Chapter 293: Why Did You Marry Them
Gibbs set Rachel’s coffee on the little table she had next to her chair, and limped to the sofa, setting his crutch to his side, and taking his coffees out.
“How’s the knee doing?” she asks once he’s settled, taking a sip of the coffee. “Thank you, this is lovely.”
He nods. “Down to just the brace next week. They want me to go to physical therapy.”
“You don’t sound happy about that.”
He shrugs. “Not happy about the whole thing.” He taps his knee. “Don’t like feeling useless. They’ll only okay me for light duty once I get off the crutches. Then won’t get okayed for full duty until the physical therapy is done, and that’ll be about a week before I retire.”
“Sorry to hear it.”
“Yeah, well… It is what it is. Work with the boys. Have Ziva put me through my paces. I’ll get it done faster than they expect, but faster’ll be two weeks, three weeks before they boot me out? Not a big difference.”
“No. I guess not.” She makes a little note of that.
“Reminding myself to talk with you about retiring, but probably not today.”
“Okay. What are we talking about today?”
“Did you do your homework?”
He nods, taking a sip of his coffee.
“Who’d you tell?”
Rachel thinks about that. She knows the name but isn’t immediately coming up with who Penny is. He sees that.
“Tim’s grandma, Ducky’s…” he sort of rolls his eyes. “Can you call a woman north of eighty a girlfriend? And if I did, I’d have to listen to her lecture on she’s a woman, not a girl, and that describing her by her relationships to the men in her life diminishes her personhood. Or something like that. I zoned out last time.”
“The third corner in your grandparenting triangle?”
“Yes. Kelly’s great-grandma. Maybe that one won’t get me chewed out. She might do it just because she knows it bugs me.”
“Sounds like you have an adversarial relationship.”
“Not really. Not as smooth as the rest of the family; there’s friction but not anger…” he thinks about that and decides it feels right. “If she was thirty years younger, I would have been interested. Of course, if she was thirty years younger, I wouldn’t have been smart enough for her.”
“Is that part of the friction?”
“Nah. We met on a case—“
“Not through Tim?”
“Not really. He was taking point, she’s his grandma after all. She wasn’t talking, actually playing him, so I went in and went hard, and she may have called me a jack-booted fascist, or thought it, not sure if it actually came out, but she didn’t know I wasn’t as straight up law and order as I looked and I didn’t know she wasn’t as hippie-dippie, peacenik as she looked, and we both kind of nudge each other with it now and again.”
“Family dinners must be a blast.”
He nods, smiling. “They are. They’re good enough we have Shabbos say three out of five Fridays, and now Sunday breakfast, too.”
Rachel makes a note of that, too.
He looks at her curiously.
“One of these days I want to hear about this family you’ve built. Created families of the kind you have are fairly rare, working ones rarer still. Tim and Penny are the only two with any blood ties?”
He nods and she makes a note of that, too. Long note. He decides not to ask what she’s thinking right now. They’ll get to it sooner or later.
“So, why Penny?”
“Her husband died back in ’88. She’d been married to him all her life at that point. They lost a son in ‘Nam. Wanted to talk to someone who got it.”
“Sounds like a good choice.”
“I think so. It was a good conversation. Got to know more about her, too. Though neither of us seem to know how the switch flips and you move on. She said it just did.”
“How’d her husband die?”
“I don’t know the details. She said he was at sea, it was unexpected, and painless. It was the ‘80s and he was an Admiral, so I’m fairly sure it wasn’t combat related.”
“Yeah, her son, Tim’s dad, is one, too.”
“You weren’t kidding about not being smart enough.”
“No. Not smart enough. Not ambitious enough. You need at least a PhD before she’s willing to look at you for more than a good time.”
“She must be a very interesting woman.”
“He likely died of natural causes?”
“I think so.”
“And she doesn’t think she had anything to do with how he died? No guilt?”
Rachel stares at him.
“Yeah, I know, probably has a lot to do with flipping that switch.” She makes a note at that, and he has a feeling she’s thinking up his next homework assignment.
“How did saying it feel?”
His look could best be described as, how do you think?
“That’s the point of this, Jethro, I don’t assume how it works for you, I ask. And even when I do know, I still ask, because then you have to think about it, put it into words, and actually tell me.”
“Talking? Bringing it up out of the middle of nowhere? That look that comes right after you say it? All of it?”
“Are you going to do it again?”
“Probably. There’s this diner we go to. Elaine’s the lady who runs the counter. She asked when I put the ring on, ‘Go and get married again, hon?’ and I said no, and left it, and she hasn’t poked. Probably tell her the next time I go in for a late night coffee.”
He shrugs. “She’ll give me a hug and pie.”
“Hugs and pie are good.”
“Not saying they aren’t just…”
“It’s easier to be invulnerable?”
“Too bad. You’re human, Jethro. None of us are made of stone.”
“Yay,” he says, dry and sarcastic.
She takes another drink of her coffee and picks up the pages he wrote about the wives and girlfriends. “I was reading over your collection of ladies, and I wanted to know, why did you marry them?”
He blows out a frustrated breath. “Beyond it seemed like a good idea at the time?”
“Yes. You’re a fairly traditional guy, so can I assume that at some point, for each of these women, you went out, found a ring, came up with some sort of ‘let’s get married’ speech, set up some sort of romantic encounter, and then stuck around long enough to plan a wedding, and then got married?”
“Only two weddings.”
“Hm. One was Shannon, who was the other one?”
“What were the other two?”
“Eloped. Justice of the Peace with Hannah, Marine Chaplain owed me a favor for Stephanie.”
“Okay. So let’s start with Hannah. What made you think, ‘I should marry this woman?’”
He exhales, looking a bit sheepish. “Not exactly my finest moment.”
She smiles at that and nudges him on. “We can talk about your finest moments, later. Why’d you marry her?”
“She was young, twenty-three, going to school to be a pharmacist. Which was why she was in DC in the first place. She finished about four months after we started dating. Her family was in Buffalo. They wanted her to find a job closer to them. Wanted her to drop me, move home, meet a nice guy, one a lot closer to her age, settle down, make lots of little red-haired grandbabies. They didn’t much like me, probably because they had an easier time seeing who I was than she did. So, she was telling me about her parents giving her grief about heading back north. I wasn’t in love with her. But I didn’t want her to leave. And if I didn’t make a move, she was going to go, and I was going to be rattling around the house with just memories and bourbon for company.
“So, I found a ring, and I lied my ass off about loving her for the rest of our days, and she said yes, and two weeks later she was Mrs. Gibbs.”
“How was it?”
“Okay, for about a year. That year was better than Diane or Stephanie. We got on pretty well. Not… not what I wanted, but better than nothing.”
“And after that year?”
“I caught the Boone case, and that one ate me, and our marriage, alive. I don’t even know when she actually left. Just one day I noticed that her stuff was gone. She could have left that afternoon, she could have left a month earlier, and I had no idea.
“Didn’t contest the divorce. Signed over whatever she wanted, besides the house. That was mine. That’s the only thing I’ve managed to keep a hold of, besides my tools, through the three divorces.”
He smiles at that. He might not remember where they were when they met, but he certainly remembered that look she gave him, and the way she said, ‘Back off. I don’t like cops.’ “She told me I wasn’t her type.”
“And you had to prove her wrong?”
He shakes his head, half-smile still on his face. “Or die trying.”
“Why did you have a real wedding with her?”
“Diane and I liked anything that made sparks. Sex, teasing, fighting… Anything that got us hot was good. And a wedding is seventeen million things to fight about. Hell, I almost cancelled the thing three times just to stretch it out even longer, because the arguing was fun.”
“Did she think it was fun?”
“She changed the date on me twice.”
“Moved it up the second time. Nah. Just messing with me. But eventually, we did get married, and we had a great honeymoon, and we got home and ran out of stuff to argue about. And if we weren’t fighting, I wasn’t interested.”
Rachel stares at him, looking like she doesn’t think that’s the whole story. “You won?”
“Yeah. I won. I proved her wrong. And I got bored. And she got angry. And that kept things going a little longer. I got more and more into work. Into the next case, the next puzzle, the next challenge. She got more and more annoyed. Then she got mean. And I pulled in further. She got clingy and meaner. I took Agent Afloat. We were divorced by the time I got back.”
Rachel squints at him. “The way you write about her seems… fonder.”
“I am fond of her. Now. And a long time between then and now helps. We keep running into each other. And… We’re okay… ish, now. At peace, definitely. For some reason, every single fall, it’s practically clockwork, sometime between September and November, I’ll find Fornel or Diane at a case, and within minutes the other one shows up.”
“God’s amused by you three together?”
He rolls his eyes and sighs a little. “Satan probably. Every year. And I already know the one after next. Tobias is getting married in October of ’16. Last time she got married, she invited both of us. We didn’t go. Tobias was going to, got all dressed up, showed up at my place, saw I was in street clothing, and we spent the rest of the day drinking in my basement.
“So, he’s already got it set with Wendy, she’s cool with it. After all, she’s not just his ex, but also his daughter’s mom. He’s going to invite her. And she’ll come. I’ll be there, I’m the best man.” Gibbs looks up, licks his lips, and shakes his head.
“Unless she’s found herself a new pet, she’ll show up, we’ll argue, it’ll be fun, and we’ll end up in bed together.”
That got a curious look from Rachel.
“We were always good at pushing each other’s buttons. And so far, every time we’ve run into each other, she’s been married, or had a new boyfriend. But last I heard, she was single again.”
“You seem pretty sure your advances would be welcome.”
He’s not entirely sure what that look on Rachel’s face means. “Are you asking if I think I’m God’s gift to women, and she’ll just fall for me because I think it might be interesting, or if I actually know something to indicate making a move would be welcome?”
She nods, nicely, but nods. He sends her a wry look, one that makes it pretty clear that he knows he’s not God’s gift to women, not these days.
“She told me I was her Shannon. I think, especially if we spent a night sniping at each other, all dressed up, kind of tipsy, it’d be welcome. Probably end up making out in the parking lot.”
And while Rachel looks really surprised at that, she’s not surprised about the making out in the parking lot comment. “She knew about Shannon? Did you tell her?”
“No. Never spoke her name for… close to a decade. Like I said, we had a great honeymoon, we got home, and I got bored. She knew I was bored. Knew something was wrong, didn’t know what. We limped around for a few months, and she got more and more angry, and I dug further and further into work. The challenge was over. I’d won. She was Mrs. Gibbs, mine, and even whacking me with a golf club didn’t shake the boredom.
“I took Agent Afloat. Six months in the Med. While I was gone, she went through all my stuff, and found out about them.”
“Oh. Yet, even with that, it sounds like you’re still attracted to her.”
“I am. She’s beautiful. And I do like her. Always did. Probably always will. Don’t like the way she gets mean and shrill when she’s unhappy, but I do like her.”
“So. You aren’t the same man you were then. Say you did go to the wedding, you did get tipsy and push each other’s buttons, find yourselves a quiet bit of parking lot, would a new start be welcome? Obviously she cares for you. You like her…”
“Don’t think I’d be able to trust her enough for it. Not for more than sex.”
Another curious look.
“I’d been afloat for five weeks when I got the ‘I’m pregnant’ letter.”
Cranston winces. She remembers the comment about the vasectomy.
“Yeah. Her name is Emily. She’s sixteen. Beautiful girl. Funny, smart as a whip, calls me Uncle Gibbs.”
“You have a relationship with Emily Fornell?” Cranston looks stunned and amused.
He chuckles, shaking his head. “Life is weird. I’m her father’s best friend and her mom’s ex-husband. Yeah. She’s at my house for extended family parties a few times a year. Occasionally she crashes at my place when they’re driving her buggy. My door’s always open, and they both trust that if she’s at my place, she’s safe and well-looked after.”
Cranston closes her eyes, smiles, and shakes her head. “Sounds like you and Diane are better than okay… ish.”
“We’re okay, now.”
“But you don’t trust her?”
“Not deep down.”
“But you trust Tobias?”
“Why?” Takes two to make a baby clear in her eyes.
He licks his lips and looks up again, trying to figure out how to put this feeling into words. “The three of us got on great. Dinner at my place, especially before we got married, was always a lot of fun. I knew he liked her. I knew she liked him. And when I got the letter… It was the nineties, hard to make calls off a battleship, but I was the Agent Afloat, so I managed it. I called Tobias. And I was so…
“I knew it wasn’t mine. I mean, I just knew. I’d told her I didn’t want kids. She seemed on board with that. She’d been on the pill.”
“You didn’t tell her about the vasectomy?”
“No. Couldn’t tell her about that without telling her why I’d had one. Not like the scar is obvious, so, never mentioned it.
“So, I knew she couldn’t be mine. But, I saw the word on the paper and felt the thrill of it and the kick in the balls all at once. I called Tobias, and he was acting off, but I was too out of it to really notice, but he did remind me that sometimes vasectomies heal up, so I should get it tested before I got a hold of a divorce lawyer.”
“So you did.”
“Yeah, easy test. Anyone with a microscope can do it.”
“And you hadn’t had any sort of miraculous recovery.”
“No. And when the medic told me that, I realized that Tobias had been acting off, and I suddenly knew why. And that hurt like fuck. And after I got back and beat the hell out of him, we didn't talk, outside of a case, for year. But… He’s not the one I married. He’s not the one who told me he was okay with not having children. And he’s not the one who slept with my best friend and tried to pass off his kid as mine.”
Cranston nods at that. “What do you think she was doing?”
“I think she thought that, after seeing the shots of Kelly, that if there was a baby it’d get my attention, and keep it. And it would have. She was dead right. Like I said, Diane always knew how to push my buttons. If Emily had been mine… But she wasn’t.”
“Does Emily know…”
He shakes his head. “She’s under the impression Diane and I got divorced a year earlier than we actually did.”
“None of the three of us see any reason for her to know the truth on that.”
“Probably wise. How about Stephanie? Why did you marry her?”
“Don’t give me that, you know.”
“I couldn’t have Shannon, and I needed a distraction from Jen. She looked, smelled, and acted enough like both of them that I could kind of pretend.”
“That’s why you slept with her. Why did you marry her?”
He glares at Rachel. She smiles back.
“Come on, I’m not stupid, and you aren’t either. And we both know you’ll sleep with a woman for distraction, but that’s not why you’ll marry one.”
“She wanted to.”
“Nope?” He’s got a startled look on his face when he asks that.
“Nope.” Rachel shakes her head. “You and I are not strangers, we have not just met, and I do not, for one second, believe a man who couldn’t be bothered to come home on time for dinner regularly married a woman because she wanted it. Try again. Dig deep. Why did you marry her?”
He hasn’t thought about it for years. So he does. Moscow, it was brutally cold and very snowy and lonely and why marry her?
Oh. “In ’96 Franks left, and I got a new Probie. Stan Burley. Great guy. Good agent. Put up with my crap and then some. Including the fact that I called him Steve for four years just to see if I could piss him off enough to do something about it. In ’98 NCIS began to shift its main focus away from crime to anti-terrorism. At that point in time we had nothing in the way of anti-terrorism talent.
“I’m good at languages. Stan’s family was well-connected. He was a Senator’s aide for years. Law school, all the rest of that. So, they sent us to Europe to head up the new NCIS anti-terrorism squad.”
“Moscow, Paris, Romania, few other places.”
“Don’t sound like hotbeds of international terrorism.”
“Like I said, we weren’t the crown jewel of the anti-terrorism world. Anyway, it was ’98, and NCIS also wanted a stronger female presence, especially on all of the ‘premier’ teams. So Stan and I got this new Probie, and that was Jen.
“Stan’s not stupid, and he’s not blind, so he knew how I felt about Jen. He saw the way I’d watch her. Saw how she’d watch me. Probably had a better idea of what was going on in her mind about that than I did.
“We’re in Moscow, and we know we’re going to Paris, long mission, at least four months, maybe longer. We know Jen’s going, because the couple in love cover works well. What we don’t know is which of the two of us is going.
“He was going to go over my head. He’d knew I’d fuck it up. And he was right, I did exactly what he thought I was going to, and we got a few lucky breaks and were able to pull it out of the weeds. But I know it, and Jen knows it, and Stand did, too. In the end it was luck. Because I fucked up and got distracted and put more into her than the mission.
“We were planning the mission, and he’s giving me the ‘you aren’t going to Paris with her’ look, and I had a girlfriend, and I knew we were still a few months out, so…
“So, Moscow has, or at least had, the kind of malls where you could buy anything and everything. Stephanie and I were out, and she’d been moping about something, like me missing dinner, so we walk past one of the jewelry stores, and there’s diamonds all over the place. She’s staring at them. I nod at them and say, ‘Pick one out.’ Ten days later we were married, and Stan stopped riding me so hard about Jen.”
“It was Moscow.”
“Cute. You said Stan had a better idea of what Jen was doing. What did you mean by that?”
“I was the next rung up the ladder, and she was going to climb me however she could. I saw pretty, sassy redhead with…” He realizes he’d kept that sentence going a few words longer than necessary and stops.
She smiles at the way he’s censoring himself. “Big boobs?”
“Yes. And some other nice curves, too. Jen was an extremely well-shaped woman. And between being my probie, and so cute, and sexy, and she had this mix of standing up for herself and taking orders and… she had me wrapped around her finger pretty fast.”
“And you like women who challenge you, ones you can’t have.”
“There was that, too.”
“She liked me. I liked her. That was real. That’d she’d play up the sex to get the men around her to do what she wanted was true, too.”
“And Stan saw that better than you did?”
“Yeah. Probably didn’t hurt that he had a serious girl then, made him more immune to big boobs, doe eyes, and sass.”
“And it worked for her?”
“It did. There are a few things that every other NCIS director has had in common that she didn’t. One of them was twenty-years in. Department head was another. Marine or Navy service. Somehow all those ‘rules’ vanished when her name got on the list.”
“Was she a bad Director?”
He shrugs. “She was herself. She put me in charge for a week while she was at a conference. Great. Message received. Being Director is hard. I get it. So that was fine for the two of us working things out. But, I’ve never gone higher than Team Leader for a reason. I didn’t become an officer for a reason. And we lucked out and nothing too big happened that week. But if something had happened, I wouldn’t have been able to handle it, not without pissing off everyone in DC with initials, and not without making the whole agency look bad.
“She was good at people. Running them, building relationships and teams. She was good at politics. She was bad at not getting caught in the little stuff.
“Was she a good Director? I don’t know. I think there were things she could have done better, but that’s true for everyone. Are you actually asking me if I think she slept her way into that position?”
“No. But she used her charm to move higher, faster than she would have otherwise. And it’s not like she wasn’t good. Not like there wasn’t substance to go with her looks. But she mixed them together and got a lot further than someone who wasn’t as pretty would have.”
“A male someone?”
“Sure, or a less attractive female one. She was tiny. And she’d look up at you, big green eyes, and say something unexpected, sharp as a whip, and dead on right, and just use that charm to shape the world around her to the way she wanted it to be.”
“How about the other ones you didn’t marry?”
“Elizabeth was… a friend with benefits? That’s what Tony’d call it.”
“How about Hollis? Were you getting serious with her?”
“We were starting to talk in that direction. She had her twenty-five in, and was thinking of retiring, wanted to know if it’d be worth it for her to stay in DC. I’d said yes. Starting to feel kind of hopeful about it. Like maybe this time it’d work…”
“But she found out about my girls, and I’d never said anything, because I thought she knew, and I think she decided I wasn’t going to be able to get past it, and next thing I knew she’d moved to Hawaii.”
“You didn’t talk at all?” Rachel sounds credulous.
“I thought we were going to. She looked at me. I looked back at her. We didn’t say anything. She left. I figured that she’d take a day or so and then give me a call. But she didn’t. And I caught a hot case. So, eight days later, I finally come up for air, and notice there are no messages on my machine, no emails, nothing. I’d told her that…” he trails off on that.
“Told her what?”
“When she was talking about retiring. I told her I’d be around, that I wanted her to stay. Helped her fix up her place so she’d have a better home for staying. So, she knew I wasn’t going anywhere, she knew I was hoping we’d have something. But she didn’t call, and I got the message loud and clear. She retired and moved to Hawaii.”
“And you never tried to reach her?”
“Didn’t know her number. Figured she would have called if she wanted me to find her. It just ended there.”
“Was she already moved after a week?”
“So, you had her number, you just didn’t call. A week went by and you just dropped her.”
“I think she dropped me.”
“So, you’re telling me this person you cared about just wandered off and you did nothing about it?”
“You really want me to believe you just let her go?”
She’s building to something, but he’s not sure what. “How many other things have you ever just let go?”
“How about Susan? Did you just let her go, too?”
He thinks about that. “Not exactly. I sent her off.”
“What happened? You obviously cared about her. How’d you make the jump from this is good to no more?”
That’s a whole lot more recent so it doesn’t take long for him to remember the, nope, this isn’t right, moment. “Valentine’s Day. We’re having lunch, and the guys are all talking about their plans. What special things they were getting or doing. Tony was worrying about not having a plan yet. Stuff like that. And I liked Susan. She’s sweet and beautiful and kind and just… just a really good person, you know? Just being around her makes you feel good.”
“She sounds great.”
“She is. She really is. Anyway… The guys are getting their various things ready, and Tony asks what I’m doing, and I… think I didn’t answer… brushed it off in a sort of Valentines never works sort of way… which was true, we caught a case and Molly was born. No one got home until the 15th. But I could hear them talking, especially Tim and Jimmy, and they were really into it. Not the hearts and flowers and cuteness stuff, but the doing something to make your woman happy part of it. Even Tony, who told us five hundred times how much he hates Valentine’s Day was saying it because he was scared of not doing enough. And I had some plans in motion, we had our Valentines that weekend, and it was nice. But that was it. It was nice. We saw a movie she’d been looking forward to, I made dinner, quiet night in front of the fireplace. It was nice. She liked it. She was happy.
“But I was going through the motions. I was doing something to make her happy, not because I was enjoying her happy, but because I didn’t want to make her sad. Tim, Tony, Jimmy, they were all doing things that would make their girls happy, and that happy would make them happy, feed them. All I was doing was avoiding sad.
“I thought about that more, and two weeks later broke up with her. Then spent a few more weeks acting like a bear. Which was when,” he taps his ring finger, “that happened.”
Rachel thinks about it. “Did making Hollis happy make you happy?”
“Yeah, it did. I repiped her home and put up drywall. Yeah, making her happy made me happy.”
“Jethro, did you really not love her, or was she just not Shannon?”
He thinks about that. “I don’t know. I’d like to think I’d have gone to see her, or called her, or something, if I had loved her.”
“Really? Would you have? On the verge of a functional relationship, something that might work, might make you happy, might threaten the sacred space you hold your love of Shannon in? Another shot at getting your heart ripped out? Do you really think you’d have gone after her if you loved her? Would you have jumped into that again?”
“Especially after she left without saying anything to you?”
“Did you love her?”
He closes his eyes and sighs. “Yeah. I did.”
Good? His look says, disbelieving.
“Good. It’s one thing if you can’t fall in love, it’s another thing if you won’t. And won’t is a lot easier to deal with than can’t.”
“So, can you guess what this week’s homework is?”
“Think about love some more?”
“Yeah. What is love? This time not defined by Shannon. Don’t have to write it down or anything, but think about it.”