjobs do," Mejaled muttered. She was standing directly behind McGee.
McGee looked over his shoulder, directly into her face. "That's really disturbing," he told her.
He obviously had more words ready, but Mejaled stepped back. "Sorry."
"Why, thank you," McGee muttered, attention on his computer.
That was how he'd missed what happened as soon as Mejaled, Hanna and Callen were all standing at the aisle. The NCIS agents were making their way in the general direction of Gibbs' desk, and Mejaled in the other, probably on the way to get more of cat piss that passed for coffee on this side of the pond.
On the way, she reached up to hug Callen, who froze so thoroughly that Mejaled had let go and continued two steps before he turned around and demanded: "What the hell was that?"
"A hug," Mejaled tossed over her shoulder and then turned without breaking her step. "You look like you need it," she said, and turned around again, definitely heading for more coffee.
"Smart girl," Hanna called after her.
"So get me a cookie," Mejaled called back.
Callen raised his finger at his partner. "If you even think about getting her a cookie," he threatened.
Dunski was a threat. G was clear about that much. It wasn't just how smoothly she'd played him the day before, how effectively she'd shut DiNozzo down; it wasn't even that Sam had had to point that out to him. It was that G had been so concerned with Dunski establishing what seemed to be an all too easy rapport with Sam, only to get played himself.
She had deliberately provoked him to defend DiNozzo, G was sure of that. Good cop, bad cop. There was more to it than that, though, and G was trying hard to not wonder whether she'd somehow manipulated him into leaving that coffee cup on the armrest.
What a stupid thing to do. Hettie would've chewed him out for it.
Eric had emailed him the files the night before, but G needed to know more. He hung around the squad room after the morning briefing, knowing that it wouldn't be long until Gibbs escaped to get coffee. As soon as Gibbs entered the elevator carrying his gun and badge, G hit the stairs.
When Gibbs stepped out of the elevator on the ground floor, G had been casually leaning against the wall for three whole seconds. Gibbs looked at him, huffed, and kept right on walking.
G fell into step with him as they walked out the building.
"She's gunning for DiNozzo," he said, so casually that it was obviously fake.
Gibbs didn't seem surprised. "She has been from the start."
Well, that was a serve if G had ever seen one. "Wanna tell me about it?"
"Guess you read the file."
G didn't bother dignifying that with a response.
Gibbs stayed silent until after he'd gotten his coffee and the two of them turned away. Rather than head straight back to the NCIS building, though, Gibbs led them to the side.
"She and Ziva were friends," he said. "Good friends, when they were young."
Gibbs said it like it was a thing in itself, so G worked from that. "Were friends," he repeated, emphasizing the were slightly. David had moved half the world away, worked for a different government. Worked with - "You think Dunski's not willing to let her go."
"I think she thinks she's not done with Ziva."
"What'd she do?" Letting DiNozzo and David get captured would've earned Dunski Gibbs' eternal distrust, but this was too specific.
"Hell if I know," Gibbs said after a moment. "She engineered a reason to get Tony all to herself our first day there."
He didn't say what Dunski had told DiNozzo, which told G that Gibbs didn't know. That DiNozzo hadn't told him.
There was too much about DiNozzo that G didn't know.
"She came in yesterday afternoon," he told Gibbs. "Officially, to swap tac plans. She said something about how the last time she'd seen him in a suit he was cooking in it and this being better."
Gibbs snorted. That was not the reaction G expected. Gibbs must have caught on to that, because he sobered immediately and said: "I take it he didn't say something even more inappropriate in response."
"He froze," G told him, watching for his response.
Gibbs' expression shuttered off, became too blank. "And?" he asked. His voice, too, was too neutral, except for a thin shade of doubt that G really didn't appreciate.
G just looked at him. He didn't mean to - it was Gibbs - but he just looked at him, waiting to see how long it would take Gibbs to form a response and what that response would be.
Gibbs looked away, expression still too blank. "So what'd you do?"
A shiver ran down G's spine. No. This wasn't right. He focused on not stiffening, not breathing faster, not clenching his fists. "I chased her out," he said. That didn't sound too even; good.
He shouldn't be thinking this way with Gibbs.
Gibbs' eyebrows shot up. He took a swallow from his coffee. "That's good," he said after a moment. "Keep an eye on her."
Wrong, wrong, it was all wrong, and G needed to get away from this and think. All he said out loud, though, was: "You know I will."
07:00 PST (10:00 EST)
The no-food-or-drink-in-Ops rule meant that Eric and she took turns going for coffee or a drink of water. Nell typically let Eric have the first go on the first break of the day, the one before the workday really started. Things worked better that way.
So by the time Eric entered Ops for the second time on Tuesday morning, properly awake and social this time, Nell had already scanned through Sam's emails and was halfway through compiling a task list.
"Oh," Eric said as soon as he was through the door. "That looks ominous," he added as he crossed the room and sat down at the workstation next to her.
"Mm," Nell agreed. "Good thing we have a lot of people on this because this is a lot of analysis. But, in order to do analysis..." She let the sentence trail off, cocking her head to look at Eric out of the corner of her eye.
"...you need to have something to analyse," Eric completed without missing a beat, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "What are we looking at?"
"Refugee communities in the DC Metro area and human infrastructures that these communities rely on for support."
Eric sucked a small breath through his teeth. "That's a lot of profiles."
Nell made a small nod. "Like I said."
He made a face. "Better coordinate before we get started. You want to...?"
She shook her head. "I'll grab a coffee later. You know what the guys get like, and they're three hours ahead of us."
"Point. Calling Sam now."
Sam answered on the first ring. At least he didn't answer before it rang, Nell thought.
"What have you got, Eric?"
"We thought we'd check in with you, first," Eric said, pulling the first vowel. "Just, you know..."
Sam cut him off. "Yeah. We got it narrowed down to the refugee community in DC itself and we're now looking at all the institutions and individuals that regularly interact with the community. McGee here compiled a database -"
Two voices spoke in the background, male and female; neither sounded happy.
"McGee and Mejaled are compiling a dataset," Sam corrected; the eyeroll was audible. "We haven't started screening through the profiles yet."
"Yeah, that's a job for a computer program, not people," Eric shot back. "Give me McGee?"
"I'm putting you on speaker."
A moment later, the level of ambient noise on the line increased, and then McGee's voice came through. "Morning, Eric."
"Morning," Eric said. "Listen, I -"
"- Nell and I have a screen program that can pick out the suspect interpersonal chains out of the noise. The dataset only needs to have, like, 85% coverage for the first run, and then we can narrow it down."
"Oh, great," McGee said, sounding relieved. "The crawler should reach the critical threshold in about an hour. Same share protocols?"
"You got it. I can give you a run time estimate once I have the full data."
"How's the tactical analysis coming along?" Nell asked.
"Hi, motek!" Anat said promptly.
Nell didn't even try to hide her smile. Anat was yet to use her name rather than the Hebrew sweetie.
It was David who answered. "Almost there," she said. "Some potential targets are definitely more vulnerable than others."
"Send me the names," Nell suggested, "I'll start a more in-depth analysis, see if I find anything interesting."
"Done," David said.
"Does your program also do accounting?" Anat asked.
"No, that's a different one, which I can start at 70% coverage."
"We have that," McGee said.
"Awesome," Anat said, "I hate following the money."
Dunski didn't bother them again. The schematics and map layers showed up in the shared folder, notes attached, and the annotated maps Callen and he uploaded were returned later with further notes; Dunski seemed to like Callen's style as much as Callen liked Tony's.
Callen was being nicer about that, almost positively friendly, but it only served to put Tony's teeth on edge. Callen's attitude had changed 180 degrees after that little run-in with Dunski the previous day, and Tony didn't appreciate being treated like he was fragile or something. Hell, even being set up to have coffee spilled all over him would be better than being graciously granted tiny approving nods for doing his work.
What made Callen so special, anyway? Gibbs actually treated him like he was competent, and Dunski had stayed away once Callen had chased her off. Even Gibbs couldn't do that. It was more likely that Dunski was playing some sort of a complicated plan - again - and lulling Callen into a false sense of complacency was part of that.
Tony had a lot of time to think about those things while he was recreating people's driving habits. Finally, though, Ziva called to say that lunch was there. There was nothing unusual about Ziva just ordering for him, and there apparently was nothing unusual about Hanna ordering for Callen.
They'd taken over the break room this time, which was maybe smarter than risking Gibbs' wrath by having a lunch party in the squad room. And it was a lunch party, all right, even if Gibbs was doing his usual distance thing and not dining with the team during work hours. No Chinese, Tony noticed as he surveyed the various containers covering two tables, and no pizza. It seemed like burritos and sandwiches all around, plus two large salads - one of which Hanna, of all people, was tearing into.
"Please say you did not order me salad," Callen said immediately.
Hanna short him a murderous are-you-kidding-me glare, but someone else spoke before he could swallow down the lettuce.
"No, that would be mine."
Tony tried to not startle; he hadn't even noticed Dunski sitting by a corner table, working her way through a sandwich.
Either Callen had noticed her before she spoke or he was a seriously good actor, because he didn't startle at all, just stared at her like he was plotting how to remove her limbs with dental floss.
Dunski's expression remained perfectly blank as she said, "I believe one of the sandwiches has your name on it."
"Catch!" Anat called out; a sandwich zoomed through the air towards Callen, who was so busy staring at Dunski he only barely caught it in time. "You too, motek!"
Tony caught the burrito. He wasn't sure when he'd been upgraded, but he wasn't about to complain. "Is there a soda that goes with that?" he drawled as he made his way to the table.
"Want me to toss you that, too?" Anat deadpanned.
"Nah," he said. She pointed at the can that was his, and he picked it up. Tony decided to push his luck. "But I'll take a hug with that."
"Are you taking or asking?"
He bent down over the table to hug her, and she reached up to put an arm briefly over his neck. Ziva was considering him narrow-eyed when he straightened his back.
"What?" he asked flippantly as he pulled himself a chair. "You can get hugged by this," he gestured at himself, "any day."
"I think I'll pass," she replied.
He shrugged and sat down. "Suit yourself."
"Please," McGee started, "can we all just..."
Anat patted his arm. "Hakol besseder."
McGee glared down at her, but his shoulder dropped a notch. "You'd be saying everything is fine even if we were sitting on a bomb."
"No, if we were sitting on a bomb I'd be yelling pazatzta."
That was one Tony haven't heard yet.
"Gee," Hanna said, but his tone - or lack thereof - didn't seem to match. He was also looking -
- at Callen, who was still glaring at Dunski, who was still staring back.
"Gee," Hanna repeated. "Come over here and eat, okay?"
'Gee' wasn't an exclamation, Tony realized: it was a nickname.
Callen tore his gaze away. "Yeah," he said, walking towards Hanna. "Okay."
Dunski, Tony noticed, was still following him with her eyes.
They'd been wrapping up lunch when Eric and Nell called with results: both search algorithms pointed to the same organization. All eight of them have been in the squad room since, trying to assemble a complete picture as quickly as possible. They were also trying to not trip all over each other, figuratively and literally. The figurative part was easier: nobody doubted that Nell and Anat could spot patterns and salient details quicker and better than anyone else, or that it was better to leave McGee to find what raw data they needed and have Eric structure it for the analysts. That still left six of them, though. Still, Gibbs and Tony knew the geography of the East Coast better than the rest of them, and no one but Callen challenged Yael's silent de-facto claim of the profiling. That left Hanna and herself to run interference.
Thank goodness that Yael still disliked open conflict, and thank goodness that Hanna and Anat seemed to get each other. It left Ziva free to try and distract Tony from initiating too many petty fights. Those people didn't know him, and one of them was bound to react badly, sooner or later.
"Somebody has to have an asset in there."
It was a mutter, more than anything, but Ziva wasn't the only one who snapped her head up at Anat's comment.
"What?" Callen asked. He'd pushed a spare chair between Tony's and McGee's desks, effectively claiming the best vantage point.
Anat twisted away from the plasma so she could look back at him. "Somebody has to have an asset in there," she repeated.
"What makes you think that?" Gibbs asked.
Anat completed the turn and retreated a few steps, leaning against the spare cubicle's wall in an attempt to keep everybody in her sight and so included. "NAARIS coordinates the resettlement of most North African and West Asian refugees on the East Coast," she said. NAARIS, North African and Arab Refugee and Immigration Support, was the organization they were looking into. "This means they pretty much decide which refugee is resettled where and continue to be heavily involved in those people's life after. They're run by immigrants and second-generation immigrants from the same countries. Their offices are all in places like DC, Arlington and Hampton, all across the road from military or government centers. And your capitol city has the largest population of African refugees in the country. There's just no way NAARIS is not someone's collections target."
It was valid logic, intelligence logic. It was also the kind of logic that was not going to fly well.
When it was McGee who spoke, Ziva didn't know whether to be relieved that it was McGee, who was less likely to pick a fight, or worried, because Anat would actually care what he thought.
"Can we go over this again?" he asked. "Because - and I'm really sorry if I got you wrong - but it sounds as if you're saying that because they're Arabs helping other Arabs, they're immediate suspects."
Anat twisted sideways to better look at him. "They have access to logistic and human resources and the power to manipulate those," she said. She still didn't get where McGee was going with this, to judge by her tone. "Just the location of their offices should've raised red flags, no matter who those offices belong to."
"But you're considering their ethnicity as a relevant factor," McGee stated, very carefully.
"Statistically, it is."
"That's racial profiling, Anat."
McGee's voice tightened, at that, and Anat blinked and frowned, finally catching on. "If most attackers come from a certain group, it makes more sense to bother people of this group than random old ladies with walkers," she said. "It works. What's calling it 'racist' good for?"
"That's like Shaul Mofaz being denied entry visa when he was Israel's Chief of Staff because he was born in Tehran," McGee argued. "You can't tell me you think that was right."
"The incident was idiotic," she retorted. "The principle works. And it just further supports that someone in your government should have an asset inside NAARIS, unless NAARIS are so good they shut them out."
McGee stared at her like he was seeing her for the first time.
Thankfully, Gibbs cut in. "That's something we can find out," he said. "G?"
"I'll call Hettie," Callen said, getting to his feet. "Funny how people tend to return her calls."
"Can we please talk about this?" McGee asked.
"The road to hell," Yael said quietly.
Tim swiveled in his chair to look at her. "What's that supposed to mean?" he demanded.
Yael smiled at him. It was humorless, but not without warmth, if you knew what to look for. "It means I think your intentions are good."
Ziva needed to get out of there, but she couldn't do that without drawing attention to herself and that would be even worse. Just seeing Yael was enough to bring back everything that Ziva had sworn off. She'd seen the fatal error in Masada shall not fall again, she'd worked so hard to exorcise it from her soul; then why did the absolute, quiet conviction that Yael broadcast make her throat constrict with yearning?
"Sometimes good intentions are all we have."
That was Tony, voice pitched quietly and evenly enough to match Yael's but soft, so soft, and the core of it was something like a prayer. Ziva's nails dug half-moons into her palm under the desk, where no one could see the nervous gesture.
"While that's true, it doesn't make Hell a desirable situation."
The words burst out of her. "Sometimes, good intentions are also the road out of hell."
Yael looked at her, but Ziva couldn't read her at all. "Sometimes."
At seven in the evening, Gibbs looked up from his paper mountain. "Got a long day tomorrow," he told Sam.
"Still got work to do," Sam countered. It was an obligatory return to Gibbs' serve, even though they both knew where this was going.
"We're going to be here until midnight, Sam," Nell said over the speakerphone; they'd kept the line open for the past few hours. "In this time zone."
"Hey, Hanna, give that tablet thingy here," Mejaled said, holding out her hand.
The use of his last name caught Sam's attention. Mejaled was a first-name kind of a person, military vibe or not. It got G's attention, too: Sam's partner actually glanced away from watching Dunski like a hawk.
Sam handed her the tablet.
Mejaled hooked it to the NCIS computer that McGee had set for her earlier. She'd apparently anticipated the need to do so, because she had the connector cable under hand. "We don't have your cover ironed out yet," she said, fiddling with the computer, "but we're solid on the background." She looked up at him and nodded at the tablet. "Got it all in a file for you, and you were in on the entire process. So long as we do a proper debrief tomorrow," and there her gaze slid over to Gibbs, "then you should be covered."
"Debrief at oh-seven-hundred," Gibbs confirmed.
The computer bleeped. Mejaled unhooked the tablet and handed it back to him.
Sam took it. "Thanks," he told her.
She snorted; McGee huffed simultaneously with her, which told Sam he'd just stumbled into a running gag of some kind.
Her expression and voice were both wry as she said, "Ahlan wa'salan." The shadow of Arabic that had been present in her diction all along blossomed into a full accent, and suddenly Sam had no doubt that this was her native accent. Israel had had immigration waves from Arab countries well into the 1970s; Mejaled may well be the daughter of immigrants herself.
"Tisbahi ala-khair," he said, reflecting her accent back to her best he could.
That got him a smile in response. "You too."
They made a goodbye round, and left. Or rather, Sam made a goodbye round, and they left. G's attention was turned so firmly away that he'd barely nodded even at Gibbs. That worried Sam. He's seen Gibbs and G together, before, and G had brightened up when Hettie said they'd be working with the man. Something had happened earlier that day, and Sam hadn't had a chance to corner his partner yet.
There was also the matter of G having assigned himself to Dunski Watch, but at least Sam knew what that was about.
He'd have G to himself for the rest of the evening, but Sam knew his partner. He'd get the ten minutes in the car, at most, and then G would refuse to stay put in the same room for more than twenty minutes at a time - and that, only if he was asleep. No, the car ride was all they were going to get, by way of actual conversation, and Sam would just have to be careful.
He didn't say a word as they walked to the car, and then as he got the engine started and they pulled out. He waited until they were outside the Navy Yard's gate before he glanced at his partner - half-curled in the passenger seat, turned firmly towards the side window - before he said: "What's going on, G?"
"When we go back," Sam continued, keeping his tone light and pretending he wasn't looking anywhere but the road, "I'm not complaining about Deeks ever again. For about a week."
They'd spent most of the afternoon together, so asking how G's day had been would be pointless. Sam hesitated, and then cut straight to the chase. "What'd your friend say?"
G started. That was not a reaction Sam expected.
"Guess things changed since 2001," G said.
2001 - that had to be the year G and Gibbs had worked together. G didn't talk about that, and now Sam knew why. 2001 had been the year After Tracy. G didn't talk about Tracy, either, but given what Sam had seen - and what the woman had done - when she resurfaced, G didn't need to.
Tracy knew where every single one of G's buttons was, and she hit them all with a hammer. She'd done the same when she and G had been partners, and Sam was uneasy thinking about how that might've ended if Tracy hadn't miscalculated that day at the bank - whatever had gone down there - and clued G into her being the kind of person who would choose the mission over their partner.
G was still bearing the scars when he and Sam met, five years After Tracy. Sam hated to think of what he had to have been like, shortly after. If Gibbs had met G then, if Gibbs had gotten G through that, then Sam owed the man a beer at the very least.
Things changed, G said, and he was looking away from Sam and had been on edge since his one-on-one with Gibbs. He'd also been obsessing over Dunski, even worse than he'd been about Lauren Hunter. Yael Dunski was the kind of a person who would treat a colleague like a subject, though - the kind of a woman who would do that. She'd leaned on one of Gibbs' men, and if Gibbs had fallen short of his image in G's mind - and if Gibbs had gotten G through the aftermath of Tracy -
Sam made an operational decision.
"The Navy Lodge is that way," G pointed out when Sam made a right.
"I know," Sam said. "Thought we'd go out for pancakes for dinner. What do you say, partner?"
G's entire body relaxed when Sam said 'pancakes', and by the time he'd made it to 'partner' G had already straightened in his seat, looking ahead. He still looked fourteen more than 42, but hell, Sam couldn't fix everything in a single day.
"Pancakes sound good," G said. "But then you won't want to have pancakes for breakfast." He snuck a sideways glance at Sam when he said that.
Sam snorted. "I think we can have pancakes for dinner and breakfast," he said. "Just this once."
Chapter 3: To Care No More
"Daylight blankets the voices
But at night I can still hear you, sometimes
I don't want to care no more
If it hurts like this, to care"
- To Care, Etti Ankri
Wednesday, January 18
Something woke him up, but Tim wasn't sure what that was. The apartment was quiet and dark. He didn't usually wake without reason, though. Tim lay on the couch for another moment, listening hard. Something sudden, he thought: he was far too alert for whatever had woken him to be anything else. Gingerly he sat up, internally swearing that he didn't have his gun near. If this was a burglar - somehow, impossibly, past his security system - then he was screwed.
Still nothing but silence as he pushed himself to his feet and started clearing the apartment. Walking through his living room and study, in the dark, without knocking anything over, was something of a challenge, but at least he didn't have too many doors and closets that an attacker could hide behind.
Then he made it to the bedroom. The blankets had been pushed aside, and Anat was gone. Tim stepped in on instinct. Her phones were still on the bedside bureau, both of them: the rugged work-issue one, and the sleek smartphone Effie had chosen. Anat couldn't have possibly gone anywhere without a cell phone. She was Israeli, for one, and Shin-Beit for another. The idea that she would willingly put herself out of contact was ridiculous.
Her coat wasn't in the closet, though, and his keys were missing from the small table by the front door.
He'd been woken by his front door closing, Tim realized. It was the middle of the night and Anat had gone somewhere without a phone, without her wallet, without anything but her coat -
Her coat. Something nagged at the back of Tim's head. Anat kept things in her pockets. He'd seen her stuff an umbrella, a warm hat and two scarves into the pockets of the thing, as well as -
"I'm going to kill her," he muttered. He could be locked out of his apartment in the cold, if he was wrong about this. But it was the middle of the night and freezing cold, and Anat went out with nothing except what she carried in her pockets. There were only so many things that could lure Anat out in this weather, and she carried a packet of them in her pocket.
Tim continued to swear as he dressed in something warmer than his pajamas, jammed some shoes on, grabbed his cell phone, wallet and ID - just in case he was wrong and got locked outside - and went downstairs.
He found Anat right outside the building, sitting on the edge of a concrete planter with smoke wafting away and a mug next to her.
"Just what do you think you're doing?" Tim demanded as he approached.
She startled. "Tim?"
She reverted fully into her Hebrew accent; at another time, he'd think it cute. "It's two in the morning," he informed her. "What was so urgent about a smoke?"
"I'm sorry," she said immediately. "I didn't think you'd wake, I would've taken my cell. I'm really sorry. Tea?"
He stared at her. "Seriously?"
He was beginning to catch on to details. She was shivering or nearly so; the tea was the Galilee tisane which he picked off of her as a comfort drink; and there was a cigarette butt on the pavement, only half-smoked and stomped on aggressively. She also looked off, remote in a way that Tim had learned to not ask of because Anat always changed the subject.
"Cell phone would've been a good idea," he said, sitting down next to her and accepting the mug. It would stink of her cigarettes, but she'd calm down if he accepted her peace offering. "Also, I really hope you have my keys, because this would be a really awkward way for you and Abby to meet."
That got her to relax a little. "I have your keys."
He offered her the mug back but she shook her head, so he put it on the concrete between them. He couldn't actually say I don't suppose you want to talk about it, but he wasn't sure what he was supposed to say.
Anat continued to blow smoke towards the sky. Eventually she snuffed the butt of that cigarette against the planter and lit a third one.
He was pretty damn sure her fingers were blue. He was also pretty sure that his would turn blue too, eventually, sitting still outside on a January night. But Anat wasn't good to come inside, yet, and he wasn't leaving her alone.
He was surprised when she spoke after a few drags from the third cigarette.
"I used to do this," she said.
"Do what?" he asked after a moment.
"This," she said.
Tim stayed silent as she seemed to search for words.
"Ops," she said eventually.
Oh. She only ever referred to the nature of her work obliquely, but Tim knew enough to understand that her desk had few operations, and these were usually led by the human intelligence officers, with the analysts serving a secondary role. That wasn't what Anat meant, though. They'd spent half the day designing an op, and she led most of the work. Even the OSP analyst ceded most things to her.
Of course Anat had done this before. He was just so used to Israeli superwomen that it hadn't occurred to him.
One thing wasn't clear to him, though. "I thought you've been working the same desk the past couple years," he said carefully.
She was staring stonily into the night. "Yeah."
She'd only been with the Shin-Beit for two, maybe two and a half years. That meant that she got this experience before, and that meant military service. Ziva had surmised that Anat had served as an officer, based on her age, but Anat never said a word about her military service.
What was that creepy phrase Anat had used, once? I saw people returned like small change?
Tim's skin crawled.
It was a few moments before she said, "My contract's up in half a year."
She'd graduate with her BA in half a year. Her student contract would end with that. "Yeah," he said. "I remember." His thoughts were racing. She was a part-time student. What was she even doing on an overseas assignment? Dunski suggested she personally chose Anat, but why? Anat used to work operations in the military, but she'd only worked a quiet desk at the Shin-Beit. Those things were connected, and whatever that connection was, it woke Anat up at two in the morning and sent her chain-smoking in the cold.
"I'm not going to -" She leaned forward, elbows on her knees, and pressed the heels of her palms against her eyes. "Zayin."
She wasn't going to, what? Renew her contract, judging from the context. But Anat loved her job - he'd never heard her talk about wanting to do anything else, never heard her talking about being interested in anything else at all - a degree in literature and Mediterranean studies fit well with that career path.
How was she going to leave, if she couldn't even say that she would?
She dropped the cigarette to the ground and stomped on it with more force than was necessary before reaching for the long-cold tea and emptying the mug. Then she transferred the mug to her other hand and pulled his keys from her pocket before turning to look at him.
"Not locked out," she told him.
So she wasn't going to talk about it any more. "Let's go inside before you catch hypothermia, okay?" he said, standing up.
"Okay," she agreed, following. She bumped her shoulder against his elbow as they stepped up to the door. "Sorry again about worrying you."
"So wake me up next time," he told her. "Or leave a note or something." He pulled the door open for her to step in.
He let the door close behind him before he asked, "Are you usually this averse to sleeping, or is this the jet lag?"
"You going to be okay going back to sleep?" he asked carefully, watching her jab at the elevator call button with more force than was necessary.
She looked up at him. "If it isn't good it's not the end."
"Morbid Israeli idiom number 341," he said, a little more caustically than he meant. "What does this one mean, remind me?"
The elevator finally arrived, and she stepped in before him, probably deliberately not looking at him as she said: "It means I'm going to be fine."
The MCRT floor was deserted when Gibbs stepped in, which didn't surprise him much. It also didn't surprise him that McGee and Mejaled were next to arrive; he expected it to be them or G and Hanna.
"Morning, Boss," McGee said, speaking quietly in the empty room.
Gibbs grunted in reply. He was more focused on going over the paperwork that had arrived during the night, Hanna's cover as designed by the OSP people and executed by the intelligence department of NCIS there at the Navy Yard. Just because it was supposed to be in order, and just because G and Hanna were bound to double- and triple-check it, was no reason for Gibbs to not make that quadruple. You did that, when lives depended on things being in order.
Moments later, Mejaled spoke up from the enclosed spare cubicle. "Do you have a printer that takes big paper?"
"What, like A3 sheets?" McGee asked from his desk.
"Yeah, exactly like that."
"Well, yes, but what do you need it for?"
That was when Gibbs started to pay attention.
"Maps?" McGee sounded confused. "Why do you need such big maps?"
A moment later, Mejaled emerged from the cubicle to come around McGee's desk and stand next to him. "Because I don't know either of these cities," she said, "and I need to know where we're at."
The we was attention-catching, too.
McGee was frowning, but Mejaled continued to talk. "I'm also going to need map books - you do have those, right?"
Gibbs cut in. "If we don't, we'll make 'em."
Mejaled turned her head to look at him. Gibbs knew that look, both focused and detached. It was a test, but one he knew he would pass. "Just focus on the debrief," he told her. "I'll fix your maps after."
It was a moment before she nodded and went back to her desk. McGee's eyes followed her only briefly before going to Gibbs. He didn't seem confused or surprised; rather, he seemed relieved.
Well, good. At least he caught on, even if it took him a while.
The next time the elevator dinged it was Ziva. Gibbs gave her a long, searching look as she walked up to her desk and set down her things. She wore her favorite faded green jacket over a white shirt and dark, loose pants, and her hair was not as sleek as she usually made it nowadays.
Her return look wasn't sharp or shuttered off, so Gibbs nodded at her and turned his attention back to the papers - or tried to, because the elevator dinged again, admitting G and Hanna. Hanna looked like a SEAL on the morning of an op - that is, calm - but G had a coiled tension to him that Gibbs wasn't sure he liked. Nothing he could do about that, though.
"Good morning," Ziva said.
"Morning," Hanna acknowledged.
"Morning," McGee added.
Mejaled stuck her head out of the cubicle. "Grab a coffee and get over here, and grab a chair on the way."
"I'll get the coffee," G said immediately.
Mejaled gave him a shrewd look at least ten years too old for her. Hanna swallowed back a smile.
Gibbs stood up and handed him the packet as he passed by. "These're for you."
"Thanks," Hanna acknowledged before turning to Mejaled.
"Tablet," she said, holding out a hand.
Hanna handed her the device.
"Got more maps and a lot of profile briefs for you," she said as she plugged the thing in. "You don't need to be there before nine or ten, should give you long enough to study the marks. Also got ingress and egress routes marked and prioritized on all the locations. We'll go over the op layout and highlights once everybody gets here." She twisted in the chair, looking past Hanna at Gibbs. "We're still missing the comms."
"I know," he told her. Abby was supposed to get the electronics, and Abby would get it in time, though probably not before that.
And yes, Mejaled trusted him enough, because she turned her attention back to Hanna. "You're going to have backup in the field and your people will be in on the circuit, but I'm running point. Is that okay?"
What she actually asked was, Do you trust me to have your back? Hanna got that, judging by his tone as he said, "Yes, that's all right."
Tony hated feeling left out, and doubly so when he was feeling left out of a debrief held in his squad room and led by his team. Well, nominally led by his team. Hanna was the one logging field hours, and as much as he liked Anat he was beginning to take issue with the way she'd been ordering the rest of them around. At least she was listening to Gibbs. But hey, Tony was a team player, and he could be just fine with providing the assist so long as it actually felt like he was being part of a team.
Thing was, there were too many military personalities in the room. Military people were just fine, one at a time; it wasn't a problem until you were working with more than one, and even then only if they were stressed out for some reason. He'd seen Gibbs and Ziva do it enough times: one moment everything was fine, and the next he just knew that they were communicating on a secret channel McGee and he couldn't listen to.
There were eight of them in the circle, and the only non-military person other than himself and McGee was Agent Callen. Tony couldn't even comfort himself with the thought that McGee was the most locked-out of the three them, because watching the invisible currents ripple between Gibbs, Ziva and Hanna was too annoying.
Callen didn't seem any happier than Tony, though, and that was a little bit comforting.
Abby's entrance disrupted the circle. They were wrapping up when she finally came in, all in a hurry, carrying clear plastic bags with earwigs and other equipment. Gibbs attention snapped to her, and so did Callen's.
Right. There was that time Abby went to LA, and Callen and his team got her captured by a serial killer.
"Sorry I'm late!" she said. "I'm not too late, am I? I just wanted to make sure everything really is in working order first, and I thought, what's that next to a few minutes here or there, right? Hi, guys!"
Callen was out of luck; he was nearer to Abby than Hanna, and so found himself on the receiving end of a standard Abby-hug before he could back away.
"Sorry for not coming by to say hi sooner, but..."
"Abby," Gibbs said sternly.
Abby let go of Callen. "Oh, right, sorry." She handed Callen and Hanna a bag each, and the rest to Gibbs. "I come bearing spy gear for all."
"Thank you," Hanna said.
After two days, Tony knew that tone of voice: it was the courteous one Hanna used when he was out of patience with someone.
Abby, unsurprisingly, beamed up at him. Then something else caught her attention; or rather, someone.
"Oh, you must be Anat!" And Abby pushed herself between Callen and Hanna to get to Anat and bend down to hug her. Anat, unsurprisingly, reached up to hug her as well. There they ran into a bit of a problem, though, as Abby was aiming to wrap the other woman up and Anat for the hug-and-kisses combo that was her version of a handshake. Eventually they sorted it out.
"And you're Abby," Anat said as they parted. "I've been dying to meet you."
"Great," McGee said quietly.
Not quietly enough, though, because both women turned to look at him.
"Way to go, McGenius," Tony said, pouring as much enthusiasm as possible into it. It was worth it for Gibbs' glare - first time he seemed to actually notice Tony since he walked in that morning.
"Thanks, Tony," McGee said.
Tony grinned in reply.
"Does anybody here have a job to do?" Gibbs demanded. He came from behind his desk, but he left his coat, badge and gun.
"There's a muffin with your name on it," Abby told Anat, and took off.
"Yes, Boss!" Tony said automatically, catching the bags Gibbs tossed him.
"I got a bunch of maps to hunt down," Gibbs told him, "and then I'm headed out." He turned to consider Callen and Hanna, who were on their way out. "You're not sitting in that car on your own all day," he informed Callen.
Funny; Callen didn't seem happy, when just two days before he'd been all over Gibbs.
Gibbs turned back to Tony. "No frat parties."
"Yes, Boss," Tony acknowledged, shoulders relaxing. This was better. This put him in charge of McGee, Ziva and Anat; this was good.
McGee, Ziva, Anat, and Dunski, who he managed to will himself into forgetting while she stood quiet and still in the back of the room, but now she moved forward, picking up the empty coffee pot on her way.
Well, at least she was the cat who walked by herself, and she couldn't get anyone kidnapped inside the Navy Yard. He hoped.
"Hi, DiNozzo," Anat said.
Last name basis; that was new, but maybe not unexpected given the way she'd been all morning. "Yes, Mejaled?" he replied, keeping it light.
"I hear you're the point A to point B expert."
"That's right," he agreed.
"Wanna talk me through it?"
She sounded serious. "That's a lot of streets," he told her.
"Your boss is fetching me a lot of maps," she replied dryly.
Oh. That put giving her a local geography crash-course pretty high on the priority list.
"Sure," he said, coming over to join her in that annoying cubicle. "No problem."
07:00 PST (10:00 EST)
Abdullah Farah was born as James Farah in 1977, the son of a naturalized American citizen of Somali origins and an African-American mother. He'd worked construction for most of his adult life, but became unemployed when the economy tanked. That was when he'd enlisted.
He arrived in the Sandbox with the Seabees as a moderate Muslim who still believed in the American Dream, despite everything; he left it jaded and stringently observant, embittered by the prejudice of his supposed buddies and by what he perceived as systemic prejudice against the locals, who he came to perceive as his true kin. He'd been given a bad conduct discharge a year before his enlistment was up.
That made Abdullah Farah the perfect recruit: a strong man with knowledge of explosives who wanted to help his people and get back at a country that had let him down. He was the perfect recruit because he'd been designed this way, tailored to fit NAARIS's interests and needs as well as Sam's skill set and appearance.
They had an earwig on Sam, as well as a button-cam with resolution high enough for facial recognition, and an explosives sniffer, just in case. Nell was listening with half an ear; Eric was monitoring the facial rec, and, three time zones away, Tim McGee and Anat were better set up to deliver any immediate response that may be needed. That left Nell free to plan ahead.
"Can I help you?" asked a male voice, lightly accented.
"You work here?" asked Sam's voice.
Nell paused in her review of foreign organizations that Eric's financial analysis implicated and raised her head, suddenly more attentive. She was used to the way the field agents sounded so different when speaking as their covers. Sam didn't sound like Sam, which was fine and wouldn't have caught her attention, but he also sounded familiar, somehow.
Two workstations down, Eric was wearing a peculiar expression, too.
"Yes," replied the first voice, and repeated: "Can I help you?"
"Yeah, I'd like to volunteer," Sam said, pulling the last syllable almost like it was a question. They didn't have a visual of Sam but Nell could almost see him in her mind's eye, shifting his weight from leg to leg, one shoulder rolling seemingly unconsciously as if he was waiting to be attacked, suspicious and wary under a layer of projected harmlessness.
She knew that body language, just like she knew that intonation-pattern. And Sam was using his upper register, the one that usually only came out when someone or something upset him by surprise.
Suddenly the image clicked, and Nell suppressed a chuckle. Eric raised his eyebrows at her, but she shook her head, quickly glancing back down at her work.
"That's great," continued the foreign voice. "We always need more volunteers. If you would come with me, please? What's your name?"
"And were you born here, in the United States, or did you come here later in life?"
Her workstation pinged. Nell glanced at the email from Eric, and then had to suppress another fit of giggles before she lifted her head and nodded at him. He raised his eyebrows as if to say Seriously?; she shrugged in reply.
On screen, the email still read: Is it just me, or does Sam sound an awful lot like G?
Ziva was carrying two paper bags and a coffee cup as she walked up to the stakeout car and rapped on the window. Gibbs rolled the window down and took the paper cup from her hand. Callen, in the driver's seat, was leaning against the window, sucking on a lollipop. The dashboard was littered with lollipop wrappers.
She eyed the distance between the two of them.
Gibbs tracked her gaze with his. "Everything okay?" he asked.
She knew a back off when she heard it, and things didn't seem bad enough for her to push back, yet. "All good," she said, gesturing with her head and then stepping back. "Hop out."
He opened the car door and stepped out. She slunk in and closed the door behind her.
Gibbs raised his coffee, and walked off.
Ziva settled in. One side of the seat was definitely warmer than the other; Gibbs had been giving Callen as much space as possible for a while. She put one paper bag in her lap and looked straight out the front window as she handed Callen the other bag. She could tell how many inches Callen kept between their fingers as he took the bag just by the feeling of the shifting weight.
"Anything interesting?" she asked, pulling out her sandwich and keeping her voice brisk, professional.
The car suddenly smelled of beef, vegetables and hot oil as Callen pulled out his burger and fries. Ziva laid bets against herself on whether he'd protest her choice of orange juice over Coke; she had no doubt he usually preferred the sweetest option available, but Coke was the absolute worst thing when toilet access was an issue.
Paper rustled. "Your friends would know," Callen said around what seemed to be a mouthful of burger. "Thanks for lunch."
She rolled her eyes. NAARIS had been falling all over themselves to make Hanna feel welcome, and wherever Hanna went he left behind a camera on the wall here and a thumb-drive the size of a fingernail there. The analysts were all over it, but nothing useful had come out, yet. The voices were still chattering on her earwig, but everybody sounded calm and no distress or otherwise key words had been uttered, so Ziva mostly tuned it out.
"You're welcome," she said instead.
"Aren't you going to eat that?"
She took that as tacit permission to turn and look at him. He'd already inhaled most of the burger, and was working his way through the fries. This was a whole different league of human vacuum cleaner than Tony, and - Ziva suspected, watching the way Callen watched her unwrap the sandwich - probably rooted in considerable amounts of bad experience.
She bit at her sandwich demonstratively. Callen's attention went back to the remains of his own meal immediately.
"Should've gotten you two of those, I see," she said, also in a full mouth, indicating the swiftly-disappearing fries.
Callen glanced down, fingers twitching on the paper, before glancing back up. "Nah," he said. The casual tone of his voice indicated that he was on to her. "Sam might have to kill you if you did that."
She could take a hint, but it couldn't be too serious a threat if he used his partner's first name. "I wouldn't want to upset Sam," she replied.
Callen's shoulders relaxed almost imperceptibly. He jammed the debris of his meal back into the paper bag and settled into the seat, and this time it didn't look as if he couldn't get far enough from the person in the passenger seat.
What on earth had Gibbs done? Gibbs could be hard on people; that she loved the man like the father she wished she could have made her more aware of that, not less. She'd hazard a guess that Callen was more like Tony than herself about those things.
"So," Callen said, in the kind of voice that was only misleadingly calm if you hadn't heard a thousand interrogations before, "you get to bring him coffee. And he actually drinks it."
Definitely more like Tony, including the interrogation by food - which, after this many years, Ziva was immune to. She tore off another bite and swallowed it down normally before saying, "I didn't realize that carries any special significance."
That was a lie; bringing Gibbs coffee for reasons other than tacit apologies and direct orders was a rare thing, and Ziva was as likely to do that in front of Tony or McGee as she was to ask Gibbs if he was lonely when they could witness it.
Callen huffed. "You are so the favorite child."
Ziva froze, sandwich half an inch from her mouth, her hands not clenching only on sheer conditioning. It took her a few seconds to formulate a response.
She put the sandwich down before speaking. "Boys," she spat disgustedly; if he was behaving like Tony, she might as well treat him the same way. "Why do you always have to compare who has a bigger?"
"A bigger what?" he asked, schadenfreude lurking under the seeming equanimity.
She glared at him. She had to have messed up that idiom, again. "Zayin," she informed him, using the Hebrew just to see how he would react.
"Is that how you say 'shoe size' in Hebrew?"
"I can kill you eighteen different ways with a paper clip."
"I am out of practice."
"Does using office supplies as weapons fall under the same category of training as verbal assaults?"
There was an undercurrent of bitterness to this last statement, and Ziva doubted that her earlier choice of a phrase counted as a verbal assault. That left two other Israelis that Callen had had a chance to interact with over the past few days, and if Anat had said anything even vaguely resembling a verbal assault then McGee would have already complained about it loudly and at length.
"What did you do?"
His eyebrows shot up. "Excuse me?"
"What did you do that Yael verbally assaulted you?" Yael was a lot of things, but she wouldn't act without reason - esoteric as those reasons might be.
"DiNozzo didn't do anything."
That stopped her cold. What would Yael do, and for what reasons? She'd been callous, last Ziva had truly known her, but they were barely more than teenagers, then; Ziva had been different, too. But where Ziva had gotten out, Yael had had eleven years of being a handler and an interrogator - and she'd always been unpredictable.
Callen watched her, impassive, without saying a word. It was difficult to not feel angry at him. "I'm surprised that bothers you," she spat, "as you seem to confuse 'interrogation' and 'casual conversation'."
His eyes went hard. "I don't go for someone's throat when I've already got him by the balls."
Her body betrayed the intensity of her reaction, she knew that: anger, fear, disgust. The intensity was also a blessing, though, because it gave Ziva the push she needed to stomp down on her emotions, her head ringing clear with adrenaline, thoughts spinning through interrogation tactics as she reviewed the conversation.
She straightened her back, shoulders falling down easily. "So that's why you think I'm the 'favorite child'. You talked to Gibbs about this, whatever 'this' is, and he shrugged you off." His eyes narrowed, but she continued without a pause. "If you think he'll listen if I talk to him, you are mistaken."
Now that she was looking for it, she could see the broken edges under the cold anger in his eyes. "So you're just going to sit back and watch the show."
"Tony can look after himself." Tony had taken on her father from the wrong side of an interrogation table, and came out on top. He could hold his own against Yael - as much as anyone could.
The chatter over the comm filled the silence. They were speaking in Arabic, now, discussing a Quran passage.
Callen put a hand demonstratively next to his ear as he re-settled in the seat, looking away from her. Bitingly, he said, "Some of us give a damn about our partners."
"And that's a wrap, folks!" Tony announces cheerfully.
On the other side of the cubicle wall, Tim groaned. "Seriously, Tony?" he demanded. There was the sound of a chair scuffing against the carpet and, a second later, the slight creak that indicated he was leaning on and over the cubicle wall. Anat turned her head to look at him.
"That's all your fault," he informed her. "He hadn't been this insufferable in ages."
Anat would dispute his choice of adjective, but she wouldn't do it in the office.
Tony grinned up at Tim. "I love you too, McGoo."
Tim rolled his eyes, looking at Anat. "Great, now he's adding your lines to his repertoire. Terrific."
Anat rolled her eyes back at him. "Yeah, well," she retorted. She massaged her neck. NAARIS had just released Sam, but he was due back in a couple of hours; Abdullah had been invited for dinner. She hadn't been out of the chair since morning, and she was going to make the most of her break. Her coat was on the back of the chair and she pulled at it, pulling it on and stuffing her hand in the pockets to make sure. "Right, sanity break. You coming, DiNozzo?"
"Sure. Where are we going?"
"To smoke," Tim said as she and Tony got up. "Or rather, she's going to smoke, and you're going to cough your lungs out."
"I'm not going to cough my lungs out," Tony said. His tone wasn't quite light enough, but Tim wasn't making any effort to stop him, so Anat figured it couldn't be too bad. Besides, Tim needed a break from both of them after she'd kept Tony talking all morning as they set up the maps. She glanced back at the cubicle's interior, now covered with laminated maps all highlighted with markers and coloured pins. The desk was covered with map books, those that Gibbs had dug out and those that she and Tony set up with printouts and folders. Arts and crafts always was the most fun part of the job, even if it involved slaughtering a small rainforest; now at least she had a grasp on the area, if anything went wrong.
"Back later," she told Tim. "I have my cell on me." She looked up at Tony. "Have your cell on you?"
"Rule number three," he said.
"It means yes, he does," Tim translated. "Got all your scarves?"
"And both hats," she acknowledged. "Right, let's go."
They ended up at the edges of the parking lot. There was no green to look at anywhere, anyway, and Anat wasn't going to sit down in this weather. They might as well be out of anyone's way. She also stood downwind of Tony, just in case.
She eyed him out of the corner of her eye, stomping in place a bit. It was hard to tell, in a proper adult, but she thought that if he'd been one of her kids, back then - or rather somebody else's soldier that she had on loan, because she didn't let it get to that with her own - then she would've caught a moment with his CO and told him to say a good word to the kid every now and then, for heaven's sake.
"I'll be so happy when this case is over," Tony said. "No offence, but - "
"Yeah," she replied. "I hear you."
"Though it's much nicer without Agent Tramell strutting around the office all day. Or maybe that should be Agent Snape; she's not pretty enough to be Agent Tramell."
Snape, she recognized; Tramell didn't sound familiar, but was probably a femme fatale in some movie.
"Oh, right, you're still going to be stuck with her when this is over."
Anat shook her head. She wasn't staying. Dunski wasn't the worst, but she wasn't far from the norm, either; and most days, Anat couldn't remember why she loved this job. This op was bringing it all back. She kept telling herself that she couldn't actually have this back, that if she could then it wouldn't have taken over two years.
If she wanted it so bad, she shouldn't have quit in the first place.
"You're going to be stuck with this weather," she said instead.
"I'll take it over never-ending summer, thanks."
"We have winter," she protested.
"You have two months of barely even autumn, that you think pass for winter," he retorted.
She shrugged. "So long as you're happy where you live." That gave her a good excuse to glance up at him. "Anywhere you like the weather better?"
"Maybe a tropical island."
She snorted. "You can't stand Israel but you want to live at a tropical island?"
"What would you take to a tropical island?"
"Movies," he said promptly, automatically. "Lots and lots of movies."
"I bet you have a list," she said, deliberately idle.
He grinned at her. It was pretty good, for a fake grin. "What about you?"
"All the books I bought but never read," she said. It was just as automatic.
"Movies and books, aren't we a cliche."
"Who would you bring with you?"
"Who would you?"
"Effie," she said. Automatic, but true. "Who would bring entirely too many video games."
Tony contorted his face into an elaborate thinking expression. "How did you get from 'Tim McGee' to Effie?"
She slapped his arm lightly. "Girlfriend," she told him.
"So, the McGeek would totally be your type, except he's too man for you."
She raised her eyebrows. "You're very tall and I'm at a strategic height. Want to go there?"
He raised his arms and took half a step back.
"What about you?" she asked again. "Who would you take to your tropical island?"
He shrugged and looked down.
"Man or woman?" she asked, lightly. It could be humorously neutral, given what she'd just told him.
His body became just a little too stiff. Huh. Something there, then. Something he wouldn't say even to a half-stranger who lived half around the world. "Anyone you work with?" she continued, still light.
This time he flinched and his head snapped up, eyes wide. Well, fuck: she didn't know she'd be stepping into a tragic story of impossible and unrequited love, but that's what was written all over his face in big bold letters.
"Sucks to be you, huh?"
He huffed, shoulders straightening a bit. He still looked pained. "Eh, I don't know."
That was the other problem with adults: not only were they better at hiding shit than kids were, but they had more time to accumulate shit to hide, and more time for their shit to get worse. And Tony was a fucking artist at this.
She raised her eyebrows. "You really shouldn't be near cigarettes, should you?"
"No, I'm -" He coughed again.
She dropped the cigarette to the asphalt and stomped on it. It was almost gone, anyway, and she'd been smoking too much these past few days. "Tropical islands are too hot, anyway. And they have bugs. Big bugs."
He snorted. That smile was weak, but points for trying. "And iguanas. That too."
He coughed again.
"Inhaler?" she asked.
He shook his head. "Not asthmatic."
That sounded like he was telling her one thing to avoid telling her another. She didn't need to know, though, and he was still reeling. She elbowed him lightly. "No dying. You still know every single alley and its grandma, and I still don't."
"Nice to know I'm good for something."
She glanced up at him sharply. That sounded entirely too bitter, under that carefree expression. If she didn't hear him, though - if she hadn't spent half a day listening to him, learning how to coax things out of him - then she wouldn't have known it was fake.
She stood on tiptoe, trying to reach high enough to hug him. He leaned down, facilitating the hug.
"If you died," she said once they broke apart, though she was still pretty much standing on his toes, "the world would be out someone who gives a damn and does something about that. And that would be a loss. You're that person, tropical island or not."
"I thought tropical islands have big bugs."
"Life has big bugs."
That snort actually sounded genuinely amused. "You can say that again."
"Life has big bugs," she retorted promptly. "Now let's go inside, my balls are freezing."
"That's 'freezing your balls off'," he corrected as they started moving. "And anyway, you don't have balls." Pause. "Do you?"
She elbowed him. "Keep that up and you won't have balls. And not because they froze off."
"Ah, but would you date me, if I didn't have any balls?"
She rolled her eyes. "I don't date people who are more fucked up than I am."
Chapter 4: On The Streets
"He who can't see an end to it, he who's enslaved
He who was raised on the streets, she who'd had her child taken away"
- Help Is Coming, Noam Rotem
What Sam wanted was to get to their room at the Navy Lodge and shower Abdullah Farah off his skin so that he could get some rest. He couldn't reasonably expect to sleep the night through, not when rooming with a hyperactive partner devoid of anything even vaguely resembling a biorhythm, but a little bit of shut-eye could go a long way.
The evening debrief wasn't shower and a bed, but it was still comparatively restful. Or should have been comparatively restful: Sam began re-adjusting his expectation as soon as he took one look at G. His partner had been calmer just that morning, and Sam had hoped that with G in the field all day as well, things wouldn't get as bad as they'd been. Instead, G had the same haunted and cagey look about him that he'd had the night before, and it was obvious to Sam that he did not get a chance to recover during the day. Sam needed to get away from his partner for a few seconds and page Hettie, because this situation wasn't going anywhere good.
G's posture and gait shifted as they stepped out of the elevator and into the squad room. Projecting a sense of threat was one of G's best-honed protective acts. It wasn't as bad a signal as when G reverted to playing ghost, but it was still worse than the crooked lawyer persona.
Sam scanned the situation in the squad room, trying to assess where trouble might come from and who might be helpful. At a first glance, things seemed calmer than they were just that morning. DiNozzo wasn't projecting the manic energy that characterized him since Monday; he and David were actually bickering, in a way that reminded Sam a little of Deeks and Kensi. Both of them kept trying to involve McGee in the argument, but most of McGee's attention seemed to be on Mejaled: she'd pushed her chair out of the cubicle again, and her eyes were narrowed much the same way that Nell's or Hettie's did after a bad day - except Sam had never seen Nell that worn out, and Hettie was much better at masking the signs. McGee was standing behind her chair, one hand on her shoulder; the gesture seemed unselfconscious judging by how he directed his gaze, pretending to care about DiNozzo's and David's spite. Mejaled was also nursing the monster mug, again.
Gibbs looked like Gibbs, still pretending to pay more attention to his paperwork than to his agents; Sam wasn't surprised much. It took him a second to locate Dunski. She moved from her usual perch behind McGee's desk, leaning against the cubicle wall, to the edge of the cubicle that was nearer to the plasma. Sam wasn't quite sure what brought on the change, but then, at about the time G and he reached the team aisle, David turned her neck to check on Dunski. The gesture seemed none too friendly, and Dunski had apparently removed herself so as to make it harder for David to supervise her.
Something had happened, there.
G tensed when David turned around to glare at Dunski, which surprised Sam. G was obviously still upset about what had happened between Dunski, DiNozzo and himself two days before; under different circumstances, Sam would've just been glad that G was investing this much care in another person. Still, that should have made G likely to approve of any of DiNozzo's teammates attempting to supervise Dunski. The only way this reaction of G's made sense was if David had somehow earned this distrust.
With a sinking feeling, Sam realized that that would explain G's level of agitation.
Gibbs' agents were occupying the space between DiNozzo's and McGee's desks, so that put G and Sam between Gibbs' and David's. Or rather, it put Sam there: G remained in the aisle, where he was diametrically opposed to Dunski and could easily glare a thousand fiery deaths at her while turning a demonstrative shoulder on David. Both women noticed: David's chin jutted up in defiance, and Dunski looked back at G, holding his gaze.
It made Sam's skin itch. Very few people had ever dared meet G's eyes, when he was like that. Hettie could stare G down, and everything about her made it clear that that's what she was doing; Vance's was a different version of the same thing; and Lauren Hunter had gone coldly aggressive in a way that truly meant defensiveness. There wasn't any authority, aggression or defensiveness in the way Dunski looked at G. It was calm, and - Sam thought, examining her carefully - knowing. That wasn't good at all.
Gibbs put away the papers he'd been pretending to be immersed in and took off his reading glasses. "Everybody's here. Let's get started. We're all tired, so keep this short. Agent Hanna, would you like to begin?"
"Khaled Qadir is the chief volunteer coordinator," Sam said. "He isn't the strongest person in the organization on paper, he doesn't even run the department, but his boss looks to him for approval."
"That's the guy you just had dinner with," Gibbs stated.
Redundant question, but it needed to be said for the protocol. "He and his family, yes. His brother Salakh, the brother's wife Almas, and their children."
"Salakh and Almas immigrated to the US from Britain in the 1987," Mejaled supplied. "Almas is a British citizen of the Palestinian Diaspora. Salakh came to the UK as a student and is a practicing dentist. Khaled followed his brother in 1992. Funny timing; that's about when Al Quaeda got started."
"So the Qadir brothers are persons of interest," Gibbs summarized. "What else?"
"We got something interesting from the NAARIS files," McGee said. "Most of the people they help are employed through the same agencies. Unskilled jobs, mostly, like cleaning."
"We looked at those records," David said. "Didn't find any connection to Optix or its employees."
"Not in the agencies' files," McGee replied. "NAARIS' files are different. They all line up on the W-2s, but they don't always match up on, say, who is cleaning whose house."
"The point, McGee," Gibbs snapped. "Today."
"Sara Roberts," McGee said. "Her maid is on NAARIS' support list. Jamila El-Bashir. She fled here from Sudan. Boss," McGee's voice became pinched, "her refugee status file is really detailed, as in, there are photos, and - Jamila El-Bashir is not a terrorist, Boss," McGee finished in nearly a plea.
It was Dunski who replied. "No one is saying that she is," she said. It was the voice she seemed to default to: soft, but immovably solid. "Only that she may be taken advantage of. That she fled to safety does not necessitate that she found it."
G tensed as she spoke, and then tensed more as DiNozzo said: "That's bleak."
"It's a sad world," Dunski retorted.
DiNozzo flinched, but his voice was harsh as he said: "I don't see you laughing."
David had dropped her gaze when Dunski said what she did, Hanna realized, and the phrase sounded vaguely familiar if he tried to translate it to Hebrew. He couldn't quite place it, though.
"She's laughing on the inside," G said. The words were nominally a reply to DiNozzo, but G was definitely still staring at Dunski, who was still staring back.
"I prefer to laugh at funny things," she said. There was something in her voice, but Sam couldn't read it.
"Yeah?" G challenged. "Like what?"
She raised a single eyebrow in a perfectly rehearsed gesture. "Do you see me laughing?"
"That's enough," Gibbs ordered, raising his voice a little. "Agent Hanna will be going back to NAARIS tomorrow. Callen is backing him up. McGee, Mejaled, you're still on C&C duty."
"Yes, Boss," McGee acknowledged. Mejaled's soft Be'emet? was barely audible but still undeniably sarcastic, even if you didn't know it meant Oh, really?
Gibbs shot her a mild glare before he continued. "Ziva and I will take Roberts and her house."
That consistent first-name address, reserved for David only, was only getting more irritating each time Sam heard it. You didn't do that with people you respected, and it was bad taste on Gibbs' part to do that for the only female agent on his team.
"What about me, Boss?" DiNozzo asked.
"Follow up on El-Bashir. Don't spook her, or anyone who may be handling her."
"Sure thing, Boss."
"And you," Gibbs turned to glare at Dunski, "stay out of the way."
"That means don't get anybody kidnapped," G added.
"Your trust breaks my heart," she replied.
She sounded entirely too earnest, and G's suspiciousness went up several notches.
If it was that bad visibly, Sam did not want to know what was going on inside his partner's head. "I don't know about anyone else here, but I'm beat," he informed the room at large. That did it - Mejaled put her mug down and grabbed at the cubicle wall to push herself back in there, David turned to her desk and DiNozzo was reaching for his things. The look Gibbs gave Sam said that Gibbs totally knew what he was doing, but Sam couldn't care less for Gibbs' opinion on the matter.
Sam turned to leave and added, offhand, "You coming, G?"
It took G a full second to tear his gaze away from Dunski. "Yeah," he said, a beat too slow. "I'm coming."
Thursday, January 19
If Tim used his kitchen for something more than coffee or fried eggs more than a few times a year then Anat was a jar. Still, after almost an hour of careful searching, she'd managed to rustle up rice, burgul, lentils and almost everything for baharat, as well as frozen minced meat. She'd also entertained the hope for sabich for breakfast, but there were no eggplants. In the meantime, the rice was ready, the meat had cooled off sufficiently from the first round of frying and she was rolling the kubbot. The tea was steeping, and should be ready by the time she would start frying again.
"Anat?" drifted Tim's sleepy voice from the living room.
"Lech lishon," she called back, softly as she could, and then realized her mistake. "Go back to sleep."
No luck; a moment later she heard him padding into the kitchen. "What are you doing?"
She glanced behind her shoulder without pausing her hands. "Cooking. We're going to have real food for lunch."
"Your opinion on American cuisine has been noted," he said dryly, coming closer.
She knew better then to think he actually needed to be awake to come up with that. "Allah yistor if those things we buy out are your 'cuisine'." She glanced up at him again. "We're going to have real food for lunch today."
"You're crazy," he muttered.
"I'm crazy, but I cook. Go have some tea if you're not going back to sleep, you look like you're going to fall over."
"I am not going back to sleep when you're in the kitchen. You're worse than Jethro ever was."
What the? She looked over at him where he leaned back against the counter with a steaming cup of tea. "Shu hada Jethro?"
"I'm going to assume you asked who is Jethro," he said. Then he took a careful sip from the tea. "This is tea like - like naquadah is engine fuel."
"It's Iraqi tea," she informed him. The sugar would do him good. "And who is Jethro?"
He took another sip from the tea. "He was a dog I had. I gave him to Sarah, eventually. I mean, I got to really like him after a while, but I'm almost never at home, this is no way to raise a dog."
"Never liked dogs," she said absentmindedly. The next time her hand went into the bowl, it came out empty. She walked over to the sink to wash her hands. "Pour me a cup of that, would you?"
"Are you done?"
"Well, no, but I figure I'll have some tea while the oil heats up."
He shot her a sour look, but refrained from commenting. She put up the pan for the deep-fry and they sat down with their tea.
"Tea's good," he admitted. "Just strong. And sweet."
She snickered. "Everybody says that."
Then there was silence. Tim was getting properly awake. He didn't ask Wanna talk about it? yet, but Anat could see the question coming.
She was acutely aware of not quite looking at him as she began to talk. "One of the last ops I was on had a baltam." Thankfully, he seemed to remember that baltam meant an unexpected and often undesirable event. "Everybody came back in the same number of pieces, goal was accomplished, but we had some collateral of the kind nobody likes. That sort of thing, that's intel's problem, not the guys in the field. Debrief took a week, but the conclusion was that we couldn't have known. There was nothing to change in the protocols, either." She stopped, waiting for the muscle in her jaw to stop jumping.
"I'm sorry," he said after a moment.
She shrugged. "Kacha ze." It's like that.
"Does 'the kind of collateral that nobody wants to have' mean what I think it does?" he asked, softly.
He reached across the table to hold her hand. She squeezed it back.
That's not what it's about, she wanted to tell him. That wasn't - but she couldn't make herself say it, yet. She had to, would have to. It was too much, though: everything this op was kicking up, everything she couldn't have because of the choice she'd made then, what had happened then to make her decline to renew her commission.
Her cup was empty of tea.
She let go of Tim's hand and got up. "I should keep an eye on the oil," she said.
"Anat?" he asked tentatively.
She let it hang.
He poured them both more tea, and he didn't ask again.
Ziva noticed the extra Tupperware in the fridge when she fetched the cream for the coffee. She added the cream to her cup, stirred, and inspected the boxes when she returned the carton to the fridge. They seemed like part of McGee's set, but McGee used that set so rarely that she couldn't be sure.
The top box had what appeared to be rice with vegetables – no, Ziva realized upon further inspection, it was pilaf. She removed that box hastily to check the other. Kubbes. It had to have been Anat, but when did she have the time? That had to have taken hours. More importantly, was this food for two people for two days, or four people and one day? Ziva returned the pilaf box to its place, closed the fridge, turned around and froze.
Yael was standing there.
The fleece pullover and cargo pants made her seem simultaneously out of place and familiar. Not just the clothes - something in her expression, in the way she regarded Ziva. The familiarity was distressing, somehow. This woman was still a stranger, far removed from the girl Ziva used to know, but something in her regard pulled at Ziva's heart.
Yael was dressed for the field and had to be headed out, but she made no move towards the coffee, the vending machines or the tap. She wasn't there for anything the break room was for; she was there for Ziva.
"Ma kara hapa'am?" she asked. The quality of her voice registered first: pitched low enough to not carry far, and soft, as strangely familiar as the rest of her. The words decoded half a second later: What happened this time?
Nothing had happened – not in the past few days – and for a moment, the question seemed to make no sense. Then the tone of voice Yael had asked it in snapped the question into context: it lent the question weight, made it personal. The judgment implied in the question suggested that Yael had some sort of a behavioral baseline on Ziva that she considered to be valid enough, and the only way she could have such a baseline -
- was if the Mossad was still keeping a dossier on Ziva, and Yael was keeping up to date with it. Something major had happened in Ziva's life since the last update to her dossier, and that was what Yael was asking after.
Ziva hated feeling this vulnerable. "You have some cheek," she said, levelly as she could. There was still a tremor in her voice, but that could be the anger.
Yael's expression and voice did not change as she asked: "Garu'a, ma?"
Yes, it was bad, but Ziva was looking for ways to not admit that to Yael. She had no winning options, though - there was nothing she could do that wouldn't cede power to Yael, give her information, or both. Ziva had lost this confrontation the second she did not walk away immediately upon seeing Yael; now all that was left was damage control. Giving Yael what she wanted just might be the best way to give up the least. "Yes," Ziva said. And because Yael would find out anyway, in a week if not right then: "Ray and I broke up." The cooperation might count for something, in the balance Yael kept in her head.
It took Yael just slightly longer to come up with: "Kmo pa'am she'avra?"
It took Ziva a moment to realize that she'd frozen. She spent the last week trying hard to not think how similar Ray and Michael turned out, but Yael's Like last time? kicked that wide open. Not just that, though - it was getting increasingly harder to remember just why she couldn't let Yael have any more of her.
Ziva forced her arms to relax, forced herself to say something, anything. "Kim'at." Then she almost froze again - she hadn't meant to say Almost in Hebrew.
"I'm sorry," Yael said, more quietly than before. Then she turned and left Ziva standing there.
By the time Ziva remembered she had a cup of coffee, it had gone cold.
"What are you doing here?" G demanded as Yael slid into the passenger seat and closed the door behind her.
"It's called protocol," she told him. She placed one cup in the holder and sipped on the other one. She kept the And you antagonized everyone else who can sit with you in reserve, in case he tried to throw her out.
"Really?" he said. He picked up the cup and took a sip through the safety cover - carefully; the cup was still hot. His expression shuttered off as the taste registered; the lines of his body blanked out as well. "Hot chocolate is protocol, now? Small wonder we always need to bail your ass."
"The ancient Mayans used to drink cocoa on guard duties," she said mildly, "and that didn't even have sugar in it." Small wonder you need to buy off other people's ideas was virtually required, but she wasn't trying to exacerbate this. She'd known the hot chocolate would upset him, but she couldn't bring herself to bring him coffee when she knew he never drank that voluntarily but he did like all things sweet and comforting.
"And see where that got them," he replied. He hadn't taken another sip yet, but he hadn't put the cup down, either.
"Clearly, guards at the gate are effective against biological warfare," she said dryly.
"The Europeans didn't mean to employ biological warfare."
"Not at first."
He raised a single eyebrow. The twist at the corner of his mouth made that a mockery of one of her usual expressions.
Well. She walked straight into this one, didn't she. She would've smiled, if she thought he'd understand it as Well-played and not in a more sinister way. Instead, she raised her coffee in a silent toast and drank some.
He took another sip from the hot chocolate, relaxing minutely into the seat.
She'd first characterized this kind of behavior on his part as Gibbs-like, driven by a need for dominance that was basic to his personality. That was before he came close enough to touch, putting his hand not a centimeter from her skin. People usually avoided getting this close to her, let alone those who understood her skill set. What she'd gleaned at the touch also told her why he'd done it: he'd been the subject of abuse, before, and likely at the hands of a woman. Likely - judging by his reaction - in an intimate context. He had something to prove, here. With her.
There was more than one way to prove that sort of thing. She considered the idea as she drank her coffee slowly, listening to the chatter on the comm and gazing out the car's windows, keeping track of their environment. It would be complicated, and difficult. She may not have enough time to complete the play. No harm in that case, though. There didn't seem to be a risk of prohibitive harm associated with any eventuality, should she attempt this play. She had no reason to not do this and the payoff, should it succeed, would be worth the effort.
Well worth the effort.
After a little over an hour of trying to interview one Engineer Sara Roberts - who was a lot more interested in running systems tests than talking to them, dismissing the threat to her with "You're here now and you're clearly on top of everything" - Gibbs and Ziva found a quiet corner in the hanger to confer in.
"This woman takes home documents, her laptop," Ziva hissed. "So what if she keeps them in a locked drawer? I'd bet that the information for the attacks foiled in Israel came from her house."
"Yeah," Gibbs agreed. "Still need to look at that ledger, though."
"Get that ledger, get those people to get you copies of anything you need, confirm that theory," Gibbs ordered. He pointed at Roberts, who was arguing with two other engineers. "And sit on her."
Ziva gave him a look that said Did you really think I'd do otherwise? "You're going to her house, yes?"
"Yeah," Gibbs confirmed. They needed to know how compromised Roberts' house was, in which ways, and whether they could set up a sting there and hide Roberts herself at a safehouse. The one good thing about the engineer's attitude was that she'd probably not raise a fuss over anything they said was needed in their professional opinion.
"All right, then," Ziva said, and made as if to get back to Roberts.
Gibbs stopped her. "Ziva."
She paused and turned back to look at him. "Yes?"
He indicated with his head. She retreated the two steps back.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
For a moment, he thought that she would try to deny anything was the matter. Then she said: "Yael cornered me in the break room this morning."
Still Yael, he noticed, despite everything. "What did she want?" he asked, keeping his voice on the careful side of neutral.
Ziva opened her mouth as if to speak, but then just shook her head.
"Hey," Gibbs said. He would have touched her shoulder, but there were other people who could potentially see them. "She can't touch you," he reminded her.
She looked up at him, eyes large.
"She can't touch you," he repeated.
It took a few seconds, but Ziva straightened her shoulders, pressed her lips together, and nodded. "I'll stay with Roberts, see what information was compromised."
"Okay. I'll take a look at her house, see what we can find out from that. Keep me posted."
"So, we have at least half an hour until they're done introducing 'Abdullah' around this agency, right?" Dunski asked.
"Probably," G said suspiciously; 35 minutes was the shortest so far. "Why?"
"Because there's a grocery store right there and I need to buy eggplants."
G just looked at her as she got out of the car. Rather than leave, she stuck her head back in through the window. "Are you coming?"
"And I should do that, why?"
She raised both eyebrows in perfect arches. "And you trust me where you can't see me, since?"
G stared at her a second, and then got out of the car.
"Eggplants," he repeated as they walked towards the store. "We're buying eggplants."
"And pittot," she added. "Which they should have in this neighbourhood, but the hour is a bit tricky."
"Hey," came Mejaled's voice over the comm; she sounded quite interested. "Did somebody say 'eggplants'?"
G quirked a suspicious eyebrow at Dunski as they stepped through the sliding doors. She replied with a half smile. "Maybe some chicken, too," she added, as if musing.
"Fuck no," Mejaled said promptly. "I refuse to admit I may be here long enough for hamin."
"No chicken," G said out loud.
"No chicken," she agreed.
"But cusbara seeds and hel would be great," Mejaled added.
"But I think we're short a few spices," he said.
"No, really?" Dunski said dryly, and made her way to the produce section.
G hung back, considering both her and their surroundings. The store was far from crowded, but it wasn't abandoned either. Dunski and he stood out a little, but the clerk didn't seem to give them a second glance. The size of the store, too, suggested that it saw enough and varied traffic. He was dressed casually enough; Dunski wasn't, but a slight shift in her gait made the paramilitary look appear like a fashion choice. She looked like an unassuming mid-30s size 8, unless you knew what to look for - and even then. She was good.
An elderly woman coming down one of the aisles looked at G, Dunski and then back at him.
It wasn't going to matter how good Dunski was if G looked too much like security. Damn, he thought as he gave the elderly woman one of his best casual smiles and idled over to Dunski, coming to stand right behind her. Posing as a couple was safest, and the quickest way to sell the illusion was proximity.
She turned around and straight into him.
G almost blinked. Her body didn't seem to tense and tipping her face up that way could indicate any of several reactions, but her pupils dilated and her mouth seemed to be a tiny bit more open. Experimentally, G push even more into her space, staring down at her directly from above. He wasn't that much taller than her, but you couldn't tell it from the way she looked at him. Oh yeah, this was getting to her.
"Got enough eggplants?" he asked, voice deliberately low.
"I think so," she replied.
G gave it another second, curious to see if she would sidestep and go around him; she didn't. He stepped back.
She tilted her head at him just a little before walking away.
G kept to her side and a little behind her, intimately close. Dunski pretended to not care, but he'd just spent the entire morning cooped up with her; he could tell that this was doing something to her. Direct physical threat wasn't his thing, usually - and six inches and 30 pounds weren't that much, really - but this was too good to pass up. She'd set herself up, besides. There were only so many legitimate reasons for a man and a woman their age to grocery-shop together.
Experimentally, he picked a packet of something off a shelf they walked by and tried to put it in the basket she'd picked up at the entrance. She put her hand over the back of his to direct it back to the shelf. Her body language had a distractedness to it that made sense in a long-time couple - no, dear, you know we don't buy that - but it was still a refusal to look at him. No: there, out of the corner of her eye, as if scouting his reaction.
By the time they made it to the cashiers G had Dunski's reactions mapped out, and the basket had eggplants, pittas, raw tahini, hot pepper paste and Mejaled's spices. He picked up a bunch of unfamiliar candy bars from the stand. Unlike everything else he'd tried adding, Dunski didn't make him put these away.
He tried to take the bag that had the candy in it on their way out, but somehow ended up with the eggplants instead. He retaliated by staying too close to her as they walked over to the car. That also made it easy to box her in against the door once they were there. He moved in closer, this time, genuinely trapping her. Their legs brushed against each other as she turned around to face him. G leaned in over her, putting one hand against the car and using the other one to lift a candy bar from the bag she now held so much more loosely. Then he pushed back, grinning as he unwrapped the bar.
"Well, that was fun," he commented as he bit into the brightly-coloured something that turned out to be coconut.
"Yeah," she said with a slight smile he couldn't quite read, still leaning against the car. "I dare say it was."
"Yeah, I got it, Abs," Tony said into his phone. "Thanks." He hung up and turned back to the safehouse apartment's living room, where Sara Roberts was sitting on the couch and Ziva was standing to the side, hand on her gun in a silent question.
"Our tech found a trojan on your laptop," he told Roberts. Gibbs had already discovered the tiny scratches on her safe-drawer's lock and the bugs around the house. The bugs were electronic and audio only, though, so Gibbs stayed to lay an overnight ambush at Roberts' house while Ziva had whisked Roberts away, first to the Navy Yard - where they'd dropped off the laptop with Abby and picked Tony up - and then to the safehouse.
Roberts buried her face in her hands. "I don't get it," she said. "Jamila's just so..."
"I know," Tony said gently. He'd followed Jamila around some and tried striking up conversation with her once. The woman was obviously wary of strangers, and acting as if she expected herself to be surveilled. "We think she was coerced into this."
"I mean, I barely know her, but - she just wants a safe life for herself."
"People's past has a way of not staying in the past," Ziva said, which made Tony look at her sharply. Thankfully, Roberts didn't notice. Ziva put a hand on the other woman's shoulder. "Why don't you just try to relax."
"Can you get me my iPad?" Roberts muttered. "I think Episode IV is about all I can handle right now."
"Sure thing," Tony said, and went to fetch the tablet from her bag.
Ziva made for the kitchen as soon as Roberts curled on the couch, earphones plugged in. Tony followed her.
"What was that about?" he asked.
"What was what about?" Ziva shot back. The snappish quality indicated that she knew exactly what he was talking about.
"People's past has a way of not staying in the past?" he repeated, careful to not make it a demand. "Doesn't sound like you were talking just about the maid."
Ziva's lips pressed into a thin line.
"Ziva," Tony said, softly. Please talk to me. She used to, but nothing had been right between them since he screwed up by trying to push Ray and her together.
Surprisingly, that worked. "She won't let go of me," Ziva said, leaning back against the counter and bending forward a little.
"Yael," Tony said. That name would never not be a nightmare to pronounce.
"Yes," Ziva said. "She just keeps -"
"You used to be friends," Tony said when a moment passed and Ziva did not continue.
"That was a decade ago, Tony."
"She still means something to you," he pointed out. "Maybe you still mean something to her."
"You're doing it again," Ziva said angrily, voice rising a little. She pushed herself from the counter. "Can't you see? This is what she does, Tony. She finds out what people want, what people need or fear, and she uses that to direct what they do. She's been doing that since we were eleven, years before it became her job. Maybe I do want to be able to have something of my childhood, maybe I do want to know that there's someone who matters who forgave me this," she gestured widely, "but can I trust this to her? No, I can't."
He couldn't even remember his childhood, he'd discovered in the past months; at least not reliably so. What was it like to remember, and to feel as if you had no right to the memory, as if you had been banished from the foundations of your own identity?
"I'm sorry," he told her. "Forget I asked."
She slumped back against the counter, arms crossed on her chest. "It's just that she looks at me like - I'm just imagining things."
Tony leaned sideways against the counter, close enough if she wanted him but giving her enough space. "Like what?" he asked, very softly.
Ziva was staring down at the floor. "Like she'd make it all alright, if she could? But she's the good sister, always was." She laughed a little and looked up at him. "Her parents used to complain about that."
"Seriously? What parents do that?" he asked.
She shrugged. "I used to envy her that. I always was too much my father's daughter for my mother, and never good enough or important enough for my father."
That put a lump in Tony's throat. How could anyone think you're not good enough? You're perfect. He couldn't tell her that, though, and it's been a while since he was allowed to hold her. "Their loss," he said instead.
"It's still my past, Tony."
"I know," he said. He wanted so badly to put an arm around her shoulders, to pull her close, to be able to make any of this hurt any less. Instead, he repeated: "I'm sorry."
Anat stared at the mountain of papers on her desk, and then stepped out of the cubicle to stand by Tim's desk. She hated talking to people without seeing them when she didn't have to. "Is it just me, or is this not looking right?"
"It's not looking right," Dunski called back immediately from Ziva's desk, where she's taken residence.
"What isn't looking right?" Tim asked.
"Bug her house, sure," Anat said. "But why bug her computer if you're going to kidnap her?"
"You're talking about Roberts," he said.
"Yeah," she confirmed. "It doesn't look right."
"The bugs aren't right, either," Dunski added. "Data links, microphones, but no cameras."
"But we've been all over NAARIS' files," Tim said. "They don't have access to anyone else at Optix. I even crossed the road crews they have people on against the tactical workout. There's no match."
Anat shook her head. "It's still wrong."
Tim's phone rang. He picked it up. "McGee. Hold on, let me put you on speaker." He pushed a button on the phone and put the receiver down. "Okay, go."
"So Eric and I went through all the offshore organizations that turned up as connected to NAARIS," said Nell's voice.
Anat came around Tim's desk to stand closer to the phone. "Hi, motek. And?"
"Hi," Nell replied. "And they are totally using the same MO in each and every country."
"You cracked A-Tahaluf," McGee exclaimed.
"Mm, we did," Nell said.
Anat's mind was racing, though. She leaned past Tim, closer to the phone. "Define 'same MO'."
"Refugee support organizations."
That was specific. That was really specific. Terrorist organizations could be really clever, sometimes, but there was something else going on here. "Do you have records of the people all those organizations resettled?"
"Yes," said Eric's voice after a beat.
"Go to the first two groups they resettled," she said.
"All of them?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered unhesitatingly.
"Where are they employed? Through the organization?"
"Though the main organizations or their associate agencies," he answered after a beat.
"All of them?" she demanded.
"Well - no. There are a few in the first group who aren't. All across the board," he added.
"That's it," Dunski said. Anat glanced up at her quickly - she'd pushed herself to her feet.
"What's it?" Tim asked.
"That's the leadership," Anat said.
"The people who aren't employed through the organization?" Eric asked.
"Yes," Nell said. "Of course, why else would they consistently use this ruse?"
"Uh, guys, we have a problem," Eric said, sounding nervous and worried all of a sudden. "This guy who's supposedly hosting a dinner party today that NAARIS are taking Sam to? He's one of the supposed leaders."
Oh, shit. Anat pushed herself back from Tim's desk and ran over to her own. She knew where this was going.
"You don't take the new guy to meet the top dog on the second day," Tim said in the meantime.
"Not unless you're on to him," Dunski said. Her voice sounded much closer.
"Sam's not five minutes out and he's in the car with Khaled Qadir," Eric said. "We can't abort."
Anat came out from the cubicle with the relevant maps, which she put down on Tim's desk. "Nobody else is close enough," she told Dunski as she continued to highlight a route on the maps.
"You know how I drive," Dunski said dryly.
"Should I tell the police to lay off your car?" Tim asked.
"I'll write you the license plate."
"There." Anat straightened and back and handed Dunski the maps. "I'll have to talk you through the tactical breakdown on the way. Eric?" she tossed, and then went to get the rest of the maps.
"On it," he replied automatically.
"You get the cell phones, i'll get the building plans," McGee said.
Anat emerged from the cubicle with the rest of the maps, which she dumped on McGee's desk. Dunski was already gone. "And somebody talk to Callen."
"Yeah, he's not happy," Nell said.
"Lo, be'emet," Anat said. She dragged Tony's chair over and pushed McGee aside so they could both work from the same desk. "Okay, who has my building plans?"
The problem with playing coy with a bunch of terrorists who already knew you're a plant was that things had a tendency to get sticky. Granted, Sam had been in much stickier situations than being bound in a suburban basement, surrounded by five male terrorists in their thirties to forties, but his evening could do without this development.
The doorbell sounded from above. After a tense moment, Rashid - the leader - went upstairs. Sam heard the door open, and then G's voice, loud and clear at his best crooked-lawyer friendly: "Hi, sorry to bother you, but my car just broke down and my cell phone battery is dead. Any chance I can borrow a phone to call for a tow?"
Rashid's voice didn't carry as clearly, but G's voice did as he said "Oh, thank you." The words were closely followed by the sounds of a fight. Khaled, Amir and the guy Sam didn't know rushed upstairs, leaving Salakh to guard Sam on his own. That was convenient; Sam could get himself free and overpower Salakh easily enough, if his idiot partner wouldn't get himself killed before that happened. Three to one - assuming G had knocked Rashid out cold - weren't very good odds, but G'd been known to be competent on occasion. Except that Salakh, who was a fanatic but nevertheless no fool, re-positioned himself behind Sam, hidden almost completely from view, with a gun held to Sam's head.
A few moments later, the basement door creaked open. Footsteps sounded down the stairs, the right weight to be G's. A shadow was visible around the wall enclosing the basement stairs. "NCIS, you're under arrest. Come out with your hands up," announced G's voice.
"Don't move or your friend dies!" Salakh shouted in reply.
"I wouldn't do that, if I were you," G replied. "This place is surrounded."
The hell it is, Sam thought irritably. G was stalling - but what was he stalling for?
"He still dies!" Salakh replied.
The sound of a gun's hammer being cocked cut through the air, sounding from some point behind Sam and, presumably, behin'd Salakh. It was followed by a woman's voice, stating matter-of-fact: "Ahsan-lak tistaslim."
You'd better surrender, Dunski had just said. The house was on a slope, and there was a walk-in door to the basement; she must have broken in while G provided a distraction.
Salakh twitched, but he didn't get far: there was a thunk, like something blunt hitting tissue and bone, closely followed by the sound of an unconscious body dropping to the floor. Salakh's gun was no longer against Sam's head.
G stepped into the basement, holstering his gun. "What the hell was that?" he demanded at the same time that Dunski said, "Don't move."
"Are you still waving a loaded gun next to my head?" Sam demanded.
"No, I'm waving a knife next to your wrists," she retorted, a second before the zip-tie binding his wrists was cut.
Sam brought his hands forward, massaging his wrists.
"Are you okay?" G asked.
"Yeah," Sam assured him. Then he twisted around to take a look at Dunski, who had a bleeding mess not far from her eye, a bruise already forming around it. "What happened to you?" he asked.
"Somebody was getting the shit beaten out of him," she said.
Her choice of pronouns had Sam turn around to stare at G, who protested: "I'm fine!"
"Somebody is also protesting too much," she retorted.
"And somebody is bleeding all over the place," G snapped.
Dunski reached into one of the pockets on her cargos and pulled out gauze and tape, gesturing with them as if to say You gonna do something about it?
G's gaze heated. He stepped silently around Sam to take the medical equipment from Dunski's hands.
Seriously? Sam thought irritably as he pushed himself up. Manipulative brunettes were G's type, but when did this happen? "Right," he said, pulling the syllable a little. Dunski made a token effort to glance at him, but G was locked on her. "I'm going to see what's upstairs while you two are playing doctor," Sam continued.
When he glanced back from the stairs, G was wiping away blood from Dunski's face.
Chapter 5: Small Joys
"Angels, they will sing for you
You'll find your way whether it's bright or dark
Angels, they will sing for you
Small joys will glow
And glitter like stars"
- Small Joys, Micha Shitrit and Amir Benayoun
G's hand kept brushing against hers as they made their way from the car through the hotel lobby and up to her room. The paramedics on the scene had insisted that Yael should get the punch-mark checked out at the hospital, in case of bone fragments. She wouldn't argue with paramedics, usually, but a little bit of protesting ensured that G would escort her to the hospital and then to the hotel.
He stood this close deliberately, but he wasn't aware of constantly touching her. He was also unaware that he kept staring at her mouth, where she'd left a strategic smudge of jelly. The donut holes were useful, that way: that she worked through them in the car got him used to looking at her mouth as he bitched about her eating all the food, and handing him the things as he drove got him used to the casual touch.
His jeans had been visibly too tight since the house, which he had to be aware of but apparently wrote off as the result of adrenaline. It was getting harder to not look, herself, to keep her gaze sideways and so have him continue to push it. That at this point he expected her to behave in certain ways helped. This was already enough touch that she was almost as aware of him as she was of herself.
She slid the keycard into the door and pushed it open, just a little, before turning around. He was in her face, staring down at her. The concentrated heat burned on her skin, made her tighten achingly.
This was it. She could plant the suggestion, wind them both up, engineer the situation, but there was only so much she herself could push.
"You got a smudge of jelly," he said. His voice was low and rough. He lifted his right hand. "Right there."
His thumb pressed at the corner of her mouth, hand nearly cupping her cheek. She let him wipe the jelly before she turned her head, just a little, swallowing his thumb in with a swirl of her tongue, never breaking eye contact.
His shock radiated so clearly that she could read it just from that. He didn't move other than that, but there was no startle in that shock, just a mind temporarily overwhelmed by unexpected stimuli, so she stepped in when she released his thumb, tilting up for a kiss. His other hand shot up so that he held her face with both his hands, and he pushed them both into the room, her shoulders slamming her against the wall as the door clicked shut behind them. She wedged her knee between his legs in the process.
He didn't know how to get off on this, not really. He didn't get off on control or humiliation. It was as clear as the hard-on she was rubbing her thigh against. It made the thrill of being pinned like this bearable but it didn't make her any less aware of two strong hands on her jaw, a heavier body pressing her against a hard surface.
Earlier in the grocery store she could read the other woman off of him, in the ways that he seemed to expect her to move. Now that ghost was gone. Her shoulders dropped with the realization, their relief matched.
He broke the kiss, his hands dropping from her face to her shoulders and then one hand trailing down to her waist. She let her head tip back against the wall, eyes closed, left leg never ceasing the rhythmic motion. Then some of the anger bled out of him; he shifted, became younger, maybe younger than the twenty-year-old self that had been in the back of her head since she rushed out of the Navy Yard hours earlier. The hand at her waist was caressing more than possessive, but the one on her shoulder was still a firm command to stay.
"Are you okay?" he asked. There was hesitation, under the roughness, but it wasn't for her - it was for himself, as he tried to figure out what he wanted and what he thought he should want.
Fuck everything that had ever hurt him so, that he would feel the need to ask that before taking what was obviously offered to him, that he could look at her in that moment and even conceive of hesitation.
He needed to see her eyes for this. She sighed as she rolled her head forward again and opened her eyes. A part of him still expected her to lift a hand to his face, to implicitly take control of this; but he was also sure enough that he'd be out the door if she did that. He couldn't let himself be there otherwise.
"What part of 'Are you going to fuck me?' wasn't clear?"
His right hand went up, breaking contact for a second before his fingernails scraped against the bandage by her eye, feather-light. Her head was getting light and if she didn't know, if her senses weren't full of him - so much so that there was no distance between what she intended to broadcast and what was reflected back to her off him - then she'd wonder if he was deliberately forcing another yes.
But he wasn't; he genuinely needed to know. She turned her head to nuzzle at his palm. His skin smelled like hospital soap and powdered sugar, but the scents barely registered next to the shiver that ran through him. He wanted this, badly.
She pressed a kiss to the ball of his palm.
They'd formed a bit of a routine over the past few days. Anat coming over to sit on the couch after her shower was not part of that routine. Tim hesitated for a second, and then came over to sit down next to her, close enough that their shoulders touched. He couldn't bring himself to put an arm over her shoulder. At least, not just yet.
She had her knees drawn up and her body was full of tension. He knew she'd left something out, that morning. He just wasn't sure what.
"I didn't run point, then," she said. "Wasn't senior enough. Would've been, if i'd stayed on just another year. But it was Orit who had lead. We'd worked together for years, by then. She was my senior, technically, but - we were just friends, y'know? Too many weeks spent when we'd set foot outside the hive just to shower and go to the bathroom."
She seemed to be waiting on some sort of response, so Tim said, "Yeah."
"The debrief cleared everybody," Anat said, matter-of-fact. "A week is really fucking long, for one of those things. We were all worn out as hell, after. So first we thought Orit was just late, the next day. Took us a couple hours to get worried. Turns out, she'd left her door open. They found her at the kitchen table. She put a knife in her throat."
"Normal officers," Anat continued, "when they want to kill themselves they take their service weapon and go to the bathroom. I think Orit didn't want any one of us to find her. She'd left her door open. She was trying to make it as easy as possible."
"Did she leave a note?" Tim asked carefully.
Anat shook her head.
"Everybody were like - shocked, sure, this doesn't happen, these things just don't happen, but then it was like - everybody were like, she felt guilty."
The debrief cleared everybody, Anat kept repeating. "But you don't think that's what happened," Tim stated.
She shook her head. "You don't do this job for that long and don't learn to forgive yourself," she said. "You just don't - you don't stay on long enough to be good if you can't handle it, and Orit was good, Tim. She really was. She taught me. And even if - people don't kill themselves over that."
What do you mean, people don't kill themselves over that? Tim wanted to snap, but he swallowed it down. It was a fucked-up world in which people had to learn to shrug off "collateral damage" to stay alive themselves, but that was Anat's world, and that was the world just outside his own doorstep, as much as he tried to not think about that.
"I'm sorry," he said instead. All of the same emotions still showed in his voice; he could only hope that Anat could deal with someone being angry on her behalf. "I'm sorry that - God, Anat."
She nodded once, sharply, but she didn't say anything and her hands were balled over her knees. Tim hesitated, and then very carefully put one of his hands over hers.
He didn't need to pry her fingers loose: she grasped at him immediately.
"We had to have missed something. I had to." Finally, the anguish was evident in her voice. "All these hours together - after these years - and something had to be wrong, something had to have been wrong for a while, and I missed it, somehow, we all did. She was just Orit. Maybe it's harder to see when you see someone every day, all the time like that. Maybe the changes accumulate. And then this one thing that should have been okay really wasn't, and everybody say, oh, that's why." Her voice turned bitter on the last words and she turned her head to look at him. "That's why I left. I just couldn't - I was too angry at everybody. I was too upset that we could spend all this time with each other, and never know, and no one seemed to notice or care."
There were only so many times he could say he was sorry. His throat was too tight, anyway.
She was still looking at him. "Keep an eye on Tony, okay?"
He wasn't sure what he expected her to say but that wasn't it, not remotely. There was only one way to interpret that, given what she'd just told him. Tim nodded before she could say anything more. He wanted to say Of course, I promise, but his throat was still stuck.
He pulled her in, instead. She didn't say a thing, and she was still rigid with tension, but, a moment later, his shirt was definitely wet where her face lay against it.
Friday, January 20
Everything was quiet when he woke up. Not just in the room, where the only sound G could discern was the soft whirr of the AC, but also inside his head. G lay still, reveling in it. It wasn't familiar, quite, but he was pretty sure he'd felt this way before - just, so long ago that he'd forgotten. I wonder if it's what normal people feel like all the time, he thought. The relief the quiet brought was not unlike that of a cool water spray after being out too long in summer. It felt too good to analyze, and that alone told him that he wasn't nearly as clear-headed as he felt.
But the quiet stayed, still comfortable like the blanket and the temperature, like the darkness against his eyelids. Dark. The thought tugged at him. Weren't the lights on, earlier? He woke up a little more. This was Yael's hotel room, and he was laying in Yael's hotel room's bed, and the lights were on last he remembered - he had a fuzzy memory of turning on his side, Yael pressing a kiss behind his ear. He must have dozed off, and Yael must've turned off the lights; but where was she?
The room was indeed dark when he opened his eyes. He was at the very edge of the bed, facing the nightstand and the wall. G turned around. There was only very little light in the room, slithering in around the curtains. The volume of the blanket created long shadows, making it even harder to see anything, but - there. The white bandage made her easier to locate. Yael was laying on her side at the very other side of the bed, looking at him. He knew her eyes were open because they glittered a little in the meager light.
"Hey," he said softly.
"Hey yourself," she replied, just as softly.
Her voice settled into him together with the quiet, like another caress. Definitely not actually clear-headed, yet, and he'd really forgotten what this was like. The comforting silence inside his head was the lack of all the voices that should be yelling at him to get out, right about now.
There'd be time enough or that later. He didn't want to get out. He wanted to make the most of this. Why was she on the other side of the bed, so far away he couldn't feel her or even hear her breathe? He wouldn't have dozed off, if she had been any nearer; he knew that, and it shouldn't surprise him that she'd figured it out. But he was awake, now.
He lifted his left arm a little, lifting the blanket with it in an invitation. "Come here."
She tangled their ankles together when she moved closer, and G took a few seconds to catch up. He wasn't surprised that she didn't try for more than that, leaving over a foot of clear distance between them at the chest; if for no other reason, than because his torso could use not bumping into anything more for the next few days. He was a little bit surprised that she pillowed her head on his right arm: that was the bandaged side she was laying on.
That she was exactly Tracy's size was a lot less prominent than it was before. It helped that she wasn't actually Tracy's build, not at all. Tracy was fit, yes, but still undeniably rounded and soft. Yael had shoulders as wide as Kensi's, for all that she was three inches shorter, and the muscle tone of a thirty-year-old woman who had been fighting-fit since she was a teen.
It felt too awkward to either leave his left arm in the middle or put it over her, so he reached for her face instead. Maybe it was good that she was laying on her injured side.
She didn't tilt into the touch, not like before, but she was close enough that he could feel the way she held herself change. It wasn't tension; he'd know if she felt unsafe, wouldn't he? It felt more like concentration, as if she was striving to hear something.
But what was there for her to listen to so closely?
"What do you want?" he whispered in the dark. It was the last thing he should rely on, this impulse to make her happy, to keep her happy, but there was no way that this was her, this careful, passive distance. It was tailored too precisely for his comfort - everything about this was.
She reached forward to lay her hand against his cheek. "This is good."
The touch was light, but substantial, not that maddening feather-light. G kept his eyes open, searching her face. "Something?" he insisted, even as he thought Please, let it not be something I'll regret later.
She hesitated - he could see that - and then she pulled back her hand before moving forward, close enough for a hell of a whole lot of touch. Her arms were tucked between them, though, folded over her chest; those were her forearms against his chest. This wasn't about sex.
It was an easy distance at which to wrap her with both arms, bury his face in her hair. She sighed deeply as he did that.
She should be higher than he was, judging by how loose her body was, but that strange attentiveness was still there. He nuzzled at her face, carefully, mindful of that bruise. That got her to tilt her head back a little and open her eyes as she looked at him. G's mind stilled. It was the way you looked at something precious, something to be treasured, and she was looking at him.
Maybe this was all right, after all.
Out there in the world, there was a very big raid going on. Several raids, really, though perhaps not all of them in the same moment. They had five A-Tahaluf members in custody, one of whom was a cell leader. It was not the kind of thing that could be kept a secret for long. They had to act quickly, or all the intelligence analysed over the past few days would be useless, and they'd have to start anew.
That was somebody else's problem. P-LAM was a joint project and Optix was a joint op, but the massive SWAT raid that went live at 06:00 all across the East Coast was not Anat's to prepare and coordinate. She didn't have much to do, work-wise; sorting out which papers to shred and which to keep was NCIS' problem, and the reports were mostly Dunski's problem. There'll be hell waiting for her when she got back to her own office on Sunday, but until then she was very definitely off the job.
Which was why she had the time to prepare sabich sandwiches for everyone. Well, everyone who was presently in: Ziva and Gibbs were out with the SWAT teams. That was still six sandwiches to prepare - or eight, rather, because she couldn't possibly leave Abby out, and Tim heavily hinted that she'd like to talk to Doctor Ducky.
The problem with spending all that while in the break room was that she was right next to the coffee maker, and she kept drinking cup after cup, atrocious as American coffee was - and now that she wasn't trying to do a month's worth of work each and every day she could notice that. Anat glanced at the boxes of ingredients and tray of half-ready sandwiches, hesitating, but decided she didn't actually need to fetch anyone to keep an eye. The office was still mostly empty and, besides, she was just going to the bathroom. It would only be a minute.
It wasn't going to only be a minute. She realized that when she stepped out of the stall to find Dunski leaning back against the sinks. Anat looked anywhere but at her; it was that or stare at the bruise covering a quarter of her face. The dark purple of it stood in sharp contrast to her complexion, making her look sickly.
"There are two ways I can write that report," Dunski said over the sound of the running tap. "One is the report everyone expect i'll write. The other will say that you just needed to be let out of the cage, and will question the judgment of anyone who kept you back from ops all this while."
Anat closed the tap too sharply and turned to stare at the other woman. Her heart was pounding in her throat. "That's why you wanted me on this op," she said after a moment. "You hoped - "
"I was pretty damn sure," Dunski corrected.
Fuck you, Anat thought, but she didn't say it out. Picking fights with handlers was futile, let alone when dealing with the one who kept the others in check.
"Rafah-Sinai and North Gaza both have openings," Dunski continued. "Rafah would need a new chief in a year and a half, and the brass don't like their current XO. Give half of what you did this past week, and you're in the running. Give 70%, and it's yours."
Anat barely checked the With no command experience? in time. She'd be out of arguments the second she gave that up. "What makes you think I'd like to stay like this?" she said instead, through gritted teeth.
"Your desk, your people, Anat. You're an officer; start acting like one."
Balling her fists when dealing with one of the handlers was a really bad idea, but it was still better than snarling out that Fuck you. She wasn't angry at the woman, not exactly: but the insult stung.
"You walked out then because people made assumptions instead of think," Dunski said. "And then people went ahead and did the same thing about you. You never needed a break from ops."
That was a pitch, and Anat didn't need to hear it. She cut Dunski off. "You're being a lousy saleswoman right now."
"When I talk about your performance I'm not talking just your analysis skills," Dunski said. "That desk could use you." She pushed herself away from the sinks. "I'll be writing my report on the plane. Tell me which one you want me to write."
Thank god it's Friday, Tony thought sourly as he gazed through the observation room's window. Though with my luck, somebody's going to get murdered over the weekend. A murder mystery wouldn't be so bad, though: at least he was good for those, on occasion. Then again, he also considered himself a reasonably good interviewer and yet there he was, playing sitter. Again.
He didn't really expect to be let out on the big, important raid. Gibbs only ever trusted Ziva with those things anyway, and then there was the matter of it being winter. Gibbs always noticed, when Tony started coughing, and then Tony found himself left at the office all the damn time until spring came. Tony was going to get his bronchitis anyway - has been getting at least one bout of bronchitis a year since his little run-in with the plague - but that didn't stop Gibbs from trying.
It didn't have to be bad, this time. They had five subjects to interrogate, which should have provided plenty work for all. There was only one little snag: keeping Dunski out of interrogation was apparently not an option, and somebody had to watch her. Somebody being, naturally, Tony. Not that he could do much beyond making sure she wasn't tearing out anybody's fingernails, because of course she conducted the interview in Arabic.
At least she'd lost the bet. Callen, Hanna and her each took a subject, on the agreement that the first one done got to interrogate Rashid Zeitouni. The bet had been skewed in her favor, in Tony's opinion: Hanna insisted on interrogating Khaled Qadir, which left the options of Dunski interrogating the guy who's whose shoulder she thoroughly damaged, the guy whose shoulder she dislocated plus broke his wrist and elbow, or the one in whose ear she'd cocked a gun. Callen took that last one; he also won the bet, though Tony was pretty sure Dunski would cry foul when she'd hear how.
Which was apparently going to be any minute, now, because she finally got up from that chair and left interrogation. A second later, she entered the observation room. "You can send in anyone," she said. "He'll repeat it all in English."
Tony looked deliberately at his watch. "Nice time," he said. "Pity Callen beat it by about ten minutes."
"What'd he do, threaten Salakh with the crazy Israeli chick?"
Tony stared at her. "How'd you know?"
"He chose his subject first. The rationale was obvious."
She knew that and she didn't protest then, which meant that... "You forfeited the bet."
She shrugged. The gesture was as rehearsed and artificial as her perfect single-eyebrow raises. "Zeitouni's thoroughly incriminated either way."
"And you get to interrogate the guy who gave you that lovely shiner," Tony said flippantly while he was thinking, still trying to figure out the forfeit.
"That's not usually considered an advantage."
"When you broke the guy's arm three different ways for it, it does." And in the same breath and the same tone, he added: "Why did you forfeit, really?" She was just going to lie anyway, but lies weren't necessarily useless.
"This job is not about me," she said. It could be Tony's imagination, but her voice seemed gentler than the usual. "It's not about any one of us. Why should this matter?"
"Do you use that argument to justify everything?" Tony challenged her. "'This job is not about us'?"
"Do you mean me, specifically, or Israelis in general?"
"Does it matter?"
"Sometimes things go wrong, no matter how good anyone is," she said, and Tony wasn't wrong - her voice was eerily gentle. "Easier to not lay blame where it doesn't belong, if you remember that."
"I have no idea what you're talking about." It wasn't a lie, but it felt like one. His mouth was dry.
"What happened with Ray wasn't your fault."
"Get out," Tony said automatically. His hands went to his elbows of their own accord. "Get out now."
She stayed put, considering him with unreadable eyes.
Ray wasn't your fault. He didn't expect those words to mean anything, coming from her, but they did. He couldn't believe a word she said, no matter how genuine she sounded, but he wanted to. God, he wanted to. And if he let himself believe her, if he let himself take that from her -
Just because she was better at this game didn't mean that he didn't recognize what the game was.
She didn't walk out, but she wasn't talking, either. He half wanted her to repeat what she'd said, maybe add that Michael and all the shit that followed wasn't his fault, either. He wanted it too badly; he knew that, and she had to know that, too.
Go ahead and break me already, he thought tiredly, irritably. He could almost believe it would be better than this. What would she get from it, though? She seemed to already have all the access to NCIS that she could possibly want. The only thing he could give her -
- was Ziva.
This was about Ziva.
And the only way it made sense, for this to be about Ziva, was if Dunski had actually been telling him the truth. And if he was right about this, about Yael -
"You said she's better off with us," he said quietly. It sounded entirely too much like a plea, but he needed everything he had just to hold on to what was really important. "If you really mean that -"
She considered him for a moment longer, and then turned around and walked out.
Gibbs was heading back up from Abby's when a large, dark hand reached out of nowhere to halt the elevator door, followed a moment later by the rest of Sam Hanna.
Hanna did not say a word as he stepped into the elevator. Gibbs didn't, either. He also skipped the brief, polite nod. There was nothing for Hanna to do at the first basement level, which meant that there was no good reason for him to be there except to ambush Gibbs.
Gibbs let the elevator climb one floor, two, almost three, before he hit the emergency stop button and turned to Hanna. He was going to have to be careful, with both of them in this narrow space. "You got something to say, then say it," he told the other agent shortly.
"I hear you basically saved my partner's life a few years back," Hanna said evenly. "Thanks for that."
Gibbs nodded a little. Whatever was about to follow had to be bad, if Hanna felt the need to use that for an opening.
"You got a good team," Hanna added.
That required comment. "That they are," Gibbs agreed.
"There are two of them Dunski could snap in under five minutes," Hanna continued, in the exact same smooth tone.
Gibbs bristled, checking himself from doing something idiotic like taking half a step forward. This was Hanna's setup; Gibbs would do better to not literally walk into traps. "You trying to say something?"
"Yeah, I do. You think you're doing David any favors, singling her out? Or DiNozzo, picking his fights for him?"
Hanna was more than SEAL enough to hear the sniper in Gibbs' voice as he said, "They're not your team."
"That's right," Hanna agreed. "They're your team. Start acting like it." He reached past Gibbs to get the elevator going.
Gibbs didn't stop it again.
With at least two hours to go until lunch, Ziva was already starved. It so happened, when one's morning started at an hour so early most people still considered it to be night. Being welcomed at the office with a pita stuffed full of fried eggplants, eggs and vegetable salad and dripping with schug-laced tahini was the only reason Ziva made it so far.
Well, maybe she got lucky. She raised her head from her report and located Anat, perched by the large windows. "Is there still any eggplant left?" she asked.
"Should be," Anat said. She pushed herself up. "I'll go -"
Ziva got up quicker. "I can make my own sabich, you know."
Anat relaxed back "You just want even more schug in it," she mock-accused.
Ziva shrugged as she made her way out the aisle and towards the break room. "So I happen to like my food hot."
Anat tucked her chin in and gave Ziva a look of a kind that was hard to mistake. "I like other things hot, too."
Ziva's lips quirked at the compliment. Anat, thankfully, refrained from augmenting her words with a well-placed slap.
"Anat!" McGee protested from somewhere behind her.
"What?" Anat called back. "I like hot weather, okay?"
By then Ziva got far enough that she couldn't quite hear what McGee replied, but it had Effie in it.
It occurred to her that she might miss Anat.
There were, indeed, enough eggplants left, but they were very nearly out of pittas - Anat had left those on the counter. Well, that just meant that Ziva could feel okay in stuffing her pitta nearly to the point of bursting. She was halfway through doing that when she heard someone else enter the break room. She turned her head around.
"Do you want another one also?" she asked Tony. "We've almost run out."
"Nah," he said, coming closer. "I'm not particularly hungry."
She raised her eyebrows. "You, not particularly hungry? Are you sick?"
"What? It's been known to happen, sometimes."
"Yeah," she retorted, "when you're sick." By then he drew close enough that she could wipe her hand on a paper napkin and touch his forehead. "Well, you don't have a fever."
"Nice to know you care."
She rolled her eyes at him and returned to stuffing the pita.
"Do you blame me?" he asked suddenly.
Her hands stilled. She looked up at him. "What?" she demanded.
"Ray," he said. The name sounded like the wound it was. "I pushed you when I shouldn't have, I -"
"Ray made his own choices," she told him. She sounded angry, but she was angry. "You're not responsible for those."
"Only for -"
She returned her attention to the food demonstratively, pushing a slice of fried eggplant in with more force than was necessary. That shut him up.
"What about Michael?" he asked.
The pita slid from her hand and fell to the plate. She turned to stare at him.
Tony met her gaze with a stubborn one of his own. "If I hadn't killed him you wouldn't have been recalled to Israel. If you hadn't been recalled to Israel like that, you wouldn't have ended up at Somalia. If you wouldn't have ended up at Somalia, you could still -" He swallowed. "You wouldn't have had to give up everything."
She was still staring at him.
His shoulders dropped. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but then just turned away.
"Tony!" she grabbed his arm before he could make one step, turning him back to face her forcibly. She grabbed his face with both her hands, making him look at her. For a split-second there she thought she might kiss him, but then his eyes met hers.
"Do you actually believe that?" she asked.
His gaze hardened.
Then why do you...? she wondered, but the answer remained the same: because he was Tony, and that was what Tony did, time after time.
She swallowed. It was a long moment before she could push the words up her throat, and they still tore it ragged on the way. "Michael was a symptom, not the disease," she told him. "If it hadn't happened that way, that time, it would have happened another way, another time. That things were this wrong could not possibly be your fault."
His eyes softened as she spoke, but that just made the pain more obvious.
She let go of his face abruptly, looking down.
She'd kissed his cheek, once. But it would not go well if she went near his face, now. They were too raw, both of them, and there was too much history between them. Instead she took his hand - which he half-balled on instinct - and pressed her lips against the secret patch of skin between thumb and forefinger. That one didn't have the significance to it that the palm, back or fingers did. "You're my best friend," she told him, acutely aware of her gaze still being downcast.
"I changed my mind," he said after a long moment. He met her with a weak smile when she glanced up at him sharply. "I'll take one of these."