AN: Takes place about a week after 'Singled Out', which is an episode that still rankles with me years later.
Duet exists. Belinda's Creek... nope.
Weekends With Doris
It had been a bit of a mistake to leave the soft-top down, Tony thought as he drove. He'd known the weather was turning with the season, and it wasn't as warm these days as the summer had been. It was with the thought in mind that soon he'd have to put the top up permanently for the winter that he'd left it down this one last time. But evening was drawing in; he'd stop somewhere for coffee and put it up. (Not electric, the guy had said when he'd bought her; he hadn't cared then, didn't care now.) He'd hoped to get away a little earlier, but if Gibbs had got wind of that, of course, he'd still be there. Nothing like asserting your authority for the sake of it, Boss... And he'd been looking forward to this too much to take the risk.
Weekends where they weren't on call came round just often enough for them not to be able to complain that they never had any free time; weekends when they weren't even on standby were fewer still. Especially when he was running the team and working ops for Jenny...
He smiled in spite of the chill wind. Heading for the latest in a line of infrequent, wonderful weekends with Doris, he knew that by the time he returned to work on Monday, he'd be able to carry on as normal. He'd tell her his troubles, she'd listen wisely; the mask would be firmly put back in place, and hopefully a good deal of the pain and confusion twisting in his heart would be sloughed off in the hills. It wasn't their fault, he told Doris often enough. They didn't know they were doing it.
"Y'see," he'd told her one time, "I chose to follow Gibbs. I came with him from Baltimore, and just... stayed... I knew I could learn more from him than from any other cop or fed I'd ever met... and... believe it or not, I liked him."
He sighed. "Now, I can do alpha male as loud as anyone, but he always knew that since I'd signed on with him for the long haul, I wouldn't. And I didn't, unless it was really necessary... I'll tell you about Moby Dick some time... And I don't... still... although he doesn't remember how it was... and he thinks he's got to do it with me. Slap down DiNozzo every time he opens his mouth... he doesn't have to let me know he's the Boss. I acknowledged that a long time ago. But hey, the only thing he's teaching me these days is patience."
Doris had just looked thoughtful. She knew about patience.
He almost unconsciously stepped a little harder on the gas pedal; the Princess surged forward with a happy growl.
A smile crept onto his face as he remembered the first time he'd mentioned Doris to the team...
"You cannot be complaining about having a weekend off, McGee," Ziva was saying incredulously as Tony came back from autopsy. "The Director takes us off rotation so we can 'regroup as a team', and you do not want the time off?"
Tim frowned. "That's not quite what she meant, Ziva... more like recuperate. Since we went back on rotation after the B- Gibbs left, we've not caught a break. I think we need a rest... but if Ducky's report doesn't clearly say 'suicide', then we're not going to get it anyway, so I'm not getting my hopes up."
"Fear not, then, McPragmatism Personified." Tony handed Ducky's report to his rather new SFA. "Barbiturates and booze, Ducky says administered orally, as she sat in her car. No signs of struggle. We found no evidence at the scene of any other person present. Then Lieutenant Estes drove off... and it's sheer good fortune that she didn't take anyone else with her when the inevitable happened." He clapped his hands. "Three days break, children. Get gone. Enjoy."
"You are looking very pleased, Tony. I take it you have plans?"
Tony simply couldn't help himself. His eyes danced. "Oh, yes. I intend to spend the entire weekend with Doris." His grin was huge.
"Doris... that is... an old-fashioned name, yes?"
"I guess you could say she's an old-fashioned girl." His eyes grew dreamy. "She's lovely...dark brown hair, huge, gentle brown eyes... she's always pleased to see me, not at all demanding... we talk for hours. I get more sense out of her than out of most people we meet..."
"She seems too good to be true, and ideal for you, Tony."
"Well, she loves me the way I am, that's true. And she's met a fair few people in her time."
"So, she's not a young thing then?" Tim couldn't help joining in, although a nagging thought suggested something might be going on; he just couldn't put his finger on it.
"No, she's not a co-ed, McSuspicious. She used to be on the rodeo circuits, you know, so she's seen a lot of life... she has amazing stamina -"
"Oh, you are a pig, Tony! You are dating her for her staying power?"
Tony just smiled beatifically and picked up his pack. "I'm off, he said happily. "Enjoy your break."
Doris had been mentioned a few times in passing since then, but it wasn't so much fun any more. He'd thought he'd pulled them together as a team; the tide of a hundred and one variations on the theme of 'you're not Gibbs' didn't recede altogether, but it did ebb. There was a seriousness about them all, however, which only intensified when Agent Lee joined them. The weight of their feelings of abandonment was so heavy on his shoulders he seldom felt like joking; Tim and Ziva occasionally shared a smile, but they never involved either him or Michelle.
As they came towards free time, Tim would sometimes ask, "So, are you seeing Doris this weekend?" Tony would smile and say that yes, he was, enjoy your time off, and that would be that.
He was beginning to think that maybe they were achieving stability; maybe they could all start lightening up soon; maybe that tide would never come in again – and Gibbs came back. Came back in response to a summons that he was never involved in, or even told about. Came back and made fun of how he handled things. Went. Came back. Made fun of how he handled things. Piled his things back on his old desk, turfed poor Lee back to Legal. Basked in the delight of his team.
That weekend he fled down to the hills and Doris.
He'd even managed most of a Wednesday with her last week, when an assignment from the Director had finished early, and he simply hadn't had the heart to return to the Yard. He'd found some plausible excuse later; only to hear Gibbs describe his efforts on Jenny's behalf as 'running errands'. Sometimes he thought he was at his wits' end; most of the time he knew he'd no alternative but to suck it up and carry on. And the only one he'd ever allow to join in his pity party was his beloved Doris.
The sun was beginning to drop and he was getting cold; Ducky would have something to say if he endangered his lungs by breathing in cold air... he thought of the warmth of Spain that he'd turned down, and almost wept. He knew he'd made the right decision... he rather thought he'd made the wrong decision... hell, he hadn't a clue. He saw his favourite diner up ahead; where he habitually stopped. It wasn't that the journey was long, but he sometimes left straight from the Navy Yard and needed feeding; he sometimes needed to just chill: Doris would always wait.
The cheerful woman behind the counter beamed delightedly when she saw him. "Tony! Just can't keep away, can you?"
"Aw, you know me, Liz... I come here for your smile every time. Latte and a Danish, please, darlin'."
"Sure, honey... oh – hey, I've got something for you." She reached under the counter, and produced a small folder.
"Hey, my map! I didn't really expect to see that again."
"Oh, the guy came by on Wednesday, with that cute little lad of his... asked if you were likely to be back this way. I told him sure, he said to tell you thanks for the loan, and the chat, they'd both been a big help."
"Well, that's good... how was the little guy?"
"More outgoing than last time they were here... what was it all about?"
"He lost his mom, Liz."
"Aw," the barista said with instant sympathy, "Poor little fella." Tony nodded sadly as he picked up his tray. He went to sit at the same table he'd sat at that day, and gazed unseeingly through the window, thinking back to the week before Gibbs' return. He'd been hungry...
As he stepped out of his car, he was just in time to see a youngish blond man and a young boy with the same tow coloured hair, standing by a FWD, spreading a map across the hood. The wind caught it, and it blew out of the small boy's hands, and he tried to run after it. Tony reached up and caught it as it flew over his head, and took it back to him. He noticed that both the father and son had seen his gun and badge on his belt as he'd stretched.
"Thanks," the man said with a smile. "I guess Adam's legs aren't long enough yet."
"My pleasure. Are you just coming or just going? You might find it easier to look at in your car or in the diner."
"You're right," the younger man said ruefully. He nodded towards the gas station next door."Just filled up and got the map - looks like your advice has already been taken."
Adam was standing on the steps of the coffee house, dragging a book out of the back-pack he carried, and looking impatient. His father hurried after him, and Tony followed at a more leisurely pace.
When he got inside, he saw that the young father was trying to get his son interested in the tank of colourful fish near the door, although the seven year old was clutching his book determinedly; so Tony still found himself ahead of the two in the line.
"Hey, Tony," Liz greeted him. " You going down to Duet again?"
"As ever. I just love the forest, ya know?"
As they chatted about the area until she'd finished serving him, he was aware that Adam's dad was openly listening to their comments. The agent was good at anticipating, and went to sit by the window, at a table with plenty of room. He wasn't wrong; the father and son came over. The gun and badge seemed to have set the man at ease.
"Look... hope you don't mind – you seem to know this region, huh?"
"Sure. Join me, please." He gestured at the seats, and the two sat down.
"We don't... but we heard it was good for camping, so we came down to have a look. Simon Townley." He stuck out his hand.
"You're a cop, right?"
"Fed. At a guess, you're a Marine." He smiled at the younger man's surprise. "Hey... I worked for one for a few years." He went on smiling, never mind how much it hurt.
"Yeah, I'm with the Corps," Simon said. "CWO2. Don't know how long for, though." He looked at his son, who was already absent-mindedly munching his sandwich, his nose buried in his book, and shook himself. "Thought it might be good to take Adam... get him out of himself for a bit."
Tony could see there was a story here; he recognised pain in someone's eyes when he saw it, and there was something sad and unsettling about the little boy turning himself insistently inwards, but he wasn't going to pry. It would emerge if Simon Townley wanted it to. 'Funny,' Tony thought, 'I nearly didn't stop …'
"Well," he said thoughtfully, gesturing at the other man's map. "That's not really what you want for camping." He reached down and fished in his backpack. "You need this one," he went on, passing it across. "It shows you the topography, and official camp sites. Camping just anywhere is frowned on, it's not always safe – what have I said?"
Simon smiled wryly. "Nothing, really. I suppose camping where there are other people might be better for him, especially if there are other children there. I had this idea of being alone with him... showing him a bit of nature..."
"I'm not one of these macho military dads who wants his son to be a he-man," the marine said finally. "He's a bookworm, and that's good. His thirst for knowledge is huge – he got that from his mom. She was a schoolteacher."
Was. Tony got that. Ouch. Townley couldn't have been more than twenty-seven... thirty at most. The Marine glanced at him, as if seeking permission to go on. He must have seen what he needed to see, Tony reflected.
"We lost her four months ago," Simon went on, and had no idea of the punch to the guts that his listener felt. "None of us had any idea Jessica had a heart problem... it was just out of the blue. I was in Bosnia... the Corps were just what you'd expect; they rallied round... but it took me forty-eight hours to get back. By then Adam had been collected from school by a social worker and passed around like a parcel... he's had his head in a book ever since. It's how he's dealing. I think he blames me for not being there."
He shook his head sadly. "They found me a nine-to-five posting... I've a decent child-minder to look after him until I get home... but the Corps can't be kind for ever. I'd have to deploy in the end."
Tony nodded. "The world doesn't stop for one bereaved little boy, or his Dad."
The little boy looked up, and his grey eyes met Tony's. "My mommy died," he said in a sharp little voice, and turned firmly back to the book.
"I'm about to turn in my warrant," his father said. "I..."
Again, Tony said it for him. "You lost your wife, now you're losing the Corps. Bad."
"Yeah... but he comes first."
Tony bit his lip and nodded. "Hey," he said to Adam, pointing to the title of the book: 'The Junior Engineer'. "You're interested in technology... engineering... machinery stuff?"
Adam looked up again. His expression said 'yes, why,' although he didn't answer.
"Well," Tony spoke to both of them, "There's a camp site that might interest you. It usually closes down at the end of October, but that gives you a few weeks yet. There are students and enthusiasts and tutors and professors up there... history, technology, archaeology... you know? They discovered one of the oldest water mills in the country, and they're digging it out and they plan to get it going again. It's not an official camp-site... but they welcome people – some of them have their families up there..."
He pointed on the map. "It's here, near Duet, Belinda's Creek. They call it Belinda's Mill."
"Who was Belinda?" Adam asked.
"I have no idea... but the people there would know."
Adam looked at his father enquiringly.
"Would you like to go there, Son?"
"OK, we'll go and have a look, and see if it's OK, and if it is, we'll come back next week and camp there."
"Keep the map," Tony said as he rose to his feet. He sensed that there'd been a tiny breakthrough, and he'd been in the way. Simon Townley offered his hand again. "Thanks," he said softly.
"My pleasure," Tony murmured very softly as he drained his coffee. Maybe he'd meet them again one day... he pocketed his map, waved cheerfully to Liz and headed back out to his car.
Twenty minutes later, with the hood up, he turned the Mustang very slowly and carefully onto the drive up to Sal and Amos's stables; sometimes there were riders or led horses, and the Princess's engine could be alarming. He coasted into a parking slot with the motor switched off, and before he'd even stepped out of the car, he heard Amos's cheerful voice.
"DiNozzo! Was expecting you an hour ago! Don't tell me you stopped to eat... Sal's made a casserole!"
"Amos, she doesn't have to feed me... you know that."
"Ah, but she likes to, Tony. You know that."
Tony chuckled; this place did wonders for him. "Can't think why she wants to mother me... Doris won't like it if I put weight on."
"You know damn well why, Son."
Tony did, but he still felt embarrassed about it; he'd been doing his job. Walking into the middle of a convenience store robbery; a uniformed officer in a quandary about what to do, as Sally Frame tried to stay calm as she stared at the wicked looking knife held close to her husband's neck... Tony had taken the simple step of shooting out the jumbo-sized bottle of soda next to the robber's head and dousing him in dandelion and burdock. So now the Frames thought the sun shone out of his fundamental orifice; he got to come down here any time he liked, and Sal insisted on feeding him.
An impatient thunk brought him back to the present.
"Don't keep the lady waiting," Amos said, and he didn't mean Sal.
"I'm coming, I'm coming," Tony called, and heard a pleased huff as he reached back into the Mustang to retrieve the pack of home-made treacle sandwiches that sat on the passenger seat. Two huge brown eyes regarded him eagerly as he walked up the yard to the loose boxes, and Doris kicked the bottom of the half-door again. "Hey, Darlin', have you missed me?"
He broke open the foil wrapping, and her dark brown nose twitched and butted at him hopefully.
"Aw, you're anyone's for a treacle butty, aren't you, gal?" he said fondly as the mare accepted her favourite delicacy. She huffed and nudged him again, out of pure affection this time. He rubbed her nose. "Doris," he said, "I've such a lot to tell you..."
AN: Butty... Liverpool term, I don't know if it's used in the US. Nothing quite like a treacle butty.