“Suddenly you're afraid and you don't know what you're afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?”
January 11, 2008. Washington DC
Gibbs leaned against a wall inside the stalled elevator, and waited. Damon looked nervous. A part of Gibbs wanted to forget that the second B stood for bastard and help the poor kid out. But that wasn’t how he was brought up, nor was it how he trained the boys in his unit. They needed to make their own way, face their fears, and find their own words to say whatever it is that needed to be said.
“The judge, he… looked me in the eye and thanked me for an impeccable service to my country. He even called me a hero. Then he looked down at his papers, issued a dishonorable discharge, and didn’t look back at me again.”
Gibbs didn’t respond but his cell phone buzzed. He looked at who was calling, saw that it was Abby’s lab, and flipped it shut, hoping she could wait. Damon gave no indication he minded the interruption and Gibbs didn’t apologize either, naturally.
“I was hoping you’d be at the trial, Sir.”
“Was planning to. Got called away.”
Damon nodded. Gibbs was glad he didn’t demand any further explanation. DiNozzo would have practically thrown a tantrum and talked his ears off to get more words out of Gibbs’ mouth. Or a head-slap, or two.
“That’s not what I came here to ask you, though. I understand you have responsibilities and I don’t want to take up too much of your time so, I’ll just get right to it.”
Damon shifted his weight from one foot to the next. “I just wanted to know, Gunny, would… would you have done what I did? If it were the only possible way you could be a marine, would you do it?”
“Why does it matter?”
Damon shrugged. “I don’t know. Personally I have no regrets, Sir. My friends would be dead if I weren’t such a freakazoid, so in a way…”
“You didn’t take the steroids for your friends, Werth,” Gibbs interrupted him. Damon looked a little more contrite and tried again.
“You’re right, Sir. I did it for me. It was all I could think of all through high school, all I ever wanted to do with my life. Maybe part of it was me wanting desperately to make my father proud, find some common ground with him. He was a Royal Navy officer in the UK.”
Gibbs didn’t bother to tell him he already knew everything there was to know about Damon Werth through his file. Only kid, American mother, Scottish father, brought up in a giant Neocolonial home in Ann Arbor, Michigan…
“But he never thought much of me growing up, you know? He wasn’t around all that much for one, and when he was… I guess he never saw anything worth sticking around for in a puny little kid who didn’t even make it to his high school football team.”
Gibbs studied the young man’s face. “You think my approval will make up for your father’s disappointment?”
He detected a slight shudder go through Damon’s form and almost didn’t expect an answer. But he was surprised. “I think I moved past my need for a father’s approval sometime during my first tour of Afghanistan, Sir. What I want… what I need now is…”
“Someone to tell you that it’s okay to not feel regret for your actions?”
Damon looked down at his shoelaces. “Not just anyone.”
Gibbs was no hypocrite. He hadn’t exactly lived his life by the rules either. And if anyone knew anything about extenuating circumstances that drove a man to what the law would call heinous or illegal acts of desperation, it was Gibbs. He knew what it felt like to not give a damn about anything else except that which mattered the most. To not care if he had to spend the rest of his life behind bars or get put down by lethal injection. And somehow, this young man had sensed it in him – a kindred spirit, in ways more than one.
Gibbs’ phone buzzed again. Abby’s lab again.
“What is it, Abs?”
“Gibbs! I heard Damon Werth’s in the building. Is he still with you?”
“I thought I’d let you know, the cocktail of drugs in Werth’s bloodstream – you know the anabolic steroids and the multiple masking agents? The hospital flushed his system but the after-effects will take time to subside.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means Damon might have convinced the hospital to let him out early, but he’s probably still in treatment to keep his withdrawal symptoms under control. He’d been taking them for so long a sudden discontinuation could be fatal, more for others than him if he has another psychotic breakdown! That’s why his doctor must have prescribed him a low dose of Oxymethalone or Nandrolone or something for at least a month to slowly wean him off. All I’m saying is, maybe you should advise him to not go off by himself, or God forbid, discontinue his treatment with Doctor De La Casa. Something tells me he will listen to you, Gibbs.”
“Is he –?”
“Dangerous? God, no! Trust me if he was, I wouldn’t be calling. But he should complete the treatment or the withdrawal symptoms might prompt him to fall off the wagon.”
Gibbs hung up and glared at Damon who was now leaning against the wall, suddenly looking very tired. “Why didn’t you stop taking them once you got in?”
“I didn’t know how. Every time I tried quitting, I’d get the shakes, anxiety, paranoia, irritability – I just couldn’t function! There was no one I could turn to for advice. My dealers would never tell me how to stop, and money was no object because I never actually spent it on anything except the bare essentials. Besides, I was afraid if I did stop somehow, the blood anomaly would start showing up again in my physicals so…”
Damon swallowed nervously as he trailed off, but Gibbs decided he was telling the truth.
“You going somewhere?” He gestured with a drop of his gaze towards the rucksack.
Damon looked down at it as well. “Yeah but, I don’t know where yet.”
“What about your family?”
“Edinburgh’s great this time of the year, or so they told me.”
Gibbs nodded. “You can stay at my place until you figure things out.”
“That’s a generous offer, Sir, but you don’t have to…”
“Life outside the Corps is hard the first few weeks, son. Harder when you realize not many folks out here are willing to hire the dishonorably discharged. If you hang around, maybe I can help you find something you actually like.”
Damon looked into the older man’s eyes, searching for something. Whatever he found seemed to satisfy him and he nodded. “If it’s not too much trouble…”
“It’s not.” Gibbs let the elevator doors open. “I was about to head out myself. Let me grab my gear. And Werth?”
Damon looked up at him in question.
“For the record, I don’t condone any kind of drug abuse. Ever.”
“Don’t call me Sir.”
Tony sat in his car tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. The last time he was inside Gibbs’ place was five weeks ago when he dropped in to check on his boss. After his near-drowning the man had mellowed a bit, like the experience had brought him an element of peace. But that didn’t last long. At least he’d smiled and offered Tony dinner. That was good. Before that night they hadn’t broken bread together since… well, in a very, very long time.
So here he was again, at ten minutes to ten PM. The porch light was on, as was the living room light inside. He pushed through the always unlocked door and headed straight down to the basement, knowing that’s where Gibbs spent most of his time after hours. He donned his usual mask of obnoxious nonchalance somewhere between the first and second stair, listening to the sound of uniform sanding coming from below.
“Someone left work early today. Could it be the famous Gibbs work ethic is starting to finally chill the hell out?”
He grinned as he caught his boss sitting on his usual chair next to a half-done wooden frame for a boat, probably the port-side. Gibbs looked up at him briefly before going back to his blueprints.
“Boat-building emergency, bo–?” Tony stopped mid-word when another head popped up from behind the wooden frame. The sanding noises stopped, that’s when he realized Gibbs was not the one sanding. Duh.
“Oh hey, Tony!” Gigantor flashed him a huge smile. What the fuck was he so happy about?
Tony bit back a petulant scowl and looked at Gibbs, who couldn’t care less and was still studying his papers, a jar of bourbon in one hand. “Sorry Boss, I didn’t know you had company.”
“Company? Him?” Gibbs looked up at Werth and smiled, actually smiled, before going back to his notes. Damon smiled back too. The camaraderie between the two of them was easy and obvious. They were both dressed in sweats, Gibbs in his NIS set and Damon in a green muscle tee with beige pants, while Tony was still in his Gucci blue shirt and gray slacks, jacket slung on one arm.
“Gunny’s teaching me how to build a boat. Figured, might come in handy to have some vocational skills other than kicking ass.” Werth grinned cheekily at Tony at the last two words and it instantly had the intended effect.
“Thought you were headed out of DC.” Tony ground out, barely masking his annoyance.
“Guess I found something to stay for, kinda.” The tall man bit his lip and his eyes roved all over Tony’s face as he responded. It was a strange look, like he was sizing the agent up like… competition or something.
It made Tony uncomfortable, so he chose to ignore him and spoke to Gibbs directly. “Madame Director was asking for you after you left. Mentioned something…” Werth went back to his sanding, causing the noise levels in the basement to escalate, so Tony raised his voice, “Something about Agent Dunham’s recon data from Libya she could use your eyes on?”
“I’m sure she can handle it,” Gibbs panned offhandedly, tilting sideways to look at what Werth was up to.
“Well, Jenny seemed…” Tony stopped as he spotted his boss’ jaw hardening. Clearly his using the Director’s first name was a reminder of how close he’d gotten to her this past year, and how far from Gibbs as an unfortunate consequence.
“S-She seemed miffed because apparently you accepted the planner for a meeting in MTAC?”
Gibbs scoffed, “You ever seen me using that planner whatsitsname thingie, DiNozzo?”
Tony made a wry face. “Microsoft Outlook, and good point, Boss.”
Werth let out a short laugh, and Gibbs seemed to enjoy the hilarity of the moment too even if Tony didn’t see what was so funny about his boss being a technologically challenged dinosaur. He watched as Werth held up his own nail jar for Gibbs who filled it half-way with bourbon and put the bottle down on the floor next to himself. He didn’t offer any to Tony.
“No, no, lift it up once you reach the end. Don’t sand upwards, one direction only.” Gibbs instructed Werth.
Tony swallowed the strange lump forming in his throat. “Common mistake, right Boss? I used to do that all the time.”
“Which is why you don’t get to ruin any of my boats anymore.”
Damon grinned at him again. And Tony chose to ignore him again, resorting to vocal self-derision like he always did when his stomach churned like this. “Sorry, Boss. You know I’m not very good with my hands.”
“No worries, Tony,” Damon looked right at him when he drawled, “I am very good with my hands.”
Sonofabitch. Tony crossed his arms tightly against his chest. “Good for you. The blue collar job market can’t wait to welcome you with open arms, I’m sure.”
It was a malicious jibe. Tony knew how hard it was going to be for Damon to be hired by any respectable establishments in the country.
“You got a problem with blue collar workers, Tony?” Damon stood up, facing Tony with an undecipherable glint in his eyes.
“Au contraire! For one, they don’t care if you got kicked out of the armed forces for being a traitor or for just being an idiot.”
“Alright,” Gibbs hissed and stood up as well. Tony wondered how his boss could put up with this guy, he was such arrogant obnoxious jackass…
“DiNozzo, you should probably go get some rest.”
“What?” Gibbs was kicking him out?
“Don’t you have a physical at o-six hundred? You can’t show up tired and hung over if you want that field clearance.”
Tony’s mouth dropped open but before he could utter a word, Werth jumped in to pour more salt into his wounds. “And that’s my fault, isn’t it? Once again, I’m really sorry, Tony.”
“That’s my boss just being polite and telling us to leave him alone. That means you too.”
“He’s staying here,” Gibbs threw out and took one last swig from his jar, completely missing the momentarily stunned look on his agent’s face.
Gibbs offered Werth a place to stay in DC? In his house?
“It’s only for awhile,” Werth rushed to explain. Why he bothered at all, Tony didn’t know or care.
“For as long as you need.” Gibbs said as he picked up the bottle of booze and turned to put it away. At least Tony had the sense to school his expression back in place before Gibbs turned back towards him.
Something… broke, inside. Tony couldn’t think of an appropriate last word that was customary for him to have. He nodded stiffly and turned to make a swift exit. Someone behind him shuffled as if intending to follow, but no one did.
Tony wasn’t sure how he managed to drive all the way to his apartment without hitting something. Or maybe he did but was too out of it to notice.
He jumped into the shower and stayed there for the longest time, talking to himself. It was nothing. It didn’t matter. So not cool to be jealous. DiNozzos didn’t do jealous. Why the fuck should he be jealous?
Forty minutes later, he dried himself carelessly and got into bed naked. He curled up on one side under the covers, shivering a little because he’d used up all the hot water and ended up standing under ice cold water to wash the conditioner out. He tossed and turned, struggling to go to sleep. He couldn’t believe Gibbs had kicked him out, actually kicked him out.
Didn’t matter none that Gibbs was right, he did have an appointment and he did need that medical clearance. It would have been completely unnecessary last year. But Jenny, in her need to overcompensate or whatever, had taken it upon herself to show how much she cared for team Gibbs, and was going the extra mile to make everyone’s lives fucking miserable. Where was all this concern last year when she was putting Tony on dangerous undercover assignments every week?
None of that mattered though. All he could think of right then was that Gibbs wanted Tony gone, and Damon to stay. He curled up tighter and kept talking to himself, nonsensically, to appease the painfully twisted knots in his gut.
“So what if he’s perfect in every fucking way, so what if he’s the son Gibbs always wanted. He’ll be gone soon. He’ll move on. So what if he’s using my room, my bed, my cupboard… which technically aren’t my room, my bed, my cupboard to begin with. And so what if maybe they once were? So what if they’re not anymore? So what, so what, SO WHAT!?”
They were probably better off with each other anyway. “Stupid fucking jarheads with their stupid language nobody else understands and their stupid rules and stupid oo-rahs…”
Damon was probably a better houseguest than Tony – neater. And he’d be much better at building that stupid boat too. He wouldn’t mess up that stupid wood grain with his perfect sanding skills and wouldn’t hammer in the nails crooked with his perfect hand-eye coordination and damn it who sands by hand anymore anyway?
Completely against his will, his mind kept wandering back to the basement. What Damon must be doing to make Gibbs smile again, the way he hadn’t smiled at Tony in decades. One thing was for sure, they weren’t discussing any movies. Nobody in that basement was enriching anyone’s world view with the intricate realities of life reflected through the amazing art of cinema, no Sir. Nor were they busy drowning the silence with mindless yapping and endless repertoires of pop culture references.
Tony sighed, and turned to lie on his back. Werth and Gibbs – they had enough in common for silence to be a problem. Eventually, his tired eyes drifted shut, but his psyche continued to wonder what the two Marines were talking about.
Damon couldn’t stop talking about Tony, and he was acutely conscious of it. He just prayed Gibbs didn’t notice or mind, too much.
“DiNozzo doesn’t like me very much, does he?” He’d wondered out loud, not long after the sound of said agent’s footsteps dissipated.
Gibbs just waved it off. “He’s a good man. Don’t worry about it.”
Damon bit his lip. How could he explain to his benefactor why Tony’s disapproval bothered him so much without giving away his developing crush? All he knew was he wanted to get to know the ‘good man’ better. Things felt… easier, lighter, more manageable somewhat when he was around Tony and he wasn’t even sure why. After all he’d barely spoken to the guy the four times he’d met him.
“Time out, we’ll get to the rest of it tomorrow.” Without waiting for an answer Gunny started putting the tools away. Damon had no choice but to follow suit.
“What time do you normally start your day, Gunny?”
“O-five hundred. Get to work at six.”
Damon whistled. “Bet Tony’s not looking forward to waking up at o-dark-thirty tomorrow.”
“He starts early too, seven hundred, hour before everyone else comes in. Booked him for that time to get it out of the way first thing or he’ll keep fretting about it.”
“Why’s that?” That seemed more like Damon’s thing back in the Corps. He’d lived in constant fear of getting caught every physical.
Gibbs started striding up the stairs and Damon trailed behind him. He waited for an answer but soon realized none was forthcoming.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry –”
“Don’t apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.”
Damon laughed. “John Wayne! ‘She wore a yellow ribbon’, right?”
Gibbs halted and glared back at him. “Rule number six. My rule.”
He nodded quickly. “Gotcha. I just love the Duke, you know. Couldn’t help myself.”
Gibbs huffed and started back up the stairs. “Guess one day without a damn movie reference is too much to ask.”
Damon didn’t get it but sensed that Gibbs was more amused than annoyed. They turned left past the kitchen and through the living area towards the guestroom Gibbs had instructed Damon to dump his trash in.
“The blankets are in here,” Gibbs walked to a small wardrobe in a corner and opened it, only to find it empty. He sighed and turned to go further upstairs. “Tony, he gets colder than usual ever since the damn plague…”
Damon followed him out, startled by the words. “Wait, did you say plague?”
At first Gibbs seemed sorry he’d mentioned it, but then launched into a quick and dirty rundown. “Psychotic ex-activist slash CEO of a pharmaceutical company suffering from brain tumor sent a suicide strain of pneumonic plague to NCIS by slow mail. Tony opened it.”
That was all he revealed, voice dropping several notches at the end letting Damon know how bad it must’ve been, and that he must not push.
They climbed up the stairs to the second floor where Damon spotted two doors on opposite ends of the landing. One was open and obviously looked like the master bedroom. He followed Gibbs to the other one, waited as Gibbs opened the door and switched a light on.
This room looked a little more lived-in than the guestroom downstairs, hell it had more life and character than the rest of the house, basement being the sole exception. Not that the rest of the house didn’t have character – the word ‘stoic’ sprang to mind.
Damon noticed a stack of DVDs in a wall shelf, an iPod and a couple of business cards (bent out of shape) on the bedside table. Clearly, neither of those things belonged to Gibbs. Gibbs opened the cupboard and out tumbled a messy bundle of blankets that he made no effort to pick up.
“There they are,” he gestured with a nod and Damon immediately bent down to gather them. As he stood up he was distracted by a small stack of designer men’s clothes and a bottle of cologne inside the cupboard, and almost tripped over a pair of running shoes.
“Tony’s,” Gibbs explained again, exasperated. “He likes to run. A lot.”
“Cool. Didn’t you say he majored in Phys. Ed in college?”
Gibbs crossed his arms and leaned against the door frame, watching Damon very carefully. “You’ve been asking about DiNozzo all night. Why the sudden curiosity in my agent?”
Busted. If he were honest it wasn’t sudden by any means, but Damon couldn’t tell him that. “Like I said, I got the sense he doesn’t like me and… I guess I’m curious to know why.”
For a moment Damon feared his bluff would get called out. Then Gibbs sighed again and turned away. “It’s not you, it’s me.”
That didn’t make any sense. But Damon realized he’d used up his quota of DiNozzo-questions for the night and he’d just have to wait until another time. He followed Gibbs out the room but paused at the door, something else catching his eye. There was a baseball glove nailed to the outside of the door. He frowned and freed up one hand from under the load of blankets to touch it. It looked at least two decades old, give or take a few years. The inside seam had a small insignia stitched into it – letters ‘A.D.D’ and ‘RIMA’ with what looked like an anchor between them. Damon knew what RIMA meant – Rhode Island Military Academy. And if the business cards he’d spotted were any indication, the letters A.D.D did not stand for Attention Deficit Disorder.
The glove could twist around on its nail and Damon noticed something else underneath it. It was a small name tag carved in mahogany with tulips and butterflies decorating the edges, and letters that spelled ‘Kelly’ in running script in the center. Definitely handmade, and beautiful. Damon suddenly felt guilty, like he’d been unintentionally granted a glimpse into the private world of one L.J. Gibbs.
“You comin’ or what?” Gibbs called out from the top of the stairs where he was waiting. Patience was definitely not the old man’s virtue.
“Yeah, sorry. I mean… coming.”
In the days that followed, Damon often mistakenly referred to that room as the kids’ room. He got the death glare the first time, but after that, no reaction whatsoever.
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