McGee-centric character study/romance. Want to start at the beginning? Click here.
Chapter 315: Endings
Tim's nervous. Really, really nervous. They're due over any minute now. The plan, dinner, get to know Kelly, spend a few hours at his house before they go back to the hotel, followed by the full on baptism festivities tomorrow sounded good when he was typing up the email.
Now it sounds insane. What the hell was he thinking doing this? His stomach is hurting, and he's picked up his glass at least twenty times, taken a sip, put it down, and fidgeted around.
Right now, it's just him, Abby, Kelly, and Gibbs.
He's not precisely sure how Gibbs got invited to this. Part of why he's nervous is Gibbs and his mom in the same room. Of course, Abby and his mom in the same room isn't going to be a picnic either.
Hell, him and his mom in the same room probably isn't a great plan, either.
"You really want to do this?" Abby asks.
He nods, taking yet another sip of water, wondering if they've got any good snacks in the house, because he really wants to eat, something to keep his hands and mouth busy.
"Hey." Gibbs rests his hands on Tim's shoulders. "We're gonna make this as easy for you as we can."
"I know." He doesn't, not really, but it's the right thing to say. And right now he's not even sure what easy would be.
His phone rings, and he more or less sprints to get it.
Gibbs looks at Abby as he leaves the living room for his office. "Is he ready for this?"
"He says he wants to try." No! very clear on her face.
"Is there anything we can do to make this easier? Last time he was that tense…" Gibbs shakes his head. He doesn't remember seeing Tim this tense. Maybe when they walked down that hallway and saw John?
Abby shakes her head back at him. "This isn't in our hands. We're making sure he knows he's loved and not alone."
A minute later he's back.
Gibbs and Abby both look at him expectantly.
He manages something that's vaguely smile-ish. "Last minute pep talk."
The knock on the door.
He doesn't know if it's worse for being expected or not. But he does jerk at the sound of it, and then hops up to open the door.
They look the same as they always do. His mom, tall, blondish hair even more gray now, but the same straight posture and conservative clothing. Ben's as round and smiley as always. He shakes Ben's hand first, that's easy. Nothing about that changed.
Ben steps in, hugging Abby, talking to Gibbs, and Tim stares at his mom.
She smiles and hugs him, and for a second he feels himself melt into it, into the comfort of old lies and memories, and then he pulls himself out of them, and steps back a bit. Her hands are still on his shoulders. "Let me look at you! Oh, Penny told me married life was agreeing with you, but I didn't think... You look fantastic, Tim."
Abby allows herself to be hugged, but she's not doing her usual enthusiastic, all-encompassing Abby hug.
"You remember Jethro Gibbs?" Tim says.
His mom and Ben nod. He shakes hands with both of them, cool but not the level of frigid Gibbs can easily do, let alone his full on malice.
"Dinner'll be ready soon. We're eating kind of early because Kelly usually wakes up and wants her dinner a little before seven," Tim says, and the nervousness is audible in his voice, along with the way he's started rambling on about the fact they're having roasted chicken.
Ben breaks in, rich voice soothing over Tim's nervous ramble, relieving him of the need to fill the quiet, which he appreciates, complimenting Abby (good guess, she did cook) on how wonderful the chicken smells, asking what she'd used to spice it with, and wandering into the kitchen with her, dispersing some of the tension.
Tim and Gibbs follow along, and Terri ducks out.
She's back a minute later. "Almost forgot this." It's a bottle of chardonnay. Good one by the looks of it. And Tim smiles a little, fairly sure that "almost forgot this" means "I've got a bottle of red and a bottle of white in the car and was waiting to see what dinner was before picking one of them."
"Can't forget that, Darlin.'" Ben smiles at her. "Tim, you got a corkscrew?"
"Yeah." He grabs it and hands it over, along with some glasses, to Ben. Ben's opening the wine, Abby's messing around with the vegetables, which his mom rapidly joins in helping with, Gibbs settles in at the table, watching, comfortable, but Tim can see the edge there. He's ready to jump in if need be.
"Who wants wine?" Ben asks once he's got the bottle open. Terri and Gibbs say yes. Abby shakes her head, "Still nursing. If there's some left after Kelly's last dinner, I'll probably have some then."
"Any for you, Tim?"
"Part of how you're staying so trim?" Ben asks.
"Something like that. Remember how when we went to visit you, you guys picked up the best ice cream ever? Well, we've got the best cupcakes, and I want to have some." They do have great cupcakes. And he does keep track of his calories that closely because otherwise it is too easy for him to go overboard and start putting on weight again, but that's not it. A glass of wine to go with dinner won't tip him over that far. He just doesn't want to deal with alcohol in addition to everything else tonight. Doesn't need anything, even a glass or two of wine, mucking with his emotional control.
Ben laughs at that, happy to hear it. "Always save room for great cupcakes. So, your grandma's been telling us about this mixed martial arts thing you've been doing, is this," he gestures to indicate how much more in shape Tim is now compared to a year ago, "the result of that?"
"Some. Added yoga, too. That's my everyday exercise. Bootcamp's just on Sundays. Diet just gets you thin, working adds muscle."
"Well, whatever you're doing, it looks good," Terri adds.
"How'd you get into this?" Ben asks, sipping his wine. "Great pick, Terri."
She nods, appreciating the approval.
"You remember me telling you about how Jimmy and Breena lost the baby?"
They nod at him.
"Jimmy was talking about being so angry and not having anything to do with it. So we fought. Then this one," he nods to Gibbs, "took a look at us, decided we didn't know what the hell we were doing, and that it was more than time that we learned. Something about making sure we'd both be ready and able to put the fear of Dad into future boyfriends."
Gibbs smiles at that, looking satisfied, and took a sip of his wine. "They had the basics, just getting them polished up."
"Getting them ready to singlehandedly invade France," Abby adds, grating nutmeg onto the carrots she was sautéing.
Gibbs smiles. "Nah. Ziva's doing that."
"Ziva's the pretty little thing with the dark hair?" Ben asks.
Abby smiles at that. Of course, if you'd only seen Ziva at a rehearsal dinner and wedding, you might think that about her. "Yes. Though she used to work for Mossad. They call her the ninja."
"She's the team's hand to hand combat specialist."
"And you're computers?" Ben asks.
"And precision pistol shot." Gibbs adds. "Haven't made a target small enough Tim can't hit it with a hand-gun."
"What are you?" Ben asks Gibbs.
"Interrogator," Tim adds.
The timer dings, and Abby takes a big step to the side, away from the oven, but still able to keep the carrots moving in the pan, as Tim gets the chicken and potatoes out. While he carves the chicken, Gibbs gets up, showing off his ease in their home, and sets the table.
Relaxing dinner at home with the parents. They all work toward that illusion.
Ben does a good job of keeping up pleasant, easy conversation. He's like Tony in that he can keep everyone, even Gibbs, chatting comfortably. They talk about Tim's soon-to-be new job, how the team is faring, a bit about Gibbs' retirement plans, some about the new development he and Terri are working on. Just a round hour of fairly gentle, pleasant interaction.
Tim can feel how easy it would be to slide back into this. This is what visits with his mom were like before.
There's warmth, and laughter, and even with the edge that everyone is working hard to pretend isn't there, this could be something lovely.
He can imagine Penny and Ducky, Sarah and Glenn here as well. Everyone together, first time in a year. All goes well, that'll be tomorrow after the party.
He's almost feeling hopeful when they hear Kelly's tiny cry.
Gibbs stands up; he's done eating. (Downside of the formula they're feeding her, baby poop right now is fiercely awful, and even two or three hand washes after, little whiffs of it seem to linger. Since he's done eating, and Tim and Abby aren't, he's offering to get her.) "I've got her. Back in five or so."
And in about five minutes, Gibbs does head down, Kelly cradled in his arms, leaning against his chest, bright-eyed and looking at everything.
Terri hops up fast to go to her, and stops, a step away, eyes warm and brimming with tenderness for the tiny child in Gibbs' arms. "Hello Kelly, I'm your grandmom," she says while moving to Gibbs' side so Kelly can see her face easily. "May I?" Gibbs looks to Abby and Tim, and they nod so he hands Kelly over.
"Oh, God, Tim, she's perfect," his mom says as she snuggles Kelly against her shoulder.
And those words shot the fragile peace of dinner to bits. They rip through Tim like hot knives, each stab ripping open infected psychic wounds, swollen with anger, putrid with regret. He bites his lip, and both Abby and Gibbs know that's a classic unhappy Tim sign, closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, stands up, and says, "Yeah, she is. Exactly the way she is."
"Yes." She holds Kelly a little further away, cradling her head in her hand, so wrapped up in studying her granddaughter that she's completely missing, for the moment, the heat in Tim's words or look. But eventually, she feels his look, glances up, sees the rage behind his eyes, and blanches.
He shakes his head, takes Kelly in hand, gently, and turns around, heading back up the stairs.
Terri looks stunned. She's been desperately trying to not say or do the wrong thing, and cannot begin to even fathom how she could have gone wrong by saying Kelly was perfect.
But Abby gets it, and after a few seconds Gibbs does, too. Timothy was the child who wasn't perfect to his mom, not the way he was.
Abby looks to both of them. "We'll be... I don't know. I've got to feed her," and heads up after Tim.
Vastly stronger women than Terri Allister have faltered before the death glare of Leroy Jethro Gibbs. And men, much, much harder than Ben Allister have fallen before that look.
So the fact that it took all of three seconds before neither of them could meet his gaze wasn't exactly a surprise.
He does feel a little bad for pulling it on Ben, who, from what he can see, is a genuinely nice guy who got dumped into a massive family mess that from his side of it, ended years before he even got on the scene.
But Tim is his boy, and he's hurting, and if there's one thing Gibbs is good at it's spreading hurt all over the place.
Gibbs doesn't say anything. He's never precisely rude. He just keeps looking until Terri starts to cry. Then he stops.
And then he didn't look at her again.
For a minute after she starts crying, it seems like Ben is going to try something, but he sees the look, sees the force, the anger behind it, and realizes that Gibbs might literally kill him if he tries to defend Terri on this, and he decides not to say anything.
That's probably a wise move.
Ten of the longest minutes of history go by, and Tim still doesn't come back. Gibbs can, just, almost hear him, and part of him is wondering if he's really hearing the tears, or if he's just imagining them. Probably imagining them, all of the times he's seen Tim cry, he didn't make any noise.
But he can feel it, hear it, if hearing it is what's happening, and it goads him into moving. He grabs Terri, who jerks at his touch, trying to get away from the vice-like grasp on her wrist, and pulls her to the back porch, waiting the barest second for the door to shut behind him before he starts in on her.
"You knew. You knew, and you didn't stop it." Those aren't questions. They're statements, statements edged with broken glass and laced with poison. "It was your job to stop it. You had a beautiful, brilliant boy, and instead of treating him like the love of your life, like the light that made you happy to get up in the morning, you broke him."
Terri nods. She knows right now would be a very bad time to disagree with Gibbs.
Gibbs' voice is very low. "He's not yours anymore. He's mine, and he's Penny's, but he is not yours. You and Ben leave here, and you don't come back."
"He invited us."
Gibbs shakes his head. "You leave, and you do not come back."
"No." Gibbs' voice is cold and hard, almost calm sounding, but he's not calm. Or if he's calm, he's the calm of a beach where the water has pulled back, gathering into the wave of the on-coming tsunami. "You leave. You leave right now. He will go to you, on his terms, in his own time, if he wants you. But right now, you leave, and you do not ever set foot in my presence again. You hurt my son. You hurt him worse than you can imagine, and you and John are only breathing by his sufferance, so you leave, you turn around and you walk out of here, now. And you pray he never sheds another tear over you because otherwise you will answer to me."
Less than half a minute later, Terri and Ben are gone.
He heads upstairs, knowing they'll be in their room. The door is closed, and he's not sure if that's to keep the sound down, or to keep everyone out. But before he can knock Abby calls out, "Come on in."
He does, sees them on the bed. She's nursing Kelly with one arm, and has the other around Tim. His head is on her shoulder, and yes, he is crying, silently.
Gibbs' immediate instinct is to join them, but they're in their room, in bed, so he's hesitant of violating the intimacy of that space. Abby sees him pause and nods a bit to Tim's far side, kissing him on the forehead in the process.
And with permission granted, Gibbs heads over, sitting next to Tim, wrapping his arm around him.
He looks up, face red and wet, eyes bright green, looking a little embarrassed that this still hurts so bad, hits him so hard.
He sniffs, his defensive, sad smile in place. "She was supposed to feel that way about me."
Gibbs smiles back at him, also sad. He nods, ruffles Tim's hair and kisses his temple. "Yeah, she was. And she should have fought to the death to protect you, too."
Tim wipes his eyes. "They still down there?"
"Nah. Sent them away."
"Okay." He sniffs again, inhaling hard, his head resting on Abby's shoulder. He pets Kelly's cheek, hand skirting gently over her shoulder and arm.
"Why wasn't I enough for them?"
And that's the question that Abby and Gibbs can't answer.
We love you. You're more than enough for us. We adore and cherish you. All of that's great. All of that matters. That's his soul and bedrock.
But it doesn't help with the pulsing hot, sick ache of not being that for his mom.
And all of the snuggling, cosseting, and petting he's getting right now, all of which he needs, doesn't answer that question, can't answer it.
And the only way to get the answer is to go to the dragon's den and look it in the eye.
But he's not ready for it. Not yet. He needs a few more minutes to put himself together, and time after that to don his armor.
Half an hour later, when his face has calmed down, and his emotions are a bit more in check, he texts to his mom. Where are you?
Does it matter? Comes back a few seconds later.
He's honestly not sure. It'd be easy to just hide away, let them leave, not speak of it again. But he thinks of Jimmy saying this is pain he probably has to go through, and that he can't just leave this festering.
Yeah. Like to talk to you. Probably won't be fun or pleasant. Probably don't want Ben around. I know I don't.
Okay. DC Hilton.
Be there soon.
It's a fairly high end hotel. Not too far away. Not too close. Only takes Tim twenty minutes to get there.
He changed before he headed out. When his mom and Ben got to his house he was in his standard work clothing. Nice jeans, belt, button down, jacket, loafers. His blend in, don't attract attention look.
The kind of look, where, if you're paying close attention, you can catch occasional sight of the wrist cuff, and that's it in the way of hints that there might be something interesting going on below the surface.
It's November, night, and cold, so he doesn't go for his full on Goth-wear. Kilt, t-shirt, Abby's gray sweater, (It's a men's sweater, oversized on her, just right on him.) leather jacket, boots. He did his nails, left off the eye makeup. He's sure he'll be crying again.
He added just a little of Abby's perfume. On her skin it's walking sex, but he's spent many pleasant, drowsy, very happy moments where enough of it has rubbed off on him that he's got very warm, cherished, loved, sated and safe associations with that scent on his skin. On his skin it's adored afterglow, and he needs that right now.
Like the knight going into battle, he carries his lady's favor. Being able to smell her scent won't hurt, and will help keep some good things in his mind. And if it's a bit more sweet and femme than a 'guy' scent, he doesn't care, not like he's wearing gallons of it. Just enough so he can catch the occasional hint, just enough to help anchor him in now, not let him get lost in the past.
Because he knows it'll be too easy to get caught in the past. The child/teen he was is right below the surface right now, and he'll break through very easily.
He knocks, almost wishing he could just run away from this, knowing that never getting done with it will bite him eventually.
She opens it, and looks him up and down, bit of shock coming through the sorrow on her face. "Oh."
He steps in, nods.
"Penny and Sarah mentioned the kilt. It's..." He can see she's horrified by it; he might as well be wearing a pretty floral sundress, her eyes flick to the painted nails, and he feels her discomfort at it. Trying to be kind she limply finishes with, "nice."
"I like it."
"I like the dragon." She does look carefully at the tattoo. "That's the family mark, and each rope goes with a baby? That one's Kelly's, and you're leaving room for others?"
He's surprised she's good with the ink, but it looks genuine. Of course, she saw some of the arm cuff tattoo when they were in Texas (the bit that's an inch or so below where most of his t-shirt sleeves end). She didn't ask to see the whole thing, but it didn't seem to bug her, either. "Yeah."
"It's nice work. Always liked that about living on base. The guys usually had interesting body art."
"Oh." He hadn't known that about her. "Thanks."
They stare at each other.
"So, why all dressed up now?"
He shakes his head. "This isn't dressed up. This is me." He slips the boots and jacket off. She's sitting on the bed, so he sits on the chair by the dresser. "This is me, hanging out, at home, with my family, on the weekend. The other stuff, that's what I wear to blend in, be like everyone else, not attract attention."
"This is me, Mom." He's shaking his head. "And I shouldn't have had to wait thirty-seven years for you to see it. Shouldn't have had to spend thirty-four years only letting little hints of me come out, constantly terrified of getting chewed into dust for being me. This is..." His eyes are tearing up, and his voice is warbling, so he takes a few second to steady it. He doesn't just have to say it; she has to understand it, too. "I should have been enough. You should have looked at me like I was perfect. I am your son, and that should have been enough!" He takes a long, deep, shaking breath, feeling years of... he doesn't even know what all, too many emotions, he can't even begin to name them, let alone sort them out, all come bubbling up.
"It was, Tim!"
"Like fuck it was!" He's not looking at her, making sure he doesn't start sobbing because she needs to hear the words that he's not done saying. "You and Dad spent my whole life with you trying to change me. Nothing about me was ever good enough. Didn't matter if all the answers on the test were right, I still had to do better. Didn't matter how bad life sucked, I still wasn't allowed to cry about it. Didn't matter if I hated whatever it was you and Dad wanted, I had to do it. Nothing about me was ever enough for you.
"And you look at her, and you hold her in your arms, hands trembling, face lit up in a huge smile, love oozing out of every pore... You were supposed to be feel that way about me!" He's inhaling shaky and harsh between words, but still intelligible. "I was supposed to be perfect to you! Just the way I was. I was supposed to be enough…" And that did break him. He is sobbing, audibly. Not loud, especially not by grown-man standards, but it's probably the first time in twenty-five years that he's let go enough to make any noise.
She sits there, tears streaming down her own face, too. She wants to get up, hold him, comfort him, and starts to, but he glares at her, so she sits back down on the edge of the bed, fingers clenched, nails digging small crescent shaped tears into the palms of her hands.
Finally he gets himself together. "Why not me?"
She takes a few seconds to get her own voice under control. "When you were a baby I held you just like that, and cuddled you, and told you you were perfect and sang to you and petted you and snuggled you all the time."
"When I was a baby..." He snorts. "Love doesn't have an expiration date. What, I turned three, wasn't cute enough anymore, and that was that? When did I stop being your perfect little boy? Because if I ever was, it was way before I can remember."
She smiles, very sad. "No one's perfect. Not really. That's not how it works. Babies can be perfect because all they have to do is exist. And even babies aren't really perfect. But… No. Your kids aren't perfect the way they are. I wasn't. You weren't. Kelly won't be. They are going to want things that aren't good for them. And it's your job to stop that. You're the adult, you're the one who knows how to survive in this world, and you will do whatever it takes, even if she hates every single second of it, to make sure she has what she needs to make it through.
"It's not about perfect. And it's not about not being enough or not loving. It's about the fact that one day she won't be a baby. It was about the fact that one day you were going to be out there on your own, and you needed to be able to survive it.
"Kelly won't want her vaccinations, she won't want her medicine when she's sick, she might not want to learn how to swim, or do algebra, or whatever. She'll be rude and wild. But there are skills she is going to have to have if she's going to survive, and even if she hates you for it, you will make sure she has them, because giving her the best shot she can possibly have to survive out there, that's what being a parent is."
If Jimmy or Gibbs had said that to him, he'd agree wholeheartedly. But she's not Jimmy or Gibbs, and he survived her and his father's version of 'I don't care if you hate it, you will master this,' so he can't come up with a detached, 'Yes, that's a pertinent insight into the rearing of children' type response.
"So this was my medicine? It was good for me? God, you sound like those assholes who hook their gay kids up to electrodes and try to shock the gay out of them," comes out instead.
She thinks about it for a second and then shocks the hell out of him by saying, "You know what, yes! If you honestly believe that your child is doing something that will result in a lifetime of pain, let alone eternal torment after that lifetime is over, you do whatever it is you can to change it. If you think literal Hell, flames and eternal torment, is looming for your child, you put a stop to whatever it is they're doing because otherwise you aren't doing your job. I mean... You wouldn't let Kelly walk into a bonfire. No matter how much she protests about how the fire is fine, how you're an old-fashioned moron for believing it'll burn her, how it won't hurt her, how she belongs in the fire, and all her buddies are there. No. And if you can't convince her, you will literally pick her up and take her away from it because you don't want her to get hurt. And you will listen to her scream at you, you will hear her cry about it, and you will do it anyway, because you're her father, and that's what a parent does.
She brings it back to raising him. "And we… we were so afraid that you'd get hurt. You were so timid and eager to please, and we didn't want you to be the kid who just went along with whatever the crowd wanted you to do. Didn't want you running into the bonfire because your buddies thought it'd be cool."
His eyes are hard as he asks, "Really? Is that what Dad was doing?"
She shrugs, looking very sad. "It's what he said he was doing. It was what I was doing. And I did it wrong. I know that now. But the goal, the only goal, was to make sure you were strong enough to handle anything that came your way. That's why Johns Hopkins and writing and MIT and working for NCIS and all of that was fine to me. That was you being strong enough to be you."
Tim snorts at that. "You ever think I was so 'timid' because there was someone yelling at me all the fucking time?"
"I do now."
"I used to peek at my Christmas presents."
She nods. "We knew."
"Why did you think I stopped?"
"Figured you didn't care as much anymore. You were eleven when you stopped. Christmas wasn't such a big deal."
He shakes his head. "It's because I had gotten to the point where I could think ahead well enough to understand what would happen to me if I got caught. You say I was too timid, you wanted me to be able to stand up for myself, then why never reward me when I did? Seventeen years, I don't ever remember being petted for being bold. Sarah was. She got compliments and happy smiles, and all sorts of good piled on her for being sassy. Why constantly keep doubling down on me?"
"You needed to be able to draw from your own strength and handle anything that would come your way. If you do whatever it is for someone else's praise, you'll fall down when you don't get that praise anymore. And there will be times when you don't get it. You had to be able to do what was right for you on your own because it was right, not because someone would praise you for it. And Sarah, even as a baby, she just kept rolling. Didn't matter if you liked what she was doing or not, she just kept it up. But you didn't, you were much more sensitive to the people around them, always checking in to make sure they were happy with what you were doing. You needed more help to rely on your own strength than she did, so you didn't get the same kind of treatment.
"Life'll beat the shit out of you, Tim. You know that. The punches just keep coming, and it doesn't end, and it may be decades before it gets better-" She sounds so sad as she says that, weary.
"That's the point of family, to make sure you've got a refuge…" And it hits Tim like a punch to the gut. "You didn't, did you? Stuck in a marriage you hated, little kids constantly needing attention, moving every eighteen months/two years, no close friends, can't complain to your parents about your husband, they told you not to marry him in the first place, your church is telling you to suck it up and pray…" He looks at his mother, trying to see the woman, not just the mom, sitting in front of him. "You were trying to make me hard enough to live your life."
She half-shrugs. "It's just life, Tim. Up, down, doesn't matter, you've got to handle it. Like I said, I wanted you to be strong enough to handle anything that came your way, and I know, now, that wasn't the way to do it… I'm sorry we were wrong about that. I'm sorry that kindness would have worked better, and we didn't try that. But… But I'm not sorry I did everything I could think of to make sure you had the skills, the brains, the grades, and the balls to do anything you ever wanted to do." She does look sorry, and he can feel deep regret and pain on her.
But he's angry, and he needs real answers, and honestly, he doesn't much care that this is painful to her. She didn't want this kind of pain, she didn't have to do this to him in the first place. "How could you have possibly thought that was the right way to do it?"
"Because doing things your kids hate because they need it is a ton of being a parent. Do you remember swim lessons?"
He shakes his head. Not that he doesn't remember them, because he does have vague memories of cold, fear, wet, and crying, but because he's got no context for them and he's not even entirely sure those memories were swim lessons.
"When you were three, the house we ended up in had a pool next door. No fence. Nothing to block it off or keep you out of it. I couldn't watch you twenty-four/seven. We could tell you not to go over there. We spanked you, one of the maybe three times that happened, when you did. But it wasn't stopping you, you kept wandering on over because you were fascinated by the water, so you had to learn how to swim.
"And you hated every single second of those lessons. You'd cling to my legs, crying, begging not to be put in the pool. You'd cry through the whole lesson, and cling to the edge of the pool or the girl teaching you. It was a disaster, but we kept doing it because there was no way we were going to live right next door to a pool with a child who was too young to stay out of the water and couldn't swim. You hating me for dragging you to those lessons was less important than you possibly drowning."
He thinks back. "And let me guess, by the time I could swim I was so terrified of the water it wasn't an issue anymore?"
She shakes her head. "We moved before you got it down."
He thinks about it, unsure of how long they stayed wherever it was when he was three. "So you're saying you tortured me for, God knows how long, months after I hit the point of being so terrified of water that there was absolutely no shot of me going anywhere near a bathtub, let alone a pool," he does remember fighting over the bath time. A lot. He was probably six or seven before he decided water was okay. "because of some insane notion that my three-year-old self absolutely had to be able to swim."
"Can't quit once you start. Have to see it through." That's his dad, at least, he always thought of that as his dad, talking.
"I was a baby!"
"You were a child, Tim. And you did need to learn how to swim. And you needed to learn to finish what you start."
"I didn't start it. You did."
"Tim…" Her face is heartbreakingly sad, and she's shaking her head gently. "It doesn't matter. It's over."
He feels the tears start again, and he's biting his lip, hard, before he gets out, "It's not over because I am still here, and I am still dealing with this crap, and God…" He rubs his eyes. "It's not over! I don't suppose you ever just got in the pool with me and played, splashed around a bit?"
"Your dad did."
"Until, what, I started crying on him, and he got disgusted and gave up? Handing me over to swim lessons until I grew gills or died? And if I wasn't going to grow gills, he really didn't much care if I died."
"It wasn't like that." Her eyes are soft and voice gentle as she says that.
"Of course it was! I had to be able to swim by four because we were a Navy family and I needed to be a little fish to make Dad happy. He stopped getting in the pool with me because he couldn't bear to be seen with a child who was afraid of water. And you couldn't watch me twenty-four/seven to keep me out of the neighbor's pool? Did this house have no doors or locks? Molly's really clever for almost two, but she's not unlocking doors and toddling her little self out into the backyard on her own."
She shakes her head and says dryly, "Your niece may be clever, but you were smarter. And there is a massive difference between almost two and not quite four. You knew how to get out of the house when you wanted to. I only had to grab you two feet from that pool twice, both of them in the first week after we moved there, before you were going to have swimming lessons. You had to be able to swim and that was that.
"You had to have the skills to do whatever it was you wanted to do and not get burned. You wanted to play in the pool. I wanted you to be able to play in the pool. You couldn't do that if you couldn't swim. So you were going to learn to swim."
"If I wanted to play in the pool so bad, why did I hate every single second of swimming lessons?"
A very brief twitch of a smile lights her face. "You didn't, at first. You were really eager on the ride over. Little swim trunks, flip flops, even had your own tiny goggles. You told everyone you ran into how you were going to learn to swim. You were happy, so happy until you got into the water and it was cold, and then the teacher was trying to show you how to do the breathing bit and you were already unhappy with cold and wet and then you sucked in a big mouthful of water, felt like you were going to drown, panicked, started flailing around, slipped out of her hands into the deeper water, and it took her maybe ten or twenty seconds to grab you, but by then you hated the pool, hated swimming, hated her, and didn't want anything to do with water ever again."
The tiny, rational voice in the back of Tim's mind is saying, very quietly, that making your child learn to swim is not insane. The much louder part, the part that is rapidly remembering more and more details (that may be imaginary) of swimming lessons is more or less screaming in rage at what they did and how. He does get calm enough after a few minutes to say, "And from there you decided, what? I needed another sixteen months of swimming lessons after that, never learning how to swim, terrified every day? Was I still running out to the neighbor's pool then?"
"No. But you still had to learn to swim, because the alternative was if you got in the water, you'd drown, and that wasn't going to happen."
"You're not thinking like a parent. You're thinking like a child."
"I am your child! And I was a child when you were doing that to me. And yeah, the part of me that's a Dad knows Kelly has to learn how to swim. All the kids do. Molly's already learning. But we don't have to terrorize them to do it. Water's too cold, go somewhere else. Hates the instructor, try someone else. Get in the damn pool and play. There are a million things you can do that don't involve constant pain and terror. Almost everyone else on earth manages to teach their kids how to swim without instilling a multi-year long water phobia."
"I told you, we did it wrong," She snaps out. "Okay? I know that now. I didn't then. I was alone. Just me and you and… And there were things you needed to do, needed to be, and I tried my best, but I didn't know."
"How could you not know?" His voice goes soft and hard for that. Anger beating sorrow into the background shutting it off. "Yeah, I didn't come with instructions, fine. But treat like a human being. Treat like you want to be treated, all that golden rule crap and loving each other they spouted at us every Sunday, how hard would that have been? I mean, just basic kindness. That's not the mystery of the ages."
She doesn't answer that, instead she says, "It was done with love. It happened because I love you. You're nine, the docs say that no, you don't just have bronchitis, more antibiotics aren't the answer, that's asthma. All you want to do is hide inside and read, play the Nintendo, and every damn day I was forcing you outside, making you run, making you play little league and kiddie soccer and whatever the hell else it was, and you're whining and moaning about you hate it and the other kids hate you and you suck at it, and you think that was fun? You think I did it because I got my kicks from seeing you trembling and crying and hating every afternoon? Is that why you think I did it?"
"I don't know why you did it! And all Dad had to say was to stop being such a goddamn fucking pussy and get out there and play."
"Of course he said that." Terri looks very tired. Tim's getting the sense that she may be feeling like she got fed a line by her husband and not only did defending it suck, but the 'line' was a cover for him to be cruel. Then he forces himself not to think that. It's just another way for him to give her wiggle room and absolve her of the responsibility of her actions. Tim tunes back in and hears "…the doctors said the more you ran around and played and did hard physical stuff, the stronger your lungs would get, the less you'd need the inhaler. The fewer inhalations the better because you were sucking steroids right into your lungs and they had nasty side effects for long term use."
"And you couldn't tell me that?"
"We told you it was good for you. We told you you needed the exercise. We told you it'd make it easier to breathe. We told you all of that, and you still wanted to sit around and play make-believe games and write and read. You were ten. You didn't care about being able to breathe much, you just wanted to do what you wanted to do, and it wasn't run around.
"Laying around wasn't going to happen. It didn't matter that you loathed it, you needed to be out there, so out you went. And fortunately we moved again and whatever you were allergic to there was less of at the next place, so we didn't have to force it so hard because you could breathe better on your own. But you needed to be out there, running around, and you wouldn't do it on your own, so we kept it up and made sure you were on at least one sport until you got out of high school."
Once again, the rational part of his mind can see that. He was also overweight then (though it occurs to him that if he was sucking steroids straight into his lungs, that may have had something to do with being overweight) and exercise was good for him, and if a Doctor was telling him that getting Kelly out and exercising was necessary for her to be healthy... Yeah, he'd make her do it. But... and once again the angry voice takes over, "And the fact that they were all team sports? Was that for my own good, too? It wasn't enough to make me run around and get exercise? I couldn't have done laps around the backyard, or hell, I could swim then, joined a pool or something like that. I had to have twenty other guys constantly ragging on me all the time because I wasn't very good at any of those sports? I had to have coaches and other little league parents screaming at me when I dropped the ball? What, was that helping me develop character?"
Her posture slumps further. "You needed friends. On your own, you'd spend all your time reading, living in your head with imaginary friends. You needed real, live people in your life."
"Why?" That stupefies him, always has. He has never understood when people say that someone needs to make friends, and then proceeds to dump that person into a crowd of other people who treat him like utter shit. "What good did I get out of being constantly mocked and bullied? Just. No!" The logical part shuts down and all emotion is coming out now. "I don't care what your justifications were. I thought I did. I thought I wanted to understand, but I don't. I don't care. I'm sorry torturing me for my own good was so painful for you." Skin lashing sarcasm on that line. "You know what Jimmy says, when we're off doing something stupid? That pain is your body's way of telling you to stop; that what you're doing is bad for it, and if dragging my ass all over hell and gone and forcing me to do stuff hurt, then you should have stopped."
There's a tiny spark of fire in her eyes as she says, "You don't stop when it's someone you love. You don't stop. You don't give up. You do whatever you need to do to get them where they need to go. You needed to stop second guessing yourself. You needed more confidence. You needed to learn to work, to study. You were so damn smart you were just going to coast along on your memory if we didn't keep raising the bar. You had to get all the answers right because we knew you could get 95% of them right without even trying, but eventually that wouldn't be true, and you had to have the skills to learn things you couldn't pick up from one read or listen. You needed to physically play, or you would have just curled into your brain. You needed to stop being afraid of everything, or you'd let that fear stop you from being who you wanted to be. You needed-"
"To be someone else. I needed to be Dad or Sarah or… Not me."
"No. The fear, the weakness, the shyness, none of that was you. That was standing in the way of being you. You've let it go, even this… mess between us… is part of having let that go. You're fearless now, or as close as any sane man gets. You've got the confidence to be whoever you want to be. This is all I ever wanted for you, and you've got it."
"Of course it was me. All of it's me! I'm not fearless now; I'm just loved. I've got a whole crop of new fears because I've got people I love all around me, and something happening to them scares the shit out of me. I'm not any less shy. I just handle it better because I've got a safe place to be me at the end of the day. I am less nervous, but that's because so much more of my life is under my control. I don't constantly worry about putting a toe out of line because I know it won't get chopped off now.
"But all of it was me. You didn't teach me to stand up for myself. You made me so miserable that I stopped caring about what was going to happen next. I was so unhappy by the time I was applying to John's Hopkins my self-preservation mechanism shut down and all I could care about was being able to finally give Dad back a taste of what he'd been doing to me.
"When I ripped up the Annapolis letter, I was sure he was going to literally kill me. He was going to do it with his own hands or drag me onto his ship and let his sailors fuck me to death the way he kept threatening. And by that point I didn't care anymore. No matter what happened, dead or alive, I'd end up out of his house, out of his reach.
"And for decades I pretended you didn't know. You and I, we were victims together. Hiding out from him. But you knew. You didn't just know what he was doing to me; you helped." He's crying again, quietly, tears streaming down his face. "I don't care what you thought you were doing. That's a lie. I do care. I care, and I hate caring, because there's still that kid in there, scared, crying, silently, not wanting anyone to hear, who loves his mom more than anything and wants her smiles and petting and...
"And he's not dead, not yet. But you are. That image of you is gone. There's just that screaming child who wants his mom to adore him, but you didn't."
"No, Mom. Don't tell me you love me. Not if that's what love is to you. I've got people who love me now. Really love me. Even Tony, who is a grade A asshole sometimes, doesn't pull crap like that on me. When he's ragging on me, he doesn't try to make me think it's for my own good. He doesn't tell me or him lies about how he's trying to make me a better man by ripping me apart.
"Don't tell me it was for my own good. Don't tell me that I needed those skills. You're right; I did, but not like that. Don't tell that screaming child that all those hours of pain, all of that fear, all of the alone and alienation was love. None of that was what he needed."
"I'm sorry. I know we were wrong."
He feels the break inside, somewhat like the break when he started throwing the beakers, but this is more of a hyper-aware sensation as opposed to the numb-dead that went with that. This is perfect, aching clarity.
"It's not enough." And it's not. All the sorry on earth can't, won't make this better. "Don't come to the christening party." He stands up and slips on his boots. "We're not going to see each other again. We're not going to talk. Kelly, Abby, and I aren't going to be part of your life." He shakes his head. "I can't forgive what you did to me. And I can't pretend you didn't do it. And I can't just leave it there and go on. So, we're done." He puts his jacket back on, and without looking back at her, turns and leaves.
"Well?" Abby asks, but it's on Gibbs' face, too. They're both waiting up for him. Though it's actually not really late. Only 8:45, though it feels like day three of a four day long no sleep work-a-thon to Tim.
He sits down heavily between them on the sofa snuggling into Abby, Gibbs' hand on his shoulder. "No one's the villain in his own story."
They both stare at him, questions on their faces, waiting for more explanation.
"It was all for my own good, and yes, it was the wrong way to do it, but it had to happen and… She treats it like making me take my medicine. I didn't like it, but I needed it, so it had to happen. That's how she understands it."
Abby hugs him a little tighter. Gibbs squeezes his shoulder.
"I told her we were done. Walked out, didn't look back. It doesn't matter why she did it, she should have known it was wrong."
Abby says, "Yeah." Gibbs nods.
Tears are forming yet again, and he struggles against them for a moment, wishing this was just done, but struggling doesn't help, and again sobbing rocks through him.
They both hold him, and let him cry for as long as he needs. And neither of them are very surprised when he quiets down less than half an hour later, not because he's done, not really, but because he's fallen asleep.
Only so much you can deal with in one day, and sometimes after that, you just shut down.
Eventually, Kelly starts chirping again, the 'feed me' cry of the four-month-old. Abby looks over to Gibbs, who nods. She slips out of Tim's arms, shifting him gently over to Gibbs, who keeps holding him, very gently stroking his hair.
Tim doesn't sleep through it, waking with a start a few seconds after Abby got up. He starts to pull away, feeling a bit embarrassed, but Gibbs hold on. "I've got you, Tim. She'll be back down in a bit. You rest, okay? It's been a long damn day, and tomorrow's not going to be any shorter."
He nods, letting himself settle further against Gibbs, feeling pulled into deep, numbing sleep.