AN: It's all Proseac's fault... she's coming over in the Spring, so I thought, what a good idea to get the guest room replastered during the dry Summer weather. And what a good idea to knock all the old plaster off myself to save money... I can hardly damn MOVE! Even with my great big son's help, it did me in, I never knew I had hamstrings before... so here I am, back sitting at my desk writing again instead of the aforesaid moving.
I have quite a big, and risky but very enjoyable project to take on soon, and it's my own fault because I volunteered for it, so I'm getting this comparatively short one out of my hair first.
I Thought You Were a Lady
"Tony is late," Ziva said in surprise, looking dubiously at the SFA's empty desk as she returned from Abby's lab with a report. "He was so happy to be back – and you know it only took those two days and I am used to having him back –"
"You mean it feels like he's never been away," Tim laughed.
"He'll be here in a minute, Ziva," Gibbs said in a mild tone that was rather belied by his edgy glance towards the elevator. "He went down to Duet over the weekend."
"He called just now to say he'd bring breakfast," Tim added.
"Oh, breakfast, good," Ziva said. "You know, I always seem to like his choice."
"Me too. He said it was his turn. And you're right, we do seem to have settled back into things very quickly."
(Tony, Ziva and Gibbs had returned from the Seahawk late on the Wednesday, the team had worked flat out on cases for the next two days, and only Gibbs had seemed inexplicably disappointed that they hadn't caught another case to spoil a free weekend. ) Yes, it did feel good to have the team back together, after all that had happened, and Tim included in that his time of being called 'Boss'. You bet he'd like to do that again one day, but not in a daylight-less basement, to a team of gentle souls, however smart. He was a field agent now, and relished every moment of it – and the man currently slouching out of the elevator had had no small hand in that. Was Tim imagining that Gibbs looked even edgier?
Tony deposited a cup and a paper sack on Ziva's desk with a cheery greeting, then did the same for Tim. He dropped his own breakfast on his desk, then put Gibbs' sack down in front of him rather purposefully. The Boss looked up, and it was clear that he was expecting something. Tony spoke heavily.
"I trusted you, Boss." His tone was flat with accusation. The two younger agents sat up straight, and waited, aghast, for Gibbs' response. Half-way down the stairs, the Director paused, curious.
No eruption. "Well, yeah, DiNozzo -" It sounded as if Gibbs was about to make an excuse for something. Gibbs?
"I trusted you to look after her. Even reminded you... gave you a coded message... you understood about feeding the chickens, didn't you?"
"Yeah, DiNozzo, I did."
Tony flung his arms out dramatically. "Then why is my girl pregnant?"
Vance almost fell down a couple of steps. With all his years of experience he still couldn't help blurting out "DiNozzo, are you accusing Gibbs -"
"Oh, no, Director – we don't even know who the father is!"
Light dawning, Tim stood up hastily. "Director, Agent DiNozzo's talking about a horse."
Vance blinked, opened his mouth and closed it again... he didn't want to know. He harrumphed and went on his way.
The Mustang had needed servicing, and Tony's unexpected return hadn't left time for that. He could have done it this weekend, but he wanted to see Doris, and reassure his friends in Duet and Appelt that his sanity was more or less intact after his time at sea, so he'd got permission to borrow an agency car for his personal use instead. It had a very different sounding exhaust note from his Princess, and as he pulled up at the equestrian centre in the cool, green smelling early morning air, he reminded himself of that to sooth his disappointment that there was no brown head looking over the half door to greet him – and no Frames either for that matter. He picked up the foil pack of treacle sandwiches, and almost broke into an eager run as he went down the line of boxes, to the far end one on the right, next to the tack room.
Doris stood at the back of her box, head almost level with her knees, eyes half closed. He felt guilty that he'd disturbed her rest, (although she was never usually resting at this time of day, she always wanted to be out and doing things,) so he said softly, "Hey, Gal."
Her head came up and that wonderful, joyful huff of welcome that he loved so much fluttered from her nostrils. She came to him at once, and he was almost sick with relief that she'd forgiven him his long absence. She nuzzled him and he hugged her, and produced his gift. "H'y'are, sweetie, I didn't forget..." To his utter astonishment, she sniffed the treat and moved her nose away. "Doris... what's up, girl?" She nuzzled him apologetically, but she definitely didn't want the treacle.
"Try these," Sally's lilting voice said from behind him, and a tanned hand held out a palmful of dates.
"Sally..." he hugged her, and flung an arm round the shoulders of Amos, who stood beside her.
"Yeah," the older man said, "We've missed you too."
Doris accepted the dates as delicately as usual, and Sally said "It's all she'll bother with at the moment. And hay... we never used to leave a haynet overnight because it'd still be full in the morning, but lately she's decided she likes it."
"Was it me going away that changed her habits? I felt terrible... I know Gibbs has been coming down to see her, I was grateful for that. But -"
Amos sighed. "It sure seemed to first happen after you'd been away a few weeks, Tony. It's as if she could judge the time and realised this was longer than usual... she went into herself rather. She spends a lot of time standing in the back of her box thinking; sometimes she sits in the corner. When we turn her out for some company the only ones she'll talk to are the mules. And one or two of the placid horses... she's stand-offish with the others. I've actually seen her lash out at one."
"You never told me that, Moss! Why did -" a frown appeared between Sally's brows. "Wait wait wait... sits in the corner... you never told me that either. Moss!" she said severely, then went on. "Who've you seen her interacting with?"
"Er... Coco, and... Bluebell... yes, those two. And she lashed out at Angelo."
Doris, unruffled, politely requested another date, and as Tony fed her and fussed her, he was watching Sally. "Sal... what?"
"Mmm... those two mares have both been bred from. We've always suspected Angelo's a rig – inexpertly gelded, still has some stallionish habits – a bit of a pest round the mares. Doris is choosing her company, and her not company... and listening to her body... she's acting as if she's pregnant."
"You're kidding. Er, I mean... how could she be?" Tony was staring at his mare in astonishment. "She couldn't..."
Sally bit her lip. "Actually..."
They'd hosted a gathering of American purebreds of different types, almost four months ago. The place had been teeming with quality animals, and owners who were sometimes careless. There'd certainly been one memorable night when one showjumping star had hopped a fence and four other horses had followed him; another time a gate had been left open. Most of the Frames' strong and easy going horses had been turned out in the paddocks so that visiting royalty could have their boxes, and Doris was no exception; besides, she was good at keeping order in the ranks. And yes, two of the animals that had got out were entires...
"She doesn't make a fuss about being in season, Tony, so we don't always notice... but it was about the right time... and honestly, I've never known a mare in heat who wasn't an absolute floozy round the first fella that came along. Or a stallion who wasn't eager to take an opportunity! Oh damn, I should have realised."
"You really think she is? You do, don't you?"
"We'll do a test, but I do... those two mares would know... Oh lord, I'm sorry, Tony!"
"Don't be... It's er... I'm sure it'll be OK."
He was really. He'd driven back in a daze. Doris had been just as affectionate, and just as enthusiastic on their rides, but yes, she was subtly different. She followed him around, almost like a clingy infant, and at other times went off into a dream. They'd done a test, and yes, he was about to become an honorary parent. He'd rubbed her ears, and fed her more dates before he left, and, at Sally's suggestion, left a jacket of his in her favourite corner. She'd looked at him soulfully. "I'll be back next weekend... I'm not letting you think I've abandoned you... sheesh... and I thought you were a lady! Well, we've got to look after you, and junior..."
Now he glared at Gibbs. "You suspected, didn't you? You knew about the night of the great escape, and you suspected. That's why you were hoping I wouldn't get down there this weekend. But you didn't tell Sally."
Gibbs stood up, and said quietly, "Wasn't sure... she's different... could'a been wrong. Was going to ask Sally this weekend, but then you came back. It's certain, then?"
Tony abandoned the outraged act and broke out in a huge grin. "Yeah... we're going to have a happy event. As long as it doesn't do her any harm, I'm happy about it. Amos says no reason it should, even though she's an older first time mom, but they're getting the vet to check her over anyway. Gonna cost me a fortune in dates... trust my gal to go for an expensive craving..."
"Dates? Oh, dates..." Ziva worked it out. "So," she said finally, "we were going to take you out for a meal tonight, if we don't catch a case, to celebrate your return, but now we have two things to celebrate, yes?"
"Sounds good, Ziva. Although you don't usually wet the baby's head until it's born..."
"Wet the baby's head? Do you mean the foal? Why would -"
Tim's explanation was interrupted by the sound of a slap and a wince, and Gibbs' level tones. "Don't wind me up like that again, DiNozzo."
"I gotcha, Boss..."Tony's smile was dazzling. It was good to be back. "But I could see the Director watching. Couldn't waste an opportunity like that - " he chuckled, "Any more than some cad of a stallion did with my Doris." Gibbs grunted and was about to go back to his desk when his SFA spoke very softly. "Haven't forgotten you fought for me, Boss." The Marine didn't move for a second, then he nodded, with just the suggestion of a pleased smile.
They settled down to paperwork and routine; it was mid-afternoon when Tony's phone buzzed.
"Hey, Si! Long time no see... like, yesterday... Really?" His tone went from joking to serious enough for Gibbs to hold off frowning at him for taking personal calls in school time. He was aware of the others listening as he dealt with his friend, who ranged between irate and plaintive as they talked. They watched him pull a pad towards him and scribble for a moment. "Cop in charge. Got that. Tell her I'm glad it wasn't worse, and she didn't get hurt." He disconnected.
Gibbs raised an eyebrow. "Mary?"
"No, Boss. But you'll remember her... you said how you liked your coffee, and she didn't raise an eyebrow – just brought out the quadruple strength mule kick. You said it was perfect, and she decided you were a nice enough guy to be driving my car, and 'looking after me'." He made air quotes as Tim and Ziva didn't know whether to wince or giggle. "She brought you a free refill."
"Yeah... Liz, right? Gunnerson's Diner. Way back from Duet in your car, you had the busted arm. What's up?"
"Hey, we got a meal there on our way home the night of the Dam Rescue. Nice lady, good food," Tim put in enthusiastically.
"Yes, excellent!" Ziva added. "Very homely."
Tony waited patiently, Gibbs... not so much.
"Somebody tried to blow up her nice homely place this morning," Tony said grimly. "I came the short route today, didn't pass the place. Wish I had. Damn. Simon wants us to investigate."
Liz Gunnerson was a decent woman. She was still, legally Sheila Elizabeth Gunnerson Cardoza, but only because long ago her husband had proved so difficult to track down she'd given up trying to have divorce papers served on him. The last time she'd seen him, before he'd returned to his ship all those years ago, she'd told him not to bother coming back, if she needed to let him know anything she'd contact him through the Navy. She wasn't going to finance his grandiose post-naval plans; he'd already spent just about everything she had, and she was tired of mean looking large guys coming to the door saying he owed them money.
It wasn't so long before she couldn't even contact him through the Navy – they didn't know where he was either, but there was a jail cell waiting for him when they found him.
She moved out of the tiny apartment, dropped the Sheila and the Cardoza as she stepped through the door, and went out to Virginia to work for her Uncle Edgar in his modest diner. Now, sixteen years later, the eating place was the favourite of all the locals and most of the passing trade, and it belonged to her through sheer hard work. She employed a cheerful, skilled cook, 'ah... jus' call me Min', he'd say, when people tried to pronounce his complex Vietnamese name. She'd offered him a partnership, to make sure she never lost him; 'ah... maybe one day... I'm not leavin' you, Liz.'
Now Min sat hunched on a gurney in the car park of the diner, an ice-pack held to the back of his neck, swearing under his breath in Vietnamese, while a cop with a notebook wrote Tran...Tien... Minh very carefully. Cars pulled into the parking lot, drivers leaned out of windows to have Simon, the first person she'd called after the police, tell them, "Yes, we will be open later on today." Even if the kitchen was still a crime scene they could still do drinks and snacks... no dishwasher, but she could get paper plates... Liz's mind raced as she assessed the damage. Nobody was going to close Gunnerson's, least of all a useless wastrel of an AWOL sailor...
"Simon says the chef was hit over the back of his head when he went to unlock the place first thing in the morning. Some sort of incendiary device was put in the kitchen and the gas was turned on. Fortunately the chef came round in time to turn it off again and open the windows. He didn't see his attacker, but Liz is convinced it's her ex-husband. Who just happens to be a sailor who's been UE for the last eleven years. I didn't get a chance to ask why she thinks that."
Gibbs thought for a minute. "You better find out. Can't claim jurisdiction if we're not sure it is."
"No Gunnerson listed as UE by the navy in the last twenty years, Boss," Tim told him, and Tony grinned delightedly. They could have dismissed it out of hand.
"Perhaps that is not the name," Ziva said helpfully. "Many women who split up from... unsatisfactory husbands do not care to keep their married name."
"Mmm... OK, Gunnerson's not a common name," Tim started again.
"The device is probably still intact – we need any fingerprints from the local police. What?"
Gibbs had observed a rather mordant glance between the two younger agents.
"We were not impressed during our last dealings with them, Gibbs."
Tony chuckled darkly. "From what I heard, they were impressed with you guys. Maybe we need -"
"Yeah, get gone."
"Hey, I can go down there?"
Gibbs rolled his eyes. " What I said, DiNozzo. Ya get the name of the man in charge? I'll let him know you're coming."
Tony grinned again. "You're starting the custody battle before I even get there, Boss?"
"Either it was her husband – our case, or it wasn't – their case. Find out."
"On it, Boss!" Tony was half-way to the elevator, when Gibbs yelled his name. "Yes, Boss?"
Ziva opened her mouth to say 'why not me', thought better of it and closed it again. I was on the Seahawk, while Tim remained behind...
Tim jumped up with a 'let out of school early' look on his face, grabbed his gun and badge and followed Tony so eagerly the SFA held a warning hand out as they entered the elevator. "OK, McKeen, I'm not going without you!"
Tim shook his head as they walked out to the agency sedan. "Why did he send me with you, not Ziva? D'you think it was because I didn't get to go to the carrier?"
Tony stopped and looked at him over the top of the vehicle. "No, McMissed Something. Go figure." Tim frowned as he got in the car. Tony urged, "I'll give you a clue, then. When did Gibbs tell me to go?"
"When... after Ziva said we weren't impressed with the locals."
"No-o-o... after I said ?" He raised his eyebrows encouragingly as he started the engine.
"Yeah. Same chief as a year ago, and he'll have heard what happened then. He won't have forgotten you. You up for impressing him all over again?"
'Out of school early' was replaced on Tim's face by 'how about that'. "Yeah," he finally said in a pleased voice. "I'm up for that."
AN: I watched the Olympic Closing Ceremony... bored to tears until they fired Eric Idle out of a cannon into the floor... then stayed up to finish this chapter. I'm not entirely happy, but it's nearly 3 am.