McGee-centric character study/romance. Want to start at the beginning? Click here.
Chapter 316: Baptism Party
Tim wakes up the next morning, sevenish, Abby spooned on the sofa in front of him. Gibbs nowhere to be seen (probably in the guest room, that more often than not these days, Tim thinks of as being Jethro's room).
He hurts. All over. Last time he hurt this bad he was waking up the morning after he and Jimmy fought it out. Right now, even his hair hurts. It feels vaguely like a hangover. Given how much crying he did, he probably is pretty damn dehydrated.
Abby wakes up, or senses he's awake and rolls over to face him, very gently stroking his forehead and cheek, kissing his lips lightly.
"Hi." She smiles at him.
"Hey." He doesn't smile back.
"How are you doing?"
He shakes his head slightly, resting his lips on her forehead, holding her close, feeling her warm and sleepy in his arms. "I don't know."
"Hurt. I feel hurt. I feel like I should be sporting bruises from head to toe."
She scoots up a little, and kisses him softly again. "Yeah, I remember that from when my parents died. Crashed when I got home from the hospital, and just ached all over when I woke up."
"Next time I decide to engage in some form of emotionally difficult thing because it'll be good for me, smack me in the head and tell me to stop."
She kisses him again.
Kelly wakes up, letting them know it's start the morning time. Tim winces; he didn't get the 1:00 feed. "Did you get her at 1:00?"
"No," she says, getting up to grab Kelly. "Gibbs did. But if he hadn't, I would have. You needed to sleep."
He sits up slowly, expecting his head to feel like it's going to fall off, but this isn't actually a hangover, so that doesn't happen. "Thanks."
"Down in a minute."
There is a story Tim has not told Abby. Not that it's particularly bad or sinister or something, just, it involves teeth. He thinks of it as he steps into the shower, still aching all over, still thinking that maybe putting this off wasn't a great plan, but wishing he had none the less.
Namely, it's the story of how, when he was a junior in college, one of his molars got infected. It's not like he didn't brush or floss, but he was a junior in college, so he wasn't exactly religious about it. Especially not compared to Abby's version of religious about dental care.
However it happened, he did end up with an abscessed molar. (This is why he had no trouble following Jimmy's bad tooth metaphor.) And they did the traditional soak him in antibiotics treatment plan. This did basically nothing. His tooth kept festering, and finally, after the first course didn't seem to touch it, the Dentist said that they'd drain the tooth, and then do another course, and maybe that'd get him healthy enough for a root canal.
Draining the tooth hurt. Even with Novocain. It was a 'Holy shit, what the fuck is that!' sort of hurt. And draining it didn't magically stop his tooth hurting, either. Once the Novocain wore off, he was still in a world of hurt.
But it was different hurt. Clean hurt, if that made any sense. Between getting the pus out and the new course of antibiotics, the sick, throbbing, poisoned feeling was gone.
He hurt, but it was healing hurt.
And he's not exactly feeling hopeful right now, as he's standing in his room toweling off. Not feeling much of anything that's even remotely positive, but he's thinking this might be the first step toward healing hurt, and away from sick, poisoned hurt.
Putting on his suit that morning is another layer of armor. Covering himself in the image of respectability. Happy dad of the new baby.
Once his tie is secure, he picks up his phone and texts Penny and Sarah.
Things didn't go well with Mom. She and Ben won't be at the christening.
He heard back from Penny first. Sorry. We'll talk when you're ready?
Everything else on for today?
Yep. Just pretend my smile's real.
I'll be okay, eventually.
Thanks, Penny. See you in an hour?
We'll be there.
He's pulling his shoes out of the closet when his phone buzzes again. Sarah this time. I know. She called last night, sobbing.
Well, that's two of us.
You really done with her?
I... he shakes his head, staring at the phone. I think so. Too much pain. Too many memories. I can't be with someone who could do that. I sat there and listened to... We'll talk in person, okay? When I don't need to spend a day looking calm and happy.
I know she's not the same person she was back then. And right now, less emotional, less revved up, he does know that. But I don't think it matters. Only so much forgiveness in me, and that's the bridge too far.
Okay. Everything still on for this morning?
Then we've got to go now, if we're going to get to the diner by nine.
Okay. See you in fifty minutes.
He smells coffee as he heads down the steps. Gibbs must have stayed the night. And, once he's down in the kitchen, Gibbs hands him a cup of coffee, not smiling at him, but the look on his face is gentle, comforting.
Tim takes the coffee, sipping it, trying to feel more grounded in right now, and a bit less adrift.
It's really not helping all that much.
A minute later, Abby heads in, Kelly in her arms. "Okay, she's fed. If you guys could get her dressed, I'll get dressed, too, and we'll head off."
Tim nods, taking Kelly, and Abby hands Gibbs the christening dress.
Getting Kelly dressed does a much better job of focusing him in right now. Trying to put twelve pounds of very squirmy, diaper-wearing small person into little, white tights, is taking all of the focus and energy of both of the guys.
"Okay, you just hold her up; I'll get the legs pulled up." Tim says.
Gibbs nods, holding Kelly by the torso, arms and legs flailing around, (She's not really enjoying this adventure in high fashion.) three inches of floppy white nylon dangling off of each foot, whipping around as she kicks, while Tim inches the tights up her legs.
"Remember doing this with my Kelly. Little white dress. Shannon got her dressed. It was my job to carry her in and hold her while the Chaplin did his thing."
"Shannon do most of the dressing?"
"Not at first, she was still healing up from the c-section. But after the first month, yeah, she did most of it. Kelly was six weeks old when we had the christening. Spring time. Back in Lejeune then. Her mom was still staying with us, but the Monday after she went home. Day after the baptism was the first day for just the three of us together. Shannon did a lot of dressing and feeding and diapers. I did the cooking, laundry, and walking Kelly around the house when she wouldn't sleep."
Tim finally got the tights yanked all the way up. He looks at Kelly, still held up by Gibbs, kisses her forehead and says, "Don't worry, I will never, ever do that to you again. Mama wants you in tights; she can do it herself."
"Do what myself? You've only got the tights on?" Abby asks, back in the living room, completely dressed and ready to go.
Both of the guys glare at her, and Abby gets the sense that just possibly this was not the job for her Marine and Dragon (her pet way of thinking about Tim recently). If she can't do it personally, this was a job for someone who's worn tights before, or barring that, someone who's put tights on a baby before, namely Breena.
"Never mind. Sometimes I forget you're guys. Hand her over." Tim does, and in a matter of seconds she's got Kelly in her white, lace dress, very cute little white shoes, and white bonnet. They may not be Catholic anymore, but Abby's got very New Orleans Catholic ideas of what a christening gown looks like, and Kelly's wearing it. Change the outfits on the adults, and they could very easily be going to a christening in 1885.
They're a bit late getting to breakfast. (Getting the tights on ate more time than expected.) So they're the last ones there. But getting into the diner, they find the crew much lighter than normal, but the members who are there have gotten Sarah and Glenn and Kyle all settled in, and are entertaining them.
Hugs, kisses, congratulations, and an extra-long hug from Penny and Sarah. Penny's holding both of her grandkids close and says, quietly, "Dinner tonight, my place?"
And they both nod. It's well past time for the three of them to sit down and talk this through.
"Call out?" Abby asks. She didn't get a call last night, but she also wasn't on last night. But Ziva, Tony, and Ducky are absent. Actually none of their team should have been on last night into today.
Penny nods. "It was two in the morning. Ducky left a note saying he hoped to be there for the party. He'll call in later to let us know what's going on."
That's something of a let-down, but, to some degree Tim's almost hoping Tony and Ziva don't make it. Not because he doesn't want to see them, but because they don't know the full story of what's going on with his Mom, and if they don't make it in time, he won't have to explain.
Elaine sweeps over, "Oh, now look at all of you all pretty! Can't wait to meet the rest of this group. Party starts at one, right?"
Tim nods as she hands him a plate piled high with eggs, turkey sausage, and fresh fruit.
"Wonderful." She tickles under Kelly's chin. "Does my heart good to see a proper christening!"
When Elaine retreats to grab the coffee pot for more refills, he looks at Abby. "Elaine's coming?"
"And her husband. First time this place has closed for lunch in fifteen years."
He's not sure how to even ask what he's thinking politely, but Abby sees it and replies, "First two guests lists I gave Jeannie she looked at and said, 'Oh, Abby, come on, you know more people than this. This is big. This is how we welcome babies into the world and get them started in life. EVERYONE needs to come to this. This isn't some sort of intimate little gathering, this is a PARTY! We're calling in everyone to celebrate your little girl. Give this back to me with a few more names, okay?"
He hadn't known that. "So, um... who is coming to this?"
About a month ago, when Jeannie had asked them, "So, what sort of party are you intending to have for the christening?" both Tim and Abby had sort of looked at each other in confusion. Tim's take on getting his daughter baptized could be summed up as: This bizarre ritual matters to my wife, and as such I shall go along and smile because it makes her happy.
For Abby this is a sign of membership and fellowship in the church and being washed in the eternal love of Jesus, saved for all time by His mercy. And while that's very important to her, she's aware of the fact that her family is, at best, vaguely Christianish-secular or Jewish, so she wasn't expecting this to be any real big deal.
They'd probably, like every Sunday, have breakfast at the diner, and maybe Ducky and Penny and Tony and Ziva would come to church, too. Maybe Sarah and Glenn or Kyle if they were in town and felt like it. And that'd be pretty much that.
So, Jeannie standing there going, "Oh no. No. You've got to have a party! This is how we welcome babies into the family! We'll do it here, everyone already knows how to get here, anyway. You give me a guest list, and I'll take care of it. Not have a party! Hah! Got to have a christening party! Every child in this family gets her very own party." She took Abby by the arm, dragging her into the kitchen, calling out for Breena, and a few hours later, when he found Abby again, they did have what appeared to be a serious christening party in the works.
The next week Jeanie snagged Tim as he and Jimmy and Gibbs were heading out to Bootcamp. "Tim, dear, I don't have any contact information for your parents. I don't want them to feel left out by getting their invites late, so can you just email me their address?"
"Uh…" They haven't talked about his parents, at all. Beyond the fact that if asked, both he and Abby will identify Gibbs as their 'Dad or close enough' and that's all that's said about that. "My dad's out of the picture and… I'll… I'll email you when we get done with Bootcamp."
Ed Slater may have the sensitivity of a brick, but Jeannie Slater runs the front of house for a funeral home, so being keenly attuned to the needs and moods of her clients is second nature to her, and she can sense the distress on Tim, and knows she's put both feet in it. "Oh. I'm so sorry, Tim. I didn't want to dredge up bad memories. Just, if you want them, send me addresses, if not, we don't have to. Whatever you're comfortable with."
"Thanks, Jeannie. I'll send you a note."
And now, three weeks later, they're done with church, where he did a fine job of standing there next to Abby, Breena, and Jimmy while the Pastor droned on and dribbled water on Kelly. And sure, maybe he wasn't smiling as bright as the other four people, but he thinks he did an okay job of faking it.
Easy part done, now on to the hard part.
He'd been dreading the party. At church there's other things to focus on and no one expects you to make casual chit chat.
But the party after... He'll be spending a lot of time holding the guest of honor. And they all know his mom and Ben are supposed to be there, but they aren't.
So, he's driving more and more slowly as they get closer to Ed and Jeannie's. Abby's glancing over at the speedometer, hovering at 25 in a 40 zone, concerned. She squeezes his hand.
"It's going to be okay."
"Yeah. Great. How many times do you think I'll have to explain why I have no parents there?"
"None. You didn't have to say anything to anyone at the church, and you won't at their home, either. I sent Jeannie a text this morning, even Ed's behaving."
"Oh." That was true. Somehow it hadn't filtered through the hurt and faking a smile on top of it.
"You are grieving. It's really, really obvious to anyone who's ever seen it before. Trust me, they all know you're hurting, and none of them are going to step on your toes."
That made a whole lot of sense, too.
Jeannie wasn't kidding about doing Kelly proud. He's never been to a party this big that wasn't a wedding. Slater cousins he's never met before are here. He's thinking it's possible that every Slater east of Ohio decided to show up for this gig.
There's food on every horizontal surface. He approvingly notes that there are several Jimmy-friendly dishes, and (hours later, when they get there) Jeannie does pull Ziva and Tony aside to point out the lasagna and manicotti are Kosher. Tony's face lit up into a vast smile at that. Likewise, he notices Fornell telling Gibbs that this is what a party is supposed to look like before smothering Jeannie in praise for setting a table the way his Nona used to. (Apparently Abby wasn't kidding, everyone they've ever met has been invited to this.)
Flowers, balloons, a general pink baby girl theme blended with a white/silver baptism theme is linking all the rooms together. There's music, and little kids bouncing around, snarfing down the cupcakes and cannoli.
It's loud, hectic, happy, chaotic, and besides lots of congratulations, comments about how beautiful his little girl is, no one says anything to him. No one is asking awkward questions. At one point it did look like Kyle was going to ask where his parents were, but Jeannie neatly brushed him off, redirected his conversation, and took him off to the kitchen to get more to eat.
Besides taking presents, eating, making fairly standard small talk, and saying thank you for those presents, no one expects him to do anything.
He's in a home filled with people who specialize in handling the bereaved with kid gloves, and he's appreciating it greatly.
So, standing there, holding Kelly, amid a veritable sea of Slaters, most of whom are, for all practical purposes, strangers, milling about, eating, drinking, enjoying each other, in her honor, gets Tim contemplating bad families.
For as much care as they're showing him, he also knows that Jimmy had to threaten to beat the shit out of Ed to get even basic respect and courtesy.
That doesn't make any sense to him. But, as Breena's very good friend, none of the adult males feel like they're protecting one of their girls from a guy who won't stand up and do the job. Maybe that's part of it.
He's talked with Breena a little about her family. Enough to know that how her dad treats Jimmy kills her, because she loves both of them dearly. Enough to know that Ed may not be a deep font of tact, but that he did a good enough job of raising his girls that they are voluntarily continuing to work with or for him now that they're adults.
He knows that five-year-old Breena got to work with her Daddy when she indicated she wanted to spend more time with him. And that as a little girl, he took the time to explain to her that they made sure the last days a person's body spent among the living were handled with care and respect. Made sure she wasn't afraid of the people on the tables in the mortuary. Hell, he made sure she understood the things on the table were people and deserved to be treated as such. (Tim spends a moment contemplating what it says about Ed that he shows corpses more respect than Jimmy, before getting back to thinking about Ed as a dad.)
Her youngest sister, Jamie, never liked it. Didn't want anything to do with death or mourning. And somehow, Ed didn't press. He and Jeannie made sure she got a great education, studied what was interested her, and were very, very happy when she came back with a degree in finance and offered to start working with the family's money.
And when push came to shove, even Ed, who is an absolute flaming asshole of the first magnitude, still figured out how to treat his children, all of them, whether they liked what he did or not, with kindness and respect.
That hits him hard enough that he has to excuse himself.
He's been hiding in the bathroom for a good ten minutes when he hears a knock and sees the door open.
"You decent?" It's Jimmy.
"Enough," he says, sitting on the floor, back against the side of the bathtub.
Jimmy sits next to him. "What happened? You looked like you were doing okay, and then ran off."
"Just hit me that Ed's a better parent than either of the people I come from. Even he inherently knew how to treat his kids."
Like everyone else, Jimmy got Abby's text saying that Tim had had a bad fight with his mom last night, so tread with caution, but he doesn't have the details, yet.
"I take it seeing your mom didn't go well."
Tim sniffs, mustering up humor to help protect himself. "Only in the same sense that the maiden voyage of the Titanic didn't go well." He smiles grimly. "First hour went well."
"Yeah. Me, too."
"Did you get a lifeboat?"
"I think I might be the ship. And she's the iceberg. And I voluntarily sailed into her."
"Ugh." Jimmy winces.
"Yeah." Tim spends a few minutes filling Jimmy in on what happened, and wraps up with, "I'm going to tell you the same thing I told Abby, the next time I'm about to do something emotionally traumatic because it's 'for my own good' slap me upside the back of the head and stop me! Dealing with stuff is highly overrated."
Jimmy squeezes his shoulder. "You feeling any less angry at her?"
"Only in the sense that I'm too damn hurt to be angry. I'm not missing her anymore, either. Maybe that's a good thing. Not feeling like I'm going to regret cutting her out."
"I guess that's a step."
"Yeah. But is it a good one?"
"I don't know, Tim."
Jimmy sits with him for a few more minutes, until he stands up and washes off his face. Trying to fight down red and puffy with cold water. It helps, some.
He smiles and nods at him. "You'll do."
Tim, obviously, didn't get a copy of the text Abby sent out as a warning. "What did Abby send out?"
"Big fight with your mom."
"They whispering about it where I can't hear?"
"Yes, but not in a bad way. More in a they-hope-it-gets-better sort of way."
"Want to get their hands on juicy gossip?"
"Of course. Probably had twenty people ask me what was up with you and your mom, but they're not hitting you with it."
He shakes his head, and presses a cool damp towel to his face again. "Right now, that's all that matters."
He takes a deep breath, straightens his tie, and turns to face Jimmy. "Enough."
When he gets out, he sees Tony, who is standing with Draga and Ziva, talking with them, letting Kevin Draga climb him like jungle gym.
He watches Kevin grab Tony's arms, scamper up his legs, then launch himself in a back flip. It's a fairly impressive feat of four-year-old gymnastics.
He takes congrats and hugs from the rest of his team, along with a quick explanation of what they got called out for. They aren't asking him anything, but he can feel Tony and Ziva and Draga all wondering what's up.
"Really bad fight with my mom last night. Don't really want to get into it."
They nod. He snags Kevin off of Tony, holding him upside down, over his shoulder, while tickling him. Once he's shrieking with laughter, Tim asks, "Hey, how about you show me your trick?" Playing with little kids sounds like a good plan right now.
"Okay." He lights up, very happy with all of this attention. "First, put your hands out."
"It's harder than it looks," Tony says, kind of smug.
Tim does, holding his arms out, bent, at waist high. "Like this?"
"Yeah." Kevin grabs on to both of Tim's hands, and begins to climb up his legs. Tony is right, this is harder than it looks. But, it's also fairly similar to sex standing up, holding Abby, without a wall or something to prop her against, and Kevin's a whole lot littler than she is. He's starting to feel a bit smug about this until Kevin gets all the way up his legs.
"Whoa," he says, wincing, almost dropping Kevin because his immediate reaction to what happened was to try and get a hand between Kevin's foot and his balls. See, when he and Abby do this, she knows not to step on his balls. "Foot doesn't go there, Kevin."
"Sorry." He quickly adjusts, feet on Tim's hips, and gets a better hold on Tim's hands.
Tony's nodding at him, looking smug. Apparently harder than it looks means, don't try this without a cup.
Fortunately it doesn't take Kevin more than another second to flip and then land feet first, on the ground.
"Very cool trick."
"Thanks." He's grinning up at Tim. "Again?"
"Sure. Just..." Tim cups the area he doesn't want stepped on. "No feet there, okay? That hurts."
"Okay," Kevin says with a huge, bright smile, grabbing his hands, and starting to climb again.
The party whirls on, and he watches. And yes, it's a party. Yes, people are happy and on their best behavior.
But there are still a lot of kids running around being loud and rambunctious, and... kids. It's true, there are parents yelling here, kids being taken aside, lessons on sharing, not hitting each other, don't climb the credenza, no eating the flowers, the presents are for Kelly, you don't get to open them, stuff like that. But while voices get loud and there are certainly (especially as the party gets later) some very annoyed parental voices, there's no insult in those words. He notices that none of the kids have been called idiots, or screw ups, or anything, really. 'Share that with your cousin' (or variations on that theme) does not involve the child being called a greedy little pig. He hears some very exasperated versions of 'What on earth could possibly make you think that was a good idea?' He doesn't hear, 'Stop that, you moron!'
And sure, not all of the language is PG rated. Some of the laughing coming from the far corner of the dining room has to go with a very dirty joke, but no one is cursing at the kids or the teens.
And yes, not all of the teens look like they want to be here. It's very obvious from the way they've all congregated on the stairs with their phones to text with buddies that a family party for a baby they don't know is not making their day. But none of them look cowed, and he doesn't notice any of them jerking, scared when an adult calls their names.
He checks the house, doing a quick count. There are twenty-seven kids/teens in this house, and none of them look scared. (Okay, one is crying, but he just got bit by his little brother. And little brother is looking awfully pissed.) He can't imagine that with this many kids none of them are naturally shy or timid. At least one has to feel that way, and he can't imagine there isn't at least one introvert in this group. They can't all be fearless little extroverts.
They're just kids, being kids, being comfortable.
Best he can recall, the only time he felt like that was when he was at Pop's house. Without his parents.
It was done with love. It was for your own good. You needed it.
NCIS doesn't work a whole lot of child abuse cases. Just doesn't. (Or maybe it's that his team doesn't. Smacking a small child around is likely to get you killed by Gibbs, and the rest of the team will all, simultaneously, go deaf, blind, dumb, and stupid about it.) So, maybe, at this point, he's been involved in two cases in twelve years.
And in both of them, the parents had the same line, it was for the kids own good.
John always said that. Making a man out of him. Because if there's one thing a seven-year-old needs to be; it's a man.
Tim imagines, if you were to ask him, that John would say he loved his kids. Maybe not now, not Tim, but back when they were kids and he was still living with them. John would have said he loved Tim.
He probably believed it, too.
Him mom believes it. That he could see, especially now, looking back at the memories of last night with a better emotional wall between him and what happened. She loves him. This whole thing hurts her. Bad. By the time he left, her palms were bleeding from digging her fingernails into them.
NCIS does work a decent number of spousal/partner abuse cases. Once again, his team not so much. (Or they tend to get called in when things have gone bad enough to leave a body.) But it's much more common than child abuse cases.
The abuser always has the same line, 'But I love him/her.'
Like most cops, his immediate response to that is bullshit. There are things you don't do to people you love. Hard and fast rule, you don't pull crap like that on people you love.
But maybe that's wrong. Maybe it is love. Twisted, warped, sad love. Destroying love, not uplifting love.
Or maybe it's that love isn't enough. On its own, love breeds obsession and pain. Maybe love has to be married to kindness and respect.
Doesn't much matter if she loves him or not. Not if her love could do that. Not if she could look at the child he was, see only weakness and decide that weakness wasn't worthy of either kindness or respect.
It's hitting him, as he's watching the party roll around him, that that's what 'Johns Hopkins, MIT, NCIS, writing, all of that was fine with me' meant. Until he could 'stand up for himself' he wasn't worth even basic kindness, let alone anything approaching respect.
That was the shift. He finally 'earned' the right to be treated as a real person.
It was like a frat or the military, survive enough hazing and eventually you qualify as a member.
Eventually, the party wound down, and on his way out, he very sincerely thanked Jeannie for doing it for them, and for keeping him in a safe space the whole four hours they were out.
She nods at him, grasping his hands warmly. "It's okay. I love planning happy days. Kind of a nice change from the usual."
He can see that. "I'm glad you enjoy it. Thank you, for... all of it."
She smiles at him, hugs him, says, "If you ever want to talk, I'm a good listener."
"Thanks." He's not thinking of taking her up on that, but it was warmly and sincerely offered, and like the rest of what she's done for him, them, today, he appreciates it.