McGee-centric character study/romance. Want to start at the beginning? Click here.
Chapter 317: Brother and Sister
They're driving home from the Slaters'. Gibbs in the backseat with Kelly. Abby's driving. Tim's more or less jelling in the front seat, not thinking about much of anything.
"Better than you expected?" Abby asks as they get closer to home.
"Yeah. It was. I don't know how the hell Ed managed to catch someone as awesome as Jeannie, but yeah, today went a whole lot better than I thought it was going to."
"Good," Gibbs says.
A few more minutes pass, Abby filling the quiet, chatting about how Jeannie had told her she loves parties, loves getting everyone together, and how every baby deserves a special day where everyone gets together to celebrate her. Apparently, for the girls, sweet sixteens are a huge deal at the Slater house, as well.
He's half-aware of Abby asking Gibbs if he wants to grab a pizza for dinner, and that triggers a memory. "Dinner's at Penny's."
Abby glances over at him. "Oh. Um. I thought you might want to talk to Penny and Sarah on your own. I mean, if you want us to come..."
"Oh. Yeah." He thinks about that for a moment. He'd just assumed they'd be there, along with Ducky, and maybe Glenn.
"Will Ducky and Glenn be there?"
"I think Ducky and Glenn were thinking the three of you might just want to talk with each other," Abby says. "But, it doesn't have to just be you three."
"Glenn's working tonight. How about both of you go, and I'll babysit? Let you talk without interruption." Kelly's snoozing in her seat. "I don't think she'll mind some quiet time with her Pop."
"You sure you aren't babied out?" Tim asks. He knows after all the loud chaos of the party he's looking forward to some quiet, alone time.
"I'm good." Gibbs gently strokes Kelly's cheek, and she turns her face, nuzzling into his hand.
"So, we'll get home, get changed, crash a bit, and head off to Penny and Ducky's."
Tim's an introvert. This is not a shock to anyone who actually knows him. Abby is an extrovert. This is also not a shock to anyone who knows her.
One thing they have worked out over the twelve years they've known each other is that there really are times where Tim does need to be, literally, alone. Usually time doing something quiet with Abby around qualifies as alone time, but the more stressed he is the more he needs actual, literal alone time.
Now is definitely one of those times.
He strips out of his suit, tosses on jeans and a t-shirt, and vanishes into his office for jazz and alone time.
One of the things he loves about this family he's collected over the years is that for the next two hours, while he takes the time to recollect himself and recharge, no one knocks on the door or pokes a head in to check on him or see if he wants some company.
Here, he's allowed to just listen to music and veg.
He's not even gaming, just relaxing on the futon, head back, music flowing through him, resting.
It's possible he fell asleep. He doesn't remember falling asleep or waking, but the two hours went by awfully fast, and though he knows the first few pieces he listened to, and the last one, he doesn't know what the middle ones were.
Whatever happened, two hours later, when Abby did knock, with a, "We've got to get going," he felt like he could handle seeing people again.
When they get to Penny and Ducky's place, Tim does notice Ducky's Morgan parked in the lot next to his grandmother's Prius.
"So, Ducky's here, then?"
"Yeah, while you were napping I texted Penny to see who was going to be here. She wasn't sure if you'd want Ducky, and I told her you thought he was going to be around, so he is."
"Gibbs was right. He's on shift tonight, and it's the shift he already traded for to get off for the christening." Glenn's an arson investigator, and in his off time he volunteers as a firefighter. The shift he's on is at his station, waiting to see if he's got to go out and save people or put out fires. Tim doesn't see any reason to pull Glenn away from saving people just for their family drama. The drama will still be there tomorrow or the next day. The people Glenn might have otherwise saved may not.
Tim does like to see how Ducky's home has been shifting into Ducky and Penny's home.
When just Ducky lived there, it felt very much like a hybrid of library and an antiquities museum. Formal. Tidy. Hints of sternness. Very, very male in a stiff upper lip, leather armchairs, and brandy by the fire at the club sort of way.
Penny's home(s) have always felt more like an art gallery, flexible, wild, eclectic. And, honestly, temporary. With the exception of the fairly vague memories Tim has of the house she shared with his grandfather, Tim has never had any sense that any of the places she lived were "home."
But this is home.
It's grounded in Ducky's formal, old world, European style, but Penny's free spirit's been changing the place, freshening up. New colors on the walls, new art, more electronics to go with the books. The furniture is more comfortable now. (Though there is still a brass riveted leather arm chair near the fireplace. There's also an ergonomically correct, sleek, modern, armchair, with a built in desk for a laptop, on the other side.)
Sarah's already there, sitting curled into the modern armchair, laptop open, typing away. She's still in the same outfit she wore to the baptism, so Tim's thinking she went straight from there to here. She looks up at him, types a few more fast words, and then shuts down the computer.
He can hear some soft cookery sounds coming from the kitchen.
"They cooking?" he asks his sister.
He nods. Both Ducky and Penny can cook. But when they do they prefer to do it in the long, drawn out, huge meal with many components sort of way that takes three days to prepare for. They seem to think that if they are going to make an effort to cook the results should be lavish and grand. Quick meals are almost always take out.
Abby kisses Tim on the cheek while discretely bugging out to help in the kitchen, giving them some time alone with each other.
They stare at each other, neither really sure what to say. Tim sighs and looks around, he's got the idea that brass-riveted leather chairs belong to his dad or grandfather so firmly embedded into his subconscious that the idea that he might just sit down in the chair across from his sister never occurs to him.
Instead he ends up taking off his jacket and sitting on the low step in front of the fireplace. It's a bit warmer than he needs, but not horrendously so, the fire at his back is kind of nice, and it's close enough to his sister for easy conversation.
"So, she called you?" he finally says.
"Yeah. Bit after eight. She was sobbing. Most of what I got was she was trying so hard and somehow everything went wrong and you hate her and more sobbing and then some words I couldn't make out, by that point I told her to just come over, then there was more crying."
"She stay at your place?"
"I drove her back to Ben around midnight. They went home today."
"Great," he says, voice very flat.
"You want the whole lifetime's worth or just last night?"
Penny came in, and sat next to Tim, wrapping an arm around him. "Hi."
He kissed her cheek and rested his head on her shoulder for a minute. "Hey. She call you, too?"
"Not yet. She probably will tomorrow or the next day. You want to talk and eat, or just talk?"
"Might as well eat, too." Tim says, though he's not feeling hungry, but it's about dinner time and making sure his nursing wife gets fed well, regularly is important to him.
"Okay, food's on the table."
Abby's setting the table as Ducky places serving bowls filled with, from the smell of it, take out curries. When naan and rice hits the table, Tim's sure about the curries.
He takes a little bit of everything, and pokes listlessly at it. Abby gently nudges his hand, and it occurs to him that the only things he can remember eating today is a cup of coffee, a few bites of eggs, one cupcake, and more coffee. He scoops up a bite of what he thinks is chicken korma with his naan, and she gently squeezes his knee.
He guesses it's his job to start, so he fills them in on his part of last night.
Then Sarah adds her part, mostly talking about Terri being heartbroken and sobbing and... and she stops talking mid-sentence.
Tim's just been listening, forcing himself to eat, but the pause, the way she seems to be thinking before letting more words comes out is very familiar. It's the sort of self-editing he does when he's talking too fast and only has a few seconds of lee-time before saying the wrong thing. She caught it before she said it, but it was noticeable, to him, at least.
Penny, Ducky, and Abby don't say anything about it. And Sarah's continued on, but he wonders what she left out.
"What'd you leave out?"
She shakes her head. "Not important."
He catches that look, too. He knows Penny does, too. It's the should I lie or just refuse to answer? look.
"I can't imagine it helping, and it'll just piss you off," Sarah says after a second's thought.
He snorts at that. "Hit me with it."
"Why not? If she's going to trap you in the middle of this, I might as well know what she's telling you."
He sees Sarah look at Abby, making sure with her that she should keep talking, which he found perplexing and a bit annoying, but she nods too, so Sarah says, "That she was trying so hard to make you happy again, but you're being just like Dad because nothing she does is good enough."
Several second of blinding... hell... everything, rage, sorrow, snark, everything, jumps up and down and short circuits every single synapse in his head. Eventually he did calm back down enough to notice that Abby's holding his hand, and apparently he's gripping his fork so tightly his knuckles have gone white.
Finally, he does get himself under control and comes back with, "Sucks when the shoe's on the other fucking foot. Nothing I did was good enough, either, so maybe we're equal. Oh, wait, we're not, she's had to deal with it for one damn day!" Sarah winces at that. Seeing that makes him pull back a bit further. "I'm sorry. This isn't fair for you. If you don't want to be in the middle of this... I mean... I can't control her, but..."
"No, you can't." Sarah says, archly. "And if she's going to be calling me and crying on me, I might as well get your side, too."
Penny adds in, "If you don't want her calling about this, I'll see if I can get her to stop it. You shouldn't have to be in the middle. And it's entirely likely that she might listen to a 'you aren't doing Sarah any favors by dropping this on her' from me."
Sarah shakes her head. "Right now this is the biggest thing going on in her life, and it's in the top five in Tim's life. Assuming you're both actually my family, and you both love me, you'd be talking to me about it, right?"
Tim shrugs. "Maybe you don't need to see her the way I do. It's probably better if you don't."
"Maybe," Sarah allows. "But it's part of who she is, right?"
"But it's not part of who she is to you," he says, stabbing a lump of chicken with his fork.
"She's my mom, too. And if there's any shot of fixing this, I've got to know-"
"Sarah, it's not getting fixed," Tim says quietly, looking back up at her. "This is what it is."
There are tears in her eyes, and he can see she's finally letting her own armor, which has always been very thick, crack a bit, letting him see how distressing this whole mess has been to her, as well. "Tim, it's been twenty years-"
That hits his defensive button and he cuts in with, "You saying I don't have a right to be mad?"
"No! Just..." She looks frustrated, trying to find a way to say this that won't set him off. She wipes her eyes and straightens up, something that reminds him of himself a whole lot. "I don't want seventeen years of bad to outweigh twenty years of good. Don't want you burning this bridge and regretting it later." Sarah's looking at him earnestly. He sort of gets the idea of regretting not having people in your life. Like on an intellectual level, and on a practical level, how Jethro feels about the years he missed with Jackson. But right now, he can't feel that about her, and like with the decision to cut his dad out, he's not feeling like he will regret this.
"You really think I'm going to regret cutting ties with someone who thought it was appropriate to torment me my entire childhood?"
"Was that her or Dad?"
Tim shakes his head slightly. That was the lie. The comforting blanket of lies he told himself for all those years. "Doesn't matter. She knew he was doing it, and let him." He bites his lip. The light sting of tooth on flesh helping him stay calm for this. "Twenty years of good was based on a lie: she didn't know. Or that she was as much a victim as I was." He licks his lips, and smiles sadly, shaking his head again. "But she wasn't, and she did know, and worse, she approved. She thought I needed it."
"I'm not saying don't be mad. You deserve mad, and she deserves to take it, but don't rule her out."
"Because she loves you. Because you love her. Because you told her you were going to have a baby and a week later you had little hand-knitted pink and blue booties in your mailbox. Because she stopped. Dad's still treating you like crap, but she's not. Because it has been twenty years."
On a rational level, those may be good points. But he's not a machine, and he can't be rational about this, not yet, at least. "I was thinking about that today and yesterday. About what I had to do to get to the point where she was willing to let us get to good. How far I had to go before she backed off and I earned her respect. Twenty years of good came from hitting the point where I was so scared, so broken that I didn't care if he killed me or not. That's how bad it had to get. That's what 'I had to stand up for myself' meant.
"That was their goal, to so totally destroy my sense of self-preservation that I'd be willing to let him kill me as long as it got me out of this situation. That's what I had to pay to get to good. And that wasn't fair or kind or right!"
"I know," she says, touching his hand.
"No, you don't!" He jerks away. "She didn't do it to you! You were allowed to be a child, to make messes, to get answers wrong. You didn't have to be perfect for her, and still not have it be enough!"
"I mean, I know it wasn't right. She does, too. Everyone but Dad's figured that out. But it's also not now."
"Oh." He squeezes her hand. "I don't think it matters. You remember the summer I was fourteen?"
She thinks for a moment. "Not really. I was five then."
"Dad was home. That was the summer he decided I was going to stop being seasick or die trying, and I really don't think he cared one way or another which way it came out."
Sarah nods, that helps anchor it amid a lot of vague memories. "Tense. Sad. You spending every minute you could in your room." She leaves out sitting on the porch eating watermelon with their father, which, along with the memory of the smell of fresh cut grass and the sound of the lawn mower, is actually her most vivid memory of that summer. Not only would Tim not remember it because he was in his room, but she doesn't think highlighting, even further, the difference between them would be a good thing.
"Yeah. That's the summer. That's the summer he threatened to have me gang raped and mutilated by his crew. Okay, that's him fucking with me, fine, that's on him. She wasn't there. I didn't tell her. She didn't know. That's how I understood that for two decades. And I finally tell her about it, and oh, no she knew. She didn't approve." Acid sarcasm showed vibrant contempt for that. "It was 'too far.' But she knew he'd 'never actually hurt me.' No. That's the breaking point. He told her. She sat there and listened to him say that he threatened to have me sodomized and my dick cut off and she sent me back out with him again. Maybe I could forgive a lot of the rest of it... but... No."
He pokes his curry with his fork. Then looks her right in the eye and says, "If Glen ever does that to one of your kids, the right answer is you grab your kids, you come to my house, and you don't leave until you've got your own place, a divorce, and full custody with no visitation rights. You tell me about it, and I will beat him so hard he never walks again. That's how you handle it. You don't just shrug that off as guys being guys.
"We should have been out of that house by nightfall. All three of us should have been at Gran and Pop's, and we should have never seen him again. But no, next day I was back on the boat with him again, but by then I was too scared to even think about fighting back, so he doubled down, grinding me down further, taking us out into rougher water, spending even longer days out there, making me sicker and sicker.
"I spent twenty years lying to myself about how she didn't know. I lost thirty pounds in two months that summer. I threw up so many times that at my next dental check-up I had three cavities. But in my head, she didn't know. She said she put a stop to it when it was clear that I wouldn't do it myself. Fuck that, I was fourteen. I shouldn't have had to put a stop to it. She put a stop to it when it was clear that if I went back to school looking like I did in the beginning of August they were going to call Child Protective Services. She was covering for him. She was making sure I had enough time to look vaguely healthy again by start of school. She knew it was wrong, and she covered for him."
They're all quiet after that, thinking. Tim's got the feeling that Sarah doesn't fully believe that's what happened. Not that he's lying, but that he doesn't understand what their Mom thought she was doing. Wisely, though, she's not saying anything.
After another minute Sarah asks, "Has she done anything even vaguely like that since you've been out of the house?"
"No." And that's true. And that's what cemented the lie. Once he got out of the house, she's been perfectly supportive.
"She changed when she left. She left him, Pop died, and that was a rough year, but then it was a lot better. That's the part you weren't there for." Sarah looks over to Penny. "She was depressed, right?"
Penny shrugs. "Probably. But I wasn't there for a lot of it. Most of the time I was just talking on the phone with your mom, or reading letters. She sounded a whole lot better after they got divorced. Once she was on her own and working again, she sounded happier than she did at any time after the first year they were married." Both Tim and Sarah are listening with interest. "I know she was sad. I know she was angry. I don't know if she was actually depressed. But it wouldn't be a shock if she was.
"It's not a secret that none of us thought your parents were good marriage material. Her parents flat out told her not to marry him and wouldn't give him their blessing. By the time they'd been married five years both Nelson and I were encouraging your mom to leave. We loved her. We loved your dad. It was a bad match."
"That's not an excuse," Tim says.
"No, it's not. It's background. It's part of her not being the person she was."
"Feels like she's the same person to me."
"I know, honey. I know."
"I can't look at her now and not see her looking at me then, knowing that I've been crying, knowing that he's torturing me, and doing nothing. I don't want anything to do with someone who could do that. Even if it was twenty years ago. And..." He's making excuses for not forgiving her, and he doesn't want to. "Fuck that! I don't need to make excuses for this." Abby squeezes his knee again, and he finds that touch comforting, but it doesn't slow his speech down. "It happened to me! This isn't some stranger who I met as an adult with a bad past. She did it to me. She let him do it to me. And I don't owe her reasonable or logical or kind or adult or..." he's staring at his plate, stabbing his dinner again.
Abby's stroking his back and Penny and Sarah both pull back, looking at each other.
"You're right, Tim, you don't," Penny says gently. "You don't have to forgive or forget or any of it. You can be as angry as you want or need. It's okay. Just, none of us want to see angry bite you in the long run."
He takes a moment to calm himself back down again, putting down his fork, pushing his plate away. "Until I was talking to you two, I wasn't feeling angry. Just hurt. So damn hurt."
"Sorry," Sarah says quickly, knowing she brought up most of angry. "It's just... she's my mom."
He closes his eyes, feeling the tears seeping out. "Yeah, I know. And you feel defensive for her. And it's your family, too, ripped to bits. And, and... I know." He sniffs. "And like with Dad, I don't expect you to cut her out or burn any bridges. I get she... they didn't... not to you..." He swallows hard. "It just really hurts, okay? I thought if I got it, if she told me what and why it'd be better, but it wasn't. I wasn't worth patience, respect, or kindness until I was so fried I didn't care about my life anymore."
"But you are now. She loves you so much, and she's so proud of you." Sarah says.
He blinks, wipes away the tears. "It's not enough."
"She thinks you're punishing her."
He snorts at that. "Karma's punishing her. I'm doing what I need to to not melt down."
"You want me to tell her that?"
"I... I don't know. I don't care. Not really. I want you to do what you need to do to keep whatever sort of relationship you need with her. Like with Dad... I don't want you giving her hope that this is going to somehow get better. I don't want you giving her pictures or news or... whatever. I don't want her thinking there's some magical formula of right things that's somehow going to make it all right."
"What are you going to do?"
Sarah shrugs. "I'm not in a doing position here. I want you two to be better. Okay, so we never had happy Brady Bunch family time, but... I miss us."
"I know." And he does. He misses "us" too. He misses the lies that let "us" work.
"A year ago last week, we were all together, celebrating your wedding, all dressed up, and it was fun and happy and-" she sounds so eager to get that back, and so sad at the loss of it.
"And based on a lie."
"I liked the lie!" she says, sharply.
"You think I didn't?" he snaps. Not mad so much as irritated. And God, yes, he liked the lie. Right now he'd happily go running back to it if he could. "News flash, Sis, this isn't fun. I'm not doing this for kicks."
"I know, but..." He can see the ache in her eyes. The loss of something that she cherished is writ large on her face.
"Yeah." He nods, understanding, and sighs. "I just... I mean, what would forgiving her even look like? Saying that what she did was okay? Saying I'm okay with it? Hey, you and Dad abused the shit out of me as a kid, but it's a lot nicer if we all get along, so I'll just pretend that was okay and quietly have a nervous breakdown anytime you get close to my kid because I'm terrified you'll pull the same crap on her that you did on me?"
"No!" Penny says fast, but after that none of the rest of them have anything to add. People talk about forgiveness but in actual fact it's an awful nebulous concept.
Ducky says, calmly, after another very long, quiet moment, "Forgiveness is not approving of her behavior, nor is it giving it sanction. It's acknowledging it, and knowing that it's over. It's understanding the past, and firmly locating it there. It is recognizing that everyone who was involved in what happened is now gone. Neither you, nor your mother, are the same people. The woman she was and the child you were are gone. They're just memories, and hold only as much power over you as you chose to give them.
"For the sake of your own mental health, that part of your life has to die. It needs to be properly acknowledged, learned from, mourned, and let go. Beyond that, I do not know what forgiveness is for you and your mother. It might be trying to rebuild from the ground up, recognizing that she is someone who looks like someone you have a history with, but is not that person. It may be saying goodbye to that part of your life, and your relationship with her may be a casualty of that farewell.
"Right now, Timothy, I'd say you're still in the acknowledging phase of this. You're not ready to mourn or let go because you still don't have a full understanding of what happened. You say you're not angry, that you're hurt, and that may be true, right now, because you're still feeling your way through this.
"You're still naming, organizing, and understanding. You're building context. That's long work, and rushing it won't result in good things."
That made a whole lot of sense.
"I think it is safe to say, that the one thing we all want, is for you to be happy and whole. I'm sure Sarah would prefer happy and whole involved your family once again together. But if it doesn't, it doesn't."
"And no matter how it works out, this here," Penny gestures to the five of them, "And Kelly, and Gibbs, and Glenn, and any other babies that may join us, are family."