Sunday, September 8, 2013

Shards To A Whole: Chapter 201

McGee-centric character study/romance. Want to start at the beginning? Click here.

Chapter 201: Closer To Whole

We begin to suspect where Tim got his taste for leather jackets.
Tim looked at Penny as he loaded a box into the back of Jimmy's van.

It boggles his mind how little stuff she has. Of course, that probably makes a certain amount of sense. When Nelson died, she sold the house and most of their stuff, and got a small place in Annapolis. She gave notice at John's Hopkins (where she'd been a Professor of Bio-Tech. There are reasons beyond his grades and SAT scores why Tim got such a good deal from John's Hopkins, though he doesn't know that and has never suspected it, either. Though the fact that that is true was a source of friction between John McGee and Penny for several years.) and started to travel.

In the military there are grunts, officers, and then there's God's Country, in the land forces, God's Country starts at Light Colonel. In the Navy, get your Captain's bars, and you've hit God's Country, and in God's Country, you and yours are very well taken care of.

As the widow of an Admiral, money, medical care, housing, all of her tangible needs would be taken care of for the rest of her life. So, for three years she just wandered around, saw the world, went the places they had planned to go. Went the places Nelson never wanted to go.

It was fun, but didn't keep her brain as active as she liked.

In academia, there are grunts (grad students), associate professors, and God's Country: the Tenured Professor. Penny had tenure at John's Hopkins. And as a Tenured Professor in a hard science with lots of good publishing creds who also happened to be female, she had absolutely no problem at all getting back into academia. Universities were more or less throwing wads of money and honorary doctorates at her, trying to get her to come join them.

Three years at the University of Virginia reminded her that she liked traveling.

So she found a way to do both.

From 1994 on she became a traveling lecturer. She'd bop from university to university, spend a semester or three, soak up the culture, get to know the upcoming generation of females in bio-tech and work on fostering them.

And now, more than twenty years after deciding to float, she's looking at settling down again. August 24, 2015 marks the start of fall term at American University and what is likely to be her last job at a university.

All of her worldly goods fit in the back of Jimmy's van, with room to spare. Okay, not all of them, she does still have that apartment in Annapolis, and there are a few things in there, but the stuff that matters, the things she uses every day, took Tim four trips to carry to the van.

Four trips where she just stared at him, very clearly signaling, I can handle this for myself.

As he put the fourth box (clothing) into the van, Tim turned to her and said, "We buried Jackson ten days ago. We're all kind of clinging to our grandparents, okay? Jimmy's over helping Ducky get ready for you. Tony's been calling his dad every night. Abby's more or less glued to Gibbs. I know you can do this. I know you don't need me to drive you. I just want the time with you."


"According to Abby, this is also me nesting. Nursery is done, except for the crib. Grass is mowed and trimmed. House is clean. Got nothing left to mess with in my nest, so I'm working on yours."

"It's fine, Tim. Just don't want you treating me like I'm old and frail."

His looks said, Penny, you're eighty-four. That's basically the definition of old.

"I'm not frail."

"Never said you were."

He closed the rear door on the Odyssey. "Come on. If we want to get to DC before dinner, we've got to get moving."

They get buckled in, and in a few minutes he's south bound on 95, Philadelphia fading behind them, DC inching closer.

"You know, we've got to start paying Jimmy mileage on this thing. Seems like every other weekend one of us ends up borrowing it."

"You could get one yourself." She seems to realize she may have just endorsed buying a minivan, so she backtracks on that. "Well, maybe not a mini-van, you don't need this much space or pollution for one child, but you do need something with a backseat."

"The roadster has one."

"Does it have anything to hook a child seat into?"

"No. Doesn't even have seatbelts back there."

"So, you're saying the backseat is entirely useless for your purposes?"

"Yeah. Been thinking of a hybrid Highlander. The real question is is Kelly going to be the only baby. If so, an SUV should be plenty of room. If not, don't want to get one car and then have to upgrade two years later." There are things Tim likes less than buying a car. Having cavities filled, that's one. Cold and dark places, that's another. But all in all, if he can possibly avoid buying a car, he'll avoid buying a car. And really, once you've gotten your mechanic scared into submission, it's really easy to avoid buying a car.

"You want more than one, right?"

"Yeah, we both do. But we're still on the don't actually have kids yet side of things. Might feel different after we have one. And we might run out of time before we can have another one. We'd both like Abby to be able to nurse for a full year, but a full year puts her at forty-three, and I know that's not impossible, but the chances drop like a rock each year we put it off."

Penny nods at that. "Plenty of people have gotten pregnant while nursing. There's a reason your Aunt Cassie's only thirteen months younger than I am."

"I know. But if memory serves your mom wasn't forty-two years older than you."

"True. She was when your Uncle James was born."

"He's the youngest of the seven of you, right?"


"Not comforting."

Only shot of the two of
them I could get.
"It was 1944 when he was born. Things were a little different then."

"I know."

She rests his hand on his arm as he drives. "Relax, Tim, whatever happens with this, you've got options. Egg donors and in-vitro, surrogate mothers, adoption, if you and Abby want more than one baby, you'll have more than one baby."

He rolls his eyes a little. "Kind of like making them the old-fashioned way."

She laughs at that. "I like a man tall enough I can look up into his eyes. We don't always get everything exactly the way we want it."

He smiles. "I guess not."

"You still dodging your mom?" Penny asked as they stopped for gas.

"Every chance I get."

"She's worried and badgering Sarah about you, now."

Tim focused on watching the digital numbers rise on the gas pump. "I'm sorry she's worried, but right now, I've got enough stuff on my plate. Don't need to add big, messy confrontation with her."

"You could try not having a big, messy confrontation with her."

He looked at Penny, exasperated. "Hey, Mom, your parenting technique sucked. It was your job to protect me, and you didn't do it. How is that not going to be a big, messy confrontation?"

Penny shrugged. "Just remember, she was trying to do her best for you."

"You saying I shouldn't be pissed?"

You saying I shouldn't be pissed?
"No." And she shook her head at that. "Just that you need to remember there was never any malice on her part."

"Doesn't help. But it is one of the reasons I'm dodging her rather than yelling. Because from her point of view I just suddenly went bonkers. After all, not like anything changed. Just how I think about it. Which means it's my problem, right?"

"Maybe. It's all of our problem, really. And she's your mom, she's been deeply invested in helping with your problems from before you were born."

"Sure." The gas stopped pumping and he put the nozzle back into the cradle. "You want any snacks or drinks?"

"I'm good."

"Gonna get some coffee. Back in a bit."

They'd driven for five miles before he said, "You talk to my dad?"

"Yeah. He's going to be overseeing a joint war game with Israel and Italy and Spain next weekend on Med naval drone tactics, so he called early for Mother's Day."

"How considerate."

"Yes. He's always been good at birthdays and anniversaries. Or his secretary is. Either way, he wasn't thrilled with how that call went."

"Uh huh." Tim's watching the road very carefully. Intentionally not looking at Penny. Part of him wants to know how it went, he asked after all. Part of him doesn't. So he's listening, but not looking at her.

"He's under the impression that I am hysterical and overreacting and that's just the sort of thing that happens between guys." She's leaving out the part where John called Tim a pussy for complaining about it, and considered complaining about it proof that it, and likely more, had been necessary. "When I pointed out that his father had never done anything even remotely like that to him, he was less than happy." She's also leaving out the long, self-defending tirade on how Nelson never needed to do anything like that because John got with the program and did what he was supposed to do, and how it was Tim's duty to follow in their footsteps and uphold the family honor, defend his country, and put his life on the line for things that really mattered.

It was a monumentally uncomfortable conversation for both of them, and she's not feeling any desire to talk with John again anytime soon.


"I did find out that he has actually read your books and that Lisa is his favorite character."

"How'd that come up?"

"Before we got talking about the other stuff, I told him a new one was due out in the fall, and asked who his favorite character was."


"I wanted to see if he actually reads them, or if he's asking me for copies just to look good. He reads Sarah's too. Though he's not sure what the appeal of a wraith as a main character is, let alone why little girls would find him romantic."

"Great, he reads mysteries and young adult paranormal romances if his kids write them. He's not a complete and utter asshole. Yippiee."

There wasn't much to say after that, so they drove for several more miles in quiet.

"How's Gibbs doing?"

"As well as can be expected. They got home three days ago. Just about everything's taken care of or in the process of being taken care of."

Penny nods. "You're helping?"

"Yeah, I've been going through Jackson's computers and financials. Got everything settled. That was actually a little creepy. He had a note for me in there. Knew I'd be the one doing it for Gibbs."

"Nice note?"

"Yeah. Thanked me for taking care of it. A little gentle poking at Jethro about how he's hopeless with this stuff, though he was glad I got him using a smartphone. Told me to take care of my girls, for my sake and Jethro's."

"Doesn't sound creepy."

"Well, no the content wasn't, just voices from beyond the grave. Nothing in there he couldn't have just emailed me before he died. Not like we weren't Facebook friends."

"Jackson had a Facebook account?"

"For all Jethro hates tech, Jackson loved it. Gibbs brought his tools home, gave them to me. He had some really nice stuff for electronic work."

"Feeling like you lost another grandfather?"

Tim thought about that. "No. Not really. I feel like my dad just lost his dad. I'm mostly hurting for him. But it's not like when Nelson or Pop died. I just didn't know Jackson that well." He glanced away from traffic toward Penny. "Ducky feels like another grandfather… I suppose he is…"

The one who knows her best.
Penny smiled at that. "Are you fishing to see if we're going to get married?"

That got a quiet laugh out of Tim. "I could be. I could also be trying to avoid a discussion of patriarchal marital roles and the comparative value of the labor of females once they marry."

Penny smiled at that, too. Of all the grandkids, nieces, and nephews this is the one who knows her best. "How about a lecture on the absurdity of Navy Pensions, last wills and testaments, and how marrying complicates the hell out of this stuff?"

"I can probably avoid that, too."

"Along those lines, I do have a serious question for you."

"Fire away."

"John's currently the executor of my will, but if I go before Ducky, I'd like someone who gets along with him to handle my estate. Someone who won't try to force a sale of the condo because it's just easier to deal with the finances that way. Would you be my executor?"

"Yeah. I'll be your executor."

"Thank you."

"Ducky's not that fond of John?"

"Shockingly enough, no."

"I know that makes it harder for you, but I can't say that bothers me."

"I know, Tim, and it's okay. I'm not feeling all that fond of him right now, either. "

They were in Annapolis, picking up the last of Penny's stuff. (Three more boxes. Books, the originals of each of her publications, a lot of old photo albums, and some small knick knacks. Everything else was being donated to Goodwill.)

"You talk to Jethro about your dad?"

"As little as possible."

"Why?" Penny seems surprised by that. She figures that if there was anyone Tim would talk to about this sort of thing, it'd be Jethro.

"I don't actually like talking about it, you know?"


"I'm pretty good with just you, Ducky, and Abby knowing. Obviously, at some point, I've got to talk with my mom, but… I had a good, long time of not dealing with it, and that seemed to work pretty well. I could probably happily continue to not deal with it."

"It'll bite you if you leave it there."

"But it's not biting me now. One day I'll get calmed down enough to talk to Mom, and hopefully that can be the end of this. Just, go back to normal."

"I don't think it works that way, Tim."

"I know."

When his mother died, Ducky sold the Mallard estate. That left him well off, and in need of a new home. He found an upscale condo in Chevy Chase, Maryland. It's less than an hour from work, in a very posh neighborhood, requires no maintenance or upkeep from him, and had more than enough space for an old man living on his own who occasionally entertains a lady friend.

It is, however, a bit small for two people.

Even if one of them has less than half of a minivan's worth of stuff.

So as Tim and Penny headed down from the University of Pennsylvania, Jimmy and Ducky began seriously looking at his home, and figuring out how to squeeze more space out of it.

Jimmy's answer, an iPad, was met with something less than perfect enthusiasm from Ducky. He loves his books. He likes his records and CDs. But, as Jimmy pointed out, he's got a room full of them, and more of them on the walls, in storage around the place, eating up all his space, so upgrading would certainly clear up enough space to have room for Penny's things.

His other solution, namely that any clothing purchased before 2000 could come live at his house, and be visited/worn when Ducky felt the need for it, (which is code for quietly dragged off to Goodwill or a vintage clothing store when Ducky isn't looking) was even less thrilling for Ducky, but it's true that he does have a more than a few suits that were purchased during the seventies, eighties, and nineties, and it would be one thing if they were excellent pieces in timeless classic cuts that fit, but these aren't and don't.

So, Jimmy and Ducky are in Ducky's library, sitting amid a huge pile of boxes, loading books into them. Each one Jimmy takes off the shelf, reads the name, Ducky checks to see if it's available in electronic form, and if it is, it goes into the donate box. If not, it goes back onto the shelf.

Not nearly as many as he'd like are going back onto the shelf.

Not nearly as many as Jimmy would like are going into boxes.

It's a perfect compromise, no one is happy, but they're moving toward the goal.

Tim hasn't had an asthma attack in close to six years. He doesn't even have an inhaler anymore. He is, however, sensitive to dust.

So, of course, he walked into Ducky's home, box of Penny's books in hand, inhales once, feels the years of old, dusty, bookishness that's been permeating the house since Ducky and Jimmy began their work close his lungs down tighter than a pickle jar fastened with a wrench, and walks back out again, wheezing.

It's not that Ducky's book and record collection aren't kept clean. It's just, they're books. They sit there, collecting dust and making more dust. Dust mites move in and munch on them and breed, and when you take them out and move them around, you fill the air with dust.

A minute later Jimmy's out sitting next to him. "You okay."

"I will be. Just can't go in there. Too much dust," he coughs as he says that. "And you're covered in it."

Jimmy steps further back, noticing for the first time that he's light gray from head to toe. "Oh, sorry."

"I'll take her boxes out, put them on the front step, and then head home."

"Good plan. Get a hot, steamy shower."

"Yeah, I know."

May 2nd, 2015 Penny Langston and Ducky Mallard officially set up housekeeping together.

Standing in the shower, hot, steamy air helping him breathe, Tim found himself thinking Gibbs was the only one still single, and hoping that maybe one day they'd be helping him make a space in his home for a woman he loved.

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