McGee-centric character study/romance. Want to start at the beginning? Click here.
Chapter 381: How Many
A/N: I know some of you aren't old enough to remember the '80s (God, how old do I feel, now?) Anyway, things were a whole lot different in the pre-AIDS era. But, for a quick reference, if anyone in Tony's circle in college might have been talking about AIDS, it would have been that vaguely nebulous 'gay cancer' thing. The idea that straight people could even get HIV didn't start to really percolate through most America until the early '90s.
Going to bed early was a good plan. Tony needed the rest. He's waking up, stretching out, and starting to feel fully human again.
Of course, rested means talking. Lots and lots to talk about. Lots to think about. He rolls onto his side, pulling the blankets over his shoulder, listening to Ziva snore.
'We can find your kids, if you want to know.'
Does he want to know? God… That number could be so damn high.
College alone… He went to school with a lot of those girls, but Ohio State isn't a small school. It had more than 40,000 students when he was there. (Sure not all in one spot, but everyone got together for games…) And some of the girls he saw over and over, had class with, or were cheerleaders. He knew none of them were wandering around visibly pregnant.
But if one had dropped out, no way he would have noticed.
And, of course, the team travelled. New schools for all the away games.
And a lot of them… He knows that after a big win, especially against another Big Ten school, or any of the Final Four Championships, he might have been with three a night, maybe four, and they'd just be whoever was cute and nearby.
Frat parties… God, they threw the best parties ever! And no one ever got turned away. Girls didn't have to pay for drinks, or drugs, or anything else. Just because he wasn't into coke, didn't mean it wasn't all over his frat. 1986-88, everyone with money was on coke and his college was rolling in the stuff.
Coke's got a kind of nasty side-effect, makes you horny, but you can't get it up.
So, loose, drunk, horny, happy girls all over the place, and he's the guy who's actually sporting wood. Not difficult math.
Condoms? Huh? What? He'd graduated by the time the whole safe sex thing really got rolling. They'd started to hear more about it by his senior year, so if a girl had one, he'd always go with it, but he never carried them. Never had to deal with the 'what kind of girl do you think I am?' stuff, never had to break the illusion of 'just got so swept away by you.'
College ball player, young, healthy, invincible. Sure he came up positive for gonorrhea, crabs, and the clap every single time they did a physical, but so did three quarters of the rest of the team. Antibiotics got handed out like breath mints for their team. Ten days on, a full dose of Quell for the crabs, and back you go, good as new, with a quick lecture about condoms, but really, what was the point, damn things were a pain in the ass, and as long as you weren't allergic to antibiotics, why bother?
Herpes was scary, but he always made sure to really look before he touched, and that seemed to keep him safe. At least, he never came up positive for it.
Graduated, police academy, first job in Peoria, he spent a lot of that time studying, learning the ropes, and banging anyone he could get his hands on during the weekends.
He was in the middle of a shift, traffic work, sitting on the side of an empty street, listening to the sports station, holding up the radar gun, waiting for someone to drive by when Magic Johnson's press conference came on. He'd been expecting something about the Dream Team (really was looking forward to seeing that) and got a hell of a shock instead.
And two days after Magic Johnson came out as HIV positive, he got tested, and was clean. He thinks half of his team found their first white hair that day. (Between getting tested and waiting for the results, he certainly did.) Six months later he was still clean. (And in possession of a large quantity of condoms.) Five years later, Rob (the center) was dead from AIDS and Stephen (point guard) was living with HIV.
Five years between then and meeting Wendy. A few girlfriends, but nothing steady. He was young, and hot, and could dance, no problem finding company whenever he wanted it. He… usually… used condoms, but, he didn't always have one, and sometimes he did actually get swept up in it, and besides Wilt Chamberlin had had way more women and he didn't come down with anything, so… (And rumor had it that Steve and Rob had been with each other a few times… At least, they liked to share girls, and come on, straight guys didn't catch AIDS… Well okay, everyone said they could, but... Come on…) Like lots of young guys, the little head was in charge a lot more often than it should have been.
The little head being in charge had a lot to do with never holding a job in one place for more than two years. No big screw ups, never really got in trouble, but he also never really fit, never made any friends, no one really wanted him for a partner. Too cool, too know it all, too much of a jerk or prankster. Whatever it was, he didn't fit in Peoria or Philly.
Then there was Baltimore, and Wendy, and settling down, getting on the straight and narrow, and a ring and the white picket fence, but it turned out Wendy didn't want the ring or the fence. Apparently, Wendy wanted the guy he was before he straightened out. So he went on his honeymoon alone and spent every minute he was awake drunk and balls deep in strange women.
Gibbs had been at the wedding. Was the guy who drove him to the airport, guy who picked him up. He slept on Gibbs' sofa for a few weeks and Gibbs made sure he was sober by clock in time every morning. (Hung over a lot of them, but that was true for Gibbs, too. After all, the Stephanie mess was just wrapping up, then.)
More clubs, more parties, more bars, Spring Break in Panama City… That year after Wendy he fucked every woman in DC, just to prove to himself that he could. Wendy may not have wanted him, but look at all these other women who did.
That lasted a year. Kate came around, and he slowed down, got to his 'grown-up' pace, two or three girls a month, longest dry spell he ever hit was eight weeks, and then he took a long weekend to make up for it. Still he knows he averaged about thirty girls a year, and at twelve years… Lord, him going slow was three hundred women over a bit more than a decade.
By then he was using condoms all the time. Girls expected them, looked at you like an unwashed sock if you didn't have them, and by then… He never wanted to give Kate the satisfaction of having some women he barely knew show up with a kid.
But even with them… Let's put it this way, that episode of Friends where Ross is flipping out about condoms not working all the time, that hit a lot closer to home than Tony would have liked.
God, Abby could dig up a hundred kids… Okay, probably not that many, but… twenty? Ten?
Does he want to know?
Does it matter if he wants to know? They're out there. They have to be out there. They don't let you donate sperm unless you've got lots of healthy wigglers per shot, and, at least as of college, he did. And he can't think of any reason why that wouldn't have continued to be true.
1984, April, he's pretty sure it was April, maybe March, he was home from school on spring break. Got into a Theta Chi party in the city, found a girl who made his night. He doesn't remember what she looked like, not anymore. (Not reliably anymore. She got hotter and hotter each time he told the story. He thinks her hair and eyes were brown. He knows she wasn't a Rockette. She had wanted to be one, he does remember her saying that.) But he does remember how she made him feel: special, sexy, crazy turned on, desired. And he very clearly remembers how she felt on him. That he remembers. Never saw her again. Never got her name… So, winter of '84-'85. His oldest child could be thirty-one. Lord. He wonders if Abby can make the computer find his grandkids, because, given how active he was in college, it's possible there are a bunch of little guys somewhere in Molly's age range who might be his grandkids.
No, they wouldn't be in any of the databases… Well, it'd be unlikely.
Realistically, any of them who are under eighteen wouldn't be in there. But over eighteen would get all of his most active years, except for the Wendy fall out. Those kids would have been born in 2000, 2001 at the latest. So, they'd be fifteen or fourteen, out of the system unless they really screwed up at something.
He feels Ziva roll over next to him, facing him, hair all wild around her, eyes still closed.
"Morning," he says.
She sighs, stretching, cuddling in closer to him. He holds her, letting quiet and sleep and whatever calm she's got hold onto her for as long as it can.
Eventually she shifts some, moving back a bit, laying on her side, still facing him. "Sleep well?"
He nods. All things considered, yes he did. "You?"
"Talking first, or breakfast?"
She leans up on her elbow and checks the clock. His gaze follows her, it's a little bit after nine. For him that's a decent morning of sleeping in, for her, that's a sleep marathon.
She stretches again. "Talking. If we get called out…"
"Okay. Where do you want to start?"
They've done this in counseling often enough that if they don't actually set it down they'll just sort of keep nudging the topic without really getting into it. So this is him, tossing the ball in her court, letting her know he wants to get her topics done, first, then they'll get to his.
With any luck, they'll overlap.
She sighs. It's easier to be on the listening side, sometimes. Right now it'd be easier to be listening to him talking about finding out about his kids. Still, one of them has to start, so…
"You wanted to be part of Jeanne's son's life."
"You jumped right into it, worry, fear, concern. He was your son, and you wanted to be... something… Intimate?" He nods, that'll cover it. "With him."
Ziva brushes the backs of her fingers down his cheek. "But you do not want my child."
His expression is somewhere between sheepish and a wince. "It's not… If it's already said and done… That's what I mean by I can't make myself jump, but I'll be fine when I land. I know when I hold our child, I'll be good, it'll work, but…"
She shakes her head. "I do not want to push you off a cliff. I want you to jump off with me. You used to like sex. We both used to like sex, a lot, and now… Since I have been off the pill, I have seen you go to dental appointments with more enthusiasm. Now, you are 'tired.' And while I do not mind all the oral sex when you aren't 'tired,' I know what you are doing."
He doesn't deny it. It's intentional after all. He knows she can get pregnant. It's been five months since her last pill, and that has made certain bits of his anatomy very skittish about getting too close to certain bits of her. His tongue on the other hand, that works just fine, no matter what, thank you very much.
And it's not like they haven't had any sex. But the frequency of sex that makes babies has dropped from three to five times a week to closer to once a week. And, he's not exactly relaxed on those occasions.
"Tiny person entirely dependent on us. Little bundle of never-ending need. Everything in our life changing. I can deal with it if it happens. I can handle it. But I can't just sign up for that."
"You already did, over and over apparently," her voice is sharp, and he sees her make herself stop that.
He opens his mouth, and closes it, and sighs. "I signed up for a lot of meaningless sex with women I'd never see again. Women who knew me well enough to have my name or my phone number, I was a lot more careful with." He's not proud of it, but it's true.
He sighs at that, too. "The first time was when Cassidy died. We almost died that day, too, remember? I told her I loved her, and… And I didn't go hunting for any condoms. I didn't the first time I told you I loved you, either. You remember that, right?"
She nods. "I remember." Very gentle, very quiet, still in the hospital after they almost froze to death. They whisper/kissed it to each other over and over, rocking slowly. That's a good memory.
"I'm fairly sure that even if you hadn't been on the pill, I still wouldn't have said, 'Stop, go get protection!'"
That's a good point.
"And I'm not sorry about it, but, we just don't have the kind of relationship where I can get so caught up in how good right now feels and forget about the fact that we're going to wake up in the morning together and go to work together and come home again, together. The whole forever thing means I can't pretend there isn't going to be a tomorrow."
They watch each other for a few seconds. "That could have been our son, Ziva, and it could have been real, and…" He rubs his face. "How do you just sign yourself up for that? It's one thing if you have to. You've got the kid, you do the job, okay, but… I'll get there. I'll be a dad, a good one, but…"
She shakes her head. "I want you to want this, with me. This should be… joyful."
"I don't think I'm ever going to get there. Caring about people is terrifying. Even people who love you will hurt you. I mean… It's not easy. I can't just—"
She's looking frustrated as she cuts in with, "You think this is easy for me?"
"You want it, so I'm going to have to say, at least compared to me, that yes, it's easy for you. Maybe not cosmic scale easy, but… You're still breathing. The idea of making a child doesn't stop your heart or break you out in a cold sweat, so yeah, it's easy for you."
Tony sits up, back against their headboard, elbows resting on his knees, hands laced loosely together. "I want you. I want a life with you. I want you happy. I know kids are part of that. But they're not something I'm ever going to want for myself. They're something I'll want for you because I know you want them.
"I don't like kids. I don't like loud, messy, chaotic things, and that's pretty much the definition of kids. I'm getting better with them because we've got a bunch of the little ankle biters all over the place, and really, they're not that bad, but you'll notice I never line up to babysit because I don't enjoy spending time with them. I'm not saying I hate our girls, and I'm not saying that sometimes, when you're holding one of them, I don't get all, 'oh how cute,' but… I'm relieved when they go home.
"But I know you want them, so I want them for you, but… I'm sorry I'm not enthusiastic about it, but it really is like jumping off a cliff into icy water. Yeah, I know I can swim, but… So, whatever you need to do to get me into the water is fine, but… I can't just jump."
She nods, resigned. "I know."
"I'm sure, we have one, I'll be able to leap for the next one, but right now…"
"Okay. I know. I do." She looks disappointed by that, but not hurt. "Go get us some breakfast. I'm going to do some thinking. Then more talking?"
"Sure. I can do that."
His phone is showing he's got two texts. First one's from Draga. No cases yet. Enjoy your day off.
One from McGee. He checks it. Keys are in the glovebox. Already picked up Abby's car.
And yes, when he gets down to his usual spot his car is there, and the damn thing does sparkle. It didn't look that shiny when it was new, and Tony's wondering if McMoneybags actually hired someone to detail it. He uses Ziva's keys to unlock it, and finds his in the glovebox.
It doesn't have that 'clean car scent' detailers usually spray the interior with, but it's really, really clean.
That helps, a little. He's more… hurt? Disappointed? Something. Whatever it is, it's not raging angry. Not at McGee, not right now.
McGee picked Palmer over him. Flat out said it. 'He's never pulled any shit on me, you have, so I picked him.'
And honestly, with all the years of stuff between him and McGee… Given the same choice, he'd pick Palmer, too. They have a less complicated relationship. Or at least, that was true the day before yesterday. Now… Well, now, if he's ever in need of someone to hide a body, he's not going to Palmer.
Then he thinks about Bodnar, and the fact that Palmer and Breena did, literally, take care of a body for them. Tony sighs. If it was a clean kill, they'd do it again. Palmer will back him to the end of the line, as long as he's doing the right thing.
And he'll call him out and hurt him for doing the wrong one.
Tony shakes his head. He doesn't know what to do about Palmer. He's angry, because that whole thing just sucked, but… But if it was the other way around, and Palmer had pissed on anyone else for something like this, he'd get it and back him.
Flip it around… What if Jimmy wanted to do something nasty to McGee… for the book maybe. The whole necrophilia thing, or writing about them without permission… A whole night of pain… overkill, but… he didn't have any problem with the teasing Jimmy did, and he wouldn't have had any problems if Jimmy wanted to take that teasing up about ten or twenty notches.
He puts his key in the ignition.
McGee picked Palmer. Because whatever it is they've got, that's easier. He thinks that's some of it, sure, but, not all of it.
He and McGee don't work together every single day. They don't have to trust each other implicitly in all situations now. His life no longer literally rests in McGee's hands and vice versa.
If they hadn't worked together, they would have never been friends. Never been more than acquaintances, and likely less than that. If McGee had stayed in Norfolk, he would have just been a name and a face Tony kind of, sort of knew.
But that's not how it worked out. And right now, he is literally still breathing because of Tim McGee. And that's true for McGee, too. Every day for almost fourteen years, he put his life in McGee's hands, and McGee put his life in Tony's. And that's how it was.
But not how it is, not anymore.
Six months ago, when they were still working like that, Tony's fairly sure that McGee would have… maybe not picked him, but done a better job of coming up with some sort of common ground. He would have thought of a compromise, because his literal life depended on both of them trusting each other utterly with no hesitation.
And now they don't. Now their lives, their survival, isn't chained to their ability to work with each other. And, without something else, a deep interest in the same sorts of things… They're drifting apart.
It's not like they're ever going to be strangers or something. Not like they'll just be acquaintances. They're bound by this family they've got now. But their lives, literally, don't revolve around each other anymore.
They aren't partners, not anymore. They are friends now, but… it's not the same.
And Tony's fairly sure it never will be. It can't be. Because the stakes will never be the same again.
Things change, and they have this, family, now, that's gluing them together, but… It's not the same as knowing that's the guy who will take the bullet for you.
Tony pulls to a stop at the stop sign, idling for longer than strictly necessary.
Things change. Of course they do, and they're going to keep changing.
But Ziva's still there, and she's the one who will still take the bullet for him. She's the partner who's got his back no matter what…
Implicit trust. No questions, no hesitation. You lead and I will follow. I lead and you follow. No matter what I have your back and you have mine.
He touches his wedding ring. I will live. That's the promise he asked for. Those are the words that underline their marriage.
They've talked about that, too. In counseling, and out. How due to too many losses, too many broken loves, they are both terrified of going on by themselves. How that's not healthy. How, in the long run it's probably a good thing that Ziva's going to be getting out of police work, safer for both of them. They've talked that all through.
But that promise. I will live. That's his bedrock. That's what he needs from her. That if something happens to him, she'll keep going without him. That she'll put her fears aside and keep going, alone.
He blinks. He couldn't give that promise back to her, then. And he can't, now. If the words ever left his lips, they'd be a lie.
He can't give her that, but he can give her a child. He can stop being a jerk about it. He can, just like he's asked her to, stuff his fear down and keep going, doing what he needs to to treat her like she's more important to him than air.
He can do that.
And one other thing hits him as that does. If they have a child, and if something happens to her, he can't follow her. He can't let himself self-destruct if she's no longer in his life. He has to make the promise that scares him more than anything else.
Can't live without you. He said that to her, in Somalia. He didn't want to say it, but the wall between his brain and mouth was gone and it just fell out.
And suddenly why he's been dragging his heels, and as she put it, going to the dentist with more enthusiasm than he's been going to bed with her, slams into place and makes a whole lot more sense. Why he can jump full into the idea of another woman's child with both feet and no hesitation, makes perfect sense, too.
If they make a baby, then he has to make that promise, because no matter what, one of them has to come home.
And he's terrified it'll be him.
The car behind him honks, and Tony's got no idea how long he's been lingering at the stop sign. He pulls through the intersection, and then pulls over, stopping the car.
He takes his wedding ring off, and trails his finger over the inscription.
I will live.
His partner. The one he trust implicitly, in all things. The one who will take the bullet for him (though he'd very much prefer she didn't) or put one in someone else.
The one who always has his back.
He slips his ring back on, not feeling any less scared, but he knows what he has to do.
Fake it 'till you feel it… That's the phrase, right?
So, whatever you need to do to get me into the water is fine…
Ziva's in the shower, washing her hair, thinking about that.
She's not sure if that's as close as he can get to outright saying, 'Just lie to me, take it out of my hands, and when we land, I'll be good,' or what he means by that.
The problem is, if he is asking, 'lie to me' then her asking for clarification will screw up the lie. If she asks, 'Tony, are you saying you want me to pretend to go back on birth control?' and then he says, 'Yes,' and two minutes later she says, 'I'm on the pill again,' it's not believable.
If he's going to buy it, it has to look real, otherwise it won't work. He won't relax about it.
And if he's not saying 'lie to me…'
She's talked with Abby and Breena about this, and they've both said that since Tony's already mentioned that he needs some help with this, that he may be asking for her to just lie to him, but… None of them like that option. They all know someone who's done it, but… It feel dirty, and, just… wrong.
She doesn't exactly want to talk to her friends right this second. She's not feeling mad at them. Not right now, much bigger stuff on the horizon, maybe when this all fades that will change, but… Tim and Jimmy don't know about Philippe. Breena and Abby do. That story was told in confidence, and neither of the girls broke that confidence. That helps with mad. The fact that, like Breena, she'll back her husband, even if he's being stupid, helps with mad. The fact that Abby pulled some pretty serious crap on Helen helps with mad, too.
She is mad at Jimmy right now.
But that can wait. Feeling mad at Jimmy right now seems like a way to not deal with what's going on right here, right now. So, that can definitely wait.
She feels the temperature in the air shift, and a second later Tony says, "Hey. I'm back. Got hot coffee, croissants, and strawberries."
"I'll be out in a minute."
He's laying food out on the table when she comes out, dressed in pajama pants and a t-shirt.
"I'm going back on the pill." She's not sure if she's lying or not as she says that. She still has two disks full of them, the option to do it for real is there.
He looks a little surprised at that.
"Not forever. Not more than six months. But… I am tired of sex being a chore. And we have more than enough big issues to deal with right this second." So much for what he was planning on saying to her. Before he gets a chance to do much besides stand there and look startled, she says to him, "Your turn."
His turn… Time for him to talk and her to listen. "Okay." His stuff. They can start there, and get back to hers. They've got all day. "I don't know what to do about Abby's offer. It's easier not to know. It's safer, for me, and us, and this tidy little life we've got going here. It's less complicated. But I have this suspicion that not finding out isn't right. That… if you can know, you should know."
She nods at that.
"What do you think? Do you want to know? If we find out, this can hit on a lot of levels, not just emotional, but… God, I feel like a dick for saying this, but, this could be a hard financial hit, too. I mean, if I know those kids are out there… Especially if they're kids, under eighteen and all, I kind of have to do something about it, and…"
And she knows. Money is going to be tight if she wants to do the stay-at-home-mom thing. Adding a pile of child support to the list of bills would only make that worse, and, possibly, take it completely off the table.
Time with these kids… That'd be taking him away from her and their family. It would be… destabilizing. Thinking about that doesn't make her feel good. But, it's real.
"I don't want to know." She's fairly sure that's not the 'right' or 'good' answer. But she doesn't want to know. She looks up at the ceiling for a moment. "But there is likely a child somewhere who wonders about her father. And I do not want to be the wall between you and that child."
"Do you think there's… I don't know, some sort of in between? Some way to set it so that if that girl's out there, looking, she can find me, but… But I don't have to go barging into her home? I mean… I'm sure there are kids who wonder, and there's likely some who don't… I mean… I know at least three of the ladies I hooked up with were doing a last night before the wedding fling, and… if that resulted in kids, they probably aren't wondering who their dad is… They may not have the right answer, but they probably aren't wondering. If I'm just sitting there with a list of people Abby dug up, I won't know who is who."
Ziva shrugs. "I would think so. You cannot be the only man in this situation."
"I think that's what I'd like to do."
Ziva nods at that. Maybe not a perfect answer, but, she can live with it.
Tony spreads some butter on his croissant. That was actually a lot easier than he was expecting it to be. Of course, if he gets on or whatever, and someone does find him, this might get a whole lot less easy.
But that's tomorrow, not today. Other things for today. He puts the croissant down. "Don't go back on the pill."
Her eyebrows rise.
"I'm scared. I'm not going to stop being scared, but…" He touches his ring again. "I asked you for something that scared the hell out of you, and you've handled it with grace. And you deserve that back. So… Don't go back on them." He stands up, heads to their bathroom, and finds both disks. A minute later, he's out in their kitchen, tossing them in the trash.
"You and me, to the end of the line, and… And I've got you. You've got me. That's how this works."
Ziva's smiling at him, very touched, very wowed, and very much hoping that he can stay in this headspace, because she likes it.
He looks at the plate in front of her, about half a croissant and two strawberries has been eaten. He takes the basket of berries, and her hand, tugging her out of her chair.
"Come to bed with me," he says with a smile. (And yes, that might not be the most genuine smile he's ever had, but part of this whole loving people thing is putting them and their needs first. He can do that.)
And Ziva smiles back. She can see that this isn't entirely real, but she really appreciates the effort.