McGee-centric character study/romance. Want to start at the beginning? Click here.
Chapter 285: Two Cups of Coffee
This time, he brought two cups of coffee.
“Planning on settling in?” Cranston asks as she sees him unpack them from his go bag.
“Ran out last time.”
“And we wouldn’t want you to go half an hour sans coffee.”
He nods definitively, and then handed over the nine pages (back and front) paper-clipped together.
“You really are aiming for the gold star, aren’t you?” she says, unclipping them as she sits down.
He sits down, flashes her a look that might have been wry, or possibly flirty, she isn’t entirely sure, maybe sarcastic might have been in there, too, and says, “Hoo Rah, Ma’am.”
She laughs. “I wasn’t expecting this much. Give me a few minutes, let me read the… plan. Is this…” Her eyes scan the pages. “Okay, sixteen pages of your different last times, and one page of plan. Let me read the plan. We’ll work on that first.”
It doesn’t take her long to get through the tenish lines of his plan. As he takes a sip of his first coffee, she says, “Do you think, maybe there might be an even earlier first step?”
He looks at her blankly.
“How do you feel about taking that ring off? Wearing it again is recent, right?”
“Yeah, since after Susan.”
“Ah.” She makes a note, flips through the pages, and sees Susan’s the last of the ladies.
“I want to know the story behind that. I don’t want to distract from how you feel about taking it off. We’ll get to why you’re wearing it again sooner or later.” He doesn’t say anything, so she nudges him a little with, “Well…”
He extends his fingers, looking at the ring. “Not a clothes guy. Not a jewelry guy.” He taps his watch. “Have had this for fifteen years. I probably won’t bother with a new one when it dies; phone tells time just as well. I’ve got a box in the sock drawer filled with medals. Shannon put them in the box, collected them. I never cared about it. The ribbons, sure, they go on the uniform. But the medals? Couldn’t care less. Tony’s got something like six other ones in his desk.” He touches his ring again, tapping his thumb against the underside of it. “This and the uniform are the only things I ever wanted to wear. Only symbols that I wanted to carry on my body.”
“Marine, husband, and father were who you wanted to be. No symbol for Kelly?”
He shrugs. “Didn’t do stuff like that, then.” He taps the ring again. “This was it. My life, Shannon’s, and a promise to shelter and love any lives we made.”
She nods, understanding that. “You took the uniform off intentionally.”
“How about the ring? Tell me about taking it off the first time.”
He’s staring at it, rubbing it around his finger. “Night before I left for FLETC. You wear the ring, people ask questions. I didn’t want to answer them. I yanked it off, put it in the box with the medals, buried it under my socks.” He feels like he maybe should mention how he kept waking up that night, feeling it gone, how he almost got up to put it back on, but he doesn’t. He gets the sense from how she’s looking at him that she knows there’s more than what he just said.
“And no one asked if you were married?”
“No one asked much of anything.”
Cranston smiles. “I take it you weren’t exactly easy to talk to in FLETC?”
Gibbs nods, small smile on his face. “Wasn’t the first place I heard the second B was for bastard, was the most often.”
“I can imagine. Make any friends?”
“All work all the time?”
“Yeah. If I wasn’t sleeping or in class, my head was in a book. I had the highest graduating score from FLETC for the DC Branch until Tim showed up.”
That also gets an amused smile, but there’s a bit of edge to the smile, a silent, back on track, Jethro.
He shrugs. “I don’t know how I feel about taking it off. I don’t intend to wear it forever. I know there’s an end to this. But I don’t want to take it off, yet.”
She nods at that. It’s honest, and that’s a solid place to start. “You’ll take it off when it feels right?”
“Any idea what feels right might be?”
“No.” And he doesn’t. It’s not time yet. It will be time eventually. Beyond that, he doesn’t know. But, he’s thinking this might, maybe, help speed up getting to eventually.
“But you’re good with ‘feels right?’ That’s a natural way for you to deal with issues.”
“The infamous ‘gut’ I heard so much about back in the day.”
“Yeah.” He can imagine what she might have heard about that. Then something else occurs to him. “Shannon liked that. She had rules for everything. I just kind of went with it. We worked on that, together. I got more rules; she got more gut. Met in the middle, both of us got better for it.”
Rachel nods at that, and makes a quick note about it. Then gets back to her first question. “So, are you going to take it off as step one?”
“Probably a good idea. Woman who doesn’t care if I’m married isn’t a good plan.”
She nods in agreement with that. “Probably not. Not if the goal is to build a home with someone. So why did you put it back on?”
“After Susan. Tim told me I wasn’t done being married, so I should still be wearing the ring. And, that made a lot of sense, so I went upstairs, got it, and put it back on.”
“Still in the box with the medals hidden under the socks?”
“You were willing to talk to Tim about that?”
“I was being enough of an asshole when I broke it off with Susan that he and Tony decided I needed a bottle of alcohol poured into me to get over it. He drew the short straw and ended up administering it.”
“And let me guess, you and Tony would have just gotten wasted, but Tim got you talking, too?”
“I think so. Something about wakes and telling stories. It’s a blurry night. But I still remembered putting the ring on once I stopped wishing to die from the hangover."
She chuckles a little at that, clearly imagining it. Gibbs finds himself smiling. She really is amazingly easy to talk to. Of course, that probably makes this job a lot easier. He makes a quick note to remember that this is her job, that she’s a professional, and just because this is comfortable and she’s female doesn’t mean he needs to get interested in her.
“How does it feel to be wearing it again?”
He thinks about it. “Good. Once the ‘You get married again?’ stuff died down. Got a call from Susan two weeks later about how she’d gotten several extremely awkward congratulations from people who’d seen me wearing the ring.”
He’s had way worse. “Uncomfortable. She thought it was a good idea, but… She was so sad for me, and that hurt. She was hurting for me, and I’m the jerk who can’t get out of his own past enough to do right by her, love her the way she should be loved. And I felt bad about sticking her in an awkward situation. And… it was really quiet on my end of the phone.”
The look on Cranston’s face is gentle and knowing. “I’d imagine. So, how long has it been since you’ve been on a date?”
“Since January of ’14.”
“Longest time on your own since…”
“Since before I started dating Shannon.”
She wasn’t expecting that. “How long between Shannon’s death and your next girlfriend?”
He was about to answer when he realized they may not be talking about the same thing. “Girlfriend or hookup?”
That answer gets a very curious look out of Rachel. “Is there a difference?”
“Four months for a hook up. Hannah was the first girlfriend, and that was a little over two years. That was part of the reason I was hitting the bars so hard that week, it was the anniversary.”
“Why did you go back to dating so fast?”
He shakes his head. Not sure if this is her not really getting him, not really getting men, or if she’s being euphemistic, or if she’s trying to get him to put it all out there. “Wasn’t dating. Just screwing.”
“Ah. Did you find what you were looking for?”
“Got off. Didn’t hurt for a few seconds. That was all I was aiming for.”
“Really?” There’s that look, curious, wanting to dig deeper, and he can feel there’s more she’s looking for here, but he’s not getting what it might be. After all, he doesn’t feel like this is an issue that’s got any real depth to it. He wanted to get laid. He got laid. This isn’t rocket science.
“Yeah.” He’s nodding, still not sure where she wants to take this.
“Like you said last time, now-a-days you can scratch that itch for yourself. What changed? Why seek out another person?”
He looks at her curiously--It’s a good question. Why was he looking for another person? Not like he wanted any sort of company; he practically sprinted out of the room the second they were done.--sips his coffee, and sips it again. He hasn’t thought about that, or any of this, not in any depth for a very long time, so it’s taking him a while to remember who he was back then. (Let alone this aspect of who he was, because it’s not the sort of thing he dwells on.)
Finally he puts it back together. “On my own, I’d think about her. Too much. Thought about her with other women, too, but less. Easier to focus on here and now if there’s a real woman there.”
“Could you get off on your own?” She asks it completely deadpan, staring him right in the eyes.
He makes a sound eerily similar to “gack” but did not spit out the coffee.
“Sorry, not trying to startle you, not like that. And you don’t have to answer any questions that make you uncomfortable."
Really, you think that might make me uncomfortable, what on earth could possibly give you that idea? Is both very clear, and very sarcastic, on his face.
But she just waits patiently for him to either answer her question or respond with something other than that look.
“No.” He shakes his head and looks away. “Not for close to three years. Couldn’t even get it up on my own for the first year. Too sad.”
“So, for a while, other women were a distraction and a release you couldn’t find on your own?”
“Yeah. Guess so. A way to get out of my head for a little bit.”
She nods at that, index finger pressed to her temple, looking like she was putting something together. “And was Hannah the first time you got past not hurting?”
“No. Just the first time I managed to make it last for more than a minute at a time.”
“So, why did you go back to screwing so fast?”
He’s not sure what she’s asking. So he gives her that curious look, fairly certain they just covered this.
She sees the confusion. “Why was that your distraction of choice?”
“It wasn’t. Work was my distraction of choice. But work didn’t last all day every day. And we didn’t have hot cases every day. Bourbon was my second choice, filled the hours between cases. Sex came in third.”
“You build boats and do woodworking, right?”
“But you didn’t then?”
“I tried. That used to be how I got out of my head, got calm and focused. But I couldn’t do it. You’ve got to feel the wood, figure out what it wants to be, coax it gently into shape. Go at it hard, and it splinters. Those days I’d touch wood, and it’d shatter in my hands. But bourbon doesn’t care. Drink it hard, drink it slow, drink it steady, drink it fast. Bourbon’s happy with all of it.”
Rachel nods at that. “Anything besides women and bourbon?”
“Like harder drugs?”
She nods. “Everything here is confidential, and anything like this, I don’t write down or keep notes on. Even if I got a court subpoena, nothing illegal will be in my notes. So, yeah, harder drugs, cutting, picking fights, adrenaline junkie? How were you medicating yourself?”
“No harder drugs, I’m not sure what cutting is, and yeah, I drove like a maniac and picked fights, and scared the shit out of the guys I took in and took risks that no one else would even dream of. It was the early nineties, NCIS got the bottom of the barrel when it came to investigative talent, and I closed cases. Otherwise they would have canned my ass so fast, I’d have never made it past Probie. I’ve got Death Wish in my files from those days, and Mike and I didn’t have an easy time finding other partners because we did have a reputation as the two guys most likely to end up dead.”
This also makes Rachel look interested. “Mike enabled you in this?”
Gibbs smiles. “Mike was a cowboy of the old style. Go in guns blazing, shoot first, ask questions later, take the bad guys in dead or alive. He had a partner, Vera, who kept him toned down some. Kept me in line, too. But she got her own team, and then it was just the two of us. I don’t even want to count how many times we should have died once she left.”
“Did you like her?”
“No. More like a big sister. Half the time she was annoying me, making sure I’d do things like eat. Half the time she was treating me like… Like the Probie I was.”
Rachel nods. “Tell me about the first hook up.”
“What about it?”
“I was drunk, and probably awfully sad looking, and she and her buddies were having a divorce party. I was a guy with a pulse and a dick and still sober enough to sit upright. Still wearing the ring. She didn’t notice or care. I guess I was pretty enough she thought I’d be fun.”
“No.” He shakes his head. It was certainly the most depressing sex of his life, and he can’t imagine it was one of her better encounters. “And I felt like shit after. Wanted to peel my skin off felt so dirty. For a few seconds there, I wasn’t hurting. And I didn’t deserve not hurting.”
“But you did it again?”
“Yeah, few months later.”
“Did you need to be drunk to hook up?”
“Yeah. Tried sober a few times. Didn’t work.”
“Didn’t work physically or…”
“Never got far enough to find out if it worked physically when I was sober. Sober, I’d shoot down any woman that got within talking range.”
“Were you sober a lot?”
“I was reliably sober, hung over maybe, but sober, every minute I was at work, and every minute we were on call. I was not reliably sober at any other time for the first two years.”
“Are you an alcoholic, Jethro?”
He shrugs. He probably was then. He might be one now. He does know that he prefers dealing with sad, uncomfortable, or tense if he’s got some alcohol in him. He’s certain that if he did find himself in emotional trouble again, he’d start drinking like a fish again. He also knows that one drink doesn’t mean he has to finish the bottle. And he knows that right now, he doesn’t crave alcohol. Doesn’t find himself thinking about the next drink at 4:30 in the afternoon the way he did back when he was first working with Mike and they were having a paperwork day.
“Unless I had a case to focus on, I wouldn’t have been able to go a night without a drink, and usually closer to five, back then. Smoked, too. After Hannah, I got to the point where I could do some woodworking without breaking anything my hands touched.” He rolls up his left sleeve and shows off a long, thin scar on his forearm, and several other small ones on his hands. “Woodworking with hand tools halfway into a bottle of Jack isn’t a good plan if you don’t like scars.” He doesn’t say anything, but she can see that they’re all old and faded. There are a few fresh scratches, but they’re from the explosion, and small enough they won’t scar. “I have about four drinks a week now, usually two of them are wine at Shabbos. Haven’t smoked since… 2002? 2004? It’s been a while.”
“Are there any aspects of your life that aren’t healthier now than they used to be?”
“Can’t think of any.”
She looks at his list. “So, I’m guessing ‘Meet woman, not in a bar, not red hair’ is you noticing that never worked well.”
“’Common ground, good.’ What does that mean?”
“Just that it’s easier with someone who gets it.”
She taps the pages in front of her, obviously hasn’t had the chance to read them, but wants to know more. “The one that worked best, that you got closest with? Did she get it?”
“Yeah. Hollis. Light colonel. Army CID. Ran her own team.”
“Female version of you?”
“Nah, that’s Borin, and we know we’re too much alike to even try.”
Rachel makes note of that, too. “How did common ground make things easier?”
“She understood I couldn’t make really solid plans. She got why I wasn’t affectionate in front of my team, or hers for that matter. She knew that sometimes I needed to bury myself in the basement and work on the boat until I got it out. She knew that sometimes I needed to be at work all day and all night and all the next day because the bad guys were still out there.”
“Some of the other women have issues with that?”
“Yeah. Part of what killed Hannah and I. Worst possible case they could have put me on. Serial killer going after kids. And she didn’t know about my girls. Didn’t know why I couldn’t pull out of it. Stephanie didn’t like the fact that the job came first, either.” He doesn’t mention that part of what she didn’t like about the job coming first was the job meant Jen, but Rachel’ll read those pages and get to know that soon enough.
Rachel nods, puts a note about that on her paper, and asks, “What does ‘Get to know her’ mean?”
“Stop looking for Shannon. Get to know the woman who’s actually there. Stop trying to shove her into a mold she was never meant to fit.”
“Very good advice.”
“’Let her get to know you/Talk/Tell her about Shannon and Kelly/Tell her about cases’ all seem related. Tell me about that.”
The smiles. “Did you know Tony calls me a functional mute?”
She nods. “I heard that somewhere along the line.”
“Let me guess, you heard some other things about me not talking?”
“On occasion.” She’s got a smile that puts him in mind of Kate very intensely right now.
“In the job I find out all about everyone else, but they don’t get to find out about me.”
“You like that, don’t you?”
“Yeah. It’s safe. And…” he looks up, self-depreciating smile on his face “I’ve been told by various wives and girlfriends, that I can be awfully charming in a silent and mysterious sort of way—“
He laughs a little, appreciating the shocked look on her face. “Yes. Rumor has it I was awfully pretty once upon a time, too.”
That gets a gentle smile and a little laugh. “You’re still pretty.”
“I’m pretty old.”
“That happens to all of us who are still up and moving around. So…”
“So, I found that I could be silent, and charming, and attractive, and keep all of me inside me. And women like Hannah would fall in love with the image. And Diane fell in love with the challenge, and the hints of what might have been under there. I don’t know if Stephanie actually loved me or not. She doesn’t hate me anymore, so that’s a step in the right direction, I guess. There are seven women on that list, and only one of them ever knew my whole story.”
“But that one didn’t work?”
“No. Susan and I parted friends. I don’t think she wanted to break it off, but… I knew it wasn’t going to happen, and by the time we got done talking, she could feel it, too.”
“’Introduce her to your family.’”
“Yeah. These days they’re part of the deal. Won’t even try with a woman they don’t like.”
Rachel nods, makes a mark of that, and asks, “What does slow mean?”
“I don’t know, but I do know I’ve gone from first date to engaged to married to divorced in less time than any of my boys took to go from first date to married.”
“Yeah. And it didn’t work all that well.”
“Slow, then. ‘Get to know her family?’”
“If she’s old enough to be interesting to me, she’s got family. She’s probably divorced or widowed. Likely has kids. Maybe has grandkids. I don’t want to be the step-dad from hell.”
“How old are you thinking?”
“Within ten years of my age? I don’t know. She won’t be twenty-two.” That triggers a memory. “Okay, I do know, she will not be younger than Tony. He’d never shut up about it if I tried that.”
“Sounds like there’s a story there?”
“He’s had more than a few step-moms over the years, and I think he was twenty-one when his dad married the first one that was younger than he was.”
“Take the time to find out if it’s actually going the way I think it is. Jimmy and Tim are really good at being married. Get their input. See how they think it’s going.”
“Sounds like a solid plan, Jethro.” She checks her clock. “So, that’s it for session two. You’re ready to go back to work, if that’s all you want out of this.” Rachel just let that hang.
“And if I don’t?” Gibbs asks, quietly.
“Then I’ve got another assignment for you.”
She smiles at his put upon expression. “You talk about these women with obvious affection, but you tell me you didn’t love them. Next up: what does it mean to be in love?”
Gibbs slouches and gives her his best are you fucking kidding me? look.
She’s smiling again, this time you can do this, in her expression. “No, no joke. Can’t find what you’re looking for if you don’t know what it is. Like with planning, if it’s easier to go at it by looking at what didn’t work, take Hollis and Susan, those are the two least complicated and most recent,” she decides to hazard a guess, “Only two where you weren’t actively depressed?” He nods. He was coming out of it by the time things ended with Elizabeth, but he certainly was when they started. “Come up with what was missing. What is love, and what wasn’t there with them to make it love?”
He rolls his eyes a bit, shakes his head, and starts to stand up. “Monday mornings good for you?”
“Yes, Jethro. This time works fine. If you want to make this even easier, come up with your answer, and email it to me ahead of time. That way I can read it, and we can talk about it.”
He nods, then turns and heads out.
An hour later, he hobbled into the bullpen. Tim didn’t look surprised to see him, but he wouldn’t, Rachel’s email would have gotten there way before he did. He just nodded, waited for Gibbs to get settled, and then took half of the pile of paperwork off of his desk, and a third of what was on Draga’s and plopped it on his.
An hour later, when Draga wandered off in search of drinks for them, Tim headed over again, half sitting against Gibbs’ desk.
“You gonna see her again?”
Tim gave his shoulder a squeeze. “Good.”