Reluctantly they all left the hospital but less than two hours later Gibbs was back in the waiting room, showered, changed and with a large thermos of coffee and his own mug. He pulled a blanket from the holdall at his feet and settled in to keep vigil through the night. Every hour, almost like clockwork, he stirred, stretched and went over to the intercom to enquire after his agent. . .and every hour the news was the same, 'no change'. At 06.00 he checked for a final time, left his cell number with the receptionist and headed back to the office.
And the following night he repeated the process.
With McGee hospitalised and Kate confined to desk duty Gibbs' team were stood down from being first on call; they completed the paperwork on the Dalton case and turned their attention to working through cold cases.
When Gibbs' phone rang Tony and Kate half rose in expectation of a call out; Gibbs waved them back to work and listened in silence.
"I'll be there," Gibbs said finally before snapping his cell closed.
"Boss?" Tony asked when Gibbs holstered his weapon and grabbed his coat. "We got a case?"
"You're in charge, DiNozzo. I'll be off radar for a while. Cover for me." And then he was gone.
"Special Agent Gibbs?"
"Commander McGee." The men shook hands, all the while assessing each other. Unusually, it was Gibbs who blinked first.
"I think we need to talk, Agent Gibbs."
"Yes, Sir. How is McG. . .Tim?" Gibbs corrected, recognising that now was not the time for formality.
"He is doing better. They reduced his sedation overnight and have managed to wean him off the ventilator. They won't know if there is any residual damage until Tim wakes up. . .but so far the EEG and brain scans are promising."
Gibbs let out a sigh of relief as the feeling of dread he had been under for the last 48 hours began to ease. "Before we continue, do you mind if I just let the rest of the team know that. . .they are all very worried."
"I have just spoken to Dr Mallard to update him on Tim's condition, I'm sure he will have spread the news for you," the Commander assured him. "On the staff's recommendation I have also agreed to extend the list of those allowed to visit Tim to include his work colleagues. . .although visits will have to be short to begin with."
"Thank you, we all appreciate that, Sir."
"Please, it's Mathew."
"Jethro," Gibbs offered in return.
"Jethro," the Commander began wearily, "I believe we are on the same side with regards to my son and yet it appears that he has, yet again, fallen through the cracks."
"I'm not sure I understand, Mathew." Gibbs knew that this interview was going to be difficult but the man before him was an unknown quantity and he was playing for time; seeking clues as to McGee's father's state of mind.
Clearly he was a force to be reckoned with. "Really, I took you for a better judge of character than that, given your reputation!" he said shrewdly. " Director Morrow has informed me that Tim tendered his resignation from NCIS, a fact that appears to have come out of the blue to you and the rest of his colleagues. Why is that, Jethro?. . .how can my son's unhappiness, his anxiety, not have been noticed by those he works with every day?"
"Did you know he was considering it?" Gibbs tried to rein in his discomfort at the implied criticism but his query came out more forcefully than he intended or was comfortable with.
With a glare that would have done Gibbs proud , Commander McGee silently chastised the man facing him. "I think you need a caffeine boost, Jethro," Tim's father pulled a document from his jacket and handed it over. "I would like you to read this while I go and see if I can charm some decent coffee from the doctors' lounge."
Putting on his glasses and stepping over to the window, Gibbs read the email. From the header it had clearly been sent from McGee to his father the previous weekend.
Thank you for letting me bend your ear for so long yesterday, I am sorry that you missed your tee-off time, I hope you explained to Doug that it was all my fault.
I really do appreciate you listening to my ranting. .. being able to offload all the mess was just such a relief. I have been worrying myself round in circles and not getting anywhere. I wish there was someone at work I could talk to about this but there isn't and sometimes it is just such a burden.
I had such high hopes about working here. . .you know just how long this has been my ambition and letting it go will be a wrench. . . but you have always taught me to be practical, to work through a problem and to take the hard decisions. I wanted it to work, Dad, I really did, but I guess some things are just not meant to be. We both knew a long time age that I wasn't cut out for the military and I guess we now have to accept that NCIS is too close to being a military organisation for me, too. The cost of failure is just too high. . .you've served 30 years in the service and have never fired a weapon in anger and it is me, the geeky, nerdy McGee who has the deaths of innocents on my conscience.
Dad, I can feel the others watching me, judging me and I know they are just waiting for me to screw up again. . I can cope with the name-calling and the hazing; it's nothing new, is it? But it's the look of. . .of disappointment on Gibbs' face that is just so hard to take. I have tried so hard and I keep letting him down; the harder I try the more mistakes I seem to make and now I'm so scared of messing-up that I'm starting to have anxiety attacks at work. He will be doing my half-yearly assessment in a few days and I think it will be better for everyone if I take the initiative and jump before Gibbs is forced to kick me off his team; that way, at least, the failure will be on my head and not his.
I have thought about my options and I think I have come up with one I can live with. I considered applying for a transfer away from MCRT but any other job in NCIS will always be second best and too much of a reminder of what I have lost. I still have an open invitation from the head-hunters at NSA but I'm not sure I want to stay in DC and I really don't want to spend my entire working life in some windowless, dingy basement crunching numbers and codes until I fry my last creative brain-cell. So I have decided that when you and Mum transfer out to San Diego next month I will relocate to California, too. I have a publisher who has shown an interest in my manuscript and I can put more time and effort into my writing. There are also lots of opportunities in California for me to work freelance on developing computer programmes, maybe even for the DOD, if they allow me to keep my clearances.
So that's it, I think. I have made my decision and I will speak to the Director tomorrow. . .I have already accumulated enough leave that I hope he will waive a notice period. . .I'm not sure I can face the team when they know I am quitting, it will just confirm to them what they already think. They deserve the best and hopefully they can find someone better suited to the high standards required.
I will give you a call after work on Monday and let you know how it went
Give my love to Mum and Sarah
p.s tell Sarah that there are some really good schools in California if she doesn't want to stay in DC on her own.
Gibbs took a large gulp of the coffee Tim's father had placed before him, putting off the moment when he would have to respond to what he had just read.
"This has nothing to do with the explosion yesterday, does it?"
"No, it doesn't. I received it on Sunday."
"I'm sorry. . .I really had no idea. . .none of us did. How can we all have got this so wrong?"
"I know you don't toss out apologies lightly. . .one of your many rules, I believe."
"You know about that?"
"There is very little I don't know about you and your team and how you work, Agent Gibbs. As you can tell, Tim and I have a very close and open relationship. . .he tells me almost everything!"
"You don't have a very good opinion of us all, do you?"
"Professionally, I know you are very good at what you do, that your team are the best. . ."
"But, I don't understand how you have got it so wrong with Tim. . ." The Commander got to his feet, pacing more from agitation than anger. "Explain to me why my son, who has finally gotten to where he has always wanted to be, is now on the point of throwing it all away? Is he really so bad at his job?"
"NO! No, Tim has the makings of a fine agent, probably one of the best I have ever worked with," Gibbs admitted.
"Because I am a hard-assed ex-Marine who really doesn't understand him, I suppose. . .I'm not proud of the fact. I let him down."
"Yes, Gunny, you did and now I want to know what you are going to do about it."
"You want me to try? You really think I can put this right? Do I even deserve a second chance?"
"Jethro, why did you specifically select Tim for your team? What qualities did you see in him that you thought made him suitable for your MCRT?"
"He was dedicated, enthusiastic, talented; I knew he was young for such a prestigious and demanding role but there was something about him that. . .I wanted him on my team. . .and not just because of his technical skills, although they have been a major asset. He's naive but he has an openness that allows him to pick up on things that those of us who have become more cynical can overlook; he brings a new perspective to the job."
"And yet he feels a failure; that he is a liability to the team!"
"I have never said that to him!"
"But have you ever told him that he is doing as well as someone in his position can be expected to do? Did it ever occur to you that your 'sink or swim' philosophy might not be the best way to allow Tim to reach his true potential? Fear may be an effective strategy for getting confessions from suspects but it is no way to boost the confidence of someone of Tim's temperament."
"He's afraid of me?"
"Of course he's afraid of you! You read his words. He's so afraid of letting you down that he is making himself ill. He doesn't say it in that email but insomnia and nightmares are weakening his resilience. He is still greatly troubled by the death of that young girl, Erin. . .he feels responsible for her death."
"But he couldn't have done anything!"
"Knowing it and believing it are two different things. . .it was his case, his first case, and she died. . .while he was talking to her."
"Maybe he is not cut out for this job?" Gibbs offered
"I don't believe that and neither do you. Yes, he's naive but with proper guidance and support I believe he can be a very good field agent. And that is what worries me more than anything else, Agent Gibbs. . .where is the guidance and support that Tim should have been receiving as a probationary agent? Who should he have gone to and why did he feel unable to do so? Why did he feel unable to tell his teammates that he had been kept in Hospital overnight? Why does he feel it necessary to hide any sign of 'weakness'?"
"We work in a tough environment. . .our lives depend on being able to handle the pressure!"
"And the constant barrage of torment and hazing from Agent DiNozzo that Tim has been subjected too? In any other work environment it would be classified as harassment and you have condoned that treatment by allowing it to go unchecked. In a way I understand that you are trying to toughen him up but if that is not balanced out by a modicum of positive encouragement then it is no better than institutionalised bullying."
"If you think so little of the way I run my team, why do you want me to even try to get him to stay?"
"Because it is what he has always wanted to do and I believe that, in the right circumstances, you are the one who can bring out the best in him, for himself and for the Agency. But you need to ask yourself a lot of hard questions and I think you may not like the answers, Special Agent Gibbs. It is up to you to persuade Tim that he should stay and give it another shot. I cannot and will not try to influence his decision. I want Tim to be happy and if that means him finding a niche away from NCIS then so be it."
"Don't let my son down again, Agent Gibbs."
"I won't, Sir."
Gibbs had to wait another twenty four hours before Tim was awake. Tony, Kate and Abby had all been in to see him but he had slept through their visits, seemingly unaware of their bantering and their concern.
From the doorway Gibbs looked in, shocked beyond measure at just how damaged his youngest agent appeared. Tim's nurse was adjusting one of the many monitors that bleeped a percussive symphony into the otherwise quiet room. Tim was naked with only a folded sheet to preserve his modesty, a tangled spaghetti of wires, tubes and catheters piercing and surrounding him like a messy nest. Most shocking of all was his face, it was bloated beyond recognition, his eyes swollen shut beneath the heavy bandage swathing his head like a turban.
Jethro Gibbs didn't like being in the wrong. He didn't like being hauled over the coals and having to answer for how he ran his team. In the last few days three people, whose judgement and professionalism he respected, had called into question his methods and challenged him about his treatment of McGee and of his team in general . . .he wanted to deny their concerns but his own innate honesty forced him to admit that there was too much truth in their words to be ignored . But more important than any discomfort he felt at having his own shortcomings forced into the spotlight was one indisputable fact, they were a team, his team and he did not leave his men behind.
He had chosen Tim, brought him on to his team. . .and he had then left him to flounder.
His blindness and neglect had driven a dedicated and valuable member of his team to question his worth and doubt his abilities.
Jethro Gibbs would break his own rule about apologies and he would make this right.
He reached out his hand and gently touched the pale cheek, resting it there until the head tilted towards him slightly.
"Dad, is that you?" it was no more than a parched, anxious whisper.
"No, McGee, it's Gibbs."
"I'm sorry, Tim, I let you down. . ."
From the doorway a worried father looked on. They had let his boy down. Now he had to trust Gibbs to make it right.
And from the look of determination in those piercing blue eyes, nothing would get between Jethro Gibbs and his intention of getting Tim back where he belonged.
Shireling August 2009