Chapter 282: Dr. Cranston, I Presume
“So how does this work?” Gibbs asks Cranston on Thursday. He’s feeling a very strong desire to get another coffee, but the one in his hand is full. He takes a sip. It’s good. Hot, strong, very black. What’d Jimmy say about it? ‘What do you brew this out of, roofing tar?’ Something like that.
Of course, since he made it, himself, and put it in a travel mug, and brought it with him, it would be exactly the way he liked it, wouldn’t it? He was figuring that Cranston would probably have drinks available, but they'd be tame little things like herbal tea or light roast coffee with hazelnut flavoring or something. (He was sort of right, she's got one of those multi-flavor coffee makers with a whole bunch of little pods in different varieties. Strong, black, chew your tongue off coffee is not among them, however.)
He’s almost wishing for some sort of massive emergency, like another troop transport crash, that’d pull all hands on deck, no matter what.
Okay, so it might not get him pulled into action, because all he can do in the field is limp around and look stern, but it might get Cranston pulled in, and that’d work just as well.
Just because this seemed like a good idea two days ago, doesn’t mean he’s exactly relishing sitting in a very… comforting is probably the right word, everything about this place just oozes comfort and sympathy and empathy, office. Cranston, serene and also, comforting, is looking expectantly at him, right now.
She smiles at him, notices the way he’s fiddling with the coffee cup. He sees her notice and stops.
That gets another smile. “It usually goes something like this, we talk about why you’re here, what you’re looking to get out of this, we talk about where you are, and from there we try to get an idea of what to do to get you to what you’re looking for.”
“Getting back to work.”
“Good start. But, usually for psych evals I get calls from NCIS, not from the person in question.” He can see a sort of amused curiosity in the way she says that. Work may be the goal, but this isn’t how work usually happens.
“It’s not an official psych eval. McGee won’t let me back on until I talk to someone, twice.”
Gibbs isn’t sure if he’s relieved that Rachel isn’t asking about Tim being the one drawing the line here, or upset because he can’t use talking about that to eat up some of this time.
“He thinks my head’s not in the game.”
She tilts her head a little, looking at him intently, thinking. “Is he right?”
Gibbs has never wished more devoutly in his life for a catastrophe than right now. But wishing won’t make it so. He sighs. “I can do the job.”
She writes something quickly, then looks up and says, “Okay. So, he’s wrong, but you’re letting him make you do this, even though he’s wrong?”
Gibbs can feel the trap on this and shuts his eyes. He doesn’t want to own being here, but he can’t admit that Tim’s making him go, because he’s not, not really. He opens them and says, “It’s complicated.”
Not quite a full smile, more the look of someone who knows she’s got someone who wants to talk, but is having a hard time doing it. “We’ve got an hour. Two if you need them. Don’t have another appointment until four. Lay it out for me.”
Gibbs really doesn’t like open-ended questions. At least, not when he’s the one doing the answering. He tries to find a way to build a structure for this, see it like a ship of words. Main beam, support beams, ribs, siding. What idea is all of this riding on? What ideas branch off of it?
“I’m here because I let fear make me give bad advice, and he called me out on it.”
“Doesn’t sound complicated. Was it bad advice about a case?”
Shrug, eyebrows furrow, another sip of coffee. “Not exactly. It was bad advice about how to handle the fear of having someone you love in danger and a case brought that fear on.”
“Doesn’t sound like it’d effect how you do your job.”
“In the sense you’re thinking, it won’t. I can’t chase down a perp right now,” he gently pats his knee, “but I can follow up on leads and interrogate, and my gut still works just fine.”
“And yet you’re here.”
“And I’ll be here at least one more time.”
“Because McGee thinks it’s bad enough you can’t go back to even desk work.”
Gibbs licks his lips, sips the coffee again. “No. He doesn’t.” Gibbs taps the coffee cup. “He’s using that as a way to make sure I do this.”
“The carrot to go with the stick?”
“And how did you end up in a situation where Agent McGee gets to tell you what to do?”
He’s not sure if she doesn’t actually know the answer, or if she wants to see how he understands it. He does know that it’s been two year since he’s seen her in person, and as such she hasn’t been around to see a lot of the changes of the last three years.
While he’s thinking about that, she says, “He married to Abby, now. And she’s basically your adopted daughter, right?”
“Yeah, they just had a baby girl six weeks ago.”
“Thanks.” Gibbs gets out his phone and shows Cranston a picture of Kelly.
“She’s lovely.” Rachel hands the phone back, and sits next to him on the very comfortable sofa. “Any family shots?”
“Lots of them.” Gibbs flips through a lot of them to find one of Tim and Abby and Kelly all together and shows that to Rachel, too. He shows her another of Tim and Jimmy messing around in his backyard. One of Tim holding Molly. He shows her shots of all the girls together: Penny, Ziva, Abby, Breena, Molly, and Kelly. He shows her Tony with Molly riding his shoulders at the pool. There’s one of Ducky gently stroking Kelly’s head while Penny holds her. He doesn’t show her any of the shots with him in them, because they’re his and they’re goofy and private and… And not for today.
“You’re not in them?” she says, looking at a shot of Ziva lighting the Shabbos candles while the rest of the crew stands around the table, waiting for the start of dinner.
“I took them.” Which has the advantage of being both true and misleading.
“So, if McGee were here, I could ask him for photos, and there would be shots of you in them.”
“Yeah.” And knowing Tim, he’d have absolutely no issues at all about showing off the goofy ones.
“So, is it safe to say that there’s a certain level of respect and affection between you and McGee?”
“You trust him with your girl?”
“And he’s one of the men on your team. You trust him with your life, right?”
“Yes, I trust him with my life, and no, it’s not my team anymore, it’s DiNozzo’s.”
“You’re still working, but you’re letting DiNozzo run the team?” She didn't seem to believe that.
“Yeah. I’m retiring soon. We’ve already got the first new member. It just works better with Tony in charge. Explosion took both of us out, which means, until we get back, it’s Tim’s team.”
She makes a note of that and asks, “So, Jethro, is Tim right,” he notices she shifts how she refers to Tim the same way he did, “do you need to be here?”
Gibbs sighs, so much for avoiding this, or getting into it, or… whatever. “Yeah.” He nods, staring at her, looking tired and a little lost.
“And is it really about having your head in the game?”
“Not really. It’s the lever he’s using to make sure I do it.”
“Okay. So, really, what do you hope to get out of this? What do you think he’s hoping you get out of this?”
“He wants me to be happy.”
She smiles warmly at him, and looks at the picture on the phone, this one of all the guys. “That doesn’t sound bad.”
“Are you happy?”
He shrugs, tucks his phone back into his pocket, and sips the coffee again. “I’m better than I’ve been in a very long time.”
“What do you want, Jethro?”
Another drink of his coffee, another moment where he licks his lips, another moment of I’m so horrendously uncomfortable I’d rather be doing anything than talk about this loud and clear in his body language. He looks up at the ceiling, takes yet another drink, and then says, “I wanted to be a good husband, and a good father, and a good Marine. And, for a while, I was.” A very sad smile crosses his face. “But you can’t do all of that at once. So, I was being a good Marine. My country needed me. It called, and off to Iraq I went. I had to be there, because I was good at my job, really good, and Shannon and Kelly were home and safe and… And when I went it was just another deployment, hotter than any I’d been on since Nicaragua, but just another job.
“And I got word that Shannon had witnessed a murder. I didn’t want her to testify. He was bad news and…” He licks his lips again, mentally skipping the fight he and Shannon had about her testifying. Last fight they ever had. Only fight he ever regretted being right about.
“And I got word that there had been threats on her life. I knew she was in protective custody. Everyone said she’d be safe. I asked for permission to get leave to go home, but they denied it, there was a ground war and all, and I was a good Marine. I followed orders. I didn’t go home. And they died.
“I failed at being a father and husband because I was off being a good Marine. I let other men protect my girls, and they died because of it. And nothing I did in Iraq made a fuck of a difference. We didn’t take Hussein out. We just left him there. Ten years later, we were back again. Hundreds of thousands of people were eaten alive by his regime between the day I got there and the day they finally took him out.
“I can’t say we were making the world a better place. I wasn’t storming Normandy or taking out Nazis. Hell, I was barely taking out members of the Republican Guard. They were surrendering to anything with an American or British flag on it, including TV news crews. So I was there, doing fuck all, which meant I wasn’t home defending the most important people on earth.
He shakes his head. “That was the point of it, ya know? Honor, duty, sacrifice. All of it was in the service of saving lives, of protecting your home and the innocent. I’m a Marine. I’ll always be a Marine. But I couldn’t serve anymore, not after they died, not after that choice meant they… And then they pulled us out without finishing the job… It was death and pain for nothing…” He’s smiling a little, shaking his head, he’s not even angry about how Desert Storm ended anymore, the anger burned so hot for so long it scorched his ability to be angry about it away.
“I still believe in the Marines. I still serve them and our sailors and their families, but I don’t trust ‘orders’ anymore, and I don’t trust the powers that be to use those men and women honestly or wisely…” There’s a long, quiet minute after that. Then he takes another deep breath and says, “Everything that mattered to me died that day. And since then… I don’t know what I want.
“There are things I need. I need to put murderers away. I need to keep my girls safe. I need to protect people.”
She thinks about that, writes a few more words down, and then says, “I know there are things you want. You are not clinically depressed, so there are things you want. Even if it’s stupid or silly. What do you want?”
He looks away from her, spends a moment studying the abstract painting behind her desk. Sunset maybe? Sunrise? Lots of pinks and orange and yellow, little hints of blues and greens. Then he pulls his words together again and looks back at her. “I want them back.” Another head shake. “I want to wake up next to Shannon, and I want to see my Kelly hold Tim’s. I want the family I have to be part of the family I had, and I want all of us together. And I know I can’t have it. I know that if Shannon and Kelly were still here I would have stayed in the Corp and probably died…
“I want what I can’t have.”
She rests her hand on his, giving it a gentle squeeze, non-verbally rewarding him getting it out, actually saying it, and then withdraws it, and asks another question. “What do you want that you can have?”
He snorts a quick, half-laugh. “Good coffee?”
Rachel smiles at that, laughs gently. “What’s Kelly going to call you when she can talk?”
That got another warm smile out of Rachel. “Are you planning on being an active grandparent?”
“You want that?”
“Yeah.” He nods. He does want that. Never thought about it in that light, but yeah, he wants it.
“That’s a start.” She looks pointedly at his wedding ring. “I’m guessing you didn’t actually get married again since I saw you last?”
“No. Shannon’s ring.”
She thinks about that for a moment, writes a quick note, and says, “Do you want to re-marry?”
That gets an alarmed look out of Gibbs.
“Let me re-phrase, I forgot how loaded a question that is for you. Would you like to have a relationship with a woman and not see her as a daughter?”
“Really?” That did surprise Cranston.
“Penny Langston. Ducky’s… I’ll say wife because that’s close enough. Tim’s grandma. One third of our grandparenting team.”
Rachel laughs at that. “I’m not sure if that was you deflecting my question, or letting me know that you’re expanding your core of relationships in a healthy way.”
“Probably. Want to take a stab at the question I was actually asking?”
Gibbs looks up, looks away from Rachel, sips his coffee, starts to say something twice, but doesn’t. Finally he says, “Not really.”
“Okay.” But she doesn’t say anything, just letting that ‘okay’ linger.
Frustration is clear on his face as he says, “Not okay. Not really.” He shakes his head again. This is why he’s here. Don’t try to hide from it. Won’t work if you don’t get to the heart of it. “How much did Tony tell you about what happened?”
She starts to shake her head.
“Don’t want you to break confidence or anything, just want an idea of what you know about why we’re here?”
“How about you tell me how you understand what happened? How Tony understands it isn’t particularly useful when it comes to getting into your head.”
So he did. Explaining the case, and the explosion, and the how he was planning on getting off the pain meds, standing up, marching back to work, and telling everyone to go to hell, when he stood up, felt his knee slide out of joint and decided maybe the Doc wasn’t entirely insane about the whole lay around thing, so he sat back down and tried to figure out what the hell do to with himself if he was going to spend a week on his ass at Tim and Abby's house. Tony called in a panic once Ziva went back to work, and somehow, he hadn’t even noticed when it happened, but somehow Ziva slipped from Ziva to Tony’s wife, and went from co-solider manning the barricades to one of the women that get hidden when you’re hiding the women and children. (That got an interested look, and a note, but Cranston didn’t break in or interrupt him on that.) He gave Tony some god-awful bad advice that was part mourning widower, part terrified dad, but completely not Team Leader rationally assessing his team, let alone older, wiser head providing useful counsel, and then there was more about the case, and about living with Tim and Abby for a week, and about, finally, getting home and just missing that.
“So, I take that to mean you are missing a romantic attachment? And that you want that, as well?”
“Yeah. Maybe not a marriage. I’ve screwed that up in every direction a marriage can be screwed up. And Ducky and Penny aren’t married, doesn’t look like they’re gonna get married, either, but they’re doing fine. So maybe the rings and words don’t matter.”
Rachel raises an eyebrow, looks at the wedding ring, and then wrote another note. “So, what do you want? You imagine this ideal home of yours, what’s there?”
He thinks for another minute, notices the coffee cup is empty when he lifts it to his lips. “Comfort. Another voice. Someone to listen to. Someone to listen to me…” He licks his lips. “It’s dumb…”
“I’m good with dumb. This is a very dumb friendly place.”
He just looks at her, really? in his gaze, then he answers, “One of the clearest images is just having someone to sit on the sofa with and read. Shoulders to wrap my arm around and rest my chin on.”
“That’s not dumb. What else?”
He didn’t have much else, so he starts to flesh it out as he’s talking to her. What does he want? What did he miss most? “Someone to sort laundry with. Someone to show my sketches to. Someone who asks what I’m working on down there. Someone to call down so I can show off what I’ve done.”
“That sounds really good. What else?”
He thinks for another minute. What else… yeah, he’s lonely, but there’s more than that… What does the ideal look like? “Not fighting?”
“Did you do a lot of fighting with the ex-wives?”
He nods slowly. “Yeah. About everything.”
“Did you and Shannon fight a lot?”
“No. Some, everyone does some, but not a lot. Even you and Mr. Cranston fight every now and again, right?”
She smiles wryly. “Every now and again. Were you picking fights with your other wives?”
He was about to say no, because he never did, verbally. Never set a trap for them to make them want to argue. But, “forgotten” birthdays, late nights with no call home, hiding in the basement, refusing to do anything with their families, taking any assignment, no matter how long or far away from home, sleeping with other women… “Yeah, I did.”
He half-lifts the coffee cup, remembers it’s empty and puts it down again. “They weren’t Shannon.”
“The shoulder your chin is resting on, is it Shannon’s?”
“You mean when I imagine it?”
“Yeah, when you see it in your head, is it Shannon?”
“Most of the time?”
He thinks more. “’Bout half.”
“How about this time last year?”
He thinks about it. “Wasn’t thinking as much about it then.”
“As much, or at all?”
“As much. When Tony and Ziva started hosting Shabbos… That was back at the end of ’13, there was a change. I was home, with a family, doing family things, that started it. We were a family before, sort of… No… we weren’t. We were really close co-workers. We were a team or a unit or whatever. But it was all work. Once, twice a year we’d get together for Christmas or Thanksgiving, but that wasn’t the same. That was a bunch of people who were in the trenches together spending some off time together rather than be alone. Tony'd come over for dinner or a drink every now and again. Abby’d come over sometimes, but not a whole lot, not like she does now. Ziva did a few times, too, but she always kept her private life private. Never even saw Tim in my basement until he started dating Abby. We were a team. We were… close… friendly… depended on each other… trusted each other… but, not intimate. But we’re not anymore, now we’re a family.”
“And spending time with people who have loves and lives outside of work is reminding you of how much you miss that?”
“So, closeness, comfort, peace, someone to talk and listen to, what else do you see in this ideal home?”
“Is there more?”
He gives her a of course, I’m old, not dead look.
“But you didn’t mention it. Didn’t think of it. Or did you just not want to say it to me?”
Good point. He didn’t think of it. Not right now. It was part of what he was thinking about as he sat on the step. Why not? “Sex isn’t too difficult to get. I want that and miss it, too, but it’s not…” He sighs again. “I can get laid. And I’m old enough that taking care of myself scratches that itch pretty well. So… it’s not sex…”
“It’s sex in the context of love and care and peace and family?”
“Yeah. The good morning kiss that runs hot.”
Rachel nods. “Are there children in this home?”
“Sometimes. The grandkids, Kelly and Molly, and the new one that’s due in December. Hopefully at least one more.”
Cranston flashes him a questioning look.
“I hope Ziva and Tony have one, one day. Love it if there’s more than the three of them. I’ll be good with just the three, though.”
“None of your own?”
He looks really startled by that idea, then finally says, “I’m too old. Helping out with Kelly has made it clear that I do not want to be a full time, 24/7 parent of a newborn again. And I’m way too damn old to start dating a woman young enough to have one. And even if I wasn’t, it’s not an option any longer.”
That questioning look again. “Too much risk?”
“Vasectomy back in ’82.”
“Ah.” That got a note, too. She glances over at her clock, fifty seven minutes down. “You want to keep going, or wrap up?”
“I’m good with wrap up.”
Rachel smiles dryly. “I’m deeply shocked. Homework for next time—“
“Yep. I’ll play to your strengths. Tactical planning and assessment, I want a step by step plan for how to get to your fantasy home.”
“Isn’t that why I’m here with you?”
“Yep. But we start with a plan, and then we work on it, see what’s there, see where you’ve gotten tripped up before, things like that.”
He inclines his head, a physical version of ‘Oh.’
“Yeah. If you want the gold star, you can give me the version of how you got your past three wives or any serious girlfriends, and what you’re going to do differently this time.”
“Sounds like work.”
She smiles one last time. “Monday?”
He nods. “Monday.”