Another Year, Another Candle
“Semper Fi,” he murmurs to the empty room as he tips the flask against his lips.
The first bite of the bourbon burns a trail of fire down his throat and into his belly. Most days he doesn’t drink at work, but technically ‘work’ finished hours ago and today hardly counts as any ordinary day.
He knows he should have gone home hours ago but his need to make certain that Tony is safe has driven him to stay. The beating that the younger agent had taken could hardly be classed as severe - a few cuts and bruises and a bloody nose: by Monday he will be back to his usual infuriating self – but Gibbs knows it could have been so much worse, and that scares him. Scares him even more than usual today.
He couldn’t bear to lose another.
The second sip of the expensive spirit slides down easier than the first, insinuating itself into his chilled blood, warming away the horrors he carries with him from day to day. Blurring the memories that he really doesn’t want to remember.
How many have there been now? The numbers don’t really matter. Too many is how many, and each one makes him feel just that little bit older, just that bit more jaded. He wonders if there was ever a time when there wasn’t a war going on somewhere in the world, robbing it of precious lives, depriving wives of their husbands, children of their fathers, tearing lover from lover.
If the war hadn’t kept him away, would they be alive now? That thought tortures him more than any and yet, had he been here, with them, how many more would have been lost - there.
A life for a life.
He screws the cap back on the flask and locks it back in the drawer, ready for the next time, because he knows the next time is inevitable.
The tools of his trade secured at waist and hip, he pulls on his top coat and heads for the elevator. Ducky and Jen might be enjoying themselves at the Marine Ball but he has a ritual of his own to attend, one that has become an annual event in the life of Gunnery Sergeant Leroy Jethro Gibbs.
The air outside is cold and crisp, scented with wood smoke and as he walks towards his car he can feel the prickle of fine snow against his skin. He turns up his collar and chafes his hands together, making a mental note that it’s time to get out his gloves and scarf and flannel shirts. Soon the fountains will start to freeze and there will be snow on the White House lawns. Winter seems to start earlier every year – or is it just that his old bones feel it more these days?
The drive to Lincoln Park takes minutes at this time of night. He parks on the street, beneath the almost-bare branches of the ageing sycamore, and sits for a moment, mentally preparing himself for what he is about to do. Shaking off the day is never easy, especially when it’s a day like today has been, but he needs to do this with a clear mind, if not a clear conscience, for the sake of all their memories.
The wrought iron handle turns easily and the heavy oak door swings silently inwards on well-oiled hinges, encouraging him to enter. He steps lightly over the threshold, smiling at the thought that not even Tony has worked out that it is as much due to the thick carpeting on the floor of the squad room as it is to any stealth on his part that allows him to sneak up on people. Maybe one day he will enlighten them or – maybe not.
The nave is empty and dark, the only light coming from the lantern hanging in the sanctuary and the bank of lit candles at the foot of the altar steps. There is a sliver of light from behind a curtained door away to his left, but it is too weak to reach beyond the solitary figure kneeling in front of the confessional.
Satisfied, he slips quietly into the front pew, to begin his private ritual. He doesn’t think of himself as a religious man, whatever indoctrination took place in his childhood has long been forced out of him by the appalling things he has witnessed down through the years, but here in this place he finds a certain peace, a connection that eludes him elsewhere. He doesn’t pray, at least not in the strict meaning of the word. No stylised phrases, no formulaic words passed down through the centuries; he simply closes his eyes and reflects on the list of names that he carries in his head, and the parade of faces that goes with them, as they flow slowly and reverently through his thoughts. From Mikey, the fledgling marine he had met on the flight out to the Gulf on that very first deployment, who had lasted less than a week; to Jose, who had left behind a wife and seven kids; to the young Lieutenant who had saved his life and then bled to death in his arms; and on down the list that seems to grow longer with each passing year. Tomorrow he will join with the Nation to pay tribute to the thousands of others who have served and to the ones who never came home, but today is for those he knew and loved, and he remembers them all with honour. The bravest of the brave; heroes one and all.
How long he sits there he has no conception, time slowed to the passage of his thoughts. He is vaguely aware of the scrape of shoe on stone and the distant opening and closing of doors; he is conscious of someone walking towards him, the rustle of priestly robes that pass by on their way to the sacristy, pausing fleetingly for a hand to touch his shoulder in benediction. Then he is alone again, with his thoughts and his memories.
His knees protest as he rises to his feet, just one more proof that age is catching up with him. Ignoring the pain he walks to the stand at the foot of the altar, where he lights one candle for each name on his list, plus two more: one for his beloved wife and one for their daughter, in their own way casualties of war. By the time he has finished his task the stand is almost full, the pillars and walls surrounding him transformed from dull stone to iridescent beauty by the patterns of light thrown by the dancing flames.
Done at last for another year, he is about to turn and walk away when a slender hand encased in black lace reaches past him to place another candle. He looks around and the tears he has held in check throughout now suddenly fill his throat as she whispers softly: “For Kate.” He nods, understanding, as he applies the flame.
“There’s one more name to add, Boss...” Tony’s voice, so soft and sad, and when Gibbs turns to look at him in wonder, he sees tears in the green eyes. “Ernie Yost.”
“When?” His voice, unused for what feels like hours, cracks around the single word.
“Night before last. Got the call as I was leaving work.” There is no need for Tony to say more because Gibbs already knows. He can see the pain in Tony’s face. When the end had come, Tony had made sure that Ernie was not alone.
“Corporal Ernest Yost,” he says as he lights the candle Tony has placed, at the same time adding the name to the list in his head, to be remembered next year. “Rest in peace – all of you.”
Tony’s barely audible “Amen” comes as a surprise, but when Gibbs looks at him he merely shrugs and excuses himself with a meek “Old habits...” to which Gibbs cannot help but respond with a smile.
Suddenly he feels Abby’s hands wrap around his arm and she leans her head against his shoulder. “So many,” she murmurs.
“Too many, Abs,” he agrees, pressing his lips to her forehead. “Too many.”
“You think the world would have learned by now,” says Tony.
Gibbs sighs, resting his cheek against Abby’s hair as he looks at the young man standing beside him and a shiver passes through him. Reaching out, he grips Tony’s shoulder. “Promise me you’ll never give me a reason to add your name to the list.”
His voice is loud in the silent church, but despite his fervour, Tony shakes his head. “The job we do... How can I, Boss?”
“I can’t lose you...”
“But you can’t ask me to make you a promise I might end up breaking. I’ve never done that and I never will. Please, Jethro. It’s not fair...”
He knows it’s not and he curses himself for even suggesting it, but the thought of going through the rest of his life without Tony at his side it too painful to contemplate. “Then promise me you’ll at least be careful.”
“I’m always careful!” Tony responds indignantly.
“Tony...” There’s a suggestion of pleading in Gibbs’ voice. The hand at Tony’s shoulder slides up to clasp his neck and he is immediately concerned at the low-grade fever he can feel burning through Tony’s skin. “Ah heck...” he says, a rueful chuckle punctuating the words. “I’m asking you to be careful out in the field and you can’t even take care of yourself off the clock.”
“You’re burning up, Tony! And you – “He turns to Abby, disengaging his arm from her grasp and wrapping it around her. “It’s November and you don’t even have a coat! And what the heck are the two of you doing here anyway?”
“It’s the Marine Corps birthday,” Tony shrugs, as if that explains everything.
Gibbs rolls his eyes. “Yeah... And?”
“You always come here on the Corp’s birthday, Gibbs,” says Abby.
“And how do you... “Realisation jolts through him, anger warring with gratitude. He hates it when they pry into his life, and yet he loves them for it. “Wait a minute - you followed me?”
Abby hides her face; Tony finds something interesting to focus on in the shadows.
“Not exactly followed...” says Tony.
“Not exactly – how?”
“Tonybulliedmeintobuggingyoulastyear.” Abby’s words come out in a rush of embarrassment.
“WHAT?” Remembering where they are, Gibbs drops his voice to a whisper and repeats “What?”
“We were worried about you, Boss” Tony explains, and Abby adds “We know how – painful this time of year is for you, and then with Kate...”
He looks from one to the other, his throat tight around the emotion he is feeling at this moment and suddenly he realises that as much as he has lost, he still has so much to be thankful for. He gathers Abby closer, tugs on Tony’s neck to draw him into an embrace, smiling when he senses his two young friends complete the circle.
“Thank you,” he murmurs against Tony’s neck. “You too, Abs.” He kisses her cheek. “I love you guys...” The words slip past his guard but for once he doesn’t care because it’s true and it’s time he admitted it. He is fond of McGee and Ziva but these two, along with Ducky, are his family now.
Abby gives a little ‘squee!’ of delight; Tony’s smile is radiant.
The moment passes and Gibbs eases back without relinquishing his hold just yet. “C’mon. We need to get Tony home.”
“Don’t want to face the wrath of the Duckman, huh Gibbs?”
“Something like that, Abs,” he admits, knowing Ducky is just as protective of their team as he is.
An arm around Abby’s shoulders, a hand resting in the small of Tony’s back, he leads them out into the night. The snow has turned to cold, hard rain, the wind picking up a keening edge that cuts right through them. Gibbs quickly bundles Tony into the passenger seat of his sedan and motions Abby to get in back, guessing – correctly – that McGee dropped them off before delivering her hearse and himself to her apartment to await her return. It will add an extra half hour to the journey, but Tony has cranked up the heating and burrowed into the comfy seat, and is already drifting towards sleep.
“Ready?” he asks. Tony grunts, while in the rear seat Abby has found the travel rug that Gibbs keeps there for emergencies and is now peering out at him over the edge of it.
Conscious of the precious load he carries, he eases the car away from the kerb and off into the night. Another year, another birthday. Next year will come soon enough and, with luck, they will all be here to mark the occasion, but for now he has done his duty.
For this year at least he is content.
10th November 2007
Close the window to return to the NCIS Index