“Do I detect a look of disapproval in your eye? Well, tough beans buddy, ‘cause that’s the way it’s gonna be.”
February 3, 2008. Washington DC
Director Jenny Shepard knew what it was like to be scared for one’s family.
It was a fear she’d lived with her entire life. Colonel Jasper Shepard wasn’t the world’s best dad, but he was her only dad. Her worst and most recurring nightmare growing up was an army messenger showing up at their doorstep one day with news that the Colonel (or whatever he’d be ranked at the time) had been killed in action. Not once did she imagine the old man would be accused of accepting a bribe, murdered inside his own home and have it look like he’d committed suicide.
That’s when the fear was quelled, only to be replaced by insurmountable pain. The pain turned into rage, and rage fueled her quest for vengeance. As days turned into weeks and months and years, vengeance took over everything. Love, friends, family… nothing came before it. Vengeance became her whole and sole reason for existence.
Obsession, Ducky called it. An extremely unhealthy one, as if there was another kind.
So yeah, Jenny knew what fear of losing a loved one did to a person, what lengths it could take them to, places they might never be able to return from. Short of actually losing the loved one in question, that fear was the worst state of mind possible, mostly because it was so constant and never-ending. Civilians thought military folks and their families were so brave, this fear wasn’t really a problem for them. But Jenny knew from first-hand experience that wasn’t true. They just did a better job of hiding it.
Case in point – Jethro, and his team that he’d groomed so expertly to hide their true emotions behind a variety of masks (or maybe that’s why he chose them in the first place). McGee took refuge in his gadgets and fantasy avatars. Ziva covered up her feminine side with a tough Mossad-trained exterior. DiNozzo hid behind the face of a clown, laughing in the face of adversity no matter how… well, adverse. And then there was the team leader himself – as Churchill once said – a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; with a bunch of encryption ciphers thrown in for good measure.
Most folks didn’t see it, this fear, but Director Shepard could sense it from a mile away. She’d sensed it immediately the other night Jethro was in her office, going over performance reviews for the foreign analyst staff, when he got the call.
“I’ll be there in ten. Don’t do anything stupid, Tony. Wait for me.”
Jenny had frowned. “What’s going on?”
But Jethro was too busy flying out of her office to respond. As Director, she could have ordered him to stop and explain first. Instead, she waited patiently by the phone for an hour before Ducky remembered to call her back with a sit-rep. Every instinct in her body yearned to go to Bethesda and check on Tony herself. But after Ducky informed her that Tony was going to be fine, she’d deemed it necessary to not reveal her obvious favoritism towards Gibbs’ MCRT.
That was two nights ago.
Jenny looked down at the Alvarez report once again. Everything seemed to be in order. Everyone played by the book except for Tony who’d stepped into the warehouse swarming with eighteen armed hostiles without backup. It’s possible he’d had to make that call under extenuating circumstances but still, what was he thinking? Had he always been recklessly endangering his life on the job, or was this something new?
There was a knock on the door and a second later, Ducky popped his head in.
“Ducky!” she greeted him with a smile. “Do come in. I wanted to ask you about –”
“Tony’s condition, I know,” Ducky said matter-of-factly as he closed the door behind him and took a seat across from her. He looked tired and strangely contemplative.
“How is he?”
“Physically? Fine. Just a couple of flesh wounds. No major organs were hit. The brachial artery in his right shoulder was nicked resulting in severe blood loss, but they managed to prevent serious nerve damage in time. I expect Tony to recover full operation of his right arm and left leg in about three weeks.”
“And mentally?” She asked, knowing the ME had hoped she wouldn’t pick up on what he’d absently given away.
Ducky sighed. “Mentally, the boy seems to be under some stress which, I believe, precedes the events of this particular case.”
“We cannot have agents jumping headlong into danger without adequate backup just because they haven’t been thinking clearly, Ducky. Do you know what it’s about?”
The wise old doctor fixed her with a blank stare, at a loss for words for a change. But Jenny understood, and lowered her eyes back to the report. “So Gibbs is still being a jack-ass?”
“I wouldn’t put it that way but, essentially, yes, that’s one aspect. A big one.” She could tell Ducky wasn’t telling her everything, but decided not to pry.
Director Shepard had a history with Gibbs. Granted it was a short one and possibly occurred only because she’d been sporting red hair for the op in Paris. The point was that she knew him. She knew how his mind worked, the people and things he cared for and others he couldn’t give a damn about. She also knew how stubborn and rigid he could be, and it was high time she did something about it.
She closed the file before her with deliberation. “When is he getting out of the hospital?”
“Couple more days. He should take a week off to regain his strength, and I would recommend another two weeks of desk duty after that before he’d be fully fit for the field.”
“Nice little alliteration there, Ducky.”
“Why, thank you. I’ve also been throwing around a fair share of American pop culture references all morning.”
“You miss Tony so much already, huh?”
Ducky smiled sadly. “We all do, and have, actually, for quite awhile now.”
She nodded, her mind made up. “I’m ordering a full psychological evaluation for DiNozzo when he comes back first thing next week.”
Ducky winced. “You know he’s not going to like it.”
Of course she knew, just as she knew they weren’t talking about Tony anymore.
“I know, Ducky,” she said, smiling shrewdly. “I’m counting on it.”
Forty minutes later, Gibbs stormed into her office with Cynthia close on his heels nearing hysteria. She really should be used to it by now. Jenny subtly nodded to assure her that it was okay.
“Stop screwing with my team.” He declared. Straight to the point, blunt as always. And he wasn’t yelling either. Gibbs’ way of dealing with people managed to both worry and impress her at the same time.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Jenny drawled innocently.
“Don’t bullshit me! You had my team sit on their asses for two weeks in January, and now this? Tony does not need another assessment.”
“It’s for his own good, Gibbs.”
“And how will another psych eval in less than a month do him any good? Only thing the quacks manage to do is annoy the hell out of him.”
She rolled her eyes. Of course Tony didn’t talk to the shrinks. Having a functional mute like Gibbs for a role model, what self-respecting kid would?
“Well, he needs to talk to someone. As Director of this agency, I must do whatever is necessary to ensure my agents’ well be–
Gibbs slammed his hands on her desk. Now he was yelling. “MY agent! Not yours!”
Jenny simply shrugged, “Could have fooled me.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean, Jethro,” she answered calmly. “You think I don’t see how cold it’s been down in your bull pen since the Frog operation?”
Gibbs glared at her venomously, but she held her ground. She did lean back in her chair though, subconsciously putting some space between herself and the pissed off marine.
“You believe I went after Benoit for personal reasons, and that’s fine. You’re entitled to your opinions.” Jenny felt a familiar stab of guilt but suppressed it, like always. “You resent me for pulling Tony into the op while you were gone, and keeping you out of the loop after you came back, and that’s fine too. I can live with your resentment and your disappointment. But none of this was Tony’s fault, Jethro.”
Gibbs straightened up, looking at her like she was a suspect in his interrogation room. “I never blamed Tony. He was under cover, and he had a job to do. You on the other hand…?”
The venom in his eyes returned. “You put my agent in danger for a personal vendetta. Worse, you led him into a situation he could not extricate himself out of without getting someone hurt. And they both got hurt.”
He was referring to Tony and Jeanne Benoit, of course. Jenny nodded, acknowledging the part she inadvertently played in Tony getting his heart broken on the job. She honestly never saw it coming. Jenny Shepard had been so thoroughly taken by the playboy mask DiNozzo wore so proficiently, she never thought he’d be the kind to fall in love at all.
She narrowed her eyes. “You’re holding something against him too.”
“Why does everyone keep saying that?”
“Maybe because you’ve been punishing him for months, ever since the op went south?”
“For fuck’s sake!! You claim to know me, Jen. Did you not know that Tony is more than just an agent to me? That keeping him safe is not just a job for me? How the hell am I supposed to protect him when I don’t even know where he is, who he’s with, what he’s up against? How the hell was I supposed to protect him from YOU?!?”
Jenny was stunned into silence. While she knew Gibbs was fond of Tony, and Tony looked up to Gibbs too, she’d had no idea how intense this bond was.
“Oh, Jethro,” she tried, but didn’t know what else to say.
Gibbs was the toughest guy she’d known all her life. But in that moment, she saw him as nothing but Kelly’s dad, still mourning the loss of his daughter. And Tony’s sort-of dad, grieving the separation from his sort-of son.
Gibbs collapsed in the chair that Ducky had occupied less than an hour ago.
“I’ve been keeping my distance, but not to punish him. God, I didn’t think he’d be affected so much. I thought he’d get over it soon enough. But that was six months ago.”
“I’ve never seen you so scared before,” Jenny whispered. On any other day, Gibbs would have taken offence to her choice of words. Today he just sat there, rubbing his eyes tiredly.
“I… I can’t do it, can’t watch his car explode on a screen from miles away, standing by helplessly. I’ve visualized Shannon and Kelly the day they died so many times.” Gibbs shuddered. “It just… hit too close to home.”
Of course, the car explosion must have brought back memories for Gibbs too painful to describe. He’d lost his family once, and he’d come perilously close to losing Tony, and this wasn’t even the first time.
“He’s a field agent, Jethro,” she whispered. “He was a cop. And I bet he will continue to be in law enforcement wherever he goes next.”
“You think I don’t know that?”
Jenny ignored the bitterness in his voice. “So… you figured since you couldn’t make him quit, or keep him safe, you might as well save yourself the pain of having to go through it again by suppressing the ‘father’ in you? If he’s no longer your son, then you no longer have to worry about burying another kid, is that it, Jethro? Is that your solution to this problem?”
Gibbs smiled cynically. “It was, until yesterday. Part of me thought – what kind of a father am I to put my son in danger mission after mission? I can’t transfer him because then I really can’t watch him, and I can’t be biased towards him. So maybe it’s better to start treating him like everyone else. Should’ve known the little brat couldn’t stand not being the special one anymore…”
Jenny smiled, listening to Gibbs grumble affectionately. “So what do you plan to do now?”
Gibbs sighed in resignation. “Now, I’ve decided to accept the inevitable. Even when I’m completely read in, it doesn’t matter. He’ll always find his way into trouble no matter what I do. Like with this case… I tried to pull him off it when it got too hot, move him to the radar thing. He looked at me like I’d just asked him to betray his country to Al Qaeda.”
Jenny smiled despite herself. That was Agent DiNozzo, with more integrity than he ever wanted others to know about.
“Can’t watch him all the time, can’t always make him do what he doesn’t wanna do. But I can be there for him, protect him on the rare occasions when he actually lets me.”
Jenny watched Gibbs stare away into nothingness for a few silent moments. The man had not spoken so much at length all year.
“Sounds like you’ve had an epiphany. And something tells me you had it before you came into my office today.”
He shook his head in what looked like exasperation. “You’re not the only one hell-bent on talking my ears off about this.”
She grinned and opened the file with the psych evaluation orders, picked up the one with Tony’s name on it. “I’ll tear this up on one condition: someone has to talk to him, Jethro. And I think we both know who that should be.”
Jethro winced. Venting his frustrations in front of Jenny was one thing. But expressing what had been an unspoken sentiment for seven years couldn’t be easy for anyone. Some things even the great Leroy Jethro Gibbs was simply too chicken-shit to attempt. And talking about his feelings topped that list.
“Jethro, please…” she prodded gently. “Your silence is hurting that boy in ways you haven’t even thought of yet.”
He looked up at her in confusion.
“He’s constantly learning things and behaviors from you. You use your silence to push people away, like you did to him. He’s only going to pay it forward, push everyone else away from himself, like he did with Jeanne.”
“And Damon,” he whispered and frowned, harder than he had all day.
Before Jenny could ask who Damon was, he abruptly stood up and left. Jenny shredded the evaluation form as promised, and tapped her fingers on the table. She was right, fear of losing a loved one made people act in the strangest ways. And Jethro’s paranoia had driven him to a point where he ended up hurting his loved one himself.
She swiveled towards the cabinets behind her and the collection of pictures on top of them. Colonel Jasper Shepard smiled back at her out of a 5-by-7 gold-plated frame. No one knew, but she’d had her vengeance. And all it did was leave her feeling emptier and more purposeless than ever before.
Jenny Shepard would have happily lived in the shadow of that fear all her life.
Gibbs with a little help from Jenny, made sure the team got a few days off from active cases, what with them being one man down. McGee was loaned to another team for his technical expertise though, and he wasn’t exactly thrilled about it. He’d wanted to go see Tony too. As planned, Abby took the morning shifts, Ziva did afternoons and Gibbs spent nights watching over Tony in the hospital.
“Seriously guys, you know I only act like I’m twelve, don’t you?”
Gibbs chuckled as he thought back to Tony’s token protest earlier. The boy knew it would fall on deaf ears, and it had.
By five in the evening, Gibbs couldn’t look at any more reports. He left work to head straight to Bethesda and relieve Ziva early. She’d been injured in the operation too. Bruised knuckles hurt, really they do. Mostly he wanted to see if he could bring himself to, well, talk to Tony while he was still awake enough to listen.
He stopped outside Tony’s room when he found his liaison officer sitting beside Tony’s bed, practically force-feeding him. Tony had been pretty much out of it all day yesterday thanks to the painkillers and the blood loss. But it looked like he’d finally started to gain some color and strength back.
“This stuff is vile, Zee-vah. Get it away from me.”
“Do not be such a baby, DiNozzo. Why don’t you try the jello?”
“Why don’t you give me that chocolate and granola bar you always carry in your backpack?”
Ziva glared at him. “You went through my backpack?”
Tony did his version of grinning cutely. “I needed an outlet for my highly investigative instincts, now gimme…”
Ziva huffed and didn’t look sure, but Gibbs could see she’d been had at ‘vile’. She reached for her bag and pulled out the breakfast bar, only to hold it back from Tony’s grabby hand at the last second. “Are you sure you can –”
“Oh come on, Ziva, it’s a couple of bullet holes not bubonic plague.”
She laughed and handed it over. “One man living through two plagues would be just too cruel.”
Tony took a bite of the bar and made happy munching noises, then spoke with his mouth full. “You know back in Baltimore, before NCIS, but right after meeting the boss for the first time, I told my partner I’d never be a navy cop, that I’d rather have the plague.”
They sniggered like a couple of teenagers. Even Gibbs couldn’t help but smile. His agents still had no idea he was there. He turned around to go get coffee, not wishing to intrude on their privacy anymore.
“But why, Tony? Did you really hate Gibbs at first sight that much?” Ziva asked, joking, probably. But her question gave Gibbs pause.
Tony snorted. “Nah, let’s just say I grew up with a weirdly strong aversion to the military.”
“But… you went to Rhode Island?”
Tony shrugged lightly, studying the wrapper in his hands like it was incriminating evidence in a murder investigation. Gibbs closed his eyes, coming to the same disconcerting conclusion that Ziva did a second later. “You didn’t want to.”
Gibbs leaned against the wall, suddenly very tired. He finally had something common with DiNozzo Senior – they’d both abandoned Tony when he needed them the most.
Tony was resilient – he never doubted that. But some traumatic episodes left indelible marks on a man’s life, no matter how thick-skinned they were. Gibbs should know.
“Ziva?” Tony’s voice was timid, almost child-like. “Was he here?”
Gibbs strained to hear thanks to a drastic dip in volume. No points for guessing who Tony was asking about.
“Yes. He stayed practically all night. Then… he left for Montevideo in the morning, got himself a job with a PMC.”
Gibbs and Ziva could both see through the impassive mask that instantly fell to place on Tony’s face. He seemed… not shocked, just heartbroken. He leaned back against his pillow and looked away.
Ziva climbed onto the bed beside her partner, stretching on her left side facing Tony. With excruciating tenderness no one knew she was capable of, Ziva pulled Tony to herself, resting his head on her sternum. He went without complaint and stayed still as she engulfed him within her arms, stroking his hair gently.
“I’m fine, Ziva,” he protested weakly, making no attempts to move away.
“I know, yakiri. You’re fine. Everything’s fine.”
Seeing his agent was in good hands, Gibbs headed out for much needed coffee – preferably with a shot of whiskey in it, or three.
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