Tim was lying flat on his back when his eyes first opened. It took him a second to figure out where he was – he was still in his clothes with his shoes on, there was light streaming through the window, and he felt like a truck had run over him. He seemed to remember saying "Whatever" with the attitude of a surly teenager. Who would he have said that to? He groaned audibly at the sudden awareness that the recipient of his juvenile impertinence had been Gibbs.
"A bit like a hangover, isn't it?"
Tim jumped at the sound of his boss's voice. He hadn't realized that he wasn't alone. Gibbs was leaning casually against the door, and the medical officer was gone. Tim scrambled to his feet.
"Boss, I'm sorry, I didn't see you there."
Both men were silent for a few moments. The first thought that occurred to Tim was that he couldn't escape because Gibbs was standing in the doorway. The absurd mental image of him trying to actually make a break for it ran through his head, and he laughed softly.
"Something funny, McGee?"
"I didn't think so."
Tim wished that Gibbs would just say whatever it was that he needed to say, and then at least it would be over and done with. The magnitude of his screw-up was beginning to dawn on him. Whatever probationary terms he'd been on since the Lying Incident, he'd clearly violated the conditions. Tim was appalled at his own behavior, and he understood why Gibbs would need to deal with him harshly. Maybe if he was lucky he'd just be reassigned to some sort of desk duty, and not fired altogether.
It didn't appear that Gibbs was going to initiate the conversation, and Tim finally couldn't stand the silence.
"Boss, I know you don't like apologies, so let me just say that I know I don't deserve to be on your team anymore, and I accept that."
Gibbs observed his agent coolly before replying. "What kind of crap is that, McGee?"
Tim was a bit confused, but he willed himself to continue. "I know you can't trust me anymore. First the lying, and now this…I know from where you are it looks like I disobeyed your orders, and I understand that you can't work with someone like that."
"What about from where you are?"
"From your perspective, did you disobey my orders, McGee?"
Tim looked at the floor. "I don't think that really matters anymore."
"I'll decide what matters here, Tim. I believe that I was very clear that I did not want you to work on the database project."
"You were, Boss."
"Then exactly how were you not disobeying my orders when you chose to work on it anyways?"
McGee took a deep breath. There wasn't really anything to lose here anymore.
"You were very clear on the fact that you didn't want me to work on the database. But you didn't actually order me not to. And I was doing it on my own time. It wasn't supposed to interfere with my regular work."
"Except that it did."
"And yet you kept on working on it."
Tim didn't reply.
"Semantics aside, McGee, I think you knew very well that you were defying me by working on this project. And I'd like to know why."
Aware of how ironic this was going to sound, Tim tried to tell the truth. "I wanted to prove myself to you," Tim started. "I wanted to earn back your respect. I thought when the project was complete you'd see that I was worth something, and you'd know that you could trust me."
There was a pause before Gibbs spoke.
"I already knew that, Tim."
"You knew that once. But I know I made it hard for you to trust me after I lied to you, and all I've cared about since then is making sure you know that I'll never, ever screw up again. I've been working so hard to make sure that you could see that, and I know that it backfired, but I only wanted to make myself worthy in your eyes. I was never trying to deceive you."
Tim glanced up at his boss with a look of desperation. He understood why Gibbs would need to fire him, but he really couldn't bear the burden of having disappointed his mentor once again. What he saw in Gibbs' eyes perplexed him, though. Instead of anger, he thought that he saw a hint of a smile, but it was gone before Tim could be sure it had been real.
"Give me your belt, Tim."
Gibbs looked at him knowingly.
"No, I mean, I know why, but well, is there something wrong with yours?"
Gibbs laughed out loud at that. "There's nothing wrong with my belt, McGee. But you've been punishing yourself since I last whipped you, so it seems only appropriate that I use yours this time."
Tim was so confused. "I haven't been punishing myself. All I've been doing is working. Harder than I've ever worked before." Where the hell would he have found the time and energy to punish himself, when every fiber of his being was going towards impressing his boss? Why couldn't Gibbs see that?
"Tim, do you know why I punish people the way I do?" Gibbs' tone was kind.
"Because it hurts a lot?" Tim replied earnestly.
Gibbs grinned. "Yes, there is that." He continued seriously, "But that's not really the reason. A spanking makes its point hard and fast, and then it's over. There's a clearly defined end to the punishment, and that gives both people a clean slate in order to move on. But you don't seem to have absorbed that last part."
"So I'm supposed to just forget what I did? And I'm supposed to believe that you'll forget what I did?"
"No, of course we don't forget. If you forget what you did then you haven't learned from it. But people screw up, McGee. What matters is how they deal with it afterwards. You need to stop defining yourself by your mistakes, and you need to allow other people to forgive you."
"I don't know if I can do that."
"You can. But you haven't given yourself that chance. You've been punishing yourself mentally ever since I did it physically."
"So now you're going to punish me for punishing myself?"
"No, Tim. I'm going to spank you for letting yourself get into such a destructive headspace that you haven't been able to make rational decisions. In this job that leads to endangering the lives of your partners and yourself. Last night you were ready to carry a weapon just to prove to me that you weren't incapacitated, which you were. That was reckless and stupid. And all of this has been in the name of impressing me, when I didn't need to be impressed."
"I didn't mean to put anyone else in danger."
"I know you didn't. But you were so far gone that you couldn't even tell that's what you were doing. And, I might add, you putting yourself in danger is just as unacceptable to me as you putting someone else at risk."
"It wasn't that bad."
"It was. So hand over your belt, and let's take care of this."
Tim unbuckled his belt. He pulled it from its loops and stood there holding it dumbly for a moment. Gibbs reached over and gently took the belt out of Tim's hands.
"Whenever you're ready, Tim."
Tim swallowed as he realized that Gibbs wanted him to voluntarily put himself in position to be whipped. Not that he'd ever really been physically forced into it before, but having Gibbs tell him exactly what to do usually made it easier for Tim to submit. There were no words this time, but Tim recognized that his choice was just as clear as always. He walked over to the wall and planted his feet just wider than his shoulders, then bent over to brace himself with his hands.
Maybe it was the fact that it was so early in the morning and he'd just woken up, but the first lash hurt so much more than he remembered it hurting the last time. He cried out instinctively when it landed. Regaining his composure, Tim concentrated on silencing his emotions, but every few strokes a gasp came involuntarily. His breath was ragged with the effort of not sobbing when Gibbs finally stopped. Tim started to push himself up, but Gibbs rested his hand on the young man's back.
"Stay where you are."
Tim was puzzled, but he obeyed.
"Do you think that's enough?" Gibbs asked him.
Tim didn't understand. Enough so that he wouldn't be able to sit down properly? Enough so that he wouldn't disobey Gibbs' orders again?
"Enough for what?" Tim managed to croak.
"Enough so that you'll let me trust you again."
Tim felt the tears welling up in his eyes and he thought he might choke on the lump in his throat. How could this man whom he admired so deeply be asking for his permission to trust him?
"Yes, sir" he whispered.
"And do you trust yourself?"
Don't ask that, Tim thought. Please don't ask me that.
"I don't know."
"Then we're not done yet." Gibbs replied calmly. He raised the belt and gave Tim another three strokes before pausing again.
Tim was crying openly now. "Yes," he gasped between sobs.
"Then say it."
"It's enough. I trust myself." Tim honestly hoped that saying the words would make it true. He would try, he really would.
"I believe you."
Gibbs tossed the belt aside and helped Tim over to the cot where they both sat down, McGee wincing as he hit the thin mattress. Gibbs placed his hand on Tim's back and held it there supportively while Tim struggled to bring his breathing back to normal. When his body had stilled sufficiently, Gibbs removed his hand and Tim felt a wave of sadness at its absence.
"Do you really believe me?"
"McGee…" Gibbs started warningly, but his tone was gentle.
"Do you?" Tim couldn't help himself. He needed to hear the answer.
"Yes, I do."
Tim silently absorbed this for a minute. He suddenly knew that something had changed inside him and he felt calm.
"I'm going to be OK. You can trust me."
"I know I can. I told you that last time, Tim."
"Yes, but this time I know it too."
Gibbs put his hand on his agent's shoulder, and Tim relished the moment of closeness that he knew would be over all too soon.