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Little Pitchers

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Monday afternoon and she’s still on the Hill; a few more hours of hearings and then home is the hunter, but for now it’s stale coffee and microphones and the same questions asked six different ways by men convinced each of them is asking something new.  Rather be anywhere but here, but duty calls, and it’s Hetty’s job to convince the members of the Boys’ Club that the protection of 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).  Not that she’d admit it even on a bet, but 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 (by tactful, she’s fairly certain Jenny had meant, “you don’t lose your temper and start shouting obscenities at chauvinistic idiots”), and anyone who says she’s living in a post-feminist world is clearly enjoying a particularly lovely form of self-delusion.  Were she 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, and wouldn't it be nice, but one makes the best of what one’s given, and being a woman is rather wonderful the other three hundred and sixty three days of the year). 

Thank God for the recess, and she’s stepped out for a breath of air that hasn’t been air-conditioned and filtered to within an inch of its life and a 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; the first had been noble if misguided, the second futile, and the third simply wrong, not that declaring wars on domestic soil, even of the symbolic variety, had ever been a particularly good idea), 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 California coffee shop sign here admonishing her that “tipping is good karma,” but it’s still good manners and those are in such short supply these days) when she sees him crossing the plaza with that big ground-covering stride.  Didn’t expect to see him here, only seen him a couple of times since he shipped off to Colorado, 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 that bask in the light cast by the stars on their shoulders, and those that recognize that stars are among the most massive objects in the universe and carry them with the greatest of respect for their gravity (it’s not a suggestion: it’s the law).  Jack, she can see even from a distance, is one of the latter, and now he is become Atlas, or maybe Sisyphus, and 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).     

Jack carries himself like he did in Russia, like he did in Poland for God’s sake, eyes flick-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 almost-retired in Colorado watching over a motley crew of mostly-civilian scientists (should be the tinker, the tailor and the candlestick maker, but it’s more like tinker, tailor, soldier, spy and this must be why he’s never invited Hetty out to Colorado).  What war are you fighting, dear Jackie, dear Jackie, what war are you fighting, dear Jackie, what war?

His head turns in her direction with that same unerring radar he’s always had; 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 you’ve spent too damn many years around the Navy, Hetty my girl, if those are the metaphors you’re using).  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 and couldn’t in good conscience obey (only thing that saved him from 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 hadn’t that been an unholy pair?). 

The years and the weight of whatever’s in Colorado have turned his 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 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 was all anyone had), and then there had been the Gulf 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 the early 1980s). 

“If it isn’t Hetty Lange!  What the hell are you doing in Washington, tyotia?  I thought you were spending your golden years in sunny Hollywood with the beautiful people.” He stops just short of hugging her in public.

“I could say the same of you, General.  Congratulations, by the way – though your old tyotia,” and there’s something she hasn’t been called since the Terrible Threesome (and it had been the Terrible Threesome, no matter how Jack had treated Jenny Sheppard) “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 an archaic skill these days, particularly for people working on high tech projects”  (Golden years, indeed.  I’ll show you golden years, little boy). 

“You know, you could still make a hell of a commission selling guilt trips, right?”

 Hetty feels her left eyebrow creeping up, casts him a sidelong look.  Ladies do not wink.  “Well, 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 and politicians and lobbyists (easily distinguished by whether they’re wearing Bermuda shorts and cameras, brand-new ties and camera-ready smiles for the press, or that unmistakable smugness that comes from knowing one has unlimited money at one’s disposal and 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 (damn those nautical metaphors cropping up everywhere) behind him.    The fog comes in on little cat feet, hiding men who haven’t yet come in from the cold.

Jack pauses for just an instant to cast a baleful look at the back of a man in a beautifully-cut Armani suit as the man hurries past.  At Hetty's inquiring glance, he growls,  “Gordon Matthews.  You know him? Oily little bastard.  Met him at a party a few months ago.  Lobbies for some defense contractor or other.  Convinced he’s doing the work of God.  Goddamn lobbyists.  Not much difference between them and the fucking –“ Jack bites his words off suddenly, waves a hand dismissively.  O’Neill looks embarrassed, but not, she suspects, for the reason he wants her to think.  “Sorry.  Haven’t even spent five minutes together and here you are listening to me rant already.  I’ll stop,” but his eyes are saying Fuck, it’s always been too damn easy to let my guard down with you.  “So I guess Jenny Sheppard is your boss these days.”

“She’s a good director, Jack.  My little ducks have all grown up, and I’m proud of you.”  What’s in Colorado that’s got you clinging so desperately to safe topics, my boy? She wonders, but what she says, gazing up at him guilelessly, is “You here for the budget hearings too?”  And God how she wishes she’d run into him a few weeks from now, when she’d asked a few of Jenny’s questions, when she knew something other than whatever Jack was doing they’d circled the wagons so tight around it that she could barely even see the shadow of the thing they were hiding.  Serendipity has an awful sense of humor; right now Hetty feels like everyone’s in their seats and the pitcher’s just thrown out the first pitch of the game, except that no one bothered to tell her they were playing baseball, so she’d walked out onto the field in front of forty thousand people holding a tennis racket instead.

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.”  They’ve settled on an unoccupied bench under a gnarled old tree; she’s not surprised to see that Jack’s put his back against the trunk, eyes scanning, scanning, scanning. 

Hetty smiles (she can feel her whiskers twitching, oh my stars and garters) sensing an in.  “Deep space radar telemetry has got to be expensive.  You must be having one hell of a time getting money out of those old tightwads on the appropriations committee, given the way ninety percent of Washington feels about NASA and anything related to funding basic science right now.”

Jack looks at her sharply, eyes narrow.  Maybe 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…).  “Fortunately, some of our research has applications with immediate relevance to national security,” he says cheerfully.  “Makes the cashflow situation a bit better than it would be otherwise.”

(Oh, I just bet it does).  This is a familiar dance, though she’s still a bit afraid 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 Jethro used to say, “Fake it till you make it.”  He was a bit too much of a cowboy for her tastes, but sometimes a girl doesn’t have much choice in the matter).  “I don’t know much about space science, I’m afraid.  What exactly is Deep space radar telemetry?”

“Exactly what it sounds like,” he says, eyebrows raised in an expression of innocence.  Another look she recognizes.  I know you know I know – it’s a cover, tyotia – a cover for something big.

And her mind’s 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 since some of the men and women now holding the pieces had been in diapers could practically hear the military shouting, look over here at my right hand, isn’t it interesting?  You can just ignore the man behind the curtain.   She frowns as she looks at Jack.  “That poor boy – the test pilot that went down in Antarctica – he was testing something for you, wasn’t he?”  And she’s sure Jack catches her unspoken, for values of “testing” that include “not a test at all.”

Jack doesn’t miss a beat, doesn’t blink, doesn’t flinch.  His intake of breath, precisely calibrated – enough to say, damn that was a pity, but not so much as to give the impression he might ever have met the pilot in person – and the smoothness of his answer are all the confirmation she needs.  “I heard about him.  Heard he was a terrific pilot, so it’s really a shame, but no, we don’t do anything that requires test pilots.  Purely 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 babies, would see.  But she was the one that taught him the hand signal: Later.  We can’t talk about this here.

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 to bend light.  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.  Why couldn’t it have been three more weeks before this delicate pavane was joined, three more weeks for her to figure out the right questions to ask in order to discover why so much depends the damn red wheelbarrow?  “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 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.  She’d read Gibbs’s report.  My Johnny lies over the ocean, my Johnny lies over the sea, but Hetty suspects that he does not lie in China or India or the myriad of tiny islands that are unlabeled specks on the globe but rather in some unreal city under the brown fog of a winter noon; where that might be, she does not know – this is where her understanding fails.  Some crucial piece is missing.  She is on a pier, and some of the planks (she can’t tell which) are rotten; below, there are sharks circling.  Dangerous waters.  “Was anyone else exposed?  Anyone to do with a certain project at the Pentagon?  It may just be a coincidence, Jack, but I’ve heard a rumor that NCIS is working another strange case that may be connected to the project.”

His eyes widen, almost imperceptibly.  This then, is news.  Worrisome news, judging from the way his nostrils are flaring, though Jack’s face remains bland, pleasant, almost expressionless.   “Not that I know of, but then the whole McAvoy thing caught us by surprise.  My bosses were pissed.”  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?”         

“Later tonight, I’m afraid.  Can’t leave the children alone in L.A. for too 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, but not yet, not yet.  “Otherwise, I’d suggest dinner.”

“Can I insist on a rain check?  It’s been way too long since I’ve seen you.”  His hand flashes, We need to talk.  I’ll come to you soon.  (Things fall apart.  The center cannot hold.)

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.  I’ll even take you to Cicada if you want.”