It had been a hell of a month. Case after case, some overlapping, all ugly. One marine murdered by another over a woman, a supply officer diverting medical supplies to bikers involved in drug dealing, a child from a navy family gone missing, believed abducted, but, thank god, found unharmed after a week of desperate inquiries. And more. We'd taken a few hits along the way, but we finally had them all wrapped up and a Director-guaranteed free weekend.
I was tired. We all were. But I was proud of my team.
By late Friday evening we were the only people on the floor. I sat working at my computer, completing the forms necessary to close out the files. As they often did at the end of a difficult case, Abby and Ducky had come up to the bullpen to debrief and unwind with the team. The only one missing was DiNozzo who was down at the evidence garage checking in the last of the evidence so everything would be ship shape when the cases went to trial.
Ducky was perched on the edge of McGee's desk, chatting to Kate. I kept typing, but I heard him recounting how a probationer attending a recent mandatory "watch an autopsy" session had passed out even before an incision had been made. As soon as the sheet was pulled back to reveal the "really very tidy" corpse, the hapless probie had folded at the knees and hit the floor.
"First dead body he'd ever seen, apparently," Ducky mused. "He was too embarrassed to say anything. I wish he had – sometimes a fainter takes a few others with him. But what I don't understand is how anyone can get to their 20s without ever having seen a dead body!"
Without looking up, I shook my head.
"Who was your first, Ducky?" Abby asked. She was standing behind the partition, her chin resting on her folded arms.
Here we go, I thought. Asking Ducky to tell a story? We could be here a while.
"An old man from our village," Ducky answered promptly. "One of my father's patients. I was about 8, and Mother sent me over to tell Father that his tea was ready. When I got there, he and the nurse were on their knees trying to resuscitate the old fellow. He'd had a heart attack in the waiting room. Just as I arrived my father sat back on his heels and said "Stop lassie, there's nowt more we can do for him". He saw me standing in the doorway, and called me in. He let me have a look at the body, and touch the old man's face, told me that it was nothing to be afraid of. My mother was very cross when she found out, but I wasn't distressed." He paused, his eyes distant. "It just made me very, very curious."
It was a remarkably short story, I thought, for Ducky, and there was a moment's silence at its conclusion.
"My first," Kate said, picking up the unspoken baton, "was a nun at my school, Sister Louise." Kate the eternal convent girl, I thought, hiding a smile. "I was thirteen. She was very old, died peacefully, of natural causes." As nuns tend to do, I thought wryly.
"Before the funeral," she continued "they laid her out in her coffin in the chapel and we were told we could "pay our respects". We all did, of course, because if you didn't, you would have been a big chicken." She smiled at the memory. "The girl who sat behind me, Genevieve O'Reilly, fainted. I didn't. I just thought Sister Louise looked.... small. Much smaller than she did when she was alive."
She paused, and I glanced up. She had a slightly quizzical look on her face, as if trying to puzzle out the memory, but she was obviously untroubled it. She looked around at the assembled team and I ducked my head back down to avoid eye contact.
"Your turn Tim," she announced, to my relief.
"Ah well," the Probie leant forwards in his chair, and folded his arms on his desk. This could be interesting. I had the impression that Tim had had a sheltered upbringing - close family, loving parents, good schools. Was there a dark secret lurking? Nope, I discovered.
"I think it must have been my grandfather. He died in hospital, just when my parents and sister and I arrived to visit. The nurse came out and told us. My parents went in to the room and then called me and my sister to come in too." He paused. "He looked okay. Peaceful, and just ... gone. My mother told my sister and I to kiss him goodbye. I was fourteen years old, and kissing my grandfather when he was alive was a pretty awful thought, let alone when he was dead." There were subdued chuckles, and I smiled but did not look up. "But I looked at my mother, and she was crying, so .... you know that thing where you almost make contact with the skin, but don't? I did that. My mother didn't notice".
It was his turn to pass the baton. "How about you, Boss?"
Now I couldn't dodge it. I kept typing. I wasn't one for revealing personal information and this wasn't a memory I chose to relive too often. So I responded with as little information as possible, but I was honest.
"Hunting accident in the woods when I was a kid. I was out with my dad and some other fathers and sons, and ... well, it didn't go to plan." I stopped typing. "One of the boys accidently shot his old man."
"And you saw it?" I looked up and saw Abby's staring at me, brilliant black eyes wide and anxious. I couldn't stand to see Abby upset, especially not when I had caused it, and so I gave her a small smile.
"Yeah," I replied, "but it was okay, Abs". I hit shut down and the computer gave its distinctive whir. Sitting back in my chair, I remembered the events vividly, too vividly. "The guy just looked, well, surprised," I stated. That was it. It was all they were getting.
I looked at Abby and raised my eyebrows. I needed to snap her out of it and the order was clear.
"My great aunt Gobinet," she began.
There was a rumble of laughter and the mood instantly lightened.
"Abby," Kate warned, "you're making that up."
"I'm not," the Goth protested. "Gobinet Lobelia Hancock."
"Gobinet Hancock?" McGee was incredulous.
"What's wrong with that, McGook?" Abby retorted defensively. "I think it's a nice name. My grandmother wanted me to be called Gobinet, but my mother wanted Abigail."
McGee picked up a pen and wrote on a post it note, speaking as he did. "Send... Abby's ..... Mom ....... flowers," he dictated.
I snorted and tried to make it into a cough. I couldn't hear myself saying "Good job Gobby."
"It's very... distinctive," Ducky soothed. "Tell us the story."
"Well, it's a bit like Kate's, and a bit like McGee's." Abby's tone was light, her pigtails bouncing as she talked, hands as always in motion. "She died of old age, nothing nasty, and they laid her out in the coffin in the front room. I was only about 5. It was a tradition in my family, to have the coffin there and receive guests, serve drinks and food. Anyway, I just remember looking into the coffin and seeing her lying here. Then I got into trouble for dropping pieces of cheese into the coffin."
We laughed again, this time a little more loudly.
"I thought she'd be hungry," she protested.
I heard the sound of the lift arriving, and turned to see Tony walking towards them. Shit, how had I not noticed before how tired he looked? We'd all been overworked, but no-one had so much as Tony, who had taking on much of the hard physical work and borne more of the blows. He'd spent a week undercover with drug dealers, constantly on alert, constantly in danger, and he hadn't had time for the debrief that I knew he needed after being undercover before he was thrown into the next case. He'd had it rough and it showed. His skin was grey and dark circles ringed his eyes. He's lost weight, I noted, and felt a sharp and unexpected pain. I should have noticed before now. I should have been taking better care of him.
I started a little at that thought. When had it become my job to "take care" of DiNozzo? And what made me think that he would let me, if I tried?
"Hey Tony," Kate greeted him. "We're talking about our first time."
Tony reached his desk and shrugged his jacket on. One arm got caught, and he pulled wearily at the sleeve.
"What?" he asked disinterestedly.
Not the sharpest comeback for such an obvious opening. My concern for my senior agent increased.
"Our first corpses," Kate clarified. "Who was the first dead body you ever saw?" Her tone demanded an answer.
Tony paused for a bare second as he bent and picked up his bag.
"My mother," he said shortly.
There was silence. Kate shot an anguished look at Ducky, but he could do nothing. I closed my eyes for a second and dropped my head. I should have stopped Kate. I shouldn't have let him be drawn into this discussion. He was too tired, too vulnerable. I felt an ache in my chest. Suddenly I just wanted them all gone, all except me and Tony.
Tony threw his bag over his shoulder and started for the lift. "I'm tired," he said dully. "I'll see you all Monday."
We muttered a quiet round of farewells.
I looked at Abby and saw tears shining in her eyes. "Gibbs...." she pleaded softly. Fix it, she was saying. Fix it.
I nodded. I'd try.
McGee and Kate began silently collecting their belongings, and left with murmured goodbyes, taking Abby with them. Ducky came over to my desk.
"Did you know?" I asked, rubbing my hands over my face.
He shook his head. "No, Jethro," he answered. "I didn't."
"What do you know, Ducky?"
"I'll just get it from his file," I pushed before he could lecture me on doctor / patient confidentiality. "I need to know Ducky. I have to go and speak to him and it would help if I knew ... anything."
He relented. "All I know is what you could find out yourself. Anthony's mother died when he was ten, and the cause of death is listed as accidental prescription drug overdose. From her medical records, she appeared to be taking quite a range of medication - tranquilisers, stimulants and antidepressants. And Tony has said quite openly that she drank. That can be a very dangerous combination. That's all I know."
I nodded. At least it was something. I was tired, but I couldn't just leave it like that. I needed to check on Dinozzo, and I needed to do it tonight.
I went armed with beer and pizza. Normally, in the state he was, I wouldn't encourage him to either eat junk food or to drink, but I figured that the usual rules didn't apply tonight.
So I knocked on his door with a pizza balanced on one hand and a six pack in the other. It took a few knocks before I heard him shuffling to the door and when he opened it he didn't look pleased to see me.
"Hey Boss," he greeted me wearily, leaning on the door jamb. He was dressed in a t-shirt and an old pair of sweat pants, his feet bare.
"Can I come in?" I asked.
He hesitated for a second before stepping aside. "I've gotta tell you Boss," he said wearily, as I walked into the living room and put the beer and pizza on the coffee table, "I'm not gonna be good company tonight. I'm pretty whacked."
"S'okay, Tony," I said, deliberately using his first name. "All I'm looking to do is sit on your couch, eat pizza and drink beer."
"Sounds good to me, Boss," he conceded, opening the pizza box and extracting a slice.
I looked at him. "Any chance of a plate?" I asked, just at the moment that he took a huge bite.
He smiled a little around the mouthful and carefully placed his slice into the empty lid of the box. He ducked into the kitchen and emerged with two plates. We each grabbed beers and sank into the couch, sitting side by side. I decided to let him eat and drink first, hoping the beers would help him open up.
Eventually he sat back against the couch and gave a satisfied belch.
I chuckled and he smiled. He still looked tired, but the crease had gone from between his eyebrows and the tension from his jaw.
I was trying to work out how to broach the topic, when I realised that he was looking at me, waiting. He knew why I was there.
I decided to jump straight in.
"Before you came into the bullpen tonight, I was telling the team about the first time I saw a dead body." I recounted what I had said. But then I went on. "I didn't tell them that it gave me nightmares for weeks. I kept hearing the kid screaming in my head, saying over and over that he was sorry, begging his Dad to wake up." I sighed heavily. "I refused to go hunting with my Dad after that. I just couldn't face it. If it happened once it could happen again and I couldn't take the risk."
I took a deep draw on my beer and waited. It was a long time since I had told anyone about that experience, since I'd even let myself think about it. But I owed it to him - it could hardly expect him to bare his soul when I wouldn't do the same.
He leant his head back on the couch and was silent. I could almost feel him thinking in the unnatural stillness of his body, right down to his hands and feet. I knew telling me would not be easy for him. If he chose not to speak I couldn't force him. But I would stay until he slept, until he woke, until he was himself again.
"I wasn't meant to be there," he said softly. His eyes were fixed on the ceiling, the beer held loosely in his hands. "I was up early and when I walked past the door of her room it was open. I saw her lying on the floor."
Oh Christ. I thought it had been at her funeral. He had found her?
"I wasn't meant to go in to her room but I thought she'd fallen out of bed. She was lying on her side with her head at the foot of the bed." His voice was quiet, almost monotone, utterly without expression, as thought he was describing a crime scene. I didn't move or speak.
"I went over and touched her shoulder. She was cold. I think I knew she was dead, but I didn't know what to do. There was no way I could go and wake my father. I knew the maid would be coming to wake her soon. So I waited. There was a big blanket box at the foot of the bed, so I sat on it and waited."
I couldn't take my eyes off his face. I could almost see the little boy sitting there, with his dead mother, too afraid to enter his father's room. He was staring at the ceiling, unblinking and unmoving. So distant, so far away from me.
"When the maid came in, she screamed. Then she went and woke my father. I heard him coming, and I thought I might get into trouble for being there. So I hid in the cupboard and snuck out of the room when he wasn't looking. I went back to my room, and waited for someone to come and tell me what was happening. But no-one did. I dressed myself and then I sat there all day. Eventually I got hungry, and I went down to the kitchen. The cook nearly passed out when she saw me – the staff had assumed I wasn't in the house. She gave me dinner – a toasted cheese sandwich."
He was silent. Finally his eyes left the ceiling and he turned his face to look at me. He was leaning back slightly, his eyes wary. I turned fully in my seat so I was facing him and gently placed my hand on the bare skin of his forearm. It was rare for me to touch him at all, other than to slap him on the back of the head, and rarer still for me to touch his skin. His hands were clenched into fists in his lap and the tendons in his arms were taut and strained. I moved my hand slightly uip and down his arm, trying to ease some of that tension. I was rewarded as I his muscles softened and his hands loosen.
"I'm sorry you had to see that, Tony," I said softly. "No child should have to go through that."
He dropped his eyes.
"And someone should have looked after you, made sure you were okay," I continued, keeping my voice low and my hand moving in a slow rhythm. "You shouldn't have been left alone that day."
I could see him blinking rapidly. Was he getting teary? Tony never cried, or at least I'd never seen him cry. It occurred to me then that maybe no-one had ever said this to him before, told him that he was entitled to be cared for, deserving of someone's sympathy and attention on the day his mother had died.
"Someone should have looked after you," I repeated, my voice suddenly hoarse.
His head came up and he looked at me, his eyes shining. He gave a slight smile. "Maybe you're right Boss," he conceded.
"Damn straight I am." I confess I was relieved that he wasn't crying – I didn't know how I would've dealt with that. The Tony I knew would hold it together, and he was doing just that. I squeezed his arm to let him know I understood, and he smiled a little. He placed his hand over mine, and patted it.
"I'm fine Boss, really."
Shit, he was doing it again – that damned infuriating habit of comforting me when I should have been comforting him. How had it happened this time? I shook my head. God damn it DiNozzo.
I cleared my throat and I drew my hand off his arm, reaching for my beer. I sat back and stared fixedly at the football game we had both been ignoring. Tony turned to look at it too, but I was conscious of his eyes flicking back to me occasionally.
The game finished, and so did the beers.
"I'd better get going," I said regretfully, standing and stretching out my back.
"You can sleep on the couch if you want," Tony offered, knowing I had done it before. But this time I shook my head. He didn't need me there anymore.
He walked me to the door.
"Hey, Boss," he said hesitantly. I turned. "Thanks. You know, thanks." His inarticulate sincerity touched me.
"No problems, Tony." I replied. "Get some rest this weekend."
"I will, Boss." He paused. "You too."
We never mentioned it again.