Chapter 1: Calm
Rule #4: The best way to keep a secret? Keep it to yourself. Second best? Tell one other person - if you must. There is no third best.
Jeanne was an accident.
Dad had wanted Tony to talk to someone--had wanted Tony to talk to someone for ages and ages now, but he’d been putting it off because there had been more important things to worry about. But Pa was back in town, and his memory was coming back in bits and pieces, and the kids were all mostly getting along, which was a miracle in and of itself.
So Tony had made an appointment with the counseling services on campus, because it would get Dad off his case and wouldn’t stay on his permanent record. If he ever wanted to go into law enforcement, federal or otherwise, it was best not to have visits to a psychologist haunting his past.
She was working at the office as a glorified secretary, young and pretty--maybe a year or two older than Tony, with long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. She caught Tony’s attention from the first moment he saw her. Maybe it was her blue eyes, or maybe it was the way she smiled at him when he walked into the office, like she was genuinely happy to see him. He’d forgotten what it felt like to have someone look at him like that, like he hadn’t screwed up and they were just waiting for him to screw up again.
“Can I help you?” she asked. Tony almost turned to see if there was someone else behind him that she was talking to, before remembering why he was here.
“Uh, no. I was just looking for a buddy of mine.” The lie was out of his mouth before he even had a chance to think about it, but she was pretty and he didn’t want her to give him that look that said Oh, he’s another one of the crazies.
“I’d ask your friend’s name, but then I’d be giving away confidential information if I told you he was here or not,” she replied. Tony thought she was teasing him, but he wasn’t entirely sure.
“What about your name?” he asked, taking the two steps closer to the desk she was sitting at, giving her his best charming smile.
“What about my name?” she asked in reply. She was definitely teasing him.
“Is that confidential too?”
She seemed to give it a long moment of thought before answering him. “Jeanne.” No last name, and she pronounced it the French way, which was either a pretentious affectation, or she was really good at hiding an accent.
Regardless, he found himself wanting to impress her, which was the only explanation he could come up with later for what happened next.
The Gibbs-Mallard household was, as a general rule, built to comfortably hold a large dinner party. It was so necessary, when one’s nuclear family was comprised of six people. Naturally, they had a dining table to match that could easily sit ten. Donald was quite fond of that table, if only because it was one of his husband’s finer works, polished to a smooth satin sheen. Presently, though, said table was all but invisible under the extravagant work of Donald’s and Jethro’s first-adopted and second-youngest. It was a marvelous work of art, truly, that seemed to Donald’s eye to be inspired by the work of the Dutch masters, though Abby has mercifully exchanged the insects and the freshly-butchered fowls for candy animals. At the periphery of the table were the breakfast plates with their matching mugs; then came tiers of chocolate and marshmallow rabbits and chicks, piles of fresh pancakes, heaps of bacon, and baskets of coloured eggs; and at the heart of the table, pitchers of coffee and squeezed juice surrounded the centerpiece - Abby’s pride and joy, the chocolate fountain.
“I’m still not quite sure of this, Abby,” Donald said carefully.
“Oh, Dad, please?” she said. “It’s so right.”
“Your Pa and I need to watch our cholesterol, my dear Abigail,” he said, “and I saw what you did to keep the chocolate flowing.” There was a pound-or-so of butter added to the fine dark chocolate Abby had melted and poured in the fountain.
Her eyes turned wide. “It’s Easter, Dad.” She held her palms close, prayer-like. “I promise I’ll only bring it out on special candy-related holidays. And Tony’s birthday. And maybe mine. Please, Dad? There’s even fruit. See? It’s not so unhealthy if we dip fruit in it instead of just the Peeps, right?”
Donald sighed. One could point out to Abigail the flaws in her logic, but one would be quite silly to do so. “Oh, all right,” he said. “I suppose one breakfast won’t kill your poor old parents before their time.”
“Dad!” she protested, genuinely horrified. She leaned forward, kissed him on the cheek and wrapped her arms about him. “You’re the doctor; if it’s really so dangerous...”
He returned her embrace. “Hush, Abigail, don’t be silly,” he said. “I did say it’s all right.”
“Thank you!” she squealed right in his ear, and then bounded off to put the finishing touches to her masterpiece.
The sound of a chuckle made Donald turn around. Jethro was leaning against the wall.
“You realize she practically begged for you to say that,” he said. “So she could turn it around and have you be the one to feel guilty.”
Donald smiled. “Yes, well,” he said. “I believe she is our daughter.”
“That she is,” Jethro agreed. He stepped back into the hallway. A second later, Donald heard him shout for Tony and Timothy, and then the boys’ heavy footsteps as they ran down the stairs. Simultaneously, Abby shooed Ziva out of the kitchen, where she had been graciously allowed to assist her older foster-sister.
Well, Ziva was remarkably capable with a frying pan, and it would do well for the family to associate Ziva’s cooking with merry occasions and for Ziva herself to learn to cook more frivolous things than chicken dinners; and Donald still felt a not-entirely-ridiculous urge to dance a little jig of joy whenever the two girls got along that well together. Still, it did not escape his attention that Ziva had spent as much time preventing Tony’s access to the kitchen as she had helping Abby, which resulted in Tony’s retiring upstairs with Tim in tow.
He sincerely hoped that Tony and Tim did not liberate a crate of marshmallow Peeps with them, but he doubted that hope stood any chance of proving true.
Donald blinked and looked around. His family had sat down to the table while he was lost in reverie. Or, rather, his children and their Aunt Jenny: Jethro had just touched his shoulder to get his attention.
“Yes,” he said. “I was just admiring Abby’s work, and how radiant you all are this morning.” It was an idle thing to say, really, a shroud of fondness to cast over his assessing gaze.
Jethro replied with an exasperated look of his own. “Sit,” he said, pointedly.
“Yes, Dear,” Donald said with his best (false) put-upon sigh.
These were the last words anyone spoke for the next ten minutes or so, as they all busied their mouths with Abby’s excellent - if vein-clogging - cooking rather than with words. Almost predictably, Jenny was the first to rest her silverware for a moment to compliment the chef.
“This is excellent, Abby,” she said.
Abby beamed. “Thanks, Aunt J. Do you like the chocolate fountain? Dad wasn’t going to let me set it up.”
Jethro and Donald traded looks (exasperated and fond, accordingly) across the table.
“I adore it,” Jenny assured the girl. “It’s a wonderful idea.”
“Very original,” Jethro said with a serious expression. “Very much in the holiday spirit.”
“But still,” Jethro continued, unfazed, “you shouldn’t talk down your Dad in front of other people, Abs. Even if we’re all family here.”
Ziva’s gaze traveled to the window and stayed there for a full second. Donald was still internally debating how to best address that when Tony, in typical fashion, hijacked the conversation first.
“Timmy, I dare you to take a piece of that bacon and dip it in the chocolate fountain.”
“Ew, Tony, that’s just gross,” Tim replied. “Not to mention that I’d like for my veins to last me beyond the age of thirty, thank you very much.”
“Stop acting like such an old man, Timmy. You’re going to give yourself gray hairs before you even hit twenty if you keep this up. And besides, it’s turkey bacon,” Tony replied, dangling a piece of the aforementioned meat in front of his brother’s face.
“So it’s a strip of turkey fat instead of pork fat. That makes it so much better,” Tim retorted.
Mutely, Ziva plucked the bacon strip from Tony’s hand, dipped it in the fluid chocolate and stuffed the whole thing into her mouth.
“Ewww,” both boys chorused. They both looked approving, though; Tony even reached across the table to offer Ziva a high-five.
Ziva did not wipe her fingers before completing the gesture.
“Serves you right,” Abby said as she passed her older brother another napkin. He chose to lick the chocolate off his hand instead of use it, causing Abby to wrinkle her nose at him and Jenny to raise her eyebrows.
“Ugh, you’re such a pig, Tony,” Abby added. “Is that how you act in front of your girlfriend?”
“What girlfriend?” Tony asked. The question seemed almost, but not quite, sincere; much in the same way - Donald noted - that Jenny almost, but not quite, did not avert her gaze.
“The one you talk to on the phone at all hours of the night,” Tim said with the justified, if still unholy, glee of a younger brother who more often got to be needled than to do the needling.
“I don’t have a girlfriend,” Tony said.
“Of course not,” Ziva said. “You do not have girlfriends.”
“Ooh, is it a boyfriend?” Abby asked.
“Nah,” Tim said. “Our Tony isn’t man enough for that.”
“Timmy!” Tony nearly snapped. “No, Abby,” he said, turning to his middle sister. “I do not have a boyfriend.”
“Booty call, then,” said Ziva blithely.
Jethro raised his eyebrows at her. She raised her eyebrows at him in return.
“Really, everyone,” Jenny said, putting down the napkin with which she had just thoroughly wiped her hands. “I’d think that after all these times you complained about Tony’s lack of regard for personal boundaries you would like to provide him with a good example.”
“Thanks, Aunt J,” Tony said, giving his siblings a holier-than-thou grin. Tim rolled his eyes and Abby pouted, while Ziva took aim with a strawberry stem, flicking it across the table at him and hitting him - of course - directly over his heart.
“If this turns into a food fight, Tony, Ziva,” Jethro said conversationally, “you will clean it up. As well as do all the dishes. Without the dishwasher.”
Just another holiday morning in the Gibbs-Mallard household, Donald tried to tell himself.
Just another regular morning.
“I just don’t know what to do, Aunty,” Tony said.
“Really, Tony,” she replied, amused. “Since when do you not know how to act in such situations?”
It was late, and it was dark. Tony was supposed to be out with friends, pretending to study while ogling the waitresses at the campus coffee shop. Instead he was ensconced in one of the overstuffed chairs in Aunty J’s study, cradling a glass of a ridiculously nice Nebbiolo. She, too, sipped on a glass of the wine, though she held hers rather more elegantly.
“Well, I mean.” He leaned forward and placed his glass on the low table for a moment. “Normally this would’ve stopped being an issue way before now, y’know? Taking things the scenic route, that’s kind of, well, new to me.”
“Oh, Tony,” she said fondly, “you’re too young to have such habits.” She leaned forward, all business-like, and put her glass down as well. “You’re attracted to her,” she said. “She’s attracted to you. I fail to see the problem here.”
“Yes, but...” He fidgeted. This was new to him. He’d never felt this awkward and self-conscious about a girl, before. Which was why he put aside all of his insecurities and brought them to Aunty J, who would not make too much fun of him. Jeanne did not need to know about any of that.
“She’s different,” he said. “You know that, Aunty.”
“And you’re different with her,” she acknowledged, making it sound so natural. “And when you are in the moment, you know what to do, don’t you?”
He picked up his glass and leaned back in his chair, taking a long sip. “I have so far,” he said with a sigh.
“When you are with her,” his aunt said, quietly, “why would you say that you’ve waited so far?”
It was difficult, to think in two minds, two histories, but Tony was getting better at it. “Because a gentleman always allows the lady make the first move.”
“And now that she has,” she continued in the same voice, “the gentlemanly thing to do would be to...?”
“To oblige,” he said, instinctively, and then, “Thanks, Aunty J.”
“That’s what I’m here for, Tony,” she said, picking up her glass and leaning back in her chair, legs crossed one over the other. “That’s why we’re both here.”
In the queer privacy of Autopsy, Donald told his husband’s work-partner: “I’d rather you not ask me to do this, Jen.”
From the other side of the autopsy table and, seemingly, from a much greater distance than that, the strong, driven woman asked him: “Then who will I ask, Ducky?”
“Your physicians,” he told her. “That’s what they’re for. They are good doctors, Jenny, and part of that is dedication to helping their patient. To help, in this case, you.”
“I know that,” she told him. “But I was hoping for the opinion of a friend.”
“Oh, Jenny,” he sighed. “You know I am your friend; but I know little of these matters, and you know well that this would put me in a rather awkward position.”
“You know something about everything, Ducky,” she said with a slight smile. “Often, it’s what others don’t know. And even when it’s not, you still see what they miss. I admire that about you.”
You’re laying it on thick, Jen, is what his husband would have told her. That, and: Never let the other guy know you need him that much.
The thought made Donald’s mind up for him. He sighed again. “Very well,” he said, and held his hand across the table for the envelope that she held. “I’ll take a look.”
“Thank you,” she said emphatically as she placed the envelope in his hand.
He almost told her to not thank him yet, but that was not what she’d just thanked him for.
At least he had good reasons to think that when the time would come, Jethro would understand.
Tony crept down the aisle of books, as silently as he could, though Jeanne had headphones in and probably wouldn’t hear him anyway. Not until he tugged one out gently, a hand covering her eyes as he whispered into her ear: “Guess who?”
Jeanne spun around in her chair, her face lighting up. “Anthony! I thought you said you were busy tonight.”
“I am,” he replied, grinning as he tugged her to her feet. “Come on.”
She stood her ground stubbornly. “Tony, you know I’ve got to finish this,” she protested.
“We’re not going far, I promise. You’ll be back to your dusty old tomes in no time.” He gave her his best you-know-you-want-to-humor-me look, and sure enough, she sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Fine, but this better not take long,” she said sternly.
He took her hand again, leading her back through the bookshelves to where he had set things up already, a blanket spread across the aisle. There was a plate of sandwiches and two plastic champagne flutes lit up by several small LED candles, and a thermos full of hot coffee.
“Dinner, my lady,” Tony said, offering Jeanne a half-bow. “After all, brain food is an essential part of making it through all-nighters. And coffee, of course.”
Her stern expression melted slightly. “You know we’re not supposed to have food in the library.”
Tony winked at her. “Then we’d best hurry up and eat it all before anyone catches us.”
She laughed, and took a seat on the blanket.
“And what’s your excuse for the champagne?”
“Sparkling white grape juice, actually. We wouldn’t want the alcohol to counteract the effects of the caffeine, now would we?” he asked, raising his glass towards her.
She picked her own up, and they knocked them together. Jeanne practically giggled at the unimpressive tap they made instead of the customary clink.
“Plastic. How classy. And fake candles. You really know how to show a lady a good time, Anthony,” she said, taking a sip of her grape juice.
“Hey, what can I say? Even I’m not stupid enough to bring real candles into a library,” he replied. “Sandwich? They’re your favorite--some sort of French cheese I picked up at the grocery store on Wonder Bread.”
Jeanne laughed and Tony grinned. “Why do I put up with you?”
“Because I’m handsome, witty, and charming,” he replied instantly. He leaned forward and stole a kiss from her. “And I bring you coffee in the middle of the night when you’re writing boring papers. At great personal risk, mind you; the librarian would probably cut off my hand if he caught me on the way in.”
“Mm, I remember now. You’re my brave hero, saving me from a caffeine-free evening of enforced solitude,” she said, taking a bite of one of the sandwiches. She laughed again after she swallowed.
“What’s so funny?” he asked.
“Caprice des Dieux. You got me pretty much the equivalent of Colby cheese.” She must have seen the crestfallen look on his face. “That’s not a bad thing. It pairs rather well with the Wonder Bread and sparkling grape juice, actually.”
“You’re teasing me,” he said.
“Of course I’m teasing you. But this was terribly sweet, and I did need a break. I’m glad you surprised me.” This time, she was the one who leaned forward and gave him a kiss. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” he replied, taking one of the sandwiches for himself. He’d made Jeanne smile, and just for a few minutes, in this quiet corner of the library, all was right in his world.
Chapter 2: Storm
It was nice to have an afternoon all to themselves every once in a while for all that, mostly, Jethro wouldn’t trade the sound of a houseful of family for anything. Still, a relationship couldn’t survive just on exhausted half-hours after too-long workdays and midnight coffee- and cognac-fueled conversations. A quiet afternoon, every once in a while, was good.
It was more than that, though. Jethro’s gut had been telling him that not all was well in his world for a while. Jenny, most prominently. She had been covering silence and absence with smart words and bravado for several months. Jethro had been unsure of what could possibly be wrong - what could possibly happen in her life that she would not bring it to him, after all these years of living out of each other’s pocket - but then the silence touched Ducky, too, and he knew. There was only one kind of secret that Ducky ever kept from him, and it had to be pretty bad if Jenny hid it so fiercely.
It was a quiet, warm Saturday afternoon. Ducky was trimming the bushes. Jethro was sitting at the porch table, sanding away at a toy boat he’d brought outside to work on so they could spend the afternoon together. Or he had been, for the past hour. Things seemed calm enough, and they only had so much time.
“We need to talk.” He didn’t get up from his chair and he didn’t raise his voice, but he knew Ducky had heard him, and he trusted Ducky to pick up on the serious edge to Jethro’s voice that said this was not a casual conversation.
Ducky looked up, assessing him for a moment, before he sighed and took off one glove. “I thought we might,” he said as he walked back up to the porch and sat down next to Jethro, putting the pruning shears and both gloves away.
“What’s going on between you and Jen, Duck?” he asked, cutting straight to the chase.
Ducky bristled slightly. Someone else might not have noticed that. “She asked for my advice, Jethro,” he said. “My professional advice.”
“And you didn’t feel the need to tell me about this?” He didn’t mean for it to come out as sharply as it had, but he never took kindly to people keeping things from him, least of all his family. “You didn’t think this was something I needed to know?”
“We are not talking one of your cases,” Ducky said. It was unmistakably a rebuke. “Whether or not I think she ought to have talked to you as well is irrelevant.”
“She’s on my team, damn it. If she’s sick, I need to know, and if she’s not going to tell me herself, then I’d have expected you to at least give me a heads-up.”
The heat was rising in Ducky’s cheeks. “Well, apparently,” he said, voice clipped, “you’ve figured it out for yourself anyway. As one would think an experienced investigator of your caliber ought to, given the nature of the persons involved.”
Jethro forced himself to rein in his anger; it wasn’t fair to Ducky. Jenny would certainly be getting her fair share later. “You should have told me, Duck,” he said. He sounded as he often did in the aftermath of his anger, tired and strained.
“Oh, Jethro,” Ducky said, irritation gone like smoke. “I told you best I could.”
“How bad is it?” He knew he shouldn’t ask, that it wasn’t fair to put Ducky in this position, but he needed to know, needed to be prepared.
Ducky’s look spoke volumes. His hands clenched together.
“Damn,” Jethro swore softly.
“I’m sorry, Jethro,” Ducky said, almost as softly. He reached forward and, gently, closed his hand over Jethro’s. “I really am sorry, my love.”
"You know," Jenny said conversationally as she stepped into the kitchen of her own house, "those of us who have locks on our doors generally like for other people to respect those locks."
It was well after dark. The spacious kitchen of the Shepard mansion was lit only by stray street light, coming in through the windows, and empty, except for two people: one who had just stepped in, and one who was sitting on a barstool.
“I’ve got locks on my doors,” Jethro said; his tone was casual, but Jenny had known him long enough to know it was anything but.
Jenny pressed a glass against the fridge’s bar, watching it fill under the blue light. “Perhaps I should have said, ‘those of us who use the locks on our doors.’” She offered him the glass across the oversized island. “Water?”
He took the glass, but didn’t drink from it. He chose instead to give her that long, hard stare he usually reserved for suspects he knew were lying but were also innocent.
If Jenny saw that, she did a good work of pretending to not notice as she filled herself a glass of water as well.
“Why didn’t you tell me, Jen?” he asked gently.
“Tell you what?” she asked. She turned around and walked back to the island. Her tone was casual, but she did not quite meet his eyes.
“Did you really think I wouldn’t notice you were sick? That I wouldn’t find out?”
Her expression became smooth and taut, as it often did when she felt threatened or angry. “I do know you, Jethro.”
“Then why didn’t you tell me?” he asked, anger finally starting to get the better of him.
“This is why,” she told him. “You fuss, Jethro; it’s what you do. And I do not need to be fussed over.”
“Even if you didn’t tell me as a friend, you owe it to me as your team leader. Are you even fit to still be working in the field?” It was a low blow, and they both knew it.
She put her untouched glass on the island sharply, the liquid sloshing around but not quite spilling over. “Really, Jethro?” she asked, voice equally sharp and soft with anger. “After all these years, you think I would’ve done that? Put you, Cassie and Chris at risk this way? If you really thought that, even for a second, you have no business letting yourself into my house at night claiming friendship.”
“And lying about your health doesn’t put them at risk? You’re smarter than that, Jenny,” he replied.
“If and when this will affect my ability to perform,” she said, speaking very low and very clearly, “you will be the first one to know.”
“And when will that be?” he demanded. “When someone’s already gotten hurt because we didn’t know we should be watching our own backs?” He slammed his own glass down on the counter, not quite hard enough to break it, but enough that water spilled out. “Rule number one, Jen - never screw your partner.”
She shoved her glass off the counter with a sweep of her arm, scattering broken glass and ice-cold water all over the kitchen. “My health,” she said through clenched teeth, “my rules. My house,” she added. “Get out before we both regret this, Jethro.”
He stood abruptly, knocking the stool down behind him. “We’re not done here. What else have you been lying about?”
“I told you,” she said, “to get out.”
“Answer the damn question!” he snapped. “What else have you been lying about?”
She swiped her arm across the island, knocking the fruit bowl over and into a bottle of olive oil, which crashed on the floor. “Nothing,” she spat. “I did not lie to you about anything.” She marched over to the kitchen door and thrust her arm out, pointing towards the front door. “Out, Jethro,” she said.
“Lie of omission,” he said flatly, standing his ground.
“Well, you’re trusting,” she said, taunting. “One personal secret in ten years and suddenly, everything’s called into question?” She marched across the kitchen, glass crunching under her heels as she drew close to him. “Did I ever say even one word to you about Shannon and Kelly?” she demanded. “Did I ever blame you for keeping that a secret, even once?”
He glared down at her, using his height to his best advantage. “That’s not the same.”
He was about to continue, but Jenny cut him off. “Damn right it isn’t,” she said. “I would have said something before it became a risk. You said nothing, even after your issues regarding the women in your life already compromised a case.”
She might as well have punched him in the gut; she was certainly perfectly positioned to deliver such a blow. “You’re lucky I don’t hit women,” he told her, lips thin and voice tight, as he carefully stepped around her and made for the door. “No matter how much you deserve it.”
Jenny waited until she heard his car start and drive off, and then picked the fruit bowl off the island and hurled it at the fridge. The metal bowl clanged and ricocheted, knocking off an organizer of spoons and spatulas before it hit the floor.
“Damn you, Jethro,” she whispered between harsh breaths. “You and your stupid rules. Damn you to hell.”
Walking out of his Last Exam Ever was made all the better by what was waiting for him outside the classroom. Jeanne was leaning against the wall, dressed in a short sundress and flip flops, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail. She came forward and wrapped her arms around his neck, kissing him.
“Well hello to you, too,” Tony said, once they broke apart. She was grinning.
“I’ve got a surprise for you,” she sing-songed, taking his hand in hers as she tugged them outside into the bright summer sun.
“Ooh, you know how much I love surprises. Especially when they involve you,” Tony replied. “It does involve you, doesn’t it?”
“Of course it does, silly. We’re going to lunch.”
Tony pouted. “That’s the surprise?”
“No. That is,” Jeanne said, pointing at the limousine that pulled up to the curb in front of them. “My father is in town, and he said he wanted to meet the man who’s been sweeping me off my feet lately.”
Tony froze, panic trying to take hold of him. “Your father?” he asked, mouth dry.
“Oh, don’t be so afraid, Anthony. My father’s a big teddy bear. You’ll like him, I promise,” Jeanne practically pleaded. The driver of the limo had gotten out, coming around to open the door in front of them. He couldn’t see inside the dark interior, but he had to assume Jeanne’s father was inside, waiting for them. “Come on.”
“I’ll just follow you in my own car, so we don’t have to come back for it,” Tony suggested. Jeanne rolled her eyes as an older gentleman climbed out of the car from the other side.
“That will not be necessary. Anthony, isn’t it? My bodyguard can drive your car,” he said, his accent thick. Jeanne was now giving him a pleading look, the one that Tony could never resist.
“Yeah, right, good idea,” he said, pulling out his cell phone. “Let me just text my frat brother and let him know I’ll meet up with him later.”
Jeanne’s father gave him a piercing look before nodding and climbing back into the car. A large, burly man climbed out of the front passenger seat and held out his hand for Tony’s keys. Tony hesitated before handing them over, and followed a smiling Jeanne into the limo after hitting send on his message.
Someone had tried to blow up a foreign citizen on American soil. Normally, Tobias Fornell would find that quite aggravating. However, the foreign citizen in question being most likely an infamous international arms dealer, Fornell found himself more understanding.
A bomb had gone off within an alarming vicinity of one Rene Benoit. That much was all in a day’s work. The man’s daughter being with him at the time of the explosion, that too. What Tobias Fornell had most definitely not expected to find was the young man to whose hand said daughter was clinging, and whose car was presently in smoking pieces.
“Tony Gibbs-Mallard,” Fornell snapped. “Does your Pa know where you are?”
“Anthony?” asked the honey trap on legs. “Isn’t your last name ‘DiNozzo’?”
“DiNozzo?” Fornell exclaimed before his professional brain caught up with the rest of him.
Tony’s eyes were wide, whether from shock or panic, Fornell couldn’t be sure. “Right,” he snapped, before anyone else could get another word in. “Wentworth,” he barked at one of his agents as he pulled out his cell phone. “Keep an eye on them,” he told Wentworth and walked aside, already thumbing the speed dial.
“Gibbs,” answered the gruff voice on the other end.
“Canal Road, by Key Bridge, at the park,” Fornell told him. “Get down here.”
“What is it?”
Fornell lowered his voice. “Ever hear of La Grenouille?” he asked.
“Yes,” Gibbs said after a too-long pause. “What’d he do now?”
“Nearly became your in-law,” Fornell hissed into the receiver. “Care to explain to me why your eldest son was in his limo, and how come his car blew up with Benoit’s bodyguard in it? Or, for that matter,” he continued, “why Benoit’s daughter seems to think his name is Anthony DiNozzo?”
There was another pregnant pause, and then Gibbs snapped, “You don’t you take your eyes off of him, Tobias. I’ll be right there,” and disconnected the call.
Fornell turned around just in time to see Benoit’s daughter slap Tony, the two youngsters having put fifteen feet or so between them and Benoit Sr. so as to allow themselves the illusion of privacy for what appeared to have been a fight. As Fornell watched, Benoit-the-daughter walked off, leaving a stunned Tony behind.
Fornell was still internally debating which witness to approach first when he heard a familiar voice from behind him, arguing with the uniform at the tape. He turned around and, having confirmed that the newcomer was who he thought she was, called out: “Let her in!”
“Did you start taking driving lessons from Jethro, Jen?” he asked once she was close enough.
“I was just around the corner,” she said.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you got here this fast,” he told her. “Sort him out, would you?” he continued, indicating with his head towards Jethro’s kid. “He’s with the Benoit spawn and she seems to think his name’s DiNozzo.”
“No problem,” she told him.
“Fucking Gibbs-Mallards at goddamned crime scenes,” Fornell muttered quietly to himself, and then walked to Benoit Sr., to start getting his actual work done.
He’d had more terrifying half-hours in his life than the ride home from the scene of the explosion. Tony tried hard to not think about that, though, because that had been the first few days after Kate, and that week was the very last thing Tony needed to think about.
But it was the only thing he could think about, all of Pa’s accusing stares and heavy silences condensed into a single loop, the memory of Kate’s dead, surprised eyes just beneath the image of Jeanne’s betrayed gaze.
Tony jumped at the sound of the car’s door slamming. He hadn’t even noticed they were home. Pa had already stomped off, only his back visible through the door leading from the garage to the house. Feeling numb like he hadn’t in a very long time - feeling as if anything but being this numb had never been real - Tony got out of the car and followed his Pa inside.
Pa turned on him as soon as Tony made it to the living room. “What the hell were you thinking?”
Don’t apologize, Tony reminded himself. Don’t make excuses. Not like he had any good ones, anyway. He never did. Steeling himself for what would come, he said, “I wasn’t.”
“Like hell you weren’t. Anthony DiNozzo?” Pa asked sharply. He wasn’t very quiet about it, either, and if anyone else was in the house, they had surely heard that. “Have the last ten years meant nothing to you that you would just throw it away for some girl?”
It wasn’t like that, Pa, Tony was about to say, but then his Pa continued, demanding: “Or was that Jen’s idea?”
Tony’s mind just stopped. “No,” he said eventually, after an entirely too-long moment. His voice was barely audible even to his own ears. “That was me. I just...” The words got stuck in his throat, and then dissipated, vanished, like everything Tony had ever tried to do right.
A door slammed upstairs, promptly followed by the onslaught of Abby’s music, loud enough for the entire house to thrum with the bass.
“Just what?” Pa demanded.
“Just...” Tony swallowed and averted his gaze, aware of the terrible irony in what he was about to say. “I just didn’t want to be that guy,” he told the far wall, where the framed family photos skipped in time to the music. “The one who always fails.” I wanted Jeanne safe from that, he thought, unable to say the words. He’d done a bang-up job on that, that much was certain.
“So you decided to be the guy who hurt his family, instead. Bang-up job, Anthony.”
Tony closed his eyes. I’m sorry, he wanted to say, I’m sorry, but he’d lost his voice and, anyway, apologizing would only make things worse.
He could hear Dad’s voice, through the noise in his head, but that couldn’t be right: Dad was at work, and this had to just be Tony’s own wishful thinking. When Pa spoke again, though, it wasn’t at Tony, and there was Dad’s voice again.
Tony opened his eyes. Pa wasn’t looking at him but behind him and to the side, at the garage door. His gaze tracked something that appeared to move, until Dad showed up at Tony’s shoulder.
“Tony?” he asked. He voice, like his expression, was concerned.
Tony blinked at him. Hi, Dad, he wanted to say, but the words got lost between his mind and his throat.
Dad frowned, and then touched his shoulder. “Tony,” he said, very carefully, “I need for you to go up to your room. I’ll come up for you later, and I want you to wait for me there, all right?”
Tony was about to just nod but, miraculously, his mouth opened. It took him two rounds of opening and closing his mouth but, eventually, he managed to croak out something that Dad seemed to understand for the Okay it was intended to be because he nodded, said, “Good boy,” and turned to Pa.
Pushing a Mack truck seemed like less work than making his body turn and walk up the stairs, but Tony forced his lead-heavy limbs to respond. The dark shape at the top of the stairs moved, meeting him halfway up. Ziva took his elbow.
Ziva, again. Tony closed his eyes, not caring if he stumbled. No one to see but Ziva, anyway. No one but her who’d care.
It had taken quite a bit of cunning, lightning-fast reflexes and the better part of several hours, but Fornell managed to get himself into a semi-private space with Jenny Shepard. Said semi-private space being, unsurprisingly, the elevator of the NCIS building.
He slapped the emergency stop switch. “What the hell is going on here, Shepard?” he demanded. “Jethro’s son hanging out with the daughter of the arms dealer your father may or may not have had business with, using a name he really oughtn’t want to use? You running undercover ops with your partner’s college kid now?”
“Where do you put that ‘b’ for ‘bastard’, Fornell?”
“You only ever lash out when you don’t have anything good to say,” he told her.
Her upper lip curled. “Everyone’s an expert on me now, are they.”
Well, that was actually informative, as well as an opportunity for Fornell to get on Shepard’s less-bad side. “What the hell did Jethro do?” he asked.
“Stuck his nose where it doesn’t belong,” she said irritably. “As usual.”
“He knew about this?” he asked.
“Of course not,” she snapped.
Fornell swallowed back all of his scathing replies, and waited. Eventually, Shepard turned around and flexed her palm against the elevator’s wall. “You know La Grenouille killed my father,” she said, flatly, making it anything but a question.
“Yes,” he said, not adding: For some definition of ‘kill’.
“I was going to get him,” she said. “Whatever it takes. No matter how long it took.”
It was very obviously a serve. Fornell returned it. “So why the sudden rush?”
A muscle jumped in her cheek. At four seconds, she bit out: “I’m dying.”
“You’re what?” Fornell asked before he even realized he was talking. “What the hell kind of sick joke is that, Jenny?”
“One that isn’t funny,” she said through white lips.
“Damn,” he said after a moment. This time, he didn’t ask, Does Jethro know? She’d as good as told him that she didn’t tell, and her longtime partner figured it out anyway. As, he was sure, she knew he would.
“How’d Tony get involved?” he asked.
“He met that girl,” she said, looking away from him. “Gave her the wrong name for some silly, stupid boy-reason. Freaked out about it later, came to talk to me. Told me her name. Jeanne Benoit. I knew who she was.” She swallowed. “The charade made him happy. The connection to the girl could be used for good. Jethro didn’t need to know.”
“Didn’t need to know?” Fornell demanded incredulously. “That’s his son, Jenny! That’s his son who had his sister die in his arms. Did you for a moment stop to think -” Fornell paused, trying to rein in his anger. “He’s never going to forgive you, you know,” he said eventually. His voice was still frosty with wrath.
Her fist closed against the elevator wall, where her hand was still resting against it. “I’m dying,” she reminded him, hurling the words like bullets.
Later, Fornell would wonder if she’d ever said those words before.
“I have other concerns,” she continued.
“That’s no excuse,” he told her.
“Maybe not,” she said. “I did what I had to, Tobias.”
He reached for the switch to release the elevator, and said, sighing: “For some definition of it, Jenny.”
The house was too quiet. Alone in the kitchen, all too aware of the unnatural silence in his home, Donald did his best to not add his tears to the seasoning.
Abby might come down and join him, later, but Donald doubted that ‘later’ would be anything less than days. She was a tender soul, Abigail, not cut out for taking the fire and brimstone of some of the other tempers in the family. She was in Tim’s room, Donald believed. She’d be there a while; Tim’s first family had died in a fiery car wreck.
That was one, and two. Tony was in his room still, or perhaps in Ziva’s. The girl had attached herself to Tony’s side since Donald had coaxed him upstairs earlier, only leaving if Donald asked her to and then returning as soon as he’d left. Like Tony, she had barely said a word all afternoon but, in her case, Donald thought, it had more to do with her introverted nature than with an inability to find words and string them together.
Donald’s grip on the wooden stirring spoon tightened. Where did we go wrong? he wondered. What have we missed that this happened? How could we - how could I not notice?
That was four. It would be a while before he could suffer to speak to Jenny again, let alone think of her this way.
Himself, five, in the kitchen, trying hard to not cry into the soup. And in the basement, door locked - for the first time in all the years Donald had known him, door locked - there was Jethro, keeping his mind away from everything that did not make sense, and everything that did.
They were going to pull through, Donald supposed. He had no choice but to believe that. They were going to work their way back together, yet again. There was too much to lose, too much at stake. That was a concern for the next morning, though. Perhaps by then Donald would find the strength to think of it.
To not burn the soup was the best he could do, until then.