Despite being a good ten minutes in the opposite direction the naval yard, Charlotte’s Diner was Gibbs’s customary place to stop for breakfast – both for the quality of its Southern inspired food as well as for its impeccable service and drive toward perfection. For not only was his usual breakfast order comprised of a vast quantity of delicious grease, so too was the ninety-year-old Charlotte a stern task-mistress when it came to see her patrons pleased and well-fed. It was that particular goal that endeared Gibbs most to the small establishment, four generations of women from the same family having never failed to serve his meals and coffees whilst still hot.
In particular, it was third youngest great-granddaughter that he favored most – the duty Gibbs felt for caring for those that the world had either overlooked or discarded the motivating factor behind such magnanimous decision. For while the tow-headed Sophomore in question was just as quick-witted and sharp-tongued as was the rest of her extended family, fate had seen fit to humble solely her by imprisoning her teeth in conspicuous braces as well as by making her hair an ungovernable mess of tangles and knots.
“The usual?” Lanora demanded, crooking an ungroomed eyebrow in his direction as she hurried past with a gray tray overfilled with dirty dishes.
“Yeah.” Gibbs grunted at the back of her head. “Only this time don’t forget the jam.”
Inconspicuously giving him the finger behind her back, and very nearly dropping her tray as she did so, Lanora scurried off to get his order put in before the church crowd began surging in for the omelet special. Understanding that the harried girl would get no small amount of grief from said patrons, who neither tipped nor spoke politely, Gibbs avowed not to rankle her too severely upon her return for the errant finger she had thrown up at him.
Subsequently left alone with his only his thoughts, an experience he didn’t much care for, he sighed loudly and leaned back against the booth, inwardly cursing the miserly Gavroche for ever having stolen the days newspaper and preventing its diverting headlines from ever getting into his hands. For Gibbs soon found that without the diversion of the sports page to suitably distract him, his under-stimulated mind soon turned to focusing on the troubling behavior of his SFA – Or, more accurately, the man he had come to think of a son over the long years.
Ordinally a man possessing an absurd amount of enthusiasm for life, his care-free spirit almost inextinguishable in nature, Tony’s lengthy liaison with Ziva had all but left him a wilted and uninspired creature of late. His dazzling smile no longer quite so bright or believable, and his bright green eyes all but devoid of their usual mischievous gleam, the movie-enthusiast was now more ghost than man. Still reeling from the physical abuse the fiery Israeli had heaped upon him when their relationship had still been undercover, not even the rebound dates his child had been going on of late seemed to revitalize him. Although judging by the scent of mannish perfume that clung to Tony whenever he returned home from such dates, the young man very clearly was not dating the right sort of woman.
Gibbs would have to talk to the boy soon, he supposed, and find a suitable way to suggest to his agent that perhaps a break in dating would be for the best - at least until his heartache had been given time to subside in its intensity and rawness. A year just wasn’t enough time for that, he ruminated, especially not when his boy had spent an entire eight months worshiping the ground that woman walked upon. Such healing took time.
“Here you are.”
Mercifully brought back into reality by Lanora’s prompt return, Gibbs blinked stupidly a few times before moving aside his hands to make room for his plate and coffee. But if Lanora had noticed his uncharacteristic distraction, she did not show it, rather she seemed almost giddy as she set about lying out his breakfast – her loud energy very nearly contagious as she planted a large jar of homemade jam in front of him.
“Charlotte says, ‘if you’re that goddamn particular about your jam,’ you might as well have the whole damn jar to yourself.”
Enjoying such a delicious spread far too much not to accept it, momentary loss of dignity be damned, Gibbs quickly moved the blueberry concoction out of the reach of his waitress’s hands. Because as much as he understood when an innocuous joke was being played on him, Tony having given him experience with such occasions, he was absolutely willing to play the ignorant fool if it meant he got to keep the jam.
“So, Charlotte is in a good mood, then?” Gibbs quipped, holding a protective hand over his jam.
“For now.” Partheny shrugged, expertly pouring coffee into his thermos. “She won’t be when she finds out Lacey is late again.”
Far too young to be legally employed anyone else but her in her great-grandmother’s restaurant, the ten-year-old in question had the understandably childish habit of losing track of time and arriving to work a good hour or two later than she had been scheduled.
“More tips for you.” Gibbs advised, throwing back a large swig of the still-boiling coffee.
“More tips for Dolorous, you mean.”
A soon-to-be Senior in high-school, and possessive of the smooth black hair the majority of her family claimed ownership to, the aforementioned Dolorous was inarguably a great beauty – her likeness more accurately compared to a fiery sun dwarfing the smaller planets nestled in its shadows and nearly extinguishing the Pluto that was her cousin. That a fierce envy should have been evoked within Lanora at such a blatant monopolization of the family genes was only understandable – if not pitiable in its own way.
“Beauty fades with time, Kiddo.” He advised, catching sight of her frown. “Education doesn’t.”
“What good is an education these days?” The teenager scowled, slathering butter unto his hashbrowns for him. “Everyone has one, even the poor.”
“But not everyone has a Harvard scholarship waiting for them.” Gibbs easily refuted, slapping her hand away from his now perfect hashbrowns. “Come six or seven years, you’ll be writing in New York while your cousins are still stuck working here.”
While none of Charlotte’s progeny were notably lacking in their education, the sad fact still remained that the majority of them seemed to all but lose their drive the longer they tarried in the family restaurant. In just ten years alone, Gibbs had watched an aspiring veterinarian and concert pianist drop out of their respective collegiate program, the disappointment in their shared brown eyes all but evaporating after spending just a few shifts working in their familiar diner.
“Your braces will come off soon, too.” Gibbs quickly amended, having not failed to catch Lanora glowering after her elder cousin.
“Not soon enough.” Lanora groused, using a well-practiced hand to hide the bubble-gum -pink bands entrapping her teeth.
Having had enough of dealing with the teenager’s pity-party, Gibbs sat up straighter and firmly, but not roughly, slapped the culprit on the back of her head.
“Enough feeling sorry for yourself, you little shit.” He growled, ignoring her petulant glare. “Would you rather have no teeth at all?”
While he certainly hadn’t meant to be so rough, at least not whereas a teenager was involved, that particular bit of self-loathing had struck a sore spot within Gibbs. For it would be a year today, if his memory still served him well, that Kate had been shot in the face by Ari Haswari and left to die. And while his agent had inexplicably managed to beat the small odds and survive the attempted assassination, the brutal assault had left her with an awkward gait as well as an unspecified seizure disorder. That Lanora should be so damn resentful of a dental procedure that would leave her prettier than before, while Kate would have to deal with a deformed left eye for the rest of her life, rankled him to no small degree.
“I’m sorry.” Lanora quickly apologized, wisely sensing she had set him off. “I just hate these things.”
Feeling a bit guilty as he watched the young girl rub away the soreness from the back of her head, Gibbs frowned and set about making things as right as he could.
“Three more months to go.” Gibbs reminded the Sophomore. “Then you’ll be free to chew all the gum you want.”
Giving Gibbs an incredulous look, of the variety that he himself used to give his own father, Lanora snorted derisively and shook her head.
“Is that really what you think teenagers do nowadays?”
Not-so-fondly reflecting upon all the stupid things he and his friends had once gotten up to, the worst offenses being those that had sent them to the hospital, Gibbs wisely held up his hand to prevent the girl from sharing tales he did not wish to hear.
“I really don’t want to know what teenagers get up nowadays.”
“Are you sure?” The Sophomore challenged, crooking a brow. “Because just last week my friends and I – “
Gibbs was thankfully, though perhaps undeservedly, spared the mortification of listening to the girl’s inappropriate story by the proprietress of the diner – Charlotte’s voice more than sharp and shrill enough to call her great-granddaughter back into line.
“Lanora, Lacey!” The elderly woman hollered. “Get back in the kitchen! There are potatoes that need peeling!”
Looking thoroughly cowed, but not defeated, Lanora grinned rather evilly at him.
“I’ll be back.” She warned. “Just as soon as I tell her Lacey isn’t here.”
“God be with you.” Gibbs solemnly intoned.