Lee had not been to the office since. For form’s sake, Billy drove to the house. He was not surprised to find a realtor’s sign out front. Sometimes a strategic retreat was your only option.
He turned the car, heading towards where he had known all along he’d find him. He pulled over long enough to buy a clutch of wildflowers from a street vendor. Seemingly simple at first glance, closer consideration saw their variety. Daises wide as your palm. Blue bells, dancing with the slightest movement. He didn’t know what the orange or pink ones were. Simple—until you realized they weren’t. They suited her.
Lee sat with his back against the side of the headstone, the first two fingers of his left hand circling on the surface of the loose earth. Billy felt his chest tighten. He had seen Lee make that gesture hundreds of times on the small of Amanda’s back, the palm of her hand, her elbow.
Lee looked up as Billy stepped closer. “They managed to keep a lid on it.” Lee’s hand tightened, drawing up dirt. “She should have had a medal. Headlines. The works.”
“They couldn’t let anyone know how close it was. The crazies and the ambitious would come out of the woodwork.” Billy shifted from foot to foot. He knew it. That didn’t make it feel right. Amanda had single-handedly foiled an assassination attempt on the President. The assignment was supposed to have been a plum job, a reward for years of dedicated service. Hosting the President at the opening of a new elementary school at Fort Meade. So safe she’d brought their eight year old daughter. How many third-graders got to meet the President?
“I know.” Lee’s hand opened, letting the dirt fall. “Did they figure out how the shooter slipped in?”
“The shooter didn’t slip in. She worked there. One of the kindergarten teachers. She’d been at the old school for years.” Billy moved the bundle of flowers to his other hand, feeling sweat on the back of his neck. They’d kept Lee—bodily—away from the aftermath but Billy had been there. Witnesses, mostly, the Secret Service agents caught flat-footed, said Amanda had spotted the teacher drawing, shoved her daughter behind the podium, and tackled the President. She’d almost managed to save both. It was sheer bad luck that a bullet had slid past the side of Kelly’s neck at just the wrong angle. She’d bled out before help arrived. The rest of the clip had been in Amanda’s back, shielding the President.
“She did the job and it cost us everything.” Lee’s other hand clenched, then opened. Something on his palm caught the light. Amanda’s necklace, the heart-shaped pendant she always wore, that had once been sent as proof when she’d been grabbed by the Russians. Lee had broken about a dozen rules that time, getting her back. “I don’t know—if I’d been there instead—I just don’t know, Billy.” He looked up. “I think…I think if it’d been me, my daughter would be alive, and the President of the United States would be dead.” He dropped his head into his left hand, the right closing again around the necklace. “Sometimes—sometimes I wish Amanda had ignored the President and grabbed Kelly. God help me.”
Kelly had been unexpected. They were both over forty when she was born. But not unwanted. The bonus baby, Amanda’s teenaged sons had called her. It was a wonder Kelly learned to walk with Philip and Jamie carrying her around. Which they managed only when Lee let go of her. Amanda loved her daughter, of course, but she’d been child-rearing for almost twenty years before Kelly was born. It was inescapably different for Lee. Kelly brought an explosion of new devotion into his world. Everything his daughter did was a revelation. He adored her, the chief votary of a small new goddess.
At the Agency they laughed that Kelly Stetson had a fan club, not a family, but they were hardly ones to talk. Billy had seen that little girl perched on desks and leaning over shoulders, learning cryptography, lock-picking, forensic accounting, how to clean and reassemble a handgun, hand-to-hand combat, whatever the agents were working on. They taught her, partly because Kelly was the sort of kid who responded to kindness and attention with gratitude and interest instead of becoming spoiled, and partly because she was a more or less irresistible combination of Amanda’s earnestness and Lee’s charm, complete with double-barrel dimples. She shouldn’t have been allowed in the office, of course. But Lee had become increasingly cranky when a case demanded long hours away from home and everyone doted on her, so what harm could it be?
What harm? Billy swiped a hand across his face. He wasn’t the only one with a pile of Kelly’s handmade bracelets and coded notes on the corner of his desk. His whole damn department was in deep mourning, and if her parents were the only agents he lost from this debacle, he’d be surprised. He stepped closer, stooping to place the flowers on the bare soil.
“We had fifteen years—eighteen, if you count working together, before.” Lee’s shoulder lifted in a half-shrug. “Eighteen more than I expected to have in this business.”
“What we do is not exactly family-friendly,” Billy said. In the deepest parts of his soul, he’d envied Lee and Amanda’s working together, honest about the risks. His wife did not know what he did, and that was not a recipe for a good relationship either.
“You tell yourself you like being alone. You flirt, you date, you fool around. That was okay. Until the day I saw her. The platform was crowded but she stood out like a fire in the dark. It wasn’t attraction, exactly. Recognition. As if I’d been the last survivor of an alien species, and suddenly there was another.” He gripped his knees. “I fought it. I liked my playboy life. Or I thought I did. Then I didn’t any more. I was just getting my head around being utterly lost to a suburban mom when I figured out she was a housewife the way Clark Kent was a reporter. God! Her instincts were perfect. She was born to this business. I couldn’t believe what I’d found.”
“I knew she shook you up.” Billy squeezed his shoulder. “That’s why I wanted you to work together. You were good—the best. You weren’t being challenged. Getting complacent. Shaking up was good for you. She made you better.”
One corner of Lee’s mouth twitched up. “She sure did.” He pushed Billy’s hand away and stood. “Who did it?”
Billy had known this was coming. He took a folder from his briefcase. “I have two names.” He held out the file. “One is the man who arranged the hit.”
“Thank you.” Lee grabbed the folder. Billy did not let go. “The other,” he went on, “is yours. Your new name.”
Lee’s eyebrows rose.
“This man behind this attack is powerful, wealthy, and angry. Head of a major weapon-supply operation.” Billy said. “He was aiming to cause a war. For which his company would happily sell the guns. Rumor says he means to revenge his foiled plot on Amanda’s nearest and dearest. The FBI has already brought her oldest son back from Pittsburgh with a new name and background.”
“‘Seeley Booth.’ I know. Philip told me he’d been given a new identity. But Billy — ” Lee’s hands went to his hips. Billy knew that argumentative stance. “Philip’s a new recruit. I can take care of myself.”
“Philip was in the Army for four years. He’s been with the FBI for three. Need I remind you what youwere doing for the Agency after three years?”
Lee went silent for a moment. “I can take care of myself,” he repeated.
“Lee Stetson has to disappear. Has to cease to exist.” Billy slapped Lee’s chest with the folder at each word. “For his stepsons if not himself. This guy plays hardball. Obviously.” He tried not to but he couldn’t help glancing at the fresh-turned soil. One grave for both. They buried Amanda with her daughter tucked under her arm. She was almost too big to do so. But not quite. “Even if—when—something happens to him, his company will not forget.”
Lee refused to follow his gaze, jerking the folder from him. “It doesn’t matter. I’m going.” Now his eyes did slide downward. “I’ll get him. I’m not worried about coming back.”
Billy took a deep breath. This part, too, was not unexpected. But it could not be allowed. “Officially, I’m telling you to let the authorities handle it.”
Lee snorted, shaking his head.
“Unofficially—get the bastard. Get him. Put an extra bullet through him for me.”
Lee grunted. “Thanks.” He turned.
Billy grabbed his shoulder, stopping him. “Then come back.”
“Your country still needs you, Scarecrow.”
“I can’t go back to the Agency.” Lee’s face, already pale and tight, went absolutely gray. “I can’t. We spent too much time there. I’ll be watching for them around every corner. I will lose my mind.”
Billy thought it even-odds that might happen anyway, but he kept it to himself. Lee Stetson was too damn good to give up if it could possibly be avoided. Brutal truth. Also better for him, in the long run, if they could get him working again. “I wouldn’t ask you to.” He gestured with his chin at the folder.
Lee considered him for a long moment, then flipped the cover. “NCIS? Leroy Jethro Gibbs? What kind of name is that?” Before Billy could answer, he went on. “A Marine? Come on, Billy. I was only in for eighteen months before the Agency recruited me.”
“Good thing too. Your smart ass would never have made it as a leatherneck, not for long.”
They stared at each other. Lee’s face was now an unhealthy-looking splotchy red over the gray, like brick dust sprinkled on a sidewalk. Billy’s guilt at bullying him into another government post, into working, into living, deepened.
Lee sighed. “I’ll think about it.” He turned a page and exploded. “No. Absolutely not. They’re gone.” His head whipped side to side. “They may put a lid on the biggest act of heroism of the decade, but they will not erase her—either of them—from my life. Whatever name I’m living it under.”
Billy feigned a reluctant pause, but he was pleased. Progress. He took out another folder. “They insisted, but I thought you would feel that way.”
Lee snatched the file. “A cartel killing. Witnessed a murder, killed to keep from testifying. Shannon. And—Kelly.” He looked up. “You kept her name.”
“There’s nothing to suggest a connection between Leroy Jethro Gibbs and Lee Stetson. It was the least — ” Billy shrugged uncomfortably. “The Irishness of it suggested Shannon for Amanda.”
“Thank you.” Lee kneaded his forehead. “But Leroy Jethro?”
“Close enough to help you answer to it.”
“No.” Lee snapped the file closed. “I will do this.” He tapped Billy’s shoulder with the folder, not entirely gently, but Billy didn’t step back. “You’re right. I work, or I kill myself. But I will not answer to Leroy. I can’t,” he went on as Billy opened his mouth. “It’s too close.” He looked down, brows touching as if gathering his thoughts. “Look. Agents use their codenames. We all do, more often than not, even at the office. But Amanda never called me anything but my real name. It’s one of the ways I realized, eventually, that she loved me. Me.” He rapped his knuckles on his chest. “Not just the excitement or glamour of this life. Me.” He thumbed his wedding ring. “I guess I can handle Jethro.”
Billy decided to take it. “Go kill that son of a bitch. Call me when you get back.”
Billy paused, his car door open, and looked back. Lee was on one knee, forehead pressed against the side of the gravestone. But the folder was in his hand, and the line of his back spoke of action. As Billy watched, Lee slid the necklace into his pocket.
* * *
He didn’t call.
Oh, he got his man. That had never been in doubt. But he didn’t call. Billy kept an ear to the metaphorical ground and knew that a powerful man met an unexpected end in Mexico, and not long after, Leroy Jethro Gibbs reported to NCIS. Billy tried not to be offended. If a clean break was what Lee needed, that was understandable. Billy kept his distance. But he kept tabs too. He worried again, when a member of Gibbs’ team went down only a couple years later. But Gibbs stayed together. When the worst has already happened, bad becomes livable by comparison.
More years passed. Billy realized, with considerable surprise, that he’d served his country for forty-five years. Other realizations followed. His knees ached. Florida was warm. He put in for retirement. On his last day, he shook hands, ate cake, got his watch, put the box of his belongings allowed to leave the building into his car, and drove to the Navy Yard.
He tapped a young man on the shoulder. Tony DiNozzo, Billy saw as the young man turned from the colleague he’d been annoying. Or flirting with. Or both. Ziva David. Billy had read the files of the team members Lee—Gibbs—had assembled. A commonality ran among them. He wondered if they saw it. If he saw it. “Where’s Gibbs?”
DiNozzo looked around as if expecting him to materialize from the air. Well, maybe he seemed to. Lee had always been good at that. “He was here a minute ago. Who are you?”
The palm of a hand smacked the back of DiNozzo’s head, more sound than actual blow. “He’s looking for me.”
DiNozzo rubbed his head. “Sorry, boss.”
“I do not think he is really sorry,” Ziva said, not looking up from her computer. When she did, she looked down again, chastened by Gibbs’ frown.
Billy considered him. Older—grayer—who wasn’t?—but still, recognizably Lee. Trim build, same part in his hair. And yet not. This man pulled himself in tight, as if showing a narrow front like a wedge made living more bearable. Lee had smiled easily, used charm like a floral bludgeon, and was convinced he could talk his way out of anything. Gibbs’ face seemed set, like it would have to work to smile, and it was clear from his team’s behavior that taciturn running to laconic was the norm.
Confirming that suspicion, he jerked his head wordlessly. Billy followed him to the vending machines. Lee—Gibbs—poked coins into the coffee machine, extracted one cup which he handed to Billy, then another, which he kept. He sipped, watching Billy over the edge.
“I’m leaving,” Billy said at last.
Gibbs raised one eyebrow.
“Retiring,” he clarified.
Gibbs' mouth made a weighing expression. “About time.”
“I wanted to see you before I…” Billy trailed off under that bland stare. In its depths, he saw a flicker that might have been fear. Don’t rattle my cage, it seemed to say. “You seem…well.”
He held the coffee cup like a shield. “Well enough.”
“Ever hear from…Seeley Booth?” Billy asked, wondering if he’d made a mistake in coming. Whose benefit was he here for?
Gibbs lowered the cup. “He calls sometimes. Fornell keeps me updated when he forgets.”
“Jared?” Amanda’s second son, Jamie, had also been moved to a new identity.
“Motorcycling in India.” Gibbs’ face shadowed. “Last I heard.” The first finger and thumb of his free hand pinched the bridge of his nose. “He doesn’t talk to me much.”
Which meant Jamie King still blamed Lee for his mother and sister’s deaths. “Good team,” Billy said, glancing back towards the cluster of cubicles, where Gibbs’ people pretended to work and watched the visitor with ill-disguised curiosity.
“The best.” Gibbs sipped his coffee. “Fornell says Booth has been bending his ear about this scientist he’s having to work with. Forensic anthologist. Called in to help I.D. skeletal remains.”
“Oh?” Billy took a cautious drink and tried not to grimace. Who knew it was possible for any government coffee to be worse than the Agency’s?
“The words pushy and amateur were mentioned. And getting involved in cases outside the lab.”
“Sounds familiar,” Billy said.
A smile split Gibbs’ granite face for a second. Billy saw a ghost of Lee’s dimples flash. Gibb’s free hand fidgeted with something in his pocket.
“You may get grandchildren yet.” Billy tried for normal cheerfulness but it died under the strain and took Gibbs’ spare amusement with it.
Gibbs’ eyes flicked to his team. “No need.”
“I looked over their files.” Billy slid a fingertip along the edge of his cup. There was no way he was drinking more of it, but the warmth was nice. “Odd coincidence, how all of them are fatherless.”
Gibbs gave him a heavy stare.
Billy hadn’t really thought it was a coincidence. Did Lee seek them out, or did the orphaned or abandoned find their way to him, like loose bits of iron migrate to a magnet? “Glad to see Ziva David back in one piece.”
“Heard about that?”
“Everyone heard about that.” Whatever else had changed when Lee Stetson became Jethro Gibbs, a willingness to ignore the rules—particularly for a rescue—had remained.
Gibbs lifted one shoulder. “We got her back. Eli David left her and we got her back.”
A crystal formed in Billy’s mind. He thought he’d understood, but hadn’t, not entirely. What might Kelly Stetson, daughter of two spies and trained as soon as she could walk, have been like if she grew up? A lot like Ziva David. Gibbs had gathered children who needed him, but Ziva was different. Or, rather, more. The worst had happened, again—but this time he was there. We got her back. The scar was there, but the wound had closed. Billy let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. Florida was waiting. He could go with a clear—well, clearer—conscience.
* * *
Ziva watched the visitor leave. He put Gibbs on edge. She could not tell why, but he did. She watched Gibbs exhale slowly as the elevator doors closed behind the man.
She put a hand on Gibbs’ arm. “Everything all right?”
He looked at her. There it was, the plain affection that had always been there and never in her father’s eyes. I am glad you are here. I like you. “Yes.”
She did not believe him. The arm under her hand was shaking. Something glinted, cupped in his hand. She knew what it was. Not from him. Abby had shown her a picture of Gibbs’ wife and daughter, and Shannon had been wearing that necklace. Ziva slid her hand down his arm, touching his fingers. “It was hers, yes?”
His breathing went shallow, quick. “She meant to give it to Kelly. When she got older.” He looked at her as if with a sudden idea, his brows touching.
She knew what he was thinking. She always knew, at least about herself. He was wondering if he should give her the necklace meant for his daughter.
Abby’s father was dead. Tony’s was a con man. McGee’s was distant and demanding. Hers was a general and everyone around him his soldiers. All of them were Gibbs’ charges, but herself more so. Why she sounded more like an echo of his lost child than the others, she did not know, but it was okay with her. Being Gibbs’ almost-daughter beat the hell out of being Eli David’s conscript.
She closed his fingers gently over the pendant. If he had carried it in his pocket for ten years, he clearly needed it to stay there. “What did that man want?”
He pulled a deep, shuddering breath. The next one was steadier. “He got what he came for.”
It was not an answer. But gradually the muscles beneath her hand smoothed, and that was. She tapped his fingers. He slipped the necklace back into his pocket.
His cell phone rang. As he listened, he gestured for her to grab her backpack. “We’re up.” He snapped shut the elderly flip-phone, which he refused to upgrade. “Ziva, Tony, you’re with me.”