a/n - This is just a one-shot, but it is the prologue for a larger story coming up. How soon? Depends on how much you folks like it. Fluff and family here, angst and drama comes in the main story.
Memories of a Circus
"I think that's the last of them." Jenny closed the file folder with a smile. Weekly reviews were never on the top of anyone's list. At least she could finish this review with some fun. She pulled an envelope out of her desk and tossed it in Gibbs' direction. He opened it with a frown.
"Tickets to a circus? What's this for?"
"Consider it a reward for your team closing the Hawkins case. It's the annual benefit performance for the Navy & Marine Wounded Warriors Program. This year it's being hosted at Annapolis, so I purchased a block of tickets. I'll expect to see you and your team there; there's enough tickets to bring dates if they want."
Gibbs slid the pack into his jacket pocket with an odd look on his face.
"What, you don't like the circus?"
"It's not that," he frowned before continuing to explain. "I was just thinking about the last time I went to a circus. Shannon and I took Kelly the last time I was home on leave before…" He shrugged, allowing her to fill in the blanks.
Even though the existence of Gibbs' late wife and daughter was now common knowledge, he still rarely spoke of them, so Jenny was cautious in her approach. "Did Kelly have a good time?"
"Yeah, she did; at least she did until the fire broke out and the animals stampeded."
Gibbs leaned back in the chair, lost in the memories for a moment. "That was a benefit performance too, but it was for a children's cancer center. During intermission, all the kids were invited down to pet the animals and Shannon went with Kelly. A fire broke out and there was a panic. Shannon and Kelly got separated and I couldn't get to either of them." He closed his eyes as he remembered his own terror at seeing his little girl in the path of the elephants. "Even over the chaos, I could hear Kelly screaming for me."
Jenny had leaned forward while she listened, "how did you get to her?"
"I didn't. There was this young boy, just a few years older than her. He pulled her out of the way and then climbed up the side of the bleachers with her to keep her safe until they had the animals under control." He shook his head in disbelief as he remembered. "He was one of the cancer patients there that day. The kid didn't have the strength to climb back down, but he hung onto Kelly and didn't let her fall."
"He sounds like an amazing young man; do you know whatever happened to him?"
The regret was apparent in his voice. "We wanted to find out about him, but I shipped out a week early. Shannon spoke to his mother once, and there were plans for our families to get together after he finished his treatment. Kelly was so young; we didn't want her to get too attached to him if he was terminal. That probably sounds pretty cold."
"No, it sounds like a father protecting his child." For not the first time Jenny wondered what Gibbs would be like if he had not suffered such a devastating loss. "I think it's quite understandable."
"For all the good it did." Gibbs laughed as he remembered his last conversation with Kelly on the subject. "Kelly informed me that he was going to get better because they were going to be married when they grew up. She even drew pictures of their wedding." Without giving Jenny time to continue the conversation he stood, effectively ending it.
At the end of the day Gibbs handed everyone on his team a pair of tickets, reminding them all how important the event was to Director Shepard. The last six tickets were handed out in the lab and in autopsy before he left for home.
Restless and filled with memories, Gibbs spent less than an hour working on the boat before returning upstairs. He found himself up in the attic, looking through a trunk he hadn't touched in many years. The smell of cedar tickled his nose when he opened it and he thought about how Shannon had insisted on the lining to protect the memories they were storing in it. Carefully he sorted out the items as he searched for Kelly's sketch book. Halloween costumes, baby clothes, a curl of hair, all the mementoes of a happy childhood were tucked away by Shannon. The last few things had been placed in the chest by his own father to spare him the pain of his memories. Wrapped in tissue he found the book marked 'when I grow up' in childish handwriting.
He took the book downstairs to the den, detouring for a glass of bourbon before sitting in his old recliner. It had been a Father's Day gift when Kelly was five and they had spent many a night reading bedtime stories in it. Now every year he celebrated Father's Day by lovingly conditioning the leather.
Settled in the chair, he opened the sketch book, remembering Shannon buying it for Kelly the day after they were at the circus. Kelly had spent every waking minute of the next three days drawing in it before showing any of her drawings to her parents. Smiling, he opened it to the first page. The red-headed bride smiled out from the faded page, holding onto her father's arm. Gibbs saw himself through his daughter's eyes, tall and strong, with a joyful smile. Shannon was drawn on Kelly's other side, holding the little brother their little girl had been hinting for. The next page showed Kelly with a grown up version of her hero of the circus. She had drawn him with light hair and green eyes, a shy smile on his face. Kelly had been enthralled with the wedding he and Shannon had taken her to only weeks before the events at the circus and she had apparently remembered every detail. Page after page she had detailed her own dream wedding, right down to the bride and groom feeding each other the cake. The childish simplicity of the pages showed such joy that it took his breath away. Time passed as his eyelids grew heavy, the bourbon reached his bloodstream and memories turned into dreams.
"Daddy, help me!"
Gibbs frantically fought the crowds rushing for the exits as the smoke filled the bigtop. On the other side of the center ring his little girl shrieked in terror as the elephants stomped closer to her, the handlers unable to control them as they reacted to the fire and the panic of the horses in the far ring.
"I'm coming, sweetheart, hold on." The problem was that he couldn't get any closer. No matter how hard he fought, he was still being swept towards the wrong exit, away from Kelly, away from Shannon, who was also trying to reach their young daughter.
He watched, helplessly, as Kelly tried to change direction and instead slipped and fell. A gangly figure rushed to Kelly, grabbing her arm as he ran by. They dodged the closest elephant, changing direction twice to stay ahead of the massive feet. As the movements of the large beast became more and more erratic, the swaying head knocked the pole out of the grasp of the handler and sent it spinning towards the children. While Gibbs watched in horror, the young man pulled Kelly against his chest and bent down to protect her. The pole bounced off his back, the metal hook drawing blood on the back of his neck.
The crowd was thinning as more people made it through the exits, but by now Gibbs could no longer see Kelly and her rescuer as the elephants and now the horses filled the center ring.
"Kelly, where are you?" By now flashing red lights were reflecting in the smoke and men in heavy canvas coats were entering the tent, trying to force Gibbs outside. "No, no, my little girl's still in here."
As fireman and father watched, the elephants broke loose from the ring and charged the far viewing stands. Gibbs felt his knees buckle and would have fallen except for the fireman holding onto him. As they jostled, a momentary gap between the massive forms allowed Gibbs to see the boy and Kelly climbing up the side supports of the bleachers.
With the arrival of the firemen came fire hoses. In the confusion, a Naval Lieutenant broke through the barriers, calling for his son. Within moments the fire was being brought under control and several hoses were turned to be used to force the elephants back away from the children. One beast broke free and slammed into the bleachers, damaging the lower supports. The entire structure shook and Kelly lost her grip. Her protector caught her arm, pulling her close. The bleachers groaned as more of the supports snapped. It was immediately apparent that the weight of an additional person would bring the whole thing down. Gibbs and the Lieutenant waited anxiously while ladders were brought in. Once the children were safely on the ground, Gibbs got his first good look at the young man who had saved his daughter's life and realized that he was one of the cancer patients. Medics swooped in and rushed the boy out before Gibbs could thank him. He turned to the boy's father, looking at his nameplate.
Gibbs bolted upright, on his feet before he was fully awake, gasping and drenched in sweat. Four years and he had never made the connection. The book still in his hand, he was out the door before he consciously made the decision to go.
Banging woke Timothy McGee and he stared blearily at his alarm clock, before rolling out of bed. He palmed his weapon and kept it close to his side as he looked through the peephole in his front door. In shock he recognized that his late night visitor was Gibbs and opened the door.
"Boss? Did I miss a call-out? I'm sorry; I must have slept through my phone." In his boxers and faded t-shirt the boy McGee had been shone through so clearly, Gibbs couldn't believe he'd never noticed it before. He walked him to the computer chair and sat him down, tilting his head forward to look at the back of his neck.
"No, there was no call-out, Tim."
At the sound of his first name, McGee tried to look up at the older man, but Gibbs had a firm grasp on him and quickly found the thin white scar right on the edge of his hairline. When McGee felt the light touch as it traced the jagged line the memories flashed and he made the connection.
"Kelly, it was Kelly."
Gibbs nodded and released him. As McGee straightened up, the other man pulled another chair close and sat down facing him. Neither man spoke as the amazement soaked in. Eventually Gibbs leaned forward and smiled. "You were her hero, mine too. If it hadn't been for you, Kelly would have died that night. Both men quieted at the realization that a totally different set of events had taken Kelly's life only a few short months later.
"She planned on getting married to you, spent days drawing pictures of your wedding." Gibbs knew his words would embarrass the young man, but he wasn't expecting McGee to pale so suddenly. "Hey, hey are you all right?"
"Married, are you sure?"
McGee was looking down at his hands and Gibbs couldn't tell what he was thinking about. Kelly's sketch book was still in his grasp and he silently opened it to the first wedding picture. Tim looked at it a long time, tracing the outline with his fingertip just barely above the paper. Eventually he looked up. "I need to show you something."
He walked to the coat closet by the front door and removed a box from the top shelf. After a quick glance he pulled out a small, battered journal and shoved the box back onto the shelf. He returned to his chair, but did not hand the journal over right away. Instead, he told his side.
"Dad requested a transfer to San Diego because of the research hospital there. I had been through two different rounds of chemo by that point and nothing was working. The Navy doctors had gotten me into a trial of a new type of cancer drug and the hospital I was assigned to was the one in San Diego. While I was in isolation they taught me to visualize myself as an adult and cancer free. One of the nurses gave me this journal and I wrote story after story about my dream life after I beat the cancer. I wrote about being married to a beautiful red-head I met at the circus and all the adventures we had." He looked Gibbs square in the eye as he handed him the journal. "I wrote about being married to Kelly."
It was all Gibbs could do just to breathe as he glanced through the pages. The tiny, cramped writing spoke of a long and lonely time in isolation and he regretted not bringing his glasses. McGee immediately saw his problem.
"It will probably take days to sort through my chicken scratches and at the end you may need a magnifying glass. You can hang onto it if you'd like." Overwhelmed, all the other man could do was nod.
They sat in the dimly lit room, both lost in thought, until Gibbs had to ask the question. "You've beaten it, right? The treatment worked and the cancer is totally gone?"
McGee winced as he answered; unable to lie to someone he respected so much. "That cancer is gone, but the treatment wasn't what they hoped for." He shrugged and hurried to explain when he saw the worry on the other man's face. "The experimental treatment ended up causing another kind of cancer. That was treated successfully, and I've been cancer free since I was a teenager."
Gibbs thought through all he knew of cancer treatments. "Are you considered still in remission or cured?
There was no easy way to say it. "It was such a rare type of cancer, that I'll always be technically in remission. They don't know what kind of time frame it takes to be cured. Every six months I have a blood test done, but it's always been clear." He watched Gibbs' reaction. "I'm okay, Boss, really."
Gibbs looked over at the clock on the bottom corner of McGee's computer. It was still hours before either of them would be normally be up, but he was sure sleep would not come easy for either of them. McGee seemed to agree and offered to make a pot of coffee. Navy coffee was almost as good as Marine Corps coffee as the two men shared quiet recollections of the day their paths first crossed. It was almost daybreak before
Gibbs prepared to leave. At the door, he turned and studied McGee with a sad smile. "I would have been proud to call you my son-in-law". He closed the door behind him before McGee could say a word.
DiNozzo arrived at the circus, his babe of the week in tow. The block of seats reserved by the director were right in front of the center ring and just high enough for a perfect view. Abby and her date were already there, as were Ziva and an agent she had met on a joint case a few weeks earlier. Gibbs and Jenny were speaking to a member of the Wounded Warriors Program and both gave a brief nod as he walked past. Ducky was still out on the midway with a lovely doctor from Bethesda and Palmer and his date were lost somewhere between DC and Annapolis. McGee arrived just as the rest of them took their seats.
"What's the matter, McGeek, couldn't get a date?"
McGee shook his head. "Didn't seem right to bring a date tonight, Tony."
Tony watched him as he exchanged a look with Gibbs and the older man nodded in understanding. Before he could question McGee further, the Ringmaster took the center ring and the circus was underway.
When the elephants came out, both Gibbs and McGee stiffened slightly but neither commented. Abby was charmed with the gentle giants as they balanced a ball between their trunks. By the time the clowns arrived in their mini cooper everyone was having a good time teasing Ziva for her car choice. Jenny threatened to separate the 'children' if they didn't behave and just rolled her eyes when the teasing just got worse.
At the beginning of each act, Tony tried to get a rise out of McGee, each time failing. By the time the parade of animals was set to begin, he was worried about his Probie. Gibbs leaned over and snagged his arm when he started to follow him. "He's fine, DiNozzo, just let him be tonight."
"You know what's going on, don't you?"
"He'll tell you someday, when he's ready."
Tony hated secrets unless they were his secrets, but one look at Gibbs' face told him that he wasn't getting any answers tonight. That was okay, he was a patient man when the reason was right. Eventually he'd learn why geeks don't take dates to the circus, but in the meantime he had his own date to impress at the ball toss.