Onto Homer’s world, not ours. First and last
They magnify earth, the abiding
Mother of gods and men; if they notice either
It is only in passing; gods behave, men die
Both feel in their own small way
Sunday evening (thick and stifling; not much different from daytime in D.C., except for being dark) and tomorrow she's looking forward to a full day on the Hill, stale coffee and microphones and arrogant old men in sober, expensive ties asking the same questions six different ways because each of them is convinced he’s asking something new. Another week or so and home is the hunter, but for now duty calls and it’s Hetty Lange's job (she belongs in Los Angeles with the Office of Special Projects managing the books and wrangling the children and running undercover ops and as usual not being thanked, instead of here in Washington spending her mornings on the stand in front of God and everyone, but Director Sheppard -- Jenny -- had asked nicely, and what Jenny wants, Jenny usually gets) to convince the members of the Boys’ Club that upholding the laws that they so love making is worth at least a pittance in next year’s budget (a pittance, if not a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck) and she’d rather be back at her hotel watching CNN with the air conditioner humming in the background (or better yet, home in L.A., closer to that lovely bar with the mechanical bull, and far away from sharks in elegant clothes), but instead she’s at the Four Seasons, having supper with a CIA agent (and when she looks at Trent Kort, Hetty’s reminded of the old joke about why those out at Langley never say “the” CIA: does one use the word “the” in front of the word “God?”).
Trent Kort is English, flinty-eyed, the barest hint of stubble on his scalp, his jaw. English, but not in the cultured, faintly snobbish upper-class kind of way; no, he’s English in the hard, back-alleys-of-Liverpool gangster sort of way.She’d seen him last night at Senator Westfield’s reception, tall, well-dressed, carrying himself with an unmistakable arrogance (a bearing that she’s certain he can shed like water, or an old skin, in the field), talking intently with a dark-haired man who Hetty had never seen before (impeccable suit, beautifully cut, obviously bespoke -- she'd felt a fleeting temptation to ask him who his tailor was -- and close-clipped beard).
“Kevin Balim, CEO of Farrow-Marshall Industries.” Jenny Sheppard had murmured to her, beneath the rise and fall of conversation, threaded through with the sound of the string quartet from Georgetown playing Brahms. “And Trent Kort. I know I’ve talked to you about him.”
Trent Kort, so far, has been all smiles and pleasantries and “how are you finding Washington, Ms. Lange?” but now that she’s sitting across the table from the man, she can see why the bare handful of Jethro Gibbs’s carefully-worded reports that she’s seen (if one can read between the lines, between the idea and the reality , and Hetty has always been able to, since those last few horrible days in Leningrad after Sofia had been killed) imply that being in the same room with the man bears a certain rough resemblance to sitting down to tea and crumpets with Herod.
Hetty steels her spine, smiles, makes small talk, but the way Kort looks at her when he thinks her attention is elsewhere makes her feel like something trapped against a corkboard with shining silver pins thrust through its wings. The water is moving, something under the earth is stirring ( slouching toward Bethlehem to be born ).
At the reception last night, she and Kort had shaken hands as they'd passed one another by the buffet tables (a brief professional courtesy; nothing wrong with being collegial). She'd been surprised when Kort had phoned this morning (catching her in her hotel room as she was dressing to leave for breakfast with a colleague), and puzzled when he said he’d like to meet her for dinner, would enjoy a chance to talk to her. She’d doubted when she picked up the phone that his invitation was merely a social one, and now the look in his eyes, the set of his mouth, both tell her she was right.
There had been a faint frown between Jenny’s eyebrows last night, a tight seriousness in her face at odds with the luminous diamonds and the black, full-skirted Chanel she had been wearing (she was dressed for a party, but the look in her eyes reminded Hetty uncomfortably of Russia, and her frown had only deepened when she’d seen Kort and Balim talking. “I wish,” Jenny had murmured, half to herself, “that I knew what their game was”).
A man trying to impress her with his power and sophistication would have ordered the Kobe beef. Kort orders lamb (somehow she is not surprised), and a plate of truffled potatoes for them to share. Her companion is known to the maitre d' here, and has the look of a man who would simply order for the both of them, but she doesn't give him the chance. On the waiter's recommendation, Hetty orders the duck. As they sip wine (pinot noir for her, malbec for Kort, and she can’t fault his taste), he plies her with compliments (just another agent, cut his milk teeth on tales of the Duchess of Deception; surely not all of those stories can be true). The décor here is modern, black and glass, blonde wood and chrome; not really to Hetty’s taste (Kort had chosen the battleground), but at least the food is good.
Kort cuts his food with neat, precise strokes, eats carefully-portioned bites, and he’s still so appreciative, he says, for the rescue that NCIS had provided at National two years ago (had she heard about that? Surely she must have!); he owes them his life. If she were anyone else (even street-wise Callen, even pretty Kensi who lies as easily as she draws breath), Hetty might have been taken in by the charm and gratitude, but something (subtle, so subtle) in his face hints that it’s just a mask for whatever’s squirming underneath ( there will be a time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet ), and the hair on the back of her neck prickles.
Kort had come into the game twelve or thirteen years ago, after the Air Force and the Gulf and the irresistible pull of that elusive creature called “a normal life” had stolen her ducklings from Hetty’s arms, and she herself had begun to turn her mind towards matters more domestic (the Soviets were crumbling from within; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world . They hardly needed her help for that anymore). She hadn’t paid much attention to him (just another spook, for all he was fortunate to have a job in the New World Order), but she heard things sometimes, mostly from Jenny (Jethro had barely spoken to Hetty but for New Year's in the eight years since Paris). Apparently Kort’d had a bad reputation at MI-5 (which was better known to its friends and dear enemies as "Box"), but one man’s trash must have been the CIA’s treasure, because his rise in the Agency had been meteoric.
Last night, when she had looked at Trent Kort, Jenny’s face had hardened in the dim light, her eyes had narrowed (and Hetty knew about the bad blood between them, about La Grenouille, about words said about Jenny’s father, but it wasn’t just that). Hetty had heard rumors, a couple of years back, about the bizarre investigation (which had, interestingly enough, involved Farrow-Marshall, and a Marine serving with Jack O’Neill in Colorado) that had led up to Kort’s near-death experience at National. More interestingly, the case had been classified almost before the ink was dry on the reports and NCIS had been instructed to forget it had ever happened. (Hetty – her curiosity piqued -- had tried, when she and Jack had bumped into each other six months later, to ask Jack about it, but he had been silent on the matter, his eyes flashing dangerously; and the dry stone no sound of water . She had dropped it).
Hetty had taught her deti, her babies, to mistrust coincidence (lady, make a note of this: one of you is lying), and perhaps of all of them, Jenny (little Jenny, pretty Jenny, Jenny who had learned suspicion as easily as breathing) had learned that lesson best. Not long ago, Jenny told her, Jethro Gibbs’s team had caught what seemed like an easy case: a couple of enlisted men, found shot dead and floating, grotesque and bloated, in a canal, whose deaths had led back to a lieutenant smuggling drugs in shipments of electronic components for a Top Secret project at the Pentagon. The physical evidence had been damning (the woman’s fingerprints on the baggies of drugs, her gun the murder weapon), the lieutenant easily taken into custody, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Lieutenant Hartford denied everything, insisted she’d been framed; the prisons are full of innocent men. Gibbs might have let it go, Jenny might have let it go, sent the case on to trial and let the JAG lawyers sort it out, but for one thing: the Top Secret project in question had been COBRA (Farrow-Marshall’s project, the project somehow tied up in that investigation two years ago, an echo of a clouded past; something he carries on his back which I am forbidden to see, and Jenny did not like it).
Kort asks her nothing. Hetty waits. She knows this game (has played and won), a dance she did with Narmonov when Trent Kort was a boy with a cap gun playing at cops and robbers (robbers and cops), a dance she did with the head of the First Directorate not so many years later (he had been round and expansive and smiling, cheeks flushed with vodka, and she had not believed it for an instant) – a game of chess ( my nerves are bad tonight ): she asks, he answers (he wins) or he asks, she answers (she wins, and keeps her secrets). Kort contemplates her with those flat eyes (snake eyes, viper eyes), a frown at the corners of his mouth. She asks him about Washington, what he thinks of the man President Hayes just appointed as intelligence czar, smiles sweetly.
The waitress (slim and red-haired with carefully manicured nails, wearing a delicate and tasteful gold chain around her neck) brings them coffee, offers them dessert. Kort declines, the lines around his mouth deepening, tightening, as he studies her. The couple at the table beside them put aside their napkins and stand. Hetty orders the panna cotta.
Last night, Jenny had drawn Hetty into quiet corner of the Senator’s garden, sheltered by a hedge of honeysuckle, and her voice (her voice which was normally so even, so controlled) had been strained, urgent. Gibbs had held their suspect in the drug killings, gone with his gut (his gut, which had kept him alive in Volograd, had saved Jack’s life in Poland even if Jack never forgave him for it), asked a few more questions about the case (the lieutenant involved insisted that men had started following her after she’d gone to her CO with concerns about Farrow-Marshall). Two days later, Trent Kort had shown up, angry, tight-lipped, insisted that Lieutenant Hartford was a “person of interest” to the CIA, insisted they turn her over. Jenny had refused, applied for an injunction. (“And I know that Assistant Director Vance will say that I am, I don’t know, that I’ve traded my obsession with La Grenouille for an obsession with Trent Kort now that the Frog is dead and he’s my last link to those people, but I’m telling you tyotia, that this case has to be somehow connected to that business with Farrow-Marshall and Sergeant McAvoy, and Trent Kort keeps turning up wherever I look.”) Hetty hadn’t known what to think. (I see crowds of people, walking around in a ring).
Finally Kort sets his coffee aside, cup clinking softly against the saucer. “I saw you talking to Director Sheppard last night. I’ve heard you two are close. I suppose,” he says, “you have guessed what I’m here about.”
Hetty puts her spoon down, folds her hands on the table (patience is a virtue).
When he speaks again, Kort’s voice is measured, the voice of a man who’s used to having the upper hand and has suddenly discovered it’s not an unalienable right accorded by his sex or his status or his roguish good looks.
“I have a lot of respect for Director Sheppard, and I know she’s been through a lot these last couple of years,” (like hell; here we go round the prickly pear and Hetty almost scoffs, but that’s a violation of the rules, worth a few minutes in the penalty box and information about her she’d rather Kort not have, so she smiles patiently instead). “And I’m sure,” he says (gently, pleasantly), “that she’s frustrated at never having been read in on the McAvoy case. You know about that?” She knows it was the case that had almost ended with Trent Kort’s death, and that some parties were (very quietly) perhaps a bit disappointed that it had not. At her nod, he continues. “It couldn’t be helped. National security. I’m sure you understand.”
“Mm,” Hetty says.
She’d enjoy watching his face stiffen further, if whatever was lurking behind Trent Kort’s eyes didn’t suddenly touch something atavistic buried deep inside her, deep as serpent fear, deep as the memory of the smell of the tiger’s breath, if something (ruthlessly squelched; I’ll deal with you later) wasn’t begging her to climb a tree, to hide somewhere those eyes would never find her. (Clearly, whatever she knows about this man, whatever snippets she’s pieced together, it isn’t enough).
And I am telling you, tyotia. (Words from a past none of them want to invoke, but perhaps there is no choice left; and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned ). Hetty lifts her coffee, takes a sip, sternly represses a shiver, forces her face to blandness.
Kort closes his eyes for a long moment and lets out a controlled breath before he looks at her again (she’d think it’s heaven grant me patience but the mouse in her hindbrain, trapped in the long slow gaze of an owl, assures Hetty that it’s something else entirely).
“So I genuinely hate going behind your director’s back -- your friend’s back -- like this, but the truth is, I think she’s been slipping ever since that unfortunate business with La Grenouille, and I understand that you have some pull with her.”
“What do you want, Kort?” Hetty snaps finally (and thank the hundred little gods that her voice is steady; come in under the shadow of this red rock ).
He shakes his head, a little stern, a little sad (the schoolmaster, the minister, the doctor with bad news. The eagle or the cobra hunting, underneath). “I’d really appreciate it if you’d speak to Director Sheppard, Ms. Lange. She’s letting Agent Gibbs’s distrust of me, which she's no doubt encouraging, get in the way of her judgment," and Kort frowns, his face a mask of studied concern. " I'm sure you know Director Sheppard and I have prior history. NCIS has a Navy lieutenant in custody for murder and drug charges who is a person of interest to CIA in a matter of national security, and while I’m sympathetic to the Navy’s interest in pressing charges, this situation is much bigger than a simple drug killing."
Hetty inclines her head, looks at him levelly (cringes inwardly at meeting his eyes, but her smile still stays on). “I’ll speak to her, Mr. Kort, but since NCIS has jurisdictional precedence over CIA on U.S. soil, I’m afraid I can’t guarantee anything.”
The look in Trent Kort’s eyes, quickly hidden, quickly masked but she sees it ( burning burning burning burning ), makes Hetty’s heart hammer in her chest.
Kort clucks his tongue softly. Looks almost regretful, but Hetty knows it's a disguise, a mask (a good one, but they tell me you are wicked and I believe them ). "I was afraid you would take her side, Ms. Lange. Henrietta. I really wish you'd reconsider."
"I'm sure you do," she says evenly (her voice carefully neutral; Hetty is proud it does not shake). She knows (hopes she's wrong, but she knows; I have seen the old gods go and the new gods come ) what is coming next.
And she is right. "Director Sheppard doesn't realize this, Henrietta," (and Kort presumes familiarity which he has not earned, will never earn, but at least he does not call her Hetty), "but she is in far over her head with this case. This is a matter for CIA, not for NCIS. And I would truly hate to see anything -- unfortunate -- happen to her because of her stubborn insistence on pursuing this case."
( Come and have now: hunger. danger and hate. )
It is not -- quite -- a threat. (Nothing is ever quite anything in this business of maybes and almosts and hidden monsters in the fog).
They fold their napkins. Kort pays the bill. The maitre d’ bids them good night, and that he hopes to see them again. Hetty’s driver pulls the black Town Car around, holds open the door, takes her back to the hotel.
When she gets there, Hetty locks the door behind her, leans against the wall, and shakes for half an hour ( Something wicked this way comes , and it does not so much slouch or shamble as run).
Monday afternoon (still and hot and the grass is nearly steaming; why anyone would choose to live here -- for that matter, why anyone would choose to build a city on a swamp in the first place -- is beyond her considerable comprehension of human nature) and Hetty's still on the Hill, another endless day of questions and answers and verbal jousting, and (not that she would admit it even on a bet) every time she's up here she finds herself wishing for a temporary Y chromosome; this sort of deal-making is different for the men.
Jenny (Director Sheppard, but she will always be Jenny to Hetty, to her tyotia who had once taken a pretty, angry redheaded girl and taught her to swim in these waters) had thanked her, at Senator Westfield’s reception, for agreeing to testify at the budget hearings, because Hetty had always been the more tactful one (and by tactful, she’s fairly certain Jenny had meant, “you don’t lose your temper and start shouting obscenities at chauvinistic idiots”). Were Hetty a man, this could all be accomplished with a couple of glasses of expensive whiskey, a Cuban cigar, and an arm around the shoulder of the committee chair, nod-nod, wink-wink, and not this dance of carefully chosen words and delicately almost-revealed secrets (more in taberna and less dies irae, dies illa , which would be wonderful, but one makes the best of what one’s given, and being a woman is rather nice the other three hundred and sixty two days of the year).
This little sojourn on the Hill might be easier (if not actually easy; visits to these rarefied environs rarely are) but for what Hetty's begun to refer to (in the privacy of her own mind; the best way to keep a secret is not to tell anyone else) as the Hartford matter (Farrow-Marshall and a strange case and Trent Kort, again; she doesn't like the addends and she doesn't like the sum) and Kort's concern for Jenny (his almost-threats over coffee last night; salt and bread and a terrible job of work and tireless war ) and Jenny's inexplicable (worrisome) stubbornness this morning.
Hetty needed to be on the Hill early, so they'd only had time for a phone conversation. Still, Hetty knew that note in Jenny's voice, could easily imagine the mulish set of Jenny's chin; Hetty had seen that expression many times during Jenny's first autumn in Russia (that hard season before Jenny finally willingly bent her neck to the yoke and took up the burden of the work; Jenny had bent less easily than Jack, more easily than Jethro. It was what it was).
"You wanted my advice, Jenny," and worry and exasperation (Jenny hadn't taken that tone with her in two decades, not even after Paris) made Hetty's voice tart. "I am telling you this: go carefully. We don't have the whole picture, and all of my instincts tell me that Trent Kort is a dangerous man."
Jenny's laugh was harsh and humorless and chilled Hetty straight through ( below, the boarhound and the boar pursue their pattern as before ). "Trent Kort," Jenny said contemptuously, "is an arrogant ass. Don't worry about him. I've handled him before and I can handle him now."
Jenny had always (before) been the careful one. Jenny had sought Hetty's advice -- sought her tyotia's advice -- on the Hartford matter. It makes no sense to Hetty that Jenny should be so arrogantly determined (so reckless; any action is a step to the block, to the fire ) to proceed. The thought nags at Hetty as the morning wears on into afternoon, as she talks dollars and cents and projections and crime rates and trades carefully-worded jokes with Senators with false smiles and falsely-white teeth.
Finally (thank God) the committee chair calls for a recess, and Hetty (at last) steps out for a breath of air that hasn’t been air-conditioned and filtered to within an inch of its life and an ice-cold sweet tea from the little cart down the way. The stuff’s so sugary it’s practically toxic, and what with the nation’s ridiculous war on obesity, it’s probably soon to be outlawed (first it had been poverty, then drugs, now fat people ; apparently the government isn’t satisfied if it’s not at war with something or someone), but it’s too goddamn hot – pardon her French -- for the cup of Lady Grey that she really wants, and anyway the little man from Mumbai uses water from a coffee maker that is nowhere close to fresh off the boil.
Hetty’s just accepted the sweating plastic cup of murky brown liquid and dropped a couple of dollars in the battered plastic tip jar (no cutesy sign here admonishing her that “tipping is good karma,” but it’s still good manners and those are in such short supply these days) and is thinking about trying to call Jenny again when she sees him crossing the plaza with that big ground-covering stride. Didn’t expect to see him here (though perhaps she shouldn’t be surprised; Jenny had mentioned his promotion at the reception Monday night), only seen him a handful of times since he shipped off to Colorado (left retirement to babysit a bunch of eggheads, which always struck her as damned strange, but it was what it was and Jack had always moved in mysterious ways), first time she’s seen him with stars on his shoulders (if not in his eyes), but there’s never been any mistaking Jack O’Neill.
There are two kinds of Generals in the world – those who bask in the light cast by their stars, and those who recognize that stars are among the most massive objects in the universe. Jack, she can see even from a distance, is one of the latter, and now he is become Atlas, or maybe Sisyphus (perhaps the metaphor doesn’t matter so much because in any case the burden’s too damn heavy and the man bears it up anyway because otherwise it’s this is the way the world ends ). Hetty’s always been more of a whoever the searchlights catch sort of girl, but Jack’s never shared her optimism or her faith. What he’s always had is duty (Johnny’s gone for a solider) and sometimes, sometimes, it’s even almost enough.
Jenny had told her at the reception, underneath the din of conversation that nearly drowned out the soft strains of chamber music, that she’d seen Jack a couple of times since he’d come to D.C. (their conversation, as was typical for Jenny and Jack -- Jack who had once called her "little Jenny," even to her face; Hetty hopes for his sake that he no longer does -- had apparently been awkward and strained), that she’d heard through the grapevine that Jack (Jack who was new-come to his stars) had been seen leaving Cabinet meetings, that he had the ear of the President ( in the room the women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo ).
Jack carries himself like he did in Russia, like he did after Poland for God’s sake, eyes flicking over the crowd (maintain readiness at all times; the most dangerous enemy is the one you never see coming), Jack who’s supposedly spent the last however many years in Colorado watching over a motley crew of mostly-civilian scientists and the last few months in Washington, swimming upstream with the sharks (should be the tinker, the tailor and the candlestick maker, but it’s more like tinker, tailor, soldier, spy and maybe this is why he never invited Hetty out to Colorado, and now after so many years of not understanding, she begins to see the shape of the thing -- of the duty -- that drew him out of retirement, out of his grief for Charlie). What war are you fighting, dear Jackie, dear Jackie, what war are you fighting, dear Jackie, what war?
She had taught her ducklings to be wary when the stars aligned, told them there was no such thing as coincidence: believing in accidents, in twists of fate, was what had gotten them Minsk for God’s sake. (Poland had been a different matter. Poland was inevitable.). Seeing Jack (Jack here, now, after Jenny’s revelations, after dinner with Trent Kort last night) makes Hetty shiver despite the heat.
His head turns in her direction with that same unerring radar he’s always had; it raises goosebumps on her arms even after all these years of knowing him, and then Jack meets her eyes and grins, changing course to intercept her (and she’s spent far too many years around the Navy, if these are the metaphors she’s using now). There’s still a hint of the irreverent boy in his grin, when all of that joking was still just fun and not a force field between him and those who gave him orders he didn’t like but was bound to obey (only thing that saved him from what must have been half a dozen courts martial and a paddle to the backside was that he was right more often than not, him and Jethro Gibbs’s gut, and Jenny’s suspicion of the world at large, no matter how much Jack might want to deny the last).
The years and the weight of whatever’s in Colorado have turned Jack’s hair grey, incised lines on his face, around his eyes. She’d sent him out into the world as a jaded boy full of anger and a strength he’d only just begun to plumb, sent him to Poland ( l’chi lach, to a place that I will show you; I had no choice in the matter my duckling, I’m sorry ) and when he had fluttered back to her, poor broken thing, she’d healed him as best she could and imped the feathers back into his wings (rings and strings and sealing wax, and it had to be enough because it the best she had to hand), and then the Air Force had called him back (she'd always known that day would come, and dreaded it) and she’d had no choice but to let him fly. Hetty had once known Jack O’Neill, but now all she sees is a middle-aged man with history writ deep on his face in a cuneiform she has forgotten how to read. Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. Shantih shantih shantih.
The smile on his face, at least, is genuine, and she feels an answering glow radiating out from the center of her chest (would that there had been sexy cougars rather than merely desperate middle-aged women in those days).
“Hetty Lange!” Jack’s voice is merry (and if she had not trained him, if he had not learned his craft at her knee, she might even believe he was surprised). “What the hell are you doing in Washington, tyotia ? I thought you were spending your golden years in sunny Hollywood with the beautiful people.”
“I could say the same of you, General . Congratulations, by the way -- though your old tyotia ,” (and the love-name makes her skin prickle; it’s the second time she’s heard it in three days after two decades of not having heard it at all, that corpse you planted last year in your garden, has it begun to sprout? ), “was a little disappointed that she had to hear about it though the grapevine, rather than from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. I trust your time in Colorado hasn’t caused you to forget how to dial a phone? I know it’s a bit of an antiquated skill these days.” ( Golden years , indeed. I’ll show you golden years , little boy.)
“You know you could still earn a hell of a commission sending people on guilt trips, right?” Jack laughs, studies her.
Hetty feels her left eyebrow creeping up, casts him a sidelong look. Ladies do not wink . “It’s important to keep up one’s skills.” She hasn’t missed that while they’re being carried along with the usual current of tourists (Bermuda shorts and guidebooks) and politicians (brand-new ties and camera-ready smiles for the press) and lobbyists (that unmistakable smugness that comes from knowing one has the backing of the people really holding the reins in Washington), Jack is gently steering them to the edge of the crowd, his wake barely a ripple behind him (damn those nautical metaphors creeping in everywhere). The fog comes in on little cat feet , hiding men who haven’t yet come in from the cold.
“So I guess," Jack says, and his voice is neutral, "Jenny Sheppard is your boss these days.”
Jenny said that one of Jack’s people had been involved in that investigation two years ago, that the woman (Samantha Carter, the director had said) had mostly been close-mouthed, but had implied that the McAvoy case might have been connected to whatever Jack’s people were doing overseas (and it had been Carter, not Jethro Gibbs or Ziva David or Tony DiNozzo or anyone else from NCIS, who had saved Kort’s life in the end, taking down McAvoy – bullets, apparently, had been insufficient – with what Jethro Gibbs could only describe as a ‘ray gun.’ The military had said it was merely an advanced weapons prototype).
“She’s a good director, Jack. My ducklings have all grown up, and I’m proud of all of you.”
Hetty had tried, once upon a time after hearing Jack's name on the lips of her old friend Catherline Langford (spoken with great bitterness; we taste as bright , bitter utterly all things sweet but also with the sense of truth elided; Catherine had always carried so many secrets, though none as deep or as deadly as Hetty's own) to discover what it was that might have drawn intense, studious Catherine together with Hetty's darling boy (brightest of her little stars, who did dark things in dark places where the eyes don't go), and not much later, what had drawn Jack out of a brief and maybe bitter retirement (by then Sara was gone and Charlie was gone and Jack was alone in the world) to work on – what was it they had called it? Deep space radar telemetry ? – but all she had ever managed to learn ( surely some revelation is at hand ) was that whatever Jack had done, whatever it was that Jack was really doing, they’d circled the wagons so tight around it that Hetty could barely even discern the shadow of the thing they were hiding.
“I see," Hetty says with a smile, "that they promoted you and then sent you to Washington to earn your keep.”
A corner of Jack’s mouth quirks. “Against my will. If they told me this was the real reason they were going to pay me the big bucks, I’d’ve run like hell before they had a chance to pin these stars to my jacket. I’ll take guys shooting at me with machine guns over a bunch of smug, overpaid politicians any day of the week.” Even now, Jack is alert, eyes scanning, scanning, scanning.
She puts a hand on his arm (Jack flinches. He had flinched after Poland, too. She ignores it – pay no attention to that man behind the curtain – and smiles at him). “Oh, come now, Jack. I’m sure you’re enjoying it at least a little. There aren’t many one-star generals who can claim to have the ear of President Hayes. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’re the only one.” (And what is it that Jack has been doing? She still knows people where it matters, can still draw the map of secret wars, and maybe the map’s a little fuzzier than it had been in the old days, but she knows what Jack’s footprints look like, and they’re nowhere to be found).
Jack looks at her sharply, eyes narrow. Perhaps not all of him is written in a foreign tongue; the look screams, How much do you know? (If he knew just how little, he’d give her the official line: Masquerade, paper faces on parade; she will have to tread carefully). “I guess they just like me here,” he says, his smile dazzling, disarming (she remembers that smile, that slow sweet smile with all the lies behind it. It does not move her).
This is a familiar dance, though she worries that she’s gone in expecting to waltz and is about to find that the band’s playing a tango; no help for it but to jump right in. (As Jack had once advised, “Fake it till you make it.")
“Or else,” Hetty says archly, “they are justifiably impressed with deep space radar telemetry. Whatever that is.”
“Exactly what it sounds like,” Jack says, eyebrows raised in an expression of innocence. Another look she recognizes. ( We know Henry knows, and Henry knows we know it. We're a knowledgeable family ). It's a cover, then, a cover for something big.
The world has been a strange place of late, and it worries her. Last year the now-vanished (under mysterious circumstances) Alec Coulson (Alec Coulson the eccentric billionaire, holder of huge government contracts of the aerospace variety) had given a press conference and shown what he claimed (what certainly appeared to be) proof of extraterrestrial life. A few days later, Samantha Carter (the same Samantha Carter who had saved Trent Kort's life with a ray gun; curiouser and curiouser) had appeared on Inside Access (wretched show, but practically everyone watched it: definitely the place to appear if one wanted to, as the younger generation put it, "get the word out"), and revealed the ruse: Mr. Coulson's "proof" was merely an advanced hologram (so Colonel Samantha Carter said, so Colonel Carter appeared to demonstrate; all truth is simple ... is that not doubly a lie? ).
Hetty is not sure what to think of all this strangeness, what it means. (If she is to be truthful with herself, perhaps she does not want to know). And now, seeing Jack, seeing so clearly the secrets he wears, her mind is suddenly turning over bits of gossip, official statements that she knew were really cleverly designed bits of b.s. (even if she didn’t know what the bullshit was covering; and what’s the world coming to when she’s relying on profanity rather than a more meaningful synonym?), all the places where someone who had been playing this game (this secret game, this silent game) since some of the men and women now holding the pieces had been in diapers could practically hear the military screaming, look over here at my right hand, isn’t it interesting? She sucks her breath in as she looks at Jack. “What is going on here, Jack? What have you gotten yourself into this time?”
Jack doesn’t miss a beat, doesn’t blink, doesn’t flinch. “Just deep space radar telemetry. Egghead stuff. It’s pretty dull.” His left hand twitches, like he’s brushing something off his jacket – that’s all anyone who wasn’t in Russia with them, wasn’t in Poland, hadn’t been one of her deti , her ducklings, would see. But she was the one that taught him the hand signal: Later. We can’t talk about this here. It was a sign language few had ever known, and fewer still were alive to remember.
Hetty once read that most of the universe is composed of dark matter, in itself invisible to even the most sensitive of instruments. Astronomers detect it when there’s enough of it in one place that it begins to bend light around itself. I may not be able to see this thing you hide, Jack, but I know it’s there, and I know it’s big, and I know it’s eating you alive. “Did you ever find out what happened to that Marine of yours? Director Sheppard was mightily annoyed that SecNav pretty much clamped his mouth shut after the men in black vans took the body away and the CIA insisted on rounding up the two suspects that your Colonel Carter identified.”
“We have some idea, yes. He was apparently exposed to something while conducting some business for us overseas. It – affected his judgment.”
Ah yes . Overseas. My Johnny lies over the ocean, my Johnny lies over the sea, and it's such an innocuous (ordinary) word, but Hetty read Jethro's report and Jethro was right: in Jack's lexicon ( things hidden in the cool of the night-time ), overseas is not overseas, but a placeholder for something other, something darker (some unreal city under the brown fog of a winter noon). Some crucial piece is missing and Hetty feels as if she is standing on a pier and some of the planks beneath her feet (she can’t tell which) are rotten; below, there are dark shapes circling. Dangerous waters . She meets Jack’s eyes.
McAvoy – Jack’s Marine – had behaved strangely, had killed two colonels at the Pentagon, one associated with Farrow-Marshall’s (with Kevin Balim’s, to whom Trent Kort had been talking at Senator Westfield’s reception) project at the Pentagon. Lieutenant Hartford, Jenny’s accused murder-cum-drug-dealer (who insisted she was being framed, insisted she was the victim of mysterious forces) had gone to her C.O. with concerns about Farrow-Marshall. (There is no such thing as coincidence).
The physical evidence against Hartford – her gun the murder weapon, her fingerprints on the baggies of drugs – would be (is) enough to send the case to trial without a confession. Fingerprints can be planted, but to do it well enough to fool a skilled forensic scientist like Gibbs's dear Miss Sciuto is nothing less than an art. Her ducklings had known that art (she had taught them, twenty-odd years and another world ago), and the First Directorate had known that art, and the CIA had known that art, and that, in conjunction with her strange conversation with Trent Kort last night, with this delicate pavane of unsaid words with Jack O’Neill ( an interpolation, scrawled at the side of a tattered text ) bothers the hell out of Hetty Lange.
Hetty folds her arms across her chest, feeling chilled, remembering. It had been a cold business back in Russia, too, when they had arranged for a certain political officer, one of the men the Soviets called zampolit, one of the guardians of Soviet ideology (and a man who happened to know too much about a handful of Americans visiting Moscow) to be collected by the First Directorate of the KGB. Vatuin had also protested his innocence, but he had ended with a bullet between his eyes.
“I know your Sergeant McAvoy was under the influence of – something,” Hetty says mildly, her eyes on Jack’s face, “but Jenny also told me that evidence suggested he’d been hired to eliminate people who might have known how some electronics designed by Farrow-Marshall for the Pentagon came to be sold on the black market. Did you ever find out who hired him?”
Jack’s eyes are hooded, his face shuttered; he notices her scrutiny. (Once, he had told her everything). “We’re not sure. Why?”
“It may just be a coincidence, Jack,” and Jack looks at her sharply, noting, undoubtedly, her choice of words, “but I understand that NCIS is working another strange case that seems to be connected to Farrow-Marshall, and I know first-hand that Director Sheppard,” (little Jenny, pretty, wary Jenny) “is under considerable pressure to close the case and drop the matter as soon as possible.”
Jack’s eyes widen, almost imperceptibly. This then, is news. Worrisome news, judging from the way his nostrils are flaring, though his face remains bland, pleasant, almost expressionless. He glances at his watch. “Shit. I have to be at a meeting in ten minutes, Hetty. I wish we had more time to catch up.” He stands, squares his shoulders, straightens his jacket. “When are you heading home?”
“Not until next week, though it worries me to leave the children alone in L.A. for so long – no telling what sort of trouble they’ll find to get into.” Certainly nothing like this. Someday Callen might find himself in these troubled waters again, but not yet, not if she has a choice.
“Maybe we can meet for supper before you leave? It’s been way too long since I’ve seen you.” His hand flashes, We need to talk. I’ll come to you soon.
She stands up, smiles, puts a gentle hand on his arm. Nods fractionally. Message received. “You know I could never refuse my favorite little duckling anything, Jack. Name the place, and I’ll be there.”
Jack assures her he’ll call tonight or in the morning (she gives him her numbers, cell phone and the number at the hotel), waves jauntily (sarcastically, and respect was never his strong suit), strides off to his meeting. Hetty goes back to the hearings, glad her testimony isn’t needed this afternoon (she takes notes automatically, but her mind is restless, churning, a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi troubles my sight, and in a distant sort of way, she notices her hands are trembling).
It is ten o’clock and the moon is rising before Hetty returns to her hotel room (an old friend had prevailed upon her for dinner and she could not in good conscience refuse; the best thing to do when the world has gone mad is act as if it hasn’t, and the sky so far has not fallen). The room is dim, quiet, unthreatening, but something, some faint stirring of air, makes her reach for a gun she hasn’t carried in ten years. Instead, her back against the door, she snaps on the light.
Jack O’Neill, in rumpled jeans and tennis shoes, a dark ball cap pulled down low over his eyes, is sprawled gracelessly on the suite’s couch in the shadows.
(You could have called. You could have written. Ten years ago I might have shot you where you stood). She says none of it, just locks the door behind her, slides the deadbolt home, sets her purse on the side table. Crosses her arms across her chest.
Jack reaches in a pocket, produces something round, silvery. Places it carefully on the coffee table. Frowns (and there’s a million words in that frown, a million words in a language they both know how to read). “There are some things you need to know, tyotia ,” Jack says quietly, and Hetty (mouth dry, pulse racing) abruptly wishes she could unknow all she is about to learn.
Tuesday night. Politics and parties, parties and politics; point and counterpoint, uniforms for day (sober suits, expensive ties), and uniforms for night (tuxedoes and sequins and thousand-dollar shoes); this is how the tide rolls in and out of D.C., endless and unchanging but for who is filibustering and who campaigning, whose house the party is at, what dress the Senator’s wife is wearing, and this is why Hetty went to L.A. all those years ago when they offered her the choice. But tonight ( why is this night different from all other nights? ), Hetty is here on Jack O’Neill’s arm, and it all seems, absurd, surreal, distant, strange ( Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot ), a dream filled with noise and reflected light because she now knows a secret language ( another secret language) whose existence she had never so much as suspected before last night ( Asgard , Goa’uld , Tok’ra ; in 1928 on the Giza plateau, and in a few short hours Jack had woven her a vision of death’s other kingdom on the other side of the Stargate) and the world ( her world; this world which is one of countless many) will never look the same again.
Jack had called her (still calls her) tyotia , auntie, and had it been anyone else she might have laughed, might have asked who had put him up to it, but this is Jack, her Jack (Jacky-boy, Jack-the-Knife, and sometimes she had sworn it was short for Jackass), as much as he’d belonged to anyone before he had gone to Colorado (underground, underhill, undercover, and they had laid claim to him and laid their mark on him, but had not yet laid him to rest because he was not ready to lay down his burden) and years upon years ago he had promised her ( words are for those with promises to keep, and to Jack a promise was a blood oath was a binding) that he might lie to the world (lie to their masters, lie to the Russians, lie to himself), but he would never lie to her. Last night he had told her the naked truth, the awful truth ( truth has rough flavors if we bite it through ) and then he had asked for her help.
The waters Jack swims in now are deep (the last time he had swum in these waters he’d had Hetty to chart his course and he’d never meant to return) and filled with snakes (Goa’uld, body snatchers like something out of an old movie only solid and real) and McAvoy had been one and there are some things that Man was never meant to know, which was why the case had disappeared down the rabbit hole, and it would have stayed there forever hidden and unremarked but for the Hartford affair and its connection to Farrow-Marshall and Jenny’s unfortunate tenacity because the scarlet thread that binds the two cases is a man named Kevin Balim (Kevin Balim, the CEO of Farrow-Marshal Enterprises and the holder of billions of dollars in government contracts) or more properly, a snake named Ba’al (hidden, deadly, working to unknown purpose; for the spider’s pleasure the fly must die – so go to hell ).
Jenny would not listen to Jack (had never listened to Jack) so Jack had asked Hetty (he had not pleaded, but only just) to stand in his place between Jenny (who could not see what she faced; some truths are too strange to be seen without new eyes) and Ba’al’s (Balim’s) waiting jaws. Jack's faith in Hetty has always been vast (perhaps too vast) and unshakeable ( time is a great teacher. Who can live without hope? ). Hetty, thinking of Jenny's voice over the phone, had wanted to protest that Jenny didn't listen to her either in these strange days, but she didn't. (Jack needed Hetty. Jenny -- Little Jenny , her Jenny-bird -- needed her. Duty did not stop being duty simply because it was difficult).
Hetty had gone to Jenny's office this morning, in person, unannounced. It was rude, but sometimes grim necessity outweighs the time-honored forms of good manners: Hetty knew that if she'd called ahead, Jenny would have found some excuse (any excuse; Jenny made it clear yesterday that she didn't want to hear her tyotia 's warnings; already I prophesied to my countrymen all their disasters ) not to see her. (Jenny could still send her away, but Hetty knew she wouldn't).
The dim light and the sparkle of Jenny's diamonds and a beautifully-cut dress had distracted from it on Saturday night, but Hetty couldn't help but notice now that Jenny had lost weight (weight Jenny could ill-afford to lose; she'd been thin enough before) since the last time Hetty saw her before this trip to D.C. It had been New Year's in Los Angeles (warm and bright and glittering), and the party had been small, just good friends (the closest thing Hetty'd had to family in many years) and Jenny (her lovely little Jenny-bird) had been in town, and after the last of the guests had gone home, Jenny and Hetty had sat on Hetty's balcony with a bottle of champagne and watched the sun rise.
"To another year spent among the living," Jenny'd said (Jack's words, first spoken in a tiny, frigid apartment in Moscow; they'd made the toast -- Hetty and her ducklings -- with cracked teacups full of cheap vodka, and repeated it every New Year's after). Jenny had laughed ruefully as they clinked glasses. "Back then, I never expected we'd live to get old."
Hetty (taking a leaf from Jack's book, she supposed) had asked who Jenny was calling old, and turned the whole thing into a joke about insufficient faith in one's tyotia , but in her heart ( flowers anod over the graves of the dead ) Hetty never expected to see the sun rise on this year either, or any of the fifteen or so before it.
This morning, Jenny (edged in the early-morning sun pouring through her office window) had looked fragile, had held herself too carefully, and when Hetty had asked if Jenny was all right (knowing she wasn't), Jenny had shrugged and smiled (it hadn't reached her eyes) and lied. "Stress. You know -- this job. That's all." (If it hadn't been for Jack's revelations, if it hadn't been for Senators waiting for Hetty on the Hill, Hetty might have pursued the matter further, but there was no time and Hetty had more important concerns).
"You're here about the Hartford case," Jenny said, her voice even (flat, expressionless; this was how Jenny had always covered her anger). "I wanted your advice on the case itself, tyotia , not to be told the same thing Trent Kort is telling me -- to back off and mind my own business when a woman who could very well be innocent is being accused of murder and possibly terrorism."
"You don't know what you're dealing with," Hetty said, fighting to keep her voice level (time was she'd have dressed Jenny down for rushing in without all the facts, but now her Jenny-bird was a woman grown, director of a federal agency, Hetty's superior; all things must change to something new, to something strange ).
"Then tell me, tyotia ," Jenny demanded. "I'm tired of half-truths and non-answers and having all my questions about this case turned aside," and Hetty wondered who else Jenny had spoken to about this, how many favors she'd called in; Jenny had always been relentless in her pursuit of the truth.
"I can't tell you all of it," Hetty said carefully, and then she lied (a small lie; a necessary one; Jenny would be less likely to press Hetty for answers that weren't Hetty's to give if Jenny thought she didn't have them). "I don't know all of it myself. For that, you'll have to talk to Jack O'Neill. But this case is most likely connected to the McAvoy matter, and to Farrow-Marshall." (Jack had said Hetty could tell Jenny that much; not a croak of anything has come from your cat crouch of ages ). "Kevin Balim is a dangerous man, my duck, and he has dangerous friends. You'd do well to steer clear of him, or to find strong allies if you insist on engaging him."
"Jack O'Neill," Jenny said, and her voice was suddenly sharp, bitter. "Jack O'Neill has always been under the impression that he knows what's best for me. His people were involved in the McAvoy case, and they tore it out from under us before we could get any answers for McAvoy's family, for his parents."
( All is near and can't be touched , and perhaps it had been the wrong choice to invoke Jack's name, but the words couldn't be unsaid). "Jack is investigating these people: Farrow-Marshall, Balim. Perhaps you can help each other."
"I don't want to fight with you, Hetty," and Jenny's voice had been thick with regret. "That's the last thing I want, especially now. But this is a Navy matter, a matter for NCIS, and that's my final word on the subject."
( Especially now .) Jenny hadn't explained, and Jenny's secretary had announced another appointment as Hetty was drawing breath to ask. Jenny had half-apologized, and Hetty had shown herself out, inexplicably chilled by Jenny's words.
Tonight, they are here in party clothes (Hetty and Jack, Jack who had begged Hetty to keep little Jenny safe from the serpents of unwisdom, slinking and unseen), with the endless river of the important and powerful and those wanting to be important and powerful ebbing and flowing around them, Jack in his dress uniform with polished shoes and shining stars (she never thought she would see the day), and she in conservative dark blue Dior and shoes she can run in, if need be, and she had not packed enough clothes for this trip (should have packed a gun for this trip and at least three more bottles of aspirin) at a reception Jack had been invited to (arranged to have himself invited to).
They are here (here they are), Hetty and Jack ( that’s to say you understand the dusk … the strain … waiting ) because Kevin Balim has been invited and Jack wants to know what he’s doing while he’s in Washington (wants to know what Balim is doing, period; wants his tyotia’s help to find out because it had always been Hetty standing in the whisper gallery and weaving men’s fates from the shadows and Jack had never learned how; she had never wanted him to bear the burdens that such knowledge demands, but it seems he has taken them up anyway), and there Jack’s quarry stands, almost close enough to touch (beautiful, perfect, man-snake-man, is-and-isn’t, monster in a bespoke suit and a suit of meat besides) shaking hands with the Senator himself, with the man’s wife (she favors Vera Wang, and emeralds) smiling.
Jenny should be here too, in diamonds and yet another tasteful gown, but instead she is in her office making phone calls, collecting favors owed, thinking she is chasing Kevin Balim, thinking she is chasing a man, but instead Hetty's duckling, her diet'a , is stirring serpents all unknowing.
Hetty wants to laugh (but she would never stop; hysteria is a harsh mistress), because what they are playing at, she and Jack (tonight, forever) is a young man’s game (young woman’s, young person’s, young human ’ s , and she should not have to specify that last), and what’s at stake is nothing more than the fate of the entire world. She hasn’t carried a gun in ten years and Jack’s knees, his back, are creaking (he hides it well, but she can see, she can see; Madam Sosostris, famous clairvoyante ) and perhaps they are not quite ready to wear flannel and walk upon the beach (not yet old and doddering), but she feels too small to hold back the onrushing flood. She takes champagne off of a passing tray, but just as something to hold, protective camouflage ( nothing to see here, move along ), and does not drink it. Jack, she notices, does the same.
“There are some things you need to know, tyotia ,” Jack had said to her last night in the quiet (ordinary, quotidian) dimness of her hotel room, and she had expected China or Russia or arms dealers or drug dealers or terrorists or any of a thousand other frailties the flesh is heir to, but not alien parasites (alien parasites like something out of a movie she saw as a girl) who wore people like suits of clothes and took the names of gods (Osiris and Anubis and Hathor and Ba’al, hollow men, stuffed men , and was nothing sacred anymore?) and she would not have believed him, but this was Jack (her Jack, her duckling) and he had sworn (once upon a time when things were saner and it was only the common deaths that awaited them) that he would always tell her the truth.
Jack had said, last night, speaking quickly, softly in the half-light (“and I’m supposed to have you sign a bunch of forms before I tell you any of this, but there isn’t time and that leaves a trail, and I know this is hardly the first secret that someone’s given you to keep that you weren’t supposed to have”) that the proper term was “Goa’uld” but he had called them “snakes” with the contempt of long acquaintance (he had called the Russians “Boris and Natasha,” and the snakes, like the Russians, like the deaths of those whose lives he’d held in trust, were just another burden among many, so many, that he carried; kits, cats, sacks and wives ), and that more than anything had convinced Hetty of the truth of what Jack was saying.
And now she is here ( strange as the half-meanings alurk in a wise-woman's mousey eyes ), watching Jack watch Balim (Ba'al; and Hetty watches him too, her eyes following the man or the snake or the snake in the man, and Jack's words painted the goa'uld like golems, feet of clay and a Word writ in alien letters in the empty spaces in their heads which gives them the merest seeming of living men) as Balim (Ba'al) moves through the glittering company, smiling at this one (an older man in a brand-new tuxedo, carefully fitted, and he is balding and gone genteelly round and Hetty does not recognize him, but Jack does, and judging from the faint sneer that flickers across Jack's face like heat lightning, distant, here-then-gone, Jack does not like him), shaking hands with that one (an utterly unremarkable brown-haired woman in a Navy dress uniform whose rank insignia proclaims her a captain, and who smiles at Balim -- at the snake -- as if he is an old friend. Jack murmurs in Hetty's ear that the woman works at the Pentagon), finally stopping to speak at length with the Senator from Illinois, who holds a prominent place on the Armed Services Committee.
On Saturday night at another party (a party that seems as if it happened to someone else, as if it took place in another world or another lifetime, before Jack taught Hetty to see truly; the happy morning is over, the night of agony still to come ), Jenny had gazed at Balim and Kort and murmured (half to her tyotia and half to herself) that she wished she knew what game they were playing and now (seeing Ba'al swimming through this crowd in his sleek-dark suit like a shark through schools of bright heedless fish) Hetty cannot help but agree.
Balim (Balim-Ba’al-Balim, god of thunder lord of heaven, and she tries to see the snake in the man but he only looks like any of a hundred other elegant, arrogant, powerful men, ordinary enough in Washington, in this company, and that of all of this, chills her straight through; a cold coming we had of it ) looks up from his conversation, meets Jack’s eyes, and smirks. She puts a hand on Jack’s arm (feels the tension rising off his skin like heat waves off asphalt; only Hate was happy ), but she needn’t have; the muscles work in Jack’s jaw, but all he gives back is a tight smile and that mocking little wave of his (“professional courtesy,” he called it, and had once given it to a tail in Leningrad, whereupon the man had blanched and run into traffic. Hetty doubts Jack will get so lucky with Ba’al).
The budget hearings that morning had passed in a blur; she had answered questions mechanically from what felt like a hundred thousand miles and another lifetime away ( down among the lost like Dante ), feeling the ridiculous urge to stand up and shout that ten cents or a hundred dollars or a hundred billion dollars, it didn’t matter because they were two breaths from extinction or enslavement or enlightenment or Armageddon, but she took a deep breath and continued because Jack had come to her with his trust and his secrets (come to her and asked her to help him hold the line, to stand between the hidden serpents and the unsuspecting -- she would say 'innocent' but Jenny has not been innocent in years). Half a lifetime ago Hetty had once looked into his eyes, shuttered and half-mad and full of the pain of a young man who had gone out into the world and discovered its true nature ( I think we are in rat’s alley, where the dead men lost their bones ) and she had spoken of duty (an oath and a prayer and a benediction) and somehow, somehow, he had held (held on, held fast). She had asked him them, and he was asking her now ( turning and turning in a widening gyre ), and she might be frail (old) (frail), but Hetty would stand because when it came down to it, it was stand or let the snake win (let the snake charm them all, and in the darkness bind them), and that was no kind of choice at all.
“Did you talk to Jenny?” Jack asks her in an undertone (tones, undertones, overtones, half-tones, the secret second language of the spy).
She opens her mouth to answer, but closes it again as an unfamiliar woman smiles at Jack and closes the distance between them (slim, early fifties, short dark hair threaded through with silver, black dress, probably Marchesa, heels, unmistakable air of authority which she wears like an old familiar garment) and Hetty has a short, sharp moment of panic, wondering if the woman is the only one in her skin or if there is a snake lurking just beneath, but Jack smiles back (and the smile is genuine, unforced) and introduces the Secretary of Transportation. Hetty shakes her hand (normal, so normal), and the woman dimples at Jack, allows as how she’s surprised to see him at two parties in the same month.
Hetty laughs, and it is the way she laughed with the diplomats’ wives on an endless December night at a reception at the embassy in Moscow, present and yet a thousand miles away, wondering if her ducklings would fly home again (and then it had been only ordinary earthly things she feared – fear death by water – when she had worried for their lives), and says that Jack has never liked parties (she should say, he has never liked people , save for those that grim necessity and blood and fire have turned into brothers, sisters, almost-mothers, but this is a party and such thoughts have no place among jewels and string quartets and caviar).
The woman chatters, small things, inconsequential things, minutiae of Jack’s new world that mean nothing to unschooled ears, and Hetty is grateful for the interruption. She had talked to Jenny (oh, she had talked to Jenny, bound and gagged and hemmed about by all the words she could not speak; thinking of a key, each confirms a prison ), but Jenny was a child no longer and would not be cajoled or commanded (she made her own way), and there had been a reckless look in Jenny’s eyes that Hetty had never seen there before (but she had seen it in the eyes of others, forced to choose between one end and the other with no avenue offering a way back to life in between.
Jack’s friend (the Secretary of Transportation, Hetty reminds herself, and for the first time in her recollection, she realizes she cannot remember the woman’s name) must have told a joke, because Hetty (she does not think she had heard the words, but she must have) finds herself laughing along.
While Hetty had spent the morning bandying words and fencing with self-important men and hard, sharp women, negotiated for pennies and nickels and a three percent increase in next year’s budget (alms for the poor and the blind and the sick, penny for the old Guy, and what was the point, really, but the show must go on), Jenny had been unweaving more of this tangled, clinging web (questions, answers, more questions; warp and weft and may one inquire where his highness spent the night? ) that she had laid at her tyotia’ s feet in Senator Westfield’s garden three days and a lifetime ago. (Jenny had not listened this morning, had not listened when she had called Hetty before the party to update her tyotia on the case, and Hetty had suggested -- again, and time was she did not have to repeat herself to any of her ducklings, but a gulf of years lies between now and the time when they (Jenny and Jethro and Jack) had been truly hers -- that Jenny bring her troubles to Jack; many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in pursuit of the goal ).
Before Lieutenant Hartford had been (so she said) framed (before the CIA had offered its dubious hospitality), Lieutenant Hartford (that one small receiving clerk with a shrewd eye could touch off all this trouble – surely the second coming is at hand! ) said she had found “irregularities” in the shipping logs, and from such an acorn grew the mighty oak some knight of ghosts and shadows hanged her upon ( "I'm dreadin' what I've got to watch", the Colour-Sergeant said ). What Jenny had done after this revelation would never be admissible in court (it had involved Tim McGee, a computer, and the director’s consciously-averted gaze), but it had revealed (a mystery wrapped in an enigma) that her C.O. (Colonel Taylor, if it mattered, maybe snake, maybe man, possible and impossible, but Jenny couldn’t know) had called both Kevin Balim and Trent Kort in the wake (nautical metaphors again) of Hartford’s report.
The woman (the Secretary of Transportation, titled but nameless; the meal is ended, she is bored and tired ), touches Jack’s arm, Hetty’s hand, takes her leave, and swirls back into the bright company. Hetty does not know exactly what Jack sees (all Hetty can see is a sea of backs and arms, but Jack is tall and straight and proud and somehow he has not yet bowed beneath the weight of all he carries), but after a moment he leans down and asks her (gently, so gently; Hetty has put on her ordinary face, but he sees beneath it as he would through tissue) if she will be all right for a moment while he talks to a colleague (someone he has seen talking to Balim, and it must be someone Jack knows and trusts enough to question).
“Yes, of course,” she murmurs (it is what he needs her to say) and she stifles the urge to clutch at his hand; the world is the same world it was yesterday, the same world it was the day before, the same world it has always been since they opened the Stargate, and it is only Hetty who has eaten of the Tree of Knowledge and had her innocence ripped away.
Jack leaves, engulfed by the warmth and glitter of the crowd, and Hetty turns to make her way to a chair on the periphery (there to watch and wait, think and plan, and try not to panic) when she feels a hand, warm and solid and dry, on her shoulder, and looks up into his face (Balim-Ba’al-Balim, CEO of Farrow-Marshall, lord of misrule, epicenter of a waiting earthquake, but he does not look any more than ordinary, dark eyes, dark beard, the smallest twist of a smile, or at least, he does not any more than a very human sort of extraordinary, and it takes all the strength she has not to shiver).
“I’m sorry if I startled you,” and his voice is soft and almost gentle ( wind in dry grass, rat’s feet over broken glass ) but he is not sorry at all. “I am Kevin Balim, CEO of Farrow-Marshall Enterprises, and you must be Hetty Lange, with NCIS. I saw you talking to Director Sheppard on Monday night, and Trent Kort, who is an old friend, gave me your name.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” she murmurs, though it isn’t, and she has to force herself to meet his eyes ( eyes I dare not meet in dreams ), to paste a social smile on her face, and she wishes (doesn’t wish, and yet wishes) that she did not know his secret. (The Wizard had given a brain to scarecrow, a heart to the tin woodsman, courage to the cowardly lion, and a snake to Kevin Balim, and she cannot give way to what is hammering at the inside of her chest, screaming to be released, not here, not yet. There will be time enough – no time, but time enough – later).
“I was hoping to speak to Director Sheppard, but it seems she is not here tonight,” he says in that same gentle (dangerous) (gentle) voice, and Hetty hears herself telling Balim (Ba’al-Balim-Ba’al, man and snake, snake and man) that Jenny had pressing work that had kept her at the office late, that Jenny had been looking forward to the party.
“Ah,” says Balim (is-and-isn’t), and he does not sound surprised. “I understand that she and her agents have been asking questions of my people about that terrible business with that girl at the Pentagon – dreadful that she was using our project to smuggle drugs, that she killed two people.”
Hetty’s mouth is dry (snake fear, serpent fear, one of man’s oldest, basest instincts) but she agrees, yes, a dreadful business, and NCIS is only trying to build their case against Lieutenant Hartford (only doing their jobs; surely he must understand), and Balim nods (probably does not believe her; she would not believe her, but he is willing to pretend).
“Since she is not here, I will leave you to enjoy your evening” and he smiles and she can feel a bead of sweat run down her back ( here one cannot stand or lie or sit ). “I only wanted to tell her that Lieutenant Hartford is only one in a series of terrible troubles that has plagued my company – we have had such bad luck, of late – and that I would truly regret it if Director Sheppard or any of the rest of your people at NCIS were to become caught up in them.” He makes a mocking little bow in her direction. “It was nice meeting you, Ms. Lange.”
Trent Kort had spoken of unfortunate events on Sunday, and Balim (Ba'al; and was it the man or the snake in the man who spoke?) speaks of terrible troubles now (such things are kissing cousins, and Hetty has never had much faith in coincidence; ' My eyes are blinking,' Dathi said, 'with the secrets of God half-blind ); and it chills her to hear Jenny's name on their lips (little Jenny, pretty Jenny, and once upon a time Jack had tried to send Jenny away not because he hated her but because he loved her, and Hetty had not seen, had not understood). A lifetime ago, in a frozen land across the sea (a world that exists only in memory now, its reality erased by Glasnost and capitalism and a falling wall and the endless reformulation of history by the victors), Hetty had gathered her ducklings beneath her skirts, but Jenny (here, now, and a woman grown) will be gathered no longer, and Jenny cannot see (will not see) the danger that stalks her so prettily in the shadows. This time Hetty cannot restrain her shiver.
The crowd, talking, laughing, clinking glasses and nibbling canapés, swallows Balim (Ba’al) again, gone as completely as if he had never been ( rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves in a field ) and Hetty turns her head in time to see Jack O’Neill (her Jack, her duckling) striding towards her out of the enveloping sea of bodies, frowning faintly, a small plate in one hand. She has never felt more alone.
"Glad-handing," Jack mutters disgustedly when he reaches her, and it is clear he has forgotten about the little puff pastry on its china plate; he holds it as if the blocking has neglected to tell him what to do with the prop. "Selling himself, selling Farrow-Marshall, just like any other goddamn defense contractor. Just like --" and she can hear the momentary pause (faint, so faint, but she can hear Jack censoring damning words before they slip out of his mouth, and she wonders what he almost said) "-- some other people I know." ( Ah, this. looking-glass man . liar, fool, dreamer, play-actor; Jack's lies were not always lies so much as words left unspoken and Hetty wonders -- briefly -- what it is that her beautiful boy cannot or will not tell her when he had promised her truth, and has already told her so much that could damn him).
"Balim is playing a long game," Hetty says quietly ( let the crows go by hawking their caw and caw ).
Circles within circles, a jumble of puzzle pieces with no obvious connection: McAvoy. Farrow-Marshall. Hartford. Kort. Balim (Ba'al) and his elegant suits and his charming social smile (the false god playing at being a man). Somewhere there is a prime mover (a first cause, a unifying argument), but it is still hidden in the mists of all she does not know. Her voice carefully neutral (and she knows Jack can hear the studied steadiness beneath it, and the worry it conceals, but it can't be helped), Hetty tells Jack about her conversation with Balim (maybe snake, maybe man, but it doesn't matter which he is because he had threatened Jenny).
They are silent ( there are points of high silence -- twiddling of thumbs is at an end ) for a few breaths before Jack speaks again.
"The snakes aren't usually this subtle," Jack says. "Or this patient. I don't like it, tyotia ." And for a split second (gone so quickly she can almost comfort herself with the lie that she must have imagined it), Hetty can see fear flicker in his eyes.
Quiet. Slow. Lit from within with a bright glassy clarity born of too much strangeness and the exhaustion of a sleepless night. By now the budget hearings have taken on an almost soothing rhythm: question, answer, argument and counterargument, the tapping of the stenographer’s keyboard, familiar as the click of knitting needles or the sighing of the sea. At eleven in the morning, as Hetty sits on the stand, justifying (for the tenth or twentieth or hundredth time) a budget increase for the purposes of hiring a handful of new agents, she remembers the Secretary of Transportation’s name (a name Hetty thought she had lost somewhere in the haze of Tuesday night; here are the years that walk between, bearing away the fiddles and the flutes ): Helen Richards (the name, like the woman, is unimportant, irrelevant to the business at hand, but in remembering, Hetty feels a shock of relief). At one in the afternoon, they break for lunch. Hetty walks across the street with the representative from New Hampshire and a colonel she met that morning. They talk about the weather.
Jenny has gone to a funeral in Los Angeles (and they are all attending too many funerals these days; once upon a time Hetty and her ducklings had not dared to look forward to old age, and now the ravages of time lie in wait for all of them). The trip was unexpected: William Decker died suddenly on Monday and his widow had not wanted to wait long to bury him; the widow had called Jenny late Tuesday, and Jenny (taking Jethro and Ziva and Tony with her) left Wednesday afternoon (rearranged schedules, hastily-packed bags, and a flight out of National -- Jethro had probably grumbled at flying commercial rather than military, and muttered imprecations about having to leave the Hartford case when it was at such a critical stage). Hetty is sorry that it took such a grim occasion to draw Jenny away from Washington, but she is glad to see her darling girl (her Jenny-bird) away from the Hartford case for a few days; perhaps with some distance Jenny might come to her senses.
Early Wednesday morning (the party had dragged on well into the night in open defiance of a business day waiting on the other side of the sunrise; Hetty had only been asleep for a few hours), Hetty had been roused by the shrill sound of her cellphone ringing and come all the way awake at the sound of spitting fury ( who has brought the army with drums and kettle drums? ) in Jenny's voice at the other end of the call.
"How dare you?" There were no pleasantries. Jenny had not called her tyotia . (Hetty had no idea what she was talking about).
"Jenny?" And Hetty's tongue still felt thick with sleep, but already her mind was racing. "What's happened? Are you all right?"
Jenny scoffed, and her voice, when she spoke, was dark and low and bitter. "What's happened? I thought we'd agreed -- I thought I'd told you -- to keep Jack O'Neill out of this." (This was not Hetty's duckling, her diet'a, this angry woman: this was the director of NCIS, wrapped in her mantle of authority; a man in armor is his armor's slave ).
And suddenly Hetty could piece together what must have happened. Jack had been worried (more than worried: afraid, and he was no more able to hide his feelings from Hetty than he had been half a lifetime ago in another world) on seeing Balim talking to Hetty (the snake coiling around his tyotia , and Hetty had thought of Kaa, and of the serpent in the garden), on finding out that Jenny (Little Jenny) had been the subject of the conversation. Jack had always wanted to protect Jenny, to keep her safe (from the world, from herself); Jenny had never seen it that way. At the time, Hetty hadn't either.
Hetty could not help but remember that night, so many years ago, half a lifetime ago ( here I am in the middle way, having had twenty years ) – they had been in Volograd, a few months after Jenny had joined them -- when Jack had come to her late one night with his jaw set. She would never forget his words. “And I’m telling you tyotia , I don’t care if she’s good, and she is damn good, that’s not why I don’t want her; I can see it in her eyes – she’s not meant for this job, and it will break her, and then someone is going to get dead.” At the time, she had thought Jack resented the addition of a third to their company. Fifteen years later, when Jenny had returned from France with her face closed and empty, Hetty had realized he was right. There had been no more missions after that).
Jack must have taken it upon himself to call Jenny (to warn her, to protect her, to do the job that he had asked Hetty to do, and has Hetty's road been so long now that she cannot carry even this small burden for Jack?).
"And now his people, these NID people, want to take the Hartford case from us, and who's to say they'll treat her any better than the CIA would? She's a Naval officer. This is an NCIS matter. I thought you understood that." Jenny's voice was brittle (brittle, Hetty thought, the way it had been after Paris. Something was wrong).
Hetty had tried (gently, carefully; be of love (a little) more careful than of anything ) to reason with Jenny, but there had been no talking to her. Eventually (with regret), Hetty had simply hung up. There was nothing else she could do.
Wednesday afternoon, Jenny had called Hetty from National and not quite apologized, said they'd talk more about the Hartford case when Jenny returned from the funeral. Since then, Hetty has been unable to shake a nebulous sense of foreboding.
At two, she tries to call Jenny, but the phone rings once and shunts her to voicemail; probably Jenny is still at the funeral (it is only eleven in the morning in Los Angeles, after all). Hetty wonders briefly if she should have gone to see William Decker buried, but the only connections she ever shared with Decker ( whom I had known, forgotten, half-recalled ) were a couple of meetings eight years ago, Jethro and Jenny (would that Jack had been there too, but Colorado had already claimed him and perhaps he had even stood beneath another sun that day), and the late, unlamented Anatoly Zukov.
Her ducklings (Jethro and Jenny, the flock incomplete) had gone to France (Hetty had sent them back to France where Jenny had killed a boy ten years before – of necessity, but her face had gone white and still in the telling of it – and perhaps it had been a mistake, but there was really no choice) to capture Zukov (former KGB assassin, selling his services to any who would pay) and his handler, or to kill them if there was no other option (there hadn’t been). Decker had been their contact. He was a name in a report. A firm handshake, a face half-remembered. That was all. He had died of a heart attack. She leaves a message, tells Jenny to call her, goes back to the hearings.
Hetty thinks briefly of calling Los Angeles, of calling Mr. Callen, or Mr. Hanna or dear Mr. Beal (who has electronic eyes and ears all over the city), of begging them to find Jenny, to make sure she's all right, to reassure Hetty and soothe her half-formed terrors ( I lived on Dread -- To those who know ), but Hetty knows that Jethro is there in Los Angeles with Jenny (Jethro who has always sought to stand between the most fragile of Hetty's ducklings and dangers both real real and imagined), and that Ziva David (Hetty has never met this newest addition to Jenny's team, but Ms. David's reputation is formidable) and Anthony diNozzo are there as well, and surely those three should be protection enough, even from the ghosts and shadows that lurk in this brave new world which Jack O'Neill has shown to his tyotia. (Most likely the explanation is simple: Jenny is still angry with Hetty. Jenny does not want to answer her phone).
(Hetty wishes that Jack had given her magic spectacles instead of new eyes with which to see the world he now inhabits; she could at least take off the spectacles, put them aside for awhile.)
At four, Hetty asks her driver to take her to the Navy Yard. There is no one waiting to go through the metal detector at NCIS. She smiles at the older man (neat buzzcut, neat beard, gray, wrinkles seaming his cheeks, fanning out around his eyes; probably a few months from retirement) as he hands her back her purse. Ostensibly she is there to visit MTAC to call L.A. (call home, and it’s true enough in a certain light; they’re investigating a series of thefts that has stymied them at every turn; she wants to check in with Callen, find out if there’s been any progress). Timothy McGee, (sweet boy, and she can see the shrewdness hidden behind the round face and eager demeanor; Jethro may barely speak to her anymore but he has always chosen well) takes her back to MTAC. For all there are other agents here, phones ringing, keyboards clacking, a buzz of muted conversation, NCIS seems strangely empty without Jethro’s watchful silence, without Jenny’s vibrant presence.
As they walk, she smiles gently at McGee (he is nervous, she can see it in the way he swallows; perhaps he is always nervous or perhaps Hetty’s reputation precedes her), tells him Jenny has told her a little about the Hartford case and she wonders how it’s going. With the others at the funeral, he has been alone with this case for almost a day and a half; he is glad to unburden himself. They had impounded Hartford’s car when they arrested her, but there had never seemed much need to go over it thoroughly until she’d claimed that there had been men following her. Yesterday, they had found a tiny GPS unit (state of the art, not commercially available) carefully hidden in the chassis of the car; wouldn’t have found it at all but for Abby’s (Miss Scuito’s, the little Goth girl) sharp, suspicious eye.
McGee made some inquiries (the unit looked like some he’d heard were in use by the CIA), and three hours later, Trent Kort had shown up and told him they could all save themselves a lot of trouble by handing this case over to him. McGee (and Hetty’s sure he had been stammering, but resolute) had said he was under orders to do nothing of the sort, “and then,” he tells Hetty (his shoulders are tight, his palms are sweating), “he told me that he hoped that NCIS would not become caught up in the troubles that Farrow-Marshall has been facing.” Hetty shivers at the near-repetition ( footfalls echo in memory ) of the snake’s (Balim’s) (Ba’al’s) words from two nights ago. She does not tell McGee that it will be all right.
She tries to call Jenny again and is greeted solemnly by her voicemail. “Jenny, please call me, it’s important,” she says. McGee looks up curiously from where he is setting up the video-conference
Callen has almost nothing to report (a few fibers, a license plate search that led nowhere, that Mr. Hanna is frustrated, and he and Miss Bly are out canvassing door-to-door, hoping to catch a break). Hetty says something she hopes is cheering, urges patience. She keeps her face carefully neutral, but there must be something in her voice, because Callen pauses, looks at her sharply across the video feed (he has always known her too well; as well, almost, as Jack had half a lifetime ago), asks if she is all right. She smiles reassuringly and lies ( last year’s words belong to last year’s language ).
Five thirty. ( Time present and time past are perhaps both present in time future ). She walks out into the heavy air of late afternoon, blinking in the sunlight. The driver pulls the car around, opens the door, and she fights the temptation to shout, “Home, James.” He takes her back to the hotel. Her room is cool and dim. CNN tells her nothing interesting.
Jenny’s phone clicks over (again) to voicemail. This time Hetty does not leave a message. She reminds herself it is not that late in Los Angeles. Perhaps there was a wake. Perhaps Jenny and Jethro are with Decker’s wife.
At seven, she meets Jack for supper. He has just come from the Pentagon and is still in uniform (he wears it as uncomfortably as he always has, more a costume and less a second skin. He has always preferred camouflage, in whatever form he could find it). She and Trent Kort had met at the Four Seasons. She and Jack meet at the Froggy Bottom Pub, near Georgetown.
Jack arrives in his own car (he's just tucking the keys into his pocket when Hetty sees him). "You drove yourself," she says. She phrases it as an observation (a curiosity; and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart ), but he hears the question underneath. Jack is important now (Jack is a Pentagon general with the President's ear), and important people on the Beltway have cars and drivers.
"Yeah," he says with a shrug, and his casualness is studied. "Had my driver drop me at home so I could pick up my car. Didn't know how late you and I might end up talking. Figured I could take you back to your hotel myself."
Simple words (innocent words, and true ones), but she remembers well (too well) this language of meanings-within-meanings (a language she had learned to speak when she was barely more than a girl, a language she had taught her ducklings). Jack doesn't need to sign we may be watched for her to understand his intent (privacy is a rare commodity here in D.C., rare and infinitely precious).
"You're right," she agrees with a thoughtful smile. "There's no reason to keep my driver away from his family half the night." It's a matter of a quick phone call to send her driver home; the young man sounds surprised and grateful.
Jack orders a pitcher of the house microbrew (something dark) rather than one of the pale beers he'd favored when she knew him well (time was he'd complained about nearly everything the Europeans drank except scotch whisky and vodka; apparently the last decade has improved his palate), pours out a pint glass for each of them. She almost tells him that if he plans to take her to any more parties, he needs to let her know so she can do some shopping, but she shuts her mouth on the words and drinks her beer instead.
“You look less rattled than you did on Tuesday,” Jack says neutrally as they are demolishing a pile of crab cakes and a plate of spinach and artichoke dip. He is studying her face carefully, and she wonders how many times he has delivered news of the Stargate (of starships, and aliens) to the unsuspecting. (She wonders about the length of the nondisclosure agreement he had not asked her to sign).
Hetty almost retreats into sarcasm (I looked rattled? Whatever did I have to be rattled about?), but the gentle worry on his face stops her short (Jack is sometimes kind but almost never gentle ; she must have frightened him Tuesday night. He had been gentle then, too). “It’s had some more time to sink in,” she says instead, and takes another bite of her crab cake (and she had thought after Jack's revelations, after the party on Tuesday night, that her entire reality had been ripped away, that she would never feel normal again, but this morning she had awakened hungry; the moths will get you if the wolves won’t, so why not now ?). It is warm and savory and the crab is fresh.
Jack asks her whose funeral Jenny is attending, and Hetty knows in a moment of wordless understanding that Jack is also relieved to see Jenny well out of Washington and away from the Hartford matter for a few days and Hetty cannot blame him.
“ William Decker,” Hetty says, taking another sip of beer. “He was after your time – you were already in Colorado. I hardly knew him, but Jenny and Jethro worked with him for several months in France eight years ago. I suppose they kept in touch, after.”
Jack does not press, hearing the old secrets in Hetty's (in his tyotia's ) voice, and for an instant she almost unburdens herself to him, almost tells him that eight years ago, she sent Jenny (little Jenny, pretty Jenny, maybe the smartest of them but also the most fragile) back to France (the France Hetty knew still surfaced in her nightmares like a rolling wave) and Jenny’s eyes begged her to send someone else, but in the end the wolves were howling at the gate and there was no one else Hetty could send, so Jenny straightened her back resolutely and went. She came home a few months later, her eyes shuttered, her face thin, and never spoke of France again.
Instead, they talk about inconsequential things. Hockey (Hetty learned to love the sport in Russia; she and Jack have always had that in common, though they talk about different teams these days), what Jack misses about Colorado (the snow, even though -- he says -- his knees are too old for skiing anymore), that bar with the mechanical bull in Los Angeles. The food here is tasty and plentiful; full of appetizers and beer, they split a white pizza. Hetty wonders if she simply hasn’t heard her phone ring, takes it out of her purse. Jenny still has not called.
At nine thirty, Jack drives Hetty back to her hotel. Her phone remains silent (this is not like Jenny, especially with an important case waiting across the country). Hetty feels worry settle over her like a heavy blanket, stifling, suffocating. At a stoplight, Jack studies her with concern. She shakes her head, tries to smile. “Just thinking,” she says, but she feels the minutes ticking by ( heard, half-heard, in the stillness ).
Jack sees her up to her hotel room. Hetty is not ready to be alone with only her swirling thoughts for company just yet ( this thing is sure, that time is no healer ), so she invites him in for a drink. They open a couple of hideously overpriced bottles of (mediocre) scotch from the little minibar (the hotel Jenny's secretary found for Hetty is nice, but not quite nice enough for an in-room bar with full-sized bottles), pour them into the squat little glasses sitting on a little tray on a side table (the day she drinks liquor straight from the bottle will be the day they lay her in the ground), sit down side by side on the couch. Later, she will have no recollection of what they talked about.
At ten fourteen, Hetty’s phone rings. The area code is D.C., but it’s not Jenny, not a number Hetty recognizes. When Hetty answers, there is only harsh breathing on the other end. She can hear the blood rushing in her own ears. “Hello?”
And then she hears Jethro’s voice, both distant and closer than she can bear (and it has been at least a year since he last called her of his own volition), and his voice is harsh, naked, stripped raw, and it sounds like every word has been torn from him, scourged with fire. “Jenny’s been shot, tyotia . She’s dead. Jenny’s dead.”
Her phone drops from nerveless fingers, bounces a few times on the carpet. Funny, she hadn’t realized the carpet was pale blue; she’d thought it was gray. She doesn’t realize her knees are crumpling until Jack catches her.
It is almost Friday afternoon when Jack wakes Hetty with a gentle hand on her arm, and the light streaming through the curtains is warm and honey-gold. She had thought, in the hazy semiconsciousness that had been the closest she been able to come to sleep last night (this morning? Time moved in fits and starts; old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth ), that she had heard him talking on the phone for a long time, voice tight, intense, furious, but pitched low enough she could not have understood his words even had she not shied away from full wakefulness and the reality (Jenny’s dead, Jenny’s dead ) that lurked in the room with hot breath and open jaws, waiting to be acknowledged.
Jack is wearing jeans (his belt is brown, the buckle battered) and a plain gray t-shirt (he had driven his own car. Must’ve kept a go bag in the trunk; she’d taught her ducklings to be prepared, to always be prepared even when the world seemed safe and quiet, but Jenny had not listened, had not been ready when death came calling, and she had died. Hetty shoves the thought away, focuses on Jack’s face, breathes. He has not shaved yet, and his stubble is gray. He is getting old. They all are . Do not let me hear of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly .).
She sits up carefully, the heavy ache of an impending storm (within or without?) having settled in elbows and hips and knees; she is groggy with too many hours spent not quite sleeping (not long enough; now she is awake and thinking and her Jenny-bird is dead). Jack hands her her glasses, then a mug of coffee. She can hear the coffee maker chuckling softly in the other room, wheezing steam. “Careful, it’s hot,” Jack warns (too late), and his voice is quiet, kind, gentle (so gentle that it stings), but the blistering pain in her mouth (enough, almost, to bring tears to her eyes) is almost welcome, because it is something else to feel besides the dull rolling agony that has settled in behind her breastbone (Jenny’s dead).
“Don’t you baby me, Jack O’Neill,” she snaps, hearing the viciousness in her own voice and helpless to stop it (the pain is like smoke trapped in a room and searching blindly for a crack; Jenny’s dead).
Jack’s face remains still but she can see the tiny flinch, quickly hidden, behind his eyes. He had stayed with her last night, and she remembers him easing her back onto the couch while her breath came short and sharp, her head spinning, telling her that she was shocky, urging her to breathe, caring for her as she had once taken care of her deti ¸ her babies, her ducklings (Jenny is dead. She remembers flashes, the blue of the carpet, a quarter inch of amber liquid in the bottom of a glass, that the gold trim on one of his cuffs was starting to fray).
He had put her to bed as if she were a child, setting her glasses gently on the nightstand and tucking the blankets up around her, then sat beside her for awhile, one hand resting gently on her back. She had wondered, distantly, when Jack (her Jack, so full of anger), had learned to care so tenderly for another (Colorado and the heat of other suns had changed him). The coffee burns pleasantly down her throat. No sugar, a little bit of cream. Just the way she has always taken it.
Without a word, Jack goes to the closet, retrieves her robe and slippers, and the silk kimono and the glazed kid mules (both in garnet as they always have been, and the kimono is embroidered with tiny birds) are years newer than the ones that Jack remembers, but when Jack turns back toward her, Hetty can see the corner of his mouth quirk at their familiarity: in matters of comfort, Hetty is -- has always been -- a creature of habit. Hetty can't help but remember the slippers had been a birthday gift from Jenny (and of all her ducklings, Jenny had been the only one clever enough, sly enough, to get their tyotia to reveal her natal day, and Jenny had never told another soul. Now there will be no more birthday gifts, no more pretty little cards, and Hetty can feel the tears crowding her throat. Ruthlessly, she forces them back).
Jack’s eyes are on her face, and she can see the dark circles underneath them. “ Tyotia,” Jack says, and his voice is rough. (Jenny’s dead).
He must be grieving too, and she thinks, after all he has told her, that bereavement must be an old friend, a familiar companion ( so many, I had not thought death had undone so many ). She wants to hold him. She wants to hurt him. He is alive, and she is alive, and little Jenny, pretty Jenny (and I am telling you, tyotia, she is not meant for this job, and it will break her) is dead. Hetty sets the mug aside, stretches her feet toward the floor, slides out of bed, slips her feet into the kid mules and wraps the robe around herself, feeling chilled.
“No, Jack.” Her voice is hard and sharp in her own ears; she feels like she has no control over it. “Don’t.”
The TV is on, muted, turned to CNN, and headlines are scrolling slowly across the bottom of the screen. Jack’s thrown his uniform jacket across the back of the desk chair, and there is a battered green duffel open on the floor beside it. A blanket is half-rumpled, half-folded, at the foot of the couch; Jack must have slept there, if he slept at all last night. There are new lines around his mouth. She sinks down onto the couch. Her feet are cold. Jack sits down (carefully, so carefully) beside her, and she can hear his knees pop. He looks exhausted. Their glasses and the two little bottles from last night are still on the coffee table.
Jack takes a long, slow breath, lets it out between his lips. “Jethro called while you were asleep. He didn’t have much news, so he told me to let you be. They’re bringing her body home. Plane should land in an hour or so.” Jack’s voice is soft, even. He calls him Jethro. But for the McAvoy case two years ago, the two men hadn’t spoken to one another since they came back, thin and cracked and half-empty, from Poland. A woman’s death had torn them apart all those years ago; it was only fitting that a woman’s death (Jenny’s dead ) should bring them together again ( what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry? ). She wonders if Jack and Jethro (her beautiful boys, and it breaks her heart that they have been a house divided these last many years) will talk at the funeral, or if they will merely stand apart, wary, silent, watching.
Her breath catches in her throat, and she shoves back tears; now is not the time (Jenny’s dead). Her coffee is steaming, fragrant, and she takes another sip, willing herself to steadiness, stillness ( it would always be the same ). “Do they know how? Who?” The questions are automatic. She tries for a moment to think of this as just another case (another murder. Jenny’s dead), draws in a shuddering breath. There is an ache behind her eyes, and its twin in her throat. She will not cry.
“Four shooters. Three dead on the scene; the fourth is unaccounted for. They think he may have been Russian, and they’re trying to identify him. Jethro says that they think Decker may have been poisoned, and that Jenny,” and she can hear the faintest catch in Jack’s voice, there-not-there, almost imperceptible, “apparently thought this had something to do with Paris, nine years ago. They may have been compromised. He said you’d know what he was talking about.” (Jenny’s dead). He stands up, walks over to the coffee maker, fills a mug, pretends he does not see her involuntary shiver. When Jack turns back to her, there is worry in his eyes. “Hetty, how well do you know Leon Vance?”
Her mind feels like it is moving through honey, like Jack is speaking from somewhere far away, his voice echoing from the bottom of a well. His words are slow to reach her. “Poisoned? To draw Jenny to Los Angeles so –“ and there is blood roaring in her ears again. (Jenny’s dead). She takes a deep breath.
"Yeah," Jack says. No gentleness. Just truth (he had promised her truth, so long ago). "It's a possibility. My people are looking into it." (He must mean NID). "So is Jethro." He sets his mug down on the table, squats down so he is looking into her face (this close, she can see the crow's feet around his eyes). "Hetty. Leon Vance?" (Jenny's dead. Why is he asking about Vance?")
She shakes her head slowly. Back and forth. Her hair moves against her cheeks (if only she didn’t feel so foggy, so slow. But Jenny’s dead). “Vance? I’ve worked with him for years. He’s ambitious, focused. Maybe too ambitious. But a decent assistant director, regardless.” (They had offered her the job once, five years ago. She had declined it). “Why?”
“He’s your director now,” Jack says, soft but merciless, and it hits her like a blow to the chest. She sucks in air, presses the heels of her hands against her eyes (it will smudge her glasses, but it doesn’t matter. This is the dead land. This is cactus land ). “I had my people check into him earlier this morning. He’s not a member so far as we know, but Vance has Trust connections, tyotia . A lot of them. He’s accompanying Jenny’s body,” again that infintessimal catch, here-then-gone, in Jack’s voice (Jenny’s dead), “back to D.C. Be careful what you say to him.”
Her fingertips are freezing, almost numb. She picks up her mug, wraps her fingers around its fading warmth. Her knuckles are white, and she can feel a knot forming between her shoulder blades. (Jenny’s dead). Her eyes burn. Her knees ache. “The Trust. Aren’t they mostly –“
“Goa’uld?” (Snakes. He pronounces it “gould.” Funny that a man who had once learned to speak flawless Russian would mispronounce the name of his greatest enemy. Hetty figures it is a mark of contempt). “Yeah. Yeah, they are. We don’t think he is, but even money he’s working for them, maybe with them. Watch out for him. We also know – don’t ask how, because it probably wasn’t entirely legal – that he got a phone call from Ba’al’s good buddy Trent Kort this morning.” (Jenny’s dead).
“Oh God,” the words are out before she can censor them, a soft moaning sigh. She is old and tired ( in a drifting boat with a slow leakage ) and one of her ducklings is dead (dead and voiceless and not yet buried), and she can feel a shadowy web closing around them like a noose. “What about?” She had felt the water stirring on Sunday, felt the subterranean tremble of – something (their doom maybe, perhaps the end of all things) -- at the edge of her instincts, but she did not think that the water was flowing here. She did not think she would be asked (old) (frail) (old) to hold back the flood.
“Don’t know,” and Jack’s voice is hard, edged with a rough note that she recognizes as frustration, “though I can guess. Jethro,” (and it’s still odd to hear Jack, after all these years, after Poland , call Jethro by name; she had thought those days long vanished), “said Vance got a phone call this morning, told his team to keep the news of Jenny’s death under the radar.” (Jenny’s dead, and Jack, for the first time since she’s known him, looks old. He had been just a boy when he had come to her; the detail of the pattern is movement ).
“I should be at NCIS right now,” she says, setting her cup down, levering herself out of the cushions, and really she has no official reason for being there -- Hetty is the Operations Manager in Los Angeles, but no one important in D.C. save for the fact that she has come to town to do a favor for Jenny Sheppard (for her Jenny-bird, whose thread in Lachesis's tapestry has been clipped short untimely, and it no longer matters whether Jenny might have come back from Decker's funeral more willing to listen to her tyotia's counsel on the Hartford matter. Hetty's warning had fallen on deaf ears, and now Jenny is dead). Still, no one (not even Jethro Gibbs, she thinks) will mind Hetty's presence, not today, and being there will be better than sitting in a soulless hotel suite, waiting for answers that may never come. Hetty's voice is steady, but her hands are trembling ( our grief is not Greek as we bury our dead ), and she doesn’t think it’s the coffee.
“I’m going to shower, Jack. Shouldn’t you be --?” The air conditioner clicks on, hums softly.
“I’ll stay here until you leave, tyotia . I’d drive you myself, but with Vance at NCIS, I’m not sure that’s such a good idea right now. In the long run, it’s probably safer if you have your own driver take you.” Jack sips his coffee, settles back on the couch, flicks on the sound on the TV as she retreats into the bedroom. (Jenny’s dead, and the anchors are talking about Iraq, about the weather in D.C.).
Jack is worried for her, and Hetty does not know if she is touched or if it frightens her. As she lays out her suit, stockings, shoes, and the garnet brooch that has been her signature piece for the last two decades (set with Bohemian garnets, and Hetty's mother had brought it with her from England at the end of the War), Hetty wonders, breath catching in her throat, when she will have time to shop: she did not pack clothes for a funeral. As she turns the taps, she hears Jack on the phone, again.
Hetty steps under the shower, needle spray and steaming water that’s almost too hot to stand (and again, this little pain, this external pain is welcome, a distraction; she closes her eyes and leans against the cold tile). With the soft roar of the water to muffle them, the sobs crowd their way out of her throat and she is helpless to stop them (Jenny’s dead, her duckling’s dead, and she had tried to warn her but it had been too late). She presses her fists against her mouth, squeezes her eyes shut, and she does not know, after awhile, if it is hot tears or hot water she feels running down her cheeks. When she finally turns the faucets and steps out of the shower, the water is almost cold and her eyes are red and swollen (a cold compress helps a little, but not enough, and Hetty cannot help but hate the evidence of her weakness).
Forcing her hands to steadiness, she dries her hair, applies her makeup with the mindlessness of long habit, dabs a bit of Chanel behind her ears. Ordinary things ( ordinary wind is winding , and it feels somehow wrong). The air in the little bedroom is chilly, and Hetty shivers as she pulls on her clothes, her shoes. Her knuckles ache fiercely as she buttons her suit jacket.
Jack turns when he hears the bedroom door open, and Hetty cannot miss the thunder in his face ( dry sterile thunder without rain ). Involuntarily, she takes a step back. Jack looks simultaneously startled, horrified, embarrassed, before his expression smoothes itself back into neutrality, the tightness around his eyes the only remnant of his fury.
“No, Hetty –“ he holds out a hand toward her, entreating. “I’m sorry. It’s not you. It's that. ”
Following Jack's gaze, Hetty notices suddenly that there is a bouquet in a rectangular Steuben glass vase – Stargazer lilies and small white daisies – sitting on the end table nearest the door (Jenny’s dead, but who would know to send her flowers?).
“I don’t understand.” (So many things don’t make sense today.).
Jack breathes deeply, steadying himself, centering himself. When he speaks again, his voice is as hard as she has ever heard it, and the cold, banked hatred in his voice ( here is no water but only rock ) is enough to make her shudder. “'From Kevin Balim, with his condolences on your loss.'”
Jenny had been drawn to Los Angeles, drawn into the jaws of a cunningly-laid trap, and there she had died. Balim ( Ba'al ) had spoken of unfortunate events and rued Jenny's stubborn insistence on pursuing the Hartford matter, and now he has sent lilies, sent his condolences. Hetty does not need physical evidence to know that somehow the serpent has stolen pretty Jenny (Jenny-bird, her duckling, her diet'a , the closest thing to a daughter Hetty will ever know) from her. The fury that had consumed her at Sofia's death (so many years ago in Leningrad, but she has never been able to forget that night when Jack O'Neill came home alone and bloodstained and shattered) seems like a small thing, fluttering and pale, in comparison to what Hetty feels now ( the scream is like a map: it tells the cat where to find the throat ).
Hetty is not sure how she finds herself on the couch again, but Jack’s hands are heavy on her shoulders, and he gazing into her face steadily, his eyes clear, his jaw set. His voice, when he speaks, is quiet, measured, resolute (a chills stabs through her at the sound of his voice; ). “I swear to you tyotia ,” (Jack’s promise, a blood oath and a binding), “I swear to you. We will get Ba’al. We will make that fucking snake pay. It may not be today. It may not be tomorrow, but we will get him, and he will pay for everything he’s done.”
It is late Friday afternoon and the sky is a deep blue when Hetty’s driver finally pulls into the Navy Yard (must’ve rained while she was sleeping; there’s not as much haze in the air as there usually is in D.C.). Jack had cajoled and teased and bullied her into eating lunch (more than she’d expected to be able to stomach, and he’d shed her tart, irritated comments like water) so deftly that she wonders how many times he has pushed aside his own grief or fury to tend (carefully, so carefully) to another’s pain. She found herself avoiding Jack’s eyes, not wanting to see the wordless understanding there. She did not want him to understand; it breaks her heart that he does. She never wanted any of this: not the scars and secrets and absent friends that have shaped and fired Jack until he is strange and hard and shining, not Jethro’s quiet, buried rage, never Jenny’s death (never never never; what is that sound high in the air murmur of maternal lamentation and oh, she does not want to let it, but it hurts).
The building is no different than it was yesterday ( time is unredeemable ), when Tim McGee had shown her to MTAC, when she had tried for a second time to call Jenny, when her world was already quietly unraveling (unspooling, unwinding) without her knowledge or permission. These are the same stairs, the same doors, the same old soldier (quiet, serious, still graying) manning the metal detector, and yet everything feels foreign and utterly strange ( the houses are all gone under the sea ). Jenny’s gone and newly absent and already Leon Vance (dark suit, dark tie, face still, watching) looms above them like a stormcrow, his elbows resting on the railing. Jethro and the others have not yet returned. Timothy McGee (alone and bereft and drifting, his bright eagerness dimmed) shows her a desk where she can sit, a computer that she can use.
McGee asks if he can get her anything while she waits (Gibbs and Ziva and Tony, he tells her, should be back in a couple of hours) and she almost demurs, but he has been alone here since Thursday, alone and helpless against Kort’s threats, alone and powerless while Jenny (oh Jenny, little Jenny, why did you push so hard to learn the truth?) bled out her life two thousand miles and three time zones away and she can see it in his face, the urge (the need, the longing) to do something, anything (idle hands are the devil’s tools and idle minds his playground). She tries to smile at him, puts a hand on top of his. “I wouldn’t mind some tea. Darjeeling if you have it, otherwise whatever you have is fine.” For the poor boy (alone, alone and aching and helpless) she would drink Lipton. Her eyes prickle, answering the unshed tears in his eyes. Hetty wonders if he has yet let himself cry.
She looks up and sees Vance (silent and unreadable; between the emotion and the response falls the shadow ) watching her, meets his eyes. He nods (I see you, Hetty Lange) but says nothing before he turns and walks back into his office. She wonders what he sees, what he doesn’t.
McGee comes back with a steaming mug of what smells like Earl Grey, juggling little packets of sugar and a couple of tiny containers of milk. She almost chides him, tells him that Earl Grey is never taken with milk and sugar (but he is not one of hers and does not know; Jenny had known once but he is not Jenny). Hetty thanks him instead, takes a sip (the water was hot enough when he made it but the tea is stale; not his fault).
“Is there anything else you need?” he asks (and it is not form without substance for politeness’s sake; she can hear in his voice that he means it).
Mr. Beal (dear Erik who wears a different Hawaiian shirt every day and cannot be broken of wearing those awful rubber flip-flops to work, who uses the thousands of cameras scattered across Los Angeles as another set of eyes) has spoken highly of Timothy McGee (at least she assumes the word “leet” is derived from ‘elite’ and thus is meant to be praise) and his skill with computers. Jenny (oh Jenny) had trusted him. Jethro (she knows) would never recruit someone he could in whom he could not put his faith (in all matters, regardless of legality). She makes a quick decision, glances quickly upward (mere flick of the eyes, nothing so vulgar as moving one’s head) to assure herself their new director (stormcrow) (harbinger) has not returned to his perch above them.
There are pencils in a little cup on the desk, all newly sharpened, and a pad of yellow Post-Its is squared up beside them (whoever sits here on more normal days clearly likes order). Hetty takes a Post-It, smoothes it flat against the desk (impressions on the papers beneath would be evidence and record of the deed; it’s the first place Vance, who once played the same game as her ducklings did, and ostensibly for the same team, would look) writes down a number that has been engraved in her memory for the last eight years; it had been the last time she would ever ask another to wield death in the service of his country (her country). This is a great deal to ask of this stunned young man (stunned and lost and grieving), but he is the only tool to hand and she needs answers (and she knows it is a risk to trust him, but she has always had faith in Jethro’s judgment).
It had been a joint operation with Langley (for all it had been her people, her deti , her ducklings, in the line of fire and their people calling the shots; there is nothing new under the sun) but if she is right (she hopes she is not; the barbed wire stretches ahead into our future till it is lost to sight ) the answers she seeks are not on her side (their side, the right side) of the fence. “It’s an old operation; the file should be dead and buried and forgotten. I need to know who’s accessed it within the last three years, and where they went after that, if you can find out.”
He takes the paper from her outstretched hand (carefully, as if it might burn him) but his eyes are wide, his mouth open to ask a question, to voice a protest (best that he voices nothing that might be overheard).
“I know exactly what I’m asking of you, Agent McGee," she says sympathetically, "but I am given to understand you are more than adequate to the task and I need answers.” ( Our past is a chaos of graves ). “If you are caught – and please do try not to be – I ordered you to do this and you did it under protest.” (Better to ask forgiveness than permission in this game which has never been a game at all, and Jack and Jethro had always called the dispensation of having been ordered (license to sin, an indulgence granted by their tyotia ) their “get out of jail free card,” but they had always been careful enough that they had never needed to play it).
“Does this have to do with –“ and he stumbles over words he cannot bear to speak.
“Maybe.” (“No” would be a lie, and she hopes to God that “Yes” is too, but once they had all sworn truth to each other, long ago in the midst of an endless secret war.). “Thank you, Agent McGee.”
After an hour (she passes the time reading the news on the internet, and so far there has been no mention of Jenny's death in the desert a continent away; Vance has been careful) McGee returns to her (no printouts, nothing written down; good boy. Gibbs has trained him well).
McGee looks tight, strained (worry is the face he naturally presents to the world, but this is something different, something else). “I went back five years,” he says (and she can hear him restraining a veritable flood of technical details; she’s heard the same note in Mr. Beal’s voice when she’s asked him to be brief), “and it’s only been accessed twice. Same person both times: Trent Kort.”
He pauses, swallows hard (has the look of a man facing an unendurable revelation; everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned and she wishes – if wishes were horses all men would ride, if wishes were fishes no man would starve – that she could have spared him this).
“The first time was a few days after the -- the McAvoy case. Did you hear about that?” McGee pauses, looks at Hetty. At her nod he continues. “He went to Russia two days later. The second time was right after – after Director Sheppard,” and his tongue stumbles yet again over her name, “refused to turn Lieutenant Hartford over to the CIA last week.”
She closes her eyes (closes them so he will not see the terror she knows is fluttering behind them looking for a way out), breathes slowly (in and out; breathe). “Thank you very much, Agent McGee.”
Hetty is spared from further conversation, from further unwanted contemplation (together, Trent Kort and the serpent had woven a snare for her duckling, this Hetty knows without question, and in her heart is the sick realization that in Paris eight years ago Jenny – pretty, fragile, angry Jenny – must have shattered at last and failed) by the arrival of Gibbs Jethro and his two companions (their return draws their new director (stormcrow, and Hetty has never quite trusted him) once again from his lair). Agent DiNozzo Hetty has met a few times (he and Jenny were close), and Ziva David Hetty has never worked with, but her reputation is formidable (the woman’s presence here at NCIS is a curious puzzle, but it is a puzzle for another day; for now Hetty is merely glad that Jethro has Officer David's strength to lean on).
“Jen is a pro. We got away clean,” Jethro had insisted eight years ago when she had asked if he had confirmed Jenny’s kill, and despite the haunted look she'd seen in Jenny's eyes, Hetty had allowed herself to trust Jethro's confidence in Jenny (Jethro knew Jenny better, perhaps, than even Hetty did herself). Perhaps they had both simply refused to see ( here comes the blind commissioner, they've got him in a trance, and Jenny had been too thin, stretched tight, thrumming, when she had come back from Paris that last time). Jack with his sharp dispassionate eyes would have seen it, seen that Jenny had broken, that he had been right all those years ago in Volograd (though he would have taken no pleasure in it) but Jack had fallen down the rabbit hole already.
Now Hetty’s duckling lies cold and silent and alone (we are all alone in death) on a slab several floors below. Dr. Mallard is good company for the dead; he will talk to her, at least ( of what the dead had no speech for, when living, they can tell you, being dead ). Hetty presses the back of hand against her mouth and bites down on a knuckle before she can shame herself with more tears.
She pushes the chair away from the desk and stands slowly, her knees aching almost as much as her heart aches ( regrets shall be the gravel underfoot ) and makes her way over to where Jethro and his team have clustered and are talking softly. From what Hetty overhears, one of the shooters -- one of Jenny's killers -- was a man named Viggo Drantyev, a Russian assassin (the name is vaguely familiar, though Drantyev had never been a major player), and Jenny had seen Drantyev and a mystery woman at William Decker's funeral. Drantyev had come from Russia, flown into Dulles, and then traveled to Los Angeles from D.C. (traveled to Los Angeles, where he had lain in wait for Hetty's duckling). While Gibbs and the others were on their way back to D.C., McGee had found security footage of Drantyev's arrival at Dulles, and thinks he and Ms. Sciuto may have identified the mystery woman from the funeral. (They are trying to treat this as just another murder case -- survival mechanism -- but not quite succeeding: Hetty can hear the strain in their voices).
When there is a break in the conversation, Hetty looks up, meets Jethro's eyes, and almost recoils from what she sees in them ( and one day we will hold only the shadows ), but she draws a deep breath and puts a gentle hand on his arm. "Jethro --"
"Don't." Jethro slides away from her hand, and his voice is harsh (harsh the way it had been after he and Jenny had come home from Paris, when Jethro had marched into her office and told her Jenny was done in the field). Last night he had called her tyotia , but that had been the shock speaking. Jethro had blamed Hetty for Paris (still blames her for Paris), and now (she can hear it in his voice) he blames her for Jenny's death as well (and sometimes there are no good choices when the enemy's at the gate).
Tears crowding her throat, Hetty steps away quickly, backs into Tony diNozzo, who catches her arm, steadies her. "I'm sorry, Hetty," he says (she can see the agony in diNozzo's eyes), and she knows he is apologizing for everything -- for Jethro's behavior, for his own inability to protect Jenny (and Jenny had always said diNozzo was a good boy, even if he never wanted anyone to believe it).
"It's not your fault," Hetty tells him, and she means it. ( They were small and could not hope for help and no help came. )
Whatever else she might have said to diNozzo (whatever insignificant words of comfort she might have offered him) is destined to remain unspoken: McGee has brought the security footage from Dulles up on the big screen. Hetty steps away quietly, leaves them to their case (she has no standing, no official reason to be here, and Jethro would not welcome her assistance).
Gibbs and his team (and the director, not to be left out of anything and after what Jack has told her about Vance’s connections, she doubts his presence is motivated by mere curiosity) gather around the monitor; the scene (Ziva is standing so that Hetty just see past her) is the loading zone outside of Dulles. A man, clearly Eastern European (probably Russian), hails a cab and gets in (his face is unfamiliar: Drantyev was only ever a name to Hetty, a vague recollection from some report or other). The cab does not pull away immediately.
On the screen, a woman comes out of the airport, heads straight for the idling cab. She is anonymously dressed, could be any of a million women until she turns (unconsciously, unintentionally; if she had known where the camera was she would have shielded her face) to face the camera. From the way she can hear the others talking, they do not recognize the woman, but when she sees the woman’s face Hetty can feel her stomach drop, feel her hands start to tremble (if she were to be honest with herself – she does not want to be; truth hurts – Hetty would admit that she knew already what she would see).
The woman’s name is Svetlana Chernitskaya. Hetty had seen that face in a series of file photos eight years ago. She had been Anatoly Zukov’s handler. Zukov was dead at Jethro’s hand, and Chernityskaya had supposedly died at Jenny’s. But little Jenny (and I am telling you tyotia , she is not meant for this job, and it will break her, and then someone is going to get dead) had cracked, pretty Jenny had failed (failed and lied and held the damning secret for eight long years), and now Hetty’s duckling is dead.
Sometimes truth makes the safest lie (she had taught her ducklings that years upon years ago, in the place Jack had called the Court of Miracles). When Vance asks her if she knows where Jethro might have gone, the simple answer (truth and lie and something in between) is no. She does not know D.C. well, she cannot divine Chernitskaya’s plan from a split-second glimpse of her face ( all about it wind shadows of indignant desert birds ) caught by a security camera at Dulles. Vance studies Hetty’s face intently (but she knows he sees no hint of deception there; she has told him the truth) and grunts. He does not think to ask her who the woman is. He does not think to ask her why. (She is glad he has spared her from the necessity of prevarication; be careful what you say to him ).
The who they will know soon enough. For now Gibbs’s team is calling the woman Natasha Lenkov (but they know the name, like Hetty’s truth, is a lie: Natasha Lenkov did not exist before 1999, and clearly this woman is more than eight years old). The why , she hopes they never discover (if the gods are kind – though they almost never are – Hetty and Jethro will take why to their graves; tell her I bring the horoscope myself, one must be so careful these days ). She knows, without needing to be told, that Jethro has gone to atone for Jenny’s failure, to offer his penance where the dead cannot. He has gone to finish what Jenny started (what she started and failed to finish) eight long years ago (another life, another world).
For eight years (and how it must have gnawed at her in the dark hours and on the white nights when sleep was slow in coming if it ever came at all), Jenny had held her clandestine failure close, and lived. Their cover in Paris had been a masterwork; solid, impenetrable, untraceable (Hetty had been careful, more careful than she had ever been before because the consequences of failure were – had proven to be, this last terrible night; nothing here but the warm dry airless sweet scent of the alleys of death – unthinkable). This is not arrogance, merely truth. Chernitskaya (Chernitskaya who was now Lenkov) had motive for revenge (she had been not just Zukov’s handler, but his lover) but the timing of her vengeance argues against coincidence (Balim’s threats, Kort’s threats, Balim’s flowers).
The evidence is circumstantial; that does not mean the evidence lies. Kort was (is, and for how long has this been so?) Balim’s (Ba’al’s) (the snake’s) creature; of that she has little doubt. Kort had read the mission report after the first time Jenny had crossed paths with Farrow-Marshall (with Ba’al, even if only by proxy), read the file and gone to Russia. (Perhaps he knew somehow that Lenkov was Chernitskaya – Kort had spent a great deal of time in Russia before and after ’99, maybe he had by chance seen a dead woman walking and recognized her; perhaps Kort had only been looking for someone who might want revenge). A landmine, a backup plan, just in case. (Jenny was smart. Jenny was stubborn. Jenny asked difficult questions. That made her dangerous. When Jenny stood in Kort’s way, in Ba'al's, she had died.) This is only conjecture (the evidence is circumstantial) but it has the ring of truth.
There is a flurry of activity. McGee, apparently, has managed to trace the cellphone Jethro was carrying (Hetty's darling boy had left his own phone and taken Dratnyev's from the evidence locker; he had always been clever) and located Jethro (he is at Jenny’s house, the house that had been her home and was now empty of life; in her mind's eye Hetty can see him waiting in the dark, still and calm and certain and angry. He will finish what Jenny could not even if it kills him; you are here to kneel where prayer has been valid ). (And then there were two. Hetty cannot bear to lose another duckling). Vance starts toward the door (his face is grim), orders the others to stay behind. Hetty has not prayed in years (God hates a spy, and the game she played, the game she taught her little ones to play, the game that is not a game at all, is not conducive to faith). She prays now.
And then there is nothing to do but wait. ( Things fall apart. The center cannot hold ). Ziva (she is dark-haired, dark-eyed, striking, quiet; Hetty can see the marks of another long secret war writ deep in her bones) drifts over after a while. They study each other for a moment (Hetty wonders what Jenny has told this wary young woman, wonders what she sees). Ziva breaks the silence first. “You are Hetty Lange, are you not?” Her smile is reserved, tentative (her eyes reveal nothing). At Hetty’s nod, she continues. “I am Ziva David. Director Sheppard and I worked together in Eastern Europe before I became liaison officer here. She told me a few stories, said you were close. I am sorry for your loss.” Her voice is warm, gentle (and her eyes are unreadable, Hetty realizes, because she is grieving, grieving and does not want prying eyes to see).
“ Mishtatfim betzarchem havakved,” Hetty murmurs in Hebrew ( I share your deep sorrow ). Ziva David looks briefly startled, then grateful, before she closes her eyes against a sudden stab of tears and covers Hetty’s hand with her own. Friday night trudges on wearily on toward Saturday, but no one feels like leaving; Hetty hopes their vigil (waiting for Jethro to come home where Jenny hadn't) will not become a wake.
At one AM, the television (earlier Gibbs’s team had tuned it to the local station and left it there, waiting for news they were afraid to hear) reports a house fire in Georgetown (the flames are licking at the roof, the trees, firemen are waving the reporters back. It is clear there will be no survivors). It is Jenny’s house that is burning. Hetty buries her face in her hands.
Just after two, Jethro and Vance return. Vance is a tight-lipped cipher; he retreats to his (Jenny’s; she knows that to Jethro it will always be Jenny’s, no matter how long this stormcrow occupies it) office, but Jethro looks shattered and exhausted and sad (Jehtro looks shattered but he is alive and if Jenny’s house is burning, then Chernitskaya is not). Hetty offers up a prayer for the second time that night; half paean of thanksgiving, and half plea for forgiveness (she wonders if anyone hears it. Jack says the snakes style themselves gods). Jethro’s team crowds around him, and she starts to stand, meets his eyes. He averts his gaze (does not want her there, has not wanted her there since he and Jenny came back from Paris eight years ago). It is enough that he is alive.
She sleeps for most of Saturday. Dr. Mallard (Ducky; he and Hetty and her ducklings crossed paths a few times in Europe, and once Ducky had involved Jethro and Jenny in a madcap sail across the English channel in a stolen boat to escape the wrath of the French gendarmie. Hetty let Jethro and Jenny believe she didn't know about their little misadventure) stops by to offer his condolences and the cold comfort of the secret he has carried these last months with none (not even Jethro) to share its weight until the end (the burden Jenny laid upon him; maybe it was the voice of the rain crying, a cracked bell, or a torn heart ).
Director Sheppard (Jenny, Ducky amends, not liking the distance imparted by the formal title; he had loved Jenny too, and his voice is full of unshed tears) had been ill for some time. Dying, by breaths and by inches, losing herself, and knowing the pain that awaited her at the end of her road. Perhaps, Ducky says, Jenny wanted to meet her end this way (wanted to die on her feet while she could still stand, wanted to die fighting for something; Bless me father though I do not wish to wish these things ). Perhaps this way was better.
I don't want to fight with you Hetty, Jenny had said, especially not now . It had been there in Jenny's face, in her voice (so brittle) all along, and Hetty had not seen it ( and blessedness goes where the wind goes, and when it is gone we are dead ), or maybe she had simply refused to see it, as she had refused to see so many things about her beautiful diet'a (Jack had seen, but Hetty had turned away from the truths he courted his tyotia 's wrath to offer), and now all that Hetty can think about is that her last words to Jenny were spoken in anger (that Jenny's life was bookended with derailed arguments), and that Trent Kort (and Kevin Balim who stood behind him in the shadows) had denied her (that Hetty's own failure to persuade Jenny to heed Jack's warnings had denied her) the chance to say goodbye.
Hetty is not sure whether the tears that slip down her cheeks are tears of grief or rage. Ducky, uncharacteristically silent, holds her carefully, rubbing her back in slow circles.
Saturday night, Jack comes to her suite (comes to her suite with a bottle of twenty-year-old Macallan and the little Asgard jamming device). Hetty tells him all she knows, tells him about Kort and Chernitskaya and Vance and Jethro, and Jack does not tell her, “I told you so.” What Jack says is, “I’m sorry, tyotia .” When Hetty tells Jack that Jenny was dying, his face crumples, but he, like Ducky, says that at least Jenny got to meet death on her feet with her eyes open. That Jenny had died defending Earth in the (endless) war against the goddamn snakes, even if she never knew it. (And now Hetty's ducklings are two, and they will keep Jenny’s secret for as long as they may).
On Sunday -- Hetty had packed an assortment of suits for her endless sojourn on the Hill, and Dior and Givenchy for the inevitable Beltway parties (which she had, at the time, compared to death and taxes, and that doesn't seem funny anymore), but nothing suitable for a funeral -- Hetty goes shopping, and it is rare for her not to take pleasure in fine fabrics and rich colors and beautiful lines (or to stop for a moment to gaze with longing at the sorts of long elegant gowns that have never suited her frame), but this time she buys the first appropriate thing that comes to hand with barely a glance at the label (she thinks it was the Armani, but it might have been something else), and after being assured by the saleswoman that the alterations should be done by Monday afternoon, Hetty returns to the hotel and buries herself in paperwork. Hetty tries – twice – to call Jethro, but he does not answer and never returns her calls. She is not surprised.
On Monday, she returns to the budget hearings (she can do Jenny this one last office; I can connect nothing with nothing ). When Jack had given her his secrets and his truths, she had wanted to sit on the stand and laugh at the absurdity of it all. Now she sits on the stand and wants to weep. She did not laugh then. She does not cry now. Instead, slowly (subtly) she can feel the resolve gathering in her heart and hardening, sharpening (as it had after Berlin, and again after Sofia's death). Jack had asked her to help him warn Jenny against the otherworldly dangers that stalked her (and Hetty was right that she wished she could unknow all it was he said to her that night, and was it only six days ago?), and he had asked Hetty (asked his tyotia, and he had always believed that she had both hands full of miracles, and believed it even now) to help him take down Ba'al (to beard the snake in his lair). Hetty had failed at the one (and tomorrow she will bury the only daughter she's ever known), but the other remains.
The day passes in a slow drifting haze of question and answer, offer and threat and argument. In the end they offer her a three percent increase (enough to hire the new agents they wanted, enough to fund a few new projects; more than Jenny had hoped for, far less than she deserved).
Late Monday afternoon, Vance phones her (she calls him Leon. He calls her Hetty. It has always been so). He says he feels that even if she were not directly involved in the case, he owes her an update (she does not think Leon Vance feels that he owes her anything, and she shivers with foreboding; dust in the air suspended marks the place where a story ended ). There was a body found in Jenny Sheppard’s house, which was burned past identification. Jethro Gibbs had told the director it was the fourth shooter, Natasha Lenkov, the woman they had seen on the security videos at Dulles. (Jethro had not precisely lied to the director). With the last living suspect dead, there will be no further investigation of the matter by NCIS: if indeed Director Sheppard’s death was connected her mission in Paris eight years ago, which is still highly classified, it would be in the best interests of national security (how she hates that phrase, for all she has used it many times herself) to simply allow CIA to pursue the matter if they care to. The official story (word from on high, word of god, the holy word) is that Director Sheppard died in a house fire.
Hetty knows she should not, but she cannot help herself; at least over the phone Vance cannot see her face. She asks about the Hartford case. Her new director clears his throat (she knows she will not like what he tells her). “In the current geopolitical climate,” (buzzwords are the primal speech of the political animal, and Vance is a prime specimen), “cooperation between U.S. agencies is vital. Director Sheppard, through her actions in regard to the La Grenouille affair and with regard to the Hartford case, nearly did irreparable damage to our relationship with our colleagues at Langley. I will not be responsible for perpetuating her errors. I am granting their request to take custody of Lieutenant Hartford.”
Hetty opens her mouth and then shuts it again. Jenny had died because she had protected this woman and whatever she knew from Trent Kort, from Balim (Ba’al) (just conjecture and supposition and circumstantial evidence, but she knows in her heart it is true). Is Vance involved or merely uninterested? Is he bowing to pressure from his friends (snakes) (friends) who are members of the Trust? Does he know that he is consigning Lieutenant Hartford (Lieutenant Hartford and her concerns about Farrow-Marshall, whatever they may be) to a likely disappearance (read: likely death). ( He has Trust connections, tyotia. A lot of them. Be careful what you say to him ). She takes a deep, slow breath and thanks him for the update.
On a bright clear Tuesday morning (it was the day Hetty was supposed to have gone home, but instead she is here in a dark suit trying not to weep), Jennifer Sheppard, late the director of NCIS (pretty Jenny, late Hetty’s duckling and brilliant left hand, who had cracked and shattered and paid with her life) is laid to rest. Jethro Gibbs (impeccably groomed and carefully dressed but looking like a little boy lost in his fine clothes) stands by the grave, Jack O’Neill beside him. (And now her ducklings are two, and they cannot meet one another’s eyes). She does not want to hear the minister’s words (the same tired words as always, and she wonders if he grows tired of repeating them, the lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, because they are bullshit and there are too damn many things wanting in this world), and Hetty thought she had cried all her tears but she feels hot wetness on her cheeks again.
Jack finds her as she is walking numbly toward the parking lot, her feet carrying her toward the waiting black car – one of many, so many; Jenny had a lot of friends ( a crowd flowed under London Bridge, so many ), and stops her with a gentle hand on her arm. When she looks up at him, his eyes are bright with fury and sympathy and unshed tears.
“I know that none of this ended the way any of us wanted, tyotia . I know it looks like Balim has won,” Jack says (and she can hear the unspoken ‘Ba’al,’ the unspoken ‘fucking snake’, but they are in public and there are forms to observe), “But he won't get away with this. We'll make him pay , I promise you." His eyes and voice and mouth are grim (Jack keeps -- has always kept -- his promises).
"Yes," Hetty hears herself agreeing, her voice utterly level, and she can feel the steel cooling in her heart as it had after Archie's death, after Sofia's (she cannot help but hear the war drums close by, and the time has come to beat rusty pruning-hooks back into the spears that she has not yet forgotten how to use). "We will." Then, impulsively ( will the veiled sister pray for those who walk in darkness? ), Hetty stands on tiptoe to lay a hand against his cheek. Jack is warm and soft and vibrant; alive. “For God’s sake, Jack, be careful.”
“I am always careful, tyotia. ” And for her he smiles his secret smile, his angel smile, before he turns and walks away.
On Wednesday, a week and a three days and a lifetime after she had first come to D.C. for the budget hearings, Hetty Lange boards a flight for Los Angeles.
( the end is where we start from. )
CODA: yours mine we’re alive and shall be
He doesn’t know what exactly he’s looking for (does and doesn’t, and the jester had walked in the garden when it had fallen still; maybe absolution, forgiveness, love and all the other things he has no right to want or ask for especially from her ; maybe he just wants to see her again after years of thinking he never would because he and he are separate people now, whole and entire and you can’t go home again no matter what the song says about the morning star lighting the way) when he comes here to this little park in Austin (is she only passing through, or has she come here just to see him?) at seven-thirty on a clear late-August evening, and he’s not really sure why the Old Man (he) had agreed to this because it has to break at least six hundred and seventy-five different regulations even if (the Old Man said) she knew some of the truth (some of it, but not all of it, not the truth about him and his unnatural origins, because even in his anger O'Neill knows some secrets are not his to share even when he is left with nothing but embittered sun, and the choice to let the least-worst one live had been the only choice left to him and he will not dammit apologize for it) but O'Neill never been able ( they’ve never been able) to deny his tyotia (their tyotia , even if she can never know it; truth is truth even when the voice is silent) anything, and she had asked to meet him, to meet the boy who lived. So the Old Man had asked (asked but not told; he had said they were done and that meant no more orders), and he had agreed, and come.
She is sitting on a low brick wall underneath a sapling tree with her face half in shadow, and in (their) memory, she is Athena and Boudicea and Artemis the huntress with her arrows and the Great Mother Goddess bigger than life, and he has ( they have ) always managed to forget how small she is in life, tiny as a child but with the strength of Hera, and once upon a time, and probably even still (but he doesn’t know because as freedom is a breakfastfood this is not his life anymore), powerful men had feared her. His memory is true (true as it goes, the images have never left him even when the sense of them never reached him) but it is twenty years and more out of date, and the Old Man (O'Neill) had never thought to warn him that she had gotten old (and they all grow old among dreams; time flies when you’re not paying attention whether or not you’re having fun) and he can trace the weight of the years in the lines on her face (it is a heavy burden she has borne for so long, and she will bear it and the heaviness of her secrets until she dies and has no choice but to give them over into others’ keeping).
Probably O'Neill had thought to punish him, punish him for the choice he made, the promise (to her, for vengeance and closure and an End To This) he broke on O'Neill’s behalf (and it had been the only real choice left to him; there was home and Rome and fear of the stranger had been lost on the way to the shrine, and Hetty herself – tyotia – had always told them never to make promises about death or life or the probability of success in this game-which-has-never-been-a-game because God hates a spy and fate has a nasty sense of humor), but he sees nothing of condemnation in her face when she looks up at him, only curiosity and relief and understanding and old sorrow (little Jenny, pretty Jenny, fairest and most fragile of them all, had always been her favorite and probably Jenny’s death will forever after haunt her in the wolf hour, and he’d wished he could have gone to Jenny’s funeral but it was not his life anymore). She pats the wall beside her, so he sits down (ready to begin his quest for the prelapsarian man, to find sense in her presence which has always restored sanity) and he should feel like he towers over her, but Hetty Lange has always made him ( them ) feel small.
There are no introductions because they are here (for a few breaths, a few stolen moments) nestled in the interstices of secrets that could end the world (upon lawless spots denied or forgotten), between the idea and the reality, and to name names and places and facts would be to give this meeting an illicit solidity and anyway he knows her and she knows at least who he is supposed to be, (and from the look of startled recognition and appraisal in her eyes when she meets his, maybe suspects the rest because the old man had given her the keys to the kingdom two summers ago and she must know enough of strangeness to speculate; him-not-him and they had been afraid she might see it, but Hetty would always keep his – their – secrets so it had been in his – their – parlance an acceptable risk; at the very least she must think him O'Neill's bastard son, and he does not know whether to hope she sees the rest of it or pray that she cannot), and his ( their ) tyotia had never approved of the speaking of unnecessary words.
“Six months on your own, then?” she asks, and her voice is deep and rich and her diction as crisp as it has always been in his memory (but if living dance on dead minds) and it is for a moment like coming home (home is the sailor, home from the sea, except home is never where you left it when you left, and he has the Old Man’s memories – still too close to the surface, Moby Dick or the kraken or a slow circling shark, waiting – but this is not his life to claim; he will never be farther away from her than he is right now and he cannot help but know it). “That’s a long time. But you’re home now,” and that last is not so much a reassurance but a question and she had given him that same searching look when he ( they , when both had been one and he not yet separate in his living) had stumbled home from Warsaw (fallen back into her arms, poor broken duckling) sundered in body and spirit and alive simply because living (breathing, surviving) had become a habit too strong for him to break.
Home . Home is Mitchell and A.J. crying and fried chicken and Momma calling on Sundays and the promise of Christmas with the family this year ( his family now and it is still so hard to believe it because the universe is not in the habit of giving him precious things and letting him keep them) and being alone in his own mind but not in his heart, and home is sacred and precious and kind and yesterday morning he woke up (for the first time) not wondering where he was (not wondering if he was dreaming; never trust the evidence of your own eyes because the mind’s a liar), so he says, “Yeah. Yeah I am,” and she sees something in his eyes that lets her pat his knee warmly (and she has seen correctly, because he does not flinch).
"It does get easier, you know. With time,” and her dark eyes are still resting on his face like a gentle benediction and the understanding there makes his heart twist (because no one should ever have to understand this and her slightest look will unclose him). “But I think you already know that.” (Maybe she knows and maybe she just sees who he is behind his eyes, because Hetty has always known how to see, and she must have already divined how the barbed wire also runs across his sleep as it does across hers). “You must, because otherwise Jack would never have sent someone so young.”
Years ago their tyotia had insisted that he promise her (that all of them promise her -- him-not-him and Jenny and Jethro -- but especially him because he was the most proficient with lies and the best at telling them even to himself) the truth, whole and entire, stark and unvarnished and true (like Keller-roshi after her, but Keller-roshi had also insisted he tell himself the truth, and that was immeasurably harder), and he cannot help the old habit.
The words rise to his lips like a reflex. “Gonna take a hell of a lot of time, this time,” and he almost calls her tyotia and he wishes he could allow himself the love-name and admission of identity and the chance to fall into her arms and pour out his pain like water from a broken vessel, because Mitchell loves him but Hetty understands ( behind the wire which is behind the mirror our Image is the same).
“It probably will,” she agrees. “The most important things often do,” and there is a weight of compassion (compassion, but not pity, never pity; Service commands respect and pity would demean it) in her voice enormous enough to drown the seas and smother him.
Then her hand is resting on his knee again, soft and gentle, and she smells of Chanel (classic, dignified, and it will always smell to him like homecoming), and he knows from the set of her lips and the gentle hesitance in her voice that she is about to tell him one of her truths (that she is offering it as a gift; Hetty has always been selflessly selfish with herself and her secrets, because she has never wanted another to have to carry her burden).
"I'm sure Jack blames your for the choice you made at the end, and I know Jack -- I'm sure he sent you to me because he wanted you to have to explain it to me. But you don’t have to. Sometimes there aren’t any good roads, dear boy, only the ones that finish the job and get you out in one piece.”
"But," and he sounds like a boy in his own ears, (irony of ironies for the blue fairy never came and he has never been a real boy but he will always be her duckling, even when the Old Man is gone and she is gone and he is eighty and even if she never knows who he really was and who he is and who he will be someday when this is over), "one of them is still alive. I made a deal --"
It is this last that weighs on his heart (never could or shall Heavy defeat what to Heavy is merely light), because he knows O'Neill promised her blood to answer Jenny's (Little Jenny's, who had been smarter than Sofia, but never as strong, but Hetty had loved Jenny too much and too deeply to listen), knows that O'Neill and his ( their ) tyotia had tried and failed to take the serpent in his lair (and their failure, like lady Macbeth's damned spot, was writ in blood on the hands Ba'al sent to O'Neill's office and O'Neill has never liked to lose but he has always known ( they have always known) that Hetty -- even though she tried to hide it, even though it never broke her -- feels each death like match to the heart), and he knows he had been the last piece on the chessboard (pawn, knight, rook? It doesn't matter anymore) and he had put the snake in check but not in checkmate (he had made a deal) and because of it Jenny (once so bright and lovely, and her Russian had been flawless and she cheated at poker) lies dead and buried (by oaks and roses deliberated) while the snake (one of the snakes, no longer they but merely he ) still breathes.
And then she is smiling tenderly at him, taking his words for the apology he cannot help but give her, and shaking her head. (They had named the mission Tiresias, blind and throbbing between two lives and whether or not it was intentional it had broken his heart).
“All victories in this game are Pyrrhic, my boy, and Jack O’Neill knows it well, even if he has always been too much of an idealist to believe it. You made the only choice you could, so don’t add his regrets and might-have-beens to your own burdens.” She takes a breath and looks sharply up at him (and nothing quite so least as truth, and he knows before she speaks that her voice will be stern but kind). “I would say that I forgive you, but I cannot because you have done nothing to forgive.”
He has not been to confession these twenty years and more, forgive me father for I have sinned (except that my tyotia says I haven’t and she does not lie and is never wrong) and he has transgressed and killed when he shouldn’t and not killed when he should have done, and she has seen the truth and the lies and the horror and the snakes in his eyes and she is offering him absolution (all unasked for, a gift and a blessing and ours is the here and now of freedom) and his breath catches in his throat. He cannot thank her, but she sees it in his eyes.
They sit and watch the sun go down, not flames of red and gold but gentle pink and purple and fading, and there is quiet between them. She asks a few questions, he gives her the answers he can speak, and they know that they must not linger here too long in this tiny space between the secrets, so she pats his knee once more and stands, and he stands up beside her, tall and straight and feeling (oddly) lighter.
There is one last gift he can give this woman who has given so much (pain and sacrifice and protection and absolution and carrying secrets that weigh on her heart like stones cast at the martyrs), and it is small, so small (insignificant and wanting) but it is a gift and a truth that he ( they, when two were one and singular) should have given her twenty years ago but pain does not encourage generosity (never has, and he may come home with smooth round stones).
“He – Jack – never blamed you for Poland, you know. Never. I swear to you this is the truth.” (And love everywhere exploding maims and blinds (but surely does not forget). He hears her soft indrawn hiss of breath and the tears on it, and with a last wave over his shoulder (for if he stays he will utter her true name and his), he turns and walks away without looking at her face.