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Little Pitchers

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If there is one lesson Henrietta Lange has learned in all her years in and out of the shadows, it is that the heaviest of burdens seldom come into one’s life wearing their true seeming.  Rather, at first blush, they appear completely innocuous – small favors, the sort of thing anyone would do for a friend. Tiny things, really.  Worth a phone call, a conversation, part of one’s afternoon.  It is only days or weeks or months later, after each small thing has mounted quietly, imperceptibly upon a mountain of other insignificant things, that a person might suddenly find herself holding the weight of the world on her shoulders. 

And so it begins on a balmy Friday evening, when Henrietta – better known to friends and colleagues (and to the bare handful of adversaries that have looked into the dark corners that most eyes pass over and found her lurking there) as Hetty – finds herself in Washington, D.C., enjoying (or at least that’s one word for it; her years in L.A. have taught Hetty that a night at that lovely bar with the mechanical bull and the hundred varieties of tequila is often more fun than an evening at a palatial house swimming cautiously through a deceptively pleasant sea of bejeweled and impeccably groomed sharks) a reception at the home of one Senator John Irving after a long day of testimony on the Hill. 

When she was a girl she had dreamed of this world, dreamed of the shards of light glancing off the crystals of fine chandeliers, of wooden floors gleaming with a fresh coat of polish and the strains of a string quartet (students borrowed from Georgetown for the evening, gowned and tuxedoed and a bit flushed with the honor the Senator has done them) playing Vivaldi and Bach so familiar that it fades into background noise threading over and under and through the rise and fall of the conversations of important people.  She had imagined herself, then, as a personage beautifully coiffed and richly gowned, moving among the guests with a flute of champagne in her hand, wielding power and influence with great subtlety.

Hetty thinks, somewhat ruefully, that her younger self would have been sadly disappointed to find herself face to face with the real Henrietta Lange – older, diminutive, bespectacled, and wearing not a spectacular sapphire-blue Dior gown with sequins, but an eminently practical -- if beautifully detailed and elegantly tailored -- black pantsuit (gowns, as it turns out, make her feel a bit like a little girl in a party dress, particularly these days) and holding not a flute of expensive French champagne, but a cut-crystal glass of ordinary, boring mineral water.  After a long day spent applying her influence to the thick skulls of disinterested members of the Senate Finance Committee, she is quite honestly more interested in retreating to the relative peace of the Senator’s library, or in slipping out an hour or two earlier than planned (quietly, of course) to return to her hotel for a long hot bath and an hour with a good book, than she is in rubbing elbows with the Beltway power brokers.

“Hetty – there you are.  I’ve been looking for you all evening.”  As if the thought of a strategic retreat conjured her, Jenny Sheppard – Director Jenny Sheppard these days, Hetty’s superior and She In Charge of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service – appears at Hetty’s elbow, luminous in diamonds and a full-skirted black Chanel with a tight bodice, reddish blonde hair gleaming in the soft light, everything that a young Hetty had once imagined herself becoming.  Hard to reconcile this lovely, confident, eminently powerful woman with the talented but gawky and painfully uncertain girl that Jack O’Neill had nearly refused to work with all those years ago in Russia.  Most of the time ugly ducklings merely grow into ugly ducks, but every once in awhile, a body gets lucky enough to find one that turns out to be a swan. 

“Director,” Hetty says softly, a smile touching her lips.  “It’s good to see you too.”  The quartet, blessedly, stops playing that damned clichéd Four Seasons and moves onto a bit of obscure Bach that she vastly prefers, if only for not having heard it at almost every gathering deemed worthy of a chamber group. 

“I wanted to thank you again for flying clear out here for the budget hearings.  I’m sure you’d much rather be in L.A. right now, but you’re so much better – and more tactful – at handling the Finance Committee than I am.”  The tightness of the Director’s eyes and the faint lines around her mouth hint that this is just a pleasantry, an excuse.

“You are more than welcome, Director.  I am, as always, happy to be of service,” Hetty says pleasantly enough as she sets her empty glass aside on a table, but she looks sharply up at the younger woman and waits.

Jenny, she is gratified to find, doesn’t miss the look, or the intent behind it.  “You still don’t miss much, do you?” the director sighs.  “Do you mind if we go somewhere quieter so we can talk?”   

The night is warm and the party has spilled out the French doors and into the back garden, the lawn spangled with men in black jackets and women in sequins and light reflecting off crystal, but they’re able to find some privacy in the gazebo amid the scent of jasmine and the droning buzz of cicadas.  Jenny, always so well-mannered, sinks down on a padded bench without a word so that Hetty doesn’t have to crane her neck to look up at her.  “Hetty, I need a favor.  Unofficial, off the books for now.”

Hetty clasps her hands in front of her (not as easy as it used to be, now that her knuckles are faintly swollen with arthritis -- another casualty of too many years) , turns a level gaze on her former protégé.  “What sort of favor?  I trust nothing to do with that bad business with the late, unlamented La Grenouille, since you know I never approved of your obsession with the man, regardless of what he’d done.” 

For a moment, the director of NCIS looks a bit abashed, glances down at her shoes, but she meets the older woman’s eyes evenly and shakes her head.  “No, of course not.  No, I’d just appreciate it if you’d look into something for me.  Make a few phone calls.  Ask a few questions.  It’s about case Gibbs and his team have been working.”

Small favors.  Still, she purses her lips, curiosity growing.  Something that may have stymied the infamous – and highly tenacious – Lero Jethro Gibbs? “I might be able to do something.  Go on.”

“This all started a few months ago,” Jenny begins, fingers nervously toying with her beaded clutch, “when NCIS got a tip that someone associated with black-box research at the Pentagon was using shipments of electronic components from a supplier in Latin America as a cover to funnel large quantities of cocaine into the country.  The drugs were being passed to a couple of enlisted men with connections to a major gang here in D.C., and these men arranged for the drugs to be distributed and sold on the street, then passed some of the money back to the supplier.

“Both of these men were reported missing without leave by their commanding officer, and turned up a couple of days later floating in a reservoir.  They’d been shot at close range with a naval service revolver.   Gibbs and his team finally managed to turn up a witness who said the two had been wholesaling cocaine, and the evidence – and this anonymous tip – led them back to the Pentagon. 

“I’ll spare you the specifics of the investigation, but Gibbs finally picked up one Navy Lieutenant Lauren Hartford, who was responsible for receiving and inventory control for a highly-classified joint military-civilian project called COBRA.  Her job provided the prefect cover for drug smuggling, and the forensics – down to cocaine residue on some of her clothes and the fact that the bullets in the two dead drug dealers matched her service revolver, which one of Gibbs’s team found hidden in the cellar of her mother’s house in Bethesda – were damning.”     Jenny sighs, the lines around her mouth deepening in the dim light.

“I don’t quite see why you need my help,” Hetty says patiently.  Her feet are hurting, and she sits down next to the director, neck-craning be damned.  “It sounds like quite the open-and-shut case to me.  You should be grateful – they’re rarely that easy.”

“I haven’t gotten to the part where this whole thing gets really weird yet,” Jenny says, quirking an eyebrow.  “Jethro arrested her, but when he brought her into interrogation, she denied everything and insisted she’d been framed.”

Hetty can’t restrain the snort.  “The prisons are full of innocent men, Director.”

The other woman waves off the sarcasm and frowns.   “Yes, but here’s the thing.  Jethro and I both think we might believe her, as strange as the rest of the story is going to sound.

 “Like I said, Lieutenant Hartford was adamant that she’d never even thought about dealing drugs, and that the whole situation was set up to silence her.  I don’t know how much you know about that bizarre case Gibbs worked about six months ago, with that Marine Sergeant that went missing from Cheyenne Mountain, shot some people in Georgetown, and eventually ended up trying to kill a CIA agent at Ronald Regan?”  At Hetty’s nod of understanding, Jenny takes a breath and goes on.  “ That case had a connection to COBRA as well.  As far as we’ve been able to put together, and the CIA has been absolutely no help on this despite the fact that we saved Trent Kort’s life, McAvoy – the missing Marine – was paid to eliminate everyone that might know who had arranged for a component developed for COBRA to be sold on the black market.  One of Lieutenant Hartford’s close colleagues, a man by the name of Murphy, was picked up by the CIA in conjunction with the theft of the component.  Our accused murderer-slash-drug dealer told Gibbs that she didn’t think Murphy actually had anything to do with the theft, but that a few days before his arrest he’d confided to her that he was fairly sure that Farrow-Marshall – the civilian company jointly responsible for the project, and the holder of the patents on that particular piece of electronics – had actually arranged the disappearance of the component themselves, and that he had evidence to prove that there were some very strange things going on with the company.”

“Why sell your own component on the black market and give all of your competitors a crack at the technology?”  Curiouser and curioser, though the mantra beware of small favors is beginning to make itself heard in the back of Hetty’s mind.

“Maybe to cover up whatever ‘strange things’ Murphy supposedly discovered?  Deflect suspicion from Farrow-Marshall by making them look like the wronged party?”  The Director spreads her hands in a helpless gesture.  “Unfortunately, we can’t talk to Murphy, since he was killed shortly after the CIA picked him up.  Looked like poison, according to Ziva David’s sources at Langley.  Not only that, but the day before he was killed, one of the two colonels that McAvoy shot outside that Mediterranean restaurant in Georgetown allegedly took Lieutenant Hartford out to coffee and asked her some very strange questions about some of the people associated with Farrow-Marshall.  Stuff she says didn’t make any sense, including a question about how their eyes looked.  According to Hartford, some of the other people on the project said the colonel had talked to them, too, but we haven't  been able to get access to question them, particularly since all of the evidence points at her.

“According to our suspect, when she heard that Murphy was dead – a few weeks after the fact, since we all know the Agency is so free with information – she became concerned that his death and the colonel’s might be connected, since both supposedly were nursing suspicions about Farrow-Marshall.  She was worried enough that she says she went to her commanding officer with her concerns.  Hartford says her CO basically blew her off and told her to mind her own business, and she insists that a week or so later she became fairly sure she was being followed, though she wasn’t sure by whom.

“Now normally either Gibbs or I would have just dismissed this as a paranoid delusion or an elaborate attempt to set up an insanity defense for the murders, but the McAvoy case was so goddamn strange – and associated with something so Top Secret that SecNav has refused to even read me in on the bare outlines of the thing – that I was willing to keep an open mind about Hartford’s story.  I sent Gibbs to talk to the CO.”

“Naturally,” Hetty says, intrigued in spite of herself and the sheer improbability of the story, “the Lieutenant’s CO denied any such conversation ever took place.”

“Naturally.  However, without getting into details as to how, one of the members of Gibbs’s team managed to get a look at the CO’s outgoing calls on the day that Hartford says she talked to him, and those records show that he made a thirty-minute phone call to Trent Kort – the CIA agent in charge of investigating the COBRA thefts – an hour after the alleged conversation between Hartford and her CO took place.”

“That’s an awful lot of coincidences,” Hetty agrees, trying to surreptitiously stretch her left leg, which has fallen asleep from too long sitting on a too-tall bench.  “And it’s not like some people we both know didn’t once go to similar lengths to discredit certain nosy sorts on the other side of the Iron Curtain.” 

“That’s exactly what Jethro said.  Particularly after our suspect confided to him that after her CO blew her off she’d done some digging through the shipping and receiving records and found a pattern that might absolve Murphy of the thefts and place the blame squarely on someone associated with Farrow-Marshall.  Supposedly, Hartford copied the relevant files to a flash drive, but – of course – the drive disappeared a couple of days before Gibbs picked her up for the murders and the drug dealing.

“You know, Hetty, as positively insane as her story sounds, and as clear as the forensics are, neither Jethro nor I can shake the feeling that Lieutenant Hartford is telling the truth.  Conveniently, the two men that might be able to clear her in conjunction with the drug case – simply by saying she wasn’t the one supplying them – are dead.  Of course, so is pretty much everyone who can corroborate her suspicions about Farrow-Marshall – assuming they’re more than just paranoid delusions or a big fabrication to dodge a murder rap – so we’re in a bit of a bind.”

It’s a tingle of excitement.  Subtle, insidious, the barest hint of that addictive combination of adrenaline and intellectual challenge that Hetty hasn’t felt often since the Berlin Wall fell.  Assuming there’s any truth to it, Director Sheppard’s wild story has the feeling of intrigue – real intrigue, layers within layers, and a subtle opponent waiting on the other side like a spider in the web, not this quotidian business of chasing militias and drug dealers and terrorists domestic and foreign, which is admittedly challenging and a vital service to her country, but not the same.  She knows she should ignore it, listen to that inner voice that warns of the road to hell and the consequences of small favors, but the wheels are turning and the sounds of cicadas and the low rumble of the party have fallen away, and the words are out before she’s even noticed.  “What can I do to help you with your conundrum, Director?”

“Let me send you the recording of the interrogation.  Have Nate take a look at it, see what he thinks.  If he agrees that Hartford isn’t lying her pants off, maybe you wouldn’t mind asking around quietly, finding out what some of your contacts might know?”  Jenny looks away, takes a deep breath, bites her lip.  Here comes the real favor, at last.  “Maybe,” the Director says hesitantly, for a moment that uncertain young agent again, “you might be willing to talk to Jack O’Neill for me?  I know he never thought much of me, but he respected the hell out of you and I know that you two have kept in touch over the years.  Both McAvoy and one of the colonels that he shot outside that café in Georgetown were Jack’s people, and I’m under the distinct impression that he knows a hell of a lot more about COBRA than SecNav’s been willing to tell me.  If there is a connection between the cases, he’d be the place to start.”

“I will,” Hetty says in what she hopes is a noncommittal tone (while inwardly her mind is already turning over the pieces of a bright new puzzle, looking for the corners), “see what I can do.  No promises, Jenny, other than that I’ll keep an open mind.”

Impulsively, Director Sheppard takes both of Hetty’s hands in hers (Jenny’s hands are freezing, and for a moment Hetty thinks she feels the barest hint of a tremor in the other woman’s grasp, but it’s gone before she has a chance to give it more than a passing thought) and smiles for an instant, a few ounces of tension falling away from her face.  “Thank you Hetty.  That’s all I ask.”   She shakes out her skirt, the fabric rustling sharply, straightens her back resolutely.  “I’m afraid I have to get back to the party.  I promised Barbara Ulrich a few moments of my time, and I’ll never hear the end of it if I stand her up.”


Chapter Text

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.”   

Chapter Text

She’s still jetlagged on Thursday (the time difference between Los Angeles and Washington is a killer, never mind that twenty years ago, she’d given a briefing to the Joint Chiefs an hour after stepping off a transatlantic flight; that had been twenty years ago, and forget all those heartwarming soft-focus commercials about the “golden years,” because old age was really a coldhearted bitch), and there’s an unlabeled DVD in an anonymous jewelcase resting on Hetty’s blotter, but no word yet from Jack (Jack who had stars on his shoulders, Jack whose eyes still watched the shadows, Jack whose fingers had flashed, We need to talk.  I’ll come to you soon in a language only a few had known, and fewer still were still alive to remember). 

The building settles around her in the early evening, fluorescent lights hum, and underneath it all is the musty smell of shoddy government construction, forty years old and counting (she had once joked that the Americans and the Soviets had at least some common ground: neither government built particularly well.  No one had laughed then, either).  Mister Callen and Mister Hanna have gone home for the night, frustrated by their latest case but without enough evidence (which is to say without any real evidence) to justify a late evening, Kensi (pretty Kensi, Kensi with the silver tongue) is out to dinner with a contact (best not to ask), and Leon Vance (Assistant Director Vance, and best you don’t forget it) is on an early-evening flight (again) to D.C.

Seven P.M., and the Office of Special Projects is quiet (quiet save the hum of computers, quiet save the buzz of fluorescent lights, quiet save the burble and sigh of the electric kettle on Hetty’s desk), and Henrietta Lange is alone with her quarry.    

She finds Nate Getz upstairs, brown hair curling untidily at the nape of his neck (and if he were working in the field, she’d have sent him for a haircut a week ago, unless his cover called for poor grooming, though at least – unlike dear young Eric  -- he doesn’t consider those awful rubber flip-flops to be work attire), sleeves rolled up to his elbows, engrossed in the preparation of an overdue report (and this is what always happens when Hetty leaves town, not that the trip to D.C. hadn’t been educational).   Nate keeps typing, long fingers dancing over the keyboard, clickety-clack, doesn’t hear her footstep on the threshold (Sam Hanna would have turned, hand twitching toward a gun that wasn’t there; Kensi and Callen would have looked out of the corners of their eyes, bodies still, breathing even.  Sam was a SEAL before she let him think that he had come to her, unsubtle in his subtlety, and some things are graven in the bone, learned so deeply that they cannot be trained away.  Kensi and Callen, she had taught.  Nate, she had argued against, but Vance had insisted.)

“I find myself in need of your psychological expertise, Dr. Getz,” she says, and he jumps, papers rustling, a pen perched precariously on the edge of the desk clattering to the floor (Hetty wrinkles her nose.  She had not been quiet, coming in). 

He blinks at her.  “Hetty!  I didn’t know you were still here.  I didn’t hear you come in” (like Nate to state the obvious) “I was just finishing that report you wanted, but I thought tomorrow morning would be early enough –“

She shakes her head slowly (manages to restrain a disparaging “tsk”; that hadn’t worked on her deti then either, and now she’s told it's bad for morale).  “Not to worry, Dr. Getz, I’m not here for your report.  Yet.  No, Director Sheppard asked me if I might have you take a second look at a suspect’s interrogation.  She had … concerns.”

Nate is already pushing his chair in, open face interested, eager.  “Sure.  Of course.  Concerns about the suspect, or about the interrogation itself?”   He follows her down the hallway, big feet thumping on the floor.  How different some of her children are now (how different the entire world is now).  Jack had objected to Jenny Sheppard.  Hetty wonders what he’d have to say about the good Dr. Getz. 

“I’m told the physical evidence indicates the suspect is lying through her teeth.”  It’s the work of a few seconds for Hetty to bring the video up on the big screen in Ops (for something this simple, one hardly needs Eric, and if Jack and whatever is going on in Colorado that he wears like a weight on his shoulders, like a hair shirt, might be involved, the fewer eyes that see anything to do with this case before she has some answers, the better).  “Apparently Agent Gibbs and Director Sheppard think their suspect may actually be telling the truth, and our Director would like to know if she’s misread the situation.”

Jethro Gibbs, Jethro Gibbs who barely spoke, who almost never laid a hand on the person sitting across the table (or cuffed to the pipes in some cellar a world away, but that was a long time ago) had always been a master, a virtuoso, at extracting information (and the CIA could have forgone waterboarding entirely if they’d had a hundred Leroy Jethro Gibbses, but she’s sort of glad they don’t).  Even with a week of real time and a video screen between them, the look in Gibbs’s eyes (eyes I dare not meet in dreams) as he slides into the chair across from Lieutenant Hartford raises gooseflesh on Hetty’s arms. 

The Gibbs Look is unnecessary.  Macy Hartford is homely, freckled, brown-haired, and obviously exhausted, dark-circled eyes darting around the interrogation room like a trapped bird’s.  That odd, stammering Agent McGee could probably have gotten a confession from this one. 

Which is what makes it so bloody strange when Gibbs doesn’t.

“I’m telling you I don’t know anything about the drugs!”  Hartford’s face is white, desperate. 

“So you were getting shipments of drugs from Mexico and South America, from the Reynoso cartel -- which your fingerprints were all over, Lieutenant – conveniently tucked in with the electronic components you were receiving for COBRA, and you knew nothing about them.

NO,” cries Lieutenant Hartford, tears in her voice, though not yet in her eyes, hands stretching toward Gibbs (and her wrists look thin; in body and face she looks like a woman hunted). 

Fingerprints could be planted, but to do it well enough to fool a skilled forensic scientist (a forensic scientist not in on the game, and dear Miss Sciuto, for all her odd clothes and habits, almost certainly wasn’t) was nothing less than an art.  Her deti had known that art (she had taught them, twenty 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 Jack O’Neill three days ago (an interpolation, scrawled at the side of a tattered text) bothers the hell out of Hetty Lange.

Gibbs looks worried.  Oh, not obviously (Jethro has never done anything obviously, beyond the occasional headslap); Hetty’s not certain that even Nate, Nate with his eye for the secret human language of sighs and glances, shifts and hesitations, detects the difference, but she can sense it in the faint narrowing of Jethro’s eyes, in the way he frowns at the file open on the table, that his gut detects something amiss, a whiff of something rotten, something dangerous.  He had looked like that before Minsk, before Poland (what cause could he show why he didn’t forsee the future beyond 31 B.C., and Hetty can’t stop herself from shivering).  Nate glances at her, curious, but Gibbs’s harsh voice draws his eyes back to the screen. 

“So you didn’t know anything about the drugs with your fingerprints on them, and you don’t know anything about how Petty Officers Martinez and Reyes came to be shot with your gun.”  Gibbs shoves the photos toward Macy Hartford, and Hetty can’t see the details but she can imagine the bodies, holes in their foreheads and bloated with a week in the water.  The lieutenant recoils. 

“NO!”  the woman’s voice edges into shrillness, she looks wildly around her, trapped, trapped, fluttering against the bars of her cage.  “I’ve told you, and told you, and I know it sounds crazy, but there have been men following me ever since I went to my CO about Murphy.  I don’t know who they are, or who they work for, or how they found me, but Murphy’s dead, and now they’re trying to silence me too!” 

Nate closes his eyes, rubs his chin.  (Hetty pauses the video; all that follows is Gibbs shouting, the rehashing of the same questions, Lieutenant Hartford sobbing as she repeats the same answers.  No need to listen to it.  The silence is welcome).  “Her story does sound crazy – like something out of a Jason Bourne movie,” Nate admits,  “but I can tell you this: whether or not she’s telling the truth, Lieutenant Hartford believes every word she’s saying.”

“Is she crazy, then?”  Hetty folds her arms across her chest, feeling chilled (and it had been a cold business back in Russia, too, when they had arranged for a certain zampolit to be collected by the First Directorate.  Vatuin had also protested his innocence, but he had ended with a bullet between his eyes).

Nate shrugs, inclines his head, purses his lips.  Cautious (but that is all right, at least he has caution for her to admire).  “It’s hard to tell without actually interviewing her myself,” he admits, “but her affect is normal.  As weird as what she’s saying sounds, there’s no external sign that she’s delusional.  She’s exhausted and absolutely terrified – and I can hardly blame her for it if what she’s saying’s true – but not, as far as I can tell, insane.  There is a possibility that she’s a very well-controlled schizophrenic, but that seems unlikely given her security clearance.” 

“Thank you, Dr. Getz.  I appreciate your input on this situation” (and she doesn’t miss the look in his eye, the naked curiosity, the intake of breath before he asks her if this is a new case, and should they brief the others in the morning), “and I would very much appreciate it if you would keep this, as you young people say, ‘on the down low’ for now.  This was merely an informal inquiry for the Director – a second opinion, if you will.” 

She can feel Nate’s eyes on her back as she turns to go back to her office, back to break the DVD, then put it through the shredder (as usual, Jim, this message will self-destruct in five seconds), and she wonders if he’ll say anything tomorrow morning, but it can’t be helped.  She has felt them studying her out of the corners of her eyes when they think she’s not looking, especially Callen (Callen with his hard and quiet gaze), knows she’s been brittle since she came back from Washington (since she sat under a tree with Jack O’Neill who wore the stars on his shoulders as if they had their own gravity, and watched the crowds with sharp wary eyes), but she feels it singing in her bones (something wicked this way comes, and it does not so much slouch or shamble as run). 

Hetty is not really surprised when her phone rings that evening as she’s drawing her bath, and with a sigh of regret and a last longing look at the steaming water, she goes to answer it.  She’s half-expecting Jack, but it’s Jenny’s tight voice on the end of the line (and it’s two A.M. in Washington D.C.  No good ever comes of phone calls made at two A.M.)  “Nate Getz also thinks your suspect is telling the truth,” Hetty says, once the pleasantries are over.  “I was planning to call you in the morning and let you know.”

Jenny sighs and she sounds shaky, depleted.  “Yeah, I figured.  The CIA – via Trent Kort – is pressuring me to turn Lieutenant Hartford over to them because the drug smuggling angle might mean that COBRA’s been further compromised.  Fortunately he doesn’t have a goddamn case and we do, because – and Hetty, this honestly doesn’t have a thing to do with my father, or with – with La Grenouille – I just don’t trust the little shit.  I’ve pulled some strings at JAG to push this thing to trial.” 

“I thought,” Hetty says (and God, Jenny sounds like she did after Paris and that doesn’t even bear thinking about), “that you were sure Lieutenant Hartford was innocent.”

“I do.  But this will buy us some time, keep Lieutenant Hartford out of Kort's hands for awhile longer."  Jenny pauses, breathes, and when she starts speaking again, she sounds tired and alone and fragile.  " And I know 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 MacAvoy, and Trent Kort keeps turning up wherever I look.”  Jenny’s voice cracks, and it’s not the connection.

I'm 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 hugs the bathrobe tighter around herself.

If only Jack would call.

Chapter Text

Speak the name of the devil.  Look in a mirror and whisper, “Bloody Mary” three times on the stroke of midnight.  Have a phone conversation about Trent Kort when it’s two in the morning in Washington, D.C.   Certainly, this must account for how Hetty ends up spending her Sunday morning (she’d planned to spend it in the garden, dividing the irises before they launched a covert – underground, as it were – assault on the rest of the flower bed) at the Westin, having brunch with the man.

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 sort of way; no, he’s English in the scrappy, hard, back-alleys-of-Liverpool gangster sort of way, and now she can see why Jethro Gibbs’s reports (if one can read between the lines; between the idea and the reality, and she has been able to since that first time in Leningrad; when we were children staying at the Archduke’s) imply that being in the same room as the man has a rough equivalence to sitting down to tea and crumpets with Lucifer or Herod.  She smiles, makes pleasantries, but the way he studies her when he thinks her attention is on her eggs Benedict makes Hetty feel like something small caught in amber, something trapped against a corkboard with bright silver pins thrust through its wings.  The water is moving, the earth is rumbling (she can feel it), and Jack still hasn’t called.

Kort had phoned last night, “Just passing through,” as he’d told her, “on the way up to Seattle to take care of some business,” but he was going to be in L.A. until Sunday evening, and he wanted to meet with her.  Hadn’t said what it was about, but she could guess.  That Hetty and Jenny Sheppard shared an old connection was no secret; that she and the director of NCIS still talked even less so (and anyone who had been at that stuffy reception in D.C. could have told him that, though she’s sure he’s known for years and just never had reason to take advantage of it).

Kort had come into the game twelve or thirteen years ago, after the Gulf and the Air Force and the irresistible pull of that illusory creature called “a normal life” had stolen her ducklings, her deti, from Hetty’s arms, and she herself had begun to turn her attentions toward 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 birthdays and Christmas in the years since that bastard Mike Franks had taken him in hand).  Apparently Kort’d had a bad reputation at MI-5, but one man’s trash and all that, because his rise in the Agency had been meteoric.

They eat their eggs, and nibble toast.  Kort drinks coffee, black, no sugar; she orders a pot of Irish Breakfast (and at least here it’s made properly, water fresh off the boil and an extra bag for the pot).  He plies her with compliments (just another agent, cut his milk teeth on tales of the Duchess of Deception, and surely not all of those stories can be true).  The tablecloths here are always brilliant white, the napkins perfectly folded.  Kort doesn’t ask – at least not directly – about the case.  He cuts his food with neat, precise strokes, eats carefully measured bites, and he’s still so appreciative, he says, for the rescue that NCIS had provided last winter.  If she were anyone else (even Callen, even Kensi), she might have been taken in by the gratitude, but something in the set of his mouth, in his eyes, hints that it’s just a mask for what’s squirming underneath (there will be time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet, and the hair on the back of her neck prickles).

Hetty waits.  This is a familiar game (she played this game with Namarov when Trent Kort was a boy with a cap gun pretending to be a cop, or more likely, a robber, and won).  Kort stares at her with those flat eyes (snake eyes, viper eyes), a smile playing across his lips.  Kort may have lobbed the ball to her, but if he wants it back, he’s going to have to climb over the damn net to get it.   She asks him about Washington, what he thinks of the man President Hayes just appointed as intelligence czar, smiles sweetly.

Kort sips more coffee, the lines around his mouth hardening.  The waitress, slim and red-haired with carefully manicured nails and a tasteful, delicate gold chain around her neck stops by, “just to see if they’re doing all right,” asks if they might like some dessert. A busboy clears their empty plates.  The couple at the table beside them put aside their napkins and stand.

Finally Kort sets his coffee cup down, clinking against the saucer.  Sighs.  “I suppose this means you know what I’m here about.”

Hetty pushes her teacup aside, folds her hands on the table. 

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 recently,” (like hell; here we go round the prickly pear and she 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 Hetty smiles patiently instead).  “And I’m sure,” he says (pleasantly, so pleasantly), “that she’s frustrated at never having been read in on the McAvoy case, but that 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 deep down 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).

Kort closes his eyes for a long moment, 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 like this, but the truth is, I think she’s been slipping ever since that unfortunate business with La Grenouille, and I know 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 her, Ms. Lange.  She’s letting her dislike of me – not that I blame her for it, really – get in the way of her judgment.  NCIS has a Navy lieutenant in custody who was involved in a Top Secret project at the Pentagon, which I’m sure you’ve heard about, and while I’m sympathetic to the Navy’s interest in pressing charges with regard to the drug smuggling ring that Lieutenant Hartford was involved in, Hartford is a person of interest to CIA,” and (Hetty is mindful of the old question about why those out at Langley never say “the CIA” – would you put “the” in front of the word “God”?), “with regard to a matter of national security.  Director Sheppard’s interest in getting an injunction to keep this suspect in NCIS custody until after the end of her court martial represents a serious impediment to our work.”

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 I can’t guarantee anything.” 

When she finally reaches home an hour later, Hetty locks the bathroom door, leans against the wall, and shakes for half an hour.

Jenny calls on Monday (Hetty’s just gotten to work; Jenny is off at lunch somewhere with glasses or expensive dishes clinking in the background, and the number on the caller I.D. is the director’s private cell).  The ruling has gone her way; NCIS can keep Lieutenant Hartford until she’s either convicted or cleared, and if the (emphasis on “the”) CIA wants to talk to her, they can do it at Leavenworth, under the eyes of the M.P.s.

Hetty tells her that Kort came to see her; Jenny says nothing about it, but her voice after that is brittle. 

The director has found a way to get Hetty into the game officially, she says.  The Office of Special projects will work with the prosecutor at JAG – he should be calling tomorrow – to check Hartford’s story, which means she – they – can ask whatever she wants about COBRA, about Farrow-Marshall. 

Hetty sets her tea down on her desk, blots up the little spill with a napkin, chews her lip, remembering Stalingrad, remembering the duckling that hadn’t flown home in the wind that first winter (between the motion and the act falls the shadow, and if he’d been a little more ready, he might have seen it falling, but time waits for no man and the world was moving).  Of all of them, only Callen has ever tested his strength in these waters, and he has not yet spent enough time swimming to sense what circles beneath.  “I’m not sure I want my people involved in this, Jenny.”

“I’m sorry, Hetty, but I need your help.”  The Director’s voice is hard (and the dry stone no sound of water).  She does not call her tyotia.

On Wednesday, Hetty unlocks her front door (and the sky has not fallen yet, but she is waiting, waiting, and the woods are utterly still) to find Jack O’Neill, in rumpled jeans and tennis shoes, a battered Air Force cap pulled down over his eyes, sprawled gracelessly on her 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, something 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, a vast image out of Spritus Mundi, and Hetty abruptly wishes she could unknow all that she is about to learn).

“This may not be the first thing you need to know, but it’s one of them,” Jack says, and his voice is rough.  “When Jasper Sheppard – yes, Jenny’s father, Jasper Sheppard, and we doubt it was a suicide, but we can’t prove it either way – died, he was working on something called Project Bluebook.  Which is to say, he was working for us.”


Chapter Text

Just a note from the author:

"Little Pitchers" has been extensively revised and betaed liek whoa, and the completed version of the story can be found at Both Feel In Their Own Small Way here on AO3. :)