Until he'd met Gibbs, McGee wouldn't have known a jack plane from a spokeshave. His grandpa had been a cabinetmaker but he'd died before McGee's sixth birthday. The scents of cedar and hard maple in Gibbs's basement had pricked at McGee's memory enough for him to start asking questions. He knew better than to offer to lend a hand, but after five years of watching one-and-a-half boats take shape he knew enough about the tools Gibbs used to be able to fetch and hand them over.
It wasn't often that his visits to the basement coincided with one of Ziva's. On the very first occasion that their paths crossed there, McGee had known without doubt that he was seeing what few others were allowed to see. Even though those two were team players, at work they were both hard-assed, and often they butted heads. Around the boat there was harmony, and a whole lot of trust: Ziva didn't have to offer to lend a hand; Gibbs would ask her to do this, show her how to do that, or she'd just pick up a twin to whichever tool he was using and join in.
When McGee arrived today he was pleased to find Ziva in Gibbs's kitchen.
"I am on my way out. Give this to him, please," she said, handing over a beer.
"Sure," McGee said, somewhat disappointed. He liked people-watching, especially when the people concerned were those that he knew and liked. "What's the rush, though?"
"The date," Ziva muttered, already walking away. "I will see you on Monday."
"Okay," McGee mumbled, confused.
In the basement he found Gibbs staring at a spot on the cement floor.
"Beer from Ziva," McGee said. "She said something about the date?"
"She always forgets it," Gibbs said, capping the beer. He took a swig before saying, "Today she remembered it, but only after she got here. Ari's death."
"Right. I forget that, too," McGee muttered, still confused. "Until now I wouldn't have said that she and Ari were close."
"They weren't, in some ways. In others..."
Ari had killed Kate. Gibbs had killed Ari... or had he? McGee studied Gibbs's profile. He was looking at the basement stairs now. McGee thought back and it wasn't hard to dredge up the ballistics findings, the trajectory in particular, and that tied in with the angle from the stairs. Gibbs had said that he'd come down here and had found Ari. He'd shot Ari from the stairs. Or had he?
McGee hadn't doubted it two years ago, but now he had questions.
"Was Ziva here, too, that day?"
Gibbs looked at the bottle in his hands. He began to pick at the label, and McGee just knew. He was a damn good investigator, and his mentor was partly responsible for that. The man picking at that label had not shot Ari.
"Ziva shot him," McGee said quietly. "Were you even here?"
"Standing right where I am now. He had the drop on me," Gibbs admitted.
"Why'd you two cover it up? She saved your life, so—"
"A foreign agent saved my life by assassinating a terrorist on US soil," Gibbs said, looking McGee in the eye. "She wasn't part of the team back then, remember?"
"Frankly, Boss, I kinda have trouble thinking of the word 'team' without connecting it to Ziva."
"Yeah..." Gibbs said with a wry smile. After a pause, he said, "This conversation stays here."
"Yes, sir," McGee said without hesitation. But he asked: "Who else knows?"
"Jenny, and that's it. The gun Ziva used was unregistered and brand new– I got a pal to get me papers for it, but he didn't know why and didn't ask questions... This conversation stays down here. Don't talk to Ziva about it."
"I won't," McGee said, and had to wonder about the puzzle piece he was missing. At length he said wryly, "Good thing I'm not an overly curious person."
"Yeah, I've noticed," Gibbs said. "I get a million questions from Tony about stuff that's none of his business. None from you... I better call Jen."
McGee would've made himself scarce but Gibbs had walked over to the stairs. He sat on the third step from the bottom, his cell phone already pressed to his ear.
"It's me. Ziva left my place about fifteen minutes ago. Check the date... Right. If she doesn't call or pitch on your doorstep... Yeah. See ya Monday."
If asked McGee would've admitted to having real trouble, now, with keeping his curiosity in check, although a small part of him was saying quite insistently that he neither needed nor wanted to know. He'd learned that there was little about Ziva that wasn't complicated. To get to know her took courage. He was braving those waters, but as yet he was paddling in the shallows. He shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other, and was about to change the subject, when Gibbs's phone rang.
"Gibbs... Yeah, I don't like that either, but she might've turned her phone off cos she's headed over to your place anyway... Okay, so give it an hour... Later." Gibbs cut the call and got up. "Huh. Those two oughta just get married."
McGee had just taken a sip of beer and nearly sprayed it all over the place.
"None of my business," he said eventually.
"They're not that close, McGee," Gibbs drawled. "At least, I don't think so."
"I don't go there. Thinking about that relationship, I mean. What I know is enough: they're good friends, and Ziva needs that."
"She does," Gibbs said with a nod, and finally effected that subject change.
About forty minutes later Gibbs's high-pitched ring tone interrupted a conversation about their latest case.
"Gibbs... Good. Tell her I'm sorry I didn't remember... Okay. Bye." Gibbs pocketed his phone and said, "Like I guessed, she turned off her phone while heading over to Jen's place."
"You look really relieved," McGee blurted.
"It's... complicated," Gibbs muttered while taking a board from the steamer. Steamed, the wood bent easily to the ribs of the hull. Gibbs nodded thanks to McGee for helping to hold the hot wood in place, then got on with the work of temporarily fixing the board to the ribs with clamps. He fetched a hand drill and began to bore the pilot holes for copper nails. The holes were narrower than the shafts of the nails, meant to make it easy to drive those fasteners home while still keeping them tight. He paused on the fourth hole and shook his head. "Women make everything complicated."
"I just think that some women are more complicated—No. More complex than others," McGee said.
"Huh. Wait till you walk into work one day and find that an old flame is now your boss."
"Hopefully I'll never have to deal with that," McGee said sincerely.
"Hmph. Actually wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Jenny grew up. Guess I did, too."
"Did you ever think she'd go as far as she has?"
"Uh-uh," Gibbs muttered, setting the drill bit for the next hole. While turning the drill handle he said, "That wasn't fair of me."
"Umm, you just admitted to a mistake?" McGee mumbled, quite stunned.
"About time," Gibbs said, nodding.
"Shouldn't you be saying this to the Director?"
"She'd tell me to can it," Gibbs said, certain. "Some ways, she hasn't changed a bit. She wants apologies-in-action: how I behave now and going forward is what matters."
"That's not a bad attitude," McGee said thoughtfully.
"Makes it real easy on the people around her, maybe easier than it oughta be. That alone is what makes her a damn good boss."
"She doesn't take mistakes personally, y'mean?"
"Yeah. You screw up, and just by trying not to next time, you make it all right. Obviously, it still depends on the level of screw-up. Last week, Chuck Becker deserved to get fired."
"He clearly broke the law. Gotta wonder if the DA is gonna push charges," McGee said.
"Oh, he will. Becker bribed a witness and put that whole case in jeopardy. No amount of apologizing or hard work after-the-fact is gonna fix that... Fetch me that half-inch countersink bit, please."
McGee fetched the drill bit and swapped it for the bit recently removed from the drill. He put that away and came back to watch Gibbs bore out the countersinks for the nail heads. The countersink bit had a guide that fit into the pre-drilled pilot holes, and that ensured that the countersink was always perfectly centered. He finished the job and set the drill aside. A hammer, setting iron, and a box of copper nails were close to hand.
"Go get another hammer. I don't have two setters, so drive 'em to just above the countersink and I'll finish 'em off."
McGee had to work hard on keeping a grin off his face. It wasn't often that he got to do anything substantial here, and while whacking nails wasn't a big deal, it was still actual work-on-the-boat. He worked carefully with the hammer, keeping a question to himself until he was done. Even then he waited for Gibbs to finish using the hammer and setting iron to drive the nails until their heads were fully inset into the countersinks. That was tricky work. If the setter slipped off the nail head, it would damage the surrounding wood.
"So women are complex," McGee said. "Why didn't it work between you and the Director?"
"She told me where she wanted her career to go, and I got this stupid idea that she was one of those feminist types that wanted power just so she could stick it to men on a regular basis. I had it all wrong. She's damn good at what she does, and to do the most good, she needs a big title. There it ends. But I was young and stupid..."
"But d'you think you two might've lasted if you'd realized what you know now?"
"Nope," Gibbs said, checking on a new board in the steamer. "I'm not right for her, never have been. And the one person who is right for Jen, has the wrong job... and is also kinda blind. They both are."
"I'd rather not have that conversation," McGee said flatly. "Bugs the hell out of me when Tony speculates—"
"I'm not speculating, McGee, and I'm not gossiping either. Just speaking my mind. Let's go get something to eat."
"Now you're the one looking and sounding relieved," Gibbs noted. "What's the big deal?"
"Respect. I respect them both more than I can say," McGee stated.
"Nothing wrong with that," Gibbs said.
* * *
~ More than a year later ~
After a long hot shower, McGee wearily pulled on boxers and a T-shirt and he just as wearily got into bed. He was tired, but he knew that he wasn't likely to fall asleep soon.
He hadn't been there, but he'd seen the evidence, and he hadn't been close to the body but he knew that the shape of that thin trickle of blood from the small wound in Trent Kort's left temple, was something he'd never forget. And Ziva's expression while 'on autopilot': he'd never forget that either.
His mind tricked him and brought on an olfactory hallucination of cigarette smoke mixed with the faint remnants of burnt cordite from the gunshot. He had an idea that whenever he thought back on this night's events, that smell might ghost in on him.
He frowned and tried to chase those unpleasant memories by thinking of something else.
Another memory from tonight: Jen Shepard's expression when asking Ziva, in Hebrew, if everything was all right. If he hadn't been as tired, McGee would've deliberately thought about something else. Instead he found himself wondering just how long Jen had been in love, or on the verge of that, with Ziva, and he had to wonder how hard it was to keep all that feeling in check.
Gibbs had said once, "They're not that close," and McGee hadn't disbelieved him then, but tonight he'd found proof of that statement for himself. They still weren't that close, but only professionalism was keeping a certain distance between them. Not much distance, though, and McGee found himself intensely grateful for that: someone needed to be there for Ziva. He couldn't think of anyone better than Jen, but it had to be hard on her.
He was suddenly angry at the world for being a stupid place, and equally mad at circumstances. It just wasn't fair. As Gibbs had said that day, those two were right for each other, but a bunch of stupid rules were keeping them at a distance.
Not much distance, his mind reminded him, and he calmed a little and thought that if they were unhappy it would've shown by now.
~ ~ ~
Ziva and Jen were both late to work the next morning, and they arrived together. If anyone not on their team noticed, they didn't draw attention to the fact. Gibbs noticed, all right, but said nothing, in a very pointed way. Tony had been about to say something about it to McGee but one look at Gibbs's face had caused Tony to make some quick and rather feeble comment about something else.
McGee found himself in the elevator with Jen sometime later.
"Is she okay?"
"Better," Jen said, nodding.
"I, umm..." McGee fumbled, then cleared his throat and said, "I'd be real worried about her if you weren't around, ma'am. Thanks."
"No thanks necessary," Jen said wryly. "It's not like I have a choice, y'know."
"I don't follow," McGee mumbled.
"Do you feel that caring about her, and others, is a choice?"
"Oh. No, ma'am, I don't have a choice there," McGee stated.
"Right. Same boat... She'll be seeing her shrink tonight."
"That session's gonna be hell," McGee stated.
"Mmm, but she'll be coming over to my place afterward," Jen said. With a wry laugh she added, "And we'd better not be late for work two mornings in a row."
"No comment," McGee said in a hurry, but he laughed.
"Such a gentleman," Jen teased. Then: "My floor. I'll see you later."
In his car on the way to the DA's office, McGee pondered his seemingly easy change in stance. Just yesterday he would not have deliberately thought about Ziva, Jen, and their relationship, but today that seemed okay. He guessed that that had a lot to do with his approach to the subject. Unlike Tony, McGee wasn't the type to wonder about intimate specifics, and that being plain, thinking about that relationship was not disrespectful, or intrusive.
He cared. He cared about them both, and had no choice in the matter. McGee found himself hoping like hell that someday, somehow, those two women would have what they both wanted.
* * *
~ Add about six months ~
It wasn't the best fix. The best fix would involve somehow magicking away the Regulations, and brainwashing half of Washington into thinking that there was nothing at all sensational about the Director of NCIS and one of her Major Case agents being in love. McGee rolled his eyes at those thoughts, which amounted to fanciful, wishful thinking, and told himself to read fewer fantasy novels.
He parked his car in Jen's driveway and fetched two bags of groceries out of the trunk before heading to the door. That single conversation at the hospital had changed his relationship with Jen forever. If he offered her 'ma'am' now it was because they were at work, in company with other agents. Today she'd called him first before emailing a shopping list, and she'd told him to take it for granted that he was invited to lunch, and dinner, too, if he chose to stick around for it. At the door she confirmed his suspicions about a slightly ulterior motive for inviting him over.
"Hi!" Jen said. "Thanks for going shopping for us. If I don't watch her like a hawk..."
"I can imagine," McGee drawled. "So I'm also here to lend a hand in that respect, huh?"
"It would be greatly appreciated," Jen admitted.
"Right," McGee said, amused. "And how's the Worst Patient in the World doing today?"
"Grouchy," Jen said, but a smile was lurking.
"And you think that's cute," McGee chortled.
"Which annoys the hell out of her," Jen said out the side of her mouth.
"I bet... How're you doing?"
"Trying not to think about those papers I signed yesterday," Jen admitted. "But on a good note, FBI Director Grace signed other papers yesterday."
"What? Already?" McGee mumbled, surprised.
"Already. They want Ziva there, pretty badly by the looks of it. So anyway, with her FBI instatement secured, that bit of the future is no longer in question. We thought that she might have to return to Israel for a couple of months before going to work for the FBI."
"That would not have been fun," McGee said.
"Not at all," Jen agreed. After a pause, she said, "We've been lucky."
"Hope you're including me, Gibbs, Tony, Abby, and Ducky in that 'we,'" McGee said.
"I am," Jen said, smiling.